DOJ Publishes Statements Clarifying Its Analysis of No-Poach Agreements – But Questions Remain

Since issuing the DOJ/FTC Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals in 2016, the DOJ Antitrust Division has remained active in enforcing and commenting on agreements among employers not to compete for hiring employees (“no-poach” agreements). DOJ filed several statements of interest in private antitrust suits involving no-poach provisions to provide guidance to the courts on the proper application of the federal antitrust laws to such restraints. Although the statements of interest provided clarity on the analysis of “naked” no-poach agreements, questions remain about the appropriate standard for analyzing no-poach restraints in franchise agreements.

Naked No-Poach Agreements Are Per Se Unlawful

DOJ recently took the unusual step of filing an unopposed motion to intervene in a class action no-poach settlement to enforce the injunctive relief agreed upon by the parties. The proposed class action alleged that a no-poach agreement between Duke/Duke University Health System and UNC/UNC Health Care System harmed competition for skilled medical labor. The named plaintiff alleged she was denied a lateral move to UNC from Duke because of agreements between senior administrators and deans at the institutions. On May 22 the court approved DOJ’s motion to intervene.

In its statement of interest, DOJ argued that such restrictions on hiring are per se unlawful market-allocation agreements between competing employers. These agreements harm consumers (employees) by depriving them of the benefits of competition that may lead to better wages or terms of employment. A court or agency will not evaluate the competitive effects of a per se unlawful agreement. Unlike such “naked” restraints, agreements that are ancillary to a separate, legitimate competitor collaboration are not considered per se unlawful and are analyzed under the rule of reason. In this case, DOJ argued that Duke had not presented evidence to show that the restraint was ancillary to a legitimate collaboration. DOJ’s analysis of the alleged agreements in its statement further cements the agency’s stance that “naked” no-poach agreements are per se unlawful. DOJ’s statement of interest sends a strong signal that it is actively monitoring no-poach cases and will readily offer its views where a party is making arguments inconsistent with the agency’s interpretation of the law. DOJ’s intervention will also deter the parties from violating the settlement and send a clear signal to others that DOJ will aggressively pursue firms that enter into naked no-poach agreements.

Questions Remain as to the Appropriate Standard for Analyzing Employment Restrictions in Franchise Agreements

Also making their way through the courts are several cases against fast-food chains alleging that franchisor agreements prohibiting poaching among franchisees are unlawful. For example, a complaint against Jimmy John’s alleged that Jimmy John’s orchestrated no-solicitation and no-hire agreements between and among franchisees. Similar claims were made against Auntie Ann’s, Carl’s Jr., Domino’s Pizza and Arby’s, among others, with some food chains settling.

DOJ filed a statement of interest in Harris v. CJ Star, LLC, Richmond v. Bergey Pullman Inc., and Stigar v. Dough Dough, Inc. In its statement, DOJ took the position that most franchisor-franchisee restraints should be analyzed under the rule of reason. It reasoned the agreement was vertical in nature because it is between a franchisor and a franchisee (parties “at different levels of the market structure”). By way of example, DOJ pointed to territorial allocations among franchises that restrict intrabrand competition but increase interbrand competition (i.e. competition among other food chains). Such restraints are evaluated under the rule of reason.

DOJ also argued that where there is “direct competition between a franchisor and its franchisees to hire employees with similar skills, a no-poach agreement between them is correctly characterized as horizontal and, if not ancillary to any legitimate and procompetitive joint venture, would be per se unlawful.” But then DOJ stated that the hub-and-spoke nature of the franchise agreement was an ancillary restraint because “the typical franchise relationship itself is a legitimate business collaboration in which the franchisees operate under the same brand.” According to DOJ, if the no-poach agreements are reasonably necessary to the franchise collaboration and not overbroad, they constitute an ancillary restraint subject to the rule of reason.

By contrast, the Attorney General of Washington took the position in an amicus brief that franchise agreements that “restrict solicitation and hiring among franchisees and a corporate-owned store” should be analyzed as per se unlawful, at least under state law. The AG argued that these agreements have both vertical and horizontal characteristics. Given the horizontal component, the AG took the position that such agreements do not warrant analysis under the more lenient rule of reason. The AG further argued that franchisors have “a heavy burden” in showing that these restraints can be justified as ancillary to a legitimate collaboration. The American Antitrust Institute similarly critiqued DOJ’s approach in a letter. It argued that the franchise no-poach agreements at issue are not ancillary because “[a]greements that have no plausible justifications or cognizable efficiencies are never ancillary” since they “do not hold the promise of procompetitive benefits and are not ‘necessary’ to the broader integration.”

