European-Union-Online-RPM-300x225
Author: Luis Blanquez

On July 24, 2018, the European Commission fined manufacturers Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer for over €111 million for restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own retail prices for a variety of widely-used consumer electronics products.

Background

Tying Agreement (Rope)

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in some instances, “tying” violate the antitrust laws. 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, (even resale price maintenance agreements under federal law) 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.

Continue reading →

Colgate Doctrine

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney with an antitrust blog, my phone rings with a varied assortment of antitrust-related questions. One of the most common topics involves resale-price maintenance. “Resale price maintenance” is also one of the most common search terms for this blog.

That is, people want to know when it is okay for suppliers or manufacturers to dictate or participate in price-setting by downstream retailers or distributors.

I think that resale-price maintenance creates so many inquiries for two reasons: First, it is something that a comparatively large number of companies need to consider, whether they are customers, suppliers, or retailers. Second, the law is confusing, muddled, and sometimes contradictory (especially between and among state and federal antitrust laws).

If you want background on resale-price maintenance, you can review my blog post on Leegin and federal antitrust law here, and you can read my post about resale-price maintenance under state antitrust laws here.

Here, we will discuss alternatives to resale-price maintenance agreements that may achieve similar objectives for manufacturers or suppliers.

The first and most common alternative utilizes what is called the Colgate doctrine.

The Colgate doctrine arises out of a 1919 Supreme Court decision that held that the Sherman Act does not prevent a manufacturer from announcing in advance the prices at which its goods may be resold and then refusing to deal with distributors and retailers that do not respect those prices.

Businesses—with the minor exception of the refusal-to-deal doctrine—have no general antitrust-law obligation to do business with any particular company and can thus unilaterally terminate distributors without antitrust consequences (in most instances; please consult an antitrust attorney).

Both federal and state antitrust law focuses on the agreement aspect of resale-price maintenance agreements. So if a company unilaterally announces minimum prices at which resellers must sell its products or face termination, the company is not, strictly speaking, entering an agreement.

Update: You can now read this article translated to French at Le Concurrentialiste.

Continue reading →

Law Books

Author: Jarod Bona

So let’s say that you are general counsel of a company suing a larger competitor for Monopolization and Attempted Monopolization under Sherman Act, Section 2 based upon that competitor’s exclusive-dealing agreements. You have a great case; that much was made clear in your summary judgment briefing and the attached economist reports.

But you turn on your computer, hear the “You’ve Got Mail,” voice, and see a short email from your antitrust attorney. Attached is the trial-court opinion granting summary judgment against you. Oh no! Then the phone rings, you answer, and your lawyer methodically explains exactly how the judge got it wrong.

You are heart-broken. You really thought you’d get through this stage, and were already thinking about the trial. You are going to appeal. That is an easy decision. There is so much at stake, and it really does look like the trial court made some mistakes.

Here are three reasons why you should hire an appellate attorney, or at least add one to the team:

Continue reading →

Resale Price Maintenance

Author: Jarod Bona

Some antitrust questions are easy: Is naked 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.

You can read my blog post about the Colgate exception here: The Colgate Doctrine and Other Alternatives to Resale-Price-Maintenance Agreements.

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.

Continue reading →

FTC-Appraisal-Case-Fifth-Circuit-Stay-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed on July 17, 2018 to stay the FTC’s Action against the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board.

The Fifth Circuit’s one-line decision rejects the FTC’s opposition to the Board’s requested stay and allows immediate appellate review of the FTC’s significant state-action-immunity rejection.

You might recall that we wrote about the FTC’s state-action-immunity decision the day it occurred, concluding that then Commissioner Ohlhuasen’s opinion was well-reasoned and thorough.

You can review the documents in the FTC administrative action against the appraisal board here.

This FTC administrative action arises out of allegations that a Louisiana board of appraisers required appraisal management companies to pay appraisers what it described as a “customary and reasonable” fee for real estate appraisal services. The FTC argues that this is illegal price-fixing, which, of course, violates Section 5 of the FTC Act.

What is particularly interesting about this case is that it addresses one of the most significant applications of the active supervision prong of the state-action-immunity doctrine since the US Supreme Court decided NC Dental.

