Articles Posted in Antitrust Counseling

Articles about antitrust counseling and training.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak[1]

On June 21, 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed lower court decisions and held that certain NCAA restrictions on educational benefits for student-athletes violated Sherman Act Section 1.  The unanimous opinion was a clear win for the plaintiff class and almost certainly will lead to big changes in college sports.

It was also a clear defeat for the NCAA. While the opinion (as the NCAA’s reaction emphasized) maintained the NCAA’s ability to prohibit non-educational benefits and define limits on educational ones, any such NCAA rules must be defended under a full antitrust rule of reason analysis, not a special deferential standard based on language from a 1984 Supreme Court case. Litigation on such issues is already in the lower courts and more can now be expected.

Justice Gorsuch’s unanimous opinion for the Court, however, contains numerous references, concepts, and phrases that will prove helpful to future antitrust defendants, especially those in joint ventures with competitors. The opinion is a reminder that any effort to aggressively change antitrust’s status quo will need to deal with a judiciary steeped in decades’ worth of precedent.  Below are some highlights of the opinion sure to be noted by future antitrust defendants.

American Express, Trinko Alive and Well 

The recent House Majority Report on antitrust issues in Big Tech, co-authored by recently confirmed FTC Commissioner Lina Khan, had several general recommendations. One of those recommendations was for Congress to overturn several Court antitrust opinions, including Ohio v. American Express (written by Justice Thomas) and Verizon v. Trinko (written by Justice Scalia). We covered the ramifications of such reversals here and here.

Apparently, the Court disagrees with that recommendation. American Express was cited at least seven times by the Court, both for when the rule of reason analysis should be used and the three-part burden-shifting process of such an analysis. In a heavily criticized part of the American Express opinion, the Court found that the rule of reason analysis needed to account for effects on both sides of a two-sided market. While Justice Gorsuch’s opinion here did not cite American Express for that proposition, it and the parties assumed that the NCAA could try to justify its restraints in the labor or input market with positive effects in the output market, further cementing the American Express analysis.

The opinion cites Trinko at least four times, usually for the proposition that judges should not impose remedies that attempt to “micromanage” a company’s business by setting prices and similar details. Another citation, however, is to Trinko’s admonition to courts to avoid “mistaken condemnations of legitimate business arrangements” that could chill the procompetitive conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect. This focus on “error costs” has been embedded in antitrust jurisprudence for decades but has come under attack in recent years from commentators who would prefer more aggressive antitrust enforcement. This unanimous opinion ignores that criticism.

Bork and Easterbrook

Many of today’s antitrust principles can be attributed to Chicago School theorists, including Robert Bork and Frank Easterbrook. Their writings, both as academics and appellate court judges, have remained influential, although both recently have come under withering attack.  Justice Gorsuch seems to remain a fan of both.

Bork’s opinion in Rothery Storage v. Atlas Van Lines is cited twice, once for the proposition that the reasonableness of some actions can be judged quickly and once that courts should not require businesses to use the least restrictive means for achieving legitimate purposes. Bork’s recently re-released The Antitrust Paradox is also quoted for the proposition that competitors in sports leagues must be allowed to reach some agreements, such as on number of players, in order to have any competitions at all.

The Supreme Court cites two of Easterbrook’s Seventh Circuit opinions. The Court cites Polk Bros. v. Forest City Enterprises for the proposition that a joint venture among firms without the ability to reduce output is unlikely to harm consumers. A page later, the Court uses Chicago Professional Sports v. NBA to explain that different restraints among joint venturers might require different depths of analysis to ascertain their effect on competition. Finally, the Court cites one of his law review articles to support judicial caution in summarily condemning business conduct until courts and economists have accumulated sufficient understanding of its likely competitive effect. Surprisingly, Easterbrook’s most famous article — The Limits of Antitrust — was not used in the discussion of the error-cost framework discussed above, despite continuing to be celebrated as one of the leading descriptions of the concept.

