Articles Posted in FTC

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Author: Luis Blanquez

We recently wrote about the Federal Trade Commission’s blog post explaining how relying on a common algorithm to determine your pricing decisions might violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

The FTC has Algorithmic Price-Fixing in its Antitrust Crosshairs

It was just a matter of time until the first cases would hit the courts. That’s why during the last couple of years, we’ve seen four main federal antitrust cases alleging that algorithmic pricing might violate the antitrust laws. In three of them, the antitrust agencies also filed Statements of Interest (SOI), outlining the agencies’ opinion about what the legal principles applicable to claims of algorithmic price fixing should be.

Realpage, Inc. Software Antitrust Litigation

This multidistrict litigation in the Middle District of Tennessee involves unlawful price-fixing schemes against multifamily housing developers and managers, and student housing developers and managers, both organized by RealPage––a software algorithm company. RealPage developed software to collect property owners’ and managers’ data, used for pricing and inventory strategies, that later shared with its clients.

In January 2024, the Court: (i) denied the motion to dismiss the multifamily housing cases––the renters plausibly alleged an antitrust violation, but (ii) rejected claims alleging a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among landlords, which would have been per se illegal. The Court, however, concluded that those same landlords vertically conspired with RealPage. The Court also dismissed the student housing plaintiffs’ complaint.

In parallel, the DOJ opened an investigation and filed a SOI. Among other things, the DOJ highlighted:

  • The fact that today software algorithms process more information more rapidly than humans and can be employed to fix prices. The technical capabilities of software can enhance competitors’ ability to optimize cartel gains, monitor real-time deviations, and minimize incentives to cheat.
  • Section 1 prohibits competitors from fixing prices by knowingly sharing their competitive information with, and then relying on pricing decisions from, a common human pricing agent who competitors know analyzes information from multiple competitors. The same prohibition applies where the common pricing agent is a common software algorithm.
  • Factual allegations in both complaints point to evidence of an invitation to act in concert followed by acceptance—evidence that is sufficient to plead concerted action. Among other things, RealPage required each user to submit real-time pricing and supply data to it, and RealPage’s marketing materials allegedly “touted” its use of “non-public data from other RealPage clients,” enabling them to “raise rents in concert”; as well as the algorithms’ ability to “facilitate collaboration among operations” and “track your competition’s rent with precision.”
  • The complaints then allege that the landlords “gave their adherence to the scheme and participated in it.” In particular, the landlords allegedly sent RealPage the non-public and competitively sensitive data (as RealPage proposed), and overwhelmingly priced their units in line with RealPage’s suggested prices (80-90%). Indeed, the complaints also contain ample allegations on how RealPage directly constrained the “deviations” from its suggested prices, including by enforcing and monitoring compliance with those prices, so the landlords effectively delegated aspects of their pricing decisions.
  • Relatedly, the multifamily plaintiffs allege that the landlords jointly delegated aspects of decision making on prices to RealPage. They allege that, by using RealPage’s pricing algorithms, each client defendant “agreed” to a common plan that involved “delegat[ing] their rental price and supply decisions to a common decision maker, RealPage.” Indeed, RealPage allegedly touted this feature—stating in a press release that it gives clients “the ability to ‘outsource daily pricing and ongoing revenue oversight,’” such that RealPage could “set prices” as though it “own[ed]” the clients’ properties “ourselves.’”
  • Jointly delegating any part of the decision-making process reflects concerted action. That the delegation is to a software algorithm, rather than a human, makes no difference to the legal analysis. Just as “surrender[ing] freedom of action. . . and agree[ing] to abide by the will of the association” can be enough for concerted action, so can be relying on a joint algorithm that generates prices based on shared competitively sensitive data.
  • The “per se” rule prohibiting price fixing applies to price fixing using algorithms. And the analysis is no different simply because a software algorithm is involved. The alleged scheme meets the legal criteria for “per se” unlawful price fixing. Although not every use of an algorithm to set price qualifies as a per se violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, it is per se unlawful when, as alleged here, competitors knowingly combine their sensitive, nonpublic pricing and supply information in an algorithm that they rely upon in making pricing decisions, with the knowledge and expectation that other competitors will do the same.

The District of Columbia Attorney General has also filed a similar action in the Superior Court of D.C., alleging violations of the D.C. Antitrust Act.

Duffy v. Yardi Systems, Inc.

