Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

Colgate Doctrine

Author: Jarod Bona

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

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

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

If you want background on resale-price maintenance, you might also review:

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

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

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

Businesses (with some exceptions) have no general antitrust-law obligation to do business with any particular company and can thus unilaterally terminate distributors without antitrust consequences. Before you rely on this, however, you should definitely consult an antitrust attorney, as the antitrust laws create several important exceptions, including refusal to deal, refusal to supply, and overall monopolization limitations.

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

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Antitrust-and-Distribution-200x300
Contrary to the belief of many of today’s businesspeople, antitrust law’s coverage of distribution did not start with Amazon or even the Internet.  For decades, manufacturers have sold their products to resellers of all types to increase the distribution of their products.  Manufacturers always have been interested in how their products, often with their brands, are resold.  They often have tried to dictate or influence the pricing and marketing tactics of their resellers.

Since 1890, US federal antitrust law has been there every step of the way, drawing the line between permissible and impermissible restraints.  The 2020 edition of Cernak’s Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising summarizes where those lines are today.

In just over one hundred pages, the book provides concise, plain English coverage of all the antitrust topics manufacturers and retailers—and their representatives—need to understand.  Businesspeople can quickly get up to speed on potential distribution options.  Libraries can provide their users, especially students, an efficient way to start their research.  Generalist lawyers can review summaries of the key principles and cases necessary to assist their clients.

Resale-Price-Maintenance-Toys-300x252

Author: Jarod Bona

If you are looking for controversy, you came to the right place. Today, we discuss resale price maintenance, one of the most contentious issues in all of antitrust. If you look around and see a bunch of antitrust economists, hide your screen so they don’t start arguing with each other. Trust me; that is the last thing you want to experience.

Let’s start with some background: A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between, for example, a supplier and a retailer that the retailer will not sell the supplier’s product to an end user (or anyone, for that matter) for less than a certain amount. It is a straight vertical price-fixing agreement.

That type of agreement has a storied—and controversial—past. Over a hundred years ago, the Supreme Court in a case called Dr. Miles declared that this type of vertical price fixing is per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws. This is a designation that is now almost exclusively limited to horizontal agreements.

During the ensuing hundred years or so, economists and lawyers debated whether resale price maintenance (RPM) really should be a per se antitrust violation. After all, there are procompetitive reasons for certain RPM agreements and the per se label is only supposed to apply to activity that is universally anticompetitive.

After a trail of similar issues over the years, the question again landed in the Supreme Court’s lap in a case called Leegin in 2007. In a highly controversial decision that led to backlash in certain states, the Supreme Court lifted the per se veil from these controversial vertical agreements and declared that, at least as far as federal antitrust law is concerned, courts should analyze resale price maintenance under the rule of reason (mostly).

You can read more about Leegin and how courts analyze these agreements in our prior article. And if you want to learn more about how certain states, like California, handle resale price maintenance agreements, you can read this article. Finally, if you are looking for a loophole to resale price maintenance agreements, read our article about Colgate policies and related issues.

Minimum advertised pricing policies (MAP) are related to resale price maintenance: you can read our article on MAP pricing and antitrust here. You might also want to read Steven Cernak’s article about the four questions you should ask before worrying about the antitrust risks of new distributor restraints.

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exclusive-deailng-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Sometimes parties will enter a contract whereby one agrees to buy (or supply) all of its needs (or product) to the other. For example, maybe a supplier and retailer agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in the retailer’s stores? This usually isn’t free as the supplier will offer something—better services, better prices, etc.—to obtain the exclusivity.

If you compete with the party that receives the benefit of the exclusive deal, this sort of contract can seem quite aggravating. After all, you have a great product, you offer a competitive price, and you know that your service is better. Then why is the retailer only buying from your competitor? Shouldn’t you deserve at least a chance? Isn’t that what the antitrust laws are for?

Maybe. But most exclusive-dealing agreements are both pro-competitive and legal under the antitrust laws. That doesn’t mean that you can’t bring an antitrust action and it doesn’t mean you won’t win. But, percentage-wise, most exclusive-dealing arrangements don’t implicate the antitrust laws.

