Articles Posted in Per Se Antitrust Violation

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As a regular reader of The Antitrust Attorney Blog, you understand that setting prices or allocating markets with your competitor is a terrible idea. Doing so is likely to lead to civil litigation and perhaps even criminal penalties.

Price fixing and market allocation agreements are per se antitrust violations. That means they are the worst of the worst of anticompetitive conduct.

There is, however, a limited circumstance in which what would normally be a per se antitrust violation is instead treated by Courts and government antitrust agencies under the rule of reason:

An ancillary restraint.

You shouldn’t put ancillary restraints in your agreements without the help of an antitrust lawyer. That would be like juggling knives that are on fire. You might be able to do it, but if you make a mistake, you won’t like the results.

What is an Ancillary Restraint?

This isn’t an easy question to answer and, in fact, if you can answer it, you will often know whether your restraint will survive antitrust scrutiny.

Let’s back up a little bit.

In a typical situation, if two competitors agree to fix prices or to split a market (perhaps they will agree to limit their competition for each other’s customers), they commit what is called a per se antitrust violation. What that means is that this type of restraint is so consistently anticompetitive that courts won’t even examine the circumstances—it is per se illegal.

Obviously you should avoid committing per se antitrust violations, unless, of course, you want to experience an antitrust blizzard.

Without further context, such a restraint is often called a naked restraint of trade. That doesn’t mean that the cartel meets at a nudist colony; it means that it is an anticompetitive agreement with nothing surrounding it. Such agreements are almost always done to gain greater profits from the restraint itself.

So what does a non-naked restraint of trade look like? Interesting question. I will answer it, but you have to read through most of this article.

Sometimes two or more parties, even competitors, will put together a joint venture or collaboration that creates what antitrust lawyers often call efficiency. You might normally think of efficiency as running more smoothly or at the same or better result with fewer resources.

But when antitrust attorneys use the term “efficiency” or “efficiency enhancing,” they often mean that the venture or combination will create economic value for the marketplace as a whole that wouldn’t exist but for the agreement. The term often comes up in the merger context, as an antitrust analysis of a merger will examine whether the benefits through efficiency and more exceed any potential anticompetitive harm.

An Ancillary Restraint Example

Sometimes it is easier to understand with an example: Let’s say you have a company called Research that is full of people with PhDs that spend all of their days trying to figure out how to make the world a better place. If someone at Research comes up with a good idea, the company will sometimes manufacture and sell the finished product itself.

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Bona Law filed an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of our client in the Northern District of Georgia alleging antitrust violations in the cement and ready mix concrete markets. More on that later.

But first I am going to tell you a fictional story about your nine-year-old son and his first entrepreneurial endeavor. If you don’t want to hear about your son, you can skip to the next section, about Bona Law’s new case.

The Lemonade Stand

You don’t have a nine-year-old son? Well … you do for this story. Congratulations, it’s a boy!

As you know, your son’s name is Johnny. You call him Little Johnny, but he is growing so fast, you are not sure how much longer the “Little” will last. But you treasure these times because they grow up so quickly.

And speaking of growing up quickly, Johnny sure is maturing. You tried to get him to clean-up around the house for an allowance, but he turned you down. He said he doesn’t want to be an employee and taking a job with you will just lead him into the rat race. Why would he want to do that?

Instead, Johnny says, he wants to start his own business. Ownership is where the money is, he says. Johnny wants to build cash flow, so he can just skip the rat race. Smart kid.

Okay, you say, “why don’t you start a lemonade stand?”

Johnny is excited. This is his first business—his first taste of Capitalism!

“Yes, I’ll build the best lemonade stand in the neighborhood, will serve the best tasting lemonade, and will be very careful with my costs, so I can charge a lower price and sell the most lemonade.”

Apparently Johnny has been paying attention to the business podcasts you have been listening to in the car.

As you know, you just moved to a wonderful neighborhood in the San Diego area. After years on the east coast, dealing with the harsh weather and sometimes harsh people, you are excited that you are now in paradise. The weather is incredible all year here and the constant sunshine puts you in a great mood.

