Articles Posted in Antitrust News

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Author: Luis Blanquez

We recently wrote about the Federal Trade Commission’s blog post explaining how relying on a common algorithm to determine your pricing decisions might violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

The FTC has Algorithmic Price-Fixing in its Antitrust Crosshairs

It was just a matter of time until the first cases would hit the courts. That’s why during the last couple of years, we’ve seen four main federal antitrust cases alleging that algorithmic pricing might violate the antitrust laws. In three of them, the antitrust agencies also filed Statements of Interest (SOI), outlining the agencies’ opinion about what the legal principles applicable to claims of algorithmic price fixing should be.

Realpage, Inc. Software Antitrust Litigation

This multidistrict litigation in the Middle District of Tennessee involves unlawful price-fixing schemes against multifamily housing developers and managers, and student housing developers and managers, both organized by RealPage––a software algorithm company. RealPage developed software to collect property owners’ and managers’ data, used for pricing and inventory strategies, that later shared with its clients.

In January 2024, the Court: (i) denied the motion to dismiss the multifamily housing cases––the renters plausibly alleged an antitrust violation, but (ii) rejected claims alleging a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among landlords, which would have been per se illegal. The Court, however, concluded that those same landlords vertically conspired with RealPage. The Court also dismissed the student housing plaintiffs’ complaint.

In parallel, the DOJ opened an investigation and filed a SOI. Among other things, the DOJ highlighted:

  • The fact that today software algorithms process more information more rapidly than humans and can be employed to fix prices. The technical capabilities of software can enhance competitors’ ability to optimize cartel gains, monitor real-time deviations, and minimize incentives to cheat.
  • Section 1 prohibits competitors from fixing prices by knowingly sharing their competitive information with, and then relying on pricing decisions from, a common human pricing agent who competitors know analyzes information from multiple competitors. The same prohibition applies where the common pricing agent is a common software algorithm.
  • Factual allegations in both complaints point to evidence of an invitation to act in concert followed by acceptance—evidence that is sufficient to plead concerted action. Among other things, RealPage required each user to submit real-time pricing and supply data to it, and RealPage’s marketing materials allegedly “touted” its use of “non-public data from other RealPage clients,” enabling them to “raise rents in concert”; as well as the algorithms’ ability to “facilitate collaboration among operations” and “track your competition’s rent with precision.”
  • The complaints then allege that the landlords “gave their adherence to the scheme and participated in it.” In particular, the landlords allegedly sent RealPage the non-public and competitively sensitive data (as RealPage proposed), and overwhelmingly priced their units in line with RealPage’s suggested prices (80-90%). Indeed, the complaints also contain ample allegations on how RealPage directly constrained the “deviations” from its suggested prices, including by enforcing and monitoring compliance with those prices, so the landlords effectively delegated aspects of their pricing decisions.
  • Relatedly, the multifamily plaintiffs allege that the landlords jointly delegated aspects of decision making on prices to RealPage. They allege that, by using RealPage’s pricing algorithms, each client defendant “agreed” to a common plan that involved “delegat[ing] their rental price and supply decisions to a common decision maker, RealPage.” Indeed, RealPage allegedly touted this feature—stating in a press release that it gives clients “the ability to ‘outsource daily pricing and ongoing revenue oversight,’” such that RealPage could “set prices” as though it “own[ed]” the clients’ properties “ourselves.’”
  • Jointly delegating any part of the decision-making process reflects concerted action. That the delegation is to a software algorithm, rather than a human, makes no difference to the legal analysis. Just as “surrender[ing] freedom of action. . . and agree[ing] to abide by the will of the association” can be enough for concerted action, so can be relying on a joint algorithm that generates prices based on shared competitively sensitive data.
  • The “per se” rule prohibiting price fixing applies to price fixing using algorithms. And the analysis is no different simply because a software algorithm is involved. The alleged scheme meets the legal criteria for “per se” unlawful price fixing. Although not every use of an algorithm to set price qualifies as a per se violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, it is per se unlawful when, as alleged here, competitors knowingly combine their sensitive, nonpublic pricing and supply information in an algorithm that they rely upon in making pricing decisions, with the knowledge and expectation that other competitors will do the same.

The District of Columbia Attorney General has also filed a similar action in the Superior Court of D.C., alleging violations of the D.C. Antitrust Act.

Duffy v. Yardi Systems, Inc.

In this case from the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, plaintiffs allege that competing landlords violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by unlawfully agreeing “to use Yardi’s pricing algorithms to artificially inflate” multifamily rental prices.

The Agencies also filed a SOI to explain the two legal principles applicable to claims of algorithmic price fixing. First, a competitors’ agreement to use an algorithm software with knowledge that other competitors are doing the same thing constitutes evidence of a contract, combination or conspiracy that may violate Section 1. Second, the fact that defendants deviate from the pricing algorithm’s recommendations––for instance, by just setting initial starting prices or by starting with prices lower than the ones the algorithm recommends—is not enough to get them “off the hook” for illegal price fixing (even if no information is directly shared between the parties).

The Agencies SOI’s focus was on the second point: Defendants retaining pricing discretion. The Agencies stress in the SOI that it is “per se” illegal for competing landlords to jointly delegate key aspects of their pricing to a common algorithm, even if the landlords retain some authority to deviate from the algorithm’s recommendations. Although full adherence to a price-fixing scheme may render it more effective, the effectiveness of the scheme is not a requirement for “per se” illegality. Consistent with black letter conspiracy law, the violation is the agreement, and unsuccessful price-fixing agreements are also per se illegal.

