California-Law-300x225

Author: Jarod Bona

It depends. 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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Noerr-Pennington-Immunity-300x190

Author: Jarod Bona

You might wonder why industry trade associations can lobby the government without obvious antitrust sanction, even when—which is common—they seek regulations or actions that ultimately harm competition.

The answer is found in the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which we will discuss today.

What is the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?

The Noerr-Pennington immunity is a limited exemption from antitrust liability for certain actions by individuals or groups that are intending with that action to influence government decision-making, which can be legislative, executive, or judicial.

Importantly, for the Noerr-Pennington immunity to apply, the challenged action cannot be a sham that merely covers up an intent to interfere with a competitor’s ability to compete. The question of whether an action fits within the “sham” exception to Noerr-Pennington is often an area of intense dispute between the parties to litigation. You can learn more about the sham exception later in this article.

The purpose of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is to protect the fundamental right to petition the government, including filing litigation in the courts. It also seeks to support the flow of information to the government. If you’ve read the First Amendment to our Bill of Rights, you might be familiar with this petitioning the government thing.

You may wonder why the doctrine has such an odd name—Noerr-Pennington. Why didn’t they name it the “government-petitioning” immunity or the “you-can-sue-who-you-want-without-incurring-antitrust-liability” doctrine?

Did two people named Noerr and Pennington invent the doctrine?

No—the Noerr-Pennington immunity developed from two cases in the crazy 1960s: Eastern Railroad Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, 365 U.S. 127 (1961) and United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965—better known as the first year the Minnesota Twins made the World Series, losing to the Dodgers).

In Noerr Motor Freight (we’ll describe the case with the party name that made the doctrine title), a group of railroad companies conducted a joint publicity campaign targeting legislation that would make it harder for trucking companies to compete with them. Even though defendants’ conduct was anticompetitive in intent, the Court held that joint action for legislation was of sufficient importance to society that it should be exempt from antitrust liability.

In Pennington, a union and a group of large mining companies escaped antitrust liability for their group effort (i.e. conspiracy) to try to induce the Labor Department to set minimum wages at a level that would make it difficult for small mining companies to compete.

From these two cases, the doctrine took off and was expanded to other contexts, including court filings. Of course, there are limits and parties facing antitrust scrutiny can’t just point to some potential eventual political impact to their actions to capture Noerr-Pennington immunity.

Interestingly, the US Supreme Court  in Allied Tube and Conduit Corp v. Indian Head, Inc., 486 U.S. 492 (1988), rejected Noerr-Pennington immunity for anticompetitive conduct before a private standard-setting body, even though local governments typically enact the standards set by that standard-setting group. If you are interested in where the lines are to meet the government petitioning part of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, you should read Allied Tube.

What is the Sham Exception to the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?

As you might expect with any exception, parties that want to get away with antitrust liability try to fit their conduct within it. That is one reason why the Supreme Court makes it clear that exceptions, exemptions, and immunities to the antitrust laws should be construed narrowly. (Unfortunately, many courts below the Supreme Court have not yet figured that out with respect to state-action immunity, as they are still applying it more broadly than I believe the Supreme Court has ordered through its recent decisions).

Anyway, to avoid abuse of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, courts apply what is called a “sham exception.” This exception applies when the challenged conduct is intended to interfere with competition, rather than to legitimately influence official government conduct.

It isn’t always easy to understand when the “sham” exception applies, but one way to understand the difference is to compare the “process” of government petitioning from the “outcome” of government petitioning. When the anticompetitive conduct arises from the actual process—i.e. baseless litigation that bankrupts a competitor because of the legal fees—the sham exception applies. When the harm from the challenged conduct arises from the outcome of government petition—i.e. successfully convincing a government agency to pass a grossly anticompetitive regulation—the sham exception is less likely to apply.

One example of potentially “sham” petitioning activity outside of a litigation context is a situation in which a competitor will challenge its market adversary’s licensing application (of some sort) in an effort to delay it or otherwise interfere with its granting, outside of any issues with the merits.

