Posts Tagged Lex societatis

Wathelet AG in Dědouch: Interpretation of the exlusive jurisdictional rule for corporate issues in the case of squeeze-out.

This is effectively my second posting today on Article 24(2) Brussels I Recast.

In C-560/16 Dědouch, Wathelet AG Opined last week, on the scope of the exclusive jurisdictional rule of (now) Article 24(2) of Regulation 1215/2012. The issue arose in proceedings between Michael Dědouch et al, a group of minority shareholders on the one hand, and Jihočeská plynárenská a.s. (established in the Czech Republic) and E.ON Czech Holding AG (‘E.ON’) [established in Germany] on  the other, concerning the reasonableness of the sum which, in a procedure for removing minority shareholders (‘squeeze-out’), E.ON was required to pay Mr Dědouch et al following the compulsory transfer of their shares in Jihočeská plynárenská.

Mr Dědouch et al are suing both companies and are asking the Regional Court, České Budějovice, Czech Republic to review the reasonableness of the sum. In those proceedings E.ON raised an objection that the Czech courts lacked jurisdiction. E.ON argue that, in view of the location of its seat /domicile, only the German courts had international jurisdiction per (now) Article 4.

The regional court initially accepted jurisdiction on the basis of (now) Article 8(1): the anchor defendant mechanism (one of the two defendant companies being a Czech company). Eventually the High Court, Prague found that the Czech courts had jurisdiction under (old) Article 5(1)(a) of the Brussels I Regulation: the special jurisdictional rules for contracts.

Wathelet AG suggests the case raises the complex issue of litigation in intra-company disputes. At 21 he writes that the facts highlight a structural problem in the Regulation, namely ‘the absence of a basis of jurisdiction dedicated to the resolution of internal disputes within companies, such as disputes between shareholders or between shareholders and directors or between the company and its directors.’ That is not quite correct: it is not because the Regulation has no tailor-made regime for this type of dispute that is has no jurisdictional basis for it. That a subject-matter is not verbatim included in the Regulation does not mean it is not regulated by it.

The AG then (at 23) considers that the issue under consideration is complicated by the difficulty of applying (now) Articles 7(1) and (2), ‘since the removal of the minority shareholders and the consideration decided by a resolution of the general meeting are neither a contract nor a tort, delict or quasi-delict.’ I am not so sure. Is there no ‘obligation freely assumed’ between minority and other shareholders of the same company? Are they not bound by some kind of ‘contract’ (in the broad, Jakob Handte sense) when becoming shareholders of one and the same company? That (at 24) ‘The principle of a procedure for squeezing out the minority shareholders is that the principal shareholder can start it without their consent‘ I do not find convincing in this respect. Plenty of contractual arrangements do not limit contracting parties’ freedom to act: except, their actions may have contractual consequences. The AG in my view focuses too much on the squeeze out being one-sided. An alternative view may see a wrongful deployment of squeeze-out a breach of an earlier contractual, indeed fiduciary duty between /among shareholders.

Unlike the AG (at 26), neither do I see great obstacle in the difficulty in determination of a specific place of performance of such contractual duties between shareholders in the company law context. They may not fit within the default categories of Article 7(1), however I can see many a national judge not finding it impossible to determine a place of performance.

On the basis of these perceived difficulties the AG dismisses application of Articles 7(1) and (2) and then considers, and rejects, a strict application of Article 24(2). In other words in the AG’s view Article 24(2) is engaged here.

This is a tricky call. Justified reference is made by the AG to C‑372/07 Hassett, in which (then) Article 22(2) was held no to apply to a decision made by the Board of the Health Organisation not to indemnify two of their members in cases of medical negligence: this was found by the CJEU to be an action relating to the way in which a company organ exercises its functions – not covered by Article 24(2). In Dědouch, the action relates to the amount which the General Meeting of the company fixed as the compensation E.ON was required to pay the minority shareholders following the transfer of the shares. Notwithstanding Czech company law being the lex causae in assisting the GM in that decision, I am not convinced this engages Article 24(2) (hence reserving jurisdiction to the Czech courts).

