Category Archives: Abuse

Market dynamics in the counterfactual: more competitive, not just cheaper

The judgment of Phillips J in Sainsbury’s v Visa [2017] EWHC 3047 (Comm) demonstrates the importance to claimants in competition damages cases of identifying a counterfactual which not only involves lower prices but also involves higher levels of competition.

Sainsbury’s case

Visa’s payment card scheme required ‘acquirers’ (who process card payments on behalf on merchants) to pay an ‘interchange fee’ to the issuer of a payment card whenever a payment was made. All acquirers were required to accept all cards issued in the scheme (the so-called honour all cards rule or ‘HACR’). All issuers were required to remit to the acquirer the whole of the payment made by the customer, less the applicable interchange fee (this was called the ‘settlement at par’ rule). Acquirers passed on all of the interchange fees to merchants, as part of the merchant service charge which also included an element of profit margin for acquirers.

Visa set a default interchange fee (the multilateral interchange fee or ‘MIF’), though acquirers and issuers were free to negotiate different fees bilaterally. However, no acquirer had an incentive to agree to pay more, and no issuer had an incentive to agree to accept less than the MIF. The settlement at par rule prevented issuers from, in effect, forcing a higher interchange fee on acquirers by remitting customer payments at a discount. The HACR prevented acquirers with market power from forcing lower interchange fees on issuers by refusing to accept cards unless bilateral interchange fees were agreed.

The combined effect of these rules was to eliminate any competition as to the level of interchange fees. This was Sainsbury’s case and Visa accepted that these arrangements constituted a restriction of competition ‘in absolute terms’: [103-104].

Sainsbury’s proposed counterfactual, which the court accepted, was one in which there was no MIF set by Visa, but the settlement at par rule and HACR remained in force: [98]. This, in effect, amounted to a MIF of zero and the same dynamics between issuers and acquirers as existed in the factual would have prevented bilateral interchange fees from being agreed in the counterfactual: [126-129]. It followed that on Sainsbury’s counterfactual, the interchange fees paid would have been lower but not because of any re-introduction of competition in the setting of such fees. The suite of rules which had operated to eliminate competition in the factual would operate in the same way and with the same result in the counterfactual, just at different prices: [161]. Sainsbury’s claim therefore failed as it had not established that its loss was caused by a reduction in competition.

What went wrong?

Sainsbury’s counterfactual retained two key elements from the factual scheme: the settlement at par rule and the HACR. All parties agreed that the scheme would be unworkable if it incorporated the HACR but did not require settlement at par: [99]. Such a scheme would be equivalent to allowing issuers to set interchange fees unilaterally, by settling payments at a discount. Assuming acquirers continued to pass interchange fees on to merchants in full, this would result in merchants ceasing to accept Visa, as continued participation in the scheme would mean accepting all card payments regardless of the fee charged.

The parties do not appear, however, to have explored the possibility of a truly bilateral system in which neither the settlement at par rule nor the HACR applied. In a counterfactual from which both of these rules were absent, issuers and acquirers would have been forced to negotiate terms of settlement bilaterally. Issuers would have wished to agree a higher interchange fee (or a larger discount from par) but would have been prevented from demanding too high a fee because of the risk that acquirers (in order to retain merchant business) would cease to accept a certain issuer’s cards.

This counterfactual involves a radical departure from the Visa scheme in the factual, but the market dynamic which would result is familiar: this is how competition works in so-called three-party schemes, such as American Express. The issuer faces competing incentives: higher fees make for greater profits per transaction, but too high fees reduce card acceptance by merchants and reduce transaction volume, ultimately reducing the appeal of the card to customers.

The outcome in this counterfactual could be a patch-work of differing fees charged by different issuers with corresponding variances in merchant acceptance. There are over 50 issuers and around 30 acquirers in the UK[1], which would give rise to a large (but in principle manageable) number of bilateral negotiations assuming the same number of issuers existed in the counterfactual. There may be good reason, however, to think that there would be fewer issuers in the counterfactual: If the setting of MIFs inhibited competition and raised issuer profits, it is likely also to have encouraged more issuers to enter the market than could have been sustained in a competitive scenario. Lower interchange fees, lower profits, the requirement to negotiate deals with all (or almost all) acquirers and the need to reassure prospective customers that the card would be widely accepted would all act to restrain the number of viable issuers in the counterfactual.

Merchants now indicate whether they accept Amex or Diners. Before the emergence of four-party schemes in the UK, merchants indicated whether they accepted Barclaycard, a card issued only by the bank of the same name. In the counterfactual described here, merchants would be required to indicate which of the major banks’ and independent issuers’ cards they accepted.

Of payment cards and dog races: monopoly and monopsony in price setting

Competition within the Visa scheme was inhibited by the fact that fees were set centrally for all participants. The scheme was controlled by participating issuing banks, so central price setting tended to result in higher fees. If merchants (or acquirers who did not also issue cards) had controlled the scheme, the result might have been that low or even negative interchange fees were set, but the result would have been no more competitive. The mischief against competition was the setting of prices centrally; control over the scheme determined which party stood to gain.

