The Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional) has issued a judgement, in the framework of a special procedure for the protection of constitutional rights, which interprets the Single Economic Unit Doctrine away from settled case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
The “Single Economic Unit Doctrine” and its implications for companies
Under competition rules, two or more separate legal entities may be treated as one because of their economic links. This means that when the European Commission or a National Competition Authority sanctions infringements of article 101 of the TFEU, such as cartels, they can make a parent company responsible for the wrongdoing of its subsidiary. In the Akzo Nobel case, the CJEU held that a 100% control over a subsidiary creates a rebuttable presumption of decisive influence over the subsidiary company. It came to the same conclusion in cases of “almost wholly owned” companies in the Legris Industries case.
This means that undertakings cannot be held liable for price agreements between companies of the same economic group; but, it also means that parent companies can be held responsible for their subsidiaries. This is settled case law at an EU level, as well as at a national level in Spain.
The Spanish Competition Authority (CNMC) sanction
In 2015, the CNMC, by applying articles 101 of the TFEU and 1 of the Spanish competition act, sanctioned Respol, S.A. for the wrongdoing of its 99,78% controlled subsidiary company Repsol Comercial de Productos Petrolíferos, S.A.
The CNMC considered in its decision that, by application of the Single Economic Unit Doctrine, Repsol, S.A. was liable for the conduct of its “almost wholly owned” company. The CNMC also considered that Repsol, S.A. did not meet the threshold under case law to rebut the presumption of control – by demonstrating that its subsidiary acted on its own initiative despite being “almost wholly owned” when infringing competition rules.
Based on this reasoning and on the settled case law of the CJEU and the Spanish courts, the CNMC directly sanctioned Repsol, S.A. for the wrongdoing of its subsidiary, without addressing its decision to its subsidiary.
The “controversial” Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional) judgement
Repsol, S.A. appealed the CNMC’s decision before the High Court in two separate proceedings: one related to the amount of the sanction and the substantive issues of the decision; and the other focused solely on the way the sanction was addressed, based on the constitutional rights of culpability and personal responsibility. In this second judicial process, Repsol, S.A. argued that the declaration of sole responsibility of the parent company in the decision, without addressing it also to its subsidiary, violated the Spanish constitutional principles and the provisions of the Spanish competition act.
Although the High Court started its reasoning by referring to the Akso Nobel case, the Single Economic Unit Doctrine and the requirements to rebut the presumption of control, its reasoning appeared to depart from settled case law by implicitly restricting the CJEU interpretation of the doctrine and its rebuttable presumption solely to subsidiary companies controlled 100% by the parent company.