Other Quotable Quotes

In addition to the citations above, several other portions of the opinion are sure to be used by future antitrust defendants. In fact, on June 21 Prof. Randy Picker (@randypicker) put together a Letterman-like Top 10 List of Things that Defense Attorneys will Like in Alston tweet thread.  No arguments here with any item on Prof. Picker’s list but two groups of such quotes are worth highlighting.

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American Needle (Football)

Author: Jarod Bona

When you think about Sherman Act Section 1 antitrust cases (the ones involving conspiracies), you usually consider the question—often framed at the motion to dismiss stage as a Twombly inquiry—whether the defendants actually engaged in an antitrust conspiracy.

But, sometimes, the question is whether the defendants are, in fact, capable of conspiring together.

That isn’t a commentary on the intelligence or skills of any particular defendants, but a serious antitrust issue that can—in some instances—create complexity.

So far I’ve been somewhat opaque, so let me illustrate. Let’s say you want to sue a corporation under the antitrust laws, but can’t find another entity they’ve conspired with so you can invoke Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which requires a conspiracy or agreement). How about this: You allege that the corporation conspired with its President, Vice-President, and Treasurer to violate the antitrust laws. Can you do that?

Probably not. In the typical case, a corporation is not legally capable of conspiring with its own officers. The group is considered, for purposes of the antitrust laws, as a “single economic entity,” which is incapable of conspiring with itself. Of course, the situation is complicated if we aren’t talking about the typical corporate officers, but instead analyzing a case with a corporation and corporate agents (or in some cases, even employees) that are acting for their own self-interest and not as a true agent of the corporation. The question, often a complex one, will usually come down to whether there is sufficient separation of economic interests that the law can justify treating them as separate actors.

A lot of tricky issues can arise when dealing with companies and their subsidiaries as well. In the classic case, Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corporation, for example, the United States Supreme Court held that the coordinated activities of a parent and its wholly-owned subsidiary are a single enterprise (incapable of conspiring) for purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

With the number of vaccinations rising and mask mandates going away, it appears that life might be heading back towards something like the “old normal.” But during the pandemic, businesses and consumers formed new habits. How many of those new actions will continue post-pandemic and how will those changed processes affect antitrust practice? With all the caveats about predicting the future, here is one set of opinions.

Joint Ventures

At the beginning of the pandemic, many law firms chose to remind their readers that antitrust laws still applied and, for instance, price-fixing was still per se illegal. We chose to remind our readers that pro-competitive joint ventures of various sorts have always been fine under the antitrust laws and might prove useful to businesses struggling to survive a pandemic and lockdowns. The DOJ and FTC also reminded everyone that antitrust laws still applied but, to their credit, also pointed to permissible joint ventures. They also streamlined their review processes for parties wanting an advisory opinion on joint efforts related to the pandemic.

Obviously, it is too early to tell if there has been any change in the number of price-fixing and similar conspiracies consummated during the pandemic; however, it does appear that many businesses did use joint ventures to improve efficiency. As of this writing, at least six joint efforts took advantage of DOJ’s streamlined Business Review Letter processes to obtain greater antitrust certainty about their joint efforts. Also, over 160 notices under the National Cooperative Research and Production Act were filed with DOJ and the FTC in the past twelve months. While many of those notices were merely updates from a much smaller number of joint ventures to disclose changes in membership of the consortium, they do provide some evidence that many companies remembered the pro-competitive business benefits of some collaborations of competitors. As businesses look for ways to improve efficiencies in uncertain times, look for these collaborations to continue.

Pricing

Pricing at all levels of distribution sends key signals to consumers, distributors, and manufacturers and so is often an important antitrust topic. As we explained early in the pandemic, however, price gouging is not a violation of the federal antitrust laws. State price gouging laws and contractual provisions were used early in the pandemic to protect consumers from high prices and manufacturers from blame for high prices by authorized and other distributors. Fears of price gouging seemed to fade early in the pandemic and, other than isolated incidents caused by temporary shortages, seem unlikely to return; instead, the pricing issue currently top of mind is general price inflation, a topic not covered by antitrust laws.

