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If you are the antitrust lawyer for a defendant in a class action, defeating class certification is a major victory—usually a complete victory, pending appeal.

You can read a more complete description of the requirements for class certification in our article on the class action antitrust case of Comcast v. Behrend.

But before we talk about the North District of California’s class certification decision in In re Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation, we will hit the highlights of the most common dispute in these type of cases.

It is also important that you know that, as of the date of this blog post, Bona Law represents a defendant in the In re Capacitors Antitrust Litigation, which also will involve a class certification motion from plaintiffs and similar issues. So please evaluate anything I write with that in mind.

In fact, even though we will represent businesses as either plaintiffs or defendants in competitor antitrust litigation, Bona Law will not—except in rare or unusual circumstances—represent a class action of plaintiffs in an antitrust action (at least as of now). We will, however, represent defendants in antitrust class-action cases, as I have many times over my career.

To learn more about how Bona Law handles the defense of complex antitrust class actions, including MDL cases, read here.

So, the bottom line, is that I come to these issues from the perspective of an antitrust attorney representing defendants in class action litigation. It is a good practice when reading anything to always understand the perspective of the writer, to understand biases, blind spots, or how their experiences can cloud their explanations. I do my best at The Antitrust Attorney Blog to provide useful information rather than propaganda or corporate double-speak, but I am human with all of the weaknesses and limitations that come with that.

If you want to read about how alleged anticompetitive conduct morphs into a significant antitrust class action, check out our prior blog post.

Common Class Certification Issues

Every case is different, of course, but here is what usually matters most at the class-certification stage of antitrust class-action litigation:

Plaintiffs will collect a lot of transactional data and other discovery from defendants. They will pass that on to their expert economists, who will submit a report that plaintiffs need to satisfy the elements of class certification—which is their burden. Defendants, of course, have their own expert who will attack plaintiffs’ experts and often present their own economic theories.

The primary issue in dispute is usually whether common issues predominate over individual issues—from Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3). And the most likely disputed issue that may be either common or individual is the impact or damages from the alleged anticompetitive conduct.

The Court is not tasked with determining the merits—including whether there was, in fact, an antitrust conspiracy—so the parties will often at this stage fight over whether if there were a conspiracy, the plaintiffs’ experts can establish a reliable methodology to show that there is a common impact to the many class members. Of course, issues of merits are usually entangled within the class-certification questions.

Another issue that is increasingly important in antitrust class actions is typicality—whether the named or representative class members are “typical” of the unrepresented members of the class.

This battle usually happens on two fronts during class certification: (1) motions to strike the plaintiffs’ expert economists’ testimony for lack of reliability or something similar; and (2) whether plaintiffs can satisfy the elements for class certification.

That, in fact, was where the parties fought in the papers for class certification of the Lithium Ion case.

Class Certification Decision for In re Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation

The Lithium Ion Batteries case involves allegations by named class members of a multi-year, international price-fixing conspiracy among Japanese and Korean manufacturers (and their American subsidiaries) of lithium ion battery cells.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Luis Blanquez is an antitrust attorney at Bona Law with fifteen years of competition experience in different jurisdictions within the European Union such as Spain, France, Belgium and the UK. He lives in San Diego and is in the process of becoming a member of the California bar. He will be one of the very few attorneys in the world with significant actual experience in both US and EU competition law.

You can read our article about the elements for monopolization under U.S. antitrust law here. We also wrote about monopolization on the Bona Law website.

Article 102 TFUE

In the European Union, the Directorate General for Competition of the European Commission (“the Commission”) together with the national competition authorities, directly enforces EU competition rules, Articles 101-109 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

Article 102 TFEU prohibits abusive conduct by companies that have a dominant position in a particular market.

Here is the language:

Any abuse by one or more undertakings of a dominant position within the internal market or in a substantial part of it shall be prohibited as incompatible with the internal market in so far as it may affect trade between Member States. Such abuse may, in particular, consist in: (a) directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions; (b) limiting production, markets or technical development to the prejudice of  consumers; (c) applying  dissimilar  conditions  to  equivalent  transactions  with  other  trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage; (d) making the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by the other parties of supplementary obligations which, by their nature or according to  commercial usage, have no connection with the subject of such contracts.

