Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

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As a regular reader of The Antitrust Attorney Blog, you understand that setting prices or allocating markets with your competitor is a terrible idea. Doing so is likely to lead to civil litigation and perhaps even criminal penalties.

Price fixing and market allocation agreements are per se antitrust violations. That means they are the worst of the worst of anticompetitive conduct.

There is, however, a limited circumstance in which what would normally be a per se antitrust violation is instead treated by Courts and government antitrust agencies under the rule of reason:

An ancillary restraint.

You shouldn’t put ancillary restraints in your agreements without the help of an antitrust lawyer. That would be like juggling knives that are on fire. You might be able to do it, but if you make a mistake, you won’t like the results.

What is an Ancillary Restraint?

This isn’t an easy question to answer and, in fact, if you can answer it, you will often know whether your restraint will survive antitrust scrutiny.

Let’s back up a little bit.

In a typical situation, if two competitors agree to fix prices or to split a market (perhaps they will agree to limit their competition for each other’s customers), they commit what is called a per se antitrust violation. What that means is that this type of restraint is so consistently anticompetitive that courts won’t even examine the circumstances—it is per se illegal.

Obviously you should avoid committing per se antitrust violations, unless, of course, you want to experience an antitrust blizzard.

Without further context, such a restraint is often called a naked restraint of trade. That doesn’t mean that the cartel meets at a nudist colony; it means that it is an anticompetitive agreement with nothing surrounding it. Such agreements are almost always done to gain greater profits from the restraint itself.

So what does a non-naked restraint of trade look like? Interesting question. I will answer it, but you have to read through most of this article.

Sometimes two or more parties, even competitors, will put together a joint venture or collaboration that creates what antitrust lawyers often call efficiency. You might normally think of efficiency as running more smoothly or at the same or better result with fewer resources.

But when antitrust attorneys use the term “efficiency” or “efficiency enhancing,” they often mean that the venture or combination will create economic value for the marketplace as a whole that wouldn’t exist but for the agreement. The term often comes up in the merger context, as an antitrust analysis of a merger will examine whether the benefits through efficiency and more exceed any potential anticompetitive harm.

An Ancillary Restraint Example

Sometimes it is easier to understand with an example: Let’s say you have a company called Research that is full of people with PhDs that spend all of their days trying to figure out how to make the world a better place. If someone at Research comes up with a good idea, the company will sometimes manufacture and sell the finished product itself.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

In our prior article, we discussed the European Commission’s final report of its study of the EU’s e-commerce market for consumer goods and digital content.

In this article we describe EU investigations and enforcement actions that arose from the EC’s final e-commerce market study. While the final report itself offers companies doing business in the EU helpful guidance, the Commission’s actual conduct is perhaps an even better indicator of how the EC will implement what it learned.

Since the European Commission published its Final Report, it has opened investigation of about 20 companies.

Below is a summary of the relevant cases that the EC recently opened. We expect additional cases in the future in this area, both at EU and national level.

Geo-blocking cases

Video Games

On February 2, 2017, the EC opened an investigation to analyze bilateral agreements between Valve Corporation, owner of the Steam game distribution platform, and five PC video game publishers:  Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax.

This investigation concerns geo-blocking practices, where companies prevent consumers from purchasing digital content, in this case PC video games, because of the consumer’s location or country of residence.  After the purchase of certain PC video games, users need to confirm that their copy of the game is not pirated to be able to play it.  This is done with an activation key.

The investigation focuses on whether such agreements require the use of activation keys for the purpose of geo-blocking.

Clothing Company, Guess

On June 6, 2017, the EC opened an investigation against clothing manufacturer Guess.  The EC is analyzing whether Guess’s distribution agreements impose cross-border sales restrictions on (i) retailers making online sales to consumers in other Member States, (ii) or wholesalers, selling to retailers in other Member States.

Interestingly, as a result, other clothing manufacturers such as Mango, Oysho and Pull&Bear have now started to review and revise their distribution agreements.  Other companies, such as coffee machine manufacturer De Longhi, and photo equipment manufacturer Manfrotto, are doing the same (See here).

Hotel Pricing Discrimination

On February 2, 2017, the EC opened another investigation into hotel accommodation agreements between the largest European tour operators on the one hand: Kuoni, REWE, Thomas Cook and TUI, and Meliá Hotels on the other hand.

The EC encourages hotels to develop and introduce innovative pricing mechanisms to maximize room usage.  But the EC is concerned that these agreements may contain clauses that discriminate among customers based on their nationality or country of residence.  As a result, customers may not be able to see the full hotel availability, or book hotel rooms at the best prices, simply because of the consumer’s nationality or place of residence.

