Articles Posted in Types of Antitrust Claims

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Author: Jarod Bona

Have you ever considered the idea that your business would be much more profitable if you didn’t have to compete so hard with that pesky competitor or group of competitors?

Unless you have no competition—which is great for profits, read Peter Thiel’s book—this notion has probably crossed your mind. And that’s okay—the government doesn’t indict and prosecute the antitrust laws for what is solely in your mind, at least not yet.

But, except in limited instances, you should definitely not divide markets or customers with your competitors. Indeed, you shouldn’t even discuss the idea with your competitors, or, really, anyone (many antitrust cases are made on inconveniently worded internal emails).

The reason that you shouldn’t discuss it is that market-allocation agreements are one of the few types of conduct that the antitrust laws consider so bad they attach the label “per se antitrust violation.” The other per se antitrust offenses are price-fixing, bid-rigging, maybe tying, and sometimes group boycotts.

What is a Market-Allocation Agreement?

When competitors divide a market in which they can compete into sections in which one or more competitors decline to compete in favor of others, they have entered into a market-allocation agreement.

The antitrust problem with a market-allocation agreement is that a group of customers experience a reduction in the number of suppliers that serve them. The companies dividing the markets benefit, of course, because they have less competition for at least some of the market, which means that it is easier to raise prices or reduce quality.

It doesn’t matter, from an antitrust perspective, how the competitors divide the markets or even whether they both end up competing for that product or service after the agreement.

For an obvious example, ponder a small town with two large real-estate brokerage businesses—Northern Real Estate Brokers and Southern Real Estate Brokers. A river flows through the town, roughly dividing it into northern and southern regions. The Northern Real Estate Brokers mostly attract clients north of the river and the Southern Real Estate Brokers usually service clients south of the river. But the river is passable; there is a bridge and it isn’t that big of a river anyway. So sometimes agents of each brokerage will participate in transactions on the other side river from their normal client base.

Late one evening, in the middle of the bridge, the leaders of the two companies meet and agree that from that point on, each company would only represent sellers for properties on their side of the river.

This is a market-allocation agreement and the leaders could find themselves in antitrust litigation, or even jail (the Department of Justice will often prosecute per se antitrust violations).

While the geographic boundary created an obvious method for the two companies to divide markets, they also could have agreed not to steal each other’s existing customers (market allocation based upon incumbency, which is common). So if a real estate agent from the northern brokerage firm won a customer, no agent from the southern brokerage firm would compete for that customer’s business in the future.

This customer allocation agreement is also a per se antitrust violation. To see how this type of antitrust offense can develop in a seemingly innocent way, read our article on the anatomy of a per se antitrust violation.

In this way, the antitrust laws actually encourage stealing customers.

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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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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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Tying Agreement (Rope)

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in some instances, “tying” violate 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.

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.

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.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Let’s pretend that you sell three different types of protein powder: Whey Protein, Casein Protein, and Pea Protein. You sell them each for $10 per container. But for someone—like myself—that likes to include several types of protein in their morning smoothie, you offer a special deal of $25 total for purchasing all three types of protein at once (compared to $30 at the regular price).

Congratulations, you just offered a bundled discount, the subject of this article.

Should you worry that your bundled discount breached the antitrust laws?

Let’s dig in.

You probably recognized the maneuver above because bundled discounts are pervasive in a market system. Companies like it when customers purchase several products and may thus offer a discount—a reduction in margin—when customers do so. At the same time, customers like discounts, so they may purchase a second, third, or fourth product from the same company to obtain the discount.

So what is the problem?

Well, like many pricing policies, there exist a set of conditions such that certain bundled discounts create anticompetitive harm that exceeds their procompetitive benefits.

That sounds too formal, so let’s try this: Sometimes a big company that sells lots of different products can eliminate its competitors that sell fewer types of products by manipulating the prices of their bundles.

How does that work?

If your company has market or monopoly power, your profits are at least a little extra. This is sometimes called supra-competitive pricing or monopoly profits (or monopoly rents if you prefer economist-speak). If that is your world, you worry about not just competing, but also about maintaining your extra level of profits that only exist with market or monopoly power.