In Bookmaker’s Afternoon Greyhound Services [2009] LLR 584, cited by Phillips J at [91], the boot was on the other foot. Whereas in the Visa scheme, prices were set by or on behalf of the party receiving payment, in the BAGS case, prices were set by the paying party, which was controlled by the leading bookmakers, and which had a monopsony on buying live television footage from racecourses. When a group of racecourses jointly agreed to sell their footage exclusively through a newly formed distributor, prices for footage rose and BAGS claimed that the racecourses had acted anti-competitively. On the contrary, the court found, the market power of BAGS had been reduced and competition had been increased. As Phillips J pointed out in Sainsbury’s, the BAGS case shows the pitfalls of a facile analysis which equates price decreases with increases in competitive intensity and vice-versa.

It ought to be possible for the payment card market to operate competitively given the large number of retailers, banks and other issuers. Where collective price-setting is interposed between the parties on each side of the transaction, there is an obvious possibility of distortions to competition. It was common ground in Sainsbury’s that the Visa scheme as implemented had eliminated competition in the setting of interchange fees: [103-104]. A claimant seeking damages for the setting of payment card interchange fees should ask the court to consider a simple counterfactual, in which these distortions are eliminated: What would the result have been if the parties on each side had decided whether to transact with one-another and on what terms, without the central setting of prices or a compulsion to transact?

[1] In Arcadia v MasterCard [2017] EWHC 93 (Comm), at [103] Popplewell J found that there were 55 MasterCard issuers in 2015 in the UK; it is assumed that there were a similar number of Visa issuers.

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Intel Corporation Inc v European Commission

In its recent judgment in Intel, the Grand Chamber shed valuable light on the “qualified effects test” for jurisdiction and on the room for loyalty rebates to be compatible with competition law.

Background

Intel designed computer processors and sold them to original equipment manufacturers (“OEMs”) to use in central processing units (“CPUs”). One of its competitors, Advanced Micro Devices Inc (“AMD”), complained to the Commission that Intel was abusing its dominant position by offering loyalty rebates to its OEMs if they purchased all or most of their processors from Intel.  The Commission agreed and imposed a €1.05 billion fine. The General Court dismissed Intel’s appeal.

On appeal, the Grand Chamber of the CJEU rejected Intel’s complaints about jurisdiction and procedural irregularities but allowed its appeal on the assessment of the rebates as abusive.  That rendered three other grounds unnecessary to consider.

There are two key points of interest arising from the judgment:

  1. Arrangements that are intended to form part of a grander anti-competitive scheme may fall within CJEU jurisdiction, even though they are relatively removed from the EEA, under the “qualified effects” route to jurisdiction.
  2. Loyalty rebates are not automatically anti-competitive; in particular, they can be saved if the undertaking can show that they could not have the effect of foreclosing an as efficient operator from the market.

The qualified effects test for jurisdiction

The Court considered two tests for jurisdiction.

  1. The “implementation test”:  Were the anticompetitive practices implemented in the EEA?
  2. The “qualified effects test”: Would the practices have foreseeable, immediate and substantial effects in the EEA?

The General Court had found that it had jurisdiction over Intel’s agreements with Lenovo (a Chinese OEM) on both tests. Intel unsuccessfully challenged the latter as a valid route to jurisdiction, and the Court’s application of both.

The Court confirmed that the “qualified effects test” is a valid route to jurisdiction.  Although the test had previously been accepted by the General Court in Gencor v Commission (T‑102/96, EU:T:1999:65) at §92, this is the first time it has been recognised by the CJEU.  It explained that it pursues the objective of “preventing conduct which, while not adopted within the EU, has anticompetitive effects liable to have an impact on the EU market”. If EU competition law were confined to the places where agreements were reached or concerted practices engaged in, it would “give undertakings an easy means of evading” Articles 101 and 102 (§§41-45).

How then is that test to be applied?  The Court provided some guidance. The question is whether “it is foreseeable that the conduct in question will have an immediate and substantial effect in the European Union”. In answering that question it is necessary to examine the undertaking’s conduct as a whole.  On the particular facts (§§51-57):

  1. The agreements with Lenovo in China had a “foreseeable” impact on competition, taking account of their “probable effects”.
  2. They had an “immediate” effect, because they formed part of an overall strategy to ensure that no Lenovo notebook equipped with an AMD CPU would be available on the market.
  3. They had a “substantial” effect on the EEA market, having regard to the whole of the conduct.

This last point is the most interesting one. Even though agreements with Lenovo for CPUs for delivery in China would by themselves have had a negligible effect, they formed part of conduct that would have a substantial effect. The Court refused to examine them in isolation on the basis that such an approach would “lead to an artificial fragmentation of comprehensive anticompetitive conduct”.