Supply Chain Issues—From Just in Time to Just in Case?

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was shortages of toilet paper and other paper products.  Here near the end, it is a shortage of computer chips for motor vehicles (and other products), chicken, and other products. Both the products and the causes of the shortages seem to have changed during the pandemic. The toilet paper shortage was caused by a sudden and extreme temporary increase in demand; the more recent ones are caused by various supply chain and labor issues resulting in multiple and long-term dislocations.

At bottom, many of these dislocations stem from companies trying to implement their interpretations of the Toyota Production System, particularly a just-in-time supply chain. Such supply chain management reduces costs and inefficiencies by eliminating buffer stocks and working closely with a smaller network of suppliers. In normal times, such systems reduce costs; however, they can be fragile and unable to quickly adjust to exogenous supply shocks, like natural disasters or unexpected bankruptcies. All such systems are based on assumptions that such shocks will not take place or that sufficient additional supply can be quickly found and substituted. When those assumptions turn out to be wrong, businesses can suffer.

Will living through these trying times cause businesses to think more about “just-in-case” supply?  Will manufacturers be more likely to object on antitrust grounds to supplier consolidation that leaves one fewer potential, even if not current, supplier?  Will “5-to-4” mergers now be problematic? Will the FTC object to a hospital merger that could reduce supply unlikely to be used except in a pandemic? If businesses, economists, and enforcers modify their thinking on “efficiencies”, merger review results could be different at least on the margins.

Fewer Smoke-Filled Rooms But Not Necessarily Less Price Fixing

Business travel seems to be coming back, though apparently more slowly than personal travel.  As companies and their employees have become more comfortable interacting virtually, it seems unlikely that travel to trade association and other meetings of competitors will soon, if ever, get back to prior levels. If so, there would be fewer opportunities for competitors to physically meet in typical “smoke-filled rooms” or hotel bars or other places where anti-competitive agreements have been hatched in the past. But that does not mean fewer opportunities to collude—it just means the conspirators will use Zoom, WhatsApp or many other communication and messaging methods. Fortunately, DOJ has understood these trends for years, as detailed in the links here.  For counselors and antitrust compliance specialists, we might need to update our training examples.

Zoom—The Next Google? 

Remember when you first discovered Google? Not only how well the search engine worked but how clean the site was, except when it included cute drawings and links like the Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve? Might be hard to remember now but the company whose motto was “Don’t be evil” seemed to be universally popular. Now? Well, it still remains at least respected and used by a lot of people, but it has also gathered enemies across the political spectrum and around the globe, often for alleged antitrust violations.

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Author: Jarod Bona

You might have a Lanham Act claim if your competitor is making false statements to promote its products or services in a way that deceives customers and injures you because you lost business, for example, as a result.

Although many people think of the Lanham Act as a trademark statute—and it is—it also allows competitors to sue each other for false advertising.

So the Lanham Act is on the battlefield for competition as competitors often use lawsuits as part of their arsenal to gain whatever advantage they can.

The Lanham Act is particularly interesting because it allows competitor standing when harm is done to consumers, so long as the plaintiff suffered lost profits or something similar because of the false statements.

Indeed, Congress designed the competitor enforcement mechanism because competitors have both the knowledge and motivation to enforce the Lanham Act. The Supreme Court explained this enforcement rationale in its POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola case, which you can read about here:

Competitors who manufacture or distribute products have detailed knowledge regarding how consumers rely upon certain sales and marketing strategies. Their awareness of unfair competition practices may be far more immediate and accurate than that of agency rulemakers and regulators.”

Importantly, however, the Supreme Court clarified in its Lexmark decision that the plaintiff need not necessarily be a competitor, so long as they suffered “an injury to a commercial interest in sales or business reputation proximately caused by the defendant’s misrepresentations.” This is an important opening and you can read more about our discussion of the Supreme Court’s Lexmark standing decision here. You might also read this Ninth Circuit decision on the Lanham Act.

