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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

On October 6, 2020, the Antitrust Subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee issued its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets.  As expected, the Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms.

In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws.  Included in those recommendations were proposals for Congress to overrule several classic antitrust opinions.  Because this blog has summarized several classic antitrust cases over the years (see here and here, for example), we thought we would summarize some of the opinions that now might be on the chopping block.  This post concerns two classic Supreme Court opinions on refusal to deal or essential facility monopolization claims, Trinko and linkLine.

House Report on Refusal to Deal and Essential Facilities

The Report’s recommendations for general changes in the antitrust laws included several aimed at increasing enforcement of Sherman Act Section 2’s prohibition of monopolization.  In particular, the Report recommended that:

Congress consider revitalizing the “essential facilities” doctrine, or the legal requirement that dominant firms provide access to their infrastructural services or facilities on a nondiscriminatory basis.  To clarify the law, Congress should consider overriding judicial decisions that have treated unfavorably essential facilities- and refusal to deal-based theories of harm.  (Report, pp. 396-7)

The two judicial opinions listed were Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004) and Pacific Bell Telephone Co. v. linkLine Communications, Inc., 555 U.S. 438 (2009).

Trinko

Justice Scalia wrote the Court’s opinion dismissing the plaintiff’s refusal to deal claim.  There were no dissents although Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter and Thomas, wrote separately to concur in the result but would have dismissed based on lack of standing.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1919 U.S. v. Colgate (250 U.S. 300) decision, courts have found that “in the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly,” the antitrust laws allow any actor, including a monopolist, “freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.”  Trinko narrowly interpreted the Court’s earlier exceptions to the rule that even a monopolist can choose its own trading partners.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Have you ever considered the idea that your business would be much more profitable if you didn’t have to compete so hard with that pesky competitor or group of competitors?

Unless you have no competition—which is great for profits, read Peter Thiel’s book—this notion has probably crossed your mind. And that’s okay—the government doesn’t indict and prosecute the antitrust laws for what is solely in your mind, at least not yet.

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But, except in limited instances, you should definitely not divide markets or customers with your competitors. Indeed, you shouldn’t even discuss the idea with your competitors, or, really, anyone (many antitrust cases are made on inconveniently worded internal emails).

The reason that you shouldn’t discuss it is that market-allocation agreements are one of the few types of conduct that the antitrust laws consider so bad they attach the label “per se antitrust violation.” The other per se antitrust offenses are price-fixing, bid-rigging, maybe tying, and sometimes group boycotts.

What is a Market-Allocation Agreement?

When competitors divide a market in which they can compete into sections in which one or more competitors decline to compete in favor of others, they have entered into a market-allocation agreement.

The antitrust problem with a market-allocation agreement is that a group of customers experience a reduction in the number of suppliers that serve them. The companies dividing the markets benefit, of course, because they have less competition for at least some of the market, which means that it is easier to raise prices or reduce quality.

It doesn’t matter, from an antitrust perspective, how the competitors divide the markets or even whether they both end up competing for that product or service after the agreement.

For an obvious example, ponder a small town with two large real-estate brokerage businesses—Northern Real Estate Brokers and Southern Real Estate Brokers. A river flows through the town, roughly dividing it into northern and southern regions. The Northern Real Estate Brokers mostly attract clients north of the river and the Southern Real Estate Brokers usually service clients south of the river. But the river is passable; there is a bridge and it isn’t that big of a river anyway. So sometimes agents of each brokerage will participate in transactions on the other side river from their normal client base.

Late one evening, in the middle of the bridge, the leaders of the two companies meet and agree that from that point on, each company would only represent sellers for properties on their side of the river.

This is a market-allocation agreement and the leaders could find themselves in antitrust litigation, or even jail (the Department of Justice will often prosecute per se antitrust violations).

While the geographic boundary created an obvious method for the two companies to divide markets, they also could have agreed not to steal each other’s existing customers (market allocation based upon incumbency, which is common). So if a real estate agent from the northern brokerage firm won a customer, no agent from the southern brokerage firm would compete for that customer’s business in the future.

