Antitrust Superhero

Author: Jarod Bona

Some lawyers focus on litigation. Other lawyers spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. And another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature.

But your friendly antitrust attorneys—the superheroes of lawyers—do all of this. That is part of what makes practicing antitrust so fun. We are here to solve competition problems; whether they arise from transactions, disputes, or the government, we are here to help. Or perhaps you just want some basic advice. We do that too—all the time. We can even help train your employees on antitrust law as part of compliance programs.

Perhaps you are a new attorney, or a law student, and you are considering what area to practice? Try antitrust and competition law. Not only is this arena challenging and in flux—which adds to the excitement—but you also don’t pigeonhole yourself into a particular type of practice. You get to do it all—your job is to understand the essence of markets and competition and to help clients solve competition problems.

For those of you that aren’t antitrust attorneys, I thought it might be useful if I explained what it is that we do.

Antitrust and Business Litigation

Although much of our litigation is, in fact, antitrust litigation, much of it is not. In the business v. business litigation especially, even in cases that involve an antitrust claim, there are typically several other types of claims that are not antitrust. As an example, we explain here how we see a lot of Lanham Act False Advertising claims in our antitrust and competition practice.

Businesses compete in the marketplace, but they also compete in the courtroom, for better or worse. And when they do, their big weapon is often a federal antitrust claim (with accompanying treble damages and attorneys’ fees), but they may also be armed with other claims, including trade secret statutes, Lanham Act (both false advertising and trademark), intellectual propertytortuous interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, we will receive a call from a client that thinks they may have an antitrust claim. Perhaps they read this blog post. Sometimes they do, indeed, have a potential antitrust claim. But in other instances, an antitrust claim probably won’t work, but another claim might fit, perhaps a Lanham Act claim for false advertising, or tortuous interference with contract, or some sort of state unfair trade practice claim.

Antitrust lawyers study markets and competition and are the warriors of courtroom competition between competitors. If you have a legal dispute with a competitor, you should call your friendly antitrust attorney.

Antitrust litigation itself is great fun. The cases are usually significant, document heavy, with difficult legal questions and an emphasis on economic testimony. Some of them even involve class actions or multi-district litigation.

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Author: Jarod Bona

This website is called The Antitrust Attorney Blog, not the Appellate Attorney Blog. But I have combined an appellate practice with my antitrust practice my entire legal career and we do a lot of appellate work at Bona Law. So sometimes we address appellate, writing, and briefing issues here.

I previously wrote about why you should hire an appellate lawyer.

And mused about what is great legal writing.

Here is an article about the details of how to actually prepare for and write a significant appellate or antitrust brief.

In this article, I discuss the three foundations for every argument on appeal. These can also apply to trial-level arguments, but at the appellate level you can usually build a more complete argument, so I will use the appellate brief as the model.

Of course, what I like about antitrust is that the cases tend to be more complex, which usually invites deeper arguments, even at the trial level (similar to an appellate brief).

My arguments incorporate these three components.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Antitrust and competition law is a global issue. Markets that could be national are often global instead (because if they aren’t naturally local, there usually isn’t reason to stop at a country’s borders).

Bona Law embraces this international reality. That is part of what attracted me to the firm upon my arrival in the United States after 15 years of practicing antitrust and competition law in Europe. We can help clients all over the world with US and EU antitrust issues.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Maybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors—that is, they have a horizontal relationship—they may be committing a per se antitrust violation.

A group boycott occurs when two or more persons or entities conspire to restrict the ability of someone from competing. This is sometimes called a concerted refusal to deal, which unlike a standard refusal to deal requires, not surprisingly, two or more people or entities.

A group boycott can create per se antitrust liability. But the per se rule is applied to group boycotts like it is applied to tying claims, which means only sometimes. By contrast, horizontal price-fixing, market allocation, and bid-rigging claims are almost always per se antitrust violations.

We receive many calls and messages about potential group boycott actions. This is probably the most frustrating type of antitrust conduct to experience as a victim. Companies often feel blocked from competing in their market. They might be the victim of marketplace bullying.

You can also read our Bona Law article on five questions you should ask about possible group boycotts.

Many antitrust violations, like price-fixing, tend to hurt a lot of people a little bit. A price-fixing scheme may increase prices ten percent, for example. Price-fixing victims feel the pain, but it is diffused. Typically either the government or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Group boycott activity, however, is usually directed toward one or very few victims. The harm is not diffused; it is concentrated. And it is often against a competitor that is just trying to establish itself in the market. The victim is often a company that seeks to disrupt the market, creating a threat to the established players.

The defendants may act like bullies to try to keep that upstart competitor from gaining traction in the market. Sometimes trade associations lead the anticompetitive charge.

