Author: Jarod Bona
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed on July 17, 2018 to stay the FTC’s Action against the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board.
The Fifth Circuit’s one-line decision rejects the FTC’s opposition to the Board’s requested stay and allows immediate appellate review of the FTC’s significant state-action-immunity rejection.
This FTC administrative action arises out of allegations that a Louisiana board of appraisers required appraisal management companies to pay appraisers what it described as a “customary and reasonable” fee for real estate appraisal services. The FTC argues that this is illegal price-fixing, which, of course, violates Section 5 of the FTC Act.
What is particularly interesting about this case is that it addresses one of the most significant applications of the active supervision prong of the state-action-immunity doctrine since the US Supreme Court decided NC Dental.
You might recall that, in most cases, entities that want to claim state-action immunity must satisfy both prongs of the Midcal test: (1) the challenged restraint must be clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy; and (2) the policy must be actively supervised by the state itself.
As we described in our prior article, Commissioner Ohlhausen effectively addressed important factual and legal issues that make up the active-supervision standard, offering useful guidance to boards and those that challenge them under the antitrust laws.
For example, the FTC applied three elements that it held—in this case—form part of active supervision: (1) the development of an adequate factual record; (2) a written decision on the merits; and (3) a specific assessment of how the private action compares with the substantive standard from the legislature.
While the Fifth Circuit’s stay decision is not good news for the FTC’s current action, it may be good news for state boards and others that want guidance on the active-supervision requirements of state-action immunity.
The Supreme Court’s NC Dental decision offered some parameters of what doesn’t constitute active supervision, mostly from prior cases. But at this point, the law is light on the specifics. A federal appellate decision that fully engages on these issues will help state boards, victims of state boards, district courts, and, in fact, the Federal Trade Commission.
Besides the substantive active supervision issue, this case presents the drama of the Louisiana governor trying to get around the state-supervision deficiencies through executive order in response to the FTC’s initial antitrust complaint. The board argued that the executive order made the FTC’s case moot. The FTC, of course, rejected that argument.
Author: Jarod Bona
In an antitrust case deciding a non-antitrust-specific issue, the US Supreme Court held in Animal Science Products, Inc. v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. (the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation) that to determine foreign law in federal courts, judges are not strictly bound by that foreign government’s statements.
The judge should “accord respectful consideration to a foreign government’s submission,” but it is his or her call in making the ultimate decision.
The Supreme Court in this case is interpreting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1, which states that when deciding foreign law—sometimes that is necessary in federal court—a judge may “consider any relevant material or source . . . whether or not submitted by a party.”
This decision arose out of the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation, which is an antitrust class-action lawsuit against four Chinese corporations that manufacturer and export, you guessed it, Vitamin C. Purchasers of the vitamin sued Chinese vitamin C sellers, alleging that they agreed to fix the price and quantity of Vitamin C exported to the United States from China. Price fixing, of course, is a per se antitrust violation.
The Chinese vitamin C sellers argued that they are shielded from US antitrust law liability by the act-of-state doctrine.
But what is the act-of-state doctrine?
US courts under the act-of-state doctrine should not judge the validity of an official act of a foreign government committed within that foreign government’s borders. This is a doctrine that extends beyond antitrust law.
In Animal Science Products, the defendants argued that China law required them to fix prices as part of a “regulatory pricing regime.”
The parties, however, disputed whether China law actually mandated the fixed prices. To help resolve that question, the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the Chinese vitamin C sellers’ argument that China law required defendants to fix prices.
So the trial court had to figure out whether China law mandated price fixing. And to assist it, China’s Ministry of Commerce weighed in via amicus brief.
What would you do?
Would you just agree with whatever China says about its own law? Or would you do an independent examination and decide?
Author: Jarod Bona
As you may have heard, the Senate recently approved a new slate of FTC Commissioners. Among them is new Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who is a former assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and former advisor to the Secretary of Education.
Commissioner Chopra was sworn in on May 2, 2018 and quickly announced one of his early priorities: On May 14, 2018, he issued a public memorandum to the other FTC Commissioners and the FTC Staff describing how he believes the FTC should handle repeat offenders of FTC violations.