This customer allocation agreement is also a per se antitrust violation. To see how this type of antitrust offense can develop in a seemingly innocent way, read our article on the anatomy of a per se antitrust violation.

In this way, the antitrust laws actually encourage stealing customers.

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Author: Jarod Bona

We see many antitrust issues in the distribution world—and from all business perspectives: supplier, wholesale distributor, authorized retailer, and unauthorized retailer, among others. And at the retail level, we hear from both internet and brick-and-mortar stores.

The most common distribution issues that come up are resale-price-maintenance (both as an agreement and as a Colgate policy), terminated distributors/retailers, and Minimum Advertised Pricing Policies or MAP.

Today, we will talk about MAP Policies and how they relate to the antitrust laws.

What is a Minimum Advertised Price Policy (more commonly known as a MAP policy)?

A MAP policy is one in which a supplier or manufacturer limits the ability of their distributors to advertise prices below a certain level. Unlike a resale-price-maintenance agreement, a MAP policy does not stop a retailer from actually selling below any minimum price.

In a resale price maintenance policy or agreement, by contrast, the manufacturer doesn’t allow distributors to sell the products below a certain price.

As part of a “carrot” for following MAP policies, manufacturers often pair the policy with cooperative advertising funds for the retailer.

Typical targets of MAP policies are online retailers and straight price competition. These policies also do not typically restrict in-store advertising. The manufacturers that employ MAP policies often emphasize branding in their corporate strategy or have luxury products and fear that low listed prices for those products will make them seem less luxurious. But these policies exist in many different industries.

In any event, MAP policies are accelerating in the marketplace. Indeed, brick and mortar retailers that fear “showrooming,” will often pressure manufacturers to implement either vertical pricing restrictions or MAP policies. Not surprisingly, the impetus to implement and enforce MAP policies often come from established retailers.

We receive a lot of calls and emails with questions about MAP policies, from both those that want to implement them and those that are subject to them.

Do MAP Policies Violate the Antitrust Laws?

MAP policies don’t—absent further context—violate the antitrust laws by themselves. But, depending upon how a manufacturer structures and implements them, MAP policies could violate either state or federal antitrust law. So the answer is the unsatisfying maybe.

But we can add further context to better understand the level of risk for particular MAP policies.

There is some case law analyzing MAP policies, but it is limited, so if you play in this sandbox, you can’t prepare for any one approach. I had considered going through the cases here, but I think that has limited utility.  The fact is that there isn’t a strong consensus on how courts should treat MAP policies themselves. So the best tactic is to understand the core competition issues and make your risk assessments from that.

Because of the limited case law, you should consider, as we do, that there will be a greater variance in expected court decisions about MAP policies, which creates additional risk. This may particularly be the case at the state level because state judges have little experience with antitrust.

In any event, you will need an antitrust attorney to help you through this, so the best I can do here for you to is to help you spot the issues and understand if you are moving in the right direction.

If you are familiar with resale price maintenance or Colgate policies, you will notice a lot of overlap with MAP policy issues. But there are important differences.

A minimum advertised price policy is not strictly a limit on pricing. From a competitive standpoint, that helps, but not necessarily a lot. The reality is that a MAP policy can be—for practical reasons—a significant hurdle for online distributors to compete on price for the restricted product. That is, for online retailers, sometimes the MAP policy price is the effective minimum price.

Resale Price Maintenance

Before we go further, let’s review a little bit. A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between a manufacturer and some sort of distributor (including a retailer that sells to the end user) that the distributor will not sell the product for less than a set price. Up until the US Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007, these types of agreements were per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws.

Resale price maintenance agreements are no longer per se federal antitrust violations, but several states, including California, New York, and Maryland may consider them per se antitrust violations under state law, so most national manufacturers avoid the risk and implement a unilateral Colgate policy instead.

Under federal law, courts now usually analyze resale-price-maintenance agreements under the antitrust rule of reason.