Of course, it is tough to move to a new area, especially for kids. Johnny is excited, but a little nervous. He doesn’t know many kids in the neighborhood yet, and doesn’t start school until the fall—it is still July.

You and he have both noticed, however, that the neighborhood has a few lemonade stands—and many thirsty neighbors—so this might be a good way for him to make some friends and get to know the neighborhood.

You help Johnny build a stand, but to his credit he does most of the work—his enthusiasm for the venture has produced a work ethic in him you’ve never seen. You also admire his efforts to plan out his purchase of supplies, opting for Costco so he can buy what he needs in bulk at a low cost per glass (as he explained to you).

Johnny now has everything ready for his business: a stand with an attractive sign, cups, a money box, raw materials to make lemonade, a cooler, a couple chairs for him and his friend (or you, when you want to stop by), and, most importantly, the joy of ownership from starting his own business. You’ve never seen him so happy.

You drive around the neighborhood with him and discover that other kids seem to be selling lemonade at $7 per glass, which seems a little high, but it is a wealthy neighborhood, so perhaps that is the market price? It has been a warm, surprisingly humid summer in San Diego. You discuss with Johnny how that weather pattern increases demand. Of course, it did seem odd to you that everyone was selling lemonade at exactly $7 per glass, but you dismiss it.

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In the market, there are many ways to buy and sell products or services.

For example, if you want to purchase some coconut milk—my favorite kind of milk—you can walk into a grocery store, go to the milk section, examine the prices of the different brands, and if one of them is acceptable to you, carry that milk to the register and pay the listed price.

Similarly, if you want to purchase a Fitbit Blaze, you find the Fitbit manufacturer’s product in a store or online and pay the listed price. Oftentimes products like this, from a specific manufacturer, are the same price wherever you look because of resale price maintenance or a Colgate policy (to be clear, I am not aware of whether Fitbit has any such program or policy). But these vertical price arrangements are not the subject of this article.

Another approach—and the true subject of this article—is to accept bids to purchase a product or service. Governments often send out what are called Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to fulfill the joint goals of obtaining the best combination of price and service/product and to minimize favoritism (which doesn’t always work).

But private companies and individuals might also request bids. Have you ever renovated your house and sought multiple bids from contractors? If so, that is what we are talking about. If you’ve done this as a real-estate investor, you should read our real-estate blog too.

What is Bid-Rigging?

Let’s say you are a bidder and you know that two other companies are also bidding to supply tablets and related services to a business that provides its employees with tablets. The bids are blind, which means you don’t know what the other companies will bid.

You will likely calculate your own costs, add some profit margin, try to guess what the other companies will bid, then bid the best combination of price, product, and services that you can so the buyer picks your company.

This approach puts the buyer in a good position because each of the bidders doesn’t know what the others will bid, so each potential seller is motivated to put together the best offer they can. The buyer can then pick which one it likes best.

But instead of bidding blind, what if you met ahead of time with the other two bidding companies and talked about what you were going to bid? You could, in fact, decide among the three of you which one of you will win this bid, agreeing to allow the others to win bids with other companies. In doing this, you will save a lot of money.

The reason is that you don’t have to put forth your best offer—you just have to bid something that the buyer will take if it is the best of the three bids. You can arrange among the three bidders for the other two bidders to either not bid (which may arouse suspicion) or you could arrange for them to bid a much worse package, so your package looks the best. The three bidders can then rotate this arrangement for other requests for proposals. Or you offer each other subcontracts from the “winner.”

If you did this, you’d save a lot of money, in the short run.

Of course, in the medium and long run, you might be in jail and find yourself on the wrong side of civil antitrust litigation.

This is what is called bid-rigging. It is one of the most severe antitrust violations—so much so that the courts have designated it a per se antitrust violation.

