Articles Posted in Antitrust News

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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Steven Cernak

Strong winds of change keep blowing in the antitrust world. In the past weeks we’ve witnessed two new major developments in the U.S.: (i) President Biden’s Executive Order to increase antitrust enforcement, and (ii) six antitrust bills issued by the House Judiciary Committee. That’s a lot to summarize in one article, so we’ve decided to just unwrap them below for you to decide how deep you want to keep digging.

  1. President’s Biden Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy

This month President Biden issued the Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy (the “Order”). The Order aims to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, drive down prices for consumers, increase wages for workers and facilitate innovation. It establishes a Whole-of-Government effort to promote competition in the American economy by including 72 initiatives to enforce existing antitrust laws and other laws that may impact competition to combat what it sees as excessive concentration of industry and abuses of market power, as well as to address challenges posed by new industries and technologies.

The Fact Sheet further explains how the Order (i) encourages the leading antitrust agencies to focus enforcement efforts on problems in key markets and (ii) coordinates other agencies’ ongoing response to corporate consolidation.

Calling the DOJ and FTC to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously

The Order calls on the federal antitrust agencies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously. The Order acknowledges the overlapping jurisdiction of both agencies and encourages them to cooperate fully, both with each other and with other departments and agencies, in the exercise of their oversight authority.

In particular, the Order encourages the Chair of the FTC to exercise the FTC’s statutory rulemaking authority in areas such as (i) unfair data collection and surveillance practices that may damage competition, consumer autonomy, and consumer privacy, (ii) unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment; (iii) unfair anticompetitive conduct or agreements in the prescription drug industries, such as agreements to delay the market entry of generic drugs or biosimilar; (iv) unfair competition in major Internet marketplaces; (v) unfair occupational licensing restrictions; (vi) unfair tying practices or exclusionary practices in the brokerage or listing of real estate; and (vii) any other unfair industry-specific practices that substantially inhibit competition.

Also, the Order specifically addresses merger review by (i) encouraging antitrust agencies to revisit and update the Merger Guidelines (both horizonal and vertical) and (ii) challenge bad mergers previously cleared by past Administrations. Immediately after the publication of the Order, FTC and DOJ also issued a joint statement highlighting the fact that the current guidelines deserve a hard look to determine whether they are overly permissive, and how they will jointly launch a review of the merger guidelines with the goal of updating them to reflect a rigorous analytical approach consistent with applicable law.

In parallel, FTC has also passed this month some new resolutions updating its rulemaking procedures to set stage for stronger deterrence of corporate misconduct, and authorizing investigations into key law enforcement priorities for the next decade. As FTC’s chair Lina M. Khan stressed in a recent statement, priority targets include repeat offenders; technology companies and digital platforms; and healthcare businesses such as pharmaceutical companies, pharmacy benefits managers, and hospitals. Last but not least, FTC recently voted to rescind a 1995 policy statement that made it more difficult and burdensome to deter problematic mergers and acquisitions. The 1995 Policy Statement on Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions made it less likely that the Commission would require parties that proposed mergers that the Commission had determined would be anticompetitive to obtain prior approval and give prior notice for future transactions. By rescinding this policy statement, the FTC will be more likely to obtain prior notice of future transactions by those parties even beyond HSR notice requirements.

Grab your popcorn. Following President Joe Biden’s recent nomination of Jonathan Kanter as the new AAG for U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, it is likely we will see some important antitrust enforcement action from both agencies very soon aimed at corporate concentration, especially the big tech sector.

New White House Competition Council

The Order establishes a new White House Competition Council, led by the Director of the National Economic Council, to monitor progress on finalizing the initiatives in the Order and to coordinate the federal government’s response to what it sees as the rising power of large corporations in the economy.

The Council will meet on a semi-annual basis––unless the Chair determines that a meeting is unnecessary––and will work across agencies to provide a coordinated response to overconcentration, monopolization, and unfair competition. The FTC and other independent agencies are welcome and expected to participate in this process.

Granted patents and the protection of standard setting processes

To avoid the potential for anticompetitive extension of market power beyond the scope of granted patents, and to protect standard-setting processes from abuse, the Order encourages the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments issued jointly by the Department of Justice, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on December 19, 2019.

