Articles Posted in Department of Justice

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Hart-Scott-Rodino or HSR, the U.S. premerger notification program, has undergone several major changes since the beginning of the pandemic. Some FTC Commissioners have suggested even more changes. HSR filers, both frequent and infrequent, need to understand these current developments.

As this blog has discussed frequently (see here, here, and here), the US was the pioneer among  global competition law regimes in requiring parties to most large mergers and similar transactions to obtain approval from the jurisdiction’s enforcer before closing. Under HSR’s latest thresholds, both buyers and sellers for most transactions whose value exceeds $92M must submit a form and certain documents relating to the parties and the transaction and then wait for 30 days. The FTC and DOJ use that time to decide whether to ask for more information or allow the transaction to close. While those basics have not changed, some of the details are new.

Until the pandemic hit, the HSR system essentially had no way for parties to electronically submit forms and documents; instead, parties or their lawyers printed out paper copies and shipped them in by local couriers or overnight delivery services. Once the pandemic hit and government staffers started working from home, the FTC Premerger Notification Office, which oversees HSR submissions, had to develop a new system.

The resulting system requires parties to email the PNO and request a link that can then be used to upload the form and required documentary attachments. As with any system in which many large documents must be transferred, the time to upload the materials can vary by the size of the documents and the strength of the filer’s connection. While parties save the time and expense of delivery services, they should not count on instant uploads. Also, the PNO updated its instructions on the system several times in 2020 so that even filers who successfully submitted materials several months ago should look for revisions as recently as December. For instance, the materials must be submitted in pdf format with searchable text. As a result of these changes, frequent filers have had to adjust processes used for years to comply with the new procedures.

Parties have figured out those new processes, as evidenced by the huge number of filings over the last several months. While the number of HSR filings was down considerable early in the pandemic, that number increased until November 2020 had more than twice the number of filings of the same month in the previous year. February and March of 2021 also had increases of more than 100% year-over-year, disproving the guess by some observers, this author included, that the November figure was a blip caused by the end of the year and presidential administration.

The agencies continue to process all the filings, though not quite with the usual speed. To help the situation, the FTC suspended the early termination program by which the agencies affirmatively clear the most routine transactions in less than 30 days and allowed them to close.  Now, all parties, even those to transactions that raise no antitrust issues, need to plan to wait the entire 30 days before closing.

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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Jon Cieslak

Deferred prosecution agreements (“DPAs”) in the antitrust world have been a hot topic on this side of the Atlantic during the past two years. DPAs seem to be slowly becoming an efficient instrument for the Department of Justice to tackle antitrust conspiracies, and we expect this trend to continue.

What is a DPA?

A DPA is a legal agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant where the former eventually drops any charges against the latter, if the terms of such agreement are met. In other words, a DPA is a contract to resolve a criminal enforcement action without the prosecution of charges.

If the defendant––either a company or an individual––complies with all the terms of the DPA during a period of time (usually two to three years), despite being initially charged, the prosecutor will dismiss the charges and the defendant will avoid a conviction. DPA terms commonly require a defendant to pay a fine, implement certain remedial measures to alleviate the wrongdoing, or take steps to ensure future compliance.

While DPAs are almost universally considered a positive outcome for the defendant, they do carry some risk. By agreeing to a DPA, a defendant admits to wrongdoing and waives any right to challenge a set of agreed facts that are sufficient to sustain a conviction. Accordingly, if a defendant fails to comply with the terms of a DPA, it will face prosecution and almost certain conviction.

The Role of DPAs in the DOJ Criminal and Antitrust Recent Guidelines

Until recently, if an antitrust defendant did not win the race for leniency, the DOJ Antitrust Division’s approach was to insist that the company plead guilty to a criminal charge with the opportunity to be an early-in cooperator, and potentially receive a substantial penalty reduction for timely, significant, and useful cooperation. This all-or-nothing philosophy highlighted the value of winning the race for leniency.

But all that changed in July 2019, when the Antitrust Division announced a new policy to incentivize antitrust compliance. These new guidelines were presented by AAG Makan Delrahim on July 11, 2019, at the Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement at the New York University School of Law: Wind of Change: A New Model for Incentivizing Antitrust Compliance Programs.

Delrahim explained that, unlike in the past, corporate antitrust compliance programs will now factor into prosecutors’ charging and sentencing decisions, allowing companies to qualify for DPAs or otherwise mitigate exposure, even when they are not the first to self-report criminal conduct.

In particular, Delrahim highlighted three important points.

