Polish Plant Protection Products: CJEU confirms Commission was right to reject investigation

In its judgment of earlier this year, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) upheld a decision of the European Commission to reject a case involving distributors and manufacturers of plant protection products (PPPs) on the grounds of insufficient EU interest. 

Facts

The facts in the case date back to the 2000s, when Agria Polska, a Polish company involved in the parallel importation of PPPs, claims it was subjected to a coordinated series of wrongful allegations which sought to impugn the legality of its PPPs.  Agria Polska characterised the statements made against it by its competitors (including DuPont, BASF and others) to national authorities and courts as “false” or “misleading”, and the resulting inspections and court cases as “vexatious proceedings” within the meaning of ITT Promedia v Commission.  

In 2010, it lodged a complaint with the European Commission, alleging that the entities referred to in the complaint, had engaged in practices that amounted to infringements of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU. The allegation encompassed the use of customs control procedures which the competitors used to seek to block the import of Agria Polska’s products into Poland.

The Commission declined to open an investigation, finding that that there was insufficient evidence in support of the complaint, and that the resources necessary for the investigation would be disproportionate in view of the limited likelihood of establishing the existence of an infringement. 

Agria Polska’s appeals

Agria Polska appealed the Commission’s refusal to open an investigation, seeking an annulment of the Commission’s decision on procedural and substantive grounds, also alleging that the Commission infringed its right to effective judicial protection under Article 13 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The General Court (GC) rejected the appeal, finding that the Commission had not committed a manifest error of assessment when it declined to open the investigation. 

On a further appeal, in which judgment was given in September 2018, the CJEU upheld this finding.  According to the CJEU, the entities referred to in the complaint were entitled to inform national authorities of the alleged IP infringements committed by Agria Polska, and to cooperate with the authorities carrying out investigations into Agria Polska. The Court cited the Commission’s viewpoint that the principles on vexatious litigation drawn from ITT Promedia and on the provision of misleading statements from AstraZeneca were not intended to apply to situations in which undertakings informed the national authorities of allegedly unlawful conduct or actions by other undertakings.  The CJEU noted in particular that the administrative and judicial authorities involved in those cases “had no discretion as to whether or not it was appropriate to act on the applications made by those undertakings”; this was contrasted with the position of the relevant Polish authorities involved in the complaints lodged by Agria Polska’s competitors which were able to take decisions on the merits.   

The CJEU therefore upheld the GC’s judgment, declining to annul the Commission’s decision. The CJEU noted that “…it is for the Member States to provide remedies sufficient to ensure effective judicial protection for individual parties in the fields covered by EU law”, and that it is not the Commission���s responsibility to plug gaps in judicial protection left by national courts by opening an investigation where the likelihood of finding an infringement of Articles 101 and/or 102 is low.

Impact

As human rights and competition law continue to brush against each other in the EU courts, it is noteworthy that the CJEU was not convinced by Agria Polska’s arguments. The courts have established that a complainant does not have a fundamental right to a full Commission investigation, particularly in cases where it would not be in the interest of the EU to launch an investigation. 

The CJEU’s approach in Agria Polska also demonstrates the high hurdle that represented by the ITT Promedia line of cases.  It seems that it is particularly difficult to justify an investigation into “vexatious proceedings”; as previous case law has established, recourse to legal action will be considered abusive only in exceptional circumstances.  In the opinion of the authors, the case arguably overstates the distinction between the lack of discretion supposedly held by regulatory and patent authorities in AstraZeneca with the position in this case.  Such authorities are well able, and routinely do, ask questions and seek more information from applicants for patents or marketing authorisations.  Conversely, it understates the impact of multiple litigation proceedings on an undertaking whose competitors are undoubtedly better funded than it.  (There is no doubt either that the parallel trade carried out by Agria Polska represented a disruptive influence on the market, which the competitors would have had an interest in hindering.)  It cannot be excluded a different case could be pursued in future, if, for example, the foreclosure effects were clearer.  Indeed, the case must be seen for what it is – namely, an appeal against a Commission decision not to investigate.  Given the implications for public resources, it is unsurprising that such cases are only rarely overturned.

Case C-37/17 P Agria Polska v Commission, judgment of 20 September 2018.

Request to re-open Glaxo ‘dual pricing’ case rejected by General Court: The end of the road for challenges to dual pricing?

Entering into agreements that erect barriers to parallel exports between EU markets is generally a high-risk endeavour, which is likely to attract the attention of the competition authorities.  Nevertheless, in the pharmaceutical industry the financial stakes can be high – medicines are often sold at very different prices in different Member States, due to the different applicable health policies.  

