Posts Tagged Secondary proceedings

Secondary insolvency proceedings in Hanjin Europe. Plenty held, plenty assumed.

The Rotterdam court in Hanjin Europe held on the opening of secondary proceedings in The Netherlands, in application of the European Insolvency Regulation (EIR), with main proceedings and COMI in Germany. On the application of the insolvency Regulation there are few that match prof Wessels’ insights and I am happy to refer to them. Indeed it is Bob who alerted me to the case. Prof Wessels in particular points us to the following considerations:

  • the relationship between Annex A, Annex C and the abstract definition of ‘insolvency’ in the EIR. Useful precedent is Eurofood.
  • the power of a provisionary liquidator to request the opening of secondary proceedings.
  • the exact meaning of ‘establishment’, inter alia following judgment in Interedil.
  • whether applicant has to show an interest in requesting secondary proceedings.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5.

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Nortel. CJEU confirms Nickel & Goeldner, and extends Seagon to secondary proceedings.

Update 16 June 2017. See [2017] EWHC 1429 Nortel for not just cost orders in the UK COMI proceeding but also the strategy in trying to discourage opening of secondary proceedings.

I need to give a bit of a factual background before I can get to the implications of the ECJ’s (or CJEU, I still haven’t decided) finding in C-469/13 Nortel.

Nortel Networks SA is established in Yvelines (France). The Nortel group was a provider of technical solutions for telecommunications networks. Nortel Networks Limited (‘NNL’), established in Mississauga (Canada), held the majority of the Nortel group’s worldwide subsidiaries, including NNSA.  In 2008 insolvency proceedings were initiated simultaneously in Canada, the US and the EU. In January 2009, the High Court opened main insolvency proceedings under English law in respect of all the companies in the Nortel group established in the EU, including NNSA, pursuant to Article 3(1) of the Insolvency Regulation.

Following a joint application lodged by NNSA and the joint administrators, by judgment of May 2009 the court at Versailles opened secondary proceedings in respect of NNSA. In July 2009, industrial action at NNSA was brought to an end by a memorandum of agreement settling the action. It provided for the making of a severance payment, of which one part was payable immediately and another part, known as the ‘deferred severance payment’, was to be paid, once operations had ceased, out of the available funds arising from the sale of assets. That memorandum was approved by the court at Versailles. NNSA’s positive balance was subsequently however caught up in the global settlement for Nortel, including transfers of funds to escrow accounts in the US, to be distributed following global settlement, and new debt following the continuation of Nortel’s activities as well as costs related to the global winding-up of the company. The deferred severance payment therefore could no longer be paid.

The works council of NNSA and former NNSA employees brought an action before the court at Versailles seeking, first, a declaration that the secondary proceedings give them an exclusive and direct right over the share of the overall proceeds from the sale of the Nortel group’s assets that falls to NNSA and, second, an order requiring the liquidator to make immediate disbursement, in particular, of the deferred severance payment, to the extent of the funds available to NNSA. the French liquidator then summoned the joint administrators as third parties before the referring court. However, these then suggested the court at Versailles decline international jurisdiction, in favour of the High Court at London, and in the alternative, to decline jurisdiction to rule on the assets and rights which were not situated in France for the purposes of Article 2(g) of the Insolvency Regulation when the judgment opening the secondary proceedings was delivered. That Article reads

(g) “the Member State in which assets are situated” shall mean, in the case of: – tangible property, the Member State within the territory of which the property is situated, – property and rights ownership of or entitlement to which must be entered in a public register, the Member State under the authority of which the register is kept, – claims, the Member State within the territory of which the third party required to meet them has the centre of his main interests, as determined in Article 3(1);

There are essentially two parts to the referring court’s questions: (i) the allocation of international jurisdiction between the court hearing the main proceedings and the court hearing the secondary proceedings; and (ii) identification of the law applicable to determine the debtor’s assets that fall within the scope of the effects of the secondary proceedings.

On the (i) first question, the Court first reviewed whether the Insolvency Regulation applied at all – an issue seemingly which did not feature in the national proceedings nor in the written procedure before the CJEU, however which came up at the hearing. The issue being that what the Works Council was after was that an agreement to pay a debt be honoured: one that looks just like a fairly standard agreement were it not to arise out of insolvency. Per Nickel and Goeldner the Court reviewed 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. Here, the basis of the action, as was pointed out by Mengozzi AG, was relevant French insolvency law (for the determination of the order of creditors’ rights) and the Insolvency Regulation (for the determination of the hierarchy between main and secondary insolvency proceedings). The Insolvency Regulation therefore applies. The AG’s review in fact was clearer than the Court’s summary. More generally, the ECJ does seem to go out of its way to re-emphasise the Nickel and Goeldner formula, even if the separation of the Brussels I and the Insolvency Regulation was not particularly controversial in the case at issue.