In this case from the US District Court for the Western District of Washington, plaintiffs allege that competing landlords violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by unlawfully agreeing “to use Yardi’s pricing algorithms to artificially inflate” multifamily rental prices.

The Agencies also filed a SOI to explain the two legal principles applicable to claims of algorithmic price fixing. First, a competitors’ agreement to use an algorithm software with knowledge that other competitors are doing the same thing constitutes evidence of a contract, combination or conspiracy that may violate Section 1. Second, the fact that defendants deviate from the pricing algorithm’s recommendations––for instance, by just setting initial starting prices or by starting with prices lower than the ones the algorithm recommends—is not enough to get them “off the hook” for illegal price fixing (even if no information is directly shared between the parties).

The Agencies SOI’s focus was on the second point: Defendants retaining pricing discretion. The Agencies stress in the SOI that it is “per se” illegal for competing landlords to jointly delegate key aspects of their pricing to a common algorithm, even if the landlords retain some authority to deviate from the algorithm’s recommendations. Although full adherence to a price-fixing scheme may render it more effective, the effectiveness of the scheme is not a requirement for “per se” illegality. Consistent with black letter conspiracy law, the violation is the agreement, and unsuccessful price-fixing agreements are also per se illegal.

Casino-Hotel Operators Cases

Two new algorithmic pricing antitrust cases are also ongoing against casino hotel operators in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

In Cornish-Adebiyi v. Caesar’s Entertainment, Inc., a case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, plaintiffs allege a conspiracy against eight Atlantic City casino-hotel operators, and the Cendyn Group LLC, which is a provider of the algorithmic software platform, called “Rainmaker,” used to fix, raise, and stabilize the prices of casino-hotel guest rooms in Atlantic City. Rainmaker allegedly gathers real-time pricing and occupancy data to generate “optimal” room rates for each participating casino hotel, which the software then recommends to each casino hotel.

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Author: Steven Cernak

Some of us have been asserting for years that Robinson Patman, the federal price-discrimination antitrust law, is merely “forgotten but not gone.”  That is, while there has been no FTC enforcement in decades, a few private lawsuits are filed every year and careful potential defendants still follow Robison Patman compliance programs. Recent statements suggesting a potential FTC revival seemed to jog the memories of practitioners that Robinson Patman remains on the books. Now, a lower court judgment by a dedicated group of plaintiffs and their lawyer provides more evidence that the law is anything but gone.

Clear Eyed Look at Robinson Patman

Very generally, Robinson Patman prohibits a seller of goods from offering lower prices or greater promotional allowances to one purchaser than to another competing purchaser. As we explain in other posts, there are many elements and defenses that make is difficult for a plaintiff to win. Court interpretations of those elements and defenses for the last few decades have only increased that difficulty. Still, one recent case shows that victory at the trial court level is possible.

In L.A. International Corp. v. Prestige Consumer Healthcare, Inc., Defendants manufacture and distribute Clear Eyes eye drops. The suit alleged that Defendants sold Clear Eyes at a lower price and with greater promotional allowances to Costco (specifically, Costco Business Centers that resell to retailers) than to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are several distributors that also buy and resell such products to retailers like local convenience stores. Interestingly, some of these same plaintiffs, and their counsel, have been involved in a long-running series of Robinson Patman cases alleging that the manufacturer of 5-Hour Energy also discriminated in favor of Costco.

Here, the case was filed in August 2018 and went to trial in December 2023. A jury found that Defendants had violated Section 2(a) (and a California unfair competition law) by offering a lower net price to Costco than to most of the Plaintiffs. The jury allocated about $700,000 in actual damages among several of the Plaintiffs. In May 2024, the judge found that Defendants also had violated Section 2(d) by offering greater promotional allowances to Costco and issued an injunction requiring Defendants to offer identical prices and proportionally equal promotional allowances to Plaintiffs going forward.

At the same time as his injunction ruling, the judge rejected Defendants’ arguments about several problems with the jury instructions. Specifically, the judge refused to reconsider the instructions laying out the overall standard that Plaintiffs had to meet as well as how a potential “functional discount” claim was to be evaluated. Unlike the lower court and Ninth Circuit in the 5-Hour Energy case, this judge seemed to have no problem supporting the jury’s verdict that most of the Plaintiffs actually competed with the Costco Business Centers.

So, in many ways, this case is unremarkable. A plaintiff presented evidence to a jury that, following a judge’s instructions mostly copied from ABA Model Instructions, found a Robinson Patman violation and set damages. The judge then followed that verdict and found another violation and provided injunctive relief. Yet, such cases and certainly such plaintiff verdicts are rare today. So, what are the takeaways for other potential plaintiffs or defendants?

