Category Archives: Agreements

The Supreme Court’s decision in Unwired Planet – what comes next?

Introduction

The UK Supreme Court has handed down its long-awaited judgment in Unwired Planet. Its decision has profound implications for patent owners and implementers alike and is likely to lead to heavily contested jurisdictional disputes going forward.

These joined appeals concern Standard Essential Patents, or “SEPs”: a patent which the owner has declared to be essential to the implementation of certain telecommunications standards, such as 3G. In practical terms such a patent, if essential as declared and if it is valid, is necessarily infringed by technology implementing the relevant standard, notably mobile phones.  The appellants, Huawei and ZTE, manufacture smartphones and other telecommunications equipment, and implement such technical standards. They were defendants in two sets of patent infringement proceedings. The patent owners, Unwired Planet and Conversant, each had a multinational portfolio said to include SEPs in the UK and elsewhere. They had declared SEPs essential to practising technical standards set by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (“ETSI”), and given an undertaking to ETSI that they were willing to license SEPs to implementers on “FRAND” terms: Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory.

The Supreme Court decided as follows:

  • Jurisdiction: The English courts have the power to declare that, as the price for avoiding an injunction restraining infringement of a UK SEP, the implementer has to enter into a global licence; and can determine the rates and terms of such a licence and declare them to be FRAND. (§49-91). The contract created by the ETSI policy confers this jurisdiction: it envisages that national courts will assess whether the terms of an offer are FRAND, looking at ‘real world’ commercial practice. (§58, 62). The Court was also not persuaded that damages, rather than an injunction, were the appropriate remedy (§163-169).
  • Forum non conveniens: in the Conversant claim, the implementers contended that England is not the appropriate forum for this dispute. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s rejection of China as a suitable alternative forum as, on the evidence, Chinese courts cannot currently determine terms of a global licence unless the parties agree. (§96-97).
  • Discrimination: Unwired did not discriminate against Huawei by failing to offer the same worldwide royalty rates that it had previously agreed with Samsung. The non-discriminatory limb of FRAND means that a single royalty price list should be available to all market participants based on the portfolio’s market value. (§112-114).
  • Competition law: Huawei had not abused a dominant position contrary to Article 102 TFEU and to the CJEU’s decision in Case C-170/13 Huawei v ZTE. Seeking a prohibitory injunction without notice will infringe Article 102 TFEU, but what is required by way of ‘notice’ is fact sensitive. Unwired had not acted abusively: it had shown that it was willing to grant Huawei a licence on whatever terms that the court deemed FRAND. (§150-158)

What’s next?

First, it is now clear that the UK courts have jurisdiction to rule on the terms of global licences. This could lead to a “race to sue”: implementers may opt to commence declaratory proceedings in their preferred jurisdiction (such as China) as soon as licence negotiations start to break down, so as to prevent the English court being seised of the entire portfolio if the SEP owner sues in this jurisdiction. This “race to sue” effect is compounded by the Court’s decision on Issue (4), i.e. its interpretation of the CJEU’s Huawei v ZTE. The factors therein are guidance, not “mandatory requirements” or “prescriptive rules(§151-152; 158), and Unwired did not need to propose a licence on the specific terms which the English court later determined were FRAND. (§158) This may reduce the consultation carried out by patent owners in future, before choosing to sue an implementer in the UK.

Moreover, now that the UK and German courts 75-78) have empowered themselves to settle the terms of global licences, other jurisdictions may well follow suit: notably, China and the USA. We should expect to see some hotly contested jurisdiction disputes in the next few years, centred on:

  • Forum non conveniens: The ratio of the Supreme Court’s decision on this point was narrow, focussing on the current practice of the Chinese courts. However, the Court also indicated, in obiter dicta, its agreement with the lower courts’ characterisation of the dispute (§95-96); namely, that global FRAND determination only arises as an issue in the context of relief for UK patent infringement and that it is up to the patent owner which national patents to assert. It is unclear whether the High Court will in future characterise the UK as the appropriate forum for pursuit of UK patent claims involving global licence disputes. The Supreme Court’s reference to “further issues” that could have arisen if China had been an available alternative forum 98) leaves open the possibility of implementers resurrecting arguments as to the suitable forum.
  • Case management stays: Where there are American or Chinese FRAND proceedings underway, there may be strong arguments to stay UK proceedings. The English courts will no doubt closely scrutinise the comity and propriety of litigating the FRAND assessment here; thereby imposing global terms on multinational companies like Samsung, Huawei and ZTE. The UK generally accounts for only a tiny proportion of relevant sales of such entities: in the Conversant proceedings, Huawei claimed that the Chinese market accounted for 56% of its worldwide sales on which Conversant made claims. The UK market by contrast comprised 1% of relevant sales. As to ZTE, 0.07% of its turnover came from the UK and 60% of its operating revenue came from China. Both entities manufacture in China. 37).

Secondly, the Supreme Court’s decision on non-discrimination is potentially highly important, in practical terms. The Court twice referred to a single royalty “price list” available to all licensees irrespective of their individual characteristics. (§114)  This raises the prospect that going to court could present risks for SEP owners; on the Supreme Court’s approach, once the court has set a fair and reasonable global rate, it appears that the patent owner will then have to offer that rate to all putative licensees.

Thirdly, like the lower courts, the Supreme Court drew succour from the prospect of global “FRAND” licences including a clause which reduces the rate payable if foreign patents are later found to be invalid or inessential. The ‘adjustment’ clause imposed by Birss J in the Unwired proceedings had problems, however ([2017] EWHC 2988 (Pat), §582-592): it only applied to “major markets” and did not provide any adjustment to royalties payable if there was a successful challenge to Unwired’s Chinese patents (§47, 65). Inevitably, the Supreme Court’s decision means that there will be much focus, in negotiating the terms of a global FRAND licence, on the drafting of these ‘adjustment’ clauses.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s decision has settled the law definitively on the power of the English courts to determine the terms of global FRAND licences for SEPs. However, it leaves important practical implications unresolved. The judgment, while providing clarity on the jurisdictional aspect, is unlikely to be the last word on questions of comity and the proper role of foreign courts; the dictates of non-discrimination; or the drafting and interpretation of ‘adjustment’ clauses, and how they will operate in practice. Moreover, other national courts may well start asserting jurisdiction over these disputes, particularly in countries which account for a far greater proportion of relevant sales than the UK market. The questions posed by this article are therefore likely to play out before the English courts in coming years.