Relatively low mandated prices in Spain have led a number of companies to devise sales structures which reduced the flow of parallel exports out of the country – in particular, through the use of so-called dual pricing schemes.  Under such schemes, prices charged to wholesalers differ depending on whether the medicines were resold in Spain or exported to other Member States; in some cases this is achieved by selling all products at the export price, and granting rebates to wholesalers where the products do not in fact leave the country.  While not explicitly prohibiting parallel trade, such practices are likely to reduce the financial incentive for wholesalers to export.

GSK introduced such a scheme in 1998, and applied to the European Commission for an individual exemption (under a procedure which has since been repealed).  This application, and a subsequent complaint by the industry body for parallel traders (the EAEPC), has led to what must be one of the longest-running competition cases.  Initially found by the Commission to be restrictive of competition by object, GSK succeeded before the European Courts in showing that the Commission had given insufficient consideration to whether the practice warranted an exemption.  The case was therefore remitted to the Commission for further consideration.  In January 2010, GSK formally withdrew its original application for an individual exemption.  However, that was not the end of the matter, as the EAEPC’s complaint remained live. By this time, however, GSK had changed its practices, so the Commission rejected the complaint and closed its file.  EAEPC persisted, and lodged an appeal.

The General Court Judgment

It is this appeal that has given rise to the most recent development. On 26 September 2018, the General Court (GC) approved the Commission’s stance, effectively putting an end to this case (appeals to the Court of Justice are rare in rejection cases). 
 
The GC judgment demonstrates that while there was still some sympathy for EAEPC’s appeal, the Court was unable to identify any continued Union interest. The Court agreed with the applicant that the previous judgments have generated legal interest in relation to the “analysis of … dual-pricing systems in the light of Article 101 TFEU”.  However, that was not sufficient reason to require the Commission to continue examining the applicant’s complaint. 

The Court held that a “specific and genuine interest” is required to justify use of the Commission resources. Likewise, EAEPC’s contention that GSK’s practices and the Commission’s “inaction” in the late 1990s led to the adoption of dual pricing by other manufacturers such as Pfizer, Janssen-Cilag and Lilly was not accepted as good reason for requiring the Commission to act now. 

The future of dual pricing schemes? 

The relevance of the GC decision for other dual pricing schemes should not be overstated: the rejection of EAEPC’s complaint turns on its particular facts.  Indeed, the fate of another Commission investigation into Spanish dual pricing practices more generally (referred to in the Commission rejection decision and the GC judgment) is unclear (the Commission website shows no record for the case number cited by the GC).  

However, developments have also continued in Spain.  Within the past six months, the Spanish Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by the EAEPC against a lower court rejection of a complaint against Janssen-Cilag’s drug supply scheme, finding that the scheme did not breach competition law.  More recently, the Spanish competition authority closed an investigation into alleged collusion between pharmaceutical manufacturers in relation to the introduction of such schemes in the mid-2000s.  The authority found that the companies’ schemes were the result of changes in pharmaceutical legislation, not of anti-competitive agreements.

Despite the successes for the originator companies, it remains the case that agreements which seek to limit parallel trade within the EU are high risk of being found to restrict competition by object and, as the Glaxo Greece case has shown (see our recent report, here), unilateral conduct may also be caught.  

Of course, from a UK perspective, a no-deal Brexit may make prohibiting parallel exports possible again, but it is unlikely to be possible under any likely successor to the Chequers proposal.  In any event, agreements affecting exports within the European Union will continue to be caught.

The cartelization of innovation – a new emissions scandal?

Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:

A group of suppliers of medical device equipment meet to draw up minimum clinical standards for intravenous devices.  

Competing media platforms meet under the auspices of an industry group to compare privacy policies and decide on best practice in tackling online copyright infringements.  

And a group of car manufacturers discuss clean emissions technologies and car safety features and – perhaps – decide on a common approach.  

These scenarios have in common that they may involve competing companies, and that they focus on conditions of competition other than price. 

Two of them are (to the best of the author’s knowledge) fictional examples.  (The author has, however, previously considered the potential impact of treating privacy as a parameter of competition.)  

The third scenario resembles – at least superficially, based on recent announcements – an ongoing cartel investigation by the European Commission.  It may be that the evidence gathered by the European Commission overwhelmingly suggests that the likes of BMW, VW and Daimler deliberately and jointly elected to use less effective emissions technologies than were potentially available, and might have been adopted by some of the companies if they had been acting separately (the Commission is focussing in particular on selective catalytic reduction systems and on a specific form of particulate filter used in petrol cars).  But it may be the case that the discussion was more subtle.  Perhaps the companies’ discussion led to the adoption of technologies which resulted in improved emissions cuts for some of the members compared to those which could have been achieved by some of the individual manufacturers, but did not match the most advanced emissions technologies which others were considering.  And perhaps overall emissions were reduced, compared to a counterfactual in which each company acted alone.  