The Lanham Act is, however, primarily a statute that competitors use to sue each other. You also see this in antitrust law—of course—and intellectual property law (including trade secret and trademark cases). And, under state law, competitors sue for tortious interference, of some sort, along with state statutes that prohibit false advertising and antitrust. And there are other causes of action, state and federal, that come up in specific circumstances.

For better or worse, business competition often takes a detour to the courthouse and companies use litigation to their advantage. Filing a lawsuit for the sake of filing one, without a meritorious claim, could subject you to actions for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and even antitrust liability in certain circumstances. But companies with prima facie claims against their competitors often relish the opportunity to carry the market fight to the legal forum. We’ve seen this from both sides, many times, over the years.

Sometimes antitrust lawyers call themselves antitrust and competition lawyers. The reason for that is that in the United States our laws that govern competition are called “Antitrust” laws (because of the unique history of the federal statutes that went after the “Trusts” back in the day). Antitrust used to be “anti-trust.” But here is an important tip: If you add the hyphen to “antitrust,” you will tip off to antitrust lawyers that you aren’t that familiar with the subject. So if you want to seem like an insider, skip the hyphen.

In Europe and much of the rest of the world, by contrast, these law are called, straightforwardly, “Competition” laws. And the lawyers that practice in this area are called Competition Lawyers.

But there is a second great reason for US antitrust lawyers to more accurately describe themselves as antitrust and competition lawyers. That is because when you represent clients that compete in a marketplace, you experience their hard-core focus on competition and, necessarily, their competitors.

You help them manage the rules of competition, with your own tools. Many of those involve antitrust knowledge and experience. But—to really help your clients—you also need to understand and have experience with the other causes of action that come up among and between competitors. And that includes, of course, the Lanham Act.

So—while we can accurately call ourselves antitrust lawyers, we are really antitrust and competition lawyers because we advise clients on the rules of competition generally, which are much broader than simply the antitrust laws. We are soldiers on the legal battlefield of competition. Antitrust laws are great weapons, but they aren’t the only ones.

As sort of a related aside, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I have learned advising clients in antitrust and competition law. Over time, you experience competition in all forms. You see different ways that competitors try to knock each other out of the market, or otherwise take market share. Sometimes this is about competing better, but it is often about competing differently—that is, adjusting your service and product to not only differentiate yourself, but to create a new market altogether.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Interesting times to be an attorney; especially an antitrust attorney. If you work in private practice, you are likely witnessing the most significant transformation in the legal sector in the past 20 years. If you are an in-house lawyer, you are probably dealing with a new set of legal and commercial issues you couldn’t even imagine a few years ago. And if you are an in-house antitrust attorney in one of the Big Tech companies, then you are currently involved in the perfect storm.

During the past years, competition authorities all over the world have been closely monitoring the steady acquisition of power by Big Tech companies in the new digital economy. That’s the main reason why they have recently initiated antitrust investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. As Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), recently mentioned: “antitrust enforcers were asleep at the wheel while Silicon Valley transformed from a center of innovation into a center of acquisition. Instead of competing to be the next Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon, today’s tech startups are pushed by their private-equity backers to sell out to Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon.”

At the same time, in the U.S. the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee issued last year its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets. The Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms. In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws.

You can read more about it in our previous article: Classic Antitrust Cases: Trinko, linkLine and the House Report on Big Tech. Now, Senator Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, in a keynote addressed at the annual State of the Net Conference, announced her antitrust reform legislation, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act.

Meanwhile, in the European Union the European Commission is proposing new “ex ante” regulation to increase contestability and fairness in the digital markets, which includes: (i) The Digital Services Act (DSA)––addressed to protect end users and their fundamental rights online; and (ii) the Digital Markets Act (DMA)––which prohibits unfair conditions imposed by online platforms that have become or are expected to become what is called “gatekeepers” to foster innovation, growth and competitiveness.

So yes, Big Tech companies have too many irons in the fire. Let’s try to briefly summarize them here.

