Articles Posted in Antitrust News

Yang Yang

Author: Yang Yang.

Ms. Yang is an Antitrust Partner at Fairsky Law Firm, which has a New York office. She is also a lecturer and researcher at China University of Political Science and Law. She authored a treatise on China Merger Control and is a member of the expert advisory team for Amendments to China Anti-Monopoly Law (with a total number of 8 members). Indeed, she leads the drafting of an expert report on suggested amendments to China Merger Control regime, Chapter 4 of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law. She is also a frequent contributor to the Antitrust Report of LexisNexis and Competition Policy International (Asia Column and Asia Chronicle).

On June 24, 2022, the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed amendments to the Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law, which will come into force on August 1, 2022. These amendments have been the first ones since the first adoption of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law in 2008.

They cover the following topics: (i) antitrust investigations by the Chinese Antirust Bureau under the SAMR, (ii) merger control review by the Chinese Antitrust Bureau under the SAMR, and (iii) civil litigation or private actions seeking damages or claiming invalidations of contractual provisions based on a violation of Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law. These amendments mark significant changes to China’s antitrust regime.

You might also enjoy the following articles that I’ve authored on The Antitrust Attorney Blog:

Antitrust Merger Control in China: Notifiable Transactions under the People’s Republic of China Anti-Monopoly Law

Draft Amendment to Chinese Antitrust Law Calls for Further Clarifications

Administrative Enforcement by Chinese Antitrust Bureau

With regard to antitrust investigations by Chinese Antirust Bureau under the SAMR, the changes primarily relate to (a) vertical agreements––i.e., RPM; (b) hub-and-spoke agreements, and (c) to the abuse of dominance by internet/technology companies.

Vertical Agreements

These amendments introduce a new “safe harbor” rule for vertical agreements based on the market share of investigated parties in their relevant markets. They now supply more detailed guidance on relevant-market definition, including specific precedents for certain industries. This guidance reduces uncertainty for the investigated parties.

Hub-and-Spoke Agreements

Hub-and-spoke agreements involve manufactures and distributors not entering directly into Resale Price Maintenance provisions (RPM), but rather holding meetings to facilitate horizontal agreements. These fall within the scope of prohibited horizontal agreements in Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law.

For any investigation relating to horizontal or vertical agreements, there is also a new issue of whether any party to such agreements has hosted meetings, organized exchanges of information, or provided substantial facilitation. This also calls for more future guidance from the regulators.

Abusive Conduct by Technology Companies

For internet companies, the provision on prohibiting abusive conduct by algorithms or platform policies is not new. Algorithms and platform policies are commonly used by internet companies. But this new provision may indicate a potential priority from law enforcement. This seems to be consistent with merger control rules and the Chinese Antitrust Bureau’s priority relating to markets impacting the national economy and people’s daily lives, which includes areas of public facilities, pharmaceutical manufacturers and internet platforms.

Merger Control

In the merger control realm, there are three main changes: (i) notification of voluntary transactions, (ii) the introduction of a “Stop the Clock” mechanism, and (iii) a new merger review process by categories and levels. These changes can cause the following uncertainties in practice and may require more detailed guidance.

Notification of Voluntary Transactions

Under this new provision the Chinese Antitrust Bureau has the power to require parties to notify transactions before they are implemented if there is evidence of potential anticompetitive effects. There is no mandatory obligation, however, to notify transactions that do not trigger the relevant merger thresholds before their implementation.

But, despite the new law, current rules do encourage voluntary transactions involving, for example, active pharmaceutical ingredients. These changes create uncertainty on whether the authority has any power to reverse such transactions or impose remedies after their implementation.

In addition, under the new law, the authority must first require the parties to notify the transaction. If the parties do not comply with the notification request, the authority will initiate an official investigation. This process allows the parties to provide evidence and prove that the transaction does not have anticompetitive effects. The authority then has the power to approve (with or without remedies), or prohibit the transaction.

“Stop the Clock” Provision

The new “Stop the Clock” provision grants the authority more time to review the transaction if the notifying parties fail to provide documents on time. At the same time, the notifying parties will now have more time to respond to the authority and to other parties’ concerns.  But under the current law and rules, the authority usually requires the parties to withdraw and refile a notification if the review process has reached the 180-day deadline. Therefore, the new law may restrain the Chinese Antitrust Bureau from extending an investigation longer than 180 days. We will have to see what happens.

New Merger Review Process by Categories and Levels

Finally, the new merger review process by categories and levels calls for more detailed rules on implementation and policies and creates uncertainty as to whether some industries will have higher scrutiny than others.

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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Steve Cernak

The adoption of the new Vertical Block Exemption Regulation and Guidelines has created a hectic few months in the European Union for those in the world of antitrust and distribution agreements.

1. The European Commission updates existing vertical rules

On May 10, 2022, the European Commission (EC) adopted the new Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER), together with the new Guidelines on Vertical Restraints. The core of applicable rules to vertical agreements––those entered into between undertakings operating at different levels of the distribution chain––remains the same, but the EC has now introduced some significant changes, especially for online sales and platforms. The new VBER entered into force on June 1, 2022, and will expire on May 31, 2034. There is also a transitional period of one year for those agreements already in force that satisfy the conditions for exemption under the old VBER, but do not satisfy the conditions under the new VBER.

Like the old, the new VBER allows parties to vertical agreements to determine their compatibility with Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”), by establishing a safe harbor exemption. In a nutshell, when the share of both buyer and seller does not exceed 30% of the relevant market, and absent any “hardcore restrictions” such as territorial or customer restrictions or resale price maintenance among others, their vertical agreements are automatically exempted. Agreements that do not satisfy the VBER conditions may still qualify for an individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU.

a. Dual Distribution

Dual distribution happens when a supplier is both active upstream, at the wholesale level, but also downstream, selling directly to end customers in competition with other retailers. For instance, through its own online shop or a marketplace.