Because these extra profits can be so significant, those that have market or monopoly power will burn extraordinary resources to hold onto that power. This, of course, is one of the wasteful aspects of monopoly—the resources that go into maintaining it.

You must keep feeding the monopoly beast or it may grow weak and competition will kill it.

Anyway, monopolists are brilliant at manipulating pricing to exclude their competitors. And even though bundled discounts are usually pro-competitive, a monopolist in certain situations can employ them to exclude competition and protect their market power and, thus, their outsized profits.

In what situation can a monopolist manipulate bundled discounting to maintain or extend their monopoly?

Let’s turn to an actual case that made it to the Third Circuit a couple years after I graduated from law school: LePage’s, Inc. v. 3M, 324 F.3d 141 (3d Cir. 2003).

You’ve probably heard of 3M—Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. They are based in Saint Paul, Minnesota and they are important to the community. I am from Minnesota, originally, and as a local, you hear a lot of good about this innovative company. (Bona Law also has a Minnesota office).

3M makes many products, but relevant to this Third Circuit case, they manufacturer transparent tape (under the Scotch brand)—just like their upstart competitor, LePage’s. I am speaking, of course, from the time perspective of the lawsuit. I am certain that 3M still makes transparent tape, but I haven’t kept up with LePage’s.

Anyway, unlike LePage’s, 3M also made many other products that they sold to major customers that purchased their Scotch tape. Importantly, 3M had monopoly power in the market for transparent tape.

So, according to the lawsuit, here is what 3M did: They offered discounts to major customers (retailers, etc.) conditioned on those customers purchasing products from each of six of 3M’s product lines. 3M linked the size of the rebate to the number of product lines in which the customer met purchasing targets. And the number of targets (i.e. minimum purchases in separate product lines) would determine the rebate that the customer would receive on all of its purchases. So each customer had a substantial incentive to meet targets across all product lines, to maximize the discounts/rebates.

LePage’s sold transparent tape, but not all of the other products. So they didn’t stand a chance to compete because the customers for transparent tape would purchase from 3M because by doing so, they receive substantial discounts on a bunch of other products too.

The Third Circuit explained that “[t]he principal anticompetitive effect of bundled rebates as offered by 3M is that when offered by a monopolist, they may foreclose portions of the market to a potential competitor who does not manufacture an equally diverse group of products and who therefore cannot make a comparable offer.” (155).

Of course, if there were a competitor of 3M, even separate from LePage’s, that could offer these product lines, the Court may have held that there wasn’t anticompetitive harm or antitrust injury.

If you are inclined toward numbers, you might spit out your drink and say—“Gosh darn it! Hold on a Second! How do we know whether the discount forecloses the market or is even anticompetitive without getting into the actual prices and discounts? If LePage’s is super inefficient or insists on crazy-high prices, should they really be able to utilize the machinery of the federal government to stop a benevolent monopolist from reducing their prices?”

Good instincts!

LePage’s was a controversial decision for that reason. While 3M’s bundling could have been anticompetitive, the Court didn’t go deep enough into the analysis to really understand if they were.

For some number crunching, let’s travel west to the Ninth Circuit and see what they did a few years later in Cascade Health Solutions v. PeaceHealth, 515 F.3d 973 (updated Feb. 1, 2008).

The Discount-Attribution Test for Bundled Discounts

In PeaceHealth, the Ninth Circuit overturned a jury verdict against defendant for violating Section 2 of the Sherman Act by bundling (among other conduct). The trial court erred in providing the jury with a LePage’s instruction on bundling that didn’t include specific price-cost requirements.

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Author: Jarod Bona

The short answer to the statute-of-limitations question is that an antitrust action must be commenced “within four years after the cause of action accrued.” (15 U.S.C. § 15b). And the antitrust cause of action accrues when the defendant acts in violation of the antitrust laws and injures plaintiff.

But it isn’t always this simple. Sometimes the statute of limitations doesn’t start running right away, even when the antitrust defendant actually injures the plaintiff. Unlike the victim of a battery—maybe a punch to the face—an antitrust-law victim doesn’t always know right away that he or she or it (i.e. a corporation) suffered injury from an anticompetitive act.