Sometimes what you will see in the reality of a dispute is a combination of legitimate petitioning activity and other coercive anticompetitive conduct. In those instances, an antitrust defendant cannot use the activity protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine to shield the other unprotected anticompetitive conduct. Courts often have to distinguish between the two categories of conduct.

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State-and-Local-Government-Antitrust-Violations-300x205

Author: Jarod Bona

Lawyers, judges, economists, law professors, policy-makers, business leaders, trade-association officials, students, juries, and the readers of this blog combined spend incredible resources—time, money, or both—analyzing whether certain actions or agreements are anticompetitive or violate the antitrust laws.

While superficially surprising, upon deeper reflection it makes sense because less competition in a market dramatically affects the prices, quantity, and quality of what companies supply in that market. In the aggregate, the economic effect is huge, thus justifying the resources we spend “trying to get it right.” Of course, in trying to get it right, we often muck it up even more by discouraging procompetitive agreements by over-applying the antitrust laws.

So perhaps we should focus our resources on the actions that are most likely to harm competition (and by extension, all of us)?

Well, one place we can start is by concentrating on conduct that is almost always anticompetitive—price-fixing and market allocation among competitors, as well as bid-rigging. We have the per se rule for that. Check.

There is another significant source of anticompetitive conduct, however, that is often ignored by the antitrust laws. Indeed, a doctrine has developed surrounding these actions that expressly protect them from antitrust scrutiny, no matter how harmful to competition and thus our economy.

As a defender and believer in the virtues of competition, I am personally outraged that most of this conduct has a free pass from antitrust and competition laws that regulate the rest of the economy, and that there aren’t protests in the street about it.

What has me so upset?

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Antitrust-Risk-Counseling-300x195

Author: Jarod Bona

You may not realize this, but a lot of people don’t like lawyers. We even have our own genre of comedy that predates Shakespeare: lawyer jokes. Here is a common example: What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!

When you heard that joke for the first time, you probably laughed and laughed, shook your head and said, “funny because it’s true.”

So why do people dislike lawyers? To save you time, I’ll focus on one reason and leave the rest for others: Because lawyers spoil the fun by saying “no.”

This reason for not liking lawyers, of course, comes from the business context where companies consult either in-house lawyers or outside counsel about how or whether to proceed on a project or opportunity.

It is the lawyer’s job and duty to risk ruining the party. The business and sales people look at the opportunity and see upside: revenues, more market share, perhaps an important merger or acquisition.

It is the lawyer that must look at the opportunity to see the downside risks: the lawsuits, the disputes, the government reactions or investigations, the response from competitors. Then, oftentimes, the lawyer says “no.” The music stops and people go back to their offices, sometimes frustrated and angry, perhaps thinking that the lawyer should be on the bottom of the ocean. The lawyer is the bad guy, even if he or she is just doing his or her job.

But this isn’t an article defending lawyers.

To be honest, most lawyers aren’t great, or sometimes even good. The same is true of most people in any profession. Only in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Minnesota is everyone above average (of course, he was talking about the children, but you get the point). And many criticisms about lawyers apply to many of members of this profession, including the fact that they just ruin the party by saying “no” all the time.

I think that the lawyer that just says “no” is a lazy lawyer that offers very little value to his or her client. Sometimes the lawyer must say “no,” but in most instances, there should be more and I don’t just mean justifications for the denial.

Of course, a client might come up to a lawyer and say the following: “As you know, we compete in a market with four main players. It seems silly that we spend so much time trying to undercut each other on price and so many resources trying to come out with new features to our product. Our adversaries may lack social grace, they may smell bad, and they certainly aren’t good looking, but they aren’t bad people. We could all make more money if we could just get together, have a meeting, set the price we are all going to charge, maybe divide up the customer base, probably by geography, and vote on features to add to our products.”

