Articles Posted in Business Litigation

Antitrust Superhero

Author: Jarod Bona

Some lawyers focus on litigation. Other lawyers spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. And another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature.

But your friendly antitrust attorneys—the superheroes of lawyers—do all of this. That is part of what makes practicing antitrust so fun. We are here to solve competition problems; whether they arise from transactions, disputes, or the government, we are here to help. Or perhaps you just want some basic advice. We do that too—all the time. We can even help train your employees on antitrust law as part of compliance programs.

Perhaps you are a new attorney, or a law student, and you are considering what area to practice? Try antitrust and competition law. Not only is this arena challenging and in flux—which adds to the excitement—but you also don’t pigeonhole yourself into a particular type of practice. You get to do it all—your job is to understand the essence of markets and competition and to help clients solve competition problems.

For those of you that aren’t antitrust attorneys, I thought it might be useful if I explained what it is that we do.

Antitrust and Business Litigation

Although much of our litigation is, in fact, antitrust litigation, much of it is not. In the business v. business litigation especially, even in cases that involve an antitrust claim, there are typically several other types of claims that are not antitrust. As an example, we explain here how we see a lot of Lanham Act False Advertising claims in our antitrust and competition practice.

Businesses compete in the marketplace, but they also compete in the courtroom, for better or worse. And when they do, their big weapon is often a federal antitrust claim (with accompanying treble damages and attorneys’ fees), but they may also be armed with other claims, including trade secret statutes, Lanham Act (both false advertising and trademark), intellectual propertytortuous interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, we will receive a call from a client that thinks they may have an antitrust claim. Perhaps they read this blog post. Sometimes they do, indeed, have a potential antitrust claim. But in other instances, an antitrust claim probably won’t work, but another claim might fit, perhaps a Lanham Act claim for false advertising, or tortuous interference with contract, or some sort of state unfair trade practice claim.

Antitrust lawyers study markets and competition and are the warriors of courtroom competition between competitors. If you have a legal dispute with a competitor, you should call your friendly antitrust attorney.

Antitrust litigation itself is great fun. The cases are usually significant, document heavy, with difficult legal questions and an emphasis on economic testimony. Some of them even involve class actions or multi-district litigation.

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Lanham-Act-False-Advertising-Competition-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

You might have a Lanham Act claim if your competitor is making false statements to promote its products or services in a way that deceives customers and injures you because you lost business, for example, as a result.

Although many people think of the Lanham Act as a trademark statute—and it is—it also allows competitors to sue each other for false advertising.

So the Lanham Act is on the battlefield for competition as competitors often use lawsuits as part of their arsenal to gain whatever advantage they can.

The Lanham Act is particularly interesting because it allows competitor standing when the true harm is done to consumers, so long as the plaintiff suffered lost profits or something similar because of the false statements.

Indeed, Congress designed the competitor enforcement mechanism because competitors have both the knowledge and motivation to enforce the Lanham Act. The Supreme Court explained this enforcement rationale in its POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola case, which you can read about here:

Competitors who manufacture or distribute products have detailed knowledge regarding how consumers rely upon certain sales and marketing strategies. Their awareness of unfair competition practices may be far more immediate and accurate than that of agency rulemakers and regulators.”

Importantly, however, the Supreme Court clarified in its Lexmark decision that the plaintiff need not necessarily be a competitor, so long as they suffered “an injury to a commercial interest in sales or business reputation proximately caused by the defendant’s misrepresentations.” This is an important opening and you can read more about our discussion of the Supreme Court’s Lexmark standing decision here.

The Lanham Act is, however, primarily a statute that competitors use to sue each other. You also see this in antitrust law—of course—and intellectual property law (including trade secret and trademark cases). And, under state law, competitors sue for tortious interference, of some sort, along with state statutes that prohibit false advertising and antitrust. And there are other causes of action, state and federal, that come up in specific circumstances.

For better or worse, business competition often takes a detour to the courthouse and companies use litigation to their advantage. Filing a lawsuit for the sake of filing one, without a meritorious claim, could subject you to actions for malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and even antitrust liability in certain circumstances. But companies with prima facie claims against their competitors often relish the opportunity to carry the market fight to the legal forum. We’ve seen this from both sides, many times, over the years.

Sometimes antitrust lawyers call themselves antitrust and competition lawyers. The reason for that is that in the United States our laws that govern competition are called “Antitrust” laws (because of the unique history of the federal statutes that went after the “Trusts” back in the day). In Europe and much of the rest of the world, by contrast, these law are called, straightforwardly, “Competition” laws. And the lawyers that practice in this area are called Competition Lawyers.

But there is a second great reason for US antitrust lawyers to more accurately describe themselves as antitrust and competition lawyers. That is because when you represent clients that compete in a marketplace, you experience their hard-core focus on competition and, necessarily, their competitors.

You help them manage the rules of competition, with your own tools. Many of those involve antitrust knowledge and experience. But—to really help your clients—you also need to understand and have experience with the other causes of action that come up among and between competitors. And that includes, of course, the Lanham Act.