Of course, it may not be the case that every pricing cartel results in all participants pricing above the levels they would have done in a truly competitive market.  It may even be that some result in lower prices for some participants – the key point under competition law is the coordination, and the resulting harm to consumers who cannot shop around.  But is it appropriate to treat non-price parameters of competition in the same way?  Innovation can often be fostered by competitors working together, with appropriate safeguards – see the success of mobile telecommunications developments, under the auspices of standards bodies such as ETSI (although as frequent posts on this blog make clear, that coordination gives rise indirectly to many areas of dispute).  Indeed, it is clear from the Commission’s press release that the investigation does not currently address all of the issues on which the car manufacturers worked together. Listed in the Commission’s press release are a number of other safety and quality issues, such as specifications for car parts and testing procedures, maximum speeds at which convertible car roofs will open or at which cruise control will work.  The press release specifically states: “EU antitrust rules leave room for technical cooperation aimed at improving product quality”, which is firmly in line with the Commission’s Guidelines on Horizontal Cooperation.  Nevertheless, it is already evident from recent abuse of dominance cases that innovation may not be immune from antitrust scrutiny (cases currently progressing through the EU Courts in which this question arises include Qualcomm and Google Shopping; see also our earlier commentary on ‘predatory innovation’).  The role of innovation in competitive processes now looks set to make a significant appearance in an Article 101 case.

The boundaries of object restrictions have been significantly tested in both the European courts (for example, in Cartes Bancaires) and in the UK (for example, last week’s Ping judgment) in recent years (see our commentary on these cases here, and here).  The emissions case, if it proceeds, is likely to test those boundaries once again.  It is also foreseeable that the case may provide a testing ground for the viability of efficiency defences under Article 101(3) – and, given the rarity of such defences, may afford a valuable insight as to the approach of the Commission and European Courts to such defences, in particular where non-price competition is concerned.

BEIS notice on competition law in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit

With Brexit fast approaching, the government has issued further technical notices that set out its plans in the event of ‘no deal’ with the EU27 (our post-referendum view on possible negotiated alternatives are here, although at present the only alternative to no deal remains the so-called Chequers plan).  Issues covered in the notices include the potential loss surcharge-free mobile roaming, the UK’s withdrawal from innovative space programmes, and additional certification requirements for manufacturers.  

However, of most interest to us was the BEIS guidance on ‘Merger review and anti-competitive activity if there’s no Brexit deal’.  It’s short, and perhaps does not say much that is new or surprising, but to summarise the key points:

  • The domestic UK competition regime will remain in place, unchanged bar the removal of references to EU law and institutions, and duties under EU obligations. 

  • The EU block exemptions which are applied as parallel exemptions under UK law will be preserved; so companies that benefit from any applicable exemption will continue to do so, and any new agreements meeting the relevant criteria will also benefit. 

  • The European Commission will not begin investigations into the UK aspects of mergers or cases involving potentially anti-competitive conduct. 

  • There may be no agreement on jurisdiction over live EU merger and antitrust cases which address effects on UK markets (this could include the Commission’s investigation into Aspen’s pricing, Guess’ distribution systems, and geo-blocking by Steam and video games companies).

  • The CMA and UK will no longer be bound to follow future CJEU case law. 

  • A decision made by the European Commission could no longer be relied upon as a binding finding of an infringement in follow-on claims.  

  • A number of the rules governing jurisdiction for damages claims would be repealed (these are covered in a separate notice), and the UK would revert to the existing common law and statutory rules that apply in non-EU cross border disputes.  The UK would however retain the Rome I and Rome II rules on applicable law. 

The confirmation that block exemptions will be preserved does provide some reassurance for UK companies, but there still remains a lot of disconcerting uncertainty – particularly for any company currently engaged in merger talks and at risk of being engaged in a ‘live’ review come 29 March 2019.  However, the government is clearly focusing on solutions to the issues raised earlier this year, and is communicating developments to try and provide certainty for UK businesses; we hope this progress continues with as much transparency as possible.  

