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Author: Jarod Bona

Lawyers, judges, economists, law professors, policy-makers, business leaders, trade-association officials, students, juries, and the readers of this blog combined spend incredible resources—time, money, or both—analyzing whether certain actions or agreements are anticompetitive or violate the antitrust laws.

While superficially surprising, upon deeper reflection it makes sense because less competition in a market dramatically affects the prices, quantity, and quality of what companies supply in that market. In the aggregate, the economic effect is huge, thus justifying the resources we spend “trying to get it right.” Of course, in trying to get it right, we often muck it up even more by discouraging procompetitive agreements by over-applying the antitrust laws.

So perhaps we should focus our resources on the actions that are most likely to harm competition (and by extension, all of us)?

Well, one place we can start is by concentrating on conduct that is almost always anticompetitive—price-fixing and market allocation among competitors, as well as bid-rigging. We have the per se rule for that. Check.

There is another significant source of anticompetitive conduct, however, that is often ignored by the antitrust laws. Indeed, a doctrine has developed surrounding these actions that expressly protect them from antitrust scrutiny, no matter how harmful to competition and thus our economy.

As a defender and believer in the virtues of competition, I am personally outraged that most of this conduct has a free pass from antitrust and competition laws that regulate the rest of the economy, and that there aren’t protests in the street about it.

What has me so upset?

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Antitrust-Risk-Counseling-300x195

Author: Jarod Bona

You may not realize this, but a lot of people don’t like lawyers. We even have our own genre of comedy that predates Shakespeare: lawyer jokes. Here is a common example: What do you call 1000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!

When you heard that joke for the first time, you probably laughed and laughed, shook your head and said, “funny because it’s true.”

So why do people dislike lawyers? To save you time, I’ll focus on one reason and leave the rest for others: Because lawyers spoil the fun by saying “no.”

This reason for not liking lawyers, of course, comes from the business context where companies consult either in-house lawyers or outside counsel about how or whether to proceed on a project or opportunity.

It is the lawyer’s job and duty to risk ruining the party. The business and sales people look at the opportunity and see upside: revenues, more market share, perhaps an important merger or acquisition.

It is the lawyer that must look at the opportunity to see the downside risks: the lawsuits, the disputes, the government reactions or investigations, the response from competitors. Then, oftentimes, the lawyer says “no.” The music stops and people go back to their offices, sometimes frustrated and angry, perhaps thinking that the lawyer should be on the bottom of the ocean. The lawyer is the bad guy, even if he or she is just doing his or her job.

But this isn’t an article defending lawyers.

To be honest, most lawyers aren’t great, or sometimes even good. The same is true of most people in any profession. Only in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Minnesota is everyone above average (of course, he was talking about the children, but you get the point). And many criticisms about lawyers apply to many of members of this profession, including the fact that they just ruin the party by saying “no” all the time.

I think that the lawyer that just says “no” is a lazy lawyer that offers very little value to his or her client. Sometimes the lawyer must say “no,” but in most instances, there should be more and I don’t just mean justifications for the denial.

Of course, a client might come up to a lawyer and say the following: “As you know, we compete in a market with four main players. It seems silly that we spend so much time trying to undercut each other on price and so many resources trying to come out with new features to our product. Our adversaries may lack social grace, they may smell bad, and they certainly aren’t good looking, but they aren’t bad people. We could all make more money if we could just get together, have a meeting, set the price we are all going to charge, maybe divide up the customer base, probably by geography, and vote on features to add to our products.”

An antitrust attorney that hears this from a client, must say “NO,” in all caps, like they are yelling. Of course, after that, they better work on education through antitrust compliance counseling and training. Time to put together an antitrust compliance policy. The Department of Justice would certainly appreciate a strong antitrust compliance policy.

But in most instances—even where the client’s idea creates risk—a simple “no” is not the right approach, at least from a good antitrust attorney.

The scenario I described above—involving price fixing and market allocation (per se antitrust violations)—is a rare example of a situation where the antitrust laws are mostly clear.

In most instances, either the law or the application of law is not straightforward enough to entirely preclude the client’s objective. For example, the question of what is exclusionary conduct under Section 2 of the Sherman Act (Monopolization) is not an easy one to answer. There is still great debate among the courts, academics, and economists. Similar issues can arise if you are trying to determine if an exclusive dealing agreement violates the antitrust laws: Sometimes the answer isn’t clear.