The new VBER––similarly to the old draft––covers dual distribution as a safe harbor, even though it excludes vertical agreements between competitors. But the new draft includes two important nuances:

  • First, the protection is now extended to cover not only manufacturers, but also importers and wholesalers. With one wrinkle: The so called “hybrid function”. Vertical agreements involving online intermediation services (OIS)––such as those provided by marketplaces or app stores among others––, where the provider acts as both a reseller of the same intermediated goods or services and competes with the same companies to which it provides those OIS, are excluded from the exception.
  • Second, it introduces a novel two-prong test to determine when information exchanges in a dual distribution scenario are exempted: (i) when they are directly related to the implementation of the vertical agreement; and (ii) they are also necessary to improve the production or distribution of the contract goods or services. The Guidelines also provide (i) a non-exhaustive “white list” of examples that benefit from the exemption, such as technical information, or recommended or maximum resale prices, among others; and (ii) a “black list” of information exchanges not covered––such as information related to future prices downstream, etc…

b. Parity Obligations / MFNs

Parity obligations, also known as Most Favored Nation clauses or MFNs, require the seller to offer to the purchaser the same or better conditions offered: (i) to those on any other retail sales channel or platforms (wide parity clauses), or through the seller’s direct sales channel, usually its own online website (narrow parity clauses).

Under the new VBER, wide parity clauses are not covered anymore, and companies need to assess them under the individual exemption of Article 101(3) TFEU. But there is again one wrinkle: When it comes to narrow parity obligations in vertical agreements involving the provision of OIS, they may be still excluded from the block exemption in highly concentrated markets with cumulative effects and lack of efficiencies.

c. Exclusive and Selective Distribution Systems

The new VBER updates the old definitions of active sales (seller actively approaches a customer) and passive sales (unsolicited request from customer) in light of the new online business environment. For instance, an online website making sales with a domain name from a territory different from the one the distributor is established, or even just using a different language to the one officially established in that territory, is now considered an active sale.

It also introduces what is called “shared exclusivity,” which is the ability to designate up to five exclusive distributors per territory or customer group.

A supplier may also now require exclusive (as opposed to selective) distributors to impose those same restrictions on active sales to their direct (as opposed to indirect) buyers or territories exclusively allocated to other distributors. But a supplier passing on the same restrictions further down the distribution chain is not block exempted. This is a significant difference from selective distribution systems, where the supplier is allowed to impose such restrictions through the whole distribution chain.

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Authors: Luke Hasskamp and Molly Donovan

We often write about sports and antitrust and have previously written about professional golf, and, specifically, the legal implications of a competitor golf league trying to break onto the scene:

The new league, LIV Golf, seeks to compete with the PGA Tour, as well as the European tour (known as the DP World Tour). Indeed, LIV Golf held its first event this past weekend in London, which included 48 participants. Of those, 17 players were members of the PGA Tour. Charl Schwartzel emerged as the winner of the “richest tournament in golf history,” taking home $4.75 million in prize money, which was more than he won during the last four years combined.

In response, the PGA Tour handed down harsh discipline to those 17 players who joined LIV Golf, suspending them indefinitely. The PGA Tour also promised to suspend any other players that participate in future LIV Golf events. It’s a dramatic step, and surely not the last word on the matter.

Now, let’s say you’re one of those 17 players who has been suspended, or you’re a member of the PGA Tour considering playing for LIV Golf but you’re facing such a ban. There are many things to consider, of course. But let’s focus on your legal options. Would the PGA Tour’s ban of a player that chooses to participate in a competitor’s event be lawful? Do the federal antitrust laws in the United States provide you any remedies? Potentially. Let’s take a closer look.

Section 2 of the Sherman Act – Monopolization

Federal antitrust laws make it illegal for a monopolist to preserve its dominant market position through anticompetitive conduct. Here, the PGA Tour sure looks like a monopoly. It’s the dominant actor in the professional golf market in the United States, with revenues well exceeding $1 billion per year. If you are an elite professional golfer in the United States, it’s pretty much the only place to play. (Actually, the PGA Tour, in this context, looks more like a monopsony, as it’s the dominant purchaser of labor in the professional golf market.)

But being a monopoly is not illegal by itself. Instead, there must be some anticompetitive or exclusionary conduct that harms competition in the market.

Typical examples of procompetitive conduct include lowering prices, improving quality, enhancing services, or, in the labor market, raising wages and improving benefits. Antitrust laws like these types of behavior because they enhance competition and are good for consumers. A monopoly that holds onto its dominant market position by offering the lowest prices and the best product is generally a good thing and something antitrust laws seek to encourage. Similarly, a monopsony employer that attracts and retains the best employees by paying the highest wages, offering the best benefits, and otherwise creating the most attractive work environment is the type of outcome that is perfectly acceptable from an antitrust perspective.

Anticompetitive conduct can be harder to define, but can include things like threatening customers or employees, an exclusionary boycott, bundling, tying, exclusive dealing, disparagement, sham litigation, tortious misconduct, and fraud. We’re looking for improper attempts by a monopolist to box out a competitor.

When we look at the current PGA Tour dispute and its decision to suspend players who play for LIV Golf, it seems at least arguable that the PGA Tour’s conduct is anticompetitive. They are not attempting to retain the best golfers by raising compensation, creating more opportunities, or otherwise enhancing the work environment for its players. Instead, the PGA Tour is punishing players who choose to participate in a rival’s events. The conduct appears designed to stifle a would-be competitor.