Takeaways

First, maybe even more than all antitrust litigation, Robinson Patman litigation is time-consuming and fact intensive. The case took over 5 years to get to trial and the possibility of appeals still exists. The Plaintiffs are located in different parts of California plus Texas and New York. Each Plaintiff had to show at the local level that it competed with a specific Costco Business Center and that such competition was harmed by Defendants’ practices. Given the various elements and defenses and courts’ interpretations of Robinson Patman, no short cuts were possible.

Second, as we explained in prior posts and elsewhere, few courts have seen such a case in the last thirty years. Going back a couple decades further, the courts that did face such cases attempted to interpret Robinson Patman consistently with the rest of the antitrust laws under the then-new Chicago-School focus on competition and consumer welfare. As a result, there are plenty of defendant-friendly Robinson-Patman rulings, opinions, and dicta available.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Are you delegating your pricing decisions to a common algorithm software platform? If so, you might violate the antitrust laws. It may not even matter whether you actually communicated with your competitors. All it might take is for the antitrust agencies—The Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission—to allege illegal collusion is the use by your company of an algorithm-software tool trained using competitively sensitive data, with knowledge that some of your competitors are doing the same thing. Even deviation from the algorithm’s recommended pricing might not save you from antitrust liability.

The FTC’s Blog Post: Price Fixing by Algorithm is Still Price Fixing

On March 1, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published a blog post explaining how relying on a common algorithm to determine your pricing decisions might violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

In the blog post, the FTC includes a previous Statement of Interest (“SOI”) filed in the Duffy v. Yardi Systems, Inc. case to explain the legal principles applicable to claims of algorithmic price fixing. First, price fixing through an algorithm is still price fixing. Second: (1) you can’t use an algorithm to evade the law banning price-fixing agreements, and (2) an agreement to use shared pricing recommendations, lists, calculations, or algorithms can still be unlawful even where co-conspirators retain some pricing discretion or cheat on the agreement.

The blog concludes with two important remarks:

  • “Agreeing to use an algorithm is an agreement. In algorithmic collusion, a pricing algorithm combines competitor data and spits out the suggested “maximized” rent for a unit given local conditions. Such software can allow landlords to collude on pricing by using an algorithm—something the law doesn’t allow IRL. When you replace once-independent pricing decisions with a shared algorithm, expect trouble. Competitors using a shared human agent to fix prices? Illegal. Doing the same thing but with an agreed upon, shared algorithm? Still illegal. It’s also irrelevant that the algorithm maker isn’t a direct competitor if you and your competitors each agree to use their product knowing the others are doing the same in concert.
  • Price deviations don’t immunize conspirators. Some things in life might require perfection, but price-fixing arrangements aren’t one of them. Just because a software recommends rather than determines a price doesn’t mean it’s legal. Setting initial starting prices or recommending initial starting prices can be illegal, even if conspirators deviate from recommended prices. And even if some of the conspirators cheat by starting with lower prices than those the algorithm recommended, that doesn’t necessarily change things. Being bad at breaking the law isn’t a defense.”

This is a bold statement from the FTC. Algorithmic collusion is not only on the agency’s radar now, but it is also one of its priorities.

Final Conclusions

Algorithm collusion is on the crosshairs of the FTC and DOJ, so expect more cases soon. And not only in the real-estate industry, as highlighted from existing investigations on the online retailing and meat processing industries. Indeed, it is becoming common practice for more industries and businesses to implement and rely on algorithms to set their pricing strategies.

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Authors: Steven Cernak & Molly Donovan

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice are reminding companies that, in responding to grand jury subpoenas and second requests, there is an obligation to preserve data and communications created using “new methods of collaboration and information sharing tools, even including tools that allow for messages to disappear via ephemeral messaging capabilities.” The government has specifically called out Slack, Microsoft Teams and Signal as being some of the applications of concern “designed to hide evidence.”

The government says that while there has always been an obligation to produce information from ephemeral messaging applications in investigations and litigations, the purpose of the reminder is to ensure that counsel and clients do not “feign ignorance” when choosing to use ephemeral messaging to do business. Thus, the FTC and DOJ will include new, explicit language in subpoenas and other requests specifically stating that data from ephemeral messaging applications must be preserved. A failure to meet that obligation could result in obstruction of justice charges.

