In an October surprise, the DOJ and FTC (collectively, the “Agencies”) released guidance for HR professionals on the application of the antitrust laws to employee hiring and compensation. The Agencies’ October 20, 2016 release, Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals, announced that “naked” agreements among employers not to poach each other’s employees and to fix wages and other terms of employment are per se illegal. Critically, for the first time, the Agencies warn that such agreements could result in criminal prosecution against individual HR professionals, other company executives, as well as the company. This Guidance, coupled with repeated requests to approach the Agencies to report such agreements, signals a significant shift in enforcement focus for the Agencies, including a further move to individual prosecutions, particularly when taken together with last year’s DOJ Yates Memorandum calling for more emphasis on individual executive liability.
On August 9, 2016, the Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of claims asserted by two groups of self-proclaimed “indirect purchasers” of aluminum products who alleged that three aluminum futures traders, which had acquired operators of warehouses for aluminum, manipulated a price component for aluminum (warehouse storage costs). The Second Circuit concluded that these “indirect purchasers” did not suffer antitrust injury because they were not participants in the aluminum warehousing market. In re Aluminum Warehousing Antitrust Litig., Nos. 14-3574, 14-3581(2d Cir. Aug. 9, 2016). In the district court, Judge Katherine Forrest recently applied the Second Circuit’s analysis to dismiss similar claims brought by the purported “direct purchasers” of the aluminum because they, too, were not participants in the aluminum warehousing market. In re Aluminum Warehousing Antitrust Litig., No. 13-2481 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 5, 2016). These two decisions (assuming the district court’s decision is affirmed) should help defendants attack plaintiffs’ efforts to establish antitrust standing in other cases by trying to thread the “inextricably intertwined” needle for market participants that the Supreme Court established in Blue Shield of Virginia v. McCready, 457 U.S. 465 (1982).
After gathering information from nearly 1800 stakeholders from all 28 EU Member States and collecting around 8000 distribution agreements, the EU Commission published on 15 September a preliminary report on the findings of its ongoing competition sector inquiry into e-commerce.
The inquiry was launched by the Commission in May 2015, after finding that despite the growing significance for e-commerce across EU countries over the last years (approximately 50% of the population of the Union shopped online in 2014), cross-border online trade remained limited.
While such limitations may have been attributable to language barriers, consumer preferences or differences in legal frameworks between Member States, the Commission sought to investigate the sector based on indications that companies active on the e-commerce market may be engaged in anticompetitive agreements.
Partners Jay Jurata and Alex Okuliar recently published a chapter on IP and Antitrust in The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2017 published by Global Competition Review. They note that antitrust and competition law is being wielded as an increasingly effective weapon to diminish patent rights in the US. Follow the link to the chapter.
For years, a debate has swirled in Washington and around the country about the role and economic value of “patent assertion entities” – often referred to derisively in the press as “patent trolls.” Some of these PAEs have been known to blanket small businesses with threatening letters claiming infringement of sometimes questionable patents hoping to receive a quick payout. The Federal Trade Commission just recently published a long-awaited Patent Assertion Entity Activity Study that analyzes the structure, organization, and behavior of PAEs, hoping to inform the debate about these entities. Using responses from a sample of 22 PAEs and more than 2,500 PAE affiliates and related entities, the study analyzes PAE acquisitions, litigation, and licensing practices over a six-year period. The findings in the study are extensive and are likely to provoke further discussion and debate. The Commission’s key findings and recommendations are discussed below. READ MORE
Partners Alex Okuliar and Jim Tierney recently published a piece in the National Law Journal entitled Are Patent Rights Poised for a Resurgence? They argue that after several years of retrenchment, economic trends in the US and China, as well as developments at the federal agencies and US courts, could signal a return to stronger protections for patent owners. Follow the link to the article.
Although China and Japan have very different histories regarding their antitrust laws, antitrust enforcement officials from the two countries have recently taken steps to open a formal dialogue. This is a welcome development for Chinese and Japanese companies, as well as for foreign companies that do business in China and Japan, and it continues the trend of increased communication, cooperation and coordination among national enforcement agencies. There remains an open question, however, as to how convergence among Asian antitrust enforcement agencies will affect possible convergence with agencies in the United States, the European Union and the rest of the world.