Colgate Policies

Colgate policies are named after a 1919 Supreme Court decision that held that it is not a federal antitrust violation for a manufacturer to unilaterally announce in advance the prices at which it will allow its product to be resold, then refuse to deal with any distributors that violate that policy. You can read our article about Colgate policies here.

The bottom line with Colgate is that in most situations the federal antitrust laws do not forbid one company from unilaterally refusing to deal with another. There are, of course, exceptions, so don’t rely on this point without consulting an antitrust lawyer.

Back to MAP Policies and Antitrust

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Author: Steven Cernak

As we detailed in earlier posts (see here and here, for instance), the system established by the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR) was designed to get sufficient information about impending mergers to the federal antitrust agencies so they could attempt to block anti-competitive ones before consummation.  The system has grown into a complex set of rules and interpretations.  Earlier this month, the antitrust agencies proposed two changes to those rules, one that would require more information from some acquiring parties and another that would eliminate the filing requirement for certain transactions deemed unlikely to be anti-competitive.

“Associates” Would Become “Persons”

HSR requires a buyer — “Acquiring Person,” in HSR parlance — to provide certain information about the entities it controls and its prior acquisitions for transactions that meet HSR’s reportability standards.  Under the definition of Persons, however, separate private equity investment funds under the same parent fund usually are considered separate Persons because the parent fund did not “control” them.  Therefore, until recently, an investment fund making an acquisition did not need to provide information, including information regarding acquisitions or holdings, about other investment funds under the same parent fund.  Also, currently, an investment fund does not need to aggregate its holdings with those of other funds under the same parent to determine HSR reportability.

In such scenarios, the agencies might not realize that another investment fund under the same parent fund holds interests in competitors of the target entity.  The agencies partially corrected this situation in 2011 by defining such related investment funds as “associates” and requiring the Acquiring Person to disclose holdings of its associates in other entities that generated revenues in the same industries as the target entity.

The proposed rule would go a step further and change the definition of “Person” to include “associates.”  The intended effect of such a change is to require Acquiring Persons to provide even more information about their associates when completing the HSR form.  (Again in HSR parlance, such an Acquiring Person would need to disclose additional information about its associates in Items 4 through 8 of the form.)  In addition, all the holdings of the Acquiring Person in the target entity, even those held by an associate, would need to be aggregated to determine if the most recent acquisition is reportable.

As a result, the agencies should have more complete information to assess the potential competitive impact of the proposed transaction.  For private equity funds structured in this way, the result likely will be additional HSR filings plus the burden to collect, track, and provide additional information in each filing.

Small Transactions Would Be Exempt Regardless of Intent

While the agencies have an incentive to receive filings for all transaction that could pose competitive issues, they also have an incentive to conserve resources and avoid the review of filings for transactions that almost certainly pose no competitive threat.  As a result, the HSR statute and rules have numerous exemptions for transaction types that raise few if any competitive issues.

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Author: Jon Cieslak

The United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division recently announced changes to its Civil Investigative Demand (CID) forms and deposition process.  While these changes are cosmetic—the Antitrust Division acknowledges that the changes “are consistent with long-standing division policies”—they serve as a good reminder of risks that always exist when communicating with the government.

Background on Civil Investigative Demands

Golden Gate Bridge California

Author: Jarod Bona

In an earlier article, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. We’ve also written about these agreements here. And these issues often come up when discussing Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) Policies, which you can read about 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 consider is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. Many years ago during my DLA Piper days, 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 and application 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 our antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California. Bona Law, of course, also has offices in New York office, Minneapolis, and Detroit.

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 2020, 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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Author: Jarod Bona

I suspect that Antitrust DOJ head Makan Delrahim and I have had a similar reading list lately. And I am not even referring to any sort of antitrust books, like, for example, Steve Cernak’s book on Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising.

Let me explain.

I read, with great interest, a speech that Assistant Attorney General Makan Delraihim delivered on August 27, 2020 to the Conference on Innovation Economics in Evanston, Illinois (well, virtually).