Section 1 of the Sherman Act – Agreements

Federal antitrust laws also analyze agreements by two or more parties that restrain trade in the market. And agreements between horizontal competitors are closely scrutinized under the per se standard.

Consider professional baseball’s long and storied antitrust history. Those antitrust disputes started (more than 100 years ago) because teams had collectively agreed not to sign each other’s players. Back then, baseball contracts included a “reserve clause,” which reserved a team’s right to a player in perpetuity. Thus, once a player signed with that team, he was only able to re-sign in following years with that same team (unless the team released him). All teams agreed to honor each other’s reserve clauses by agreeing to not sign another team’s players, even if his contract had expired. The reserve clause intentionally suppressed competition by, in essence, preventing free agency. It suppressed players’ salaries. With only one team competing for a player’s services, rather than a full league, teams avoided bidding wars and players had little recourse but to accept the amount offered by their team.

Here, we’d ask whether the PGA Tour has entered into any agreements (formal or otherwise) with another party that restrain trade in the market for professional golf services. There is at least some indicia of such agreements. The European tour (the DP World Tour) has hinted that it may follow the PGA Tour’s approach to dealing with members would participate in LIV Golf. This may stem from the PGA Tour’s “strategic alliance” with the DP World Tour. This sure looks like it could be a horizontal agreement between competitors. Other entities may also be considering similar agreements with the PGA Tour, including the PGA of America, which runs the PGA Championship, one of golf’s four majors, as well as the Ryder Cup, a wildly popular team competition between players from the United States and Europe. The PGA of America, a separate entity from the PGA Tour, has suggested that it is likely to not permit LIV Golf players to participate in the PGA Championship or Ryder Cup.

Of course, sometimes competitors will follow each other’s policies, prices, or practices without an agreement of any sort. That is called conscious parallelism and is not an agreement in restraint of trade because there is no agreement. We don’t know whether there is an agreement here or the European Tour is merely following the PGA Tour in a round of conscious parallelism.

Remedies

A plaintiff prevailing on an antitrust claim has a right to treble damages, which is three times their actual damages, as well as attorney fees.

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PGA-Tour-LIV-Antitrust-300x200

Author: Luke Hasskamp

Hello, friends. Let’s talk about some of the latest developments in the world of professional golf, at least from an antitrust perspective.

Last spring I wrote about the PGA Tour’s response to a potential competitor golf league. The new league promised to shake up professional golf, guaranteeing massive payouts to attract some of the top players in the game and offering unique competitions and tournament formats different from the standard PGA Tour event.

As with many upstart competitors, the new league generated a great deal of controversy. By far, the most controversial aspect is the league’s association with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the league is mostly funded by the Saudi Arabia government not a golf hotbed. Saudi Arabia’s investments have been criticized as “sportswashing,”—“the practice of investing or hosting sporting events in a bid to obscure the Kingdom’s poor human rights record, and tout itself as a new leading global venue for tourism and events.”

This upstart league has gone through a few iterations and, with it, a few different names. Last spring it was referred to the Premier Golf League, and it has also been called the Super Golf League. The current moniker appears to be LIV Golf. (We’re excited to see what name they come up with next!)

Reports suggested that individual players were being offered substantial sums of money, upwards of nine-figure deals, simply to join the LIV league—including a reported $125 million offered to Dustin Johnson, the most prominent player to announce his intention to play in the LIV league. To put that in perspective, Tiger Woods is the all-time career money leader with $120 million (and only one other player has ever won more than $75 million all time (Phil Mickelson, $92 million).

My last article speculated on whether other actors would join the PGA Tour’s efforts to squelch the upstart league. Well, at least one partner said it would enforce the PGA Tour’s ban. The PGA of America (a separate entity from the PGA Tour) announced that anyone banned from the PGA Tour would also be barred from competing in the PGA Championship (one of golf’s four majors), as well as the biennial Ryder Cup. “If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they’re going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the Tour,” PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said last May.

Waugh added that “the Europeans feel the same way,” suggesting the European tour would also enforce the PGA Tour’s ban at its events. And, indeed, the European tour (the DP World Tour) later issued a “warning memo” to its members against participating in LIV events. And, just recently, the United States Golf Association—the organization that hosts the U.S. Open, one of golf’s four majors—announced that “although the USGA ‘prides themselves on the openness of their tournament,’ they will also make their own decision about the eligibility of players at the upcoming U.S. Open . . . on a case-by-case basis.” This appears to be another not so subtle attempt at dissuading golfers from jumping to the Saudi league.

Along those lines, Phil Mickelson was not a participant at this year’s Masters tournament. Mickelson, as a past champion, has a standing invitation to play in the Masters, part of the tournament’s storied tradition. There was speculation that Masters officials instructed Mickelson not to attend the tournament due to the controversy. But Masters officials denied the report, stating that Mickelson decided not to participate in this year’s event. (Mickelson has not commented publicly on the specifics.) Mickelson also did not participate in this year’s PGA Championship, another major and one where Mickelson was the defending champion.

Sponsors also appear to be siding with the PGA Tour (or, perhaps, simply do not wish to align themselves with LIV and its Saudi connections). RBC announced that it was dropping its sponsorship deals with Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell after both golfers were linked to the Saudi league. Similarly, UPS dropped its deals with Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen.

This all comes on the heels of the latest development: the LIV league’s first event is coming to fruition. It is scheduled for June 9-11 in London, at the same time as the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open event. Because these are conflicting events, PGA Tour members needed to obtain express permission from the PGA Tour to participate. But the Tour rejected all requests for an exemption (as did the European tour). But several dozen players announced that they were in the field for the LIV event, a surprising number for an league that seemed on more than one occasion as if it would never get off the ground. (Interestingly, Phil Mickelson has not announced whether he will participate, and he was not listed as one of the 48 participants, although six spots were unannounced so it’s possible he’ll still be in the field.)