  • First, that the adequacy and effectiveness of a compliance program is but one of the ten factors the Justice Manual directs prosecutors to consider when weighing charges against a corporation. Among the “Factors to Be Considered”, four in particular stand out as hallmarks of good corporate citizenship: (1) implement robust and effective compliance programs, and when wrongdoing occurs, they (2) promptly self-report, (3) cooperate in the Division’s investigation, and (4) take remedial action.
  • Second, that the DOJ’s new approach would allow prosecutors to proceed by way of a DPA when “the relevant Factors, including the adequacy and effectiveness of the corporation’s compliance program, weigh in favor of doing so.” DPAs, as the Justice Manual recognizes, “occupy an important middle ground between declining prosecution and obtaining the conviction of a corporation.”
  • Third, that the mere existence of a compliance program does not necessarily guarantee a DPA. Instead, “Department prosecutors are directed to conduct a fact-specific inquiry into “whether the program [at issue] is adequately designed for maximum effectiveness in preventing and detecting wrongdoing by employees. In making a charging recommendation, Antitrust Division prosecutors will evaluate the compliance program’s effectiveness or lack thereof, and holistically, consider it together with all the other relevant Factors.”

This marked a substantial policy shift for the Antitrust Division, which previously never considered DPAs as an option to resolve antitrust conspiracy cases. Under the DOJ’s existing leniency program, the antitrust Division was allowing full immunity exclusively to leniency applicants.

That’s not the case anymore––but make no mistake––only so long as the offending party has, as explained above, a truly robust and effective compliance program in place. And for that purpose, the recent Revised Guidance from the Criminal Division issued in June 2020 on the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs is the last piece of this puzzle. The new Guidance provides additional information to assist prosecutors––both in antitrust and other investigations––in making informed decisions as to whether, and to what extent, a corporation’s compliance program was effective at the time of the offense. You can read more about it on our previous post:

The Department of Justice Policy and Guidance on Antitrust Compliance Programs and Antitrust Criminal Violations

A Detailed Look at the First Eight DPAs Under the New Policy Incentivizing Compliance

As a result of the new DOJ’s guidance on antitrust compliance programs and criminal investigations, we are starting to see an increased use of DPAs by the Antitrust Division. Let’s have a close look at the ones made public so far.

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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.

Global Antitrust

Author: Jarod Bona

Just 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 business 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 original version of this article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste

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Antitrust Superhero

Author: Jarod Bona

Some lawyers focus on litigation. Other attorneys spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. Another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature. And perhaps the most interesting attorneys try to keep their clients out of jail.

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. And in the world of big tech, antitrust is kind of a big deal.

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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antitrust blizzard
Author: Jarod Bona

I am from Minnesota, so I am quite familiar with blizzards. They may be interesting to watch through a window from a room warmed by a fireplace, but you don’t want to get caught in one. The same is true for an antitrust blizzard: They are interesting to watch, but they can destroy you. Like driving a car through a winter blizzard, you have to pay close attention, make sure you do the right thing, and in the end, you could crash.

In case you get hit by one, you should be prepared: Create and follow an antitrust compliance policy. You may even get bonus points from the Department of Justice if you have (and follow) the right antitrust policy.

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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

It happens all the time.  You read about a merger in your industry, maybe between two suppliers or competitors.  If the merger involves suppliers, maybe your sales rep makes a courtesy call.  You then get back to your business, preparing to adjust as necessary.  A short time later, you get a call.  Some attorney from the Federal Trade Commission or Department of Justice Antitrust Division is “conducting a non-public investigation” in your industry and you deduce that it is about the merger.  Is this normal?  What can — or should — you do next?

Relax.  That attorney most likely is just doing her job as part of the Hart-Scott-Rodino merger review process.  She is asking you to play a role in that process.  Most times, your role will be small as you act as a good corporate citizen and, perhaps, learn something about what is going on in your industry.  Still, you will want to seek assistance and take the right steps to ensure that your actions do not distract you from your daily business.

HSR Basics

To determine if a merger is good or bad for competition, the FTC and DOJ need information about the merging parties and the relevant industries.  For most large mergers, they gather that information through the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) process.

HSR requires the parties to submit certain information and documents and then wait for approval before closing the transaction.  The FTC and DOJ then have 30 days to determine if they will allow the merger to proceed or seek much more detail through a “second request” for information.  A second request can take months, often over a year, to play out.  If the agency still has competition concerns at the end of the process, it can sue to block the merger.

Throughout the process, the reviewing agency will reach out to third parties — suppliers, experts, and, especially, customers — for relevant information to help the agency predict the potential effect of the proposed merger on competition.  That is where you come in.

Immediate Next Steps

After you get that call from the reviewing agency, it is a good idea to get with your friendly, neighborhood antitrust attorney.  That attorney can guide you through the process, saving you time in dealing with the agency attorney and helping you understand the specialized language of merger review.  (While covering hundreds of these matters in-house at General Motors, I often said that my role was to use my “automotive to antitrust” decoder ring for the good of both sides.)

At this point in the process, responding substantively to the agency call is voluntary; however, both the FTC and DOJ have processes that they can tap to compel cooperation if they think your information is key to their investigation.  As you will see below, cooperating with the request usually is not too burdensome and can be the better long-term decision.

If it is not obvious from the initial request, you should obtain assurances that this really is a third-party request and you are not the subject of the investigation.  Because HSR filings are confidential, the agency might not be able to explicitly confirm that they are investigating the merger; however, they can confirm if you are a subject of the investigation or merely a witness.

