Antitrust-Music-Rock-Bands-300x200

Author: Jon Cieslak

Many guitarists and rock music fans have recently gotten to know Rick Beato. Beato is a musician, music producer, and, most recently, a YouTube personality. He regularly produces YouTube videos about a variety of music topics, headlined by his most well-known series, What Makes This Song Great?, which breaks down and discusses popular songs. He also occasionally discusses legal issues, particularly copyright law and fair use, as he has had videos removed from his YouTube channel.

In one video, Beato touches on antitrust law in his discussion of what he refers to as the Y2K curse. The Y2K curse refers to his observation that a large number of successful rock bands from the 1990s—Beato gives twenty eight examples, including Live, Cake, Counting Crows, Bush, Blur, Goo Goo Dolls, and Barenaked Ladies—“did nothing after the year 2000.” This is not because they stopped releasing albums; rather, their releases in the 2000s did not have the same commercial success. He admits that this was not a universal problem, as bands such as Foo Fighters, Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Weezer were able to maintain their success.

So why did so many (but not all) rock bands suffer from the Y2K curse? Beato attributes much of it to a change in radio formats indirectly prompted by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to the FCC, the Act’s goal was “to let anyone enter any communications business—to let any communications business compete in any market against any other.” But what happened in practice was the drastic increase in the consolidation of media ownership, particularly in radio stations. As Beato explains, in 1983, 90% of American media was controlled by fifty companies. By 2011, 90% of American media was controlled by just six companies (GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS). This consolidated media ownership resulted in “consolidated playlists” with far fewer “gatekeepers”—who are frequently now market researchers instead of DJs—deciding what music would be played on the radio. That smaller number of corporate gatekeepers, all concerned about offending the smallest number of potential listeners, resulted in less variety and eliminated the main outlet for many popular bands from the 1990s.

Assuming this is all true, would antitrust law provide a remedy for the loss of musical variety on the radio? After all, the goal of antitrust law is to prevent the ill effects of reduced competition.

Probably not. Antitrust law most likely would not provide a remedy because it generally does not recognize the loss of variety—without some associated detrimental effect on competition—as a cognizable anticompetitive harm.

This recalls an interesting debate among antitrust scholars about what “the primary concern of antitrust law” should be. Continental T.V., Inc. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., 433 U.S. 36, 51 n.19 (1977). The prevailing view—which the Supreme Court spurred with its Continental T.V. decision—is that federal antitrust laws should promote economic welfare (frequently referred to as consumer welfare) over other goals. As a leading antitrust treatise says, “economic concerns have generally dominated antitrust policy and trumped competing ‘populist’ concerns.” 1 PHILLIP E. AREEDA & HERBERT HOVENKAMP, ANTITRUST LAW ¶ 110 (5th ed. 2020). While the Supreme Court has never formally adopted the economic welfare standard—or any standard, for that matter—regulators, litigants, and courts frequently focus on price effects when evaluating alleged anticompetitive conduct. To be sure, those price effects should be based on quality-adjusted prices—i.e. prices that consider nonprice elements of a product that affect consumer preferences such as color, style, or brand reputation—but the economic welfare standard does not protect variety for variety’s sake.

Returning to Beato’s Y2K curse, application of the economic welfare standard would likely render antitrust law powerless to remedy the curse’s effects. The consolidation of media ownership and corresponding streamlining of radio playlists did not have the most common hallmarks of anticompetitive harm that courts usually consider. Prices for radio broadcasts did not go up. There was no substantial reduction in output of radio broadcasts. So unless a court was willing to find that the quality of radio broadcasts went down—while I would argue that Counting Crows are better than Limp Bizkit, I would not expect a court to take up the issue—it seems there was no loss of economic welfare and therefore no antitrust claim.