Bid rigging is also a criminal antitrust violation that can lead to jail time. Bid-rigging conduct also leads to civil antitrust litigation. Many years ago, when I was still with DLA Piper, I spent a lot of time on a case that included bid-rigging allegations in the insurance and insurance brokerage industries called In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

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Toys R Us Antitrust ConspiracyLike life, sometimes antitrust conspiracies are complicated. Not everything always fits into a neat little package. An articulate soundbite or an attractive infograph isn’t necessarily enough to explain the reality of what is going on.

The paradigm example of an antitrust conspiracy is the smoke-filled room of competitors with their evil laughs deciding what prices their customers are going to pay. This is a horizontal conspiracy and is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Another, less dramatic, part of the real estate of antitrust law involves manufacturers, distributors, and retailers and the prices they set and the deals they make. This usually relates to vertical agreements and typically invites the more-detailed rule-of-reason analysis by courts. One example of this type of an agreement is a resale-price-maintenance agreement.

But sometimes a conspiracy will include a mixture of parties at different levels of the distribution chain. In other words, the overall agreement or conspiracy may include both horizontal (competitor) relationships and vertical relationships. In some circumstances, everyone in the conspiracy—even those that are not conspiring with any competitors—could be liable for a per se antitrust violation.

As the Ninth Circuit recently explained in In re Musical Instruments and Equipment Antitrust Violation, “One conspiracy can involve both direct competitors and actors up and down the supply chain, and hence consist of both horizontal and vertical agreements.” (1192). One such hybrid form of conspiracy (there are others) is sometimes called a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy.

In a hub-and-spoke conspiracy, a hub (which is often a dominant retailer or purchaser) will have identical or similar agreements with several spokes, which are often manufacturers or suppliers. By itself, this is merely a series of vertical agreements, which would be subject to the rule of reason.

But when each of the manufacturers agree among each other to reach the challenged agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may descend into a single per se antitrust violation. To complete the hub-and-spoke analogy, the retailer is the hub, the manufacturers are the spokes and the agreement among the manufacturers is the wheel that forms around the spokes.

In many instances, the impetus of a hub-and-spoke antitrust conspiracy is a powerful retailer that wants to knock out other retail competition. In the internet age, you might see this with a strong brick-and-mortar retailer that wants to take a hit at e-commerce competitors (I receive many such calls about this scenario).

The powerful retailer knows that the several manufacturers need the volume the retailer can deliver, so it has some market power over these retailers. With market power—which translates to negotiating power—you can ask for stuff. Usually what you ask for is better pricing, terms, etc.

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Hospital Antitrust CasesWhat is great about practicing antitrust law is that you take deep dives into the intricacies of different markets from the shelf space in drug stores for condoms—an actual case from several years ago—to insurance brokerage pricing to processed eggs and everything in between.

There are, however, certain industries that repeat themselves in the antitrust world, which isn’t a surprise because some industries are more susceptible to antitrust issues than others. For example, the airline and pharmaceutical industries consistently face antitrust scrutiny because of the nature of their markets and the regulations surrounding them.

But the industry I’d like to discuss here is the health-care or medical industry, and more specifically, hospitals. I’ve found myself with many antitrust and non-antitrust cases involving health-care of one sort or another over the last couple years, so this area has become an interest of mine.

Lately, I have also spent more time than I will publicly admit consuming materials (mostly books, blogs, and podcasts) on health, nutrition, and fitness, which (combined with my health-care cases) has my family often reminding me that I am not a doctor after some well-meaning but often unwelcome advice.

If you follow antitrust, you will notice that there are a lot of cases about hospitals. Why is that? This might seem surprising at first glance because many hospitals are non-profits or government-owned and you probably don’t picture a hospital in your mind when you think of the term “monopolizing.”

(If you can make it through the explanation below, you can read about a recent Department of Justice antitrust action against some Michigan hospitals that apparently agreed not to compete with each other in particular ways).

First, non-profit status is not a defense to the antitrust laws. Whether you have stockholders or owners that keep residual profits or not, you have to play by the antitrust rules. Non-profit entities (and their officers) still seek power, influence and prestige. And, increasingly, state and local government entities are subject to the antitrust laws. I’ve written a lot about that on The Antitrust Attorney Blog; you can access those articles in the State-Action Immunity category.