First, article 102 TFEU applies to “undertakings,” which is defined by EU case law as including every entity engaged in an economic activity, regardless of the legal status of the entity and the way in which it is financed. (C-41/90 Höfner and Elsner v Macrotron [1991] ECR I-1979).

Natural persons, legal persons, and even states are included in the interpretation of undertakings. (So, as in the United States, governments in Europe might violate the competition laws).

Second, to qualify as an undertaking, the entity must be also engaged in an economic activity, i.e. offering goods and/or services within a relevant market.

Third, to fit within Article 102 TFUE’s prohibition, the conduct must have a minimum level of cross-border effect between member states within the EU.

The concept of dominance under EU antitrust rules

As explained above, article 102 TFEU prohibits abusive conduct by companies that have a dominant position in a particular market.

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I have written many briefs over the years, since graduating from Harvard Law School in 2001. I have also read many briefs, both practicing law and clerking for Judge James B. Loken on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (in Minneapolis).

The quality and style of the legal briefs I have seen vary dramatically. And—not surprisingly—the approaches to writing them probably varied even more.

Judge Loken stressed to us law clerks that his job as an appellate judge is that of a professional writer. He communicates his opinions in writing and a clear articulation of that writing is necessary so attorneys, parties, and judges understand the decision that was made and its reasoning. A law clerk might submit a draft opinion that is 10-pages long and receive a revision that is only 3-pages long, but miraculously says everything that needs to be said in a clear, straightforward manner.

From that experience, I learned that every additional word has a cost and that writing sparely is more valuable than writing densely. I’ve also learned that writing less is harder than writing more. (Yes, I know this is an excessively long blog post)

Following my clerkship, I began my legal career as an appellate attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, DC. I was fortunate to have my writing edited—heavily at times—by some incredible appellate attorneys and great writers. This period also informed my approach to brief-writing, as that was what that team did best.

Over the years, I became an antitrust attorney as much, if not more, than an appellate attorney. But both antitrust law and appellate litigation have been my primary practice areas from the beginning and remain so today.

Both antitrust and appellate require attorneys to prepare significant briefing on often complicated and unresolved issues. That is, in fact, probably why I gravitated to both of them.

This is an antitrust blog, but sometimes I write about writing and appeals.

  1. Three Reasons to Hire an Appellate Attorney.
  2. What is Great Legal Writing?
  3. Three Components of Every Effective Appellate Argument.
  4. Why You Should Consider Filing an Amicus Brief in an Appellate Case.

Today I am going to explain how I create a significant antitrust or appellate brief, from scratch. Of course, I rarely do that anymore because it isn’t efficient at my billing rate for clients to pay for me to prepare the papers from the beginning. Fortunately, our team is great at writing and puts together outstanding initial drafts.

At Bona Law, we strongly emphasize writing. As you may have seen, we are interested in adding team members, from junior to senior attorney levels. Strong writing skills are essential.

Everyone has a different approach. My way certainly isn’t the only way and it probably isn’t the best way. But it is one way and is my result of many years of brief-writing evolution.

For purposes of this example, let’s assume that we are preparing an Appellee brief in a federal appeal of an antitrust motion to dismiss in our favor (as defendants). On appeal in federal court, the losing party that appeals is the Appellant, and the responding party that won at the trial level is the Appellee.

Here is the procedural posture (and this is fictional): Plaintiffs filed an antitrust complaint against our client alleging an illegal exclusive dealing arrangement with some of our client’s retailers. We filed a motion to dismiss—perhaps pointing out that the agreements were of a short duration and amounted to no more than competing for the contract (a common argument). The federal district court judge, after allowing plaintiffs a couple opportunities to re-plead following dismissals without prejudice, finally dismissed the case with prejudice. Plaintiffs filed their Notice of Appeal and eventually their Appellant Brief.

Remember, I made that up, so don’t go looking for a case like that.

