Courts in the EU increasingly issue injunctions against anti-suit injunctions, or “anti-anti-suit injunctions”. We have already read in this blog about the French practice. The Germans are doing it as well.
One example is a decision by the Court of Appeal in Munich dated 12 December 2019 (English translation here). As in the French proceedings, at issue was a claim for patent violation. And again, the defendant raised a counter-claim for fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing in the US and applied for an anti-suit injunction against the proceedings in Europe.
Perhaps less usual is that the defendant resorting to this tactic was a behemoth of the German industry, the company Continental, which produces everything from tyres to electronic systems for car manufacturers. Continental had been sued in Germany by Finnish company Nokia for an alleged patent violation. Continental in turn sued Nokia in the US for FRAND licensing and applied for an anti-suit injunction there to stop the German proceedings.
The reason behind this behaviour apparently is that the US courts interpret the conditions for FRAND licensing more favourably for the licensee than their European counterparts. Defendants in patent licensing disputes therefore try to shift the battlefield to the other side of the Atlantic. Even German companies now prefer Californian over Bavarian courts, and companies called “Continental” switch to different continents.
Continental’s tactic drew the ire of the Landgericht Munich I, a tribunal of first instance. It issued an injunction against the German company, enjoining it from any anti-suit application in the US against the proceedings in Germany (English translation here). The Court of Appeal (Oberlandesgericht) in Munich affirmed.
The legal rule on which Nokia’s lawyers based their claim was quite peculiar. They resorted to nothing less than the authorisation of self-defense under the German Civil Code (sec. 227 BGB). One is accustomed to the usage of this provision in cases about pub brawls or domestic violence, but less in intellectual property rights disputes between multinational companies.
The Munich Court of Appeal felt somehow uneasy with this legal basis. They stayed in more familiar terrain by weighing the interests of the parties. The court stressed Nokia’s right to pursue its patent in court (sec. 1004 BGB applied by analogy), which would be constitutionally protected and impeded by the pending US anti-suit injunction. The defendant, on the other hand, could be expected to raise the FRAND issue in the German proceedings. Hence the decision to issue the anti-anti-suit injunction.
Group of companies – A minor complication
One peculiarity of the case is that the defendant in the German proceedings, the parent company Continental AG, was not identical to the party of the counter-proceedings in the US. Instead, these had been started by another company of the Continental group. The court had however little problems in attributing the behaviour of the subsidiary to the parent of the same “Konzern” or group of companies.
Public international law – A major problem
What is more surprising is that the Munich court had no qualms to consider its injunction as being entirely in line with customary public international law. In the past decades, European courts, especially in Germany, have complained about the extraterritorial overreach by US courts and the violation of sovereignty through anti-suit injunction. Now they are doing the same.
The tribunal of first instance had come up with an interesting justification. In its opinion, anti-suit injunctions could not be illegal under customary public international law because the Anglo-Saxon courts had issued them for years. In other words, bad practice creates bad customary law.
The Munich Court of Appeal found an easier and more formal excuse. It simply stated that the extraterritorial effects would be a mere reflex of the anti-anti-suit injunction and not impair the sovereignty of the US. More worryingly still, it also opined that the legality under public international law hardly mattered since the injunction was in line with the German constitution. Constitutionality trumps legality under international law – a strange and dangerous concept.
Anti-anti-suit injunctions are a remarkable shift from the traditional European aversion against extraterritoriality and the interference with judicial proceedings abroad. Courts in Germany and in France seem to have lost both their naivety and their innocence. They now use the same weapons as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
The development can be summarised in terms of the Old Testament: “An eye for an eye”. As the experience of claw-back-litigation has taught, the winning country will be the one where most assets are located. German companies will thus probably never again apply for anti-suit injunctions in the US against proceedings in Germany.
The aim of the European courts to defend their jurisdiction is certainly understandable. Yet the mutual exchange of anti-suit injunctions across the Atlantic also has costs. What stops a US court from issuing an “anti-anti-anti-suit injunction”? In the end, civil justice becomes a power play. It is long ago that public international law incarnated the polite rules of diplomacy. We seem to be back to the state of nature.