European Court of Justice Holds That Disclosure of Leniency Documents to Cartel Victims Seeking Civil Damages Is Subject to National Law

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The European Commission (EC) and many other competition authorities around the world have long promoted confidentiality as an essential feature of their highly successful cartel leniency programs. The authorities seek to encourage companies to self-report antitrust violations by promising that the contents of their leniency submissions will be protected from disclosure to civil damages claimants. Absent such guarantees of confidentiality, the authorities have cautioned, at least some companies will not seek leniency or will “hedge” their leniency applications to the detriment of antitrust enforcement efforts.

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) recently had an opportunity to confront the policy issues surrounding the confidentiality of cartel leniency submissions in Case C-360/09, Pfleiderer v. Bundeskartellamt. The ECJ there held that EU competition law does not preclude Member State competition authorities from disclosing documents received though a leniency program to cartel victims pursuing damages claims if such disclosure would otherwise be required under national law. The ECJ recognized that the potential for such disclosures to undermine the effectiveness of leniency programs was a legitimate concern that must be taken into account when deciding whether to order the disclosure of such documents. However, it held that national courts must, on a case-by-case basis, balance this concern against the need to ensure that national rules do not make it unduly difficult for private parties to recover damages for breaches of EU competition law. The ECJ noted that disclosing documents received from leniency applicants could “make a significant contribution to the maintenance of effective competition in the European Union” by promoting civil damages litigation in Europe.

The decision creates uncertainty for companies considering a leniency application to the EC and/or Member State competition authorities. Presented with an opportunity to issue a definitive decision prohibiting discovery of leniency materials, the ECJ instead opted for a more complicated and contextspecific balancing test. Although it remains to be seen how the courts of the Member States (and the ECJ itself) will apply this test, companies considering making a leniency submission in Europe need to consider the risk that their submission will ultimately be made available to civil damages claimants.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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