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Author: Molly Donovan

Yesterday the DOJ’s Antitrust Division announced updates to its Leniency Policy and issued nearly 50 new FAQs, and related responses, regarding its leniency practices. One welcome development is that the new FAQs clarify some the DOJ’s positions concerning ACPERA—the statute designed to limit an amnesty company’s potential exposure in civil lawsuits. Previously, guidance on ACPERA was almost non-existent, yet seriously needed to curb the unreasonable demands that plaintiffs were placing on amnesty companies relative to their co-defendants, making ACPERA not particularly incentivizing, at least at times. Even worse, plaintiffs could continually threaten expensive litigation over the satisfaction of ACPERA, undermining its incentive powers even more. Now, the FAQs make the DOJ’s view clear that an applicant who chooses to pursue ACPERA benefits need not be at a plaintiff’s beck and call regardless of plaintiff’s reasonableness, or lack thereof.

While the changes on this front are helpful to potential applicants, the Division could have gone further and some uncertainties for companies contemplating a self-report to the DOJ will remain.

Here are some of the critical bullet points.

Prompt Self-Reporting. To qualify for leniency, a company is required to “promptly” self-report once the relevant conduct is discovered. While there’s no bright-line rule, “promptly” does not appear to mean that an inkling of wrongdoing must be followed immediately by a call to DOJ, as some may have previously thought. Rather, with the new FAQ guidance, the condition of “promptly” appears to be aimed at disqualifying companies whose lawyers or compliance officers investigate and confirm anticompetitive activity, yet purposefully choose not to self-report in hopes that the conduct remains otherwise unearthed.

On the other hand, the DOJ seems to recognize the fact that internal investigations conducted by counsel are typically a necessary step between some indication of wrongdoing and the seeking of a marker, and that cartel investigations in particular often span jurisdictions, and are otherwise complex and take time. This mindset and approach appear to be appropriate to the DOJ in terms of timing.

Relatedly, the FAQs say that an internal failure to appreciate that the activities at issue are illegal (or illegal in the United States) is not a defense to a failure to promptly self-report. Companies (and particularly non-U.S. companies) that are unsure how problematic a particular activity is are wise to seek U.S. counsel as early as practicable.

In any event, the DOJ’s FAQs say that if an organization is too late to obtain leniency, but nevertheless chooses to self-report and cooperate, it may earn credit applicable at sentencing.

Remediation and Compliance. To qualify for leniency, the corporate applicant must now “undertake remedial measures” and improve compliance to prevent recidivism. This requirement, as stated, is new in that “remediation” appears separate and apart from the condition that an applicant make best efforts to pay restitution. While “restitution” is focused on compensating victims, “remediation” appears to be focused mostly on internal efforts to “address the root causes” of the conduct by, for example, recognizing its seriousness, accepting responsibility, implementing measures to prevent similar conduct from reoccurring, and disciplining or firing “culpable, non-cooperating personnel.” What constitutes sufficient remediation will depend on the circumstances, according to the FAQs, but detailed guidance as to compliance can be found in the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs in Criminal Antitrust Investigations Guidance (the DOJ’s guidelines regarding effective compliance programs).

What is unclear is what “recognizing seriousness” and “accepting responsibility” mean in this context. For leniency applicants who can admit to a criminal U.S. antitrust violation, but must litigate certain nuances elsewhere in the world, or in civil lawsuits in the U.S., as to the extent of harm, for example, there is a potential tension.

Restitution. The program has long required an applicant to make best efforts to pay restitution to victims where possible. Previously, “where possible” was unclear, and it’s now been clarified to mean that actual payments of restitution will be excused only in relatively narrow circumstances, e.g., “the applicant is in bankruptcy and prohibited by court order from making payments; where such payments would likely cause the applicant to cease operations or declare bankruptcy; or if the sole victim is defunct.”

Absent such circumstances, to receive a final leniency letter, “applicants must actually pay restitution.”  This obviously sounds like a higher burden than merely “making efforts” to pay restitution, and the questions remain who is a “victim,” how that will be decided, and whether 100% of all victims must be compensated before final leniency can be achieved. Assuming a final letter is desired for some practical reason, the situation could be a tough one for applicants who disagree that a particular claimant is an actual victim, or that a particular claimant is owed the full amounts it says it is. In such cases, litigation over these questions could take years, making the quest for a final leniency letter a very long and uncertain one.

The same goes for another new requirement that, to get even a conditional letter, an applicant must “present concrete, reasonably achievable plans about how they will make restitution.” It’s questionable how this would work in practice. At the outset of a cartel investigation, it’s unclear how many claimants will come forward, when they’ll come forward and how much they will claim they are owed. A generic “plan” may be one thing—a prediction about who the bona fide victims are and whether they will claim compensation and how and when they will be paid is another.

As with remediation, there is also tension here for an amnesty applicant that admits to conspiratorial agreements, but will litigate the nuances involved in the complex determination of whether an agreement had full or only partial success. Given all the economic facts, there may be nothing inconsistent with an admission of criminal guilt, on the one hand, and the position that a particular claimant did not suffer.  But determining who is a victim and who is not can be an intensive undertaking.  If the Division is going to require actual competition to all victims, it’s an inquiry they should be willing to look at closely for fairness, particularly where the civil plaintiffs are alleging a conspiracy much bigger in size and scope (and therefore, in damages) than the conspiracy admitted to for purposes of criminal guilt.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Just weeks before our ABA antitrust panel on State Action Immunity takes place in Washington DC, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed SmileDirectClub to proceed against the members of the California Dental Board for antitrust violations, rejecting the board’s immunity claim on active supervision grounds.

