Articles Posted in Types of Antitrust Claims

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Blockchain is an emerging technology that is already changing the way companies do business. But this doesn’t precludn companies using such nascent technology frot getting caught in the same old anticompetitive practices subject to the antitrust laws.

Before diving into the spectrum of anticompetitive behavior that companies using blockchain technology might get involved, let’s first explain below what distributed ledger technology (“DLT”) and blockchain mean, and what are––at least for now––the different types of blockchains.

In the last section of this article, we also analyze how antitrust group boycotts could apply in a blockchain-setting. And we provide two real life recent examples, the Bitmain case and the Ethereum Merge.

What Is Blockchain Technology?

A “blockchain” is a decentralized, electronic register in which transactions and interactions can be recorded and validated in a verifiable and permanent way. A peer-to-peer network where different users or “nodes” share and validate information in a database or network without the need of a centralized and trusted intermediary.

Records of transactions are stored along with other transactions into blocks of data that are linked to one another in a chain, creating a blockchain, which is a type of distributed ledger technology (“DLT”). Each ledger is tamper-proof and recorded using a consensus verification algorithm that encoded every prior block in the blockchain. Once a block is added to the chain, it is virtually impossible to modify. Any change would require modifying every subsequent block of data on the chain. And because each participant on the blockchain has a unique identification key, other users can instantly verify prior transactions involving that participant.

Bitcoin is the first and most prominent use of blockchain technology and has several features that distinguish it from other blockchains, including actual digital scarcity with a programmed limit of 21 million Bitcoin, forever.

With the help of Web3, blockchain technology has opened the door for companies across many industries––not just cryptocurrencies––to make more efficient, inexpensive, and secure business transactions without the need for a centralized authority. In other words, this a whole new ballgame.

Types of Blockchains: Permissionless v. Permissioned

There are two main types of blockchains.

Permissionless (public) blockchains are publicly available and fully decentralized DLTs, which means there is no central authority involved. They allow everyone to interact and participate in the validation process because they are based on open-source protocols, providing strong security. Validators must all vote to adopt the protocols and code that become the decision-making process of the blockchain. This makes it very difficult to change the behavior of the blockchain. Transactions are also fully transparent, and the nodes involved are almost always anonymous. They have, however, some technical restraints such as (i) less control over privacy (everyone has access to what is going on in the blockchain); and (ii) lower scalability and level of performance than permissioned blockchains––mainly due to the wide scope of their verification process and the amount of information they need to process.

Permissioned (private and consortium) blockchains are made by a smaller pool of validators who are partially decentralized DLTs. Only few known (as opposed to anonymous) and previously identified parties can access the ledger and participate in the validation process. Participants need permission to have a copy of the ledger. Thus, even though there is no central authority involved, a short group of participants validate and share the data relevant to transactions. This means less transparency and a higher risk of collusion and abuse of market power because only few nodes manage the transaction verification and consensus process. On the flip side, privacy is stronger, and they are more scalable and customizable.

This distinction is important to identify and analyze antitrust issues, depending on the type of blockchain involved. But the more the blockchain technology develops, the more those differences have become blurred. A combination of small permissioned blockchains with more open, wider, and decentralized ones (although sometimes still using encrypted transactions) had become a common trend. Interoperability between blockchains and existing network externalities are both expected to keep verification prices down while increasing security. In the end, the final configuration of a blockchain and its software code will depend on the strategy and business model selected, which is something that needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, considering the industry and applications involved.

The same applies to the enforcement of antitrust laws to this new technology. That’s why it is essential that companies using blockchain technology have a clear antitrust compliance policy in place and train their key employees accordingly. This is particularly important for those involved with the business strategy of the company and the ones interacting on a regular basis with competitors.

