Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

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If, like me, you have ever spoken to someone that faces criminal indictment by a federal grand jury following a Justice Department antitrust investigation, you know why antitrust compliance counseling and training is a big deal—you don’t need reasons; hearing the crackle of the voice is enough to understand.

You might think that an antitrust investigation or lawsuit may not happen to you or your company. Perhaps you think that your company is too small or that since you don’t sit in smoke-filled rooms with many of your competitors laughing about your customers—or whatever image from books or movies is in your head, antitrust isn’t something you need to worry about.

You might be wrong. Are the chances great that you will be prosecuted or sued under the antitrust laws? Since you are reading a blog about antitrust, they are greater than average, but even still, the odds are relatively low.

But even if the likelihood of an adverse antitrust event is low, the consequences may be so extreme that it is something you should think about. You don’t anticipate that your house is going to burn down, but you—hopefully—take some precautions and probably have some sort of fire protection as part of your homeowner’s insurance.

With antitrust, a little knowledge can go a long way.

If you have an antitrust issue, it is not likely to be a small issue. Indeed, it may start with a government investigation, but could progress into dozens of antitrust class actions against your company.

As you might know, there is a cottage industry of plaintiff attorneys that read SEC filings and watch for government antitrust investigations. When they see something that raises the possibility of an antitrust violation, they pounce. Attorneys all over the country file lawsuits in their home jurisdictions against the target company—which could be your company if you aren’t careful. I go into more detail about this “antitrust blizzard” here.

Antitrust issues can arise for big and small companies and even individuals—like real-estate investors. If you don’t think your company is susceptible to antitrust liability or indictment, I’d like you to read one of my early blog posts that explains how easily a per se antitrust violation can happen.

The Federal Trade Commission even went after an association of music teachers for potentially violating the antitrust laws.

What is tough about antitrust is that the laws are not always intuitive; it isn’t like a law that says “don’t steal.” In fact, in one instance, the antitrust laws encourage you to try to steal.

Sometimes the law isn’t even altogether clear. Of course, you are unlikely to face criminal indictment over complicated questions of whether a bundle of products sold by a company with market power violates the antitrust laws. Or whether your vertical pricing arrangements went beyond Colgate policy protections. But you could face criminal antitrust penalties for allocating markets and customers and that isn’t obvious to all sales people.

The bottom line is that if you run or help to manage a company—and especially if your company has a sales team—you need some knowledge of the antitrust laws. At the very least, you should understand what to train your team members to avoid. Antitrust training can be invaluable.

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Toys R Us Antitrust ConspiracyLike 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. 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 recently 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 reach the challenged agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may descend 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 (I receive many such calls about this scenario).

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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FTC State Action ImmunityIn early 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC that the “active state supervision” prong of the state-action immunity from antitrust liability test applied to state licensing boards controlled by market participants. You can read my analysis of the decision here. And you can read the amicus brief that Bona Law filed in the case here.

(Besides the “active state supervision” requirement, state-action-immunity applicants must also demonstrate that the challenged restraint was clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy by a state sovereign, like a state legislature. The Supreme Court recently addressed this requirement in FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc. I filed an amicus brief in this case, which you can review here.)

The Basics of Antitrust Liability and State-Action Immunity for State Regulatory Boards

I have written quite a bit about state action immunity and the NC Dental case, so I won’t give a lot of background here. You can read my prior articles.

But here are the basics: Not surprisingly, state and local governments often engage in anticompetitive behavior. Sometimes this includes conduct that the federal antitrust laws prohibit.

But, owing to federalism and the fact that governments get away with things they shouldn’t, sometimes state and federal governments have a get-out-of-antitrust-liability card called “state-action immunity.” Like all antitrust exemptions, Courts interpret the scope of state-action immunity narrowly.

In most situations, a state or local government seeking state-action immunity must demonstrate that (1) the state sovereign—usually the legislature or state supreme court acting legislatively—clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed the challenged restraint as state policy (See Phoebe Putney); and (2) that the state actively supervises the anticompetitive policy.

Before the US Supreme Court decided the NC Dental case, it was an open question whether state licensing or regulatory boards were required to show both prongs of what is called the Midcal test, or just the first prong. That is, it wasn’t a given that these state boards had to show active supervision. I addressed that very issue in a law review article, which you can read here. But apparently my article wasn’t enough to end discussion on the issue, so the US Supreme Court went ahead and addressed it in the NC Dental v. FTC case.

The Supreme Court in NC Dental went on to hold that a state board on which a controlling number of decision-makers are market participants in the regulated occupation must satisfy the active supervision requirement to invoke state-action antitrust immunity.

