reasons for the deduction of points at tender evaluation must be fully disclosed to their last detail: AG MENGOZZI ON DUTY TO MOTIVATE PROCUREMENT DECISIONS (C-376/16 P)

AG Mengozzi has put pressure on the Court of Justice (ECJ) to continue pushing for excessive transparency in the context of procurement litigation. On this occasion, the AG has invited the ECJ to establish an extremely stringent requirement for the disclosure of detailed comparisons of the evaluation reports to the level of award sub-criteria, without assessing the extent to which the contracting authority can have legitimate reasons to withhold parts of the evaluation.

In my view, this approach would create significant imbalances between the duty to provide reasons to disappointed tenderers and the duty to preserve competition for public contracts and sufficient protection of business and commercial information, which is problematic [for discussion, see K-M Halonen, 'Disclosure Rules in EU Public Procurement: Balancing between Competition and Transparency’ (2016) 16(4) Journal of Public Procurement 528; 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) Univ. of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11]. Therefore, I argue that the ECJ should deviate from the Opinion of AG Mengozzi in its final Judgment in this case.

It is worth noting that the case is subjected to a previous version of the procurement rules in the EU Financial Regulation, but the ECJ's Judgment will be more generally relevant, both in the context of the current Financial Regulation controlling EU Institutional procurement and, more generally, for procurement controlled by the rules in the 2014 EU Public Procurement Package.

The AG Opinion

In his Opinion of 28 September 2017 in case EUIPO v European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others, C-376/16 P, EU:C:2017:729, AG Mengozzi has once more attempted a delineation of the obligation to state reasons for a decision to reject a tender and, in particular, "with regard to the correlation between the specific negative assessments set out in the evaluation report and the deductions of net points made by the contracting authority" (para 19). Or, in other words, AG Mengozzi has indicated the way in which the case law of the Court of Justice (ECJ) on the duty to provide justifications in the context of procurement debriefing applies to the reasons for the deduction of points on the basis of negative judgements of the evaluation committee [for general discussion of this obligation, see A Sanchez-Graells, “Transparency in Procurement by the EU Institutions”, in K-M Halonen, R Caranta & A Sanchez-Graells (eds), Disclosure Rules within Public Procurement Procedures and During Contract Period, vol 9 EPL Series (Edward Elgar, forthc.)].

This point of law was raised by EUIPO against the previous finding of the General Court (GC) that, despite the fact that contracting authorities are not required to provide unsuccessful tenderers with a detailed summary of how each aspect of their tenders was taken into account for its evaluation, however,

when the contracting authority makes specific assessments as to the manner in which the tender in question fulfils or otherwise [award] criteria and sub-criteria, which are clearly relevant to the overall score of the tender, the duty to state reasons necessarily includes the need to explain how, in particular, negative assessments gave rise to the deduction of points (Judgment of 27 April 2016 in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v EUIPO, T-556/11, EU:T:2016:248, para 250).

In the specific case, the GC considered it particularly important because the evaluation method included relative measures, so that "any deduction of net points in respect of certain sub-criteria automatically resulted, under the formula applied by the contracting authority, in the increase in the number of gross points to be allocated to the successful tenderers’ tenders in respect of their technical quality" (AGO C-376/16 P, para 24 & T-556/11, para 251).

The circumstances of the case where such that EUIPO disclosed the overall score for each of the three technical or qualitative criteria used in tender evaluation, but not the detailed breakdown for each of the award sub-criteria taken into consideration by the evaluation committee. In those circumstances, the GC found that "it was impossible, both for [the disappointed tenderer] and for the Court, to understand the calculation or precise breakdown of the points deducted for each sub-criterion, or even for each of the sub-points, and that it was therefore also not possible to verify whether and to what extent those deductions actually corresponded to the negative assessments made in the evaluation report and, accordingly, whether they were justified or not, or, at the very least, sufficiently plausible" (AGO C-376/16 P, para 26 & T-556/11, para 252).

EUIPO opposed that finding, and the more general point of law made by the GC, on the basis that neither the applicable rules, nor the case law of the CJEU required the debriefing information provided to a disappointed tenderer to include a demonstration of "which negative comment led to which deduction of points for each specific sub-criterion or sub-point" (AGO C-376/16 P, para 28 - for details of the reasons, see paras 29-31).

Thus, the main point of contention concerns the limits of the duty to disclose details of the evaluation process and report. Or, as AG Mengozzi put it, the question is "in essence, whether the [GC] was right in holding that the decision to reject the tender did not satisfy the requirements to state reasons stemming from [the applicable rules], as interpreted by the case-law, or whether the [GC] applied an overly strict test compared with the aforementioned provisions and the relevant case-law of the [ECJ]" (AGO, C-376/16 P, para 32). 