More generally, once a company has been served with a subpoena, a document hold should be prepared and circulated right away. A document hold is a written notification to relevant employees not to delete, destroy or alter any electronic or paper materials potentially relevant to the subpoena. The notice must unpack what that language means in plain English and should be conservative in describing what “potentially relevant” means—(remember that just because something is being preserved does not necessarily mean it will have to be produced.)

The document hold should apply to all types of messaging (text, IM, DMs, ephemeral) to ensure that all existing and going-forward materials will not be deleted. The relevant persons with IT expertise should certify internally that preservation is occurring effectively, that all auto-delete functions have been turned off, and that back-up tapes are not being purged automatically.

It’s also a good idea to instruct employees not to talk to each other about the subpoena or the underlying subject matter. When employees talk to each other, it can create the appearance of collusion—i.e., employees are coordinating with each other about what to say or not say to the lawyers or to the government. This can raise obstruction suspicions that may only grow if the discussions occur over ephemeral messaging applications that employees think will not leave a paper trail behind.

If employees believe that they or others have violated, or behaved inconsistently with, company policies or relevant laws, employees should discuss that only with in-house or outside counsel—not with each other.

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Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

On January 22, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued its usual annual announcement to increase the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act thresholds. The 2024 thresholds will take effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, which is expected soon, so the thresholds likely will be effective in late February.

HSR requires the parties to submit certain information and documents and then wait for approval before closing a 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. The parties may also ask for “Early Termination” to shorten the 30-day waiting period, although for nearly two-years this option has been––and continues to be––suspended.

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Authors: Molly Donovan & Steven Cernak

Update: The FTC has won a preliminary injunction to stop IQVIA from acquiring Propel Media. The judge (Judge Ramos in the Southern District of New York) ruled the injunction is in the public’s interest and the FTC has shown a reasonable probability of a substantial impairment in competition should the deal proceed. A written opinion is not available as of this post (January 3, 2024).

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The Federal Trade Commission has sued to block IQVIA’s proposed acquisition of Propel Media—a deal the FTC says would combine two of the top three providers of programmatic advertising that target U.S. healthcare providers on a one-to-one basis. The FTC says IQVIA and Propel both operate demand-side platforms or “DSPs” (called Lasso and DeepIntent, respectively) in an already-concentrated “healthcare provider programmatic advertising market” (a “subset of the total healthcare digital advertising industry”). And the FTC argues the deal would result in further concentration in that market and would significantly decrease advertising competition, which would contribute to higher prescription drug costs for U.S. consumers.

The FTC has filed an administrative complaint and has asked the Southern District of New York to block the acquisition until the administrative trial is completed—projected for December 2023. The FTC requested that the injunction issue in the next few days on or before July 21.

According to the FTC, programmatic advertising matches buyers and sellers of advertising space in virtual auctions that occur in seconds or less. Programmatic advertising automates the more traditional negotiations between advertiser and publisher of print or digital ads. DSPs like Lasso and DeepIntent provide programmatic advertising to healthcare advertisers specifically (i.e., pharmaceutical companies and their advertising agencies).

According to the FTC, IQVIA and Propel are the leading DSPs providing programmatic advertising that targets healthcare providers on a one-to-one basis. This means IQVIA and Propel have the scope and quality of healthcare data to identify individual doctors—and their digital devices—who are relevant to a particular ad campaign. DSPs target healthcare providers because they make the “prescribing decisions” and shape consumers’ perceptions of drugs and drug brands.

Although the FTC admits that there are many “generalist” programmatic advertisers, the FTC urges that healthcare DSPs operate in a distinct relevant market specific to healthcare advertising with clients who have unique advertising demands.

The FTC calls the proposed acquisition presumptively unlawful under the Horizontal Merger Guidelines and caselaw. The FTC’s major concerns are twofold: the combination would eliminate “head-to-head” competition between 2 of only 3 competitors in the relevant market and would enhance IQVIA’s ability to reduce or eliminate potential competition by refusing to sell its healthcare data to would-be competitors or by selling it at anticompetitive prices. The FTC charges that IQVIA is the world leader in terms of the scale and quality of its healthcare data. And while IQVIA currently sells that data to DSPs and others, the FTC says IQVIA would be positioned to increase price and/or reduce access to data critical to one-to-one healthcare DSPs should the deal go through.