On September 20, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an opinion in In re Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation, reversing the district court’s eight year-old decision not to grant a motion to dismiss the case, based on international comity. The Second Circuit vacated the $147 million judgment against the two defendants that took the case to trial in 2013, and remanded with instructions to dismiss the complaint with prejudice. The court did not opine on the defendants’ other grounds for dismissal – the foreign sovereign compulsion, act of state, and political question doctrines. In re Vitamin C Antitrust Litig., No. 13-4791 (2d Cir. Sept. 20, 2016).
In 2005, the plaintiffs brought several class action complaints against the major Chinese vitamin C manufacturers, alleging that the manufacturers illegally fixed the price and output levels of vitamin C that they exported to the United States. The cases, which were consolidated in the Eastern District of New York, marked the first time that Chinese companies had been sued in a U.S. court for violation of the Sherman Act.
On September 15, 2016, the Third Circuit jump-started a federal antitrust class action involving truck transmissions, holding that a direct purchaser’s assignment of its federal antitrust claims to an indirect purchaser is valid as long as the assignment was written and express—even if there was no consideration for the assignment. The Third Circuit also held that a proposed class representative’s motion to intervene is presumptively timely if made before class certification. Wallach, et al. v. Eaton Corp., et al., No. 15-3320 (Sept. 15, 2016).
Last week, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment disposing of numerous antitrust claims brought by an independent servicer against a manufacturer of systems and parts that also provides service. The court emphasized that “[t]his case serves as a reminder that anecdotal speculation and supposition are not a substitute for evidence, and that evidence decoupled from harm to competition—the bellweather of antitrust—is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Aerotec Int’l, Inc. v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., No. 14-15562 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2016).
Auxiliary Power Units (“APUs”) power an airplane’s air conditioning, cabin lights and instrumentation. Aerotec International, Inc. (“Aerotec’), a small servicer of APUs, including those manufactured by Honeywell International, Inc. (“Honeywell”), complained that Honeywell had stalled Aerotec’s sales efforts and prevented it from reaching cruising altitude through a variety of alleged anticompetitive conduct.
On September 7, 2016, the Third Circuit ruled that a district court erred in granting a Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss federal antitrust claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, because the court conflated the analyses for Article III standing and antitrust standing. Hartig Drug Co. Inc. v. Senju Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., No. 15-3289 (3d Cir. Sept. 7, 2016).
Hartig Drug Company Inc. (“Hartig”), an Iowa-based drug store chain, sued pharmaceutical manufacturers alleging that they suppressed competition for medicated eyedrops through a variety of means, which resulted in higher prices for the eyedrops. Hartig purchased the eyedrops from a distributor, AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation (“Amerisource”), which purchased the eyedrops from the manufacturers. Hartig’s claim as an indirect purchaser from the defendant manufacturers was barred by Illinois Brick v. Illinois, 431 U.S. 720 (1977), so it alleged that Amerisource had assigned its claim to Hartwig, which enable Hartwig to sue as a direct purchaser.
The manufacturers filed a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and also a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. For the Rule 12(b)(1) motion, defendants submitted Amerisource’s Distribution Services Agreement (“DSA”) with one of the manufacturers—which was not mentioned in Hartwig’s complaint—to argue that an anti-assignment clause in the DSA prohibited Amerisource from assigning its claim without the defendant’s consent. The District Court accepted that argument and granted the Rule 12(b)(1) motion on the ground that Hartig was actually suing as an indirect purchaser and not as a direct purchaser because the assignment was invalid.
On appeal, several retailers filed an amicus brief arguing that defendant’s anti-assignment argument reached only the issue of antitrust standing, which is different from Article III standing, and the district court erred in ruling that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction. The Third Circuit agreed.
The German government has recently published a bill that would significantly amend the criteria for determining whether an M&A transaction is subject to German merger control.
Currently, the applicability of the German merger control rules depends primarily on the revenues of the firms participating in a transaction. A concentration needs to be notified to the German competition authority – the Bundeskartellamt – where all the following three turnover thresholds are met: (i) EUR 500 million worldwide, (ii) EUR 25 million in Germany, and (iii) EUR 5 million in Germany. The 500 million threshold (i) refers to the sales achieved by all of the parties combined in their last completed financial year. The other two thresholds (ii) and (iii) refer to the individual sales of two parties to the transaction (e.g., the acquirer, on the one hand, and the business being acquired, on the other). Where the notification thresholds are met, the parties are subject to a standstill obligation. They must not consummate the transaction until it has been cleared (or is deemed to have been cleared) by the Bundeskartellamt.
