Case law Developments in PIL

A German Perpective on Jurisdiction over Liability Claims against Arbitrators

This post was contributed by Burkhard Hess, who is a director of the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg.

Gilles Cuniberti has kindly invited me to comment on the decision of the Paris Tribunal Judiciaire from a German perspective – here are my reflections on this interesting case:

1. Under German law, a contract retaining an arbitrator is a private law contract for services related to arbitration. German law clearly separates the underlying contract with the arbitrator from the procedural functions (including obligations) of the arbitrator within the arbitration proceedings (most recently: Ruckdeschler & Stooß, Die vorzeitige Beendigung der Schiedsrichtertätigkeit, Festschrift Kronke (2020), p. 1517 – 1519). Therefore, the contract retaining an arbitrator falls in the scope of the arbitration exception set out at Article 1(2) of the Brussels Ibis Regulation only provided there is an express arbitration clause in the service contract with the arbitrator. Actions for damages against the arbitrator for the breach of the service contract (based on § 280 and 281 of the German Civil Code) are not ancillary proceedings within the meaning of Recital 12 para 4 of the Brussels Ibis Regulation. The arbitral tribunal does not have jurisdictional powers to decide contractual damage claims brought against an arbitrator. Such claims are, in fact, not related to the arbitration proceedings, the breach of the arbitrator’s duties merely amounting to an incidental issue. In this regard, I agree with the decision of the Tribunal Judiciaire de Paris.

2. Under German law, the service contract with the arbitrator usually establishes contractual relationships with both parties, cf. Schack, Internationales Zivilprozessrecht (8th ed. 2021), para 1461; Schlosser, Recht der Internationalen, privaten Schiedsgerichtsbarkeit (2nd ed. 1989), para 491. Specifically, § 675, 611 and 427 of the BGB apply to this contract (there is a debate whether the contract qualifies as a contract sui generis). The situation is not different when an arbitration organization is involved as the organization concludes the contract with the arbitrators on behalf of the parties (Stein/Jonas/Schlosser, Vor § 1025 ZPO (Commentary, 23rd ed. (2014), para. 17). As I have previously stated, German doctrine clearly distinguishes the contractual relationship between the parties and the arbitrator from the procedural functions (“Amt”) of the arbitrator. The latter is regulated by the lex arbitri and concerns the procedural role of the arbitrator. If the parties do not agree on specific (institutional) rules, § 1034 -1039 of the Code of Civil Procedure apply.

3. If one agrees that the Brussels I bis Regulation applies, the place of performance is to be determined according to its Article 7 no 1b, 2nd indent. When it comes to a contract for the services of an arbitrator, one might consider an agreed place of performance at the seat of the arbitral tribunal (when the parties agreed on the place where the arbitration proceedings take place). Otherwise, the seat of arbitration might be the place where the arbitrators render their services. As Article 7 no 1 places much emphasis on the factual place of performance, much depends on the factual situation – especially in an instance where the arbitral tribunal holds virtual hearings and deliberates online. In this case, one might consider localizing the place of performance at the law office of each individual arbitrator.

In the case at hand, the claim was based on an alleged violation of the duty to disclose a conflict of interests. The assessment of such a violation entailed investigations also regarding the activities of the arbitrator’s law firm, localized at the place of the law firm’s office. However, according to the case law of the ECJ, under Article 7 no 1 the place of the main provision of service – and not the place where the concrete contractual obligation was breached – is decisive for the purposes of establishing jurisdiction (C-19/09 Wood Floor Solutions, cf. Hess, Europäisches Zivilprozessrecht, 2nd ed. 2021, § 6, para 6.56). Consequently, I would agree with the Paris court that the place of performance was Germany.

4. Finally, I would like to address one additional aspect: Does the decision of the French court that located the place of performance in Germany bind the German courts? The ECJ addressed this issue in case C-456/11 (Gothaer Versicherungen, paras 36 et seq.). It held that a German court was bound by a decision of a Belgian court on the validity and the derogative effects of a jurisdiction clause designating the Dutch courts as the competent courts (see Hess, Europäisches Zivilprozessrecht, 2nd ed. 2021, § 6, paras 6.206 – 6.207). In the case at hand, the situation is different as the French court stated that the place of performance of the contract was located in Germany, not in France. However, one might consider that this statement of the Paris court is binding on the parties and might be recognized as binding under Article 36 of the Brussels I bis Regulation in the German proceedings. I am well aware that this effect transcends the current case law under the Brussels I bis Regulation. However, it would be a consequence of Gothaer Versicherungen to assume a binding force of the French judgment rejecting the lawsuit as inadmissible. This binding force would prevent a déni de justice by a German court. Yet, it remains to be seen whether such binding force is compatible with the case law of the ECJ according to which each court of the EU Member States has to assess ex officio whether it has jurisdiction under the Brussels I bis Regulation (C-185/07, Allianz).

5 comments on “A German Perpective on Jurisdiction over Liability Claims against Arbitrators

  1. Matthias Lehmann

    Great analysis, Burkhard. I fully agree that a liability claim against an arbitrator does not automatically fall under Art. 1(2)(d) Brussels Ibis. The arbitration exception covers only arbitration proceedings, not other aspects surrounding the arbitration, like the renting of the hotel room that will serve as the venue, or indeed the hiring of the arbitrators. Art. 1(2)(d) kicks in only where the parties and the arbitrator have selected arbitration as the mode of resolving disputes resulting from this engagement, which requires a separate arbitration clause.

  2. Oliver Remien

    Many thanks, Burkhard, for this well reasoned and documented support of my point of view expressed in my comment of April 8th. However, is this view so specifically German? I really doubt it!

  3. Sixto A. Sánchez Lorenzo

    Thank you, Burkhard!! I share this approach from German Law, but I suspect it is far for beeing clear under other legal systems. That is why a preliminary ruling would be advisable.

  4. Adrian Briggs

    Contractual ? I was half expecting someone to say that the duty to disclose the conflict of interests was a matter relating to tort or delict, and for which recourse to the contract is not indispensable, with the consequence that C-59/19 Wikingerhof pointed to a non-contractual special jurisdiction, but not to a contractual one.

    • Indeed, is the duty provided by the law governing the arbitration contract? It seems that the lex contractus would be German law, but that French law might well govern the duty to disclose any conflict.

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