 

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Crisis cartels: relying on Article 101(3) in a pandemic

Brian Kennelly QC and Tom Coates examine how businesses might invoke Article 101(3) to justify collaboration during the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted some slackening of competition rules, but not much. Competition authorities, including the Commission and the CMA, have indicated that they are unlikely to take issue with coordination between providers of critical items such as medical equipment (see here and here). The government has issued exemptions from the Chapter I prohibition for groceries, healthcare services and Solent ferries. But these limited indulgences are all designed to remedy an urgent and heightened demand for essential products. For most businesses – many of whom will have seen a cliff-edge plunge in demand – the competition regime is unchanged.

Nevertheless, the temptation amongst competitors to find a shared solution to a shared problem must be great. For such businesses, the critical question will be: how will competition law principles – and Article 101(3) in particular – be applied in a time of unprecedented crisis?

Clues to the answer may lie in the EU’s reaction to historical crises in the markets for synthetic fibres (Commission Decision 84/380/EEC), Dutch bricks (Commission Decision 94/296/EC) and – most importantly – Irish beef (Case C-209/07). All these sectors suffered declines in demand which led to issues of structural overcapacity. In each case, rival undertakings agreed to reduce capacity in a concerted and orderly way, rather than allow market forces to remedy the problem. When challenged by the Commission, the relevant undertakings invoked Article 101(3) to justify their conduct.

The starting point for the analysis in each case was that the relevant agreement to reduce capacity amounted to a restriction of competition by object under Article 101(1). In the Irish Beef case, the CJEU emphasised that the parties’ honest subjective intentions did not matter: “even supposing it to be established that the parties to an agreement acted without any subjective intention of restricting competition, but with the object of remedying the effects of a crisis in their sector, such considerations are irrelevant for the purposes of applying that provision” [21].

Courts have reached similar conclusions in cases of other crisis cartels which do not concern overcapacity. An example from the UK is the dairy price initiative case, in which retailers clubbed together to agree prices they would charge to farmer suppliers, whose dissatisfaction at milk prices had led them to blockade creameries. Although the scheme had wide public support, the OFT nevertheless considered it an object restriction and the CAT largely agreed (Tesco Stores v OFT [2012] CAT 31).

The objectives and pro-competitive effects of crisis cartels may, however, be relevant to the analysis of Article 101(3). This includes the following four cumulative conditions: (a) the agreement must contribute to improving the production or distribution of goods or contribute to promoting technical or economic progress; (b) consumers must receive a fair share of the resulting benefit; (c) the restrictions must be indispensable to the attainment of these objectives; and (d) the agreement must not afford the parties the possibility of eliminating competition in respect of a substantial part of the products in question.

In both the Synthetic Fibres and the Dutch Brick cases, the Commission found that Article 101(3) was applicable. Reducing capacity brought efficiencies and pro-competitive benefits insofar as it allowed the industries in question to shed the financial burden of keeping under-utilized excess capacity open without incurring any loss of output. Interestingly, the Commission also had regard to the social advantages which would arise from the agreements in the form of the retraining or redeployment of redundant workers. As to consumers, the Commission reasoned – without lengthy analysis – that they would benefit from an overall healthier industry with increased competition and greater specialization. In considering whether the agreements were indispenable, the Commission’s view was that (a) market forces on their own had been unable to solve overcapacity problems and (b) the agreements themselves were solely concerned with overcapacity and so went no further than necessary.

In the Irish Beef case, the CJEU did not itself consider Article 101(3) but the Commission submitted a brief in the underlying Irish proceedings giving guidelines on its application to crisis cartels. The substance of this brief was later replicated in a paper submitted by the Commission to the OECD (here). It illustrates the key hurdles which an undertaking relying on Article 101(3) will have to clear.

First, it will be necessary to establish pro-competitive benefits which outweigh the disadvantages for competition. In the context of the crisis, this may be one of the (relatively) easier hurdles to clear. Benefits could for example take the form of shedding inefficient capacity; or, in the case of an agreement protecting the survival of a shared critical supplier, shielding consumers from an interruption in supply, market collapse, or an overly concentrated market. There may be a useful analogy to be drawn with the failing firm defence which makes rare appearances in the mergers context: the thrust of the argument could be that, although anti-competitive, the conduct is better than the alternative of market exit.

Second, businesses will need to show that the agreement is indispensable to achieve the benefits. The critical – and difficult – question here is likely to be whether market forces alone could remedy the problem at hand. In its paper, the Commission’s view was that an agreement reducing capacity was unlikely to be indispensable unless quite specific conditions were present (in particular, high costs associated with reducing capacity and stable, transparent and symmetric market structures). In the ordinary course of events, mergers and specialisation agreements might produce a more efficient solution.

Third, and again critically, businesses will need to demonstrate that consumers receive a fair share of the benefits such that they are at least compensated for any negative impact. This is likely to be a hard condition to satisfy. Although the Synthetic Fibres and Dutch Brick cases contain generous reasoning on consumer benefits, the Irish Beef paper signals a more rigorous and quantitative approach. Of particular importance will be an analysis of the extent to which competitive constraints are reduced. The greater the reduction, the greater the efficiency and benefits must be for sufficient pass-on.