(As an aside, certain municipalities do not need to show active state supervision, but I suspect that courts will continue to narrow this exception. Luke Wake and I argued in another law review article that whenever the government entity becomes a market-participant, it should lose its state-action immunity entirely. I mention this here because it is often a local government entity that competes directly in the market and tries to invoke state-action immunity.).

So we now know that anticompetitive conduct by state regulatory boards are subject to antitrust scrutiny unless they can show both prongs of the Midcal test, including active state supervision. But what is active state supervision?

What is Active State Supervision for State-Action Immunity from Antitrust?

Active Supervision is something that the US Supreme Court has on occasion addressed, but there isn’t a clear standard. It simply hasn’t come up enough to create a dense body of law. So the guidance is slim.

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Section 5 of the FTC ActFTC Commissioner Joshua Wright recently announced his retirement from the FTC Commission to go back to George Mason University School of Law. But he did not go out quietly.

Not only was he incredibly productive during his FTC tenure, but he left right after the Federal Trade Commission issued “Principles Regarding ‘Unfair Methods of Competition’ Under Section 5 of the FTC Act.” As you may recall, this was one of his express goals when he first began his work at the FTC.

What is Section 5 of the FTC Act?

Section 5 of the FTC Act declares that “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce” are unlawful.

What does that mean?

For most of the FTC’s existence, those of us advising antitrust clients had to piece together inferences from a mere handful of cases that have addressed the Act, while at the same time trying to parse speeches and FTC activity by whatever set of commissioners were in power.

There were some cases—mostly decided in the 1980s—that seemed to limit the FTC’s power under the Act, but the authority is sparse. And the FTC seems to change its mind depending upon who is in power.

That is a problem when you have a client that wants to know if they can undertake some sort of activity. It is even more difficult when your client is already under investigation by the FTC and you have to try to explain to them that the standard of whether they have violated the FTC Act—regardless of the legality of their actions under the Sherman and Clayton Acts—would be determined by their adversary, the FTC.

We could advise the client that some prior cases suggested limiting principles, but it was, in reality, entirely unclear how a court would ultimately approach an enforcement action. And many courts might prefer to defer to the governing agency in interpreting the law the agency administrates.

This open-ended statute, of course, offered the FTC great leverage in its investigations and actions because its targets couldn’t effectively predict the likely scope of Section 5 of the FTC Act. This leverage can lead to forced settlements for targets that don’t know the standard by which the agency will judge them.

And the FTC had not issued any significant guidance about how it would enforce Section 5 of the FTC Act. It was clear to most people in the antitrust community that the Act was potentially broader than the Sherman and Clayton Acts—the traditional antitrust statutes—but the extent and scope were unclear.

(As an aside, the FTC does its antitrust enforcement through this FTC Act, even if it involves existing antitrust statutes, so the only real issue is how much broader is the FTC Act than the other antitrust statutes. The FTC refers to this as their “standalone” Section 5 authority).

The scope of Section 5 of the FTC Act was an important issue because when it comes to competition enforcement there is a very fine line between anticompetitive activity and strong procompetitive activity. Indeed, it isn’t always clear whether a particular type of business practice is either strongly procompetitive or actually anticompetitive.

So if Section 5 of the FTC Act is too broad it might deter conduct that in fact helps competition a great deal, which would undercut the purpose of the statute itself. This is a recurring problem for antitrust enforcement.

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Colgate DoctrineAs 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 one of the most common search terms 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 inquiries for two reasons: First, it is something that a comparatively large number of companies need to 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 can review my blog post on Leegin and federal antitrust law here, and you can read my post about resale-price maintenance under state antitrust laws here.

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 the minor exception of the refusal-to-deal doctrine—have no general antitrust-law obligation to do business with any particular company and can thus unilaterally terminate distributors without antitrust consequences (in most instances; please consult an attorney).

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.

Update: You can now read this article translated to French at Le Concurrentialiste.

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Golden Gate Bridge CaliforniaIn an earlier blog post, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. I’ve also written about these agreements here. As you might recall, in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet), the US Supreme Court reversed a nearly 100-year-old precedent and held that resale-price maintenance agreements are no longer per se illegal. They are instead subject to the rule of reason.

But what many people don’t realize is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. A few years ago, I co-authored an article with Jeffrey Shohet about this topic. In many instances, state antitrust law directly follows federal antitrust law, so state antitrust law doesn’t come into play. (Of course, it will matter for indirect purchaser class actions, but that’s an entirely different topic).

For many states, however, the local antitrust law deviates from federal law—sometimes in important ways. If you are doing business in such a state—and many companies do business nationally, of course—you must understand the content of state antitrust law. Two examples of states with unique antitrust laws and precedent are California, with its Cartwright Act, and New York, with its Donnelly Act.

