On 11 November 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered its judgment in Bank Sepah v. Overseas Financial Limited (case C‑340/20).
The judgment clarifies the effect of the freezing of assets pursuant to European (and U.N.) sanctions on the right of creditors to attach the said assets.
In this case, the sanctions were the restrictive measures against Iran implemented by Regulation (EC) No 423/2007 of 19 April 2007 and several subsequent regulations replacing it (‘the Regulations’). Regulation 423/2007 froze the assets and resources of certain listed entities. One of them was Iranian bank Sepah.
Article 1 (h) and (j) of Regulation 423/2007 provided:
‘freezing of funds’ means preventing any moving, transfer, alteration, use of, access to, or dealing with funds in any way that would result in any change in their volume, amount, location, ownership, possession, character, destination or other change that would enable the funds to be used, including portfolio management;
‘freezing of economic resources’ means preventing the use of economic resources to obtain funds, goods or services in any way, including, but not limited to, by selling, hiring or mortgaging them;
The issue was whether attaching preventively assets subject to such sanctions fell within these definitions and was thus forbidden. In this case, U.S. creditors were seeking to enforce a French judgment against bank Sepah and had sought enforcement and conservative measures. In a judgment of July 10th, 2020, the French supreme court for civil and criminal matters (Cour de cassation) considered that the situation was clear enough for enforcement measures, but asked the CJUE whether the Regulations prevented granting conservative measures as well.
The US creditors were Delaware companies Overseas Financial Limited and Oaktree Finance Limited. They were seeking to enfore a French judgment against Bank Sepah, a company established in Iran.
After obtaining partial payments made between 2007 and 2011, Overseas Financial and Oaktree Finance on 2 December 2007 requested that the French Minister for the Economy authorise the release of the outstanding amount pursuant to Article 8 of Regulation No 423/2007. Overseas Financial and Oaktree Finance brought an action for annulment against the implicit rejection of their request before the Administrative Court of Paris, which dismissed that action by judgment of 21 October 2013.
On 17 May 2016, Overseas Financial and Oaktree Finance issued formal notices of attachment and sale against Bank Sepah before attaching, on 5 July 2016, receivables, shareholder rights and transferable securities held by a French bank. By judgment of 9 January 2017, the enforcement court of Paris confirmed those attachments and their amount, including the interest provided for by the judgment of the Court of Appeal of Paris of 26 April 2007. While Bank Sepah accepted that it was required to pay the principal amounts ordered against it, it argued that it was not liable for the interest and it therefore contested the enforcement measures before that enforcement court. It inter alia argued that it could not be held liable for interest, taking the view that it had been prevented from paying its debt by a case of force majeure arising from the freezing of its assets by Regulation No 423/2007, which had the effect of suspending the running of that interest.
Questions Referred to the Court
The French Cour de cassation referred two questions to the CJEU.
The first was concerned with the meaning of the concept of changing the ‘destination’ of the frozen funds under Article 1(h). The referring Court wondered whether a subsequent freeze of the assets by a national conservative measure amounted to such a change.
More specifically, the Cour de cassation ruled that, while it thought it likely that an enforcement measure transferring the ownership of the frozen asset would change its destination, it was less clear for conservative measures, which would not result in such a transfer to the benefit of the creditor.
The Cour de cassation insisted on particular feature of French conservative measures: they not only freeze assets, but they also grant an in rem right to the creditor, and thus a right to paid in priority over the relevant funds.
The second question was whether the origin of the claim that the creditor sought to enforce was relevant. In the case at hand, the claims of the U.S. creditors were unconnected to the Nuclear Programme of Iran, or any other activity which justified the sanctions.
As to the first question, the CJEU responded that the freezing of assets under the Regulations do prevent further attachement, even if such attachements are not enforcement measures.
46 In terms of measures such as those at issue in the main proceedings, which establish a right to be paid on a priority basis over other creditors in favour of the creditor concerned, it must be stated, as the Advocate General observed in points 55 to 61 of his Opinion, that such measures have the effect of changing the destination of frozen funds and are liable to permit the use of frozen economic resources to obtain funds, goods or services.
47 It follows that such measures fall within the concepts of ‘freezing of funds’ and ‘freezing of economic resources’ within the meaning of Article 1(h) and (j) and Article 7(1) of Regulation No 423/2007.
48 The fact that such measures do not have the effect of removing assets from the debtor’s estate cannot call that conclusion into question.
49 (…) the concept of ‘freezing of funds’ encompasses any use of funds which results, inter alia, in a change in the destination of those funds, even if such use of the funds does not have the effect of removing assets from the debtor’s estate.
As to the second question, the CJEU noted that the Regulations made no such distinction, and held that it should not be relevant for determining the scope, and effect, of the freezing of funds and resources.
The judgment is essentially an exercise of construction of the relevant regulations. Given the very broad language used by the European lawmaker, such exercise was bound to result in an inclusion of the relevant measures in the forbidden uses of the funds. The court does not conduct any purposive interpretation.
While conservative measures grant in rem rights under French, they do not under the law of other Member States. The CJEU responded to the question as framed, but it insisted that the issue was the change of ‘destination’. It seems, therefore, that conservative measures should be considered as falling within the scope of the freezing of funds irrespective of whether they grant in rem rights or not.