Articles Posted in Politics and Antitrust

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Author: Pat Pascarella

The press is awash in reports on proposed amendments to the antitrust laws and heightened, and in some instances targeted, enforcement agendas at the DOJ, FTC, and state AGs’ offices. While the specifics of each may be fascinating to antitrust attorneys and law professors, the sole question on most general counsels’ minds is whether there is “anything I need to do right now to better protect my client?”  The answer is an unequivocal “not really, but…”

To start, proposed legislation, presidential orders, and enforcement agency  guidelines and statements of interest are not the law. That does not mean however that one should entirely ignore this current antitrust craze. Plaintiff attorneys and certain government enforcers certainly won’t. And I expect an uptick in lawsuits and investigations based on, to be polite, creative interpretations of the antitrust laws.

What it does counsel is that, at present, the most important focus should be on ensuring that internal antitrust guidelines and procedures target not only actual violations, but also conduct that could create the appearance of a potential violation. Price increases, production slow-downs, announcements about future business plans, communications or information exchanges with competitors, and dealer or supplier terminations, are the usual suspects. But care should be taken in any instance in which an action or strategy might appear to be inconsistent with unilateral self-interested behavior in the absence of a conspiracy—or where it will have a significant impact on competitors, suppliers, or downstream market participants (a/k/a plaintiffs).

This of course is not to say that businesses should forego legal strategies or actions for fear of a frivolous antitrust investigation or complaint. But it does mean that in the case of certain activities, there likely will be steps that enable the company to avoid, or at least extract itself more quickly from, lawsuits and investigations based on overly aggressive interpretations of the antitrust laws. Sometimes the solution will be as simple as documenting the business rational for a particular activity, while at other times it could involve active and ongoing oversight by antitrust counsel.

That of course raises its own set of problems for in-house attorneys—i.e., convincing their clients to come to them before taking certain actions. Having been an in-house antitrust attorney myself for many years, I can offer a few suggestions. First, get loud and clear officer-level signoff on any new guidelines or procedures. While you may be the clients’ lawyer, those clients are far more inclined to pay attention to a directive from someone who controls their advancement and salary. Second, market yourselves. Communicate to your clients that you understand their needs both in terms of your substantive guidance as well as in the timing of that guidance.  Your clients have targets and goals they are trying to achieve. They need to believe that engaging with Legal will not delay the achievement of those goals and will only result in a “no go” opinion after every viable option has been exhausted.

Plus, as I often told my clients, some day you are going to be called up to the general counsel’s office and asked, “who approved this?” How the rest of your day goes will be significantly determined by whether your answer is “me” or “our antitrust counsel.”

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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Steven Cernak

Strong winds of change keep blowing in the antitrust world. In the past weeks we’ve witnessed two new major developments in the U.S.: (i) President Biden’s Executive Order to increase antitrust enforcement, and (ii) six antitrust bills issued by the House Judiciary Committee. That’s a lot to summarize in one article, so we’ve decided to just unwrap them below for you to decide how deep you want to keep digging.

  1. President’s Biden Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy

This month President Biden issued the Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy (the “Order”). The Order aims to reduce the trend of corporate consolidation, drive down prices for consumers, increase wages for workers and facilitate innovation. It establishes a Whole-of-Government effort to promote competition in the American economy by including 72 initiatives to enforce existing antitrust laws and other laws that may impact competition to combat what it sees as excessive concentration of industry and abuses of market power, as well as to address challenges posed by new industries and technologies.

The Fact Sheet further explains how the Order (i) encourages the leading antitrust agencies to focus enforcement efforts on problems in key markets and (ii) coordinates other agencies’ ongoing response to corporate consolidation.

Calling the DOJ and FTC to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously

The Order calls on the federal antitrust agencies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously. The Order acknowledges the overlapping jurisdiction of both agencies and encourages them to cooperate fully, both with each other and with other departments and agencies, in the exercise of their oversight authority.

In particular, the Order encourages the Chair of the FTC to exercise the FTC’s statutory rulemaking authority in areas such as (i) unfair data collection and surveillance practices that may damage competition, consumer autonomy, and consumer privacy, (ii) unfair anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items, such as the restrictions imposed by powerful manufacturers that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment; (iii) unfair anticompetitive conduct or agreements in the prescription drug industries, such as agreements to delay the market entry of generic drugs or biosimilar; (iv) unfair competition in major Internet marketplaces; (v) unfair occupational licensing restrictions; (vi) unfair tying practices or exclusionary practices in the brokerage or listing of real estate; and (vii) any other unfair industry-specific practices that substantially inhibit competition.

Also, the Order specifically addresses merger review by (i) encouraging antitrust agencies to revisit and update the Merger Guidelines (both horizonal and vertical) and (ii) challenge bad mergers previously cleared by past Administrations. Immediately after the publication of the Order, FTC and DOJ also issued a joint statement highlighting the fact that the current guidelines deserve a hard look to determine whether they are overly permissive, and how they will jointly launch a review of the merger guidelines with the goal of updating them to reflect a rigorous analytical approach consistent with applicable law.

