This post was written by Robert Vogelauer, Vienna.
In a decision of 27 January 2022 the Austrian Supreme Court ruled on how Brexit affects a British Private Limited Company (Ltd.) that was incorporated in England but conducted all of its business operations in Austria (OGH 9 Ob 74/21d). It did so only a couple of months after a German court denied a Berlin-based Ltd. legal capacity in a similar case (OLG München, 29 U 2411/21 Kart), though the Austrian court came to a different conclusion.
Facts, Procedure and Holding
In 2016, a UK Ltd. based in Styria (Austria) sued one of its clients for payment of outstanding debt before an Austrian court. The legal proceedings dragged on for several years. In February 2021, the defendant filed to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the Ltd. had lost its legal capacity due to Brexit and could therefore no longer be party to the proceedings. In response, the claimant petitioned the court to change its party designation to that of an Austrian civil law partnership (GesbR) – a strange choice, since a GesbR also lacks legal capacity. The courts of first and second instance agreed with the defendant and dismissed the lawsuit. The Austrian Supreme Court, however, decided that the proceedings could continue, though the claimant’s party designation would have to be changed to the name of the Ltd.’s sole shareholder.
Application of Austrian International Company Law
The court stated that since the claimant was no longer incorporated in an EU Member State, Austrian international company law would determine the company’s legal capacity. The court then applied the real seat theory according to § 10 of the Austrian Private International Law Act, which states that a company’s legal capacity is to be assessed under the law of the country where its headquarters are located. Since the headquarters were undoubtedly located in Styria, the court applied Austrian company law.
The court ruled that the Ltd. had lost its legal capacity because Austrian company law only grants legal personhood to an exhaustive list of corporate forms (numerus clausus), with the Ltd. not being one of them.
Despite this, it did not dismiss the lawsuit. According to the court, a Ltd. with headquarters in Austria was not legally inexistent, but would rather need to be viewed “through the lense of Austrian company law”. The court ruled that the sole shareholder of the Ltd. had become its universal successor by analogously applying § 142 of the Austrian Business Code (usually referred to for dissolving partnerships) and was now to be considered a merchant under Austrian law. As the universal successor of the Ltd., the sole shareholder could continue the proceedings in place of the Ltd., though the party designation would have to be changed.
Comparison to the OLG Munich’s Decision
The decision from the Austrian Supreme Court came only months after the Higher Regional Court of Munich (OLG Munich) dismissed the lawsuit of a UK Ltd. based in Berlin for lack of legal capacity. Though the courts reach different conclusions, their reasoning is quite similar for the most part. Both courts agree that the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement cannot be invoked to avoid the application of the real seat theory and that the Ltd. as such cannot remain party to the proceedings. They also agree it would go against creditors’ and public interest to treat the Ltd. as legally inexistent. The OLG Munich then applies what it calls the “mild” real seat theory and states a Ltd. will have to be categorized as a merchant or a partnership under German law. The Austrian Supreme Court reaches the same result by looking at the Ltd. “through the lense of Austrian company law”.
The OLG Munich’s decision leaves something to be desired from a procedural standpoint. It dismissed the lawsuit without answering whether or not it considered the Ltd. and its shareholder(s) to be the same procedural party. This is of crucial importance because by dismissing the lawsuit for lack of legal capacity, the Ltd – or rather, its shareholders – retroactively lost lis pendens status for their claim, meaning even if they filed the lawsuit again under their own names, statutory limitation periods would apply as if the previous lawsuit had ended the day after Brexit. If the court had ruled that the Ltd. and its shareholders were the same party from a procedural standpoint, then the proceedings could have continued with a changed party designation. Furthermore, the court would technically be required to order a change of party designation ex officio if it believed the Ltd.’s shareholder(s) to be the same party. The Austrian Supreme Court avoided this issue by declaring the sole shareholder to be the Ltd.’s universal successor, which meant they also succeeded the Ltd. in the proceedings.
Shareholders of UK Ltds. based in Austria have effectively lost the protection of their corporate entity and can now personally be held liable for their company’s debts. It would have been desirable if the court had at least shielded shareholders from liability for debts incurred before Brexit – though this would have required a bit of a methodological stretch.
Austria-based Ltds. face further legal uncertainty because the UK – like many other countries – assesses legal capacity for companies based on the place of incorporation. This means UK Ltds. only operating in Austria are still recognized as legal entities by the UK and other countries that also follow the incorporation theory. This may result in situations where a contract with the Ltd. is considered valid before a foreign court, but in Austria it would be considered void or – even if it was not – it would be unclear who the parties to that contract were. Austrian courts will have to deal with these issues in future rulings.