Important EFTA case on procurement damages: Was the court of one mind, and will the CJEU follow? (E-16/16)


In its Judgment of 31 October 2017 in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, the EFTA Court issued an important Opinion on the interpretation of the procurement Remedies Directive (Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC) and, in particular, on the conditions for the recognition of a right to damages compensation where the contracting authority uses an illegal award criterion and subsequently decides to cancel the tender for that reason. That is, cases where it is clear (and acknowledged by the contracting authority itself) that the procurement procedure was not fully compliant with substantive EU/EEA public procurement rules--which comes to constrain the legal analysis to the question whether the irregularity is such as to allow disappointed tenderers to claim damages compensation.

The Fosen-Linjen case raised a number of issues in the six questions sent to the EFTA Court, such as the threshold for liability, evidentiary requirements, causation, exoneration causes and due diligence requirements. All of them are important but, in my view, the main relevance of the case concerns the threshold of liability, on which the EFTA Court found that 

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EEC, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link (E-16/16, para 82).

The EFTA Court reached this position in answer to a series of questions and sub-questions concerning whether liability under the Remedies Directive was conditional upon the contracting authority having deviated markedly from a justifiable course of action, upon it having incurred a material error that justified a finding of culpability under a general assessment, or upon it having incurred in an inexcusable'material, gross and obvious error' (question 1), or whether liability can be triggered under a test of 'sufficiently qualified breach' where the contracting authority was left with no discretion as to how to interpret or apply the infringed substantive rule (question 2). 

In the case at hand, the EFTA Court decided to group these questions and address them together. In my view, this has been determinative of the outcome of the case. Had the Court addressed the questions sequentially, and inverting the order, it would have been possible to establish that a breach of a substantive provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion constitutes a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law triggering liability (if all other requirements are met) (question 2), which would have rendered the other issues (question 1) moot and unnecessary in this case. By choosing not to do so, the EFTA Court grabbed an opportunity to influence the development of EU/EEA law in the area of procurement remedies in a way that I am not sure will be productive in the long run, particularly because the rather extreme position taken by the EFTA Court--ie that any simple breach of EU/EEA procurement law suffices to generate liability for damages--was not really necessary under the circumstances and does not easily sit with previous developments in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Ultimately, this finding is controversial because of (1) the way the EFTA Court couches the deviation of liability standards under the Remedies Directive and under the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law, as well as (2) due to the fact that the EFTA Court engages in contradictory normative assessments in the reasoning that leads to this conclusion--which makes the interpretation and operationalisation of its main finding rather tricky. In my view, these two points of contention make it unclear that the CJEU--which is not bound by the EFTA Court's interpretation--will adopt the same approach. I will explore these two issues in turn.

Is public procurement special?

One of the normative and doctrinal issues in the background of the discussion surrounding the threshold of liability under the Remedies Directive concerns its relationship with the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law. The position taken by the EFTA Court on this point is not very clear--despite explicit submissions to that effect by the parties, the Norwegian government and the EFTA Surveillance Authority--but it seems to indicate that the Court considers that procurement law is somehow special.

While it is commonly accepted that the State liability doctrine is premised on the existence of a sufficiently serious breach of EU/EEA law (as seminally established in Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, para 35, and in Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79, paras 31 and 51, and consistently reiterated by the CJEU, most recently in Ullens de Schooten, C-268/15, EU:C:2016:874, para 41), the EFTA Court is not willing to retain this threshold of liability in the area of procurement. As the EFTA Court indicated

... it has already been established that a national rule making the award of damages conditional on proof of fault or fraud would make actions for damages more difficult and costly, thereby impairing the full effectiveness of the public procurement rules ... The same must apply where there exists a general exclusion or a limitation of the remedy of damages to only specific cases. This would be the case, for example, if only breaches of a certain gravity would be considered sufficient to trigger the contracting authority’s liability, whereas minor breaches would allow the contracting authority to incur no liability (E-16/16, para 77, emphasis added).

In other words, the EFTA Court is not willing to tolerate a situation where what could be termed de minimis breaches of EU/EEA public procurement law remain unchallenged and, in that regard, the Court seems to have been influenced by the European Commission's position that 'any infringement of public procurement law should be followed up and should not be left unattended because the breach is not “sufficiently serious”' (E-16/16, para 59). The EFTA Court thus seems to consider that the establishment of an almost absolute right to claim damages is necessary to ensure the desirable effectiveness of EU/EEA procurement law.

The Court also considers that '[a] requirement that only a breach of a certain gravity may give rise to damages could also run contrary to the objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement. Depending on the circumstances, a breach of the same provision on EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State' (E-16/16, para 78), which is by no means obvious, in particular if the preliminary reference mechanism works appropriately. 

