Tender evaluation & risk of illegally introducing new award criteria via comments (C-677/15 P & T-477/15)

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Thanks to the never-ending litigation efforts of European Dynamics, the EU Courts have recently added two decisions to the growing acquis on the duty to state reasons in the context of public procurement. Although the legal analysis in most of these cases tends to reiterate well-established principles of EU law; the ever more intricate arguments made by European Dynamics can sometimes make for interesting reading.

Two recent cases concern the risks that contracting authorities incur when stating the reasons for their evaluations if, as a result of the debriefing, disappointed tenderers can make an argument that the evaluation rested on award criteria not previously included in the tender documentation. In these two recent cases, the General Court (GC) has offered some insight on the treatment of examples as proxies for the evaluation of service quality (T-477/15), while the Court of Justice (ECJ) has shed some light on the situations in which specific comments on concrete aspects of a tender can be construed as illegally introducing new weighting factors for award sub-criteria (C-677/15 P). This post discusses those specific aspects of these two recent cases.

zum Beispiel

In its Judgment of 1 February 2018 in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v ECHA, T-477/15, EU:T:2018:52, the GC had to assess a complaint raised by European Dynamics (ED) that the evaluation committee would illegally have used award criteria not specified in the tender documentation by criticising its tender due to a lack of examples. The contract was for the provision of IT services and, in simplified terms, the tender documentation required the tenderers to submit offers based on a specific hypothetical scenario of service provision. It turned out that the winning bidder included numerous examples of the ways in which it would address service needs. Comparatively, the evaluation committee found ED's tender lacking in detail and, as justification for awarding ED a lower mark under the relevant award sub-criteria, the committee provided negative comments linked to the absence of examples to illustrate the tender submitted by ED.

ED challenged this approach by stating that "by penalising the tender ... on the ground that it did not contain a sufficient number of examples, although it [was] in line with the tender specifications, the [contracting authority] introduced a new criterion that was not included in the tender specifications ... [and] also criticis[ing] the [contracting authority] for having evaluated the tenders against an unpublished criterion, namely the tenderer’s choice as to what information to include in the tender. [ED] also refer[red] to the possibility that the [contracting authority] had based its evaluation on a horizontal criterion of the tenderer’s general understanding of the tender specifications" (para 121).

The GC placed this complaint within the strictures of the principles of equal treatment and transparency (para 123), and reiterated the general case law concerning the exercise of discretion in the choice of award criteria and evaluation rules, subject to those general principles (paras 124-126). It then established that

In the first place, it must be recalled that the fact that the content of the tender submitted by the European Dynamics consortium complied with the tender specifications does not mean that the negative assessments made by the evaluation committee on that tender resulted from the introduction of new award criteria, which were not mentioned in the documents relating to the call for tenders.

The same is true of the fact that all the negative comments did not necessarily correspond literally to one explicit requirement of the technical specifications ... In that regard, it must be recalled that an evaluation committee must be able to have some leeway in carrying out its task. Accordingly, it may, without amending the contract award criteria set out in the tender specifications or the contract notice, structure its own work of examining and analysing the submitted tenders ...

In the second place, ... the comments by the evaluation committee regarding insufficient examples illustrating more concretely the proposal for service delivery for the scenario contained in the tender submitted by the European Dynamics consortium does not mean that that committee took into account an award criterion that was not set out in the tender specifications. On the contrary, as the [contracting authority] submits, the presence of examples may be capable of reflecting the tenderer’s proper understanding of the services sought. Similarly, the selection, by the tenderers, of the information and detail included in the tender shows the understanding by the latter of the services sought. Hence, the comments relating to insufficient examples or details in the tender submitted by the European Dynamics consortium are indissociably linked to the assessment of the award criteria .... They do not therefore reveal the existence of additional award criteria.

In the third place, it is clear from the evaluation committee’s report that the value of the tenders was indeed evaluated with regard to the technical criteria referred to in the tender specifications. The fact that, as the [contracting authority] states in its defence, the points relating to each of the criteria and sub-criteria defined in the tender specifications were awarded after completion of an evaluation of the whole of the technical offer submitted by each tenderer cannot call that finding into question. Therefore, even if the objection were validly made, the argument that the [contracting authority] considered that the general understanding of the tender specification was a more important criteria than the criteria made public must be rejected (paras 129-132, references omitted and emphases added).

In my view, the GC's Judgment should be welcome. Mainly for two reasons. First, it avoids the dangerously prescriptive approach that would have underpinned a consideration that each example (or the number of examples) needs to be linked to a specific award criterion--which would have made the design of award criteria and tender formats impossibly complex and constraining. Second, because it recognises that, regardless of the break-up of criteria into sub-criteria, evaluation committees can (and I would say should) carry out the evaluation on the basis of their overall or holistic assessment of the tenders. Again, the opposite approach would be excessively constraining, and would result in an artificial split of the tenders into different sub-dimensions in a manner that could rend the evaluation process moot or exceedingly complicated. So, on the whole, this is a good example of pragmatic approach by the GC.

Detailed comments v illegal sub-criteria & their weightings

In its Judgment of 20 December 2017 in EUIPO v European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others, C-677/15 P, EU:C:2017:998 (for discussion of the GC decision under appeal, see here), the ECJ assessed whether specific comments on particular aspects of a tender can constitute the illegal introduction of sub-criteria or their weighting. It is worth recalling that the case also concerned the provision of IT services, and that the evaluation of the quality of the tenders would partially rely on their project management strategy, which was to be assessed against a long list of non-prioritised elements (such as 'change management process', or having a 'lessons learnt programme').

At first instance, ED challenged the evaluation on the basis that the contracting authority's 'negative comment on the bid submitted by [ED] that the bids obtaining a higher score than it obtained under the first award criterion "identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’ showed that [the contracting authority] had applied a weighting to the various sub-criteria within the first award criterion"' (para 11). The GC sided with ED and found that 'since such weighting was not provided for by the tender specifications or communicated in advance to the tenderers, [the contracting authority] had breached, to the detriment of [ED], the principles of equal opportunity and transparency' (ibid).

On appeal, the ECJ has now found that "[i]t is clear that the judgment under appeal is vitiated by an error of law in that regard" (para 30). However, the ECJ has reached this position on purely procedural grounds, which leaves the question open as to whether the provision of negative comments indicating relative disadvantages in relation to some, but not all, the sub-criteria published in the tender document constitutes in itself an illegal case of introduction of illegal sub-weightings. The ECJ has indeed assumed that to be the case, and provided the following reasons for the annulment of the previous GC finding on procedural grounds:

... the principle that procurement procedures must ensure equal treatment and be transparent means that the adjudicating authority must interpret the award criteria in the same way throughout the entire procedure ... Accordingly, a contracting authority cannot apply weighting rules or sub-criteria in respect of the award criteria which it has not previously brought to the tenderers’ attention ...