The Commission’s paper concludes that pleading Article 101(3) successfully in overcapacity reduction cases is likely to be “very difficult” [58]. But these are extraordinary times. The key to success is likely to be whether the agreement in question limits any lessening of competition to the bare minimum. If it does, there may be a serious argument that the countervailing benefits in the context of an unprecedented crisis outweigh the harm.

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Merricks v MasterCard: Collective Actions Reinvigorated

The Court of Appeal today gave its much-anticipated judgment in the application to bring collective proceedings against MasterCard: see Merricks v MasterCard Incorporated and others [2019] EWCA Civ 674.  It is a major victory for the Applicant and will reinvigorate the collective proceedings regime, which has seen disappointingly few cases brought since its introduction in 2015. Continue reading

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A warning before bringing an appeal to the CAT? Costs after the BCMR decision

The Court of Appeal’s judgment in the recent BCMR costs case is a stark warning to all those considering challenging a regulatory decision in the Competition Appeal Tribunal: even if you win, you may still face a big costs bill.  See British Telecommunications plc v Office of Communications [2018] EWCA Civ 2542.

Unlike the position in most civil courts under the CPR, in the CAT there is no prima facie rule that the unsuccessful party must pay the costs of the successful party. By rule 104(2) of the CAT Rules 2015, the CAT has a discretion to make “any order it thinks fit in relation to the payment of costs in respect of the whole or part of the proceedings.” Rule 104(4) sets out a list of factors that may be taken into account when making an order under rule 104(2) determining the amount of costs which includes, amongst others, whether a party has succeeded on part of its case, even if that party has not been wholly successful.

The previous practice of the CAT in relation to costs distinguished between certain categories of case. In relation to “dispute resolution appeals” (i.e. appeals against decisions made by Ofcom resolving a price dispute under s.185 of the 2003 Act) the starting point was that there would be no order as to costs against Ofcom if it had acted reasonably and in good faith. That made good sense because, in such a case, Ofcom simply acts as an arbiter between two competing private parties. However, in the case of “regulatory appeals” (i.e. appeals made against decisions made by Ofcom in the regulatory context) the starting point was that costs follow the event. This approach was developed by the CAT in Tesco plc v Competition Commission [2009] CAT 26 and PayTV [2013] CAT 9.

Ofcom’s principal submission in the BCMR case was that the Tesco and PayTV decisions were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the applicable authorities. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding that the CAT had taken inadequate account of principles set out in analogous cases in the regulatory context. Principally, in Perinpanathan [2010] EWCA Civ 40 at §76, Lord Neuberger summarised the position as follows:

[i]n a case where regulatory or disciplinary bodies, or the police, carrying out regulatory functions, have acted reasonably in opposing the granting of relief, or in pursuing a claim, it seems appropriate that there should not be a presumption that they should pay the other party’s costs.

The Court of Appeal held that those principles are directly applicable to the current case even though, as it acknowledged, Perinpanathan was not a competition case and did not concern an appeal in a specialist tribunal such as the CAT (at §69).

The important point was that, in each case, the regulators were acting solely in pursuit of their public duty and in the public interest in carrying out regulatory functions. The question which the CAT should have asked was whether there were specific circumstances of the costs regime which rendered the principles inapplicable. As a matter of principle, if Ofcom has acted purely in its regulatory capacity in prosecuting or resisting a claim before the CAT and its actions were reasonable and in the public interest, the Court of Appeal concluded that “it is hard to see why one would start with a predisposition to award costs against it, even if it were unsuccessful.” (at §§72, 83). The decision has therefore been remitted to the CAT for reconsideration, in view of the principles set out in the judgment.

The Court of Appeal added for good measure the CAT had made the same error, of giving inadequate weight to the relevant authorities, in the Tesco case (at §§70, 82). Tesco concerned a successful judicial review under s.179(1) of the Enterprise Act 2002 of the Competition Commission’s decision to introduce a competition test as part of planning applications. The CAT ordered the Commission (now Competition and Markets Authority) to pay Tesco’s costs.

Given the Court of Appeal’s comments, it seems likely that the CAT will be required to reconsider the appropriateness of the loser pays principle not only in regulatory appeals but also in statutory judicial review applications against the CMA’s decisions when the issue next arises.  It is still open to the CAT to decide that, notwithstanding that there is no presumption in favour of costs following the event, it would still be appropriate for the regulator to pay the costs of the losing party, perhaps to avoid what BT says would be the ‘chilling effect’ of depriving the winning party of its costs in such cases. However, the Court of Appeal has made clear that successful appellants can no longer assume that their claims for costs will be looked on favourably.

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Retrospective interpretation: DSG v MasterCard

The latest battle over limitation in Competition damages claims was a victory for the claimants – see DSG Retail Ltd v MasterCard Inc [2019] CAT 5.  In some ways it is a surprising decision, because the Competition Appeal Tribunal has decided that when s.47A of the Competition Act was enacted in 2003, certain claims which were time-barred prior to its enactment were revived.  The Tribunal frankly acknowledged that it did not find the matter straightforward, and looking at the rules it is easy to see why.

It used to be the case that competition damages claims could only be brought in the civil courts, where they would be subject to the usual six-year limitation rule (subject to extensions in various circumstances which need not concern us here).  In 2003 a new route was introduced: claimants became entitled bring follow-on claims in the CAT under s.47A, which had its own bespoke limitation regime.  That regime included this provision, which was found in rule 31(4) of the 2003 CAT Rules:

“No claim for damages may be made if, were the claim to be made in proceedings brought before a court, the claimant would be prevented from bringing the proceedings by reason of a limitation period having expired before the commencement of section 47A.”

Rule 31(4) was dropped when the rules were revised in 2015.  The position now is that claimants can still bring s.47A follow-on claims, including for periods pre-2015, but such claims are no longer subject to rule 31(4). The Tribunal had to decide the related questions of what the consequence was of dropping rule 31(4), and what the rule meant in the first place.