As regards the potential for lack of jurisdiction over ongoing merger and antitrust cases, the advice to ‘take independent legal advice’ will be of little comfort to business in view of the significant ongoing uncertainties.  Whilst a pragmatic solution can readily be identified for antitrust cases which address past conduct (and where, as a result, jurisdiction should follow the legal regime in place at the relevant time), the position is less obvious as regards forward-looking merger analysis.  Given the flexibility of the UK’s voluntary merger notification regime, it is to be hoped that further guidance will be forthcoming from the CMA over the next few months should a no-deal exit become inevitable.

The Ping judgment – CAT confirms that internet sales ban is restrictive of competition ‘by object’

In a judgment handed down on 7 September, the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) upheld the CMA’s decision of August 20171 that golf equipment manufacturer Ping’s online sales ban was a restriction of competition ‘by object’ and did not qualify for any exemption.  Although the CAT held that Ping’s aim2 in implementing the policy was a legitimate one, the ban was, by its very nature, liable to harm competition between Ping’s retailers. Whilst the CAT did find that the CMA had erred in law by seeking to carry out a proportionality analysis3 (which was not relevant to the question of whether the policy was caught by the prohibition in Article 101(1)), the CAT held that this had no impact on the overall conclusion.  In a small victory for Ping, the CAT found some minor errors in the CMA’s calculation of the fine, resulting in a small reduction in the penalty. 

The CAT’s response to Ping’s grounds of appeal

By object infringement

Ping’s submission was that the presence or absence of a “plausibly pro-competitive rationale” is the key to identifying an infringement by object. However the CAT stated that this submission did not reflect the law as set out in Cartes Bancaires. The CAT was “of the clear view” that regardless of Ping’s subjective aim in introducing the internet sales ban as a means of promoting custom fitting, the ban may be characterised as an object infringement if it reveals a sufficient degree of harm to competition.4  In the CAT’s analysis, the existence of a pro-competitive objective does not per se preclude a finding of infringement by object. This accords with the Court of Justice’s holding in Pierre Fabre that, by excluding a method of distance selling, the internet ban was liable to restrict competition even if that was not its purpose. 

In the current case the Tribunal found that “the potential impact of the ban on consumers and retailers [was] real and material”. In its view, the ban restricts intra-brand competition; prevents retailers from attracting consumers located outside their catchment areas by offering better prices/service; and removes the advantages of online sales (in particular, access from any location 24 hours a day) to the detriment of consumers. The CAT accepted Ping’s submission that objective justification and proportionality are not in themselves relevant to an assessment of whether an agreement is an infringement by object. 

The human rights ground

According to Ping, its appeal concerned the freedom of a company to pursue a business which involves the sale of a product whose properties are fundamentally inconsistent with internet selling. Ping maintained that it built its brand image as a manufacturer which sells only customised clubs and submitted that the CMA’s decision contravened its human rights under Article 16 by requiring it to sell a product it did not sell and did not wish to sell (i.e. non-fitted clubs). The CAT dismissed this argument, finding that since Ping’s internet policy constitutes an object restriction under Article 101(1), any restriction on the exercise of its rights under Articles 16 and 17 as a result was “proportionate to the legitimate aim of avoiding the distortion of competition within the EU.”  The CAT also accepted the CMA’s submission that the decision does not force Ping to sell a product that it does not already sell –Ping could maintain its policy of promoting custom fitting with or without the ban. 

In relation to the alternative measures proposed by the CMA, Ping’s fundamental objection was that they were likely to lead to customers making uninformed decisions as to which clubs to buy, thereby harming their game and ultimately damaging Ping’s brand. The Tribunal said this was “not compelling”: there is technology that enables an accurate assessment of custom fitting online and other premium golf club brands sell their custom fit golf clubs online.  This suggested that “guessing [custom fit measurements] amongst customers of those brands is not a significant problem”.

The penalty

The CAT considered that the £1.45 million fine imposed by the CMA was “slightly too high” and a further small reduction was therefore appropriate. It found that a fair and proportionate fine, taking into account that it was not an ‘aggravated’ infringement, should be £1.25 million.

The CAT concluded that the CMA erred in treating director involvement as an aggravating factor on the specific facts of the case. If the fact of director-level knowledge alone were treated as an aggravating factor then this infringement could never have been considered as anything other than aggravated. However, Ping restricted competition law through its negligence rather than with intention and so applying an uplift in this case would be “meaningless” and should be “reserved for more reprehensible behaviour”. 

