Archive for the ‘Case-Law’ Category
In 1989 late Philip Areeda (picture above) wrote one of the most influential and cited antitrust pieces in the history of the discipline: Essential Facilities: An Epithet in Need of Limiting Principles, 58 Antitrust L.J. 841. I recall my first reading of this article as student at the College of Europe and how I truly enjoyed it (at roughly the same time I remember having felt the same about Joseph Weiler’s The Transformation of Europe) (yes, those were two good indicators of geekishness). From time to time I’ve gone back to that piece from Areeda, and as a fan of pendulum-based evolutional/historical theories, I’ve quite often cited one particular excerpt therein; here it is:
“As with most instances of judging by catch-phrase, the law evolves in three stages: (1) An extreme case arises to which a court responds. (2) The language of the response is then applied -often mechanically, sometimes cleverly- to expand the application. With too few judges experienced enough with the subject to resist, the doctrine expands to the limits of its language, with little regard to policy. (3) Such expansions ultimately become ridiculous, and the process of cutting back begins“.
I think this captures the evolutionary process of the law in many other areas of law in general and of competition law in particular. To mention only one among many possible examples, I used it some days ago to explain the evolution of the notion of the “single and continuous infringement” under Art. 101 TFEU.
There’s an interesting additional thought in relation to this quote. A few years after this piece was published the ECJ ruled on Magill, and I think it’s not at all unreasonable to say that Areeda’s piece was pondered by the Judges in that case (see, and cast your vote, here). Now, if you think about it, Areeda in many ways anticipated how the evolution of the law on refusal to supply would discur in Europe:
(1) Magill was a extreme case to which the Court responsed with a reasoning that was very much tailored to the facts at issue (a point often forgotten); (2) The language of the response was then applied -possibly mechanically, as an illustration of judidicial inertia (not to be confused with stare decisis)- to other factual settings and, with too few judges experienced enough with the subject to dare to nuance it (?), the Magill criteria consolidated in cases like Bronner and IMS. (3) Their consolidation as the sole relevant criteria ultimately became perhaps unreasonable and inconvenient, which led to an attempt to nuance them [the Commission's -in my view very reasonable- claim in the first Microsoft Decision that “there is no persuasiveness to an approach that would advocate the existence of an exhaustive checklist of exceptional circumstances and would have the Commission disregard a limine other circumstances of exceptional character that may deserve to be taken into account when assessing a refusal to supply.” (para. 555)].
As you know the the General Court did not follow the Commission on that particular point, not because it disagreed, it just didn’t need to rule on that point because it thought the Magill criteria were in any event fulfilled. That was done with the aim of minimizing the chances of getting quashed in an appeal and at the cost of some legal contortionism. In my view, it would have been desirable for the Court to assess whether all “extraordinary circumstances” to identify a refusal to suppy could or not be subsumed within the Magill criteria. Instead the Court gave a practical illustration of how its hammer can make square pegs fit round holes (an exercise that was repeated a few months later in BUPA re the Altmark criteria).
For a most interesting discussion on the legal contortions in Microsoft featuring some of the people who were actually associated to the case see the 16 comments to Nicolas’ post on The Magill-IMS Re-animator.
As I mentioned on a previous post, for quite some time now I have been attempting (or rather planning) to finish a lengthy piece about evidence in cartel cases. Any of you weird enough to also find these things interesting –or who are otherwise obliged to follow the developments in this area- might have also noticed an increased willingness on the part of EU Courts to engage in a critical analysis of factual elements regarding evidence.
One illustration of this intermittent but commendable approach can be seen in a recent Judgment in case T-379/10. The Judgment concluded that the Commission did not have sufficient and reliable evidence to find that there had been a particular infringement (an agreement on minimum prices for low end ceramic products for the French market in 2004 by the members of an association –AFICS-).
In paras. 110-121 of the Judgment the Court motivates its conclusion, assessing one by one each of the four items of evidence put forward by the Commission. In a nutshell, it rules that (i) a third party’s reply to the SO wasn’t valid evidence because it had not been disclosed during the administrative procedure; (ii) that leniency statements by another party, given that they are contested, are not “on their own” sufficient proof of the infringement; (iii) that a chart provided together with a leniency application wasn’t enough, because it was “undated and contains nothing that might link it to the AFICS meeting of 25 February 2004 or to any anti-competitive discussions (…) In particular, the chart does not mention the names of competitors or any minimum or maximum prices which those competitors should apply”; and (iv) that yet another party’s leniency application, despite confirming exchanges of minimum prices within AFICS during 2002-2004, disputed the recollection of facts related to the specific meeting of February 2004. [Keep this last bit in mind; we’ll come back to it in a sec].