Group Boycotts: The Bitmain case and the Ethereum “Merge”

Private blockchain participants may breach antitrust rules if they exclude competitors from the blockchain without a legitimate business justification. Those who control the blockchain may limit potential competitors access to the chain or may not allow them to conduct transactions therein. This is called a group boycott or a concerted refusal to deal—where multiple entities combine to exclude or otherwise inhibit another party. When that “concerted” boycott involves market power or horizontal control over an essential facility or resource, courts typically always analyze it under the “per se” rule.

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Tying Agreement (Rope)

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, sometimes “tying” violates the antitrust laws. Whether you arrive at the tying-arrangement issue from the perspective of the person tying, the person buying the tied products, or the person competing with the person tying, you should know when the antitrust laws forbid the practice. Even kids may want to know whether tying violates the antitrust laws.

Most vertical agreements—like loyalty discounts, bundling, exclusive dealing, (even resale price maintenance agreements under federal law) etc.—require courts to delve into the pro-competitive and anti-competitive aspects of the arrangements before rendering a judgment. Tying is a little different.

Tying agreements—along with price-fixing, market allocation, bid-rigging, and certain group boycotts—are considered per se antitrust violations. That is, a court need not perform an elaborate market analysis to condemn the practice because it is inherently anticompetitive, without pro-competitive redeeming virtues. Even though tying is often placed in this category, it doesn’t quite fit there either. Again, it is a little different.

Proving market power isn’t typically required for practices considered per se antitrust violations, but it is for tying. And business justifications don’t, as a rule, save the day for per se violations either. But, in certain limited circumstances, a defendant to an antitrust action premised on tying agreements might defend its case by showing exactly why they tied the products they did.

At this stage, you might be asking, “what the heck is tying?” Do the antitrust laws prohibit certain types of knots? Do they insist that everyone buy shoes with Velcro instead of shoestrings? The antitrust laws can be paternalistic, but they don’t go that far.

A tying arrangement is where a customer may only purchase a particular item (the “tying” item) if the customer agrees to purchase a second item (the “tied” item), or at least agree not to purchase that second item from the seller’s competitors. It is sort of like bundling, but there is an element of express coercion. When the seller prohibits the buyer from purchasing a product from the seller’s competitor, this is often called a negative tie.

With bundling, a seller may offer a lower combined price to buyers that purchase two or more items, but the buyers always have the right to just purchase one of the items (and forgo the discount). With tying, by contrast, the buyer cannot just purchase the one item; if it wants the first item, it must purchase the second or at least decline to purchase the second from the seller’s competitor.

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Author:  Molly Donovan

Mr. Potter grows the best pumpkins in town. They’re big and round, perfect for carving, and specially treated with a patented spray that keeps Potter pumpkins squirrel-free for weeks. Genius!

Naturally, all the kids in town buy their Halloween pumpkins from Mr. Potter’s farmstand. They’re a bit more expensive than the competition’s pumpkins, but the price tag is worth the pumpkin perfection.

One thing the kids don’t buy at Mr. Potter’s farmstand: apple cider donuts. Everyone knows that Potter skimps on the cinnamon and sugar and the donuts are too dry besides. The other donuts available in town are loads better.

Seeing that his donuts were mostly going to waste, Mr. Potter could have exited the donut business altogether, but he considered himself a better business person than that. So, here’s what Mr. Potter came up with: no donuts, no pumpkins.

Eeek! Scary.

Mr. Potter made a sign reading:

One pumpkin + ½ dozen donuts = $12. Pumpkins NOT sold separately.

Mr. Potter felt this was perfectly fair—he should be rewarded for his ingenuity and his climb to the top of the local pumpkin market even if his customers felt a bit coerced to buy his donuts.

And the kids did feel coerced—having no choice but to swallow the undesirable donuts to get the pumpkins they needed for Halloween carving.

The donut competitors in town were equally mad. Mr. Potter’s scheme caused their sales to drop off dramatically, practically excluding them from the donut market, at least during the month of October.

But it is what it is, right?

