NCLAT Overturns CCI’s Penalty on Hyundai

1.     On September 19, 2018, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (‘NCLAT’) issued a decision setting aside an order of the Competition Commission of India (‘CCI’) against Hyundai Motor India Limited (‘Hyundai’) (FX Enterprise Solutions India Pvt. Ltd. & St. Antony’s Cars Pvt. Ltd. v. Hyundai Motor India Limited, Case Nos. 36 & 82 of 2014). This decision has interesting ramifications for the decision-making procedure, and evidentiary standards, followed by CCI while assessing allegations of infringement. The NCLAT’s decision is also specifically relevant for businesses which are reliant on distribution-channels. However, unfortunately, the decision misses out an opportunity to clarify the substantive law on anticompetitive vertical restraints under Section 3(4) of the Competition Act, 2002 (‘Competition Act’).

2.     CCI had imposed a penalty of Rs 870 million on Hyundai for imposing: (i) resale price maintenance (‘RPM’) by setting and implementing a ‘Discount Control Mechanism’ on its dealers, and (ii) “tie-in” agreements which mandated that its dealers use recommended lubricants (‘CCI Order’).

Analysis of relevant market

3.     The NCLAT has not discussed CCI’s substantive findings against Hyundai on RPM and tie-in agreements in detail and also avoided a substantive review of the market definition relied on by the CCI (CCI had defined an upstream market for sale of all brands of passenger cars in India, and a downstream market for the dealership and distribution of Hyundai cars in India). Rather, the NCLAT, relying on the decision of the Supreme Court in Competition Commission of India v. Coordination Committee of Artistes and Technicians of West Bengal Film and Television and Ors. ((2017) 5 SCC 17), found fault with the methodology followed by the Director General (‘DG’) and CCI while defining the relevant markets. According to NCLAT, while defining relevant markets, both DG and CCI had failed to properly consider factors they were statutorily obliged to, namely: (i) the factors under Section 19(6) of the Competition Act, including regulatory trade barriers, local specification requirements, in determining the relevant geographic market; and (ii) factors under Section 19(7) of the Competition Act, including the physical characteristics and end-use of goods, and consumer preferences, in determining the relevant product market.

CCI’s assessment of the DG’s Report

4.     Interestingly, the NCLAT went on to hold that CCI cannot merely rely on the findings in the DG’s report to establish a contravention under Section 27 of the Competition Act; rather, it is required to make an independent analysis of the evidence available on record. The NCLAT further noted that the CCI Order was self-contradictory, reflecting a non-application of mind by CCI, and even went on to point out certain examples of such contradictions. For example, at paragraph 108 of the CCI Order, CCI stated that the cancellation of warranty upon use of non-recommended oils / lubricants does not amount to a contravention of Section 3(4)(a) of the Competition Act (which deals with tie-in arrangements). However, it went on to conclude (at paragraph 116) that Hyundai contravened the tie-in provision of the Competition Act in mandating that its dealers use recommended lubricants / oils and in penalising them for use of non-recommended lubricants and oils. NCLAT also noted CCI’s and DG’s failure to support the conclusion that Hyundai had penalized its dealers for not acting in accordance with the tie-in agreement, and further observed that CCI and DG had failed to consider that it is normal for car dealers of all companies to recommend the use of a particular quality of lubricant and oil based on vehicle-type.

Conclusion

5.     While it does not contain a substantial ruling on the assessment of anticompetitive vertical restraints in India, this is nevertheless a significant decision – especially, as it clarifies CCI’s proper role while adjudicating infringement allegations, which is to objectively assess the evidence presented in the DG’s investigation report and carry out its own independent analysis before arriving at any conclusions.

Date:September 2018