In parallel, FTC has also passed this month some new resolutions updating its rulemaking procedures to set stage for stronger deterrence of corporate misconduct, and authorizing investigations into key law enforcement priorities for the next decade. As FTC’s chair Lina M. Khan stressed in a recent statement, priority targets include repeat offenders; technology companies and digital platforms; and healthcare businesses such as pharmaceutical companies, pharmacy benefits managers, and hospitals. Last but not least, FTC recently voted to rescind a 1995 policy statement that made it more difficult and burdensome to deter problematic mergers and acquisitions. The 1995 Policy Statement on Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions made it less likely that the Commission would require parties that proposed mergers that the Commission had determined would be anticompetitive to obtain prior approval and give prior notice for future transactions. By rescinding this policy statement, the FTC will be more likely to obtain prior notice of future transactions by those parties even beyond HSR notice requirements.

Grab your popcorn. Following President Joe Biden’s recent nomination of Jonathan Kanter as the new AAG for U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division, it is likely we will see some important antitrust enforcement action from both agencies very soon aimed at corporate concentration, especially the big tech sector.

New White House Competition Council

The Order establishes a new White House Competition Council, led by the Director of the National Economic Council, to monitor progress on finalizing the initiatives in the Order and to coordinate the federal government’s response to what it sees as the rising power of large corporations in the economy.

The Council will meet on a semi-annual basis––unless the Chair determines that a meeting is unnecessary––and will work across agencies to provide a coordinated response to overconcentration, monopolization, and unfair competition. The FTC and other independent agencies are welcome and expected to participate in this process.

Granted patents and the protection of standard setting processes

To avoid the potential for anticompetitive extension of market power beyond the scope of granted patents, and to protect standard-setting processes from abuse, the Order encourages the Attorney General and the Secretary of Commerce to consider whether to revise their position on the intersection of the intellectual property and antitrust laws, including by considering whether to revise the Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments issued jointly by the Department of Justice, the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on December 19, 2019.

Specific Industry Sectors addressed in the Order

Labor Markets

The Order encourages the FTC to: (i) ban or limit non-compete agreements, (ii) ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility, and (iii) along with DOJ, strengthen antitrust guidance to prevent employers from collaborating to suppress wages or reduce benefits by sharing wage and benefit information with one another.

The Order directs the Treasury Department to submit a report on the impact of what it sees as the current lack of competition on labor markets within 180 days and encourages the FTC and DOJ to revise the Antitrust Guidance for HR Professionals.

Healthcare

The Order (i) directs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to work with states and tribes to safely import prescription drugs from Canada, pursuant to the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003; (ii) directs the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS) to increase support for generic and biosimilar drugs, which can provide low-cost options for patients; (iii) directs HHS to issue a comprehensive plan within 45 days to combat high prescription drug prices and price gouging, (iv) encourages the FTC to ban “pay for delay” and similar agreements by rule; (v) encourages HHS to consider issuing proposed rules within 120 days for allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, (vi) underscores that hospital mergers can be harmful to patients and encourages the DOJ and FTC to review and revise their merger guidelines to ensure patients are not harmed by such mergers; (vii) and directs HHS to support existing hospital price transparency rules and to finish implementing bipartisan federal legislation to address surprise hospital billing.

Transportation

The Order directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider (i) issuing clear rules requiring the refund of fees when baggage is delayed or when service isn’t actually provided—like when the plane’s WiFi or in-flight entertainment system is broken and (ii) issuing rules that require baggage, change, and cancellation fees to be clearly disclosed to the customer.

The Order further encourages (i) the Surface Transportation Board to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligations to treat other freight companies fairly, and (ii) the Federal Maritime Commission to ensure vigorous enforcement against shippers charging American exporters exorbitant charges.

Agriculture

The Order expresses a concern on market concentration and helps ensure that the intellectual property system, while incentivizing innovation, does not also unnecessarily reduce competition in seed and other input markets beyond that reasonably contemplated by other laws.

In particular the Order directs the U.S. Department of Education (USDA) to consider issuing (i) new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act making it easier for farmers to bring and win claims, stopping chicken processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers, and adopting anti-retaliation protections for farmers who speak out about bad practices; (ii) new rules defining when meat can bear “Product of USA” labels, so that consumers have accurate, transparent labels that enable them to choose products made here; and (iii) a plan to increase opportunities for farmers to access markets and receive a fair return, including supporting alternative food distribution systems like farmers’ markets and developing standards and labels so that consumers can choose to buy products that treat farmers fairly.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Interesting times to be an attorney; especially an antitrust attorney. If you work in private practice, you are likely witnessing the most significant transformation in the legal sector in the past 20 years. If you are an in-house lawyer, you are probably dealing with a new set of legal and commercial issues you couldn’t even imagine a few years ago. And if you are an in-house antitrust attorney in one of the Big Tech companies, then you are currently involved in the perfect storm.

