CJEU rejected AG Wathelet's proposal for vicarious liability for agent's behaviour in competition law: a more stringent test, but how stringent? (C-542/14)

In its Judgment of 21 July 2016 in VM Remonts and Others, C-542/14, EU:C:2016:578, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued an important clarification of the rules applicable to the attribution of (vicarious) liability for infringements of EU competition law, thus expanding its case law on the subjective elements (ie mens rea-like requirements) of the prohibition of anticompetitive behaviour in Art 101(1) TFEU.

In doing so, the CJEU rejected the proposal for stringent vicarious liability formulated by AG Wathelet (see my criticism here) and formulated a more stringent test for the attribution of anticompetitive behaviour of an independent agent. The test formulated by the CJEU raises some interpretative issues, though, and it deserves some comment.

It is worth reminding that the case addressed issues concerning the imputability of anticompetitive practices in which a third party services provider is engaged to the 'client' undertaking that hired those services (ie how to make the 'client' undertaking liable for the anticompetitive behaviour of one of its services providers). 

The case was quite convoluted because it concerned the imputability of a bid rigging offence to a supplying company that engaged a consultant to help it formulate a bid in a tender for a public contract. After the fact, it became apparent that the consultant engaged in collusion with other tenderers in the same bid. The question was, thus, to what extent the bidder should be liable for the collusion that resulted from the allegedly independent activity of the consultant (third party services supplier) and, in any case, what level of proof of anticompetitive intent would be necessary to impose liability on the 'client' undertaking.

In addressing this issue, the CJEU rejected a parallelism between the rules applicable to an undertaking's employees to its agents, and determined that 'where a service provider offers, in return for payment, services on a given market on an independent basis, that provider must be regarded, for the purpose of applying rules aimed at penalising anti-competitive conduct, as a separate undertaking from those to which it provides services and the acts of such a provider cannot automatically be attributed to one of those undertakings' (C-542/14, para 25, emphasis added).

However, the CJEU stressed that this different treatment is based on the independence of market activity of the service provider and, consequently, it would not be justified where the client undertaking exerted significant control over the apparently independent service provider. To that effect, the CJEU determined that

Article 101(1) TFEU must be interpreted as meaning that an undertaking may, in principle, be held liable for a concerted practice on account of the acts of an independent service provider supplying it with services only if one of the following conditions is met:
–  the service provider was in fact acting under the direction or control of the undertaking concerned, or
– that undertaking was aware of the anti-competitive objectives pursued by its competitors and the service provider and intended to contribute to them by its own conduct, or
–  that undertaking could reasonably have foreseen the anti-competitive acts of its competitors and the service provider and was prepared to accept the risk which they entailed
(C-542/14, para 33, emphasis added).

Of particular relevance in the field of public procurement, the CJEU also provided some clarification regarding the unauthorised disclosure of commercially sensitive information by the agent, by stressing that

Whilst it is true that [an undertaking is liable for a competition infringement] when that undertaking intended, through the intermediary of its service provider, to disclose commercially sensitive information to its competitors, or when it expressly or tacitly consented to the provider sharing that commercially sensitive information with them ... the condition is not met when that service provider has, without informing the undertaking using its services, used the undertaking’s commercially sensitive information to complete those competitors’ tenders (C-542/14, para 32, emphasis added).

In my view, the VM Remonts Judgment should be welcome for what it does not do. That is, for its rejection of AG Wathelet's proposal for a reversal of the burden of proof, to the effect that the 'client' undertaking would have been considered liable unless it could adduce sufficiently convincing evidence (i) relating to the fact that the agent (services provider) had acted outside the scope of the functions that had been entrusted to it, (ii) regarding the precautionary measures taken by the ‘client’ undertaking at the time of designation of the agent and during the monitoring of the implementation of the functions in question, and (iii) regarding the ‘client’ undertaking's conduct upon becoming aware of prohibited behaviour--so as to demand a public distancing and positive reporting, under the analogous rules of Dansk Rørindustri and Others v Commission, C-189/02 P, C-202/02 P, C-205/02 P to C-208/02 P and C-213/02 P, EU:C:2005:408.

However, regarding the positive test that it sets for the assessment of whether anti-competitive activity by an agent can be imputed to the client undertaking, the VM Remonts Judgment seems less satisfactory, in particular due to the last condition of the test in its paragraph [33], whereby 'an undertaking may, in principle, be held liable for a concerted practice on account of the acts of an independent service provider supplying it with services ... if  ... that undertaking could reasonably have foreseen the anti-competitive acts of its competitors and the service provider and was prepared to accept the risk which they entailed' (emphasis added).

This seems to be an adaptation of the test developed in Commission v Anic Partecipazioni, C-49/92 P, EU:C:1999:356, paragraph [87], to which the CJEU refers in VM Remonts to stress that 'an undertaking may be held liable for agreements or concerted practices having an anti-competitive object when it intended to contribute by its own conduct to the common objectives pursued by all the participants and was aware of the actual conduct planned or put into effect by other undertakings in pursuit of the same objectives or that it could reasonably have foreseen it and was prepared to accept the risk' (C-542/14, para 29, emphasis added).

The adaptation of this test to cases of anticompetitive behaviour by an agent seems problematic because it stretches its last part concerning the acceptance of a risk of occurrence of anticompetitive behaviour by third parties (in that case, co-conspirators). In Anic, the undertaking concerned had been attending meetings with other undertakings that formed part of a cartel. Therefore, the assessment of whether the undertaking could reasonably foresee specific types of anti-competitive conduct by its co-conspirators (formally, third parties) derives from its own participation in meetings--that is, derives from its own observation of the behaviour of other entities that participate in the anti-competitive practice.

This cannot be the case in a scenario such as that presented by VM Remonts, where the client undertaking does not participate in any meetings and where it has no (proven) knowledge of the activity of the agent. In these cases, it would seem that the first two prongs of the VM Remonts test would suffice: ie the client undertaking is liable for the anticompetitive behaviour of the agent if (a) it controls the agent or (b) is aware of the anti-competitive behaviour between the agent and third parties, and aims to contribute to it. Introducing the third condition, according to which the client undertaking can also be liable if (c) it could have reasonably foreseen anticompetitive behaviour between its agent and third parties and was prepared to accept the risk which they entailed, seems to far fetched. 

Whereas in an Anic-like scenario the reasonable prediction of anticompetitive behaviour by co-conspirators derives from information directly acquired in the meetings in which the undertaking participates--that is, can be presumed under logical rules--in a VM Remonts-like scenario, any claim as to the undertaking's duty to foresee anticompetitive behaviour would be pure speculation.

If the client undertaking has no positive knowledge of the anticompetitive behaviour in which the agent [otherwise, the prong (b) of the test would apply], how is it ever going to be possible to determine that it ought to have foreseen it? If this is on the basis of its relationship with the agent, this dangerously reopens the door to a test like the one developed by AG Wathelet or, worse, creates a sort of culpa in eligendo of its agent that is equally troublesome.

If (factual) speculation is to be avoided and the imposition of vicarious liability is rejected by the CJEU in VM Remonts (para 26, although see para 27, which makes it less clear-cut), the only reasonable interpretation of the prong (c) of the test developed in paragraph [33] of VM Remonts is that it can simply never be applied. In which case, one can be forgiven for wondering if the CJEU did not pay sufficient consideration to the adaptation of the Anic test to a situation involving an independent service provider.