Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

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Author: Jarod Bona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We hear many questions about MAP policies, from both those that want to implement them and those that are subject to them.

Do MAP Policies Violate the Antitrust Laws?

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

We can, however, add further context to better understand the level of risk for particular MAP policies.

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

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

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

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

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

Resale Price Maintenance

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

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

Under federal law, courts now usually analyze resale-price-maintenance agreements under the antitrust rule of reason. Some misunderstand that this means they are necessarily legal under federal law, but that isn’t correct. The consequence of the US Supreme Court’s Leegin decision is that under federal law, challengers to Resale Price Maintenance policies must now face the the more difficult rule of reason standard instead of the per se standard.

Colgate Policies

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

The bottom line with Colgate is that in most situations the federal antitrust laws do not forbid one company from unilaterally refusing to deal with another. There are, of course, exceptions, so don’t rely on this point without consulting an antitrust lawyer. And a refusal to deal with a competitor is different than a refusal to supply a customer in retaliation for dealing with a competitor. But that is starting to send us into an entirely different doctrine, so I will stop there.

Back to MAP Policies and Antitrust

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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 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 mix 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 these 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 protect its market power from 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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Colgate Doctrine

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust boutique law firm, we receive a varied assortment of antitrust-related questions. One of the most common topics involves resale-price maintenance.

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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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Steve Cernak

The adoption of the new Vertical Block Exemption Regulation and Guidelines has created a hectic few months in the European Union for those in the world of antitrust and distribution agreements.

1. The European Commission updates existing vertical rules

On May 10, 2022, the European Commission (EC) adopted the new Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER), together with the new Guidelines on Vertical Restraints. The core of applicable rules to vertical agreements––those entered into between undertakings operating at different levels of the distribution chain––remains the same, but the EC has now introduced some significant changes, especially for online sales and platforms. The new VBER entered into force on June 1, 2022, and will expire on May 31, 2034. There is also a transitional period of one year for those agreements already in force that satisfy the conditions for exemption under the old VBER, but do not satisfy the conditions under the new VBER.

Like the old, the new VBER allows parties to vertical agreements to determine their compatibility with Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”), by establishing a safe harbor exemption. In a nutshell, when the share of both buyer and seller does not exceed 30% of the relevant market, and absent any “hardcore restrictions” such as territorial or customer restrictions or resale price maintenance among others, their vertical agreements are automatically exempted. Agreements that do not satisfy the VBER conditions may still qualify for an individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU.

a. Dual Distribution

Dual distribution happens when a supplier is both active upstream, at the wholesale level, but also downstream, selling directly to end customers in competition with other retailers. For instance, through its own online shop or a marketplace.

The new VBER––similarly to the old draft––covers dual distribution as a safe harbor, even though it excludes vertical agreements between competitors. But the new draft includes two important nuances:

  • First, the protection is now extended to cover not only manufacturers, but also importers and wholesalers. With one wrinkle: The so called “hybrid function”. Vertical agreements involving online intermediation services (OIS)––such as those provided by marketplaces or app stores among others––, where the provider acts as both a reseller of the same intermediated goods or services and competes with the same companies to which it provides those OIS, are excluded from the exception.
  • Second, it introduces a novel two-prong test to determine when information exchanges in a dual distribution scenario are exempted: (i) when they are directly related to the implementation of the vertical agreement; and (ii) they are also necessary to improve the production or distribution of the contract goods or services. The Guidelines also provide (i) a non-exhaustive “white list” of examples that benefit from the exemption, such as technical information, or recommended or maximum resale prices, among others; and (ii) a “black list” of information exchanges not covered––such as information related to future prices downstream, etc…

b. Parity Obligations / MFNs

Parity obligations, also known as Most Favored Nation clauses or MFNs, require the seller to offer to the purchaser the same or better conditions offered: (i) to those on any other retail sales channel or platforms (wide parity clauses), or through the seller’s direct sales channel, usually its own online website (narrow parity clauses).

Under the new VBER, wide parity clauses are not covered anymore, and companies need to assess them under the individual exemption of Article 101(3) TFEU. But there is again one wrinkle: When it comes to narrow parity obligations in vertical agreements involving the provision of OIS, they may be still excluded from the block exemption in highly concentrated markets with cumulative effects and lack of efficiencies.

c. Exclusive and Selective Distribution Systems

The new VBER updates the old definitions of active sales (seller actively approaches a customer) and passive sales (unsolicited request from customer) in light of the new online business environment. For instance, an online website making sales with a domain name from a territory different from the one the distributor is established, or even just using a different language to the one officially established in that territory, is now considered an active sale.

