On July 6, 2016, Judge Leonard P. Stark, of the federal district court in Delaware, ordered a $3 million punitive monetary sanction, and an adverse inference jury instruction, against antitrust defendant Plantronics after finding that a top executive at the company had deleted thousands of potentially relevant emails. This case is noteworthy both because of the severity of the sanction and the court’s decision to impute the conduct of an employee to the company even though numerous preservation practices were in place and the employee was instructed not to destroy information.
Where is the line drawn between acquisitions of securities made “solely for the purpose of investment” on one hand, and influencing control, thereby requiring regulatory approval, on the other hand? That is the central cautionary question that was reinforced by the July 12, 2016, Department of Justice (“DOJ”) settlement with ValueAct Capital. The well-known activist investment firm agreed to pay $11 million to settle a suit alleging that it violated the premerger reporting and waiting period requirements of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (“HSR Act”). ValueAct purchased more than $2.5 billion of shares in two oil companies, Baker Hughes Inc. and Halliburton Co., after they announced they would merge. The DOJ alleged that ValueAct used its ownership position to influence the proposed merger and other aspects of Baker Hughes and Halliburton, and thus could not rely on the exemption.
The long list of practices violating EU competition law just got longer: in Container Shipping, the European Commission confirmed that the unilateral publishing of pricing information, in public media, can violate Article 101 TFEU.
In this case, the Commission expressed concern that the practice of fourteen container liner shipping companies (“Carriers”) to publish intentions to increase prices may harm competition. The Carriers regularly announced intended increases of freight prices on their websites, via the press, or in other ways. The announcements were made several times a year and included the level of increase and the date of implementation. The Carriers were not bound by the announced increases and some of them postponed or modified the price increases after announcement.
Howard Ullman recently published a column in the Association of Business Trial Lawyers Report (Northern California) on a recent Sixth Circuit decision that raises new issues for structuring joint ventures. You can read the full article here.
On 4 July 2016, just as European football takes centre stage at the final stages of the UEFA European Championships in France, the European Commission (“Commission”) issued a decision ordering Spain to recoup tens of millions of euros of unlawful State aid granted to seven Spanish football clubs, including two of the best-known clubs in the world, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
The Commission’s probe was launched in December 2013, with three parallel investigations into certain public support measures granted to Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Athletic Club Bilbao, Club Atlético Osasuna, and three Valencian football clubs, Valencia CF, Elche CF and Hercules CF.
“Protect the level playing field”
In announcing the rulings, Margrethe Vestager, Competition Commissioner, stated: “Using tax payers’ money to finance professional football clubs can create unfair competition. Professional football is a commercial activity with significant money involved and public money must comply with fair competition rules. The subsidies we investigated in these cases did not.” The Commission’s press release cites its application of State aid rules in these investigations as “protect[ing] the level playing field” for competing professional football clubs against State measures that could “prevent rivals from growing and being competitive.”
Recognizing concern that the Chinese government intervenes excessively into markets and private economic activities, the China State Council recently released opinions directing the implementation of a fair competition review system (“FCRS”), which is intended to moderate administrative authorities’ issuance of regulations and minimize the government’s interference in China’s economy. Although the CRS has been hailed as “a key step to establish the fundamental status of competition policies,” its success will depend on how it is implemented.
On June 1, 2016, the Opinions of the State Council on Establishing a Fair Competition Review System During the Development of Market-Oriented Systems (“Opinions”) were promulgated and became effective. The Opinions note that enforcement of current laws sometimes entails “local protectionism, regional blockade, industry barriers, business monopoly, granting preferential policies in violation of the law or illegally prejudicing the interests of market players, and other phenomena contrary to the efforts of building a unified national market and promoting fair competition.” These so-called “administrative monopolies,” which often are at issue in cases investigated under the Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), are at cross purposes to the AML. In an effort to reduce or eliminate obstacles to economic development, the Opinions call for limiting the government authorities’ administrative powers, establishing the FCRS, preventing new policies and measures that exclude competition, and gradually revising and ultimately abolishing existing provisions that impede fair competition.
On June 30, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced increases to the maximum civil penalties issuable for violations of several key competition statutes. The agency made these changes to comply with the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act of 2015, which required the agency adjust penalty amounts for laws it enforces based on a methodology provided for by Congress.
