Sabbagh v Khoury. The High Court considers the ‘wills and succession’ exception, (reflexive application of) the exclusive jurisdictional rule for company matters, and anchor defendants under the Jurisdiction Regulation.

Sabbagh v Khoury is great for oral exam purposes. Hand the student a copy of the case and ipso presto, there is plenty to talk about for at least half an hour.

Sana Sabbagh, who lives in New York, claims that the Defendants have variously, since her father’s stroke, conspired against both him and her to misappropriate his assets (“the asset misappropriation claim”) and, since her father’s death, to work together to deprive her of her entitlement to shares in the group of companies which her father ran (“the share deprivation claim”). Wael, first defendant, is the anchor defendant for jurisdictional purposes. He resides and has at all material times resided in London. The other Defendants live or are based abroad.

Defendants contend in essence  (at 83):

a) that the claims against Wael (as noted, the anchor defendant) are so weak that there is no risk of irreconcilable judgments from separate proceedings and so no basis for joinder under Article 6(1) of the Brussels I Regulation (“the merits issue”);

b) that the claims fall outside the Brussels Regulation because the Regulation does not apply to “wills and succession” within the scope of Article 1(2)(a) (“the succession issue”), or challenges to the validity of CCG’s organs within the scope of Article 22(2) (“the Article 22 issue”), and the natural and appropriate forum for determining them is Lebanon (“the forum issue”);

c) that the claims are subject to an arbitration clause (or several arbitration clauses) such that a stay is required by s. 9(4) of the Arbitration Act 1996 (“the stay issue”). Any disputes against parties not bound by the arbitration clause should be stayed as a matter of discretion.

(Point c falls outside the scope of current posting).

Logically looking at point b) first (the exclusion of ‘wills and succession’, the High Court first of all considered the proposition that exceptions to the scope of application need to be applied restrictively.

To my knowledge this has not as such been held by the ECJ. Carr J expresses sympathy with the view that the findings of the ECJ in C-292/08 German Graphics in particular (that the insolvency exception not be given an interpretation broader than is required by its objective), could be given broader application, for all exceptions. I am more convinced by defendants’ argument that one needs to be careful to extend the reasoning of German Graphics outside the insolvency context, given that its ruling is inevitably influenced by the existence of the Insolvency Regulation.

However Mrs Justice Carr suggested that whether or not restrictive interpretation ought to be followed, is not quite the determinant issue: rather, that the exceptions should be applied in similar fashion as the exclusive jurisdictional rules of Article 22 (Article 24 in the recast).  Those jurisidictional rules, which are an exception to the general rule of Article 2 (4 in the recast), Carr J notes, only apply where the action is ‘principally concerned with’ the legal issue identified in the Article. ‘Have as their object’ is the term used in the Regulation, for 3 out of 5 of the Article 22 exceptions. (For the other two, including those with respect to intellectual property, the term is ‘concerned with’. In fact in other language versions the term is ‘concerned with’ throughout – which has not helped interpretation). ‘Have as their object’ was indeed applied by the ECJ as meaning ‘whose principal subject-matter comprises’ in BVG, viz the Article 22(2) exception. (Not in fact as Carr J notes, ‘principally concerned with’ , which the ECJ only referred to because it is the language used in Article 25’s rule on examination of jurisdiction).

The stronger argument for siding with the High Court’s conclusion lies in my view not in the perceived symmetry between Article 22 (exclusive jurisdictional rules) and Article 1 (scope), but rather in the High Court’s reference in passing to the Jenard report. At C/59/10: ‘matters falling outside the scope of the Convention do so only if they constitute the principal subject-matter of the proceedings. They are thus not excluded when they come before the court as a subsidiary matter either in the main proceedings or in preliminary proceedings.’ Granted, the result is the same, however the interpretative route is neater. Like other things in life (it’s single Malt, not so much general tidiness I am referring to), I like my statutory interpretation neat.

Eventually Carr J held that Ms Sabbagh’s action is principally concerned with assets and share misappropriation, in short, with conspiracy to defraud. If successful, the action will of course impact on Ms Sabbagh’s inheritance. However that does not justify the exclusion of Brussels I to her claim.

[The court was also taken on a short comparative tour of the Succession Regulation, with a view to interpreting the succession exception in Brussels I. Interestingly, Carr J noted that indeed that Regulation may serve as a supplementary means of interpretation of the Jurisdiction Regulation, even though the UK is not bound by the Succession Regulation.]

 

Next came the potential application of Article 22(2). This issue not only raised the question of whether the action would at all fall within the Article 22(2) remit; but also, whether in that case that Article needs to be applied reflexively, given that the companies concerned are incorporated in Lebanon. Here inevitably reference was made to Ferrexpo. The High Court however held that no question of reflexive application arises, under the same reasoning as above, with respect to the succession exception: the challenge to the corporate decisions was not one of ultra vires or other ‘corporate’ validity: rather, one of their proper characterisation or correctness. They are not therefore substantially concerned with the Article 22(2) exceptions.

