LIBOR Antitrust MDLThe US Supreme Court just issued its decision in an antitrust case called Ellen Gelboim v. Bank of America Corporation. This case arises out of major multi-district litigation (an MDL) centered on allegations that major banks conspired to manipulate the London InterBank Offered Rate (which you probably know as LIBOR) to lower their interest costs on financial instruments sold to investors.

For purposes of Gelboim, the intricate details of the alleged conspiracy are not relevant, but you should know that it led to over 60 actions filed in federal court against the banks.

That sounds like a lot of cases and you might infer from the large number that the defendants must have done something wrong if so many people are suing them. But that isn’t necessarily true.

What happens is that a government agency announces an investigation (or it leaks) or someone has the idea that there is price-fixing, market-allocation, bid-rigging or some related horizontal per se antitrust violation going on.

There are plaintiff law firms all over the country that specialize in bringing these types of lawsuits and when one appears, you see many more very quickly. They follow each other and an antitrust blizzard ensues. It is, in fact, an extremely competitive market among plaintiff firms. And when a big set of cases develop, the plaintiff lawyers are often fighting each other for bigger pieces of the pie more than they battle defendants’ attorneys.

Fortunately, there is a set of procedures that deal with such a situation—Section 1407. This statute created the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), which may transfer the many related actions “involving one or more common questions of fact” to one district court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings.

Importantly, as the Supreme Court points out, this does not mean that all of the cases are transferred forever into the one district court. They are just there for pre-trial proceedings. Of course, practically speaking, they rarely leave that court as most of these cases are either dismissed or settled. If not, the statute requires that each individual action “shall be remanded by the panel at or before the conclusion” of the pretrial proceedings to the original district court.

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Baseball Antitrust ExemptionBaseball is special. How do we know that? Is it the fact that it has been declared America’s Pastime? Or is it the feelings we have when we smell the freshly cut grass on a sunny spring day? Or is it the acoustics of a wood bat striking a leather-wrapped baseball? The answer is that  we know that baseball is special because the US Supreme Court has told us so.

Over the course of ninety-two years, the Supreme Court has consistently affirmed and re-affirmed a special exemption from the antitrust laws for the “business of providing public baseball games for profit between clubs of professional baseball.” There is a state action exemption, an insurance exemption, a labor exemption, and a  . . . baseball exemption? That’s right. A baseball exemption from the federal antitrust laws.

The Ninth Circuit—in an opinion courtesy of Judge Alex Kozinski—just applied this exemption in City of San Jose v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, which rejected San Jose’s antitrust lawsuit challenging Major League Baseball’s “attempt to stymie” the relocation of the Oakland Athletics to San Jose, California.

Why is There a Baseball Exemption from the Antitrust Laws?

In the 1920’s, the Supreme Court decided a case called Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, which held that the Sherman Act didn’t apply to the business of baseball because such “exhibitions” are purely state affairs. As Judge Kozinski explained, the reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s decision reflected the “era’s soon-to-be-outmoded interpretation of the Commerce Clause.” In other words, back in the day, courts didn’t assume that almost every economic activity was within federal jurisdiction.

Thirty-years later in Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., the Supreme Court affirmed Federal Baseball on different grounds. The Court recognized that the Commerce Clause reasoning no longer applied, but observed that despite the Federal Baseball governing law that the federal antitrust laws don’t apply to baseball, Congress hasn’t legislated to the contrary. So it left the baseball exemption.

Finally, in 1972, the Supreme Court decided the Classic Antitrust Case of Curt Flood v. Kuhn, which is the famous baseball exemption case. The Court specifically addressed baseball’s reserve clause, which essentially prohibited free agency. When a player’s contract ended, the team still retained the player’s rights. Once again, the Supreme Court upheld the baseball exemption based upon Congress’ inaction.

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Golden Gate Bridge CaliforniaIn an earlier blog post, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. I’ve also written about these agreements here. As you might recall, in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet), the US Supreme Court reversed a nearly 100-year-old precedent and held that resale-price maintenance agreements are no longer per se illegal. They are instead subject to the rule of reason.

But what many people don’t realize is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. A few years ago, I co-authored an article with Jeffrey Shohet about this topic. In many instances, state antitrust law directly follows federal antitrust law, so state antitrust law doesn’t come into play. (Of course, it will matter for indirect purchaser class actions, but that’s an entirely different topic).

For many states, however, the local antitrust law deviates from federal law—sometimes in important ways. If you are doing business in such a state—and many companies do business nationally, of course—you must understand the content of state antitrust law. Two examples of states with unique antitrust laws and precedent are California, with its Cartwright Act, and New York, with its Donnelly Act.

California and the Cartwright Act

This blog post is about California and the Cartwright Act. Although my practice, particularly my antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin to remove resale-price maintenance from the limited category of per se antitrust violations was quite controversial and created some backlash. There were attempts in Congress to overturn the ruling and many states have reaffirmed that the agreements are still per se illegal under their state antitrust laws, even though federal antitrust law shifted course.

The Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007. It is 2015, of course. So you’d think by now we would have a good idea whether each state would follow or depart from Leegin with regard to whether to treat resale-price maintenance agreements as per se antitrust violations.

But that is not the case in California, under the Cartwright Act. Indeed, it is an open question.

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Happy New YearSometimes parties will enter a contract whereby one agrees to buy (or supply) all of its needs (or product) to the other. For example, maybe a supplier and retailer agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in the retailer’s stores? This usually isn’t free as the supplier will offer something—better services, better prices, etc.—to obtain the exclusivity.

If you compete with the party that receives the benefit of the exclusive deal, this sort of contract can seem quite aggravating. After all, you have a great product, you offer a competitive price, and you know that your service is better. Then why is the retailer only buying from your competitor? Shouldn’t you deserve at least a chance? Isn’t that what the antitrust laws are for?

Maybe. But most exclusive-dealing agreements are both pro-competitive and legal under the antitrust laws. That doesn’t mean that you can’t bring an antitrust action and it doesn’t mean you won’t win. But, percentage-wise, most exclusive-dealing arrangements don’t implicate the antitrust laws.

It is important that I deflate your expectations a little bit at the beginning like this because if you are on the outside looking in at an exclusive dealing agreement, you are probably quite angry and feel helpless. From your perspective, it will certainly seem like an antitrust violation. And your gut feeling about certain conduct is a good first filter about whether you have an antitrust claim. What I am trying to tell you is that with regard to exclusive dealing, your gut may give you some false positives.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

It occurs when a seller agrees to sell all or most of its output of a product or service exclusively to a particular buyer. It can also occur in the reverse situation: when a buyer agrees to purchase all or most of its requirements from a particular seller. Importantly, although the term used in the doctrine is “exclusive” dealing, the agreement need not be literally exclusive. Courts will often apply exclusive dealing to partial or de facto exclusive dealing agreements, where the contract involves a substantial portion of the other party’s output or requirements.

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jarod_bonaOne year ago, I wrote my first blog post for The Antitrust Attorney Blog. Time flies. A lot has changed since then. When I started this blog, I was with DLA Piper. Now I am with a firm called Bona Law PC. DLA Piper is much bigger, of course. But Bona Law is a much more pleasant place to work. And it has a better name.

So, you might ask whether I have any observations about a year of blogging? Or whether I have learned anything during this time? As a Minnesotan might say, you betcha.

  • I like blogging. I’ve always enjoyed writing, as you can probably tell from my publications. But what is great about having your own blog is that you can write about whatever you’d like. I can say what I want when I want. I can write long articles or short articles. It is entirely up to me, not some list of editorial standards. My preferred writing style is not formal (or stuffy, as I like to describe formal writing). Luckily, the editorial board at The Antitrust Attorney Blog doesn’t care. One other observation is that I have written less for other publications. That wasn’t purposeful, but when I get an idea, I typically write it here rather than for someone else. I will probably continue to write law-review type articles for other publications, but most of my shorter stuff will end up here.
  • Blogging while employed by a giant law firm is different than blogging when you have your own firm. I published often when I was with DLA Piper, so I had a good sense of what I could and couldn’t write about when I started this blog. But when you work for a firm that has a trillion employees and represents just about everyone, you have to be very careful that (1) you don’t write about a client; and (2) you don’t take a position that will prejudice a client. The former is easier than the latter. You just stay away from specific cases. With regard to taking positions, I typically wrote about issues where I knew we had already taken a position in a case or where I knew we would be unlikely to take the counter position (i.e. favoring a class-action plaintiff). That is not to say that big-firm employment biases one’s articles. But you have to select your topics wisely.
  • When I started my own firm, I was told by many that I probably wouldn’t be able to do antitrust work anymore. Well, thanks to this blog, I receive many calls about antitrust cases and matters. If you go to Google and type in “antitrust attorney,” you will see this blog in the first couple positions. That has been fortunate for my practice.
  • Many people search for “loyalty discounts” and “resale price maintenance.” I’ve noticed through Google Analytics that many people research these terms. I suppose I should write more articles on those issues because people seem to have questions about them. It isn’t a big surprise because antitrust law relating to both loyalty discounts and resale price maintenance is somewhat confused and conflicting.
  • Over time, I’ve learned that many readers are not antitrust experts, so I should make sure to explain complicated and jargon-filled antitrust concepts in ways that non-antitrust lawyers can understand. That isn’t always easy to do when you are deep into a profession of any sort. So it is a constant challenge. I’ve developed a compromise where I will write some articles at a more advanced antitrust level and others at a level that I think is easier to understand if you don’t spend hours each day obsessing over antitrust and competition law.
  • I still need to add a blogroll of antitrust and other legal blogs. I’ve been meaning to do that for months. So if you have an antitrust blog, my bad. I’ll get it up here at some point. Speaking of other antitrust blogs, I do read them (and other legal blogs, including the legal academic blogs). I should interact with their content more than I do. That is an area where I can improve.
  • Once a week is about the right schedule for my blogging. With actual work and other responsibilities, it is difficult to do more than one quality post each week. Fortunately, over the last year I have learned to write faster. That helps. I have also learned that I write best in the evening.