Comment

As we noted in our comment on the CMA’s decision (here), the infringement decision itself was not surprising – outright sales bans have long been considered problematic.  The fact that the CAT has upheld the CMA’s decision is therefore, in itself, equally unsurprising.  Of more interest was the CAT’s consideration of the CMA’s use of an ‘Alternatives Paper’ – this was part of the CMA’s by object case, showing that there were alternative, less restrictive means of satisfying Ping’s legitimate policy aim.  Whilst finding that the CMA had erred in law in its approach, the CAT nevertheless concluded that this was not sufficient to overturn the CMA’s decision.  Rather, the CAT sought to square a particularly tricky circle on the facts of this case – it had sympathy with both the ‘legitimate aim’ behind Ping’s policy and the CMA’s conclusion that an outright internet sales ban is a by object infringement that was “clearly … not objectively justified”.  It seems that the fact that other brands made their custom-fit clubs available online and that Ping itself allowed sales over the internet in the US were decisive here.  

_______________________________________________

1 We commented on the CMA’s decision here

2 Ping contends that the internet ban prevents consumers from making uninformed decisions about their custom fitting specification and so guards against blame being levelled at Ping causing damage to its brand.

3 The CMA previously determined that the internet ban should be prohibited on the basis that the company could have achieved its legitimate aim through less restrictive means. 

4 The Tribunal accepted the CMA’s analysis that if the internet sales ban is so inherently damaging to competition as to amount to an object infringement, it is not necessary to conduct an assessment of the actual effects. 

Concordia and the CMA – a drama in (at least) three parts

Last week, Concordia International released a management report in which it announced the names of six drugs currently under investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”).  This relates to an investigation into Concordia’s UK activities, which is the third launched by the CMA into Concordia’s business since April 2016, and forms part of a wider inquiry into the UK pharmaceutical sector. 

The investigation was launched in October 2017, and we now know that it involves the following products: 

  • Carbimazole, used to treat hyperthyroidism; 
  • Nitrofurantoin, an antibiotic;
  • Prochlorperazine, used to treat nausea and psychosis;
  • Dicycloverine, a gastrointestinal muscle spasm relaxant;
  • Trazodone, an antidepressant; and 
  • Nefopam, an analgesic. 
According to Concordia, the CMA has confirmed that it will be continuing its investigation into Nitrofurantoin and Prochlorperazine. It is currently assessing whether to continue its investigation into Trazodone, Nefopam and Dicycloverine. This investigation is still at an early stage, unlike a couple of others. 

The other current investigations involving Concordia are an abuse of dominance case about alleged excessive pricing of Concordia’s ‘essential’ thyroid drug, Liothyronine, and a case involving a possible ‘pay-for-delay’ agreement between Concordia and Actavis for hydrocortisone tablets (we previously discussed this here). Both cases have progressed to an advanced stage, with statements of objections having been issued by the CMA, but progress appears to have been delayed, perhaps because of the CAT’s June judgment in the Pfizer/Flynn case, which overturned the CMA’s controversial excessive pricing decision (covered here).

This latest announcement re-emphasises the CMA’s continued interest in the pharmaceutical sector and its eagerness to weed out anticompetitive practices in this industry, including the more novel, sector-specific forms of abuse and collusion such as ‘pay-for-delay’ strategies. It will be interesting to see whether the CMA follows a similar approach in these cases to that taken in other recent pharmaceutical cases, such as Pfizer/Flynn and the Paroxetine (GSK) case (discussed here). We will be keeping a close eye on any developments over the coming months…

Coty gets green light for online platform ban

The Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt ruled last Thursday that Coty Germany’s ban on distributors selling products over the Amazon.de platform is a justifiable restriction of online sales. The full judgment has not yet been released, but the court has published a statement (in German) summarising the decision. 

This ruling follows the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) at the end of last year in a preliminary reference arising from the dispute (see here). The CJEU ruled the restriction of sales through third party platforms such as Amazon is not a hardcore restriction of competition, and may be justified where it has the objective of preserving an ‘aura of luxury’ that is linked to the quality of the goods. However, the CJEU stated that it was for the national courts to decide whether such restrictions are justifiable and proportionate, on a case-by-case basis.

Following the CJEU’s reasoning, the Frankfurt court found that the selective distribution system implemented by perfume supplier Coty, including the ban on sales over third party platforms such as Amazon.de, was compatible with competition law because it was based on objective qualitative criteria applied uniformly and without discrimination, and because it did not go beyond what was necessary to preserve the luxury image of the goods. It also confirmed that the specific clause banning the advertising and selling of Coty products via Amazon.de was proportionate to the objective of preserving the quality of these luxury products. The Frankfurt court therefore concluded that Coty’s selective distribution did not infringe EU competition law. 