During the past years, competition authorities all over the world have been closely monitoring the steady acquisition of power by Big Tech companies in the new digital economy. That’s the main reason why they have recently initiated antitrust investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. As Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), recently mentioned: “antitrust enforcers were asleep at the wheel while Silicon Valley transformed from a center of innovation into a center of acquisition. Instead of competing to be the next Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon, today’s tech startups are pushed by their private-equity backers to sell out to Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon.”

At the same time, in the U.S. the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee issued last year its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets. The Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms. In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws.

You can read more about it in our previous article: Classic Antitrust Cases: Trinko, linkLine and the House Report on Big Tech. Now, Senator Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, in a keynote addressed at the annual State of the Net Conference, announced her antitrust reform legislation, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act.

Meanwhile, in the European Union the European Commission is proposing new “ex ante” regulation to increase contestability and fairness in the digital markets, which includes: (i) The Digital Services Act (DSA)––addressed to protect end users and their fundamental rights online; and (ii) the Digital Markets Act (DMA)––which prohibits unfair conditions imposed by online platforms that have become or are expected to become what is called “gatekeepers” to foster innovation, growth and competitiveness.

So yes, Big Tech companies have too many irons in the fire. Let’s try to briefly summarize them here.

The New Proposed Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the U.S.

In January 2021, Sen. Klobuchar, released her antitrust reform legislation, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act, highlighting that “with a new administration, new leadership at the antitrust agencies, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House, we’re well positioned to make competition policy a priority for the first time in decades.” She also mentioned that current antitrust laws are inadequate for regulating companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

In a nutshell, the new proposed Act includes the following changes:

New Legal Standards To Determine Whether a Merger is Anticompetitive

The is the first attempt to change the existing standard relating to mergers that substantially lessen competition, to a new one that prohibits mergers that create an appreciable risk of materially lessening competition. The exact meaning of this new standard remains unclear, to say the least.

The new rules would also shift, in certain scenarios, the burden of proof of certain mergers from the government to private parties. These include (i) the acquisition of a competitor or nascent competitor by a company with market power or a market share of 50% or more; (ii) the acquisition of what is called a “disruptor”, (iii) and transactions valued at more than $5 billion, or the buyer is worth at least $100 billion.

Broader Scope To Prohibit Exclusionary Conduct

The proposed Act expands the concept of exclusionary conduct and defines it as any conduct that materially disadvantages competitors or limits their opportunity to compete. It creates a presumption of illegality in those scenarios where exclusionary conduct presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.

This is when a firm with market power, or a market share higher than 50%, engages in conduct that materially disadvantages actual or potential competitors or tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of actual or potential competitors to compete.

Private parties will be still able to rebut such presumption by showing pro-competitive effects that eliminate the risk of harming competition.

Increase of Resources for Antitrust Authorities, More Civil Penalties and New Whistleblower Protections

The proposed Act includes an important funding increase of $300 million for both the FTC and DOJ.

It also increases civil monetary penalties, by imposing on private parties fines the greater of either: (i) 15% of the undertaking’s U.S. revenues in the prior calendar year, or (ii) 30% of the undertaking’s U.S. revenues in any business line affected or targeted by the unlawful conduct during the period of such conduct.

The new rules also provide further incentives to report potential antitrust violations. For instance, they extend anti-retaliation protections to civil whistleblowers, and in certain cases, even include an award up to 30% of the criminal fines.

In the meantime, Representative David Cicilline (Democrat – Rhode Island), who led the House’s investigation into Big Tech, and Senator Mike Lee, Senator (R., Utah), have also agreed to keep this momentum and discuss future changes to the antitrust laws, although with significant differences on their approach.

The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act: A proposal to upgrade the rules governing digital services in the European Union

In the European Union things have not been quiet either.

As part of the European Digital Strategy, last December the European Commission finally published its proposals to regulate the digital sector. These include (i) Digital Services Act (DSA)––addressed to protect end users and their fundamental rights online; and (ii) the Digital Markets Act (DMA)––which imposes new ex-ante rules and prohibits unfair conditions imposed by online platforms that have become or are expected to become what are called “gatekeepers” to foster innovation, growth and competitiveness.

These proposals will now go to the European Parliament and European Parliament for discussion, to be adopted into law and enter into force at some point during 2022.

The DSA

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Recently, I was researching antitrust developments in 2020 to update my Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising book.  While there were several developments last year, what struck me was the large number of potentially drastic changes to antitrust distribution law that started to play out in 2020 but are continuing into 2021.  Whether you think of them as shoes to drop or dogs yet to bark, these three potential changes are the key ones to watch in 2021.