Advising Business Clients on Antitrust Risks

I can’t speak for all antitrust attorneys, but here is how I handle counseling clients on antitrust risks:

First, I understand that the perspective of a business is different than the perspective of the typical lawyer.

The attorney, especially the litigator, has grown up (professionally) in a world where they win or lose a motion or case and where something is or isn’t illegal under the law. There are, of course, grey areas, but a young attorney that receives a research project, for example, is tasked with finding the “answer.” And courts have to give decisions on “the law” in such a way that suggests there is an answer, even when the reality is that it could have gone either way. But opinions rarely say that—when they do, it is a credit to the judge.

Businesses, however, make calculated judgments based upon risk, reward, and resources. Opening another factory has obvious risks and rewards and takes resources. The business executive tries to evaluate the risks, judge the potential upside, and compare both of those to the resources necessary to open the factory.

If you tell the business to not open the factory because there are “risks,” you aren’t helping it. The business executive will just stare at you like you are some sort of fool. Of course there are risks; the skill in running a business is to evaluate those risks and incorporate them into decisionmaking.

I understand this perspective even more clearly now, having run Bona Law for several years. Indeed, my bio now finally reflects that understanding.

Let’s apply this point to antitrust counseling: If a client comes to me with an opportunity, a project, or even a problem, it does the business little good for me to just say “no, there are risks.” That’s the lazy approach, in my view.

My value as the antitrust attorney in that situation is to help the client fully understand the risk. That is, I try to help the client appreciate the likelihood of the risk coming to fruition and the consequences of the risk, if it hits. And, in fact, the counseling is usually more complicated because there are often multiple risks, each with their own structure of probability and harm.

I do this because this is how businesses make decisions: They incorporate risk into the information that they have and make the best call they can.

Second, I work with the client to come up with options with similar rewards or upsides, but less antitrust risk—or some more preferable sliding scale of the risks and rewards.

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antitrust blizzard
Author: Jarod Bona

I am from Minnesota, so I am quite familiar with blizzards. They may be interesting to watch through a window from a room warmed by a fireplace, but you don’t want to get caught in one. The same is true for an antitrust blizzard: They are interesting to watch, but they can destroy you. Like driving a car through a winter blizzard, you have to pay close attention, make sure you do the right thing, and in the end, you could crash.

In case you get hit by one, you should be prepared: Create and follow an antitrust compliance policy. You may even get bonus points from the Department of Justice if you have (and follow) the right antitrust policy.

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Author: Jarod Bona

You might hear from an antitrust attorney that it is important to have a strong antitrust compliance policy. And you may think to yourself, yes, I suppose it is. Then you go about your over-packed day, periodically seeing from other professionals that whatever their specialty is, you need to call them right away to have them help you too.

And that isn’t a surprise because each professional, each specialist in something, and, really, each person with any experience of any sort sees life through their own unique lens. We wrote about this in the context of trade associations.

The truth is we are all bombarded with marketing and emails and social media posts and problems in our lives and our world that are “urgent” or “important.”

So when I tell you that your company should have a strong antitrust compliance policy, no matter what its size, you may appreciate that advice, but recognize that (1) I see life through the lens of antitrust and competition law (among other lenses); and (2) Bona Law prepares antitrust compliance policies, so I am biased. And both of those are true. Whenever you evaluate what anyone says, you should do so understanding their perspective, as bias isn’t necessarily conscious or even negative—it often just is part of perspective and experience.

This is a long introduction to tell you that when it comes to antitrust compliance policies, you don’t just have to listen to me or the many other attorneys that advocate for them:

The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice has now reversed its position and will give companies with robust compliance programs credit when considering charges.

The purpose of the policy change, of course, is to encourage companies to adopt and (just as importantly) follow strong antitrust compliance programs. If that occurs, the amount of criminal antitrust conduct should decrease. Of course, there may be an inverse relationship between the companies that would enact and follow an antitrust compliance program and those that would criminally violate the antitrust laws. But, still, it will probably help overall. And it should help to keep otherwise law-abiding companies from getting pulled into, for example, an industry-wide price-fixing cartel. If that happens, they will likely experience what we like to call an antitrust blizzard.

In a speech at New York University School of Law, Makan Delrahim said that in evaluating a policy for charging decisions, DOJ prosecutors would consider whether the program is well-designed, if the company applies it in good faith, and if the program actually works. So, as you can see, this is one of those policies that will evolve as they try it on a case-by-case basis.

The Department of Justice also released details on how it would evaluate antitrust compliance policies: US Department of Justice Antitrust Division: Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs in Criminal Antitrust Investigations.

