This week the Interim Injunction Judge of the Netherlands Commercial Court ruled in summary proceedings, following a video hearing, in a case on a EUR 169 million transaction where the plaintiff argued that the final transaction had been concluded and the defendant should proceed with the deal.
This in an – intended – transaction where the letter of intent stipulates that a EUR 30 million break fee is due when no final agreement is signed.
In addition to ruling on this question of construction of an agreement under Dutch law, the judge also had to rule on the break fee if no agreement was concluded and whether it should be amended or reduced because of the current Coronavirus / Covid-19 crisis.
English Language proceedings in a Dutch state court, the Netherlands Commercial Court (NCC)
The case is not just interesting because of the way contract formation is construed under Dutch law and application of concepts of force majeure, unforeseen circumstances and amendment of agreements under the concepts of reasonableness and fairness as well as mitigation of contractual penalties, but also interesting because it was ruled on by a judge of the English language chamber of the Netherlands Commercial Court (NCC).
This new (2019) Dutch state court offers a relatively fast and cost-effective alternative for international commercial litigation, and in particular arbitration, in a neutral jurisdiction with professional judges selected for both their experience in international disputes and their command of English.
The dispute regarding the construction of an M&A agreement under Dutch law in an international setting
The facts are straightforward. Parties (located in New York, USA and the Netherlands) dispute whether final agreement on the EUR 169 million transaction has been reached but do agree a break fee of €30 million in case of non-signature of the final agreement was agreed. However, in addition to claiming there is no final agreement, the defendant also argues that the break fee – due when there is no final agreement – should be reduced or changed due to the coronavirus crisis.
As to contract formation it must be noted that Dutch law allows broad leeway on how to communicate what may or may not be an offer or acceptance. The standard is what a reasonable person in the same circumstances would have understood their communications to mean. Here, the critical fact is that the defendant did not sign the so-called “Transaction Agreement”. The letter of intent’s binary mechanism (either execute and deliver the paperwork for the Transaction Agreement by the agreed date or pay a EUR 30 million fee) may not have been an absolute requirement for contract formation (under Dutch law) but has significant evidentiary weight. In M&A practice – also under Dutch law – with which these parties are thoroughly familiar with, this sets a very high bar for concluding a contract was agreed other than by explicit written agreement. So, parties may generally comfortably rely on what they have agreed on in writing with the assistance of their advisors.
The communications relied on by claimant in this case did not clear the very high bar to assume that despite the mechanism of the letter of intent and the lack of a signed Transaction Agreement there still was a binding agreement. In particular attributing the other party’s advisers’ statements and/or conduct to the contracting party they represent did not work for the claimant in this case as per the verdict nothing suggested that the advisers would be handling everything, including entering into the agreement.
Court order for actual performance of a – deemed – agreement on an M&A deal?
The Interim Injunction Judge finds that there is not a sufficient likelihood of success on the merits so as to justify an interim measure ordering the defendant to actually perform its obligations under the disputed Transaction Agreement (payment of EUR 169 million and take the claimant’s 50% stake in an equestrian show-jumping business).
Enforcement of the break fee despite “Coronavirus”?
Failing the conclusion of an agreement, there was still another question to answer as the letter of intent mechanism re the break fee as such was not disputed. Should the Court enforce the full EUR 30 million fee in the current COVID-19 circumstances? Or should the fee’s effects be modified, mitigated or reduced in some way, or the fee agreement should even be dissolved?
Unforeseen circumstances, reasonableness and fairness
The Interim Injunction Judge rules that the coronavirus crisis may be an unforeseen circumstance, but it is not of such a nature that, according to standards of reasonableness and fairness, the plaintiff cannot expect the break fee obligation to remain unchanged. The purpose of the break fee is to encourage parties to enter into the transaction and attribute / share risks between them. As such the fee limits the exposure of the parties. Payment of the fee is a quick way out of the obligation to pay the purchase price of EUR 169 million and the risks of keeping the target company financially afloat. If financially the coronavirus crisis turns out less disastrous than expected, the fee of EUR 30 million may seem high, but that is what the parties already considered reasonable when they waived their right to invoke the unreasonableness of the fee. The claim for payment of the EUR 30 million break fee is therefore upheld by the Interim Injunction Judge.