This is called the discovery rule and it isn’t unique to antitrust. There are other types of claims in which the victim doesn’t even know about the injury. Fraud is a good example. The victim may not know that he or she has been swindled. When they find out about the fraud, the statute of limitations may have passed. But if the cause of action doesn’t accrue until discovery, the victim will still have the standard time period to file a lawsuit.

The discovery rule could also apply to a medical malpractice case—the sort of case Bona Law doesn’t handle. Like a fraud injury, the victim may be walking around totally oblivious to an injury. Maybe during a surgery the doctor’s Fitbit fell off and landed in the patient? The doctor, none the wiser because he or she was concentrating so hard, simply didn’t notice. Presumably a Fitbit left in the body causes some sort of medical injury, so when the patient/victim finds out about it, the cause of action begins to accrue. Of course, I don’t know if Fitbits are often left in bodies because we don’t do medical malpractice work.

Not all courts apply the discovery rule in antitrust cases: Check out this article by Michael Christian and Eric Buetzow if you have a Law360 subscription. Of course, even if a Court applies the injury rule to the exclusion of the discovery rule (and they sometimes do), a plaintiff could still invoke fraudulent concealment to postpone accrual of many antitrust claims.

You will likely see a fraudulent concealment count in any case involving a long-lasting conspiracy. That is because the nature of a conspiracy—in most cases—is to hide the anticompetitive conduct. Most antitrust claims where a discovery rule would be useful are ones in which a plaintiff could likely invoke fraudulent concealment.

Fraudulent concealment means that the defendants are purposely trying to hide their bad conduct, with an intent to deceive the victims.

So, for example, if there are a group of competitors that are engaged in a market-allocation or bid-rigging conspiracy and they also cover up the conspiracy, it is likely that a Court will find that the conspirators committed a fraudulent concealment such that the antitrust cause of action doesn’t begin to accrue until the victim discovers the conspiracy.

You will see claims of fraudulent concealment in many antitrust complaints. Of course, if you are an antitrust plaintiff, you may have to show that you exercised diligence during the concealment period.

You can read our article about fraudulent concealment in the antitrust context here.

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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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Golden Gate Bridge California

Author: Jarod Bona

In an earlier article, we discussed Leegin and the controversial issue of resale-price maintenance agreements under the federal antitrust laws. We’ve also written about these agreements here. And these issues often come up when discussing Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) Policies, which you can read about here.

As you might recall, in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. (Kay’s Closet), the US Supreme Court reversed a nearly 100-year-old precedent and held that resale-price maintenance agreements are no longer per se illegal. They are instead subject to the rule of reason.

But what many people don’t consider is that there is another layer of antitrust laws that govern market behavior—state antitrust law. Many years ago during my DLA Piper days, I co-authored an article with Jeffrey Shohet about this topic. In many instances, state antitrust law directly follows federal antitrust law, so state antitrust law doesn’t come into play. (Of course, it will matter for indirect purchaser class actions, but that’s an entirely different topic).

For many states, however, the local antitrust law deviates from federal law—sometimes in important ways. If you are doing business in such a state—and many companies do business nationally, of course—you must understand the content and application of state antitrust law. Two examples of states with unique antitrust laws and precedent are California, with its Cartwright Act, and New York, with its Donnelly Act.

California and the Cartwright Act

This blog post is about California and the Cartwright Act. Although my practice, particularly our antitrust practice, is national, I am located in San Diego, California and concentrate a little extra on California. Bona Law, of course, also has offices in New York office, Minneapolis, and Detroit.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Supreme Court’s decision in Leegin to remove resale-price maintenance from the limited category of per se antitrust violations was quite controversial and created some backlash. There were attempts in Congress to overturn the ruling and many states have reaffirmed that the agreements are still per se illegal under their state antitrust laws, even though federal antitrust law shifted course.

The Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007. It is 2020, of course. So you’d think by now we would have a good idea whether each state would follow or depart from Leegin with regard to whether to treat resale-price maintenance agreements as per se antitrust violations.

But that is not the case in California, under the Cartwright Act. Indeed, it is an open question.

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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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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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