At Bona Law we are no stranger to enforcing the federal antitrust laws against anticompetitive conduct enabled by state and local governments. In fact, we filed an amicus curiae brief in the NC Dental case.

Background of the SmileDirectClub Antitrust Saga

This is part of the antitrust group of cases that SmileDirectClub has filed against dental boards in Alabama, Georgia and California.

Rather than teeth-whitening like in NC Dental, the product market in these three cases is teeth-alignment treatments. SmileDirectClub provides cost-effective orthodontic treatments through teledentistry. One of SmileDirectClub’s services is SmileShops. These are physical locations in several states at which they take rapid photographs of a consumer’s mouth. Customers may also use an at-home mouth impression kit, which means that an in-person dental examination is not necessary. Afterwards they send the photographs to the SmileDirectClub lab.

SmileDirectClub connects the customer with a dentist or orthodontist, who is licensed to practice locally but is located off-site (and may be even located out-of-state), who evaluates the model and photographs and creates a treatment plan. If the dentist feels that aligners are appropriate for the patient, she prescribes the aligners and sends them directly to the patient. The patient doesn’t need to visit a traditional dental office for teeth alignment treatment. This results in significant cost savings and greater customer convenience and access.

But the members of the boards of dental examiners in Georgia, Alabama and California have, according to plaintiffs, allegedly conspired to harass the SmileDirectClub parties with unfounded investigations and an intimidation campaign, with hopes of driving them out of the market, while using their government-created power in the marketplace to protect the economic interests of the traditional orthodontia market.

District courts in Alabama and Georgia have allowed all cases to proceed, after the 11th Circuit affirmed. The Alabama case settled in 2021, after that state’s dental board signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.

The District Court case in California: Sulitzer v. Tippins, case No. 20-55735

In California, by statute, the dental board regulates the practice of dentistry. See Cal. Bus.&Prof. Code §§ 1600–1621. It enforces dental regulations, administers licensing exams, and issues dental licenses and permits. Id. § 1611. The Board is made up of fifteen members: “eight practicing dentists, one registered dental hygienist, one registered dental assistant, and five public members.” Id. § 1601.1(a). Since many of its members compete in the market for teeth-straightening services, they allegedly view SmileDirect as a “competitive threat.”

Plaintiffs alleged that certain members of the Board, motivated by their private desires to stifle competition, mounted an aggressive, anticompetitive campaign of harassment and intimidation designed to drive the SmileDirectClub out of the market. The Complaint contended that these actions violated the Sherman Antitrust Act; the Dormant Commerce Clause; the Equal Protection Clause; the Due Process Clause; and California’s Unfair Competition Law. The dental board defendants moved to dismiss SmileDirectClub’s claims for anticompetitive conduct based on a state-action immunity defense.

The district court rejected defendants’ argument that the state action doctrine applied because the defendants––members and employees of the Dental Board of California—largely made up of traditional dentists and orthodontists who have a financial motive to view the newcomers as competition—could not show that they were actively supervised. The court nevertheless held plaintiffs failed to state a Section 1 claim and ended up dismissing the complaint without prejudice.

SmileDirectClub amended the complaint once, but the district court dismissed again the federal claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim. This time the court held that SmileDirectClub may have pled enough facts to show the existence of an agreement––by way of a theory of the board’s ratification of the investigation––but surprisingly concluded it was nevertheless insufficient to state a Section 1 claim because the agreement was consistent with its regulatory purpose to undertake their delegated authority as members of the board, and thus was not intended to restrict or restrain competition. Make sure you don’t forget this last sentence. The Ninth Circuit hammers this argument down now in its Opinion.

SmileDirectClub appealed the ruling before the Ninth Circuit

The Case on Appeal: SmileDirectClub and Jeffrey Sulitzer DMD v. Joseph Tippins et al., 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals No. 20-55735

I would strongly suggest you read this opinion. It is absolutely worth your time.

First, the Ninth Circuit concludes that plaintiffs sufficiently alleged anticompetitive concerted action to meet the pleading standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), although it makes no judgment on the merits of the claims and whether those claims will withstand scrutiny in the next phase of the litigation

It further explains that by requiring plaintiffs to plead facts inconsistent with the Board’s regulatory purpose, the district court applied a standard more appropriate at the summary judgment stage, where § 1 plaintiffs must offer “evidence that tends to exclude the possibility” of lawful independent conduct. This is something many district courts do across the country and which we have been writing about at Bona Law systematically.

Second, the court plainly rejects the broad proposition—offered up by the board members and the district court—that regulatory board members and employees cannot form an anticompetitive conspiracy when acting within their regulatory authority.

In its opinion, the court highlights how the Supreme Court has stressed, “[t]he similarities between agencies controlled by active market participants and private trade associations are not eliminated simply because the former are given a formal designation by the State, vested with a measure of government power, and required to follow some procedural rules.” N.C. State, 574 U.S. at 511.

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Author: Jarod Bona

The FTC filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook (now Meta Platforms Inc.). Judge James E. Boasberg dismissed it. The FTC then filed an amended complaint. And the same judge just denied Facebook’s motion to dismiss that complaint.

The FTC alleges that Facebook has a longstanding monopoly in the market for personal social networking (PSN) services and that it unlawfully maintained that monopoly through (1) acquiring competitors and potential competitors; and (2) preventing apps that Facebook viewed as potential competitive threats from working with Facebook’s platform.

The FTC’s first claim asserts that Facebook monopolized the market through (1), above—acquiring companies (especially Instagram and WhatsApp) instead of competing. The FTC’s second claim includes both (1) and (2), the interoperability allegations, and invokes Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which allows the agency to seek an injunction against an entity that “is violating” or “is about to violate” the antitrust laws.