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Author: Steven Cernak

On December 15, 2023, the Fifth Circuit remanded to the FTC its order requiring Illumina to divest its re-acquired subsidiary, Grail. Despite the remand, the opinion is a big win for the FTC. Below, we offer five takeaways for future merging parties and their counsel.

[Disclosure: Bona Law filed an amicus brief for 34 Members of Congress arguing that the FTC’s action violated the “major questions” doctrine and misinterpreted Clayton Act Section 7 in several ways.]

Here is a quick summary of the twists and turns of this case from our earlier writings. Illumina is a dominant provider of a certain type of DNA sequencing. Grail is one of several companies developing a multi-cancer early detection (MCED) test. An MCED promises to be able to detect biomarkers associated with up to fifty types of cancer by extracting the DNA from a simple blood sample. To work, the MCED needs DNA sequencing supply. According to the complaint, the type of DNA sequencing that works best — and with which Grail and all other MCED developers have been working — is the type supplied by Illumina.

The parties announced Illumina’s proposed acquisition of Grail in September 2020 and said that it would speed global adoption of Grail’s MCED and enhance patient access to the tool. In late March 2021, the FTC challenged this transaction by filing an administrative complaint before its own administrative law judge (ALJ). Shortly thereafter, the European Commission announced that it too would investigate the transaction, even though the transaction did not meet its usual thresholds.

During these investigations, the parties closed the transaction. The European Commission decided to block the transaction and the parties appealed. Just before the European decision, the FTC ALJ dismissed the complaint in an unexpected decision ruling for the first time against the FTC in a merger case. In a nutshell, the ALJ concluded that the FTC failed to prove that Illumina’s post-acquisition ability and incentive to advantage Grail to the disadvantage of Grail’s alleged rivals would likely result in a substantial lessening of competition in the relevant market for the research, development, and commercialization of MCED tests. FTC Complaint Counsel appealed the ALJ decision. The four Commissioners unanimously agreed to overturn it. Now, the Fifth Circuit has largely upheld that decision of the Commission, though with a remand for reconsideration of one aspect of the decision, as described below.

Takeaway 1: This Development is Largely an FTC Win

Some of the initial tweets and headlines, perhaps after reading only the opinion’s opening paragraph vacating the FTC’s order and remanding for further consideration, seemed to characterize the Fifth Circuit opinion as another loss for the FTC. But make no mistake, this development is a big win for the FTC for several reasons. First, the FTC challenged this transaction to block, then later, unwind, the acquisition of Grail. About a day after the opinion was filed, Illumina announced it would divest Grail. Mission accomplished.

Second, the court found “substantial evidence” for the Commission’s conclusions, despite arguments by the parties (and amici) to the contrary. As detailed below, the court did not question the Commission’s use of older cases and theories to review mergers.

Third, even the court’s rationale for the remand was not that strong a rebuke of the FTC. During the investigation, Illumina made an Open Offer to other customers of its sequencing, promising to treat them as well as Grail. The ALJ found this a useful additional fact in concluding that Illumina did not have the incentive to harm Grail competitors. The FTC majority opinion disagreed with the ALJ and only considered the Open Offer in the remedy phase of the merger review. Commissioner Wilson also disagreed with the ALJ but considered the Open Offer in Illumina’s rebuttal portion of the liability phase of the review. The parties argued that the Open Offer should be addressed by the FTC Complaint Counsel in its prima facie case for liability. The Fifth Circuit agreed with Commissioner Wilson. It seems certain that the other three Commissioners would have reached the same ultimate conclusion on remand when considering the Open Offer earlier in the process.

Takeaway 2: The Court Quickly Punted Constitutional Concerns

As with several other recent challenges to the FTC and other administrative agencies, the parties raised serious, difficult constitutional questions about the structure and processes of the FTC and its review of mergers. The court wrestled with none of them. Instead, the court took only two pages to explain that the four questions were answered by precedent, either from the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court, and saw no reason to explore whether any court should change. While this opinion is not the final word on these and similar issues, the FTC at least avoided a number of thorny issues for now.

Takeaway 3: Vertical Might be the New Horizontal

We hear sometimes that a proposed transaction should sail through the Hart-Scott-Rodino merger review process because “the parties don’t compete.” While that focus on current horizontal competition might have been a sufficient screen for antitrust issues a few years ago, it no longer is. Whether the Trump Administration’s challenge of the AT&T/TimeWarner transaction or the Biden Administration’s challenge of this transaction, Microsoft/Activision, or others, vertical (and potential competition) mergers have been ripe for challenge for a few years. Illumina’s abandonment of this vertical deal after this ruling will only encourage further challenges by federal and state antitrust enforcement agencies.