Nevertheless, it is possible for a contracting authority to determine, after expiry of the time-limit for submitting tenders, weighting factors for sub-criteria which correspond in essence to the criteria previously brought to the tenderers’ attention. That subsequent determination must, however, satisfy three conditions, namely, it must not: (i) alter the criteria for the award of the contract set out in the contract documents or contract notice; (ii) contain elements which, if they had been known at the time the tenders were prepared, could have affected that preparation; and (iii) have been adopted on the basis of matters likely to give rise to discrimination against one of the tenderers ...

In the present case, the disputed findings concern the introduction of weighting given to sub-criteria within one of the award criteria, which was not provided for in the tendering specifications or disclosed in advance to the tenderers ... Thus, in the light of the foregoing, the General Court was not in a position to reach a valid finding that there had been a breach of the principles of equal opportunity and transparency without first examining whether it had been pleaded and established that those three conditions had not been met.

As the General Court failed to verify ... whether those three conditions ... were met in the present case, the first ground of appeal must be upheld, without there being any need to examine the merits of [the contracting authority's] argument that the General Court failed to have due regard for its duty to state reasons when it found that the introduction of factors for the assessment of the sub-criteria in question gave rise to a breach of the principles of equal opportunity and transparency (paras 31-35, references omitted and emphases added).

In my view, this is a lost opportunity for the ECJ to have clarified the extent to which a literal interpretation of the comments given by the contracting authority in debriefing documents can be subjected to the level of scrutiny that the GC had engaged in. It is also relatively difficult to put the two cases discussed in this post together. Strictly speaking, applying the logic that emerges from this second case to the first one, it would seem that ED may have been right in claiming that mentioning the existence of a larger number of examples as the reason for a lower technical mark could constitute a new sub-criterion (or a new sub-weighting if the provision of examples was indicated amongst the list of criteria to be taken into account). In that regard, the GC seems to have adopted a more lenient approach in the first case than the ECJ may be willing to recognise. Should the first case be appealed by ED (who knows?), this may be a tricky issue for the ECJ to iron out.

No comment unless in the presence of my lawyer?

On the whole, I think that these two cases show that, regardless of how flexible the courts are in the assessment of the comments given by the contracting authorities in the context of procurement debriefing, these are dangerous waters. Should this then lead to evaluation teams requiring a lawyer to sit in their meetings and make sure that nothing that is committed to paper (keyboard) can then be used to challenge the evaluation? 

No comment.

GC case law round up: Three relatively recent public procurement judgments (T-700/14; T-74/15; T-441/15)

After some months of having them sitting on my desk, and now that teaching obligations at the University of Bristol Law School subside a bit, it is about time to comment on three relatively recent Judgments of the General Court (GC) of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the area of public procurement. Of the three cases, two concern abnormally low tenders and the other  a tricky point about the scope of the CJEU's jurisdiction in the context of framework agreements--which creates some fuzziness in the delineation of private/public law dimensions of public procurement by the EU Institutions. Anecdotally, two of the cases involve European Dynamics, and two of them are available in French but not in English.

Abnormally low tenders (I): Substantive Aspects

Judgment of 26 January 2017, TV1 v Commission, T-700/14, not published, EU:T:2017:35. This tender concerned the provision of integrated audiovisual production, dissemination and archiving services for the European Commission in the context of the Europe by Satellite programme and was, thus, regulated by the Financial Regulation (version of 2012).

The procedure for the award of the contract foresaw three technical quality criteria in addition to the price criterion. It established that only offers that achieved a minimum score of 60% under each technical quality criterion and an overall score of at least 70% on their overall technical quality would be considered for award. It also determined that the overall score of a given tender would be calculated as follows: the ratio between the lowest priced offer and the price of a given offer would be multiplied by 40, and this would be added to the total (technical) quality score (over 100) multiplied by 60 (para 4, own translation from French). In other words, the award criteria relied on 60% of the points given to an absolute evaluation of technical quality and 40% of the points given to a relative evaluation of the prices offered by different tenderers. Given the relative assessment of the price component, this type of evaluation method is prone to challenges based on the treatment of seemingly abnormally low tenders.

Indeed, amongst other legal grounds, the award of the contract was challenged on this basis; the incumbent provider and disappointed tenderer, TV1, argued that the Commission had infringed Art 110(2) Financial Regulation, in conjunction with Art 151 of its Implementing Regulation and the general duty of good administration by not proceeding to a detailed assessment (and rejection) of the seemingly abnormally low offer submitted by the successful tenderer. The GC will eventually reject the complaint in its entirety. In my opinion, some parts of the reasoning of the GC deserve closer attention.

After reproducing consolidated case law on the interpretation of these provisions and the circumstances under which a contracting authority may (or should) have doubts about the viability of a seemingly abnormal tender (paras 32-42), as well as on the broad discretion enjoyed by the contracting authority and the limited review in which the court should engage (para 44), the GC proceeds to analyse the different arguments raised by TV1 against the Commission's decision. In particular, it is interesting to note that the GC dismisses arguments put forward by TV1 concerning the duty the Commission should have had to identify the winning offer as seemingly abnormally low on the basis of the fact that (i) it was 40% lower than the maximum annual budget allowed by the Commission in the tender documents and (ii) it was 11% lower than TV1's offer.

(i) Interestingly, the reasoning of the GC concerning the irrelevance of the fact that the winning tender was 40% below the maximum budget set by the Commission (and that the challengers' offer was itself 32% below maximum budget) rests on the inaccuracy of the budget set by the Commission. Apparently, when setting the maximum budget, the Commission had failed to take into account sharp reductions in the cost of providing the services now (re)tendered (para 49). Thus, the GC was satisfied that the discrepancy between maximum budget and actual offers was a result of the Commission's inaccurate budgeting rather that of abnormal low prices included in the offers. Logically, this makes sense and it could have well been the case. It does, however, raise important concerns about the accuracy and usefulness of budgeting for public contracts under the Financial Regulations--but that is probably a discussion to be had some other time.