The Court permitted the FTC to go forward with both claims, but also concluded that the facts from the interoperability allegations happened too long ago to fit into Section 13(b)’s “is violating” or “is about to violate” temporal requirement.

You can read the play-by-play of the opinion elsewhere or, even better, read the actual decision. My purpose with this article is instead to offer some observations about the opinion and broader antitrust litigation issues.

Direct and Indirect Evidence of Monopoly Power

The FTC argues that it has alleged both indirect and direct evidence of Facebook’s monopoly power. But because the Court concluded that the FTC had adequately alleged indirect evidence of Facebook’s monopoly power, it didn’t need to analyze the direct evidence of monopoly power.

The only reason I am bringing this up is because most monopolization cases focus on indirect evidence of monopoly power—i.e. relevant market definitions, market share, barriers to entry, etc.— so many people don’t consider that a plaintiff can also satisfy this element through direct evidence of monopoly power. For example, if a plaintiff can prove that a defendant is engaged in supracompetitive pricing, it is showing direct evidence of monopoly power. And in an antitrust claim against a government entity, the plaintiff may be able to show directly that the public entity is a monopolist as a result of government coercion.

Notably, the Court dismissed the last FTC Complaint against Facebook for failure to allege monopoly power. Here, the Court concludes that “the Amended Complaint alleges far more detailed facts to support its claim that Facebook” has a dominant share of the relevant market for US personal social networking services.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court agreed with the FTC that Facebook’s dominance is durable because of entry barriers, particularly network effects and high switching costs.

Anticompetitive Conduct

The alleged anticompetitive conduct consists of a series of mergers and acquisitions. Within antitrust and competition law, you typically hear about antitrust M&A in the context of Hart-Scott-Rodino filings and direct merger challenges by the FTC or DOJ.

Courts will sometimes conclude that mergers and acquisitions are a means of exclusionary conduct by a monopolist. As in the present case, that can come up when a company that dominates a market confronts a potential competitor and must decide how to respond. Sometimes the monopolist will compete better—reduce prices, improve quality, etc. That’s the way competition works. But in other situations, the monopolist might solve its problem by dipping into its cash or stock and remove the threat to its monopoly profits by buying the nascent competitive threat.

You could also imagine a scenario in which a monopolist engages in exclusionary conduct by going vertical and purchasing either a supplier or customer in a context in which such doing so makes it difficult for the monopolist’s competitors to achieve economies of scale. This can be similar in effect to an exclusive-dealing arrangement.

Harm to Competition

The FTC, of course, must allege harm to competition. The standard harm to competition is an increase in prices or a decrease in quality—which are two sides of the same coin. But these aren’t the only harms to competition that a plaintiff can allege.

Here, of course, the FTC is asserting an antitrust claim centered on purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp, which were free before and after the acquisitions. And the Facebook social network site is, of course, also free.

But the Court concluded that the FTC did, in fact, allege harm to competition. The FTC alleged “a decrease in service quality, lack of innovation, decreased privacy and data protection, excessive advertisements and decreased choice and control with regard ads, and a general lack of consumer choice in the market for such services.” And the FTC emphasized the lower levels of service quality on privacy and data protection resulting from lack of meaningful competition.

The Court accepted these allegations as sufficient harm to competition: “In short, the FTC alleges that even though Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp did not lead to higher prices, they did lead to poorer services and less choice for consumers.”

The question of whether less choice is sufficient harm-to-competition to support an antitrust claim has been controversial over the years, but Courts are increasingly permitting it.

Previously Cleared Transactions

Facebook understandably grumbles that the FTC previously cleared through the HSR process the two transactions that it now complains about. But the Court rejects this argument because it says the “HSR Act does not require the FTC to reach a formal determination as to whether the acquisition under review violates the antitrust laws.” And, in fact, an HSR approval expressly reserves the antitrust enforcers the right to take further action. It doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way it is.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

“The legislature hereby finds and declares that there is great concern for the growing accumulation of power in the hands of large corporations. While technological advances have improved society, these companies possess great and increasing power over all aspects of our lives. Over one hundred years ago, the state and federal governments identified these same problems as big businesses blossomed after decades of industrialization. Seeing those problems, the state and federal governments enacted transformative legislation to combat cartels, monopolies, and other anti-competitive business practices. It is time to update, expand and clarify our laws to ensure that these large corporations are subject to strict and appropriate oversight by the state.”  

Self-explanatory, isn’t it? This is just an extract from the draft Act. Indeed, while the antitrust world is watching the U.S. Senate due to the vast reforms going on, and the FTC continues to repeal unilaterally the Hart-Scott-Rodino (“HSR”) merger review process, something is also currently cooking in New York: The New York 21st Century Antitrust Act.

In June 2021 New York’s proposed 21st Century Antitrust Act (Senate Bill S933A) passed the State Senate. The remaining steps before that bill becomes law are passage by the Assembly and the signature of the Governor, both of which are expected at some point next year. When that happens, the proposed law will radically amend the long-standing Donnelly Antitrust Act. This is potentially a much bigger deal than it may seem. Not just for the state of New York, but also for the future of U.S. antitrust law more generally. Why? Basically, because if the Act becomes law, it will import the well-known and more far-reaching “abuse of dominance” standard from the European Union ––targeting companies with market shares as low as 30% in NY; and will establish––for the first time––a state premerger notification system in the U.S.

General Scope but with a Specific Focus on Big Tech and Importing the Abuse of Dominant Position Standard

The Donnelly Act applies to any conduct that restrains any business, trade or commerce or in the furnishing of any service in New York. N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law § 340. The New Antitrust Act has the same scope but introduces two important wrinkles.

