Articles Posted in Types of Antitrust Claims

Colgate Doctrine

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney with an antitrust blog, my phone rings with a varied assortment of antitrust-related questions. One of the most common topics involves resale-price maintenance. “Resale price maintenance” is also a common search term for this blog.

That is, people want to know when it is okay for suppliers or manufacturers to dictate or participate in price-setting by downstream retailers or distributors.

I think that resale-price maintenance creates so many questions for two reasons: First, it is something that a large number of companies must consider, whether they are customers, suppliers, or retailers. Second, the law is confusing, muddled, and sometimes contradictory (especially between and among state and federal antitrust laws).

If you want background on resale-price maintenance, you might also review:

Here, we will discuss alternatives to resale-price maintenance agreements that may achieve similar objectives for manufacturers or suppliers.

The first and most common alternative utilizes what is called the Colgate doctrine.

The Colgate doctrine arises out of a 1919 Supreme Court decision that held that the Sherman Act does not prevent a manufacturer from announcing in advance the prices at which its goods may be resold and then refusing to deal with distributors and retailers that do not respect those prices.

Businesses (with some exceptions) have no general antitrust-law obligation to do business with any particular company and can thus unilaterally terminate distributors without antitrust consequences. Before you rely on this, however, you should definitely consult an antitrust attorney, as the antitrust laws create several important exceptions, including refusal to deal, refusal to supply, and overall monopolization limitations.

Both federal and state antitrust law focuses on the agreement aspect of resale-price maintenance agreements. So if a company unilaterally announces minimum prices at which resellers must sell its products or face termination, the company is not, strictly speaking, entering an agreement.

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predatory-pricing-venture-capital-221x300

Author: Jarod Bona

The US Supreme Court said in 1986 that “[T]here is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”

This was the famous Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. case that is known mostly for stating that to survive summary judgment on antitrust conspiracy, a plaintiff must present evidence that tends to exclude the possibility of independent (rather than conspiratorial) activity. 475 U.S. 574 (1986). Unfortunately, many federal trial judges have misunderstood this standard to apply to the motion-to-dismiss level.

If you don’t know what predatory pricing is, you should first read Steven Cernak’s outstanding article detailing the doctrine’s history and requirements (and rarity).

The purpose of this article is much more modest—to ask whether the quote above from the 1986 Supreme Court decision is out-of-touch with current scenarios that may or may not be reality (you decide).

As you learned from reading Steve Cernak’s article, a predatory pricing claim is one that asserts that defendants (with monopoly power) harmed competition by pricing below cost to run competitors out of the market in the short run, so they could raise prices later, after the pesky competitors are out of their way (that is called recoupment).

To prevail, besides antitrust injury, a predatory-pricing plaintiff must show that defendant has monopoly power, priced below some appropriate measure of cost, and had the ability to recoup the costs of taking a loss after they vanquished competition and could again raise prices. This is one form of a monopolization claim.

Let’s look at that 1986 Matsushita Supreme Court quote again: “[T]here is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”

If you are an antitrust attorney or have studied antitrust, this quote is familiar to you and shows up in the defense briefing of just about every predatory-pricing case. And judges like to cite it too. Indeed, it represents the dismissiveness with which courts and, frankly, the entire antitrust world view predatory-pricing claims. And there is some good reason for that.

But is the statement correct and will it continue to be correct?

Let’s reminisce for a moment to the “olden days.” It used to be, I think, that companies sought to make a profit from the start to the finish. And if they didn’t make a profit, they failed, and whoever ran them would face scandal, scorn, and certain involuntary succession. Each company rise and stood alone, so each would try to be profitable. And if the business wasn’t profitable and didn’t survive, the equity of its shareholders or owners would perish, along with hopes and dreams.

Of course, like most general descriptions of a time or the past, this statement has holes and exceptions and could, in many instances, be plain wrong. But it is the narrative that was told (purposeful passive voice here) and that informed statements like that in the 1986-Matsushita-Supreme-Court decision, which is all that really matters for my point.

So, to price below cost, a company risked bankruptcy because pricing below cost, even for part of the company’s offerings, threatens profits, which threatens survival. And it may take a long time to vanquish competition to be able to later increase prices at monopoly-profit levels. And most companies weren’t willing or able to do that. So “predatory-pricing schemes were rarely tried,” as the quote goes. And, I suppose, those that did try them probably did mostly fail. But I haven’t reviewed the empirical evidence on that.