Specific Industry Sectors addressed in the Order

Labor Markets

The Order encourages the FTC to: (i) ban or limit non-compete agreements, (ii) ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility, and (iii) along with DOJ, strengthen antitrust guidance to prevent employers from collaborating to suppress wages or reduce benefits by sharing wage and benefit information with one another.

The Order directs the Treasury Department to submit a report on the impact of what it sees as the current lack of competition on labor markets within 180 days and encourages the FTC and DOJ to revise the Antitrust Guidance for HR Professionals.

Healthcare

The Order (i) directs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to work with states and tribes to safely import prescription drugs from Canada, pursuant to the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003; (ii) directs the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS) to increase support for generic and biosimilar drugs, which can provide low-cost options for patients; (iii) directs HHS to issue a comprehensive plan within 45 days to combat high prescription drug prices and price gouging, (iv) encourages the FTC to ban “pay for delay” and similar agreements by rule; (v) encourages HHS to consider issuing proposed rules within 120 days for allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, (vi) underscores that hospital mergers can be harmful to patients and encourages the DOJ and FTC to review and revise their merger guidelines to ensure patients are not harmed by such mergers; (vii) and directs HHS to support existing hospital price transparency rules and to finish implementing bipartisan federal legislation to address surprise hospital billing.

Transportation

The Order directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider (i) issuing clear rules requiring the refund of fees when baggage is delayed or when service isn’t actually provided—like when the plane’s WiFi or in-flight entertainment system is broken and (ii) issuing rules that require baggage, change, and cancellation fees to be clearly disclosed to the customer.

The Order further encourages (i) the Surface Transportation Board to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligations to treat other freight companies fairly, and (ii) the Federal Maritime Commission to ensure vigorous enforcement against shippers charging American exporters exorbitant charges.

Agriculture

The Order expresses a concern on market concentration and helps ensure that the intellectual property system, while incentivizing innovation, does not also unnecessarily reduce competition in seed and other input markets beyond that reasonably contemplated by other laws.

In particular the Order directs the U.S. Department of Education (USDA) to consider issuing (i) new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act making it easier for farmers to bring and win claims, stopping chicken processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers, and adopting anti-retaliation protections for farmers who speak out about bad practices; (ii) new rules defining when meat can bear “Product of USA” labels, so that consumers have accurate, transparent labels that enable them to choose products made here; and (iii) a plan to increase opportunities for farmers to access markets and receive a fair return, including supporting alternative food distribution systems like farmers’ markets and developing standards and labels so that consumers can choose to buy products that treat farmers fairly.

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Authors:  Steven J. Cernak and Luis Blanquez

In late 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the attorneys-general (AGs) from 48 states filed nearly identical antitrust lawsuits against Facebook for stifling competition by acquiring potential competitors, mainly Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014, and for enforcing policies that blocked rival apps from interconnecting their product with Facebook. The alleged effect of this conduct was to (i) blunt the growth of potential competitors that might have used that interoperability to attract new users, and (ii) deter other developers from building new apps or features or functionalities that might compete with Facebook.

This week, the judge hearing the cases agreed to dismiss the claims from the FTC––without prejudice––stating that the lawsuit failed to plead enough facts to plausibly establish that Facebook has monopoly power in the personal social networking services market. Likewise, the Court also dismissed ––with prejudice––a similar case pursued by a group of 48 states on the basis that any alleged violations took place too long ago.

While by no means the final decision on these matters, the motion to dismiss opinion will significantly narrow the FTC case for now. It also highlights some of the difficulties that enforcers will face using the current antitrust laws against Big Tech companies.

Online platforms have been––and continue to be––scrutinized by antitrust enforcers around the world. In the U.S. the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee issued last year its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets. The Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms. In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws. Since then, online platforms have been involved in high-profile antitrust litigation in the U.S. So even though Facebook has won the first round of this litigation, the war is far from over.

Chinese Translation: Thank you to our friends at the Beijing Fairsky Law Firm for preparing a translation in Chinese of this article.

The FTC and State AGs Parallel Antitrust Complaints against Facebook

Both suits focused on the same Facebook categories of conduct. First were the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, both of which occurred more than five years ago. These deals allegedly increased Facebook’s power over social media networks, facilitating data integration and its sharing among some of the largest social media platforms. Next was Facebook’s requirement that any applications connecting to Facebook may not compete with Facebook or promote any of Facebook’s competitors. The complaint alleged that Facebook enforced these policies by cutting off access to the Application Programming Interface (“API”), the software that allows applications to talk to one another to allow communication with rival personal social networking services, mobile messaging apps, and any other apps with social functionalities.

