Friday, 26 January 2018

Max Schrems is a consumer - with respect to his own claims, Court says

Yesterday, on 25 January, the judgment in the second high profile case concerning the battle of Max Schrems against Facebook was delivered by the Court of Justice. The ruling does not come as a big surprise to those familiar with the earlier opinion of Advocate-General Bobek (for a broader overview of the dispute itself and the AG's opinion see our earlier post here). Indeed, the Court decided to follow the midway approach proposed to it by the AG. According to the Court, a claimant does not lose the status of a 'consumer' for purposes of establishing jurisdiction of the court seised, as a result of his engagement in activities such as book publishing, lecturing, operating websites, fundraising and collecting claims of numerous consumers. However, the jurisdictional privilege arising out of Article 16(1) Regulation No 44/2001 (Brussels I; currently Article 18(1) Regulation No 1215/2012) does not extend to collective redress.

Question 1: Is Schrems himself a consumer?

The Court began its analysis by recalling the general rule of actor sequitur forum rei, upon which the Brussels I regime is based, and the consequent requirement to interpret the rules which derogate from it strictly. This applies to Article 16(1) which allows consumers to bring proceedings against their contractual counter-party in the courts for the place where they are domiciled. 

It then reaffirmed its established line of reasoning, according to which:
  • in the interpretation of the term 'consumer' for purposes of Brussels I regulation reference must be made to the position of the person concerned in a particular contract, having regard to the nature and objective of that contract and not to the subjective situation of the person concerned (para. 29);
  • only contracts concluded outside and independently of any trade or professional activity or purpose, solely for the purpose of satisfying an individual's own needs in terms of private consumption, are, in principle, covered by the special rules aimed to protect the consumer as a weaker party (paras. 30-31).

Mixed purpose and dynamic assessment

The judgment further recalled that in mixed purpose scenarios, i.e. where a person concludes a contract for a purpose which is partly within and partly outside his or her trade or profession, the Gruber test applies. Consequently, a person can only rely on the jurisdictional privilege available to consumers if the link between the contract and that person's trade or profession is so slight as to be marginal and, therefore, has only a negligible role in the context of the supply in respect of which the contract is concluded, considered in its entirety (para. 32).

Having in mind the conclusion reached in Gruber as well as the Court's repeated references to the strict interpretation requirement in the commented judgment, the reasoning presented so far did not appear to bode well for Schrems. Neither did the following passage of the judgment, which introduced an element of novelty to the Court's existing jurisprudence and could be of considerable relevance for the future cases. 

"[I]t is necessary, in particular, to take into account, as far as concerns services of a digital social network which are intended to be used over a long period of time, subsequent changes in the use which is made of those services" (para. 37). Consequently, "a user of such services may, in bringing an action, rely on his status as a consumer only if the predominately non-professional use of those services, for which the applicant initially concluded a contract, has not subsequently become predominately professional" (para. 38).

The Court has thus made clear that the subsequent change of the purpose, for which the services provided under the contract are used, should not be disregarded. This is already a very important take-away. The importance of these follow-on factors is, nevertheless, far from clear. While the Court does not refer to it explicitly, it seems that the time of contract conclusion could still be perceived as the main point of reference, as reasoned by the AG. Based on this premise, one could argue that it is at this stage that the strict Gruber test should be applied. Indeed, the negative formulation "has not subsequently become predominately professional" leaves room for a more consumer-claimant-friendly interpretation at a subsequent stage.

The contract, not the person

As seen from above, with respect to mixed-purpose long-term contracts the judgment leaves several important questions open and its consumer-claimant-friendly reading may be regarded as a stretch. The answer provided by the Court was, nevertheless, favourable to Schrems. The reason seems to lie in the character of his "professional" use of Facebook services. According to the Court, acquiring expertise in the field covered by the services at issue and giving assurances for the purposes of representing the rights and interests of other service recipients cannot lead to the loss of one's consumer status. This is because: 
  • as mentioned before, an assessment of the 'consumer' status is undertaken irrespective of the subjective situation of the person concerned, in particular his or her knowledge and information possessed (para. 39);
  • a contrary interpretation would prevent an effective defence of the rights that consumers enjoy in relation to their contractual partners who are traders or professionals (here especially: the protection of personal data) and would disregard the objective set out in Article 169(1) TFEU of promoting the right of consumers to organise themselves in order to safeguard their interests (para. 40).

Question 2: Can Schrems bring claims of other consumers in his domestic court?

Article 169(1) TFEU, however, did not prove helpful in respect of the second question. Emphasising once again the requirement of strict interpretation, the Court found that the special protection granted to a consumer as a party to the legal proceedings applies only in so far as the claimant or defendant is, in fact, a party to the consumer contract in question (paras. 44-45). A situation of a consumer to whom claims of other consumers were assigned was thus treated analogously to that of a consumer organisation. A different interpretation would, according to the Court, lead to the establishment of a specific forum for consumers to whom claims of other consumers have been assigned, which is nowhere to be found in the Brussels I regulation and which would undermine the predictability of attributing jurisdiction (paras. 46-48).  

Consequently, the jurisdictional privilege set out in Article 16(1) of Regulation No 44/2001 does not apply to the proceedings brought by a consumer for the purpose of asserting the claims assigned to him by other consumers, irrespective of whether the assignors are domiciled in the same Member State, in other Member States or in non-member countries.

Concluding thought

The judgment appears to be a win for consumers who decide bring their civil claims against traders to a court and take their disputes seriously - a result which is hard not to agree with. The ruling is, nevertheless, far from a sweeping consumer victory. Despite a reference to the consistency of EU law in para. 28, the Court maintained the established reading of Gruber for jurisdictional purposes and accepted that consumer status can be lost over time. Last but not least, even if the Court's choice to leave the collective redress dimension up to the European legislator cannot be denied legal grounds, it goes without saying that transnational private enforcement of consumer law remains an issue. One can hope, however, that the experience made in discussions on the GDPR regarding that latter point, along with the recent steps taken by the Commission as a follow-up to its 2013 recommendation on collective redress, will eventually bring something more concrete to reason about.

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