Posts Tagged ECJ

Qualifying ‘consumers’ on social media and in the case of assignment. Bobek AG in Schrems v Facebook.

Bobek AG must have picked up his knack for colourful language at Teddy Hall. His Opinion last week in C-498/16 Schrems v Facebook is a delight and one does best service to it by simply inviting one reads it. Now, that must not absolve me of my duty to report succinctly on its contents – the Court itself I imagine will be equally short shrift with claimant’s arugments.

When I asked my students in the August exam to comment on the case, I simply gave them the preliminary questions and asked them how the CJEU should answer them:

1 Is Article 15 of Regulation 44/2001 to be interpreted as meaning that a ‘consumer’ within the meaning of that provision loses that status, if, after the comparatively long use of a private Facebook account, he publishes books in connection with the enforcement of his claims, on occasion also delivers lectures for remuneration, operates websites, collects donations for the enforcement of his claims and has assigned to him the claims of numerous consumers on the assurance that he will remit to them any proceeds awarded, after the deduction of legal costs?

2. Is Article 16 of Regulation (EC) No 44/2001 to be interpreted as meaning that a consumer in a Member State can also invoke at the same time as his own claims arising from a consumer supply at the claimant’s place of jurisdiction the claims of others consumers on the same subject who are domiciled

a. In the same Member State, b. In another Member State: or c. In a non-Member State,

if the claims assigned to him arise from consumer supplies involving the same defendant in the same legal context and if the assignment is not part of a professional or trade activity of the applicant, but rather serves to ensure the joint enforcement of claims?

 

The long and the short of the case is whether the concept of ‘consumer’ under the protected categories of Brussels I (and Recast) is a dynamic or a static one; and what kind of impact assignment has on jurisdiction for protected categories.

On the first issue, I expected my students to point to the CJEU’s precedent of applying the Regulation with a view to predictability and legal certainty; specifically for consumers, to Gruber and the burden of proof in cases of dual use; and to the Court’s judgment in Emrek. Other than the last issue, the AG points to all. Predictability points to a static approach: I would suggest the AG is right. Bobek AG does leave the door ajar for a dynamic interpretation: at 39: in exptional cases, a ‘dynamic’ approach to consumer status should not be entirely excluded. This could be potentially relevant in the event that a contract does not specify its aim, or it is open to different uses, and it lasts a long period of time, or is even indeterminate. It is conceivable that in such cases, the purpose for which a certain contractual service is used might change — not just partially, but even completely. Social media contracts may lead to such circumstances, one imagines, however there would be many ifs and buts to such analysis: including, I would suggest, the terms of the contract wich the service provider initially drew up.

On the issue of assignment the AG’s approach is entirely logical and not surprising: evidently Herr Schrems cannot have claims assigned to him and then exercise those claims using any other jurisdictional prerogatives then present in the original claim. While these may allow him to sue in the forum actoris of the original consumer, there is no valid argument whatsoever to suggest he could join them to his own domicile. The arguments made de lege ferenda (need for forum shopping in collective consumer redress) are justifiably rejected.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.8.2.

 

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Close, but no sigar. The CJEU on libel, internet and centre of interests in Bolagsupplysningen.

The Court held some weeks ago in C-194/16 Bolagsupplysningen OÜ on the application of the Shevill rule, as supplemented by e-Date advertising, to infringements of a company’s personality rights over the internet. I held back reporting on the case for exam reasons – yep, some of the places I teach at already have exams.

Judgment was issued in Grand Chamber. There can be no clearer indication of the relevance the Court attaches to the question. The CJEU introduces in my view further complication in the Article 7(2) rule (jurisdiction for torts) by requiring the court seized carry out analysis of ‘main economic activity’ with those same courts being told not to get carried away however in that analysis. The judgment does not I believe offer a solid conclusion for the issues of removal and rectification.