Both the FTC and AG suits claimed that Facebook’s actions amounted to illegal monopolization in violation of Sherman Act Section 2. The states’ suit also claimed that the two acquisitions violated Clayton Act Section 7, the statutory prohibition of anticompetitive mergers.

  1. In March Facebook Fired Back in its Motion to Dismiss

In March 2021, Facebook moved to dismiss the suits on several grounds.

First, the company claimed that the complaints did not properly allege a relevant market or that Facebook had monopoly power in any market.

Second, Facebook asserted that the FTC could not claim that the two acquisitions were illegal monopolization because the agency had cleared both transactions earlier under the Hart-Scott-Rodino premerger notification system. Even if the agency could make such a claim, the company claimed that the FTC failed to properly allege that such acquisitions were anticompetitive.  (We discussed the concept of post-HSR review both prior to and immediately after the FTC complaint was filed.)

Finally, Facebook claimed that the complaint did not properly allege that the company’s decision not to deal with all potential app developers who were potential competitors was subject  to an exception to antitrust law’s usual rule that even monopolists can choose their own partners. Basically, under U.S. antitrust laws if you are a monopolist, you can still refuse to deal with your competitors, unless: (i) you have already been doing business with them, and (ii) by stopping you are giving up short-term profits for the long-term end of knocking them out of the market.

  1. The District Court’s Opinions Dismissing Both Cases

The judge hearing both cases granted Facebook’s motions to dismiss. The Court dismissed the FTC complaint without prejudice. This means that the FTC is allowed to amend its complaint and refile the case, and now has 30 days to do so. The AGs were not that lucky, and the judge dismissed their complaint with prejudice. The Court applied the doctrine of laches to conclude that AGs waited too long to challenge Facebook’s purchases of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014.

The Opinion against the FTC

In the decision re the FTC, the Court found that the complaint fails plausibly to allege how Facebook has a monopoly over personal social networking (“PSN”) services.

As with all monopolization plaintiffs, the FTC must plausibly allege that Facebook has monopoly power in some properly defined market. As do most plaintiffs, the FTC chose to allege this power indirectly by alleging that Facebook has a high share of the market, here for PSN services.  Despite some misgivings, the court found that the complaint’s allegations make out a plausible market for PSN services.

But that hardly ends the analysis. The FTC must also explain why Facebook enjoys a high share of that market and, therefore, monopoly power.  Here, the court found that the FTC’s allegations were inadequate for two reasons.

First because that “PSN services are free to use, and the exact metes and bounds of what even constitutes a PSN service — i.e., which features of a company’s mobile app or website are included in that definition and which are excluded — are hardly crystal clear.” In other words, the FTC must further explain whether and why other, non-PSN services available to the public either are or are not reasonably interchangeable substitutes with PSN services.

Second, even if the FTC better defines the market(s) of social networking, it must better explain how it developed the allegation that Facebook enjoys a market share of at least 60%: “[T]he FTC’s inability to offer any indication of the metric(s) or method(s) it used to calculate Facebook’s market share renders its vague ‘60%-plus’ assertion too speculative and conclusory to go forward.” Thus, the FTC has also fallen short to plausibly establish the existence of monopoly power by Facebook in the relevant market.

That finding alone was enough to support the court’s granting the motion to dismiss; however, it helpfully went on to discuss Facebook’s other grounds for dismissal.

The court explained that even if the FTC had sufficiently pleaded market power, its challenge to Facebook’s policy of refusing interoperability permissions with competing apps also failed to state a claim for injunctive relief. The Court held in both decisions that there is nothing unlawful about having such a policy in general. While implementation of such a policy can be illegal monopolization in certain limited circumstances, the FTC did not allege such facts.  Finally, all such denials of access occurred in 2013, seven years ago. Thus, the FTC lacks statutory authority to seek an injunction from a court for such past conduct.

On the other hand, the court did find that the FTC might be able to seek injunctive relief relating to Facebook’s past acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. While those acquisitions took place years ago, the court found that Facebook’s continued ownership of the companies could be considered a continuing violation of Section 2. While the doctrine of laches does not apply to the US government, including the FTC, the court did note but did not decide several issues, including remedial ones, with such a long-delayed allegation.

