Articles Posted in Department of Justice

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In the market, there are many ways to buy and sell products or services.

For example, if you want to purchase some coconut milk—my favorite kind of milk—you can walk into a grocery store, go to the milk section, examine the prices of the different brands, and if one of them is acceptable to you, carry that milk to the register and pay the listed price.

Similarly, if you want to purchase a Fitbit Blaze, you find the Fitbit manufacturer’s product in a store or online and pay the listed price. Oftentimes products like this, from a specific manufacturer, are the same price wherever you look because of resale price maintenance or a Colgate policy (to be clear, I am not aware of whether Fitbit has any such program or policy). But these vertical price arrangements are not the subject of this article.

Another approach—and the true subject of this article—is to accept bids to purchase a product or service. Governments often send out what are called Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to fulfill the joint goals of obtaining the best combination of price and service/product and to minimize favoritism (which doesn’t always work).

But private companies and individuals might also request bids. Have you ever renovated your house and sought multiple bids from contractors? If so, that is what we are talking about. If you’ve done this as a real-estate investor, you should read our real-estate blog too.

What is Bid-Rigging?

Let’s say you are a bidder and you know that two other companies are also bidding to supply tablets and related services to a business that provides its employees with tablets. The bids are blind, which means you don’t know what the other companies will bid.

You will likely calculate your own costs, add some profit margin, try to guess what the other companies will bid, then bid the best combination of price, product, and services that you can so the buyer picks your company.

This approach puts the buyer in a good position because each of the bidders doesn’t know what the others will bid, so each potential seller is motivated to put together the best offer they can. The buyer can then pick which one it likes best.

But instead of bidding blind, what if you met ahead of time with the other two bidding companies and talked about what you were going to bid? You could, in fact, decide among the three of you which one of you will win this bid, agreeing to allow the others to win bids with other companies. In doing this, you will save a lot of money.

The reason is that you don’t have to put forth your best offer—you just have to bid something that the buyer will take if it is the best of the three bids. You can arrange among the three bidders for the other two bidders to either not bid (which may arouse suspicion) or you could arrange for them to bid a much worse package, so your package looks the best. The three bidders can then rotate this arrangement for other requests for proposals. Or you offer each other subcontracts from the “winner.”

If you did this, you’d save a lot of money, in the short run.

Of course, in the medium and long run, you might be in jail and find yourself on the wrong side of civil antitrust litigation.

This is what is called bid-rigging. It is one of the most severe antitrust violations—so much so that the courts have designated it a per se antitrust violation.

Bid rigging is also a criminal antitrust violation that can lead to jail time. Bid-rigging conduct also leads to civil antitrust litigation. Many years ago, when I was still with DLA Piper, I spent a lot of time on a case that included bid-rigging allegations in the insurance and insurance brokerage industries called In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

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If you have sold or purchased a home recently, you might be under the impression that real estate commissions—the price to engage a real estate broker—are fixed or otherwise set by law in different geographic markets. They aren’t—to do so amounts to price-fixing, which is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Like any other competitor—professional or not—real estate brokers and agents must compete for customer business on price, quality, and everything else. If competing professionals were to join together to fix commissions at a set price, they would violate the antitrust laws. And since it would be a per se violation, there are potential criminal penalties.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, is engaged in prosecuting some other real-estate participants for per se antitrust violations—bid rigging: Several Northern California real-estate investors have pled guilty for bid rigging public real estate foreclosure auctions. Similar bid rigging of foreclosure auctions apparently occurred in Georgia, as well. We wrote about these bid rigging investigations long ago when DOJ’s antitrust activity was in its early stages.

But let’s return to real estate brokers and commissions: It is true that in most geographic regions, you see commissions at around the same level, no matter who you hire as a real estate agent. That will sometimes happen in a market; there is a rate that is around the market rate and most will price around that rate.  We wrote a prior article about this situation, where real estate commissions ended up at the same level, but not due to any agreement. This was not an antitrust violation.

For some reason, however, there is an impression with real estate commissions that there is a “standard” or “legal” rate that real estate agents must price. If you are a consumer in this industry, it is important that you know that this is absolutely incorrect. If your real estate broker tells you otherwise, have them read one of our most popular articles: Five Antitrust Concerns for Real Estate Professionals.

Then, go ahead and negotiate. That is your right. You don’t have a right to win the negotiation, but real estate agents don’t have a right to agree among each other on prices either.