Few national Courts would have engaged in a similar assessment. The easy way out would’ve been to say that (ii) and (iv) corroborated each other and were moreover corroborated by (iii), and possibly also by (i). Since the appraisal of factual evidence is not a matter of law (however malleable this may be), that assessment would have most likely not been appealed before the ECJ. The GC nevertheless did not take this safe shortcut, and it should be commended for that rigorous approach. I wish all Courts did the same.
There is a problem, though. This sort of assessment occurs in some cases but not in others. For the most extreme example possible (I’m not aware that this has ever happened before), see…. the very same infringement!! Yep, in two other parallel Judgments issued on the same day, by the same Judges and in relation to the same facts (case T-373/10, paras. 286-296; and T-364/10, para 324), the General Court declares that that very same alleged infringement (really, the same one, the agreement on minimum prices at the meeting of February 24 2004) had been properly found by the Commission.
And the reasoning to do so resorts pretty much to the shortcut I described above; i.e. that (ii) and (iv) corroborated each other. What is more, the party that made the leniency statements that I referred to above as item (iv) actually received a 6% fine reduction for having contributed to proving that infringement (yes, the one that had not been proved in the parallel case!).
So we have two different solutions to the same exact issue. Not sure about how this gets fixed now (I understand there are pending appeals against these Judgment).
I have some friends who like to claim that no one reads Judgments anymore, but I thought that was only endemic outside the Court itself… ;) In the Court’s defense, however, I guess this -among other things- is what may happen when the workload is very significant and Member States don’t agree on increasing resources (i.e. the number of Judges).
Have a great weekend!
The Opinion of Advocate General Wathelet in the very interesting Greek lignite case came out yesterday. This is the second time in recent weeks that the AG’s Opinion makes an impact in the competition scene with a tightly argued proposal (the previous one was his Opinion in Teléfonica).
You might remember that sometime ago we held our first
and so far only ménage à trois debate precisely in relation to the General Court’s Judgment in the Greek lignite case:
- Fresh off the Court. This morning the ECJ handed down a Judgment in which it has ruled that the Court itself is not supposed to reduce the fine imposed on a company whenever judicial review by the General Court exceeds a reasonable time. This Judgment effectively and explicitly overrules the Baustahlgewebe Judgment, in which the ECJ had followed the opposite (and in my view much more reasonable approach). Today’s Judgment is premised on the idea that an application for damages brought against the EU would in all circumstances constitute an effective remedy to compensate for any damages caused by the GC’s failure to adjudicate within a reasonable time.
For those of you with less background on general EU law, actions for damages against the EU shall be brought before the General Court. In other words, parties who believe that the duration of proceedings before the General Court was excessively lenghtly should, by means of a different application, ask the General Court itself to ascertain whether its own behavior was appropriate in the light of the circumstances specific to the case and whether the parties suffered any harm. Good luck with that…
- Save the date! On February 7th and 8th AIJA [Association Internationale de Jeunes Avocats) (a generous institution according to which lawyers below 45 qualify as young] will be holding a two-day conference in Bruges under the title “Competition Law 2.0- Competition Law and Technology“. A not-to-be-missed excuse to
spend part of the weekend in Bruges and pay a visit to the greatest beer bar ever discuss hot topics in current antitrust. Both Prof. Petit and myself will be speaking there.
- Speaking of current antitrust debates: the last number of the Journal of European Competition Law and Practice (a great journal that has rightly earned a prominent place in a saturated? market) features various very good articles, including one by our guest blogger Pablo Ibañez on State aid litigation. At another level, it also features a brief piece of mine [the hyperlink only leads to the abstract] about Google’s commitments (you already know my views). Ironically, my comment was written in relation to the first version of the commitments but features in the “current intelligence” section of the journal. Fortunately I did explicitly envisage “likely further tweaks over specific details” and all comments are applicable to the new (leaked) proposal.
The facts are cool (cheap punning again). CAPSA runs the ski lift infrastructure of Cerro Catedral, Argentina.
CAPSA has contractually reserved the provision of photography services to DEFOTOS.COM.
And CAPSA has imposed an an extra fee for the use of lifts by freelance photographers.
The Argentinian Competition Commission and the Ministry of Commerce have found abusive discrimination.
This looks to me like the Argentinian version of Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585 (1985).
