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Author: Steven J. Cernak

Two months ago, I encouraged all readers of this blog to read Complexity-Minded Antitrust by Nicolas Petit and Thibault Schrepel. As I explained in that article, I think their suggestion that antitrust lawyers and policymakers should consider applying learnings from complexity theory to antitrust questions was a good one.

I hope you heeded my suggestion. Over 1300 others have at least downloaded the article. After reading the article, I wanted to get smarter about complexity as well. I had dipped my toe in the complexity water during my graduate economics studies and early legal career but that was decades ago during complexity’s infancy. How had it developed and how might it apply to antitrust issues?

To get back up to speed, I read several books on the topics. Below, I outline my thoughts on each of them. I encourage other antitrust experts to read these or other materials to stay abreast of where our field might be (should be?) heading. If you have other suggested readings, please let me know.

First, take a look at Neil Chilson’s Getting Out of Control, his short and easily readable book on emergent order that I reviewed for this blog last October. As I described in that review, Chilson uses everyday examples to define emergent order and distinguish it from randomness and designed order. He then builds on those definitions to discuss an example of emergent order near and dear to all antitrusters, the price system. From there, he derives principles for anyone (like antitrust enforcers?) dealing with emergent order to observe: expect complicated results even from simple actions; push decisions down to actors with local information; and be humble. Short, sweet, and by an author with FTC experience, this book is the one to read if you only read one.

Second, I re-watched Understanding Complexity by Scott Page, one of The Great Courses that I had purchased several years ago. I thought this course was a great summary of complexity, how it relates to many disciplines, and how its concepts can apply in many everyday settings. Page defines the attributes of complex systems—diversity, connection, interdependence, adaptation—and distinguishes such systems from others that are really just complicated. From these tools, he derives now familiar concepts like tipping and path dependence and explains why truly complex systems can be harnessed, perhaps, but not controlled. I recommend this course for an easy-to-understand but more complete and formal view of complexity.

(Disclosure: Scott Page lived a few doors down from me in my University of Michigan dormitory. In a hallway full of smart young men with great enthusiasm for Michigan athletics, Page was one of the smartest and most enthusiastic.)

I was disappointed in Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. While I was looking for a general description of complexity and its roots, this book went farther afield than I wanted or could appreciate. It covers many disparate subjects—genetics, evolution, biology—and has some interesting history of the science and some of its pioneers; however, Mitchell spends more time talking about that history and justifications for why complexity might be its own separate discipline than I found interesting. I can only recommend it for those interested in math history.

On the other hand, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers covered just the right amount of complexity background, history, and context before applying it to various public policies. Antitrust gets a brief mention with a very short summary of the U.S. Microsoft case. More generally, the authors try to use complexity theory to begin the development of a third way of thinking about public policy choices, what they call laissez faire activism, as compared to defaulting to having either the market or the federal government do everything. Here are some of the key points that I think make this book, right after Chilson’s, one that antitrust folks should read:

  • The economy and various parts of it can be non-linear and able to self-organize and, so, able to be influenced but difficult to control;
  • Complexity theory and math can clarify choices but will not prescribe solutions;
  • There is a potential tradeoff between efficiency and resiliency that businesses (especially those that misunderstood all aspects of the Toyota Production System) and policymakers should consider;
  • Economic policy is not all of social policy and increasing material welfare is not the single goal of society;
  • Path dependency can exist but not in all cases

Finally, I can recommend Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by, again, Scott Page, only if you really want to go deep in the weeds on complexity or are managing a group. I had another, more personal, reason for wanting to read it.

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Author: Molly Donovan

If I Were You is a new Bona Law podcast that gives in-house lawyers the essential 5 bullets they need to explain real-world antitrust and competition risks to their business teams. This podcast is a quick 10 minutes or less, easily digestible during a commute or errand, and we hope it becomes a practical resource for in-house lawyers.

I’ll be the regular host of the podcast, which was inspired by one of my favorite in-house friends who said, “A good way to talk to the business side is to say something like, ‘I’m not saying don’t do it, but if I were you, I would do x, y, and z to mitigate the risk.’” And—tah dah—this podcast was born.

