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EU Court of Justice Confirms Annulment of Commission Prohibition Decision Due to a Procedural Irregularity

On 16 January 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) dismissed the appeal by the European Commission (Commission) against the 2017 judgment of the General Court of the European Union (GCEU). This annuls the Commission’s decision to block the proposed acquisition of TNT Express NV (TNT) by United Parcel Services (UPS) in its entirety (C-265/17 P). The judgment reminds the Commission that it must maintain a balance between the need for speed and the observance of the rights of the defence in merger proceedings.

IN DEPTH

Background

By decision on 30 January 2013, the Commission blocked the proposed acquisition of TNT by UPS (Case M.6570).

On 7 March 2017, the GCEU annulled the Commission’s decision in its entirety on the grounds that (i) the Commission infringed UPS’s rights of defence by failing to communicate to UPS the final version of an econometric model on which it relied in its prohibition decision and that (ii) UPS might have been better able to defend itself if it had at its disposal the final version of that model.

The Commission challenged the GCEU judgment before the CJEU. First, the Commission argued that it was not required to communicate the final econometric analysis to UPS. Second, the Commission claimed that even if UPS’s rights of the defence had been infringed, the GCEU should have dismissed UPS’s plea alleging infringement of the rights of the defence as ineffective because a significant impediment to effective competition (“SIEC”) could in any event be established in Denmark and the Netherlands without having to rely on the econometric model concerned.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: July – September 2018 Update

Both US antitrust agencies marked the third quarter of 2018 with significant policy announcements regarding the merger review process. The announced reforms seek to expedite the review process through cooperation between the agencies and the merging parties. Moving first, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed a Model Timing Agreement that provides the FTC Staff with earlier notice of the parties’ intent to substantially comply with a Second Request. Earlier notice allows the FTC Staff to create a more effective timeline for meetings with division management, front office staff and the Commissioners. Less than two months after the FTC revealed its Model Timing Agreement, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced procedural reforms aimed at resolving merger investigations within six months of filing. The DOJ will commit to fewer custodians and depositions in exchange for the merging parties providing key information earlier in the investigation. Overall, these reforms appear to be a positive step forward for parties considering future transactions, but their effectiveness remains uncertain as the agencies start a difficult implementation period. While the FTC timing agreement may provide more certainty around the process, it does not reduce the review timing and actually extends it.

EU: July – September 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) remained quite active clearing mergers in the third quarter of 2018. Most notably, the EC cleared Apple’s acquisition of Shazam without imposing conditions despite the EC’s stated concerns about access to data as a competitive concern. The EC opened a Phase II investigation into the transaction to investigate the potential for Apple to obtain a competitive advantage over competing music streaming services by accessing Shazam’s consumer data obtained through its music recognition services. In this case, the EC did not find evidence that the access to Shazam’s data would provide Apple a competitive advantage. In addition, the EC found that there were no concerns about Apple potentially restricting Shazam as referral source for Apple’s competitors. Going forward, it is clear that access to data is an issue that the EC will continue to investigate, but it is also clear that the EC is taking a careful approach in assessing when that access will truly lead to a competitive harm.  (more…)




Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: April – June 2018 Update

The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.

EU: April – June 2018 Update

In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals. (more…)




European Court of Justice Provides Guidance on Scope of the Standstill Obligation Enshrined in the EU Merger Regulation

Pursuant to the EU merger control rules, a transaction that falls within the purview of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) must be notified to the European Commission (Commission) in advance (Article 4(1) EUMR), and must not be implemented until cleared by the Commission, known as the “standstill” obligation (Article 7[1] EUMR). A principal rationale behind the standstill obligation is to prevent the potentially negative impact of transactions on the market, pending the outcome of the Commission’s investigation.

While the standstill obligation represents a clear-cut rule, it can often be a significant challenge for businesses to apply in practice. Failure to get it right, however, can result in draconian penalties. Indeed, the Commission’s recent €124.5 million fine on Altice, which comes in the wake of a spate of enforcement actions in this arena, bears testimony to an increasingly hard stance against companies flouting the notification requirement/standstill obligation. (more…)




Advocate General Wahl Delivers Opinion on Legality of Bans on Online Sales via Third-Party Platforms in Selective Distribution Systems

According to Advocate General Nils Wahl’s opinion, delivered on July 26, in the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) case Coty Germany GmbH v Parfümerie Akzente GmbH (case C-230/16), suppliers of luxury goods may prohibit their authorized retailers from selling their goods via third-party internet platforms. Such bans do not necessarily infringe Article 101(1) of the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (which prohibits anticompetitive agreements).