Loyalty rebates

The main substantive implications of this case arise from the findings that loyalty rebates are not always be abusive: it will depend on their scope and effect.

The purpose of Article 102 is to promote, not inhibit, competition.  So it does not protect undertakings which are not as efficient as the dominant undertaking.  Rather, it prevents illegitimate competition that pushes equally efficient undertakings out of the market.  That includes forcing purchasers to meet their requirements from the dominant undertaking.  It also includes inviting purchasers to undertake a contractual obligation to do so.  By extension, it might include incentivising purchasers to do so through loyalty rebates.  But, the Court has now made clear, that latter category is not inherently abusive.

In order to determine whether it is, it is necessary:

  1. First, to consider all the circumstances, including the level and duration of the rebates, the market shares concerned, and the needs of customers. Most importantly, the Commission must consider the capability of the rebates to foreclose an “as efficient competitor” (the “AEC test”).  That is, could the rebates force such a competitor to sell below cost price?
  2. Second, even if the rebates do have an exclusionary effect, they might still be redeemed if that effect is counterbalanced by efficiency advantages (§§139-140).

There are three key points of interest.

First, it appears that the general rule remains that loyalty rebates are abusive, unless the undertaking can produce evidence to the contrary.  The Court recounted that loyalty rebates have an anti-competitive effect, and “clarified” its case-law to say that undertakings can displace that presumption by showing that they could not have that effect in the particular case.  That brings Article 102 in line with the position under Article 101.

Second, the Court made clear that the AEC test applies generally to assessing whether conduct is an abuse of dominant position. Article 102 is not calculated to come to the aid of less efficient undertakings. Accordingly, to determine whether the practice is illegitimate, it is necessary to determine the effect it would have on a competitor who is as efficient as the dominant undertaking. That principle had been applied to attracting purchasers and excluding competitors by predatory pricing in Post Danmark v Konkurrencerådet (C‑209/10) and AKZO Chemie BV v Commission (C-62/86). In a victory for consistency, it is now clear that it applies more generally, including to attracting purchasers and excluding competitors by loyalty pricing schemes.

Third, in the context of that AEC test the Court said the inquiry was as to the “capability” of the rebates to foreclose an as efficient competitor (§§138, 141), even though Intel’s objection was that the General Court had failed to consider the “likelihood” of the rebates having that effect (§§113-114).  That is a harder task for an undertaking seeking to avoid breaching the Article 102 prohibition.  However, it is also consistent with other cases of actions with an anti-competitive object (which are less easily excused, only if they could not have that effect) rather than those with an anti-competitive effect (which are, for obvious reasons, excused if they are not likely to have that effect).

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Collective (in)action? The CAT’s recent judgments on collective proceedings orders

At first glance, two recent judgments from the CAT may give the impression that the new UK class action regime is dead in the water. However, on closer inspection there is much in these judgments that prospective claimants will welcome.

The first decision was in the Pride mobility scooters case (see Tom Coates’ blog here). The CAT made clear that it might have been prepared to grant a collective proceedings order (“CPO”), but on a basis so narrow that the claimants chose not to proceed. In the second decision, Merricks v Mastercard Inc & Ors [2017] CAT 16, the CAT rejected the CPO application, bringing an end to what would have been an extraordinarily ambitious claim—on behalf of 46.2 million people, seeking aggregate damages of approximately £14 billion, for Mastercard’s unlawful setting of fallback multilateral interchange fees in breach of Article 101 TFEU.

Under the new provisions in s.47B of the Competition Act 1998, a CPO application must satisfy the CAT of two criteria. They are, in brief, that (i) the person bringing the proceedings is an appropriate representative of the class of claimants, and (ii) the claims are eligible for inclusion in collective proceedings.

In Merricks, as in Pride, the applicants succeeded on the first criterion but failed on the second. The CAT adopted a relatively liberal approach to certifying the class representative in both cases: a former ombudsman and consumer protection advocate in Merricks (§§93-94), and an advocate for pensioners’ rights in Pride (§§125-139).

The CAT was also satisfied with the litigation funding arrangements in both cases (Pride, §§140-145; Merricks, §§95-140); although it strongly criticised the “impenetrable” drafting of the American-style funding agreement in Merricks, and was only prepared to approve it in light of amendments proposed at the hearing: §§121-127. Prospective claimants will welcome the fact that, in neither Pride nor in Merricks was the CAT unduly concerned by the prospect of a shortfall between the applicants’ costs cover and respondents’ likely costs.

Where both claims failed, however, was on the eligibility criterion. This second criterion is further broken down in rule 80 of the CAT Rules 2015, which provides that claims will be eligible for inclusion in collective proceedings where they (a) are brought on behalf of an identifiable class of persons; (b) raise common issues; and (c) are suitable to be brought in collective proceedings.