Group boycott activity often occurs when someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business. The current competitors—who like things just the way they are—band together to use their joint power to keep the enterprising competitor from succeeding, i.e. stealing their customers.

Sometimes group boycott claims are further complicated when the established competitors—the bullies—use their relationships with government power to further suppress competition. Indeed, sometimes the competitors actually exercise governmental power.

This is what occurred in the NC Dental v. FTC case (discussed here, and here; our amicus brief is here): A group of dentists on the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners engaged in joint conduct, using their government power, to thwart teeth-whitening competition from non-dentists.

This, in my opinion, is the most disgusting of antitrust violations: a group of bullies engaging government power to knock out innovation and competition. And I am very happy to see the Federal Trade Commission take a pro-active role against such anticompetitive thuggery.

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Author: Jarod Bona

You might have a Lanham Act claim if your competitor is making false statements to promote its products or services in a way that deceives customers and injures you because you lost business, for example, as a result.

Although many people think of the Lanham Act as a trademark statute—and it is—it also allows competitors to sue each other for false advertising.

So the Lanham Act is on the battlefield for competition as competitors often use lawsuits as part of their arsenal to gain whatever advantage they can.

The Lanham Act is particularly interesting because it allows competitor standing when the true harm is done to consumers, so long as the plaintiff suffered lost profits or something similar because of the false statements.

Indeed, Congress designed the competitor enforcement mechanism because competitors have both the knowledge and motivation to enforce the Lanham Act. The Supreme Court explained this enforcement rationale in its POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola case, which you can read about here:

Competitors who manufacture or distribute products have detailed knowledge regarding how consumers rely upon certain sales and marketing strategies. Their awareness of unfair competition practices may be far more immediate and accurate than that of agency rulemakers and regulators.”

Importantly, however, the Supreme Court clarified in its Lexmark decision that the plaintiff need not necessarily be a competitor, so long as they suffered “an injury to a commercial interest in sales or business reputation proximately caused by the defendant’s misrepresentations.” This is an important opening and you can read more about our discussion of the Supreme Court’s Lexmark standing decision here.

The Lanham Act is, however, primarily a statute that competitors use to sue each other. You also see this in antitrust law—of course—and intellectual property law (including trade secret and trademark cases). And, under state law, competitors sue for tortious interference, of some sort, along with state statutes that prohibit false advertising and antitrust. And there are other causes of action, state and federal, that come up in specific circumstances.

For better or worse, business competition often takes a detour to the courthouse and companies use litigation to their advantage. Filing a lawsuit for the sake of filing one, without a meritorious claim, could subject you to actions for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and even antitrust liability in certain circumstances. But companies with prima facie claims against their competitors often relish the opportunity to carry the market fight to the legal forum. We’ve seen this from both sides, many times, over the years.

Sometimes antitrust lawyers call themselves antitrust and competition lawyers. The reason for that is that in the United States our laws that govern competition are called “Antitrust” laws (because of the unique history of the federal statutes that went after the “Trusts” back in the day). In Europe and much of the rest of the world, by contrast, these law are called, straightforwardly, “Competition” laws. And the lawyers that practice in this area are called Competition Lawyers.

But there is a second great reason for US antitrust lawyers to more accurately describe themselves as antitrust and competition lawyers. That is because when you represent clients that compete in a marketplace, you experience their hard-core focus on competition and, necessarily, their competitors.

You help them manage the rules of competition, with your own tools. Many of those involve antitrust knowledge and experience. But—to really help your clients—you also need to understand and have experience with the other causes of action that come up among and between competitors. And that includes, of course, the Lanham Act.

So—while we can accurately call ourselves antitrust lawyers, we are really antitrust and competition lawyers because we advise clients on the rules of competition generally, which are much broader than simply the antitrust laws. We are soldiers on the legal battlefield of competition. Antitrust laws are great weapons, but they aren’t the only ones.

As sort of a related aside, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I have learned advising clients in antitrust and competition law. Over time, you experience competition in all forms. You see different ways that competitors try to knock each other out of the market, or otherwise take market share. Sometimes this is about competing better, but it is often about competing differently—that is, adjusting your service and product to not only differentiate yourself, but to create a new market altogether.

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Global Antitrust

Author: Jarod Bona

Just because your company isn’t based in the United States doesn’t mean it can ignore US antitrust law. In this interconnected world, there is a good chance that if you produce something, the United States is a market that matters to your company.

For that reason, I offer five points below that attorneys and business leaders for non-U.S. companies should understand about US antitrust law.