Not all antitrust scholars think this is the right result. Some have argued that the economic welfare standard is lacking precisely because it does a poor job of addressing nonprice competition. They have argued for a “consumer choice” standard instead of economic welfare, defined as business conduct “that harmfully and significantly limits the range of choices that the free market, absent the restraints being challenged, would have provided.” Neil W. Averitt & Robert H. Lande, Using the “Consumer Choice” Approach to Antitrust Law, 74 ANTITRUST L.J. 175, 184 (2007). If applied, the consumer choice standard would be more likely to provide a remedy for the Y2K curse.

Regulators and courts do sometimes consider diminished choices as indicative of anticompetitive activity. For example, in Associated Gen. Contractors v. Cal. State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 528 (1983), the Supreme Court held that “[c]oercive activity that prevents its victims from making free choices between market alternatives is inherently destructive of competitive conditions.” In Realcomp II, Ltd. v. FTC, 635 F.3d 815 (6th Cir. 2011), the Sixth Circuit upheld an FTC decision finding that certain policies violated the antitrust laws when they “narrow[ed] consumer choice” and “hinder[ed] the competitive process” without examining price effects.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

Interesting times to be an attorney; especially an antitrust attorney. If you work in private practice, you are likely witnessing the most significant transformation in the legal sector in the past 20 years. If you are an in-house lawyer, you are probably dealing with a new set of legal and commercial issues you couldn’t even imagine a few years ago. And if you are an in-house antitrust attorney in one of the Big Tech companies, then you are currently involved in the perfect storm.

During the past years, competition authorities all over the world have been closely monitoring the steady acquisition of power by Big Tech companies in the new digital economy. That’s the main reason why they have recently initiated antitrust investigations on both sides of the Atlantic. As Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), recently mentioned: “antitrust enforcers were asleep at the wheel while Silicon Valley transformed from a center of innovation into a center of acquisition. Instead of competing to be the next Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon, today’s tech startups are pushed by their private-equity backers to sell out to Google, Apple, Facebook, or Amazon.”

At the same time, in the U.S. the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee issued last year its long-anticipated Majority Report of its Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets. 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.

You can read more about it in our previous article: Classic Antitrust Cases: Trinko, linkLine and the House Report on Big Tech. Now, Senator Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, in a keynote addressed at the annual State of the Net Conference, announced her antitrust reform legislation, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act.

Meanwhile, in the European Union the European Commission is proposing new “ex ante” regulation to increase contestability and fairness in the digital markets, which includes: (i) The Digital Services Act (DSA)––addressed to protect end users and their fundamental rights online; and (ii) the Digital Markets Act (DMA)––which prohibits unfair conditions imposed by online platforms that have become or are expected to become what is called “gatekeepers” to foster innovation, growth and competitiveness.

So yes, Big Tech companies have too many irons in the fire. Let’s try to briefly summarize them here.

The New Proposed Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) in the U.S.

In January 2021, Sen. Klobuchar, released her antitrust reform legislation, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act, highlighting that “with a new administration, new leadership at the antitrust agencies, and Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House, we’re well positioned to make competition policy a priority for the first time in decades.” She also mentioned that current antitrust laws are inadequate for regulating companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

In a nutshell, the new proposed Act includes the following changes:

New Legal Standards To Determine Whether a Merger is Anticompetitive

The is the first attempt to change the existing standard relating to mergers that substantially lessen competition, to a new one that prohibits mergers that create an appreciable risk of materially lessening competition. The exact meaning of this new standard remains unclear, to say the least.

The new rules would also shift, in certain scenarios, the burden of proof of certain mergers from the government to private parties. These include (i) the acquisition of a competitor or nascent competitor by a company with market power or a market share of 50% or more; (ii) the acquisition of what is called a “disruptor”, (iii) and transactions valued at more than $5 billion, or the buyer is worth at least $100 billion.

Broader Scope To Prohibit Exclusionary Conduct

The proposed Act expands the concept of exclusionary conduct and defines it as any conduct that materially disadvantages competitors or limits their opportunity to compete. It creates a presumption of illegality in those scenarios where exclusionary conduct presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.