His two topics were blockchain and Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.

As a consistent reader of this blog, I trust that you already know that I am a big fan of Nassim Taleb and, particularly, his book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. Indeed, a re-reading of Antifragile inspired an earlier article about Iatrogenics. If you haven’t read Antifragile, you should, right away.

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My interest in blockchain, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrency systems like Ethereum is relatively recent. But—like many before me—a little bit of knowledge has created an insatiable appetite for more. I am making my way down the rabbit hole, as they say.

Let’s dig in and talk about what the Department of Justice thinks about both antifragility and blockchain.

Antifragile

What does the term “antifragile” mean?

You might think that robust is the opposite of fragile. But those of us that have read Taleb know that isn’t true. Something that is fragile is likely to break or weaken from stress, shocks, or variability. If something is robust, it will resist this stress, shock, or variance.

But what you really want during times of stress (or, really, just over time), is antifragility. If you are antifragile, you improve from stress, shocks, and variance, which are inevitable, especially as time passes.

The human body is, in some ways, antifragile. Lifting weights, for example, creates a stressor on the muscles and surrounding tissues, which cause, ultimately, an increase in strength. So make sure you get your deadlifts in this week.

Antifragile is the opposite of fragile and it is better than robustness.

There is a lot more to antifragility than this. Indeed, there is an entire book about it (and, really, a set of books—Incerto). I urge you to read more—it might change your life.

Earnest Hemingway understood antifragility when he said in A Farewell to Arms that “the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The next line is just as important for reasons you will understand if you read Antifragile: “But those that will not break it kills.”

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So, what does antifragility have to do with the Department of Justice and antitrust?

Assistant Attorney General Makan, in his speech, emphasized that “the Antitrust Division has made protecting competition in order to advance innovation in the private sector one of our top priorities,” and that the Division wants to “ensure that antitrust law protects competition without standing as an impediment to rapid innovation.”

He then introduced the concept of antifragility and acknowledged that the pandemic can certainly be described as a “shock” producing a “wide array of trauma.” But with that harm comes an opportunity—“if we rise to the challenge of being antifragile, there is also an opportunity for tremendous growth.” More specifically, “[c]ritical innovations and technological developments often result from the kind of extraordinary experimentation the pandemic has made necessary. We have the opportunity to embrace antifragility, to delve into the experimentation and trial and error that drive growth, and to make ourselves better.”

According to AAG Makan, “[o]ur goal at the Antitrust Division is to extend the spirit of innovation beyond our latest efforts to combat the pandemic and protect competition—ultimately, to become antifragile.”

The market system—competition—is, of course, an antifragile system because it improves with variance over time, including shocks and stresses. As problems arise, the market provides solutions. As new preferences arise, the system meets those preferences. As demands for certain products or services decrease, resources move away from those areas. Indeed, the “heart of our national economy has long been faith in the value of competition.” And the purpose of the antitrust laws is to protect that competition.

I am pleased to read the DOJ Antitrust leader expressly affirm those values and I have no doubt that he believes them—you can’t read and quote Taleb and not be affected.

But let’s remember that large central government is not typically the friend of antifragility. Indeed, government interference is more likely to distort incentives and the market’s ability to adjust to stressors. It can also lock-up parts of the system and increase fragility.

When a knocking on your door is followed by a shout of “I am from the government and I am here to help,” your heart should feel fear not relief.

I view the antitrust laws, if applied with restraint, as similar to contract, property, and tort laws. They provide the rules of the game that allow the market to prosper. Failure to apply any of them uniformly or fairly harms the beneficial potential of markets and competition. But over-applying them does the same. Like much of life, sometimes the answer is complicated and doesn’t fit into a single tweet.

Government enforcers can, however, stay on the right track if they have in their mind the rule that doctors often forget: “First, do no harm.” Antitrust enforcement, like medical intervention, can be iatrogenic.

Blockchain, Bitcoin, and Cryptocurrency

The DOJ Antitrust Division’s attorneys have formally educated themselves on blockchain and other technologies. And, like me, once they started learning about it, they probably realized what a big deal it truly is.