The Opinion Against State Enforcers (AGs)

The judge also dismissed the parallel case brought by the AGs. The court explained that unlike the federal government, the states are bound by the doctrine of laches, in which those who “sleep on their rights” and wait too long to file a case cannot seek court relief. As a result, the allegations regarding the Instagram and WhatsApp acquisitions were insufficient to state a claim under either Sherman Act Section 2 or Clayton Act Section 7.

Using an analysis identical to the one used with the FTC complaint, the judge further rejected the AG’s claims that Facebook’s refusal to allow interoperability with competing apps constituted illegal monopolization. Because all of the claims of the AG’s were rejected in ways that cannot be rectified by the AG’s, the judge dismissed the complaint without any chance for the AG’s to modify the complaint and refile.

  1. Final Remarks

At the time of this writing, the FTC is considering possible next steps. It could beef up its allegations regarding the market definition and Facebook’s share of that market and file an amended complaint regarding Facebook’s prior acquisitions. It could also appeal the dismissal of its current complaint.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak[1]

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

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

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

American Express, Trinko Alive and Well 

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

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

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

Bork and Easterbrook

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

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

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

Other Quotable Quotes

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

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Author: Jarod Bona

The US Supreme Court in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission ends, at least for now, the FTC’s habit of seeking monetary damages in court as part of requests for equitable relief.

The decision wasn’t controversial at the Supreme Court, as it was unanimous, with former Harvard Law antitrust and administrative law guru Justice Stephen Breyer writing the opinion. But this decision stings the FTC because it shuts down their decades-long practice and does so by simply parsing the wording of the relevant statutes.

Why did it take so long to understand what the statutes said?

Background about FTC Enforcement

The Federal Trade Commission is one of those alphabet (FTC) agencies that the textbooks consider independent and full of experts. Like the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, which is not independent, they are executive-branch federal-antitrust-law enforcers. Their authority also includes consumer-protection concerns.

The FTC doesn’t enforce the criminal antitrust laws like the Justice Department, but when they want to pursue an action, they have options. They can sue in federal court, but—like other independent federal agencies—alternatively, they can also start the action in their own administrative agency, utilizing an administrative law judge to do the fact-finding (this can sometimes make all the difference if you incorporate deferential standards of review). This is Section 5 of the FTC Act.

But what matters here is what happens if the FTC goes directly to federal court, which they can do under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. This Section allows the FTC to obtain from a federal court “a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction.” But, over the years, the FTC has also regularly convinced courts to order restitution and other monetary relief.

AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission

The issue in AMG Capital Management was “Did Congress, by enacting §13(b)’s words, ‘permanent injunction,’ grant the Commission authority to obtain monetary relief directly from courts, thereby effectively bypassing the process set forth in §5 and §19?”

The answer is no.

This is now the part where most articles would summarize the Court’s reasoning, outlining various statutory clauses, their history, and how the Court decided to interpret them. But I am going to skip that. If you are litigating an active case involving similar language or a possess a great love for administrative-agency statutory language, you will read the actual decision anyway and Justice Breyer is rather articulate. For the rest of you, there is no reason for me to show off.

I will, however, make one point about the Court’s reasoning: They address and reject the argument by amici about the policy-related importance of allowing the Commission to use §13(b) to obtain monetary relief.

And, in fact, after this decision, we heard a lot of worry about the FTC “losing” this power they never had, at least according to the highest Court in our land.

But I am happy to see the unanimous Court reject this argument. Sometimes when we are in the trees (not the forest) doing utility calculations in our highly regulated world, we forget that we have a federal government of limited powers. That means there must exist an actual concrete basis for any appendage of our government—backed by the most powerful military in the history of the world—to act against private citizens and businesses. We must never forget that. It doesn’t matter whether so-called experts think that it is “good” for certain governmental enforcers to have any particular power. If there isn’t a statutory or constitutional basis for the power, it doesn’t exist.

What Now?

The real issue is what happens now. Members of Congress, already excited about antitrust, have promised to restore this power and President Biden would certain sign such a bill.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

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

Joint Ventures

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

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

Pricing

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

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

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

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

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

Fewer Smoke-Filled Rooms But Not Necessarily Less Price Fixing

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

Zoom—The Next Google? 