 

The High Court preceded its application of Article 6(1) (joinders /use of an anchor defendant: first defendant is domiciled in London) with a very thorough review of the merits of each of the cases. (At 5, the Court notes that the other defendants live ‘abroad’, most of them seemingly in Greece. However the relevant companies at least seem to be domiciled in Lebanon. Article 6 can only be used against defendants already domiciled in another Member State. For those outside, national conflicts law decides the possibility of joinder).

Article 6 requires that “the claims are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings.”  ECJ Case-law (in particular Roche Nederland, C-539/03) has it that it is not sufficient that there be a divergence in the outcome of the dispute: that divergence must also arise in the context of the same situation of law and fact (Case C‑539/03 Roche Nederland and Others [2006] ECR I‑6535, paragraph 26). In Freeport, Case C-98/09, the ECJ added that It is for the national court to assess whether there is a connection between the different claims brought before it, that is to say, a risk of irreconcilable judgments if those claims were determined separately and, in that regard, to take account of all the necessary factors in the case-file, which may, if appropriate yet without its being necessary for the assessment, lead it to take into consideration the legal bases of the actions brought before that court. (at 41). It added that where claims brought against different defendants are connected when the proceedings are instituted, (which implies that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings), there is no further need to establish separately that the claims were not brought with the sole object of ousting the jurisdiction of the courts of the Member State where one of the defendants is domiciled (Freeport, at 54).

Whether the likelihood of success of an action against a party before the courts of the State where he is domiciled is relevant in the determination of whether there is a risk of irreconcilable judgments for the purposes of Article 6(1), was raised in Freeport but not answered by the ECJ for such answer was eventually not necessary for the preliminary review at issue. In Sabbagh, with reference to precedent in the English courts, the High Court does carry out a rather thorough merits review, effectively to review whether the claim against Wael might not be abusive: ie invented simply to allow him to be used as anchor defendant. Carr J’s extensive merits review hinges on ‘to take account of all the necessary factors in the case-file‘ per Freeport. Whether such detailed review might exceed what is required under Article 6(1) is simply not easily ascertained. (The High Court eventually did decide that Article 6(1) applied on account of one of the pursued claims).

Did I say ‘half an hour’ in the opening line of this posting? An exam using this judgment might take a bit longer…

Geert.

Nickel & Goeldner: Not the procedural context but the legal basis of the action determines the insolvency exception.

It is always useful to have the Court of Justice remind us of (some might say: fine-tune) what it has decided in precedent. This is no different in Nickel & Goeldner– Case C-157/13. (Which also deals with Article 71’s rule on the relation between Brussels I and the Convention for the International Carriage of Goods by Road (CMRT)).

This blog has reported earlier on the difficulties in applying the ‘insolvency exception’. (E.g. in Sabena and Enascarco). In Nickel & Goeldner, the insolvency administrator of Kintra applied to the relevant Lithuaian courts for an order that Nickel & Goeldner Spedition, which has its registered office in Germany, pay its debt in respect of services comprising the international carriage of goods provided by Kintra for Nickel & Goeldner Spedition, inter alia in France and in Germany. According to the insolvency administrator of Kintra, the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian courts was based on Article 14(3) of the Lithuanian Law on the insolvency of undertakings. Nickel & Goeldner Spedition disputed that jurisdiction claiming that the dispute fell within the scope of Article 31 of the CMR and of the Brussels I Regulation.

The Courts instructs how its earlier case-law (Gourdain; Seagon; German Graphics; F-Tex) needs to be applied (at 26-27):

It is apparent from that case-law that it is true that, in its assessment, the Court has taken into account the fact that the various types of actions which it heard were brought in connection with insolvency proceedings. However, it has mainly concerned itself with determining on each occasion whether the action at issue derived from insolvency law or from other rules.

It follows that the decisive criterion adopted by the Court to identify the area within which an action falls is not the procedural context of which that action is part, but the legal basis thereof. According to that approach, it must be determined whether the right or the obligation which respects the basis of the action finds its source in the common rules of civil and commercial law or in the derogating rules specific to insolvency proceedings.

The action at issue is an action for the payment of a debt arising out of the provision of services in implementation of a contract for carriage. That action could have been brought by the creditor itself before its divestment by the opening of insolvency proceedings relating to it and, in that situation, the action would have been governed by the rules concerning jurisdiction applicable in civil and commercial matters.  The fact that, after the opening of insolvency proceedings against a service provider, the action for payment is taken by the insolvency administrator appointed in the course of those proceedings and that the latter acts in the interest of the creditors does not substantially amend the nature of the debt relied on which continues to be subject, in terms of the substance of the matter, to the rules of law which remain unchanged.

Hence, there is no direct link with the insolvency proceedings and the Brussels-I Regulation continues to apply.

(On the application of Article 71, the Court holds that, in a situation where a dispute falls within the scope of both the regulation and the CMR, a Member State may, in accordance with Article 71(1) of the Regulation, apply the rules concerning jurisdiction laid down in Article 31(1) of the CMR.).

Not the procedural context (in particular, whether the liquidator takes the action) but the legal basis of the action determines the insolvency exception. A useful alternative formulation of the Gourdain et al case-law.

Geert.