Umbrella pricing- Case C-557/12 Kone, or when effectiveness may go too far with little effective consequences
Last Thursday the ECJ delivered its –once again remarkably brief (4 pages)- Judgment in Kone, Case C-557/12. In her widely discussed Opinion in this case Advocate General Kokott had raised the stakes, pointing out that “[t]he Court’s Judgment in this case will without doubts be groundbreaking in the context of the further development of European competition law and, in particular, its private enforcement” (perhaps a bit of an overstatement if you ask me).
The question at issue was whether a national legal system can exclude the possibility that compensation may be sought in relation to damages suffered due to the overprice (legally) charged by non-cartelists who independently and rationally adapted to the cartel by increasing their own prices. The umbrella metaphor signifies that those companies can profitably increase under the cover of their competitors’ cartel.
The Judgment is remarkable because –following AG Kokott’s recommendation- it somehow endorses the “umbrella pricing/damages” theory by ruling that Member States cannot exclude it “categorically”. In the Court’s words:
“[t]he full effectiveness of Article 101 TFEU would be put at risk if the right of any individual to claim compensation for harm suffered were subjected by national law, categorically and regardless of the particular circumstances of the case, to the existence of a direct causal link while excluding that right because the individual concerned had no contractual links with a member of the cartel, but with an undertaking not party thereto, whose pricing policy, however, is a result of the cartel that contributed to the distortion of price formation mechanisms governing competitive markets”. (Para.33).
A brief background note
The preliminary reference had reached the ECJ because Austria Courts had previously ruled that the “umbrella pricing” theory would not be sufficient to establish a “causal link”. The referring Court cited a legal doctrine that holds sway in Germany and Austria according to which any claimant must establish the infringement of a “protective provision”. According to that doctrine, the decisive factor is whether the provision infringed by the person responsible for the loss had as its object the protection of the injured person’s interest. In this sense, it was generally considered in Austria that “umbrella pricing” theories were out of the scope of the protective provision given that the loss they could cause involved no relationship of unlawfulness and was rather “merely a side-effect of an independent decision that a person not involved in that cartel has taken based on his own business considerations”.
The Judgment’s reasoning in a nutshell
The Judgment (i) recalls the direct effect of the competition rules and that its effectiveness requires that any individual shall be able to claim damages for loss caused to him by a conduct restrictive of competition (paras 20-22); (ii) stresses the role of damages claims as a possibility that “strengthens the working of EU competition rules” (para 23); (iii) reminds that in the absence of harmonization the principle of procedural autonomy applies (meaning that whereas EU Law imposes the necessary “existence” of a right to claim damages national laws must govern the “exercise” thereof) (para. 24); (iv) observes that the principle of procedural autonomy is subjected to compliance with the principles of equivalence and effectiveness (paras 25-26); (v) states that “umbrella pricing” is “one of the possible effects of the cartel, that the members thereof cannot disregard” (paras. 27-30); and (vi) concludes that excluding the link of causality between the cartel and umbrella pricing categorically, for legal reasons and regardless of the circumstances would run counter the effectiveness of EU competition rules (paras. 31-35).
A handful of follow-up thoughts
I haven’t yet given much thought to this, but here are some preliminary -almost instinctive- reactions that might perhaps contribute to sparking some debate:
- From the viewpoint of general EU Law the Judgment fits within a consistent body of case-law endorsing an indirect harmonization of civil procedural rules by virtue of an ample reading of the principle of effectiveness that narrows the scope of the principle of procedural autonomy.
- The key assumption or stance underlying the Judgment is that there is a certain causal relationship between the cartel and the umbrella pricing in which the former acts as a facilitator or enabling mechanism for the latter (e.g. (a) “it is not disputed by the interested parties (…) that a phenomenon such as umbrella pricing is recognized as one of the possible consequences of a cartel”; (b) “even if the determination of an offer price is a purely autonomous decision, taken by the undertaking not party to a cartel, it must none the less be stated that such decision has been able to be taken by reference to a market price distorted by that cartel and, as a result, contrary to the competition rules”); and, more clearly, (c) the suffering of loss in “umbrella pricing” settings “is one of the possible effects of the cartel”).
To me this causal relationship would seem intuitively hard to establish, and I wouldn’t have bet on the Court taking it for granted (with the sole supporting arguent that the intervening parties in the case had not disputed that umbrella pricing is, very theoretically, a possible consequence of a cartel). In any event, those familiar with the Court’s case-law in other areas may observe that the ECJ might arguably have embraced a much narrower interpretation of the causality link in other areas, such as that of non-contractual liability of EU Institutions, where a “direct causal link” is required…
- Effectiveness trumps it all? The deviation from the general principle of procedural autonomy and the arguably flexible interpretation of the “causality” requirement might once again be explained by the perceived need to safeguard the effectiveness of the competition rules (read paras. 32 and 33 of the Judgment). Effectiveness has –rightly- been the core concern at the root of the case law on damages actions (Courage and Crehan, Manfredi, City Morors, Pfleiderer, Otis or Donau Chemie). However, one often has the impression that we hail the effectiveness of these rules too much in order to deviate from general principles of law to a greater extent than we do it with other legal regimes, particularly when dealing with cartels (para. 32 of Kokkot’s Opinion makes this last point more evident). I recently made the same point regarding the Court’s minimalistic interpretation of the limiting principles of necessity and proportionality in these cases for the sake of effectiveness
- At the level of incentives, what signal would this Judgment send to non-cartelists operating in a seemingly cartelized market? [admittedly not an easy group to target] How about “hey, raise your prices in the shadow of the cartel: you’ll reap the profits plus your rivals will have to pay extra for it”?
- It’s remarkable that, to my knowledge, this is an issue that hasn’t received that much attention in the U.S. in spite of private enforcement being much more developed. In fact, distric courts have tended to view this theory as too speculative or conjectural, observing that independent pricing decisions (which may be affected by several and complex factors) break the chain of causation. [e.g. Antoine Garabet, M.D., Inc. v. Autonomous Techs. Corp., 116 F. Supp. 2d 1159, 1167-68 (C.D. Cal. 2000)].
- The Judgment will be welcomed by many lawyers (because we now have an apparent better chance at overcoming the causality hurdle) and particularly economists (for whom, paradoxically, the endorsement of the umbrella theory could bring in a rain of new work) (I get metaphorical at lunchbreaks)
- At the end of the day, and in spite of all the above, I doubt this Judgment will have very significant practical implications. The only thing the Court really says is that national legislations cannot exclude the “umbrella theory” categorically and regardless of the specific circumstances of the case. However, it does in no way require national Courts to accept this theory when they examine the causal link originating responsibility in a given case. The causal relationship still will need to be proved in the light of the specific circumstances of the case and, well, good luck with that.