If I were the attorney assigned to write the initial draft Appellee brief for the appeal, here is what I would do:

The Reading Phase

The first step is that I would read the motion-to-dismiss briefing at the trial court level. If I was already involved in the case, I would, of course, be quite familiar with the briefing, but I’d still read it again.

I would print out a clean version on actual paper, take out a pen (black or blue) and a highlighter (yellow) and read each brief carefully. I would do my very best to look at the arguments from a fresh perspective and would think about each of them from the viewpoint of an appellate review, which in this case would be de novo (so it wouldn’t be different than the trial court’s standard of review, at least technically).

It is easy for your mind to lock into a certain perspective, which is one reason why it is sometimes good to bring in fresh attorneys on appeal.

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If, like me, you have ever spoken to someone that faces criminal indictment by a federal grand jury following a Justice Department antitrust investigation, you know why antitrust compliance counseling and training is a big deal—you don’t need reasons; hearing the crackle of the voice is enough to understand.

You might think that an antitrust investigation or lawsuit may not happen to you or your company. Perhaps you think that your company is too small or that since you don’t sit in smoke-filled rooms with many of your competitors laughing about your customers—or whatever image from books or movies is in your head, antitrust isn’t something you need to worry about.

You might be wrong. Are the chances great that you will be prosecuted or sued under the antitrust laws? Since you are reading a blog about antitrust, they are greater than average, but even still, the odds are relatively low.

But even if the likelihood of an adverse antitrust event is low, the consequences may be so extreme that it is something you should think about. You don’t anticipate that your house is going to burn down, but you—hopefully—take some precautions and probably have some sort of fire protection as part of your homeowner’s insurance.

With antitrust, a little knowledge can go a long way.

If you have an antitrust issue, it is not likely to be a small issue. Indeed, it may start with a government investigation, but could progress into dozens of antitrust class actions against your company.

As you might know, there is a cottage industry of plaintiff attorneys that read SEC filings and watch for government antitrust investigations. When they see something that raises the possibility of an antitrust violation, they pounce. Attorneys all over the country file lawsuits in their home jurisdictions against the target company—which could be your company if you aren’t careful. I go into more detail about this “antitrust blizzard” here.

Antitrust issues can arise for big and small companies and even individuals—like real-estate investors. If you don’t think your company is susceptible to antitrust liability or indictment, I’d like you to read one of my early blog posts that explains how easily a per se antitrust violation can happen.

The Federal Trade Commission even went after an association of music teachers for potentially violating the antitrust laws.

What is tough about antitrust is that the laws are not always intuitive; it isn’t like a law that says “don’t steal.” In fact, in one instance, the antitrust laws encourage you to try to steal.

Sometimes the law isn’t even altogether clear. Of course, you are unlikely to face criminal indictment over complicated questions of whether a bundle of products sold by a company with market power violates the antitrust laws. Or whether your vertical pricing arrangements went beyond Colgate policy protections. But you could face criminal antitrust penalties for allocating markets and customers and that isn’t obvious to all sales people.

The bottom line is that if you run or help to manage a company—and especially if your company has a sales team—you need some knowledge of the antitrust laws. At the very least, you should understand what to train your team members to avoid. Antitrust training can be invaluable.

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Do you or your competitor have a monopoly in a particular market? If so, your conduct or their conduct might enter the territory of the Sherman Act—Section 2—called monopolization.

If you are in Europe or other jurisdictions outside of the United States, instead of monopoly, people will refer to the company with extreme market power as “dominant.”

Of course, it isn’t illegal itself to be a monopolist or dominant (and monopoly is profitable). But if you utilize your monopoly power or obtain or enhance your market power improperly, you might run afoul of US, EU, or other antitrust and competition laws.

In the United States, Section 2 of the Sherman Act makes it illegal for anyone (person or entity) to “monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations.” But monopoly, by itself, is not illegal. Nor is it illegal for a monopolist to engage in competition on the merits.

As an aside, I have heard, informally, from companies that are considered “dominant” in Europe that the label of “dominant” effectively diminishes their ability to engage in typical competitive behavior because they are under such heavy scrutiny by EU Competition authorities.