Over the past decade, the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) has increased its criminal enforcement of Japan’s antitrust law, the “Act on Prohibition of Private Monopoly and Maintenance of Fair Trade,” commonly known as the Anti-Monopoly Act. This trend is likely to continue because last month Japan’s Diet amended the Code of Criminal Procedure to introduce a plea bargaining system that creates an incentive to report antitrust violations committed by others. The new plea bargaining system, which applies to crimes such as antitrust, fraud, bribery and tax evasion, will be implemented in Japan within 2 years.
For the past several years, plaintiffs and defendants in international price-fixing cases have battled over the extraterritorial application of the Sherman Act in light of the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act of 1982 (“FTAIA”), 15 U.S.C. § 6a, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision in F. Hoffman-LaRoche Ltd. v. Empagran, S.A., 542 U.S. 155 (2004). Although the Supreme Court passed on an opportunity to clarify the scope of the FTAIA when it denied petitions for certiorari following decisions in Hsuing v. United States, 778 F.3d 738 (9th Cir. 2014), as amended (Jan. 30, 2015), and Motorola Mobility LLC v. AU Optronics Corp., 775 F.3d 816 (7th Cir. 2014), as amended (Jan. 12, 2015), the Court’s decision in RJR Nabisco v. European Community—which addresses the extraterritorial application of the federal RICO statute—may provide some insight into how it views antitrust claims based on foreign injuries under the FTAIA.
On June 14, 2016, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, of the Northern District of Illinois, denied a motion for preliminary injunction by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Attorney General for the State of Illinois, seeking to block the proposed merger between Advocate Health Care and the NorthShore University Health System (“NorthShore”) in the Chicago metropolitan area. According to Judge Alonso’s opinion released on June 20, the Plaintiffs failed to prove a relevant geographic market, the lack of which the Court deemed fatal to the Plaintiffs’ case.
This loss could be a blow for the FTC’s health care competition enforcement program. It is the agency’s second loss in district court this year in a hospital merger challenge. Additionally, as we noted in our May 13, 2016 blog post concerning the FTC’s earlier loss on the Hershey merger—now on appeal to the Third Circuit—both cases reflect push-back by courts against what to this point have been highly successful FTC market definition and consumer harm arguments in hospital merger cases.
Courts in the Northern District of California, which have been handling price-fixing class actions in the electronics industry for more than a decade, are continuing to develop ground rules about whether defendants in a price-fixing case are entitled to know the amount for which an opt-out Direct Action Plaintiff (DAP) settles its cases against other defendants. On May 27, 2016, Judge Jon S. Tigar overruled objections to a Special Master’s Report and Recommendation compelling two DAPs to disclose settlement amounts in the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) Antitrust Litigation, No. 3:07-cv-5944 (N.D. Cal.). Judge Tigar compelled both companies to provide that information to a Special Master so he can determine whether the information should be provided to other defendants to facilitate settlements—even though both companies had already settled all of their claims against all defendants. ECF 4661.
On Monday, June 7, the Supreme Court requested the views of the Solicitor General in connection with a petition for certiorari filed by the U.S. subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline plc (“GSK”) in SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. King Drug Co. of Florence, No. 15-1055. The Supreme Court’s request seems less directed to rethinking its seminal ruling in FTC v. Actavis on the lawfulness of “reverse-payment” settlements of Hatch-Waxman cases than to a concern that, in some specific ways, its decision may have created some unintended consequences.
Are patients receiving the best care in hospitals? The German competition authority – Bundeskartellamt – has now decided to apply a health check to the German hospitals market.
On May 31, 2016, the German competition authority announced that it was launching a so-called “sector inquiry” into the hospital services market to examine the degree of competition in that sector of the economy.
Businesses often wonder how competition authorities pick and choose the cases they decide to bring. Companies with operations in Europe now have some guidance as a result of a recent speech by European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in which she outlined how the Commission prioritizes its enforcement efforts.
Commissioner Vestager explained that the Commission uses three main criteria in prioritizing which cases to pursue. Not every case needs to satisfy all three criteria, but the Commission tries to keep these three objectives in mind in determining whether to pursue an enforcement action.