California and the Cartwright Act

This blog post is about California and the Cartwright Act. Although my practice, particularly my antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin to remove resale-price maintenance from the limited category of per se antitrust violations was quite controversial and created some backlash. There were attempts in Congress to overturn the ruling and many states have reaffirmed that the agreements are still per se illegal under their state antitrust laws, even though federal antitrust law shifted course.

The Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007. It is 2015, of course. So you’d think by now we would have a good idea whether each state would follow or depart from Leegin with regard to whether to treat resale-price maintenance agreements as per se antitrust violations.

But that is not the case in California, under the Cartwright Act. Indeed, it is an open question.

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Happy New YearSometimes 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 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.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

It 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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real estate agent antitrustI’ve often written about real estate on this blog. There are two reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is because my wife and I invest in real estate and thus talk about real estate, so it is on my mind. In fact, I have my California real-estate license. Bona Law PC also offers real-estate litigation services.

The second reason is that real-estate, in addition to its many advantages, creates many unique competition issues. Real-estate agents often engage in cut-throat competition with each other, sometimes even within the same brokerage firm. Yet, the nature of their job requires them to work together for almost every transaction.

In addition, the markets to sell real-estate are primarily local, even though national brokerage firms may dominate each individual geographic area. Within each locality, there are often a handful of large brokerage firms.

Finally, the market for real-estate services and commissions suggests some supra-competitive pricing in that most firms in a certain area will charge approximately the same commission. And the splits between the buying and selling agents are often equal as well. In the Minneapolis, Minnesota area for example, at least as of a few years ago, selling agents would often receive 3.3% and buying agents 2.7% of the purchase price. In my current market, a small village in North San Diego County, the buying and selling agents typically split the 5% commission.

Suspiciously, while technology and other competition has reduced relative prices for many professionals, commission percentages have held relatively steady for real-estate agents, despite the fact that buyers and sellers (especially buyers) can do much of their own homework online. How many of you have purchased a house without spending a lot of time online yourself looking at listings?

So does that mean that real-estate brokerage firms and agents are violating the antitrust laws all over the country? Should we coordinate a dramatic—made for the movies—event whereby federal agents knock down the doors of real-estate firms all over the country one morning, handcuffing and booking the agents that would do anything to get you in their car to show you some houses?

Probably not yet.

In November of this year, the Sixth Circuit decided a case called Hyland v. Homeservices of America, Inc. that nicely illustrates the line between antitrust violation and what is often called conscious parallelism or oligopolistic price coordination.

In Hyland, a class of people who sold residential real estate in Kentucky and used certain real-estate agents sued several real-estate brokerages as a class action under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants participated in a horizontal conspiracy to fix the commissions charged in Kentucky real-estate transactions at an anticompetitive rate.

Like agents in many localities, defendants each charged a typical or standard commission rate of 6%, and mostly resist any attempts to negotiate a lower rate. The buying agent’s commission is typically 3%. These numbers may look familiar to you if you bought or sold real estate recently, as real-estate services for most residential real-estate markets are similarly priced.

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

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

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

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

Litigation

Although much of our litigation is, in fact, antitrust litigation, much of it is not. In the business v. business litigation especially, even in cases that involve an antitrust claim, there are typically several other types of claims that are not antitrust.

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

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

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

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

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BlackjackSo here’s an idea. Let me know what you think: A hedge fund or other investment vehicle centered on antitrust analysis.

I’ll explain.

As you might know, I am an antitrust attorney. And I write a blog on antitrust and competition law. So, as you may expect, I follow antitrust developments somewhat obsessively at times. As a result, I have a good sense of the practical antitrust implications of certain cases, investigations, or prospective mergers.

I don’t have a crystal ball or anything. Nor do I have any inside information. And since human beings—judges or agency officials—make the relevant decisions, nobody can actually predict what will happen.

But by now, I can review a complaint or a motion to dismiss or description of facts and have a good sense of the strength and risk of the antitrust issues. I think I also have a decent idea how the major antitrust agencies—the FTC and Department of Justice—focus their priorities and like to resolve investigations, cases, and mergers. Like I said, I can’t predict anything with certainty, but there is a high learning curve for antitrust (probably more than most specialties) and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort climbing that curve.

Enough about me—for now anyway.

Let’s talk about antitrust and company stock performance. The obvious scenario is a merger. Two companies, perhaps competitors, announce a merger or acquisition. It isn’t a dead-on-antitrust-arrival merger between the first and second leading companies in a product and geographic market that is easily defined. Instead, it is the sort of merger where the markets are somewhat complicated, perhaps in flux, and it isn’t entirely clear whether an antitrust agency will challenge it or a court will stop it.

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