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In its second Judgment of September 24, 2019 in the Envelopes case, the European Union’s General Court (the “GC”) rejected Printeos’s claims, confirming that the Commission had sufficient grounds for the fine against Printeos, and that it had not violated the principle of equal treatment. The paper envelope manufacturer was thus thwarted in its second attempt to overturn the €4.7 million fine the European Commission imposed on it in its Decision of June 2017, although this judgment may be appealed in the Court of Justice of the European Union (the “CJEU”).
In 2014, the Commission fined Printeos, Hamelin, GPV, Bong and Mayer-Kuvert for their participation in a cartel in the paper envelopes market. All of the parties cited in the case, including Printeos, agreed to a settlement process.
However, Printeos appealed the decision that resulted from that process, arguing that the method used to calculate its fine was not sufficiently grounded, and that the principle of equal treatment had been violated because it had been unfairly given a higher fine than the other parties. In December 2016, the GC allowed Printeos’s claims and canceled the fine, ruling that the Commission had not given a clear explanation of the criteria and methods it had used to calculate Printeos’s fine.
The Commission took note of the findings of the Judgment of December 2016 and imposed the same fine on Printeos in June 2017, this time including a more detailed explanation of the criteria and methods it had used to calculate that fine and those of the other companies. Printeos appealed the Commission’s new fine, arguing once again that the amount of the fine was not sufficiently grounded, and that the principle of equal treatment with the other parties had been violated.
The second time around, the GC’s Judgment compared the other respondents’ fines to Printeos’s to analyze if, as Printeos argued, the Commission had violated the principle of equal treatment in its calculations. The GC conducted an extensive assessment of each fined company’s circumstances, thus expounding two main ideas that prove that there was no violation of the principle of equal treatment with regard to Printeos.
The GC first affirmed that applying different criteria to calculate the fines was reasonable, as long as the companies’ respective circumstances were not comparable. Thus, although some of the companies’ fines were calculated based on different criteria than those applied to Printeos, this was justified by the fact that the situations were not comparable because, for example, the amount of paper envelopes that those companies sold was a considerably smaller percentage of their turnover than the other companies.
The second idea is based on the fact that, even though Printeos proved that it was treated differently from one of the sanctioned companies, that unequal treatment did not harm it; instead, the other company[RIM1] benefited unduly. Following its case law (e.g., Judgment from 2016, Evonik Degussa and AlzChem/Commission and 2017, LG Electronics and Koninklijke Philips Electronics/Commission), the GC confirmed, this time in the context of a settlement, that a violation of the principle of equal treatment would only entail canceling the fine if it harmed any of the fined companies, regardless of whether others were unduly benefited.
Taking into consideration the two circumstances discussed here, the GC rejected Printeos’s claims. However, although the Commission saw its position upheld, it is interesting to note that the GC decided to give it a warning call by ordering it to pay the court fees. The GC did not consider acceptable that, given a second chance, the Commission still failed to justify its method for calculating some of the companies’ fines. Nevertheless, the GC judgment is not firm, and it can be appealed before the CJEU.
All of this shows that, although the GC seems to be increasingly stringent when analyzing the Commission’s rationale to justify its calculation of fines, especially in the context of a settlement process, the party that claims a violation of the principle of equal treatment must also prove that it was harmed, but this continues to be hard to prove to have a fine canceled.
Authors: María López Ridruejo, Diego García Adánez and Marie Trapet Llamas.
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