The Freight-Forwarding Cartels in the General Court: Lessons on Leniency and Discretion

On 29 February 2016, the General Court handed down its judgments in Case T-265/12 Schenker Ltd v European Commission; Case T-267/12 Deutsche Bahn AG and ors v European Commission, upholding the Commission’s decision on the freight forwarding cartels. The judgments provide some useful guidance on the operation of the leniency scheme and highlight the Commission’s broad discretion in deciding to whom it should attribute liability.

The Cartels

The applicants were found by the Commission to be participants in cartels relating to four different surcharges levied in the freight-forwarding sector between 2002-07.

The operation of the cartels was no lesson in subtlety. In the new export system cartel, the participants had organised their contacts in a ‘Gardening Club’ and had re-named surcharges according to vegetables. One set of minutes of the cartel’s meeting distinguished ‘standard asparagus’ from ‘contractual asparagus’, while another email explained ‘new equipment is on its way to enable fresh marrows and baby courgettes to hit the shops this month. Up to my elbows in fertilizer’.

The Commission fined 14 groups of companies a total of €169 million. The applicants were fined approximately €35 million for infringements of Article 101 TFEU and Article 53 of the EEA Agreement.

Leniency

The Commission began its investigation after an application for immunity was submitted by Deutsche Post AG (‘DP’). DP and its subsidiaries received full immunity from fines, while some other undertakings (including the applicants) received a reduction in fines ranging from 5 to 50 per cent.

In order to qualify as an immunity applicant under the Commission’s 2006 Leniency Notice, the evidence provided to the Commission must enable it (inter alia) to ‘carry out a targeted inspection in connection with the alleged cartel’ (paragraph 8(a)) and must include a ‘detailed description of the alleged cartel arrangement’ (paragraph 9(a)). The applicants contrasted the information initially provided by DP with the Commission’s final findings to argue that these criteria had not been met – in particular, no information was provided about one of the specific cartels, the CAF cartel.

The General Court rejected the applicants’ comparative approach. It explained that the Leniency Notice did ‘not require that the material submitted by an undertaking should constitute information and evidence pertaining specifically to the infringements which are identified by the Commission at the end of the administrative procedure’ (at [338], paragraph references in this post are to T-267/12). It was sufficient that the information provided by DP ‘justified an initial suspicion on the part of the Commission concerning alleged anticompetitive conduct covering, inter alia, the CAF cartel’ (at [340]).

The applicants also argued that the Commission had breached the principle of equal treatment by treating DP’s immunity application differently from the leniency applications of other undertakings. When assessing DP’s immunity application, the Commission granted conditional immunity on the basis of the information it had at the time, and then granted final immunity by considering whether those conditions had been satisfied. In contrast, when considering the applications for reductions of fines made by other undertakings, the Commission considered at the end of its procedure whether the information provided had added value.

The General Court upheld this approach. It explained that the Leniency Notice is structured such that an ex ante assessment is to be carried out in respect of applications for immunity only (at [358]). This distinction is justified by the objectives of (i) encouraging undertakings to cooperate as early as possible with the Commission, and (ii) ensuring that undertakings which are not the first to cooperate do not receive ‘advantages which exceed the level that is necessary to ensure that the leniency programme and the administrative procedure are fully effective’ (at [359]).

Attribution of Liability

A further ground of challenge concerned the Commission’s decision to hold Schenker China solely liable as the economic successor for the conduct of Bax Global, rather than including Bax Global’s former parent company.

The General Court noted that the Commission had a discretion concerning the choice of legal entities on which it can impose a penalty for an infringement of competition law (at [142]), but that such a discretion must be exercised with due regard to the principle of equal treatment (at [144]).

In the present case, the Commission had decided to hold liable parent companies of subsidiaries, but not former parent companies of subsidiaries. The General Court was content that such an approach was within the discretion available to the Commission. It was perfectly legitimate for the Commission to ‘take into consideration the fact that an approach designed to impose penalties on all the legal entities which might be held to be liable for an infringement might add considerably to the work involved in its investigations’ (at [148]). This purely administrative reason was sufficient to entitle the Commission to decline to attribute liability to a party who would be jointly and severally liable for the same infringement, even if the necessary consequence were to increase the fine levied against the existing addressee.

Given the sums involved, it would be no great surprise if the General Court’s judgments were appealed to the Court of Justice. In the meantime, there is greater certainty regarding the Commission’s approach to the Leniency Notice, and it is clear that the Commission has broad discretion in identifying the relevant addressees of its infringement decisions.

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