First, even though it generally applies to all sectors and industries, it expressly addresses and calls out anticompetitive behavior in the Big Tech industry. This is clearly in line with all the recent proposed antitrust bills and monopolization cases at federal level.

Second, it also imports the well-known and more far- reaching “abuse of dominant position” standard from Article 102 the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union. Until now, under the current standards applied by courts under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, Big Tech has been able successfully to challenge or defeat many of the unilateral action complaints filed in federal court. The New Antitrust Act explicitly acknowledges this: “effective enforcement against unilateral anti-competitive conduct has been impeded by courts, for example, applying narrow definitions of monopolies and monopolization, limiting the scope of unilateral conduct covered by the federal anti-trust laws, and unreasonably heightening the legal standards that plaintiffs must over-come to establish violations of those laws.” A good example of such limitations are refusal to deal cases in the U.S. But, if passed, this is going to change next year. NY’s Attorney General is going to have not only the authority to enforce the New Antitrust Act, but also the powers to define what constitutes––under New York Antitrust law––an abuse of a dominant position. As a European antitrust attorney who currently practices antitrust law in the U.S., this is indeed very interesting news.

While NY’s Attorney General will need to provide further guidance, for now the New Antitrust Bill states that a dominant position may be established by direct or indirect evidence.

Direct evidence may include, for example, the unilateral power of a monopolist to set prices, terms, conditions, or standards; unilateral power to dictate non-price contractual terms without compensation; or other evidence that an entity is not constrained by meaningful competitive pressures, such as the ability to degrade quality without suffering reduction in profitability. Under the Act, if the direct evidence is sufficient to show a dominant position, conduct that abuses that dominant position is unlawful without regard to a defined relevant market (or the conduct’s effects in that market). This seems to be––for the first time–– in line with a “per se” analysis under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. How the NY Attorney General is going to determine the existence of a dominant position, without even first defining the relevant antitrust market(s) concerned, remains to be seen.

A dominant position may also be established by indirect evidence. For instance, the Act incudes a presumption of a dominant position when a seller enjoys a market share of 40% or greater and 30% or greater for a buyer. This is a significantly lower threshold than the one currently used in federal cases brought under the Sherman Act. But the determination of a dominant position requires a much more detailed analysis of barriers to entry, potential competition, and purchasing power downstream, among many others. That’s without even considering the special circumstances of all the digital and technological markets where Big Tech companies are present. Once again, we will have to wait until we see further guidance from NY’s Attorney General under the newly acquired rulemaking powers to flesh out the definition of dominant position.

As for the existence of an abuse, the Act enumerates a non-exhaustive list of anticompetitive behavior: conduct that tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of actual or potential competitors to compete, such as leveraging a dominant position in one market to limit competition in a separate market, or refusing to deal with another person with the effect of unnecessarily excluding or handicapping actual or potential competitors. With the new abuse of dominance standard in play, it will be interesting to watch how these theories of harm develop in NY, and how much tension they create with existing federal antitrust case law.

The Act, in a very cryptic one-line paragraph, excludes any procompetitive effects as a defense to offset or cure competitive harm. This seems to create a “per se” liability to any abuse of a dominant position, which would be problematic both under U.S. federal law and EU Competition law.

Under EU Competition law, not every exclusionary effect is necessarily detrimental to competition. Competition on the merits may result in the elimination of less efficient competitors from the market. See for instance C-209/10 Post Danmark I, or C-413/14 Intel. Indeed, aside from very few “by nature” abuses which are considered presumptively unlawful (and even under these the European Commission must still carry out a competition analysis if the dominant firm provides evidence on the contrary), a full-blown effects analysis is always required. See T-201/04 Microsoft.

Not only that, even if a specific conduct is found to constitute an abuse of a dominant position and restricts competition, a person can always attempt to show that its conduct is objectively justified. This applies to any alleged abuse, including “by nature” abuses. More information on treatment of exclusionary conduct in the EU may be found in: Guidance on the Commission’s Enforcement Priorities in Applying Article 82 EC Treaty to Abusive Exclusionary Conduct by Dominant Undertakings.

First State Premerger Notification System in the U.S.

The new Act also will establish a separate premerger notification system in New York where buyers––regardless of where they are incorporated––will have to notify the NY Attorney General sixty days before the closing of any transaction where any of the parties involved exceed the applicable reporting thresholds, set at assets or annual net sales in New York exceeding $9.2 million, which is currently 2.5% of the current federal HSR threshold. The sixty-day notification is double the thirty-day period applicable under the HSR Act.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Remember when UPS ran TV commercials, complete with jingles, trying to make logistics something that everyone cares about? No need now. Now, everyone knows how supply chain issues can affect toilet paper supplies, microchips for cars and, perhaps, even make Santa late with toys and decorations for Christmas.

With every supplier, distributor, retailer, and wholesaler scrambling to scrounge supplies and ship finished goods in some reasonably efficient and cost-effective manner, some harried supply chain executives might be tempted to take some bold and dangerous steps. Just as we have done a couple times during the pandemic, your friendly neighborhood antitrust lawyers are here to remind you of the old rules that still apply and speculate on how antitrust might affect these issues in the future.

Price Fixing and Price Gouging Rules Remain the Same

In a time of crisis, one tempting bold but possibly dangerous step for an executive to take is to directly contact or signal intentions to a competitor. For instance, a CEO might want assurance that any price increase to help recover increased transportation costs will be matched by the competitor. Depending on how the conversation goes, antitrust enforcers and courts could find a price fixing agreement — and, as the enforcers have made clear, price fixing is still per se illegal, even during a pandemic or other crisis. An agreement among competitors to boycott logistics providers raising their prices would meet a similar fate.

