Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

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Author: Steven J. Cernak

As I prepare again to teach an antitrust survey course, part of the preparation involves rereading some of the classic foundational U.S. antitrust cases.  Many of them make some sweeping statements about how the Sherman Act embodies a national policy to order our entire economy through competition.  “The heart of our national economic policy long has been faith in the value of competition” comes from Standard Oil in 1911.  The Court went even further in 1958 in Northern Pacific Railway:

The Sherman Act … rests on the premise that the unrestrained interaction of competitive forces will yield the best allocation of our economic resources, the lowest prices, the highest quality and the greatest material progress, while at the same time providing an environment conducive to the preservation of our democratic political and social institutions.

Twenty years later in Professional Engineers, the Court described an argument that asserted competition might be unethical as “nothing less than a frontal assault on the basic policy of the Sherman Act.”

Were such broad statements true then?  Do they remain true now?  Is the Sherman Act “the Magna Carta of free enterprise” as the Court asserted in Topco in 1972?  After all, we have had exemptions, both legislative and court-made, for decades.  But even beyond those official exceptions, there are plenty more examples of our frequent desire for experts, not the competitive process, to supersede market outcomes.

One personal anecdote helps illustrate the point.  I have been involved in the ABA Antitrust Law Section for decades.  The ABA, like any good trade association of competitors, has its own counsel to ensure that it does not run afoul of the antitrust laws.  Years ago, however, when my day job was in-house antitrust lawyer at General Motors and my ABA assignment involved antitrust aspects of trade associations, I was asked by the Section to lead a compliance presentation for another ABA group consisting of several law school admission deans.

Our presentation started with the antitrust basics for trade associations:  The antitrust laws want to preserve competition among competitors, Sherman Act Section 1 is suspicious of agreements among competitors, trade associations are gatherings of competitors where such agreements can be reached, and law schools compete with each other in various ways, including to attract students.

After about fifteen minutes, one of the deans raised his hand and posed this hypothetical:  Some students change schools between first and second year.  Such transfers are not good for the student – usually, any issues leading to a transfer go beyond a particular school and the student should try to get help with any underlying concerns.  But the transfers also hurt the law schools – after all, we have spent considerable time, effort, and money to make that student one of ours and transfers destroy that investment.  So, could this ABA group make it unethical for law schools to solicit, or even accept, most transfer students?

My fellow presenters were taken aback and silent for a few seconds.  Had this dean not been listening when we had said a few minutes earlier that agreements not to compete among competing members of a trade association were antitrust violations?  Finally, I broke the silence.  I did a facepalm and said “D’oh!  What a great idea!  Why didn’t we think of that?  We could have gone to Toyota thirty years ago and said ‘you know, we spent considerable time, effort, and money to make those current Chevy owners ours and you selling to them will just destroy that investment.  How about we agree that you will only market to folks who have never purchased a car?’”

It took a few seconds but then the lightbulbs went off over the heads of the audience:  Yes, the competitive processes for legal education might be a little different than those for motor vehicles, but that competition still exists and antitrust law is designed to protect it.  Any agreements to short-circuit that process by having experts at the competitor-suppliers determine the customer’s best interest would be at least suspect.  My GM clients would have understood that my Toyota hypothetical was an antitrust problem.  Why didn’t this law school dean?

Was it because the deans saw themselves as “professionals” and so in some way exempt from the need to compete?  Perhaps, although the Court made clear in Professional Engineers that any hint of an antitrust exemption for professionals that some saw in Goldfarb was incorrect.  Professionals might compete in different ways but the antitrust laws still protect that competition to yield the best results for customers.

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Author: Aaron Gott and Nick McNamara

As the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continue to ripple across all sectors of the economy, agriculture has been hit especially hard. The widespread closure of restaurants combined with the general hit on most Americans’ wallets has precipitated a massive demand shock, which in turn has sent the prices of agricultural products such as corn, soybeans, milk, and fresh produce tumbling. While this may be good news for consumers (at least in the short run), it does not bode so well for farmers, who in recent months have had to resort to dumping milk and culling herds of livestock—practices which are both wasteful and potentially environmentally harmful.

Can farmers work together to mitigate these issues by agreeing, prior to production, to set production caps so that prices may be stabilized, and waste avoided? The answer depends on whether such controls on output are covered by the Capper-Volstead Act’s antitrust exemption for farm cooperatives.

Under normal circumstances, a concerted agreement among horizontal competitors to restrict output is a per se violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. But the Capper-Volstead Act, enacted in 1922 amid populist fervor in the agricultural sector, provides a limited antitrust exemption to “[p]ersons engaged in the production of agricultural products as farmers, planters, ranchmen, dairymen, nut or fruit growers.”

You can read a more detailed primer on the Capper-Volstead Act here. But, in brief, the act allows agricultural producers to collectively process, prepare, handle, and market their products. Now, it is important to note again that the exemption applies only to agricultural producers, not processors. This past year, there has been a flurry of antitrust litigation against pork and beef processors who are alleged to have agreed to restrict output, among other things. As discussed in the primer, the Supreme Court has held that a cooperative cannot include processors because they do not fit into the category of “farmers, planters, ranchmen, dairymen, nut or fruit growers.” Thus, only those entities at the most basic level of the food supply chain get to enjoy the exemption.

For producers, the farm cooperative exemption has been interpreted by courts to include a blanket exemption from antitrust liability for price fixing, a practice which also normally incurs per se liability under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. No court has ever directly ruled on the question of whether the exemption applies also to output controls, but there are indications they might find output restrictions outside the narrow confines of the act.

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Author: Steven Cernak

So you have been invited to your first trade association meeting.  Sounds like fun, right?  You get a chance to mix and mingle with others in your industry, maybe swap notes with your counterparts at competitors who face the same pressures you do.  What could go wrong?

A lot, from an antitrust perspective.  While trade associations can provide tremendous benefits to members, by definition, they are meetings among competitors.  Communication with competitors can lead to “agreements,” whether explicit handshakes or implicit winks and nods.  And some of those agreements, like most related to competitive pricing, are automatically illegal and subject to severe penalties for both you and the company.  Here, antitrust law follows Adam Smith’s admonition that

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

So even if you remember your company’s training from when you joined years ago and know enough to spell “antitrust” without a hyphen, you still need to remember these tips.

Learn from others in your company

You might not be the first in your company to attend an association meeting.  Contact your lawyer or boss to see if your company has rules or other guidance for attending them.  Follow that guidance.  Some companies even require such reporting before attending.  Others in your company might know this particular association and have some suggestions on how to make your attendance both safe and productive for you and your company.

Antitrust policy?

If you need to vet the association, start by asking to see its antitrust policy.  All associations of competitors should have one and should be willing and able to share it with you quickly.  Most post it online.  The policy should acknowledge the necessity to follow all applicable antitrust laws and briefly describe how the association does just that.  Frankly, the details are not as important as the fact that the association has one and can quickly provide it.  An association executive who responds to your request with “Anti what?” should set off alarm bells.

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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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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.

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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; 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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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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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?

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