This is when a firm with market power, or a market share higher than 50%, engages in conduct that materially disadvantages actual or potential competitors or tends to foreclose or limit the ability or incentive of actual or potential competitors to compete.

Private parties will be still able to rebut such presumption by showing pro-competitive effects that eliminate the risk of harming competition.

Increase of Resources for Antitrust Authorities, More Civil Penalties and New Whistleblower Protections

The proposed Act includes an important funding increase of $300 million for both the FTC and DOJ.

It also increases civil monetary penalties, by imposing on private parties fines the greater of either: (i) 15% of the undertaking’s U.S. revenues in the prior calendar year, or (ii) 30% of the undertaking’s U.S. revenues in any business line affected or targeted by the unlawful conduct during the period of such conduct.

The new rules also provide further incentives to report potential antitrust violations. For instance, they extend anti-retaliation protections to civil whistleblowers, and in certain cases, even include an award up to 30% of the criminal fines.

In the meantime, Representative David Cicilline (Democrat – Rhode Island), who led the House’s investigation into Big Tech, and Senator Mike Lee, Senator (R., Utah), have also agreed to keep this momentum and discuss future changes to the antitrust laws, although with significant differences on their approach.

The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act: A proposal to upgrade the rules governing digital services in the European Union

In the European Union things have not been quiet either.

As part of the European Digital Strategy, last December the European Commission finally published its proposals to regulate the digital sector. These include (i) Digital Services Act (DSA)––addressed to protect end users and their fundamental rights online; and (ii) the Digital Markets Act (DMA)––which imposes new ex-ante rules and prohibits unfair conditions imposed by online platforms that have become or are expected to become what are called “gatekeepers” to foster innovation, growth and competitiveness.

These proposals will now go to the European Parliament and European Parliament for discussion, to be adopted into law and enter into force at some point during 2022.

The DSA

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MAP-Policies-and-Antitrust-300x200

Author: Jarod Bona

We see many antitrust issues in the distribution world—and from all business perspectives: supplier, wholesale distributor, authorized retailer, and unauthorized retailer, among others. And at the retail level, we hear from both internet and brick-and-mortar stores.

The most common distribution issues that come up are resale-price-maintenance (both as an agreement and as a Colgate policy), terminated distributors/retailers, and Minimum Advertised Pricing Policies or MAP.

Today, we will talk about MAP Policies and how they relate to the antitrust laws.

What is a Minimum Advertised Price Policy (more commonly known as a MAP policy)?

A MAP policy is one in which a supplier or manufacturer limits the ability of their distributors to advertise prices below a certain level. Unlike a resale-price-maintenance agreement, a MAP policy does not stop a retailer from actually selling below any minimum price.

In a resale price maintenance policy or agreement, by contrast, the manufacturer doesn’t allow distributors to sell the products below a certain price.

As part of a “carrot” for following MAP policies, manufacturers often pair the policy with cooperative advertising funds for the retailer.

Typical targets of MAP policies are online retailers and straight price competition. These policies also do not typically restrict in-store advertising. The manufacturers that employ MAP policies often emphasize branding in their corporate strategy or have luxury products and fear that low listed prices for those products will make them seem less luxurious. But these policies exist in many different industries.

In any event, MAP policies are accelerating in the marketplace. Indeed, brick and mortar retailers that fear “showrooming,” will often pressure manufacturers to implement either vertical pricing restrictions or MAP policies. Not surprisingly, the impetus to implement and enforce MAP policies often come from established retailers.

We receive a lot of calls and emails with questions about MAP policies, from both those that want to implement them and those that are subject to them.

Do MAP Policies Violate the Antitrust Laws?

MAP policies don’t—absent further context—violate the antitrust laws by themselves. But, depending upon how a manufacturer structures and implements them, MAP policies could violate either state or federal antitrust law. So the answer is the unsatisfying maybe.