With that narrative, which is part of the history of predatory-pricing doctrine, we can see why the dismissive quote makes sense.

But what if this is the true world?

But what happens if you have a culture in which financial resources are aggregated into individual entities and you have smart people that place bets on large numbers of companies with the knowledge that most of them are going to fail? The financial entities, however, know and accept that and, instead, make their money from the extremely small percentage of companies that blow up (in a good way) and turn into unicorns or otherwise take over an entire market or industry.

And, at the same time, let’s say that a substantial percentage of these companies that are the subject of these financial bets are the type that succeed only if they reach the scale of monopoly. Maybe these are the sort of companies that create two-sided markets or exchanges, in which network effects are necessary to succeed?

And, what if, to obtain sufficient participants on both sides of the market (and the scale necessary to dominate the market), each of the companies (subject to the bets by the smart-financial entities) priced their products or services at zero or some extremely low amount in a race to get everyone on their website or app or system?

If that were to happen, I wonder if most of these companies would fail—they are pricing below cost, after all—and not everyone is going to be able to pull of a victory in these circumstances. But I bet a handful or more of them would survive and end up dominating their market. And I imagine that some of them would continue pricing below cost between the points of market penetration and complete market domination.

After all, profitability isn’t necessary because the money funding these companies—in this scenario—is not incented by mediocre or even strong profits. What makes these smart financial entities rich are the big winners—the companies with monopoly profits that dominate their markets.

If that were to happen, how would that change the accuracy of the 1986-Matsushita-Supreme Court quote: “[T]here is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.”

In the scenario I just described—you can decide for yourself whether it sounds familiar or is true—I think that predatory pricing schemes would be commonly tried and periodically successful.

Here is another possible scenario:

Let’s say there is a foreign country that owns or controls a substantial number of companies. It is possible, I suppose, that the bureaucrats in the government are calculating profits and forcing decisions based entirely or mostly on profit-maximization. It is possible that control, power, and influence have nothing to do with their decisions. And that the funding acts just like any other market funding.

But let’s pretend for a second that this isn’t true. Maybe the government money (and control and incentives usually follow the money) is less concerned about profit-maximization and more concerned about other goals. In that case, I wonder if this government money would have the same reluctance to risk profits as companies in the narrative we told earlier. If that is the case, I probably wouldn’t be dismissive of the idea that a predatory-pricing scheme could be tried or successful. Money seeking power or control likes monopoly and may be willing to fund it.

What about this?

This is a little outlandish, but let’s pretend that the people in the government making decisions about bailouts haven’t heard of the term “moral hazard” and are willing to send taxpayer dollars to giant companies whenever the companies have trouble making a profit. For the sake of the story, let’s call them, I don’t know, maybe “too big to fail.”

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Predatory-Pricing-300x200

Author: Steven Cernak

Your much larger competitor sells the same products as you do but at a much lower price, so low you think that it must be losing money on each sale. Can such “predatory pricing” ever violate the antitrust laws? It is a very difficult monopolization case to make but, as Uber recently discovered, not all such claims are quickly dismissed.

Monopolization is illegal under Sherman Act Section 2 of the antitrust laws. Such claims can only be lodged against a “monopolist,” a competitor with monopoly power. Finding “monopoly power” is a difficult question this blog covered here. But even a monopolist is only liable for “monopolization,” actions that help it acquire or 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 has been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court as “pricing below an appropriate measure of cost for the purpose of eliminating competitors in the short run and reducing competition in the long run”.¹ The Court expressed skepticism toward such claims several times for two reasons. First, it noted that “there is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful”.² Second, it can be difficult to distinguish pro-competitive low prices from predatorily low ones; after all, “cutting prices in order to increase business often is the very essence of competition”.³

Because of that skepticism, the Court has established a test that is difficult for plaintiffs to meet. In Brooke Group, the Court evaluated claims that a cigarette producer was using low prices to discipline a competitor.⁴ The Court held that predatory pricing allegations will be upheld only if ”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.⁵

On the “below cost” element, the Court has declined to specifically define the “appropriate measure” of costs.⁶ While commentators have developed several potential measures, the most popular are variations on prices below a manufacturer’s reasonably anticipated marginal costs,⁷ such as average variable costs.⁸ The rationale is that no competitor would knowingly spend the incremental costs to make one more product if it did not plan to sell it for a price that covered at least those incremental costs unless such pricing was part of an anti-competitive scheme.

