Articles Posted in Department of Justice

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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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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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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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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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Cable MergerAntitrust attorneys do everything that a lawyer can do: They litigate in both courts and agencies; they counsel clients; and they participate in mergers & acquisitions. If you are a young lawyer or law student that can’t decide what type of legal activity you like best, try antitrust and competition law—you can do it all.

In the mergers & acquisitions category, antitrust’s most recent obsession is the deal between Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable., Inc.

Competition Policy International (CPI) was kind enough to ask me to write a few words expressing my thoughts, and you can read them here. You can view the other Comcast-TWC articles from the CPI Antitrust Chronicle here.

I won’t go into a lot of detail because you can read the actual article (which is less than five pages), but I thought I’d provide a little introduction into my thinking.

Usually in these circumstances, you will see commentary on one side stating that, of course, the merger should be approved, maybe even “as is.” On the other side, you will read analyses that the world will fall apart if the merger is not blocked forever.

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In 2007, the Supreme Court issued a bombshell of a case called Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, which caused both antitrust lawyers and civil procedure law professors to rethink how they go about their work.

For those of you not obsessed with law or antitrust, Twombly changed the antitrust pleading standards in federal court from one of extreme permissibility to the current “plausibility” standard.

Courts quickly began applying Twombly beyond antitrust cases, and it now is THE case for motions to dismiss that argue that plaintiffs have not plead enough to move to the next stage of litigation.

When the Supreme Court decided Twombly, it created a surge of excitement, and federal courts began dismissing cases left and right because plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts to show a “plausible” claim to relief, under antitrust or other laws.

Since then, I don’t think I have seen any antitrust complaint that wasn’t followed by a motion to dismiss, usually citing Twombly. Notably, courts coupled this elevated standard with refusals to start discovery until after plaintiffs leaped the motion-to-dismiss hurdle.

I believe, however, that the antitrust-pleading-standard pendulum is beginning to shift back toward the plaintiff.

Update: On November 10, 2014, the United States Supreme Court in Johnson v. City of Shelby issued a new plaintiff-friendly pleading decision.

Update 2: You can read my new article on antitrust pleading standards here: “What is the Biggest Mistake that District Court Judges Make in Antitrust Cases?”

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Real EstateI had the honor to speak on “Antitrust and Real Estate” to the Legal Affairs Forum of the California Association of Realtors at their meeting in downtown San Diego shortly before posting this article.

Putting aside the substance of the talk for a moment, I enjoyed the experience immensely because (1) the Realtors’ association was both welcoming and accommodating; (2) the audience was engaged, and asked questions such that we could delve into a little bit of advanced antitrust; and (3) my wife and I invest in real-estate, so the topic of real-estate investing is an interest of mine. Thank you to the California Association of Realtors for the invitation.

As we discussed at the conference, antitrust is especially relevant to real-estate professionals because (1) competitor brokers both compete and cooperate on a daily basis; (2) prices, and commission splits, are often announced and well-known; (3) there is a history of tension and battles between a traditional business model and new business models (this can create antitrust litigation in any market); (4) associations and cooperative Multiple-Listing Services (MLS) play large roles in the industry; (5) US antitrust enforcers, like the Department of Justice, have seriously scrutinized the real-estate industry.

If you are a real-estate investor, you might enjoy our new blog “Titles and Deeds.”

Here are five antitrust issues that real-estate professionals should understand:  Continue reading →

This article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste. Like most antitrust issues today, questions about loyalty discounts are relevant across the globe as competition regimes and courts grapple with the best way to address them.

Companies like to reward their best customers with discounts. It happens everywhere from the local sandwich shop to markets for medical devices, pharmaceutical products, airline tickets, computers, consumer products, and many other products and services.

Customers like loyalty-discount programs (or rebates) because they get more for less. And the reason so many companies offer them is because they are successful.

Everyone wins, right?

Usually. But the program could very well violate antitrust and competition laws in the United States, the European Commission, or other jurisdictions.

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For SaleWhen you think about a government antitrust investigation, you probably picture monopoly accusations against large companies like Microsoft in the 90’s and early 2000’s or AT&T in the 70’s and 80’s. Or perhaps you imagine a global price-fixing cartel like that depicted in the movie The Informant.

In any event, the target in your mind is a big company, along with their officers and executives, and perhaps some sales people.

The Department of Justice actions against individual real-estate investors in Northern California should shatter those preconceptions. Over the last few weeks, the Antitrust Division of the DOJ has announced a series of plea agreements arising out of its antitrust investigations into bid rigging at real-estate-foreclosure auctions for certain Northern California counties.

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