Category Archives: Agreements

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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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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Collective Proceedings in the CAT: mobility scooters roll on for now

Last Friday the CAT handed down a judgment on the first ever-application for a collective proceedings order under the new regime introduced by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The judgment will generally be welcomed by potential claimants, but it has a sting in the tail which may cause serious difficulties for class actions in other vertical infringement cases.

The new collective proceedings regime, contained in section 47B CA98 and CAT Rules 75-98, was one of a suite of claimant-friendly measures aimed at improving the remedies for individual victims of competition infringements whose losses were low (other measures included, for example, the new fast-track procedure). Consistently with the regime’s objective, the CAT, although stopping short of reaching a final decision, said much about the scheme which will encourage claimants.

The proposed collective action is a follow-on claim against Pride, formerly the UK’s largest supplier of mobility scooters. The OFT (the national competition regulator) had found that Pride infringed the Chapter I prohibition by object by entering into 8 vertical agreements with retailers forbidding them from advertising mobility scooters online at prices below RRP. Those 8 agreements were in fact the result of a market-wide policy that Pride had been operating and which it had communicated to all of its retailers.

The key issues before the CAT were (broadly) the authorisation of Dorothy Gibson as the class representative (under section 47B(5) and CAT Rule 78), and certification of the claims for inclusion in collective proceedings on the basis that they raised common issues. On both issues, the CAT’s approach to the claimants was benevolent.

The CAT first dismissed the defendant’s preliminary objection. Pride pointed out that both the OFT decision and the underlying infringement pre-dated the introduction of the collective proceedings regime. On that basis, it fired a salvo of arguments based on Article 1 Protocol 1 of the ECHR, the EU Charter, and EU principles of legal certainty/legitimate expectations, the thrust of which was that the CAT should interpret the regime so as to disallow its “retrospective” application. The CAT shot down all these arguments in a comprehensive discussion that should see the end of any similar threshold points about collective proceedings applications.

The CAT also had little difficulty in authorising Ms Gibson as the class representative. Although not a mobility scooter consumer, her status as an advocate of pensioners’ rights (she is the chair of a representative body, the National Pensioner Convention), who had experienced lawyers, satisfied the CAT that she would act fairly and adequately in the interests of the class (§139; see CAT Rule 78(2)(a)). Moreover, the CAT was not concerned about her ability to pay Pride’s costs (see CAT Rule 78(2)(d)). Even though Ms Gibson’s ATE insurance cover level was less than Pride’s anticipated costs, the CAT stated shortly that those costs might not be reasonable or proportionate, so it would not be appropriate to disallow collective proceedings at that stage (§145).

The CAT’s approach to certification and commonality was also – in principle – liberal. Although it said that it could not “simply take at face value” (§102) the applicant’s expert evidence, it nonetheless rejected Pride’s submission that it should take a hyper-rigorous US-style attitude. Rather, the CAT endorsed the Canadian approach, approving at §105 the following comment of Rothstein J in Pro-Sys Consultants Ltd v Microsoft Corp [2013] SCC 57:

“In my view, the expert methodology must be sufficiently credible or plausible to establish some basis in fact for the commonality requirement. This means that the methodology must offer a realistic prospect of establishing loss on a class-wide basis so that, if the overcharge is eventually established at the trial of the common issues, there is a means by which to demonstrate that it is common to the class (i.e. that passing on has occurred). The methodology cannot be purely theoretical or hypothetical, but must be grounded in the facts of the particular case is question.”

The stumbling block for the claimants, however, was the CAT’s reasoning on the proper counterfactual. The claimants posited a world in which not only the 8 infringing vertical agreements were absent but also where Pride had operated no policy of prohibiting below-RRP advertising at all. The CAT, however, endorsed a narrower counterfactual from which only the specifically unlawful agreements (i.e. the 8 vertical agreements about which the OFT had made findings) were assumed to be absent (§112). With this narrower counterfactual, the CAT held that it was not clear whether there was sufficient commonality in the issues of loss, or whether the likely damages would justify the costs of collective proceedings. However, the CAT (again perhaps generously) did not dismiss the application altogether but rather adjourned it to enable the claimants’ expert to formulate a case on common loss on the basis of the revised counterfactual.

