Last September, we discussed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s opinion in In re Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation vacating a $147 million judgment against Chinese vitamin C manufacturers based on the doctrine of international comity. That case stemmed from allegations that the defendants illegally fixed the price and output levels of vitamin C that they exported to the United States. In reversing the district court’s decision to deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss, the Second Circuit held that the district court should have deferred to the Chinese government’s explanation that Chinese law compelled the defendants to coordinate the price and output of vitamin C.
Joint ventures (“JVs”) can require navigation of a potential minefield of antitrust issues, which we’ll explore in a series of six blog posts beginning with this introductory post. Not all of the law in this area is entirely settled, and there remain ongoing debates about some aspects of the antitrust treatment of JVs. Indeed, arriving at a coherent and unified view of JV law is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with missing and damaged pieces.
The possibility for a claim to be brought against the European Union (the “EU”) as a result of “damage” caused by its institutions is enshrined in Article 340 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (“TFEU”). In a General Court judgment of 10 January 2017, Case T-577/14 Gascogne Sack Deutschland and Gascogne v European Union (EU:T:2017:1), the appellants successfully brought a claim for material and non-material harm suffered as a result of the “excessive” length of the judicial proceedings in the context of an appeal against a European Commission (“Commission”) decision of 30 November 2005.
The timing of the process was as follows. On 23 February 2006, two entities from the Gascogne group filed appeals before the General Court against the Commission decision of 30 November 2005 finding the existence of a cartel in the plastic industrial bags sector in a number of Member States. The written procedure of the General Court proceedings in each of these cases ended in February 2007 and the oral procedure began in December 2010. The appeal was not dismissed by the General Court until 16 November 2011. READ MORE
The Federal Trade Commission has announced new (2017) premerger notification thresholds under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act as follows:
Any acquisition of voting securities and/or assets requires premerger notification to the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice under the HSR Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder (16 C.F.R. Sections 801 – 803) if the following tests are satisfied and if no exemption applies (15 U.S.C. Section 18a(a)(2)). Where a premerger notification is required, both parties must file, the acquiring person must pay a filing fee ((i) $45,000 for transactions below $161.5 million, (ii) $125,000 for transactions of $161.5 million or more but less than $807.5 million, and (iii) $280,000 for transactions of $807.5 million or more) and the parties must observe a 30 day waiting period prior to closing.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) has a duty to refer a transaction for an “in depth” phase 2 investigation in instances where it believes that there is a realistic prospect of a transaction resulting in a “substantial lessening of competition”, subject to certain exceptions. This includes a de minimis exception in markets of “insufficient importance”, where the costs involved in investigating the transaction would be disproportionate to the size of the market concerned.
In an unprecedented move, the parties to a planned merger transaction have brought an action for annulment against the European Commission’s decision to initiate proceedings even before the proceedings are closed.
Under the EU Merger Regulation (“EUMR”), the Commission’s review procedure is divided into two phases: “Phase I”, which is normally limited to 25 working days, serves to separate unproblematic cases from cases that require a deeper analysis. At the end of phase I, the Commission must either clear a transaction (if it does not find significant competition concerns or if it concludes that it has no jurisdiction) or it must initiate “phase II” (if it has serious doubts as to the transaction’s compatibility with the EU law). While a decision to open phase II does not prejudice the final outcome – the Commission may still clear the transaction – it significantly increases the burden in terms of cost and inconvenience for the merging parties. The opening of phase II normally entails a significant delay of several months, and during that time and until the Commission issues a clearance decision, the parties may not close the transaction.
On January 13, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission issued their updated Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property, first issued in 1995, which explains how the two agencies evaluate licensing and related activities involving patents, copyrights, trade secrets and know-how. Although the agencies have issued a variety of reports since 1995 regarding antitrust and IP issues, this is the first comprehensive update of the Guidelines. The final updated Guidelines do not differ significantly from the proposed Guidelines released in August 2016, which we analyzed in this blog post.
Also on January 13, 2017, the DOJ and FTC issued their revised Antitrust Guidelines for International Enforcement and Cooperation, first issued in 1995 as the Antitrust Enforcement Guidelines for International Operations. These Guidelines explain the agencies’ current approaches to international enforcement policy and their related investigative tools and cooperation with foreign enforcement agencies. The revised Guidelines differ from the 1995 Guidelines by adding a chapter on international cooperation, updating the discussion of the application of U.S. antitrust law to conduct involving foreign commerce (e.g., the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvement Act, foreign sovereign immunity, foreign sovereign compulsion, etc.), and providing examples of issues that commonly arise.
In June 2016, China’s State Council issued its Opinions of the State Council on Establishing a Fair Competition Review System During the Development of Market-oriented Review System (“Opinions”). The fair competition review system (“FCRS”) that the Opinions contemplate is designed to protect against the potential abuse of administrative power by Chinese government agencies that could result in anti-competitive effects. In other words, the FCRS is supposed to constrain government activities from unduly influencing market competition, consistent with the prohibition that China’s Anti-Monopoly Law places on such conduct.
The development of a digital single market is a key objective for the European Union. As Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission (“EC”) said in September, “We need to be connected. Our economy needs it.” Although this economic policy objective was initiated when the EC published its communication on the Digital Single Market Strategy for Europe in 2015, the various proposals it contains need to be formally adopted and implemented in the EU. This process is now underway.