In both cases, the CAT was prepared to accept that the claims were brought on behalf of an identifiable class of persons. In Pride that conclusion was uncontroversial, given that the class was defined as “any person who purchased a new Pride mobility scooter other than in the course of a business in the UK between 1 February 2010 and 29 February 2012” (§§5, 85). In Merricks, however, the CAT’s apparent acceptance of the class was no small matter. The class included all individuals who were over 16 years old at the time of the transaction, resident in the UK, and who purchased goods or services from UK businesses which accepted MasterCard cards, at any time over a 16 year period (§1). This included more than 46 million potential claimants; and yet, the CAT was untroubled by the “identifiable class” criterion.

As to the requirement that the claims raise common issues, in both cases the CAT emphasised that the appropriate approach was that followed in Canada, rather than the much stricter approach in the United States (Merricks, §58; Pride, §105). Although only three of the six issues in Merricks could properly be regarded as common, the CAT considered that to be sufficient.

In Pride, the applicant faced the difficulty of proving causation in circumstances where the regulator had focused on a small sample of infringing agreements (“the low-hanging evidential fruit”: §109), and the claimants were time-barred from pursuing anything other than a follow-on claim for the infringement (§110). The CAT’s decision on this issue may well create difficulties for other follow-on vertical infringement claims, but that category of claims is likely to be quite narrow.

In Merricks, the CAT was concerned about the methodology by which the applicant proposed to assess individual losses. The methodology needed to distinguish between three sets of issues: “individuals’ levels of expenditure; the merchants from whom they purchased; and the mix of products which they purchased” (§88). Regrettably, there had been “no attempt to approximate for any of those in the way damages would be paid out” (§88). The CAT observed that the experts’ oral evidence in response to questions from the Tribunal was “considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than that set out, rather briefly, in their Experts’ Report” (§76), but it still could not be satisfied that the damages sought would broadly reflect “the governing principle of damages for breach of competition law”, that is, “restoration of the claimants to the position they would have been in but for the breach” (§88). The judgment sounds a valuable warning to future claimants of the necessity for a detailed and precise methodology for calculating both individual and aggregate losses.

The CAT showed little sympathy for the applicant’s argument that refusing the CPO would result in a vast number of individuals who suffered loss going uncompensated, since there was no realistic prospect of claimants pursuing Mastercard individually. The CAT observed shortly that this was “effectively the position in most cases of widespread consumer loss resulting from competition law infringements” (§91).

The judgments in Pride and Merricks provide important guidance on the CAT’s likely approach to CPOs in future. In spite of the outcomes in both cases, the CAT’s ready acceptance of the proposed class representatives, its flexibility in regard to litigation funding, and its affirmation of the Canadian approach to collective action, are all likely to give heart to prospective claimants. Further, the judgment in Merricks leaves the door open to mass claims in the future, while signalling the heightened importance which expert evidence on calculating losses is likely to assume in such cases.

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Illegal counterfactuals: the Court of Appeal shuts the back door

Suppose a defendant to a competition claim runs a defence that, in the counterfactual world in which no anticompetitive conduct occurred, pricing would have been no different; and that the claimant replies, “maybe so, but only because you were at the same time operating some independent anti-competitive scheme, which must also be purged from the counter-factual”. Can the claimant amend his claim to plead the independent anti-competitive scheme raised in his Reply as the basis for a new substantive claim even where it would ordinarily be time-barred?

In February last year, Barling J appeared to answer, “Yes”, in a judgment given in the MasterCard litigation. On one view, the curious result of that judgment was that a claimant could apparently circumvent limitation rules by introducing a time-barred allegation of unlawfulness in his Reply, then using that as a basis to apply to amend his original claim. In other words, when a limitation point blocked the front door, claimants could still bring in new claims through the back.

The Court of Appeal, however, has now shut this back door, by overturning the High Court’s judgment. For the background to the judgments, and the details of Barling J’s decision, see my previous post here.

The issue before the Court was whether or not the new claim, premised on MasterCard’s Central Acquiring Rule (CAR) arose out of the same or substantially the same facts as the existing claim, premised on MasterCard’s Multilateral Interchange Fees (MIFs) (see CPR 17.4 and section 35(5) of the Limitation Act 1980). If it did, the Court could permit an amendment notwithstanding that it was time-barred. Barling J had held that it did on the following two grounds: first, the existing claim would already require an investigation into and evidence on the CAR; and, secondly, the claimants’ reply had pleaded that the CAR was unlawful and had to be excised from MasterCard’s counterfactual – so the new claim arose out of facts already in issue with respect to the existing claim.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with Barling J on both scores. Sales LJ said that the facts underlying each claim could not be said to be the same because the counterfactual inquiry required by each claim was so different (§46). On the existing claim, the counterfactual world was one in which the MasterCard rules in dispute (principally the MIFs) were excised but the CAR remained in place. On the new claim, however, the Court would have to investigate both the counterfactual world in which the MasterCard rules were excised as well as the CAR and the counterfactual world in which all the MasterCard rules remained in place but the CAR was excised.