If you are interested in learning more about abuse of dominance in the EU, read this article.

In the United States, monopolists have more flexibility, but they are still under significant pressure and could face lawsuits or government investigations at any time, even when they don’t intend to violate the antitrust laws. There is often a fine line between strong competition on the merits and exclusionary conduct by a monopolist.

Here are the elements of a claim for monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act:

  • The possession of monopoly power in the relevant market.
  • The willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.

The Possession of Monopoly Power in the Relevant Market

To determine whether an entity has monopoly power, courts and agencies usually first define the relevant market, then analyze whether the firm has “monopoly” power within that market.

But because the purpose of that analysis is to figure out whether certain conduct or an arrangement harms competition or has the potential to do so, evidence of the actual detrimental effects on competition might obviate the need for a full market analysis. If you want to learn more about this point, read FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (and subsequent case law and commentary). Now that I think about it, this should probably be a future blog post.

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Update: As you may have heard, the Senate confirmed Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read below for my thoughts on the confirmation process and Justice Gorsuch and antitrust.

We have entered a Supreme-Court-Justice-Nomination season. These are always interesting times for lawyers, politicians, and real people.

There are only nine Justices on the Supreme Court, so whenever there is an opening, it is a big deal. Appointments are for life, or until a Justice wants to leave, for whatever reason (or impeachment, but we haven’t had to worry about that lately). So the nomination seasons are whenever they are.

For lawyers, it is the rare time when the rest of the country cares about what they care about. Thus, news talk shows and articles are full of attorney quotes, ideas, and predictions about, first, who they think the nominee will be; and second, after the name is known, whether that person is qualified.

A Supreme Court Justice, as a job, is not an easy one. Sure, it comes with some perks like lifetime appointment, cool robes, and the right to interrupt attorneys whenever you want. But it is a lot of pressure because you are making decisions in a wide variety of legal subjects, covering constitutional, statutory, and even federal common law, each of which may create upheavals for huge groups of people.

As a Justice, you can’t afford the time to become and stay an expert in every area of law, but you (and your Justice colleagues) are making decisions that set the parameters for all legal fields, even over experts in those fields. Some may say that this is a feature not a bug. But, from the perspective of the individual Justice, it creates an enormous responsibility to think through everything you do. You can’t just take an opinion off.

Because of the impact and responsibility of a Supreme Court Justice, this isn’t a job for anyone. You have to love the law and want to contribute positively to it—in a way that might even seem a little obsessive.

So let’s talk about qualifications: At least since I’ve been following it, it is unusual to see a nominee for the US Supreme Court that isn’t qualified to work on the Court. That is, the qualifications of the men and women that Presidents of both parties have nominated over the last couple of decades have been impressive and adequate for the extremely high standards of the Court. That includes DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.

But, unfortunately, the word “qualifications” has become a word that every side, at one time or another, has lifted to mean “I think will do what I want on the rare controversial case that could likely go either way on the law,” or some other interest-focused meaning.

That is because most people, especially people on television, don’t like to just say, honestly, that they support or oppose a particular nominee for pure reasons of self or philosophical interest. Instead, they filter out their own biases by using the word “qualified” or “not-qualified,” or “extremist” or some other mismatched word. The reasons for this probably range from cognitive dissonance to political marketing.

President Donald Trump Nominates Judge Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court

Thanks for sticking around through that long-winded introduction. I added the context I wanted to add, so I can now speak (well, write) more transparently.

Judge Gorsuch is a federal appellate judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals from district courts in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). He has a BA from Columbia, graduated from Harvard Law in 1991 (exactly one decade before I did), and has a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Law from Oxford. He clerked on the DC Circuit with Judge David B. Sentelle, then clerked on the United States Supreme Court with both Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He later worked with the Department of Justice and for many years at a strong law firm.

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At Bona Law, nobody owns any ideas. If I come up with an argument for a brief, it isn’t the Jarod-Bona idea. If a client or a paralegal or a junior attorney or my six-year-old son tells me that the strategy that I have set on a complex antitrust case has a flaw, he or she is not criticizing my idea or strategy.