(ii) The reasoning of the GC concerning the 11% discrepancy between the lowest (winning) tender and the next (challenger) tender is also interesting. As a matter of general consideration, the GC stresses that "[a]n offer may be cheaper than another without being abnormally low" (para 58) and that "[t]his also applies to a situation in which the tender price of the successful tenderer is lower than that of the tender of the incumbent provider. Otherwise, the incumbent provider could systematically question the reliability of the cheaper offers of the other tenderers, even if they are not abnormally low, but only economically more advantageous" (para 59, own translation from French). In that connection, it is important to stress that the GC sets aside as insufficient reasons to trigger an in-depth assessment of the challenger's offer as apparently abnormally low, the claims brought forward by TV1 that it had to make significant investments when it was first awarded the contract now (re)tendered, and that an expert should be appointed to check that the winning tenderer "should have incurred expenses comparable to those which the [incumbent] had had to bear several years previously in order to be able to supply the services covered by the earlier contract" (para 67, own translation from French). This is interesting because it avoids an analysis of sunk costs that could, otherwise, advantage the incumbent [for related analysis, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 412 ff].

Overall, then, the GC's assessment of the reasons adduced by TV1 to justify the existence of an obligation on the part of the Commission to engage in an in-depth investigation of the winning tender as apparently abnormally low is sound and should be welcome.

Abnormally low tenders (II): Procedural Aspects

Judgment of 2 February 2017,  European Dynamics Luxembourg and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-74/15, not published, EU:T:2017:55. In this case, the tendered contract concerned the provision of IT services relating to off-site information systems development, studies and support. The tender was for the conclusion of a framework agreement which would operate on the basis of mini-competitions.

The challenge brought by European Dynamics concerned the rejection of two specific requests for quotations as a result of two such mini-competitions. One of the challenges concerned an allegation that the chosen quotation was abnormally low, and the legal basis on which it is founded concerns a failure to provide reasons for a dismissal of the claim that the winning quotation was not abnormally low (ie a breach of Arts 113(2) of the Financial Regulation and Art 161(2) of its Implementing Regulation, as cited above). Thus, in this case, the challenge is not based primarily on the dismissal of reasons adduced to create or justify an appearance of abnormality in a tender, but rather on the absence of motivation for that result.

The GC thus takes a very different approach in this case and, rather than concentrating on the elements under which the discretion of the contracting authority is assessed in relation to its determination of whether a tender is seemingly abnormally low or not (as above), on this occasion the GC concentrates on the duty to give reasons as the main check and balance of such discretion, as well as a necessary procedural step in order to preserve the procedural rights of tenderers for public contracts (paras 35-41). From this perspective, the GC stresses that

In the present case, it is apparent ... that the applicants expressly requested clarification from the Commission in order to demonstrate that the price offered by the successful tenderer was not abnormally low ... the Commission confirmed that its [debriefing] letter ... contained its reply in that regard. So far as concerns the nature of the tender selected [in the specific mini-competition] it is apparent from the last page of that letter that the Commission merely stated, in a single sentence, that ‘“the winning offer” of the IPT tender did not fall under the case of “abnormally low” offers.’ (para 45, emphasis added).

The legal issue in front of the GC was, consequently, whether such brief dismissal of the allegation brought forward by European Dynamics sufficed to meet the relevant threshold for the purposes of the duty to provide reasons. As could be expected, the GC does not offer a positive answer. It stresses that

... the single sentence in the letter ... stating that the tender was not abnormally low does not fulfil the duties assigned to the obligation to state reasons, that is, the reasons must be disclosed clearly and unequivocally so as, on the one hand, to make the persons concerned aware of the reasons for the measure and thereby enable them to defend their rights and, on the other, to enable the Court to exercise its power of review. It cannot be accepted that a contracting authority should explain the not abnormally low nature of a tender merely by stating that such was considered not to be the case (para 47, emphasis added).

The GC does not stop there and goes to the extra length of consolidating the substantive standard applicable to the reasons that should be given in order to discharge this duty vis-a-vis a claim concerning the abnormally low nature of a tender. The consolidation of the standard is rather formulaic and may be seen to follow too closely the specific aspects which the Financial Regulation sets out to be possible cause for the abnormality of low values in a tender (eg non-compliance with employment and social law), but it can be a generally useful benchmark in that it clarifies that

... requiring the contracting authority to present the grounds on the basis of which an offer was not considered to be abnormally low does not require it to disclose precise information on the technical and financial aspects of that tender, such as the prices offered or the resources that the successful bidder proposes to use in order to provide the services that it offers. In order to provide a sufficient statement of reasons for that aspect of the selected tender, the contracting authority must set out the reasoning on the basis of which, on the one hand, it concluded that, because of its principally financial characteristics, such an offer complied with the national legislation of the country in which the services were to be carried out in respect of the remuneration of staff, contribution to the social security scheme and compliance with occupational safety and health standards and, on the other, it determined that the proposed price included all the costs arising from the technical aspects of the selected tender ... Accordingly, the Commission’s argument that the tenders in the present case had not raised any doubts that they were not abnormally low and that there was therefore no other information which it could have provided to the applicants must be rejected. (para 49, references omitted and emphasis added).

This comes to clarify that, even if the contracting authority does not think that there is a need to engage in an in-depth assessment of the (winning) tender to determine if it is abnormally low, it must at all times be in a position to provide the reasons why it did not think that was the case. Overall, this seems adequate, although it continues a line of case law that tends to create a significant burden at debriefing stage and that can trigger significant concerns of excessive transparency of commercially-sensitive information between competitors, as the GC's relatively open-ended requirement in para 49 of the Judgment may be difficult to square with the contracting authority's obligation not to disclose information in a way that could alter competition [on that, generally, see A Sanchez-Graells, "The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives" (2013). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11]. 

A Tricky Jurisdictional Point

Judgment of 17 February 2017, European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v EMA, T-441/15, not published, EU:T:2017:104. The tender in this case concerned the provision of IT services through a framework agreement that included a cascade mechanism for the allocation of call-off contracts within the framework (for a reference to previous litigation concerning this type of mechanism, see here). European Dynamics was awarded the second-tier framework agreement. At the relevant time, EMA asked European Dynamics for CVs of its candidates for the position of project manager for a given contract. EMA rejected all 5 candidates presented by European Dynamics, and this triggered the challenge.

From a jurisdictional perspective, the difficulty in this case was to determine whether EMA's rejection of the candidates put forward by European Dynamics was a decision of an EU Institution challengeable before the CJEU (GC) under its competence as per Art 263 TFEU. In that regard, the GC stressed that "[i]t must be borne in mind that, under Article 263 TFEU, the [Court] only reviews the legality of acts adopted by the institutions intended to produce legal effects vis-à-vis third parties, significantly by altering their legal position" (para 18, own translation from French). The key question was thus whether EMA's rejection of European Dynamic candidates fell within this jurisdictional framework. 