Casino-Hotel Operators Cases

Two new algorithmic pricing antitrust cases are also ongoing against casino hotel operators in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

In Cornish-Adebiyi v. Caesar’s Entertainment, Inc., a case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, plaintiffs allege a conspiracy against eight Atlantic City casino-hotel operators, and the Cendyn Group LLC, which is a provider of the algorithmic software platform, called “Rainmaker,” used to fix, raise, and stabilize the prices of casino-hotel guest rooms in Atlantic City. Rainmaker allegedly gathers real-time pricing and occupancy data to generate “optimal” room rates for each participating casino hotel, which the software then recommends to each casino hotel.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Apple is currently feeling the heat from antitrust authorities all over the world. Probably more than ever. Below is an article we recently published in the Daily Journal discussing in some detail the last developments in the Epic Games saga, both in the EU and the US.

Epic Games Has Returned to the Apple Store. Will Apple Throw a Hail Mary?

If you are a developer in the Web3 space trying to access the Apple Store, you should also review this article:

Antitrust, Web3 and Blockchain Technology: A Quick Look into the Refusal to Deal Theory as Exclusionary Conduct

So, what’s on Apple’s plate in the antitrust world on both sides of the pond?

In the European Union, the European Commission has fined Apple over €1.8 billion for abusing its dominant position on the market for the distribution of music streaming apps to iPhone and iPad users (‘iOS users’) through its App Store. The Commission found that Apple applied restrictions on app developers preventing them from informing iOS users about alternative and cheaper music subscription services available outside of the app. Such anti-steering provisions ban app developers from the following:

  • Informing iOS users within their apps about the prices of subscription offers available on the internet outside of the app.
  • Informing iOS users within their apps about the price differences between in-app subscriptions sold through Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism and those available elsewhere.
  • Including links in their apps leading iOS users to the app developer’s website on which alternative subscriptions can be bought. App developers were also prevented from contacting their own newly acquired users, for instance by email, to inform them about alternative pricing options after they set up an account.

At the same time, the European Commission has just opened a non-compliance investigation under the new Digital Markets Act about Apple’s rules on (i) steering in the App Store; (ii) its new fee structure for alternative app stores; and (iii) Apple’s compliance with user choice obligations––to easily uninstall any software applications on iOS, change default settings on iOS and prompt users with choice screens which must effectively and easily allow them to select an alternative default service.

Meanwhile, antitrust enforcement is also heating up for the Cupertino company in the United States.

Besides several private litigation actions, Epic Games recently filed a motion accusing Apple of violating an order issued last year under California law barring anti-steering rules in the App Store.

And just few days ago, the Justice Department, joined by 16 other state and district attorneys general, filed a civil antitrust lawsuit against Apple for monopolization or attempted monopolization of smartphone markets in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. According to the complaint, Apple has monopoly power in the smartphone and performance smartphones markets, and it uses its control over the iPhone to engage in a broad, sustained, and illegal course of conduct. The complaint alleges that Apple’s anticompetitive course of conduct has taken several forms, many of which continue to evolve today, including:

  • Blocking Innovative Super Apps.Apple has disrupted the growth of apps with broad functionality that would make it easier for consumers to switch between competing smartphone platforms.
  • Suppressing Mobile Cloud Streaming Services. Apple has blocked the development of cloud-streaming apps and services that would allow consumers to enjoy high-quality video games and other cloud-based applications without having to pay for expensive smartphone hardware.
  • Excluding Cross-Platform Messaging Apps. Apple has made the quality of cross-platform messaging worse, less innovative, and less secure for users so that its customers have to keep buying iPhones.
  • Diminishing the Functionality of Non-Apple Smartwatches. Apple has limited the functionality of third-party smartwatches so that users who purchase the Apple Watch face substantial out-of-pocket costs if they do not keep buying iPhones.
  • Limiting Third Party Digital Wallets. Apple has prevented third-party apps from offering tap-to-pay functionality, inhibiting the creation of cross-platform third-party digital wallets.

The complaint also alleges that Apple’s conduct extends beyond these examples, affecting web browsers, video communication, news subscriptions, entertainment, automotive services, advertising, location services, and more.

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Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

On January 22, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its usual annual announcement to increase the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act thresholds. The 2024 thresholds will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, which is expected soon, so the thresholds likely will be effective in late February.

HSR requires the parties to submit certain information and documents and then wait for approval before closing a transaction. The FTC and DOJ then have 30 days to determine if they will allow the merger to proceed or seek much more detail through a “second request” for information. The parties may also ask for “Early Termination” to shorten the 30-day waiting period, although for nearly two-years this option has been––and continues to be––suspended.

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Author: Steven Cernak

On December 15, 2023, the Fifth Circuit remanded to the FTC its order requiring Illumina to divest its re-acquired subsidiary, Grail. Despite the remand, the opinion is a big win for the FTC. Below, we offer five takeaways for future merging parties and their counsel.

[Disclosure: Bona Law filed an amicus brief for 34 Members of Congress arguing that the FTC’s action violated the “major questions” doctrine and misinterpreted Clayton Act Section 7 in several ways.]

Here is a quick summary of the twists and turns of this case from our earlier writings. Illumina is a dominant provider of a certain type of DNA sequencing. Grail is one of several companies developing a multi-cancer early detection (MCED) test. An MCED promises to be able to detect biomarkers associated with up to fifty types of cancer by extracting the DNA from a simple blood sample. To work, the MCED needs DNA sequencing supply. According to the complaint, the type of DNA sequencing that works best — and with which Grail and all other MCED developers have been working — is the type supplied by Illumina.