The most obvious interpretation of rule 31(4) is that claimants could not bring follow-on claims under s.47A if the claims would have been time-barred in 2003 when s.47A was introduced.  Thus, if an infringement lasted from 1993 to 2003 (and assuming that it was not deliberately concealed), the claimants could have brought a s.47A claim for damages going back as far as 1997 but no earlier.  That would make good sense because it would mean that the introduction of the s.47A regime did not ‘revive’ claims that had otherwise expired.

The main problem with that ‘obvious’ interpretation is that it would lead to very strange consequences when, in 2015, rule 31(4) was dropped.  One possibility is that the effect of dropping rule 31(4) was that, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, from 2015 claimants were allowed to bring claims for damages which were time-barred in 2003 and which had remained time-barred until 2015.  That would be very surprising.  The only way to avoid such a result would be to say – and this is essentially what MasterCard said – that the rules should continue to be applied as if rule 31(4) still applies.  But that is  an ambitious argument given that the rule was deliberately dropped.

The Tribunal resolved these problems by deciding that what I have called the ‘obvious’ reading of rule 31(4) is wrong.  In fact, the Tribunal held, rule 31(4) required one to ask whether the entire proceedings would have been time-barred in 2003 when s.47A was introduced.  If the answer is that the proceedings would not have been time-barred, because some of the damage was still within the limitation period, then the claimants could have started s.47A follow-on proceedings for the entire loss.  Thus, to take my example of an infringement lasting from 1993 to 2003, the fact that the 1997-2003 period was not limitation-barred in 2003 meant that claimants were entitled to start s.47A proceedings for the entire 1993-2003 period.  Section 47A therefore did, in this limited sense, revive claims that had otherwise expired.

This approach to rule 31(4) has the particular attraction of enabling one to explain why the rule was dropped in 2015.  The explanation, according to the Tribunal, is a practical one: it is extremely unlikely that there will be an infringement decision after 2015 which relates to damages which were entirely limitation-barred in 2003.  Thus, rule 31(4) is no longer practically necessary; the problem with which it was concerned will no longer arise.

The upshot of all of this is that the Tribunal has decided that rule 31(4) never prevented claimants from pursuing claims going back as far as 1993 (or earlier), provided that some part of the damage was suffered in or after 1997, and the fact that rule 31(4) has now been dropped is entirely understandable and makes no practical difference.  Claims can still be brought going back to 1993 (or earlier).  It is undoubtedly a neat solution.

On the other hand, consider this.  It seems pretty unlikely that any claimant who had brought a claim in, say, 2004, or 2014, would have been able to persuade the Tribunal that the 2003 rules had revived claims that were otherwise time-barred.  It is only because the rule was revoked in 2015, and because the Tribunal used the fact of revocation as being relevant to its meaning when originally enacted, that the Tribunal interpreted the rule in the way that it did.  Thus, claims which were time-barred in 2003, and which would probably have been treated as time-barred up until 2015, are now to be treated as having been revived in 2003.  That may well be the least bad interpretation of the regime, but one can well understand why the Tribunal did not find the matter at all easy.

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Jurisdiction after a no deal Brexit

Time for some more speculation about the future which awaits us after 29 March.  The topic this time is jurisdiction.

As the readers of this blog will know, the rules of civil jurisdiction across the EU are currently governed by the Brussels Recast regulation.  The basic framework is:

  1. A defendant domiciled in a Member State can be sued in the court of its domicile and also in various other EU courts under certain specified gateways (e.g. in competition claims, the place where the cartel was concluded – see CDC).
  2. There are strong lis pendens provisions. In general, if the same issue is litigated in more than one Member State, the later proceedings must be stayed.
  3. There is protection for choice of forum contracts in favour of a court of a Member State. The courts of the chosen Member State will accept jurisdiction even if the defendant is not domiciled in that (or indeed any) Member State; and all other courts must stay proceedings in deference to the courts of the chosen Member State.

The proposed Withdrawal Agreement provides that the provisions of Brussels Recast will continue to apply to proceedings instituted during the transitional period.  But, as with most things, if there is no Withdrawal Agreement then things will get more interesting.

No deal Brexit: The law in England

The government’s intention in the event of no deal is that Brussels Recast will continue to apply to cases begun in England before Brexit, but otherwise it will be repealed.  A draft statutory instrument to that broad effect was published in December.

It is worth briefly pausing on this point to note that it is not obvious that the proposed statutory instrument will be lawful.  Under the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, the SI can only be made if it is required to remedy or mitigate a ‘deficiency’ in retained EU law.  The government has proceeded on the basis that Brussels Recast in a necessarily reciprocal arrangement and that the UK could not retain it if the EU does not do so too.  That may be open to debate.

However, assuming that the proposed SI is not challenged, the practical consequence will be that the English common law rules will apply instead of Brussels Recast to all cases commenced in England after exit day.  Whether that is a good thing rather depends on your perspective.

The English rules are certainly more flexible than the Brussels Recast rules.  In theory, there will be some cases which could be litigated in England under the English jurisdictional gateways which you could not litigate here under Brussels Recast.  For example, an English court could allow proceedings to be litigated in England even if there is a jurisdiction clause in favour of an EU Member State.  Other examples were given in Naina Patel and Andrew Scott’s previous blog on this topic.

On the other hand most of the English gateways are discretionary.  This gives rise to much more uncertainty, and in practice it may be somewhat optimistic to think that there are going to be lots of opportunities to bring new claims in England that could not have been brought under Brussels Recast.

No deal Brexit: The law in the EU

It may turn out that the more difficult problems will arise in proceedings in the EU-27.

It is worth starting with the obvious point that Brussels Recast will continue to apply, within the EU, to cases where the Defendant is domiciled in an EU Member State.  So, to take a simple example, an English company could still sue a German company in Germany.  That will give rise to various tactical possibilities for claimants wanting to sue an EU defendant.