The GC distinguished this case from the previous analysis in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF), T-498/11, EU:T:2014:831 (for discussion see here) on the basis that, "[t]he present case differs from [case T-498/11] in that [in the previous instance,] the specific contracts had not yet been awarded but had to be awarded on the basis of 'mini-competitions' between the selected 'framework contractors' ... [whereas] in the present case, as regards the implementation of a multiple framework contract with cascade allocation, the specific contract has already been allocated according to the position of the economic operators in the cascade, without the need for any further competition between those [economic operators]. Therefore, if the first economic operator is unable to provide the required service or not interested in doing so, the second best operator will be contacted. If the latter is unable to provide the required service or is not interested, then the third best operator will be contacted" (para 24, own translation from French).

Without any additional reasoning, the GC concludes that "the claim for annulment must be declared inadmissible in so far as it is based on Article 263 TFEU" (para 27), on the (implicit) basis that EMA's decision to reject European Dynamic's candidates falls strictly within a pre-established contractual relationship. In the specific case, the CJEU's jurisdiction is saved by the existence of a compromissory clause compatible with Art 272 TFEU in the framework agreement signed between EMA and European Dynamics (para 20), as well as due to the fact that EMA did not challenge the reclassification of the claim for annulment as a contractual claim (para 16). However, it is easy to see how the approach adopted by the GC could have left the claim in limbo -- and possibly time-barred ... -- had it not been by EMA's willingness to deal with the claim in a principled and open manner. Moreover, even if the GC's strictly literal interpretation was right (of which I am not convinced), there would be normative issues concerning the different treatment of functionally identical decisions depending on the type of framework agreement that European Institutions chose to conclude.

Overall, I would suggest that this case should work as a cautionary tale and that the scope of the jurisdiction of the CJEU (GC) to review acts of the European Institutions that, despite taking part within a contractual setting still carry (sufficient) connotations of the exercise of a public power (something the GC only lightly touched upon in this Judgment, at para [22]), requires some rethinking.

GC stresses need for balanced protection of confidential information in public procurement (T-536/11)

In its Judgment in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Commission, T-536/11, EU:T:2015:476, the GC has dismissed a challenge against a European Commission's decision to limit the disclosure of (confidential) information made available to a disappointed tenderer. 

In the case at hand, the Commission had redacted some of the comments made by the evaluation team in order to protect business secrets of tenderers ranked higher than Evropaïki Dynamiki. The latter argued that, by doing so, the Commission failed to discharge its duty to give reasons for its decision not to rank Evropaïki Dynamiki first in the cascade mechanism that would determine call-offs within a framework agreement for software services. The GC dismissed Evropaïki Dynamiki's challenge on the basis that the Commission had struck an appropriate balance between Evropaïki Dynamiki's right to access the information needed to defend its legal rights and third party business interests.

Some of the issues discussed (again) by the GC are worth mentioning, particularly as the duty to disclose the relative merits of the bids submitted by the successful tenderers is concerned (for a recent discussion, in relation to the UK's transposition of disclosure and debriefing rules in Directive 2014/24, see here).  The GC, with a good sense of the need to balance the right to be informed of the reasons for an award decision with the rights of competitors to have their business secrets protected, dismissed Evropaïki Dynamiki's challenge on the following grounds:
48 ... although the applicants submit that the Commission must disclose the information concerning the other successful tenderers’ bids that could be considered to be confidential and state how those tenderers could be harmed by that disclosure, they merely make a general request, without indicating, in the part of the pleadings relating to that plea in law, the comments or the parts of the bids to which they refer, whose disclosure is allegedly necessary for effective legal and judicial protection.
49 It should be recalled that ... the contracting authority is entitled not to disclose certain details where disclosure would hinder application of the law, would be contrary to the public interest or would harm the legitimate business interests of public or private undertakings or could distort fair competition between those undertakings.
50 In addition, it is apparent from the case-law that, in the context of an action brought against a decision taken by a contracting authority in relation to a contract award procedure, the adversarial principle does not mean that the parties are entitled to unlimited and absolute access to all of the information relating to the award procedure concerned. On the contrary, that right of access must be balanced against the right of other economic operators to the protection of their confidential information and their business secrets. The principle of the protection of confidential information and of business secrets must be observed in such a way as to reconcile it with the requirements of effective legal protection and the rights of defence of the parties to the dispute and, in the case of judicial review, in such a way as to ensure that the proceedings as a whole accord with the right to a fair trial (see, to that effect, judgment of 23 November 2011 in bpost v Commission, T‑514/09, EU:T:2011:689, paragraph 25 and the case-law cited). It is apparent from the applicants’ detailed observations set out in their letter of 5 August 2011 that they had sufficient knowledge of the relative advantages of the other successful tenderers’ bids (T-536/11, paras 48 to 50, emphasis added).
The GC could not have expressed it in any clearer terms, and this line of reasoning clearly aims at reaching an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, facilitating access to procurement remedies by disclosing necessary information and, on the other hand, ensuring the protection of information which disclosure could have a negative effect on competition and/or harm legitimate business interests. 

This is a much needed restriction of the excessive level of transparency that oftentimes affects public procurement settings and, consequently, must be warmly welcomed [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives (University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11, 2013)].

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.

GC supports exercise of discretion in the assessment of technical compliance in public procurement (T-30/12)

In its Judgment in IDT Biologika v Commission, T-30/12, EU:T:2015:159 (only available in DE and FR and involving public procurement by the EU Institutions), the General Court (GC) has decided on an issue involving the contracting authority's discretion to assess the sufficiency of technical reports and certificates submitted by the tenderer in order to proof conformity of its offer with requirements set out in the technical specifications. This is an important case because it supports the exercise of technical discretion in the assessment of compliance with specifications in public procurement processes and, in my view, consolidates a welcome anti-formalistic development of this area of EU public procurement law.

In the case at hand, there was a tender for the supply of anti-rabies vaccines to a region in Serbia. The technical specifications determined that the vaccines had to meet certain conditions, amongst which it was necessary to demonstrate that the vaccine had been registered by the European Medicines Agency or equivalent agency of an EU Member State, and that its use was also authorised by the Serbian medicines agency prior to its distribution.