Before this post deteriorates to the point where I am telling you my favorite foods, I better end it here. But thank you for reading.

I am very appreciative of every person that stops by to read my ramblings. If you want to receive these posts by email, you can subscribe by putting your email address in the box on the right.

real estate agent antitrustI’ve often written about real estate on this blog. There are two reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is because my wife and I invest in real estate and thus talk about real estate, so it is on my mind. In fact, I am currently scheduled to take the exam for my California real-estate license. Bona Law PC also offers real-estate litigation services.

The second reason is that real-estate creates many unique competition issues. Real-estate agents often engage in cut-throat competition with each other, sometimes even within the same brokerage firm. Yet, the nature of their job requires them to work together for almost every transaction.

In addition, the markets to sell real-estate are primarily local, even though national brokerage firms may dominate each individual geographic area. Within each locality, there are often a handful of large brokerage firms.

Finally, the market for real-estate services and commissions suggests some supra-competitive pricing in that most firms in a certain area will charge approximately the same commission. And the splits between the buying and selling agents are often equal as well. In the Minneapolis, Minnesota area for example, at least as of a few years ago, selling agents would often receive 3.3% and buying agents 2.7% of the purchase price. In my current market, a small village in North San Diego County, the buying and selling agents typically split the 5% commission.

Suspiciously, while technology and other competition has reduced relative prices for many professionals, commission percentages have held relatively steady for real-estate agents, despite the fact that buyers and sellers (especially buyers) can do much of their own homework online. How many of you have purchased a house without spending a lot of time online yourself looking at listings?

So does that mean that real-estate brokerage firms and agents are violating the antitrust laws all over the country? Should we coordinate a dramatic—made for the movies—event whereby federal agents knock down the doors of real-estate firms all over the country one morning, handcuffing and booking the agents that would do anything to get you in their car to show you some houses?

Probably not yet.

In November of this year, the Sixth Circuit decided a case called Hyland v. Homeservices of America, Inc. that nicely illustrates the line between antitrust violation and what is often called conscious parallelism or oligopolistic price coordination.

In Hyland, a class of people who sold residential real estate in Kentucky and used certain real-estate agents sued several real-estate brokerages as a class action under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants participated in a horizontal conspiracy to fix the commissions charged in Kentucky real-estate transactions at an anticompetitive rate.

Like agents in many localities, defendants each charged a typical or standard commission rate of 6%, and mostly resist any attempts to negotiate a lower rate. The buying agent’s commission is typically 3%. These numbers may look familiar to you if you bought or sold real estate recently, as real-estate services for most residential real-estate markets are similarly priced.

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The Antitrust Paradox by Robert Bork

When you are an antitrust lawyer, an exciting day each quarter is the arrival of a fresh issue of the Antitrust Law Journal. I’ve previewed these issues in the past, here and here. Once again, the Antitrust Law Journal has arrived and it looks like a great one.

This issue includes an extensive symposium entitled “Robert Bork and Antitrust Policy.” A superstar collection of authors—including Herbert Hovenkamp, Richard Epstein, William E. Kovacic, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and many others—discuss Bork’s contribution to antitrust law. And my fellow summer associate from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher (from more than a few years ago), Adam J. Di Vincenzo, wrote the Editor’s Note.

Outside of the antitrust world, Robert Bork is known primarily for his Senate confirmation hearings after his Supreme Court nomination. For those of you that weren’t paying attention during the 1980s, Bork arrived at the Senate hearings as an exceptionally well-qualified nominee by President Ronald Reagan to the US Supreme Court. But for ideological reasons, they rejected him, beginning the phrase and culture of “Borking” a judicial nominee that, although qualified, may not satisfy political litmus tests. Since that time, of course, judicial nominations have, unfortunately, devolved into ideological warfare.

If you were around during the 1970s, you might also remember that Robert Bork was the acting head of the Department of Justice that fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Saturday Night Massacre, arising out of Watergate near end of the Nixon Administration.

But—whatever you think of Robert Bork politically—he is a candidate for the antitrust-law Mount Rushmore. His most famous antitrust contribution is a book called “The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself.” As you can tell from the title, it was written during a time of flux and uncertainty in antitrust (1978).

You can read the outstanding articles in the Antitrust Law Journal for more detail, but in a nutshell, Bork’s major contribution with this book was to help set the goals of antitrust law toward consumer welfare. This more narrow approach contrasted with common temptations to use antitrust law as social policy to, for example, protect certain businesses from large companies. Or to use antitrust law as a means to attack “bigness” for other reasons.

Bork was highly influential in persuading antitrust participants that antitrust is really only concerned with activity that harms competition, which is the premise of the antitrust injury requirement. There is, of course, great debate over what, exactly, is consumer welfare and even whether total welfare is a better goal. And his emphasis on using economics to develop antitrust doctrine is mainstream, but there is plenty of room for debate within that framework.

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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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