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The decision of the High Court in Microsoft Mobile Oy (Ltd) v Sony offers some helpful guidance as to when a competition law tort claim will be caught by an arbitration clause in a sale or supply agreement.

Competition law claims frequently complain about prices, on ground of collusion or abuse.  Those prices may already have been charged, or they may yet to be charged.  If the price in issue has already been charged then it will almost invariably be contained in a written sale or supply agreement.  It may be the product of a specific contractual mechanism to settle a price.  If the relevant agreement contains an arbitration clause, does it catch a competition law claim complaining about the price charged?

The starting point in this regard is that a detailed semantic analysis of the particular arbitration clause in question is unlikely to provide the answer.  As Lord Hoffmann observed in Fiona Trust v Privalov [2007] 4 All ER 951 at para 13:

“…the construction of an arbitration clause should start from the assumption that the parties, as rational businessmen, are likely to have intended any dispute arising out of the relationship into which they have entered or purported to have entered to be decided by the same tribunal. The clause should be construed in accordance with this presumption unless the language makes it clear that certain questions were intended to be excluded from the arbitrator’s jurisdiction.”

This “one-stop shop” presumption has helped greatly in reducing disputes about the ambit of arbitration clauses.  But its application in the competition law context has been less straightforward, because of debates about precisely what the rational businessman would intend in respect of such claims.

The net effect of the law to date is that competition law claims will be regarded as coming within an arbitration clause only if they are closely related factually to a viable contractual claim which has already been, or could be, made.  Thus, for example, in ET Plus SA v Welter [2006] I.L.Pr. 18, the key consideration for Gross J in finding that competition law claims were within an arbitration clause was that they were “simply a variant on the familiar factual theme” which could be discerned from contractual claims already made (see para 51).

Conversely, in Ryanair Ltd v Esso Italiana Srl [2015] 1 All ER (Comm), the Court of Appeal held that the absence of any viable form of contractual complaint about an allegedly cartelised price rendered it impossible to claim that a competition law complaint about the same price was within an exclusive jurisdiction clause.  Having referred to the one-stop shop presumption in Fiona Trust, Rix LJ then held at para 53 that:

“Such reasoning, however, does not carry over into a situation where there is no contractual dispute (by which I intend to include disputes about contracts), but all that has happened is that a buyer has bought goods from a seller who has participated in a cartel. I think that rational businessmen would be surprised to be told that a non-exclusive jurisdiction clause bound or entitled the parties to that sale to litigate in a contractually agreed forum an entirely non-contractual claim for breach of statutory duty pursuant to article 101, the essence of which depended on proof of unlawful arrangements between the seller and third parties with whom the buyer had no relationship whatsoever, and the gravamen of which was a matter which probably affected many other potential claimants, with whom such a buyer might very well wish to link itself.”

The English Courts therefore treat competition law claims essentially as falling outside the one-stop shop presumption unless they are, factually, simply a variant on the theme of an arguable contractual claim.  This was, furthermore, the approach of the CJEU in Case C-352/13 CDC v Akzo [2015] QB 906, in which it was held that a clause “…which abstractly refers to all disputes arising from contractual relationships” would not cover tortious liability as a result of a cartel, because “…the undertaking which suffered the loss could not reasonably foresee such litigation at the time that it agreed to the jurisdiction clause” (paras 69-70).

The latest word on this topic is the Microsoft decision.  Microsoft brought a claim in the English Courts for damages for the allegedly anti-competitive tortious conduct of Sony, LG and Samsung in relation to the pricing of Li-Ion batteries.  All the allegedly cartelised supplies by Sony had been made pursuant to an agreement with an arbitration clause requiring “any disputes related to this Agreement or its enforcement” to be settled by ICC arbitration.  Sony applied to stay the proceedings under section 9 of the Arbitration Act 1996, arguing that the arbitration clause covered the tort claims made against it.

Mr Justice Marcus Smith held that, on an orthodox application of the principles identified in Ryanair, the question of whether the tortious claims were within the arbitration clause depended on whether the conduct giving rise to the tortious claims also gave rise to an arguable contractual claim.  As he observed, “…it is difficult to see how a tortious claim can arise out of a contractual relationship when the only claim in contract that can be said to be related is unarguable” (para 54).

The unusual incentives created by this (correct) understanding of Ryanair can be seen from the fact that Sony was accordingly required, in order to succeed in its application, to formulate a contractual claim against itself which Microsoft had not advanced.  Sony argued that because the relevant prices had been subject to an express obligation that they be negotiated in good faith, and because Sony was subject to a further obligation to disclose events that reasonably may affect its ability “to meet any of its obligations” under the agreement, the operation of a cartel would have been a clear breach of contract as well as tortious.

The Court accepted this submission, holding that it was “very difficult” to see how Sony could have engaged in the conduct complained of in the tort claims, without also breaching the contract.  On that basis, the competition law claims fell within the arbitration clause.  It did not matter in this regard that Microsoft had not advanced the contractual claim which Sony successfully contended it could have done, because otherwise “…it would be easy for a claimant to circumvent the scope of an arbitration or jurisdiction clause by selectively pleading or not pleading certain causes of action” (para 72(ii)).

The upshot for practitioners is that a decisive consideration when assessing whether a competition law claim falls within a jurisdiction clause is likely to be whether there are any viable contractual claims which “…would be sufficiently closely related to the tortious claims actually advanced by the Claimant so as to render rational businessmen likely to have intended such a dispute to be decided (like a contractual dispute) by arbitration” (Microsoft at para 72).  The existence and extent of any express or implied contractual obligations to observe competition law therefore looks set for detailed examination in competition law claims in the future.

This post was first published on Blackstone Chambers' Competition Bulletin.

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