The parties announced Illumina’s proposed acquisition of Grail in September 2020 and said that it would speed global adoption of Grail’s MCED and enhance patient access to the tool. In late March 2021, the FTC challenged this transaction by filing an administrative complaint before its own administrative law judge (ALJ). Shortly thereafter, the European Commission announced that it too would investigate the transaction, even though the transaction did not meet its usual thresholds.

During these investigations, the parties closed the transaction. The European Commission decided to block the transaction and the parties appealed. Just before the European decision, the FTC ALJ dismissed the complaint in an unexpected decision ruling for the first time against the FTC in a merger case. In a nutshell, the ALJ concluded that the FTC failed to prove that Illumina’s post-acquisition ability and incentive to advantage Grail to the disadvantage of Grail’s alleged rivals would likely result in a substantial lessening of competition in the relevant market for the research, development, and commercialization of MCED tests. FTC Complaint Counsel appealed the ALJ decision. The four Commissioners unanimously agreed to overturn it. Now, the Fifth Circuit has largely upheld that decision of the Commission, though with a remand for reconsideration of one aspect of the decision, as described below.

Takeaway 1: This Development is Largely an FTC Win

Some of the initial tweets and headlines, perhaps after reading only the opinion’s opening paragraph vacating the FTC’s order and remanding for further consideration, seemed to characterize the Fifth Circuit opinion as another loss for the FTC. But make no mistake, this development is a big win for the FTC for several reasons. First, the FTC challenged this transaction to block, then later, unwind, the acquisition of Grail. About a day after the opinion was filed, Illumina announced it would divest Grail. Mission accomplished.

Second, the court found “substantial evidence” for the Commission’s conclusions, despite arguments by the parties (and amici) to the contrary. As detailed below, the court did not question the Commission’s use of older cases and theories to review mergers.

Third, even the court’s rationale for the remand was not that strong a rebuke of the FTC. During the investigation, Illumina made an Open Offer to other customers of its sequencing, promising to treat them as well as Grail. The ALJ found this a useful additional fact in concluding that Illumina did not have the incentive to harm Grail competitors. The FTC majority opinion disagreed with the ALJ and only considered the Open Offer in the remedy phase of the merger review. Commissioner Wilson also disagreed with the ALJ but considered the Open Offer in Illumina’s rebuttal portion of the liability phase of the review. The parties argued that the Open Offer should be addressed by the FTC Complaint Counsel in its prima facie case for liability. The Fifth Circuit agreed with Commissioner Wilson. It seems certain that the other three Commissioners would have reached the same ultimate conclusion on remand when considering the Open Offer earlier in the process.

Takeaway 2: The Court Quickly Punted Constitutional Concerns

As with several other recent challenges to the FTC and other administrative agencies, the parties raised serious, difficult constitutional questions about the structure and processes of the FTC and its review of mergers. The court wrestled with none of them. Instead, the court took only two pages to explain that the four questions were answered by precedent, either from the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court, and saw no reason to explore whether any court should change. While this opinion is not the final word on these and similar issues, the FTC at least avoided a number of thorny issues for now.

Takeaway 3: Vertical Might be the New Horizontal

We hear sometimes that a proposed transaction should sail through the Hart-Scott-Rodino merger review process because “the parties don’t compete.” While that focus on current horizontal competition might have been a sufficient screen for antitrust issues a few years ago, it no longer is. Whether the Trump Administration’s challenge of the AT&T/TimeWarner transaction or the Biden Administration’s challenge of this transaction, Microsoft/Activision, or others, vertical (and potential competition) mergers have been ripe for challenge for a few years. Illumina’s abandonment of this vertical deal after this ruling will only encourage further challenges by federal and state antitrust enforcement agencies.

Takeaway 4: Courts Sometimes Agree with New/Renewed Antitrust Theories

As the Biden Administration DOJ and FTC have issued new merger guidelines or unilaterally taken other actions, one popular response from parts of the antitrust commentariat has been “but just wait until the courts consider them.” It is true that a long-lasting change in antitrust interpretation (like, say, the Chicago School) can only start with law review articles and enforcer speeches but eventually will require supportive court opinions; however, the “wait for the courts” sentiment seems built on two faulty premises.

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Authors: Luke Hasskamp & Molly Donovan

NBA action is FAN-TASTIC! Unless, of course, the action is one brought by the Department of Justice in a different kind of court. But that may be exactly where the NBA finds itself: the DOJ is reportedly investigating the professional basketball association for alleged antitrust violations. The NBA’s alleged anticompetitive conduct targeted Big3, a competitive basketball league founded by Ice Cube and entertainment executive Jeff Kwatinetz (with Clyde Drexler serving as commissioner!). That conduct included allegedly pressuring team owners, current NBA players, and advertisers and partner television networks not to do business with Big3.

Big3 is an aptly named 12-team, 3-on-3 league mostly comprised of retired NBA players. Teams play an eight-week season, followed by a two-week, four-team playoff, all during the NBA’s off-season. In 2023, the Big3’s regular season was held once a week in Chicago, Dallas, Brooklyn, Memphis, Miami, Boston, Charlotte, and Detroit, and the finals were held in London, England.

