European Court of Justice Sets Aside Judgment Requiring Disclosure of Confidential Business Information

On November 23, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) released its decision in European Commission v. Stichting Greenpeace, setting aside a lower court judgment requiring disclosure of confidential business information (CBI). While the ECJ’s decision is certainly good news for manufacturers, it is not yet a clear victory.

The plaintiffs requested the public disclosure of a massive amount of CBI relating to certain pesticides used both in the United States and Europe, including how products were manufactured and their final composition in order to assess potential environmental emissions. The lower court broadly interpreted EU emissions disclosure rules in favor of the plaintiffs, which left two options for companies selling goods in the European Union. Either they accept that their trade secrets will be made public, meaning that their data can be used and abused anywhere in the world by competitors, or they decide not to market their products in the European Union altogether, with obvious adverse consequences for the companies and the European Union as a whole.

In 2015, the ECJ granted the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) intervener status, and in so doing, the court recognized the interest of the U.S. industry in this case. The NAM argued that the lower court’s interpretation was excessively broad and that the lack of adequate protection for the confidentiality of proprietary data in the European Union would be a significant barrier to market access for U.S. manufacturers of many products. The NAM is a strong supporter of global trade and investment rules that promote trade on a level playing field and provide a system in which all countries abide by core principles, including the protection of intellectual property. Governmental protection of CBI is needed to justify the considerable time, cost and effort involved in developing and marketing new technology as well as updating and improving older technologies.

The ECJ agreed with the NAM that the lower court erred by broadly interpreting EU disclosure for the emissions rule. The ECJ set aside the judgment and provided a more limited interpretation of EU disclosure rules. However, the ECJ did not assess whether the CBI in this case falls under that limited interpretation, and it sent the case back to the lower court to decide. Once the lower court decides whether the CBI at issue must be still disclosed under the limited interpretation, this case will potentially be appealed again. In the meantime unfortunately, the exact scope of the rule remains unclear. We prevailed on the larger attack against disclosing the CBI, but the fight will continue on this issue and in future cases concerning whether specific fact patterns fall within the emissions rule.

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Leland Frost

Associate General Counsel at National Association of Manufacturers
Leland Frost is the Associate General Counsel at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). As part of the Manufacturers' Center for Legal Action, Mr. Frost works to strengthen the NAM's ability to promote manufacturing policy objectives through litigation. Mr. Frost's background includes international, environmental and corporate law experience and work on a wide range of policy and regulatory issues.
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