You might recall that, in most cases, entities that want to claim state-action immunity must satisfy both prongs of the Midcal test: (1) the challenged restraint must be clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy; and (2) the policy must be actively supervised by the state itself.

You can read our analysis of active supervision and related FTC guidance on the requirement here.

As we described in our prior article, Commissioner Ohlhausen effectively addressed important factual and legal issues that make up the active-supervision standard, offering useful guidance to boards and those that challenge them under the antitrust laws.

For example, the FTC applied three elements that it held—in this case—form part of active supervision: (1) the development of an adequate factual record; (2) a written decision on the merits; and (3) a specific assessment of how the private action compares with the substantive standard from the legislature.

While the Fifth Circuit’s stay decision is not good news for the FTC’s current action, it may be good news for state boards and others that want guidance on the active-supervision requirements of state-action immunity.

The Supreme Court’s NC Dental decision offered some parameters of what doesn’t constitute active supervision, mostly from prior cases. But at this point, the law is light on the specifics. A federal appellate decision that fully engages on these issues will help state boards, victims of state boards, district courts, and, in fact, the Federal Trade Commission.

Besides the substantive active supervision issue, this case presents the drama of the Louisiana governor trying to get around the state-supervision deficiencies through executive order in response to the FTC’s initial antitrust complaint. The board argued that the executive order made the FTC’s case moot. The FTC, of course, rejected that argument.

Continue reading →

by

Weaponized-First-Amendment-300x254

Author: Robert Everett Johnson, The Institute for Justice

Robert Everett Johnson litigates cases protecting private property, economic liberty, and freedom of speech. He is also a nationally-recognized expert on civil forfeiture. Bona Law has a strong relationship with The Institute for Justice, going back to Jarod Bona’s clerkship with the group after his first year of law school. We highly recommend that you check out the wonderful work they do for freedom and liberty.

You may have heard: The First Amendment has been weaponized.

Justice Kagan said so in Janus v. State, County and Municipal Employees, where her dissent accused the majority of “weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.” Justice Breyer agreed, dissenting in NIFLA v. Becerra and complaining that (contrary to the majority opinion) “professionals” should not “have a right to use the Constitution as a weapon.” And the New York Times took up the cry, publishing a front-page Sunday article titled “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment.”

All of this sounds frightening, but the truth is more reassuring. Courts are doing what they are supposed to do: As the amount of economic regulation has increased, it has inevitably restricted freedom of speech, and now courts are restoring the balance. Lawyers should embrace this newly vibrant First Amendment, and should ask themselves how it can serve the interests of their clients.

Rights Are—And Should Be—Weapons

The truth is, the First Amendment has always been a weapon. After all, that’s exactly what constitutional rights are—weapons to be used against the government. When critics say the First Amendment has been “weaponized,” all they really mean is it is being enforced.

The First Amendment has been used, time and time again, as a weapon to resist government power. When the NAACP invoked the First Amendment to protect their right to solicit clients for civil rights litigation, they used the First Amendment as a weapon. When unions invoked the First Amendment to protect the right to picket their employers, they used the First Amendment as a weapon. And when students invoked the First Amendment to protect their right to protest the Vietnam War, they also used the First Amendment as a weapon.

What is the alternative to a “weaponized” First Amendment? We could retire the First Amendment from active service and hang it on the wall like a soldier’s antique gun. We could continue to protect speech with little real-world impact—protests at funerals and animal crush videos come to mind—while exempting speech that threatens the status quo. That kind of neutered First Amendment would be a shiny object to admire, but it would not secure freedom of speech in any meaningful sense. Fortunately, the First Amendment is more than a shiny object on the wall.

Economically-Motivated Speech Is Still Speech

While the First Amendment has always been a weapon, something has changed in recent years. When people say the First Amendment has been “weaponized,” they really mean it has been applied to uphold free speech rights in the context of economic regulation. But that is as it should be: Speech does not become any less valuable because it is associated with economic activity.