In summary, I believe the Court should reject application of Article 24(2), and instruct the national courts to get on with the determination of jurisdiction per Article 7, or indeed 8.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.5, Heading 2.2.11.1, Heading 2.2.12.1.

 

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KA Finanz. The CJEU finds it does not need to entertain the corporate exception in European PIL and turns to EU corporate law instead.

Thank you, Matthias Storme, for alerting me late last night that judgment was issued in Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG. The CJEU is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35. I have a little more on the background in previous posting and I expressed my disappointment with Bot AG’s Opinion here.

The Court, like the AG, justifiably rejects a great deal of the questions as inadmissible, mainly due to the secondary law, interpretation of which is sought, not applying ratione temporis, to the facts at issue. It then in essence simply turns to European company law, in particular Directive 2005/56, to settle the issue. Why exhaust oneself with analysis of the corporate exception, if a different piece of EU law exhaustively regulates the issue? At 56 ff

It is stated in Article 2(2)(a) of Directive 2005/56 that a merger by acquisition is an operation whereby one or more companies, on being dissolved without going into liquidation, transfer all their assets and liabilities to another existing company, namely the acquiring company.

As regards the effects of such an operation, it is stated in Article 14(2)(a) of Directive 2005/56 that a cross-border merger brings about, from the date when the merger takes effect, the transfer of all the assets and liabilities of the company being acquired to the acquiring company.A merger by acquisition therefore entails the acquisition by the acquiring company of the company being acquired in its entirety, without extinguishing the obligations that a winding-up would have brought about, and, without novation, has the effect of substituting the acquiring company for the company being acquired as party to all of the contracts concluded by the latter. Consequently, the law which was applicable to those contracts before the merger continues to be applicable after the merger. It follows that EU law must be interpreted as meaning that the law applicable following a cross-border merger by acquisition to the interpretation of a loan contract taken out by the acquired company, such as the loan contracts at issue in the main proceedings, to the performance of the obligations under the contract and to how those obligations are extinguished is the law which was applicable to that contract before the merger.

(here: German law).

I appreciate the narrow set of facts upon which the CJEU holds allows one to distinguish. The spirit of the Court’s judgment in my view must however be what I have advocated for some time. Other than for a narrow set of issues immediately surrounding the very creation, life and death of the merged company, for which lex societatis applies, European private international law upholds lex contractus (often: lex voluntatis: the law so chosen by the parties) for the considerable amount of contractual satellites involving a merger and similar operations. Rome I is fully engaged for these contracts, including its provisions on third party impact of a change in governing law (this is relevant where the parties to the merger, decide to amend applicable law of the inherited contracts).

Geert.

 (Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.5, Chapter 3, Heading 3.2.2 .

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The Pfizer /Allergan collapse: An end to Celtic Cash and a source of inspiration for EU rules on outgoing corporate mobility?

I shall keep this post short for otherwise it risks developing into a book. In a week which also saw the Panama papers blow a hole in the use of tax havens for individuals, the collapse of the Pfizer Allergan merger may be the beginning of the end for the Irish (and similar) corporate tax Nirvana. The US treasury’s new rules on outgoing corporate mobility mean re-incorporation in Ireland has become an awful lot less attractive.

I realise there are caveats and one may be comparing cheese and chalk. Also, tax lawyers no doubt will have to chew over this, yet: may this not also be the moment for the EC to reconsider similar issues in EU law, kicked off some time back by the Daily Mail case?

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law 2nd ed 2016 Chapter 7.

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Not quite HoHoHo (yet): OOO PROMNEFTSTROY v Yukos: Insolvency and conflict of laws in the Dutch Supreme Court.