We’ve previously written about antitrust laws in the sports arena, including the infamous antitrust exemption in professional baseball. But baseball is an anomaly in that regard, as all other professional sports in the United States are subject to federal antitrust laws. (Professional football, baseball, basketball, and hockey are statutorily exempted from antitrust laws for negotiating television broadcast rights. See 15 U.S.C. § 1291.) Thus, antitrust liability is fair game for the NBA.

And, as this story broke, another recent antitrust case jumped to mind: that involving the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, when the PGA Tour faced antitrust scrutiny for its decision to suspend players who played for a would-be competitor league. The NBA dispute has many parallels to the PGA Tour case, though with some notable differences too, even though most details are not public.

To consider the legal nuts and bolts a bit, let’s look at what a Section 1 and Section 2 claim against the NBA might look like.

Section 1 of the Sherman Act – Unlawful Agreements

Federal antitrust laws (Section 1 of the Sherman Act) make it unlawful for two or more actors to enter agreements (conspiracies) to restrain trade or competition in the market. Classic examples include price fixing and group boycotts.

Here, the leading legal theory may be the group boycott. Under that theory, the NBA would have entered into one or more agreements with other entities to thwart Big3’s emergence and growth in the market.

One of the improper agreements reported here is between the NBA and the owners of each of its 30 teams, with the NBA allegedly instructing owners to not invest in the fledgling competitor. (An agreement between a sports league and its individual teams can implicate Section 1 of the Sherman Act, as was the theory in the recently-settled litigation against MLB involving the contraction of minor league teams.) The reports also suggest that the NBA may have persuaded sponsors and other business partners to agree to avoid doing business with Big3.

Section 2 of the Sherman Act – Monopolization 

Federal antitrust laws also make it illegal for a monopolist to preserve its dominant market position through anticompetitive conduct. And this section of the Sherman Act does not require collusion with another party—a single actor can incur liability.

Here, the NBA sure looks like a monopoly (or monopsony). It’s the dominant actor in the professional basketball market in the United States, with revenues exceeding $10 billion per year. (While we generally assume that the relevant geographic market is the United States, even if we were to consider the entire world, the NBA may still be a monopolist.) In professional basketball, there is no rival to the NBA. If you are an elite basketball player in the United States, the NBA is pretty much the only place to play (even if you include the Big3).

But the NBA’s status as a monopoly is not unlawful on its own. It’s fine for a business to emerge as a dominant market player through lawful means, such as through “a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.” United States v. Grinnell Corp., 384 U.S. 563, 570­71 (1966).

Instead, to implicate Section 2 of the Sherman Act, the NBA must have engaged in some “exclusionary” or “anticompetitive” conduct to protect its monopoly and harm competition—that is something other than superior product, business acumen, or historic accident. Examples of exclusionary conduct include tying, exclusive dealing, predatory pricing, defrauding regulators or consumers, or engaging in coercive conduct, such as threatening customers with retaliation if they choose to do business with the would-be competitor in order to stifle the competitor’s growth in the market.

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Authors: Molly Donovan & Aaron Gott

A Missouri jury awarded a class of home sellers $1.8 billion dollars in finding that the National Association of Realtors (“NAR”) and some of the nation’s largest real estate brokerages “conspired to require home sellers to pay the broker representing the buyer of their homes in violation of federal antitrust law.”

At the center of the case was NAR’s rule requiring sellers to pay a non-negotiable commission awarded to the buyer’s broker at a transaction’s closing (“Mandatory Payment Rule”). The brokerages then compelled their agents to belong to the NAR and adhere to the NAR’s rules. The resulting lack of competition for buy-side commissions caused inflated prices that were forced upon home sellers. Every brokerage in the industry understood that every other brokerage was behaving in this same way.

In addition to inflated buy-side rates, the scheme was reinforced by other anticompetitive practices, including “steering”—where buyer brokers “steer” their clients toward homes attached to a non-negotiable buy-side commission—as opposed to homes for-sale-by owner where an automatic buy-side commission may not be offered.

Another resulting problem is that small brokerages looking to attract buyers have a tough time competing. Most importantly, there’s no opportunity to compete on price because the local NAR groups have locked prices in with the following of the major brokerages. Because of that rule—and other NAR rules—innovations with respect to process or pricing have been very difficult to achieve.

So, why has the scheme worked if it’s so bad for consumers and innovators? Because the NAR has near-exclusive control over the MLS or multiple-listing service.

The MLS is an essential database for listing homes because most homes sold in the United States are found there. If a broker does not belong to NAR and/or does not follow the NAR’s rules, it cannot access the MLS and, therefore, cannot effectively compete for selling or buying clients.

This is of antitrust concern in its own right. And certainly, the Mandatory Payment Rule is not the only rule in the industry that has—or could—draw antitrust scrutiny. Rules against buying/selling homes that are “coming soon,” for example, are also restraints of trade that could be a problem. So are rules that fix any of the terms or conditions of selling or buying a home.

Many predict the entire industry will change as a result of the Missouri verdict, the ongoing competition-law litigations and investigations, and the reality that today, home buyers can do their own legwork to find homes without needing a broker’s access or market knowledge. A buyer broker’s role can sometimes be relegated to accessing lock boxes, providing fill-and-sign access to standard forms, and collecting the check.

So what can a brokerage do now to anticipate the changes and guard against future antitrust concerns? Here is some high-level guidance that brokerages ought to consider:

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Authors: Luke Hasskamp & Molly Donovan

In yet another important labor-monopsony case, a federal court in Nevada has declared a win for MMA athletes fighting against their promoter’s alleged misuse of monopsony power in the market for acquiring fighters’ services. Class certification has been granted to MMA fighters accusing their promoter of locking them into exclusive contracts that deterred fighters’ mobility and suppressed their wages for fighting bouts. Cung Le v. Zuffa, LLC, No. 2:15-cv-01045-RFB-BNW, 2023 WL 5085064, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138702 (D. Nev. Aug. 9, 2023).

