Articles Posted in FTC

NC Dental DecisionIf you haven’t yet heard, the Supreme Court upheld the FTC’s antitrust action against North Carolina’s state dental board. And I think they did a good job with the opinion.

We wrote an amicus brief in this case and I have been studying these issues for years, so let me tell you some of my thoughts.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Court’s majority opinion and Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissent, which Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined.

State Action Immunity Background

You can read a brief summary of the case here, but here is nutshell: The North Carolina dental board, consisting mostly of practicing dentists, took certain actions to keep non-dentists from offering teeth-whitening services in North Carolina. Noticing the blatant anticompetitive conduct, the FTC sued them under the federal antitrust laws.

The issue at the Supreme Court, however, wasn’t whether the conduct violated the antitrust laws or whether it was anticompetitive, which (in my view, the FTC’s view, and the Fourth Circuit’s view) it clearly was. The issue was whether the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners can use what is called the State-Action-Immunity doctrine as a shield from federal antitrust law.

To invoke state-action immunity (which is technically an exemption not an immunity), an entity must satisfy the Midcal test, which requires that it show (1) the state as a sovereign clearly articulated authority for the entity to engage in anticompetitive conduct; and (2) active supervision by the state as sovereign. Under prior case law, municipalities need only show the first requirement (we will discuss this point further below).

The issue in NC Dental v. FTC (link to the Court’s opinion) was whether state licensing boards must demonstrate active supervision as well as the first prong—clear articulation. NC Dental didn’t show active supervision, so if they must do so under law, their state-action-immunity defense fails. And that is what happened.

North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission

Significantly, the second line of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is “A majority of the board’s members are engaged in the active practice of the profession it regulates.” The opinion says a lot, but this core fact—competitors regulating competitors—is what ultimately matters.

After discussing the factual context of the case, the Supreme Court started its Section II—the legal background section—with the following line: “Federal antitrust law is a central safeguard for the Nation’s free market structure.” I expect that attorneys and judges will quote this line for years. You can compare it to the Court’s quote from National Society of Professional Engineers (which was originally from Standard Oil v. FTC): “The heart of our national economy long has been faith in the value of competition.”

Here is another good line from the same paragraph of NC Dental: “The antitrust laws declare a considered and decisive prohibition by the Federal Government of cartels, price fixing and other combinations or practices that undermine the free market.” So Justice Kennedy—the Court’s libertarian?—sets a positive free-market foundation.

There is, of course, a tension between the free-market policies of the federal antitrust laws and federalism. That, in fact, is what the state-action immunity doctrine is all about. Under federalism, “in some spheres [the States] impose restrictions on occupations, confer exclusive or shared rights to dominate a market, or otherwise limit competition to achieve public objectives.” So the Court’s task is to demarcate the line between the obligations of federal antitrust law and the states’ rights to depart from this free-market policy.

You can read more about this tension between federal antitrust law and federalism in an article I wrote with Luke Wake for Competition. In that article, we argue that the Court should apply a market-participant exception to state-action immunity. That is, if a state or local government engages in commercial competition rather than regulation, it should not be able to invoke the state-action immunity shield; it must play by the same rules as other competitors. As an aside, you might notice the Court’s language in NC Dental distinguishing between regulation and market-participants. I certainly noticed it.

In resolving the tension between federalism and federal antitrust law, the Court—as it did recently in Phoebe Putney—points out that state-action immunity, like other antitrust exemptions, is disfavored.

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NC Dental PictureThe US Supreme Court does not review many antitrust cases. So when they do, it is kind of a big deal for antitrust attorneys around the world.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, which addressed the scope of state-action immunity from antitrust liability. More specifically, the Court is reviewing whether a state licensing board must satisfy both prongs of what is known as the Midcal test to avoid antitrust scrutiny.

The first element, which everyone agrees applies, requires the defendant entity to show that the State “clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed” the challenged anticompetitive act as state policy. The Supreme Court is deciding whether state licensing boards are subject to the second element as well: whether the policy is “actively supervised by the State itself.” Municipalities and other local governments have a free pass from this second element, but private people and entities must satisfy the active supervision requirement.

So what is the big deal? If an entity—state or private—can show that state-action immunity doesn’t apply, it can violate the antitrust laws at will. It can grab consumer surplus for itself; it can exclude competition; it can behave under different rules than everyone else. And monopoly is quite profitable.

In NC Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a state-sanctioned dental board—composed of six licensed dentists, one licensed dental hygienist, and one public member—engaged in actions to exclude non-dentist teeth-whitening services. As you might recall, Bona Law filed an amicus brief in this case. You can learn about the case and our amicus brief here. Among other points, we argued that the Supreme Court should analyze the case as the Court outlined in American Needle, by reference to whether the units of competition—the independent decision-makers—are private. They are. We also advocated that the Supreme Court apply an active state supervision requirement with some teeth.

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

I’ll explain.

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

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

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

Enough about me—for now anyway.

