Under what conditions can company officers be dismissed in France?
This depends on the form of the company.
Let us take the most common forms of commercial companies in France.
The manager of a limited liability company (« société à responsabilité limitée », SARL) can only be dismissed for due reason, i.e. if he or she has committed a fault, or if his or her dismissal is necessary to protect the company’s interests.
In a public limited company (« société anonyme », SA), the members of the board of directors and the chairman of the board of directors can be dismissed “ad nutum”, i.e. at any time and without having to give any reason. This rule may not be departed from. The chief executive officer, on the other hand, can only be dismissed for due reason.
In simplified joint stock companies (« société par actions simplifiée », SAS), a company form created in 1994, officers are in principle be dismissed “ad nutum”, but the articles of association may derogate from this rule and provide that they may only be dismissed for due reason.
A recent decision of the Cour de cassation, the highest judicial court in France, is of particular interest.
It concerns simplified joint stock companies (“SAS”), the most successful company form in France: one in two newly created companies is an SAS.
In SASs, it is the articles of association that determine the conditions under which the company is managed, and in particular the conditions for the dismissal of the officers.
The decision of the Court of Cassation of 12 October 2022 (No. 21-15.382) establishes a principle: although extra-statutory acts may supplement the articles of association, they may not derogate from them.
In this case, the articles of association of an SAS provided that the chief executive officer could be dismissed at any time, and without any reason being necessary, by decision of the partners or the sole partner, and that the dismissal of the CEO would not entitle him to any compensation.
A chief executive officer had been appointed by the sole shareholder. On the same day, the sole shareholder sent a letter to the CEO stating that if he was dismissed without due reason, he would receive a lump-sum compensation equal to six months’ remuneration.
A few years later, the company dismissed the officer, who demanded payment of his indemnity. When the company refused to pay him, the former CEO sued for payment of the indemnity.
The Court of Appeal and then the Court of Cassation ruled in favour of the company: the former officer was not entitled to the indemnity. For the Court of Cassation, the articles of association set the terms of dismissal of the chief executive officer, and it is the articles of association that take precedence. Although extra-statutory acts may supplement these articles, they may not derogate from them. And even if the extra-statutory act comes from the sole partner, or if all the partners have agreed to it.
One must carefully analyse the articles of association and the extra-statutory acts such as shareholders’ agreements or agreements with the officer in order not to take risks when dismissing the officer of an SAS.