Articles Posted in Antitrust News

Conspirator-Exception-to-Illinois-Brick-Indirect-Purchaser-Rule-300x300

Author: Jarod Bona

Antitrust law evolves in such a way that opinions from federal appellate courts are always interesting in how they affect the doctrine. But there are a select few judges who earn even closer attention when they write an antitrust opinion. Judge Diane P. Wood of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is one of those judges.

In Marion Healthcare, LLC v. Becton Dickinson & Company, the Seventh Circuit, through Judge Wood’s opinion, effectively articulates the co-conspiracy exception to the Illinois Brick rule. The opinion is significant not because it marks a departure in the prevailing law, but because it explains it so well. This is an example of an opinion that courts and attorneys will likely cite in the future when this issue comes up.

So I thought it would be helpful to tell you about it.

Indirect Purchasers and Illinois Brick

You might need a little bit of background first. The indirect-purchaser rule—derived from a Supreme Court decision known as Illinois Brick—prohibits indirect-purchaser plaintiffs from using for damages under federal antitrust law. This typically arises in a class action, but the doctrine isn’t limited to class cases.

We discuss the indirect-purchaser rule in more detail in a two-part article:

  1. Indirect Purchaser Lawsuits, Illinois Brick and Apple v. Pepper (Part 1): This article describes the background and basics of the indirect-purchaser prohibition.
  2. Apple v. Pepper, Indirect Purchaser Antitrust Class Actions, and the Future of Illinois Brick (Part 2): This article describes the Supreme Court’s recent Apple v. Pepper decision and what it means for the future of Illinois Brick and the indirect-purchaser rule.

If you haven’t already read those two articles, go read them and come back. We will wait for you.

Marion Healthcare, LLC v. Becton Dickinson & Company

Healthcare markets are complicated, distorted, and a little bit confusing. The government plays a major role, which distorts markets. In addition, there are so many layers of entities that participate in every aspect of healthcare that the markets aren’t always easy to unpack. And, of course, insurance companies pay much of the costs, but the decisions on spending are a combination of patients, insurance companies, doctors, governments and healthcare facilities, among others.

In this case, plaintiffs are healthcare companies that purchased medical devises from Becton Dickson & Company. But they don’t purchase them directly from Becton. Instead, they and other purchases rely on a GPO to negotiate prices with Becton (and other manufacturers). Once the GPO and manufacturer reach an agreement, the company that needs the supplies can accept or reject it. If they accept it, they actually purchase the product through a distributor (pursuant to the GPO-negotiated contract), who then enters contracts with both the purchaser (the healthcare provider) and the supplier (in this case, Becton).

You might anticipate at this point that figuring out whether the plaintiff is a direct purchaser could get confusing.

In this case, plaintiffs alleged that Becton (the supplier), the GPOs (that negotiated the deal), and the distributors were all part of the conspiracy, engaging in a variety of anticompetitive conduct, including exclusive dealing.

The district court dismissed the case, holding that the conspiracy rule (more on that below) didn’t apply because the case didn’t involve simple vertical price-fixing.

The Seventh Circuit held that the district court erred.

The Co-Conspirator Exception to Illinois Brick

For the Court to apply Illinois Brick, it must determine which entity is the seller and which entity is the direct purchaser. As you might recall, the Supreme Court grappled with this in Apple v. Pepper.

Continue reading →

Vertical-Merger-Guidelines-Antitrust-Agencies-300x176
Authors: Steven Cernak and Jarod Bona

In big antitrust news, the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice Antitrust Division released a draft of an update to the 1984 Vertical Merger Guidelines (VMG) on January 10, 2020.  Only three of the five FTC commissioners voted to release the draft with Democratic Commissioners Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Rohit Chopra abstaining but issuing separate statements. The agency will accept public comments on the draft through February 11, 2020.

These vertical merger guidelines make extensive references to the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, most recently issued in 2010 (HMG). Like the HMG, the VMG are guidelines only, not law, and are meant to provide the merging parties some understanding of the analysis the reviewing agency will use. Because nearly all merger reviews begin and end with these agencies, however, the HMG have become both influential and persuasive for courts. The VMG rely on the HMG for much of the analysis and so, at nine pages, are much shorter and seem to break little new ground besides updating the outdated 1984 version.

City-of-LaGrange-Antitrust-Eleventh-Circuit-181x300

Author: Luis Blanquez

The Eleventh Circuit recently rejected the City of LaGrange’s attempt to assert state-action immunity from antitrust liability in Diverse Power, Inc. v. City of Lagrange, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24772 (11th Cir. Ga., Aug. 20, 2019).