If you are a competitor for real estate services, it is particularly important that you understand that you can’t fix prices with other agents. If you do, you might find yourself on the wrong side of an antitrust lawsuit—possibly even brought by Bona Law—as we receive a lot of calls and emails about these issues. Or, worse, you could receive a call from a Department of Justice lawyer that opened an investigation into you or your company.

My interest in this issue goes beyond my role running a boutique antitrust law firm: I am also a long time real estate investor and I have a California real estate license. To capitalize on that background, we recently started a new blog directed at real estate investors, called Titles & Deeds. If you want to learn more, you can read about our real estate blog here.

This, of course, leads us to Kansas. I bet you didn’t see that coming. Let me explain.

Are the Kansas Real Estate Commission and its Members About to Violate the Antitrust Laws?

On June 16, 2017, Andrew Finch, Acting Assistant Attorney General for DOJ, wrote a letter to the Kansas Real Estate Commission expressing concern about a regulation the Commission is considering that would make it easier to fix prices by forbidding real estate brokers from competing on price by offering gift cards or similar items.

Apparently, according to the DOJ law, Kansas state law forbids real estate brokers from offering rebates, but doesn’t define the term “rebates.” The Kansas state ban, of course, is highly anticompetitive. It directly restricts price competition and harms consumers in Kansas. The Kansas government has unfortunately chosen to protect profits in the real estate profession over the well-being of its citizens.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Luis Blanquez is a European Competition Attorney that works with Bona Law.

WHAT IS AN ANTITRUST COMPLIANCE PROGRAM?

An antitrust compliance program is an internal business policy designed by a company to educate directors and employees to avoid risks of anticompetitive conduct.

Companies that conspire with their competitors to fix prices, share markets, allocate customers, production or output limitation; have historically faced severe fines from antitrust enforcement all over the world.

Companies articulating such programs are in the best position to detect and report the existence of unlawful anticompetitive activities, and if necessary, be the first ones to secure corporate leniency from antitrust authorities.  This allows them to avoid substantial fines, and in some jurisdictions, such as the US and the UK, even criminal charges.

But not every program ensures compliance.  A successful compliance program must alert and educate sales force; issue-spot risks; encourage reporting of anticompetitive issues, and deter risky conduct.

Over the years, antitrust authorities all over the world have published some general guidance creating and managing compliance programs.  Even though there are differences between jurisdictions, all of them seem to have the following anchor points in common:

  1. No “one size fits all” model: You must tailor your compliance program.

Effective compliance programs require companies to tailor their internal policies according to their particular situation.

A generic out-of-the-box compliance program is not likely to be effective.  It is more important that the company conducts an assessment of the particular risk areas involved in its day-to-day business activities, with a specific focus on the structure and previous history of the industry.

Interaction of sales people with other competitors, with close attention to trade association meetings, is also an important point to consider.  To illustrate, employees with access to pricing information and business plans are more likely to meet their counterparts from other companies in trade association reunions or industry events.

  1. Development of training programs to educate directors and employees.

A company should ensure antitrust compliance training for all executives, managers and employees, especially those with sales and pricing responsibilities.

Genuinely effective compliance requires that companies apply the antitrust policy and training program to their entire organizational structure, preferably in writing.  It may take the form of a manual and must be plainly worded in all the working languages of the company, so everyone understands it.  The antitrust policy must contain a general description of antitrust law and its purpose, explaining the way the company enforces it, along with highlights of the potential costs of non-compliance.

An effective way to implement an antitrust policy is through a list of “Don’ts”, including illegal conduct such as price-fixing agreements, the exchange of future pricing information, or allocation of production quotas, among other conduct.

You might complement the forbidden conduct with a list of “Red Flags” to identify situations in which antitrust risks may arise (i.e. sales people attending trade associations or industry events).

You might also add a list of “Do’s” because employees are often more receptive to what they can do, rather than what they cannot do.

Finally, companies and their employees should document their antitrust compliance training in writing. This assures that employees take compliance efforts seriously and that antitrust enforcers understand that the company does so too.

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If, like me, you have ever spoken to someone that faces criminal indictment by a federal grand jury following a Justice Department antitrust investigation, you know why antitrust compliance counseling and training is a big deal—you don’t need reasons; hearing the crackle of the voice is enough to understand.

You might think that an antitrust investigation or lawsuit may not happen to you or your company. Perhaps you think that your company is too small or that since you don’t sit in smoke-filled rooms with many of your competitors laughing about your customers—or whatever image from books or movies is in your head, antitrust isn’t something you need to worry about.