An antitrust attorney that hears this from a client, must say “NO,” in all caps, like they are yelling. Of course, after that, they better work on education through antitrust compliance counseling and training. Time to put together an antitrust compliance policy. The Department of Justice would certainly appreciate a strong antitrust compliance policy.

But in most instances—even where the client’s idea creates risk—a simple “no” is not the right approach, at least from a good antitrust attorney.

The scenario I described above—involving price fixing and market allocation (per se antitrust violations)—is a rare example of a situation where the antitrust laws are mostly clear.

In most instances, either the law or the application of law is not straightforward enough to entirely preclude the client’s objective. For example, the question of what is exclusionary conduct under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (Monopolization) is not an easy one to answer. There is still great debate among the courts, academics, and economists. Similar issues can arise if you are trying to determine if an exclusive dealing agreement violates the antitrust laws: Sometimes the answer isn’t clear.

Advising Business Clients on Antitrust Risks

I can’t speak for all antitrust attorneys, but here is how I handle counseling clients on antitrust risks:

First, I understand that the perspective of a business is different than the perspective of the typical lawyer.

The attorney, especially the litigator, has grown up (professionally) in a world where they win or lose a motion or case and where something is or isn’t illegal under the law. There are, of course, grey areas, but a young attorney that receives a research project, for example, is tasked with finding the “answer.” And courts have to give decisions on “the law” in such a way that suggests there is an answer, even when the reality is that it could have gone either way. But opinions rarely say that—when they do, it is a credit to the judge.

Businesses, however, make calculated judgments based upon risk, reward, and resources. Opening another factory has obvious risks and rewards and takes resources. The business executive tries to evaluate the risks, judge the potential upside, and compare both of those to the resources necessary to open the factory.

If you tell the business to not open the factory because there are “risks,” you aren’t helping it. The business executive will just stare at you like you are some sort of fool. Of course there are risks; the skill in running a business is to evaluate those risks and incorporate them into decisionmaking.

I understand this perspective even more clearly now, having run Bona Law for several years. Indeed, my bio now finally reflects that understanding.

Let’s apply this point to antitrust counseling: If a client comes to me with an opportunity, a project, or even a problem, it does the business little good for me to just say “no, there are risks.” That’s the lazy approach, in my view.

My value as the antitrust attorney in that situation is to help the client fully understand the risk. That is, I try to help the client appreciate the likelihood of the risk coming to fruition and the consequences of the risk, if it hits. And, in fact, the counseling is usually more complicated because there are often multiple risks, each with their own structure of probability and harm.

I do this because this is how businesses make decisions: They incorporate risk into the information that they have and make the best call they can.

Second, I work with the client to come up with options with similar rewards or upsides, but less antitrust risk—or some more preferable sliding scale of the risks and rewards.

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antitrust blizzard
Author: Jarod Bona

I am from Minnesota, so I am quite familiar with blizzards. They may be interesting to watch through a window from a room warmed by a fireplace, but you don’t want to get caught in one. The same is true for an antitrust blizzard: They are interesting to watch, but they can destroy you. Like driving a car through a winter blizzard, you have to pay close attention, make sure you do the right thing, and in the end, you could crash.

In case you get hit by one, you should be prepared: Create and follow an antitrust compliance policy. You may even get bonus points from the Department of Justice if you have (and follow) the right antitrust policy.

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Author: Jarod Bona

You might hear from an antitrust attorney that it is important to have a strong antitrust compliance policy. And you may think to yourself, yes, I suppose it is. Then you go about your over-packed day, periodically seeing from other professionals that whatever their specialty is, you need to call them right away to have them help you too.

And that isn’t a surprise because each professional, each specialist in something, and, really, each person with any experience of any sort sees life through their own unique lens. We wrote about this in the context of trade associations.

The truth is we are all bombarded with marketing and emails and social media posts and problems in our lives and our world that are “urgent” or “important.”