Let’s dig into this a little bit.
Commissioner Chopra describes the problem of corporate recidivism as generally resulting from significant management dysfunction, which requires “serious remedies that address the underlying issues.”
After describing several non-antitrust examples of this corporate recidivism, particularly involving large financial institutions, Commissioner Chopra points out, bluntly, that “FTC orders are not suggestions.” He says that—“to deter violations and maintain [the FTC’s] credibility as law enforcers”—the FTC “should carefully consider ways to build on its existing enforcement regime to make clear to market participants that our orders are to be taken seriously.”
For flagrant violators of district court orders, he believes that the agency should consider “contempt proceedings, referral to criminal authorities, and remedial injunctive relief.” Companies that violate FTC administrative orders should face additional injunctive relief and meaningful civil penalties.
Notably, Commissioner Chopra expresses a desire to go after individual executives that participate in FTC order violations, even if those individuals weren’t named in the original orders. So if a company is subject to an FTC order and violates that order, Commissioner Chopra would like to target the people that created the violation.
Structural Remedies Following Order Violations and an Important Caution
Finally, in what I believe is the most newsworthy part of this memorandum, Commissioner Chopra describes the structural remedies that he believes the FTC should explore for FTC-order violators.
His purpose in proposing these remedies is to address “the true causes of noncompliance.” Commissioner Chopra believes that certain companies may “engage in risky business practices to demonstrate to investors and capital markets that they are meeting or surpassing expectations for earnings and growth.” He also believes that “executive compensation practices might inadvertently create incentives for practices that might harm consumers or competition.”
We are, of course, treading on dangerous territory here. Businesses necessarily take risk—that is a feature not a bug. What are “risky business practices”? That is for the market—in its brutal truth and honesty—to reveal. It isn’t up to a government official or entity, without Skin in the Game, to make these determinations.
That isn’t to say that the FTC shouldn’t enforce antitrust, competition, and consumer protection laws. Nor is it to say that the FTC shouldn’t raise the penalties for repeat offenders. But protection of competition moves silently and dangerously to market distortion and harm when it decides that it is smarter than the market itself.
Those that enforce the antitrust laws with government power must do so humbly for the line between removing the barriers to competition and, frankly, screwing-up competition is a fine one that we rarely see clearly. It is best that those with power stay firmly on one side, so they don’t cross this line.
Author: Jarod Bona
On April 10, 2018—the eve of my panel on state action immunity issues at the ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting in DC, the FTC granted, in essence, partial summary judgment against the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board on state action immunity. You can read the FTC decision—hot off the press—right here.
I won’t go into a lot of detail here as you can read the decision, but here is short summary:
Unlike the first two cases, however, the primary issue in this case is procedural: The petition requesting review fairly described the issue as “Whether orders denying state-action immunity to public entities are immediately appealable under the collateral-order doctrine.”
The case at issue is a Ninth Circuit case called SolarCity Corporation v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District. SolarCity, of course, is now a unit of Elon Musk’s Tesla.
The substantive case underneath the procedural issue involves a monopolization lawsuit by SolarCity against a public entity power company in Arizona, which is the only supplier in that area of traditional electrical power.
Here is what they did: SolarCity, like other solar-energy-panel companies, was having success in selling and leasing rooftop solar panels to customers, especially in sunshine places like Arizona (and Southern California, of course). Instead of viewing the move toward solar power as good for the environment and peoples’ pocketbooks, the power company—a public entity—viewed it as a threat. And, like many government entities that view private enterprise as a threat to their budgets and influence, the power district changed the rules.
That is, the power company changed the pricing structure so customers that acquire power from their own system—a solar-panel system, for example—must pay a prohibitively large penalty. The government entity’s rule change had its intended effect: SolarCity received ninety-six percent fewer applications for new solar-panel systems in that territory.
This is, of course, one of the grossest forms of government abuse and a disgrace to competition. It is also one of the reasons why Luke Wake of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center and I argued both as an amicus in Phoebe Putney and in a law review article that the Supreme Court should adopt a market-participant exception to state-action immunity. If a government entity is a commercial participant in a market, it shouldn’t be immunized from cheating in that market.