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

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Author: Luis Blanquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Legal Standards To Determine Whether a Merger is Anticompetitive

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

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

Broader Scope To Prohibit Exclusionary Conduct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the European Union things have not been quiet either.

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

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

The DSA

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Author: Jon Cieslak

Over a year after it was first passed by the Senate, the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act finally became law in December 2020. The new law protects employees who report criminal antitrust violations such as price fixing or bid rigging from retaliation.

The Act states that an employer may not “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or in any other manner discriminate against” an employee, agent, contractor, or subcontractor who reports suspected criminal antitrust violations to an appropriate authority, which includes the federal government, the employee’s supervisor, or an individual working for the employer with appropriate investigative powers (such as corporate counsel or an antitrust monitor). The Act also protects employees who participate in or assist a federal investigation of suspected antitrust violations, whether or not they acted as a whistleblower in the first instance.

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By:  Steven J. Cernak

As we described in a prior post, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Majority Report of its Investigation into Digital Markets included a number of recommendations that went beyond digital markets, including overriding several classic antitrust cases.  One of the Report’s recommendations is to make it easier for plaintiffs to bring predatory pricing and buying monopolization cases by overriding the “recoupment prong” in Brooke Group, Matsushita, and Weyerhaeuser.  While such action would drastically alter monopolization law, it also might inadvertently (?) revive another classic antitrust case, Utah Pie, and certain Robinson-Patman price discrimination claims long considered dead.

Predatory Pricing Under Brooke Group and Matsushita

We covered Brooke Group and predatory pricing in a prior post and so just summarize it here.  Sherman Act Section 2 claims for monopolization can be lodged only against “monopolists” that are “monopolizing,” that is, acting in a way to maintain that monopoly.  There is no general test to judge a monopolist’s actions; instead, courts have developed different tests for different actions, including predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing is pricing below some level of cost so as to eliminate competitors in the short run and reduce competition in the long run.  The Brooke Group Court established a two-part test for such claims:  ”the prices complained of are below an appropriate measure of its rival’s costs … [and the defendant] had a … dangerous probability of recouping its investment in below-cost prices.”

While the Report did not express any concerns about the “below an appropriate measure of costs” prong, its one example (Amazon’s pricing of diapers) just described the pricing as “below cost.”  Lower courts have developed a standard that finds prices “below an appropriate measure of costs” only if they are below some measure of the monopolist’s incremental costs, like average variable costs. It is not clear if the Report’s authors want to modify this prong as well.

Under the recoupment prong, a plaintiff must show that the monopolist has the capability to drive out the plaintiff and other competitors plus keep them (and other potential competitors) out so it can later raise prices and “recoup” its losses.  Such a showing requires an analysis of the relative strengths of the competitors and the attributes of the market, such as high entry barriers.

The Brooke Group test has been difficult for predatory pricing plaintiffs to meet — as the Supreme Court intended, for two reasons.  First, the Court thought it would be difficult for courts to distinguish between competitive low prices and predatorily low ones.  Because “cutting prices in order to increase business is often the very essence of competition,” the Court was concerned that an easier test would deter low prices that benefit consumers.

Second, the Court had earlier in Matsushita expressed skepticism that such competitively harmful predatory pricing schemes occurred often:  “there is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”  As we covered in different prior posts, while Matsushita does concern predatory pricing, its holding is more concerned with the appropriate standard for summary judgment in any antitrust case; because the “consensus” quote has been repeated in nearly every predatory pricing case since Matsushita, however, the Report’s recommendation to override it makes sense.

Weyerhaeuser Extends Recoupment to Predatory Buying and Monopsony

More than a decade after Brooke Group, the Supreme Court in Weyerhaeuser extended its two-part test for predatory pricing by a sell-side monopolist to predatory buying (or overbidding) by a buy-side monopsonist.  There, the defendant allegedly purchased 65% of the logs in the region that were a necessary input for lumber.  Such alleged overbuying drove up the cost of the input while the price of lumber was going down.  These trends led plaintiff, a competing lumber mill, to shut down operations and sue.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

When someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business, existing competitors must also innovate, lower their price, or otherwise improve their offerings to maintain their position in the market. That is why competition is good for consumers.