The “recoupment” element itself has two parts. First, the low prices must be capable of driving competitors from the market: “This requires an understanding of the extent and duration of the alleged predation, the relative financial strength of the predator and its intended victim, and their respective incentives and will.”⁹ Second, those expelled competitors and any other new entrants must stay out of the market and the market must have other attributes, such as high entry barriers, necessary to sustain high monopoly pricing so that the costs of the low prices can be recouped.¹⁰

The Brooke Group test has proven difficult for plaintiffs to meet. Despite those difficulties, plaintiffs continue to make predatory pricing claims, as illustrated by two 2019 opinions. But a May 2020 case involving Uber shows that some predatory pricing claims can survive a motion to dismiss.

In Clean Water Opportunities, Inc. v. Willamette Valley Co., plaintiff claimed that defendant put it out of business through various tactics, including predatory pricing.¹¹ In an unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of this claim because plaintiff’s claims were both conclusory and implausible.¹² Plaintiff only alleged that defendant’s discounts to plaintiff’s customers “were substantial and represented a benefit below [defendant’s] cost to produce [product].” The court affirmed the lower court’s ruling that this allegation required “further factual enhancement” to rise above mere conclusory allegations that the court was not bound to accept as true under the motion.¹³

The remainder of the allegations in the complaint made the possibility of such “factual enhancement” unlikely. Plaintiff alleged that its and defendant’s original undiscounted price both were well above the alleged competitive price. The court found that this allegation left plenty of room for defendant to undercut plaintiff’s price while staying above the competitive price, let alone any potential measure of defendant’s average variable costs.¹⁴

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exclusive-deailng-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Sometimes parties will enter a contract whereby one agrees to buy (or supply) all of its needs (or product) to the other. For example, maybe a supplier and retailer agree that only the supplier’s product will be sold in the retailer’s stores? This usually isn’t free as the supplier will offer something—better services, better prices, etc.—to obtain the exclusivity.

If you compete with the party that receives the benefit of the exclusive deal, this sort of contract can seem quite aggravating. After all, you have a great product, you offer a competitive price, and you know that your service is better. Then why is the retailer only buying from your competitor? Shouldn’t you deserve at least a chance? Isn’t that what the antitrust laws are for?

Maybe. But most exclusive-dealing agreements are both pro-competitive and legal under the antitrust laws. That doesn’t mean that you can’t bring an antitrust action and it doesn’t mean you won’t win. But, percentage-wise, most exclusive-dealing arrangements don’t implicate the antitrust laws.

You can read our article about exclusive dealing at the Bona Law website here.

It is important that I deflate your expectations a little bit at the beginning like this because if you are on the outside looking in at an exclusive dealing agreement, you are probably quite angry and you may feel helpless. From your perspective, it will certainly seem like an antitrust violation. And your gut feeling about certain conduct is a good first filter about whether you have an antitrust claim. What I am trying to tell you is that with regard to exclusive dealing, your gut may give you some false positives.

Of course, the market is full of exclusive or partial-exclusive dealing agreements and there are relatively few of these that turn into federal antitrust litigation. So if you see an exclusive-dealing claim in federal litigation, it doesn’t mean it is not one of the rare instances of an exclusive-dealing antitrust violation. We receive a lot of calls about exclusive-dealing agreements that are antitrust violations or close to antitrust violations. But people don’t call us for most varieties of exclusive dealing, which is perfectly legal under the antitrust laws.

So what is an exclusive dealing agreement?

An exclusive dealing agreement occurs when a seller agrees to sell all or most of its output of a product or service exclusively to a particular buyer. It can also occur in the reverse situation: when a buyer agrees to purchase all or most of its requirements from a particular seller. Importantly, although the term used in the doctrine is “exclusive” dealing, the agreement need not be literally exclusive. Courts will often apply exclusive dealing to partial or de facto exclusive dealing agreements, where the contract involves a substantial portion of the other party’s output or requirements.

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Refusal-to-Deal-Aspen-Skiing-300x195

Author: Luis Blanquez

Good news––the answer is yes. The bad news, however, is that antitrust laws only help you in very limited scenarios.

As a general rule, “Businesses are free to choose the parties with whom they deal, as well as the prices, terms, and conditions of that dealing” Pacific Bell Tel. Co. v. Linkline Commc’ns, Inc., 555 U.S. 438, 448 (2009). This means that firms, even those enjoying market power, are not typically required to cooperate with rivals by selling them products that would help them compete. Indeed, antitrust laws do not generally impose limitations on a competitor’s ability to “exercise his own independent discretion as to parties with whom he will deal.” Verizon Commc’ns Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 411 (2004).