Takeaway 4: Courts Sometimes Agree with New/Renewed Antitrust Theories

As the Biden Administration DOJ and FTC have issued new merger guidelines or unilaterally taken other actions, one popular response from parts of the antitrust commentariat has been “but just wait until the courts consider them.” It is true that a long-lasting change in antitrust interpretation (like, say, the Chicago School) can only start with law review articles and enforcer speeches but eventually will require supportive court opinions; however, the “wait for the courts” sentiment seems built on two faulty premises.

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Author:  Molly Donovan

You may remember Gordon—in many ways, he was dominant in the 5th grade, and though his behavior was questionable at times, he was very popular.

I’m writing this story because Gordon is starting a new school year and has ascended to MIDDLE SCHOOL. Very cool, but very intimidating—even for Gordon. For one thing, there is an entirely new set of rules about how students are supposed to behave.

In elementary school, there are rules, of course, but they’re intuitive (no pushing, no yelling, please share) and all kids are encouraged to form friendships with all other kids. You can walk to lunch with any other kid you choose to. You can play at recess with any group of kids you want to. This made things easy for Gordon who was a natural at buddying-up with classmates and forming new relationships with ease.

In middle school, things aren’t the same—there’s actually a rule against the buddy system that feels contrary to everything Gordon previously knew. Basically, the rule is: you cannot run around in friendship packs—or duos even—unless they are teacher approved. Why? The principal says the school is trying to eliminate friend groups that are probably going to cause trouble—by, for example, ganging up against the weaker kids who aren’t popular and don’t like gym, or getting too powerful on the playground and pestering the younger kids. The rule is not against combinations that will cause trouble, only that probably will.

You’re likely wondering how it will be determined whether a particular friend group meets that standard. Good question. Apparently, the test is not whether the parents and students —experts on who’s who in the ever-changing social dynamics of middle schools—believe a certain combination spells trouble. The principal and teachers will decide based on dusty old textbooks with opinions written years and years ago (we’re talking 1970s) about tween society.

Query whether that’s the best way. But that’s the way the teachers want to do things.

Did it work out? The school year just started, so it’s too soon to tell and the rules are in purgatory—they’re being publicly tested but are not official yet.

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Authors: Steven Cernak and Luis Blanquez

In case you missed it on the eve of a holiday weekend, the FTC and several states settled their challenge of Amgen’s acquisition of Horizon last Friday. The case might have seemed like an odd one to antitrust and merger practitioners looking only at the last few decades of merger review; however, both the challenge and the settlement offer some lessons for future merging parties — and perhaps even the FTC itself.

Parties, Transaction, Challenge, Settlement

Both Amgen and Horizon are large pharmaceutical companies. According to the original complaint, each company produces drugs for which there are few if any competitors. Even according to that complaint, Amgen and Horizon do not compete with, supply to, or buy from each other.

The parties described the transaction as allowing Amgen to use its broader distributional reach to bring Horizon’s products to more consumers. The FTC, and later several states, alleged that Amgen was proficient at wringing profit out of its monopolized drugs in various ways, especially with pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs). The enforcers feared that Amgen would do the same with Horizon’s drugs, especially by bundling Amgen and Horizon drugs. The parties disputed that they had the ability or incentive to engage in such behavior but still offered to enter an order promising not to take such actions.

The FTC challenged the transaction in its internal tribunal and sought a preliminary injunction in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois to prevent the closing of the transaction. The states later joined that challenge. The parties countered with both antitrust arguments and constitutional challenges to the FTC’s structure and procedures, much as other parties like Illumina have.

Last Friday, the parties and enforcers settled all the challenges. The parties agreed to not bundle any Amgen product with Horizon’s two key products––Tepezza or Krystexxa––its medications used to treat thyroid eye disease (TED) and chronic refractory gout (CRG) or offer certain rebates to exclude or disadvantage any product that would compete with Tepezza or Krystexxa. Amgen agreed to seek FTC approval for any acquisition of pharmaceuticals competitive with Horizon’s. Finally, Amgen will submit to a compliance monitor and make annual reports for the fifteen-year duration of the order. Further details and analysis of the proposed order are here.

Analysis of the Challenge

The FTC’s challenge of the transaction might have looked different to merger review practitioners familiar only with challenges of proposed mergers of current competitors; however, the theory behind the challenge has some history. Unfortunately for the FTC, the last several decades worth of that history did not support the challenge.