You might be wrong. Are the chances great that you will be prosecuted or sued under the antitrust laws? Since you are reading a blog about antitrust, they are greater than average, but even still, the odds are relatively low.

But even if the likelihood of an adverse antitrust event is low, the consequences may be so extreme that it is something you should think about. You don’t anticipate that your house is going to burn down, but you—hopefully—take some precautions and probably have some sort of fire protection as part of your homeowner’s insurance.

With antitrust, a little knowledge can go a long way.

If you have an antitrust issue, it is not likely to be a small issue. Indeed, it may start with a government investigation, but could progress into dozens of antitrust class actions against your company.

As you might know, there is a cottage industry of plaintiff attorneys that read SEC filings and watch for government antitrust investigations. When they see something that raises the possibility of an antitrust violation, they pounce. Attorneys all over the country file lawsuits in their home jurisdictions against the target company—which could be your company if you aren’t careful. I go into more detail about this “antitrust blizzard” here.

Antitrust issues can arise for big and small companies and even individuals—like real-estate investors. If you don’t think your company is susceptible to antitrust liability or indictment, I’d like you to read one of my early blog posts that explains how easily a per se antitrust violation can happen.

The Federal Trade Commission even went after an association of music teachers for potentially violating the antitrust laws.

What is tough about antitrust is that the laws are not always intuitive; it isn’t like a law that says “don’t steal.” In fact, in one instance, the antitrust laws encourage you to try to steal.

Sometimes the law isn’t even altogether clear. Of course, you are unlikely to face criminal indictment over complicated questions of whether a bundle of products sold by a company with market power violates the antitrust laws. Or whether your vertical pricing arrangements went beyond Colgate policy protections. But you could face criminal antitrust penalties for allocating markets and customers and that isn’t obvious to all sales people.

The bottom line is that if you run or help to manage a company—and especially if your company has a sales team—you need some knowledge of the antitrust laws. At the very least, you should understand what to train your team members to avoid. Antitrust training can be invaluable.

You might also enjoy our article on Antitrust Compliance Programs in the US and European Union.

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Hospital Antitrust CasesWhat is great about practicing antitrust law is that you take deep dives into the intricacies of different markets from the shelf space in drug stores for condoms—an actual case from several years ago—to insurance brokerage pricing to processed eggs and everything in between.

There are, however, certain industries that repeat themselves in the antitrust world, which isn’t a surprise because some industries are more susceptible to antitrust issues than others. For example, the airline and pharmaceutical industries consistently face antitrust scrutiny because of the nature of their markets and the regulations surrounding them.

But the industry I’d like to discuss here is the health-care or medical industry, and more specifically, hospitals. I’ve found myself with many antitrust and non-antitrust cases involving health-care of one sort or another over the last couple years, so this area has become an interest of mine.

Lately, I have also spent more time than I will publicly admit consuming materials (mostly books, blogs, and podcasts) on health, nutrition, and fitness, which (combined with my health-care cases) has my family often reminding me that I am not a doctor after some well-meaning but often unwelcome advice.

If you follow antitrust, you will notice that there are a lot of cases about hospitals. Why is that? This might seem surprising at first glance because many hospitals are non-profits or government-owned and you probably don’t picture a hospital in your mind when you think of the term “monopolizing.”

(If you can make it through the explanation below, you can read about a recent Department of Justice antitrust action against some Michigan hospitals that apparently agreed not to compete with each other in particular ways).

First, non-profit status is not a defense to the antitrust laws. Whether you have stockholders or owners that keep residual profits or not, you have to play by the antitrust rules. Non-profit entities (and their officers) still seek power, influence and prestige. And, increasingly, state and local government entities are subject to the antitrust laws. I’ve written a lot about that on The Antitrust Attorney Blog; you can access those articles in the State-Action Immunity category.

In fact, after the Supreme Court’s decision in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, it seems like many litigants want to go after state boards of various sorts. Anyway, I’ve received many calls about this and there are a few active cases, including one in Texas that I’ve written about.

Second, the health-care industry encompasses a series of narrow product, service, and geographic markets. That is because, except in limited circumstances, most people don’t travel far for medical care. They want to go somewhere near their work or home. So geographic markets are usually regional to a metro area (with some exceptions).

Within each geographic region, there are usually a limited number of hospitals or other medical facilities for particular specialties. Thus, each geographic market, that is each region, has what may be considered an oligopoly, or a handful of competitors that all know and depend upon each other. Whereas the airline industry is effectively a worldwide oligopoly, the markets for hospitals and other medical facilities are often oligopolies within metro areas. From that perspective, it isn’t a surprise that we see many hospital antitrust cases because there are so many different metro areas with oligopolies.