So when I tell you that your company should have a strong antitrust compliance policy, no matter what its size, you may appreciate that advice, but recognize that (1) I see life through the lens of antitrust and competition law (among other lenses); and (2) Bona Law prepares antitrust compliance policies, so I am biased. And both of those are true. Whenever you evaluate what anyone says, you should do so understanding their perspective, as bias isn’t necessarily conscious or even negative—it often just is part of perspective and experience.

This is a long introduction to tell you that when it comes to antitrust compliance policies, you don’t just have to listen to me or the many other attorneys that advocate for them:

The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice has now reversed its position and will give companies with robust compliance programs credit when considering charges.

The purpose of the policy change, of course, is to encourage companies to adopt and (just as importantly) follow strong antitrust compliance programs. If that occurs, the amount of criminal antitrust conduct should decrease. Of course, there may be an inverse relationship between the companies that would enact and follow an antitrust compliance program and those that would criminally violate the antitrust laws. But, still, it will probably help overall. And it should help to keep otherwise law-abiding companies from getting pulled into, for example, an industry-wide price-fixing cartel. If that happens, they will likely experience what we like to call an antitrust blizzard.

In a speech at New York University School of Law, Makan Delrahim said that in evaluating a policy for charging decisions, DOJ prosecutors would consider whether the program is well-designed, if the company applies it in good faith, and if the program actually works. So, as you can see, this is one of those policies that will evolve as they try it on a case-by-case basis.

The Department of Justice also released details on how it would evaluate antitrust compliance policies: US Department of Justice Antitrust Division: Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs in Criminal Antitrust Investigations.

We will write more about the specifics of a strong corporate compliance program in future articles.

In the meantime, you can read an article by Luis Blanquez about antitrust compliance policies in the US and Europe.

As you might know, the DOJ already has a leniency program, which you can learn more about here. DOJ will sometimes grant leniency to companies and people that report antitrust cartel activity and then cooperate with the DOJ investigation. DOJ antitrust attorneys, experts in competition themselves, incorporated some competition into their leniency program.

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Engineers and Bridge

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney, over time you see the same major cases cited again and again. It is only natural that you develop favorites. Here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we will, from time-to-time, highlight some of the “Classic Antitrust Cases” that we love, that we hate, or that we merely find interesting.

The Supreme Court decided National Society of Professional Engineers in the late 1970s—when I was two-years old—and before the Reagan Revolution. But the views that the author, Justice John Paul Stevens, expressed on behalf of the Supreme Court perhaps ushered in the faith in competition often associated with the 1980s.

The National Society of Professional Engineers thought that its members were above price competition. Indeed, it strictly forbid them from competing on price.

The reason was simple: “it would be cheaper and easier for an engineer ‘to design and specify inefficient and unnecessarily expensive structures and methods of construction.’ Accordingly, competitive pressure to offer engineering services at the lowest possible price would adversely affect the quality of engineering. Moreover, the practice of awarding engineering contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of quality, would be dangerous to the public health, safety, and welfare.” (684-85).

So price competition will cause bridges to collapse? I suppose the same argument could be made for any market where greater expense can improve the health or safety of a product or service. We better not let the car manufacturers compete to provide us with cars because they will skimp on the brakes. It is often the professionals–including and especially lawyers–that find competition distasteful or damaging for their particular profession and believe that they are above it. Well, according to the US Supreme Court, they are not.

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Supreme Court amicus brief

Author: Jarod Bona

An amicus curiae brief is filed by a non-party—usually in an appellate court like the US Supreme Court—that seeks to educate the court by offering facts, analysis, or a perspective that the party briefing doesn’t present. The term amicus curiae means “friend of the court,” and that is exactly what the parties that file these briefs are. They aren’t objective, but they are—without pay—helping out the court, like a friend might. Well, sort of.

Entities filing amicus briefs do so for a reason and that reason isn’t typically just court friendliness. In fact, as we will discuss below, there are many good reasons for someone to file an amicus brief.