Bioveta made an offer to supply anti-rabies vaccines based on a type of virus ("SAD-Bern MSV Bio 10") that differed from the one included in the registration and the authorisation documents it submitted as part of the technical documentation (referring to "SAD-Bern"), which had been obtained for commercialisation in both Serbia and the Czech Republic. 

In view of that discrepancy, the contracting authority required Bioveta to clarify and confirm that, despite the use of a different virus, the vaccine it offered did not require a new registration with a medicines agency, and that the commercialisation under a different name did not breach the initial authorisation to distribute the product in the Serbian market. 

In simple terms, Bioveta explained that the virus had been changed in 1992 and that the "SAD-Bern MSV Bio 10" was the virus used when the product had been authorised for distribution in Serbia. It also submitted a written explanation of the mere commercial orientation of the change of name (implemented to distinguish Bioveta's vaccines from those of competitors that also sold solutions based on the "SAD-Bern" virus), and submitted that it did not require new registration. It also furnished a report by the Czech medicines agency that confirmed that the products were equivalent and the name "SAD-Bern MSV Bio 10" had been used in all registrations and renewals that had taken place since 1992. 

The contracting authority considered that the clarification was sufficient and the contract was eventually awarded to Bioveta. The decision was subsequently challenged by the competing bidder IDT Biologika on several grounds (some of them very technical in veterinary terms). In my view, the interesting ground for challenge rests on the discretion of the contracting authority when it comes to the assessment of technical aspects of a tender for a contract to be awarded on the basis of the lowest price (or in post-2014 terms, to the most cost-effective offer).  

IDT Biologika fundamentally submitted that the explanations and certificates provided by Bioveta had been improperly assessed and taken into consideration by the contracting authority, and that the award decision was flawed due to the exercise of excessive discretion in accepting them--as, in IDT Biologika's view, the contracting authority should have taken a formalistic approach and rejected Bioveta's tender.

In order to resolve this issue, the GC builds on CMB and Christof v Commission, where it was established that "in the context of a public procurement procedure where ... the contract is awarded to the tenderer who has submitted the lowest priced administratively and technically compliant tender, the contracting authority limits its margin of discretion with regard to the award of the contract to the lowest priced tender among the compliant tenders. However, its margin of discretion must remain broad with regard to the evaluation of the conformity of the tenders presented, and in particular the documentation provided in that regard" (T-407/07, EU:T:2011:477, para 116, emphasis added). It then goes on to determine that, in view of the information supplied by Bioveta, it was not unreasonable or manifestly wrong for the contracting authority not to reject the tender.

In my view, this is a significant consolidation of the case law and, under the CMB and Christof v Commission and IDT Biologika v Commission line of case law, contracting authorities and their evaluation teams should be confident in sticking to a possibilistic approach towards the assessment of the tenders--so as to move past strict formalities and accept sufficient technical evidence as to ensure compliance with the technical specifications.

This is certainly the correct approach from the perspective of maximization of competition and the assessment of technical requirements from a functional perspective--and, consequently, the one that best fits the framework set by Art 44 of Directive 2014/24 on test reports, certification and other means of proof of conformity with requirements or criteria set out in the technical specifications, the award criteria or the contract performance conditions (in particular, art 44(2) dir 2014/24 on alternative means of proof).

Is the flexibilisation of formal requirements in public procurement going both ways? (T-394/12)

In its Judgment in Alfastar Benelux v Council, T-394/12, EU:T:2014:992, the General Court (GC) resolved a dispute concerning public procurement activity of the European Institutions (in this case, the Council). One of the main claims of the disappointed bidder was that the Council had failed to discharge its obligation to state reasons because one of the sentences of the extracted evaluation report that was made available to it by the Council was incomplete.
 
In the applicant's view, the incompleteness of the extract prevented it from assessing the reasons that justified the Council's decision to award the contract to another tenderer. The applicant submitted that the fact that the Council had complemented the extract at a later stage did not overcome the initial ommission and that the Council should be made liable for damages. The GC rejected the claim. The reasoning of the GC in dismissing the action triggers some comments.
 
Firstly, it is worth emphasising that the GC has continued pushing for a strengthening of the duty to provide reasons in abstracto (and, indirectly, as a result of the bindingness of the right to good administration as recognised in Art 41(2)(c) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights). Indeed, the GC emphasised that, as a general point of law,
since infringement of the obligation to give reasons is a matter of public interest, the European Union judicature must raise it of its own motion and, therefore, the fact that the applicant raised it belatedly does not render such a plea inadmissible (see, to that effect, BP Products North America v Council, T-385/11, EU:T:2014:7, paragraph 164) (T-394/12 at para 25, emphasis added).
This creates a strong incentive for contracting authorities to 'err on the side of excessive disclosure' when it comes to the reasons for the adoption of a procurement decision, which may be detrimental for competition and for the protection of the legitimate commercial interests of other tenderers (as clearly recognised in art 55(3) Dir 2014/24 and art 113(2)II Financial Reg, but not always properly understood or applied). This also follows on the GC's previous tough approach and continues to create excessive incentives towards transparency in public procurement (as criticised here, here and in A Sánchez Graells, 'The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives', University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11). Hence, the general approach continues to create the wrong incentives and should be reassessed.
 
Secondly, however, when it comes to the specifics of the case, the GC adopts a very sensible and reasonable approach to the assessment of the claim of breach of the duty to state reasons in particular. Indeed, the GC dismisses the claim on the basis that the incomplete sentence only omitted a limited amount of information concerning the general comments of the evaluators and, additionally, the tenderer had been provided with more details in the remainder of the extract from the evaluation report. Interestingly, the GC stressed that
The general comments may easily be inferred from the detailed technical evaluations of the successful tenderer’s bid which are not concerned by the formatting error, since the general comments constitute a succinct summary of material contained in the contested decision (T-394/12 at para 30, emphasis added).
As such, this reasoning should not be surprising and the GC could hardly be expected to have decided otherwise. Having adopted a more formalistic approach would not only have annulled a procurement decision for no good reason, but would also have opened the floodgates to an unforeseeable volume of litigation (particularly if one takes into account that the guarantees provided by Art 41 EUCFR are applicable in all procurement covered by Dir 2014/24). Hence, it is a sensible decision.
 
However, the better question seems to be whether this same 'anti-formalistic' approach will hold when the clerical mistakes and partial ommissions affect the documentation submitted by the tenderers. Functionally, the rules applicable to the interpretation of documents and the avoidance of formal requirements where the parties engaged in the procurement process 'can make sense' of the documentation exchanged should go both ways. However, this is not necessarily the case yet, as recently discussed regarding Cartiera dell’Adda and Cartiera di Cologno, C-42/13, EU:C:2014:2345 (see here).
 