So—while we can accurately call ourselves antitrust lawyers, we are really antitrust and competition lawyers because we advise clients on the rules of competition generally, which are much broader than simply the antitrust laws. We are soldiers on the legal battlefield of competition. Antitrust laws are great weapons, but they aren’t the only ones.

As sort of a related aside, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I have learned advising clients in antitrust and competition law. Over time, you experience competition in all forms. You see different ways that competitors try to knock each other out of the market, or otherwise take market share. Sometimes this is about competing better, but it is often about competing differently—that is, adjusting your service and product to not only differentiate yourself, but to create a new market altogether.

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It dependsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. But probably not. Outside of California, courts may enforce these non-compete agreements arising out of an employment contract. Of course, most courts, no matter what the law and state, view them skeptically. In California, however, the policy against these agreements is particularly strong.

A restrictive covenant is often part of an employment agreement that restricts the employee’s actions after leaving employment. They typically prohibit the employee from competing in particular markets for a period of time after leaving the employer, but may also keep the employee from soliciting the company’s customers or even employees after leaving.

They are, unquestionably, restraints on trade. But are they unreasonable restraints on trade? In many states that is the issue—if they are reasonable, a court will enforce them. What does reasonable mean? Again, it depends. But typically, like other restraints on trade, they must usually be narrowly tailored to serve their purpose. They should contain “reasonable” limitations as to time, geographic area, and scope of activity.

The laws, of course, vary from state to state. But as a practical matter, most judges are skeptical. Some courts will actually rewrite the agreements to make them reasonable.

The purpose of these restraints is to offer protection to an employer that must necessarily share trade secrets and sensitive customer or financial information with their employees. The concern is that this information is so sensitive and easily exploited by a competitor that the employer needs the restrictive covenant to keep an employee from leaving and benefiting from the information as a competitor. It also reduces the likelihood of free-riding on training.

Despite these benefits, California law and courts take a hard stand against certain restrictive covenants. The California Supreme Court in Edwards v. Arthur Anderson LLP explained, for example, that “judges assessing the validity of restrictive covenants should determine only whether the covenant restrains a party’s ability to compete and, if so, whether one of the statutory exceptions to Section 16600 applies.” (exceptions include the sale of goodwill or corporate stock of a business).

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Dollar signWhen you are a law student, you don’t usually understand that most cases are just one of several business tools that are companies utilize to advance their interests in the marketplace.

You might think that cases are academic-like exercises that reach either trial or some appellate court (perhaps after a motion-to-dismiss or summary-judgment motion). One or the other party or both are seeking justice and will not rest until the case terminates. That’s not a surprise, really, because much of what you do in law school is read such cases. I guess that is why many law students want to become appellate attorneys.

But the reality is that—as much as lawyers like myself like to view the law through an academic lens—a lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit is often just a way for someone to seek leverage. The claim is real and is serious, but litigating the case to termination is usually a last resort. The best result is often a settlement—the earlier the better.

Lawyers don’t like to talk about that much because unless you are on a contingency fee an early settlement means less money for the attorney. But it is the truth; lawyers are not special, really. What we do in litigation is often just another business tool to advance our client’s position in the marketplace. There are exceptions, of course—cases where justice must be done—but most commercial litigation doesn’t fall into that category.

Most of commercial litigation is a negotiating tool.

And an antitrust claim is a particularly large (and effective) bat when it comes to leverage.

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Most of The Antitrust Attorney Blog entries focus on antitrust and competition law, which I suppose isn’t a surprise. But that hides the fact that I am a business litigator as well. While many of my matters relate to antitrust, some of them don’t.

So I thought this award would present a good opportunity for me to remind you that although I really enjoy antitrust, I can also help you with straight-up business disputes. This includes everything from basic breaches of contract to complex global disputes spanning several jurisdictions. It also includes, of course, appellate attorney work, which I write about from time-to-time.

In fact, my antitrust background gives me a leg-up in business and corporate litigation because I have spent years studying markets: I understand how companies compete in a market, which helps me to quickly grasp how an industry or company functions. This experience improves my ability to incorporate business considerations into my descriptions of various options for the client throughout the litigation process.

Many lawyers look at litigation as a game, to win at all costs, instead of understanding that litigation is just one of several tools to use—offensively or defensively—to develop a competitor’s position in the marketplace. It is important at every decision point to recognize that—unlike the litigator that probably works with a bunch of other competitive litigators that stress winning above all else—the client cares about the result relative to the cost.

Indeed, having my own business has further focused my sensitivity to the client’s perspective. I think I understand the client’s need to find someone that (1) they trust; (2) will pursue their goals, with the overall context of the business in mind; (3) will do great work. That may sound like the typical gobbledygook from a lawyer, but I think most businesses that have had to hire litigators will tell you that those three points are everything.

