Author: Steven Cernak
The twists and turns of the various antitrust challenges to the proposed Illumina/Grail merger have provided antitrust practitioners numerous lessons the last two years. This week, the FTC commissioners unanimously voted to overturn their administrative law judge’s initial decision and order Illumina to divest the controlling stake in Grail that it had purchased. The FTC’s opinions provided some lessons on vertical-merger challenges and the constitutionality of FTC organization and processes. But because the parties plan to appeal, this week’s decision is just the latest turn in a long and winding road.
Facts and Prior Developments
Here is a summary of the facts and past developments from our earlier writings. Illumina is a provider of a certain type of DNA sequencing, including instruments, consumables, and reagents. According to the FTC’s complaint, it is the dominant provider of this DNA sequencing.
Grail is one of several companies developing a multi-cancer early detection (MCED) test. An MCED promises to be able to detect biomarkers associated with up to fifty types of cancer by extracting the DNA from a simple blood sample. To work, the MCED needs DNA sequencing supply. According to the FTC complaint, the type of DNA sequencing that works best — and with which Grail and all other MCED developers have been working — is the type supplied by Illumina.
The parties announced Illumina’s proposed acquisition of Grail in September 2020 and said that it would speed global adoption of Grail’s MCED and enhance patient access to the tool. In late March 2021, the FTC challenged this transaction by filing an administrative complaint before its own administrative law judge (ALJ). The FTC also sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The parties successfully removed the case to the Southern District of California.
Shortly thereafter, the European Commission announced that it too would investigate the transaction, even though the transaction did not meet its usual thresholds. The Commission made this decision at the request of several member states. The parties challenged the Commission’s jurisdiction and its usual requirement that the transaction not close until the Commission completed its investigation. As a result of the European action, the FTC decided that its federal court case to block closing was no longer necessary and so dismissed it.
So, in Europe, the investigation continued while in the U.S. the parties prepared for and held the trial in front of the FTC’s ALJ. During this time, the parties closed the transaction. Last Fall, the Commission decided to block the transaction. The parties are appealing that decision. Just before the European decision, the FTC ALJ dismissed the complaint in an unexpected decision ruling for the first time against the FTC in a merger case. In a nutshell, the ALJ concluded that the FTC failed to prove that Illumina’s post-acquisition ability and incentive to advantage Grail to the disadvantage of Grail’s alleged rivals would likely result in a substantial lessening of competition in the relevant market for the research, development, and commercialization of MCED tests. FTC Complaint Counsel appealed the FTC’s own ALJ decision. Earlier this week, the four Commissioners unanimously agreed to overturn it.
Review of Facts, Vertical Merger Standards, and FTC Constitutionality
In late 2021, the FTC voted to withdraw its vertical merger guidelines; therefore, this opinion is one of the first chances since then for practitioners to see how these particular Commissioners would approach vertical mergers. The Commission’s opinion asserted that “case law provides two different but overlapping standards for evaluating the likely effect of a vertical transaction:” Brown Shoe’s focus on share of the market foreclosed and other structural factors versus the more recent focus on the merged entity’s ability and incentive to foreclose rivals from necessary inputs or distribution channels.
In her concurring opinion (and one of her final actions before her resignation), Commissioner Wilson asserted that while Brown Shoe has not been overruled, its most recent application was in 1979, more recent FTC actions have focused on the ability/incentive framework, and some commentators have called Brown Shoe and its focus on market share, “largely repudiated.” Because the DOJ Antitrust Division has not abandoned the vertical merger guidelines and recent courts have focused more on the ability/incentive framework, the Commission opinion here introduces uncertainty for parties as to the standard they should follow for evaluating vertical mergers—the Court and DOJ standard or this new FTC standard?
While there was some disagreement on the legal standard, the four Commissioners agreed on the application to the facts: The transaction was anticompetitive and should be unwound. As per FTC procedure, the Commission reviewed the ALJ’s fact and legal findings de novo and disagreed with them in key areas. Below, we summarize three examples.
First, the ALJ had found that Illumina had the ability to foreclose Grail’s rivals in various ways; but the ALJ found these facts “less significant” in this case because that ability came from being the only practical supplier of the sequencing, regardless of the Grail transaction. The ALJ contrasted those facts with the recent DOJ AT&T vertical merger review, where the alleged ability would be created only by the challenged transaction. The Commission opinion found this analysis “flawed” and that Complaint Counsel must show only that the ability existed, not that it was created by the proposed merger.
Also, the ALJ rejected concerns about Illumina’s increased incentive to foreclose Grail rivals for several reasons, especially because successful commercial sale of the MCED tests of those competitors was so far in the future that a foreclosure strategy now made no sense. The Commission opinion disagreed, finding that foreclosure tactics now would destroy current and ongoing R&D competition and help cement Grail’s very profitable production future.
Finally, the ALJ placed considerable weight on Illumina’s “Open Offer,” the binding long-term agreement that it had offered to sign with any Grail competitors in need of Illumina’s services. The Commission opinion disagreed with the parties’ assertion that the burden of dealing with the competitive effects of the Open Offer should be part of Complaint Counsel’s prima facie case. Instead, the Commission found that the burden rested on the parties in their rebuttal of the prima facie case because the Open Offer was a proposed remedy to a competitive problem caused by the proposed transaction. Then, the Commission disagreed with the ALJ and found that the Open Offer had too many holes in it to alleviate the fears of foreclosure of Grail competitors.
The Commission opinion also quickly disposed of several defenses raised by the parties asserting that the FTC structure and processes are unconstitutional. The Commission found that its ability to decide to bring a case before its ALJ or in federal court did not violate the principle that Congress cannot delegate legislative powers. Also, the Commission once again rejected the argument that the Constitution’s Article 2 is violated by having the ALJ and his superiors, the Commissioners, insulated from Executive Branch removal. (A preliminary related question is before the Supreme Court this term in the Axon case and similar questions are still pending in the FTC’s JUUL case, as we described earlier.) Finally, the Commission summarily dispatched the due process and equal protection claims. The former allegedly arose from the FTC’s structure of having the Commissioners both vote out the case and later adjudicate it. The latter allegedly arose from how the FTC divides antitrust enforcement responsibilities with DOJ Antitrust Division, which is subject to different processes. The reaction of the Commissioners to these arguments was unsurprising but expect these issues to be more fully briefed and argued on appeal, especially depending on the Axon decision and opinion.
In its press release, Illumina expressed a desire to appeal quickly and try to get an appellate decision here in the U.S., and possibly in Europe, by late this year or early 2024. So, it seems clear that this step is just the latest, not the last, on a very twisty road.