Antitrust Injury and Brunswick

photo credit: ginnerobot via photopin cc

Antitrust injury is one of the most commonly fought battles in antitrust litigation. It is also one of the least understood antitrust concepts.

No matter what your antitrust theory, it is almost certain that you must satisfy antitrust-injury requirements to win your case. So you ought to have some idea of what it is.

The often-quoted language is that antitrust injury is “injury of the type the antitrust laws were intended to prevent and that flows from that which makes the defendant’s acts unlawful.” You will see this language—or some variation—in most court opinions deciding antitrust-injury issues. The language and the analysis are from the Classic Antitrust Case entitled Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc., decided by the US Supreme Court in 1977.

Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc.

If your antitrust attorney is drafting a brief on your behalf and antitrust injury is in dispute—which is quite likely—he or she will probably cite Brunswick Corp.

Since antitrust injury is synonymous with Brunswick Corp., let’s talk about the actual case for a moment. If you are passionate about the market for bowling alleys, you’ll love this case.

If you were around in the 1950s, you probably know that bowling was a big deal. The industry expanded rapidly, which was great for manufacturers of bowling equipment. But sometimes good things come to an end and the bowling industry went into a sharp decline in the early 1960s. These same manufacturers began to have trouble, as bowling alleys starting paying late or not at all for their leased equipment.

A particular bowling-equipment manufacturer—Brunswick Corp—began acquiring and operating defaulted bowling centers when they couldn’t resell the leased equipment.  For a period of seven years, Brunswick acquired 222 centers, some that it either disposed of or closed. This buying binge turned it into the largest operator of bowling centers, by far.

This was a problem for a competing bowling-alley operator and competitor, Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, who sued under the Clayton Act, arguing that certain acquisitions in their territory “might substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.” Without the acquisition, the purchased bowling alleys would have gone out of business, which would have benefited Pueblo, a competitor.

The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court, which rejected the Clayton Act claim for lack of antitrust injury. The reason is that even though Pueblo was, indeed, harmed by the acquisition, it wasn’t a harm that the antitrust laws were meant to protect. The acquisition actually increased competition. Absent the acquisition, Pueblo would have gained market share. But with the acquisition, the market included both Pueblo and the bowling alleys that would have left the market—i.e. more competition.

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Cable Net NeutralityAn article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye: “FCC Questions AT&T Over Investment Pause: Company Freezes Plans to Build Ultrafast Internet Service.” The reason for the pause is the FCC’s flirtation with the idea of net neutrality.

A government policy of net neutrality would require internet service providers—like broadband companies—to enable access to all content and applications no matter the source and without additional charges for particular products or websites.

This debate is in the news lately because of the issue of whether cable companies that control broadband should be able to charge extra to content companies like Netflix that make greater use of the broadband, or to offer content companies a faster and better route that isn’t available to other companies (for a price, of course). The FCC has been debating this policy, and the issue is wrapped up in the FCC and DOJ’s review of the Comcast-Time Warner merger. President Obama recently came out in support of net neutrality, which adds pressure on the FCC to adopt the policy.

So where does AT&T fit into this?

They are in the process of gaining approval to purchase the satellite company, Direct TV, which is a competitor to the broadband services from cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner. After President Obama issued a statement supporting net neutrality, AT&T announced that it would freeze plans to build ultrafast Internet service in light of new uncertainty around the government’s net-neutrality policy.

Here is the problem: Net neutrality turns broadband service into a more commoditized business. If you are in the business, you must charge everyone equally—the content providers that is—which means there is substantially less room for innovation.

Right now the cable companies offering broadband have substantial market power because they offer the fastest broadband to customers in each locality. Substantial resources over time have built-up the necessary framework and connections to offer broadband service to customers.

When a business becomes commoditized, there are fewer aspects of competition. That is, the product is substantially the same no matter where you get it, so price becomes the biggest area of competition. Businesses then compete by innovating on how to reduce costs and building economies of scale, which usually reduces costs. They do not, however, innovate on improving the quality of the product because, by definition, the product is the same.

If the FCC were to require a net-neutrality policy, it would remove substantial areas of potential competition between the entrenched monopolist broadband (i.e. cable) companies and potential competitors. So competition would primarily be based on cost reduction, which usually comes down to economies of scale.

