Articles Posted in Per Se Antitrust Violation

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Author: Saurabh Vishnubhakat, Associate Professor of Law and Associate Professor of Engineering, Texas A&M University. 

This guest post is based upon Professor Vishnubhakat’s innovative new paper applying antitrust concepts to patent law, which is now published in the Seton Hall Law Review: “The Antitrusting of Patentability”

Courts facing difficult questions of patent validity are increasingly turning to a form of decision-making that has long been familiar to antitrust lawyers: using per se analysis rather than the rule of reason.  In this post, I will discuss the analytical origins of this trend, fresh empirical data on how it is emerging, and some thoughts for improvement.

The Patent-Antitrust Interface

To begin, it is worth noting the very fact that antitrust law and patent law are intersecting so directly.  The complexity and specialization of these fields can often stand in the way of dialogue between them, though the need for such dialogue is plain.  One of antitrust law’s main concerns is fostering competition and promoting economic efficiency.  Meanwhile, patent rights by design restrict competition and efficiency in the short run.  A patent owner can exclude others from quintessentially economic activities: making, using, selling, offering, and importing the patented invention.

This is meant to produce gains for inventor and society alike, but on different timelines.  Market power and the ability to charge higher prices are today’s reward for the patent owner in return for developing the invention in the first place.  Society’s reward comes tomorrow, when the patent expires and the technical know-how becomes freely available to make and sell, to use in follow-on innovation, and so on.  Another important reward to society is the credible incentive to future would-be innovators that their efforts, too, will enjoy a similar benefit.

Theoretically, this tradeoff between static current losses to competition and efficiency in favor of dynamic future gains could be made entirely within patent law itself.  However, antitrust has much to say on these systemic choices, too, and the proper treatment of so-called “patent monopolies” has been a source of perennial debate and even tension in the law since the 19th century.

The Origins of Per Se Analysis in Patent Law

In this longstanding debate, the use of per se-style analysis in patent law is a recent development aimed at solving a specific problem.  Inventions are evaluated, and patents are granted, by Patent Office examiners with expertise in the relevant technology.  Federal judges and juries who later confront these patents in litigation generally have no such expertise, but they must frequently decide whether a patent is valid.  In doing so, they must pass judgment on whether an expert agency—one that deals every day with the law and the science of patents—got it wrong.

Under the best of circumstances, this is intimidating.  Making this decision accurately is costly and time-consuming, even with compelling stories from attorneys and authoritative opinions from expert witnesses.  If one could dispense with the thorny question of patent validity early in litigation, things would be simpler.

One straightforward way to front-loading an issue, of course, is to decide it as a matter of law without delving much into idiosyncratic facts.  This is where per se analysis of patent validity begins.  Of the major requirements for a patent to be granted—and for a granted patent to be found valid—most require a good deal of factual detail about the state of the art and what people trained in that art knew at the time of the invention.  But one does not: the threshold question of the invention is even patent-eligible subject matter.  This is primarily a legal question, and so the subject matter eligibility doctrine is a good candidate for reducing the decision costs associated with determining patent validity.

How the Per Se Analysis of Patent Validity Actually Works

The way it works, in essence, is that a court applies the subject matter eligibility doctrine to find a patent invalid rather than reaching the same conclusion through other, more fact-intensive doctrines.  Patent lawyers tend to think of the different patentability requirements as separate hurdles to be cleared, but it turns out that these requirements reflect similar, overlapping concerns.

To be patentable, an invention must be useful and new as compared to the prior state of knowledge.  It must be nonobvious, which means it must embody more than trivial combinations or extensions of existing inventions or pieces of knowledge.  These requirements are intended to ensure that an invention is innovative enough to merit a patent.

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Author: Jarod Bona

If you are looking for controversy, you came to the right place. Today, we discuss resale price maintenance, one of the most contentious issues in all of antitrust. If you look around and see a bunch of antitrust economists, hide your screen so they don’t start arguing with each other. Trust me; that is the last thing you want to experience.

Let’s start with some background: A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between, for example, a supplier and a retailer that the retailer will not sell the supplier’s product to an end user (or anyone, for that matter) for less than a certain amount. It is a vertical price-fixing agreement.

That type of agreement has a storied—and controversial—past. Over a hundred years ago, the Supreme Court in a case called Dr. Miles declared that this type of vertical price fixing is per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws. This is a designation that is now almost exclusively limited to horizontal agreements.

During the ensuing hundred years or so, economists and lawyers debated whether resale price maintenance (RPM) really should be a per se antitrust violation. After all, there are procompetitive reasons for certain RPM agreements and the per se label is only supposed to apply to activity that is universally anticompetitive.

After a trail of similar issues over the years, the question again landed in the Supreme Court’s lap in a case called Leegin in 2007. In a highly controversial decision that led to backlash by certain states, the Supreme Court lifted the per se veil from these controversial vertical agreements and declared that, at least as far as federal antitrust law is concerned, courts should analyze resale price maintenance under the rule of reason.

You can read more about Leegin and how courts analyze these agreements in our prior article. And if you want to learn more about how certain states, like California, handle resale price maintenance agreements, you can read this article. Finally, if you are looking for a loophole to resale price maintenance agreements, read our article about Colgate policies and related issues.

Minimum advertised pricing policies (MAP) are related to resale price maintenance: you can read our article on MAP pricing and antitrust here.

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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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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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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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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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