Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

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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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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 →

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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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Resale Price Maintenance

Author: Jarod Bona

Some antitrust questions are easy: Is naked price-fixing among competitors a Sherman Act violation? Yes, of course it is.

But there is one issue that is not only a common occurrence but also engenders great controversy among antitrust attorneys and commentators: Is price-fixing between manufacturers and distributors (or retailers) an antitrust violation? This is usually called a resale-price-maintenance agreement and it really isn’t clear if it violates the antitrust laws.

For many years, resale-price maintenance—called RPM by those in the know—was on the list of the most forbidden of antitrust conduct, a per se antitrust violation. It was up there with horizontal price fixing, market allocation, bid rigging, and certain group boycotts and tying arrangements.

There was a way around a violation, known as the Colgate exception, whereby a supplier would unilaterally develop a policy that its product must be sold at a certain price or it would terminate dealers. This well-known exception was based on the idea that, in most situations, companies had no obligation to deal with any particular company and could refuse to deal with distributors if they wanted. Of course, if the supplier entered a contract with the distributor to sell the supplier’s products at certain prices, that was an entirely different story. The antitrust law brought in the cavalry in those cases.

You can read our article about the Colgate exception here: The Colgate Doctrine and Other Alternatives to Resale-Price-Maintenance Agreements.

In 2007, the Supreme Court dramatically changed the landscape when it decided Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet). The question presented to the Supreme Court in Leegin was whether to overrule an almost 100-year old precedent (Dr. Miles Medical Co.) that established the rule that resale-price maintenance was per se illegal under the Sherman Act.

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Author: Steven Cernak

While I was the in-house antitrust lawyer for General Motors, outside counsel on several occasions suggested to me that GM should “institute a Colgate program” or “a minimum advertised price (MAP) program.”  I am confident that all those lawyers could have helped build a fine Colgate program or other method that would restrict how GM dealers and distributors priced and marketed GM products – but the suggestion was still wrong for a few reasons.

First, it vastly overestimated the control that I or any other lawyer had over GM pricing decisions.  More importantly, it assumed that the suggested restraint was right for that GM product at that time, an unsafe assumption given the wide variety of products and services that GM sells in different regulatory and competitive environments.  Before suggesting a tool to use, the attorney should have helped me determine if it was right for GM’s business situation.

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Author: Steven Cernak

Companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and more have faced an increasing number of antitrust investigations and challenges (globally), both private and government, in recent years.  In the U.S., current Presidential candidates are lining up to propose changes to antitrust laws and advocate for enforcement focused on these same tech companies. While they might not be explicit targets in as many actions, other U.S. companies outside Silicon Valley could be swallowed up in this techlash and so need to be prepared.

Techlash not New and Not Just American

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Author: Aaron Gott

If you haven’t been told you need a strong antitrust compliance program, then you probably haven’t spent much time with an antitrust lawyer. But it’s true: a strong antitrust compliance program will benefit your company in myriad ways.

The U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division recently announced it will consider an effective antitrust compliance program as a factor in deciding whether to charge a company with a criminal antitrust violation. An antitrust compliance program can also help prevent your company from violating the antitrust laws in the first place and, hopefully, avoid an antitrust blizzard. But if it doesn’t, it can still give you a leg up in the race for leniency by ensuring prompt detection and internal reporting, earn the company points for sentencing reductions, and reduce the amount it pays in fines.

The key here, though, is that it must be an effective antitrust compliance program. Effective doesn’t mean perfect—after all, DOJ wouldn’t be making a charging decision if a perfect program were in place—but it does mean that it should be well-designed, applied in good faith, and it should actually work.

In practice, that means your antitrust compliance program should:

  1. Identify, assess, and define the likely antitrust risks in the company’s line of business

The first step in any risk management process is, of course, to determine and assess those risks. Your antitrust lawyer should look closely at all aspects of your operations:

  • The jurisdictions in which you operate
  • Your industry sectors and the markets in which you compete
  • Competition, concentration, and barriers to entry in those markets
  • Your regulatory landscape
  • Your existing and potential customers and business partners
  • Your supply and distribution chains
  • Your business transactions
  • The extent to which you use third parties in your business
  • Your involvement in trade associations and joint ventures
  • Your culture and climate
  • Your past antitrust issues

As part of this process, the company should identify leaders most knowledgeable about these various aspects of the business and have them take the time to thoroughly educate antitrust counsel.

  1. Be designed to detect and manage those risks

It should go without saying that your compliance program won’t be effective unless it is tailored to manage the antitrust risks the company is most likely to face. There is no effective off-the-shelf antitrust compliance program.

Company leadership should be consulted and involved in the crafting of your antitrust compliance program. You should consider the company’s past successes and failures in other areas of compliance, reporting, and risk management, and work directly with your antitrust lawyer to implement processes and techniques that proved successful in other contexts.

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Author:  Aaron Gott

The federal antitrust laws are a decisive proclamation that competition is the best policy—competition leads to better products and services, the greatest value at the lowest price. But, just like with anything else, there are exceptions. Congress and the courts have carved out numerous exceptions from antitrust liability—or as we’ll call them, exemptions. There’s an insurance exemption, a labor exemption, a baseball exemption, a state-action exemption, and many others. And they exist for a variety of reasons. Without the labor exemption, for example, union activity would be a felony. And we have a baseball exemption because, well, America likes baseball.

Today we’re going to talk about one important exemption for the agriculture industry: the farm cooperative exemption. Created by the Capper-Volstead Co-operative Marketing Associations Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 291–92), the farm cooperative exemption provides associations of persons or entities who produce agricultural products a limited exemption from antitrust liability relating to the production, handling, and marketing of farm products.

The farm cooperative exemption has some personal significance to me: I grew up across the street from one in my small Iowa town. And that co-op sponsored one of my little league teams.

At Bona Law, we regularly deal with antitrust exemptions. In fact, we have argued state-action exemption issues before the U.S. Supreme Court several times. As with any other exemption—and this is very important—the farm cooperative exemption is limited, disfavored, and narrowly applied. So it can easily become a trap. Like anything with antitrust, there are plenty of nuances and exceptions. We’re going to address some of those, but you should contact an antitrust lawyer if you really need to know whether the antitrust laws could apply, you’re being sued, or you want to consider suing.

The farm cooperative exemption allows a group of farmers—each of which is a competitor in the market—to come together and essentially act as one farmer. Through a cooperative, farmers pool their output together, agree on a price, and ultimately have more bargaining power in dealing with buyers—who historically were much bigger outfits than the individual farmers competing for their business.

The exemption also allows cooperatives to join together under a common marketing agency.

The exemption is overseen by the USDA, and the act gives direct oversight power to the Secretary of Agriculture. The secretary can, on his own volition, hold hearings, find facts, and issue orders to prevent cooperatives from monopolizing or restraining trade “to such an extent that the price of any agricultural product is unduly enhanced” as a result. But litigation—whether enforcement by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division or private civil lawsuits—is where a cooperative’s fate is usually decided.

Without the exemption, this sort of arrangement would be analytically indistinguishable from a price-fixing cartel, except that price-fixing cartels typically do not operate out in the open, since it is a serious felony. In fact, before 1922 when the act went into effect, farmers who acted together to market their products were sometimes prosecuted under the Sherman Act.

Conditions for the Antitrust Exemption

The Capper-Volstead Act establishes several conditions for the exemption to apply. There are two universal conditions:

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