But maybe you aren’t from a foreign company? Does that mean you can click away? No. Keep reading. Most of the insights below matter to anyone within the web of US antitrust law.

This article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste

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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 in your mind, at least not yet.

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But, except in limited instances, you should definitely not divide markets or customers. 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 experiences 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 across 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 sell 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 made for an obvious way for the two companies to divide markets, they also could have agreed not to steal each other’s customers. So if a real estate agent from northern brokerage firm claimed a customer, no agent from the southern brokerage firm would compete for their business.

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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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 conspiracy among the major manufacturers in a particular industry. Plaintiffs may allege that the damage is just a few dollars or cents per plaintiff, but collectively the damages are in the millions or tens or hundreds of millions (or more).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HSR-and-Building-300x240

The FTC Headquarters in Washington, DC. The cornerstone to the building was laid in 1937 by Franklin Roosevelt, reportedly using the same trowel George Washington used to lay the cornership of the U.S. Capital in 1793. In the spirit of competition, the National Gallery of Art has set its sights on expanding into the FTC building, and in 2016, the General Services Adminsitration has been investigating the proposal. The FTC has strongly resisted this form of competition for its space.

Author: Steven Levitsky

Under US antitrust Law, parties to certain mergers and acquisitions must prepare what is called a Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filing for the antitrust agencies.

In an earlier article, we mentioned that HSR filings, at least for voting securities and LLC interests, are not triggered by the literal “size-of-transaction” amount.

Instead, they are triggered by a combination of (1) all existing holdings in a target plus (2) what you intend to buy in that target. (In HSR lingo, this is called “aggregation.”) Plus, you need to calculate the total existing holdings across the entire control group. (In HSR lingo, this means all the entities controlled by the “ultimate parent entity.”) When you don’t, you run the risk of being fined $40,654 per day.

Here’s a great example, based on a real-life case. Alpha Fund owns $84 million of Bravo Ltd’s voting securities. Alpha Fund is controlled by Mr. Smith. Because of this control, Mr. Smith is the hedge fund’s “ultimate parent entity,” and he is deemed to “hold” everything in his control group.

Based on his fund’s holdings, Mr. Smith was appointed to the Board of Bravo Ltd. As a board member, he was given stock options for 10,000 voting shares and exercised them. Let’s assume that those shares were worth $50 each, so that the entire option acquisition was only $500,000. This is 0.0059% of the HSR threshold of $84.4 million. But that’s not the way the HSR system works.

What Mr. Smith should have done (or rather, what his lawyers should have done) was combine, or “aggregate,” all his existing holdings ($84,000,000) with the options he was about to convert $500,000). In other words, as a result of his option transaction, Mr. Smith now “held” $85,000,000 of voting securities in Bravo Ltd. But he never made an HSR filing. In this case, the FTC fined him $250,000.

This is actually a simplified version of the real story. In fact, Alpha Fund had previously failed to make an mandatory HSR filing, and had made a corrective filing only later, only proving that it is hard to keep track of acquisitions across a control group. As part of the settlement of the corrective (after-the fact) filing, the FTC always imposes an obligation to create and maintain a compliance program for future acquisitions. The FTC takes the position that a second failure to file proves that the compliance program was not complied with.

By the way, there was absolutely no competitive issue involved in this violation. The control group’s collective holdings in Bravo Ltd. were too low for it to be able to exert any control. Furthermore, Bravo Ltd. granted the options with one single day to exercise them. There was no possibility for Mr. Smith to have made an HSR filing. Despite all these mitigating factors, the fine was imposed simply because there had been an acquisition that required an HSR filing, and no filing was made.

Here’s another complication from the same story. Let’s assume that Alpha Fund bought the shares at $50,000,000, and that over time they appreciated in value to $84,000,000. It’s not clear, but it seems possible that Alpha and Mr. Smith had considered the original acquisition cost of the stock ($50,000,000 plus $500,000). That was another serious mistake, because the HSR rules require you to calculate the current value of your existing holdings. In other words, if your original $50,000,000 investment grows to $85,000,000 through appreciation, you don’t need to do a thing. But you can’t acquire a single dollar more of stock in the same target without making a filing.

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Aspen Mountains

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in certain narrow circumstances, refusing to do business with a competitor violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which regulates monopolies, attempts at monopoly, and exclusionary conduct.

This probably seems odd—don’t businesses have the freedom to decide whether to do business with someone, especially when that person competes with them? When you walk into a store and see a sign that says, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” should you call your friendly antitrust lawyer?

The general rule is, in fact, that antitrust law does NOT prohibit a business from refusing to deal with its competitor. But the refusal-to-deal doctrine is real and can create antitrust liability.

So when do you have to do business with your competitor?

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