An Estonian company operating in Sweden was blacklisted for its allegedly questionable business practices on the website of a Swedish employers’ federation. The website attracted a number of hostile comments from its readers. The Estonian company brought an action before the Estonian courts against the Swedish federation. It complained that the published information has negatively affected its honour, reputation and good name. It asked the Estonian courts to order that the Swedish federation rectify the information and remove the comments from its website. It also requested damages for harm allegedly suffered as a result of the information and comments having been published online.

Can the Estonian courts assert jurisdiction to hear this action on the basis of the claimant’s ‘centre of interests’, a special ground of jurisdiction that the Court previously applied to natural persons, but so far not legal persons? If they can, then second, how should the centre of interests of a legal person be determined? Third, if the jurisdiction of the Estonian courts were to be limited to situations in which the damage occurred in Estonia, the referring court wonders whether it can order the Swedish federation to rectify and remove the information at issue.

I reviewed Bobek AG’s Opinion here – let me recap core issues: Bobek AG suggested there are two novelties in the questions referred: a legal person (not a natural one) is primarily asking for rectification and removal of information made accessible on the internet (and only secondarily for damages for the alleged harm to its reputation). This factual setting, the AG suggests, leads to the question of how far the seemingly quite generous rules on international jurisdiction previously established in Shevill with regard to libel by printed media, and then further extended in eDate to the harm caused to the reputation of a natural person by information published on the internet, may be in need of an update.

At the real root of course of the generous rules on jurisdiction for tort, lies the Court’s judgment in Bier. Bobek AG joined Szpunar AG in severely questioning the wisdom of the Bier rule (both locus delicti commissi and locus damni lead to jurisdiction) in the age of internet publications. Not unexpectedly, the Court of Justice further refined Bier, but did not overrule it.

It held first of all that legal persons like natural persons can claim for damages in their centre of interests (at 38): the split in Bier was introduced for reasons of judicial suitability (‘sound administration of justice’), not personal interest of the plaintiff hence the qualification of that plaintiff has no bearing on the rule.

Following e-Date, the national court therefore needs to determine a centre of interests for a legal person just as it would for a natural person. At 41: for legal persons, this centre of interests ‘must reflect the place where its commercial reputation is most firmly established and must, therefore, be determined by reference to the place where it carries out the main part of its economic activities. While the centre of interests of a legal person may coincide with the place of its registered office when it carries out all or the main part of its activities in the Member State in which that office is situated and the reputation that it enjoys there is consequently greater than in any other Member State, the location of that office is, not, however, in itself, a conclusive criterion for the purposes of such an analysis.’ As one knows from the definition of ‘domicile’ under the Brussels I Regulation, leading to positive jurisdictional conflicts (it is perfectly possible for more than one Member State considering itself the domicile of a corporation), it is far from self-evident to determine where a company’s ‘main’ economic activities are located.

At 43 the Grand Chamber reminds the national courts that their role in the application of the Brussels I Recast is limited to the jurisdictional stage: they must not go into the merits (yet), hence if it is ‘not clear from the evidence that the court must consider at the stage when it assesses whether it has jurisdiction that the economic activity of the relevant legal person is carried out mainly in a certain Member State’, the Court must conclude that the Article 7(2) locus damni for the full damage is not available to that claimant.

 

The Court then distinguishes actions for rectification of false information and removal of comments: there is no jurisdiction before the courts of each Member State in which the information published on the internet is or was accessible. The Court follows Bobek AG’s Opinion on this point (although the AG also employed it to support his view on withdrawal of Bier altogether) at 48: ‘in the light of the ubiquitous nature of the information and content placed online on a website and the fact that the scope of their distribution is, in principle, universal …an application for the rectification of the former and the removal of the latter is a single and indivisible application and can, consequently, only be made before a court with jurisdiction to rule on the entirety of an application for compensation for damage [the Court refers to Shevill and e-Date] and not before a court that does not have jurisdiction to do so.’

On this latter point, the judgment is bound to create a need for further clarification: Shevill and e-Date confirm full jurisdiction for the courts of the domicile of the defendant and of the locus delicti commissi. These do not necessarily coincide but do raise the same difficulty of claims for rectification and removal by nature being single and indivisible. With more than one court having such full jurisdiction I do not see a solution in the Court’s approach.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.11.2.