There is no question that the Supreme Court is increasingly willing to uphold First Amendment claims that arise in the economic context. This Term, Janus upheld the right of employees not to contribute money to a public union, and NIFLA rejected the argument that speech receives less protection because it is uttered by a “professional.” Other recent cases have applied the First Amendment to regulations of credit card pricing schemes, as well as restrictions on the sale of drug prescription information. There is no reason to think any of that will change with the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, as he has previously applied the First Amendment to regulations of internet service providers.

This is a good thing. As Justice Kennedy put it, writing in 1993 in Edenfield v. Fane: “The commercial marketplace, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish.” Indeed, speech in the commercial marketplace often touches on some of the most important facets of human life: Doctors speak to patients about matters of life and death; financial professionals speak to clients about their financial security; and even your local grocer can convey information critical to your health. The importance of these subjects only makes the free flow of information all the more vital to a free society.

Continue reading →

Vitamin-C-antitrust-class-action-supreme-court-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

In an antitrust case deciding a non-antitrust-specific issue, the US Supreme Court held in Animal Science Products, Inc. v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. (the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation) that to determine foreign law in federal courts, judges are not strictly bound by that foreign government’s statements.

The judge should “accord respectful consideration to a foreign government’s submission,” but it is his or her call in making the ultimate decision.

The Supreme Court in this case is interpreting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1, which states that when deciding foreign law—sometimes that is necessary in federal court—a judge may “consider any relevant material or source . . . whether or not submitted by a party.”

This decision arose out of the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation, which is an antitrust class-action lawsuit against four Chinese corporations that manufacturer and export, you guessed it, Vitamin C. Purchasers of the vitamin sued Chinese vitamin C sellers, alleging that they agreed to fix the price and quantity of Vitamin C exported to the United States from China. Price fixing, of course, is a per se antitrust violation.

(Read here if you want to learn more about defending an antitrust class action case.)

The Chinese vitamin C sellers argued that they are shielded from US antitrust law liability by the act-of-state doctrine.

But what is the act-of-state doctrine?

Good question.

US courts under the act-of-state doctrine should not judge the validity of an official act of a foreign government committed within that foreign government’s borders. This is a doctrine that extends beyond antitrust law.

In Animal Science Products, the defendants argued that China law required them to fix prices as part of a “regulatory pricing regime.”

The parties, however, disputed whether China law actually mandated the fixed prices. To help resolve that question, the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the Chinese vitamin C sellers’ argument that China law required defendants to fix prices.

(You can read our article here on the many reasons to file amicus briefs).

So the trial court had to figure out whether China law mandated price fixing. And to assist it, China’s Ministry of Commerce weighed in via amicus brief.

What would you do?

Would you just agree with whatever China says about its own law? Or would you do an independent examination and decide?

Continue reading →

Antitrust-and-Competition-Enforcement-300x225

Author: Luis Blanquez

Makan Delrahim, Antitrust Chief for the United States Department of Justice, made news on June 1, 2018, when he announced that the United States will finalize and join the Multilateral Framework on Procedures in Competition Law Investigation and Enforcement.

Delrahim explained why due process is a priority for antitrust and competition enforcement: “With more than 140 competition agencies, and increased international commerce, including digital commerce, it is more and more critical that we share a common set of principles that affords due process to individuals and businesses in investigation and enforcement.” (p.2).

We applaud this effort and agree that companies—including those that do business on several continents and governed by multiple enforcers—should receive fair treatment worldwide by competition authorities.

In his speech, Delrahim mentioned the International Competition Network (ICN), among other groups, as likely substantive sources for the multilateral framework.

It just so happens that the ICN recently addressed this issue at its 17th annual conference, hosted by the Competition Commission of India on March 21-23, 2018. Indeed, the ICN adopted new guiding principles for procedural fairness in competition agency enforcement.

For those that are not familiar with it, the ICN is a network of 104 competition agencies, enriched by the participation of non-governmental advisors (representatives from business, consumer groups, academics, and the legal and economic professions), with the common aim of addressing practical antitrust enforcement and policy issues. The ICN promotes more efficient and effective antitrust enforcement worldwide to the benefit of consumers and businesses.

Because antitrust and competition agencies are now prioritizing due process, we will do a deep dive into the specific due process issues that the ICN described in its report.

