Articles Posted in Exclusionary Conduct

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Do you or your competitor have a monopoly in a particular market? If so, your conduct or their conduct might enter the territory of the Sherman Act—Section 2—called monopolization.

If you are in Europe or other jurisdictions outside of the United States, instead of monopoly, people will refer to the company with extreme market power as “dominant.”

Of course, it isn’t illegal itself to be a monopolist or dominant (and monopoly is profitable). But if you utilize your monopoly power or obtain or enhance your market power improperly, you might run afoul of US, EU, or other antitrust and competition laws.

In the United States, Section 2 of the Sherman Act makes it illegal for anyone (person or entity) to “monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations.” But monopoly, by itself, is not illegal. Nor is it illegal for a monopolist to engage in competition on the merits.

As an aside, I have heard, informally, from companies that are considered “dominant” in Europe that the label of “dominant” effectively diminishes their ability to engage in typical competitive behavior because they are under such heavy scrutiny by EU Competition authorities.

If you are interested in learning more about abuse of dominance in the EU, read this article.

In the United States, monopolists have more flexibility, but they are still under significant pressure and could face lawsuits or government investigations at any time, even when they don’t intend to violate the antitrust laws. There is often a fine line between strong competition on the merits and exclusionary conduct by a monopolist.

Here are the elements of a claim for monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act:

  • The possession of monopoly power in the relevant market.
  • The willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.

The Possession of Monopoly Power in the Relevant Market

To determine whether an entity has monopoly power, courts and agencies usually first define the relevant market, then analyze whether the firm has “monopoly” power within that market.

But because the purpose of that analysis is to figure out whether certain conduct or an arrangement harms competition or has the potential to do so, evidence of the actual detrimental effects on competition might obviate the need for a full market analysis. If you want to learn more about this point, read FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (and subsequent case law and commentary). Now that I think about it, this should probably be a future blog post.

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Antitrust Group BoycottMaybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors—that is, they have a horizontal relationship—they may be committing a per se antitrust violation.

A group boycott occurs when two or more persons or entities conspire to restrict the ability of someone from competing. This is sometimes called a concerted refusal to deal, which unlike a standard refusal to deal requires, not surprisingly, two or more people or entities.

A group boycott can create per se antitrust liability. But the per se rule is applied to group boycotts like it is applied to tying claims, which means only sometimes. By contrast, horizontal price-fixing, market allocation, and bid-rigging claims are almost always per se antitrust violations.

I receive a lot of calls about potential group boycott actions. This is probably the most frustrating type of antitrust conduct to experience as a victim.

Many antitrust violations, like price-fixing, tend to hurt a lot of people a little bit. A price-fixing scheme may increase prices ten percent, for example. Price-fixing victims feel the pain, but it is diffused. Typically either the government or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Group boycott activity, however, is usually directed toward one or very few victims. The harm is not diffused; it is concentrated. And it is often against a competitor that is just trying to establish itself in the market. The defendants may act like bullies to try to keep that upstart competitor from gaining traction in the market. Sometimes trade associations lead the anticompetitive charge.

Group boycott activity often occurs when someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business. The current competitors—who like things just the way they are—band together to use their joint power to keep the enterprising competitor from succeeding, i.e. stealing their customers.

Sometimes group boycott claims are further complicated when the established competitors—the bullies—use their relationships with government power to further suppress competition. Indeed, sometimes the competitors are government power.

This is what occurred in the NC Dental v. FTC case (discussed here, and here; our amicus brief is here): A group of dentists on the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners engaged in joint conduct, using their government power, to thwart teeth-whitening competition from non-dentists. Update: The US Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s decision supporting the FTC in its antitrust claim against the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners.

This, in my opinion, is the most disgusting of antitrust violations: a group of bullies engaging government power to knock out innovation and competition. And I am very happy to see the Federal Trade Commission take a pro-active role against such anticompetitive thuggery.

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Sometimes parties will enter a contract whereby one agrees to buy (or supply) all of its needs (or product) to the other. For example, maybe a supplier and retailer agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in the retailer’s stores? This usually isn’t free as the supplier will offer something—better services, better prices, etc.—to obtain the exclusivity.

If you compete with the party that receives the benefit of the exclusive deal, this sort of contract can seem quite aggravating. After all, you have a great product, you offer a competitive price, and you know that your service is better. Then why is the retailer only buying from your competitor? Shouldn’t you deserve at least a chance? Isn’t that what the antitrust laws are for?

Maybe. But most exclusive-dealing agreements are both pro-competitive and legal under the antitrust laws. That doesn’t mean that you can’t bring an antitrust action and it doesn’t mean you won’t win. But, percentage-wise, most exclusive-dealing arrangements don’t implicate the antitrust laws.

You can read our article about exclusive dealing at the Bona Law website here.

It is important that I deflate your expectations a little bit at the beginning like this because if you are on the outside looking in at an exclusive dealing agreement, you are probably quite angry and feel helpless. From your perspective, it will certainly seem like an antitrust violation. And your gut feeling about certain conduct is a good first filter about whether you have an antitrust claim. What I am trying to tell you is that with regard to exclusive dealing, your gut may give you some false positives.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

It occurs when a seller agrees to sell all or most of its output of a product or service exclusively to a particular buyer. It can also occur in the reverse situation: when a buyer agrees to purchase all or most of its requirements from a particular seller. Importantly, although the term used in the doctrine is “exclusive” dealing, the agreement need not be literally exclusive. Courts will often apply exclusive dealing to partial or de facto exclusive dealing agreements, where the contract involves a substantial portion of the other party’s output or requirements.