You can read our article about exclusive dealing at the Bona Law website here.

It is important that I deflate your expectations a little bit at the beginning like this because if you are on the outside looking in at an exclusive dealing agreement, you are probably quite angry and you may feel helpless. From your perspective, it will certainly seem like an antitrust violation. And your gut feeling about certain conduct is a good first filter about whether you have an antitrust claim. What I am trying to tell you is that with regard to exclusive dealing, your gut may give you some false positives.

Of course, the market is full of exclusive or partial-exclusive dealing agreements and there are relatively few of these that turn into federal antitrust litigation. So if you see an exclusive-dealing claim in federal litigation, it doesn’t mean it is not one of the rare instances of an exclusive-dealing antitrust violation. We receive a lot of calls about exclusive-dealing agreements that are antitrust violations or close to antitrust violations. But people don’t call us for most varieties of exclusive dealing, which is perfectly legal under the antitrust laws.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

An exclusive dealing agreement occurs when a seller agrees to sell all or most of its output of a product or service exclusively to a particular buyer. It can also occur in the reverse situation: when a buyer agrees to purchase all or most of its requirements from a particular seller. Importantly, although the term used in the doctrine is “exclusive” dealing, the agreement need not be literally exclusive. Courts will often apply exclusive dealing to partial or de facto exclusive dealing agreements, where the contract involves a substantial portion of the other party’s output or requirements.

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Author: Jon Cieslak

When a law enforcement or regulatory agency—such as the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—investigates potentially illegal business conduct, it may not be targeting just the company under investigation. Oftentimes, authorities are also targeting the company’s employees who engaged in the illegal conduct, and corporate officers and other employees are frequently indicted alongside their employers in antitrust and other cases. See, e.g., United States v. Hsiung, 778 F.3d 738 (9th Cir. 2014). Indeed, in 2015, U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates issued the so-called “Yates Memo” that reaffirmed DOJ’s commitment to seek “accountability from the individuals who perpetrated the wrongdoing.”

While the company typically hires outside counsel with experience defending the potential claims, one area that is sometimes overlooked is whether the employees involved in the investigation need their own lawyers. Employees may think the company’s lawyer represents them as well, but that is rarely the case and employees should be quickly disabused of the notion. Both the Supreme Court in Upjohn v. United States, 449 U.S. 383 (1981), and legal ethics rules compel corporate lawyers to clarify when they do not represent individual employees when conducting internal investigations. See, e.g., Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 1.13(f).

So when does an employee need her own lawyer?

While there is no bright-line rule, considering some key questions can help you make the right decision.

First, is the employee a target of the investigation, or merely a witness? During an investigation, investigators will talk to many potential witnesses in addition to the individuals whom they suspect of illegal conduct. When confident that investigators believe an employee is only a witness to the potentially illegal conduct, the need for separate counsel is significantly reduced.

Second, does the employee face personal consequences as a result of her conduct? Consequences may include criminal penalties such as imprisonment or fines, suspension or loss of professional licenses, personal liability for civil damages awards, or employment consequences such as demotion or termination. While even a small chance of criminal penalties merits separate counsel, as the likelihood of any of these consequences grows, so too does the importance for an employee to have her own lawyer. Keep in mind, too, that individuals involved in some illegal conduct—such as an antitrust conspiracy—can be jointly and severally liable for all the harm caused by the conspiracy, so could face an enormous civil damages award even if their role was minimal. See Texas Industries, Inc. v. Radcliff Materials, Inc., 451 U.S. 630, 646 (1981).

Third, was the investigation initiated by a law enforcement or regulatory agency, or is it purely an internal investigation by the company itself? In general, separate counsel is less important in internal investigations. On the other hand, when the government is investigating, separate counsel can benefit both the employee and the company. Not only will the employee’s interests be better protected, separate counsel will also help insulate the company’s lawyers from potential disqualification and allegations of obstruction. Separate counsel is particularly important when an employee will be interviewed directly by law enforcement agents, who are more likely to trust a witness’s independent attorney.