Licensed Merchandising Products

On June 14, 2017, the EC opened more investigations into the licensing and distribution practices of Nike, Sanrio and Universal studios.  These three companies license intellectual property rights to manufacturers of merchandising products such as the Fútbol Club Barcelona, Hello Kitty and Minions merchandise, respectively.

The EC is concerned that these companies, in their role as licensors of rights for merchandising products, may have restricted the ability of their licensees to sell licensed merchandise cross-border and online.

Resale Price Maintenance cases

Consumer electronics manufacturers

The EC has opened another investigation against Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer.  In this case, the EC is concerned that the companies involved might be restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own prices for widely used consumer electronics products such as household appliances, notebooks and hi-fi products.

This is the first resale price maintenance case that the EC has initiated in a long time.  Instead, the Member States themselves have scrutinized resale price maintenance at national level during the last decade.

Germany, for example, has recently published a new guidance note on resale price maintenance. The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) in the UK also published additional guidance on these types of pricing agreements in the form of an open letter, a film, a 60-second summary, and  case studies.

Indeed, the CMA recently fined National Lighting Company (NLC), a light fittings supplier, £2.7 million for restricting online prices. They also sent out warning letters to others in the industry.  In 2016, the CMA also fined two other online companies for resale price maintenance practices: Ultra Finishing Limited (“Ultra”) in the Bathroom fittings sector and ITW Limited in the commercial refrigeration sector.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

  1. BACKGROUND

Over the past two years, the European Commission (“EC”) has been scrutinizing the e-commerce market of consumer goods and digital content in the European Union.  This is a key step on the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy to improve access to digital goods and services.

Such strategy includes legislation to promote cross border e-commerce through the following:

In May 2015, the EC started in parallel its Sector Inquiry to identify possible competition concerns affecting European e-commerce markets.  Its main purpose was to gather information on companies’ conduct and barriers to cross-border online trade, looking at online sales of consumer goods and digital content.  In September 2016, the EC published a report with its preliminary findings, together with a Staff Working Document.

Finally, in May 2017, the EC issued its Final Report.

You can read our follow-up article to this one about ongoing EC enforcement actions arising out of the E-Commerce Report.

You might also enjoy our articles on EU dominance abuse and antitrust compliance programs in the US and EU.

  1. RELEVANT FINDINGS

The EC outlines in the Final Report what it considers as the key issues in the field of e-commerce.  It acknowledges the changing characteristics and fast-growing tendency of a sector with an increasing economic role in today’s economy. It further identifies business practices and barriers that could restrict competition and limit consumer choice.

The EC reviewed more than 2,600 agreements concerning the distribution of goods in the EU, and received more than 6,800 licensing agreements from digital content providers and rights holders.  The main findings in the Final Report differentiate between consumer goods and digital content.

(A) CONSUMER GOODS

Contractual Restrictions on Cross-Border Sales: Geo-Blocking

The Sector Inquiry identifies contractual restrictions between operators in the online market that the EC believes could cause problems.  Unilateral decisions by non-dominant firms, however, fall outside the scope of EU competition law.

But before telling you which contractual restrictions are problematic, let me explain first what the term “geo-blocking” means.  Basically, it refers to practices that prevent cross-border sales in the EU.  These include the following:

  • Blocking access to websites by users located in another Member State—for example when a customer located in Madrid tries to acquire a product via a French website, and is prevented from doing so because the website has been blocked due to its Spanish IP address;
  • Automatic re-routing of a customer to another website of the same or a different service provider—for example when a customer located in Madrid trying to access a French website is directly re-routed to the company’s Spanish website; or
  • Payment refusals based on the place of residence of the customer—for example when the payment to the French website is refused because the credit card used is linked to an address in Spain, or the delivery to Spain is denied based on the customer’s residence.

So back to the relevant contractual restrictions now:  The EC is concerned about how retailers face contractual restrictions from suppliers, which prevent such cross-border selling on-line.

These questioned agreements are ones that (i) are not covered by the EC “safe harbor” under the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (“VBER”) – this is if parties to the agreements have market shares above 30%, or there are hardcore restraints involved, (ii) preventing cross-border sales between Member States in distribution agreements, may infringe EU Competition rules.

Restrictions on the use of online marketplaces

An online marketplace is a website that facilitates shopping from different sources, such as Amazon or eBay.

An absolute ban on online selling is considered a hard-core restriction under EU law.  There is, however, an important ongoing debate in Europe as to whether an absolute ban on selling via marketplaces is contrary to EU rules.

In Germany, the Bundeskartellamt issued an infringement decision against Asics on its ban to sell via online marketplaces. In April 2017, the Dusseldorf Regional Higher Court found that only the price comparison tool restrictions involved in the case were anticompetitive.