I started Bona Law PC in March 2014 and it is now August. Time flies. So far so good. I’ve been quite busy and I love the work. Even though people told me that I couldn’t do antitrust outside of a big firm, I have done a lot of antitrust. In fact, we are filing an Amicus Brief to the US Supreme Court this week in an antitrust case.

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Rotten WoodThe defendants in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. failed to show the US Supreme Court the “special justification” necessary to overturn settled precedent.

As we explained in a previous post, the Supreme Court in this case agreed to reconsider its 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson, which allowed a shareholder class in a securities fraud lawsuit to satisfy statutory “reliance” requirements by invoking a presumption that stock prices traded in “efficient” markets incorporate all material information, including alleged misrepresentations.

But between then and now, academics, economists, and commentators chipped away at the economic theory underlying this presumption, which is based upon “the efficient capital markets hypothesis.”

So if a legal precedent depends upon an economic theory that now appears less valid than it did before, do you overrule it or keep it in place because it has ingrained itself into a larger legal structure?

Here is a similar question from real estate: If part of the wood in a load-bearing wall has started to rot, do you replace it? The Supreme Court held that you do, if you can show a “special justification.”

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We are proud to announce that we filed an amicus curiae brief with the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the Minnesota Vacation Rental Association last week in Dean et al. v. City of Winona, a case concerning municipal power and the right to rent out one’s residential property.

Four property owners represented by the Institute for Justice Minnesota Chapter challenged a City of Winona, Minnesota ordinance that caps the number of rental licenses per residential block to thirty percent (“the thirty-percent rule”). In other words, if you live in one of Winona’s low-density residential districts, your right to rent your home is subject to your neighbors’ exercise of theirs.

Here’s the background:

The City of Winona, Minnesota was unhappy with parking, density, and aesthetic issues in the residential areas near the Winona State University campus. Rather than enforce existing laws against problem residents (students), the City of Winona decided to expropriate its residents’ property rights by restricting the number of homes that could be rented out to 30% of the houses on a given block.

Thus, if six houses comprise your block, owners of only two houses on the block could obtain a license to rent to tenants.

Four homeowners challenged the thirty-percent rule after facing ruinous financial consequences as a result of the rule. One homeowner, who was deployed to Iraq, almost lost his home because the city wouldn’t let him rent it, thus depriving him of rental income to cover the mortgage payment.

Another couple bought a home in Winona for their daughter to live in while she was in college and as an investment that would provide rental income. After their daughter left, the home sat empty on the market because they couldn’t rent it and interested buyers backed out when told of the rental restriction.

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PomegranateMany of my cases will pit one competitor against another in litigation. An antitrust claim is often at the center of the dispute, but a number of other claims can find their way into the case; sometimes even in a starring role.

Litigation between competitors can include, for example, trade secret or intellectual property disputes, tortious interference claims, and Lanham Act claims, to name just a few. Our focus today is on the Lanham Act because the U.S. Supreme Court last week issued an interesting opinion on its scope in POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca Cola Company.

The question was whether The Federal, Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) precluded a plaintiff from filing a Lanham Act claim related to food labeling. Justice Kennedy explained for a unanimous court (which did not include Justice Breyer) that plaintiffs can pursue their claim about pomegranate-blueberry juice labeling: The statutes don’t conflict—they complement each other.

First, some background. The Lanham Act is a federal private right of action to enforce trademark rights, as well as (and relevant here) “unfair competition through misleading advertising or labeling.” What is particularly interesting about the Act is that it is specifically designed for competitors. That is, consumers that discover false advertising or labeling can’t bring a Lanham Act case. Only competitors that can “allege an injury to a commercial interest in reputation or sales,” have standing. You might recall that the Court addressed Lanham Act standing earlier this term in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., discussed here.

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Illinois BrickWhile waiting for my flight to leave San Diego on my way to Washington, DC for the ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting, I saw on Twitter—the best source for immediate Supreme Court news—that the Supreme Court had decided Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. 

The Supreme Court in that case clarified standing requirements for Lanham Act claims, which create liability for false association and false advertising. The Lanham Act often comes up in legal battles between competitors, as competition often devolves into allegedly false statements about each other’s products or services.

The case is significant for standing in general, but I wonder if it may have some antitrust implications down the road as the lower courts grapple with its broader implications.

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You may have heard that last week I left DLA Piper to start my own law firm. I am humbled and appreciative of all the support that I have received from many of you. Thank you.

As an antitrust attorney, I analyze markets every day. Even when I’m not working, I do it. I can’t help myself. When I go to the grocery store and stare at a shelf of products, my three-and-a-half-year-old son—who is my grocery-shopping buddy—might think I am carefully determining the best product to buy. (Well, he actually is probably wondering when we are going to come across more food items with cartoons on them).

Instead, I find myself looking at the difference in prices and the placement of companies’ products on the shelf, and thinking about, for example, whether loyalty discounts or category management played a role.

The same compulsion to analyze markets is now occurring in my own market—the market for legal services—now that I am participating in it as an owner rather than an employee. Thus, I thought it would be fun to periodically blog about my experiences moving from biglaw to my own law firm.

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