On the other hand, so-called price gouging does not violate the U.S. federal antitrust laws, as we explained here. So that CEO contemplating a price increase to cover increased transportation costs need not worry about federal antitrust issues; some states, however, do have non-antitrust laws that prohibit price gouging under certain circumstances.

Joint Ventures Might Help

Instead of jail time for price fixing, that phone call between competitor CEO’s could lead to joint efforts that could ease the business pain while staying on the right side of the antitrust laws.  As we explained here, the antitrust rules regarding joint ventures do not change in a crisis and some joint efforts among competitors, if implemented properly, do not violate the antitrust laws.  So if that CEO call will lead to joint research on new shipping methods; a new jointly-run warehouse; or lobbying the local legislature for regulatory relief, the antitrust laws likely will not stand in the way. Looks like some CEO’s are already thinking about joint ventures.

Bottlenecks Turn Out to be Monopolies?

While the antitrust laws have not changed, the changed economic conditions might lead to new outcomes. For instance, bottlenecks in the supply chain might start to look more like monopolies and so be subject to restrictions on monopolizing actions.

As we explained here, the first element in a monopolization claim under the U.S. antitrust laws is finding that the defendant is a “monopolist.” Usually, that process means defining a market and then seeing if the defendant has a high market share; however, the market share method is used more often only because the data are available to make the estimate. What a court really is trying to measure is the ability of the defendant to control its own price, that is, to price with little regard to how competitors might react. The supply chain crisis has uncovered several bottleneck companies that, at least in certain geographic areas, can name their price. As we described above, those high prices themselves would not violate the antitrust laws; however, any additional actions by that company to exclude new competition and maintain that pricing power could be a violation. Look for actions against such companies in the future.

More Merger Challenges Coming

As we have detailed here and here, the FTC is modifying their merger review processes and making it clear that they plan to challenge more mergers, irrespective of any supply chain issues.  And because the number of filings under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act is way up, the FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division will have that many more chances to challenge mergers. So expecting more merger challenges is an easy prediction.

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Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan keeps up her frenetic crusade to change the practice of antitrust enforcement. The new––and surely not last––change: the vertical merger guidelines.

On Wednesday, September 15, 2021, the FTC held an open virtual meeting to discuss the following:

Here, we will only discuss the first two items. For more background on these and other recent changes at the FTC, see our previous articles:

The FTC Continues the HSR Antitrust Process’s “Death of a Thousand Cuts”

FTC Guts Major Benefit of Antitrust HSR Process for Merging Parties

FTC Withdraws Vertical Merger Guidelines and Commentary

As expected, the FTC on a 3-2 vote decided to withdraw its approval of the Vertical Merger Guidelines, issued jointly just last year with the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ), and the FTC’s Vertical Merger Commentary.

According to the FTC’s press release, the guidance documents include unsound economic theories that are unsupported by the law or market realities. The FTC is withdrawing its approval to prevent industry or judicial reliance on this allegedly flawed approach. The FTC reaffirmed its commitment to working closely with the DOJ to review and update the agencies’ merger guidance.

The statements by the various Commissioners show the deep divisions within the FTC since Khan joined the Commission, not just about these Guidelines but more generally about how to enforce the antitrust laws and how to run the FTC.  The statement by the FTC majority asserts that the 2020 Vertical Merger Guidelines had improperly contravened the Clayton Act’s language with its approach to efficiencies. The statement explains the majority’s concerns with the Guidelines’ treatment of the purported pro-competitive benefits of vertical mergers, especially its treatment of the elimination of double marginalization.

The dissenting Statement of Commissioners Phillips and Wilson starts with a bang: “Today the FTC leadership continues the disturbing trend of pulling the rug out under from honest businesses and the lawyers who advise them, with no explanation and no sound basis of which we are aware.” The statement goes on to not only lament the confusion the withdrawal will generate but contrast the process used when the Guidelines were issued — months of public input and debate — with the process used for their withdrawal — no public input and, seemingly, no discussion even at the FTC outside the offices of three Commissioners.

The FTC pledged to work with DOJ to update vertical merger guidance to better reflect how the agencies will review such transactions in the future. Just an hour later, DOJ issued a statement explaining that they are reviewing both the Horizontal Merger Guidelines and the Vertical Merger Guidelines and, as to the latter, have already identified several aspects of the guidelines, such as the treatment of and burdens for the elimination of double marginalization, that deserve close scrutiny.  (We raised those issues when the Guidelines went through public debate last year.)  DOJ expects to work closely with the FTC to update the Guidelines so, perhaps, we will have new Guidance at some point in the future.

FTC Staff Presents Report on Nearly a Decade of Unreported Acquisitions by the Biggest Technology Companies

During the same meeting, FTC presented findings from its inquiry into the hundreds of past acquisitions by the largest technology companies that did not require reporting to antitrust authorities at the FTC and DOJ, generally because they were below HSR thresholds. Launched in February 2020, the inquiry analyzed the terms, scope, structure, and purpose of these transactions by Alphabet Inc., Amazon.com, Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook, Inc., and Microsoft Corp. between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2019.

“While the Commission’s enforcement actions have already focused on how digital platforms can buy their way out of competing, this study highlights the systemic nature of their acquisition strategies,” said Chair Khan. “It captures the extent to which these firms have devoted tremendous resources to acquiring start-ups, patent portfolios, and entire teams of technologists—and how they were able to do so largely outside of our purview.”

The Commission voted 5-0 to make the report public. Chair Khan and Commissioners Chopra and Slaughter each issued separate statements. While the report did not recommend any changes to the merger review process, we expect that the FTC may utilize the report’s findings to recommend changes in the HSR process.

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