Wrong. Fortunately for everyone (except Mr. Potter), Mikey’s mom happened to be an antitrust lawyer. (Mikey, age 4, was a connoisseur of both donuts and pumpkins, and was understandably very upset over the whole thing.)

When Mikey’s mom learned of Mr. Potter’s Halloween trick she said: this is an antitrust violation called tying!

Tying can run afoul of state and federal antitrust laws. Generally, tying is where a seller makes the sale of one product (or service) contingent on the sale of another product (or service)—leaving the consumer with no choice but to buy both. In tying analyses, most courts look at whether the seller has sufficient market power in the tying product (pumpkins) to unfairly restrain competition in the tied product (donuts).

Here’s what happened next. Mikey’s mom approached Mr. Potter—”Look,” she said. “We want your pumpkins, but not your donuts. Don’t you know this is an antitrust violation? Your donut tie-in is anticompetitive.”

Mr. Potter – clever as he is – responded, “I’m simply making my donuts more competitive. My competition is free to sell pumpkins and donuts together, just as I’m doing. And, I have no real market power for pumpkins anyway when considering the entire county’s many pumpkin patches (beyond just our small town). Plus, my supposed tie has no effects beyond the month of October anyway—no harm, no foul. I’ll take the risk.”

But after giving it more thought, even if he could win a lawsuit, Mr. Potter did not want to invite an expensive and burdensome antitrust litigation. So as most antitrust disputes go, the matter was settled.  Potter agreed to the following: Potter pumpkins sold at wholesale to all local donut shops. The town’s best apple cider donuts sold wholesale to Mr. Potter. No ties, no tricks. The result: Halloween treats for all sold at competitive prices, and everyone lived happily ever after. Until the next Halloween anyway…

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Author: Steven Cernak

Recently, FTC Commissioner Bedoya made one of his first speeches and called for a “return to fairness” when enforcing the antitrust laws. In particular, he called for renewed enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act. This speech is just the latest reason why businesses need to prepare for a new antitrust landscape. But Commissioner Bedoya and anyone else calling for drastic basic changes in antitrust enforcement need to be prepared to patiently work for such change with a skeptical judiciary.

In the speech, Bedoya argued that all the antitrust statutes were passed with the intention of improving the “fairness” of markets, not necessarily their “efficiency,” as the laws have come to be interpreted. Therefore, he wants the FTC to focus the interpretation of all the antitrust statutes on fairness, not efficiency, which he claims to be unambiguous: “People may not know what is efficient — but they know what’s fair.” Specifically, Bedoya called for a rejuvenated enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act and its prohibitions on various types of discriminations, usually against smaller competitors.

On Bedoya’s Robinson-Patman point in particular, please allow me a short “I told you so.” In a prior post, I explained that Robinson-Patman was forgotten but not gone, still affecting negotiations and leading to a few private suits each year. I have insisted on teaching my Antitrust students about the basics of the law, warning them that it is still alive and was unlikely to ever be repealed. If the FTC were to begin actively enforcing the statute after a couple decades, all that knowledge will come in handy once again for many more lawyers.

More generally, it is not clear that interpretation of antitrust law would need to jettison “efficiency” or consumer welfare and move to “fairness” to reach a different result in some of the anecdotes covered in Bedoya’s speech. At least some of the matters might have come out differently with a longer-term view of competition and consumer welfare. In my view — a view that I know Comm. Bedoya does not share — such a standard would be less ambiguous than trying to figure out what “fairness” requires in any situation.

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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 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 mix 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 these 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 protect its market power from 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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Colgate Doctrine

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust boutique law firm, we receive a varied assortment of antitrust-related questions. One of the most common topics involves resale-price maintenance.

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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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; you don’t want to be stuck in the crossfire of that.

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 straight 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) 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 in 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 (mostly).

You can read more about Leegin and how courts analyze these agreements here. 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.  You might also want to read Steven Cernak’s article about the four questions you should ask before worrying about the antitrust risks of new distributor restraints. And you can listen to a podcast with Molly Donovan and Steve Cernak about MAP Pricing here.