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Author: Molly Donovan

Every spring, the Trooper Girls sell cookies in their town. Although they’re all members of the same group, the girls compete against each other to be the top cookie seller of the season. The girls hold regular meetings with rules set by the troop leader based on an antitrust course she took in law school:

  1. Discussions should stay focused on personal safety guidelines for selling cookies, and how cookie sales are going generally.
  2. No agreements to fix cookie prices—each girl is supposed to price her own cookies individually. That’s part of the fun of competing.
  3. No agreements to divide markets—deals along the lines of “you take this street and I’ll take that street” are prohibited. Members should vigorously compete in all relevant locations.
  4. Any applicant under the age of 15 can be a member of Trooper Girls upon completing the online forms and having them signed by a parent or guardian.

[“I like these rules,” thinks the antitrust lawyer. The membership criteria are clear and can be fairly and objectively applied, and the meeting discussions seem appropriately restricted to legitimate subjects]

At the first meeting of cookie-selling season, the Trooper Girls were in distress.  Practically no cookies had been sold because, unforeseeably, the Ranger Boys had started selling ice cream—a treat much more popular than cookies of late given the unseasonably warm weather.

The de facto ringleader of Trooper Girls—Tina—announced at the meeting, “We all know cookie sales aren’t going well and we all know why. We need to get on the same page, and reconsider cookie prices until the weather returns to normal and this crisis is over.”

The troop leader interrupted, “Tina, I think that’s enough on that. Let’s change the subject.”

[“Uh oh,” thinks the antitrust lawyer. Tina’s comments sound like an invitation to collude. I’m glad the troop leader spoke up, but the damage may be done.]

Tina winked at her Trooper Girl friends and they all basically knew what to do. Meanwhile, the specifics were worked out in whispers during social time after the meeting, and during one-on-one phone calls and text exchanges. Of course, nobody said exactly what price to charge and nobody wrote down any sort of formal agreement—the rules clearly don’t allow that.  Instead, the discussions were more along the lines of “let’s think about a 10%-20% discount,” which can’t constitute an “agreement,” right? Specific prices weren’t even discussed.

[“Wrong,” says the antitrust lawyer. “Agreements” don’t have to be explicit at all. A wink and a nod could suffice. Similarly, specific prices need not be discussed—agreements about the general direction of pricing could raise antitrust scrutiny.]

The next day, each member of Trooper Girls cut their cookie prices, all in the 10-20% range, though some a little bit more and some a little bit less.

Suddenly, the weather cooled again and cookie sales took off. The Ranger Boys went out of business completely, unable to compete with the reduced price of the Trooper Girl treats.

Immediately thereafter, the Trooper Girls communicated to one another—in various ways—that it was no longer necessary to keep prices low, each member could do as she pleased, though continued cooperation to return to normal prices was appropriate.

And that’s what happened.

[“Oh no, again.” This could be deemed another anticompetitive agreement, now with indefinite and potentially long-running effects.]

Rick, a member of the Ranger Boys was very sad. For one thing, he was left with a freezer full of ice cream—couldn’t give the stuff away. For another, he had nothing to do on weekends with the Ranger Boys now essentially defunct.

Wisely, Rick did two things. He called an antitrust lawyer, suspicious that something unfair had occurred. And he petitioned the Trooper Girls to join their group.

Although the girls initially refused the application, the antitrust lawyer changed Rick’s life (as antitrust lawyers do) by threatening to sue the Trooper Girls and their individual members for violating the Sherman Act, including by refusing Rick’s application for anticompetitive reasons contrary to the membership criteria.

The Trooper Girls relented—paid Rick not to sue and admitted him in the group. Rick used the settlement money to start his own business making ice cream sandwiches. He used the ice cream leftover in his freezer and Trooper Girl cookies for the sandwich ends (genius!). In the process, Rick sold a lot of ice cream and a lot of cookies—everyone was happy.

THE MORALS OF THE STORY:

*For the Trooper Girl Types and Their Associations:  In addition to having clear membership criteria, have a written antitrust compliance policy and train all members to issue spot.