  1. They might be able to sue in England, under English rules.
  2. They could sue in the EU. If within one of the Brussels Recast gateways, the EU court would (probably) be obliged to accept jurisdiction.
  3. Note that they could sue in the EU even if there is a jurisdiction clause in favour of England. Brussels Recast gives particular weight to such agreements but only if they are in favour of the courts of a Member State.  We therefore face the prospect of EU Member States being obliged by the Brussels Recast regulation to take jurisdiction over disputes even if there is a contractual agreement in favour of English courts.

Brussels Recast will also still apply, within the EU, to cases where there is a jurisdiction agreement in favour of an EU Member State, regardless of the domicile of the parties.  So for example: a German claimant could still sue an English defendant in the chosen EU court.  This gives rise to similar tactical possibilities as are set out above.

But Brussels Recast will not apply within the EU to cases where the Defendant is domiciled in England and there is no EU jurisdiction agreement.  In this scenario, the national rules of the Member States will apply.  For example: if a German company sues an English company in Germany then, in the absence of any jurisdiction agreement, German jurisdiction rules will apply.

There are therefore various complex means by which jurisdiction may be established in the EU in cases with an English connection.  To make matters more complex, all of this must be understood in light of the fact that the Brussels Recast lis pendens rules do not apply in relation to pending proceedings in third states.  Article 33 of Brussels Recast provides only that Member States may, in certain circumstances, stay proceedings to await the resolution of pending proceedings in a third state.  What this means in practice is that we face the prospect of the same parties being tied up in litigating the same issues in the UK and in the EU.

As to how quickly these changes might happen, the European Commission has recently (18th January 2019) published a Notice to Stakeholders which states that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Brussels Recast will continue to apply to cases involving a UK-domiciled defendant which were pending before EU courts on the withdrawal date.  The legal basis for that assertion is not explained, but even if it is true it will affect only a small number of cases.  The Commission has not expressed a view on other scenarios which appear rather more likely, such as whether Brussels Recast would apply to proceedings commenced in the EU post-Brexit but where there were pending proceedings in England pre-Brexit; or whether it would apply to jurisdiction agreements in favour of England entered into pre-Brexit.  The broad expectation appears to be that the UK will immediately cease to be treated as part of the Brussels Recast regime.

 

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Subsidiarity liability: Biogaran

I wrote a blog a few months ago on the circumstances in which a subsidiary can be held liable for the infringing conduct of its parent.  That is a somewhat special interest subject which might be said to have received more than its fair share of attention among English judges and lawyers. However, I cannot resist a short update to point out that the issue has recently received attention from the EU General Court.

The context was a clutch of appeals relating to the Commission’s decision on ‘pay-for-delay’ settlements relating to patents owned by the French pharmaceutical company Servier. One of the addressees of the decision was Biogaran, a 100% Servier subsidiary.  One of Biogaran’s grounds of appeal – which was rejected – was that the Commission had wrongly held it liable for an infringement carried out by its parent.

The judgment is not as clear as one might have hoped, and it is also not yet available in English. However, two points are tolerably clear.

The first point is that the General Court considered that a subsidiary may be liable for an infringement even if does not itself have the knowledge that is ordinarily required to find an infringement: see [223]-[225].  That said, it appears that Biogaran did have at least some knowledge, so the precise limits of the court’s analysis are open to debate.

The second point relates to implementation.  Some parts of the Court’s judgment may be read as suggesting that a subsidiary may be liable even if it has played no role in the implementation of the infringement.  Other parts may be read as meaning that the subsidiary must play role in implementation but that it can be relatively minor: at [225] the Court refers to implementation “even in a subordinate, accessory or passive manner.”

So Biogaran is unlikely to be the final word on this issue.  It does, however, tilt the balance more firmly in favour of subsidiary liability than some English judges might be comfortable with.

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Anchoring claims to a UK subsidiary

The recent decision of the High Court in Vattenfall AB v Prysmian SpA [2018] EWHC 1694 (Ch) is another example of claimants being allowed to use non-addressee English subsidiaries as anchor defendants for their competition damages claims.  It is also another example of the court considering but not actually having to decide the interesting legal points around attribution of liability which potentially arise in such cases.

There have now been several cases with the same basic structure: the European Commission decides that a company is liable for a competition law infringement and some claimants then start proceedings against that company’s English subsidiary in order to establish jurisdiction in England.  The defendant objects to the claimants’ attempt to sue an entity which was not, after all, an addressee of the Commission’s decision simply to use it as a means of bringing proceedings in London.

The problem which defendants face in such a scenario, and the reason why they keep losing these cases, is that it is relatively easy for claimants to allege that the English subsidiary was knowingly involved in the infringement.  If the Commission has found that there was an EU-wide infringement then it will often be entirely proper for the claimants to infer, at least sufficiently to meet the low threshold for establishing jurisdiction, that the infringement was implemented in England through the English subsidiary.  In Vatenfall the claimants had the additional benefit of being able to point to concrete evidence in support of their knowing implementation plea.  Provided that such a plea is properly made, a standalone claim can be run against the English subsidiary which can then be used as the anchor defendant.

The more interesting legal question is what the position would be if a claimant cannot properly plead a standalone case of knowing implementation against the English subsidiary.  Could the parent’s liability be attributed to the subsidiary so that the subsidiary can be sued and used as an anchor defendant even though it was not involved in the cartel?  The English judges who have considered this question have expressed different views about it.

One view is that the answer is that liability can be attributed from an infringing subsidiary to its parent company but not the other way round.  Supporters of this view point to the fact that, when discussing attribution of liability in the line of cases starting with Akzo Nobel NV v European Commission [2009] 5 CMLR 23, the European Courts have been concerned only with imputing liability to a parent company, and that they only permit such attribution if the parent exercised a ‘decisive influence’ over the infringing subsidiary.