Sales LJ, doubting the obiter comments of Waller LJ in Coudert Brothers v Normans Bay Ltd [2004] EWCA Civ 215, further said that the claimants could not introduce the new claim by pointing to their reply and saying that the CAR’s lawfulness was already in issue. The proper rule was that, where the defendant had pleaded facts by way of defence to the original claim, the claimant could introduce a new claim premised on those facts: Goode v Martin [2002] 1 WLR 1828. However, that was not the case here because MasterCard did not specifically rely on the CAR in its defence.

The Court of Appeal was further clearly motivated by a concern about the avoidance of limitation rules. Sales LJ said at §64:

“…it would be unfair to a defendant and would improperly subvert the intended effect of limitation defences set out in the Limitation Act if a claimant were to be able to introduce new factual averments in its reply (which are not the same as or substantially the same as what is already pleaded in the claim), after the expiry of a relevant limitation period, and then rely on that as a reason why it should be able to amend its claim with the benefit of the “relation back” rule to circumvent that limitation period.”

The curious result of Barling J’s judgment has therefore been reversed by the Court of Appeal. A claimant can no longer pull himself up by his own bootstraps; limitation now guards the back door as jealously as the front.

 

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The passing-on “defence” after Sainsbury’s

The passing-on defence – ie. whether the damages suffered by a purchaser of a product which has been the subject of a cartel are reduced if he passes on the overcharge to his own customers – had, as Tristan Jones blogged a few years ago, been the subject of much policy discussion but relatively little legal analysis in the English case law.

That remained the position when the Competition Appeal Tribunal heard the claim in Sainsbury’s Supermarkets v Mastercard Incorporated and others [2016] CAT 11. The Judgment, handed down on 14 July, noted at §483 that there had been no case under English law substantively dealing with the pass-on defence. It represents the first English judgment which gives detailed consideration to the defence following full argument.

However, despite its length (running to some 300 pages), the Judgment leaves us with a number of big questions about the nature and scope of the defence.

The four key principles which emerge from the Judgment are as follows.

First, the Tribunal considered that the passing-on “defence” (their quotation marks) is no more than an aspect of the process of the assessment of damage. “The pass on “defence””, the Tribunal reasoned, “is in reality not a defence at all: it simply reflects the need to ensure that a claimant is sufficiently compensated and not overcompensated, by a defendant. The corollary is that the defendant is not forced to pay more than compensatory damages, when considering all of the potential claimants”(§484(3)). The “thrust of the defence” is to ensure that the claimant is not overcompensated and the defendant does not pay damages twice for the same wrong (§480(2)).

Second, the passing-on defence is only concerned with identifiable increases in prices by a firm to its customers and not with other responses by a purchaser such as cost savings or reduced expenditure. The Tribunal considered that although an economist might define pass-on more widely to include such responses (and there is a discussion of this in the Judgment at §§432-437), the legal definition of a passed-on cost differs because whilst “an economist is concerned with how an enterprise recovers its costs… a lawyer is concerned with whether or not a specific claim is well founded” (§484(4)).

Third, that the increase in price must be “causally connected with the overcharge, and demonstrably so” (§484(4)(ii)).

Fourth, that, given the danger in presuming pass-on of costs, “the pass-on “defence” ought only to succeed where, on the balance of probabilities, the defendant has shown that there exists another class of claimant, downstream of the claimant(s) in the action, to whom the overcharge has been passed on. Unless the defendant (and we stress that the burden is on the defendant) demonstrates the existence of such a class, we consider that a claimant’s recovery of the overcharge incurred by it should not be reduced or defeated on this ground” (emphasis original) (§484(5)).

But these principles leave a number of questions.

First, the Judgment firmly places the burden on defendant (and the importance of that is brought home when the Tribunal considered the issue of interest without this burden and, having found that Mastercard’s passing-on defence failed, nevertheless reduced the interest payable to Sainsbury’s by 50% because of passing-on). However, precisely what the Defendant has to demonstrate is less plain.

The Judgment refers to Mastercard’s passing-on defence failing because of a failure to show an increase in retail price (§485); language which reflects back to §484(4)(ii). But an increase in price is not the language used when the Tribunal states the test, and the Judgment leaves open whether demonstrating an increase in price would in itself be sufficient to satisfy the requirement to show the existence of “another class of claimant downstream of the claimant(s) in the action, to whom the overcharge has been passed on”.

Second, and similarly, there is no explanation of what the Tribunal means by the term “causally connected” (or, rather, “demonstrably” causally connected) when it refers to the need for the increase in price to be connected to the overcharge. It might be – as was suggested in our earlier blog – that, applying ordinary English principles of causation and mitigation, a party would need to show that the price increase or the benefit arises out of the breach. Given the Tribunal’s repeated statements that the defence is not really a defence at all but is simply an aspect of the process of the assessment of damages (§§480(2), 484(4)), such an approach would, at first blush, sit perfectly with the Judgment.