Next, the Court essentially extended its Seagon/Deko Marty case-law to secondary proceedings. In Seagon, the Court held that Article 3(1) must be interpreted as meaning that it also confers international jurisdiction on the courts of the Member State within the territory of which insolvency proceedings were opened to hear an action which derives directly from the initial insolvency proceedings and which is ‘closely connected’ with them, within the meaning of recital 6 in the preamble to the Regulation. In Nortel the Court holds that Article 3(2) of that regulation must be interpreted analogously. Here, the related action seeks a declaration that specified assets fall within secondary insolvency proceedings. It is designed specifically to protect the local interests which justify the very establishment of jurisdiction for the secondary proceedings.

However, such action quite obviously has a direct effect on the interests administered in the main insolvency proceedings. The jurisdiction for the court of the secondary proceedings therefore cannot be exclusive. It is jurisdiction concurrently with the Member State of COMI. This is an altogether sec appreciation of the Court which, as Bob Wessels notes, in reality will create serious co-ordination headaches (one for which I do not think even the provisions for co-ordination in the new insolvency Regulation provide sufficient answer).

Finally, in reply to question (ii), the ECJ is fairly brief: Article 2(g) ought to suffice to give the referring court the guidance it seeks. Granted, the ECJ says, it will not be easy. But it ought to suffice. The one extra guidance the CJEU gives is that that provision is also applicable if the property, right or claim in question must be regarded as situated in a third State (such as here: in the escrow accounts).

All in all, quite an important judgment, indeed. Unlike Nortel’s sad demise, this judgment has quite a life ahead of it.

Geert.

 

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Burgo Group: Some not altogether shocking revelations on the Insolvency Regulation. Useful revelations nevertheless.

There’s case-law of the Essent, Kylie Minogue (eDate Advertising), Seal Pups, or Kiobel type. And then there is case-law of the, well, Burgo type. In Burgo Group v Illochrama SA, Case C-327/13, the ECJ held on 4 September. The judgment does not reveal anything shocking. (Some might argue at least some of the questions could have been acte claire). However the Court’s findings nevertheless put to bed some concerns which insolvency practitioners might have had.

On 21 April 2008, the Commercial Court, Roubaix-Tourcoing (France) placed all the companies in the Illochroma group — including Illochroma, established in Brussels (Belgium) — into receivership and appointed Maître Theetten as agent. On 25 November 2008, it placed Illochroma in liquidation and appointed Maître Theetten as liquidator.

Burgo Group, established in Altavilla-Vicentina-Vicenza (Italy), is owed money by Illochroma for the supply of goods. On 4 November 2008, Burgo Group presented Maître Theetten with a statement of liability in the amount of EUR 359 778.48. Maître Theetten informed Burgo Group that the statement of liability could not be taken into account because it was out of time.

Burgo Group then requested the opening of secondary proceedings in respect of Illochroma. The referring court (The Brussels Court of Appeal) observed that the Insolvency Regulation defines ‘establishment’ as any place where the debtor carries out a non-transitory economic activity with human means and goods, which is the situation in the present case. Illochroma is a company with two establishments in Belgium, where it is the owner of a building, buys and sells goods and employs staff. Illochrama and the liquidator contend that, since Illochroma has its registered office in Belgium, it cannot be regarded as an establishment within the meaning of Regulation No 1346/2000. They argue that secondary proceedings are restricted to establishments without legal personality (issue 1).

Belgian law applicable to the present case provides that any creditor, including a creditor established outside Belgium, may bring an action before a Belgian court for the opening of insolvency proceedings against its debtor. However, Illochroma maintains that that right is restricted to creditors established in the Member State of the court before which the action seeking the opening of secondary proceedings has been brought, since the sole purpose of such proceedings is to protect local interests (issue 2).

Finally, the referring court observes that Regulation No 1346/2000 does not state whether the possibility for the persons referred to in Article 29 thereof to request, in the Member State within the territory of which the establishment is situated, the opening of secondary proceedings is a right that must be recognised by the court having jurisdiction in that regard or whether that court enjoys a discretion as to whether it is appropriate to grant that request, with a view, in particular, to protecting local interests (issue 3).