Hence, it will be interesting to see if the incipient push towards a more functional approach to public procurement takes root and ends up creating a system that is less 'based on rights' and more oriented towards good procurement outcomes [a problem that also affects 'the other side of the Atlantic', as discussed in S Schooner & P Kovacs, "Affirmatively Inefficient Jurisprudence?: Confusing Contractors’ Rights to Raise Affirmative Defenses with Sovereign Immunity" (2012) 21 Federal Circuit Bar Journal 686].

Is Costa v Enel forgotten? CJEU trips over supremacy and direct effect in case concerning Art 41(2)(c) CFREU (C-313/12)

In its Judgment of 7 Movember in case C-313/12 Romeo, the Court of Justice of the EU issued an important ruling concerned with the extension of the obligation to state reasons derived from Article 41(2)(c) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU in purely domestic situations.
 
In the case at hand, the CJEU was especifically presented with a query regarding the compatibility with Article 41(2)(c) CFREU (and, more generally, with the case law on the duty to state reasons) of an Italian rule whereby faulty administrative decisions would not be quashed if the authorities supplemented their statement of reasons in subsequent court proceedings.
 
In my view, the reasons offered by the CJEU to decline jurisdiction to respond to the questions referred by the Italian court show a poor understanding of (or a lack of willingness to give effect to) the changed nature of the Charter after the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. As very clearly stated, 'the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is now legally binding, having the same status as primary EU law' [for discussion, see S Douglas-Scott, 'The European Union and Human Rights after the Treaty of Lisbon' (2011) Human Rights Law Review 11(4): 645-682].
 
In that regard, keeping in mind that Article 6(1) of the Treaty on European Union now very clearly indicates that 'The Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union of  [...] which shall have the same legal value as the Treaties' (emphasis added), it is very hard to understand how the CJEU can have unblinkingly held that:
it cannot be concluded that [...] Article 41(2)(c) of the Charter or indeed other rules of European Union law concerning the obligation to state reasons for acts have been made directly and unconditionally applicable (sic), as such, by [the relevant Italian rules], so that internal situations and situations relating to European Union law are treated in the same way. Therefore it must be held that, in the present case, there is no clear European Union interest in a uniform interpretation of provisions or concepts taken from European Union law, irrespective of the circumstances in which those provisions or concepts are to apply (C-313/12 at para 37, emphasis added).

I cannot get my head around the fact that, as no one would doubt, the CJEU has kept for time immemorial the position that the Treaties (now including the Charter of Fundamental Rights  for these purposes) are supreme and directly effective without any need for internal measures that receive them or recognise that they are directly and unconditionally applicable in all EU Member States--and, yet, it shows a stark resistance to apply these principles to the Charter (see also C-482/10 Cicala).
 
As very clearly summarised in Costa v Enel,
A Member State's obligation under the [Treaty], which is neither subject to any conditions nor, as regards its execution or effect, to the adoption of any measure either by the States or by the Commission, is legally complete and consequently capable of producing direct effects on the relations between Member States and individuals. Such an obligation becomes an integral part of the legal system of the Member States, and thus forms part of their own law, and directly concerns their nationals in whose favour it has created individual rights which national courts must protect (6/64, summary, point 7).
This, together with Art 6(1) TEU surely determines the supremacy and direct effect of the Charter--as also supported by an a contrario interpretation of Protocol No 30 on the Application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to Poland and the United Kingdom (what would be the purpose of the Protocol if not precisely to exclude such supremacy and direct effect regarding the UK and Poland?). Then, if the CJEU has not forgotten Costa v Enel, the only relevant question is: how are Judgments like Cicala and Romeo possible? Why is the CJEU (suddenly) so averse to (continuying to) act as constitutional court at EU level?

GC (T-668/11): 'mere' non-compliance with formal #publicprocurement rules does not trigger liability for loss of profits

In its Judgment of 6 June 2013 in case T-668/11 VIP Car Solutions v Parliament II, the General Court of the European Union (EU) has addressed the issue whether non-compliance with the duties of transparency and motivation by a contracting authority can generate a right to claim damages for disappointed bidders and, more specifically, whether they would be entitled to claim loss of profit compensation.

In this clear Judgment, the GC does not exclude that possibility as a matter of principle, but it sets a very clear line of analysis of the causality required between the lack of motivation or failure to disclose certain information and the damages claimed by disappointed bidders--which makes this type of claims very difficult to succeed. 

In the Judgment, the GC has stressed that:
In this regard, it should be noted that it is true that the Court held that the [contested] decision should be annulled on the grounds, first, that the Parliament had violated the obligation to disclose the price proposed by the successful bidder and, secondly, that the decision was vitiated by an inadequate statement of reasons. However, it is clear that the non-disclosure of the price and the lack of motivation do not establish that the award of the contract to another tenderer was a fault, or that there is a causal link between this fact and the loss claimed by the applicant (see, to that effect, the Judgment of 25 February 2003, Renco / Council T-4/01, Rec. p. II-171, paragraph 89, and of 20 October 2011, Alfastar Benelux / Council T-57/09, not published in the ECR, paragraph 49). Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that the Parliament should award the contract in question to the applicant if the original decision had been sufficiently motivated or if the Parliament had disclosed the price of the successful bidder. It follows that the claim for compensation for the alleged damage suffered as a result of the first decision must be rejected as unfounded in so far as it is based on inadequate reasoning of that decision and the non-disclosure of the price proposed by the winning bidder (T-668/11 at para 38, own translation from French, emphasis added).
In view of this analysis of strict causality, which is appropriate, it seems clear that disappointed bidders that succeed in challenging public procurement decisions exclusively on the grounds of lack of compliance with transparency obligations and the duty to provide reasons are likely to only be entitled to claim legal costs and any other expenses related to the challenge of the award procedure. 

This should be welcome, despite the fact that it may reduce the incentives for disappointed bidders to challenge procedurally incorrect public procurement decisions because, unless they can prove that there has been a material (in terms of substantive) breach and that, but for that illegality they should have been awarded the contract, it is very unlikely that they can obtain any compensation for their efforts. 

This may (marginally?) diminish the effectiveness of challenge procedures (at least where no material rule has been breached), but an excessively generous rule that awarded damages exclusively due to 'mere' procedural shortcomings would generate a perverse incentive towards excessive litigation. This may justify the need for stronger mechanisms of public oversight, as it seems clear that the incentives for disappointed bidders to act 'in the public interest' have just been delimited in a proper, but narrow, manner.