Legislative Changes to the Antitrust Laws?

In the Fall of 2020, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee issued its Majority Report on its lengthy Investigation into Digital Markets. While the bulk of the Report focused on a few big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, the Report also recommended that Congress override several “classic antitrust cases” that allegedly misinterpreted antitrust law applicable to all companies.  Because we have covered several of those recommendations in detail already (see below), I will just focus on potential applications to distribution here.

  1. Classic Antitrust Case: Will Congress Override Brooke Group, Matsushita, and Weyerhaeuser—and Resurrect Utah Pie?
  2. Classic Antitrust Cases: Trinko, linkLine and the House Report on Big Tech.
  3. What Happens if Congress Overrides the Classic Antitrust Platform Market Case of American Express?

First, the Report recommended overriding Trinko, a case that has made refusal to deal claims against monopolists very difficult to bring, as we detail in the next section. In Trinko, the Court practically limited such claims to those that are nearly identical to the claims in Aspen Skiing, namely that the monopolist ended a prior voluntary course of dealing with the plaintiff for no good reason. Might an override of Trinko make it easier for a plaintiff-retailer to object if a monopolist defendant-retailer kicks the plaintiff off the defendant’s platform?

Second, overriding Trinko might also alter one of its more famous holdings, that the mere possession of monopoly power and the ability to impose “high” prices does not violate Sherman Act Section 2. While most states have price gouging laws, Trinko found that charging a “high” price was not “monopolization.”  If Congress overrides Trinko—and adopts the broader “abuse of dominance” standard for Section 2 cases, as the Report also recommends — might we end up with a federal price gouging law?

Third, the Report also is concerned about monopolists charging too low a price and recommends overriding Brooke Group and its “recoupment” requirement for successful predatory pricing claims.  As we covered previously, the Supreme Court was worried about discouraging low prices for consumers by companies with large market shares and so adopted a two-part test in Brooke Group that is difficult for plaintiffs to meet.  Plaintiffs must show very low prices, usually below average variable costs, plus the probability that the defendant later will be able to raise prices to recoup its losses.  If Congress overrides the recoupment prong of Brooke Group, might we see less aggressive pricing from companies with high market shares?

Fourth, overriding the recoupment prong also might revive long-dormant primary line price discrimination claims under Robinson-Patman.  While there are few Robinson-Patman claims in total today, all of them are secondary line claims:  Manufacturer 1 sells the same commodity to Retailer A at a lower price than to Retailer B, who claims an injury to itself and competition. In Brooke Group, the Court looked at primary line discrimination claims and applied the same two-part test for predatory pricing to primary line claims:  Manufacturer 1’s lower prices to Retailer A must be below its average variable costs and Manufacturer 1 must be able to later recoup its losses before a court can find harm to competition and Manufacturer 2. Before Brooke Group, the Supreme Court’s test had been the one from the oft-criticized Utah Pie opinion that focused on the defendant’s intent to lower prices for the entire market.  If Congress overrides the recoupment prong of Brooke Group, might we see price discrimination claims from manufacturers who cannot, or do not want to, match the lower prices of their competitors?

As of this writing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has introduced legislation that would drastically change the antitrust laws.  While most of the proposed changes relate to merger review, the proposed legislation would expand the definition of “exclusionary conduct” subject to the antitrust laws and create a presumption that such conduct by “dominant firms” is anticompetitive.  Might we see changes to the antitrust laws that drastically change how manufacturers, distributors, and retailers deal with one another?

Supreme Court Weighs in on Refusal to Deal Law?

As we have discussed several times (see here, here, and here), the courts are skeptical of claims that a monopolist’s refusal to deal with some other company, usually a competitor, is monopolization. Generally, even a monopolist has no duty to deal with its competitors. One of the few exceptions is when the facts are very close to Aspen Skiing where the Court did find such a violation of a duty to deal.

In Aspen Skiing, the Court found a refusal to deal violation because of what it saw as the defendant’s decision to terminate a “voluntary (and thus presumably profitable) course of dealing” and its “willingness to forego short-term profits to achieve an anti-competitive end.”  Many refusal to deal claims flounder because the defendant and plaintiff had never entered any sort of “course of dealing.”  But even if that prong is met, many lower court judges, such as then-Judge Gorsuch in the 10th Circuit’s Novell case, emphasize that a monopolist might “forego short-term profits” but for pro-competitive ends. Those cases, therefore, require a plaintiff to show that defendant’s conduct is “irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”

The District Court in Viamedia, Inc. v. Comcast Corp. granted defendant’s motion to dismiss the refusal to deal claim, despite termination of a prior voluntary course of dealing, because the “potentially improved efficiency” resulting from the termination showed that the move was not “irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”

The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that a plaintiff only must allege that defendant’s termination was “predatory.”  As the concurring judge described it, a plaintiff need only allege some anticompetitive goal for the termination. A defendant’s assertion of other, procompetitive, rationales for the conduct was a question for summary judgment, not a motion to dismiss. If allowed to stand, the court’s ruling would make it much easier for refusal to deal plaintiffs to survive to discovery, thereby encouraging more such claims.