The New Proposed Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the U.S.

In January 2021, Sen. Klobuchar, released her antitrust reform legislation, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act, highlighting that “with a new administration, new leadership at the antitrust agencies, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House, we’re well positioned to make competition policy a priority for the first time in decades.” She also mentioned that current antitrust laws are inadequate for regulating companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

In a nutshell, the new proposed Act includes the following changes:

New Legal Standards To Determine Whether a Merger is Anticompetitive

The is the first attempt to change the existing standard relating to mergers that substantially lessen competition, to a new one that prohibits mergers that create an appreciable risk of materially lessening competition. The exact meaning of this new standard remains unclear, to say the least.

The new rules would also shift, in certain scenarios, the burden of proof of certain mergers from the government to private parties. These include (i) the acquisition of a competitor or nascent competitor by a company with market power or a market share of 50% or more; (ii) the acquisition of what is called a “disruptor”, (iii) and transactions valued at more than $5 billion, or the buyer is worth at least $100 billion.

Broader Scope To Prohibit Exclusionary Conduct

The proposed Act expands the concept of exclusionary conduct and defines it as any conduct that materially disadvantages competitors or limits their opportunity to compete. It creates a presumption of illegality in those scenarios where exclusionary conduct presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.

This is when a firm with market power, or a market share higher than 50%, engages in conduct that materially disadvantages actual or potential competitors or tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of actual or potential competitors to compete.

Private parties will be still able to rebut such presumption by showing pro-competitive effects that eliminate the risk of harming competition.

Increase of Resources for Antitrust Authorities, More Civil Penalties and New Whistleblower Protections

The proposed Act includes an important funding increase of $300 million for both the FTC and DOJ.

It also increases civil monetary penalties, by imposing on private parties fines the greater of either: (i) 15% of the undertaking’s U.S. revenues in the prior calendar year, or (ii) 30% of the undertaking’s U.S. revenues in any business line affected or targeted by the unlawful conduct during the period of such conduct.

The new rules also provide further incentives to report potential antitrust violations. For instance, they extend anti-retaliation protections to civil whistleblowers, and in certain cases, even include an award up to 30% of the criminal fines.

In the meantime, Representative David Cicilline (Democrat – Rhode Island), who led the House’s investigation into Big Tech, and Senator Mike Lee, Senator (R., Utah), have also agreed to keep this momentum and discuss future changes to the antitrust laws, although with significant differences on their approach.

The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act: A proposal to upgrade the rules governing digital services in the European Union

In the European Union things have not been quiet either.

As part of the European Digital Strategy, last December the European Commission finally published its proposals to regulate the digital sector. These include (i) Digital Services Act (DSA)––addressed to protect end users and their fundamental rights online; and (ii) the Digital Markets Act (DMA)––which imposes new ex-ante rules and prohibits unfair conditions imposed by online platforms that have become or are expected to become what are called “gatekeepers” to foster innovation, growth and competitiveness.

These proposals will now go to the European Parliament and European Parliament for discussion, to be adopted into law and enter into force at some point during 2022.

The DSA

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Author: Jarod Bona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We receive a lot of calls and emails with questions about MAP policies, from both those that want to implement them and those that are subject to them.

Do MAP Policies Violate the Antitrust Laws?

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

But we can add further context to better understand the level of risk for particular MAP policies.

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

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

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

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

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

Resale Price Maintenance

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

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

Under federal law, courts now usually analyze resale-price-maintenance agreements under the antitrust rule of reason.

Colgate Policies

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

The bottom line with Colgate is that in most situations the federal antitrust laws do not forbid one company from unilaterally refusing to deal with another. There are, of course, exceptions, so don’t rely on this point without consulting an antitrust lawyer.

Back to MAP Policies and Antitrust

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Recently, I was researching antitrust developments in 2020 to update my Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising book.  While there were several developments last year, what struck me was the large number of potentially drastic changes to antitrust distribution law that started to play out in 2020 but are continuing into 2021.  Whether you think of them as shoes to drop or dogs yet to bark, these three potential changes are the key ones to watch in 2021.