The findings of the Frankfurt court are not surprising given the strong steer given by the CJEU in the reference proceedings. However, we will be reading the full judgment closely when it’s available, to see if there is any indication that the German courts support the view of the German Competition Authority, the Bundeskartellamt, that the CJEU’s decision should be limited to genuinely prestigious products or whether it can be applied more widely...

MasterCard and Visa MIFfed as the Court of Appeal considers two-sided markets; SCOTUS itself is two-sided (Part 2 – the USA)

Following on from yesterday’s blog on the MasterCard / Visa decision, we’ve also taken a look at how the US is approaching antitrust issues in two-sided markets, with SCOTUS giving its first Opinion on these in the AmEx litigation (originally brought with the DoJ, but continued by only eleven states following the administration change). 

AmEx is a closed loop network, with AmEx holding relationships with Cardholders and Merchants.  In a 5-4 decision considering anti-steering provisions that prohibited merchants from avoiding fees by discouraging AmEx use at the point of sale, SCOTUS found no violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act (upholding the U.S. 2nd Cir. Court of Appeals).  SCOTUS was asked to determine whether the parties had met the burdens in a three step rule of reason analysis (plaintiff must prove anticompetitive effects; defendant must show a procompetitive justification; plaintiff must show that efficiencies could have been achieved through less restrictive means).  

The plaintiffs sought to argue that a market definition wasn’t necessary because they had offered evidence that showed adverse effects on competition.  The majority disagreed with this, and noted that the cases relied on by the plaintiffs for this proposition were horizontal restraint cases. Here, vertical arrangements were at issue, and given that they’re not always anti-competitive, the market definition was relevant.  

The majority held that the relevant market included both sides of the transaction, and it had to be shown that both sides of the transaction were harmed by the provision.  The Court stated that “a market should be treated as one sided when the impacts of indirect network effects and relative pricing in that market are minor”, and divided two-sided markets into two categories:

  1. Two-sided transaction platforms that facilitate a single, simultaneous transaction and are best understood as supplying that transaction as the product (such as those between AmEx Cardholders and Merchants); and

  2. Platforms where the two sides aren’t selling directly to each other (such as newspapers, where users are indifferent to the amount of advertising).

Further, with the first category, evaluating both sides would be necessary to assess competition; only other two-sided platforms can compete for transactions.  Non-transaction platforms often do compete with companies that do not operate on both sides.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, their evidence was insufficient as they had only focused on the increase to merchant fees.  This division will perhaps create some debate as to which category a platform falls into, and arguments around how strong indirect network effects are. 

The majority stated that in order to show that the provisions were anticompetitive, plaintiffs should have demonstrated that they increased the cost of credit card transactions above a competitive level, reduced the number of transactions, or otherwise stifled competition.  In fact, the majority found that the provisions were pro-competitive, as they helped maintain a competitor to MasterCard and Visa. 

The dissenting opinion, which included some persuasive points, wanted the US to follow other jurisdictions and take action against high fees charged by credit-card companies to Merchants, viewing the provisions as clearly anticompetitive.  It referred to findings by the District Court, and stated that a market definition was unnecessary because of direct evidence of anticompetitive effects (primarily that AmEx was able to keep increasing fees without losing any large Merchants), but the correct relevant market should have been only the one side – the services are complementary, not substitutes – and that the other side of the market should have come in at the second step of the rule of reason analysis.  This perhaps puts the dissenting justices more in line with the CoA’s approach.   

Dissenting, Justice Breyer further countered the view that the provisions were pro-competitive by stating that “if American Express’ merchant fees are so high that merchants successfully induce their customers to use other cards, American Express can remedy that problem by lowering those fees or by spending more on cardholder rewards so that cardholders decline such requests”.  

Back in the UK, the Merricks collective claim is attempting to show that harm was caused to consumers –not on the flip side of the market, but by Merchants passing on the cost of the MIFs to customers.  Although the CAT refused to allow the action, the appeal is due to be heard later this year.  Whilst there is quite a hurdle to jump in how to ensure consumers receive compensatory amounts rather than token sums of money, if the class is certified, the analysis of effects on consumers and the links between the different markets could make for interesting reading. 

(On a collective action side note…  After two years of build-up, it’s good to see that the first trucks collective claim has started rolling towards certification, and interestingly, is using a special purpose vehicle more typical of litigation in the Netherlands than the UK.)

MasterCard and Visa MIFfed as the Court of Appeal considers two-sided markets; SCOTUS itself is two-sided (Part 1 – the UK)

Whilst the Court of Appeal’s judgment in MasterCard / Visa, and the SCOTUS Opinion in AmEx may seem a little outside our usual area of focus, they are nevertheless decisions that relate to the operation of two-sided markets.  With multi-sided platforms in innovative technological markets, such as Google, Facebook and Uber, increasingly drawing antitrust attention, (see here, and here) there may be some helpful guidance to be drawn from long established industries such as banking and finance. 