 

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Tünkers France: Limiting the jurisdiction of the court of COMI in cases of unfair competition.

Granted, Arie van Hoe’s brief review of the issues in C-641/16 Tünkers France has the more resonant title for those truly in the know: vis attractiva concursus is a principle which makes sense from a judicial economy point of view but which is likely to gazump parties’ choice of court, as well as ordinary jurisdictional rules. Briefly explained: when a company is insolvent (or under restructuring), prima facie it makes sense to gather as many lawsuits as possible against it, in one court: that of the Member State of COMI. Vis attractiva (the pulling force) concursus then (as defined by Arie) is the principle that ancillary proceedings may be attracted to, and brought before, the forum concursus. The Court of Justice supports an interpretation in that direction of the Brussels I Regulation in conjunction with the insolvency Regulation, most recently in case like Nortel (see my posting for references to earlier case-law), and now included in some form in the Insolvency Regulation. Its development by the CJEU however was not straightforward, as is explained by Laura Carballo Piñeiro; neither is the jury on it entirely settled as excellently reviewed by Zoltan Fabok. More importantly, vis attractiva concursus tends to upset choice of court validly made by creditors of the insolvent company (unlike the Brussels I Regulation, the Insolvency Regulaiton does not accommodate choice of court; indeed it actively discourages forum shopping). The principle therefore must not be interpreted in a way which upsets standard choice of court to a disturbing degree.

Tünkers France involves a case for unfair competition brought by the insolvency practitioners of a German company. Part of the business was sold to a company in France who subsequenly started soliciting clients from the insolvent company, misrepresenting itself as the exclusive distributor in France of the goods manufactured by the debtor. The French subsidiary of the insolvent company brings an action for damages for unfair competition.

The CJEU (in passing nota bene emphasising the need for a harmonious application of the Insolvency and Brussels I Regulation) held that such action is a separate action and it is not based in the rules specific to insolvency proceedings. The French subsidiary acted exclusively with a view to protecting its own interests and not to protect those of the creditors in the insolvency proceedings. The conduct of the tortfeasors is moreover subject to other rules than those applicable in the contest of insolvency proceedings.

Vis attractiva concursus therefore does not have superhero status: the forum concursus cannot attract cases that are too far removed from the insolvency.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5 Heading 5.4.1. Chapter 2 Heading 2.2.2.10.1

 

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Saugmandsgaard ØE in Altun: Detection of fraud /fighting social dumping trumps mutual trust.

Saugmandsgaard ØE’s would seem fast to become the CJEU’s Advocate General of choice in matters of social dumping – witness the recent Ryanair litigation. In C-359/16 Altun, at issue is the binding nature of the E101 certificate. This certifies that a worker moving within the EU is covered by the social security scheme of the Member State (‘MS’) to which the issuing institution belongs. Standing case-law is that the host MS is not entitled to scrutinise the validity of an E101 certificate in the light of the background against which it was issued: this is the result of the mutual trust built into the relevant secondary law.

In current case the Belgian Supreme Court queries whether that case-law applies where a court of the host MS finds that an E101 certificate was obtained or invoked fraudulently.

The AG summarises the relevant investigation at 10: ‘The Sociale Inspectie (Social Inspectorate, Belgium) conducted an investigation into the employment of the staff at Absa NV, an undertaking governed by Belgian law active in the construction sector in Belgium. That investigation established that from 2008 Absa had practically no staff in its employ and outsourced all manual labour to Bulgarian undertakings under subcontracting agreements. Those Bulgarian undertakings had no activities to speak of in Bulgaria and posted workers to work under subcontracting agreements in Belgium for Absa, partly with the involvement and cooperation of other Belgian companies. The employment of the workers concerned was not notified to the Belgian institution responsible for the collection of social security contributions, as they held E 101 certificates issued by the competent Bulgarian authority, certifying that they were covered by the Bulgarian social security system.’