In my opinion, this general line of reasoning conflates two separate issues. First, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should trigger a ground for the review of the procurement decision concerned and, if justified, to set it aside. Second, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should provide a right to claim damages. By conflating both issues, the EFTA Court implicitly assumes that claims for damages are the only effective remedy. The Court does not take into account the existence of public oversight mechanisms able to 'pick up' on those de minimis infringements of EU/EEA public procurement law, and seems not to think it possible for disappointed tenderers to exercise rights of review in the absence of the financial incentives resulting from damages claims. This comes both to establish a hierarchy of remedies that is absent in the Remedies Directive [see A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Contrôles et contentieux des contrats publics (Bruylant, 2018) forthc.], and to create the same risk of deformation of EU tort law that we have witnessed in other areas of EU economic law [see O Odudu & A Sanchez-Graells, 'The interface of EU and national tort law: Competition law', in P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017); as well as the rest of contributions to that volume].

From a normative perspective, I find this approach problematic due to the perverse incentives it creates--and which I think the EFTA Court was somehow aware of (see below). Moreover, I am not persuaded that this would necessarily be the position of the CJEU, which has in the past held that Art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665 'gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible' (Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751, para 87, emphasis added). From that perspective, and even if the CJEU is likely to continue developing its line of case law that prevents the creation of additional requirements for the existence of liability in damages (as is clear it did by rejecting the imposition of a requirement of fault in Strabag and Others, C-314/09, EU:C:2010:567), I see no reason why it would accept that the requirement for a 'sufficiently serious breach' does not apply in this sub-field of State liability.

In my view, this is particularly important because the position taken by the EFTA Court was both unnecessary for the resolution of the case, and not explicitly premised on a deviation of the State liability doctrine, which leaves the CJEU an easy way out if it decides to take a different approach in the future. In my view, this is likely, because from a normative point of view, the position taken by the EFTA Court is not easily tenable.

What are the implications for contracting authorities and tenderers?

One of the important normative aspects on which the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment rests concerns the incentives that different liability thresholds and requirements create. In that regard, the Court seems to adopt two contradictory normative standpoints in dealing with the twin question of the threshold for liability and the causality requirement--which are indivisibly interlinked in its overall finding that 'A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability ... provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link' (E-16/16, para 82, emphasis added). The contradiction is as follows.

On the one hand, the EFTA Court considers that a simple infringement of EU/EEA public procurement rules must suffice to trigger liability because

... damages seek to achieve a three-fold objective: to compensate for any losses suffered; to restore confidence in the effectiveness of the applicable legal framework; and to deter contracting authorities from acting in such a manner, which will improve future compliance with the applicable rules. Liability through damages may also provide a strong incentive for diligence in the preparation of the tender procedure, which will, ultimately, prevent the waste of resources and compel the contracting authority to evaluate the particular market’s features. Were liability to be excluded, this may lead to a lack of restraint of the contracting authority (E-16/16, para 76, emphasis added).

Thus, in this part of the Judgment, the EFTA Court considers a high likelihood of liability a proper incentive for adequate diligence and decision-making on the part of the contracting authority.

Conversely, on the other hand, when assessing the causality requirements for the recognition of a right to damages compensation (in the context of the fourth question referred by the Norwegian court), the EFTA Court stresses that

... there must be a balance between the different interests at stake. While liability of the contracting authority for any errors committed promotes, in principle, the overall compliance with the applicable legal framework, exaggerated liability of the contracting authority could lead to excessive avoidance costs, reduce the flexibility of the applicable framework and may even lead to the unjust enrichment of an unsuccessful tenderer. Furthermore, excessive liability may provide an incentive for a contracting authority to complete award procedures, that were evidently unlawful, or impinge upon the freedom to contract (E-16/16, para 101, emphasis added). 

This clearly indicates that the existence of liability needs to be constrained or modulated. The EFTA Court seems to want to do so by establishing a complicated approach to causality requirements that would distinguish between those applicable to claims for negative and positive damages (ie bid costs and loss of profits). Even in the context of the first question, the EFTA Court had already shown some inconsistency when establishing that 'a claim for damages can only succeed if certain other conditions are fulfilled, such as the condition that there must be a sufficient causal link between the infringement committed and the damage incurred' (E-16/16, para 81, emphasis added)--which, however, is not equally reflected in the wording of its general finding, which only makes reference to 'the condition of a causal link' (para 82). 

In my view, the approach (implicitly) followed by the EFTA Court is not better than the alternative approach of having closely stuck to a requirement for a sufficient breach of EU/EEA public procurement rules. Even if a combination of low liability threshold (simple breach) and high causality requirements ('sufficient causality') could lead to the same practical results that a requirement for 'sufficiently serious breach', the EFTA approach creates legal uncertainty and more scope for divergence across EU/EEA jurisdictions, not the least because causation is within the remit of domestic law. more importantly, it can create a wave of litigation based on any (minimal, formal, irrelevant) errors in the conduct of procurement procedures in an attempt to test the boundaries of that test.

In my view, on the whole, it would have been preferable to stick to the general framework of the State action doctrine as specified in the Remedies Directive, which is compatible with a finding of a requirement for there to be a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law and, at the same time, with a finding that breaching a provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion (eg the obligation to be in a position to verify the content of tenders against its requirements and award criteria, as in Fosen-Linjen) suffices to trigger liability (the same way that the mere lack of transposition of a Directive triggers State liability under the general test). Therefore, I very much hope that this issue is brought to the CJEU soon, and I would strongly advocate for the CJEU to explicitly reject the EFTA Court's approach.