And here is why.

In a nutshell, the City of LaGrange provided water services to both its residents and to users outside the city limits, and natural gas to customers both inside and outside the city.

In 2004, the city enacted an ordinance targeting customers outside the city limits. Under the new law, water would be provided for new construction––to users outside the city––only if the builder installed at least: (i) one natural gas furnace, (ii) one natural gas water heater, and (iii) at least one additional natural gas outlet sufficient for potential future use for a clothes dryer, range, grill, pool heater or outdoor lighting fixture.

Diverse Power, a company that provides electrical power that competes with LaGrange’s natural gas service, suffered competitive harm from this ordinance that tied water service to installation of gas (as opposed to electric) appliances. In response, they brought an action under the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts challenging the city’s policy as an unlawful tying arrangement.

LaGrange moved to dismiss the complaint on several bases, including immunity under the state-action doctrine. The District Court denied LaGrange’s motion and held that LaGrange was not entitled to state-action immunity. Diverse Power, Inc. v. City of LaGrange, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 226681 (N.D. Ga., Feb. 21, 2018).

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit also rejected the City’s claim of immunity and held that tying an unrelated service in a different market to the provision of water service fell outside the statutes’ grant of immunity.

If you don’t know what an antitrust tying claim is, you can read our article on tying arrangements.

At first sight, this seems to be a straightforward state-action immunity case. And in fact, it is. But there are two interesting facts worth mentioning here. First, Judge Tjoflat from the Eleventh Circuit revisited the U.S. Supreme Court landmark case FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health Sys., Inc., 568 U.S. 216, (2013). And second, Judge Tjoflat is the same judge who wrote the original Phoebe Putney Opinion FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc., 663 F.3d 1369 (11th Cir. 2011) that the Supreme Court quashed.

Let’s jump into the legal analysis included in the Eleventh Circuit Opinion.

The Court starts by referencing Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341, 62 S. Ct. 307 (1943), and how it held that the Sherman Act shouldn’t be read to bar states from engaging in anticompetitive conduct “as an act of government.” But because political subdivisions—like the City of LaGrange— “are not themselves sovereign[,] they do not receive all the federal deference of the States that create them.”

Instead, political subdivisions enjoy state-action immunity when they undertake activities “pursuant to a ‘clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed’ state policy to displace competition.” This is commonly known as the clear-articulation requirement—the first step in the two-step Midcal test (the second step is active supervision).

The Court then explains that unlike clear-statement requirements in other domains of law, the clear-articulation requirement has traditionally been satisfied by articulations that are admittedly less than clear. The US Supreme Court has, the Court explained, “rejected the contention that [the clear-articulation] requirement can be met only if the delegating statute explicitly permits the displacement of competition.” City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advert., Inc., 499 U.S. 365, 372, 111 S. Ct. 1344, 1350 (1991). Instead, according to these older precedents, state-action immunity applied when a municipality’s anticompetitive conduct is the “foreseeable result” of state legislation. Town of Hallie v. City of Eau Claire, 471 U.S. 34, 42, 105 S. Ct. 1713, 1718 (1985).

The Court then turns to City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 499 U.S. 365, 111 S. Ct. 1344 (1991) to illustrate that, even though the state zoning statute under which the city promulgated the zoning restrictions had nothing to do with the suppression of competition, the Supreme Court held that the city’s actions were immune from federal antitrust liability.

In both cases, immunity from federal antitrust liability was based on similarly broad state statutes that were facially unrelated to the suppression of competition. And as the Eleventh Circuit acknowledges now, it was against this legal backdrop that the Supreme Court decided the Phoebe Putney case.

In Phoebe Putney, two Georgia laws—a provision of the state constitution and a concurrently enacted statute—gave municipally created hospital authorities 27 enumerated powers, including “the power ‘[t]o acquire by purchase, lease, or otherwise and to operate projects [i.e., hospitals and other public health facilities].’”

Continue reading →

antitrust-compliance-policy-300x186

Author: Jarod Bona

You might hear from an antitrust attorney that it is important to have a strong antitrust compliance policy. And you may think to yourself, yes, I suppose it is. Then you go about your over-packed day, periodically seeing from other professionals that whatever their specialty is, you need to call them right away to have them help you too.

And that isn’t a surprise because each professional, each specialist in something, and, really, each person with any experience of any sort sees life through their own unique lens. We wrote about this in the context of trade associations.

The truth is we are all bombarded with marketing and emails and social media posts and problems in our lives and our world that are “urgent” or “important.”