Courts hearing the fast-food cases will have to resolve these conflicting arguments as they consider various motions to dismiss. In late May, a judge refused to grant Domino’s Pizza’s motion to dismiss concerning a no-hire provision that was included in the chain’s franchise agreements. The clause prohibited franchisees from recruiting or hiring other Domino’s franchisee employees without prior written consent. The judge found that plaintiff had sufficiently pled a horizontal restraint between franchisees and did not need to decide at the motion to dismiss stage which standard should ultimately be applied. The court reasoned that more factual development would be needed to decide that issue, unpersuaded by Domino’s Pizza’s reliance on summary judgment and trial decisions that contained a more robust factual record. A recent order by a district court evaluating similar claims against Jimmy John’s highlighted the varying positions emerging, referring to a “dichotomy” between DOJ’s position and the American Antitrust Institute. Although it acknowledged that DOJ is a “titan in this arena,” the court stressed that the agency is “not the ultimate authority on the subject.”

For now, employers that are members of any no-poach agreement with a vertical component should proceed with caution. Although DOJ’s position is favorable to no-poach agreements they deem vertical in nature, questions remain as to whether these agreements warrant per se, quick look, or rule of reason analysis.[1] Courts are proceeding cautiously, and a consensus has not yet emerged. As the court in Jimmy John’s succinctly summarized: “[T]hese questions here are in their infancy, and this battle looks like one that will make its way through the courts for years to come.”

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[1] A “quick look” analysis is used “when the great likelihood of anticompetitive effects can easily be ascertained.” California Dental Assn. v. FTC, 526 U.S. 756, 770 (1999).

Toward Uncharted Waters – The CVS-Aetna Merger

On June 4 – 5, 2019, Judge Richard J. Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held an extraordinary and unprecedented evidentiary hearing to decide whether to enter the proposed Final Judgment in U.S. v. CVS/Aetna requiring the divestiture of Aetna’s Medicare Part D business. Judge Leon has been highly critical of DOJ’s proposed remedy and has disrupted long-established DOJ practices to resolve competitive concerns in merger cases. A decision to reject the Division’s proposed remedy would upend established law, interfere with DOJ’s ability to negotiate merger settlements, and create uncertainty in DOJ’s merger enforcement program.

Procedural History

Following an 11-month investigation, the Antitrust Division on October 10, 2018 filed a lawsuit seeking to enjoin CVS Health Corporation’s $69 billion acquisition of Aetna, Inc. The complaint alleged the transaction would substantially lessen competition for the sale of individual prescription drug plans (“individual PDPs”) in 16 regions in the U.S. Individual PDPs provide Medicare beneficiaries with insurance coverage for their prescription drugs (Medicare Part D). To address the harm alleged in the Complaint, the Division filed a proposed Final Judgment that required CVS to divest Aetna’s nationwide individual PDP business to WellCare Health Plans, Inc.

When settling an antitrust case, DOJ must comply with the Tunney Act, which establishes various procedures the parties must follow, after which the settlement can be submitted to the court to determine whether entry of the proposed Final Judgment “is in the public interest.”[1] Consistent with standard Tunney Act practice, Judge Leon entered an order permitting the parties to close their transaction and requiring CVS to hold separate Aetna’s individual PDP business until the assets are divested to WellCare. Pursuant to Judge Leon’s order, the parties closed their transaction on November 28, 2018, and two days later completed the divestiture to WellCare.

Despite having authorized the parties to close the transaction, Judge Leon became concerned the status quo would not be preserved in the event he subsequently concluded the proposed Final Judgment would not be in the public interest. Judge Leon was very critical of the proposed remedy, which he said involved “about one-tenth of one percent” of the value of the transaction. He also expressed concern that the proposed Final Judgement failed to address potential harm in the market for pharmacy benefit management (“PBM”) services. PBM providers manage pharmacy benefits for health plans and negotiate their drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and retail pharmacies. Specifically, Judge Leon wanted to preserve the option to reject the proposed Final Judgment if he found that DOJ, in failing to allege harm in the PBM market, had drafted the Complaint so narrowly as “to make a mockery of judicial power.”[2]

Judge Leon ordered the parties to explain why CVS should not be required to hold Aetna separate and insulate the management of the two companies during the pendency of the Tunney Act process. DOJ vigorously objected that the court did not have the power to consider possible harm in the PBM market because the complaint did not allege harm in the PBM market and the record before the court did not implicate the judicial mockery standard. Ultimately, CVS diffused the issue when it voluntarily agreed to stop further integration efforts and to preserve the status quo by operating Aetna’s health insurance business as a separate unit from CVS’s businesses.

