Antitrust and Competition Law Is Being Wielded as an Increasingly Effective Weapon to Diminish Patent Rights in the U.S.

IP Antitrust Law diminish patent rights in the US

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.

Federal Trade Commission Publishes Study Analyzing Patent Assertion Entity Organization and Behavior

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

Are Patent Rights Poised for a Resurgence?

Patent Rights Resurgence Word Cloud

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.

 

China’s and Japan’s Antitrust Enforcement Agencies Warm Up To Each Other

Chinese and Japanese crossed flags increased communication, cooperation and coordination among Chinese and Japanese antitrust enforcement agencies

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.

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Second Circuit Squeezes the Juice Out of Vitamin C Jury Verdict

Orange Fruit Slices Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation

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.

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Third Circuit Jump-starts Class Action, Holding that an Indirect Purchaser Can Bring Federal Antitrust Claims as a Direct Purchaser Based on Assignment of the Claims Even Without Consideration

Antitrust Class Action Truck Transmissions

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).

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Ninth Circuit Grounds Aftermarket Claims, Refusing to Stretch Antitrust Theories and Reminding Plaintiffs That Allegations Must Be Supported by Evidence of Anti-Competitive Harm

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.

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Third Circuit Rules that Antitrust Standing Is Properly Challenged Under Rule 12(b)(6) for Failure to State a Claim, Not Under Rule 12(b)(1) for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

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.

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Germany Plans to Introduce New Merger Notification Test

Merger Acquisition Antitrust

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.

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Act of State Doctrine Bars Antitrust Claims Against Private Company’s Minority Owners where Majority Owner is a Foreign Sovereign

Sea Salt Antitrust

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).

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Sun Sets on Solar Panel Manufacturer’s Predatory Pricing Claim as Sixth Circuit Affirms Dismissal

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.

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Court’s Denial of Summary Judgment on Price Discrimination Claims Reminds Suppliers to Properly Structure Discount Programs

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.

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Seventh Circuit Rules that Offering Different Product Package Sizes Does Not Constitute Unlawful Price Discrimination

pricing discrimination

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.

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FTC and DOJ Antitrust Division Request Comments on Proposed Revisions to Antitrust Guidelines for Licensing IP

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.

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English High Court Allows LCD Damages Action to Proceed

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 [2016] 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.

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Fnac-Darty: A Landmark Merger Decision in France

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.

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Second Circuit Rules That Judges Can Decertify a Class After a Jury Verdict

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.

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Court Awards $3M Sanction and Adverse Inference for Spoliation in Antitrust Case

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.

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ValueAct Settlement Marks Record Penalty in Heightened Agency Efforts Against HSR Act Violations

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.

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Price Signalling Can Put Companies in Hot Water in the EU

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.[1]

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.

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