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Tying Agreement (Rope)Yes, in some instances, they do. Whether you arrive at the “tying-arrangement” issue from the perspective of the person tying, the person buying the tied products, or the person competing with the person tying, you should know when the antitrust laws forbid the practice.

Most vertical agreements—like loyalty discounts, bundling, exclusive dealing, etc.—require courts to delve into the pro-competitive and anti-competitive aspects of the arrangements before rendering a judgment. Tying is a little different.

Tying agreements—along with price-fixing, market allocation, bid-rigging, and certain group boycotts—are considered per se antitrust violations. That is, a court need not perform an elaborate market analysis to condemn the practice because it is inherently anticompetitive, without pro-competitive redeeming virtues. Even though tying is often placed in this category, it doesn’t quite fit there either. Again, it is a little different.

Proving market power isn’t typically required for practices considered per se antitrust violations, but it is for tying. And business justifications don’t, as a rule, save the day for per se violations either. But, in certain limited circumstances, a defendant to an antitrust action premised on tying agreements might defend its case by showing exactly why they tied the products they did.

At this stage, you might be asking, “what the heck is tying?” Do the antitrust laws prohibit certain types of knots? Do they insist that everyone buy shoes with Velcro instead of shoestrings? The antitrust laws can be paternalistic, but they don’t go that far.

A tying arrangement is where a customer may only purchase a particular item (the “tying” item) if the customer agrees to purchase a second item (the “tied” item), or at least agree not to purchase that second item from the seller’s competitors. It is sort of like bundling, but there is an element of coercion.

With bundling, a seller may offer a lower combined price to buyers that purchase two or more items, but the buyers always have the right to just purchase one of the items (and forgo the discount). With tying, by contrast, the buyer cannot just purchase the one item; if it wants the first item, it must purchase the second.

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Aspen MountainsYes, in certain narrow circumstances, refusing to do business with a competitor violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which regulates monopolies, attempts at monopoly, and exclusionary conduct.

This probably seems odd—don’t businesses have the freedom to decide whether to do business with someone, especially when that person competes with them? When you walk into a store and see a sign that says, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” should you call your friendly antitrust lawyer?

The general rule is, in fact, that antitrust law does NOT prohibit a business from refusing to deal with its competitor. But the refusal-to-deal doctrine is real and can create antitrust liability.

So when do you have to do business with your competitor?

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Law Library BooksLaw school exams are all about issue spotting. Sure, after you spot the issue, you must describe the elements and apply them correctly. But the important skill is, in fact, issue spotting. In the real world, you can look up a claim’s elements; in fact, you should do that anyway because the law can change.

And outside of a law-school hypothetical, it typically isn’t difficult to apply the law to the facts. Of course, what I like about antitrust is that the law evolves and is often unclear and applying it (whatever it is) challenges your thinking. Sometimes, you even need to ask your favorite economist for some help.

To some, life as an antitrust lawyer might look boring. But, in fact, it is thrilling. That’s right—life as an antitrust attorney is thrilling. No matter what your profession, if you aren’t confronted with changes and challenges, boredom will set in, particularly if you are someone that needs intellectual stimulation (which is true of most attorneys). And antitrust law is a big-enough mess that you won’t run out of challenges.

Anyway, if you aren’t an antitrust lawyer, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to advance deep into the learning curve so you are an expert in antitrust and competition doctrine. It might be fun, but it is a big commitment to get to where you would need to be, so you should consider devoting your extra time instead to something like CrossFit.

But you should learn enough about antitrust so you can spot the issues. This is important because you don’t want your company to violate the antitrust laws, which could lead to jail time, huge damage awards, and major costs and distractions. And as antitrust lawyers, we often counsel from this defensive position.

It is even more fun, however, to play antitrust from the offensive side of the ball. That is, utilize the antitrust laws to help your business. To do that, you need a rudimentary understanding of antitrust issues, so you know when to call me.

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In the most recent issue of The Antitrust Law Journal, attorney Sean P. Gates describes several possible approaches to these discounts, analyzing the good and the bad for each. His article, Antitrust by Analogy: Developing Rules for Loyalty Rebates and Bundled Discounts, is really quite good.

I identified this article as a must-read in a previous blog post, and finally had the opportunity to review it over the weekend (Note: I had been busy starting a new law firm, so fell behind on my reading). I am glad that I did. Since most of the country is having winter this year, I won’t point out that I read it on my San Diego outdoor patio while enjoying the whiff of freshly-cut lawn, the sight of palm trees, and the distraction of whether to eat a delicious orange right off the tree. I won’t mention it even though after many years in Minnesota—I put in my cold time—I would feel justified in doing so.

Anyway, I recommend the article generally, but more specifically for the following people: (1) antitrust attorneys that are into exclusionary conduct; (2) non-antitrust attorneys with clients that sell in a distribution network (including to retailers); (3) business people involved in pricing and marketing decisions for their company; and (4) antitrust law students that are looking for a good review of various types of exclusionary conduct.

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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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