The Tunney Act requires the publication of the proposed Final Judgment followed by a 60-day public comment period. DOJ received 173 comments about the proposed settlement, many criticizing the remedy. DOJ filed its response to the public comments on February 13, 2019. It concluded that the proposed Final Judgment provides an effective and appropriate remedy for the antitrust violation alleged in the Complaint and is therefore in the public interest. Thereafter, the Division filed a motion requesting that Judge Leon enter the proposed Final Judgment.

Tunney Act Hearing

In most Tunney Act proceedings, courts make their public interest determination based on the Complaint, the terms of the proposed Final Judgment, public comments, and DOJ’s response to the public comments. In rare cases, the court will consider argument from the parties and on very rare occasions will hear from other interested parties. Here, Judge Leon accepted briefs opposing the remedy filed by amici curiae the American Medical Association, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Consumer Action and U.S. PIRG. In an unprecedented move, Judge Leon ordered a hearing to take live testimony from witnesses presented by the amici and the parties. In connection with the ordered hearing, Judge Leon directed the parties and amici to submit lists of witnesses and a summary of their testimony and issued the following rulings concerning the conduct of the hearing:

  • From the list submitted by the amici, Judge Leon selected three witnesses: an economic expert, the President of the American Antitrust Institute and the Chief Medical Officer from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
  • From the CVS list, Judge Leon selected CVS’s economic expert, Aetna’s Vice President of its Medicare Part D business and CVS’s Chief Transformation Officer.
  • Judge Leon refused to hear testimony from DOJ’s economic expert and WellCare’s Executive Vice President of Clinical Operations and Business Development.
  • Judge Leon ordered that witnesses will not be subject to cross-examination and there would be no opening and closing arguments.
  • Judge Leon overruled DOJ’s objection that the proposed hearing procedures gave the amici the ability to frame the issues and denied the DOJ from meaningful participation in the proceedings.

Over the two-day hearing, Judge Leon heard testimony from the amici’s expert witnesses that WellCare is not a suitable divestiture buyer because: (i) WellCare does not have Aetna’s brand recognition, (ii) WellCare will be dependent on CVS to provide PBM services and (iii) the divestiture itself raises concentration levels in several regions. Judge Leon also heard testimony from two amici witnesses that the merger raises vertical competitive concerns. By combining CVS’s thousands of pharmacies and 92 million PBM members with Aetna’s 22 million insurance customers, the merged firm will have a greater ability and incentive to deny its PBM services to rival health plans or raise the prices for its PBM services to rival plans. After the two-day hearing, Judge Leon indicated that he would accept final briefs and hear closing arguments next month.

What’s Next

The CVS/Aetna merger entered murky waters some months ago and is now headed toward uncharted waters. Pressuring merging parties to hold the two companies separate while the Tunney Act process plays out is unnecessary and unwarranted. Nothing in the Tunney Act bars the parties from consummating their merger, and consumers may be harmed by delaying integration activities that may generate efficiencies. Nor does closing prevent DOJ from obtaining additional relief if necessary. Parties that close before the settlement receives final approval by the court bear the risk the proposed remedy is not in the public interest and therefore may have to make additional concessions to obtain court approval. The Tunney Act evidentiary hearing was also highly unusual and did not give DOJ a fair opportunity to defend its settlement. In particular, DOJ had no cross-examination rights and no opportunity to offer expert testimony to rebut the testimony from the amici’s expert. Also unusual was Judge Leon’s decision to reject testimony from WellCare, even though the amici challenged WellCare’s suitability as a divestiture buyer.

The CVS/Aetna proceeding highlights a tension in the Tunney Act. Judge Leon’s public interest determination is limited by binding D.C. Circuit precedent U.S. v. Microsoft. Under Microsoft, DOJ has considerable discretion to settle antitrust cases and the court’s review is limited to reviewing the proposed remedy in relationship to the allegations in the complaint. A Tunney Act court does not have the authority to inquire into matters outside the scope of the complaint. Judge Leon clearly bristles at playing such a limited role. At a November 29, 2018 status hearing, Judge Leon said that he would not take a “rubber stamp” approach to approving the proposed Final Judgment. Judge Leon’s May 13, 2019 order regarding the Tunney Act hearing noted that Microsoft authorized a Tunney Act court to reject a settlement that makes a “mockery of judicial power.” The court’s actions clearly suggest that DOJ’s failure to allege and remedy harm in the PBM market may satisfy the “judicial mockery” standard.

