Posts Tagged Restructuring

Heiploeg: Transfer of undertakings, employee protection and pre-packs. The Dutch Supreme Court Advocate-General on the implications of CJEU Smallsteps.

I am no expert in all things insolvency and restructuring. I have an interest in it because of the conflict of laws issues (see the Insolvency Regulation) and the relationship with Brussels Ia. I am also interested in the labour law implications of corporate restructuring. These trigger highly relevant ethical, economic, and legal concerns.

Directive 2001/23 protects employees’ rights in the event of transfer of undertakings. The position of employees of course may be seen by potential investors as a hurdle to get onboard. Employees are inevitably on their cost cutting horizon. (For emperical Dutch research see Aalbers et al here and review in NL of same on Corporate Finance Lab).

The Directive exempts (Member States may provide otherwise) bankruptcies ‘proper’ and analogous insolvency proceedings. (They have to be under the management of what the Insolvency Regulation now calls an insolvency practitioner: an insolvency trustee, in other words). In C-126/16 Smallsteps, the Court held that pre-packs also known as ‘hushed bankruptcies’ do not qualify: since such a procedure is not ultimately aimed at liquidating the undertaking, the economic and social objectives it pursues are no explanation of, or justification for, the employees of the undertaking concerned losing the rights conferred on them by Directive 2001/23 (at 50).

Frederik De Leo reported here more extensively and with more knowledge of the issues, on the implications of Smallsteps, including implications for both the Dutch and the Belgian Statutes and proposals on pre-packs and corporate restructuring. On the Dutch implications, Robert van Moorsel had interesting insight here (in Dutch).

In Heiploeg, which was initiated before judgment in Smallsteps but is still being litigated (by Trade Unions), the Dutch Supreme Court /Hoge Raad is now essentially asked to apply the various conditions which the Court of Justice imposed for the bankruptcy exception of Directive 2001/13 to apply. Its procureur-generaal (essentially here fulfilling the role of an Advocate-General at the CJEU) opined in a well-documented Opinion on 1 November 2019 (apologies for late reporting: the Opinion traveled all sorts of corners in my briefcase) and proposes that the Supreme Court annul the lower court’s application of Smallsteps (which had found that the conditions for exception from the employees’ rights Directive did apply).

The Opinion is not I fear accessible to non-Dutch speakers – I am hoping proper experts will report more extensively once the Hoge Raad’s judgment is out.

Geert.

 

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Canadian recognition of Syncreon Group English Scheme of Arrangement underscores new markets for restructuring tourism.

An essentially Dutch group employs English restructuring law and has the resulting restructuring recognised in Canada. Need one say more to show that regulatory competition is alive and well and that the UK, England in particular need not fear a halt to restructuring forum shopping post Brexit.

Blakes first alerted me to the case, the Initial recognition order 2019 ONSC 5774 is here (I have not yet managed to locate the final order). Insolvency trustee PWC have a most informative document portal here. See also the Jones Day summary of the arrangements here. The main issue of contention was the so-called third party release in favour of Syncreon Canada which could have bumped into ordre public hurdles in Ontario as these clearly have an impact on the security of underlying debt. The way in which the proceeding are conducted (fair, transparent, with due consideration of minority holders etc.) clearly have an impact on this exercise.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd edition 2016, Chapter 2, Chapter 5.

 

 

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International Bank of Azerbaijan: Principle or practice of ‘modified universalism’ in (cram-down resulting from) insolvency proceedings.

Update 28 December 2018 the Court of Appeal  in [2018] EWCA Civ 2802 has confirmed. The English approach is now clearly different from US Bankruptcy courts e.g in Agrokor.

[2018] EWHC 59 (Ch) International Bank of Azerbaijan is an excellent illustration of the practicality v the doctrine of modified universalism in international insolvency law, as well as of the binding force of precedent even in a changing world. Hildyard J first summarises at 2 the question raised as ‘whether the Court has power to grant a permanent moratorium or stay to prevent a creditor exercising its rights under a contract governed by English law in order to prevent that creditor enforcing its rights contrary to the terms of the foreign insolvency proceeding by which all creditors were, under the relevant foreign law, intended to be bound. If it does, the second question is whether in its discretion the Court should exercise that power.’

IBA has fallen into financial difficulties, obliging it to enter into a restructuring proceeding under Azeri law. The Foreign Representative, Ms Gunel Bakhshiyeva (hence also giving her name to the official case-name) had the High Court issue an order  recognising the Restructuring Proceeding as a foreign main proceeding. That recognition order imposes a wide-ranging moratorium preventing creditors from commencing or continuing any action against IBA or its property without the permission of the Court.  The plan proposed by IBA pursuant to the restructuring proceeding has been approved by a substantial majority at a meeting of creditors in Azerbaijan, sanctioned by the relevant Azeri court, and as a matter of Azeri law, the plan is now binding on all affected creditors, including those who did not vote and those who voted against the Plan: a classic cram-down.

Respondents in the case contend that the plan cannot bind them. In each case their relationship as creditor with IBA is governed by English law. They rely on the (1890) rule in Gibbs, which states that a debt governed by English law cannot be discharged by a foreign insolvency proceeding. Reformulating the essential issues at 19, Hildyard J summarises them as

(1) Whether the Court has jurisdiction to extend a moratorium imposed under the CBIR without limit as to time, and in particular, beyond the date on which the foreign proceeding will terminate; and

(2) If so, whether the Court should refuse to lift the continuing moratorium in favour of a creditor whose debt is governed by English law, so as to prevent that creditor from achieving a better return than that enjoyed by all of the company’s other creditors under a restructuring plan promulgated in the jurisdiction in which the company is registered and has its centre of main interests (“COMI”).