Duty to give reasons under EU procurement law and EU trademark law: is there a contradiction?

Even if they may seem two rather disconnected areas of legal practice, reading cases on EU public procurement and on EU trademark law sometimes offers interesting insights into broader issues of EU Economic Law or, more generally, EU Law. For instance, some recent case law on the duty to provide reasons under each of the specific adminsitrative procedures that govern contract tendering and trademark registration shows what, in my view, is rather a contradiction.

On the one hand, and as commented recently here, the General Court issued his Judgment in Sviluppo Globale GEIE v Commission where it imposed a very demanding standard for the duty to give reasons in procurement cases. Indeed, the GC held that:
27 [...] despite the information contained in [debriefing] letters, and taking into account the relevant case law [Evropaïki Dynamiki/OEDT, T-63/06 at para 112, and Evropaïki Dynamiki/Commission, T-300/07 at para 50] the applicant has not received a response from the Commission showing in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision. [...]
30 [...] the Commission has not made a formal comparison of the projects described by the applicant in its expression of interest against the benchmark of the three criteria set out in paragraph 21.3.a) of the contract notice. In particular, it did not explain which of these three criteria was not satisfied by the projects [submitted by the applicant]. In these circumstances, the applicant was not able to know if the reason for the rejection of her expression of interest in the procurement in question concerned the minimum number of projects implemented, their budget, their completion in a timely manner or the areas in which they were executed. [...]
35 [...] when, as in this case, a European institution has a wide discretion, the guarantees conferred by the Community legal order in administrative procedures is of an even more fundamental relevance. Those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to state sufficient reasons for its decisions (Technische Universität München, C-269/90 at para 14; Le CanneCommission, T-241/00 at paras 53 and 54, and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-300/07  at para 45). [...]
40 In light of the foregoing, it must be held that the applicant properly submits that, to the extent that the Commission has not developed further the reasons why her candidacy did not meet the technical selection criteria set in the contract notice, it has not received in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning of the Commission, which would have allowed her to know the reasons for the decision not to be included in the shortlist of the contract at issue. Moreover, she could not sue without knowing what those reasons are. It is noteworthy in this regard that the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (OJ 2007 C 303, p. 1) sets an obligation on the administration to justify its decisions and that this motivation is not only in general, the expression of the transparency of administrative action, but it must also allow the individual to decide, with full knowledge of the facts, if it is useful for her to apply to a court. There is therefore a close relationship between the obligation to state reasons and the fundamental right to effective judicial protection and the right to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. (GC T-183/10, at paras 27 to 40, emphasis added, own translation from French).
As I said, this detailed debriefing standard imposes a very high burden on the contracting authorities and entities to provide very detailed reasons concerning every single criterion used in the evaluation of bids. Therefore, contracting authorities and entities will have a powerful incentive to be extremely cautious in the level of detail they provide in debriefing letters and meetings and, in case of doubt, they may feel that the safer position is to err on the side of providing excessive rather than insufficient information. And this generates some troubling incentives and risks, as discussed here.


On the other hand and on the same day, the GC issued its Judgment of 10 October 2012 in case Case T-569/10 Bimbo v OHMI - Panrico (BIMBO DOUGHNUTS), where the challenger of OHIM's decision contended, among other grounds for appeal, that OHIM had not expressly addressed some of the arguments presented during the trademark review procedure. In this case, the GC found that:39 The applicant is in fact arguing that the Board of Appeal infringed the obligation to state reasons provided for in the first sentence of Article 75 of Regulation No 207/2009
39 The applicant is in fact arguing that the Board of Appeal infringed the obligation to state reasons [...]
40 It is to be observed that in the present case the Board of Appeal set out in the contested decision the facts and legal considerations which led it to take that decision [...]
41 As regards, more particularly, the applicant’s argument that the Board of Appeal failed to respond to two specific arguments which it had put forward during the procedure before OHIM, the following points should be made.
42 Firstly, with regard to the applicant’s argument that the word ‘doughnuts’ is regarded by the Spanish public as descriptive of the goods in question, the Board of Appeal addressed that argument by stating, in paragraph 18 of the contested decision, that for the average Spanish consumer (excluding those who speak English) the word ‘doughnuts’ did not describe the goods or their qualities. It also held that the earlier sign, like the sign applied for, would be perceived as a foreign or fantasy term ‘by most consumers’.
43 Thus, the Board of Appeal implicitly held that the majority of average Spanish consumers did not speak English or, at least, did not speak it well enough to know the meaning of the word ‘doughnuts’. In that context, it should be observed that the reasoning of the decision of a Board of Appeal may be implicit, on condition that it enables the persons concerned to know the reasons for the Board of Appeal’s decision and provides the competent Court with sufficient material for it to exercise its power of review (Case T‑304/06 Reber v OHIM – Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli (Mozart) [2008] ECR II‑1927, paragraph 55).
44 In this case, the Board of Appeal’s reasoning rejecting the argument based on the allegedly descriptive character of the ‘doughnuts’ element of the trade mark was sufficient to enable the applicant to understand the reasons that had led the Board of Appeal to adopt the contested decision and to enable the Court to exercise its power of review.
45 Secondly, with regard to the applicant’s argument based on the reputation of the ‘bimbo’ element of the trade mark applied for, it is true that the Board of Appeal did not explicitly address that argument in the contested decision. However, it pointed out that the ‘doughnuts’ element in the trade mark applied for ‘[would] catch the attention of the relevant Spanish public, as it appears unusual in Spanish due to the atypical combination of vowels “ou” and the accumulation of consonants “ghn”’. The Board thus held that that element could not be disregarded in the comparison in question. Thus, it follows from the contested decision that the Board of Appeal did not consider that the ‘bimbo’ element of the mark applied for dominated the overall impression created by the mark applied for to such an extent that the other component – the ‘doughnuts’ element – could be disregarded. The reasoning relating to this point was also sufficient to enable the applicant to know the reasons for the contested decision and to enable the Court to review the legality of the decision on that point.
46 The statement of reasons in the contested decision is thus sufficient in law.
(GC T-569/10, at paras 39 to 46, emphasis added).
In my reading, the position of the GC in Bimbo Doughnuts is a more balanced review of the reasons provided by the authority than in Sviluppo Globale, and the focus is ultimately functional. Even if the bottom limit or the minimum standard concerning the duty to give reasons set by the GC in both Sviluppo Globale and Bimbo Doughnuts points towards the same functional requirement [ie that the affected party (either a bidder or a trademark applicant) must be able to decide whether to apply to a court to challenge the decision on the basis of its supporting elements, and that such court must be able to exercise its power of review], there seems to be a clear contradiction--or, at the very least--a significant discrepancy in the level of scrutiny in both cases.

