Antitrust matters to me. It is a big part of how I make my living—as an antitrust attorney. That is why the blog is called (unimaginatively) The Antitrust Attorney Blog. You might be an antitrust lawyer too. And if so, I guess the above question is easy for you to answer.

But if you aren’t an antitrust or competition lawyer, why read about antitrust? Maybe it is interesting to you? If so, then I respect you because you have what I view as a cool interest. You’ve probably been popular your whole life.

It is more likely, however, that antitrust matters to you because it could affect you (or if you are an attorney, your clients). In fact, I receive many calls from both business owners and non-antitrust attorneys because they or their clients may have an antitrust case or want to avoid someone having a case against them.

If you fall into one of those categories, I highly recommend that you attend a webinar that I am presenting on Tuesday, August 26 for Strafford entitled “Detecting Antitrust Red Flags in Business Dealings: Avoiding Costly Pitfalls: Identifying Potential Violations in Competitor, Supplier and Customer Interactions and Business Decisions.” I am honored to have two outstanding antitrust attorneys as co-presenters: Ryan W. Marth of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Justin W. Bernick of Hogan Lovells in Washington, DC.

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Aspen MountainsYes, in certain narrow circumstances, refusing to do business with a competitor violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which regulates monopolies, attempts at monopoly, and exclusionary conduct.

This probably seems odd—don’t businesses have the freedom to decide whether to do business with someone, especially when that person competes with them? When you walk into a store and see a sign that says, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” should you call your friendly antitrust lawyer?

The general rule is, in fact, that antitrust law does NOT prohibit a business from refusing to deal with its competitor. But the refusal-to-deal doctrine is real and can create antitrust liability.

So when do you have to do business with your competitor?

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By Jarod Bona and Aaron Gott

We filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of We All Help Patients, Inc. in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a federal antitrust case challenging anticompetitive conduct by professional-licensing boards.

Let us tell you a little bit about this interesting case.

The Antitrust Case

The North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners is composed of six licensed dentists, one licensed dental hygienist, and one “public member.” Dentists make a lot of money by offering teeth-whitening services. So when non-dentists started providing teeth-whitening services at a far lower cost, dentists started complaining to the Board about the lower-priced competitors.

Naturally, a Board made up of self-interested private parties had an incentive to do something about it. They began sending cease-and-desist letters to non-dentist teeth whiteners and even went so far as to ask shopping malls to not lease kiosks to teeth whiteners. It wasn’t clear, of course, that North Carolina law limited teeth-whitening services to dentists.

The Board’s actions were, in fact, a conspiracy to restrain trade. The members were competitors that acted in agreement to exclude other competitors. The conspiracy question was not at issue with the US Supreme Court.

The Federal Trade Commission, which has long advocated for “free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade” to protect consumers and economic liberty, issued an administrative complaint against the State Board and ultimately held that the Board engaged in anticompetitive conduct and the state-action immunity doctrine did not apply. The case made its way up through the Fourth Circuit—which agreed with the FTC—and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Most of The Antitrust Attorney Blog entries focus on antitrust and competition law, which I suppose isn’t a surprise. But that hides the fact that I am a business litigator as well. While many of my matters relate to antitrust, some of them don’t.

So I thought this award would present a good opportunity for me to remind you that although I really enjoy antitrust, I can also help you with straight-up business disputes. This includes everything from basic breaches of contract to complex global disputes spanning several jurisdictions. It also includes, of course, appellate attorney work, which I write about from time-to-time.

In fact, my antitrust background gives me a leg-up in business and corporate litigation because I have spent years studying markets: I understand how companies compete in a market, which helps me to quickly grasp how an industry or company functions. This experience improves my ability to incorporate business considerations into my descriptions of various options for the client throughout the litigation process.

Many lawyers look at litigation as a game, to win at all costs, instead of understanding that litigation is just one of several tools to use—offensively or defensively—to develop a competitor’s position in the marketplace. It is important at every decision point to recognize that—unlike the litigator that probably works with a bunch of other competitive litigators that stress winning above all else—the client cares about the result relative to the cost.

Indeed, having my own business has further focused my sensitivity to the client’s perspective. I think I understand the client’s need to find someone that (1) they trust; (2) will pursue their goals, with the overall context of the business in mind; (3) will do great work. That may sound like the typical gobbledygook from a lawyer, but I think most businesses that have had to hire litigators will tell you that those three points are everything.

I started Bona Law PC in March 2014 and it is now August. Time flies. So far so good. I’ve been quite busy and I love the work. Even though people told me that I couldn’t do antitrust outside of a big firm, I have done a lot of antitrust. In fact, we are filing an Amicus Brief to the US Supreme Court this week in an antitrust case.

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As you know, I am a big fan of the Antitrust Law Journal, which is produced by the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section. It is the journal where antitrust lawyering meets antitrust economics and academics. I like to hang out at this intersection.

A couple weeks ago, another issue of the Antitrust Law Journal arrived. I haven’t had a chance to read any of the articles yet—as I’ve been fortunately quite busy—but I skimmed it and it looks like a good one. Let’s review it together.

It is a double symposium issue, which is great because symposium issues can be a bummer if you don’t like the topic. This gives you twice the odds of liking at least some of the articles. The two topics are (1) Patent Assertion Entities, and (2) Politics and Antitrust.

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TaxisProbably not. But any government agency that files an amicus brief supporting an Institute for Justice case challenging anticompetitive state action deserves some libertarian props.