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Author: Molly Donovan

Antitrust for Kids is a new blog series designed to explain complex principles of U.S. competition law to practitioners and business people in plain English. Meant to be fun, and tongue-in-cheek, the series will serve as a useful primer to help the audience issue spot and better understand antitrust concepts like price discrimination, vertical restraints, tying, tacit agreements, and more.

Max and Margie are next-door neighbors on Lemon Lane. They both operate competing lemonade stands in their front yards all summer. And, both shop at the same grocery stores to purchase the same three ingredients necessary for making their finished drinks:  fresh lemons, sugar, ice.

While they’ve been frenemies for years, casually exchanging pleasantries at times, this summer the weather is very hot, and so is competition in the local lemonade market. In fact, Max and Margie barely acknowledge each another, unless it’s to bad mouth the other—each complaining that the other makes inferior lemonade.

One day, Margie announces a breakthrough that she’s made in the lemonade space:  STRAWBERRY LEMONADE. It’s a hit. Margie begins charging 2 times over cost for her strawberry drink, and the demand for plain old lemonade (sans strawberries) stops cold.

Max is incensed, naturally, and hatches a scheme to bring Margie down.

Max heads to the largest grocery store in town. There, he tells George (the grocer) that unless George stops selling lemons, sugar and ice to Margie, Max—and more importantly, Max’s dad—will pull all their business from George immediately.  EEEK!  That would be a real problem for George because Max’s dad buys nearly all his ingredients to operate the town’s most popular restaurant from George, which is a serious portion of George’s business.

George feels he has no choice.  He agrees with Max to stop selling lemons, sugar and ice to Margie.

[“Oh no,” thinks the antitrust lawyer, “that’s a vertical agreement, i.e., an agreement between a purchaser and a supplier, to restrain competition for the purchase of lemonade ingredients.”]

“But,” says George, “I don’t want to see all of my business with Margie go to the other grocers in town.  Hear what I’m saying?”  “Good idea,” thinks Max.

Max promptly visits the two other grocers in town, telling them that they’d better not sell lemonade ingredients to Margie, or else Max will boycott and so will his dad, both of whom provide a steady stream of business to these grocers as well (whenever George faces supply issues). Max takes care to add: George already agreed, so all of you grocers need to get on the same page.”

Not sure what else to do, these two additional grocers respectively agree to Max’s proposal. While the idea seems contrary to their individual interests, they can see Max means business and independently decide it’s easiest to comply.

Max circles back with George, telling him that all the grocers in town are on board. George nods.

[“Oh no,” thinks the antitrust lawyer, “now there’s a potential horizontal agreement, i.e., an agreement among competitors in the same level on the supply chain—in this case, the 3 grocers. Such an agreement could be implied even though the grocers never actually spoke to one another.”]

As a result of Max’s scheming, Margie can’t buy the ingredients she needs, and goes out of business. Max never can figure out how to add strawberries to his classic recipe for straight lemonade, so the town is left without strawberry lemonade indefinitely.

Margie’s very upset until she meets an antitrust lawyer to whom she tells her story. The antitrust lawyer explains to Margie that she’s the victim of a hub-and-spoke conspiracy—with Max at the hub, 3 separate vertical agreements between Max and each of the grocers (the spokes), and the 3 grocers all implicitly agreeing with one another, forming a horizontal agreement to boycott Margie on the “rim.” While courts may analyze the arrangement differently depending on the jurisdiction, it’s certainly an antitrust concern anywhere.

With her lawyer’s help, Margie files an antitrust claim, wins trebled damages, and lives happily ever after selling her strawberry lemonade, now world famous.

Max becomes a white-collar lawyer specializing in the defense of executives who allegedly violate the criminal antitrust laws. He’s still single.

THE MORALS OF THE STORY:

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Antitrust-Group-Boycott-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

Maybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors with each other—that is, if they have a horizontal relationship—they may be committing a per se antitrust violation.