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White TeethThe trade association necessitates a delicate balancing act between anticompetitive conduct condemned by the antitrust laws and pro-competitive information-sharing and best practices that ultimately help consumers.

Trade associations should have antitrust policies and should consistently consult with an antitrust attorney. Antitrust law reserves its greatest scorn to the horizontal agreements—the deals between and among competitors. And a trade association is, by definition, an entity created to bring these competitors together.

Competition Policy International (CPI) published an Antitrust Chronicle this week about trade associations and industry information sharing and I was fortunate that they invited me to publish an article in this issue. My article is called “’But the Bridge Will Fall’ is Not a Valid Defense to an Antitrust Lawsuit.” I discuss one of my favorite Supreme Court cases of all time: National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States.

There are a couple of ways that trade associations—and, really, any group of industry competitors—harm competition and risk antitrust liability. The first and most obvious concern is that the competitors will conspire against their customers or suppliers (don’t forget that buying conspiracies may be illegal too).

For example, a group of competitors may reach agreements on price, output, geographic or product and service markets, contractual terms, etc. These are per se antitrust violations, condemned with little analysis other than whether there was, indeed, an agreement.

The other conspiratorial harm that trade associations or groups of industry competitors can inflict is on competitors from another industry or profession. In my view, this harm is underrated and under-considered. I discussed this concern in a law review article a couple years ago.

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Tying Agreement (Rope)Yes, in some instances, they do. Whether you arrive at the “tying-arrangement” issue from the perspective of the person tying, the person buying the tied products, or the person competing with the person tying, you should know when the antitrust laws forbid the practice.

Most vertical agreements—like loyalty discounts, bundling, exclusive dealing, etc.—require courts to delve into the pro-competitive and anti-competitive aspects of the arrangements before rendering a judgment. Tying is a little different.

Tying agreements—along with price-fixing, market allocation, bid-rigging, and certain group boycotts—are considered per se antitrust violations. That is, a court need not perform an elaborate market analysis to condemn the practice because it is inherently anticompetitive, without pro-competitive redeeming virtues. Even though tying is often placed in this category, it doesn’t quite fit there either. Again, it is a little different.

Proving market power isn’t typically required for practices considered per se antitrust violations, but it is for tying. And business justifications don’t, as a rule, save the day for per se violations either. But, in certain limited circumstances, a defendant to an antitrust action premised on tying agreements might defend its case by showing exactly why they tied the products they did.

At this stage, you might be asking, “what the heck is tying?” Do the antitrust laws prohibit certain types of knots? Do they insist that everyone buy shoes with Velcro instead of shoestrings? The antitrust laws can be paternalistic, but they don’t go that far.

A tying arrangement is where a customer may only purchase a particular item (the “tying” item) if the customer agrees to purchase a second item (the “tied” item), or at least agree not to purchase that second item from the seller’s competitors. It is sort of like bundling, but there is an element of coercion.

With bundling, a seller may offer a lower combined price to buyers that purchase two or more items, but the buyers always have the right to just purchase one of the items (and forgo the discount). With tying, by contrast, the buyer cannot just purchase the one item; if it wants the first item, it must purchase the second.

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Antitrust SuperheroSome lawyers focus on litigation. Other lawyers spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. And another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature.

But your friendly antitrust attorneys—the superheroes of lawyers—do all of this. That is part of what makes practicing antitrust so fun. We are here to solve competition problems; whether they arise from transactions, disputes, or the government, we are here to help. Or perhaps you just want some basic advice. We do that too—all the time.

Perhaps you are a new attorney, or a law student, and you are considering what area to practice? Try antitrust and competition law. Not only is this arena challenging and in flux—which adds to the excitement—but you also don’t pigeonhole yourself into a particular type of practice. You get to do it all—your job is to understand the essence of markets and competition and to help clients solve competition problems.

For those of you that aren’t antitrust attorneys, I thought it might be useful if I explained what it is that we do.

Litigation

Although much of our litigation is, in fact, antitrust litigation, much of it is not. In the business v. business litigation especially, even in cases that involve an antitrust claim, there are typically several other types of claims that are not antitrust.