We will write more about the specifics of a strong corporate compliance program in future articles.

In the meantime, you can read an article by Luis Blanquez about antitrust compliance policies in the US and Europe.

As you might know, the DOJ already has a leniency program, which you can learn more about here. DOJ will sometimes grant leniency to companies and people that report antitrust cartel activity and then cooperate with the DOJ investigation. DOJ antitrust attorneys, experts in competition themselves, incorporated some competition into their leniency program.

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Engineers and Bridge

Author: Jarod Bona

As an antitrust attorney, over time you see the same major cases cited again and again. It is only natural that you develop favorites. Here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we will, from time-to-time, highlight some of the “Classic Antitrust Cases” that we love, that we hate, or that we merely find interesting.

The Supreme Court decided National Society of Professional Engineers in the late 1970s—when I was two-years old—and before the Reagan Revolution. But the views that the author, Justice John Paul Stevens, expressed on behalf of the Supreme Court perhaps ushered in the faith in competition often associated with the 1980s.

The National Society of Professional Engineers thought that its members were above price competition. Indeed, it strictly forbid them from competing on price.

The reason was simple: “it would be cheaper and easier for an engineer ‘to design and specify inefficient and unnecessarily expensive structures and methods of construction.’ Accordingly, competitive pressure to offer engineering services at the lowest possible price would adversely affect the quality of engineering. Moreover, the practice of awarding engineering contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of quality, would be dangerous to the public health, safety, and welfare.” (684-85).

So price competition will cause bridges to collapse? I suppose the same argument could be made for any market where greater expense can improve the health or safety of a product or service. We better not let the car manufacturers compete to provide us with cars because they will skimp on the brakes. It is often the professionals–including and especially lawyers–that find competition distasteful or damaging for their particular profession and believe that they are above it. Well, according to the US Supreme Court, they are not.

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Supreme Court amicus brief

Author: Jarod Bona

An amicus curiae brief is filed by a non-party—usually in an appellate court like the US Supreme Court—that seeks to educate the court by offering facts, analysis, or a perspective that the party briefing doesn’t present. The term amicus curiae means “friend of the court,” and that is exactly what the parties that file these briefs are. They aren’t objective, but they are—without pay—helping out the court, like a friend might. Well, sort of.

Entities filing amicus briefs do so for a reason and that reason isn’t typically just court friendliness. In fact, as we will discuss below, there are many good reasons for someone to file an amicus brief.

Along with antitrust and commercial litigation, I’ve been an appellate litigator my entire career. I started out by clerking for Judge James B. Loken on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (in Minneapolis), then moved on to Gibson Dunn’s appellate group in Washington DC. So, as you might imagine, I’ve participated in many appellate matters. And without question some of my favorite briefs to write are amicus briefs. I’ve filed many of them over the years.

Indeed, at Bona Law, we have filed several amicus briefs on various topics (US Supreme Court (and here), Fourth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Tenth Circuit and a couple with the Minnesota Supreme Court, which you can read about here and here and here).

From the attorney’s perspective what I really like about amicus briefs is that they invite opportunities for creativity. The briefs for the parties before the court include necessary but less exciting information like procedural history, standard of review, etc. Then, of course, they must address certain o necessary arguments. Even still, there is room for creativity and a good appellate lawyer will take a thoughtful approach to a case in a way that the trial lawyer that knows the case too well may not.

But what is great about writing an amicus brief is that you can pick a particular angle and focus on it, while the parties slog through other necessary details. The attorney writing the amicus brief figures out—with the client’s help—the best contribution they can make and just does it, as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Because the amicus brief should not repeat the arguments from the parties, the attorney writing the brief must develop a different approach or delve deeper into an argument that won’t get the attention it deserves from the parties. This is great fun as the attorney can introduce a new perspective to the case, limited not by the arguments below, but by the broader standard of what will help the court.

This means that the law review article that the attorney saw on the subject that hasn’t developed into case law is fair game. So is the empirical study from a group of economists that may reflect on practical implications of the decision confronting the court. Or the attorney might educate a state supreme court about what other states are doing on the issue. Often an association will explain to the court how the issue affects their members.

The point is that amicus briefs present opportunities to develop issues in ways that party briefs rarely do. Indeed, that is partly why they are valuable to courts.

