Competitors Beware of Industry Gatherings
By Charl van der Merwe
On 19 December 2016, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) handed down judgment in the Omnico (Pty) Ltd; Cool Heat Agencies (Pty) Ltd vs The Competition Commission & Others matter.
The judgment details an application brought by two respondents who sought to challenge the Competition Tribunal’s finding that their participation at industry association meetings amounted to cartel conduct, despite the appellants’ contention that they did not actively participate in any anticompetitive discussions and were effectively passive participants at the meetings.
The CAC had to decide on whether or not silent participation by firms at an industry meeting or forum of competitors where cartel activity was discussed amounts to a contravention in terms of section 4(1)(b)(i) of the Competition Act, Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”).
Section 4 of the Act provides that “An agreement between, or concerted practice by, firms, or a decision by an association of firms, is prohibited if it is between parties in a horizontal relationship and if – (a) it has the effect of substantially preventing, or lessening, competition in a market, unless a party to the agreement, concerted practice, or decision can prove that any technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gain resulting from it outweighs that effect”.
The Appellants are wholesalers that supply bicycle and bicycle accessories to the retail trade. The appellants attended a series of industry meetings together with various retailers and wholesalers of bicycles and bicycle accessories to discuss ways in which retailers could increase retail margins. This the CAC found was achieved by the wholesalers agreeing to increase the Recommended Retail Price, (“RRP”) for the various products sold.
In this particular case, the RRP increase was scheduled to take place on the 1st of October.
Though the appellants both increased their RRP on the effective date, the crux of the matter and the point the appellants placed great reliance on was the contention that they never actively participated in the industry meetings.
The CAC in dismissing the appeal held that it was clear that there was a cartel and that due to the complex and clandestine nature of cartel conduct, the Commission merely had to show sufficient evidence that in its entirety proves that the appellants were part of that cartel. The Commission was not required to scrutinise and evaluate each and every activity or discussion at the various meetings, and it was up to the appellants to put forward rebuttal evidence to establish that their participation at the meetings lacked any intention on their part to be a party to the collusive conduct.
Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer with Primerio Ltd., notes that, “importantly, the CAC confirmed that the standard of proof in competition law cases is lower than that of contract and common law — a wink and a nod may in the smoke-filled-room, under the right circumstances, be sufficient proof to show collusion among competitors. To prove a cartel, there is no need to apply the rigid principles of contract law, determining whether a meeting of the minds was reached, or to prove formal offer and acceptance in order to show that a collusive agreement was reached.”
Furthermore, he says,“the CAC found that the evidence put forward by the Commission need only be ‘sufficiently precise, consistent and convincing’ — not necessarily the ‘clear and convincing‘ evidentiary standard generally required in terms of common law.”
In addition, the CAC noted that there is no need for a single pressing piece of conduct to show that an anticompetitive arrangement has been entered into, but that the authorities will consider the cumulative effect of conduct whether active or passive in order to determine whether, on a holistic approach, the respondents had entered into a collusive agreement.
The CAC held that although the appellants did not express agreement at the meeting, the appellants did not ‘publicly’ distance themselves from the collusive proposals put forward at the meetings.
Accordingly, the CAC found that:
- there was consensus reached at the meeting and the appellants failed to distance themselves from the discussions;
- neither appellants gave any indication that they disagreed with the consensus reached at the meeting nor that they would not proceed along the lines as agreed during the meeting;
- that at the very least (without even increasing their prices on the effective date) the appellants would have passively benefitted from the conduct resulting from that collusive arrangement; and
- that neither of the appellants placed any evidence before the CAC to prove that they priced independently.
In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that firms who attend industry association meetings, forums or the like, are obliged to take active steps to denounce any anticompetitive discussions which may have taken place at such meetings.
Once a firm is party to any anticompetitive discussions, the onus rests on that firm to actively distance itself from such discussions – this is so irrespective of whether a collusive arrangement is implemented or not. It is not clear what steps need to be taken to satisfactorily distance oneself from such discussions, although it must be a ‘public’ denouncement. This could be interpreted as indicating that firms may be obliged to report to the authorities any collusive arrangements which they wish to actively distance themselves from.