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Author: Molly Donovan

Crises that disrupt distribution chains and cause supply shortages tend to prompt discussions among competitors about how to survive. Discussions may begin as relatively innocuous information exchanges but become risky when they turn to coping strategies. This topic can sometimes lead to conversations amongst competitors such as, “We’re all in the same boat, so joint efforts ought to be made to stabilize prices,” or “We, as an industry, should stay on the same page and base future price increases on the rising costs of material costs and/or distribution downstream.” As we know from history (earthquakes, tsunamic, floods), those sorts of discussions are real and prompt DOJ investigations. As difficult as it has been for some businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic will not be a defense to cartel conduct.

So now that at least some aspects of business have returned to normal, it’s an excellent time for in-house counsel to survey the relevant business units to assess whether any potentially anticompetitive conduct occurred over the last couple of years. Counsel can do this inquiry with minimal cost and minimal disruption to business: a few key interviews, a high-level but strategic sweep of emails, and a big picture look at pricing and production figures. Top leadership can deliver messages that make it clear that whistleblowers will be protected (consistent with federal law). Companies can set up a message box so employees can self-report anonymously.

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Authors: Steve Cernak and Luis Blanquez

Like all new administrations, the Biden Administration entered office promising change in antitrust policy. Unlike previous administrations, however, the change this Administration promised was nothing less than the total transformation of antitrust enforcement.

In its first year, the Administration has begun that transformation by overhauling enforcement personnel, starting to make policy changes, and promising much more. But will it last? The potential overthrow of the antitrust status quo faces opposition from entrenched interests and skepticism from a judiciary trained in it. It will take time to make the new ideas stick—will the new antitrust leaders have that luxury?

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Author: Molly Donovan

Antitrust for Kids is a new blog series designed to explain complex principles of U.S. competition law to practitioners and business people in plain English. Meant to be fun, and tongue-in-cheek, the series will serve as a useful primer to help the audience issue spot and better understand antitrust concepts like price discrimination, vertical restraints, tying, tacit agreements, and more.

Max and Margie are next-door neighbors on Lemon Lane. They both operate competing lemonade stands in their front yards all summer. And, both shop at the same grocery stores to purchase the same three ingredients necessary for making their finished drinks:  fresh lemons, sugar, ice.

While they’ve been frenemies for years, casually exchanging pleasantries at times, this summer the weather is very hot, and so is competition in the local lemonade market. In fact, Max and Margie barely acknowledge each another, unless it’s to bad mouth the other—each complaining that the other makes inferior lemonade.

One day, Margie announces a breakthrough that she’s made in the lemonade space:  STRAWBERRY LEMONADE. It’s a hit. Margie begins charging 2 times over cost for her strawberry drink, and the demand for plain old lemonade (sans strawberries) stops cold.

Max is incensed, naturally, and hatches a scheme to bring Margie down.

Max heads to the largest grocery store in town. There, he tells George (the grocer) that unless George stops selling lemons, sugar and ice to Margie, Max—and more importantly, Max’s dad—will pull all their business from George immediately.  EEEK!  That would be a real problem for George because Max’s dad buys nearly all his ingredients to operate the town’s most popular restaurant from George, which is a serious portion of George’s business.

George feels he has no choice.  He agrees with Max to stop selling lemons, sugar and ice to Margie.

[“Oh no,” thinks the antitrust lawyer, “that’s a vertical agreement, i.e., an agreement between a purchaser and a supplier, to restrain competition for the purchase of lemonade ingredients.”]

“But,” says George, “I don’t want to see all of my business with Margie go to the other grocers in town.  Hear what I’m saying?”  “Good idea,” thinks Max.

Max promptly visits the two other grocers in town, telling them that they’d better not sell lemonade ingredients to Margie, or else Max will boycott and so will his dad, both of whom provide a steady stream of business to these grocers as well (whenever George faces supply issues). Max takes care to add: George already agreed, so all of you grocers need to get on the same page.”

Not sure what else to do, these two additional grocers respectively agree to Max’s proposal. While the idea seems contrary to their individual interests, they can see Max means business and independently decide it’s easiest to comply.

Max circles back with George, telling him that all the grocers in town are on board. George nods.

