Wikingerhof v Booking.com. Saugmandsgaard AG on the qualification in contract or tort of alleged abuse of dominant position between contracting parties. Invites the Court to confirm one of two possible readings of Brogsitter.

Saugmandsgaard AG opined yesterday in C-59/19 Wikingerhof v Booking.com (no English version of the Opinion at the time of writing). At issue is whether allegations of abuse of dominant position create a forum contractus (Article 7(1) Brussels Ia) or a forum delicti (A7(2) BIa).

I published on jurisdiction and applicable law earlier this year and I am as always genuinely humbled with the AG’s (three) references to the handbook.  Wikingerhof submits inter alia that it only ever agreed to Booking.com’s general terms and conditions (‘GTCs’) because Booking.com’s dominant position leaves it no choice. And that it had most certainly not agreed to updates to the GTCs, effected via amendments on the ‘Extranet’, which is the portal via which the hotel may update its information and retrieve reservations.

At 16 of its referral, the Bundesgerichtshof holds acte clair and therefore without reference to the CJEU that there is no durable record of the alleged consent by Wikingerhof of the amended GTCs, including choice of court. Booking.com claimed these amounted to a ‘form which accords with practices which the parties have established between themselves’ pursuant to Article 25(1)(b). This finding echoes the requirements of housekeeping which I signalled yesterday.

In my 2020 paper I point out (p.153) inter alia that in the context of Article 25’s choice of court provisions, the CJEU in C-595/17 Apple v eBizcuss suggested a fairly wide window for actions based on Article 102 TFEU’s prohibition of abuse of dominant position to be covered by the choice of court. At 28 in Apple v eBizcuss: ‘the anti-competitive conduct covered by Article 102 TFEU, namely the abuse of a dominant position, can materialise in contractual  relations that an undertaking in a dominant position establishes and by means of contractual terms’. The AG as I note below distinguished Apple on the facts and applicable rule.

In the request for preliminary ruling of the referring court, CJEU C-548/12 Brogsitter features repeatedly. The Bundesgerichtshof itself is minded to hold for forum delicti, given that (at 24 of its reference)

‘ it is not the interpretation of the contract that is the focus of the legal disputes  between the parties, but rather the question of whether the demand for specific contractual conditions or the invoking of them by a company with an — allegedly — dominant market position is to be regarded as abusive and is therefore in breach of provisions of antitrust law.

In fact on the basis of the request, the court could have held acte clair. It referred anyway which gives the AG the opportunity to write a complete if  to begin with concise précis on the notion of ‘contract’ and ‘tort’ in BIa. At 38, this leads him to conclude inter alia that despite the need strictly to interpret exceptions to the A4 actor sequitur forum rei rule, these exceptions including the special jurisdictional fori contractus ut delicti, must simply be applied with their purpose in mind.

He calls it an application ‘assouplie’, best translated perhaps as ‘accommodating’ (readers may check this against the English version when it comes out) (viz tort, too, the AG uses the term assouplie, at 45, referring eg to CJEU C-133/11 Folien Fisher).

Further, the AG notes that in deciding whether the claim is one in contract, necessarily the claimant’s cause of action has an impact, per CJEU C-274/16 Flightright (at 61 of that judgment, itself refering to C‑249/16 Kareda which in turn refers to 14/76 De Bloos). The impact of claimant’s claim form evidently is a good illustration of the possibility to engineer or at least massage fora and I am pleased the AG openly discusses the ensuing forum shopping implications, at 58 ff. He starts however with signalling at 53 ff that the substantive occurrence of concurrent liability in contract and tort is subject to the laws of the Member States and clearly differs among them, making a short comparative inroad e.g. to English law, German law and Belgian /French law. (Michiel Poesen recently wrote on the topic within the specific context of the employment section).

The AG’s discussion of CJEU authority eventually brings him to Brogsitter. He he firmly supports a minimalist interpretation.  This would mean that only if the contractual context is indispensable for the judge to rule on the legality or not of the parties’ behaviour, is forum contractus engaged. This is similar to his Opinion in Bosworth, to which he refers. He rejects the maximalist interpretation. This approach puts forward that contractual qualification trumps non-contractual (arguably, a left-over of CJEU Kalfelis; but as the AG notes at 81: there is most certainly not such a priority at the applicable law level between Rome I and II) hence the judge regardless of the claimant’s formulation of claim, must qualify the claim as contractual when on the facts a link may exist between the alleged shortcomings of the other party, and the contract.

The maximum interpretation, at 76 ff, would require the judge to engage quite intensively with the merits of the case. That would go against the instructions of the CJEU (applying the Brussels Convention (e.g. C-269/95 Benincasa)), and it would (at 77) undermine a core requirement of the Brussels regime which is legal certainty. That the minimalist approach might lead to multiplication of trials seeing as not all issues would be dealt with by the core forum contractus, is rebuked at 85 by reference to the possibility of the A4 domicile forum (an argument which the CJEU itself used in Bier /Mines de Potasse to support the Mozaik implications of its ruling there) and by highlighting the Regulation’s many instances of support for forum shopping.