Legislative Changes to the Antitrust Laws?

In the Fall of 2020, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee issued its Majority Report on its lengthy Investigation into Digital Markets. While the bulk of the Report focused on a few big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, the Report also recommended that Congress override several “classic antitrust cases” that allegedly misinterpreted antitrust law applicable to all companies.  Because we have covered several of those recommendations in detail already (see below), I will just focus on potential applications to distribution here.

  1. Classic Antitrust Case: Will Congress Override Brooke Group, Matsushita, and Weyerhaeuser—and Resurrect Utah Pie?
  2. Classic Antitrust Cases: Trinko, linkLine and the House Report on Big Tech.
  3. What Happens if Congress Overrides the Classic Antitrust Platform Market Case of American Express?

First, the Report recommended overriding Trinko, a case that has made refusal to deal claims against monopolists very difficult to bring, as we detail in the next section. In Trinko, the Court practically limited such claims to those that are nearly identical to the claims in Aspen Skiing, namely that the monopolist ended a prior voluntary course of dealing with the plaintiff for no good reason. Might an override of Trinko make it easier for a plaintiff-retailer to object if a monopolist defendant-retailer kicks the plaintiff off the defendant’s platform?

Second, overriding Trinko might also alter one of its more famous holdings, that the mere possession of monopoly power and the ability to impose “high” prices does not violate Sherman Act Section 2. While most states have price gouging laws, Trinko found that charging a “high” price was not “monopolization.”  If Congress overrides Trinko—and adopts the broader “abuse of dominance” standard for Section 2 cases, as the Report also recommends — might we end up with a federal price gouging law?

Third, the Report also is concerned about monopolists charging too low a price and recommends overriding Brooke Group and its “recoupment” requirement for successful predatory pricing claims.  As we covered previously, the Supreme Court was worried about discouraging low prices for consumers by companies with large market shares and so adopted a two-part test in Brooke Group that is difficult for plaintiffs to meet.  Plaintiffs must show very low prices, usually below average variable costs, plus the probability that the defendant later will be able to raise prices to recoup its losses.  If Congress overrides the recoupment prong of Brooke Group, might we see less aggressive pricing from companies with high market shares?

Fourth, overriding the recoupment prong also might revive long-dormant primary line price discrimination claims under Robinson-Patman.  While there are few Robinson-Patman claims in total today, all of them are secondary line claims:  Manufacturer 1 sells the same commodity to Retailer A at a lower price than to Retailer B, who claims an injury to itself and competition. In Brooke Group, the Court looked at primary line discrimination claims and applied the same two-part test for predatory pricing to primary line claims:  Manufacturer 1’s lower prices to Retailer A must be below its average variable costs and Manufacturer 1 must be able to later recoup its losses before a court can find harm to competition and Manufacturer 2. Before Brooke Group, the Supreme Court’s test had been the one from the oft-criticized Utah Pie opinion that focused on the defendant’s intent to lower prices for the entire market.  If Congress overrides the recoupment prong of Brooke Group, might we see price discrimination claims from manufacturers who cannot, or do not want to, match the lower prices of their competitors?

As of this writing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has introduced legislation that would drastically change the antitrust laws.  While most of the proposed changes relate to merger review, the proposed legislation would expand the definition of “exclusionary conduct” subject to the antitrust laws and create a presumption that such conduct by “dominant firms” is anticompetitive.  Might we see changes to the antitrust laws that drastically change how manufacturers, distributors, and retailers deal with one another?

Supreme Court Weighs in on Refusal to Deal Law?

As we have discussed several times (see here, here, and here), the courts are skeptical of claims that a monopolist’s refusal to deal with some other company, usually a competitor, is monopolization. Generally, even a monopolist has no duty to deal with its competitors. One of the few exceptions is when the facts are very close to Aspen Skiing where the Court did find such a violation of a duty to deal.

