Case law Developments in PIL

French Reference on Res Judicata under Brussels I

This post was contributed by Fabienne Jault-Seseke, who is Professor at University Paris Saclay (UVSQ), and a member of GEDIP.


Decisions of the French Supreme Court on civil and criminal matters (Cour de cassation) on res judicata regarding foreign decisions are rare. The judgment in which, on 8 September 2021, its social Division (Chambre sociale) questions the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) is all the more remarkable.

Background

In this case, the plaintiff, who had been hired by French bank BNP to work in the London branch under a contract subject to English law, was posted in Singapore, and had entered into a contract subject to French law for that purpose. He was then posted to London and dismissed for misconduct during his secondment to Singapore.

The employee brought an action before the Employment Tribunal in London. The English tribunal found that the procedure followed by the employer was, under English law, unfair and ordered BNP to pay the sum of £81,175. BNP did not challenge the decision. Almost a year later, the employee brought various claims before the Conseil de prud’hommes (the court of first instance in matter of labour law) in Paris relating to the termination of his employment contract. The French court declared the claims relating to his dismissal inadmissible, because of the res judicata effect of the English judgment.

On appeal, the judgment was overturned: the Court of Appeal followed the employee’s argument, considering that the res judicata effect of the English decision relates only to the unfairness of the dismissal and that the various claims for compensation had not been examined by the English tribunal. BNP appealed to the Court of Cassation: in its view, the res judicata effect of the English decision prevents the French judge from hearing the claims relating to the dismissal of the person concerned.

Reference

Interesting questions were put to the Cour of Cassation, which took the opportunity to make a reference for a preliminary ruling to the ECJ.

As a starting point, the Cour de cassation asserted that that recognition in general and res judicata in particular are autonomous European concepts, citing ECJ, 15 November 2012, C-456/11, Gothaer Allgemeine Versicherung AG in support for that proposition. But the court then noted that a foreign judgment which has been recognised under Article 33 of Regulation No 44/2001 must in principle have the same effects in the State in which recognition is sought as it does in the State of origin (ECJ 4 February 1988, Hoffmann, C-145/86).

After a long analysis, the Cour de cassation asked the following questions (see below for French version).

Firstly, do Articles 33 and 36 of Regulation No 44/2001 lead to the conclusion that, where the law of the Member State of origin of the decision prevents the same parties from bringing a new action to rule on claims that could have been made in the initial proceedings (this would be the case in English law, pursuant to the Henderson v. Henderson case of 20 July 1843 of the Court of Chancery, which was referred to French courts by BNP), the court of another Member State, whose law provided for a similar obligation of concentration of claims (as is the case in French law, in particular in labour law with Article R. 1452-6 of the Labour Code, which has now been repealed, but which was applicable at the time before the French court) to rule on such claims?

In other words, does the obligation to concentrate claims provided for by the legal system of the State from which the decision emanates prevent the court of another Member State, in which a similar obligation exists, from hearing the action brought between the same parties in order to rule on claims that could have been formulated in the proceedings in the court of origin?

Should the answer be positive, other questions will inevitably arise. What would be the solution if only one of the two legal systems provides such an obligation to concentrate claims? Indeed, as Gilles Cuniberti noted on this blog, “the vast majority of scholars in Europe debate whether res judicata should be governed by the law of the State of origin or the law of the requested State”.

Secondly, and more classically, the Social Chamber questions the Court of Justice on the notions of cause and subject-matter. There are already a number of decisions of the Court of Justice on these issues but they concern lis pendens and not res judicata. It would however be consistent to retain the same requirements to define lis pendens and res judicata. In this case, the question is whether an action for unfair dismissal in the United Kingdom has the same cause of action and the same subject-matter as an action for dismissal without real and serious cause in French law or an action for payment of bonuses or premiums provided for in the employment contract since these actions are based on the same contractual relationship between the parties?  The French Supreme Court wonders whether a distinction should be made between damages for dismissal without real and serious cause, which could have the same cause and the same subject-matter as the compensatory award, and the redundancy and notice payments which, under French law, are due when the dismissal is based on a real and serious cause but are not due in the event of dismissal based on serious misconduct.

The answers that the Court of Justice will give to these questions will not only have consequences on the further integration of the European judicial area, but also on its tolerance toward certain procedural strategies.

In the French original, the questions of the Cour de cassation read:

1°/ Les articles 33 et 36 du règlement (CE) n° 44/2001 du Conseil, du 22 décembre 2000, concernant la compétence judiciaire, la reconnaissance et l’exécution des décisions en matière civile et commerciale doivent-ils être interprétés en ce sens que, lorsque la loi de l’État membre d’origine de la décision confère à cette dernière une autorité telle que celle-ci fait obstacle à ce qu’une nouvelle action soit engagée par les mêmes parties afin qu’il soit statué sur les demandes qui auraient pu être formulées dès l’instance initiale, les effets déployés par cette décision dans l’État membre requis s’opposent à ce qu’un juge de ce dernier État, dont la loi applicable ratione temporis prévoyait en droit du travail une obligation similaire de concentration des prétentions statue sur de telles demandes ?

2°/ En cas de réponse négative à cette première question, les articles 33 et 36 du règlement n° 44/2001 du Conseil doivent-ils être interprétés en ce sens qu’une action telle que celle en « unfair dismissal » au Royaume-Uni a la même cause et le même objet qu’une action telle que celle en licenciement sans cause réelle et sérieuse en droit français, de sorte que les demandes faites par le salarié de dommages-intérêts pour licenciement sans cause réelle et sérieuse, d’indemnité compensatrice de préavis et d’indemnité de licenciement devant le juge français, après que le salarié a obtenu au Royaume-Uni une décision déclarant l’ « unfair dismissal » et allouant des indemnités à ce titre (compensatory award), sont irrecevables ? Y a-t-il lieu à cet égard de distinguer entre les dommages-intérêts pour licenciement sans cause réelle et sérieuse qui pourraient avoir la même cause et le même objet que le « compensatory award », et les indemnités de licenciement et de préavis qui, en droit français, sont dues lorsque le licenciement est fondé sur une cause réelle et sérieuse mais ne sont pas dues en cas de licenciement fondé sur une faute grave ?

3°/ De même, les articles 33 et 36 du règlement n° 44/2001 du Conseil doivent-ils être interprétés en ce sens qu’ont la même cause et le même objet une action telle que celle en « unfair dismissal » au Royaume-Uni et une action en paiement de bonus ou de primes prévues au contrat de travail dès lors que ces actions se fondent sur le même rapport contractuel entre les parties ?

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