On June 1, 2016, FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen delivered remarks in Hong Kong, pushing back on recent news reports implying that the United States currently suffers from a “monopoly problem” causing a reduction of competition in the marketplace. Recent articles and opinion pieces in The Economist and The New York Times suggest that the consolidation of market power, and lack of antitrust enforcement preventing such consolidation, are having a noticeable effect and harming consumers and innovation. Indeed, the precursor to these reports—an April 14, 2016 report from the Council of Economic Advisers (“CEA”), entitled “Benefits of Competition and Indicators of Market Power,” argues there has been a decline of competition in certain parts of the U.S. economy due the concentration of monopoly power in the hands of a select few players in certain industries (e.g., airlines, cable, networking). The CEA report suggests U.S. agencies should explore how certain factors—the use of Big Data, increased price transparency, and common stock ownership—affect competition. As a result of the CEA report, President Obama issued an Executive Order on April 15, 2016, directing antitrust enforcement agencies to use their authority to “promote competition.”
On May 19, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC)” issued an important clarification regarding how the agency will determine whether a foreign entity is classified as corporate or non-corporate for the purpose of the agency’s premerger notification program. Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (also referred to as the “HSR Act”), parties to certain mergers or acquisitions must notify both the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice prior to consummating the transaction. Under this program, whether a party to the transaction is a corporate or non-corporate entity (e.g., an LLC, partnership) can have significant implications for determining whether a filing is required and whether an exemption might apply. While evaluating party status has historically been straightforward for U.S. entities, foreign entities pose a number of challenges.
You know what they say: one man’s price is another man’s bundle. No? Well maybe they should, after this recent decision out of the Third Circuit in Eisai, Inc. v. Sanofi Aventis U.S., LLC involving allegedly exclusionary discounting. The court ultimately found Sanofi’s conduct was not unlawful. But the decision raises questions about how such conduct – a hybrid of price discounts and single-product bundling – will be treated going forward, at least in the Third Circuit.
At issue was Sanofi’s marketing of its anticoagulant drug Lovenox to hospitals through its Lovenox Acute Contract Value Program. Under the Program, hospitals received price discounts based on the total volume of Lovenox they purchased and the proportion of Lovenox in their overall purchase of anticoagulant drugs. A hospital that chose Lovenox for less than 75% of its total purchase of anticoagulants received a flat 1% discount regardless of the volume purchased. But when a hospital’s purchase of Lovenox exceeded that percentage, it would receive an increasingly higher discount based on total volume and percentage share, up to a total of 30% off the wholesale price. A hospital that did not participate in the Program at all was free to purchase Lovenox “off contract” at the wholesale price.
On May 17, 2016, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) issued a memorandum opinion explaining his decision to enjoin the Office Depot/Staples merger under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The court conducted a two-week trial in which the FTC called ten witnesses and 4000 exhibits were admitted into evidence, after which defendants opted to rest. The court found that the FTC “established their prima facie case by demonstrating that Defendants’ proposed merger is likely to reduce competition in the Business to Business (“B-to-B”) contract space for office supplies.” Defendants largely relied on Amazon’s development of on-line B-to-B services to replace or restore any reduction in competition resulting from the merger, but the court found that argument unpersuasive and enjoined the merger.
On April 27, 2016, Invibio—a supplier of polyetheretherketone (“PEEK”) used in medical implants—agreed to settle charges asserted by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) that its exclusive supply contracts with medical device manufacturers, including some of the world’s largest, violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. This consent decree may signal a renewed interest at the agency to scrutinize exclusive contract arrangements. The decree also serves as a reminder that, while exclusive contracts are not per se unlawful, companies that have market power and use exclusive contracts face risks under the antitrust and consumer protection laws.
On May 9, 2016, U.S. District Judge John Jones III, of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, rejected a motion for preliminary injunction by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Pennsylvania Attorney General to halt the proposed merger between Penn State Hershey Medical Center (“Hershey”) and PinnacleHealth System (“Pinnacle”). The Court’s decision represents a potential setback for the FTC’s enforcement against hospital consolidation around the country. The opinion raises further questions about recent analyses endorsed by the agency and other federal courts when reviewing hospital mergers. The Court has extended the temporary restraining order in effect until May 27, 2016, to allow the FTC and the Attorney General to seek relief from the 3d Circuit.