Applicable law and the actual practice of it by the courts
The relevant three articles are in this case articles 6:94, 6:248 and 6:258 of the Dutch Civil Code. They relate to the mitigation of contractual penalties, unforeseen circumstances and amendment of the agreement under the tenets of reasonableness and fairness. Under Dutch law the courts must with all three exercise caution. Contracts must generally be enforced as agreed. The parties’ autonomy is deemed paramount and the courts’ attitude is deferential. All three articles use language stating, essentially, that interference by the courts in the contract’s operation is allowed only to avoid an “unacceptable” impact, as assessed under standards of reasonableness and fairness.
There is at this moment of course no well- established case law on COVID-19. However, commentators have provided guidance that is very helpful to think through the issues. Recently a “share the pain” approach has been advocated by a renowned law Professor, Tjittes, who focuses on preserving the parties’ contractual equilibrium in the current circumstances. This is, in the Court’s analysis, the right way to look at the agreement here. There is no evidence in the record suggesting that the parties contemplated or discussed the full and exceptional impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis may or may not be unprovided for. However, the court rules in the current case there is no need to rule on this issue. Even if the crisis is unprovided for, there is no support in the record for the proposition that the crisis makes it unacceptable for the claimant to demand strict performance by the defendant. The reasons are straightforward.
The break fee allocates risk and expresses commitment and caps exposure. The harm to the business may be substantial and structural, or it may be short-term and minimal. Either way, the best “share the pain” solution, to preserve the contractual equilibrium in the agreement, is for the defendant to pay the fee as written in the letter of intent. This allocates a defined risk to one party, and actual or potential risks to the other party. Reducing the break fee in any business downturn, the fee’s express purpose – comfort and confidence to get the deal done – would not be accomplished and be derived in precisely the circumstances in which it should be robust. As a result, the Court therefore orders to pay the full EUR 30 million fee. So the break fee stipulation works under the circumstances without mitigation because of the Corona outbreak.
The Netherlands Commercial Court, continued
As already indicated above, the case is interesting because the verdict has been rendered by a Dutch state court in English and the proceedings where also in English. Not because of a special privilege granted in a specific case but based on an agreement between parties with a proper choice of forum clause for this court. In addition to the benefit to of having an English forum without mandatorily relying on either arbitration or choosing an anglophone court, it also has the benefit of it being a state court with the application of the regular Dutch civil procedure law, which is well known by it’s practitioners and reduces the risk of surprises of a procedural nature. As it is as such also a “normal” state court, there is the right to appeal and particularly effective under Dutch law access to expedited proceeding as was also the case in the example referred to above. This means a regular procedure with full application of all evidentiary rules may still follow, overturning or confirming this preliminary verdict in summary proceedings.
Novel technology in proceedings
Another first or at least a novel application is that all submissions were made in eNCC, a document upload procedure for the NCC. Where the introduction of electronic communication and litigation in the Dutch court system has failed spectacularly, the innovations are now all following in quick order and quite effective. As a consequence of the Coronavirus outbreak several steps have been quickly tried in practice and thereafter formally set up. At present this – finally – includes a secure email-correspondence system between attorneys and the courts.
And, also by special order of the Court in this present case, given the current COVID-19 restrictions the matter was dealt with at a public videoconference hearing on 22 April 2020 and the case was set for judgment on 29 April 2020 and published on 30 April 2020.
Even though it is a novel application, it is highly likely that similar arrangements will continue even after expiry of current emergency measures. In several Dutch courts videoconference hearings are applied on a voluntary basis and is expected that the arrangements will be formalized.
Eligibility of cases for the Netherlands Commercial Court
Of more general interest are the requirements for matters that may be submitted to NCC:
- the Amsterdam District Court or Amsterdam Court of Appeal has jurisdiction
- the parties have expressly agreed in writing that proceedings will be in English before the NCC (the ‘NCC agreement’)
- the action is a civil or commercial matter within the parties’ autonomy
- the matter concerns an international dispute.