Comcast petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari and in December 2020, the Court sought the views of the Solicitor General. Any response from the Solicitor General could indicate whether the Biden Administration supports any change, large or small, as to how the Court has interpreted the Sherman Act in refusal to deal cases. Might the Court weigh in on refusal to deal monopolization cases and, if so, how would such an opinion affect the chances of new antitrust legislation?

Changes Driven by Amazon? 

Of course, we could not post about distribution and antitrust and not mention Amazon.  As we discussed earlier, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was one of several big tech executives who testified at a Fall 2020 Congressional hearing. At the time, we described some potential antitrust claims raised by that testimony and concluded that ones alleging illegal tying or monopolization had the best chance of succeeding—and that even those faced some real questions.

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Authors:  Kristen Harris and Steven J. Cernak

As we covered earlier (see here and here), the recent U.S. House Judiciary Committee Majority Report on its Investigation into Digital Markets recommends that Congress override several classic antitrust cases. In particular, the Report recommends “clarifying that cases involving platforms do not require plaintiffs to establish harm to both sets of customers” by overriding Ohio v. American Express. While American Express is of more recent vintage than some of the other Report’s targets, overriding it would change drastically how courts view “platform markets” and, perhaps, competition generally.

Overview of platform markets

To begin, it is helpful to understand what a platform market is. A platform market—sometimes referred to as a two-sided market—is a market where a company’s product or service caters to two or more customer groups and intermediates between its customer groups to create value. Some well-known examples include telephones, Uber, shopping malls, and credit cards.

A key characteristic of platform markets is the existence of indirect network effects. In traditional markets, that is, non-platform markets, the value of the last unit consumed decreases. But in platform markets with indirect network effects, the value of the platform increases as more people consume it. For example, the value of a phone depends on how many other people have phones; if no one else had a phone the value to you would be close to zero. To connect an example to the American Express case, the value of a credit card to the cardholder increases when more merchants accept the card; if no merchant accepted your credit card, its value to you would likely be zero.

Platform markets also carry specific antitrust implications particularly when it comes to the plaintiff’s burden to define the relevant market. Due to the indirect network effects, a price increase (or net harm) to one customer group may correspond to a bigger price decrease (or net benefit) to the other customer group. Depending on whether both customer groups are considered in defining the relevant market, the defendant may or may not be found to have violated the antitrust laws.

Traditionally, plaintiffs have the burden of showing the challenged conduct causes harm to competition in a defined relevant market. If the plaintiff satisfies its prima facie burden, the burden shifts to the defendant to challenge the plaintiff’s market definition or to show efficiency justifications. As the reader may have guessed, this is where the Supreme Court’s American Express decision comes in.

American Express case

Initially, several states sued American Express and two other credit card companies alleging violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. American Express was the only defendant that did not settle. The states’ complaint alleged that a “non-discrimination provision” (NDP) in contracts between American Express and its participating merchants unreasonably restricted competition in violation of Section 1. The NDP prohibits merchants from directly or indirectly steering customers to use a particular card, such as Visa or MasterCard, when making a purchase.

The trial court found that platform markets comprise “at least two separate, yet deeply interrelated, markets” and concluded that the relevant market was the “network services market” on the merchant side of the platform and excluded the cardholders. The court found that American Express violated Section 1 because NDPs caused anticompetitive effects on interbrand competition and American Express’ procompetitive justifications did not outweigh the harm to competition.

American Express appealed the district court’s decision arguing that the court got the market definition analysis incorrect. The Second Circuit agreed with American Express, reversed the decision, and held that the court erred in defining the relevant market. Specifically, the court held that the plaintiffs failed to show that NDPs made “all American Express consumers on both sides of the platform . . . worse off overall” and thus failed to satisfy the plaintiff’s prima facie burden to show harm in a properly defined market.

Then, the plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the Second Circuit.

The key issues before the Supreme Court were whether the relevant market in multi-sided markets should include all sides of the market and if so, whether plaintiffs are required to show net harm in the whole market as part of their prima facie case.

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By:  Steven J. Cernak

As we described in a prior post, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Majority Report of its Investigation into Digital Markets included a number of recommendations that went beyond digital markets, including overriding several classic antitrust cases.  One of the Report’s recommendations is to make it easier for plaintiffs to bring predatory pricing and buying monopolization cases by overriding the “recoupment prong” in Brooke Group, Matsushita, and Weyerhaeuser.  While such action would drastically alter monopolization law, it also might inadvertently (?) revive another classic antitrust case, Utah Pie, and certain Robinson-Patman price discrimination claims long considered dead.

