Case law Developments in PIL

The Law Applicable to the Third-Party Effects of Assignment: The Aftermath of the CJEU’s Decision in TeamBank

Background

In the judgment in TeamBank dated 19 January 2019, the CJEU ruled that Article 14 of the Rome I Regulation does nothing to identify the law governing the effects of assignment in relation to third parties. The court referred, inter alia, to Article 27(2) of the Rome I Regulation, which tasked the Commission to report on this issue and propose an amendment to the Regulation. In the meantime, the question will be governed by national conflict-of-laws rules.

But by which one? This interesting point was subsequently decided in a judgment by the Court of Appeal (Oberlandesgericht) Saarbrücken (Germany), which had requested the preliminary ruling from the CJEU.

German Conflicts Rule on Third-party Effects of Assignment

The legal situation in Germany in this respect is somewhat unclear. Until 2009, the Introductory Act to the German Civil Code (EGBGB) featured a rule on the law applicable to assignment in its former Article 33. Although this provision did not explicitly address third-party effects, it was interpreted by the courts and most authors as submitting them to the law of the assigned claim. Yet Article 33 EGBGB was repealed in 2009 by the German legislator because it considered the rule as no longer necessary due to entry into force of the Rome I Regulation.

Thus, the important gap of the Rome I Regulation regarding third-party effects of assignment, which the CJEU had correctly identified in TeamBank, became all the more significant. To close it, the Court of Appeal Saarbrücken refers to the old EGBGB rule and its long-standing interpretation. In the eyes of the court, the repeal of the provision does not matter, given the advantages of applying the law of the assigned claim to third-party effects. Specifically, the court highlights the rule’s contribution to the goal of legal certainty, which could not be achieved by other connecting factors. Moreover, it explicitly rejects the habitual residence of the assignor in this context, as it would not allow the same degree of predictability in the case of sequential assignments.

The Decision

Applying this conflicts rule, the court determines the law of Luxembourg as governing the third-party effects in the present litigation. To recall: In the underlying case, a Luxembourgish civil servant habitually resident in Germany had twice assigned her salary claims against her employer, first to a bank in Germany and thereafter to a bank in Luxembourg, before becoming bankrupt. The debtor was only informed of the second assignment. Afterwards, the two banks had a dispute about the rights to the salary.

The Court of Appeal starts by considering the validity of the first assignment from the point of view of German substantive law, which governs the assignment under Art 14(2) Rome I Regulation. However, these considerations were ultimately futile. Only thereafter did the court address the real issue, i.e. the law applicable to the third-party effects of the assignment.

Since the claim assigned was governed by Luxembourgish law, the court held the same to be applicable to the dispute between the banks before it. Based on an expert opinion, the court considers only the second assignment, which had been notified to the debtor, as valid under Luxembourg law. The fact that the previous assignment is valid under German law without any notice to the debtor would not matter as Luxembourgish law governs the third-party effects of both assignments.

A Look at the Commission Proposal

The Court of Appeal does not fail to acknowledge that under the European Commission’s Proposal for a Regulation on the law applicable to the third-party effects of assignment of claims, the connecting factor will be different because the habitual residence of the assignor takes centre stage (see Article 4(1) of the Proposal). However, the court also points to the various exceptions to this rule in Article 4(2) and (3) of the Proposal. Moreover, it points to the rule for priority conflicts in Article 4(4) of the Proposal. The court takes the view that the latter rule would have yielded the same result it had reached in the present case, i.e. the applicability of the law of Luxembourg.

It is respectfully submitted that the court erred on this last point. Article 4(4) of the Proposal contains a rule for priority conflicts that may arise where two assignments are covered by Article 4(1) and Article 4(2) or (3) of the Proposal. It therefore presupposes the applicability of two diverging connecting factors – habitual residence on the one hand, and the law governing the claim on the other. This, however, was not the case in the situation faced by the Court of Appeal, in which the one and the same rule and connecting factor – that of the habitual residence under Article 4(1) of the Proposal – would have been applicable. Had the Proposal already been adopted, it would thus have resulted in the applicability of German law and, consequently, the validity of the first assignment.

Conclusion

The case offers two take-aways: First, there is still considerable support in national courts for the law of the assigned claim as the relevant connecting factor for third-party effects of assignment. The long-awaited Regulation of the Commission will thus have to entail significant changes in the attitudes.

Second, the case illustrates that the complex Commission’s Proposal lends itself to misunderstandings, even in its – easier – original form. One of the major challenges will be to educate lawyers about its meaning and secure its correct application by courts throughout the Union.

Many thanks to Verena Wodniansky-Wildenfeld and Amy Held for their contribution to this post.

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