My worry, frankly, is that the government is going to somehow screw it up.

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Author: Steven J. Cernak

As I prepare again to teach an antitrust survey course, part of the preparation involves rereading some of the classic foundational U.S. antitrust cases.  Many of them make some sweeping statements about how the Sherman Act embodies a national policy to order our entire economy through competition.  “The heart of our national economic policy long has been faith in the value of competition” comes from Standard Oil in 1911.  The Court went even further in 1958 in Northern Pacific Railway:

The Sherman Act … rests on the premise that the unrestrained interaction of competitive forces will yield the best allocation of our economic resources, the lowest prices, the highest quality and the greatest material progress, while at the same time providing an environment conducive to the preservation of our democratic political and social institutions.

Twenty years later in Professional Engineers, the Court described an argument that asserted competition might be unethical as “nothing less than a frontal assault on the basic policy of the Sherman Act.”

Were such broad statements true then?  Do they remain true now?  Is the Sherman Act “the Magna Carta of free enterprise” as the Court asserted in Topco in 1972?  After all, we have had exemptions, both legislative and court-made, for decades.  But even beyond those official exceptions, there are plenty more examples of our frequent desire for experts, not the competitive process, to supersede market outcomes.

One personal anecdote helps illustrate the point.  I have been involved in the ABA Antitrust Law Section for decades.  The ABA, like any good trade association of competitors, has its own counsel to ensure that it does not run afoul of the antitrust laws.  Years ago, however, when my day job was in-house antitrust lawyer at General Motors and my ABA assignment involved antitrust aspects of trade associations, I was asked by the Section to lead a compliance presentation for another ABA group consisting of several law school admission deans.

Our presentation started with the antitrust basics for trade associations:  The antitrust laws want to preserve competition among competitors, Sherman Act Section 1 is suspicious of agreements among competitors, trade associations are gatherings of competitors where such agreements can be reached, and law schools compete with each other in various ways, including to attract students.

After about fifteen minutes, one of the deans raised his hand and posed this hypothetical:  Some students change schools between first and second year.  Such transfers are not good for the student – usually, any issues leading to a transfer go beyond a particular school and the student should try to get help with any underlying concerns.  But the transfers also hurt the law schools – after all, we have spent considerable time, effort, and money to make that student one of ours and transfers destroy that investment.  So, could this ABA group make it unethical for law schools to solicit, or even accept, most transfer students?

My fellow presenters were taken aback and silent for a few seconds.  Had this dean not been listening when we had said a few minutes earlier that agreements not to compete among competing members of a trade association were antitrust violations?  Finally, I broke the silence.  I did a facepalm and said “D’oh!  What a great idea!  Why didn’t we think of that?  We could have gone to Toyota thirty years ago and said ‘you know, we spent considerable time, effort, and money to make those current Chevy owners ours and you selling to them will just destroy that investment.  How about we agree that you will only market to folks who have never purchased a car?’”

It took a few seconds but then the lightbulbs went off over the heads of the audience:  Yes, the competitive processes for legal education might be a little different than those for motor vehicles, but that competition still exists and antitrust law is designed to protect it.  Any agreements to short-circuit that process by having experts at the competitor-suppliers determine the customer’s best interest would be at least suspect.  My GM clients would have understood that my Toyota hypothetical was an antitrust problem.  Why didn’t this law school dean?

Was it because the deans saw themselves as “professionals” and so in some way exempt from the need to compete?  Perhaps, although the Court made clear in Professional Engineers that any hint of an antitrust exemption for professionals that some saw in Goldfarb was incorrect.  Professionals might compete in different ways but the antitrust laws still protect that competition to yield the best results for customers.

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Supreme Court amicus brief

Author: Jarod Bona

As 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 an 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. (like the defendants did in the Lithium Ion Batteries case, which we wrote about here).

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 or market-allocation 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 under Rule 23(f)), 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 tiny.