This post comes in two parts, with today focusing on the MasterCard / Visa judgment, and tomorrow focusing on the AmEx litigation. 

The Court of Appeal judgment 

Both MasterCard and Visa operate four-party payment schemes:

  • Cardholders contract with an Issuer for a card to buy goods from Merchants;
  • Merchants contract with Acquirers to obtain payment from the Cardholders;
  • Issuers (mostly banks) contract with Acquirers (also mostly banks) to settle transactions.

The Issuers compete for the business of the Cardholders, and the Acquirers compete for the business of the Merchants; but each side is dependent on the other.  The MasterCard / Visa schemes operate as open loop networks, and those participating are subject to various rules – including a requirement to pay fees, including multi-lateral interchange fees (‘MIF’s), that are charged by the Issuer to the Acquirer, and ultimately paid by Merchants in each card transaction.  The MIFs could have been negotiated individually between the Issuer and the Acquirer, but in practice default MIFs set by MasterCard / Visa were used.   

This raised an interesting Article 101(1) question: do the schemes’ default MIFs amount to a restriction of competition by effect?  The European Commission thought so in issuing a 2007 decision against MasterCard in respect of cross-border card transactions, a decision which spawned a multitude of follow-on and standalone actions for damages against both MasterCard and (by analogy given the similarities between their systems) and VISA.  The CAT initially found for the Claimant in one damages action, but the High Court subsequently found for the Defendants in separate actions (MasterCard and Visa).  The Court of Appeal was tasked with addressing these inconsistent outcomes.

The systems themselves operate across three separate markets (an inter-systems market, an issuing market, and an acquiring market), and it was common ground that the relevant market was the acquiring market.  However, arguments raised by the parties (particularly the ‘death spiral’ argument, where MasterCard claimed that if it lowered its MIFs, Issuers would have switched to Visa and the MasterCard scheme would have collapsed) concerned effects on the inter-system market, and the issuing market.  The CoA held that the first question is whether the MIFs restricted competition in the acquiring market. The second question is then whether the MIFs were objectively justified, and at that point, it is legitimate to consider both sides of the two-sided market and the inter-system market. 

The CoA ultimately found that the fees were unlawful, and all three cases are to be remitted to the CAT for an assessment of damages, and a determination as to whether any objective justification applies.  Tomorrow, we’ll set out how the US Supreme Court came to the conclusion that provisions which affected Merchants’ transaction costs were not anti-competitive, with analysis turning on a definition of the market that has implications for all platforms.     

Depression delayed: CMA’s paroxetine pay-for-delay case heads to Luxembourg

On 8 March 2018, the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) gave an initial judgment (see here) in the appeals brought by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and a number of generic manufacturers against the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) 2016 Paroxetine decision (see here and here).   As explained further below, the CAT has (in a move which perhaps goes against the prevailing zeitgeist) not reached final conclusions on the appeals, but has rather referred a number of questions to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Background

The infringements identified by the CMA in its Paroxetine decision arose out of three patent settlement agreements made in 2001 and 2002 between GSK and various generic manufacturers of paroxetine.  

Paroxetine is an anti-depressant (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor “SSRI”), marketed by GSK under the brand name “Seroxat”, which during the infringement period was one of its highest selling products, accounting for £71.6 million (10% of revenue) in 2001.

The CMA’s investigation into paroxetine was the first UK case to grapple with the contentious area of patent settlement agreements which limit generic companies’ ability to bring their own product to market.  The investigation was formally launched by the OFT in 2011 on the basis of information obtained by the European Commission through its pharmaceutical sector inquiry (2009). 

Following a significant further period of investigation, the CMA in 2016 issued a decision fining GSK, Alpharma and Generics (UK) a total of £44.99 million for agreeing to delay the entry of generic paroxetine in breach of Chapter I and/or Article 101 TFEU.  GSK received the largest penalty, being fined £37,606,275 for its parallel infringement of the Chapter II prohibition:

  • The CMA found that between 2001 and 2004 GSK agreed to make payments and other value transfers of over £50 million to generic suppliers of paroxetine; this amounted to a restriction of competition by object and/or effect. 

  • The CMA also found that GSK’s conduct induced generic providers to delay their efforts to independently enter the UK paroxetine market, abusing its dominant position in breach of Chapter II of the Competition Act.