 

With respect to issue 1, the ECJ first of all dismissed any suggestions that COMI may be second-guessed by courts in other Member States. Even if the French courts erred in accepting primary jurisdiction, per Bank Handlowy the courts in other Member States have to stick by that judgment. Any challenge to it must be brought in the national courts of the Member States were main proceedings were opened. The Regulation nevertheless of course has inserted the possibility of secondary proceedings precisely to protect local interests in other Member States. (Even though correction of COMI was not as such thought of when secondary proceedings’ architecture was conceived, in practice they do serve to offset some of the consequences of (alleged) wrong COMI assessment).

‘Establishment’ is defined in Article 2(h) of Regulation No 1346/2000 as ‘any place of operations where the debtor carries out a non-transitory economic activity with human means and goods’. Per Interedil, the fact that that definition links the pursuit of an economic activity to the presence of human resources shows that a minimum level of organisation and a degree of stability are required. It follows that, conversely, the presence alone of goods in isolation or bank accounts does not, in principle, satisfy the requirements for classification as an ‘establishment’. On the other hand, the definition does not refer to the place of the registered office of a debtor company or to the legal status of the place in which the operations in question are carried out.The Member State where the company has its registered office clearly is not excluded from the definition: otherwise local interests would be denied the opportunity of seeking protection, which would exist in other Member States where an establishment is present.

As for the second issue, the Regulation draws a clear distinction between territorial proceedings opened prior to the opening of main proceedings, and secondary proceedings. It is only in relation to territorial proceedings that the right to request the opening of proceedings is limited by the Regulation to creditors who have their domicile, habitual residence or registered office within the Member State in which the relevant establishment is situated, or whose claims arise from the operation of that establishment (at 48, with reference to Zaza Retail). Any other conclusion would amount to indirect discrimination on the grounds of nationality, since non-residents are in the majority of cases foreigners (at 49).

Finally, with respect to issue 3, the Regulation grants broad discretion, with regard to the opening of secondary proceedings, to the court before which an action seeking the opening of secondary proceedings has been bought. Article 28 of the Regulation determines in principle as the law applicable to secondary proceedings, that of the Member State within the territory of which those secondary proceedings are opened. Whether opening of the proceeding is ‘appropriate’ has to be determined by that applicable law. EU law does have an impact on that assessment, though (at 64 ff): in deciding appropriateness, Member States must not discriminate on the basis of place of residence or registered office; the Regulation’s motifs for allowing secondary proceedings must be respected (in the main: protection of local interests, given that universal proceedings may be preferred however do often lead to practical difficulties); and finally the principle of sincere co-operation implies that the court assessing the secondary proceedings, must have regard to the objectives of the main proceedings.

 

All in all therefore very much a common sense judgment, with the final instruction to the courts being quite relevant: secondary proceedings must not operate as isolated incidents and they have to take some lead from the main proceedings.

Geert.

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‘Establishment’ within the meaning of the Insolvency Regulation: the Court of Appeal in Olympic Airlines

[Update 5 May 2015: the Supreme Court confirmed the Court of Appeal’s findings on 29 April 2015 and declined to refer to the ECJ, (justifiably in my view) citing acte clair].

Under the EU’s Insolvency Regulation, core of the procedure takes place in the Member State with ‘COMI’: the centre of main interests of the company concerned.

‘Secondary’ and ‘territorial’ proceedings may only be opened if the debtor possesses an establishment within the territory of that other Member State, and only vis-a-vis the debtor’s assets in that State. Article 2(h) of the Regulation defines ‘establishment’ as ‘any place of operations where the debtor carries out a non-transitory economic activity with human means and goods’,  which the Court of Justice in Interedil has specified in less philosophical terms as  ‘a structure with a minimum level of organisation and a degree of stability for the purpose of pursuing an economic activity‘, basically a combination of pursuit of an economic activity and the presence of human resources. Per Interedil, this has to be determined in the same way as the location of the centre of main interests, namely on the basis of objective factors which are ascertainable by third parties.

In Olympic Airways, the Court of Appeal combined Interedil and ECJ guidance with respect to COMI, as well as extensive reference to the Virgos Schmit Report, to hold that the Regulation’s definition of “establishment” a meaning which requires more to its “economic activity” than the mere process of winding-up. In the words of Sir Bernard Rix (at 33) ‘The definition is clearly intended to lay down a rule that the mere presence of an office or branch, a “place” at which the debtor is located, is not sufficient. It has to be a place “of operations”: human and physical resources have to be involved in those operations; and there has to be “economic activity” involving those resources. ‘ He later emphasises that this economic activity needs to be ‘external’, ie market oriented.

Of note is also the temporal element: per Office Metro, the possibility to open up secondary proceedings requires there to be such establishment at the time of the request for opening of such proceeding.

Geert.

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