A court in the Central District of California recently applied the Act of State doctrine to dismiss a complaint against two private companies that are minority owners of a third company, also a defendant, which is majority-owned by the Mexican government. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee held that the relief the plaintiffs sought would require the court to deem the official acts of a foreign sovereign invalid, and that the private entities had standing to invoke the doctrine. Sea Breeze Salt, Inc. et al. v. Mitsubishi Corp. et al., CV 16-2345-DMG, ECF No. 45 (Aug. 18, 2016).
Proving once again that antitrust law protects competition, not competitors, on August 18, 2016 the Sixth Circuit affirmed a decision from the Eastern District of Michigan dismissing a plaintiff’s Sherman Act § 1 predatory pricing complaint for failure to state a claim. The case, Energy Conversion Devices Liquidated Trust et al. v. Trina Solar Ltd. et al., involved allegations by a US-based solar panel manufacturer that its Chinese competitors had conspired to lower their prices in the US to below cost in order to drive the plaintiff out of business.
Energy Conversion conceded that a predatory pricing claim under § 2 of the Sherman Act requires the plaintiff to plead and prove both that the defendant charged below-cost prices, and that the defendant had a reasonable prospect of recouping its investment. But it maintained that for a claim brought under § 1, the second element—recoupment—was not required.
In a recent decision, the Northern District of California denied Chrysler’s motion for summary judgment to defeat a Robinson-Patman Act price discrimination claim. Mathew Enterprise, Inc. v. Chrysler Group LLC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108693 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 2, 2016) (opinion filed August 15, 2016 and available here). The decision serves as a reminder of the relatively low bar for establishing competitive and antitrust injury for Robinson-Patman Act purposes, and counsels in favor of carefully structuring discount programs to avoid any potential litigation down the road.
On August 12, 2016, the Seventh Circuit ruled that a manufacturer’s decision to sell large package products to some retailers but not others does not constitute price discrimination under Section 13(e) of the Robinson-Patman Act. Woodman’s Food Market, Inc. v. Clorox Co. and Clorox Sales Co. (7th Cir. Aug. 12, 2016) (opinion available here). The decision harmonizes Seventh Circuit law with that of other circuits and clarifies that manufacturers do not violate the promotional services or facilities requirements of the Act when they offer bulk products to some but not all purchasers.
After several turbulent years of litigation and policy wrangling, many have asked whether the federal antitrust agencies should rewrite their two-decade old Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (“Guidelines”). Should they provide clearer guidance regarding thorny questions about licensing standard essential patents (SEPs), patent assertion entities (PAEs), reverse payment settlements, or other matters that have prompted new guidelines from other enforcers around the world? On August 12, the Federal Trade Commission and US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division responded with modest updates to the Guidelines, likely setting themselves up for considerable commentary in the weeks to come.
On 29 July 2016, the High Court of England and Wales delivered its judgment dismissing the applications of two defendants to strike out a follow-on damages case in which the claimant, iiyama, asserts that it suffered losses as a result of the defendants’ alleged participation in the LCD cartel. Iiyama v Samsung  EWHC 1980 (Ch).
The claim follows on from the European Commission’s decision of 8 December 2010, which found that six LCD panel producers had entered into a world-wide price fixing cartel and had implemented that cartel within the EU. The Commission had been satisfied that the agreement related to direct and indirect sales of LCD panels to companies in the EU. It also found that the participants in the cartel had sought to implement the cartel within the EU, even if price negotiations took place outside the EU.
On 18 July 2016, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) broke new ground in France by holding that retail distribution of electronic products through both physical stores and online channels is a single relevant market.
The background and the FCA’s Decision
The FCA’s decision concerns Fnac’s acquisition of Darty. The proposed transaction drew a great deal of public attention because it involves France’s two largest click and mortar retailers. It drew even more attention in March 2016, when the FCA announced a phase II examination of the potentially negative effects of the merger. However, in its 18 July 2016 decision, the FCA reversed course and granted conditional approval for the transaction after determining the relevant market includes both online and physical distribution channels.
The Second Circuit recently held that under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, a district court judge can decertify a class after a jury verdict in favor of the class but before entering judgment, upholding a Southern District Court of New York decision granting defendants’ post-verdict motion to decertify the class. Joseph Mazzei v. The Money Store, TMS Mortgage Inc., HomEq Servicing Corp., No. 15-2054 (2d Cir. July 15, 2016). The Second Circuit’s decision confirms that after a court certifies a class, defendants should continue to develop evidence to seek to decertify the class even after a jury verdict in favor of the class.