Granted, the (bad) pun in the title would have worked better around the end of year, which is when I had originally planned this posting, before I got sidetracked. Bob Wessels has excellent overview here (including admirably swift and exact translation of core parts of the judgment). OOO PROMNEFTSTROY v Yukos at the Dutch Supreme Court is but one instalment in running litigation literally taking place across the globe.

Of particular interest to the blog is the court’s finding (at 3.4.2) that the existence of a corporation is subject to the lex incorporationis not, as the Court of Appeal had held, the lex concursus in the event of insolvency. The EU’s Insolvency Regulation does not apply for COMI is not within the EU. The Insolvency Regulation does not in so many words say the same as the Dutch Supreme Court however it is likely that under the EIR, too, this issue falls under lex societatis /lex incorporationis (see e.g. Miguel Virgos & Francisco Garcimartin, The European Insolvency Regulation: Law and Practice, Kluwer, 2004, p.82 (par 123, f: dissolution of the company).

One can imagine of course the one or two complications arising out of the seizure of assets of a company which no longer exists.

Geert.

European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.7

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Winter has truly arrived. Bot AG skates around lex societatis issues in KA Finanz.

In Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG, the CJEU is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35. I have a little more on the background in previous posting. The Opinion itself has a complete overview of the issues at stake.

I suggested in my previous posting that lest the complete file posted with the Court give more detail, quite a few of the preliminary questions might be considered inadmissible due to a lack of specification in the factual circumstances.

Bot AG, who opined yesterday (at the time of posting, the English version of the Opinion was not yet available), has considerably slimmed down the list of questions eligible for answer, due to the (non-) application ratione temporis of secondary EU law at issue: this includes the Rome I Regulation. However he also, more puzzlingly, skates around the question concerning the application of the corporate exception of the 1980 Rome Convention, despite the judgment which is being appealed with the referring court, having made that exception the corner piece of its conflicts analysis. In particular, it considered that the consequences of a merger are part of the corporate status of the company concerned and that the transfer of assets within the context of a merger consequently need to be assessed viz-a-viz the company’s lex societatis: Austrian law, and not, as suggested by claimants, German law as the lex contractus relevant to the assets concerned (bonds issued by the corporate predecessor of the new corporation).

The AG focuses his analysis entirely on the specific qualification of the contract at issue (conclusion: sui generis), and on Directive 2005/56. In paras 47-48, he suggests that contractual obligations of the bank’s predecessor, per Directive 2005/56, are transferred to the corporate successor, including the lex contractus of those agreements. One can build an assumption around those paras, that the AG suggests a narrow interpretation of the corporate exception to the Rome Convention, etc. However it is quite unusual for one to have to second-guess an AG’s Opinion. Judicial economy is usually the signature of the CJEU itself, not its Advocate Generals.

I am now quite curious what the CJEU will make of it all.

Geert.

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Just prove it! CJEU on lex causae and detrimental acts (pauliana) in Nike.

Postscript for an example of where Article 4(2)m, lex fori concursus for rules relating to the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of legal acts detrimental to all the creditors, applies without correction, see C-594/14 Kornhaas.

In my posting on Lutz I flagged the increasing relevance of Article 13 of the Insolvency Regulation. This Article neutralises the lex concursus in favour of the lex causae governing the act between a person (often a company) benefiting from an act detrimental to all the creditors, and the insolvent company. Classic example is a payment made by the insolvent company to one particular creditor. Evidently this is detrimental to the other creditors, who are confronted with reduced means against which they can exercise their rights. Article 13 reads

Detrimental acts. Article 4(2)(m) shall not apply where the person who benefited from an act detrimental to all the creditors provides proof that: – the said act is subject to the law of a Member State other than that of the State of the opening of proceedings, and – that law does not allow any means of challenging that act in the relevant case.