But we can add further context to better understand the level of risk for particular MAP policies.

There is some case law analyzing MAP policies, but it is limited, so if you play in this sandbox, you can’t prepare for any one approach. I had considered going through the cases here, but I think that has limited utility.  The fact is that there isn’t a strong consensus on how courts should treat MAP policies themselves. So the best tactic is to understand the core competition issues and make your risk assessments from that.

Because of the limited case law, you should consider, as we do, that there will be a greater variance in expected court decisions about MAP policies, which creates additional risk. This may particularly be the case at the state level because state judges have little experience with antitrust.

In any event, you will need an antitrust attorney to help you through this, so the best I can do here for you to is to help you spot the issues and understand if you are moving in the right direction.

If you are familiar with resale price maintenance or Colgate policies, you will notice a lot of overlap with MAP policy issues. But there are important differences.

A minimum advertised price policy is not strictly a limit on pricing. From a competitive standpoint, that helps, but not necessarily a lot. The reality is that a MAP policy can be—for practical reasons—a significant hurdle for online distributors to compete on price for the restricted product. That is, for online retailers, sometimes the MAP policy price is the effective minimum price.

Resale Price Maintenance

Before we go further, let’s review a little bit. A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between a manufacturer and some sort of distributor (including a retailer that sells to the end user) that the distributor will not sell the product for less than a set price. Up until the US Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007, these types of agreements were per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws.

Resale price maintenance agreements are no longer per se federal antitrust violations, but several states, including California, New York, and Maryland may consider them per se antitrust violations under state law, so most national manufacturers avoid the risk and implement a unilateral Colgate policy instead.

Under federal law, courts now usually analyze resale-price-maintenance agreements under the antitrust rule of reason.

Colgate Policies

Colgate policies are named after a 1919 Supreme Court decision that held that it is not a federal antitrust violation for a manufacturer to unilaterally announce in advance the prices at which it will allow its product to be resold, then refuse to deal with any distributors that violate that policy. You can read our article about Colgate policies here.

The bottom line with Colgate is that in most situations the federal antitrust laws do not forbid one company from unilaterally refusing to deal with another. There are, of course, exceptions, so don’t rely on this point without consulting an antitrust lawyer.

Back to MAP Policies and Antitrust

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Noerr-Pennington-Immunity-300x190

Author: Jarod Bona

You might wonder why industry trade associations can lobby the government without obvious antitrust sanction, even when—which is common—they seek regulations or actions that ultimately harm competition.

(By the way, if you are invited to a trade association meeting, you should read this.)

The answer is found in the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which we will discuss here.

What is the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?

The Noerr-Pennington immunity is a limited exemption from antitrust liability for certain actions by individuals or groups that are intending with that action to influence government decision-making, which can be legislative, executive, or judicial.

Importantly, for the Noerr-Pennington immunity to apply, the challenged action cannot be a sham that merely covers up an intent to interfere with a competitor’s ability to compete. The question of whether an action fits within the “sham” exception to Noerr-Pennington is often an area of intense dispute between the parties to litigation. You can learn more about the sham exception later in this article.

The purpose of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is to protect the fundamental right to petition the government, including filing litigation in the courts. It also seeks to support the flow of information to the government. If you’ve read the First Amendment to our Bill of Rights, you might be familiar with this petitioning the government thing.

You may wonder why the doctrine has such an odd name—Noerr-Pennington. Why didn’t they name it the “government-petitioning” immunity or the “you-can-sue-who-you-want-without-incurring-antitrust-liability” doctrine?

Did two people named Noerr and Pennington invent the doctrine?

No—the Noerr-Pennington immunity developed from two cases in the crazy 1960s: Eastern Railroad Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, 365 U.S. 127 (1961) and United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965—better known as the first year the Minnesota Twins made the World Series, unfortunately losing to the Dodgers and the great Sandy Koufax).