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Jail-for-Antitrust-Violations-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

If, like me, you have ever spoken to someone that faces criminal indictment by a federal grand jury following a Justice Department antitrust investigation, you know why antitrust compliance counseling and training is a big deal—you don’t need reasons; hearing the crackle of the voice is enough to understand.

You might think that an antitrust investigation or lawsuit may not happen to you or your company. Perhaps you think that your company is too small or that since you don’t sit in smoke-filled rooms with many of your competitors laughing about your customers—or whatever image from books or movies is in your head, antitrust isn’t something you need to worry about.

You might be wrong. Are the chances great that you will be prosecuted or sued under the antitrust laws? Since you are reading a blog about antitrust, they are greater than average, but even still, the odds are relatively low.

But even if the likelihood of an adverse antitrust event is low, the consequences may be so extreme that it is something you should think about. You don’t anticipate that your house is going to burn down, but you—hopefully—take some precautions and probably have some sort of fire protection as part of your homeowner’s insurance.

With antitrust, a little knowledge can go a long way.

If you have an antitrust issue, it is not likely to be a small issue. Indeed, it may start with a government investigation, but could progress into dozens of antitrust class actions against your company.

As you might know, there is a cottage industry of plaintiff attorneys that read SEC filings and watch for government antitrust investigations. When they see something that raises the possibility of an antitrust violation, they pounce. Attorneys all over the country file lawsuits in their home jurisdictions against the target company—which could be your company if you aren’t careful. I go into more detail about this “antitrust blizzard” here.

Antitrust issues can arise for big and small companies and even individuals—like real-estate investors. If you don’t think your company is susceptible to antitrust liability or indictment, I’d like you to read one of my early blog posts that explains how easily a per se antitrust violation can happen.

The Federal Trade Commission even went after an association of music teachers for potentially violating the antitrust laws.

What is tough about antitrust is that the laws are not always intuitive; it isn’t like a law that says “don’t steal.” In fact, in one instance, the antitrust laws encourage you to try to steal.

Sometimes the law isn’t even altogether clear. Of course, you are unlikely to face criminal indictment over complicated questions of whether a bundle of products sold by a company with market power violates the antitrust laws. Or whether your vertical pricing arrangements went beyond Colgate policy protections. But you could face criminal antitrust penalties for allocating markets and customers and that isn’t obvious to all sales people.

The bottom line is that if you run or help to manage a company—and especially if your company has a sales team—you need some knowledge of the antitrust laws. At the very least, you should understand what to train your team members to avoid. Antitrust training can be invaluable.

You might also enjoy our article on Antitrust Compliance Programs in the US and European Union.

Antitrust compliance training and programs are even more important now that the US Department of Justice has announced that they will take these programs into account in their charging decisions.

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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 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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Legal Writing

Author: Jarod Bona

Great lawyers must write well. But what does that mean? I could give you a list of what you should or shouldn’t do as a legal writer. I think that you might find such an article useful regardless of your skill level because the best writers always strive to improve and the worst writers, well, they need a lot of guidance.

I might write that article one day. But not today. I thought we’d try to go a little deeper than that today.

If you want technical advice, it isn’t hard to find. I highly recommend Bryan Garner’s seminars. I’ve attended many over the years and they are inspirational. And I mean that; I’m not just trying to sound overly cool by telling you how writing seminars inspire me. But he is a great writer turned great speaker who really cares about the written word and you leave the course thinking not only about your writing, but about bettering your writing. You can check out his many books here.

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I also recommend Ross Guberman and Legal Writing Pro. I attended his seminar as a young(er) attorney and appreciated how he utilized great legal writers as exemplars of how to write briefs. You might also enjoy his blog on legal writing.

If you are interested in the excruciating details of how to write an appellate or antitrust brief, you might enjoy this article.

I was lucky to have clerked in Minneapolis for Judge James B. Loken of the Federal Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Early in our clerkship, he explained to us that he is a professional writer. At first I was surprised to hear that because I thought of novelists, journalists and others as professional writers, but not judges. But he was write; I mean right.

The appellate judge communicates through writing. Indeed, every official act is a written one. To act effectively, the judge must write well. Clarity, persuasiveness, organization, and plain old storytelling must find their way into the judge’s opinions.

Lawyers have the same responsibility. We are professional writers. My legal career has included both an appellate practice and a writing-heavy litigation and antitrust focus. That is, in my early career in the big cases, I typically found myself in the writing roles, which is not an accident. So I have spent a lot of time pondering the theoretics of legal writing (or at least what makes it good or bad).