However, unlike the US gem, this case is about a secondary line injury discrimination (the sole type of discrimination covered under Article 102 c) TFEU).
On 5 July, the French Constitutional Court (FCC) issued a decision that may have massive repercussions in France (and which may trigger debate elsewhere).
In Société Numéricable et autres, the FCC was asked to rule whether the sanctioning powers bestowed upon the French regulator for Telecommunications (ARCEP) were compatible with the Constitution.
In brief, the litigated provision entitles the ARCEP to remove market authorisations and/or to slap financial sanctions on electronic communications operators.
The FCC analysis is straightforward, blunt, brutal:
“Considérant que, selon le premier alinéa de l’article L. 132 du code des postes et des communications électroniques, les services de l’Autorité de régulation des communications électroniques et des postes sont placés sous l’autorité du président de l’Autorité ; que, selon l’article D. 292 du même code, le directeur général est nommé par le président de l’Autorité, est placé sous son autorité et assiste aux délibérations de l’Autorité ; que, par suite et alors même que la décision de mise en demeure relève du directeur général, les dispositions des douze premiers alinéas de l’article L. 36-11 du code des postes et des communications électroniques, qui n’assurent pas la séparation au sein de l’Autorité entre, d’une part, les fonctions de poursuite et d’instruction des éventuels manquements et, d’autre part, les fonctions de jugement des mêmes manquements, méconnaissent le principe d’impartialité ; que celles de ces dispositions qui sont de nature législative doivent être déclarées contraires à la Constitution“
In English now: the disputed provision does not provide for the separation of investigative and decisional functions within ARCEP. This breaches the principle of “impartiality” . As a result, the sanctioning powers of ARCEP must be declared contrary to the Constitution.
The French competition authority will likely not be impacted by this ruling, given that it is built on the bifurcated agency model.
And other integrated competition agencies can sleep tight (e.g. DG COMP), given the lack of FCC jurisdiction over non domestic affairs.
However, the merit of the FCC decision is to show that the “prosecutorial bias” issue is not a rethorical invention, concocted by disgruntled EU antitrust lawyers at grips with DG COMP.
Even in a country like France, where there is a considerable sympathy towards public institutions and where government agencies are almighty, some fundamental procedural safeguards are to be observed. And it starts with the idea that “he who prosecutes shall not judge (and sanction)“.
Thanks to Elise for the pointer.
I’ve somewhat of a bad conscience for not having been able to cover this topic before (not least because one of you has been pestering me with emails asking when I’d write about it…)(btw, the same person has also gently and repeatedly reminded me to post a link to his new –and actually very interesting (really)- paper, so here it is; titled The Law of Abuse of Dominance and the System of Judicial Remedies).
As you may have read, within a lapse of two days the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) and the European Commission issued, respectively, an opinion (in FTC v Actavis) and a decision (against Lundbeck and others) addressing reverse payments.
Most of the superficial client alerts analyses I’ve seen merely note the time coincidence and suggest a certain convergence in the US and EU approaches to the issue. The headline goes that the Commission imposed its first fine for this practice, and that the SCOTUS reversed a Circuit clash, holding that reverse payments are subject to the rule of reason and dismissing the “scope of the patent test”. In my view, this reading, although right, is also incomplete and hides a few of the interesting issues that have surfaced in these cases.
If I were to start explaining what reverse payments are, the background to these cases and the content and implications of the opinion and the decision you’d probably be tempted to stop reading after a few lines. In order to avoid that, instead of following the normal structure of a post, this will be a reverse post on reverse payments:
Today we will provide you with some comments on these developments and of why they can be relevant beyond their specific context. Tomorrow (if I’ve time) or on Friday (more likely) we’ll offer you our vision on the background to these cases and an overview of the opinion and the decision. I trust this will enable (i) connaisseurs to skip the background stuff; and (ii) those not initiated in these issues to grasp their relevance and to become interested in reading more about them.
Some reactions to the SCOTUS opinion and to the Commission’s decision
- Leaving the pharma sector aside, and looking at things from a broader perspective, the underlying philosophy of the Opinion in relation to the IP regulation/antitrust interface (condensed in this statement: “it would be incongruous to determine antitrust legality by measuring the settlements anticompetitive effects solely against patent law policy, rather than by measuring them against procompetitive antitrust policies as well”) appears to be at odds with the principles governing the interface between sector-specific regulation and antitrust established in Trinko . It’s therefore not surprising that Justice Scalia, that wrote the majority opinion in Trinko, has joined Roberst and Thomas in a dissenting opinion here. So, does this signal a change of trend in the way the SCOTUS interprets antitrust law? The 3 dissenting Justices at least do seem to see it that way, and argue in strong terms that the opinion overturns understood antitrust.