In Noerr Motor Freight (we’ll label the case with the party name that made the doctrine title), a group of railroad companies conducted a joint publicity campaign targeting legislation that would make it harder for trucking companies to compete with them. Even though defendants’ conduct was anticompetitive in intent, the Court held that joint action for legislation was of sufficient importance to society that it should be exempt from antitrust liability.

In Pennington, a union and a group of large mining companies escaped antitrust liability for their group effort (i.e. conspiracy) to try to induce the Labor Department to set minimum wages at a level that would make it difficult for small mining companies to compete.

From these two cases, the doctrine took off and was expanded to other contexts, including court filings. Of course, there are limits and parties facing antitrust scrutiny can’t just point to some potential eventual political impact to their actions to capture Noerr-Pennington immunity.

Interestingly, the US Supreme Court  in Allied Tube and Conduit Corp v. Indian Head, Inc., 486 U.S. 492 (1988), rejected Noerr-Pennington immunity for anticompetitive conduct before a private standard-setting body, even though local governments typically enact the standards set by that standard-setting group. If you are interested in where the lines are to meet the government petitioning part of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, you should read Allied Tube.

What is the Sham Exception to the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?

As you might expect with any exception, parties that want to get away with antitrust liability try to fit their conduct within it. That is one reason why the Supreme Court makes it clear that exceptions, exemptions, and immunities to the antitrust laws should be construed narrowly. (Unfortunately, many courts below the Supreme Court have not yet figured that out with respect to state-action immunity, as they are still applying it more broadly than I believe the Supreme Court has ordered through its recent decisions).

Anyway, to avoid abuse of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, courts apply what is called a “sham exception.” This exception applies when the challenged conduct is intended to interfere with competition, rather than to legitimately influence official government conduct.

It isn’t always easy to understand when the “sham” exception applies, but one way to understand the difference is to compare the “process” of government petitioning from the “outcome” of government petitioning. When the anticompetitive conduct arises from the actual process—i.e. baseless litigation that bankrupts a competitor because of the legal fees—the sham exception applies. When the harm from the challenged conduct arises from the outcome of government petition—i.e. successfully convincing a government agency to pass a grossly anticompetitive regulation—the sham exception is less likely to apply.

One example of potentially “sham” petitioning activity outside of a litigation context is a situation in which a competitor will challenge its market adversary’s licensing application (of some sort) in an effort to delay it or otherwise interfere with its granting, outside of any issues with the merits.

Sometimes what you will see in the reality of a dispute is a combination of legitimate petitioning activity and other coercive anticompetitive conduct. In those instances, an antitrust defendant cannot use the activity protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine to shield the other unprotected anticompetitive conduct. Courts often have to distinguish between the two categories of conduct.

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Authors: Luke Hasskamp and Aaron Gott

This article briefly explores the applicability of federal antitrust laws to actions taken by municipalities or other state subdivisions and, specifically, whether they have acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition in the marketplace.

Federal antitrust laws are designed to prevent anticompetitive conduct in the market. Yet, the Supreme Court long ago held that antitrust laws do not apply against States themselves, even when they take actions with anticompetitive effects. Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341 (1943). The Supreme Court also recognized that this state action immunity applied not only to states but also to municipalities or other state political  subdivisions, and even private actors, provided they are acting pursuant to state authority.

Thus, any time a state or local government body is sued for antitrust violations, it will inevitably claim that it is exempt from liability under the state action immunity doctrine.

To obtain this immunity, the defendant will have to show, at the least, that it acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition. In short, the state had to understand that the authority it was delegating to substate actors would have anticompetitive effects and that it clearly articulated such a policy in its legislative delegation.

But when is a state policy clearly articulated? That is the question the U.S. Supreme Court decided in FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, declaring a stricter standard than courts had been applying.

FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System

Any antitrust lawyer who is drafting a brief on is probably going to cite Phoebe Putney. Those invoking state action immunity will probably downplay its significance and rely more heavily on earlier cases instead. Let’s talk about the case so you can understand how it dramatically raised the bar for defendants seeking immunity.