After a short restatement of the ECJ case law on the limits of the obligation to provide reasons and disclose relevant parts of the evaluation report, and despite stressing that "the contracting authority [is not] under an obligation to provide an unsuccessful tenderer, upon written request from it, with a full copy of the evaluation report" (AGO, C-376/16 P, para 36), in short, AG Mengozzi has invited the ECJ to establish that the right disclosure standard is one where

(i) the extracts of the evaluation reports disclosed by the [contracting authority] [make] it possible to deduce the number of points obtained by the appellant in question in comparison with the successful tenderer, broken down each time for each sub-criterion, and the weight of each sub-criterion in the overall evaluation, and (ii), the comments of the evaluation committee which [are] disclosed [explain], for each award criterion, on the basis of which sub-criteria the [contracting authority] had found the tender of the successful tenderer or that of the appellant in question to be the best (AGO C-376/16 P, para 47, emphases in the original).

AG Mengozzi suggests that this would have already been implicitly established in the Judgment of 4 October 2012 in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, C-629/11 P, EU:C:2012:617, para 11, where the circumstances of the case reflected this level of disclosure.

Criticism

In my view, this is not an adequate test.

First of all, I struggle to see where the boundary lies between having to disclose the evaluation report in full and having to provide an absolutely broken down comparative assessment of the evaluation of the disappointed tenderers' tender and that of the preferred tenderer. To be fair, the previous case law is riddled with such tensions and it is difficult to establish clear boundaries on the obligation to disclose information contained in the evaluation report. However, in my view, the step taken by AG Mengozzi (and previously by the GC) comes to nullify the general (minimum) safeguard that contracting authorities are not required to disclose the evaluation report in full.

Secondly, I am not sure that in the assessment of these issues enough consideration is given to the fact that the relevant rules allow contracting authorities 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. In my view, there is a clear case to be made for restricting the level of disclosure of the points given to competing tenderers to a level of generality (eg award criteria rather than sub-award criteria) that strikes a balance between allowing for the review of the procurement decision while preserving competing interests. If the case law of the ECJ develop in the direction suggested by AG Mengozzi, it will be almost impossible for contracting authorities to protect legitimate interests in the context of procurement, and this will have chilling effects on participation.

Third, such a test would potentially make sense in terms of disclosure between the contracting authority and the review body or court, but not in relation to the disappointed tenderer. It would make much more sense to allow for disclosure limited to the level of award criteria at debriefing stage and, only in case the disappointed tenderer is not satisfied and launches an administrative or judicial review, for that information to be released to the review body of court, with stringent rules on access to that confidential information (for example, along the lines of the guidelines recently adopted in England). In the absence of this differential access to sensitive information, the adoption of the test proposed by AG Mengozzi is excessive and creates structural risks for abuse and competitive distortions--which makes it an undesirable test.

On the whole, I think that this Opinion and the previous decision by the GC show that the logic and operation of the rules on disclosure of information in the context of procurement litigation require a careful reassessment. In a case such as this one, where the record shows that EUIPO made significant efforts to disclose information to the disappointed tenderer, while still (maybe implicitly) aiming to protect sensitive information, the imposition of higher levels of disclosure obligations seems to me excessive. Once more, this militates in favour of the regulation of specific procedural steps to assess issues of confidentiality and, in particular, the need to create some asymmetrically opaque review mechanisms that allow for proper scrutiny of procurement decisions in a way that does not jeopardise competition in the market or anyone's legitimate business and commercial interests.

 

One more #publicprocurement Judgment in the Evropaïki Dynamiki Saga (T-9/10)

The General Court's Judgment of 21 February 2013 in case T-9/10 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (Microsoft SharePoint) is a new addition to this seemingly never-ending saga of cases where the Greek IT company challenges procurement award decision on the two-fold basis of failure to state reasons and presence of manifest errors of assessment.

This Judgment basically reiterates the position of the EU Courts on the duty to state reasons but, interestingly, includes an obiter paragraph that is not always expressly mentioned in the growing case law in this area of EU public procurement. 

In my opinion, paragraph 26 of this latest Evropaïki Dynamiki Judgment deserves emphasis, as the GC indicates that
It should also be borne in mind that the requirements to be satisfied by the statement of reasons depend on the circumstances of each case, in particular the content of the measure in question, the nature of the reasons given and the interest which the addressees of the measure, or other parties to whom it is of direct and individual concern, may have in obtaining explanations (see Case C‑367/95 P Commission v Sytraval and Brink’s France [1998] ECR I‑1719, paragraph 63 and case-law cited, and Case T‑465/04 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, paragraph 49) (emphasis added).
This offers the basis for a far more restricted disclosure of information to unsuccessful candidates and disappointed bidders than usually provided by contracting authorities, and could (should) be used as the basis to rationalise this area of the law--where contracting authorities are indeed under significant pressure to provide excessive information during debriefing and bid protest procedures. 

In fact, in the case at hand,  
the Commission considers that it provided a statement of reasons exceeding that laid down in Article 100(2) of [the Financial Regulation] by informing the applicant of the reasons why its tender had been rejected as well as providing the scores obtained by the tenderers at the award stage, even though the applicant had not passed the selection phase (T-9/10 at para. 24, emphasis added). 
Situations such as this should be avoided, given the negative impacts that excessive transparency can generate in terms of potential collusion and access to confidential information and business secrets of competitors. Therefore, once again, it seems desirable to clarify and rationalise this area of EU public procurement law in the current process of revision of the EU Directives on public procurement.