Notwithstanding the generally claimant-friendly approach, the CAT’s reasoning on the counterfactual could render other collective cases premised on vertical restraints very difficult in practice. In a large number of vertical restraint decisions, the infringer has adopted a market-wide policy but the regulator focuses, for practical reasons, on a small number of ‘implementations’ of the policy as the basis for its infringement findings. If one only excludes from the counterfactual the particular instances of unlawful implementation, rather than the more general policy which underlay them, the issues between class members may diverge: some will have been direct victims of the anti-competitive agreements, while others will have suffered only from what would have to be characterised as an “umbrella effect”. In addition, if claimants cannot proceed on the basis that the entire policy should be excluded from the counterfactual, the likely quantum may fall to a level where collective proceedings are not worth the candle. It remains to be seen whether the mobility scooter claimants will overcome these difficulties.

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License fees, invalid patents and Article 101 TFEU: Genentech v Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis

Consider an agreement under which a license fee is payable for use of a patented technology even if it transpires that the patent is invalid. Is such an agreement contrary to Article 101 TFEU? The answer is no, provided that the licensee is able freely to terminate the contract by giving reasonable notice. Some years ago the ECJ so held in relation to expired patents: C-320/87 Ottung [1989] ECR 1177 at §13. The recent decision in C-567/14 Genentech v Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis clarifies that the same proposition applies to revoked patents (and indeed to patents which are valid but have not been infringed). The case also throws into sharp relief the tensions that may arise between European competition law and domestic procedural rules on the reviewability of arbitrations.

Facts

In 1992, Genentech (“G”) was granted a worldwide non-exclusive license for the use of technology which was subject of a European patent as well as two patents issued in the United States. G undertook to pay inter alia a ‘running royalty’ of 0.5% levied on the amount of sales of ‘finished products’ as defined in the license agreement (“the Agreement”).  G was entitled to terminate the Agreement on two months’ notice.

The European patent was revoked in 1999. G unsuccessfully sought revocation of the United States patents in 2008 but this action failed; these patents therefore remained validly in place. G was later held liable in an arbitration to pay the running royalty. Late in the day in the arbitration proceedings, G alleged that construing the Agreement to require payment even in the event of patent revocation would violate EU competition law. That argument was rejected by the arbitrator. G sought annulment of the relevant arbitration awards in an action before the Court of Appeal, Paris. From that court sprung the preliminary reference that is the subject of this blog.

Effective EU competition law vs domestic restrictions on review of arbitration awards

Hoechst and Sanofi Aventis (the parties to whom the running royalty was due and not paid) argued that the reference was inadmissible because of French rules of procedure preventing any review of international arbitral awards unless the infringement was ‘flagrant’ (AG Op §§48-67) and the arbitral tribunal had not considered the point (AG Op §§68-72). In essence, the CJEU rejected this argument on the narrow basis that it was required to abide by the national court’s decision requesting a preliminary ruling unless that decision had been overturned under the relevant national law (§§22-23). Interestingly, the Advocate General ranged much more broadly in reaching the same conclusion, stating that these limitations on the review of international arbitral awards were “contrary to the principle of effectiveness of EU law”, (n)o system can accept infringements of its most fundamental rules making up its public policy, irrespective of whether or not those infringements are flagrant or obvious” and “one or more parties to agreements which might be regarded as anticompetitive cannot put these agreements beyond the reach of review under Articles 101 TFEU and 102 TFEU by resorting to arbitration” (AG Op §§58, 67 and 72).

Ruling on Article 101 TFEU

As mentioned above, this aspect of the CJEU’s ruling builds on the earlier decision in C-320/87 Ottung [1989] ECR 1177.  A single, simple proposition emerges. An agreement to pay a license fee to use a patented technology does not contravene Article 101 just because the license fee remains payable in case of invalidity, revocation or non-infringement, provided that the licensee is free to terminate the agreement by giving reasonable notice (Ottung §13; Genentech §§40-43).

Digging deeper, two practical caveats must be added. First, it would be unsafe to assume that contractual restrictions on termination are the only restrictions on the licensee’s freedom that are relevant to the assessment. The Advocate General’s opinion in Genentech gives the further example of restrictions on the licensee’s ability to challenge the validity or infringement of the patents (AG Op §104). Indeed, any post-termination restriction which interferes with the licensee’s “freedom of action” might change the outcome if it places the licensee at a competitive disadvantage as against other users of the technology (AG Op §§91, 104; Ottung §13). Second, on the facts of Genentech, the commercial purpose of the Agreement was to enable the licensee to use the technology at issue while avoiding patent litigation (§32). Accordingly, it was clear that fees payable were connected to the subject matter of the agreement (AG Op §94). It is unlikely that a license agreement imposing supplementary obligations unconnected to its subject matter would be treated in the same fashion (AG Op §§95, 104; C-193//83 Windsurfing International v Commission [1986] E.C.R. 611).

 

 

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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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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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