Along with antitrust and commercial litigation, I’ve been an appellate litigator my entire career. I started out by clerking for Judge James B. Loken on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (in Minneapolis), then moved on to Gibson Dunn’s appellate group in Washington DC. So, as you might imagine, I’ve participated in many appellate matters. And without question some of my favorite briefs to write are amicus briefs. I’ve filed many of them over the years.

Indeed, at Bona Law, we have filed several amicus briefs on various topics (US Supreme Court (and here), Fourth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Tenth Circuit and a couple with the Minnesota Supreme Court, which you can read about here and here and here).

From the attorney’s perspective what I really like about amicus briefs is that they invite opportunities for creativity. The briefs for the parties before the court include necessary but less exciting information like procedural history, standard of review, etc. Then, of course, they must address certain o necessary arguments. Even still, there is room for creativity and a good appellate lawyer will take a thoughtful approach to a case in a way that the trial lawyer that knows the case too well may not.

But what is great about writing an amicus brief is that you can pick a particular angle and focus on it, while the parties slog through other necessary details. The attorney writing the amicus brief figures out—with the client’s help—the best contribution they can make and just does it, as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Because the amicus brief should not repeat the arguments from the parties, the attorney writing the brief must develop a different approach or delve deeper into an argument that won’t get the attention it deserves from the parties. This is great fun as the attorney can introduce a new perspective to the case, limited not by the arguments below, but by the broader standard of what will help the court.

This means that the law review article that the attorney saw on the subject that hasn’t developed into case law is fair game. So is the empirical study from a group of economists that may reflect on practical implications of the decision confronting the court. Or the attorney might educate a state supreme court about what other states are doing on the issue. Often an association will explain to the court how the issue affects their members.

The point is that amicus briefs present opportunities to develop issues in ways that party briefs rarely do. Indeed, that is partly why they are valuable to courts.

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Jail-for-Antitrust-Violations-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

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.

You might also enjoy our article on Antitrust Compliance Programs in the US and European Union.

Antitrust compliance training and programs are even more important now that the US Department of Justice has announced that they will take these programs into account in their charging decisions.

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Legal Writing

Author: Jarod Bona

Great lawyers must write well. But what does that mean? I could give you a list of what you should or shouldn’t do as a legal writer. I think that you might find such an article useful regardless of your skill level because the best writers always strive to improve and the worst writers, well, they need a lot of guidance.

I might write that article one day. But not today. I thought we’d try to go a little deeper than that today.

If you want technical advice, it isn’t hard to find. I highly recommend Bryan Garner’s seminars. I’ve attended many over the years and they are inspirational. And I mean that; I’m not just trying to sound overly cool by telling you how writing seminars inspire me. But he is a great writer turned great speaker who really cares about the written word and you leave the course thinking not only about your writing, but about bettering your writing. You can check out his many books here.

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I also recommend Ross Guberman and Legal Writing Pro. I attended his seminar as a young(er) attorney and appreciated how he utilized great legal writers as exemplars of how to write briefs. You might also enjoy his blog on legal writing.

If you are interested in the excruciating details of how to write an appellate or antitrust brief, you might enjoy this article.

I was lucky to have clerked in Minneapolis for Judge James B. Loken of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Early in our clerkship, he explained to us that he is a professional writer. At first I was surprised to hear that because I thought of novelists, journalists and others as professional writers, but not judges. But he was write; I mean right.

The appellate judge communicates through writing. Indeed, every official act is a written one. To act effectively, the judge must write well. Clarity, persuasiveness, organization, and plain old storytelling must find their way into the judge’s opinions.

Lawyers have the same responsibility. We are professional writers. My legal career has included both an appellate practice and a writing-heavy litigation and antitrust focus. That is, in my early career in the big cases, I typically found myself in the writing roles, which is not an accident. So I have spent a lot of time pondering the theoretics of legal writing (or at least what makes it good or bad).

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