One of the ICN’s several working groups is the Agency Effectiveness Working Group (AEWG).  The AEWG aims to identify key elements of well-functioning competition agencies, including good practices for strategy, planning, operations, enforcement and procedures. To that end, the AEWG recently developed an ICN Guidance on Investigative Process paper, which offers helpful tips on investigative transparency and due process. This paper follows previous reports on Investigative Tools, Competition Agency Transparency Practices, and Competition Agency Confidentiality Practices.

Following these guidance reports, the AEWG has now produced new Guiding Principles for Procedural Fairness, together with some recommendations for internal agency practices and implementation tips for good agency enforcement process.

You can access the ICN report here.

Following the two-day conference in India, the AEWG adopted the following Guiding Principles for procedural fairness in competition agency enforcement:

Impartial Enforcement

Competition agencies should conduct enforcement matters in a consistent, impartial manner, free of political interference. Agency officials should not have relational or financial conflicts in the matters on which they work. Agencies should not discriminate on the basis of nationality in their enforcement.

The AEWG highlights that agency officials should not have relational or financial conflicts of interest relevant to the investigations and proceedings they participate in or oversee. To ensure the impartiality of investigations and decision making, agencies should have ethics rules to prevent potential conflicts. And they should consider a systematic process to check for potential conflicts for all personnel working on a specific investigation.

Continue reading →

 

FTC-Enforcement-Repeat-Offenders-300x242

Author: Jarod Bona

As you may have heard, the Senate recently approved a new slate of FTC Commissioners. Among them is new Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who is a former assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and former advisor to the Secretary of Education.

Commissioner Chopra was sworn in on May 2, 2018 and quickly announced one of his early priorities: On May 14, 2018, he issued a public memorandum to the other FTC Commissioners and the FTC Staff describing how he believes the FTC should handle repeat offenders of FTC violations.

Let’s dig into this a little bit.

Commissioner Chopra describes the problem of corporate recidivism as generally resulting from significant management dysfunction, which requires “serious remedies that address the underlying issues.”

After describing several non-antitrust examples of this corporate recidivism, particularly involving large financial institutions, Commissioner Chopra points out, bluntly, that “FTC orders are not suggestions.” He says that—“to deter violations and maintain [the FTC’s] credibility as law enforcers”—the FTC “should carefully consider ways to build on its existing enforcement regime to make clear to market participants that our orders are to be taken seriously.”

For flagrant violators of district court orders, he believes that the agency should consider “contempt proceedings, referral to criminal authorities, and remedial injunctive relief.” Companies that violate FTC administrative orders should face additional injunctive relief and meaningful civil penalties.

Notably, Commissioner Chopra expresses a desire to go after individual executives that participate in FTC order violations, even if those individuals weren’t named in the original orders. So if a company is subject to an FTC order and violates that order, Commissioner Chopra would like to target the people that created the violation.

Structural Remedies Following Order Violations and an Important Caution

Finally, in what I believe is the most newsworthy part of this memorandum, Commissioner Chopra describes the structural remedies that he believes the FTC should explore for FTC-order violators.

His purpose in proposing these remedies is to address “the true causes of noncompliance.” Commissioner Chopra believes that certain companies may “engage in risky business practices to demonstrate to investors and capital markets that they are meeting or surpassing expectations for earnings and growth.” He also believes that “executive compensation practices might inadvertently create incentives for practices that might harm consumers or competition.”

We are, of course, treading on dangerous territory here. Businesses necessarily take risk—that is a feature not a bug. What are “risky business practices”? That is for the market—in its brutal truth and honesty—to reveal. It isn’t up to a government official or entity, without Skin in the Game, to make these determinations.

That isn’t to say that the FTC shouldn’t enforce antitrust, competition, and consumer protection laws. Nor is it to say that the FTC shouldn’t raise the penalties for repeat offenders. But protection of competition moves silently and dangerously to market distortion and harm when it decides that it is smarter than the market itself.

Those that enforce the antitrust laws with government power must do so humbly for the line between removing the barriers to competition and, frankly, screwing-up competition is a fine one that we rarely see clearly. It is best that those with power stay firmly on one side, so they don’t cross this line.

With those cautions, here are the structural remedies that Commissioner Chopra proposes the FTC consider invoking in response to order violations:

Continue reading →