In-House Award

December 9th, 2016

The chief claim to fame of the Italian municipality of Sulmona was that it was the birthplace of Ovid. Moving from Roman times to now, and from poetry to prose, and indigestible prose at that, it is now the subject of a Judgment of the ECJ on 8 December 2016 in Undis Servizi Srl v Comune di Sulmona, Case C-553/15.

The case concerns the award of a public contract, to Gogesa Spa, without any public tendering procedure, on the basis that it was an “in-house” award. That exemption is of course subject to two conditions, first that the local authority exercises over the contractor control similar to that which it exercises over its own departments, and, second, that the contractor carries out the “essential part of its activities” with the authority or authorities to which it belongs, the two Teckal conditions.

By decision of 30 September 2014, the municipal council of the Municipality of Sulmona awarded the contract for management of the integrated cycle of municipal waste to Cogesa, a wholly public capital company owned by several municipalities of the Regione Abruzzo (Abruzzo Region, Italy), including the Municipality of Sulmona. The latter holds 200 shares out of the 1,200 representing the company’s total share capital, that is to say, a holding of approximately 16.6% of that capital.

On 30 October 2014, although the contract for services with Cogesa had not yet been concluded, the local authorities with shares in Cogesa entered into an agreement to exercise jointly over that body a control similar to that exercised over their own departments (“the Agreement of 30 October 2014”).

By Integrated Environmental Authorisation No 9/11, the Abruzzo Region required Cogesa, in accordance with the principles of self-sufficiency, proximity and subsidiarity, to treat and recover the urban waste of certain municipalities of that region which were not shareholders of that company.

Undis, a company with an interest in the contract for services at issue, brought proceedings against the decision to award that contract for services and against the decision approving the inter-municipal agreement project. Undis claimed that the two conditions required for that contract of services to be awarded on an “in-house” basis had not been met.

More specifically, Undis claimed that the condition requiring the contracting authority to exercise over the successful tenderer, legally separate from that authority, control similar to that which it exercises over its own departments had not been met. It argues that the Municipality of Sulmona is a minority shareholder of Cogesa, that the Agreement of 30 October 2014 was entered into after the decision to award the contract for services at issue, and that that company’s statute confers on the company’s constituent bodies a degree of independence incompatible with the concept of ‘similar control’. Undis added that the condition requiring the successful tenderer to perform the essential part of its activities with the contracting authority or authorities had also not been met. According to Undis, Cogesa’s financial statements covering the years 2011 to 2013 indicated that only 50% of its overall activity had been performed with shareholder local authorities, given that activities carried out for the benefit of non-shareholder municipalities had to be included in that overall activity.

The Italian Court referred the following questions to the ECJ for a preliminary ruling:-

(1)      When the essential activity undertaken by the controlled body is assessed, must an activity imposed on it by a non-shareholder public administration and undertaken in favour of non-shareholder public bodies also be taken into account?

(2)      When the essential activity undertaken by the controlled body is assessed, must the contracts awarded to shareholder public bodies before the requirement of similar control became applicable also be taken into account?

On the first question, the ECJ said:-

“In accordance with the case-law of the Court, the main objective of the rules of EU law in the field of public contracts, namely the free movement of goods and services and the opening-up of undistorted competition in all the Member States, implies the obligation to apply the rules regarding the procedures for the award of public contracts provided for by the relevant directives, where a contracting authority, such as a local authority, is planning to enter into a written contract for pecuniary interest with a separate legal body, whether or not that body is itself a contracting authority (see, to that effect, judgments of 18 November 1999, Teckal, C‑107/98, EU:C:1999:562, paragraph 51, and of 11 January 2005, Stadt Halle and RPL Lochau, C‑26/03, EU:C:2005:5, paragraphs 44 and 47).

The Court has emphasised that any exception to the application of that obligation must be interpreted strictly (judgments of 11 January 2005, Stadt Halle and RPL Lochau, C‑26/03, EU:C:2005:5, paragraph 46, and of 8 May 2014, Datenlotsen Informationssysteme, C‑15/13, EU:C:2014:303, paragraph 23).

Given that a public authority has the possibility of performing the tasks conferred on it in the public interest by using its own administrative, technical and other resources, without being obliged to call on outside entities not forming part of its own departments (see, to that effect, judgment of 11 January 2005, Stadt Halle and RPL Lochau, C‑26/03, EU:C:2005:5, paragraph 48), the Court justified the recognition of the exception for so-called ‘in-house’ awards, by the existence, in such a case, of a specific internal link between the contracting authority and the contractor, even if the latter is an entirely separate legal entity (see, to that effect, judgment of 8 May 2014, Datenlotsen Informationssysteme, C‑15/13, EU:C:2014:303, paragraph 29). In such cases, it may be considered that the contracting authority, in actual fact, uses its own resources (see, to that effect, judgment of 8 May 2014, Datenlotsen Informationssysteme, C‑15/13, EU:C:2014:303, paragraph 25) and that the contractor is almost part of its internal departments.

That exception requires, in addition to the contracting authority exercising over the contractor a control similar to that which it exercises over its own departments, that that contractor performs the essential part of its activities for the benefit of the contracting authority or authorities which control it (see, to that effect, judgment of 18 November 1999, Teckal, C‑107/98, EU:C:1999:562, paragraph 50).