So, most of the time, once your distribution contract expires, your supplier is free to either renew your contract or stop dealing with you. After all, this is what the free market is about: you are free to decide your own commercial strategy in order to make profits and beat your competitors. But this is not always the case, and the recent case from the Seventh Circuit, Viamedia, Inc. v. Comcast Corp., is a very good example of it.

The willingness to forsake short-term profits

Courts have been cautious to recognize an antitrust exception to the general rule that businesses are free to choose the parties with whom they deal, as well as the prices, terms, and conditions of that dealing. The cases below provide a road map to better understand what you would need to succeed.

Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Co., 472 U.S. 585 (1985)

The U.S. Supreme Court has stated in the past that even an actual monopolist has no duty to deal with its competitors. A narrow exception to this rule, however, was established in Aspen Skiing. The Court provided some guidance to explain when a monopolist’s refusal to deal becomes contrary to antitrust rules.

In this case, the defendant monopolized the market for downhill skiing services in Aspen (Colorado). Defendant originally agreed to offer a joint lift ticket with plaintiff because it helped attract skiers. But defendant later decided to discontinue the successful joint-ticket program. By doing so, it rejected, for example, selling lift tickets to the plaintiff at full retail price. Defendant’s justifications included several administrative issues such as splitting revenues, suffering brand image injury, and others.

The Court concluded that defendant’s unilateral termination of a voluntary––and thus presumably profitable––course of dealing suggested a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve an anticompetitive end: to push plaintiff out of the market and achieve monopoly power to avoid any sort of competition.

Novell, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp 731 F.3d 1064 (10th Cir. 2013)

Microsoft provided independent software vendors access to a pre-release version of Windows 95––the so called “beta” version of the operating system available to all independent software vendors, including Novell––to facilitate their ability to write software for Windows 95. The reasoning behind this was to develop compatible programs while increasing both the utility of the operating system for users and the sales for Microsoft. Later on, however, Microsoft changed its strategy and revoked such access. It decided to give its proprietary applications the “competitive advantage” of “being the first applications useable on Windows 95.” Novell alleged that Microsoft intentionally altered its existing business practice of providing competitors with Windows technical information in order to monopolize the market for operation systems.

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Author: Steven Cernak

When I first started practicing antitrust law in the “80’s, the Robinson-Patman Act was already an object of derision.¹ With Chicago School thinking riding high in academia and the courts and antitrust law’s focus shifting to effects on consumers, not rivals, RP cases seemed to be dwindling down to nothing. My colleagues and I were convinced that RP would soon be dead and we would never again need to deal with its tortured language² and questionable economics.

But not all my colleagues. One insisted that Robinson-Patman would never be repealed—after all, what member of Congress would vote against protecting small business?—and the private right of action would mean that the threat of litigation would always at least affect negotiations even if the federal agencies stopped bring new cases.³  Despite our constant ridicule of his outdated ways, he insisted that I learn the intricacies of the statute and cases, analyze the latest changes to the Fred Meyer Guides, and otherwise prepare to take over from him the counseling of a client that sold goods “of like grade and quality” in at least three overlapping channels.

I’m glad he did. He was right. To this day, suppliers and retailers negotiate in the shadow of RP and require counseling about its sometimes-obscure details. Every year, new private litigation gets filed and generates opinions and even jury verdicts on Robinson-Patman issues.⁴  Fewer than in the “60’s but still greater than zero.  So for all the suppliers and the retailers through whom they sell—along with their respective counselors—here is a summary of what you need to know about RP in the 21st Century:

The Basics of the Robinson-Patman Act

There are two kinds of discrimination that RP is meant to prevent and where some litigation is still filed today. Section 2(a) prohibits the sale of the same commodity at different prices to two competing buyers by one seller if the result is harm to competition. It has several elements that must be met and potential defenses, all of which narrow the scope of its application. Sections 2(d) and 2(e) are per se prohibitions of the discriminatory provision of or payment for certain promotional aids meant to assist in resale of a seller’s commodity. Again, several elements must be met to prove a violation. In addition, Robinson-Patman applies only to commodities sold for use or resale in the U.S.

Section 2(a) Price Discrimination – Elements

The elements of a Section 2(a) claim are usually summarized as prohibiting (1) a difference in price (2) in reasonably contemporaneous sales to two buyers purchasing from a single seller, (3) involving commodities, (4) of like grade and quality (5) that may injure competition.