In the case at issue, C-310/14, Nike (incorporated in The Netherlands) had a franchise agreement with Sportland Oy, a Finnish company. This agreement is governed by Dutch law (through choice of law). Sportland paid for a number of Nike deliveries. Payments went ahead a few months before and after the opening of the insolvency proceedings. Sportland’s liquidator attempts to have the payments annulled, and to have Nike reimburse.

Under Finnish law, para 10 of the Law on recovery of assets provides that the payment of a debt within three months of the prescribed date may be challenged if it is paid with an unusual means of payment, is paid prematurely, or in an amount which, in view of the amount of the debtor’s estate, may be regarded as significant. Under Netherlands law, according to Article 47 of the Law on insolvency (Faillissementswet), the payment of an outstanding debt may be challenged only if it is proven that when the recipient received the payment he was aware that the application for insolvency proceedings had already been lodged or that the payment was agreed between the creditor and the debtor in order to give priority to that creditor to the detriment of the other creditors.

Nike first of all argued, unsuccessfully in the Finnish courts, that the payment was not ‘unusual’. The Finnish courts essentially held that under relevant Finnish law, the payment was unusual among others because the amount paid was quite high in relation to the overall assets of the company. Nike argues in subsidiary order that Dutch law, the lex causae of the franchise agreement, should be applied. Attention then focussed (and the CJEU held on) the burden of proof under Article 13, as well as the exact meaning of ‘that law does not allow any means of challenging that act in the relevant case.

Firstly, the Finnish version of the Regulation seemingly does not include wording identical or similar to ‘in the relevant case‘ (Article 13 in fine). Insisting on a restrictive interpretation of Article 13, which it had also held in Lutz, the CJEU held that all the circumstances of the cases need to be taken into account. The person profiting from the action cannot solely rely ‘in a purely abstract manner, on the unchallengeable character of the act at issue on the basis of a provision of the lex causae‘ (at 21).

Related to this issue the referring court had actually quoted the Virgos Schmit report, which reads in relevant part (at 137) ‘By “any means” it is understood that the act must not be capable of being challenged using either rules on insolvency or general rules of the national law applicable to the act’. This interpretation evidently reduces the comfort zone for the party who benefitted from the act. It widens the search area, so to speak. It was suggested, for instance, that Dutch law in general includes a prohibition of abuse of rights, which is wider than the limited circumstances of the Faillissementswet, referred to above.

The CJEU surprisingly does not quote the report however it does come to a similar conclusion: at 36: the expression ‘does not allow any means of challenging that act …’ applies, in addition to the insolvency rules of the lex causae, to the general provisions and principles of that law, taken as a whole.’

Attention then shifted to the burden of proof: which party is required to plead that the circumstances for application of a provision of the lex causae leading to voidness, voidability or unenforceability of the act, do not exist? The CJEU held on the basis of Article 13’s wording and overall objectives that it is for the defendant in an action relating to the voidness, voidability or unenforceability of an act to provide proof, on the basis of the lex causae, that the act cannot be challenged. Tthe defendant has to prove both the facts from which the conclusion can be drawn that the act is unchallengeable and the absence of any evidence that would militate against that conclusion (at 25).

However, (at 27) ‘although Article 13 of the regulation expressly governs where the burden of proof lies, it does not contain any provisions on more specific procedural aspects. For instance, that article does not set out, inter alia, the ways in which evidence is to be elicited, what evidence is to be admissible before the appropriate national court, or the principles governing that court’s assessment of the probative value of the evidence adduced before it.

‘(T)he issue of determining the criteria for ascertaining whether the applicant has in fact proven that the act can be challenged falls within the procedural autonomy of the relevant Member State, regard being had to the principles of effectiveness and equivalence.’ (at 44)

The Court therefore once again bumps into the limits of autonomous interpretation. How ad hoc, concrete (as opposed to ‘in the abstract’: see the CJEU’s words, above) the defendant has to be in providing proof (and foreign expert testimony with it), may differ greatly in the various Member States. Watch this space for more judicial review of Article 13.