Bona Law currently has another case pending in the Ninth Circuit in which government entities that compete in the market violated antitrust laws and are using the shield of state-action immunity to try to get away with it.
The Collateral Order Doctrine
In the SolarCity case, the trial court rejected state-action immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Typically, a defendant that loses a motion to dismiss cannot appeal the issues until later in the case, sometimes after trial. The plaintiff gets to take a shot at proving its case.
Antitrust News is a new feature at The Antitrust Attorney Blog. We will periodically report on and address new developments in the antitrust world, from FTC or DOJ guidance to important court decisions to relevant legislative developments to worldwide antitrust issues.
Although some of our prior articles involve antitrust developments, most of these posts consist of content that is less timely and more evergreen. Our intent is to help our readers by describing Antitrust News through the filter of our antitrust expertise.
On November 16, 2017 in Washington, DC, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Donald G. Kempf, Jr. made news about antitrust merger review at the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Fall Forum.
Kempf said—simply—that the DOJ will try to shorten the time it takes it to review mergers for antitrust and competition issues. In 2011, the average merger took just over 7 months to review. In 2016, the review time increased to 11.6 months on average.
That is unacceptable. Companies that want to merge should not have to wait almost full year to do so. A lot can happen in a year, particularly now where technology and low entry barriers mean that entire markets often change in a short period of time.
How did the excess delays happen?
To explain, let’s back up and explain—briefly—how an antitrust merger review works:
The merging parties begin by completing what is called a Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filing. Either the DOJ or FTC has 30 days to decide whether to issue what is called a second request. If one of the antitrust agencies thinks that there could be genuine competition issues for the merger, they may issue this second request, which opens up a heavy set of fact-finding, including document production.
At some point, the antitrust agencies may either approve the merger, reach an agreement with the parties to approve the merger with certain requirements (like selling assets) or (in the case of the DOJ) to seek a preliminary injunction stopping the merger.
According to Kempf, over time the second request period increased in scope and complexity and the preliminary injunction hearings became mini-trials. Indeed, they often have the same effect as a trial on the merger because if the DOJ wins, the parties often abandon the merger. If the DOJ loses, it often halts the challenge.
Kempf went on to articulate why shortening merger review time is so important. His best line was that “delaying competitive mergers is anticompetitive, and that’s not the business the Antitrust Division wants to be in. Just the opposite.”
He offered five suggestions to shorten antitrust merger reviews: Continue reading →
But before we talk about the North District of California’s class certification decision in In re Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation, we will hit the highlights of the most common dispute in these type of cases.
It is also important that you know that, as of the date of this blog post, Bona Law represents a defendant in the In re Capacitors Antitrust Litigation, which also will involve a class certification motion from plaintiffs and similar issues. So please evaluate anything I write with that in mind.
In fact, even though we will represent businesses as either plaintiffs or defendants in competitor antitrust litigation, Bona Law will not—except in rare or unusual circumstances—represent a class action of plaintiffs in an antitrust action (at least as of now). We will, however, represent defendants in antitrust class-action cases, as I have many times over my career.
So, the bottom line, is that I come to these issues from the perspective of an antitrust attorney representing defendants in class action litigation. It is a good practice when reading anything to always understand the perspective of the writer, to understand biases, blind spots, or how their experiences can cloud their explanations. I do my best at The Antitrust Attorney Blog to provide useful information rather than propaganda or corporate double-speak, but I am human with all of the weaknesses and limitations that come with that.
If you want to read about how alleged anticompetitive conduct morphs into a significant antitrust class action, check out our prior blog post.
Common Class Certification Issues
Every case is different, of course, but here is what usually matters most at the class-certification stage of antitrust class-action litigation:
Plaintiffs will collect a lot of transactional data and other discovery from defendants. They will pass that on to their expert economists, who will submit a report that plaintiffs need to satisfy the elements of class certification—which is their burden. Defendants, of course, have their own expert who will attack plaintiffs’ experts and often present their own economic theories.