Fourth, and most importantly, does the employee have any actual or potential conflicts of interest with the company and, if so, how severe are they? When both the company and the employee are targets of a government investigation, there will almost always be at least a potential conflict between them. A company usually has substantial incentives to cooperate with a government investigation, such as the potential for amnesty under the DOJ’s Leniency Program and credit for cooperating under the Sentencing Guidelines. To fully cooperate, however, the Yates Memo requires companies to “completely disclose . . . all relevant facts about individual misconduct.” Meanwhile, an employee involved in the conduct may want to seek immunity in exchange for testifying against the company or other individuals. Even less severe conflicts, however, can warrant separate counsel. If an employee disagrees with the company’s view of the facts or feels pressure to testify in a certain way, separate counsel may be needed to protect the employee’s interests.

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Joint-Ventures-Antitrust-300x102

Author: Steven Cernak

On March 24, 2020, the FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division issued a joint statement regarding their approach to coordination among competitors during the current health crisis. The agencies announced a streamlining of the usual lengthy Advisory Opinion or Business Review Letter processes for potentially problematic joint efforts of competitors. The statement also confirmed that the antitrust laws had not been suspended and, for instance, price fixing would still be prosecuted.

More importantly, however, the agencies reminded businesses that many kinds of joint ventures of competitors have long been allowed, even encouraged, under the antitrust laws. That message might have been lost in the blizzard of reports and client alerts focusing on the changes to the processes to judge only the riskiest joint efforts. Especially in economic crises, businesses should consider if certain joint ventures with others in their industry, including competitors, might be good for both the businesses and their customers. As explained below, the U.S. auto industry has been using such joint ventures for decades.

Joint Ventures

The term “joint venture” can cover any collaborative activity where separate firms pool resources to advance some common objective.  When that joint activity among competitors is likely to lead to faster introduction of a new product, lower costs, or some other benefits to be passed on to customers, antitrust law will balance those benefits with any loss of competition.  Two specific types of joint ventures—research & development and production—have received particular antitrust encouragement. Below, lessons from both types are explored using examples from the auto industry.

Research & Development Joint Ventures

The FTC and DOJ have described joint R&D as “efficiency-enhancing integration of economic activity” and, generally, pro-competitive. Getting scientists and engineers from competing firms to share data, test results, and best practices on basic areas that each company can then build on to create or improve competitive products can save money and reduce time to market.

GM, Ford and then-Chrysler started doing joint R&D on battery technology and other basic building blocks of motor vehicles in 1990. In 1992, all these efforts were put under the umbrella of the United States Council for Automotive Research or USCAR.  Through USCAR and other joint efforts, these fierce competitors cooperate on technologies like advanced powertrains, manufacturing and materials, and various types of energy storage and then compete on their applications in their vehicles.

Similarly, GM and Ford shared design responsibilities for advanced 9- and 10-speed transmissions. After the cooperating on design, each company then manufactured the transmissions and competed on the vehicles that used them.

Production Joint Ventures

In 1983, GM and Toyota formed a production-only joint venture, NUMMI, to produce vehicles for each parent that were then marketed separately. In 1984, the FTC barely approved the joint venture and insisted on an Order imposing reporting requirements and limits on communication.  By 1993, the FTC had grown comfortable with NUMMI’s operation and so unanimously voted to vacate the Order as no longer necessary given changed conditions.

NUMMI’s success in navigating through antitrust concerns led to other production joint ventures in the industry including a Ford-Mazda one for vehicles, a Chrysler-Mitsubishi-Hyundai joint venture on engines, and a GM-Chrysler joint venture on manual transmissions. None of them were as controversial or received the same level of antitrust scrutiny as NUMMI.