At EU level there are currently two preliminary rulings pending.  One the Coty case, where the high EU court has been asked to analyze the restrictions imposed on a selective distribution agreement by manufacturer Coty on one of its authorized distributors to sell products via third party online platforms. The second one is the Samsung and Amazon case, concerning a ban on resale outside a selective distribution network and on a marketplace, by means of online offers on several websites operating in various Member States.

In its Final Report, the EC does not consider marketplace selling bans as hardcore restraints.  It may, however, still scrutinize them on a case by case basis, if parties to the agreements have market shares above 30%, or there are hardcore restraints involved, according to the VBER.

Selective distribution agreements: Requirements for brick-and- mortar shops

Contractual requirements to operate at least one brick-and-mortar shop under a selective distribution agreement are compatible with the EU competition rules, as long as they are linked to quality or brand image.

The EC, however, states in its Final Report that brick-and-mortar shop requirements imposed for the sole purpose to exclude online operators from the market, may infringe EU competition rules.

Pricing restrictions: Resale Price Maintenance (“RPM”) and Price collusion

E-commerce has significantly increased price transparency, competition on price and opportunities for users to compare different options in the internet.  According to the EC’s investigation, almost 30% of manufacturers systematically track resale prices: 67% track resale prices manually, whereas 38% use specific software (spiders).

The Final Report highlights that this may also increase the risk of RPM or collusion between competitors.

Resale Price Maintenance (RPM)

The imposition of minimum resale prices is considered a hardcore restriction under EU Competition law.  Similarly, when manufacturers seek to enforce compliance with recommended prices through contractual restrictions or some form of coercion, they may also infringe competition rules.

The EC is concerned that online price transparency may facilitate such practices, making it easier for manufacturers to detect deviations and enforce RPM provisions.

You can read articles on The Antitrust Attorney Blog on Resale Price Maintenance here.

Price collusion

Price fixing between competitors is considered one of the most serious infringements under EU competition rules.

The Final Report found that almost 50% of retailers track online prices of competitors, and 78% of them use software to monitor rivals’ prices, adjusting their own prices accordingly.

The EC is thus concerned that price monitoring may facilitate or strengthen collusion between retailers, by making the detection of deviations from the collusive agreement easier, while allowing them to counteract by adjusting their prices.

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You may not realize this, but a lot of people don’t like lawyers. We even have our own genre of comedy that predates Shakespeare: lawyer jokes. Here is a common example: What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!

When you heard that joke for the first time, you probably laughed and laughed, shook your head and said, “funny because it’s true.”

So why do people dislike lawyers? To save you time, I’ll focus on one reason and leave the rest for others: Because lawyers spoil the fun by saying “no.”

This reason for not liking lawyers, of course, comes from the business context where companies consult either in-house lawyers or outside counsel about how or whether to proceed on a project or opportunity.

It is the lawyer’s job and duty to risk ruining the party. The business and sales people look at the opportunity and see upside: revenues, more market share, perhaps an important merger or acquisition.

It is the lawyer that must look at the opportunity to see the downside risks: the lawsuits, the disputes, the government reactions or investigations, the response from competitors. Then, oftentimes, the lawyer says “no.” The music stops and people go back to their offices, sometimes frustrated and angry, perhaps thinking that the lawyer should be on the bottom of the ocean. The lawyer is the bad guy, even if he or she is just doing his or her job.

But this isn’t an article defending lawyers.

To be honest, most lawyers aren’t great, or sometimes even good. The same is true of most people in any profession. Only in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Minnesota is everyone above average (of course, he was talking about the children, but you get the point). And many criticisms about lawyers apply to many of members of this profession, including the fact that they just ruin the party by saying “no” all the time.

I think that the lawyer that just says “no” is a lazy lawyer that offers very little value to his or her client. Sometimes the lawyer must say “no,” but in most instances, there should be more and I don’t just mean justifications for the denial.

Of course, a client might come up to a lawyer and say the following: “As you know, we compete in a market with four main players. It seems silly that we spend so much time trying to undercut each other on price and so many resources trying to come out with new features to our product. Our adversaries may lack social grace, they may smell bad, and they certainly aren’t good looking, but they aren’t bad people. We could all make more money if we could just get together, have a meeting, set the price we are all going to charge, maybe divide up the customer base, probably by geography, and vote on features to add to our products.”

An antitrust attorney that hears this from a client, must say “NO,” in all caps, like they are yelling. Of course, after that, they better work on education through antitrust compliance counseling and training. Time to put together an antitrust compliance policy.

But in most instances—even where the client’s idea create risk—a simple “no” is not the right approach, at least from a good antitrust attorney.

The scenario I described above—involving price fixing and market allocation (per se antitrust violations)—is a rare example of a situation where the antitrust laws are almost completely clear.

