Duty to state reasons for the ranking of tenders in public procurement: Evropaïki Dynamiki strikes back (T-297/09)

In its Judgment in Evropaïki Dynamiki v EASA, T-297/09, EU:T:2015:184, the General Court (GC) has assessed once more the contours of the obligation to state the reasons underlying public procurement decisions, this time regarding the classification of a tenderer in second or third position in a cascade procedure leading to the conclusion of 'ranked' framework contracts--and, once more, upon a challenge of a procurement decision by an EU Institution (this time, the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA) by Evropaïki Dynamiki. On this occasion, the GC annuls some of EASA's Decisions classifying Evropaïki Dynamiki's tenderer in second or third position in the cascade procedure, but it does not award damages and imposes a 25/75 split of costs between the parties. The reasoning of the GC deserves some close attention and it is worth reminding that the case was on procurement controlled by Financial Regulation (EC, Euratom) No 1605/2002. 

The case is interesting and rather unconventional because it is concerned with framework agreements that EASA planned to conclude with the 3 top tenderers for each of the 5 lots tendered. Evropaïki Dynamiki's tenders being ranked second and third for different lots, then, did not exclude the undertaking from the framework agreements--which thus reduced the challenge to the ranking itself, but not to the conclusion of the ensuing framework agreements or the call-offs within them. Consequently, the challenge is actually concerned with the inclusion in the framework agreements of other tenderers, which looks like a rather uncommon setting for a procurement dispute.

This triggered an objection of inadmissibility by EASA, on the grounds that Evropaïki Dynamiki is one of the tenderers to which framework contracts were awarded for four lots, so it cannot be precluded that it will conclude specific contracts with EASA; and, second, that Evropaïki Dynamiki cannot challenge the award decisions, since it signed four framework contracts for the four lots in question and annulment of the contested decisions would serve no useful purpose. The GC rejected these arguments and declared the action admissible on the following grounds:
41 According to settled case-law, an action for annulment brought by a natural or legal person is admissible only in so far as that person has an interest in the contested measure being annulled (judgments of 14 September 1995 in Antillean Rice Mills and Others v Commission, T‑480/93 and T‑483/93, ECR, EU:T:1995:162, paragraph 59; 25 March 1999 in Gencor v Commission, T‑102/96, ECR, EU:T:1999:65, paragraph 40; and 14 April 2005 in Sniace v Commission, T‑141/03, ECR, EU:T:2005:129, paragraph 25). That interest must be vested and present (judgment of 17 September 1992 in NBV and NVB v Commission, T‑138/89, ECR, EU:T:1992:95, paragraph 33) and is evaluated as at the date on which the action is brought (judgment of 16 December 1963 in Forges de Clabecq v High Authority, 14/63, ECR, EU:C:1963:60, p. 357, at 371, and judgment in Sniace v Commission, cited above, EU:T:2005:129, paragraph 25).

42 In the present case, as EASA observes, each framework contract is implemented by specific contracts concluded according to the cascade mechanism. According to Section 2.7.1 of the tender specifications, when more than one contractor is nominated, EASA determines the specifications of the services required and will first address its request to the contractor who has been ranked first. If this contractor is unable to meet any of the criteria, EASA will address the same request to the contractor who has been ranked second. This process will end with conclusion of a specific contract with one of the contractors who were ranked among the top three and who can meet all the specifications of the services. It follows that if the applicant had been ranked first according to the cascade, this might have secured an advantage for it and that its ranking in a lower position amounts to a significant loss of opportunity. Such a ranking decision therefore produces legal effects vis-à-vis the applicant.

43 Moreover, the fact that the framework contracts which are the subject of the call for tenders at issue have been signed and implemented does not call into question the applicant’s legal interest in bringing proceedings. It is settled case-law that, even where a decision to award a contract has been fully implemented for the benefit of other competitors, a tenderer retains an interest in the annulment of such a decision; such interest consists either in the tenderer’s being properly restored by the contracting authority to his original position or in prompting that authority to make suitable amendments in the future to the tendering procedure if that procedure is found to be incompatible with certain legal requirements (see, to that effect, judgments of 6 March 1979 in Simmenthal v Commission, 92/78, ECR, EU:C:1979:53, paragraph 32, and of 14 October 1999 in CAS Succhi di Frutta v Commission, T‑191/96 and T‑106/97, ECR, EU:T:1999:256, paragraph 63). In the present case, the applicant retains at least an interest in the tenderers’ being correctly ranked according to the cascade
(T-297/09, paras 41 to 43, emphasis added).
This is an interesting point to take into consideration. In my view, the implication of the reasoning of the GC is that, should a framework agreement not carry any of the rankings into the call-off phase (ie where the call-offs are either based on a free choice of the contracting authority, or based on a mini-competition), there seems to be no legitimate interest for a contractor included in the framework agreement to challenge the inclusion of other competitors in the contract--that is, the contractor does not have a right to determine whose competitors to face within the framework agreement. 
In my view, though, that is not necessarily the case, particularly if the exclusion of a given tenderer would have resulted in a framework including a more limited number of contractors. Hence, a case by case approach seems necessary in all instances, and no a contrario interpretation of the GC's reasoning in Evropaïki Dynamiki v EASA should be made.

The second part of the Judgment that I consider relevant concerns the award for damages. Given that the GC had determined that the admissibility of the claim rested on the fact that being ranked higher "secured an advantage ... and that ... ranking in a lower position amounts to a significant loss of opportunity", it would have seemed logical to expect a claim for compensation due to such "significant loss of opportunity" to be accepted and compensation, at some level, to be granted to Evropaïki Dynamiki. 
In that regard, I find it internally inconsistent that the GC has contrarily determined that 
As regards lots 2, 3 and 5, it is true that the contested decisions are vitiated by an inadequate statement of reasons and must be annulled for that reason. However, the inadequacy of the statement of reasons does not mean that the award of the contracts to the tenderers ranked higher in the cascade constitutes wrongful conduct or that there is a causal link between that fact and the loss alleged by the applicant (see, to that effect, judgment of 25 February 2003 in Renco v Council, T‑4/01, ECR, EU:T:2003:37, paragraph 89). It follows that the application for damages in respect of the alleged harm suffered as a result of the contested decisions in the context of lots 2, 3 and 5 of the call for tenders at issue must be dismissed as unfounded in so far as it is based on the inadequate statement of reasons for those decisions (T-297/09, para 185, emphasis added).
In my view, if the rankings were set out in a way that failed to state adequate reasons and Evropaïki Dynamiki has prevailed in getting those decisions annulled, then the preference given to the first ranked contractor should also have been annulled or, at least, compensated for. 

The decision of the GC makes some more sense if one takes into account that Evropaïki Dynamiki decided to limit the challenge to the decision on ranking itself (as set out in para 39, it withdrew "its application for annulment of all further related decisions contained in its first head of claim; that head of claim concerned only the decisions to rank its tenders second or third in the cascade. It follows that this action relates only to the contested decisions. Accordingly, the scope of the present application for annulment must be restricted to an examination of the lawfulness of those decisions."). 

However, the internal consistency of the consideration of a "significant loss of opportunity" regarding the admissibility of the claim is hard to reconcile with the apparent neutrality that the annulment of the decisions seems to have on the financial interests of Evropaïki Dynamiki in the view of the GC.