However, third, the Tribunal’s splitting of passing-on from other responses to an overcharge creates some confusion in this regard. Under the Tribunal’s approach cost savings are not to be considered under the passing-on defence (§484(4)) but must be considered under an analysis of mitigation (§§472-478). It is, however, difficult to separate out principles of mitigation and causation in this context.  Indeed, the Tribunal, when discussing mitigation, expressly recognised that the issue is “akin to one of causation” (§475). But the Tribunal took pains to emphasise that an assessment of passing-on and mitigation are separate exercises, without explaining whether and if so in what way the test in the context of mitigation – said to be that the benefit must “bear some relation to” the damage suffered as a result of the breach (§475) – differs from that of causation in the passing-on defence.

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Illegal counterfactuals: bringing in new claims by the backdoor?

It is fairly well-established in competition cases that the hypothetical counterfactual – which, for the purposes of causation, posits what the situation would have been absent any breach of competition law – cannot contain unlawful elements: see e.g. Albion Water Ltd v Dwr Cymru [2013] CAT 6. In a normal case, C will claim damages, arguing – let’s say – that D abused a dominant position by imposing discriminatory prices. D defends the claim on the basis that, absent any abuse, it would have set prices at a certain (high) level. C replies that those prices too would have been discriminatory – i.e. the counterfactual is inappropriate.

In other words, the legality of the counterfactual normally becomes an issue when the defendant pleads a hypothetical scenario which C alleges to be unlawful. But consider a different situation. In this, D pleads by way of defence that prices would not have been any lower even without the alleged anti-competitive conduct. C replies that that is only the case because D was actually engaging in some separate anti-competitive conduct – about which it has made no complaints in its original claim. Is C entitled to raise this kind of a response to a counterfactual? The answer may well be yes, according to Barling J’s recent judgment in Deutsche Bahn AG and others v MasterCard Incorporation and others [2015] EWHC 3749 (Ch).

The context is the MasterCard litigation, in which various retailers are claiming that the multi-lateral interchange fees (MIFs) charged by MasterCard to banks breached Article 101 TFEU and caused them loss. Specifically, the MIFs inflated the charges (MSCs) that banks imposed on merchants in connection with processing MasterCard payments and distorted competition in that market.

One line of defence which MasterCard has adopted is that the MIFs did not have any material effect on some categories of MSCs. MasterCard specifically points to a period when the MIFs were set at zero and there was no consequent deflation in MSCs. The retailers riposted by pleading in their Reply that that was only because MasterCard was operating another different rule which was also anti-competitive (the “Central Acquiring Rule” or “CAR”) – absent this too, the Claimants say, MSCs would have fallen. The retailers had originally made no complaint about the CAR in their Particulars of Claim.

Not only this, but the retailers relied on their pleaded case on the CAR in their Reply to support an argument that they should be entitled to amend their Particulars to raise the CAR as a fresh and independent claim. Even though the CAR claim was arguably or partially time-barred, the fact that it appeared in the Reply meant that it “arose out of the same facts” as the original claim under CPR 17.4(2). The application to amend was the issue before Barling J. He granted it, accepting that it was an ‘arguable’ point which the Claimants were entitled to run in their Reply, that evidence on the CAR would therefore be needed, and that they could therefore also add it as a new claim under CPR 17.4(2).

There are perhaps three interesting points arising from the decision. The first is that it raises the prospect that in responding to a counterfactual, C can do more than simply say that the hypothetical conduct on which D relies is illegal. C can arguably go further – and claim that some other aspect of D’s actual conduct – not previously in issue – is also illegal and so must be purged from the counterfactual. This represents a departure from the kind of arguments run in Albion Water and Enron Coal Services Ltd v EW&S Railway Ltd [2009] CAT 36 – as Barling J himself recognized (§72) – although there are closer similarities with C’s argument in Normans Bay Ltd v Coudert Brothers [2004] EWCA Civ 215.

The second is that that kind of argument can seemingly be raised even though the conduct complained of is not specifically raised in the Defence. MasterCard had not pleaded that MSCs were not affected by the MIFs because of the CAR. But that did not prevent the retailers from raising the legality of the CAR in response to the counterfactual. The situation was therefore unlike that in the Norman Bay case – where D had pleaded in its counterfactual conduct which C claimed was itself negligent in its Reply.

The third is that the allegation of unlawfulness that C raises in its Reply may even be time-barred. And, if it is, the plea may allow C to argue that it should be able to amend its Particulars so as to include the substantive new claim on the basis that it is one which arises out of facts already in issue under CPR 17.4(2). Barling J rejected MasterCard’s submission that this was to allow the retailers to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The retailers therefore succeeded in bringing a new claim into their Particulars through the “back door” of their Reply.

