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Author: Jarod Bona

Antitrust law evolves in such a way that opinions from federal appellate courts are always interesting in how they affect the doctrine. But there are a select few judges who earn even closer attention when they write an antitrust opinion. Judge Diane P. Wood of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is one of those judges.

In Marion Healthcare, LLC v. Becton Dickinson & Company, the Seventh Circuit, through Judge Wood’s opinion, effectively articulates the co-conspiracy exception to the Illinois Brick rule. The opinion is significant not because it marks a departure in the prevailing law, but because it explains it so well. This is an example of an opinion that courts and attorneys will likely cite in the future when this issue comes up.

So I thought it would be helpful to tell you about it.

Indirect Purchasers and Illinois Brick

You might need a little bit of background first. The indirect-purchaser rule—derived from a Supreme Court decision known as Illinois Brick—prohibits indirect-purchaser plaintiffs from using for damages under federal antitrust law. This typically arises in a class action, but the doctrine isn’t limited to class cases.

We discuss the indirect-purchaser rule in more detail in a two-part article:

  1. Indirect Purchaser Lawsuits, Illinois Brick and Apple v. Pepper (Part 1): This article describes the background and basics of the indirect-purchaser prohibition.
  2. Apple v. Pepper, Indirect Purchaser Antitrust Class Actions, and the Future of Illinois Brick (Part 2): This article describes the Supreme Court’s recent Apple v. Pepper decision and what it means for the future of Illinois Brick and the indirect-purchaser rule.

If you haven’t already read those two articles, go read them and come back. We will wait for you.

Marion Healthcare, LLC v. Becton Dickinson & Company

Healthcare markets are complicated, distorted, and a little bit confusing. The government plays a major role, which distorts markets. In addition, there are so many layers of entities that participate in every aspect of healthcare that the markets aren’t always easy to unpack. And, of course, insurance companies pay much of the costs, but the decisions on spending are a combination of patients, insurance companies, doctors, governments and healthcare facilities, among others.

In this case, plaintiffs are healthcare companies that purchased medical devises from Becton Dickson & Company. But they don’t purchase them directly from Becton. Instead, they and other purchases rely on a GPO to negotiate prices with Becton (and other manufacturers). Once the GPO and manufacturer reach an agreement, the company that needs the supplies can accept or reject it. If they accept it, they actually purchase the product through a distributor (pursuant to the GPO-negotiated contract), who then enters contracts with both the purchaser (the healthcare provider) and the supplier (in this case, Becton).

You might anticipate at this point that figuring out whether the plaintiff is a direct purchaser could get confusing.

In this case, plaintiffs alleged that Becton (the supplier), the GPOs (that negotiated the deal), and the distributors were all part of the conspiracy, engaging in a variety of anticompetitive conduct, including exclusive dealing.

The district court dismissed the case, holding that the conspiracy rule (more on that below) didn’t apply because the case didn’t involve simple vertical price-fixing.

The Seventh Circuit held that the district court erred.

The Co-Conspirator Exception to Illinois Brick

For the Court to apply Illinois Brick, it must determine which entity is the seller and which entity is the direct purchaser. As you might recall, the Supreme Court grappled with this in Apple v. Pepper.

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Author: Steven Cernak

Like many crisis situations, the Coronavirus Pandemic has created concerns and even outcry about price gouging for certain products.

If your company manufactures one of these products and your dealers and retailers have suddenly jacked up prices for them, what can you do?

Real Estate

Author: Jarod Bona

I am an antitrust attorney and CEO of a growing business, but my wife loves real estate and we have been investors over the years. You may have seen our real-estate investing website. So when antitrust and real-estate issues combine, I pay close attention. Not surprisingly, we receive a lot of calls about antitrust violations or issues in the real-estate industry. In fact, the Department of Justice and FTC have recently been studying antitrust/real-estate issues.

Antitrust law is especially relevant to real-estate professionals like brokers and salespeople because (1) competitor brokers both compete and cooperate on a daily basis; (2) prices and commission splits are often announced and well-known; (3) there is a history of tension and battles between a traditional business model and new business models (this can create antitrust litigation in any market); (4) associations and cooperative Multiple-Listing Services (MLS) play large roles in the industry; (5) US antitrust enforcers, like the Department of Justice and FTC, have seriously scrutinized the real-estate industry.

Here are five antitrust issues that real-estate professionals should understand:  Continue reading →

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Author: Steven Cernak

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

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

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

The Basics of the Robinson-Patman Act

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

Section 2(a) Price Discrimination – Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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large-monopoly-bus-300x169

Author: Jarod Bona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Possession of Monopoly Power in the Relevant Market

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

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

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Author: Jarod Bona

This is part two of an article about the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Apple v. Pepper, the classic antitrust cases of Illinois Brick and Hanover Shoe, indirect purchaser lawsuits, and state antitrust claims. If you haven’t read that article, you should because it provides the background for this article.

