Director’s Duties and Liabilities under German Law

What are the Duties of Directors of German Companies (GmbH) and Corporations (Aktiengesellschaft)?

Obviously, pretty much all over the world, company directors and CEO’s have a general duty to be loyal, diligent and conscientious in managing the affairs of their company. This is also the case under German law. Directors and CEOs have to bear in mind what is best for the business and act accordingly. In this regard, German courts do apply an objective standard that does not, as a rule, depend on the specific knowledge, education, experience and abilities of the individual director. In other words: If someone takes on the job of a company director, he or she must be up to the requirements. In practice this means, that – depending on the size of the company – the director must hire and supervise qualified staff or outside consultants.

According to German case law, a company director has wide-ranging discretionary powers with regard to how to manage the company. This includes the power to take entrepreneurial decisions, even daring ones (entrepreneurial risk). Always provided, however, that the director carefully assesses the related risks before making such decisions. Under German law, actions (or inactivity) outside the limits of reasonable entrepreneurial conduct or violation of specific director’s duties may result in personal liability of the company director. The major difference between the director of a German Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (GmbH) and the CEO of a German Aktiengesellschaft is that the GmbH director must always obey the instructions of the shareholders. A vote of the shareholders (Gesellschafterbeschluss) is binding on the company director. In contrast, a CEO (Vorstand) of a German Aktiengesellschaft has much more leeway. The CEO (or the board of executors) manages the corporation as they themselves deem is best:

Section German 76  para. 1 German Stock Corporation Act states: 
Management of the stock corporation: The management board is to manage the affairs of the company on its own responsibility.

 

For example, directors (CEO’s) have an obligation under the German Stock Corporation Act (Aktiengesetz) to protect the company from financial penalties, losses and other financial harm. In their function as trustees of the company’s assets, company directors owe strict fiduciary duties. The Stock Corporation Act also provides for a number of specific duties, including those relating to the maintenance of registered share capital, bookkeeping, and the organization of the company. Finally, directors are also subject to numerous reporting requirements (including a duty to keep the securities market informed and updated) as well as strict confidentiality obligations.

Directors’ Liabilities under German Law

As a rule, only the company is liable towards outside parties, not the individual director or CEO. In other words: Third parties can rarely sue a company director directly for damages or compensation. The company is responsible for the (illegal or damaging) actions or omissions of their dirctors and CEOs. As a consequence, if a director causes financial damage by deliberately or negligently breaching their duty, the company can (and in most cases must) take internal recourse (Regress) against the director / CEO. A simple majority at the annual general meeting can force the company to seek internal recourse against a director. In such recourse proceedings (Regressanspruch), the director must prove that he or she has obeserved the relevant standard of care (Sorgfalt eines ordentlichen Geschäftsführers). The company only needs to demonstrate that it has suffered damages as a result of the actions of the director.

In exceptional circumstances, creditors of the company may bring a direct claim against a director. German statutory law permits bringing direct actions against a director where:

  • a company is unable to satisfy a claim arising from a violation of a duty by a director;
  • a company becomes insolvent and a director delayed the initiation of insolvency proceedings causing damage to the creditor; or
  • he is liable under tort law for a serious breach of duty or for a violation of legal provisions that protect certain individuals of groups of people, such as criminal provisions concerning fraudulent or false representation of the company’s affairs.

In German courts, successful direct claims have been brought against directors based on tort law where, for example, directors have deliberately published incorrect inside information. German court decisions of the last 10 to 15 years show a tendency by the courts to expand the scope of direct tort liability of directors.

For more on German business and corporate law see these posts:

More information on litigation and legal fees in Germany is available in these posts:

Careful with M&A Asset Deals in Germany

Pitfalls of German Contract Law (Part 3):  Many Asset Deal Purchase Agreements must be in Notarial Form to be Valid in Germany

German Law requires certain transactions to be recorded before a Civil Law Notary in order for these agreements to be valid and enforceable. The list ranges from pre-nuptial and marriage agreements, to any real estate related transaction, to the formation of German companies and stock corporations.

One aspect is, however, sometimes overlooked even by German corporate lawyers. Namely, the fact that even assets deals may have to be recorded before a German notary if the selling party in this M&A asset deal transfers its entire business operation (Geschäftsbetrieb) or a defined branch of its business, i.e. an entire sector of the business operation (Teilgeschäftsbetrieb).

The relevant statute is sec. 311 b para. 3 German Civil Code which states:

Section 311b BGB:

Contracts on plots of land, assets and an estate

(1) A contract by which one party agrees to transfer or acquire ownership of a plot of land must be recorded by a notary. A contract not entered into in this form becomes valid with all its contents if a declaration of conveyance and registration in the Land Register are effected.

(2) A contract by which one party agrees to transfer his future property or a fraction of his future property or to charge it with a usufruct is void.

(3) A contract by which one party agrees to transfer his present property or a fraction of his present property or to charge it with a usufruct must be recorded by a notary.

 

If, therefore a German company (GmbH) or corporation (AG) sells its assets and the agreement contains – which is often the case – a so called “catch all assets clause”, then the entire agreement must be recorded by a German Civil Law Notary, even if the assets do not consist of real estate (plots of land etc).

The statute does, however, usually not apply if the seller is a sole trader oder a partnership, i.e. a German Gesellschaft bürgerlichen Recht (GBR), a German Offene Handelsgesellschaft (OHG) or a German Kommanditgesellsachaft (KG), but the details are tricky.

If this formal requirement of German law is not observed in a German M&A assed deal, the entire agreement is null and void (nichtig) which may be found out even many years later. In which case, obviously, all hell breaks loose. This aspect should therefore not be taken lightly.