The AG then discusses abusive forum shopping following creative claim formulation at 88 ff. This  is disciplined both by the fact that as his comparative review shows, the substantive law of a number of Member States eventually will not allow for dual characterisation and hence reject the claim in substance. Moreover clearly unfounded claims will be disciplined by lex fori mechanisms (such as one imagines, cost orders and the like). This section confuses me a little for I had understood the minimalist approach to lay more emphasis on the judge’s detection of the claim’s DNA (along the lines of Sharpston AG in Ergo) than on the claim’s formulation.

The AG then continues with further specification of the minimalist approach, including at 112 a rejection, correct in my view (for the opposite would deny effet utile to A7(2), of the suggestion to give the A7(1) forum contractus the ancillary power to rule of over delictual (A7(2)) issues closely related to the contractual concerns.

Applying the minimalist test to the case at issue the AG concludes that it entails forum delicti, referring in support to CDC and distinguishing Apple v eBizcuss (which entails choice of court and relies heavily on textual wording of the clause).

It will be interesting to see which of the two possible interpretations of Brogsitter the CJEU will follow and whether it will clarify the forum shopping implications of claim formulation.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.11.2, Heading 2.2.11.2.9.

 

Vestel v HEVC Advance (Delaware) and Philips (NL). High Court denies stand-alone competition law damage both on the basis of Article 7(2) BRU Ia and residual CPR rules.

In [2019] EWHC 2766 (Ch) Vestel Elektronik v HEVC Advance and Koninklijke Philips NV, Hacon J found no jurisdiction in a stand-alone competition law damages case (no finding of infringement yet; claim is one of abuse of dominant position). He rejected the existence of jurisdiction against Philips NV (of The Netherlands) on the basis that no damage existing or potential could be shown grounding Article 7(2) Brussels Ia tortious Jurisdiction. Against the Delaware defendant, the relevant CPR rules applied per Four Seasons v Brownlie did not lead to jurisdiction either.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.12.1

 

Office Depot v Holdham et al. Lis alibi pendens in follow-on cartel damages suit. Delay in the Swedish proceedings crucial factor in High Court’s rejection of a stay

in [2019] EWHC 2115 (Ch) Office Depot BV et al v Holdham SA et al, the High Court in August (I had promised posting soon after the Tweet. That did not quite happen) held on issues of lis alibi pendens (and, alternatively, a stay on case management grounds) in a follow-on cartel damages suit arising from the European Commission’s cartel finding in the envelopes market. That’s right: envelopes. Cartel cases do not always involve sexy markets. But I digress (and I also confess to finding stationary quite exciting).

Sir Geoffrey Vos’ judgment deals with the fate of the Office Depot claimants’ follow-on proceedings in England against certain Bong (of Sweden) corporate defendants, after the Bong parties had commenced Swedish proceedings for negative declarations as to their liability. In March 2019 the relevant Swedish court said in effect that Article 8 Brussel I a was not engaged so that the Swedish Bong proceedings for negative declarations could only proceed against the locally domiciled Office Depot company, which was Office Depot Svenska AB, but not the non-Swedish Office Depot entities. Parties at the time of Sir Geoffrey’s decision (Swedish followers may be able to enlighten us on whether there has been a decision in the meantime; at 23 the expected date is mentioned as ‘the autumn’) were awaiting a certiorari decision by the Swedish Supreme Court.

CJEU C–406/92 The Tatry of course is discussed, as is CDC. Sir Geoffrey also discussed C-129/92 Owens Bank, in particular Lenz AG’s Opinion (the CJEU did not get to the part of the Opinion relevant to current case). Discussion between the parties, at Sir Geoffrey’s request, focused on the issue of the judge’s discretion under lis alibi pendens for related actions, rather than on whether or not the actions are related (it was more or less accepted they are; see ia at 43 ff).

At 46 ff the Court then exercises its discretion and finds against a stay, on the basis in particular of the expected length of the Swedish proceedings: at 54: ‘the grant of a stay would be contrary to justice in that it would delay unreasonably the resolution of proceedings that can only be tried in England and already relate to events many years ago‘, and at 48: ‘The stage in the Swedish proceedings is a long way behind these. It will be between one and two and a half years before jurisdiction is resolved there, two courts already having refused jurisdiction. It will be perhaps between three and five years before the substantive litigation in Sweden is resolved, if it ever gets off the ground.

Swedish courts do not tend to get used for torpedo actions. Yet the swiftness of English court proceedings yet again comes in to save the day (or indeed, scupper the stay).

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.12.1

 

Tibor v DAF: CJEU confirms markets affected by cartel as locus damni for end-users.