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FIFPro challenge the football transfer system

FIFPRO2

By Nick De Marco & Dr Alex Mills

As the curtains are drawn on the panic-buying of the January transfer window for another year, it is once again difficult not to reflect critically on the football transfer system. In the Premier League alone, more than £1bn has been spent on football transfers during the 2015-16 season – a staggering figure, and a new record. This is not just a European phenomenon – teams in the Chinese Super League have also spent unprecedented money in the current transfer window, reflecting the incredible rise in football business in the country, even outspending the Premier League during this period. Much of the increase in transfer spending can be attributed to the increasing popularity and commercial success of football around the world, particularly the new broadcasting rights deal in the case of the Premier League, but some have argued argued that the extraordinary inflation in transfer fees is a sign that the system is broken.

One organisation which is firmly in this camp is FIFPro, the union for professional footballers, which represents more than 65,000 players from around the world. In September 2015, FIFPro lodged a formal complaint with the Directorate General for Competition of the European Commission, against FIFA and its member associations, challenging the global transfer market system for football. Here we discuss the background to this challenge and the issues raised by it, before considering its likely outcomes and implications.

The story of the modern transfer system begins with the famous Bosman ruling (C-415/93) of the European Court of Justice in 1995. Bosman, a player registered with Liège in Belgium, wanted a transfer to Dunkerque in France. Although Bosman was out of contract, the rules at the time permitted Liege to refuse the transfer unless Dunkerque met their transfer fee demand. The ECJ held that this constituted a prohibited restriction on the free movement of workers in the European Union. One key consequence of this decision is that a player can now transfer for free at the end of their contract, often known as a ‘Bosman transfer’. This feature of the modern transfer rules is an important factor in the way values in the transfer market are calculated today. Players may also use the threat of running down their contract and thus reducing their transfer value as a means of leveraging their club for a new contract and salary increase.

Following the Bosman ruling, there was talk of abolition of the transfer system. The European Commission’s then Competition Commissioner, Mario Monti, said “International transfer systems based on arbitrarily calculated fees that bear no relation to training costs should be prohibited, regardless of the nationality of the player and whether the transfer takes place during or at the end of the contractual period.” But a political compromise was then fashioned following an informal agreement between the European Commission, FIFA and UEFA, and the modern football transfer system established in 2001. The rules are set out in the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP). As presently established, the rules provide that contracts may only be a maximum of 5 years in length, or 3 years for players aged 18 or under (Art. 18(2)). They may only be terminated for just cause or by mutual agreement (Arts. 13 and 14) – hence, the transfer of a player under contract may not take place without the agreement of the player and both clubs. A player out of contract may transfer clubs without any transfer fee being payable, but an agreement to sign for another club may only be entered into in the last six months of a contract or after its expiry (Art. 18(3)). However, perhaps most critically, a player who terminates an existing contract without just cause is liable to pay compensation (Art. 17(1)), jointly with any new club for whom the player has signed (Art. 17(2)), and will also be subject to sporting sanctions (including a ban on playing for any team) if the wrongful termination occurs in the first two or three years of the contract, depending on the age of the player (Art. 17(3)). FIFA guidelines suggest that a failure to pay a player would only be just cause for that player to terminate the contract if payment was not made for a period of more than three months. If an ‘established professional’ plays in fewer than ten percent of the official matches for their club during the course of a season, there is also the possibility for that player to terminate their contract for ‘sporting just cause’ (Art.15).

The amount of compensation payable if a player terminates a contract without just cause has been a controversial question. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Webster (CAS 2007/A/1298/1299/1300) rejected the argument that the player should be liable for their full market value, holding that “giving clubs a regulatory right to the market value of players and allowing lost profits to be claimed in such manner would in effect bring the system partially back to the pre-Bosman days”. The damages were instead calculated based on the “outstanding remuneration due until expiry of the term of the contract”. This decision caused something of an outcry from many clubs, as it was felt that it would enable players effectively to buy themselves out of their contracts too easily. In Matuzalem (CAS 2008/A/159), however, the CAS held that a player who had terminated his contract unilaterally without cause was liable for an amount based on his replacement value on the transfer market (more than €11m). Matuzalem was unable to pay this amount and he was consequently subject to a worldwide playing ban. The decision to prohibit him from playing was later annulled by the Swiss courts for violation of public policy (essentially because he could never make payment if he could never work), but the case nevertheless established that the cost to a player of unilaterally terminating their contract without just cause would be strongly connected to the player’s value in the transfer fee market.

So what are the competition law issues raised by this system? The FIFPro complaint is directed to Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which prohibit agreements, decisions and practices limiting competition, as well as the abuse of a dominant market position. The argument is supported by a Study commissioned by FIFPro and carried out by Stefan Szymanski, a Professor of Sports Management who is otherwise perhaps best known as co-author of the book ‘Soccernomics’. FIFA is clearly in a dominant market position in relation to football, and there is no doubt that the RSTP limits competition because of the restrictions it places on freedom of contract. The FIFPro complaint highlights three features of the RSTP which operate as restrictions on the labour market – (i) the calculation of compensation if a player terminates their contract without cause (Art. 17(1)); (ii) the imposition of a playing ban for the wrongful termination of a contract by a player during the first two or three years of a contract (Art. 17(3)); (iii) the rule that a contract with a different club may only be entered into in the final six months of a contract or after it has expired (Art. 18(3)).

