31 October 2013

Retention of title and paying the price

Tangled ROT clauses come unravelled

Retention of title (ROT) clauses have been controversial for over 30 years. When selling goods to a business buyer on credit, you want to keep ownership of your goods until you are paid. If the buyer goes bust, you can hope to retrieve your goods, or claim their value in priority to the unsecured creditors of the buyer. You need an express contract clause to do this: it is not a right given by the general law.
We had thought the law on ROT clauses was becoming fairly settled. The long arguments that used to accompany almost every insolvency are now reduced to a bit of wrangling with the insolvency practitioner. It is fairly settled that the basic form of ROT clause works: you retain title to your goods until they have been paid for. Fancier extensions of the clause are usually not effective. They include:
·         the “all monies” clause which purports to retain title until every debt owed to you has been paid – where there is continuous trading between the parties, this would mean that title would never pass because something was always owing
·         trying to continue ownership of the goods after they have been sold to the buyer’s customers – quite apart from practicalities, section 25 of the Sale of Goods Act says that a buyer in possession of goods with the permission of the seller can pass good title to a buyer from him
·         trust clauses, which purports to give you special rights over the proceeds of sale of the goods when your buyer sells them on. These usually amount to a charge, requiring registration at Companies House and ranking behind other charges on the buyer’s assets
·         agency clauses, which say that the buyer is not in fact buying at all, at least until he pays you, and if he sells the goods you are entitled to the full price from his buyer. If this works at all, this makes you a party to the contract with the sub-buyer and liable if anything goes wrong with the goods. In most cases it is inconsistent with the true commercial relationship and is likely to be ignored.
Two recent cases do not change this position greatly, but they do point to the importance of the drafting of the clause, and also to the fact that a clause which tries to do too much could end up not achieving anything at all. And that the law is still a mess.
Sandhu v Jet Star Retail Limited (in administration) and others is not particularly surprising. An “all monies” clause was held not to work. The surprising aspect was that the ROT clause failed completely, rather than applying just to the price of the actual goods remaining in stock. It is a very short judgment, but the reasoning seems to be that the administrators had already sold the stock before any claim was made, and the terms of the contract expressly allowed the buyer to sell the goods, and did not terminate that right upon insolvency. Therefore, the administrators were entitled to sell the goods, the retention of title ended upon sale and the administrators had done nothing wrong and so were not guilty of the tort of conversion (dealing with goods in a manner inconsistent with the owner’s rights). Had the clause been better drafted, it could have protected the seller so that he received at least the value of the goods remaining in stock at the time of insolvency, or the contract price for those goods, whichever was the lower. It is usually better to be conservative and draft your clause in a way that is likely to be effective under the current understanding of the law, rather than attempting to gain additional rights which put the whole clause at risk.
The more difficult case is Caterpillar (NI) Ltd v John Holt & Company (Liverpool) Ltd, a Court of Appeal case which I hope will be reviewed by the Supreme Court. This case again revolved around sub-sale of the goods by the buyer. The ROT clause was an “agency clause”, which purported to say that the first buyer received the goods not as a buyer, but as the agent of the seller, and sold them to the second buyer as agent of the seller. The Court of Appeal accepted, surprisingly, that this worked, and held that it meant that the first buyer was not liable to pay the sale price to the seller, as it had not bought the goods! Section 49 of the Sale of Goods Act says that a seller can sue for the price either when title to the goods has passed to the buyer, or  “the price is payable on a day certain irrespective of delivery”. As neither of these conditions applied, the seller could not sue for the price. He could probably claim damages for breach of contract, but that was outside the scope of the decision.
If this case remains good law, there are a number of steps sellers can take to improve their ROT clauses and payment clauses, including ensuring that payment is due on a “day certain irrespective of delivery” and removing any reference to agency. Clauses should either not expressly authorise resale of the goods at all, or if they do, should make sure this right does not continue following default and insolvency.

