In the first post in this series, we introduced the concept of joint ventures (“JVs”), outlined why antitrust law applies to their formation and operation, identified the major antitrust issues raised by JVs, and discussed why you should care about these issues. In this installment, we will unpack some of the major antitrust issues surrounding the threshold question of whether or not a JV is a legitimate collaboration. In particular, we will first try to separate the analyses of, on the one hand, JV formation, and on the other, JV operation and structure. Then we will consider whether a JV (i) constitutes a “naked” agreement between or among competitors which is per se unlawful, (ii) presents no significant antitrust issue because there is only a single, integrated entity performing the JV functions, or (iii) involves restraints within the scope of a legitimate collaboration that are virtually per se lawful.
On March 24, 2017, the PRC National Development and Reform Commission (“NDRC”) issued draft Guidelines for Price-Related Behavior of Industry Associations (“Guidelines”). The Guidelines encourage industry associations in the People’s Republic of China to engage in price-related behavior that benefits industry development, market competition and consumers’ legal interests; outline the legal risks that may be involved in various price-related behavior by industry associations; and provide guidance for industry associations to assess whether price-related behavior poses legal risk. The NDRC is accepting public comments until April 24, 2017.
On January 12, 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) dismissed Roullier group’s appeal and thereby confirmed a fine of €59,850,000 imposed by the European Commission (“EC”) in the phosphates cartel case. This blog post summarizes the decision and discusses the CJEU’s reasoning, which provides valuable guidance to a firm in a cartel investigation that is evaluating a settlement proposal from the EC. In particular, the firm must weigh the fact that, pursuant to the CJEU’s decision, the EC may ultimately impose fines greater than those it proposed in a rejected settlement offer, even if it determines that the firm’s cartel participation was significantly less than it thought at the time of settlement discussions.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
Rightly considered to be a “once in a generation decision,” the UK electorate will on 23 June 2016 have a chance to vote on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union (“EU”).
This upcoming referendum has resulted in emotional rhetoric and heated discussions in the media (and no doubt around dining tables throughout the UK and elsewhere) on which way to vote, and why. However, what is striking to us is the relative lack of focus on the legal implications of so-called “Brexit,” including on EU and UK competition law.
On April 14, 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice and two West Virginia hospitals entered into a consent decree requiring the hospitals to cease allocating territories for marketing their healthcare services. The complaint and consent decree can be viewed here and here. This consent decree follows a similar consent decree that the DOJ entered into with three Michigan hospitals in June 2015, perhaps signaling the DOJ’s increased focused in policing allegedly anticompetitive agreements among hospitals and medical centers.