What follows is essentially the Belgian authorities alleging that their Bulgarian counterparts, having been asked to withdraw the certificates, only answered halfheartedly if at all. The Court of Appeal found that the certificates had been obtained by fraud.

Saugmandsgaard ØE emphasises that the EU social security rules at issue effectively establish a private international law system for social security. They assign authorities competent to issue certificates; they designate the social security law applicable. The principle of mutual trust /sincere co-operation, laid down in Article 4(3) TEU, ensures that authorities in the host MS respect the certificates issued in the home MS. However, the AG then effectively flips the coin: sincere co-operation requires sincerity on both sides (my words, not the AG’s).

The AG recalls the Halifax case-law of the CJEU: EU law cannot be relied on for abusive or fraudulent ends and that national courts may, case by case, take account — on the basis of objective evidence — of abuse or fraudulent conduct on the part of the persons concerned in order, where appropriate, to deny them the benefit of the provisions of EU law, in the light of the objectives pursued by the provisions of EU law concerned.

The AG does not just refer to case-law on the very secondary law at issue. He opens up the debate to the wider implications of social dumping and regulatory competition:

At 46: ‘socio-economic considerations likewise support priority being given to the combating of fraud in such a situation. In the context of the system of conflict of laws established by … Regulation No 1408/71, fraud linked to the issue of E 101 certificates represents a threat to the coherence of the Member States’ social security schemes. In that regard, I consider that Member States have a legitimate interest in taking appropriate steps to protect their financial interests and to ensure the financial balance of their social security systems. In addition, the use of E 101 certificates obtained or invoked fraudulently is, in my view, a form of unfair competition and calls into question the equality of working conditions on national labour markets.‘ (footnotes omitted)

At 49, the AG suggest a finding of fraud requires the satisfaction of an objective criterion and of a subjective criterion. The objective criterion consists in the fact that the conditions for obtaining the advantage sought are not in fact satisfied. At 51, the subjective factor:  it is to be established that the persons concerned had the intention of concealing the fact that the conditions for the issue of the E 101 certificate were not in fact met, in order to obtain the advantage stemming from that certificate. Proof of the existence of such fraudulent intent may consist in an intentional act, in particular an inaccurate presentation of the true situation of the posted worker or of the undertaking posting that worker, or in an intentional omission, such as the non-disclosure of relevant information.

(In the case at issue, the facts point to non-fulfillment of one of the substantive criteria for the E101 to be issued, namely that only an undertaking which habitually carries on significant activities in the Member State in which it is established may be issued an E101 of that State).

The fraud must be established in the context of adversarial proceedings with legal guarantees for the persons concerned and in compliance with their fundamental rights, in particular the right to an effective remedy enshrined (at 52).

If the AG’s Opinion is followed, and taking into account Commissioner Thyssen’s recent progress on the reform of the relevant laws, the social dumping window is closing yet a bit more.

Geert.

 

 

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Right to be forgotten v Right to know. In Townsend v Google Inc and Google UK the Northern Irish High Court emphasises public interest in open justice.

In [2017] NIQB 81 Townsend v Google Inc. & Anor the Northern Ireland High Court refused service our of jurisdiction in relation to a request for Google (UK and Inc.) to de-list a number of urls relating to reports on sexual and other criminal offences committed by plaintiff.

Plaintiff seeks an injunction inter alia requiring the defendants and each of them to withdraw and remove personal data relating to the plaintiff, making reference to or tending to reveal sexual offences committed by the plaintiff while a child, from their data processing and indexing systems and to prevent access to such personal data in the future. The Court references ia Vidal-Hall and Google Spain. I will leave readers to digest the ruling largely for themselves for there is a lot in there: consideration of Article 8 ECHR; Directive 95/46; aforementioned precedent; tort law etc.

Of particular note is Stephens J’s finding at 61 that ‘(t)here is a clear public interest in open justice. There is a clear right to freedom of expression. In such circumstances the processing was not unwarranted and that there is no triable issue in relation to any allegation that Google Inc. has not satisfied this condition.’

A judgment to add to the growing pile of internet, jurisdiction and balancing of interests in privacy considerations.

