Regional Labour Court Cologne: Return of the office key after termination of an employment

An employee who had received an office key in context with his employment is obliged to return this key upon request of the employer or after termination of the employment. In general, the keys have to be handed over at the place of the office. This obligation has been confirmed by the Regional Labour Court Cologne in its decision of 10 August 2017 (LAG Köln, 7 Sa 1073/16).

In the dispute at hand, an employee of a law firm had been provided with office keys in order to facilitate her work performance. In the beginning of 2016, the relationship between her and her employer worsened considerably. Due to the bad relationship, the employer asked her to return the office keys and two weeks later served her with the termination notice. In order to obtain the office keys, the employer even visited the employee at her private address. The employee, however, rejected to hand-over the keys due to the fact that the employment had not been terminated at that time. Additionally, she claimed, the key was already at her lawyer’s office and above that, she could not be forced to communicate with her employer at that time because their relationship had already turned unbearable. After termination, the employee sent the office keys via registered mail. The letter, however, arrived at the employer damaged and was lacking the keys. They were found by the post only four weeks later and thus it was delivered to the employer with delay. Consequently, the employer filed a lawsuit demanding damages for the exchange of the main door lock as well as the envisaged exchange of the locking system for the whole building.

The Regional Labour Court Cologne confirmed the first instance ruling of the Labour Court Aachen, which had granted the employer damages. The main questions were, if the return of the office keys could already be requested before the termination and if the obligation to return them was a debt collectible by the creditor (“Holschuld”) or a debt to be collected at the creditor’s domicile (“Bringschuld”). In case of a Holschuld it had to be collected at the place of the debtor’s residence at the time the obligation emerged. In case of a Bringschuld the employee would have to return the keys at her place of work. The Regional Labour Court Cologne stated that it was a Bringschuld. The defendant’s possession of the office keys was based solely on the fact that she owed her employment duties at the office of the plaintiff. The keys she was provided with granted her access to the office and thus could be considered to be work equipment. The obligation to return work equipment was an accessory obligation to the main employment obligation. Accessory obligations were to be fulfilled at the place of the main obligations. Above that, the employment contract consisted of an exchange of mutual rights and obligations.

In certain types of such mutual contracts, one of which is the employment contract, it is generally accepted that there is one uniform place of performance for all obligations. Place of performance for the mutual rights and obligations resulting from an employment generally were the place of work.

Even if one would assume (to the benefit of the employee) that it was a Holschuld, in the case at hand, the employee would not have complied with such obligation, because such obligation was already effective when the employer visited the employee at her private address and asked for the keys. It was irrelevant that the employment had not been terminated at that time. The plaintiff had provided the defendant with the keys for the sole reason to facilitate the performance of her employment. Apart from the employment, the employee had no justifiable reason to possess office keys.

Even during the employment, the plaintiff had the right (deriving from the employee’s right to issue instructions) to ask the employee to return the office keys at any time. The termination of the employment was no condition for such right.

Due to the keys being lost on the mail – even if only for a certain time – the court considered it necessary that the employer exchanged the security locking system for the whole building, in which the law firm’s office was seated. The court thus granted damages regarding the door lock that was already exchanged at the time of the lawsuit, as well as regarding the locking system, with view to which the plaintiff only submitted a quotation. Even though the plaintiff as a first urgency measure only exchanged the main lock, the defendant could not refer him to keep this state permanently. The mere exchange of the main door lock only provided for restricted protection, as long as the doors to the law firm’s office doors could still be entered with the keys that had been lost for a certain amount of time. Above that, the plaintiff does not have to settle for less than the comfort he had before with a uniform security locking system and use separate incompatible locks from now on.

According to this decision, employees that have been provided with office keys to perform their work have to return such keys upon their employer’s request. When returning the keys, they should pay attention to hand over the keys directly to the employer and to document this thoroughly.

Contact person: Caroline Röger, LL.M., Rechtsanwältin