Predatory Pricing Under Brooke Group and Matsushita

We covered Brooke Group and predatory pricing in a prior post and so just summarize it here.  Sherman Act Section 2 claims for monopolization can be lodged only against “monopolists” that are “monopolizing,” that is, acting in a way to maintain that monopoly.  There is no general test to judge a monopolist’s actions; instead, courts have developed different tests for different actions, including predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing is pricing below some level of cost so as to eliminate competitors in the short run and reduce competition in the long run.  The Brooke Group Court established a two-part test for such claims:  ”the prices complained of are below an appropriate measure of its rival’s costs … [and the defendant] had a … dangerous probability of recouping its investment in below-cost prices.”

While the Report did not express any concerns about the “below an appropriate measure of costs” prong, its one example (Amazon’s pricing of diapers) just described the pricing as “below cost.”  Lower courts have developed a standard that finds prices “below an appropriate measure of costs” only if they are below some measure of the monopolist’s incremental costs, like average variable costs. It is not clear if the Report’s authors want to modify this prong as well.

Under the recoupment prong, a plaintiff must show that the monopolist has the capability to drive out the plaintiff and other competitors plus keep them (and other potential competitors) out so it can later raise prices and “recoup” its losses.  Such a showing requires an analysis of the relative strengths of the competitors and the attributes of the market, such as high entry barriers.

The Brooke Group test has been difficult for predatory pricing plaintiffs to meet — as the Supreme Court intended, for two reasons.  First, the Court thought it would be difficult for courts to distinguish between competitive low prices and predatorily low ones.  Because “cutting prices in order to increase business is often the very essence of competition,” the Court was concerned that an easier test would deter low prices that benefit consumers.

Second, the Court had earlier in Matsushita expressed skepticism that such competitively harmful predatory pricing schemes occurred often:  “there is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”  As we covered in different prior posts, while Matsushita does concern predatory pricing, its holding is more concerned with the appropriate standard for summary judgment in any antitrust case; because the “consensus” quote has been repeated in nearly every predatory pricing case since Matsushita, however, the Report’s recommendation to override it makes sense.

Weyerhaeuser Extends Recoupment to Predatory Buying and Monopsony

More than a decade after Brooke Group, the Supreme Court in Weyerhaeuser extended its two-part test for predatory pricing by a sell-side monopolist to predatory buying (or overbidding) by a buy-side monopsonist.  There, the defendant allegedly purchased 65% of the logs in the region that were a necessary input for lumber.  Such alleged overbuying drove up the cost of the input while the price of lumber was going down.  These trends led plaintiff, a competing lumber mill, to shut down operations and sue.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

On October 6, 2020, the Antitrust Subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee issued its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets.  As expected, the Report detailed its findings from its investigation of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon along with recommendations for actions for Congress to consider regarding those firms.

In addition, the Report included recommendations for some general legislative changes to the antitrust laws.  Included in those recommendations were proposals for Congress to overrule several classic antitrust opinions.  Because this blog has summarized several classic antitrust cases over the years (see here and here, for example), we thought we would summarize some of the opinions that now might be on the chopping block.  This post concerns two classic Supreme Court opinions on refusal to deal or essential facility monopolization claims, Trinko and linkLine.

House Report on Refusal to Deal and Essential Facilities

The Report’s recommendations for general changes in the antitrust laws included several aimed at increasing enforcement of Sherman Act Section 2’s prohibition of monopolization.  In particular, the Report recommended that:

Congress consider revitalizing the “essential facilities” doctrine, or the legal requirement that dominant firms provide access to their infrastructural services or facilities on a nondiscriminatory basis.  To clarify the law, Congress should consider overriding judicial decisions that have treated unfavorably essential facilities- and refusal to deal-based theories of harm.  (Report, pp. 396-7)

The two judicial opinions listed were Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398 (2004) and Pacific Bell Telephone Co. v. linkLine Communications, Inc., 555 U.S. 438 (2009).

Trinko

Justice Scalia wrote the Court’s opinion dismissing the plaintiff’s refusal to deal claim.  There were no dissents although Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter and Thomas, wrote separately to concur in the result but would have dismissed based on lack of standing.

Since the Supreme Court’s 1919 U.S. v. Colgate (250 U.S. 300) decision, courts have found that “in the absence of any purpose to create or maintain a monopoly,” the antitrust laws allow any actor, including a monopolist, “freely to exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.”  Trinko narrowly interpreted the Court’s earlier exceptions to the rule that even a monopolist can choose its own trading partners.

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Author: Steven Cernak

The U.S. House Antitrust Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee’s recent hearings into “big tech” and antitrust were “must see TV” for antitrust attorneys.