Geert.

Postscript 7 December 2015: Bob Wessels has annotated the case here.

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KA Finanz: On the ‘corporate exception’ of European private international law

In Case C-483/13 KA Finanz AG, the ECJ is asked to clarify the ‘corporate exception’ to the Rome Convention and subsequent Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The two main questions ask whether the ‘company law’ excepted area includes (a) reorganisations such as mergers and divisions, and (b) in connection with reorganisations, the creditor protection provision in Article 15 of Directive 78/855 concerning mergers of public limited liability companies, and of its successor, Directive 2011/35.

(Creditor protection, incidentally, was also addressed in C-557/13 Lutz, judgment held last week, within the context of insolvency proceedings. I shall have a posting on that case soon).

Reuters tells me ‘KA Finanz was split off from nationalised lender Kommunalkredit in an attempt to secure a sustainable future for the rest of the public sector finance specialist firm following the global financial crisis’. KA Finaz therefore is what is generally referred to as a ‘Bad Bank’.

The referring court, Austria’s Oberster Gerichtshof, would seem to be hedging its bets on whether the Rome Convention or the Regulation applies to the contract, and ditto for the 1978 Directive or the 2011 Directive aforementioned. The file may reveal more factual detail than the application as published, however the questions as phrased (namely quite speculatively rather than file related) probably will run into trouble on the admissability front, I imagine.

At the time of adoption of the convention, the Giuliano Lagarde Report went into a bit more detail as to what is and is not excluded:

Confirming this exclusion, the Group stated that it affects all the complex acts (contractual administrative, registration) which are necessary to the creation of a company or firm and to the regulation of its internal organization and winding up, i. e. acts which fall within the scope of company law. On the other hand, acts or preliminary contracts whose sole purpose is to create obligations between interested parties (promoters) with a view to forming a company or firm are not covered by the exclusion.

The subject may be a body with or without legal personality, profit-making or non-profit-making. Having regard to the differences which exist, it may be that certain relationships will be regarded as within the scope of company law or might be treated as being governed by that law (for example, societe de droit civil nicht-rechtsfahiger Verein, partnership, Vennootschap onder firma, etc.) in some countries but not in others. The rule has been made flexible in order to take account of the diversity of national laws.

Examples of ‘internal organization’ are: the calling of meetings, the right to vote, the necessary quorum, the appointment of officers of the company or firm, etc. ‘Winding-up’ would cover either the termination of the company or firm as provided by its constitution or by operation of law, or its disappearance by merger or other similar process.

At the request of the German delegation the Group extended the subparagraph (e) exclusion to the personal liability of members and organs, and also to the legal capacity of companies or firms. On the other hand the Group did not adopt the proposal that mergers and groupings should also be expressly mentioned, most of the delegations being of the opinion that mergers and groupings were already covered by the present wording.

This explanation does not necessarily of course clarify all. For instance, the Report would seem to suggest that ‘mergers and groupings’, at issue in KA Finanz, are covered by the exception. Presumably, given the nature of the remainder of the exception, this is limited to the actual final agreement creating the JV or merged company, and not to the complex set of agreements leading up to such creation, such as Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs), or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Along those lines and without at this time having revisited relevant scholarship outside my own, I would suggest creditor protection is not covered by the exception.

The Gerichtshof also seeks clarification on whether there areany requirements concerning the treatment of mergers in relation to conflict of laws to be inferred from European primary law such as the freedom of establishment under Article 49 TFEU, the freedom to provide services under Article 56 TFEU and the free movement of capital and payments under Article 63 TFEU, in particular as to whether the national law of the State of the outwardly merging company or the national law of the target company is to be applied?’ Again, without having seen more reference to fact in the actual referral, this question to me seems far too academic to prompt the ECJ into entertaining it.

The Court’s ledger shows the application as having been lodged on 31 October 2014. That means some movement on it ought to be expected soon.

Geert.

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