Geert.

 

 

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Free movement of companies and Polbud. The CJEU is not for turning.

When I reviewed Kokott AG’s Opinion in C-106/16 Polbud, I flagged that Ms Kokott concluded that the freedom of establishment provided for in Articles 49 and 54 TFEU only applies to an operation whereby a company incorporated under the law of one Member State transfers its statutory seat to another Member State with the aim of converting itself into a company governed by the law of the latter Member State, in so far as that company actually establishes itself in the other Member State, or intends to do so, for the purpose of pursuing genuine economic activity there. In other words she proposed a test along the lines suggested by Darmon AG in Daily Mail, but rejected by La Pergola AG in Centros.

The CJEU today held along La Pergola lines. It thus indeed facilitates forum /applicable (lex societatis) shopping (argument made also by Gillis Lindemans) for companies. The writing was very clearly on the wall when the Court (in Grand Chamber nota bene) started citing the old chestnuts of Daily Mail, Centros and Inspire Art. That no business is actually being conducted by Polbud in the host Member State is viewed by the court as irrelevant (at 37 ff). In the absence of harmonisation of EU law, the definition of the connecting factor that determines the national law applicable to a company or firm falls, in accordance with Article 54 TFEU, within the powers of each Member State (at 34).

Freedom of establishment is applicable (third question);  that freedom has been restricted (first question); and that restriction (transfer of the registered office of a company incorporated under the law of one Member State to the territory of another Member State, for the purposes of its conversion into a company incorporated under the law of the latter Member State, in accordance with the conditions imposed by the legislation of that Member State, is subject to the liquidation of the first company) is not justifiable (second question).

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 7.

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Kubicka: Narrow CJEU interpretation of the ‘property law’ exception.

When the ‘Bolkestein’ Directive on the free movement of services was eventually adopted some years back, some of us referred to it as the ‘hairdressers’ Directive (no disrespect): the scope of application was so narrowed down that few professions seemed still to be covered by it. Similarly, the EU’s Succession Regulation Member States wanted to ensure that the recognition and enforcement of rules on succession /estate would not upset national property law on rules held dear, such as numerus clausus. The Regulation to that effect excludes from its scope of application ‘the nature of rights in rem; and any recording in a register of rights in immoveable or moveable property, including the legal requirements for such recording, and the effects of recording or failing to record such rights in a register.’

In C-218/16 Kubicka the Court of Justice held last week. Ms Kubicka wishes to include in her will a legacy ‘by vindication’, which is allowed by Polish law, in favour of her husband, concerning her share of ownership of the jointly-owned immovable property in Frankfurt an der Oder. She wishes to leave the remainder of the assets that comprise her estate in accordance with the statutory order of inheritance, whereby her husband and children would inherit it in equal shares.  She expressly ruled out recourse to an ordinary legacy (legacy ‘by damnation’), as provided for by Article 968 of the Civil Code, since such a legacy would entail difficulties in relation to the representation of her minor children, who will inherit, as well as additional costs. A notary’s assistant refused to draw up a will containing the legacy ‘by vindication’ stipulated by Aleksandra Kubicka on the ground that creation of a will containing such a legacy is contrary to German legislation and case-law relating to rights in rem and land registration.

In the present case, both the legacy ‘by vindication’, provided for by Polish law and the legacy ‘by damnation’, provided for by German law, constitute methods of transfer of ownership of an asset, namely a right in rem that is recognised in both of the legal systems concerned. Therefore, the direct transfer of a property right by means of a legacy ‘by vindication’ concerns only the arrangement by which that right in rem is transferred at the time of the testator’s death. It is not covered by the exception.

Member States and practitioners who suggested an interpretation of the exception beyond its limited scope, were therefore rebuffed. That is a good thing. Property law often for no apparent reason is considered immune from conflict of laws, both in terms of jurisdiction and applicable law. The CJEU’s judgment in Kubicka puts a hold to too wide an interpretation of the rei sitae exception.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 6, Heading 6.2.2.1.

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