Background of the Case

On July 16, 2016, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt lodged a request for a preliminary ruling with the CJEU asking whether selective distribution systems that serve to ensure a “luxury image” for the goods constitute an aspect of competition that is compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU and, whether bans on sales via third-party internet platforms constitute a restriction “by object” and should be viewed as “hardcore restrictions” under the Commission’s Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation (VBER).

The initial dispute arose when Coty, a supplier of luxury cosmetics in Germany, brought an action against one of its authorized retailers, Parfümerie Akzente, for having infringed a provision in Coty’s selective distribution agreement that prohibited the retailers from distributing the luxury products via third-party platforms, such as Amazon, in order to preserve the brand image. The agreement provided that the authorized retailers could only sell the products online through an “electronic store window,” provided that the luxury character of the products was preserved. (more…)




The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Confirms the Commission’s Approach to Hybrid Settlements

The case follows on from the Commission’s Animal Feed Phosphates cartel decision pursuant to which fines totalling €176 million were imposed on a number of producers of animal feed for price fixing and market sharing throughout the EEA.

During the investigation into the infringement, all the companies involved engaged in settlement discussions with the Commission with a view to obtaining a 10 percent reduction in the fine that would otherwise have been imposed had they not settled with the Commission. However, during the settlement process Timab, a subsidiary of the Roullier Group, decided to withdraw from the settlement procedure. The Commission therefore followed the standard administrative infringement procedure against Timab – despite the fact that it had entered into settlements with the other companies involved in the cartel. This was the first time, therefore, that the Commission rendered a decision in a so-called ‘hybrid’ case i.e. where some parties settle but others do not.

During the initial settlement discussions, several meetings were held between the Commission and Timab, during which evidence of the infringement was discussed. On the basis of the evidence available, the Commission informed Timab that a fine in the range of €41 to €44 million would be imposed on it. However, in its final decision of 20 July 2010, the Commission levied a fine of nearly €60 million on Timab.

Timab challenged the Commission’s decision before the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) in case T-456/10, claiming that the Commission had infringed its legitimate expectations regarding the amount of the fine, on the one hand, and its right not to incriminate itself, on the other. Such challenge was unsuccessful, however.

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The European Court Of Justice Requires The European Commission To Provide Adequate Reasons For Its Requests For Information

On March 10, 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) rendered its judgment in the so-called Cement case, (C-247/14 P HeidelbergCement v Commission, C-248/14 P Schwenk Zement v Commission, C-267/14 P Buzzi Unicem v Commission and C-268/14 P Italmobiliare v Commission) ruling that the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) had erred in law in finding that decisions of the European Commission (EC) requesting information from cement manufacturers during the course of a cartel investigation were adequately reasoned.

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The European Court of Justice Rules against Overreaching Requests for Information by the European Commission

Last week, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ruled that the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) had been wrong when deciding that the European Commission’s requests for information sent to eight cement manufacturers during the course of a cartel investigation were adequately reasoned (see judgments in casesC-247/14 P, HeidelbergCement v Commission, C-248/14 P, Schwenk Zement v Commission, C-267/14 P, Buzzi Unicem v Commission and C-268/14 P, Italmobiliare v Commission).

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General Court of the EU Upholds Cartel Fines of €131 Million Imposed on Toshiba and Mitsubishi Electric, Dismisses Arguments Based on Principle of Equal Treatment

By two judgments of January 19, 2015 (Case T-404/12 Toshiba v. Commission and Case T-409/12 Mitsubishi Electric v. Commission), the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) upheld the fines of €131 million imposed by the European Commission (EC) on Toshiba and Mitsubishi for their participation in a cartel on the market for gas insulated switchgear (GIS), dismissing a line of reasoning essentially based on the principle of equal treatment.

The cartel, involving 20 European and Japanese undertakings, consisted in an agreement between competitors with the objective of coordinating the commercial activity worldwide of the members. The cartel members developed a quota system aimed at determining the market shares to allocate between them. In parallel, the cartelists reached an unwritten understanding, according to which GIS projects in the European market and Japanese market were reserved to European members and Japanese members of the cartel, respectively.