The NCC agreement can be recorded in a clause, either before or after the dispute arises. The Court even recommends specific wording:
“All disputes arising out of or in connection with this agreement will be resolved by the Amsterdam District Court following proceedings in English before the Chamber for International Commercial Matters (“Netherlands Commercial Court” or “NCC District Court”), to the exclusion of the jurisdiction of any other courts. An action for interim measures, including protective measures, available under Dutch law may be brought in the NCC’s Court in Summary Proceedings (CSP) in proceedings in English. Any appeals against NCC or CSP judgments will be submitted to the Amsterdam Court of Appeal’s Chamber for International Commercial Matters (“Netherlands Commercial Court of Appeal” or “NCCA”).”
The phrase “to the exclusion of the jurisdiction of any other courts” is included in light of the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements. It is not mandatory to include it of course and parties may decide not to exclude the jurisdiction of other courts or make other arrangements they consider appropriate. The only requirement being that such arrangements comply with the rules of jurisdiction and contract. Please note that choice of court agreements are exclusive unless the parties have “expressly provided” or “agreed” otherwise (as per the Hague Convention and Recast Brussels I Regulation).
Parties in a pending case before another Dutch court or chamber may request that their case be referred to NCC District Court or NCC Court of Appeal. One of the requirements is to agree on a clause that takes the case to the NCC and makes English the language of the proceedings. The NCC recommends using this language:
We hereby agree that all disputes in connection with the case [name parties], which is currently pending at the *** District Court (case number ***), will be resolved by the Amsterdam District Court following proceedings in English before the Chamber for International Commercial Matters (“Netherlands Commercial Court” or ”NCC District Court). Any action for interim measures, including protective measures, available under Dutch law will be brought in the NCC’s Court in Summary Proceedings (CSP) in proceedings in English. Any appeals against NCC or CSP judgments will be submitted to the Amsterdam Court of Appeal’s Chamber for International Commercial Matters (“Netherlands Commercial Court of Appeal” or “NCC Court of Appeal”).
To request a referral, a motion must be made before the other chamber or court where the action is pending, stating the request and contesting jurisdiction (if the case is not in Amsterdam) on the basis of a choice-of-court agreement (see before).
Additional arrangements in the proceedings before the Netherlands Commercial Court
Before or during the proceedings, parties can also agree special arrangements in a customized NCC clause or in another appropriate manner. Such arrangements may include matters such as the following:
- the law applicable to the substantive dispute
- the appointment of a court reporter for preparing records of hearings and the costs of preparing those records
- an agreement on evidence that departs from the general rules
- the disclosure of confidential documents
- the submission of a written witness statement prior to the witness examination
- the manner of taking witness testimony
- the costs of the proceedings.
Visiting lawyers and typical course of the procedure
All acts of process are in principle carried out by a member of the Dutch Bar. Member of the Bar in an EU or EEA Member State or Switzerland may work in accordance with Article 16e of the Advocates Act (in conjunction with a member of the Dutch Bar). Other visiting lawyers may be allowed to speak at any hearing.
The proceedings will typically follow the below steps:
- Submitting the initiating document by the plaintiff (summons or request as per Dutch law)
- Assigned to three judges and a senior law clerk.
- The defendant submits its defence statement.
- Case management conference or motion hearing (e.g. also in respect of preliminary issues such as competence, applicable law etc.) where parties may present their arguments.
- Judgment on motions: the court rules on the motions. Testimony, expert appointment, either at this stage or earlier or later.
- The court may allow the parties to submit further written statements.
- Hearing: the court interviews the parties and allows them to present their arguments. The court may enquire whether the dispute could be resolved amicably and, where appropriate, assist the parties in a settlement process. If appropriate, the court may discuss with the parties whether it would be advisable to submit part or all of the dispute to a mediator. At the end of the hearing, the court will discuss with the parties what the next steps should be.
- Verdict: this may be a final judgment on the claims or an interim judgment ordering one or more parties to produce evidence, allowing the parties to submit written submissions on certain aspects of the case, appointing one or more experts or taking other steps.
Continuous updates, online resources Netherlands Commercial Court
As a final note the English language website of the Netherlands Commercial Court provides ample information on procedure and practical issues and is updated with a high frequence. Under current circumstance even at a higher pace. In particular for practitioners it’s recommended to regularly consult the website. https://www.rechtspraak.nl/English/NCC/Pages/default.aspx