The Facts. MMA is a combat sport—a mix of boxing, wrestling, karate and other forms of martial arts. A bout is a competition between MMA fighters in a timed round where a fighter can win by acquiring the most points or by a knockout or submission (the other fighter gives up due to “extreme pain”).

During the at-issue period (2010-2017), Zuffa (defendant) promoted MMA bouts—under the trade name Ultimate Fighting Championship.

During that time, Zuffa treated fighters as independent contractors and compensated them on a bout-by-bout basis: one payment to “show” (participate in a bout) and then another payment (typically in the same amount) to win. This method of compensation was common across all MMA fighters promoted by Zuffa except for a “very small” number of the best fighters who also may have received additional payments at times (e.g., a percentage of the revenues generated by a particular event). Fighters bore their own expenses for training and skills maintenance.

The contracts between Zuffa and fighters contained “exclusion clauses” that required athletes to fight only for Zuffa. These contracts also imposed additional clauses that gave Zuffa significant control over fighters, including (i) the exclusive ability to extend certain contracts automatically; (ii) the exclusive right to cut fighters; and (iii) the right to match a competing promoter’s offer at the expiration of a contract, essentially requiring the fighter to remain with Zuffa whenever Zuffa matched the competing offer.

The Proposed Bout Class. All persons who competed in live UFC-promoted MMA bouts in the United States from 2010 to 2017.

Predominance. Predominance has become the “main event” in antitrust class certification inquiries—the round where a plaintiff can win it or lose it all. To establish predominance, plaintiffs must show (i) conduct that violates the antitrust laws; (ii) that the conduct was commonly applied to the class; (iii) it led to common injury in the class; and (iv) measurable damages provable with evidence common to the class.

  • Illegal conduct. The class alleges a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act, i.e., that Zuffa sought to maintain its monopsony power in the relevant market through exclusionary conduct. In a lengthy analysis, the court held that plaintiffs showed that Zuffa enjoyed monopsony power in a relevant antitrust market—the market for elite professional MMA fighter services. An expert testified that, during the relevant time, Zuffa’s share was between 70 and 90% in the labor-input market. And this market also had significant barriers to entry, including Zuffa’s own “coercive” contracts that “artificially restricted” competitors’ access to fighter talent. As for exclusionary conduct, the court ruled that the required exclusivity and other oppressive contractual provisions (along with related “coercive” conduct by Zuffa) “locked up” fighters, restricting their mobility and suppressing their wages. The court also pointed to Zuffa’s history of horizontal acquisitions as further evidence of a willful intent to maintain market dominance.
  • Common application to the class. The court found that the relevant contractual provisions applied to all class members, as did Zuffa’s coercive conduct used “consistently” “to induce fighters into re-signing contracts or risk punishment.”
  • Common injury. Plaintiffs’ expert submitted a regression analysis to show that class members’ wages were artificially suppressed by Zuffa’s conduct. The court ruled that analysis was sufficiently reliable at the class certification stage to establish common injury—rejecting defendant’s “small” criticisms of specific variables and particular data decisions.
  • Finally, the court held that plaintiff’s expert presented a “coherent methodology for establishing class-wide damages that predominates over any individual damages analysis.”

Total Knockout? No. While the court certified that “bout class,” it declined to certify a separate “identity class” consisting of every fighter whose identity was “expropriated or exploited by the UFC” from 2010 to 2017. The court held that, unlike the bout class, plaintiffs had not presented sufficient expert analysis supporting a connection between the relevant exploitative conduct and suppressed compensation. The court also found it important that the merchandising rights were voluntary and non-exclusive and that fighters in the class varied in notoriety—a difference difficult to capture in an objectively-defined variable. Finally, the court said there was no evidence of an “internal pay structure” for identity rights that was consistently applied across the proposed class.

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Author: Molly Donovan

In an opinion written by Judge Easterbrook, and a major win for per se no-poach claims, the Seventh Circuit has vacated a district court’s dismissal of a Sherman Act, Section 1 no-poach claim against McDonald’s. The case involves clauses that McDonald’s formerly included, as standard language, in its franchise agreements that “barred one franchise from soliciting another’s employee.” The plaintiff claims that she was unreasonably restrained from switching franchises to take a higher-paid job because of the anticompetitive provisions.

The at-issue contract language was broad, covering solicitation and hiring and not ending until six-months after employment ended: “During the term of this Franchise, Franchisee shall not employ or seek to employ any person who is at the time employed by McDonald’s, any of its subsidiaries, or by any person who is at the time operating a McDonald’s restaurant or otherwise induce, directly or indirectly, such person to leave such employment. This paragraph [] shall not be violated if such person has left the employ of any of the foregoing parties for a period in excess of six (6) months.”

The restraint had teeth: an initial violation gave McDonald’s the right not to consent to a transfer of the franchise. Additional breaches gave McDonald’s the right to terminate the franchise.

And plaintiffs also alleged that the restraint “promote[d] collusion among franchisees, because each knew the other had signed an agreement with the same provision” – so long as everybody at least tacitly cooperated by not poaching, franchisees could keep wages below-market.

Plaintiff alleged only per se and quick look theories of liability—not rule of reason.