If the parties wish to avoid the involvement of a German Notary in the transaction, they can either do without a catch all clause or they can agree on English or US law to apply to the asset deal which may, however, create other legal problems. Please note that if the deal includes the transfer of German real property (immoveables in Germany), then the involvement of a German notary is necessary no matter what. The same is true if the shares of a German Limited Liability Company are to be sold and transferred.

For more on German business and corporate law see these posts:

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Experts on German-British and German-American Legal Matters

Since 2003, the German business and corporate law firm Graf Partners LLP specialises in British-German and US-German legal cases. Our German business and corporate lawyers are native speaker level fluent in English, have many years of practical experience with clients from Britiain and the USA and are part of a well established network of law, tax and accounting firms.

Managing partner Bernhard Schmeilzl was admitted as German Rechtsanwalt (attorney at law) to the Munich Bar in 2001 and specialises in international cases ever since, with a focus on German-American and German-English commercial, corporate and also probate cases. In addition to obtaining his German legal exams with distinction, he also graduated from the English University of Leicester where he obtained his Master of Laws degree in EU Commercial Law in 2003.

In 2014, Graf Partners LLP has set up the international litigation department GP Chambers which focuses on providing professional litigation services to British and US-American clients, both on a commercial and a private client level. The Graf Partners litigation lawyers regularly appear before German law Courts throughout the country and provide specialist legal advice, support and advocacy services in all commercial and civil law matters, ranging from contract disputes, corporate litigation and employment, to damage claims, divorces and contentious probate. If you wish us to advise or represent you in a German or cross border case, or if you need an expert report on German law, please call +49 941 463 7070.

Starting a New Business in the UK

How to Incorporate a Company. What You Need to Know

Are you thinking about establishing a business in the UK? Where do you start? This note will give you a brief understanding of the Companies Act 2006 and what you need to know in order to set up a business in the UK. The Companies Act 2006 provides for three types of companies to be established:

  1. Company limited by shares;
  2. Company limited by guarantee; and
  3. Unlimited Company.

The most common form is the company limited by shares, which will be discussed here. Continue reading

When starting a Business in Germany: Don’t Forget the Trade Register Notification (Gewerbeanmeldung)

Under German law (see section 14 Gewerbeordnung, i.e. German Trade Regulation), the commencement of a business activity must be notified in writing (Gewerbeanmeldung) to the local Ordnungsamt (Trades Office), which is a department of the municipal government, for example the city of Munich. This notification obligation also applies to any change in the business (e.g. move, modification to the nature of the business or staff recruitment) and to the termination of the trade activity, which requires a termination notification (Gewerbeabmeldung). More information on the various options in terms of how to start a business in Germany is available here. For an overview of German company forms see here. Continue reading

Statutory Minimum Vacation Days for Employees in Germany

Becoming an employer in Germany can be a bit of a culture shock for foreign entrepreneurs, especially those coming from a more hire and fire oriented US jurisdiction. German labour law is highly regulated. We explained the rules regarding employee protection against dismissal here and described the risky issue of “Fictitious Self-Employment” here. Another fact, that many American or Asian employers can’t get their head around is the amount of holidays German employees are entitled to. Here are the basics of statutory vacation entitlement in Germany: Continue reading

London Chamber of Commerce: 10 practical tips for doing business in Germany

In this issue of „London Business Matters“, the London Chamber of Commerce’s monthly magazine, German corporate and business lawyer Bernhard Schmeilzl has compiled 10 Top Tips when starting a Business in Germany”. The magazine also contains helpful information about the trading relations between the UK and Germany. Just browse the online issue. For more details on how to establish a business in Germany please see the articles below

– 3 Ways to expand your Business to Germany
– What is a German “Mini-GmbH” or “Unternehmergesellschaft”?
– 10 Things to do when starting a German Business
– Guide for doing Business in Germany

 

The law firm Graf & Partners (Germany) assists entrepreneurs and businesses with their international expansion to Germany since 2003. Also, we have a network of professionals in the areas tax, IT, marketing and business consulting. Do not hesitate to contact us by calling solicitor Bernhard Schmeilzl at +49 941 785 3053 or send an email to: mail [at] grafpartner.com

3 Ways to expand your Business to Germany

Establish a real German Company, register a Branch Office or start with a mere Representative Office

If you want to sell your goods or services to Germans it is in most cases a huge advantage to be actually present in Germany. A German business address and phone number shows that you are seriously committed to doing business in Germany long term and thus builds trust with customers and business partners. But how to go about it technically? Continue reading

10 Things to do when starting a German Business

If you have read our previous postings “Guide for doing Business in Germany“, “Establish a German Limited Company (GmbH): FAQ and Checklist“, “Taxation for UK Expats or Freelancers in Germany” and “Open a Business Bank Account in Germany?” you already have a pretty good idea how to go about starting your own German business. With this posting we provide ten – personal and probably subjectively biased – practical tips how to get a head start: Continue reading

Buying a German Company: A quick Checklist

In case you think about buying or merging with an existing German enterprise there are many legal and tax aspects to consider (for the formation of a new Germany company see here). Below we have compiled a few issues from the perspective of a German lawyer that may be of interest for a potential buyer: Continue reading

Taxation of UK Expats or Freelancers in Germany

A British employee who is sent to Germany by his/her firm or an entrepreneur planning to provide services as a freelancer within Germany sooner or later are faced with a number of quite complicated issues regarding taxation, social security contributions and pension rights. In many cases the individual advice of a counselor should be sought. The following links will help to create a basic understanding of the matter:

Continue reading