Articles Posted in Types of Antitrust Claims

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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 ConspiracyLike life, sometimes antitrust conspiracies are complicated. Not everything always fits into a neat little package. An articulate soundbite or an attractive infograph isn’t necessarily enough to explain the reality of what is going on.

The paradigm example of an antitrust conspiracy is the smoke-filled room of competitors with their evil laughs deciding what prices their customers are going to pay. This is a horizontal conspiracy and is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Another, less dramatic, part of the real estate of antitrust law involves manufacturers, distributors, and retailers and the prices they set and the deals they make. This usually relates to vertical agreements and typically invites the more-detailed rule-of-reason analysis by courts. One example of this type of an agreement is a resale-price-maintenance agreement.

But sometimes a conspiracy will include a mixture of parties at different levels of the distribution chain. In other words, the overall agreement or conspiracy may include both horizontal (competitor) relationships and vertical relationships. In some circumstances, everyone in the conspiracy—even those that are not conspiring with any competitors—could be liable for a per se antitrust violation.

As the Ninth Circuit recently explained in In re Musical Instruments and Equipment Antitrust Violation, “One conspiracy can involve both direct competitors and actors up and down the supply chain, and hence consist of both horizontal and vertical agreements.” (1192). One such hybrid form of conspiracy (there are others) is sometimes called a “hub-and-spoke” conspiracy.

In a hub-and-spoke conspiracy, a hub (which is often a dominant retailer or purchaser) will have identical or similar agreements with several spokes, which are often manufacturers or suppliers. By itself, this is merely a series of vertical agreements, which would be subject to the rule of reason.

But when each of the manufacturers agree among each other to reach the challenged agreements with the hub (the retailer), the several sets of vertical agreements may descend into a single per se antitrust violation. To complete the hub-and-spoke analogy, the retailer is the hub, the manufacturers are the spokes and the agreement among the manufacturers is the wheel that forms around the spokes.

In many instances, the impetus of a hub-and-spoke antitrust conspiracy is a powerful retailer that wants to knock out other retail competition. In the internet age, you might see this with a strong brick-and-mortar retailer that wants to take a hit at e-commerce competitors (I receive many such calls about this scenario).

The powerful retailer knows that the several manufacturers need the volume the retailer can deliver, so it has some market power over these retailers. With market power—which translates to negotiating power—you can ask for stuff. Usually what you ask for is better pricing, terms, etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the most recent issue of The Antitrust Law Journal, attorney Sean P. Gates describes several possible approaches to these discounts, analyzing the good and the bad for each. His article, Antitrust by Analogy: Developing Rules for Loyalty Rebates and Bundled Discounts, is really quite good.

I identified this article as a must-read in a previous blog post, and finally had the opportunity to review it over the weekend (Note: I had been busy starting a new law firm, so fell behind on my reading). I am glad that I did. Since most of the country is having winter this year, I won’t point out that I read it on my San Diego outdoor patio while enjoying the whiff of freshly-cut lawn, the sight of palm trees, and the distraction of whether to eat a delicious orange right off the tree. I won’t mention it even though after many years in Minnesota—I put in my cold time—I would feel justified in doing so.

Anyway, I recommend the article generally, but more specifically for the following people: (1) antitrust attorneys that are into exclusionary conduct; (2) non-antitrust attorneys with clients that sell in a distribution network (including to retailers); (3) business people involved in pricing and marketing decisions for their company; and (4) antitrust law students that are looking for a good review of various types of exclusionary conduct.

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This article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste. Like most antitrust issues today, questions about loyalty discounts are relevant across the globe as competition regimes and courts grapple with the best way to address them.

Companies like to reward their best customers with discounts. It happens everywhere from the local sandwich shop to markets for medical devices, pharmaceutical products, airline tickets, computers, consumer products, and many other products and services.

Customers like loyalty-discount programs (or rebates) because they get more for less. And the reason so many companies offer them is because they are successful.

Everyone wins, right?

Usually. But the program could very well violate antitrust and competition laws in the United States, the European Commission, or other jurisdictions.

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The Internet didn’t fall down after my first post, so I thought I’d try another.

In the US, certain conduct is so obviously anticompetitive that antitrust law labels it per se illegal. These restraints lack redeeming pro-competitive value in almost all instances, so the law allows plaintiffs an important short-cut to pleading and proving such a claim.

The short-cut is that a plaintiff asserting a per-se-antitrust claim need not demonstrate anticompetitive harm. The law presumes such harm. This is huge because this element is one of the most difficult and expensive to prove.

Proving anticompetitive harm is often tough. Plaintiffs usually start by defining the relevant product and geographic markets. This is obvious is some cases; difficult and disputed in others.

Within that defined market, the plaintiff will then usually have to show market or monopoly power, then actual competitive harm in that market that exceeds any competitive benefits from the challenged restraint. It doesn’t always go like this, but that is the typical journey.

Proving all of this almost always requires expert economic testimony, which is—again—almost always disputed by defendants’ economic expert.

So this anticompetitive harm element can become quite burdensome and expensive. That is why fitting a case into a per-se-antitrust package is so valuable for a plaintiff, and risky for a defendant.

Price-fixing agreements usually come to mind as the prototypical per se antitrust violation (keep in mind that antitrust views agreements to limit volume as effectively the same thing). Other examples are market-allocation agreements and certain boycotts.

Let’s talk about market-allocation agreements—as price-fixing is a bit too obvious—so we can see how dangerously easy it is for this per-se-antitrust violation to develop.

Market allocation is an antitrust problem because competitors are agreeing not to compete. The most simple market-allocation agreement is geographic—“you take customers West of the Mississippi, and we will take the ones to the East.”

But sometimes it develops more subtly.

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