Over the five hours of testimony, many interesting questions were asked of the leaders of Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon; unfortunately, the format often left little time for answers.  Because so many of our clients—manufacturers, retailers, and others—are active in the online retail space, we thought we would focus on Amazon and Jeff Bezos’s statement and answers.

These hearing are not the only antitrust scrutiny that Amazon is receiving.  The FTC and the states of California and Washington appear to be investigating the company and its actions.  Given all the publicly available information, what did the hearings teach us about the kinds of antitrust claims that might be made against Amazon in any antitrust suit?

Competing with Private Label Goods

Several of the questions involved allegations that Amazon had somehow “stolen” or misused data from some of its manufacturers or third-party sellers to determine which products it would begin to produce as private label goods.  Many of these questions grew out of a long Wall Street Journal report in April.  Bezos explained that Amazon’s policy is not to use data of an individual seller to make such decisions, although the company continued to investigate possible violations.  Also, Bezos clarified that aggregate data, which he defined as data relating to at least two sellers, could be used by Amazon under its policy.

As commentators have pointed out, retailers deciding to sell private label goods along with, or instead of, branded goods is not inherently an antitrust violation; in fact, many retailers like Kroger’s and Costco obtain significant revenue from the practice.  Bezos himself pointed out that Amazon’s policy limiting its use of data from the other sellers was “voluntary” and not required by any current law.  One of the questions at the hearings hinted at an allegation that Amazon might be in a different position than other retailers, either because of its size or greater access to seller data; unfortunately, inadequate time was given for a response.  Any antitrust actions here would need to be able to take on all private label goods sold by large retailers or explain why Amazon’s actions are uniquely anti-competitive.

Predatory Pricing

At least two sets of questions focused on potential “predatory pricing” by Amazon, that is, pricing products so low that competitors are forced out of the market.  The first set involved allegations from many years ago that Amazon had drastically lowered prices on diapers to weaken Diapers.com, later renamed Quidsi before Amazon purchased it.  In response to questioning, Bezos claimed to be unfamiliar with the details of pricing of one product nearly ten years ago.  In the second set, Bezos was asked if Amazon ever priced Echo or Ring or other in-home assistants below cost.  He claimed that the price of those products usually was above cost, although sometimes their prices might be below cost during periodic promotions.

As readers of this blog know, current law makes predatory pricing illegal only if a monopolist’s prices are very low, usually defined as below variable costs, and there is a chance that the monopolist can later raise prices to recoup its losses.  Certainly, not enough time was spent on the topic during the hearings to address those details in these Amazon examples.  Also, other commentators have already disputed the implications from the Quidsi story, describing it as another example of a retailer using a pro-competitive “loss leader” strategy to build customer loyalty to the store.  (In fact, it appears that Quidsi was trying to follow that exact strategy itself.)  While the questions did not directly lead to evidence of a violation under today’s law, it is possible that these hearings will lead to legislation to alter antitrust law’s current view of such aggressive pricing.

“Bullying” Competitors and Suppliers

Finally, Bezos was asked several times in several ways about Amazon’s treatment of its “partners,” both the manufacturers and third-party retailers who sell to consumers on its marketplace as well as manufacturers who sell directly to Amazon.  Many of the questions included quotes from anonymous third parties who felt a need to be on Amazon:  “have to work with them,” “we’re stuck,” “nowhere else to go.”

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Author: Jarod Bona

As antitrust attorneys, we advocate for competition in product and service markets. The US Supreme Court recognizes that “the heart of our national economy long as been faith in the value of competition,” and we agree.

But competition matters elsewhere too. We certainly see it in sports. You might notice that sport leagues strive to increase parity to make the league more competitive overall. So when your favorite NFL Football team creates twelve to sixteen sleepless nights for you one year, the league rewards it with a high draft pick the next year. And if your team wins more than it loses, the NFL scheduling gods will punish them the next year with a tougher path to the playoffs.

Anyway, if you read the Harvard Business Review, you may have noticed an article that is sure to pique the interest of an antitrust lawyer like myself. (July-August 2020 Issue). It isn’t about sports, but it is still interesting.

Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter wrote “Fixing U.S. Politics: What business can—and must—do to revitalize democracy.”

Everyone seems unhappy with the current state of political affairs—so maybe more competition is the solution?

(This is a good reminder that every profession—including antitrust attorney—sees solutions to problems through their own, very specific, eyes. Knee injury? You need more competition. Of course, it isn’t always effective.)

Before we jump into Gehl and Porter’s work, as a disclaimer, Bona Law isn’t a political law firm: we don’t take any specific positions on politics or candidates. Our firm is made up of actual people, all of whom have freedom of thought and their own individual views, which we respect. As a firm, we take positions on certain types of policy—like encouraging competition and discouraging the government from destroying competition. But Bona Law is an antitrust law firm, so that’s not a surprise. But when it comes to politics, that is for each person to decide for themselves. Politics is personal.