The primary issue in dispute is usually whether common issues predominate over individual issues—from Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3). And the most likely disputed issue that may be either common or individual is the impact or damages from the alleged anticompetitive conduct.
The Court is not tasked with determining the merits—including whether there was, in fact, an antitrust conspiracy—so the parties will often at this stage fight over whether if there were a conspiracy, the plaintiffs’ experts can establish a reliable methodology to show that there is a common impact to the many class members. Of course, issues of merits are usually entangled within the class-certification questions.
Another issue that is increasingly important in antitrust class actions is typicality—whether the named or representative class members are “typical” of the unrepresented members of the class.
This battle usually happens on two fronts during class certification: (1) motions to strike the plaintiffs’ expert economists’ testimony for lack of reliability or something similar; and (2) whether plaintiffs can satisfy the elements for class certification.
That, in fact, was where the parties fought in the papers for class certification of the Lithium Ion case.
Class Certification Decision for In re Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation
The Lithium Ion Batteries case involves allegations by named class members of a multi-year, international price-fixing conspiracy among Japanese and Korean manufacturers (and their American subsidiaries) of lithium ion battery cells.
Update: As you may have heard, the Senate confirmed Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read below for my thoughts on the confirmation process and Justice Gorsuch and antitrust.
We have entered a Supreme-Court-Justice-Nomination season. These are always interesting times for lawyers, politicians, and real people.
There are only nine Justices on the Supreme Court, so whenever there is an opening, it is a big deal. Appointments are for life, or until a Justice wants to leave, for whatever reason (or impeachment, but we haven’t had to worry about that lately). So the nomination seasons are whenever they are.
For lawyers, it is the rare time when the rest of the country cares about what they care about. Thus, news talk shows and articles are full of attorney quotes, ideas, and predictions about, first, who they think the nominee will be; and second, after the name is known, whether that person is qualified.
A Supreme Court Justice, as a job, is not an easy one. Sure, it comes with some perks like lifetime appointment, cool robes, and the right to interrupt attorneys whenever you want. But it is a lot of pressure because you are making decisions in a wide variety of legal subjects, covering constitutional, statutory, and even federal common law, each of which may create upheavals for huge groups of people.
As a Justice, you can’t afford the time to become and stay an expert in every area of law, but you (and your Justice colleagues) are making decisions that set the parameters for all legal fields, even over experts in those fields. Some may say that this is a feature not a bug. But, from the perspective of the individual Justice, it creates an enormous responsibility to think through everything you do. You can’t just take an opinion off.
Because of the impact and responsibility of a Supreme Court Justice, this isn’t a job for anyone. You have to love the law and want to contribute positively to it—in a way that might even seem a little obsessive.
So let’s talk about qualifications: At least since I’ve been following it, it is unusual to see a nominee for the US Supreme Court that isn’t qualified to work on the Court. That is, the qualifications of the men and women that Presidents of both parties have nominated over the last couple of decades have been impressive and adequate for the extremely high standards of the Court. That includes DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.
But, unfortunately, the word “qualifications” has become a word that every side, at one time or another, has lifted to mean “I think will do what I want on the rare controversial case that could likely go either way on the law,” or some other interest-focused meaning.
That is because most people, especially people on television, don’t like to just say, honestly, that they support or oppose a particular nominee for pure reasons of self or philosophical interest. Instead, they filter out their own biases by using the word “qualified” or “not-qualified,” or “extremist” or some other mismatched word. The reasons for this probably range from cognitive dissonance to political marketing.
President Donald Trump Nominates Judge Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court
Thanks for sticking around through that long-winded introduction. I added the context I wanted to add, so I can now speak (well, write) more transparently.
Judge Gorsuch is a federal appellate judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals from district courts in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). He has a BA from Columbia, graduated from Harvard Law in 1991 (exactly one decade before I did), and has a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Law from Oxford. He clerked on the DC Circuit with Judge David B. Sentelle, then clerked on the United States Supreme Court with both Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He later worked with the Department of Justice and for many years at a strong law firm.