[“Oh no,” thinks the antitrust lawyer, “now there’s a potential horizontal agreement, i.e., an agreement among competitors in the same level on the supply chain—in this case, the 3 grocers. Such an agreement could be implied even though the grocers never actually spoke to one another.”]

As a result of Max’s scheming, Margie can’t buy the ingredients she needs, and goes out of business. Max never can figure out how to add strawberries to his classic recipe for straight lemonade, so the town is left without strawberry lemonade indefinitely.

Margie’s very upset until she meets an antitrust lawyer to whom she tells her story. The antitrust lawyer explains to Margie that she’s the victim of a hub-and-spoke conspiracy—with Max at the hub, 3 separate vertical agreements between Max and each of the grocers (the spokes), and the 3 grocers all implicitly agreeing with one another, forming a horizontal agreement to boycott Margie on the “rim.” While courts may analyze the arrangement differently depending on the jurisdiction, it’s certainly an antitrust concern anywhere.

With her lawyer’s help, Margie files an antitrust claim, wins trebled damages, and lives happily ever after selling her strawberry lemonade, now world famous.

Max becomes a white-collar lawyer specializing in the defense of executives who allegedly violate the criminal antitrust laws. He’s still single.

THE MORALS OF THE STORY:

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Author: Luke Hasskamp

It’s one of the best times of the year—opening day in Major League Baseball!

Now, there has been a lot of professional baseball news lately, with the MLB lockout and acrimonious negotiations between the MLB players union and team owners, before they finally resolved the dispute and got back to baseball. But somewhat lost in the hubbub has been a dispute between MLB and several minor league baseball teams that has been in the works for years.

Specifically, four minor league teams have sued MLB under federal antitrust laws, alleging MLB unlawfully conspired to eliminate 40 minor league affiliates in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

Those teams (the Staten Island Yankees, the Tri-City Valley Cats, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, and the Norwich Sea Unicorns) were among the 40 teams that MLB stripped of their affiliations in major league clubs. This followed a plan announced in 2020 by MLB to reduce the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120. MLB’s move was, unsurprisingly, highly criticized by the teams, as well as their communities and political representatives.

In the lawsuit, the four minor league teams accused MLB’s actions as “nothing less than a naked, horizontal agreement to cement MLB’s dominance over all professional baseball and to reduce output and boycott” the 40 teams stripped of their MLB affiliation.

What is interesting about the lawsuit is that the four minor league teams expressly acknowledge that their claim is currently barred by existing Supreme Court precedent—baseball’s antitrust exemption that emerged 100 years ago, in the Supreme Court’s 1922 decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, 259 U.S. 200 (1922). (We have written a series of articles about baseball’s antitrust exemption which detailed the history of baseball and its legal disputes over the decades.)

In essence, in Federal Baseball Club, the Supreme Court held that federal antitrust laws do not apply to the game of baseball. That now notorious decision, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., consisted of just three paragraphs of reasoning. The Court’s ultimate reasoning: the Sherman Act did not apply because baseball did not have an impact on interstate commerce: “The business is giving exhibitions of baseball, which are purely state affairs.” The Court reasoned that, even if individuals did cross state lines for baseball games, “the transport is a mere incident, not the essential thing.” According to the Court, “personal effort not related to production is not a subject of commerce. That which in its consummation is not commerce does not become commerce among the states because the transportation that we have mentioned takes place.”

(Notably, this year marks the centennial anniversary of baseball’s antitrust exemption as Federal Baseball Club was decided 100 years ago, on May 29, 1922.)

Now, when we wrote our articles about 18 months before this one, we anticipated future disputes specifically between MLB and minor league teams. We noted, “[i] n 1998, Congress enacted the Curt Flood Act of 1998, which declared that the antitrust laws apply to Major League Baseball’s employment practices . . . . An interesting aspect of the law, however, was that only Major League Baseball players were given standing to sue—minor league [players and teams] remain subject to the reserve clause, which is an interesting wrinkle . . . .”