When Congress passed and amended Clayton Act Section 7, it did not prohibit all mergers; instead, it prohibited only those whose effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.” This standard does not require the FTC to show that the merger will have the proscribed competitive effect with certainty, but it must establish that the competitive effect is more than a mere possibility.

Both Congress and the courts have emphasized that something more than a mere possibility is necessary for a successful Clayton Act Section 7 challenge. The Congressional report described the necessary finding as follows: “The use of these words means that [the amended Clayton Act] would not apply to the mere possibility but only to the reasonable probability of the prescribed effect.” (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court in Brown Shoe clearly drew the “certainties/probabilities/possibilities” distinction:

Congress used the words ‘may be substantially to lessen competition’ (emphasis supplied), to indicate that its concern was with probabilities, not certainties. Statutes existed for dealing with clear-cut menaces to competition; no statute was sought for dealing with ephemeral possibilities. Mergers with a probable anticompetitive effect were to be proscribed by this Act.

Courts recognize only a few ways that the FTC or any challenger can successfully show a probability of a lessening of competition or tendency to create a monopoly.

First, challengers like the FTC can allege that the parties to the proposed transaction currently compete. Such a “horizontal” merger can lessen competition or create a monopoly by allowing the merged parties to unilaterally raise prices or otherwise harm consumers or implicitly coordinate with the remaining competitors on similar actions. Here, the FTC did not allege that any of Amgen’s or Horizon’s products currently compete.

Second, challengers can allege that one of the parties is a “potential competitor” of the other party. Such “potential competition” mergers can lessen competition or create a monopoly by eliminating the current threat or actual entry into a new market by one of the parties to the transaction. Here, the FTC did not allege that Amgen or Horizon is a potential entrant into any of the markets in which the other party competes.

Third, challengers can allege that the parties have or could have a supplier-customer relationship. In certain circumstances, such “vertical” mergers can lessen competition or create a monopoly in a few ways, principally by foreclosing access to rival firms to inputs, customers, or something else they need to effectively compete with the merged parties. Here, the FTC did not allege that Amgen and Horizon are in or could be in a supplier-customer relationship.

Instead, the FTC appeared to rely on the “entrenchment” variant of the “conglomerate” competition theory, claiming that “Post-Acquisition, Amgen will possess the ability and incentive to sustain and entrench its dominant positions in the markets for [Horizon’s products].”

Under this theory, the FTC alleged that after the acquisition, Amgen would have both the ability and incentive to more effectively exploit the alleged monopoly power already possessed by Horizon. Unfortunately for the FTC, this theory has been abandoned as discredited since the 1970s. According to the latest version of the ABA Antitrust Law Developments, “[After Procter & Gamble in 1967], courts and the FTC applied the entrenchment theory very cautiously and liability has not been found in any case on this theory since the 1970s . . . and its subsequent antitrust decisions suggest it is unlikely that the Court will again apply [the theory].” Even the FTC itself just three years ago told an international body that “[c]onglomerate mergers that raise neither vertical nor horizontal concerns are unlikely to be problematic under U.S. merger law.”

And there is good reason for courts to have grown skeptical of the theory — it cannot support an allegation that the probable effect of a proposed merger “may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.”

Certainly, the theory cannot support an allegation that the proposed merger probably will tend to create a monopoly. After all, under the theory, the seller’s products already enjoy monopoly power. The proposed merger would not have created any monopoly power. Here, the FTC alleged that Horizon already enjoys a monopoly with its two key products.

The theory also could not support an allegation that the proposed merger probably will substantially lessen competition. Because the theory required so many possible actions by both the parties to the transaction and third parties, the potential anticompetitive harm is nothing more than the “ephemeral possibility” that the Supreme Court has correctly said is not covered by the Clayton Act.

Here, as detailed by the parties in their brief, the following actions had to occur before the ephemeral possible harm alleged by the FTC would occur: The handful of products identified in the FTC’s Amended Complaint had to overcome significant clinical development and regulatory hurdles; AND at that hypothetical and uncertain time, those other products, though differentiated from Horizon’s products, must threaten them competitively; AND at that same uncertain future time, the alleged competitive position of Amgen’s products must not have changed such that Amgen will have the ability and incentive to bundle them with Horizon’s products in ways that will harm competition.