In the district court, the defendants argued that, because the restraint originated with McDonald’s corporate (the parent company), the restraint was merely vertical—and thus, not per se illegal. The district court disagreed: the provisions restrain competition for employees among horizontal competitors notwithstanding that the company at the top of the chain originated the agreement.

But the district court dismissed the per se theory because it found that the alleged restraint was ancillary to the franchise agreements. The analysis was curious because, although the court said that a restraint is ancillary only if it promotes enterprise and productivity, the court found it sufficient that the franchise agreements, taken as a whole, promoted enterprise because each franchise agreement increased output (more customers served). The district court did not examine whether the restraint itself promoted competition.

The Seventh Circuit held that was an error. While an “agreement among competitors is not naked if it is ancillary to the success of a cooperative venture,” increased output does not “justif[y] detriments to workers.” The antitrust laws are concerned with monopsonies (in this case, the cartelized cost of labor).

And simply because a franchise agreement increases output, the no-poach agreement itself may not promote output or any another pro-competitive goal. The question is: “what was the no-poach clause doing?” To be deemed ancillary, the no-poach itself must serve a procompetitive objective (such as preventing freeriding on a franchisee’s investment in worker training). The court suggested that an agreement’s duration and scope also may be relevant to resolving that question.

In any event, the Seventh Circuit ruled the answer to that inquiry could not be resolved on the pleadings because economic analysis is required. And “[m]ore than that: the classification of a restraint as ancillary is a defense, and the complaint need not anticipate and plead around defenses.”

In the end, the Seventh Circuit vacated the district court’s decision and remanded for its further consideration in light of the appellate review.

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Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

In case you missed it on the eve of a holiday weekend, the FTC and several states settled their challenge of Amgen’s acquisition of Horizon last Friday. The case might have seemed like an odd one to antitrust and merger practitioners looking only at the last few decades of merger review; however, both the challenge and the settlement offer some lessons for future merging parties — and perhaps even the FTC itself.

Parties, Transaction, Challenge, Settlement

Both Amgen and Horizon are large pharmaceutical companies. According to the original complaint, each company produces drugs for which there are few if any competitors. Even according to that complaint, Amgen and Horizon do not compete with, supply to, or buy from each other.

The parties described the transaction as allowing Amgen to use its broader distributional reach to bring Horizon’s products to more consumers. The FTC, and later several states, alleged that Amgen was proficient at wringing profit out of its monopolized drugs in various ways, especially with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). The enforcers feared that Amgen would do the same with Horizon’s drugs, especially by bundling Amgen and Horizon drugs. The parties disputed that they had the ability or incentive to engage in such behavior but still offered to enter an order promising not to take such actions.

The FTC challenged the transaction in its internal tribunal and sought a preliminary injunction in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois to prevent the closing of the transaction. The states later joined that challenge. The parties countered with both antitrust arguments and constitutional challenges to the FTC’s structure and procedures, much as other parties like Illumina have.

Last Friday, the parties and enforcers settled all the challenges. The parties agreed to not bundle any Amgen product with Horizon’s two key products––Tepezza or Krystexxa––its medications used to treat thyroid eye disease (TED) and chronic refractory gout (CRG) or offer certain rebates to exclude or disadvantage any product that would compete with Tepezza or Krystexxa. Amgen agreed to seek FTC approval for any acquisition of pharmaceuticals competitive with Horizon’s. Finally, Amgen will submit to a compliance monitor and make annual reports for the fifteen-year duration of the order. Further details and analysis of the proposed order are here.

Analysis of the Challenge

The FTC’s challenge of the transaction might have looked different to merger review practitioners familiar only with challenges of proposed mergers of current competitors; however, the theory behind the challenge has some history. Unfortunately for the FTC, the last several decades worth of that history did not support the challenge.

When Congress passed and amended Clayton Act Section 7, it did not prohibit all mergers; instead, it prohibited only those whose effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.” This standard does not require the FTC to show that the merger will have the proscribed competitive effect with certainty, but it must establish that the competitive effect is more than a mere possibility.

Both Congress and the courts have emphasized that something more than a mere possibility is necessary for a successful Clayton Act Section 7 challenge. The Congressional report described the necessary finding as follows: “The use of these words means that [the amended Clayton Act] would not apply to the mere possibility but only to the reasonable probability of the prescribed effect.” (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court in Brown Shoe clearly drew the “certainties/probabilities/possibilities” distinction:

Congress used the words ‘may be substantially to lessen competition’ (emphasis supplied), to indicate that its concern was with probabilities, not certainties. Statutes existed for dealing with clear-cut menaces to competition; no statute was sought for dealing with ephemeral possibilities. Mergers with a probable anticompetitive effect were to be proscribed by this Act.

Courts recognize only a few ways that the FTC or any challenger can successfully show a probability of a lessening of competition or tendency to create a monopoly.

First, challengers like the FTC can allege that the parties to the proposed transaction currently compete. Such a “horizontal” merger can lessen competition or create a monopoly by allowing the merged parties to unilaterally raise prices or otherwise harm consumers or implicitly coordinate with the remaining competitors on similar actions. Here, the FTC did not allege that any of Amgen’s or Horizon’s products currently compete.

Second, challengers can allege that one of the parties is a “potential competitor” of the other party. Such “potential competition” mergers can lessen competition or create a monopoly by eliminating the current threat or actual entry into a new market by one of the parties to the transaction. Here, the FTC did not allege that Amgen or Horizon is a potential entrant into any of the markets in which the other party competes.