In most instances, either the law or the application of law is not straightforward enough to entirely preclude the client’s objective. For example, the question of what is exclusionary conduct under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (Monopolization) is not an easy one to answer. There is still great debate among the courts, academics, and economists. Similar issues can arise if you are trying to determine if an exclusive dealing agreement violates the antitrust laws: Sometimes the answer isn’t clear.

Advising Business Clients on Antitrust Risks

I can’t speak for all antitrust attorneys, but here is how I handle counseling clients on antitrust risks:

First, I understand that the perspective of a business is different than the perspective of the typical lawyer.

The attorney, especially the litigator, has grown up (professionally) in a world where they win or lose a motion or case and where something is or isn’t illegal under the law. There are, of course, grey areas, but a young attorney that receives a research project, for example, is tasked with finding the “answer.” And courts have to give decisions on “the law” in such a way that suggests there is an answer, even when the reality is that it could have gone either way. But opinions rarely say that—when they do, it is a credit to the judge.

Businesses, however, make calculated judgments based upon risk, reward, and resources. Opening another factory has obvious risks and rewards and takes resources. The business executive tries to evaluate the risks, judge the potential upside, and compare both of those to the resources necessary to open the factory.

If you tell the business to not open the factory because there are “risks,” you aren’t helping it. The business executive will just stare at you like you are some sort of fool. Of course there are risks; the skill in running a business is to evaluate those risks and incorporate them into decisionmaking.

I understand this perspective even more clearly now, having run Bona Law for several years.

Let’s apply this point to antitrust counseling: If a client comes to me with an opportunity, a project, or even a problem, it does the business little good for me to just say “no, there are risks.” That’s the lazy approach, in my view.

My value as the antitrust attorney in that situation is to help the client fully understand the risk. That is, I try to help the client appreciate the likelihood of the risk coming to fruition and the consequences of the risk, if it hits. And, in fact, the counseling is usually more complicated because there are often multiple risks, each with their own structure of probability and harm.

I do this because this is how businesses make decisions: They incorporate risk into the information that they have and make the best call they can.

Second, I work with the client to come up with options with similar rewards or upsides, but less antitrust risk—or some more preferable sliding scale of the risks and rewards.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Luis Blanquez is a European Competition Attorney that works with Bona Law.

WHAT IS AN ANTITRUST COMPLIANCE PROGRAM?

An antitrust compliance program is an internal business policy designed by a company to educate directors and employees to avoid risks of anticompetitive conduct.

Companies that conspire with their competitors to fix prices, share markets, allocate customers, production or output limitation; have historically faced severe fines from antitrust enforcement all over the world.

Companies articulating such programs are in the best position to detect and report the existence of unlawful anticompetitive activities, and if necessary, be the first ones to secure corporate leniency from antitrust authorities.  This allows them to avoid substantial fines, and in some jurisdictions, such as the US and the UK, even criminal charges.

But not every program ensures compliance.  A successful compliance program must alert and educate sales force; issue-spot risks; encourage reporting of anticompetitive issues, and deter risky conduct.

Over the years, antitrust authorities all over the world have published some general guidance creating and managing compliance programs.  Even though there are differences between jurisdictions, all of them seem to have the following anchor points in common:

  1. No “one size fits all” model: You must tailor your compliance program.

Effective compliance programs require companies to tailor their internal policies according to their particular situation.

A generic out-of-the-box compliance program is not likely to be effective.  It is more important that the company conducts an assessment of the particular risk areas involved in its day-to-day business activities, with a specific focus on the structure and previous history of the industry.

Interaction of sales people with other competitors, with close attention to trade association meetings, is also an important point to consider.  To illustrate, employees with access to pricing information and business plans are more likely to meet their counterparts from other companies in trade association reunions or industry events.

  1. Development of training programs to educate directors and employees.

A company should ensure antitrust compliance training for all executives, managers and employees, especially those with sales and pricing responsibilities.

Genuinely effective compliance requires that companies apply the antitrust policy and training program to their entire organizational structure, preferably in writing.  It may take the form of a manual and must be plainly worded in all the working languages of the company, so everyone understands it.  The antitrust policy must contain a general description of antitrust law and its purpose, explaining the way the company enforces it, along with highlights of the potential costs of non-compliance.

An effective way to implement an antitrust policy is through a list of “Don’ts”, including illegal conduct such as price-fixing agreements, the exchange of future pricing information, or allocation of production quotas, among other conduct.

You might complement the forbidden conduct with a list of “Red Flags” to identify situations in which antitrust risks may arise (i.e. sales people attending trade associations or industry events).

You might also add a list of “Do’s” because employees are often more receptive to what they can do, rather than what they cannot do.

Finally, companies and their employees should document their antitrust compliance training in writing. This assures that employees take compliance efforts seriously and that antitrust enforcers understand that the company does so too.

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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.

You might also enjoy our article on Antitrust Compliance Programs in the US and European Union.

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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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