Further clarification on non-contractual liability vis-a-vis abnormally low tenderers in EU Institutional procurement (C-198/16 P)


In its Judgment of 19 October 2017 in Agriconsulting Europe v Commission, C-198/16 P, EU:C:2017:784, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has provided additional clarification on the conditions for EU Institutions to incur in non-contractual liability (ex Art 340 TFEU) in the context of an investigation of apparently abnormally low tenders in public procurement governed by the Financial Regulation (in that case, the no longer in force 2002 version, but note that the reasoning is generally applicable to current rules).

The Agriconsulting Judgment consolidates a balanced approach to the obligations incumbent upon a contracting authority investigating apparently abnormally low bids, and formulates the emerging principle that tenderers submitting abnormally low tenders are unlikely to have the right to claim for potential damages derived from other shortcomings in the evaluation of their tenders.

In Agriconsulting, the CJEU decided on an appeal of a previous General Court Judgment (T-570/13, EU:T:2016:40) that rejected the claims made by Agriconsulting against the way in which the Commission had assessed its tender and eventually decided that it was abnormally low and thus non-compliant with the tender specifications. The case concerned a services contract that was split between main and additional tasks, and where the tender documentation established minimum levels of staff to be assigned to each of them. This was to be assessed under award criterion 3: 'practical organisation of the tasks'. Under the circumstances, Agriconsulting's tender was found not to meet the minimum staffing requirements in the tender documents.

However, this only emerged after additional details were requested as part of an investigation of the apparent abnormality of its tender, which was €1 million (ie 43%) lower than the competing tender, and €1.2 million (47%) lower than the maximum budget for the contract. The information provided by Agriconsulting did not address the concerns about the abnormality of its tender, which led the evaluation committee to change its preliminary assessment--where Agriconsulting was ranked first but suspected of abnormality--and to reach the final position that its tender did not merit the required minimum points under award criterion 3 to be awarded the contract. Agriconsulting raised a number of claims against this, of which two are particularly interesting: (1) that even if its tender was properly found to be abnormally low under award criterion 3, it could have a right to compensation for damages if it could demonstrate other errors by the contracting authority; and (2) that it had been discriminated against because the competing tender was not investigated for abnormality.

Abnormality and rejection of the tender

In simple terms, the first ground of appeal concerns a claim by Agriconsulting that can be understood as intimating that, even if the rejection of its tender as abnormally low due to its not having met the minimum requirements of award criterion 3 was correct, the existence of errors in the evaluation of its tender under other award criteria could still give rise to liability of the contracting authority.

The argument arises from the fact that, in its application, Agriconsulting had claimed that there was a causal link between the improper assessment of its tender under criterion 3, and that unlawful acts concerning award criteria 1 and 2 "supported" its claim. The GC had dealt with this in the following terms:

42 The applicant contends that the condition relating to the causal link is satisfied because its tender was ranked in first place and it would have been awarded the contract had it not been for the alleged infringements.

43 Nonetheless, it must be stated that the rejection of the applicant’s tender is based only on the assessments concerning award criterion 3 and the abnormally low nature of its tender. The applicant’s tender was indeed ranked in first place following the examination of the tender from an economic standpoint. That ranking was altered for two reasons, namely the changes to the evaluation of the tender in the light of award criterion 3, which was considered to be insufficient, and the classification of the tender as abnormally low. The applicant also states in its application that the harm at issue is the direct result of the evaluation committee’s decision to lower the score for award criterion 3 and to find that the tender was abnormally low.

44 Furthermore, as the Commission points out, the applicant has not, at any time, explained how the award of a higher score for award criteria 1 and 2 could have had a favourable impact on its chances of being awarded the contract.

45 The applicant is therefore wrong to assert that the contract would have been awarded to it if it had not been for the infringements and errors concerning award criteria 1 and 2. Even a higher score for those award criteria would not have affected the assessment of its tender in the light of award criterion 3 and the finding that the tender was abnormally low.

46 Accordingly, the alleged illegalities concerning award criteria 1 and 2, even if proven, have no direct causal link to the alleged harm, relating to the loss of the opportunity to conclude the contract and the expenses incurred in order to participate in the tendering procedure (T-570/13, paras 42-46, emphasis added).