If I had to name a favorite government agency, I would pick the FTC. I don’t agree with many of their positions, of course, and have gone up against them before. But they work hard to rein in anticompetitive state and local conduct and that is meaningful. In those instances, they are champions of competition. These state and local boards shouldn’t violate the antitrust laws.

Today, Andrew Gavil, the Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the FTC, testified before the House Committee on Small Business on “Competition and the Potential Costs and Benefits of Professional Licensure.” This is an issue that I have studied for many years and the FTC has been and remains a leader in protecting competition from needless entry barriers by state and local boards.

Let’s take a quick look at Andrew Gavil’s written statement, which officially presents the views of the Federal Trade Commission by a 5-0 vote.

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Ski EquipmentSometimes competition is a real hassle.

If your company has a loyal customer or longtime employee, you feel betrayed when a competitor swoops in to try to “steal them.”

If you are the Miami Heat, you probably don’t like that the Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to hire your best player, LeBron James. Of course, a few years ago, the Heat signed James from Cleveland. (On a side note, this Minnesota Timberwolves fan wonders whether a LeBron James move to Cleveland will lead to a Kevin Love trade for Number 1 draft pick, Andrew Wiggins).

Update: LeBron James is indeed “coming home” to Cleveland.

I just started watching Breaking Bad. (I know, what took me so long?). Anyway, it is apparent in the early episodes that drug cartels shovel heavy resources into extinguishing competition. They certainly don’t seem too happy about this Heisenberg fellow coming in to outcompete them with a superior product. Perhaps in a later season, “Better Call Saul” will help Walter White file a Sherman Act, Section 2 Antitrust lawsuit against some of these monopolists that are restraining him from competing in certain geographic markets?

The bottom line is that as great as competition is—for almost everyone—it isn’t always enjoyable to those that must compete.

It is much easier to complacently offer the same product or service for a highly-profitable price than to constantly refine your wares and cut prices to attract and keep customers.

Perhaps a couple major ski equipment manufacturers were thinking along those lines if we are to believe the FTC’s allegations that ended in settlements approved today?

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Rotten WoodThe defendants in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. failed to show the US Supreme Court the “special justification” necessary to overturn settled precedent.

As we explained in a previous post, the Supreme Court in this case agreed to reconsider its 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson, which allowed a shareholder class in a securities fraud lawsuit to satisfy statutory “reliance” requirements by invoking a presumption that stock prices traded in “efficient” markets incorporate all material information, including alleged misrepresentations.

But between then and now, academics, economists, and commentators chipped away at the economic theory underlying this presumption, which is based upon “the efficient capital markets hypothesis.”

So if a legal precedent depends upon an economic theory that now appears less valid than it did before, do you overrule it or keep it in place because it has ingrained itself into a larger legal structure?

Here is a similar question from real estate: If part of the wood in a load-bearing wall has started to rot, do you replace it? The Supreme Court held that you do, if you can show a “special justification.”

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We are proud to announce that we filed an amicus curiae brief with the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the Minnesota Vacation Rental Association last week in Dean et al. v. City of Winona, a case concerning municipal power and the right to rent out one’s residential property.

Four property owners represented by the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter challenged a City of Winona, Minnesota ordinance that caps the number of rental licenses per residential block to thirty percent (“the thirty-percent rule”). In other words, if you live in one of Winona’s low-density residential districts, your right to rent your home is subject to your neighbors’ exercise of theirs.

Here’s the background:

The City of Winona, Minnesota was unhappy with parking, density, and aesthetic issues in the residential areas near the Winona State University campus. Rather than enforce existing laws against problem residents (students), the City of Winona decided to expropriate its residents’ property rights by restricting the number of homes that could be rented out to 30% of the houses on a given block.

Thus, if six houses comprise your block, owners of only two houses on the block could obtain a license to rent to tenants.

Four homeowners challenged the thirty-percent rule after facing ruinous financial consequences as a result of the rule. One homeowner, who was deployed to Iraq, almost lost his home because the city wouldn’t let him rent it, thus depriving him of rental income to cover the mortgage payment.

Another couple bought a home in Winona for their daughter to live in while she was in college and as an investment that would provide rental income. After their daughter left, the home sat empty on the market because they couldn’t rent it and interested buyers backed out when told of the rental restriction.

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PomegranateMany of my cases will pit one competitor against another in litigation. An antitrust claim is often at the center of the dispute, but a number of other claims can find their way into the case; sometimes even in a starring role.

Litigation between competitors can include, for example, trade secret or intellectual property disputes, tortious interference claims, and Lanham Act claims, to name just a few. Our focus today is on the Lanham Act because the U.S. Supreme Court last week issued an interesting opinion on its scope in POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca Cola Company.

The question was whether The Federal, Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) precluded a plaintiff from filing a Lanham Act claim related to food labeling. Justice Kennedy explained for a unanimous court (which did not include Justice Breyer) that plaintiffs can pursue their claim about pomegranate-blueberry juice labeling: The statutes don’t conflict—they complement each other.

First, some background. The Lanham Act is a federal private right of action to enforce trademark rights, as well as (and relevant here) “unfair competition through misleading advertising or labeling.” What is particularly interesting about the Act is that it is specifically designed for competitors. That is, consumers that discover false advertising or labeling can’t bring a Lanham Act case. Only competitors that can “allege an injury to a commercial interest in reputation or sales,” have standing. You might recall that the Court addressed Lanham Act standing earlier this term in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., discussed here.

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