In fact, after the Supreme Court’s decision in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, it seems like many litigants want to go after state boards of various sorts. Anyway, I’ve received many calls about this and there are a few active cases, including one in Texas that I’ve written about.

Second, the health-care industry encompasses a series of narrow product, service, and geographic markets. That is because, except in limited circumstances, most people don’t travel far for medical care. They want to go somewhere near their work or home. So geographic markets are usually regional to a metro area (with some exceptions).

Within each geographic region, there are usually a limited number of hospitals or other medical facilities for particular specialties. Thus, each geographic market, that is each region, has what may be considered an oligopoly, or a handful of competitors that all know and depend upon each other. Whereas the airline industry is effectively a worldwide oligopoly, the markets for hospitals and other medical facilities are often oligopolies within metro areas. From that perspective, it isn’t a surprise that we see many hospital antitrust cases because there are so many different metro areas with oligopolies.

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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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LIBOR Antitrust MDLThe US Supreme Court just issued its decision in an antitrust case called Ellen Gelboim v. Bank of America Corporation. This case arises out of major multi-district litigation (an MDL) centered on allegations that major banks conspired to manipulate the London InterBank Offered Rate (which you probably know as LIBOR) to lower their interest costs on financial instruments sold to investors.

For purposes of Gelboim, the intricate details of the alleged conspiracy are not relevant, but you should know that it led to over 60 actions filed in federal court against the banks.

That sounds like a lot of cases and you might infer from the large number that the defendants must have done something wrong if so many people are suing them. But that isn’t necessarily true.

What happens is that a government agency announces an investigation (or it leaks) or someone has the idea that there is price-fixing, market-allocation, bid-rigging or some related horizontal per se antitrust violation going on.

There are plaintiff law firms all over the country that specialize in bringing these types of lawsuits and when one appears, you see many more very quickly. They follow each other and an antitrust blizzard ensues. It is, in fact, an extremely competitive market among plaintiff firms. And when a big set of cases develop, the plaintiff lawyers are often fighting each other for bigger pieces of the pie more than they battle defendants’ attorneys.

Fortunately, there is a set of procedures that deal with such a situation—Section 1407. This statute created the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), which may transfer the many related actions “involving one or more common questions of fact” to one district court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings.

Importantly, as the Supreme Court points out, this does not mean that all of the cases are transferred forever into the one district court. They are just there for pre-trial proceedings. Of course, practically speaking, they rarely leave that court as most of these cases are either dismissed or settled. If not, the statute requires that each individual action “shall be remanded by the panel at or before the conclusion” of the pretrial proceedings to the original district court.

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Golden Gate Bridge CaliforniaIn an earlier blog post, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. I’ve also written about these agreements here. As you might recall, in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet), the US Supreme Court reversed a nearly 100-year-old precedent and held that resale-price maintenance agreements are no longer per se illegal. They are instead subject to the rule of reason.

But what many people don’t realize is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. A few years ago, I co-authored an article with Jeffrey Shohet about this topic. In many instances, state antitrust law directly follows federal antitrust law, so state antitrust law doesn’t come into play. (Of course, it will matter for indirect purchaser class actions, but that’s an entirely different topic).

For many states, however, the local antitrust law deviates from federal law—sometimes in important ways. If you are doing business in such a state—and many companies do business nationally, of course—you must understand the content of state antitrust law. Two examples of states with unique antitrust laws and precedent are California, with its Cartwright Act, and New York, with its Donnelly Act.

California and the Cartwright Act

This blog post is about California and the Cartwright Act. Although my practice, particularly my antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin to remove resale-price maintenance from the limited category of per se antitrust violations was quite controversial and created some backlash. There were attempts in Congress to overturn the ruling and many states have reaffirmed that the agreements are still per se illegal under their state antitrust laws, even though federal antitrust law shifted course.

The Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007. It is 2015, of course. So you’d think by now we would have a good idea whether each state would follow or depart from Leegin with regard to whether to treat resale-price maintenance agreements as per se antitrust violations.

But that is not the case in California, under the Cartwright Act. Indeed, it is an open question.

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real estate agent antitrustI’ve often written about real estate on this blog. There are two reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is because my wife and I invest in real estate and thus talk about real estate, so it is on my mind. In fact, I have my California real-estate license. Bona Law PC also offers real-estate litigation services.

The second reason is that real-estate, in addition to its many advantages, creates many unique competition issues. Real-estate agents often engage in cut-throat competition with each other, sometimes even within the same brokerage firm. Yet, the nature of their job requires them to work together for almost every transaction.

In addition, the markets to sell real-estate are primarily local, even though national brokerage firms may dominate each individual geographic area. Within each locality, there are often a handful of large brokerage firms.

Finally, the market for real-estate services and commissions suggests some supra-competitive pricing in that most firms in a certain area will charge approximately the same commission. And the splits between the buying and selling agents are often equal as well. In the Minneapolis, Minnesota area for example, at least as of a few years ago, selling agents would often receive 3.3% and buying agents 2.7% of the purchase price. In my current market, a small village in North San Diego County, the buying and selling agents typically split the 5% commission.

Suspiciously, while technology and other competition has reduced relative prices for many professionals, commission percentages have held relatively steady for real-estate agents, despite the fact that buyers and sellers (especially buyers) can do much of their own homework online. How many of you have purchased a house without spending a lot of time online yourself looking at listings?

So does that mean that real-estate brokerage firms and agents are violating the antitrust laws all over the country? Should we coordinate a dramatic—made for the movies—event whereby federal agents knock down the doors of real-estate firms all over the country one morning, handcuffing and booking the agents that would do anything to get you in their car to show you some houses?

Probably not yet.

In November of this year, the Sixth Circuit decided a case called Hyland v. Homeservices of America, Inc. that nicely illustrates the line between antitrust violation and what is often called conscious parallelism or oligopolistic price coordination.

In Hyland, a class of people who sold residential real estate in Kentucky and used certain real-estate agents sued several real-estate brokerages as a class action under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants participated in a horizontal conspiracy to fix the commissions charged in Kentucky real-estate transactions at an anticompetitive rate.

Like agents in many localities, defendants each charged a typical or standard commission rate of 6%, and mostly resist any attempts to negotiate a lower rate. The buying agent’s commission is typically 3%. These numbers may look familiar to you if you bought or sold real estate recently, as real-estate services for most residential real-estate markets are similarly priced.

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White TeethThe trade association necessitates a delicate balancing act between anticompetitive conduct condemned by the antitrust laws and pro-competitive information-sharing and best practices that ultimately help consumers.

Trade associations should have antitrust policies and should consistently consult with an antitrust attorney. Antitrust law reserves its greatest scorn to the horizontal agreements—the deals between and among competitors. And a trade association is, by definition, an entity created to bring these competitors together.

Competition Policy International (CPI) published an Antitrust Chronicle this week about trade associations and industry information sharing and I was fortunate that they invited me to publish an article in this issue. My article is called “’But the Bridge Will Fall’ is Not a Valid Defense to an Antitrust Lawsuit.” I discuss one of my favorite Supreme Court cases of all time: National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States.

There are a couple of ways that trade associations—and, really, any group of industry competitors—harm competition and risk antitrust liability. The first and most obvious concern is that the competitors will conspire against their customers or suppliers (don’t forget that buying conspiracies may be illegal too).

For example, a group of competitors may reach agreements on price, output, geographic or product and service markets, contractual terms, etc. These are per se antitrust violations, condemned with little analysis other than whether there was, indeed, an agreement.

The other conspiratorial harm that trade associations or groups of industry competitors can inflict is on competitors from another industry or profession. In my view, this harm is underrated and under-considered. I discussed this concern in a law review article a couple years ago.

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