The CAT Judgment 

The essential element of the CAT’s March 2018 judgment is the reference of five issues to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.  As things stand, the exact text of the questions has not been formulated (and will no doubt be the subject of fierce debate among the parties).  However, the issues referred will relate to the following areas: 

  1. Potential competition: whether the existence of an interim injunction against generic manufacturers was an insurmountable barrier for entering the market.

    The provisional view of the Tribunal was to find that it was not (since, for example, it could have been discharged). However, it decided to refer a question to the CJEU as the question was similar to one raised in Lundbeck’s appeal (see here). This reference raises issues not dissimilar to those at play in the recent Roche judgment of the CJEU, which considered whether potentially unlawful products could be viewed as potential competitors (see here).

  2. Restriction of competition by object: when the strength of a patent is uncertain, does a transfer of value from the originator to a generic of an amount substantially greater than avoided litigation costs, under a settlement agreement in which the generic company agrees not to enter the market with its generic product and not to challenge the originator’s patent, constitute a restriction by object?

    The CAT emphasised a number of points in connection with this question, including a notable recognition that (a) the uncertainty over patent strength means that a possible outcome of the litigation was that the generic challengers would be held to infringe a valid patent; and (b) an outcome of litigation which upheld the patent should not be viewed as a less competitive outcome than the situation where the patent was overturned.

    A second related question was also identified, which seeks to establish whether a settlement comprising a value transfer which also provides some benefits to consumers (in the form of limited supplies of authorised generic products) should also be viewed as restrictive by object. Again, the preliminary view of the Tribunal was that such limited competitive benefits are not sufficient to draw into question the overall categorisation of the agreement as a by object infringement. If that is correct, it is necessarily a conclusion which will have to be considered in detail for any specific patent settlement agreement, and suggests that a blanket ‘by object’ approach will not be warranted.

  3. Restrictions by effect: in order to show a restriction by effect is it necessary to establish that the counterfactual would have been more competitive? The Appellants argued that the CMA’s Decision did not sufficiently consider the potentially pro-competitive effects of GSK’s agreements with generic manufacturers, for example the savings to the NHS compared to the situation where no authorised generics were on the market.

    The CAT also started to grapple with an issue which has been underplayed in the European decisions to date, namely the relevance of the outcome of the underlying patent litigation. If one realistic outcome of that litigation was success for GSK, the approach proposed by the CMA would be to reduce the test for identifying effects to “the probability of a possibility”. On the other hand, the CAT did not seem to acknowledge the risk of creating a situation where an agreement is considered restrictive of competition by object yet does not possess the requisite degree of probability for an effects finding that is not made out. This is surely an issue that will have to be fully played out before this, and similar cases, are finally resolved. (Damages litigation in relation to patent settlement agreements is likely to bring this issue to the fore, even if the CJEU elects to side-step the question.)

  4. The correct approach to defining the relevant product market: is the relevant product market paroxetine or all SSRIs? While the Tribunal supported the CMA’s finding of dominance on the basis of a market limited to paroxetine, it criticised its reasoning. It considered the CMA to have taken an overly narrow approach to market definition, based on the impact of generic entry on the price of paroxetine - following the Commission’s ‘natural events’ approach used in its AstraZeneca Decision (2005) (see here). However, the CAT supported the view that from the time when there were potential generic entrants, the market was limited to paroxetine and its generics. It recognised that this preliminary view, which suggests a significant change in the relevant market over time (despite no suggestion that the view of prescribing professionals was subject to a similar change) was a departure from existing case law. In the authors’ view, this approach will lead to legal uncertainty and, more importantly, inappropriately substitutes an analysis based on perceived competitive constraints for an assessment based principally on objective demand factors. As the CAT itself notes, this approach would suggest successful drugs will almost always be found to constitute a distinct market at least from the time when generic entry becomes likely. As the Tribunal notes, this approach would amount to a material change to the “IP bargain” which “might adversely affect the economic purpose of patent legislation”.

    Nevertheless, in making the reference on this point, the CAT has flagged some significant issues which should weigh in the CJEU’s eventual analysis.

  5. Abuse: are potential benefits to the NHS relevant to the assessment of whether GSK had abused a dominant position by entering into the agreements?

    The final question on abuse is limited to an allusion back to the questions referred in relation to the object and effect of anti-competitive agreements. The central issue is again the question of whether the limited pro-competitive benefits derived from the presence of the generic companies as distributors of an authorised generic product are sufficient to undermine the main finding as anti-competitive effects.

Although the judgment is provisional in nature, there is much to absorb. We will report further when the agreed text of the questions to be referred has been published.