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Antitrust SuperheroSome 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.

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.

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.

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, patent, tortious interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, I 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.

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BlackjackSo here’s an idea. Let me know what you think: A hedge fund or other investment vehicle centered on antitrust analysis.

I’ll explain.

As you might know, I am an antitrust attorney. And I write a blog on antitrust and competition law. So, as you may expect, I follow antitrust developments somewhat obsessively at times. As a result, I have a good sense of the practical antitrust implications of certain cases, investigations, or prospective mergers.

I don’t have a crystal ball or anything. Nor do I have any inside information. And since human beings—judges or agency officials—make the relevant decisions, nobody can actually predict what will happen.

But by now, I can review a complaint or a motion to dismiss or description of facts and have a good sense of the strength and risk of the antitrust issues. I think I also have a decent idea how the major antitrust agencies—the FTC and Department of Justice—focus their priorities and like to resolve investigations, cases, and mergers. Like I said, I can’t predict anything with certainty, but there is a high learning curve for antitrust (probably more than most specialties) and I’ve spent a lot of time and effort climbing that curve.

Enough about me—for now anyway.

Let’s talk about antitrust and company stock performance. The obvious scenario is a merger. Two companies, perhaps competitors, announce a merger or acquisition. It isn’t a dead-on-antitrust-arrival merger between the first and second leading companies in a product and geographic market that is easily defined. Instead, it is the sort of merger where the markets are somewhat complicated, perhaps in flux, and it isn’t entirely clear whether an antitrust agency will challenge it or a court will stop it.

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Global AntitrustJust because your company isn’t based in the United States doesn’t mean it can ignore US antitrust law. In this interconnected world, there is a good chance that if you produce something, the United States is a market that matters to your company.

For that reason, I offer five points below that attorneys and leaders for non-U.S. companies should understand about US antitrust law.

But maybe you aren’t from a foreign company? Does that mean you can click away? No. Keep reading. Most of the insights below matter to anyone within the web of US antitrust law.

This article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste

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antitrust blizzardJust like the Antitrust Law Journal, I am a big fan of Antitrust Magazine, also published by the American Bar Association. Whereas the Antitrust Law Journal is celebrated for its depth and economic and academic focus, Antitrust Magazine offers great practical discussion of cutting-edge issues targeted to antitrust lawyers like myself.

The magazine is perfect for long plane flights—like the one I had yesterday from New York. I pass up the Wi-Fi option on flights to read my favorite medium, actual paper. It is refreshing to the point that I actually look forward to this time to sit and read without electronic interruption.

Of course, I had my almost four-year-old son next to me, so my interruptions came in a different form. Minus an occasional frustrated outburst borne from too much traveling, he behaved quite well and fell asleep in the final twenty minutes of the five-hour flight to Sunny San Diego. We enjoyed New York, but it is always great to be home.

The theme of the Spring 2014 Antitrust Magazine is “Trying a Cartel Case.” Success in trial, of course, arrives only with great preparation well before trial and the articles in the magazine effectively made that point.

Trial is an important skill, but it is merely the tip of the larger mountain that you create from the very beginning of a case. Everything you do should advance toward summary judgment and trial and seemingly insignificant or minor decisions early in a case could have much larger ramifications later.

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Employees and antitrustThat’s right, the antitrust laws care so much about competition that they even prohibit agreements among competitors to not steal. In a society that morally condemns stealing, this is counter-intuitive (and a good reason to learn a little bit about antitrust).

You might wonder now whether I will engage in some philosophy gymnastics to convince you that stealing is okay. No, but I will provide a concrete example, then offer some advice. Not as fun, but perhaps more useful.

So California is abuzz with recently released documents in an antitrust class action by employees against giant Silicon Valley employers like Google, Inc., Apple Inc., Intel Corp and Adobe Systems Inc. The case is scheduled for trial soon and news reports suggest a settlement is likely.

Update: As expected, the parties have reportedly agreed to settle the antitrust case.

What happened? The class-action employees accused major Silicon Valley employers of agreeing not to steal each other’s employees. If true, that’s kind of a big deal under the antitrust laws.

It doesn’t sound so bad, right? How can anyone get any work done if everyone is trying to steal everyone’s employees? And it just seems impolite. Competitors are so tough on each other—can’t we have just a little bit of dignity and not try to hire away your competitor’s employees? The sort of war that can ensue among competing employers for a scarce resource—quality technology employees—can make a truce very tempting.

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