- On a very related but more specific note, although I haven’t read any comments on this point I see common link between these two recent cases on reverse payments and other landmark cases like Linkline US) and Telia Sonera (one of the most controversial EU cases in recent years). In all these cases some party relied on the idea that “he who can do the most can do the least”. In Actavis and Lundbeck the argument was that a patent holder was entitled to exclude competition provided that it remained within the limits of the “scope of the patent”; and in TeliaSonera and Linkline it was that if refusing to supply would not be deemed abusive, there could be no room to find an abusive margin squeeze.
This argument, however, had only been accepted by the SCOTUS in Linkline, with European Courts taking a different line in the most criticized TeliaSonera Judgment, so it’s not surprising (at least to me) that the Commission has rejected it in Lundbeck, but it’s remarkable that the SCOTUS has taken a different line in Actavis.
By the way, I leave one provoking thought I heard from someone the other day discussing TeliaSonera: “I don’t have an obligation to let anyone into my home, but once they’re inside it would be illegal for me to kick them out violently…”. (I expect some virulent reactions to this; happy to discuss).
- Are the EU and US approaches converging with regard to reverse payments, or even with regard to the assessment of horizontal agreements more widely? Not really (leave aside the synchronized summer desk cleaning timing coincidence). Sure, both the SCOTUS and the Commission see a margin for potential restrictions of competition in reverse payments, but they have chosen very different approaches. And whereas the theoretical difference does not appear to be large, the practical consequences hugely differ. In the US reverse payments will need to be assessed under the rule of reason –which imposes a very considerable burden on plaintiffs- (as we will explain in our forthcoming post, the Supreme Court has dismissed the “quick look approach” proposed by the FTC). In Europe, on the contrary, the Commission has decided to take the usual “object” shortcut. This is key, for an “amorphous rule of reason” (an expression actually used in the dissenting opinion in Actavis) analysis normally means difficulties for the plaintiff, whereas a “bifurcated” 101(1) / 101(3) analysis generally results in condemnation because of the (anticipated and worrysome) death of Art. 101 (3).
(Interestingly, the FTC wasn’t able to give a satisfactory answer to a very pertinent question asked by Justice Sotomayor at the hearing: “Why is the rule of reason so bad?”)
If you ask me, I would have no objection to the EU solution if Art. 101(3) were an effective possible way out (this was basically the ECJ’s stand in GlaxoSmithkline) and I would have no objection to the US approach if the burden of proof incumbent upon plaintiffs was a bit less burdensome. As things stand, it was probably not feasible to strike the right solution in theory (where I think the SCOTUS’ one is preferable) as well as in practice (where the Commission’s will likely yield better results) for these cases.
To be continued…
From Judge Bork himself:
“The typical law partnership provides perhaps the most familiar example [of agreement on prices and markets]. A law firm is composed of lawyers who could compete with one another, but who have instead eliminated rivalry and integrated their activities in the interest of more effective operation. Not only are partners and associates frequently forbidden to take legal business on their own …, but the law firm operates on the basis of both price-fixing and market-division agreements. The partners agree upon the fees to be charged for each member’s and associate’s servicse (which is price fixing) and usually operate on a tacit, if not explicit, understanding about fields of specialization and primary responsibility for particular clients (both of which are instances of market division)” The Antitrust Paradox, 1978, p.265.
Bork used this example to criticize the blanket per se prohibition of price-fixing and market division schemes. Cartels formed amongst lawyers yield redeeming efficiencies (the combination of complementary skills, notably) + there are many law firms and all compete fiercely. Hence, output restriction is not a tenable hypothesis.
This later point ties in well with C‑226/11 Expedia Inc. v. Autorité de la concurrence, a judgment poised to earn a “worst antitrust development Oscar”. Bork’s example casts a bright light on the judgment non-sense: in this case, the Court held at §37 that conduct with marginal market coverage (<10%) ought to be deemed to have appreciable anticompetitive effects as long as it can be categorized as a restriction by object:
“It must therefore be held that an agreement that may affect trade between Member States and that has an anti-competitive object constitutes, by its nature and independently of any concrete effect that it may have, an appreciable restriction on competition“
In other words, a price-fixing scheme that covers 5% of the market is per se illegal under Article 101(1) TFEU. Again, a dispairing judgment…