But sometimes competitors choose another path: they avoid competition by banding together to boycott the disruptive new entrant. And sometimes, they use state and local governments to accomplish that end—often under the guise of consumer health, safety, and welfare.

Competitors in some industries have been particularly successful in establishing a perpetual, government-backed gatekeeping role by collectively lobbying the state legislature to enact a licensing regime, imbuing power in a licensing board comprising competitors of the industry. That is what happened in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case about a professional licensing board comprising dentists who used their state government power to attempt to thwart competition from non-dentist teeth whiteners.

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.

State and local governments create anticompetitive schemes that are inconsistent with federal antitrust laws all the time—regulation often displaces competition in some respect. When anticompetitive conduct is the result of government power, the federal antitrust laws sometimes exempt liability under the state-action immunity.

In NC Dental, the Supreme Court held that state regulatory boards dominated by active market participants qualify for the state-action exemption only if two stringent criteria are met: first, the defendants must show they acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy and second, their implementation of that policy is actively supervised by the state. NC Dental, 574 U.S. at 504. Defendants bear the burden for establishing both criteria. Id.

Yet five years after the North Carolina dental board lost at the Supreme Court, new disruptive competitors are still battling it out against dental boards across the country. One of those competitors is SmileDirectClub, who is currently litigating antitrust cases against dental boards in Georgia, Alabama and California. Rather than teeth-whitening, this time the product market 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––the bullies that want things to remain the same––have, according to plaintiffs, used their government-created power in the marketplace to protect the economic interests of the traditional orthodontia market by using (i) coordinated statewide raids; (ii) false statements; (iii) and other misconduct to prevent SmileDirectClub from competing on the merits.

The Eleventh Circuit cases against the dental boards in Alabama and Georgia

In October 2018, SmileDirectClub together with one of its affiliated dentists in Alabama, Blaine Leeds, sued the Alabama Dental Examiners Board after receiving a cease-and-desist letter accusing him of unauthorized practice of dentistry. The district court declined to grant state-action immunity to the Alabama board members because they couldn’t show, among other things, the second element of the NC Dental test, active supervision. This case is currently on appeal.

In August 2020, SmileDirectClub won its first appellate victory against a state dental board when the Eleventh Circuit held that the Georgia’s board of dental examiners was not entitled to state-action immunity.

SmileDirectClub sued the Georgia board and its members alleging, among other things, that a rule amendment––to require dental assistants taking orthodontic scans to have immediate supervision from a licensed dentist––unlawfully restricted competition from teledentistry services. The district court dismissed SmileDirectClub’s claims against the board in its official capacity on sovereign-immunity grounds, but the claims against the board members in their individual capacities survived dismissal.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

On October 6, 2020, the Antitrust Subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee issued its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets.  As expected, the Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms.

In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws.  Included in those recommendations were proposals for Congress to overrule several classic antitrust opinions.  Because this blog has summarized several classic antitrust cases over the years (see here and here, for example), we thought we would summarize some of the opinions that now might be on the chopping block.  This post concerns two classic Supreme Court opinions on refusal to deal or essential facility monopolization claims, Trinko and linkLine.

House Report on Refusal to Deal and Essential Facilities

The Report’s recommendations for general changes in the antitrust laws included several aimed at increasing enforcement of Sherman Act Section 2’s prohibition of monopolization.  In particular, the Report recommended that:

Congress consider revitalizing the “essential facilities” doctrine, or the legal requirement that dominant firms provide access to their infrastructural services or facilities on a nondiscriminatory basis.  To clarify the law, Congress should consider overriding judicial decisions that have treated unfavorably essential facilities- and refusal to deal-based theories of harm.  (Report, pp. 396-7)

The two judicial opinions listed were Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004) and Pacific Bell Telephone Co. v. linkLine Communications, Inc., 555 U.S. 438 (2009).

Trinko

Justice Scalia wrote the Court’s opinion dismissing the plaintiff’s refusal to deal claim.  There were no dissents although Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter and Thomas, wrote separately to concur in the result but would have dismissed based on lack of standing.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1919 U.S. v. Colgate (250 U.S. 300) decision, courts have found that “in the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly,” the antitrust laws allow any actor, including a monopolist, “freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.”  Trinko narrowly interpreted the Court’s earlier exceptions to the rule that even a monopolist can choose its own trading partners.

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