At 44 ff Hildyard J excellently summarises the rule, and the critical reception of it in recent scholarship, the latter suggesting it is not just out of touch with a less anglo-centric view of the world, but also inconsistent with the English courts themselves expecting foreign recognition of schemes of arrangement (SAs being of a corporate, not lex concursus nature but nevertheless fishing in the same waters as insolvency proceedings) conducted in the English courts with English law as the lex causae.

Having summed up all the arguments against the rule and yet recent continued application of it, Hildyard J at 58 dryly notes that his place in the hierarchy means that he cannot simply swipe the rule aside: he must apply it and simply assess whether it applies in the current circumstances. More particularly, whether at one and the same time the ‘rule’ may formally be observed by accepting the continuation of the rights which English law confers, and yet also the principles of modified universalism which the UNCITRAL Model Law gives effect to.

Lengthy discussion then follows of the pros and contras, with the High Court eventually finding no persuasive argument to set aside the rule, particularly not by the English application of the UNCITRAL model law. Counsel had argued that qualifying the model law as procedural as opposed to substantive law, would enable the Court effectively to sidestep Gibbs as precedent. However Hildyard J prefered to accept the full force of precedent rather than sweeping it aside by the procedural pretext.

The substantive rule clearly is ripe for reconsideration by the Court of Appeal.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.1.

 

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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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Schemes of arrangement: No scheming, and no hastily arranging, please. The High Court adjourns hearing in Indah Kiat.

I have reported before on various schemes of arrangement which the English Courts gave the go-ahead even when they concerned non-English companies (I should flag that in two of those, Apcoa and Van Gansewinkel, I acted as expert). Thank you Arie van Hoe for bringing Indah Kiat to my attention some weeks ago.

Indah Kiat is a Dutch BV seeking an order convening a single meeting of its scheme creditors to consider and if thought fit approve a scheme of arrangement pursuant to Part 26 of the Companies Act 2006. The application is strenuously opposed by one of the Scheme Creditors, APP Investment Opportunity LLC (“APPIO”), which contests the jurisdiction of the court to entertain or sanction the Scheme. Such opposition is different from the other schemes which I mention in my previous postings.

In the first instance, APPIO simply seeks an adjournment of the Scheme Company’s application on the grounds that inadequate notice has been given to Scheme Creditors. However, it also raises a significant number of other issues concerning the adequacy of the evidence and disclosure by the Scheme Company, together with questions concerning the procedure and scope of the court’s jurisdiction to sanction creditor schemes for foreign companies in relation to debts governed by foreign law.

The Scheme Company is a special purpose vehicle which was incorporated for financing purposes in the Netherlands. It sought the COMI way to enable English courts to obtain jurisdiction over the scheme. English jurisdiction, required to carry out the Scheme, usually rests on either one of two legs: COMI, or making English law the governing law of the underlying credit agreements (if necessary by changing that governing law en route).

The COMI route to jurisdiction in many ways defies the proverbial impossibility of having one’s cake and eating it. For the establishment of a company’s centre of main interests, the courts and practice tend to refer to the EU’s Insolvency Regulation. Yet that schemes of arrangement do not fall under the Insolvency Regulation is a crucial part of the forum shopping involved in attracting restructuring advice to the English legal market. This is especially so for the aforementioned second route to jurisdiction (a change in governing law). however it is also true for the first form. Snowden J refers to that at para 85-86 of his judgment.

Indah Kiat has effected its change of COMI (rebutting the presumption of COMI being at its registered seat) by notifying its creditors via a number of clearing houses for the Notes concerned. APPIO contest that this notification sufficed for change in COMI. There are not enough relevant facts in the judgment to consider this objection thoroughly, however APPIO’s misgivings would not seem entirely implausible.

Snowden J notes that whilst protesting the jurisdiction, in the first instance APPIO simply seeks an adjournment of the convening hearing on the grounds that inadequate notice has been given of it to Scheme Creditors. It contends that given the complex nature of the Scheme and the factual background, there is no justification for an urgent hearing of the application. The Court agreed and the convening hearing (different from the sanction hearing, which follows later) was adjourned until 3 March. Snowden J further gave extensive argument obiter as to why the Scheme’s information was insufficient in the form as it stood at the hearing.

He then revisits (82 ff) the jurisdictional issue, which I have already signalled above: what role exactly COMI should play, how the Brussels I recast intervenes, what the impact is of likely recognition of the sanction (if any) in Indonesia, The Netherlands, and the US; and what if any role the relevant US judgments in the case should play: there will be plenty of points for discussion at the convening and sanction hearing. (I mentioned above that the convening hearing was scheduled around 3 March; I have not heard from the case since however if anyone has, please do let me know).

I do not think Indah Kiat has made the jurisdictional hurdle higher for Schemes of Arrangement involving foreign companies. Rather, the fierce opposition of an important creditor has brought jurisdictional issues into sharper perspective than had been the case before.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, Chapter 5, Heading 5.4.2).

 

 

 

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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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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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