In its 2007 decision, the EC found a single and continuous infringement of competition law on the GIS product market between 1988 and 2004 and imposed fines on Toshiba and Mitsubishi, inter alios, of €86.25 million and €113.92 million, respectively. It also found the two Japanese undertakings jointly and severally liable for up to €4.65 million. Both companies challenged the EC decision, which led to two judgments of the GCEU (Case T-113/07 Toshiba v. Commission and Case T-133/07 Mitsubishi Electric v. Commission), subsequently upheld by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (Case C-498/11 P Toshiba v. Commission and Case C-489/11 P Mitsubishi Electric v. Commission). The GCEU annulled the fines imposed on the two Japanese undertakings, finding that the Commission had infringed the principle of equal treatment in calculating their fines. The reference year used to calculate the fines for the applicants was indeed different from that chosen for the European participants in the infringement.

Having been asked to reexamine its decision, the EC recalculated the fines imposed on Toshiba and Mitsubishi and fixed them at €56.79 million and €74.82 million, respectively, without changing the amount of the fine for which they were held jointly and severally liable. The two Japanese undertakings then lodged a new appeal before the GCEU seeking the annulment of the revised fines. In support of their action, the applicants alleged, inter alia, an infringement of the principle of equal treatment as regards the determination of their level of culpability as compared to the European participants in the infringement and the starting amount of the fine.

First, Toshiba and Mitsubishi argued that they were less culpable than their European counterparts because their participation had been limited to agreeing not to enter the European Economic Area (EEA) market, whereas the European undertakings had distributed the GIS projects on that same market through active collusion. In other words, they contended that their participation only consisted in a failure to act and that, consequently, they could not be held as liable as the European undertakings for the implementation of the cartel.

The GCEU reiterated its settled case-law, according to which the [...]

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A New Concept in Cartel Fining: “Direct EEA Sales Through Transformed Products”

On 9 July 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued its judgment in InnoLux Corp. v Commission C-231/14P, confirming the existence of a new concept in cartel fining: “direct European Economic Area [EEA] sales through transformed products”. This new concept can be used by the European Commission to calculate fines of an amount higher than a restrictive reading of its Fining Guidelines might suggest.

Background

The judgment arose out of the liquid crystal display (LCD) cartel case, which involved several LCD producers in Asia. The European Commission determined that the cartel participants had three channels of sale into the EEA:

Direct EEA sales, i.e., LCD panels for IT or television applications directly sold to another undertaking in the EEA.

Direct EEA sales through transformed products, i.e., LCD panels incorporated intra-group into a final IT or television product and subsequently sold to another undertaking in the EEA.
Indirect Sales, i.e., LCD panels sold by one of the cartel participants to another undertaking outside the EEA, which would then incorporate the panels into final IT or television products and sell them in the EEA.

The Commission took the view that inclusion of the third channel was not necessary for the purposes of imposing a fine to achieve a sufficient level of deterrence, but did take account of the first two channels. InnoLux challenged the inclusion of the second channel, and the General Court of the European Union rejected the challenge.

The CJEU’s Judgment

The CJEU upheld the decisions of the EU General Court and the Commission, notwithstanding the opinion of the Advocate-General to the contrary.

The CJEU referred first to the established case law, according to which the amount of the fine imposed on an undertaking must reflect “the economic significance of the infringement and the relative size of the undertakings’ contribution to it”.

Next, the CJEU observed that, applying this principle, the existing case law (Guardian Industries C-580/12P 12 November 2014) concludes that sales of the product concerned to a related party in the EEA should be taken into account in the same way as sales direct to unrelated parties.

The CJEU then took an innovative step. It extended the approach in Guardian Industries as follows. When sales of a cartelised product are made to a related party outside the EEA, and the product is incorporated into a downstream product that is sold to independent third parties inside the EEA, the sales of the downstream product into the EEA can be taken into account in determining the amount of the fine. The value to be taken into account is not the full value of the downstream product, but the proportion of that value that corresponds to the value of the cartelised product that was incorporated into the downstream product.

The CJEU emphasised that this case was not about whether or not the Commission had jurisdiction. The Commission’s jurisdiction was not in dispute because the cartel participants, including Innolux, made some sales of LCDs direct to independent [...]

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