Articles Posted in Per Se Antitrust Violation

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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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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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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It dependsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA. But probably not. Outside of California, courts may enforce these non-compete agreements arising out of an employment contract. Of course, most courts, no matter what the law and state, view them skeptically. In California, however, the policy against these agreements is particularly strong.

A restrictive covenant is often part of an employment agreement that restricts the employee’s actions after leaving employment. They typically prohibit the employee from competing in particular markets for a period of time after leaving the employer, but may also keep the employee from soliciting the company’s customers or even employees after leaving.

They are, unquestionably, restraints on trade. But are they unreasonable restraints on trade? In many states that is the issue—if they are reasonable, a court will enforce them. What does reasonable mean? Again, it depends. But typically, like other restraints on trade, they must usually be narrowly tailored to serve their purpose. They should contain “reasonable” limitations as to time, geographic area, and scope of activity.

The laws, of course, vary from state to state. But as a practical matter, most judges are skeptical. Some courts will actually rewrite the agreements to make them reasonable.

The purpose of these restraints is to offer protection to an employer that must necessarily share trade secrets and sensitive customer or financial information with their employees. The concern is that this information is so sensitive and easily exploited by a competitor that the employer needs the restrictive covenant to keep an employee from leaving and benefiting from the information as a competitor. It also reduces the likelihood of free-riding on training.

Despite these benefits, California law and courts take a hard stand against certain restrictive covenants. The California Supreme Court in Edwards v. Arthur Anderson LLP explained, for example, that “judges assessing the validity of restrictive covenants should determine only whether the covenant restrains a party’s ability to compete and, if so, whether one of the statutory exceptions to Section 16600 applies.” (exceptions include the sale of goodwill or corporate stock of a business).

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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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antitrust blizzardJust like the Antitrust Law Journal, I am a big fan of Antitrust Magazine, also published by the American Bar Association. Whereas the Antitrust Law Journal is celebrated for its depth and economic and academic focus, Antitrust Magazine offers great practical discussion of cutting-edge issues targeted to antitrust lawyers like myself.

The magazine is perfect for long plane flights—like the one I had yesterday from New York. I pass up the Wi-Fi option on flights to read my favorite medium, actual paper. It is refreshing to the point that I actually look forward to this time to sit and read without electronic interruption.

Of course, I had my almost four-year-old son next to me, so my interruptions came in a different form. Minus an occasional frustrated outburst borne from too much traveling, he behaved quite well and fell asleep in the final twenty minutes of the five-hour flight to Sunny San Diego. We enjoyed New York, but it is always great to be home.

The theme of the Spring 2014 Antitrust Magazine is “Trying a Cartel Case.” Success in trial, of course, arrives only with great preparation well before trial and the articles in the magazine effectively made that point.

Trial is an important skill, but it is merely the tip of the larger mountain that you create from the very beginning of a case. Everything you do should advance toward summary judgment and trial and seemingly insignificant or minor decisions early in a case could have much larger ramifications later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Employees and antitrustThat’s right, the antitrust laws care so much about competition that they even prohibit agreements among competitors to not steal. In a society that morally condemns stealing, this is counter-intuitive (and a good reason to learn a little bit about antitrust).

You might wonder now whether I will engage in some philosophy gymnastics to convince you that stealing is okay. No, but I will provide a concrete example, then offer some advice. Not as fun, but perhaps more useful.

So California is abuzz with recently released documents in an antitrust class action by employees against giant Silicon Valley employers like Google, Inc., Apple Inc., Intel Corp and Adobe Systems Inc. The case is scheduled for trial soon and news reports suggest a settlement is likely.

Update: As expected, the parties have reportedly agreed to settle the antitrust case.

What happened? The class-action employees accused major Silicon Valley employers of agreeing not to steal each other’s employees. If true, that’s kind of a big deal under the antitrust laws.

It doesn’t sound so bad, right? How can anyone get any work done if everyone is trying to steal everyone’s employees? And it just seems impolite. Competitors are so tough on each other—can’t we have just a little bit of dignity and not try to hire away your competitor’s employees? The sort of war that can ensue among competing employers for a scarce resource—quality technology employees—can make a truce very tempting.

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