That “interesting wrinkle” became the full-blown lawsuit in December 2021 filed by these four minor league teams in the Southern District of New York. As we said, the minor league teams recognized the significant impediment that the Federal Baseball Club precedent created. They are asserting a federal antitrust claim against MLB, and the Supreme Court has exempted major league baseball from such claims. But the minor league teams insist that the Supreme Court is primed for a change of course. Indeed, they suggest that the Supreme Court’s recent antitrust ruling in NCAA v. Alston, 141 S. Ct. 2141 (2021), portends a likely reversal of the baseball exemption if the issue again reaches the Court.

Alston was a high-profile dispute between the NCAA and several college athletes challenging NCAA compensation restrictions under antitrust laws. The NCAA had tried to overcome the lawsuit by arguing it too was entitled to a similar protection from antitrust scrutiny that baseball enjoyed, at least for its amateurism rules, stemming from a nearly 40-year-old decision in NCAA v. Board of Regents, 468 U.S. 85 (1984). But, in Alston, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that argument, concluding that whatever special protection from the antitrust laws that the Board of Regents decision had provided to the NCAA no longer applied.

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Author: Molly Donovan

Yesterday the DOJ’s Antitrust Division announced updates to its Leniency Policy and issued nearly 50 new FAQs, and related responses, regarding its leniency practices. One welcome development is that the new FAQs clarify some the DOJ’s positions concerning ACPERA—the statute designed to limit an amnesty company’s potential exposure in civil lawsuits. Previously, guidance on ACPERA was almost non-existent, yet seriously needed to curb the unreasonable demands that plaintiffs were placing on amnesty companies relative to their co-defendants, making ACPERA not particularly incentivizing, at least at times. Even worse, plaintiffs could continually threaten expensive litigation over the satisfaction of ACPERA, undermining its incentive powers even more. Now, the FAQs make the DOJ’s view clear that an applicant who chooses to pursue ACPERA benefits need not be at a plaintiff’s beck and call regardless of plaintiff’s reasonableness, or lack thereof.

While the changes on this front are helpful to potential applicants, the Division could have gone further and some uncertainties for companies contemplating a self-report to the DOJ will remain.

Here are some of the critical bullet points.

Prompt Self-Reporting. To qualify for leniency, a company is required to “promptly” self-report once the relevant conduct is discovered. While there’s no bright-line rule, “promptly” does not appear to mean that an inkling of wrongdoing must be followed immediately by a call to DOJ, as some may have previously thought. Rather, with the new FAQ guidance, the condition of “promptly” appears to be aimed at disqualifying companies whose lawyers or compliance officers investigate and confirm anticompetitive activity, yet purposefully choose not to self-report in hopes that the conduct remains otherwise unearthed.

On the other hand, the DOJ seems to recognize the fact that internal investigations conducted by counsel are typically a necessary step between some indication of wrongdoing and the seeking of a marker, and that cartel investigations in particular often span jurisdictions, and are otherwise complex and take time. This mindset and approach appear to be appropriate to the DOJ in terms of timing.

Relatedly, the FAQs say that an internal failure to appreciate that the activities at issue are illegal (or illegal in the United States) is not a defense to a failure to promptly self-report. Companies (and particularly non-U.S. companies) that are unsure how problematic a particular activity is are wise to seek U.S. counsel as early as practicable.

In any event, the DOJ’s FAQs say that if an organization is too late to obtain leniency, but nevertheless chooses to self-report and cooperate, it may earn credit applicable at sentencing.

Remediation and Compliance. To qualify for leniency, the corporate applicant must now “undertake remedial measures” and improve compliance to prevent recidivism. This requirement, as stated, is new in that “remediation” appears separate and apart from the condition that an applicant make best efforts to pay restitution. While “restitution” is focused on compensating victims, “remediation” appears to be focused mostly on internal efforts to “address the root causes” of the conduct by, for example, recognizing its seriousness, accepting responsibility, implementing measures to prevent similar conduct from reoccurring, and disciplining or firing “culpable, non-cooperating personnel.” What constitutes sufficient remediation will depend on the circumstances, according to the FAQs, but detailed guidance as to compliance can be found in the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs in Criminal Antitrust Investigations Guidance (the DOJ’s guidelines regarding effective compliance programs).