A group boycott occurs when two or more persons or entities conspire to restrict the ability of someone to compete. This is sometimes called a concerted refusal to deal, which unlike a standard refusal to deal requires, not surprisingly, two or more people or entities. This antitrust claim fits into Section 1 of the Sherman Act, which requires a conspiracy or agreement.

A group boycott can create per se antitrust liability. But the per se rule is applied to group boycotts like it is applied to tying claims, which means only sometimes. By contrast, horizontal price-fixing, market allocation, and bid-rigging claims are almost always per se antitrust violations.

We receive a lot of questions about allegations of group boycott actions. This is probably the most frustrating type of antitrust conduct to experience as a victim. Companies often feel blocked from competing in their market. They might be the victim of marketplace bullying.

You can also read our Bona Law article on five questions you should ask about possible group boycotts.

Many antitrust violations, like price-fixing, tend to hurt a lot of people a little bit. A price-fixing scheme may increase prices ten percent, for example. Price-fixing victims feel the pain, but it is diffused pain among many. Typically either the government antitrust authorities or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Perpetrators of group-boycott activity, by contrast, usually direct their action toward one or very few victims. The harm is not diffused; it is concentrated. And it is often against a competitor that is just trying to establish itself in the market. The victim is often a company that seeks to disrupt the market, creating a threat to the established players. This is common.

The defendants may act like bullies to try to keep that upstart competitor from gaining traction in the market. Sometimes trade associations lead the anticompetitive charge.

Group boycott activity often occurs when someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business. The current competitors—who like things just the way they are—band together to use their joint power to keep the enterprising competitor from succeeding, i.e. stealing their customers.

Sometimes group-boycott claims are further complicated when the established competitors—the bullies—use their relationships with government power to further suppress competition. Indeed, sometimes the competitors actually exercise governmental power.

This is what occurred in the NC Dental v. FTC case (discussed here, and here; our amicus brief is here): A group of dentists on the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners engaged in joint conduct, using their government power, to thwart teeth-whitening competition from non-dentists.

This, in my opinion, is the most disgusting of antitrust violations: a group of bullies engaging government power to knock out innovation and competition. And we, at least in the past, have watched  the Federal Trade Commission take a pro-active role against such anticompetitive thuggery.

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Distribution-Antitrust-Developments-300x188

Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Recently, I was researching 2021 antitrust developments to update my Antitrust in Distribution and Franchising book and draft a long article for another publication. That research confirmed that new government antitrust enforcers and their actions gathered the most attention last year — but this blog covered those issues already, such as here and here and here. This post discusses the private antitrust litigation developments affecting distribution that I uncovered but that might have flown under your radar.

Refusal to Deal and Predatory Pricing

Despite the impression left by the mainstream media, not all antitrust cases involving claims of monopolization involved Amazon or Facebook.  Other defendants faced claims of gaining or maintaining a monopoly through refusals to deal or predatory pricing schemes.

Careful readers will recall the anticipation last year that Viamedia Inc. v. Comcast Corp. might generate a Supreme Court opinion on refusal to deal issues.  Here, the defendant monopolist had stopped dealing with the plaintiff after years of doing so and, allegedly, caused competitive harm.  The district court had dismissed the refusal to deal claim by explicitly following the Tenth Circuit’s opinion in Novell, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., authored by then-Judge Gorsuch, because it found that the defendant’s conduct was not “irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.”  The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding the court’s application of the Novell standard inappropriate at the motion to dismiss stage when a plaintiff need only plausibly allege anticompetitive conduct even if the defendant might later try to prove a procompetitive rationale.