According to the authors, politics are driven by the same five forces that affect more traditional markets: “the nature and intensity of rivalry, the power of buyers, the power of suppliers, the threat of new entrants, and the pressure from substitutes that compete in new ways.” (117). The authors explain that—unfortunately—the politics industry doesn’t have healthy competition.

The key problem, according to the authors, is that the Democrats and Republicans have a duopoly and that they work hard to keep it that way—with great success.

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Author: Aaron Gott

Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Benjamin Sasse recently proposed a bill to enact the Restoring Board Immunity Act of 2017, which would give state licensing boards antitrust immunity that they may not otherwise be entitled to under the state-action immunity doctrine. The bill provides this immunity if the states fulfill some conditions: they must make efforts to reform their occupational licensing schemes and either provide active supervision of boards by creating an office to oversee them or provide for a specific form of judicial review of licensing board actions.

While the bill seeks to make some promising advancements to curtail overbearing state occupational regulation, it misses the mark in several ways.

As a Bona Law attorney, I regularly help clients suffering the wrath of professional licensing boards. It is very rewarding work, but it is also difficult work because the entire system—from state executive branches to federal courts—overwhelmingly defers to these licensing boards. The boards are confident in their ability to do whatever they want because they’ve enjoyed extreme deference in constitutional cases since the progressive era.

Our most effective tool is the threat of antitrust litigation—a tool that has only recently been used. First I’ll explain how all of this works so that you can better understand why this bill is a bad idea.

How Licensing Boards Work

Most licensing boards are created by some enabling statute that was pushed through the state legislature after a bunch of competitors in the same industry got together and formed a powerful lobby. Nine times out of ten, a professional licensing board justifies its existence and its conduct with vague and unsupported claims that public welfare is at stake. The enabling legislation often provides the governor the authority to appoint members of the profession, and perhaps one or two “public” members (persons who are not part of the profession), to serve on the licensing board.

Invariably, the board members who also compete in the market eventually use their power on the board to benefit their own pecuniary interests:

Licensing Requirements. . Organizations like the Institute for Justice have analyzed state-by-state data and published significant literature about occupational overregulation. The bill appears most focused on licensing requirements. Antitrust litigation typically does not focus on the licensing requirements category of restraints because they are easy to pretextually justify, because the lobbying effort is protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, and because they primarily affect new entrants (who are unlikely to organize a collective resistance, let alone the resources to finance antitrust litigation).

This raises an important question: if most antitrust litigation against boards does not relate to the occupational licensing reforms sought by the bill, why are we considering a broad antitrust exemption as the carrot for states to implement the reforms?

Expanding the Scope of Practice. Where boards prevent competitors who are not licensees within their jurisdiction from competing with them. A seminal example is what occurred in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC: the North Carolina dental board sent cease-and-desist letters to nondentist teeth whiteners asserting that teeth whitening was the practice of dentistry. Teeth whitening is not mentioned in the North Carolina statutes governing dentistry, but the board asserted it anyway because the dental board members and their professional trade group friends were losing profits to disruptive nondentist competitors who offered lower prices to consumers.

Similarly, the California Veterinary Medicine Board recently sent cease-and-desist letters to animal chiropractors, claiming that performing chiropractic adjustments on animals is the practice of veterinary medicine (even though performing human chiropractic adjustments is not the practice of human medicine).

Setting the Rules of Competition. Where boards prevent competitors who are licensees within their jurisdiction from competing in ways they don’t like. For example, some state funeral director boards have imposed or considered imposing substantial infrastructural requirements on their licensees (such as having an embalming room) with the ultimate goal of restricting the geographic scope of competition.

Side note: state funeral director boards have been among the worst culprits of blatant anticompetitive activity, even going so far as enacting rules to prevent monks who handcraft caskets from competing in the lucrative market for casket sales.

As you can see, boards have substantial power and states don’t seem to care that they regularly abuse it. So at first glance, a bill that incentivizes states to reassess their occupational licensing schemes with a critical eye is probably a good thing, right? If that were what it did, and it didn’t attempt to foreclose otherwise legitimate antitrust claims through the state action doctrine, then it wouldn’t be so objectionable.

The Bill

You can read the text of the bill here, but it works like this: all licensing boards and their members are not subject to the Sherman Act if the following conditions are met:

  1. The actions of the board/member are authorized by a nonfrivolous interpretation of the occupational licensing laws of the state.
  2. The state adopts a policy of using less restrictive alternatives to occupational licensing;
  3. The state either:
    1. Enacts legislation providing for active supervision of the actions of an occupational licensing board, which requires creating a central office to oversee all licensing boards; or
    2. Enacts legislation providing for judicial review of occupational licensing laws.

The bill has a savings clause that states the immunity only applies to “personal qualifications required to engage in or practice a lawful occupation.” As you will see below, this clause could be very important, depending on how courts would construe it.

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