The problem, however, is that the reasoning in the Akzo Nobel line of cases is expressed in quite wide-reaching terms.  The basic logic is that if the parent and subsidiary are part of the same single economic unit then they form a single undertaking, and that if an undertaking infringes competition law then all of its legal entities are liable for the breach.  The ‘decisive influence’ test is really about determining whether the parent and subsidiary are part of the same economic unit, not an additional threshold for the attribution of liability between companies which are in the same economic unit.

Thus the alternative view is that the liability can be attributed between any and all companies in the same undertaking.  This has caused some consternation among English judges because of its apparently wide-reaching consequences.  Does it mean that liability could be attributed to a subsidiary with no knowledge of or involvement in a cartel?  Or even from one subsidiary to another?

In the Sainsbury’s case ([2016] CAT 11) at [363] the CAT suggested something of a compromise: liability could be attributed between companies in the same undertaking but only if they had “in some way” participated in the breach or otherwise exercised a decisive influence over a company which did.  That is a sensible solution, but it might be said that it still sits somewhat uncomfortably with the reasoning in Akzo Nobel.

A different way of formulating the point might be as follows.  In accordance with the reasoning in Akzo Nobel, liability can always be attributed between companies in the same undertaking.  However, when asking whether companies are in the same “undertaking” one needs to keep in mind that the identification of an undertaking depends on the circumstances.  In a competition infringement case, the question is whether the companies acted as a single economic unit for the purposes of the infringement.  If they did then they are all part of the same undertaking and they are all liable.  If they did not then they are not part of the relevant undertaking and liability cannot be attributed to them from any other company in the group.

If this approach is correct then a subsidiary which genuinely had nothing to do with an infringement will not be liable for it.  But a subsidiary which, whether knowingly or not, acted in concert with other group companies such that they operated as a single economic unit to implement an infringement will be liable for it.  That is essentially (with slightly different reasoning) the approach which appealed to the CAT in Sainsbury’s, and it is a solution which avoids some of the extremes of other proposed solutions.

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Applicable law in competition infringements: Deutsche Bahn

The recent judgment of Barling J in Deutsche Bahn AG v MasterCard offers important guidance on determining applicable law in competition actions. Practitioners dealing with competition infringements which stretch back prior to the entry into force of Rome II in 2009 should take note – particularly when dealing with limitation issues, which are governed by the applicable law of the tort. The court held that where the 1995 Act regime applies (broadly, between 1996 and 2009) the applicable law is that of the country where the restriction of competition took place. This begs the question: what law applies if the claimants have not defined the geographical market which is affected along national lines?

Background

This judgment is the latest in the interchange fee saga following the Commission’s infringement decision in 2007. It relates to an action brought on behalf of some 1,300 retailers operating in 18 European countries. The retailers claim that Mastercard infringed European and national competition laws by centrally setting interchange fees payable by acquiring banks (and other rules) which in turn inflated the ‘merchant service charge’ paid by retailers whenever they accept payment by Mastercard credit/debit cards.

The claims span nearly three decades, dating back to 1992. As a stepping-stone to determining limitation issues, the parties asked the court to determine the applicable law and nominated test claims relating to 4 countries (Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK).

The three regimes

The resulting judgment is a helpful ready reckoner on applicable law for those faced with claims of long-running competition infringements. The three regimes can be broadly divided as follows:

  • 11 January 2009 to date: where the “events giving rise to damage” occurred on or after 11 January 2009, Rome II applies (see Article 31). Although what constitutes the relevant ‘event’ for the purposes of drawing this temporal dividing line in competition cases was left unanswered ([26]).
  • 1 May 1996 to 10 January 2009: where the “acts or omissions giving rise to a claim” occurred on or after 1 May 1996, the Private International Law (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act (the “1995 Act”) applies (see section 14). This is concerned with the acts and omissions of the Defendant, irrespective of the date of the resulting damage.
  • 22 May 1992 to 30 April 1996: English common law principles will apply.

The parties were in agreement on the import of Rome II: under Article 6(3) the applicable law is the law of the country “where the market is, or is likely to be, affected”. In the present case, it was agreed that this translated to a test of where the claimant was based at the time of the relevant transaction which attracted the merchant service charge ([22]). However, the application of the 1995 Act was heavily contested.

The 1995 Act: place where the restriction of competition occurred

The general statutory test for applicable law under section 11(1) of the 1995 Act is where “the events constituting the tort or delict in question occur”. Where elements of those events occur in different countries, the test outside of personal injury and property damage cases is where “the most significant event or elements of the events occurred” (section 11(2)).

The Defendants argued that that the place where the most significant event occurred was the place where the merchant was based when they paid the inflated service charge, thereby aligning the test with that under Rome II.

The thrust of the claimants’ argument was that ‘the most significant event’ in each claim was not the Claimants’ payment of an inflated service charge – rather, it was the Defendants’ actions in deciding to adopt the relevant interchange fee. The Claimants argued that those actions took place in Belgium (although this was subject to some dispute).

Mr Justice Barling found that the court must make a ‘value judgment’ about the significance of each of the English law constituents of the tort in question and that judgment should be taken in light of the facts of the particular case ([40]-[41]).

In the present case, he found that the most significant element of the cause of action was the restriction of competition. This, he found, was a factual event which could be geographically pinpointed and was not, as the claimants had argued, merely a legal/economic phenomenon without a country of occurrence. In practical terms, Barling J’s approach pointed to the national law of each of the markets where each claimant operated its retail business ([55]).

Beyond national markets?

Mr Justice Barling’s test of where the restriction of competition occurred seems a neat solution on the facts of the MasterCard case. MasterCard relied heavily upon the way in which the particulars of claim had been pleaded by reference to national markets and national laws (see the court’s discussion at [49] and [54]).

Yet the test may not produce such a neat answer for claims in which the relevant geographical market has not been defined along national lines. Claimants might allege a restriction of the pan-European market or even fail to define the geographical market at all in their pleadings. When faced with the argument that claims may plead restrictions by object rather than effect, the Judge observed that in such cases a restriction of competition is presumed to have occurred “on the relevant market”. Yet this begs the question – what is that relevant market? Can it always be neatly mapped on to a single country?