What is unclear is what “recognizing seriousness” and “accepting responsibility” mean in this context. For leniency applicants who can admit to a criminal U.S. antitrust violation, but must litigate certain nuances elsewhere in the world, or in civil lawsuits in the U.S., as to the extent of harm, for example, there is a potential tension.

Restitution. The program has long required an applicant to make best efforts to pay restitution to victims where possible. Previously, “where possible” was unclear, and it’s now been clarified to mean that actual payments of restitution will be excused only in relatively narrow circumstances, e.g., “the applicant is in bankruptcy and prohibited by court order from making payments; where such payments would likely cause the applicant to cease operations or declare bankruptcy; or if the sole victim is defunct.”

Absent such circumstances, to receive a final leniency letter, “applicants must actually pay restitution.”  This obviously sounds like a higher burden than merely “making efforts” to pay restitution, and the questions remain who is a “victim,” how that will be decided, and whether 100% of all victims must be compensated before final leniency can be achieved. Assuming a final letter is desired for some practical reason, the situation could be a tough one for applicants who disagree that a particular claimant is an actual victim, or that a particular claimant is owed the full amounts it says it is. In such cases, litigation over these questions could take years, making the quest for a final leniency letter a very long and uncertain one.

The same goes for another new requirement that, to get even a conditional letter, an applicant must “present concrete, reasonably achievable plans about how they will make restitution.” It’s questionable how this would work in practice. At the outset of a cartel investigation, it’s unclear how many claimants will come forward, when they’ll come forward and how much they will claim they are owed. A generic “plan” may be one thing—a prediction about who the bona fide victims are and whether they will claim compensation and how and when they will be paid is another.

As with remediation, there is also tension here for an amnesty applicant that admits to conspiratorial agreements, but will litigate the nuances involved in the complex determination of whether an agreement had full or only partial success. Given all the economic facts, there may be nothing inconsistent with an admission of criminal guilt, on the one hand, and the position that a particular claimant did not suffer.  But determining who is a victim and who is not can be an intensive undertaking.  If the Division is going to require actual competition to all victims, it’s an inquiry they should be willing to look at closely for fairness, particularly where the civil plaintiffs are alleging a conspiracy much bigger in size and scope (and therefore, in damages) than the conspiracy admitted to for purposes of criminal guilt.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Just weeks before our ABA antitrust panel on State Action Immunity takes place in Washington DC, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed SmileDirectClub to proceed against the members of the California Dental Board for antitrust violations, rejecting the board’s immunity claim on active supervision grounds.

At Bona Law we are no stranger to enforcing the federal antitrust laws against anticompetitive conduct enabled by state and local governments. In fact, we filed an amicus curiae brief in the NC Dental case.

Background of the SmileDirectClub Antitrust Saga

This is part of the antitrust group of cases that SmileDirectClub has filed against dental boards in Alabama, Georgia and California.

Rather than teeth-whitening like in NC Dental, the product market in these three cases is teeth-alignment treatments. SmileDirectClub provides cost-effective orthodontic treatments through teledentistry. One of SmileDirectClub’s services is SmileShops. These are physical locations in several states at which they take rapid photographs of a consumer’s mouth. Customers may also use an at-home mouth impression kit, which means that an in-person dental examination is not necessary. Afterwards they send the photographs to the SmileDirectClub lab.

SmileDirectClub connects the customer with a dentist or orthodontist, who is licensed to practice locally but is located off-site (and may be even located out-of-state), who evaluates the model and photographs and creates a treatment plan. If the dentist feels that aligners are appropriate for the patient, she prescribes the aligners and sends them directly to the patient. The patient doesn’t need to visit a traditional dental office for teeth alignment treatment. This results in significant cost savings and greater customer convenience and access.

But the members of the boards of dental examiners in Georgia, Alabama and California have, according to plaintiffs, allegedly conspired to harass the SmileDirectClub parties with unfounded investigations and an intimidation campaign, with hopes of driving them out of the market, while using their government-created power in the marketplace to protect the economic interests of the traditional orthodontia market.

District courts in Alabama and Georgia have allowed all cases to proceed, after the 11th Circuit affirmed. The Alabama case settled in 2021, after that state’s dental board signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.