In Aspen Skiing, the Court found a refusal to deal violation because of what it saw as the defendant’s decision to terminate a “voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing” and its “willingness to forego short-term profits to achieve an anti-competitive end.”  Many refusal to deal claims flounder because the defendant and plaintiff had never entered any sort of “course of dealing.”  But even if that prong is met, many lower court judges, such as then-Judge Gorsuch in the 10th Circuit’s Novell case, emphasize that a monopolist might “forego short-term profits” but for pro-competitive ends. Those cases, therefore, require a plaintiff to show that defendant’s conduct is “irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”

The District Court in Viamedia, Inc. v. Comcast Corp. granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the refusal to deal claim, despite termination of a prior voluntary course of dealing, because the “potentially improved efficiency” resulting from the termination showed that the move was not “irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”

The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that a plaintiff only must allege that defendant’s termination was “predatory.”  As the concurring judge described it, a plaintiff need only allege some anticompetitive goal for the termination. A defendant’s assertion of other, procompetitive, rationales for the conduct was a question for summary judgment, not a motion to dismiss. If allowed to stand, the court’s ruling would make it much easier for refusal to deal plaintiffs to survive to discovery, thereby encouraging more such claims.

Comcast petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari and in December 2020, the Court sought the views of the Solicitor General. Any response from the Solicitor General could indicate whether the Biden Administration supports any change, large or small, as to how the Court has interpreted the Sherman Act in refusal to deal cases. Might the Court weigh in on refusal to deal monopolization cases and, if so, how would such an opinion affect the chances of new antitrust legislation?

Changes Driven by Amazon? 

Of course, we could not post about distribution and antitrust and not mention Amazon.  As we discussed earlier, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was one of several big tech executives who testified at a Fall 2020 Congressional hearing. At the time, we described some potential antitrust claims raised by that testimony and concluded that ones alleging illegal tying or monopolization had the best chance of succeeding—and that even those faced some real questions.

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Global Antitrust

Author: Jarod Bona

Just because your company isn’t based in the United States doesn’t mean it can ignore US antitrust law. In this interconnected world, there is a good chance that if you produce something, the United States is a market that matters to your company.

For that reason, I offer five points below that attorneys and business leaders for non-U.S. companies should understand about US antitrust law.

But maybe you aren’t from a foreign company? Does that mean you can click away? No. Keep reading. Most of the insights below matter to anyone within the web of US antitrust law.

This original version of this article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste

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Antitrust Superhero

Author: Jarod Bona

Some lawyers focus on litigation. Other attorneys spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. Another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature. And perhaps the most interesting attorneys try to keep their clients out of jail.

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. We can even help train your employees on antitrust law as part of compliance programs.

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. And in the world of big tech, antitrust is kind of a big deal.

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

Antitrust and Business 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. As an example, we explain here how we see a lot of Lanham Act False Advertising claims in our antitrust and competition practice.

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 (both false advertising and trademark), intellectual propertytortuous interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, we 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 or multi-district litigation.

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Bundling-antitrust-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Let’s pretend that you sell three different types of protein powder: Whey Protein, Casein Protein, and Pea Protein. You sell them each for $10 per container. But for someone—like myself—that likes to include several types of protein in their morning smoothie, you offer a special deal of $25 total for purchasing all three types of protein at once (compared to $30 at the regular price).

Congratulations, you just offered a bundled discount, the subject of this article.

Should you worry that your bundled discount breached the antitrust laws?

Let’s dig in.

You probably recognized the maneuver above because bundled discounts are pervasive in a market system. Companies like it when customers purchase several products and may thus offer a discount—a reduction in margin—when customers do so. At the same time, customers like discounts, so they may purchase a second, third, or fourth product from the same company to obtain the discount.

So what is the problem?

Well, like many pricing policies, there exist a set of conditions such that certain bundled discounts create anticompetitive harm that exceeds their procompetitive benefits.