When someone owns an idea they have a stake in defending it, even if new or different ideas or new information makes the old idea not worth supporting. If you want to optimize strategy, arguments, or anything else when you represent a client, you can’t cling to ideas or theories that no longer represent the best thinking.

That is why at Bona Law, I strongly encourage and remind everyone to criticize current ideas and to present new ones. Each person has a unique life experience, perspective, and focus, so anyone on the team can improve any aspect of a case, from the grammar, formatting, or punctuation of a sentence, to the overall strategy of a series of complex antitrust actions. Each person is welcome to support or criticize any idea because none of us owns any of them.

That approach is also important because we all have blind spots such that someone else’s fresh perspective will see a large smudge that you might miss on a paper that you have been staring at all day. That is part of why I recommend that you hire a separate appellate attorney.

But changing your mind isn’t just about a fresh perspective to something you may have missed, though that is significant. Sometimes new information should cause you to rethink your initial idea, even if your convictions were firm. Even better, with time you should develop greater knowledge, wisdom, and insight. You should also be exposed to the perspectives of more people, whether through actual interaction, literature, podcasts, biographies, and everything else.

Anyone that clings to a past idea when new information and their own development makes that idea foolish is, in fact, a fool.

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Antitrust Pleading StandardsI won’t hide the ball; I’ll just tell you the answer: Federal district courts deciding motions to dismiss an antitrust case too often apply the summary-judgment standard to conspiracy allegations, particularly when confronted with non-parallel-conduct cases.

This isn’t scientific or empirical—it is my observation and is enough of an issue that more than one federal appellate court has complained about it over the last few years.

The motion to dismiss standard for antitrust conspiracies is, to be fair, somewhat confusing thanks to a case called Bell Atlantic v. Twombly. You can read my prior article about Twombly and pleading standards here.

Before the US Supreme Court decided Twombly in 2007, courts applied a very deferential standard to antitrust motions to dismiss, including conspiracy allegations.

Courts used to follow an old Supreme Court case called Conley v. Gibson (1957) (which you will find cited in many, maybe even most, motion-to-dismiss decisions preceding Twombly). Under Conley, a complaint satisfied specificity requirements if it stated facts that made it “conceivable” that plaintiff could prove its legal claims. A court could only dismiss a claim if it appeared that a plaintiff could prove—the famous phrase—“no set of facts” in support of his or her claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.

The Twombly Decision

I remember when I read the Supreme Court’s Twombly decision for the first time. Justice Souter wrote the majority opinion. At the time, I was with DLA Piper and represented a defendant in the In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation (Here is an article about the litigation from Bill Kolasky, who was one of the joint defense group leaders). The case was still with the trial court during one of the motion-to-dismiss briefing rounds. (Usually when a court dismisses an antitrust complaint for the first time, it will do so without prejudice and with leave to amend, which leads to another round of motion-to-dismiss briefing).

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Supreme Court amicus briefAs an attorney defending an antitrust class action, your job is to get your client out of the case as expeditiously and inexpensively as possible. There are several exit points.

For example, with a little help from the US Supreme Court’s Twombly decision, you might find your way out with a motion to dismiss, asserting (among other potential arguments) that plaintiffs fail to allege sufficient allegations that a conspiracy is plausible. This is usually the first battle.

Next, you could reach a settlement with class-action plaintiffs (and have it approved by the Court). This could happen at any point in the case. Oftentimes, case events that change expectations will prompt a settlement—i.e. a Department of Justice decision to drop an investigation or an indictment.

Third, you might prevail on summary judgment (or at least partial summary judgment). One means to winning on summary judgment is to disqualify plaintiff’s expert with a Daubert motion.

Fourth, you can win at trial.

Fifth, if you lose at trial, it is time to find a great appellate lawyer.

So far, these methods to get out of court look just like any other antitrust case (or commercial litigation matter). An attorney defending an antitrust class action, however, has extra way to get its client out of the case: Defeating Class Certification.

Defense attorneys are increasingly turning to class certification as a primary battle point to get their clients out of federal antitrust class actions.