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Visa-Mastercard-Antitrust-Litigation-300x169

Author: Jarod Bona

Even if you aren’t an antitrust lawyer, you have certainly seen notices of class actions, perhaps with a solicitation from an attorney stating in legalese that you may be entitled to money or something to that effect. You probably ignored them—and for good reason—perhaps the amount you could receive was small, or the subject didn’t really have anything to do with you or your business or you just didn’t want to suffer through the poor lawyer-drafted prose.

Did it surprise you to learn that while you were just minding your own business you were apparently a part of what looks like pretty major litigation?

In this article, I’ll offer some background about how antitrust class action settlements work and do it by describing a big one: In re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation. This is the antitrust litigation against Visa, MasterCard, and their member banks.

As of early May 2019, this case is between second settlement (more about that below) and final approval. The settlement amount will range from $5.54 billion to $6.24 billion. The class members are merchants that have accepted Visa and/or MasterCard between January 1, 2004 and January 25, 2019.

Is that you or your company?

But before we begin, a disclaimer: Bona Law doesn’t typically represent classes in antitrust class action cases. We do represent defendants. But there is one exception: We will represent members of an existing class or opt-out plaintiff members, typically businesses. This, of course, follows our practice—which is common among large international firms as well, to represent both plaintiff and defendant companies in antitrust litigation (but not plaintiff-side classes).

If you are a defendant facing a class action, you might want to read our articles on an antitrust blizzard and defending an antitrust MDL.

Here is the disclaimer: In the Interchange Fee litigation, Bona Law (along with Cahen Law P.A.) represents multiple merchant members of the class that are seeking relief from either the existing settlement (if approved) or as an opt-out.

And here is a good life lesson: Whenever someone has an interest (including attorneys representing clients with an interest), consider their bias, which may be unintentional but present. So assume that we are biased here in favor of the merchants that are seeking relief from the evil antitrust violations.

With that out of the way, let’s jump into the substance.

How Do Class Action Settlements Work?

I won’t go too deeply into the basics of class actions or how class certification works. We’ve written about it elsewhere. You can read our blog post about defending against class certification here. You can read about the requirements of class certification here. And if you want to appeal a class certification decision, read this article.

Here is the gist of class actions: There are some cases in which many people are damaged only a little bit—maybe even just a few dollars. It doesn’t make sense for those people to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit to recover a few dollars. So—absent another method of relief—there won’t be lawsuits if a legal violation results in widespread but minimal harm to each. Some people may say “good” to that. But our legal system has adopted a private-attorney general model in antitrust and elsewhere that places some of the enforcement of law in the hands of private individuals and companies that have been harmed, and their attorneys.

If you want to learn more about the private attorney general model, you can read a law review article that I wrote many years ago with Carl Hittinger.

Even if each individual has sufficient incentive to file a lawsuit (i.e. enough money is at stake), the law has determined that there may be overall efficiencies for the individuals to handle their claims as part of a class if, for example, the common issues in the case predominate over any individual issues.

The class action approach, codified under federal law into Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 23, allows courts to hear and decide actions on behalf of an entire class of people that have been injured. Class actions, not surprisingly, happen a lot in antitrust, especially when plaintiffs allege that price-fixing, bid rigging, or market allocation, for example, led to an overcharge of some minimal amount, resulting in widespread, but often minimal individual damages.

There is a certification requirement, but other than that much of the litigation is just like any other case, except settlement.

If you want to settle with a class, it is a big to-do. That is because the class action can, in fact, eliminate the right to seek relief by people that may have no idea about the litigation. In addition, the attorneys that brought the action on behalf of the class typically receive their fees (which are usually contingency) out of the settlement proceeds (or judgment proceeds if the case gets that far).

So, to deal with all of these issues, a class-action settlement requires a preliminary approval by the court, a notice to the class, an opportunity for class members to opt-out or challenge the settlement, and, eventually, a final approval. And the court’s final approval is subject to appeal by class members that may disagree with the settlement. Then, if the settlement survives all of that, there is a process for paying the class members from the settlement funds through a claims administrator.

The paragraph above listed a lot of steps, each with its own nuances and details. So please just take that as the “gist” of it.

It will be easier to understand with a concrete example.

In re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation

If we are going to talk about a particular class-action settlement, I can’t think of a better current one to discuss than the In re Payment Card Interchange and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation, which some people just call the “Visa-MasterCard case.” The settlement is valued at between $5.54 billion and $6.24 billion. That’s a lot of money, even for a big antitrust case.

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