The District Court case in California: Sulitzer v. Tippins, case No. 20-55735

In California, by statute, the dental board regulates the practice of dentistry. See Cal. Bus.&Prof. Code §§ 1600–1621. It enforces dental regulations, administers licensing exams, and issues dental licenses and permits. Id. § 1611. The Board is made up of fifteen members: “eight practicing dentists, one registered dental hygienist, one registered dental assistant, and five public members.” Id. § 1601.1(a). Since many of its members compete in the market for teeth-straightening services, they allegedly view SmileDirect as a “competitive threat.”

Plaintiffs alleged that certain members of the Board, motivated by their private desires to stifle competition, mounted an aggressive, anticompetitive campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to drive the SmileDirectClub out of the market. The Complaint contended that these actions violated the Sherman Antitrust Act; the Dormant Commerce Clause; the Equal Protection Clause; the Due Process Clause; and California’s Unfair Competition Law. The dental board defendants moved to dismiss SmileDirectClub’s claims for anticompetitive conduct based on a state-action immunity defense.

The district court rejected defendants’ argument that the state action doctrine applied because the defendants––members and employees of the Dental Board of California—largely made up of traditional dentists and orthodontists who have a financial motive to view the newcomers as competition—could not show that they were actively supervised. The court nevertheless held plaintiffs failed to state a Section 1 claim and ended up dismissing the complaint without prejudice.

SmileDirectClub amended the complaint once, but the district court dismissed again the federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim. This time the court held that SmileDirectClub may have pled enough facts to show the existence of an agreement––by way of a theory of the board’s ratification of the investigation––but surprisingly concluded it was nevertheless insufficient to state a Section 1 claim because the agreement was consistent with its regulatory purpose to undertake their delegated authority as members of the board, and thus was not intended to restrict or restrain competition. Make sure you don’t forget this last sentence. The Ninth Circuit hammers this argument down now in its Opinion.

SmileDirectClub appealed the ruling before the Ninth Circuit

The Case on Appeal: SmileDirectClub and Jeffrey Sulitzer DMD v. Joseph Tippins et al., 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals No. 20-55735

I would strongly suggest you read this opinion. It is absolutely worth your time.

First, the Ninth Circuit concludes that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged anticompetitive concerted action to meet the pleading standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), although it makes no judgment on the merits of the claims and whether those claims will withstand scrutiny in the next phase of the litigation

It further explains that by requiring plaintiffs to plead facts inconsistent with the Board’s regulatory purpose, the district court applied a standard more appropriate at the summary judgment stage, where § 1 plaintiffs must offer “evidence that tends to exclude the possibility” of lawful independent conduct. This is something many district courts do across the country and which we have been writing about at Bona Law systematically.

Second, the court plainly rejects the broad proposition—offered up by the board members and the district court—that regulatory board members and employees cannot form an anticompetitive conspiracy when acting within their regulatory authority.

In its opinion, the court highlights how the Supreme Court has stressed, “[t]he similarities between agencies controlled by active market participants and private trade associations are not eliminated simply because the former are given a formal designation by the State, vested with a measure of government power, and required to follow some procedural rules.” N.C. State, 574 U.S. at 511.

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Author: Aaron Gott

The most complex, highest stakes litigation in the United States is class action antitrust litigation. And many antitrust cases are litigated as class actions because they involve claims by many consumers of the defendants’ products or services.

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If you are a defendant in a federal class action case, you should know that class certification is an important pivot point in the litigation: once the class is certified, it could be a bet-the-company moment where the risk of a large judgment outweighs any considerations about the merits or your likelihood of successfully defending at trial. The fact that you could appeal class certification after trial, a verdict, and final judgment might be cold comfort. There’s a strong chance you’ll be the only defendant who hasn’t settled by then.

Fortunately, there is good news: the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow immediate appeals of class certification orders.

But there is also bad news: the courts of appeals have unfettered discretion to decide your class certification appeal—you must persuade the court why it should consider the case immediately rather than after final judgment, as it usually does.

Here are ten things you should know about immediate appeals of class certification orders under Rule 23(f) if you are a party or counsel involved in a class action in federal district court.