Businesses compete in the marketplace, but they also compete in the courtroom, for better or worse. And when they do, their big weapon is often a federal antitrust claim (with accompanying treble damages and attorneys’ fees), but they may also be armed with other claims, including trade secret statutes, Lanham Act, patent, tortious interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, I will receive a call from a client that thinks they may have an antitrust claim. Perhaps they read this blog post. Sometimes they do, indeed, have a potential antitrust claim. But in other instances, an antitrust claim probably won’t work, but another claim might fit, perhaps a Lanham Act claim for false advertising, or tortuous interference with contract, or some sort of state unfair trade practice claim.

Antitrust lawyers study markets and competition and are the warriors of courtroom competition between competitors. If you have a legal dispute with a competitor, you should call your friendly antitrust attorney.

Antitrust litigation itself is great fun. The cases are usually significant, document heavy, with difficult legal questions and an emphasis on economic testimony. Some of them even involve class actions.

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Downtown HartfordIn many instances, conduct involving the business of insurance is, indeed, exempt from antitrust liability.

So why does insurance sometimes get a free pass?

In 1945, Congress passed a law called The McCarran-Ferguson Act. Insurance, of course, has traditionally been regulated by the States. Territorial and jurisdictional disputes between the States and the Federal government are a grand tradition in this country. We call it Federalism. In 1945, it appears that the states won a battle over the feds.

As a result, in certain instances, business-of-insurance conduct can escape federal antitrust scrutiny.

The business of insurance isn’t the only type of exemption from the antitrust laws. There are a few. At The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we have discussed state-action immunity quite a bit (as suing state and local governments under the antitrust laws is a favorite topic of mine). And the US Supreme Court is presenting reviewing a state-action immunity case (NC Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC). The courts disfavor these exemptions and interpret them narrowly.

But back to the insurance-business exemption and The McCarran-Ferguson Act. Do you notice that I keep calling it the “business of insurance” exemption and not the insurance-company exemption? That is because the courts don’t just exempt insurance companies from antitrust scrutiny. No, the exemption only applies to the business of insurance and in certain circumstances.

Below are the basic elements a defendant must satisfy to invoke the McCarran-Ferguson Act:

  1. The conduct in question must be regulated by the state or states.
  2. The conduct must qualify as the business of insurance—the business of insurers is not sufficient.
  3. The conduct must not consist of a group boycott or related form of coercion.

Each of these elements, in turn, has its own requirements, case law, and doctrinal development. The most interesting of the three elements is how to define the business of insurance.

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NC Dental PictureThe US Supreme Court does not review many antitrust cases. So when they do, it is kind of a big deal for antitrust attorneys around the world.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, which addressed the scope of state-action immunity from antitrust liability. More specifically, the Court is reviewing whether a state licensing board must satisfy both prongs of what is known as the Midcal test to avoid antitrust scrutiny.

The first element, which everyone agrees applies, requires the defendant entity to show that the State “clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed” the challenged anticompetitive act as state policy. The Supreme Court is deciding whether state licensing boards are subject to the second element as well: whether the policy is “actively supervised by the State itself.” Municipalities and other local governments have a free pass from this second element, but private people and entities must satisfy the active supervision requirement.

So what is the big deal? If an entity—state or private—can show that state-action immunity doesn’t apply, it can violate the antitrust laws at will. It can grab consumer surplus for itself; it can exclude competition; it can behave under different rules than everyone else. And monopoly is quite profitable.

In NC Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a state-sanctioned dental board—composed of six licensed dentists, one licensed dental hygienist, and one public member—engaged in actions to exclude non-dentist teeth-whitening services. As you might recall, Bona Law filed an amicus brief in this case. You can learn about the case and our amicus brief here. Among other points, we argued that the Supreme Court should analyze the case as the Court outlined in American Needle, by reference to whether the units of competition—the independent decision-makers—are private. They are. We also advocated that the Supreme Court apply an active state supervision requirement with some teeth.

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BlackjackSo here’s an idea. Let me know what you think: A hedge fund or other investment vehicle centered on antitrust analysis.

I’ll explain.