Then, you should do a quick check with the right people in your organization to ensure that there is no reason why the investigation might suddenly turn on you.  Did you recently try and fail to negotiate a merger with one of the companies?  Did you just finish some acrimonious negotiations where one of the companies accused you of acting anticompetitively?

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Author: Luis Blanquez

If you read our articles regularly, you know an antitrust compliance policy is a strong tool to educate directors and employees to avoid risks of anticompetitive conduct. Companies articulating such programs are in a better 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.

Antitrust Compliance Programs in the US and the European Union

But make no mistake––not any antitrust compliance policy is sufficient to convince the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that you are a good corporate citizen. You must show the authorities how your compliance program is truly effective and meets the purpose of preventing and detecting antitrust violations.

And how do you do that? As a start, you should get familiar with the following key documents.

Make sure you read them carefully because they have significantly changed the way DOJ credits compliance programs at the charging stage; and how it evaluates them at the sentencing stage. But that’s not all. For the first time, they also provide public guidance on how DOJ analyzes compliance programs in criminal antitrust investigations.

In this article, we focus on the new DOJ Policy for incentivizing antitrust compliance, as well as the 2019 and 2020 Guidance Documents. We also provide an overview of the most recent Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPAs) and indictments from DOJ.

If you also want to review the new changes to the Justice Manual, you can see them here. In a nutshell, the new revisions impact the evaluation of compliance programs at the charging and sentencing stage. In the past the Justice Manual stated that “credit should not be given at the charging stage for a compliance program.” That text has now been deleted. The new additions also impact DOJ processes for recommending indictments, plea agreements, and the selection of monitors.

If you discover or suspect your company is under investigation for antitrust violations, you should, of course, consider hiring your own antitrust attorney.

The 2019 DOJ New Policy for Incentivizing Antitrust Compliance

In the past, if a company did not win the race for leniency, the DOJ’s approach was to insist that it plead guilty to a criminal charge with the opportunity to be an early-in cooperator, and potentially receive a substantial penalty reduction for timely, significant, and useful cooperation. This all-or-nothing philosophy highlighted the value of winning the race for leniency. The new Policy departs from this approach.

In July 2019, the DOJ announced the new policy to incentivize antitrust compliance.

Antitrust News: The Department of Justice Wants You to Have a Strong Antitrust Compliance Policy

The new policy was presented by AAG Makan Delrahim on July 11, 2019, at the Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement at the New York University School of Law: Wind of Change: A New Model for Incentivizing Antitrust Compliance Programs. Delrahim explained that, unlike in the past, corporate antitrust compliance programs will now factor into prosecutors’ charging and sentencing decisions and may allow companies to qualify for deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) or otherwise mitigate exposure, even when they are not the first to self-report criminal conduct.

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Author: Jarod Bona

The Coronavirus crisis has created an unusual situation for the world, but also for antitrust and competition law. People around the globe are trying to cooperate to solve and move past the crisis, but cooperation among competitors is a touchy subject under antitrust and competition laws.

Of course, cooperation between or among competitors isn’t unheard of, even during non-crisis times. Joint ventures are prevalent and often celebrated, companies will often license their technology to each other, and the existence of certain professional sport leagues, for example, depend entirely upon cooperation among competing and separately owned teams. Indeed, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division and FTC have published guidance (in 2000) on collaborations among competitors.

Human beings everywhere are working together to defeat the Coronavirus and that will require cooperation, sometimes even among and between competitors. It is unlikely that antitrust and competition law will get in the way of that. Indeed, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice issued a Business Review Letter confirming that certain competitors can cooperate “to expedite and increase manufacturing, sourcing, and distribution of personal-protective equipment (PPE) and coronavirus-treatment-related medication.”

At the same time, the foundations of antitrust and competition law—the “faith in the value of competition,” as articulated by the US Supreme Court in National Society of Professional Engineers—is the motor that will accelerate us toward solutions.

Private enterprise and the incentives inherent within it have created the foundations and the machinery to “science” our way out of this crisis. Over-coordination through a central planner will detract from that because we would lose the feature of massive a/b testing, or really a/b/c/d/e/etc. testing, that comes from a bottom-up, decentralized approach to creating and distributing resources.

So—at least in my opinion—antitrust and competition law should maintain their role in supporting competition during this crisis (and the FTC agrees with me). But—as is already true of antitrust and competition law—when there is a strong pro-competitive reason for cooperation among competitors, the courts and antitrust agencies can adjust to let that conduct go forward (and they have here).

And once we are past this crisis, I suspect that antitrust and competition law will become an even more popular area of discussion because of the likely greater concentration of markets resulting from government intervention.

In the meantime, here are some articles that our antitrust team has written about antitrust, competition, and the Coronovirus Crisis:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also, Steven Cernak is heavily quoted in this article from MiBiz: Coronavirus price gouging spurs efforts to rein in ‘bad actor’ resellers.

Finally, we recommend that read the blog series from our friends at Truth on the Market entitled “The Law, Economics, and Policy of the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Lots of outstanding work by very smart people.

The other part of this, of course, is the economy. With stay-at-home orders throughout the country, there is a lot less commerce happening.

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