The defendant sought Supreme Court review and the Justices asked for the views of the Solicitor General. The Solicitor General did not recommend that the Court hear the appeal. In June, the Court denied the writ of certiorari. After remand, the plaintiff chose to drop its refusal to deal theory of the case and proceed only on a claim of illegal tying. Therefore, the opinion will stand and future monopolist defendants, at least in the Seventh Circuit, will have more difficulty dismissing refusal-to-deal claims. Instead of simply asserting that some rational potential procompetitive purpose or effect is self-evident from the complaint, the defendant will have to show that the allegations do not raise any plausible anticompetitive purpose or effect, a much more difficult burden.

In another refusal to deal case, OJ Commerce LLC v. KidKraft, LP, the defendant won summary judgment on plaintiff’s refusal-to-deal claim. Plaintiff was a discounting online retailer that had sold defendant’s products, including children’s wooden play kitchens, for years. An affiliate of plaintiff then began making wooden play kitchens that plaintiff also sold on its website.  Defendant objected, claiming that the affiliates’ kitchens were knock-offs of defendant’s products and that plaintiff’s sales of defendant’s products were plummeting. Eventually, defendant terminated its relationship with plaintiff, who then sued alleging illegal monopolization through a refusal to deal.

The court began with the proposition that even a monopolist is not required to do business with a rival. The court recognized that the Supreme Court had found an exception to that proposition in Aspen Skiing Co. but only if defendant’s termination of prior conduct was irrational but for its anticompetitive effect.  The court found “this is hardly the case here” as the defendant had shown several other potential explanations for its termination of plaintiff. As a result, the court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion.

Predatory pricing remains a popular claim by plaintiffs against alleged monopolists, despite the difficult standard for such claims imposed by the Supreme Court. In such claims, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant’s extraordinarily low prices will drive out competitors, which in turn will allow the defendant to later raise prices and harm consumers. In Brooke Group, the Court set a difficult standard to meet because “there is a consensus among commentators that predatory pricing schemes are rarely tried, and even more rarely successful.” Also, it can be difficult to distinguish low pro-competitive prices from predatorily low ones. Subsequent plaintiffs have found it difficult to successfully allege, let alone win, such claims.

Last year, we described an exception where a defunct ride-hailing company’s predatory pricing claims against Uber survived a motion to dismiss. In 2021, a taxi company was not as successful and its similar claims were dismissed (although other non-antitrust claims survived). In Desoto Cab Co. v. Uber Technologies, Inc., the court dismissed the claim because the plaintiff did not allege barriers to entry or expansion for new or existing competitors sufficient to allow defendant to recoup its losses. Plaintiff’s mere invocation of network effects without any allegations regarding how they might create entry barriers in this market also was not enough. Finally, unlike the plaintiff in last year’s case, this plaintiff failed to allege why Lyft no longer could prevent defendant’s recoupment through higher prices.

Tying and Agreement

2021 also brought opinions on some of the basic elements of a tying claim and what facts amounted to an agreement.

One element of a successful tying claim is that the defendant is selling two separate products, the tying and the tied product.  To make that determination, courts must find that “there is a sufficient demand for the purchase of [the tied product] separate from [the tying product] to identify a distinct product market in which it is efficient to offer [the former] separately from [the latter].”  In AngioDynamics, Inc. v. C.R. Bard, Inc., the court denied competing summary judgment motions from the parties on this question. The defendant had sought and received regulatory approval to sell the tied product separately; however, it had actually made only a few such sales and then just to a single customer. The only other competitor that sold both products did sell them separately; however, it was not clear that its conditions were identical to defendant’s. The court, therefore, could not determine as a matter of law that the consumer demand was sufficient to make it efficient for defendant to offer the tied product separately.   

For every Sherman Act Section 1 case, a successful plaintiff must show an agreement between defendant and some other entity. To meet that burden at summary judgment or trial, plaintiff must present “evidence that tends to exclude the possibility that the [the defendants] were acting independently.” In a typical distribution case, a terminated distributor claims an anticompetitive agreement between its supplier and some other distributor, usually based on some complaints about the terminated distributor to the supplier from the other distributor.

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