The relationship between sport and competition law has, however, always presented a particularly complex problem. Sporting teams have an important interest in contractual stability – knowing that players signed for a period of time will be unable to leave, even if a wealthier team offers to buy out their contract. There is also an argument that contractual stability benefits players, because the contract of an injured player cannot be terminated by their club. The objective of contractual stability is, however, at least apparently in tension with a free and competitive labour market, and thus it has long been understood that sport requires particular treatment. Article 17(1) of the RSTP indeed expressly requires that “the specificity of sport” be taken into account in calculating compensation for wrongful termination of contract – this was one of the factors leading the CAS in Matuzalem to award such substantial damages. FIFPro’s key argument is therefore that these aspects of the RSTP offer sport too much particular treatment, to the disadvantage of the professional footballers whose labour market mobility is reduced.

A second aspect of the FIFPro argument is the contention that the scale of transfer fees means that only the few wealthiest clubs are able to compete for the elite footballing talent. Although the figures involved may be large, in practice, the argument goes, these clubs are both buying and selling players at this scale, and are thereby (in conjunction with Financial Fair Play regulations) effectively pricing other clubs out of the market for the best players. The effect of this practice is both to reduce competition, leading to the dominance of the same handful of clubs each year (Leicester City’s performance this season being a notable exception) and thereby to reduce the size of the labour market for players to compete at the highest levels of the game. However, it is not only transfer fees that separate the rich clubs from the rest. The largest expenditure of most clubs is usually on players’ wages. Without some form of wage cap or collective agreement (which Prof. Szymanski appears to advocate but which could itself, no doubt, be subject to competition law challenge) it could be argued that rather than create a more level playing field the abolition of football transfer fees might cause more harm to the poorer selling clubs who are at least able to be compensated for losing players to the richer clubs that can afford higher wages and transfer fees.

It is extremely difficult to imagine that the European Commission will require the dismantling of the transfer system altogether, or the abolition of transfer fees. Indeed, the Commission may well simply refuse to entertain the complaint altogether, on the basis that it falls outside its area of interest and is better pursued within national courts. Much will depend on the distinction which the Commission recently announced defines its area of interest in sport; is the complaint simply a dispute “related to governance” or “the application of sporting rules to individuals” or is it, perhaps more likely considering the economic effect of the transfer system and the way it serves to bind a player to a club, a complaint about anticompetitive agreements and the abuse of dominant market positions which can act to prevent a player from taking part in sport?

However, should the Commission (or others as a result of FIFPro’s complaint and associated campaign) determine that the system is not functioning in a satisfactory way, there are a number of modifications which could be made to the rules which would have the effect of increasing the flexibility of the labour market and thus would be likely to reduce transfer fees, with the money most likely to go instead to player salaries. For example, the maximum length of contracts could be reduced from five years to four, giving players more opportunity to obtain or at least threaten a free transfer, or the damages payable for the termination of the contract by a player without just cause could be reduced, overriding the Matuzalem decision. One key concern which is likely to be raised is the risk that reductions in transfer fees would reduce the incentives for clubs to develop young players, although the RSTP rules do provide for training compensation (Art. 20) and a solidarity mechanism (Art. 21), each of which secures financial support for clubs which have contributed to a player’s training. If changes were to be made to the rules regarding contracts and transfers, these may need to be counterbalanced with adjustments to these provisions – such adjustments may in any case be considered as a means of addressing competitiveness. The consequences of all such changes would, of course, be difficult to predict with complete confidence, and any modifications of the FIFA RSTP would require long and complex negotiations with a range of stakeholders.

When one reads about the salaries of the highest paid footballers, some might find it difficult to be entirely sympathetic to the argument that the transfer system is harmful to the position of professional footballers. But the FIFPro challenge is less about the position of the elite and more about the average professional footballer around the world, most of whom are on salaries much closer to those of ordinary workers, and some of whom are badly treated, regularly not paid by their clubs, and yet unable to move on. If changes to the rules governing the transfer market were to reduce the amount of money spent on transfer fees, increase freedom and job security for more players, and promote greater competition between clubs, such a development would be likely to be welcomed not only by lawyers, but also by most football players and fans around the world.

Nick De Marco is a barrister at Blackstone Chambers specialising in sports law and disputes in football. He was a recent guest speaker at the FIFPro Legal Legends international conference and regularly represents the English Professional Footballers Association.  Dr Alex Mills is a member of Blackstone Chambers’ Academic Research Panel and the UCL Faculty of Laws.

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