An antitrust class action usually alleges some form conduct that is a per se antitrust violation in which the damages are a small amount for each class member. For example, an antitrust class action plaintiff might allege a price-fixing conspiracy among the major manufacturers in a particular industry. Plaintiffs may allege that the damage is just a few dollars or cents per plaintiff, but collectively the damages are in the millions or tens or hundreds of millions (or more).

Thus, if the Court denies plaintiffs’ motion to certify a class (barring appeal), each individual plaintiff must sue. And since each only has damages of a few dollars or less, litigation just doesn’t make sense. That, in fact, is the point of Federal Rule 23 and class actions generally—to allow relief when the aggregate harm is great but the individual harm is miniscule.

[See this article that I co-authored with Carl Hittinger on the private-attorney general purpose of class actions.]

A defendant that can defeat class certification effectively wins the case.

The US Supreme Court made this task easier for attorneys defending antitrust class actions in the 2013 classic antitrust case of Comcast Corporation v. Behrend, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Back in my DLA Piper days, I wrote about the Comcast case for the Daily Journal shortly after the Supreme Court published it.

This case involved a class action against Comcast that alleged that Comcast’s policy of “clustering” violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Clustering is a strategy of concentrating operations within a particular region. Plaintiffs alleged that Comcast would trade cable systems outside of their targeted region for competitor systems within their region. This would limit competition for both parties, by concentrating the market for each region with fewer cable providers.

But that wasn’t the issue the Supreme Court addressed. The Supreme Court in Comcast v. Behrend instead sought to determine whether the district court properly certified the class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3), which is known as the predominance requirement.

You can read our article about a California antitrust decision rejecting class certification here.

If you want to learn more about how Bona Law approaches the defense of antitrust class action cases, read here.

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Toys R Us Antitrust ConspiracyLike life, sometimes antitrust conspiracies are complicated. Not everything always fits into a neat little package. An articulate soundbite or an attractive infograph isn’t necessarily enough to explain the reality of what is going on.

The paradigm example of an antitrust conspiracy is the smoke-filled room of competitors with their evil laughs deciding what prices their customers are going to pay. This is a horizontal conspiracy and is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Another, less dramatic, part of the real estate of antitrust law involves manufacturers, distributors, and retailers and the prices they set and the deals they make. This usually relates to vertical agreements and typically invites the more-detailed rule-of-reason analysis by courts. One example of this type of an agreement is a resale-price-maintenance agreement.

But sometimes a conspiracy will include a mixture of parties at different levels of the distribution chain. In other words, the overall agreement or conspiracy may include both horizontal (competitor) relationships and vertical relationships. In some circumstances, everyone in the conspiracy—even those that are not conspiring with any competitors—could be liable for a per se antitrust violation.

As the Ninth Circuit recently explained in In re Musical Instruments and Equipment Antitrust Violation, “One conspiracy can involve both direct competitors and actors up and down the supply chain, and hence consist of both horizontal and vertical agreements.” (1192). One such hybrid form of conspiracy (there are others) is sometimes called a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy.

In a hub-and-spoke conspiracy, a hub (which is often a dominant retailer or purchaser) will have identical or similar agreements with several spokes, which are often manufacturers or suppliers. By itself, this is merely a series of vertical agreements, which would be subject to the rule of reason.

But when each of the manufacturers agree among each other to reach the challenged agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may descend into a single per se antitrust violation. To complete the hub-and-spoke analogy, the retailer is the hub, the manufacturers are the spokes and the agreement among the manufacturers is the wheel that forms around the spokes.

In many instances, the impetus of a hub-and-spoke antitrust conspiracy is a powerful retailer that wants to knock out other retail competition. In the internet age, you might see this with a strong brick-and-mortar retailer that wants to take a hit at e-commerce competitors (I receive many such calls about this scenario).

The powerful retailer knows that the several manufacturers need the volume the retailer can deliver, so it has some market power over these retailers. With market power—which translates to negotiating power—you can ask for stuff. Usually what you ask for is better pricing, terms, etc.

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