The National Cooperative Research and Production Act

At about that same time as NUMMI’s formation, Congress was clarifying the antitrust laws to ensure that certain cooperative efforts that could benefit consumers were not inappropriately stifled by the antitrust laws. In 1984, the National Cooperative Research Act confirmed that most R&D joint ventures would be judged under the rule of reason. To further encourage such pro-competitive cooperation, the law also allowed the parties to file a very short notice describing the joint venture with the FTC and DOJ. Once such a notice is published in the Federal Register, any antitrust liability for the joint venture and its parents is limited to actual, not treble, damages and attorney fees. In 1993, the law was expanded to cover certain joint production ventures and standard development organizations and retitled the National Cooperative Research and Production Act or NCRPA.

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Antitrust-and-Price-Gouging-300x204
Author: Steven Cernak

Like many crisis situations, the Coronavirus Pandemic has created concerns and even outcry about price gouging for certain products.

If your company manufactures one of these products and your dealers and retailers have suddenly jacked up prices for them, what can you do?

Real Estate

Author: Jarod Bona

I am an antitrust attorney and CEO of a growing business, but my wife loves real estate and we have been investors over the years. You may have seen our real-estate investing website. So when antitrust and real-estate issues combine, I pay close attention. Not surprisingly, we receive a lot of calls about antitrust violations or issues in the real-estate industry. In fact, the Department of Justice and FTC have recently been studying antitrust/real-estate issues.

Antitrust law is especially relevant to real-estate professionals like brokers and salespeople because (1) competitor brokers both compete and cooperate on a daily basis; (2) prices and commission splits are often announced and well-known; (3) there is a history of tension and battles between a traditional business model and new business models (this can create antitrust litigation in any market); (4) associations and cooperative Multiple-Listing Services (MLS) play large roles in the industry; (5) US antitrust enforcers, like the Department of Justice and FTC, have seriously scrutinized the real-estate industry.

Here are five antitrust issues that real-estate professionals should understand:  Continue reading →

Robinson-Patman-Act-Antitrust-300x200

Author: Steven Cernak

When I first started practicing antitrust law in the “80’s, the Robinson-Patman Act was already an object of derision.¹ With Chicago School thinking riding high in academia and the courts and antitrust law’s focus shifting to effects on consumers, not rivals, RP cases seemed to be dwindling down to nothing. My colleagues and I were convinced that RP would soon be dead and we would never again need to deal with its tortured language² and questionable economics.

But not all my colleagues. One insisted that Robinson-Patman would never be repealed—after all, what member of Congress would vote against protecting small business?—and the private right of action would mean that the threat of litigation would always at least affect negotiations even if the federal agencies stopped bring new cases.³  Despite our constant ridicule of his outdated ways, he insisted that I learn the intricacies of the statute and cases, analyze the latest changes to the Fred Meyer Guides, and otherwise prepare to take over from him the counseling of a client that sold goods “of like grade and quality” in at least three overlapping channels.

I’m glad he did. He was right. To this day, suppliers and retailers negotiate in the shadow of RP and require counseling about its sometimes-obscure details. Every year, new private litigation gets filed and generates opinions and even jury verdicts on Robinson-Patman issues.⁴  Fewer than in the “60’s but still greater than zero.  So for all the suppliers and the retailers through whom they sell—along with their respective counselors—here is a summary of what you need to know about RP in the 21st Century:

The Basics of the Robinson-Patman Act

There are two kinds of discrimination that RP is meant to prevent and where some litigation is still filed today. Section 2(a) prohibits the sale of the same commodity at different prices to two competing buyers by one seller if the result is harm to competition. It has several elements that must be met and potential defenses, all of which narrow the scope of its application. Sections 2(d) and 2(e) are per se prohibitions of the discriminatory provision of or payment for certain promotional aids meant to assist in resale of a seller’s commodity. Again, several elements must be met to prove a violation. In addition, Robinson-Patman applies only to commodities sold for use or resale in the U.S.

Section 2(a) Price Discrimination – Elements

The elements of a Section 2(a) claim are usually summarized as prohibiting (1) a difference in price (2) in reasonably contemporaneous sales to two buyers purchasing from a single seller, (3) involving commodities, (4) of like grade and quality (5) that may injure competition.