Third, challengers can allege that the parties have or could have a supplier-customer relationship. In certain circumstances, such “vertical” mergers can lessen competition or create a monopoly in a few ways, principally by foreclosing access to rival firms to inputs, customers, or something else they need to effectively compete with the merged parties. Here, the FTC did not allege that Amgen and Horizon are in or could be in a supplier-customer relationship.

Instead, the FTC appeared to rely on the “entrenchment” variant of the “conglomerate” competition theory, claiming that “Post-Acquisition, Amgen will possess the ability and incentive to sustain and entrench its dominant positions in the markets for [Horizon’s products].”

Under this theory, the FTC alleged that after the acquisition, Amgen would have both the ability and incentive to more effectively exploit the alleged monopoly power already possessed by Horizon. Unfortunately for the FTC, this theory has been abandoned as discredited since the 1970s. According to the latest version of the ABA Antitrust Law Developments, “[After Procter & Gamble in 1967], courts and the FTC applied the entrenchment theory very cautiously and liability has not been found in any case on this theory since the 1970s . . . and its subsequent antitrust decisions suggest it is unlikely that the Court will again apply [the theory].” Even the FTC itself just three years ago told an international body that “[c]onglomerate mergers that raise neither vertical nor horizontal concerns are unlikely to be problematic under U.S. merger law.”

And there is good reason for courts to have grown skeptical of the theory — it cannot support an allegation that the probable effect of a proposed merger “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.”

Certainly, the theory cannot support an allegation that the proposed merger probably will tend to create a monopoly. After all, under the theory, the seller’s products already enjoy monopoly power. The proposed merger would not have created any monopoly power. Here, the FTC alleged that Horizon already enjoys a monopoly with its two key products.

The theory also could not support an allegation that the proposed merger probably will substantially lessen competition. Because the theory required so many possible actions by both the parties to the transaction and third parties, the potential anticompetitive harm is nothing more than the “ephemeral possibility” that the Supreme Court has correctly said is not covered by the Clayton Act.

Here, as detailed by the parties in their brief, the following actions had to occur before the ephemeral possible harm alleged by the FTC would occur: The handful of products identified in the FTC’s Amended Complaint had to overcome significant clinical development and regulatory hurdles; AND at that hypothetical and uncertain time, those other products, though differentiated from Horizon’s products, must threaten them competitively; AND at that same uncertain future time, the alleged competitive position of Amgen’s products must not have changed such that Amgen will have the ability and incentive to bundle them with Horizon’s products in ways that will harm competition.

But even if the parties were wrong and the actions did happen, the FTC could have acted at that time by bringing a monopolization challenge. Now, if those ephermeral possibilities do occur, the FTC will have an easier time alleging a violation of the consent order.

Lessons for Parties and the FTC

For future merging parties in the pharmaceutical industry, this FTC action (and Chairwoman Khan’s statement accompanying the settlement) make clear that the agency will flyspeck every proposed transaction and challenge many more than in the past. These include the Pfizer/Seagen or Biogen/Reata pending transactions, for instance. As Henry Liu, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition highlighted in the press release: “Today’s proposed resolution sends a clear signal that the FTC and its state partners will scrutinize pharmaceutical mergers that enable such practices, and defend patients and competition in this vital marketplace.” The FTC’s ongoing investigation of PBMs means that FTC actions in this area might not be confined to merger challenges.

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Merger-Antitrust-Guidelines-General-Dynamics-300x253

Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

As we explained in a prior post, the new draft merger Guidelines issued recently by the FTC and DOJ cite to several older court opinions that may be unfamiliar to antitrust practitioners who have been focused for decades exclusively on earlier versions of the Guidelines. In the last post, we covered two such cases, Philadelphia National Bank and Pabst. Below, we cover three more of such newly “classic cases:” General Dynamics, Marine Bancorporation and Protect & Gamble.

General Dynamics

It is not surprising that the New Guidelines cite General Dynamics seven times; after all, the case has been cited in hundreds of opinions and even more law review articles and treatises. Nor are some of the citations surprising. For example, one citation (FN 93) quotes the case for the proposition that “other pertinent factors” besides market share might mandate a conclusion that competition would not be lessened by a merger. Similarly, citations about market definition make sense because the definitions of both the product and geographic markets were contentious points in the opinion.  But for reasons we explain below, the citations to the case for parts of the New Guidelines that would challenge mergers on the basis of just an increase in concentration, while accurate, seem out of step with the opinion as a whole.

General Dynamics is a 1974 opinion with the 5-4 majority opinion written by Justice Stewart.  Eight years before, Justice Stewart had written the dissent in Von’s Grocery. In that dissent, Justice Stewart penned one of his most famous quotes (no, not that one): “The sole consistency that I can find is that, in litigation under § 7, the Government always wins.” More substantively, Justice Stewart took issue with the majority’s market definition analysis. Instead of simply assuming a “Los Angeles grocery” market as the majority did, Justice Stewart would have applied a “housewife driving test” that, despite the antiquated name, was similar to the hypothetical monopolist test of later Guidelines. Also, instead of assuming anticompetitive effects from “high” market shares and increasing competition, as did the majority, Justice Stewart would have considered other pertinent factors, like low barriers to entry, turnover of firms, and changes to the Los Angeles population.