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

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Dollar signWhen you are a law student, you don’t usually understand that most cases are just one of several business tools that are companies utilize to advance their interests in the marketplace.

You might think that cases are academic-like exercises that reach either trial or some appellate court (perhaps after a motion-to-dismiss or summary-judgment motion). One or the other party or both are seeking justice and will not rest until the case terminates. That’s not a surprise, really, because much of what you do in law school is read such cases. I guess that is why many law students want to become appellate attorneys.

But the reality is that—as much as lawyers like myself like to view the law through an academic lens—a lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit is often just a way for someone to seek leverage. The claim is real and is serious, but litigating the case to termination is usually a last resort. The best result is often a settlement—the earlier the better.

Lawyers don’t like to talk about that much because unless you are on a contingency fee an early settlement means less money for the attorney. But it is the truth; lawyers are not special, really. What we do in litigation is often just another business tool to advance our client’s position in the marketplace. There are exceptions, of course—cases where justice must be done—but most commercial litigation doesn’t fall into that category.

Most of commercial litigation is a negotiating tool.

And an antitrust claim is a particularly large (and effective) bat when it comes to leverage.

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By Jarod Bona and Aaron Gott

We filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of We All Help Patients, Inc. in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a federal antitrust case challenging anticompetitive conduct by professional-licensing boards.

Let us tell you a little bit about this interesting case.

The Antitrust Case

The North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners is composed of six licensed dentists, one licensed dental hygienist, and one “public member.” Dentists make a lot of money by offering teeth-whitening services. So when non-dentists started providing teeth-whitening services at a far lower cost, dentists started complaining to the Board about the lower-priced competitors.

Naturally, a Board made up of self-interested private parties had an incentive to do something about it. They began sending cease-and-desist letters to non-dentist teeth whiteners and even went so far as to ask shopping malls to not lease kiosks to teeth whiteners. It wasn’t clear, of course, that North Carolina law limited teeth-whitening services to dentists.

The Board’s actions were, in fact, a conspiracy to restrain trade. The members were competitors that acted in agreement to exclude other competitors. The conspiracy question was not at issue with the US Supreme Court.

The Federal Trade Commission, which has long advocated for “free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade” to protect consumers and economic liberty, issued an administrative complaint against the State Board and ultimately held that the Board engaged in anticompetitive conduct and the state-action immunity doctrine did not apply. The case made its way up through the Fourth Circuit—which agreed with the FTC—and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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TaxisProbably not. But any government agency that files an amicus brief supporting an Institute for Justice case challenging anticompetitive state action deserves some libertarian props.

If I had to name a favorite government agency, I would pick the FTC. I don’t agree with many of their positions, of course, and have gone up against them before. But they work hard to rein in anticompetitive state and local conduct and that is meaningful. In those instances, they are champions of competition. These state and local boards shouldn’t violate the antitrust laws.

Andrew Gavil, the Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the FTC, testified before the House Committee on Small Business on “Competition and the Potential Costs and Benefits of Professional Licensure.” This is an issue that I have studied for many years and the FTC has been and remains a leader in protecting competition from needless entry barriers by state and local boards.

Let’s take a quick look at Andrew Gavil’s written statement, which officially presents the views of the Federal Trade Commission by a 5-0 vote.

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Ski EquipmentSometimes competition is a real hassle.

If your company has a loyal customer or longtime employee, you feel betrayed when a competitor swoops in to try to “steal them.”

If you are the Miami Heat, you probably don’t like that the Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to hire your best player, LeBron James. Of course, a few years ago, the Heat signed James from Cleveland. (On a side note, this Minnesota Timberwolves fan wonders whether a LeBron James move to Cleveland will lead to a Kevin Love trade for Number 1 draft pick, Andrew Wiggins).

Update: LeBron James is indeed “coming home” to Cleveland.

I just started watching Breaking Bad. (I know, what took me so long?). Anyway, it is apparent in the early episodes that drug cartels shovel heavy resources into extinguishing competition. They certainly don’t seem too happy about this Heisenberg fellow coming in to outcompete them with a superior product. Perhaps in a later season, “Better Call Saul” will help Walter White file a Sherman Act, Section 2 Antitrust lawsuit against some of these monopolists that are restraining him from competing in certain geographic markets?

The bottom line is that as great as competition is—for almost everyone—it isn’t always enjoyable to those that must compete.

It is much easier to complacently offer the same product or service for a highly-profitable price than to constantly refine your wares and cut prices to attract and keep customers.

Perhaps a couple major ski equipment manufacturers were thinking along those lines if we are to believe the FTC’s allegations that ended in settlements approved today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone wins, right?

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

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Let’s pretend that you are starting the new year with an exciting opportunity: You were just named general counsel of a multi-national corporation with several market-leading products.

You received lots of congratulations, high-fives, and kudos during holiday parties and family get-togethers, but you can’t help but start to think about the arduous task ahead.

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