If you read it, but it has been awhile because we published it a long time ago—yes, we’ve been busy opening offices and hiring new attorneys (and attorneys and attorneys)—here is where we left off:

We described how the US Supreme Court decided to deal with the issue of both direct purchasers and indirect purchasers wanting damages for alleged antitrust violations. The Supreme Court first prohibited defendants from raising the defense that direct purchasers “passed-on” any damages to indirect purchasers (Hanover Shoe).

Later, the Supreme Court prohibited indirect purchasers from seeking damages for federal antitrust claims (Illinois Brick).

When the indirect purchasers—represented by a resourceful bunch—then ran to the states and brought actions under state antitrust law, the Supreme Court reviewed whether those claims should be preempted by federal law. They (perhaps surprisingly), let the claims continue to go forward (California v. ARC America Corp.).

So the Supreme Court left a bit of a mess in the antitrust class action world. Defendants can’t argue that direct purchasers passed on any damages, indirect purchasers can only bring injunctive actions under federal antitrust law, and indirect purchasers bring damage actions under state antitrust laws (but only some state antitrust laws because not all of them allow indirect purchaser damage claims). Antitrust class actions are certainly complex.

By the way, before we dig into the issues, just a reminder that we at Bona Law are biased in favor of antitrust class action defendants because we defend class action lawsuits. We don’t represent plaintiff classes in class actions (despite many requests to do so).

The Supreme Court and Apple v. Pepper

The US Supreme Court took up Apple v. Pepper and had to determine whether certain plaintiffs were direct or were indirect purchasers in this antitrust class action. Phrased that way, the case doesn’t look that interesting. But before the decision came out, there was some speculation about whether the Supreme Court would gut the entire indirect/direct purchaser structure. The present structure doesn’t make much sense and isn’t based upon statute anyway (like much of federal antitrust law, I suppose).

Apple v. Pepper involves an antitrust class action lawsuit by consumers purchasing Apps from Apple and App developers (indeed—the actual source of their purchase is part of the controversy). They contend that Apple “has monopolized the retail market for the sale of apps and has unlawfully used its monopolistic power to charge consumers higher-than-competitive prices.” (slip p. 1).

For those of you that recently arrived from 1985, here is how the Apple App Store works: If you own an IPhone and want to add an app to your phone, you have no choice but to purchase it through the Apple App Store, which—according to the US Supreme Court—contains about 2 million apps available for download.

You might think to yourself, “Wow, Apple has been busy; it must be a lot of work to create 2 million separate apps.” But, no, Apple isn’t doing that themselves and they aren’t even hiring out to do it. Instead, independent app developers create the apps and, through contract, the apps are sold in the app store to consumers (my use of passive voice here is purposeful—as telling you who is selling them takes a position in this case; sort of, anyway).

The app developers pay Apple a $99 membership fee and get to pick the price for their app, so long as it ends in $0.99—an old marketers trick. No matter what the sales price, Apple keeps 30 percent of the revenue for each sale.

Apple asserted that the consumers can’t sue for damages under federal antitrust law because they are indirect purchasers under Illinois Brick, and the App developers are the direct purchasers from Apple. Plaintiffs, by contrast, allege that they are—literally—direct purchasers because they purchase Apps from Apple in the Apple App Store.

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Toys R Us Antitrust Conspiracy

Author: Jarod Bona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Law Books

Author: Jarod Bona

So let’s say that you are general counsel of a company suing a larger competitor for Monopolization and Attempted Monopolization under Sherman Act, Section 2 based upon that monopolist competitor’s tying arrangements, exclusive dealing agreements, and their refusal to deal with you. You have a great case; that much was made clear in your summary judgment briefing and the attached economist reports.

But you turn on your computer, hear the “You’ve Got Mail,” voice, and see a short email from your antitrust attorney. Attached is the trial-court opinion granting summary judgment against you. Oh no! Then the phone rings, you answer, and your lawyer methodically explains exactly how the judge got it wrong.

You are heart-broken. You really thought you’d get through this stage, and were already thinking about the trial. You are going to appeal. That is an easy decision. There is so much at stake, and it really does look like the trial court made some mistakes.

Here are three reasons why you should hire an appellate attorney, or at least add one to the team:

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Resale Price Maintenance

Author: Jarod Bona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Authors: Aaron Gott and Nick McNamara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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