There is therefore considerable scope for future litigants to argue that ‘where the restriction occurred’ cannot be the ‘one size fits all’ solution in all competition claims reaching back prior to 2009. The seeds for such an argument may well have been sown in Mr Justice Barling’s finding that the significance of the different elements of a tort may differ even as between cases involving the same cause of action (see [118]).

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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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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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Eligibility for sporting competitions caught in the cross-hairs of competition law

In a recent announcement, the European Commission got its skates on and launched an investigation into the rules of the International Skating Union (ISU) which preclude skaters from taking part in events which have not been approved by the ISU. The announcement is only preliminary and does not represent a statement of what may or may not infringe competition law. However, it provides an indicator as to the issues of interest to the Commission, which may potentially have wider implications for other sporting bodies and the impact of competition law on their rules. It also reflects a growing willingness for EU bodies to apply antitrust rules to organisational rules of sporting bodies.

In this case, two Dutch ice speed skaters, Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt, complained to the Commission that the ISU’s rules are “unduly preventing athletes from exercising their profession” by effectively precluding other companies or entities from organising alternative ice-skating events. No more detail has been provided at this stage, however the allegation bears a striking resemblance to that in the Bruce Baker dispute (see my previous post on this here) or the Indian dispute over the BCCI’s licensing of rival cricket events, Barmi v Board of Control for Cricket in India (see my post here).

Article 1(1) of the ISU’s Constitution (2014) makes clear that it is “the exclusive international sport federation (IF) recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) administering Figure Skating and Speed Skating Sports throughout the world”. Article 2(1) goes on to provide that “[t]he ISU has jurisdiction throughout the world over all forms of international Figure and Speed Skating on ice and on synthetic polymeric ice surfaces whether performed using ice skating blades or substitutes simulating such blades”. Article 7(1)(b) contains a general prohibition that:

Members of the ISU, their affiliated clubs, their individual members and/or all other persons claiming standing as participants in the international activities of a Member or of the ISU […] shall not participate in any activities, national or international, against the integrity, the exclusive role and interests of the ISU.”

This set-up is not unusual. Indeed, in the so-called ‘European model of sport’, as recognised by the Commission itself, one of the ‘specificities of sport’ is that of:

the sport structure, including […] a pyramid structure of competitions from grassroots to elite level and organised solidarity mechanisms between the different levels and operators, the organisation of sport on a national basis, and the principle of a single federation per sport” (White Paper On Sport, COM(2007) 391 final, §4.1)

Although in its more recent documentation (e.g. the Communication, “Developing the European Dimension in Sport” COM(2011) 12 final) the Commission noted that there is no single model of good governance in sport (see §4.1), the ‘specificity of sport’ is now recognised in the EU Treaties, in particular at Article 165(1) TFEU.

However, since its seminal decision in Case C-519/04 P Meca-Medina and Majcen v Commission [2006] ECR I-06991 (ECLI:EU:C:2006:492), the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) has made clear that “the mere fact that a rule is purely sporting in nature does not have the effect of removing from the scope of the Treaty the person engaging in the activity governed by that rule or the body which has laid it down”. In other words, sporting rules are not per se excluded from the scope of competition law where they have economic effects on the internal market. Indeed, other international bodies, such as FIFA, have been found to be dominant undertakings or associations of undertakings for the purposes of EU competition law (see, e.g. Case T-193/02 Piau v Commission of the European Communities [2005] E.C.R. II-209 (ECLI:EU:T:2005:22) at [114]-[115]).

On eligibility, the ISU Regulations provide (at Article 102(1)(b)) that an “eligible person”, i.e. one who can participate in ISU events (pursuant to Article 103), must be one who

elects to take part only in International Competitions which are:

1. sanctioned by the Member and/or the ISU;

2. conducted by ISU recognized and approved Officials, including Referees, Technical Controllers, Technical Specialists, Judges, Starters, Competitors Stewards and others; and conducted under ISU Regulations.

By virtue of Article 102(2), a person who fails to do so, and participates in other non-sanctioned events may be declared ineligible and effectively excluded from ISU activities.

The Commission has indicated the initial view that this “may prevent alternative event organisers from entering the market or drive them out of business” and therefore “constitute anti-competitive agreements and/or an abuse of a dominant market position in breach of EU antitrust rules”. It should be stressed that this is only an early announcement and the relevant rules will need to be examined according the objectives they pursue, and their proportionality in light of those objectives. However, the substantive analysis of the compatibility of sporting rules with EU competition law appears to be a growing trend.

In MOTOE (Case C-49/07 Motosykletistiki Omospondia Ellados NPID (MOTOE) v Elliniko Dimosio [2008] ECR I-4863 (ECLI:EU:C:2008:376)), the CJEU was faced with a case concerning an application by an independent Greek motorcycling association to organise various events, refused by the body charged by Greek law with authorising motorcycling events within the national territory. The CJEU carried out a substantive analysis of the legislative framework and held that “[a] system of undistorted competition, such as that provided for by the Treaty, can be guaranteed only if equality of opportunity is secured as between the various economic operators” (at [51]).

What is more, this is not the first time the ISU has been in the news in the past year, its rules on arbitration famously giving rise to the Munich Higher Regional Court’s decision in the case of Claudia Pechstein v ISU that a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport is void (as noted by Jane Mulcahy in her post). In that decision, the German Court considered that for the purposes of German law, the ISU was dominant on the relevant market, namely the organisation of World Speed Skating Championships, as it was the sole person able to organise those events.