It also introduces what is called “shared exclusivity,” which is the ability to designate up to five exclusive distributors per territory or customer group.

A supplier may also now require exclusive (as opposed to selective) distributors to impose those same restrictions on active sales to their direct (as opposed to indirect) buyers or territories exclusively allocated to other distributors. But a supplier passing on the same restrictions further down the distribution chain is not block exempted. This is a significant difference from selective distribution systems, where the supplier is allowed to impose such restrictions through the whole distribution chain.

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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; you don’t want to be stuck in the crossfire of that.

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) 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 here. 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. And you can listen to a podcast with Molly Donovan and Steve Cernak about MAP Pricing here.

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Author: Molly Donovan

We recently released episode 2 of our “If I Were You” podcast. You can listen to this episode about minimum advertised prices here. Featuring Bona Law partner Steve Cernak. Or read our blog version now:

This Episode Is About: Minimum Advertised Pricing (MAP) Programs

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Authors:  Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

Section 8 of the Clayton Act prohibits certain interlocking directorates between competing corporations. But while the prohibition has been around since 1914, most antitrust lawyers pay little attention to it, partly because companies can quickly resolve any issues voluntarily. Recent comments by the new AAG Jonathan Kanter, however, hint that litigation might play a larger role in future Section 8 issues.

Clayton Act, Section 8 Basics

The prohibitions of Section 8, in its most recent form, can be simply stated: No person can simultaneously serve as an officer or director of competing corporations, subject to certain jurisdictional thresholds and de minimis exceptions. Truly understanding the prohibition, however, requires understanding all those italicized terms.

First, Section 8’s prohibition applies only if each corporation has “capital, surplus, and undivided profits,” or net worth, of $10M or more, as adjusted. The FTC is responsible for annually adjusting that threshold for inflation and usually announces the change early in the calendar year along with changes to the Hart-Scott-Rodino thresholds. Currently, the threshold is just over $41M.

Section 8 provides an exception where the competitive sales of either or each of the corporations is de minimis. Specifically, no interlocks are prohibited if the competitive sales of 1) either corporation are less than $1M, as adjusted (currently about $4.1M); 2) either corporation are less than 2% of that corporation’s total sales; or 3) each corporation are less than 4% of that corporation’s total sales.

Originally, Section 8 applied only to directors of corporations; however, the 1990 amendments extended the coverage to officers, defined as those elected or chosen by the corporation’s Board. Despite the clear wording of the statute limiting it to officers and directors, courts have considered the possibility that Section 8 might apply when a corporation’s non-officer employee was to be appointed a director of a competitor corporation.

The language of Section 8 clearly applies to interlocks between competing corporations. An interlock between a corporation and a competing LLC would not be covered by the statutory language or the legislative history of the original statute or amendment. The FTC and DOJ have not explicitly weighed in on application to non-corporations, although the FTC’s implementing regulations for Hart-Scott-Rodino cover LLC explicitly as “non-corporate interests” different from corporations. Still, the spirit of Section 8 would seem to cover any such non-corporate interlock. Also, any corporate director who also serves a similar role for a competing LLC would face an increased risk of violating Sherman Act Section 1.

Section 8 clearly applies if the same natural person sits on the boards of the competing corporations. It might also apply if the same legal entity has the right to appoint a natural person to both Boards, even if that entity appoints two different natural persons to the two Boards. That interpretation is consistent with the Clayton Act’s broad definition of “person” and has been supported by both the FTC and DOJ and the one lower court to consider the question.

As with other parts of the antitrust laws, the question of competition between the two corporations requires some analysis. The few courts to look at the question have found that corporations that could be found to violate Sherman Act Section 1 through an agreement would be considered competitors. On the other hand, these same courts did not define competitors more narrowly to be those corporations that would not be allowed to merge under the more extensive analysis of Clayton Act Section 7.

Kanter’s Speech

On April 4, 2022, at the ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting, Jonathan Kanter, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division at the DOJ, made during his speech some significant remarks about Section 8. First, he highlighted the fact that the Division is committed to litigating cases using the whole legislative toolbox that Congress has given them to promote competition, including Section 8 of the Clayton Act. Second, he reminded everyone that Section 8 helps prevent collusion before it can occur by imposing a bright-line rule against interlocking directorates. Third, that for too long, Section 8 enforcement has essentially been limited to their merger review process. And last but not least, that the Division will start ramping up efforts to identify violations across the broader economy and will not hesitate to bring Section 8 cases to break up interlocking directorates. The former head from the FTC made a similar statement back in 2019, indicating how Section 8 of the Clayton Act protects against potential information sharing and coordination by prohibiting an individual from serving as an officer or director of two competing companies.

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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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