The EU’s commitments contained in the Telecoms Single Market Regulation of 2015 to end roaming charges for periodic travel in the EU required the EC to adopt rules by 15 December 2016. A transition period—starting from 30 April 2016 to 15 June 2017—has been established to make the abolition of roaming charges sustainable throughout the EU without an increase in domestic prices. On December 8, the EC sent an implementing draft on the end of the roaming charges to the representatives of Member States (via the Communications Committee (“COCOM”)). They voted on the text on December 12, and the EC will adopt these new rules regarding the retail market in the coming days. READ MORE
Judge Katherine Forrest of the Southern District of New York recently dismissed another set of complaints in what she described as “the next chapter in the saga” of the In re Aluminum Warehousing Antitrust Litigation cases, No. 13-md-024710-KBF (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 2016). Referring to her previous October 5, 2016 ruling, which dismissed claims asserted by certain first-level purchasers of aluminum products, Judge Forrest found (in a ruling dated November 30, 2016) that the remaining complaints by additional first-level purchasers were equally defective because they too failed to establish antitrust injury. The October 5, 2016 ruling, in turn, substantially relied on the Second Circuit’s August 9, 2016 opinion, which affirmed dismissal of claims brought by indirect purchasers of aluminum or aluminum products. Broadly, the various complaints alleged that aluminum futures traders, banks, and others conspired to manipulate the warehouse storage costs of aluminum, resulting in higher prices in the market for physical aluminum.
The Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) has today announced that it has secured the first disqualification of a director of a company which has infringed competition law. Under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 (as amended by the Enterprise Act 2002), the CMA can apply to the court for a disqualification order to be made against a director in cases where a company has breached competition law and the director’s conduct makes him or her “unfit to be concerned in the management of a company”. This is the first time that the CMA has utilised this power.
In this case, poster supplier Trod breached competition law by agreeing with a competitor that they would not undercut each other’s prices for posters and frames sold online, with the agreement between the competitors being implemented using automated re-pricing software. The company received a fine of £163,371 for this behaviour.
As of November 28, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has expanded the filing obligations under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act by requiring filers to submit certain documents analyzing a deal or affected markets even where the evaluation or analysis is limited to geographies or operations outside of the United States. This is a significant shift in the Agency’s interpretation of Items 4(c) and 4(d) of the HSR Notification and Report Form.
On November 8, 2016, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) imposed the highest “gun-jumping” national and worldwide fine ever, €80 million, on Altice-Numericable, a major French telecommunications operator, in relation to its 2014 acquisitions of SFR (“Société Française du Radiotéléphone”) and OTL (“Omer Telecom Limited”).
“This is a world first decision when considering the amount of the sanction and the seriousness of the circumstances,” commented Isabelle de Silva, the President of the FCA since last October.
The European Commission has launched a public consultation to evaluate several aspects of EU merger control for possible revision. Stakeholders are invited to provide feedback until 13 January 2017. A link to the questionnaire can be found here.
The current consultation partly builds on previous efforts to improve and simplify the EU merger control regime, including the so-called “Simplification Package”, which has been in force since January 2014.
On November 17, 2016, Jon Sallet, DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General for litigation, presented a speech at the American Bar Association Antitrust Section’s Fall Forum in which he outlined his views regarding the DOJ’s approach to vertical mergers and other transactions that raise the potential for vertical restraints on competition. After recapping some of the history regarding the DOJ’s treatment of vertical restraints, Mr. Sallet commented on issues such as merger-related efficiencies, competitive effects, input foreclosure and raising rivals costs, innovation effects, the exchange of competitively sensitive information that could harm interbrand competition, and potential anticompetitive effects in transactions that do not involve a combination of vertically related assets. Finally, he noted that if the DOJ has concerns regarding anticompetitive effects, it might feel that conduct remedies are insufficient and may require structural remedies or even try to block the transaction. Any company considering a vertical merger or a transaction that may raise the potential for vertical restraints on competition will benefit from reviewing Mr. Sallet’s speech. The speech is available here.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Motorola Mobility v. AU Optronics–which blocked a U.S. parent’s Sherman Act claim based on its foreign subsidiary’s purchases of a price-fixed product–continues to reverberate throughout federal district courts. A district court in the Sixth Circuit recently followed Motorola Mobility to dismiss a U.S. company’s price-fixing claims based on its foreign subsidiary’s purchases of allegedly price-fixed components that were incorporated abroad into finished goods that the subsidiary then shipped to the United States. In re Refrigerant Compressors Antitrust Litigation, No. 2:09-md-02042, 2016 WL 6138600 (E.D. Mich. Oct. 21, 2016). The district court’s decision demonstrates that, post-Motorola Mobility, defendants have strong arguments in some circuits under the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act (“FTAIA”) and Illinois Brick to defeat a U.S. parent’s price-fixing claims based on purchases by its overseas subsidiary, especially where that subsidiary is not wholly-owned.
In SOLIDFX, LLC v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., Case Nos. 15-1079 and 15-1097 (opinion available here), the Tenth Circuit aligned itself with the First and Federal Circuits to hold that the invocation of intellectual property rights is a presumptively valid business justification sufficient to rebut a Sherman Act Section 2 refusal to deal claim, but left open some questions about when and how the presumption can (if ever) be rebutted.
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.