As you might know, I am an antitrust attorney. And I write a blog on antitrust and competition law. So, as you may expect, I follow antitrust developments somewhat obsessively at times. As a result, I have a good sense of the practical antitrust implications of certain cases, investigations, or prospective mergers.

I don’t have a crystal ball or anything. Nor do I have any inside information. And since human beings—judges or agency officials—make the relevant decisions, nobody can actually predict what will happen.

But by now, I can review a complaint or a motion to dismiss or description of facts and have a good sense of the strength and risk of the antitrust issues. I think I also have a decent idea how the major antitrust agencies—the FTC and Department of Justice—focus their priorities and like to resolve investigations, cases, and mergers. Like I said, I can’t predict anything with certainty, but there is a high learning curve for antitrust (probably more than most specialties) and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort climbing that curve.

Enough about me—for now anyway.

Let’s talk about antitrust and company stock performance. The obvious scenario is a merger. Two companies, perhaps competitors, announce a merger or acquisition. It isn’t a dead-on-antitrust-arrival merger between the first and second leading companies in a product and geographic market that is easily defined. Instead, it is the sort of merger where the markets are somewhat complicated, perhaps in flux, and it isn’t entirely clear whether an antitrust agency will challenge it or a court will stop it.

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Resale Price MaintenanceSome antitrust questions are easy: Is price-fixing among competitors a Sherman Act violation? Yes, of course it is.

But there is one issue that is not only a common occurrence but also engenders great controversy among antitrust attorneys and commentators: Is price-fixing between manufacturers and distributors (or retailers) an antitrust violation? This is usually called a resale-price-maintenance agreement and it really isn’t clear if it violates the antitrust laws.

For many years, resale-price maintenance—called RPM by those in the know—was on the list of the most forbidden of antitrust conduct, a per se antitrust violation. It was up there with horizontal price fixing, market allocation, bid rigging, and certain group boycotts and tying arrangements.

There was a way around a violation, known as the Colgate exception, whereby a supplier would unilaterally develop a policy that its product must be sold at a certain price or it would terminate dealers. This well-known exception was based on the idea that, in most situations, companies had no obligation to deal with any particular company and could refuse to deal with distributors if they wanted. Of course, if the supplier entered a contract with the distributor to sell the supplier’s products at certain prices, that was an entirely different story. The antitrust law brought in the cavalry in those cases.

In 2007, the Supreme Court dramatically changed the landscape when it decided Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet). The question presented to the Supreme Court in Leegin was whether to overrule an almost 100-year old precedent (Dr. Miles Medical Co.) that established the rule that resale-price maintenance was per se illegal under the Sherman Act.

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It dependsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. But probably not. Outside of California, courts may enforce these non-compete agreements arising out of an employment contract. Of course, most courts, no matter what the law and state, view them skeptically. In California, however, the policy against these agreements is particularly strong.

A restrictive covenant is often part of an employment agreement that restricts the employee’s actions after leaving employment. They typically prohibit the employee from competing in particular markets for a period of time after leaving the employer, but may also keep the employee from soliciting the company’s customers or even employees after leaving.

They are, unquestionably, restraints on trade. But are they unreasonable restraints on trade? In many states that is the issue—if they are reasonable, a court will enforce them. What does reasonable mean? Again, it depends. But typically, like other restraints on trade, they must usually be narrowly tailored to serve their purpose. They should contain “reasonable” limitations as to time, geographic area, and scope of activity.

The laws, of course, vary from state to state. But as a practical matter, most judges are skeptical. Some courts will actually rewrite the agreements to make them reasonable.

The purpose of these restraints is to offer protection to an employer that must necessarily share trade secrets and sensitive customer or financial information with their employees. The concern is that this information is so sensitive and easily exploited by a competitor that the employer needs the restrictive covenant to keep an employee from leaving and benefiting from the information as a competitor. It also reduces the likelihood of free-riding on training.

Despite these benefits, California law and courts take a hard stand against certain restrictive covenants. The California Supreme Court in Edwards v. Arthur Anderson LLP explained, for example, that “judges assessing the validity of restrictive covenants should determine only whether the covenant restrains a party’s ability to compete and, if so, whether one of the statutory exceptions to Section 16600 applies.” (exceptions include the sale of goodwill or corporate stock of a business).

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