That sounds too formal, so let’s try this: Sometimes a big company that sells lots of different products can eliminate its competitors that sell fewer types of products by manipulating the prices of their bundles.

How does that work?

If your company has market or monopoly power, your profits are at least a little extra. This is sometimes called supra-competitive pricing or monopoly profits (or monopoly rents if you prefer economist-speak). If that is your world, you worry about not just competing, but also about maintaining your extra level of profits that only exist with market or monopoly power.

Because these extra profits can be so significant, those that have market or monopoly power will burn extraordinary resources to hold onto that power. This, of course, is one of the wasteful aspects of monopoly—the resources that go into maintaining it.

You must keep feeding the monopoly beast or it may grow weak and competition will kill it.

Anyway, monopolists are brilliant at manipulating pricing to exclude their competitors. And even though bundled discounts are usually pro-competitive, a monopolist in certain situations can employ them to exclude competition and protect their market power and, thus, their outsized profits.

In what situation can a monopolist manipulate bundled discounting to maintain or extend their monopoly?

Let’s turn to an actual case that made it to the Third Circuit a couple years after I graduated from law school: LePage’s, Inc. v. 3M, 324 F.3d 141 (3d Cir. 2003).

You’ve probably heard of 3M—Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. They are based in Saint Paul, Minnesota and they are important to the community. I am from Minnesota, originally, and as a local, you hear a lot of good about this innovative company. (Bona Law also has a Minnesota office).

3M makes many products, but relevant to this Third Circuit case, they manufacturer transparent tape (under the Scotch brand)—just like their upstart competitor, LePage’s. I am speaking, of course, from the time perspective of the lawsuit. I am certain that 3M still makes transparent tape, but I haven’t kept up with LePage’s.

Anyway, unlike LePage’s, 3M also made many other products that they sold to major customers that purchased their Scotch tape. Importantly, 3M had monopoly power in the market for transparent tape.

So, according to the lawsuit, here is what 3M did: They offered discounts to major customers (retailers, etc.) conditioned on those customers purchasing products from each of six of 3M’s product lines. 3M linked the size of the rebate to the number of product lines in which the customer met purchasing targets. And the number of targets (i.e. minimum purchases in separate product lines) would determine the rebate that the customer would receive on all of its purchases. So each customer had a substantial incentive to meet targets across all product lines, to maximize the discounts/rebates.

LePage’s sold transparent tape, but not all of the other products. So they didn’t stand a chance to compete because the customers for transparent tape would purchase from 3M because by doing so, they receive substantial discounts on a bunch of other products too.

The Third Circuit explained that “[t]he principal anticompetitive effect of bundled rebates as offered by 3M is that when offered by a monopolist, they may foreclose portions of the market to a potential competitor who does not manufacture an equally diverse group of products and who therefore cannot make a comparable offer.” (155).

Of course, if there were a competitor of 3M, even separate from LePage’s, that could offer these product lines, the Court may have held that there wasn’t anticompetitive harm or antitrust injury.

If you are inclined toward numbers, you might spit out your drink and say—“Gosh darn it! Hold on a Second! How do we know whether the discount forecloses the market or is even anticompetitive without getting into the actual prices and discounts? If LePage’s is super inefficient or insists on crazy-high prices, should they really be able to utilize the machinery of the federal government to stop a benevolent monopolist from reducing their prices?”

Good instincts!

LePage’s was a controversial decision for that reason. While 3M’s bundling could have been anticompetitive, the Court didn’t go deep enough into the analysis to really understand if they were.

For some number crunching, let’s travel west to the Ninth Circuit and see what they did a few years later in Cascade Health Solutions v. PeaceHealth, 515 F.3d 973 (updated Feb. 1, 2008).

The Discount-Attribution Test for Bundled Discounts

In PeaceHealth, the Ninth Circuit overturned a jury verdict against defendant for violating Section 2 of the Sherman Act by bundling (among other conduct). The trial court erred in providing the jury with a LePage’s instruction on bundling that didn’t include specific price-cost requirements.

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