So when I tell you that your company should have a strong antitrust compliance policy, no matter what its size, you may appreciate that advice, but recognize that (1) I see life through the lens of antitrust and competition law (among other lenses); and (2) Bona Law prepares antitrust compliance policies, so I am biased. And both of those are true. Whenever you evaluate what anyone says, you should do so understanding their perspective, as bias isn’t necessarily conscious or even negative—it often just is part of perspective and experience.

This is a long introduction to tell you that when it comes to antitrust compliance policies, you don’t just have to listen to me or the many other attorneys that advocate for them:

The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice has now reversed its position and will give companies with robust compliance programs credit when considering charges.

The purpose of the policy change, of course, is to encourage companies to adopt and (just as importantly) follow strong antitrust compliance programs. If that occurs, the amount of criminal antitrust conduct should decrease. Of course, there may be an inverse relationship between the companies that would enact and follow an antitrust compliance program and those that would criminally violate the antitrust laws. But, still, it will probably help overall. And it should help to keep otherwise law-abiding companies from getting pulled into, for example, an industry-wide price-fixing cartel. If that happens, they will likely experience what we like to call an antitrust blizzard.

In a speech at New York University School of Law, Makan Delrahim said that in evaluating a policy for charging decisions, DOJ prosecutors would consider whether the program is well-designed, if the company applies it in good faith, and if the program actually works. So, as you can see, this is one of those policies that will evolve as they try it on a case-by-case basis.

The Department of Justice also released details on how it would evaluate antitrust compliance policies: US Department of Justice Antitrust Division: Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs in Criminal Antitrust Investigations.

We will write more about the specifics of a strong corporate compliance program in future articles.

In the meantime, you can read an article by Luis Blanquez about antitrust compliance policies in the US and Europe.

As you might know, the DOJ already has a leniency program, which you can learn more about here. DOJ will sometimes grant leniency to companies and people that report antitrust cartel activity and then cooperate with the DOJ investigation. DOJ antitrust attorneys, experts in competition themselves, incorporated some competition into their leniency program.

Continue reading →

ICN-Due-Process-Antitrust-Competition-Laws-300x176

Author: Luis Blanquez

The U.S. Department of Justice recently published that the International Competition Network (“ICN”) has approved the Framework on Competition Agency Procedures (“CAP”), for antitrust enforcement agencies around the world to promote fundamental due process principles in competition law investigations and enforcement. This is an opt-in framework, based on the U.S. Antitrust Division’s initial Multilateral Framework on Procedures proposed at the last Council of Foreign Relations in June 2018. On May 1, 2019, the CAP will be open for signature to all competition agencies around the world, including ICN member and non-member agencies. It will come into effect on May 15, 2019, at the up-coming 2019 ICN annual conference in Cartagena, Colombia.

You can read our earlier article about the general ICN guiding principles for procedural fairness previously developed to build up the CAP.

For those of you that may be unfamiliar with the International Competition Network, it is a group that allows antitrust and competition officials from around the world to coordinate and share best practices (which is somewhat ironic). They hold conferences and produce a substantial amount of substantive material that is quite good. Non-governmental members can also participate. Indeed, several years ago, Jarod Bona co-authored a chapter about exclusive dealing for the Unilateral Conduct Workbook.

Competition Agency Procedures Participation

Participants in the CAP will include all competition agencies entrusted with the enforcement of competition laws, whether or not they are ICN members. Participants will join the CAP by submitting a registration form to the co-chairs.

Agencies entrusted with the enforcement of competition laws around the world that do not meet the definition of participant will also be able to participate in the CAP by submitting a special side letter declaring adherence to the principles and participation in the cooperation and review processes. An important question is whether China will participate.

The CAP will be co-chaired by three participants (“Co-chairs”) confirmed by consensus of the participants for three-year terms.

Principles on Due Process and Procedural Fairness

The CAP outlines a list of fundamental principles on due process in antitrust enforcement procedures.

First, with regard to non-discrimination, each participant will ensure that its investigations and enforcement policies afford persons of another jurisdiction treatment no less favorable than persons of its jurisdiction in like circumstances.

Transparency and predictability are also part of the fundamental principles, making sure all competition laws and regulations applicable to investigations and enforcement proceedings are publicly available. Each participant is also encouraged to have publicly available guidance, clarifying or explaining its investigations and enforcement proceedings.