You don’t have to be an avid antitrust nerd to have noticed that the healthcare industry has undergone a lot of consolidation in recent years, with hospitals merging with or acquiring one another in already limited markets. The FTC challenges a fair number of these transactions because they reduce competition in markets that already have all sorts of competition problems. Phoebe Putney involved one of those challenges.

Phoebe Putney Health System was owned by a public hospital authority created by a city and county in Georgia. The health system owned Memorial Hospital, which was one of two hospitals in the county. The other hospital, Palmyra Hospital, was just two miles away and was owned by national nonprofit healthcare network HCA. Phoebe Putney and HCA reached an agreement for Phoebe Putney to purchase Palmyra, and the hospital authority approved.

The Federal Trade Commission scrutinized this plan and filed suit because the transaction would create a monopoly that substantially lessened competition in the local market for acute-care hospital services.

In defense, Phoebe Putney claimed that it was entitled to state action immunity because, it argued, it had acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition. Specifically, Georgia state law allowed its political subdivisions to provide health care services through hospital authorities. The law authorized those hospital authorities “all powers necessary or convenient to carry out and effectuate” the law’s purpose, and more specifically granted them authority to acquire hospitals. Phoebe Putney claimed that it was foreseeable to the Georgia legislature that a hospital authority would use this power anticompetitively.

The district court agreed and dismissed the case. And since the case is FTC v. Phoebe Putney and not Phoebe Putney v. FTC, you can surmise that the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court. Many courts had been applying this foreseeability standard based on language from earlier Supreme Court cases like City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, and this case was no different. The Eleventh Circuit reasoned here, for example, that the Georgia legislature must have anticipated that granting hospital authorities the power to acquire hospitals would produce anticompetitive effects because “foreseeably, acquisitions could consolidate ownership of competing hospitals, eliminating competition between them.”

But the FTC had a good point: nothing about the rather basic corporate power to acquire a business suggests that a state clearly articulated a state policy allowing public hospital authorities to monopolize entire markets. Indeed, the statute did not even discuss competition. The Supreme Court granted certiorari, and ultimately agreed with the FTC in a rare 9-0 opinion: the Eleventh Circuit, like so many other courts, had been applying clear articulation “too loosely.” As a result, they had sanctioned all sorts of anticompetitive conduct by state and local government entities that the state legislature had not really intended. Federal antitrust policy should not be set aside so easily.

Instead, the defendant’s conduct must be not only foreseeable, but also the “inherent, logical, or ordinary result” of the state scheme. Courts had been seizing on the “foreseeability” language of the Court’s prior decisions while ignoring much of what else it had said:

  • State law authority to act is not sufficient; the substate governmental entity must show it was delegated the authority to act or regulate anticompetitively
  • There must be evidence the state affirmatively contemplated that the scheme would displace competition
  • Where a state’s position is one of mere neutrality to competition, the state cannot be said to have contemplated anticompetitive conduct
  • Simple permission to play in the market is not authority to act anticompetitively

The Court also addressed two additional arguments. First, Phoebe Putney pointed to Georgia’s certificate of need law as evidence that the Georgia legislature had contemplated the displacement of competition relating to hospitals. (Learn more about certificate of need laws here, here, and here). But the Court rejected this argument because “regulation of an industry, and even the authorization of discrete forms of anticompetitive conduct pursuant to a regulatory structure, does not establish that the State has affirmatively contemplated other forms of anticompetitive conduct that are only tangentially related.”

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Downtown Hartford

Author: Jarod Bona

In many instances, conduct involving the business of insurance is, indeed, exempt from antitrust liability.

So why does insurance sometimes get a free pass?

In 1945, Congress passed a law called The McCarran-Ferguson Act. Insurance, of course, has traditionally been regulated by the States. Territorial and jurisdictional disputes between the States and the Federal government are a grand tradition in this country. We call it Federalism. In 1945, it appears that the states won a battle over the feds.