These decisions appear to illustrate an incoming tide of interest from national and European competition authorities in the duties of international and national sporting bodies which are in monopolistic positions. It may be that the recognition of the organisational traditions of sport no longer cuts ice (or at least carries the same weight) with competition bodies as it did, such that rules conferring exclusivity and monopolies will need to be justified on the merits. However, this expansive approach is likely to be limited to cases of clear exclusions from or foreclosure of a market, given the Commission’s consistent recognition that the primary responsibility for governance of sports lies with “sport organisations” themselves (see, e.g. §4.2 of the 2012 Communication). Like skaters in the “Kiss and Cry”, awaiting results alongside the rink, this is a space to keep watching…

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Arcadia v Visa revisited: the Court of Appeal takes a strict approach to limitation

Competition damages claims can be notoriously complex. According to the Court of Appeal, however, that is no reason to free them from the ordinary English rules of limitation – however strict those rules might be.

Unlike the large majority of European limitation rules, where time starts running from the date of the victim’s knowledge, the English rule under the Limitation Act 1980 (“LA 1980”) is that time starts running from the moment the wrong is done, unless the victim can show that the wrong was concealed from him. The claimants in Arcadia Group Brands Ltd & Ors v Visa Inc & Ors [2015] EWCA Civ 883 argued that various relevant facts had been concealed. Ultimately, their difficulty was that they did have sufficient facts available to them to plead their case. Continue reading

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Jurisdiction in competition damages actions: a first word from the CJEU

C-352/13 Cartel Damage Claims (CDC) Hydrogen Peroxide was the CJEU’s first judgment on the application of the Brussels I Regulation (44/2001) to competition damages claims. The case fell to be decided in the context of the EU’s various new measures to encourage private enforcement. The Advocate General was not convinced that this policy focus could be reflected in Brussels I – he considered that the Regulation was “not fully geared towards ensuring effective private implementation of the Union’s competition law” (at [8]). However, the CJEU embraced the challenge, and provided an interpretation of Brussels I that will do much to encourage private enforcement. Continue reading

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Settling cartel damages actions: contribution defendants beware

Anyone who has ever tried to settle a cartel damages case will know that the law relating to settlements is fraught with difficulty. The recent judgment of the High Court in IMI Plc v Delta Ltd [2015] EWHC 1676 (Ch) highlights some of the problems. Continue reading

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Recovering penalties from directors and employees: Safeway revisited

Can a company which has been fined for anticompetitive conduct seek to recover the fine from the directors and employees responsible by suing them for damages?

The question is moot in light of last week’s Supreme Court judgment in Jetivia SA and another v Bilta Ltd (in liquidation) and others [2015] UKSC 23, which casts some doubt on the Court of Appeal’s decision on this issue in Safeway Stores Ltd v Twigger [2010] EWCA Civ 1472. Continue reading

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Gallaher and Somerfield: will the CMA change its approach to settlement?

The latest episode in the tobacco litigation saga has seen Gallaher and Somerfield’s attempt to benefit from the collapse of the OFT’s case in November 2011 rejected by the High Court in R (Gallaher Group Limited and Ors) v Competition and Markets Authority [2015] EWHC 84 (Admin). Although the CMA will breathe a sigh of relief, Collin J’s critical judgment will give it food for thought on how it conducts early resolution negotiations in competition infringement cases in future. Continue reading

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Applying interest in damages claims

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the latest in our series of blogs by Oxera Consulting on key economic concepts for competition lawyers. In this blog, Enno Eilts, a Senior Consultant, discusses issues connected with the calculation of interest in damages actions. Continue reading

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What’s the plot? Conspiracy and 19th Century comic opera (again)

Ever since Johnson v Moreton [1980] AC 37 (61E-G per Lord Hailsham: ‘we should have to adopt the carefree attitude of the Mikado…’), references to Gilbert and Sullivan have been gaining ground in the judgments of our higher Courts. When last year Arden LJ rejected the argument, advanced by the claimant victim of a cartel, that it suffices to establish the intention requirement for the tort of unlawful means conspiracy that the claimant forms part of a class of persons against whom a cartelist’s wrongful acts were targeted, she did so by reference to The Gondoliers:

‘it deprives the requirement of intent to injure of any substantial content. It is tantamount to saying it is sufficient that the conspirators must have intended to injure anyone who might suffer loss from their agreement. If I might say so, the submission is reminiscent of the circularity of words in the Gondoliers that “when everyone is somebody, then nobody is anybody”’.

(See W.H. Newson [2013] EWCA Civ 1377 at [41], blogged here by Andrew Scott). Continue reading

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“It’s too late baby, now it’s too late”: limitation, competition claims and knowledge

How much knowledge does a potential claimant need before time begins to run against a competition claim against a party alleged to have breached competition law? This was the key question addressed by Mr Justice Simon in the first case in which an English Court has had to consider the effect of s.32 of the Limitation Act 1980 (“LA”) in the context of a competition claim. Continue reading

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High Court tests the limits of confidentiality in EC infringement decisions

The European Commission came in for some stern criticism from the High Court this week, in a case which looks set to test the boundaries of confidentiality in EC infringement decisions: see Emerald Supplies v BA [2014] EWHC 3515 (Ch).

The background is the 2010 EC decision fining BA and eleven other airlines a total of €800m for operating a global cartel for air freight services. Hundreds of claimants are seeking damages, and they sought disclosure of a copy of the decision – which, remarkably, has not yet been made public by the EC. Continue reading

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Skyscanner: CAT quashes commitments in the online booking sector

In a judgment handed down on Friday, the Competition Appeal Tribunal has quashed the Office of Fair Trading’s decision to accept commitments in the online hotel booking sector. As the first case to consider such commitments, Skyscanner Ltd v CMA [2014] CAT 16 contains some helpful guidance, albeit that Skyscanner’s success actually hinged on a fairly narrow point of regulatory law. Continue reading

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MasterCard miffed as CJEU dismisses appeal

Yesterday’s CJEU judgment in the MasterCard case is a major defeat for a company which faces a huge number of private damages actions from retailers. The judgment also examines some interesting legal points, including in particular relating to the use of “counterfactuals” in competition cases. Continue reading

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