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France – Abrupt termination of contract

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If your business is related to France or you wish to develop your business in this direction, you need to be aware of one very specific provision with regards to the termination of a business relationship.

Article L. 442-6, I, 5° of the French Commercial Code protects a party to a contract who considers that the other party has terminated the existing business relationship in a sudden and abrupt way, thus causing her a damage.

This is a ‘public policy’ provision and therefore any contractual provision to the contrary will be unenforceable.

Initially, the lawmaker aimed to protect any business relationship between suppliers and major large-scale retailers delisting (ie, removing a supplier’s products that were referenced by a distributor) at the moment of contracts renegotiations or renewals.

Eventually, the article has been drafted in order to extend its scope to any business relationship, regardless of the status of the professionals involved and the nature of the commercial relationship.

The party who wishes to terminate the business relationship does not need to provide any justification for her actions but must send a sufficient prior notice to the other party.

The purpose is to allow the parties, and in particular the abandoned party, to anticipate the discharge of the contract, in particular in cases of economic dependency.

It is an accentuated obligation of loyalty.

There are only two cases strictly interpreted by case law in which the partner is exempted from sending a prior notice:

  • an aggravated breach of a contractual obligation;
  • a frustration or a force majeure.

There are two main requirements to be fulfilled in order to be able to invoke this provision in front of a judge – an established business relationship and an abrupt termination.

The judge will assess whether the requirements have been fulfilled on a case by case basis.

What does the term ‘established business relationship’ mean?

The most important criterion is the duration, whether a written contract exists or not.

A relationship may be considered as long-term whether there is a single contract or a few consecutive contracts.

If there is no contract in place, the judge will take into account the following criteria:

  • the existence of a long-term established business relationship;
  • the good faith of the parties;
  • the frequency of the transactions and the importance and evolving of the turnover;
  • any agreement on the prices applied and/or the discounts granted to the other party;
  • any correspondence exchanged between the parties.

What does the term ‘abrupt termination’ mean?

The Courts consider the application of Article L442-6-I 5° if the termination is “unforeseeable, sudden and harsh”.

The termination must comply with the following three conditions in order to be considered as abrupt:

  • with no prior notice or with insufficient prior notice;
  • sudden;
  • unpredictable.

To consider whether a prior notice is sufficient, a judge may consider the following criteria:

  • the investments made by the victim of the termination;
  • the business involved (eg seasonal fashion collections);
  • a constant increase in turnover;
  • the market recognition of the products sold by the victim and the difficulty of finding replacement products;
  • the existence of a post-contractual non-compete undertaking ;
  • the existence of exclusivity between the parties;
  • the time period required for the victim to find other openings or refocus the business activity;
  • the existence of any economic dependency for the victim.

The courts have decided that a partial termination may also be considered as abrupt in the following cases:

  • an organisational change in the distribution structure of the supplier;
  • a substantial decrease in trade flows;
  • a change in pricing terms or an increase in prices without any prior notice sent by a supplier granting special prices to the buyers, or in general any unilateral and substantial change in the contract terms.

Whatever the justification for the termination, it is necessary to send a registered letter with an acknowledgment of receipt and ensure that the prior notice is sent sufficienlty in advance (some businesses have specific time periods applicable to them by law).

Compensation for a damage

The French Commercial Code provides for the award of damages in order to compensate a party for an abrupt termination of a business relationship.

The damages are calculated by multiplying the notice period which should have been applied by the average profit achieved prior to the termination. Such profit is evaluated based on the pre-tax gross margin that would have been achieved during the required notice period, had sufficient notice been given.

The courts may also award damages for incidental and consequential losses such as redundancy costs, losses of scheduled stocks, operational costs, certain unamortised investments and restructuring costs, indemnities paid to third parties or even image or reputational damage.

International law

The French supreme court competent in civil law (‘Cour de cassation’) considers that in cases where the decision to terminate the business relationship and the resulting damage take place in two different countries, it is a matter of torts and the applicable law will be the one of the country where the triggering event the most closely connected with the tort took place. Therefore the abrupt termination will be subject to French law if the business of the supplier is located in France.

However, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has issued a preliminary ruling dated 14 July 2016 answering two questions submitted by the Paris Court of Appeal in a judgment dated 17 April 2015. A French company had been distributing in France the food products of an Italian company for the last 25 years, with no framework agreement or any exclusivity provision in place. The Italian company had terminated the business relationship with no prior notice. The French company issued proceedings against the Italian company in front of the French courts and invoked the abrupt termination of an established business relationship.

The Italian company opposed both the jurisdiction of the French courts and the legal ground for the action arguing that the Italian courts had jurisdiction as the action involved contract law and was therefore subject to the laws of the country where the commodities had been or should have been delivered, in this case Incoterm Ex-works departing from the plant in Italy.

The CJEU has considered that in case of a tacit contractual relationship and pursuant to European law, the liability will be based on contract law (in the same case, pursuant to French law, the liability will be based on torts). As a consequence, Article 5, 3° of the Regulation (EC) 44/2001, also known as Brussels I (which has been replaced by Regulation (EC) 1215/2012, also known as Brussels I bis) will not apply. Therefore, the competent judge will not be the one of the country where the damage occurred but the one of the country where the contractual obligation was being performed.

In addition and answering the second question submitted to it, the CJEU has considered that the contract is:

  • a contract for the sale of goods if its purpose is the delivery of goods, in which case the competent jurisdiction will be the one of the country where the goods have been or should have been delivered; and
  • a contract for services if its purpose is the provision of services, in which case the competent jurisdiction will be the one of the country where the services have been or should have been provided.

In this case, the Paris Court of Appeal will have to recharacherise the contractual relationship either as consecutive contracts for the sale of goods and deduct the jurisdiction of the Italian courts, or as a contract for services implying the participation of the distributor in the development and the distribution of the supplier’s goods and business strategy and deduct the jurisdiction of the French courts.

In summary, in case of an intra-Community dispute, the distributor who is the victim of an abrupt termination of an established business relationship cannot issue proceedings based on torts in front of a court in the country where the damage occurred if there is a tacit contractual relationship with the supplier. In order to determine the competent jurisdiction in such case, it is necessary to determine whether such tacit contractual relationship consists of a supply of goods or a provision of services.

The next judgment of the Paris Court of Appeal and those of the Cour de cassation to come need to be followed very closely.

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