While price discrimination is “merely a price difference”, actual net prices must be compared, after taking into account all discounts, rebates and other factors affecting price. If the lower price is “functionally available” to the plaintiff but plaintiff chooses not to accept it, courts have held that such proof “essentially negates the discrimination element” of plaintiff’s price discrimination claim.⁵

The two sales at different prices must be reasonably contemporaneous, a question of fact that depends on the seasonal quality of the sales and overall market conditions. Also, those two contemporaneous transactions must be “sales”, not something else like leases, licenses or an offer to sell. Finally, two completed sales are required and so at least one court has held that this element is not met in competitive bid situations where the commodity is only purchased if the dealer’s bid is successful.⁶

Section 2(a), as well as sections 2(d) and 2(e), apply only to “commodities”, a term left undefined by the statute. Courts have consistently interpreted the term to mean tangible products. Intangible items that have been held not to be commodities include medical services, cable television programming, and advertising, including online advertising.

The two commodities sold at different prices must be “of like grade and quality” for Section 2(a) to apply. When interpreting that statutory language, lower courts have followed the US Supreme Court’s lead in FTC v. Borden Co. and focused on physical differences in the products that affect consumer marketability. In that case, the Court found two varieties of the defendant’s evaporated milk to be “of like grade and quality” because the products were physically identical, even though the higher-price branded version had gained consumer preference over the lower-priced private label version.⁸

The final element of a Section 2(a) violation is whether “the effect of such discrimination may be substantially … to lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly …”, which has been interpreted to mean that a plaintiff need not show an actual adverse effect on competition, only a “reasonable possibility” of such an effect.

Injury to competition generally is found at the level of a rival to the discriminating seller (“primary line injury”) or of the disfavored customer (“secondary line injury”). The Supreme Court’s Brooke Group opinion clarified that a successful primary line claim must meet the same difficult test required of predatory pricing plaintiffs.⁹ As a result, secondary line cases now predominate.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Do you or your competitor have a monopoly in a particular market? If so, your conduct or their conduct might enter the territory of the Sherman Act—Section 2—called monopolization.

If you are in Europe or other jurisdictions outside of the United States, instead of monopoly, people will refer to the company with extreme market power as “dominant.”

Of course, it isn’t illegal itself to be a monopolist or dominant (and monopoly is profitable). But if you utilize your monopoly power or obtain or enhance your market power improperly, you might run afoul of US, EU, or other antitrust and competition laws.

In the United States, Section 2 of the Sherman Act makes it illegal for anyone (person or entity) to “monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations.” But monopoly, by itself, is not illegal. Nor is it illegal for a monopolist to engage in competition on the merits.

As an aside, I have heard, informally, from companies that are considered “dominant” in Europe that the label of “dominant” effectively diminishes their ability to engage in typical competitive behavior because they are under such heavy scrutiny by EU Competition authorities.

If you are interested in learning more about abuse of dominance in the EU, read this article.

In the United States, monopolists have more flexibility, but they are still under significant pressure and could face lawsuits or government investigations at any time, even when they don’t intend to violate the antitrust laws. There is often a fine line between strong competition on the merits and exclusionary conduct by a monopolist.

Here are the elements of a claim for monopolization under Section 2 of the Sherman Act:

  • The possession of monopoly power in the relevant market.
  • The willful acquisition or maintenance of that power as distinguished from growth or development as a consequence of a superior product, business acumen, or historic accident.

The Possession of Monopoly Power in the Relevant Market

To determine whether an entity has monopoly power, courts and agencies usually first define the relevant market, then analyze whether the firm has “monopoly” power within that market.

But because the purpose of that analysis is to figure out whether certain conduct or an arrangement harms competition or has the potential to do so, evidence of the actual detrimental effects on competition might obviate the need for a full market analysis. If you want to learn more about this point, read FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (and subsequent case law and commentary). Now that I think about it, this should probably be a future blog post.

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Toys R Us Antitrust Conspiracy

Author: Jarod Bona

Like 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, or how they are going to divide up the customers. 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 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 enter the agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may develop 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.

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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Resale Price Maintenance

Author: Jarod Bona

Some antitrust questions are easy: Is naked price-fixing among competitors a Sherman Act violation? Yes, of course it is.