  1. You don’t have much time.

You only have 14 days from the date of the certification order to file a petition for immediate appeal. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f). The 14-day time limit is considered jurisdictional. So there are no extensions: you must either file your petition within 14 days or not file it at all. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court in Nutraceutical v. Lambert recently held that the 14-day deadline cannot be tolled.

That is just two weeks from when you got the news. No extra time for mailing (to the extent you still do that). No extra time for that Memorial Day Weekend, Fourth of July holiday, or Thanksgiving week smack dab in the middle of that 14 days.

Even without intervening holidays, 14 days is not a lot of time to prepare a brief to convince an appellate court to exercise its “unfettered discretion” to hear your appeal.

So, in practice, you should assume the trial court will rule against you on certification and start working on your Rule 23(f) appeal well in advance of the decision. Defendants in most class actions—particularly antitrust class actions like those we focus on at Bona Law—face ruinous joint and several liability that means most defendants prefer not to risk trial regardless of the risk of liability on the merits. It is worth having the insurance of a head start on a 23(f) petition long before the 14-day timer starts ticking.

You should also consider hiring appellate counsel for purposes of the appeal (more on this below).

  1. 23(f) appeals are discretionary and rarely granted.

The U.S. Supreme Court held, back in 1978, that orders denying class certification are not final decisions within the meaning of federal law, and thus are not appealable as a matter of right. After changes from Congress and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(f) was created specifically to afford the opportunity for an immediate appeal under at least some circumstances.

But what circumstances qualify for an immediate appeal are up to the judges deciding whether to grant one, as Rule 23(f) appeals are entirely permissive and, in fact, subject to the “unfettered discretion” of the courts of appeals. The committee that drafted Rule 23(f) made sure to highlight this discretion in its notes on the rule.

Thus, a 23(f) petition is a lot like a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. Luckily, a 23(f) petition is much more likely to be granted and a certiorari petition. Though reliable data is hard to come by, the courts of appeal grant around a quarter of all petitions (and they reverse the district court in a little over half the cases in which they grant the petition).

Between a quarter and a third grant about a third of Rule 23(f) petitions, while others appear to exercise their discretion to hear Rule 23(f) appeals much more conservatively.

See below for guidelines on how to convince a court of appeals to take up your 23(f) appeal.

  1. The rules on the form and contents of filing are different than merits appeals

Rule 23(f) petitions vary from typical opening briefs in several respects.

Second, the petition has some specific requirements. You must include the questions presented, the relevant facts, the relief sought, the rule that authorizes the appeal and the reasons why the court should grant it, and a copy of the order. You have only get 20 pages to succinctly state complex facts and make complex legal arguments to convince three judges why they should volunteer to do extra work on top of their already crowded mandatory docket. Use those pages wisely.

Third, while an opposing party may file an answer or cross-petition, you do not automatically have the right to file a reply brief. You can, of course, seek leave to file a sur-reply, but these efforts to get the last word in can sometimes do more harm than good. The best practice is to only do it if it’s necessary to address something new raised by the other side.

Fourth, check the local rules. They might include additional requirements or restrictions relating to 23(f) petitions.

  1. You must convince the court twice over

First, you must convince the court why it should exercise its “unfettered discretion” to take up your appeal.

Then, you often must also convince the court why it should reverse the district court’s order.

Sometimes courts make both decisions in one stroke. If sufficient evidence of error appears on its face, a court of appeals could summarily reverse or affirm the order. See, e.g., CE Design Ltd. v. King Arch. Metals, Inc., 637 F.3d 721 (7th Cir. 2011). Other times, the court will grant the petition and order briefing on the merits.

What this means in practice is that your petition should be compelling in both respects—why the court should grant it and why it should reverse. You should frame the arguments according to the reasons for granting the petition while applying your merits arguments within that framework.

  1. There are several reasons why the court might grant a petition

As explained above, courts of appeals have “unfettered discretion” in deciding whether to grant a petition for review. In practice, however, most courts have set forth a test or series of factors for cases warranting review. Each circuit has developed such a standard or test excerpt the Eight Circuit, which declined to do so.

In the First, Second, and Seventh Circuits, for example, there are two situations warranting review of a class certification order under Rule 23(f):

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