As a result, in certain instances, business-of-insurance conduct can escape federal antitrust scrutiny.

The business of insurance isn’t the only type of exemption from the antitrust laws. There are a few. At The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we have discussed state-action immunity quite a bit (as suing state and local governments under the antitrust laws is a favorite topic of mine).

An exemption that is similar to the McCarran-Ferguson Act is the filed-rate doctrine, which we discuss here. There are, of course, several others, including–believe it or not–an antitrust exemption for baseball. The courts, however, disfavor these exemptions and interpret them narrowly.

But back to the insurance-business exemption and The McCarran-Ferguson Act. Do you notice that I keep calling it the “business of insurance” exemption and not the insurance-company exemption? That is because the courts don’t just exempt insurance companies from antitrust scrutiny. No, the exemption only applies to the business of insurance and in certain circumstances.

Below are the basic elements a defendant must satisfy to invoke the McCarran-Ferguson Act:

  1. The conduct in question must be regulated by the state or states.
  2. The conduct must qualify as the business of insurance—the business of insurers is not sufficient.
  3. The conduct must not consist of a group boycott or related form of coercion.

Each of these elements, in turn, has its own requirements, case law, and doctrinal development. The most interesting of the three elements is how to define the business of insurance.

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Antitrust-and-Distribution-2021-300x200

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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Author: Jon Cieslak

Over a year after it was first passed by the Senate, the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act finally became law in December 2020. The new law protects employees who report criminal antitrust violations such as price fixing or bid rigging from retaliation.

The Act states that an employer may not “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or in any other manner discriminate against” an employee, agent, contractor, or subcontractor who reports suspected criminal antitrust violations to an appropriate authority, which includes the federal government, the employee’s supervisor, or an individual working for the employer with appropriate investigative powers (such as corporate counsel or an antitrust monitor). The Act also protects employees who participate in or assist a federal investigation of suspected antitrust violations, whether or not they acted as a whistleblower in the first instance.

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Authors:  Kristen Harris and Steven J. Cernak

As we covered earlier (see here and here), the recent U.S. House Judiciary Committee Majority Report on its Investigation into Digital Markets recommends that Congress override several classic antitrust cases. In particular, the Report recommends “clarifying that cases involving platforms do not require plaintiffs to establish harm to both sets of customers” by overriding Ohio v. American Express. While American Express is of more recent vintage than some of the other Report’s targets, overriding it would change drastically how courts view “platform markets” and, perhaps, competition generally.

Overview of platform markets

To begin, it is helpful to understand what a platform market is. A platform market—sometimes referred to as a two-sided market—is a market where a company’s product or service caters to two or more customer groups and intermediates between its customer groups to create value. Some well-known examples include telephones, Uber, shopping malls, and credit cards.

A key characteristic of platform markets is the existence of indirect network effects. In traditional markets, that is, non-platform markets, the value of the last unit consumed decreases. But in platform markets with indirect network effects, the value of the platform increases as more people consume it. For example, the value of a phone depends on how many other people have phones; if no one else had a phone the value to you would be close to zero. To connect an example to the American Express case, the value of a credit card to the cardholder increases when more merchants accept the card; if no merchant accepted your credit card, its value to you would likely be zero.

Platform markets also carry specific antitrust implications particularly when it comes to the plaintiff’s burden to define the relevant market. Due to the indirect network effects, a price increase (or net harm) to one customer group may correspond to a bigger price decrease (or net benefit) to the other customer group. Depending on whether both customer groups are considered in defining the relevant market, the defendant may or may not be found to have violated the antitrust laws.

Traditionally, plaintiffs have the burden of showing the challenged conduct causes harm to competition in a defined relevant market. If the plaintiff satisfies its prima facie burden, the burden shifts to the defendant to challenge the plaintiff’s market definition or to show efficiency justifications. As the reader may have guessed, this is where the Supreme Court’s American Express decision comes in.