But even if the parties were wrong and the actions did happen, the FTC could have acted at that time by bringing a monopolization challenge. Now, if those ephermeral possibilities do occur, the FTC will have an easier time alleging a violation of the consent order.

Lessons for Parties and the FTC

For future merging parties in the pharmaceutical industry, this FTC action (and Chairwoman Khan’s statement accompanying the settlement) make clear that the agency will flyspeck every proposed transaction and challenge many more than in the past. These include the Pfizer/Seagen or Biogen/Reata pending transactions, for instance. As Henry Liu, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition highlighted in the press release: “Today’s proposed resolution sends a clear signal that the FTC and its state partners will scrutinize pharmaceutical mergers that enable such practices, and defend patients and competition in this vital marketplace.” The FTC’s ongoing investigation of PBMs means that FTC actions in this area might not be confined to merger challenges.

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Authors: Jon Cieslak & Molly Donovan

Having recently defended an investigation brought by the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division—which was closed without prosecution of our client—we had the opportunity to reflect on ways that lawyers can navigate the high-stakes interactions with government enforcers who are investigating antitrust or other white-collar violations. Those interactions involve a number of fine lines that require real-time judgment calls specific to each situation. That said, we think these “rules of thumb” are generally applicable and will help lawyers and their clients navigate the process as smoothly and favorably as possible.

(Although this article is not focused on subpoena compliance, you can listen to our podcast on subpoena compliance here.)

  • Always be truthful. This should go without saying, but your credibility is everything. Once an enforcer suspects that a client or the lawyers have not been forthcoming, problems get worse. If you realize you’ve provided incorrect information to the government inadvertently, correct it at the first opportunity.
  • Be transparent about process. In many cases, particularly if you want to limit the scope of a subpoena through negotiations with the enforcer, it is helpful to share information about your investigative process. Disclosing how you’ve searched for documents, what you have (and have not) produced, and what employees you have talked to can help you build credibility and persuade the enforcer not to require additional information. Plus, enforcers don’t like being surprised down the road about what has/has not been provided.
  • Focus on the facts. Ultimately, the enforcer will decide whether or not to pursue charges based on the facts of the case. It’s important to make sure that you provide the enforcer with all the facts that help your client, particularly those that provide defensible context for otherwise incriminating facts, even if the subpoena does not specifically ask for them.
  • While you should provide information promptly, you do not need to please. Even if your client takes a defensive posture, and is not formally cooperating, it is often prudent to provide government enforcers with information they’re requesting—probably in writing or in the form of an attorney proffer. It is also wise to cooperate in a timely fashion and to be responsive. But there are limits: you’re not required to satisfy every request and you can negotiate timelines. You should also exercise caution, in particular, when the government asks to speak or meet with your client directly. (See the next pro tip).
  • Don’t lose what control you have. Being interviewed by the government is very stressful—even for a client who feels they’ve done nothing wrong or has nothing to hide. People sometimes say things they don’t mean because they’re trying to please the interviewer. People like to try to help or protect colleagues and being asked questions about what friends and associates have/have not done can put clients in very uncomfortable situations. Sometimes the lawyer thinks she understands all the details, but a client says something new and unexpected during an interview. It may not be “bad,” but surprises are almost always harrowing. What does all this mean? If you’re not required to put your client in the hot seat, don’t. Consider alternative ways to get the government the information being requested—like an attorney proffer.
  • If there is an interview, remember these 5 things:
    1. Always be truthful (see pro tip #1).
    2. Tell your client it is okay to stop the interview to speak privately as necessary. In any event, take regular breaks to check in with your client and discuss any surprises.
    3. This is not a deposition, so the best advice to clients is usually to provide all responsive information they can remember when answering each question.
    4. “I don’t know” is better than making something up. Don’t make something up—this doesn’t help the enforcer or you.
    5. In advance of the interview, be sure your client has not destroyed or tried to hide any materials or potentially relevant documents. Be sure your client has not discussed the investigation with anybody besides lawyers. Coordinating “stories” with friends/colleagues is not okay.
  • Aggression is unnecessary. Communications among the lawyers should remain cordial. We’ve never seen aggression or hostility go well. In particular, insulting the government’s investigation is not a good idea. The enforcer believes she is investigating for a good reason.
  • Give your client consistent reminders. Remind your client what she needs to do to maintain the attorney/client privilege and not to do anything that might make her situation worse (destroying evidence/coordinating her story with others). For example, after a government interview, remind your client that everything that was asked and said should be kept confidential.

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