While price discrimination is “merely a price difference”, actual net prices must be compared, after taking into account all discounts, rebates and other factors affecting price. If the lower price is “functionally available” to the plaintiff but plaintiff chooses not to accept it, courts have held that such proof “essentially negates the discrimination element” of plaintiff’s price discrimination claim.⁵

The two sales at different prices must be reasonably contemporaneous, a question of fact that depends on the seasonal quality of the sales and overall market conditions. Also, those two contemporaneous transactions must be “sales”, not something else like leases, licenses or an offer to sell. Finally, two completed sales are required and so at least one court has held that this element is not met in competitive bid situations where the commodity is only purchased if the dealer’s bid is successful.⁶

Section 2(a), as well as sections 2(d) and 2(e), apply only to “commodities”, a term left undefined by the statute. Courts have consistently interpreted the term to mean tangible products. Intangible items that have been held not to be commodities include medical services, cable television programming, and advertising, including online advertising.

The two commodities sold at different prices must be “of like grade and quality” for Section 2(a) to apply. When interpreting that statutory language, lower courts have followed the US Supreme Court’s lead in FTC v. Borden Co. and focused on physical differences in the products that affect consumer marketability. In that case, the Court found two varieties of the defendant’s evaporated milk to be “of like grade and quality” because the products were physically identical, even though the higher-price branded version had gained consumer preference over the lower-priced private label version.⁸

The final element of a Section 2(a) violation is whether “the effect of such discrimination may be substantially … to lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly …”, which has been interpreted to mean that a plaintiff need not show an actual adverse effect on competition, only a “reasonable possibility” of such an effect.

Injury to competition generally is found at the level of a rival to the discriminating seller (“primary line injury”) or of the disfavored customer (“secondary line injury”). The Supreme Court’s Brooke Group opinion clarified that a successful primary line claim must meet the same difficult test required of predatory pricing plaintiffs.⁹ As a result, secondary line cases now predominate.

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Toys R Us Antitrust Conspiracy

Author: Jarod Bona

Like life, sometimes antitrust conspiracies are complicated. Not everything always fits into a neat little package. An articulate soundbite or an attractive infograph isn’t necessarily enough to explain the reality of what is going on.

The paradigm example of an antitrust conspiracy is the smoke-filled room of competitors with their evil laughs deciding what prices their customers are going to pay, or how they are going to divide up the customers. This is a horizontal conspiracy and is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Another, less dramatic, part of the real estate of antitrust law involves manufacturers, distributors, and retailers and the prices they set and the deals they make. This usually relates to vertical agreements and typically invites the more-detailed rule-of-reason analysis by courts. One example of this type of an agreement is a resale-price-maintenance agreement.

But sometimes a conspiracy will include a mixture of parties at different levels of the distribution chain. In other words, the overall agreement or conspiracy may include both horizontal (competitor) relationships and vertical relationships. In some circumstances, everyone in the conspiracy—even those that are not conspiring with any competitors—could be liable for a per se antitrust violation.

As the Ninth Circuit explained in In re Musical Instruments and Equipment Antitrust Violation, “One conspiracy can involve both direct competitors and actors up and down the supply chain, and hence consist of both horizontal and vertical agreements.” (1192). One such hybrid form of conspiracy (there are others) is sometimes called a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy.

In a hub-and-spoke conspiracy, a hub (which is often a dominant retailer or purchaser) will have identical or similar agreements with several spokes, which are often manufacturers or suppliers. By itself, this is merely a series of vertical agreements, which would be subject to the rule of reason.

But when each of the manufacturers agree among each other to enter the agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may develop into a single per se antitrust violation. To complete the hub-and-spoke analogy, the retailer is the hub, the manufacturers are the spokes and the agreement among the manufacturers is the wheel that forms around the spokes.

In many instances, the impetus of a hub-and-spoke antitrust conspiracy is a powerful retailer that wants to knock out other retail competition. In the internet age, you might see this with a strong brick-and-mortar retailer that wants to take a hit at e-commerce competitors.

The powerful retailer knows that the several manufacturers need the volume the retailer can deliver, so it has some market power over these retailers. With market power—which translates to negotiating power—you can ask for stuff. Usually what you ask for is better pricing, terms, etc.

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