[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.

And if you want to know more about how class-action settlements work as described in the context of the In re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation, read here.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Competitors battle in the marketplace and sometimes battle in the courts. Bona Law is an antitrust and competition boutique law firm, but most people think of the “competition” part of that description as redundant to the antitrust label. That is not a surprise because outside of the United States, most people refer to antitrust law as competition law.

But I view it differently: Antitrust Law is the literal collection of state and federal antitrust laws, including those involving restraints of trade, monopolies, mergers, criminal antitrust, and others. But Competition Law incorporates a wide range of business torts and statutes that make up the practical reality of competitor and marketplace court battles. These include, for example, the Lanham Act, patent laws, unfair competition statutes, tortious interference and others.

Indeed, you will notice that many antitrust complaints also include one or more additional non-antitrust claims. The players in these disputes can sometimes include consumers, for a class action lawsuit. But, for our purposes, we will primarily discuss business players within competition, either competitors or entities up and down the vertical chain of distribution of products or services. So, a court battle could match up two competitors, or perhaps a wholesale distributor and a retailer, for example.

Our job, as antitrust and competition attorneys, is to help clients solve legal problems involving any type of competition issue.

To that end, let me tell you about an important new competition decision. On August 3, 2020, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Ixchel Pharma, LLC v. Biogen, Inc. that made law for certain tortious interference claims and for California Business and Professions Code section 16600 (which is mostly associated with prohibitions on certain non-compete agreements in California).

Tortious Interference

Tortious interference divides into two different claims: (1) tortious interference with contract and (2) tortious interference with prospective economic relationship (no contract, but maybe one was on the horizon).

For more detail, we describe the elements of tortious interference in California here.

The law (and California Supreme Court) consider tortious interference with contract as a bigger deal than the other kind of tortious interference—they don’t like the idea of breaking up existing contracts. So, in its wisdom, it requires an additional element for tortious interference that doesn’t involve a contract (the prospective-economic-relationship kind): The act of interference must be independently wrongful in some way. Interference by itself is not sufficient—there must be something else wrong with the interference act besides the interference.

But what does it mean for an act to be independently wrongful?

According to the California Supreme Court, “an act is independently wrongful if it is unlawful, that is, if it is proscribed by some constitutional, statutory, regulatory, common law, or other determinable legal standard.” (p. 9, quoting Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp, 29 Cal.4th 1134, 1159 (2003)).

A plaintiff need not plead an “independently wrongful act” for a tortious interference with contract, except—for the holding in this new California Supreme Court case (Ixchel).

You can read the decision for the facts, but the question in dispute is whether a plaintiff asserting a claim for tortious interference with contract has to plead an independently wrongful act, if the contract is an at-will contract. An at-will contract is one that either side can terminate at any time, for any or no reason.

The California Supreme Court—in deciding the issue for the first time—acknowledged that a “number of states have adopted” the independent wrongfulness requirement for tortious interference with at-will contracts. (14). And they ultimately agreed with these states.

An at-will contractual relationship is one that has no assurance of future economic relations—because either side may terminate it for any or no reason. That is, neither party has a “legal claim to the continuation of the relationship.” (17). And even though the parties to such a deal may expect it to continue, from the perspective of third parties, “there is no legal basis in either case to expect the continuity of the relationship or to make decisions in reliance on the relationship.” (17).

Just as importantly, the California Supreme Court expressed worry that allowing claims for tortious interference of at-will contracts without an independent wrongfulness requirement would chill legitimate business competition (also a common concern of judges interpreting antitrust laws). The Court didn’t want to create a cause of action for typical aggressive competition.

As a result, the Court held that “to state a claim for interference with an at-will contract by a third party, the plaintiff must allege that the defendant engaged in an independently wrongful act.” (18).

California Business and Professions Code Section 16600

Section 16600: “Except as provided in this chapter, every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.”

This is the famous California law that invalidates most non-compete agreements. Indeed, oftentimes, the most difficult question with these cases is whether California or some other law applies.

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