Update 1 April 2020 for the excellent CDC review of the judgment see here.

In C-451/18 Tibor v DAF Trucks the CJEU has confirmed its CDC case-law on locus damni for end-users affected by a cartel. Truck distribution arrangements were such that Tibor (of Hungary) could not buy directly from DAF Trucks NV (of The Netherlands), one of the truck manufacturers held by the EC to have infringed Article 101 TFEU. Rather, it had to go via local Hungarian dealers (and leasing companies).

Tibor-Trans claims that the Hungarian courts derive their international jurisdiction from Article 7(2) Brussels Ia per CDC according to which, in the case of an action for damages brought against defendants domiciled in various Member States as a result of a single and continuous infringement of Article 101 TFEU and of Article 53 of the EEA Agreement, which has been established by the Commission, in which the defendants participated in several Member States, at different times and in different places, each alleged victim can choose to bring an action before the courts of the place where its own registered office is located.

DAF Trucks submits, first, that the collusive meetings (hence the locus delicti commissi) took place in Germany, which should entail the jurisdiction of the German courts and, second, that it never entered into a direct contractual relationship with Tibor-Trans, with the result that it could not reasonably expect to be sued in the Hungarian courts.

The Court dismisses the latter argument: those infringing competition law must expect to be sued in markets affected by anti-competitive behaviour (at 34, with reference to fly-LAL). That Tibor did not have a contractual relation with DAF Trucks is irrelevant as the increase in price clearly has been passed on by the frontline victims of the cartel: the dealers (at 31).

The case does leave open the unresolved issue of the CJEU’s identification of registered office as locus damni (see my comments in my review of CDC). Given that Tibor Trans would seem to have purchased all its trucks in Hungary, neither does not the judgment shed light on the distributive impact of locus damni or my suggestion [update 13 March 2020 for my paper on same see here] that for competition law, markets where the anti-competitive behaviour is rolled-out should qualify as locus delicti commissi (alongside the place of the meetings where infringement of competition law is decided).

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law. 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.12, Heading 2.2.12.1

Legal advice and legitimate expectations – The ECJ in Schenker

In Schenker, Case C-681/11, defendants in the main proceedings were members of the Spediteur-Sammelladungs-Konferenz (Freight Forwarding Agents Consolidated Consignment Conference; ‘the SSK’). The SSK was an interest group comprising some of the ordinary members of the Zentralverband der Spediteure (Central Association of Freight Forwarding Agents; ‘the Zentralverband’). The Zentralverband, which was set up as an association, represents the collective interests of freight forwarding agents and of logistics service providers with a forwarding licence.

The SSK pursued the objective of ‘enabling more favourable road/rail consolidated consignment rates to be granted to shippers and to end consumers (compared with the rail tariffs for general cargo) and – through the creation of equal conditions of competition – of promoting fair competition among its members, an objective … to be pursued whilst having particular regard to ensuring compliance with Austrian, [European Union and European Economic Area (EEA)] law on cartels’.

The Austrian competition court confirmed that the arrangement was a ‘minor cartel’, meaning that it could go ahead without the approval of the competition authority. Hence, it would seem – but I am not au fait with the detail of Austrian competition law – putting the ball back in the camp of the cartel: for a finding of mini-cartel does not to me seem to imply a finding of non-breach of competition law.

Advice of counsel had confirmed the existence of a ‘mini cartel’ both at the time of the 1996 agreement and later, in 2006, at the entry into force of a new competition law. In neither instance had counsel advised on the legality or not under EU competition law. The European Commission raided the offices of members of the cartel in 2007, following which the Austrian competition authority pursued the case for breach of EU (as opposed to national) competition law. The courts in first instance held that the finding of a mini-cartel implied the absence of impact on cross-border trade, which is  prerequisite for EU competition law to apply. Upon appeal, questions were referred to the ECJ.

The Court held that an undertaking which has infringed that provision may not escape imposition of a fine where the infringement has resulted from that undertaking erring as to the lawfulness of its conduct on account of the terms of legal advice given by a lawyer or of the terms of a decision of a national competition authority.

In the case of the competition authority, since it does not under EU law have the power to adopt a decision concluding that there is no infringement of EU law, it cannot cause companies to entertain a legitimate expectation that their conduct does not infringe competition rules. Moreover, in the present instance the national authority examined the companies’ conduct on the basis of national competition law only.

In the case of the legal advice, a person may not plead breach of the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations unless he has been given precise assurances by the competent authority (the ECJ referred to its finding in  AJD Tuna, and Agrargenossenschaft Neuzelle). It follows that legal advice given by a lawyer cannot, in any event, form the basis of a legitimate expectation on the part of an undertaking that its conduct does not infringe EU competition law or will not lead to a fine.

The judgment to me it would seem to have important implications: for legal advice is often sought by companies not just to enable them to adapt their behaviour, but also to buy themself an insurance policy.

Geert.