During the investigative process, participants will also: (i) provide proper notice to any person subject to an investigation, including the legal basis and conduct for such investigation, (ii) provide reasonable opportunities for meaningful and timely engagement, and (iii) focus any investigative requests on information they deem relevant to the competition issues under review as part of the investigation.

Other principles outlined in the CAP are as follows: timely resolution of proceedings–taking into account the nature and complexity of the case; confidentiality protections; avoidance of conflict of interests; opportunity for an adequate defense, including the opportunity to be heard and to present, respond to, and challenge evidence; representation by legal counsel and privilege; written enforcement decisions including the findings of fact and conclusions of law on which they are based, together with any remedies or sanctions; and the availability for independent review of enforcement decisions by an adjudicative body (court, tribunal or appellate body).

Continue reading →

oscars-and-antitrust-300x228
Author: Aaron Gott

My morning routine usually begins with reading the news to keep up on current events. As an antitrust lawyer, I often find myself thinking about how stories that were deemed newsworthy for other reasons fail to recognize their often most troubling aspects: the antitrust concerns.

Last week, for example, the news was abuzz with Uber and Lyft drivers going “on strike” to protest their compensation from the companies. The drivers “banded together” in an effort to pressure the companies. Most might see this as a sort of unionization of the gig economy. But I saw it as an antitrust problem: ride referral drivers are independent contractors, so they are not, under well-established federal law, entitled to the union labor exemption from the antitrust laws. They are horizontal competitors who are agreeing to restrain trade. That sort of conduct is called a group boycott, and under these circumstances, it might be per se illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

Duke-University-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

It is illegal under the antitrust laws for competitors to agree not to steal each others’ employees. For more about that, you can read our article about how the antitrust laws encourage stealing. Yes, you read that correctly.

But this article isn’t about stealing or even agreeing not to steal employees. Instead, it is about one of our favorite topics: Suing the government under the antitrust laws and the increasingly narrow state-action immunity from antitrust liability.

The FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division can affect antitrust policy beyond just the cases that involve those agencies. They will often file amicus briefs, or in this case, a Statement of Interest of the United States of America. You can read here about how these type of filings have resulted in the FTC seeming like a libertarian government agency.

In Danielle Seaman v. Duke University, a class action alleging that Duke and the University of North Carolina had a no-poaching agreement in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest on March 7, 2019.

One of Duke’s arguments in defense of the lawsuit is that it is exempt from antitrust liability because it is a state entity. This is called state-action immunity. We write about this doctrine constantly at The Antitrust Attorney Blog.

Anyway, Duke argued that it is Ipso facto exempt from the antitrust laws because it is a “sovereign representative of the state” that is automatically exempt under the Parker doctrine (which is essentially the state-action immunity doctrine). Notably, this argument is flawed already, as the doctrine really only supports automatic exemption for the state acting directly as sovereign, which is typically limited to the state acting in its legislative capacity, or its Supreme Court acting as a legislator (which sometimes happens).

But the Department of Justice, in addition, argued that state-action immunity—or at least Ipso facto immunity—does not apply because Duke University is acting as a market participant, not as a regulator. The DOJ supported this argument with some familiar case law, including the landmark NC Dental case.

It seems that the DOJ market-participant argument is limited here to the point that Duke cannot be automatically exempt from antitrust liability because it is a market participant rather than a regulator, for purposes of the anticompetitive conduct.

But the same reasoning that DOJ makes and the same cases that DOJ cites support a broader market-participant exception to state-action immunity overall. This is an issue that the US Supreme Court expressly left open in its Phoebe Putney decision.

It is a short step from the argument that DOJ makes here to a straightforward market-participant exception to state-action immunity.

Continue reading →

European-Union-Online-RPM-300x225Author: Luis Blanquez

On July 24, 2018, the European Commission fined manufacturers Asus, Denon & Marantz, Philips and Pioneer for over €111 million for restricting the ability of online retailers to set their own retail prices for a variety of widely-used consumer electronics products.

Background

FTC-Appraisal-Case-Fifth-Circuit-Stay-300x200

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.

You might recall that we wrote about the FTC’s state-action-immunity decision the day it occurred, concluding that then Commissioner Ohlhuasen’s opinion was well-reasoned and thorough.

You can review the documents in the FTC administrative action against the appraisal board here.

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.

You can read our analysis of active supervision and related FTC guidance on the requirement here.

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.

Continue reading →

Vitamin-C-antitrust-class-action-supreme-court-300x200

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.

(Read here if you want to learn more about defending an antitrust class action case.)

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?

Good question.

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.

(You can read our article here on the many reasons to file amicus briefs).

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?

Continue reading →

Contact Information