American Express case

Initially, several states sued American Express and two other credit card companies alleging violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. American Express was the only defendant that did not settle. The states’ complaint alleged that a “non-discrimination provision” (NDP) in contracts between American Express and its participating merchants unreasonably restricted competition in violation of Section 1. The NDP prohibits merchants from directly or indirectly steering customers to use a particular card, such as Visa or MasterCard, when making a purchase.

The trial court found that platform markets comprise “at least two separate, yet deeply interrelated, markets” and concluded that the relevant market was the “network services market” on the merchant side of the platform and excluded the cardholders. The court found that American Express violated Section 1 because NDPs caused anticompetitive effects on interbrand competition and American Express’ procompetitive justifications did not outweigh the harm to competition.

American Express appealed the district court’s decision arguing that the court got the market definition analysis incorrect. The Second Circuit agreed with American Express, reversed the decision, and held that the court erred in defining the relevant market. Specifically, the court held that the plaintiffs failed to show that NDPs made “all American Express consumers on both sides of the platform . . . worse off overall” and thus failed to satisfy the plaintiff’s prima facie burden to show harm in a properly defined market.

Then, the plaintiffs petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the Second Circuit.

The key issues before the Supreme Court were whether the relevant market in multi-sided markets should include all sides of the market and if so, whether plaintiffs are required to show net harm in the whole market as part of their prima facie case.

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Antitrust Injury and Brunswick

photo credit: ginnerobot via photopin cc

Author: Jarod Bona

Antitrust injury is one of the most commonly fought battles in antitrust litigation. It is also one of the least understood antitrust concepts.

No matter what your antitrust theory, it is almost certain that you must satisfy antitrust-injury requirements to win your case. So you ought to have some idea of what it is.

The often-quoted language is that antitrust injury is “injury of the type the antitrust laws were intended to prevent and that flows from that which makes the defendant’s acts unlawful.” You will see this language—or some variation of it—in most court opinions deciding antitrust-injury issues. The language and the analysis are from the Classic Antitrust Case entitled Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc., decided by the US Supreme Court in 1977.

For more, you can read our article on the Bona Law website describing antitrust injury.

Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc.

If your antitrust attorney is drafting a brief on your behalf and antitrust injury is in dispute—which is quite likely—he or she will probably cite Brunswick Corp.

Since antitrust injury is synonymous with Brunswick Corp., let’s talk about the actual case for a moment. If you are passionate about bowling-alley markets, you’ll love this case.

If you were around in the 1950s, you probably know that bowling was a big deal. The industry expanded rapidly, which was great for manufacturers of bowling equipment. But sometimes good things come to an end and the bowling industry went into a sharp decline in the early 1960s. These same manufacturers began to have trouble, as bowling alleys starting paying late or not at all for their leased equipment.

A particular bowling-equipment manufacturer—Brunswick Corp—began acquiring and operating defaulted bowling centers when they couldn’t resell the leased equipment.  For a period of seven years, Brunswick acquired 222 centers, some that it either disposed of or closed. This buying binge turned it into the largest operator of bowling centers, by far. If you are a fan of The Big Lebowski, you might notice that the Dude spends substantial time at a Brunswick bowling alley.

Brunswick’s buying binge was a problem for a competing bowling-alley operator and competitor, Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, who sued under the Clayton Act, arguing that certain Brunswick acquisitions in their territory “might substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.” Without the acquisition, the purchased bowling alleys would have gone out of business, which would have benefited Pueblo, a competitor.

The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court, which rejected the Clayton Act claim for lack of antitrust injury. The reason is that even though Pueblo was, indeed, harmed by the acquisition, it wasn’t a harm that the antitrust laws were meant to protect. The acquisition actually increased competition. Absent the acquisition, Pueblo would have gained market share. But with the acquisition, the market included both Pueblo and the bowling alleys that would have left the market—i.e. more competition.

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