28 October 2013

TUPE reform and the small workforce

Reform of TUPE consultation in the small business

Just occasionally, as your lawyer, I find myself having to advise you to do something really absurd, because an absurd law requires it. One of those is where I am helping you with the sale of your business with, say, just one employee. I have to tell you that in order to comply strictly with TUPE, you have to ask that single employee to elect a representative, for you to consult about the transfer of his employment. You are not allowed to consult the workforce directly, even if you can get all of them round a table in the pub. The collectivist approach is compulsory and elections have to be held, potentially delaying the sale transaction. In practice, most small employers have still carried out direct consultation, but it did not comply with the legislation.
Even in a one-man company, the sole director-employee should supposedly elect himself as representative before he informs and consults himself, in a scene reminiscent of Blackadder in the Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election.
Fortunately that particular absurdity is going, when the proposed reforms to TUPE are enacted. Businesses with ten or fewer than employees will be allowed to consult employees direct, without the rigmarole of elections, where there is no union and there are no existing representatives. However, this will apply only to “micro-businesses”, so the absurdity remains when a larger enterprise transfers a business with a small workforce.
The obligation to inform and consult on a TUPE transfer remains important. Employers have to provide the workforce (or their representatives) with information about the proposed transfer and, when “measures” are proposed in respect of the workforce, consult them. There are no fixed time limits, but the consultation must be a sufficient time before the transfer to enable the views of the employee representatives to be taken into account. Failure to comply with these obligations can result in a Tribunal award of up to 13 weeks’ pay to the affected employees.
The intended reforms to TUPE include a number of other (largely pro-employer) technical changes, but the general principles remain unchanged. The Government has abandoned proposals to abolish the “change of service provision” aspects of TUPE which are probably its most controversial aspect, requiring a new contract or to take on the old contractor’s workforce when a contract is re-tendered.
TUPE gets a bad press, but I am old enough – just – to remember how difficult it was to deal with business and assets sales before TUPE came into force in 1982. There was no means of forcing the workforce to transfer, so the transferring employer stood the risk of redundancy or unfair dismissal claims. On the day of completion, the new employer had to write to all staff offering them jobs on the same terms, which could be accepted by turning up for work on Monday morning. The whole thing was complicated and risky, so the legal process for automatic transfer made things a great deal easier for sellers and corporate lawyers, even if not for contractors and employment lawyers.

24 October 2013

Reasonable restrictive covenants

The trend in the cases favours the employer 

The courts continue to take a more employer-friendly view of restrictive covenants in employment contracts (and by extension, in other forms of agreement such as business sales and shareholders' agreements). In Coppage v Safety Net Security Ltd the Court of Appeal was forgiving toward features of the covenant once thought fatal: a non-solicitation clause (an agreement not to poach customers) was upheld even though its wording would include former customers, with no retrospective time limit, and could potentially apply to customers with whom the employee had no personal dealings. The court seemed to be prepared to accept what might otherwise be unreasonable restrictions, if the period for which they applied was short - in this case six months. The short period was a "fundamental consideration of reasonableness" and "a powerful factor in assessing the overall reasonableness of the clause".

The case was about non-solicitation clauses; the attitude to non-compete clauses (excluding the employee from a business sector completely) might well be less sympathetic.

Covenants must always be carefully crafted for the particular situation, but the court will look at the overall facts as much as the wording of the covenant. The law says that the reasonableness of the covenant must be judged when it is entered into, but the court seemed to stretch that rule where it believed the employee had behaved badly and the claimant was a small business protecting a few customers against blatant poaching.

21 October 2013

Directors: personal duty or collective responsibility?

Can a director rely on fellow directors or on majority decisions?

This post is devoted to a quotation from a judgment of Mr Justice Popplewell explaining the degree of personal responsibility of directors for collective decisions, and how far a director can rely on his fellow directors:

"It is legitimate, and often necessary, for there to be division and delegation of responsibility for particular aspects of the management of a company. Nevertheless each individual director owes inescapable personal responsibilities. He owes duties to the company to inform himself of the company's affairs and join with his fellow directors in supervising them. It is therefore a breach of duty for a director to allow himself to be dominated, bamboozled or manipulated by a dominant fellow director where such involves a total abrogation of this responsibility ... In fulfilling this personal fiduciary responsibility, a director is entitled to rely upon the judgement, information and advice of a fellow director whose integrity skill and competence he has no reason to suspect ... Moreover, corporate management often requires the exercise of judgement on which opinions may legitimately differ, and requires some give and take. A board of directors may reach a decision as to the commercial wisdom of a particular transaction by a majority. A minority director is not thereby in breach of his duty, or obliged to resign and to refuse to be party to the implementation of the decision. Part of his duty as a director acting in the interests of the company is to listen to the views of his fellow directors and to take account of them. He may legitimately defer to those views where he is persuaded that his fellow directors' views are advanced in what they perceive to be the best interests of the company, even if he is not himself persuaded. A director is not in breach of his core duty to act in what he considers in good faith to be the interests of a company merely because if left to himself he would do things differently."

I don't think I can usefully add to that.

The quotation is from the (rather lengthy) judgment in Madoff Securities International Ltd v Raven & ors in which the liquidators of Bernard Madoff's UK company attempted, wholly unsuccessfully, to claim against the directors (other than fraudster Bernard Madoff himself) for breach of duty. Among other things, the court affirmed the principle that shareholder approval cures most breaches of duty in an apparently solvent company.

I am indebted to Robert Goddard's excellent Corporate Law and Governance blog for identifying this excerpt and editing it.