But there is one issue that is not only a common occurrence but also engenders great controversy among antitrust attorneys and commentators: Is price-fixing between manufacturers and distributors (or retailers) an antitrust violation? This is usually called a resale-price-maintenance agreement and it really isn’t clear if it violates the antitrust laws.

For many years, resale-price maintenance—called RPM by those in the know—was on the list of the most forbidden of antitrust conduct, a per se antitrust violation. It was up there with horizontal price fixing, market allocation, bid rigging, and certain group boycotts and tying arrangements.

There was a way around a violation, known as the Colgate exception, whereby a supplier would unilaterally develop a policy that its product must be sold at a certain price or it would terminate dealers. This well-known exception was based on the idea that, in most situations, companies had no obligation to deal with any particular company and could refuse to deal with distributors if they wanted. Of course, if the supplier entered a contract with the distributor to sell the supplier’s products at certain prices, that was an entirely different story. The antitrust law brought in the cavalry in those cases.

You can read our article about the Colgate exception here: The Colgate Doctrine and Other Alternatives to Resale-Price-Maintenance Agreements.

In 2007, the Supreme Court dramatically changed the landscape when it decided Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet). The question presented to the Supreme Court in Leegin was whether to overrule an almost 100-year old precedent (Dr. Miles Medical Co.) that established the rule that resale-price maintenance was per se illegal under the Sherman Act.

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Authors: Aaron Gott and Nick McNamara

Antitrust conspiracies, like most conspiracies, are typically carried out in secret and often actively concealed by their participants for many years. But the statute of limitations for antitrust claims is only four years. So what happens if you discover that you were harmed by an antitrust conspiracy years after the fact? The answer could depend on which of the U.S. Court of Appeals has jurisdiction in your case.

Imagine you’re a retail grocer in the business of selling farm-fresh produce. Your store sources all of its carrots from local farms, many of which belong to a trade association of carrot growers (these carrot growers weren’t organized as a farm cooperative, which could provide them with a limited antitrust exemption you can read about here). Since you opened your grocery store several years ago, the price of carrots sold by these farms has been stable and reasonable. Then, all of a sudden, you notice that the price of locally farmed carrots has increased by 10%—overnight and for no apparent reason. Soon after you learn of the price hike, you receive an explanatory letter from the farm that sold the store its most recent batch of carrots. The letter apologizes for the increased price, which it attributes to a virus which has been harming local carrot crops. According to the letter, the farm hired plant biologists who confirmed the presence of the virus in the area.

You have never heard of a virus affecting carrots, but you have little reason to doubt the explanation provided by the farm. You review the scientific documentation attached to the letter and read up about the virus on Wikipedia; it turns out it is indeed a real virus that does affect carrots. You also hear that other grocers in the area have also received similar letters from other local carrot growers (but you didn’t talk to them directly because your antitrust compliance program forbids it). On top of it all, you have always had very cordial business relations with the sales representatives of the carrot farms. You decide to eat the lost profits, knowing that discontinuing the sale of locally farmed carrots would disappoint many loyal customers.

Five years later, you are tipped off by a former employee of one of the local carrot growers that the presence of the virus in the area was a complete fabrication, as was the supporting documentation submitted by the purported scientists. The ex-employee further informs you that the plan was hatched by the carrot growers’ trade association. Feeling cheated, you search the web for the antitrust statute of limitations, which you learn is four years.

But the good news is that the statute of limitations is not necessarily fatal to a claim involving an antitrust conspiracy. In fact, courts have long recognized that the distinguishing feature of illegal conspiracies is that they are almost always hidden from public view by design—and as a result, they often harm unwitting victims unaware they are being harmed. And, in some cases, courts have applied the equitable doctrine of fraudulent concealment to “toll” the statute of limitations in cases where the statute of limitations otherwise would have barred the claim.

You may have heard of a similar doctrine called the “discovery rule.” Under the discovery rule, a claim does not accrue—and the statute of limitations does not begin to run—until a reasonably diligent plaintiff discovers or should have discovered its injury. But there is a key difference: the discovery rule is a legal doctrine governing the point at which a statute of limitations begins to run, while tolling for fraudulent concealment is an equitable doctrine that assumes that the claim has already accrued and the statute of limitations has already run. In practice, the two doctrines have a nearly identical effect, so an antitrust plaintiff can typically plead both in the alternative. Both doctrines also have a due diligence requirement, so you can’t rely on them if, under the circumstances, a reasonable person would have investigated potential claims (for example, an unexplained, sudden price hike could give rise to a duty to investigate).

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