Thus, the issue in front of the CJEU was to assess whether, in dismissing its claim and thus finding that (even if proven) infringements concerning criteria 1 and 2 would not have met the causality requirements to give rise to liability, the GC had erred in law. In its Judgment, the CJEU dismisses this claim by indicating that

... the General Court did not hold in a general and abstract manner that the unlawful acts affecting a tender procedure, such as those alleged in the present case by Agriconsulting in relation to award criteria 1 and 2, can never entitle a tenderer to compensation. In the present case, the General Court merely assessed in concreto whether such a right to compensation existed, in the light of the arguments submitted by the appellant concerning the causal link and by carrying out an assessment of the facts of the case (C-198/16 P, para 21, emphasis added).

I find this interesting for two reasons. First, because it can be read to mean that, where a tender is properly rejected for being abnormally low, there is no liability that can possibly arise vis-a-vis that tenderer due to any other failings in the way the contracting authority assessed the tender. This seems adequate as, in more general terms, a tenderer submitting an abnormally low tender cannot hold legitimate expectations of being awarded the contract. Second, I find this interesting because the CJEU also leaves the door open to the possibility that unlawful acts affecting a tender procedure give rise to liability of the contracting authority where they have a negative impact on a tenderer's chances of being awarded the contract. However, this probably needs to be understood as a slim or remote possibility, applicable only where the unlawful acts are substantive and affect the possibilities of being awarded a contract in a sufficient or material manner.

Abnormality and equal treatment

As mentioned above, the second issue raised by Agriconsultingin its third ground of appeal concerned a notional duty of contracting authorities that engage in the investigation of a tender as apparently abnormally low to investigage all tenders received in that procedure for abnormality. The CJEU summarises the claim as follows:

48 ... the General Court ... stated that [the competitor]’s tender, calculated on the basis of the formula set out in the tender specifications, was slightly lower than the budget ceiling provided for in those specifications for the performance of the contract and higher, by almost EUR 1 million, than Agriconsulting’s tender. It thus concluded that [the competitor] was not in the same situation as Agriconsulting and that therefore the Commission was entitled, without infringing the principle of equal treatment, to verify the abnormally low nature of [Agriconsulting]’s tender, without applying the same treatment to [the competitor]’s tender.

49 It must be stated that the differential treatment of the tenders of Agriconsulting and of [the competitor] is intrinsically linked to the issue of identifying abnormally low tenders and the procedure reserved for them. Assessing the merits of the reasons given by the General Court ... will require revisiting the relevant obligations imposed on the contracting authority (C-198/16 P, paras 48-49, emphasis added).

This also seems like the proper approach to assessing any unequal treatment, and links to the procedural obligations that contracting authorities face in the presence of allegations or suspicions of abnormality--which have been recently discussed in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Agence, T-392/15, EU:T:2017:462 (see here).

Following the same functional approach, the CJEU reiterated in Agriconsulting that:

52 It is only on condition that the reliability of a tender is, a priori, doubtful that the obligations ... are imposed on the contracting authority, including, in the present case, that of verifying in detail the seriousness of the prices offered using the reference economic parameters.

53 In the present case, since the evaluation committee had identified the appellant’s tender as being, prima facie, abnormally low, and had considered that [the competitor]’s tender did not, a priori, present any abnormality, it could, without infringing the principle of equal treatment between tenderers, initiate the adversarial procedure ... against the appellant and verify in detail its prices using the reference economic parameters without applying the same treatment to [the competitor]. The General Court was therefore correct in finding ... that both undertakings, as regards their respective tenders, were not in the same situation (C-198/16 P, paras 52-53, emphasis added).

This is also a welcome development because it creates continuity in the position reached in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Agence that contracting authorities do not have motu proprio obligations beyond reaching an initial view on the absence of concerns regarding the abnormality of a tender, and that any additional obligations only arise from explicit claims to that effect. This is further clarified by the CJEU when it stresses that 'Agriconsulting would ... have had to establish the reasons why the contracting authority should, prima facie, have doubted the reliability of [the competitor]’s tender' (C-198/16 P, para 58).