Whereas Sviluppo Globale indicates the need to "show in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision", Bimbo Doughnuts leaves more room to administrative restrictions of the information provided by accepting that "the reasoning of the decision may be implicit and even not expressly address all points raised by the applicant", provided always that the information given is sufficient to understand the reasons for the contested decision. In my opinion, the second position is much less formal and allows for a more workable system of administration of EU rules. Therefore, it seems preferable and should be extended to the public procurement arena and, more generally, to all areas of EU Law.

In this regard, the codification of a proper set of rules (or standards) on EU Administrative Law seems a worthy regulatory exercise. For very interesting proposals, please see the projects conducted under the Research Network on EU Administrative Law http://www.reneual.eu/.

Again on procurement debriefing and its excesses: Extent of the duty to give (very detailed) reasons to bidders and right to a fair trial (T-183/10)

In its Judgment of 10 October 2012 in case T‑183/10 Sviluppo Globale GEIE v Commission, the General Court has issued a new decision concerned with the extent of the duty to provide reasons to disappointed tenderers on the basis of Article 100(2) of Council Regulation (EC, Euratom) No 1605/2002 of 25 June 2002 on the Financial Regulation applicable to the general budget of the European Communities (OJ 2002 L 248, p. 1) (‘the Financial Regulation’) [for another recent case on debriefing, see my comments here]. Interestingly, the GC expressly highlights the link between the duty to give reasons and the right to effective judicial protection under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

In the case at hand, the disappointed tenderer received a debriefing letter from the European Commission where the reasons for its non-invitation to present a full bid in a restricted procedure were limited to indicate "failure to comply with the criteria listed in point 23.1.a)" of the call for expressions of interest. According to those requirements, potential tenderers had to justify that, at the time of tendering, they would have completed at least two international projects worth 3.5mn or more, in areas covered by the object of the future contract (ie technical services to support central and local government in Syria).

The disappointed tenderer considered that the mere indication of a 'generic' or 'unspecific' failure to comply with point 23.1.a) of the call for expressions of interest fell short from the duty to give reasons incumbent upon the contracting authority and violated its procedural rights. On the contrary, the European Commission took the view that, given the objective nature of the criteria included in point 23.1.a) of the call, the disappointed tenderer should have been able to understand the reasons behind the decision not to shortlist her for the presentation of a full bid by a simple comparison of its tender with the contractual object.

The GC disagrees with the position of the Commission and finds that:
27 [...] despite the information contained in [debriefing] letters, and taking into account the relevant case law [Evropaïki Dynamiki/OEDT, T-63/06 at para 112, and Evropaïki Dynamiki/Commission, T-300/07 at para 50] the applicant has not received a response from the Commission showing in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision. [...]
30 [...] the Commission has not made a formal comparison of the projects described by the applicant in its expression of interest against the benchmark of the three criteria set out in paragraph 21.3.a) of the contract notice. In particular, it did not explain which of these three criteria was not satisfied by the projects [submitted by the applicant]. In these circumstances, the applicant was not able to know if the reason for the rejection of her expression of interest in the procurement in question concerned the minimum number of projects implemented, their budget, their completion in a timely manner or the areas in which they were executed. [...]
35 It should be recalled in this connection that when, as in this case, a European institution has a wide discretion, the guarantees conferred by the Community legal order in administrative procedures is of an even more fundamental relevance. Those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to state sufficient reasons for its decisions (Technische Universität München, C-269/90 at para 14; Le CanneCommission, T-241/00 at paras 53 and 54, and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-300/07  at para 45). [...]
40 In light of the foregoing, it must be held that the applicant properly submits that, to the extent that the Commission has not developed further the reasons why her candidacy did not meet the technical selection criteria set in the contract notice, it has not received in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning of the Commission, which would have allowed her to know the reasons for the decision not to be included in the shortlist of the contract at issue. Moreover, she could not sue without knowing what those reasons are. It is noteworthy in this regard that the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (OJ 2007 C 303, p. 1) sets an obligation on the administration to justify its decisions and that this motivation is not only in general, the expression of the transparency of administrative action, but it must also allow the individual to decide, with full knowledge of the facts, if it is useful for her to apply to a court. There is therefore a close relationship between the obligation to state reasons and the fundamental right to effective judicial protection and the right to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. (GC T-183/10, at paras 27 to 40, own translation from French).
The GC then complements this analysis by underlining the relevance of the motivation provided by the European institutions (in general, by the contracting bodies) for the purposes of judicial review and considers that the scant justification provided by a mere reference to some unfulfilled criteria required by the tender documents falls short from ensuring effective judicial review (GC T-183/10, at paras 41 to 46). In view of all those shortcomings in the motivation provided by the Commission, the GC annuls the decision not to invite the applicant to the submission of a full bid in the relevant procurement process.

In my view, this case generates a significant risk of hypertrophy of bid protest mechanisms in cases where contracting authorities use short or not overly detailed explanations in their debriefing correspondence [in my personal view, the Commission was right to assume that a reference to a specific set of objective criteria clearly indicated in the tender documents should provide the disappointed tenderer with sufficient information to, eventually, challenge the decision]. This can simply open a very dangerous door to strategic litigation and to an excessive broadening of 'fair trial' guarantees in an area where the financial drivers of tendering companies can generate perverse incentives to challenge. 

At the very least, the decision of the GC in Sviluppo Globale will increase the red tape and administration costs of the public procurement system, since contracting authorities will have a powerful incentive to be extremely cautious in the level of detail they provide in debriefing letters and meetings and, in case of doubt, they may feel that the safer position is to err on the side of providing excessive rather than insufficient information. As recently stressed in relation to case C-629/11 P, contracting authorities and review courts should be particularly careful in not imposing excessive disclosure when there are actual risks of strategic use of challenge procedures or the market structure is such that the increased degree of transparency could (inadvertently) facilitate or reinforce collusion.

However, this message seems not to be reaching the adequate ears and disclosure and transparency requirements are just being significantly expanded in the recent case law of the EU Courts. In my view, this is a dangerous development of EU public procurement law, which may lead to excessive litigation and to a strengthening (or facillitation) of collusion in some public procurement markets. I am just hoping that future practice proves me wrong.