Thus, it is essential that the contractor’s activity be principally devoted to the controlling authority or authorities; the nature of any other activity may only be marginal. In order to determine whether that is the case, the court having jurisdiction must take into account all the facts of the case, both qualitative and quantitative. In that regard, the relevant turnover is the turnover that that contractor achieves pursuant to the award decisions taken by that or those controlling authorities (see, to that effect, judgments of 11 May 2006, Carbotermo and Consorzio Alisei, C‑340/04, EU:C:2006:308, paragraphs 63 and 65, and of 17 July 2008, Commission v Italy, C‑371/05, not published, EU:C:2008:410, paragraph 31).

The requirement that the person at issue performs the essential part of its activities with the controlling authority or authorities is designed to ensure that Directive 2004/18 remains applicable in the event that an undertaking controlled by one or more authorities is active in the market, and therefore liable to be in competition with other undertakings. An undertaking is not necessarily deprived of freedom of action merely because the decisions concerning it are controlled by the controlling municipal authority or authorities, if it can still carry out a large part of its economic activities with other operators. By contrast, where that undertaking’s services are mostly intended for that authority or those authorities alone, it seems justified that that undertaking should not be subject to the restrictions of Directive 2004/18, since they are in place to preserve a state of competition which, in that case, no longer has any raison d’être (see, by analogy, judgment of 11 May 2006, Carbotermo and Consorzio Alisei, C‑340/04, EU:C:2006:308, paragraphs 60 to 62).

It follows from that case-law that any activity of the contractor which is devoted to persons other than those which control it, namely persons without any relationship of control in regard to that entity, including public authorities, must be regarded as being carried out for the benefit of a third party.

Consequently, in the light of that case-law, in the dispute in the main proceedings, the local authorities which are not shareholders of Cogesa must be regarded as third parties. According to the information in the decision to refer, there is no control relationship between those local authorities and that company, with the result that the specific internal link between the contracting authority and the contractor, which according to the case-law of the Court justifies the exception for “in-house” awards, is lacking.

Therefore, in order to determine whether Cogesa performs the essential part of its activity with the local authorities which control it, the activity which that company devotes to non-shareholder local authorities must be regarded as being carried out for the benefit of third parties. It is for the referring court to examine whether that latter activity can be regarded as merely marginal in comparison with the activity of Cogesa with the controlling local authorities, in accordance with the Court’s case-law on so-called “in-house” awards.

That finding cannot be invalidated by the fact, mentioned by the referring court, that Cogesa’s activity carried out for the benefit of the non-shareholder local authorities is imposed by a public authority, which is also not a shareholder of that company. Although it imposed that activity upon Cogesa, it is apparent from the information in the decision to refer that that public authority is not a shareholder of that company and does not exercise any control over it within the meaning of the Court’s case-law on so-called ‘in-house’ awards. In the absence of any control by that public authority, the activity which it imposes on Cogesa must be regarded as an activity carried out for third parties.”

On the second question, the ECJ said:-

“By this question, the referring court asks in essence whether, for the purpose of determining whether the contractor performs the essential part of its activity for the shareholder local authorities which jointly exercise over it control similar to that which they exercise over their own departments, the activity of that contractor performed for those local authorities before such joint control took effect must also be taken into account.

In that regard, it must be noted that, according to the case-law of the Court, in order to assess the condition concerning the performance of the essential part of the activity, the national courts must take into account all the facts of the case, both qualitative and quantitative (see, to that effect, judgment of 11 May 2006, Carbotermo and Consorzio Alisei, C‑340/04, EU:C:2006:308, paragraphs 63 and 64).

In the present case, it follows from the information in the decision to refer that Cogesa had already carried out activities for the local authorities which control it prior to the conclusion of the Agreement of 30 October 2014. Those activities must certainly be taken into consideration when they are still in existence at the time of the award of a public contract. Furthermore, activities completed before 30 October 2014 may also be relevant for the purpose of assessing whether the condition concerning the performance of the essential part of the activity is met. Past activities may be indicative of the importance of the activity that Cogesa is planning to carry out for its shareholder local authorities after their similar control has taken effect.

In the light of the foregoing, for the purpose of determining whether the contractor carries out the essential part of its activity for the shareholder local authorities which jointly exercise over it control similar to that which they exercise over their own departments, account must be taken of all the circumstances of the case, which may include the activity carried out by that contractor for those local authorities before such joint control took effect.”

The ECJ ruled as follows:-

“In the context of the application of the Court’s case-law on direct awards of so-called “in-house” public contracts, in order to determine whether the contractor carries out the essential part of its activity for the contracting authority, including local authorities which are its controlling shareholders, an activity imposed on that contractor by a non-shareholder public authority for the benefit of local authorities which are also not shareholders of that contractor and do not exercise any control over it must not be taken into account, since that activity must be regarded as being carried out for third parties.

For the purpose of determining whether the contractor carries out the essential part of its activity for the shareholder local authorities which jointly exercise over it control similar to that which they exercise over their own departments, account must be taken of all the circumstances of the case, which may include activity carried out by that contractor for those local authorities before such joint control took

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