Eight years later, Justice Stewart applied similar concepts in General Dynamics, but this time for the majority. In this case, one Midwest coal supplier gradually purchased the voting securities of another Midwest coal producer. The DOJ produced evidence of high and increasing concentration in coal markets. Depending on the geographic market, the share represented by the top four firms went from 43-55% to 63-75% as the shares were being acquired. The lower court, however, found that there was cross-elasticity of demand among coal and other energy sources, like oil, natural gas, nuclear, and geothermal energy, so the proper product market was a broader “energy market.” Justice Stewart spoke approvingly of such a market analysis but, because of the analysis we describe below, found it unnecessary to opine on market definition. Significantly, the dissent agreed with the lower court that reviewing evidence of cross-elasticity of demand was appropriate; however, it thought that evidence supported a finding of a submarket for coal for certain customers, especially electric utilities. (The majority and dissent had similar disagreements about the geographic market definition.)

More important to the lower court and Justice Stewart were “other pertinent factors” that made shares of past production unhelpful in predicting future competitive effects of the merger. Here, the selling company’s reserves of coal were much smaller than its past or current production.  For example, it controlled less than 1% of the coal reserves in Illinois, Indiana, and western Kentucky. As a result, its future competitive strength was much worse than a review of any current market shares would indicate. Again, the dissent did not dispute that such “other pertinent factors” were relevant to the analysis; however, it thought the facts did not support finding the seller to be so weak going forward and that much of that evidence came from post-acquisition transactions.

Given the overall facts and tone of both opinions in General Dynamics, it is odd that the New Guidelines cite it for support for challenging mergers that further a trend toward concentration.  The New Guidelines accurately quote Justice Stewart’s opinion:

[The Court’s] approach to a determination of a “substantial” lessening of competition is to allow the Government to rest its case on a showing of even small increases of market share or market concentration in those industries or markets where concentration is already great or has been recently increasing…

But in the opinion, that sentence is followed by these three sentences:

…the question before us is whether the District Court was justified in finding that other pertinent factors affecting the coal industry and the business of the appellees mandated a conclusion that no substantial lessening of competition occurred or was threatened by the acquisition of United Electric. We are satisfied that the court’s ultimate finding was not in error. In Brown Shoe v. United States we cautioned that statistics concerning market share and concentration, while of great significance, were not conclusive indicators of anticompetitive effects … (cleaned up)

The New Guidelines citation to General Dynamics in its footnote 93 for the proposition that “other pertinent factors” besides concentration trends should be considered in merger analysis probably better reflects the overall tenor of the case’s opinions.

Marine Bancorporation

The Guidelines mention Marine Bancorporation seven times to highlight that when a merger eliminates a potential entrant into a concentrated market, it may substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly. Marine Bancorp., 418 U.S. 602, 630 (1974).

The Guidelines explain that to determine whether one of the merging parties is a potential entrant, the Agencies examine:

  • whether one or both of the merging firms had a reasonable probability of entering the relevant market other than through an anticompetitive merger. The Agencies’ starting point for assessment of a reasonable probability of entry is objective evidence. For instance whether the firm has sufficient size and resources to enter; evidence of any advantages that would make the firm well-situated to enter; evidence that the firm has successfully expanded into other markets in the past or already participates in adjacent or related markets; evidence that the firm has an incentive to enter; or evidence that industry participants recognize the company as a potential entrant Marine Bancorp., 418 U.S. 636–37 (1974); and,
  • whether such entry offered “a substantial likelihood of ultimately producing deconcentration of [the] market or other significant procompetitive effects.” If the merging firm had a reasonable probability of entering the concentrated relevant market, the Agencies will usually presume that the resulting deconcentration and other benefits that would have resulted from its entry would be competitively significant, unless there is substantial direct evidence that the competitive effect would be de minimis.

This is known as actual potential competition. The Guidelines also describe that under perceived potential competition, the acquisition of a firm that is perceived by market participants as a potential entrant can substantially lessen competition by eliminating or relieving competitive pressure. And in FN 42 the draft includes that this elimination of present competitive pressure is sometimes known as an anticompetitive “edge effect” or a loss of “perceived potential competition.” E.g., Marine Bancorp., 418 U.S. at 639.

Procter & Gamble

The Guidelines mention Procter & Gamble six times to explain how the Agencies examine (i) whether one of the merging firms already has a dominant position that the merger may reinforce, and (ii) whether the merger may extend or entrench that dominant position to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly in another market.

The Guidelines highlight that to identify whether one of the merging firms already has a dominant position, the agencies look to whether (i) there is direct evidence that one or both merging firms has the power to raise price, reduce quality, or otherwise impose or obtain terms that they could not obtain but- for that dominance, or (ii) one of the merging firms possesses at least 30 percent market share. Procter & Gamble Co., 386 U.S. 568, 575 (1967).

If this inquiry reveals that at least one of the merging firms already has a dominant position, the Agencies then examine whether the merger would either entrench that position or extend it into additional markets. As a mechanism of whether a merger may entrench a dominant position, the Guidelines include, among others, entry barriers. A merger “may substantially reduce the competitive structure of the industry by raising entry barriers and by dissuading the smaller firms from aggressively competing.” Procter & Gamble Co., 386 U.S. 568, 578 (1967).

As in the case of General Dynamics, it is puzzling to see how the Guidelines cherry pick with the citations of Marine Bancorp and Protect & Gamble. Indeed, both cases discuss potential entry in concentrated markets and whether one of the merging firms already has a dominant position that the merger may extend to substantially lessen competition. But they also criticize––at length––the PNB 30% structural presumption and lack of economic analysis, something the Agencies completely ignore in this draft.

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