It remains to be seen if Judge Leon, based on a two-day hearing, will second-guess DOJ’s decision that the merger will not harm competition in the PBM market. Given controlling authority in the D.C. Circuit and the irregularities in the Tunney Act proceeding, Judge Leon may conclude his only option is to enter the proposed Final Judgement. If, on the other hand, he rejects the proposed Final Judgment for failing to address concerns outside the scope of the Complaint, he will likely be overruled by the D.C. Circuit.

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[1] The Antitrust Procedures and Penalties Act, 15 U.S.C. §§16(b)-(h).

[2] U.S. v. Microsoft Corp., 56 F.3d 1448, 1462 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

 

Whistling in the Wind? DOJ’s Unusual Statement of Interest in FTC v. Qualcomm Case Highlights Disparity Between U.S. Antitrust Agencies on FRAND, SEPs, & Competition Law

In a highly unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently filed a statement of interest in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s unfair competition case against Qualcomm. The statement asks the court to order additional briefing and hold a hearing on a remedy if it finds Qualcomm liable for anticompetitive abuses in connection with its patent licensing program. As the FTC pointed out in its short response to the DOJ, the court had already considered and addressed the question of whether liability and remedies should be separately considered, and the parties had already submitted extensive briefing regarding remedies.

The DOJ’s “untimely” statement of interest, in the words of the FTC, comes three months after a bench trial concluded in January of this year, while the parties are awaiting a decision on the merits from Judge Koh. The DOJ’s filing represents the most direct clash between the DOJ and the FTC on the issue of standard-essential patents (SEPs) subject to a commitment to license on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms (FRAND). The two agencies have expressed divergent positions but up until recently had not directly taken any affirmative actions in the other’s cases or enforcement activities.

Though the statement of interest notes that the DOJ “takes no position . . . on the underlying merits of the FTC’s claims,” the DOJ’s views on this subject are well known. Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim has been a prominent and outspoken critic of the principal theory of the FTC’s entire case—that breach of a FRAND commitment can amount to an antitrust violation—despite the fact that legal precedent is well-settled in favor of the FTC’s position.

The Filing Represents Another Step by DOJ to Protect SEP Holders

For some time now, the DOJ has articulated a position largely hostile to the FTC’s underlying theory in its case against Qualcomm: the applicability of competition law upon a breach of a FRAND commitment. As background, SEPs are patents that have been voluntarily submitted by the owner and formally incorporated into a particular technological standard by a standard-setting organization (SSO). Because standardization can eliminate potential competitors for alternative technologies and confer significant bargaining power upon SEP holders vis-à-vis potential licensees, many SSOs require that the patent holder commit to license its SEPs on FRAND terms.

Beginning in late 2017, AAG Delrahim made a series of speeches presenting the DOJ’s new position on SEPs, FRAND commitments, and competition law. Among other issues, AAG Delrahim stated that the antitrust laws should not be used to police the FRAND commitments of SEP holders, insisting that such issues are more properly addressed through contract and other common law remedies. This new position by the DOJ was notable not only because it reversed the approach of the prior administration but also because it was largely inconsistent with numerous U.S. court decisions—including Judge Koh’s denial of Qualcomm’s motion to dismiss the FTC’s case. At a conference last week, AAG Delrahim doubled down on the DOJ’s position and stated he is looking for the “right case” to test the DOJ’s views on this issue. But if the DOJ were to press its views in court, it would find itself in a difficult and awkward position of having to argue that other cases that have ruled on these issues were wrongly decided.

In addition to the speeches, the DOJ has taken measures to implement its new approach, which up until recently, stopped short of effectively challenging the FTC. First, the DOJ opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by companies that make devices implementing standards. Second, the DOJ withdrew its support from a 2013 joint statement issued by the DOJ and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on remedies for FRAND-encumbered SEPs because of the DOJ’s view, as explained by AAG Delrahim recently, that the policy statement “put a thumb on the scale” in favor of licensees. Third, the DOJ sought to submit another statement of interest in a private lawsuit filed by u-Blox alleging that InterDigital breached its FRAND commitments by demanding supra-competitive royalty rates for various wireless communications SEPs.

The DOJ’s current position fails to recognize the market distortion that can result when an SEP owner fails to comply with a voluntary commitment to limit those same patents rights—and the market power that is conferred on SEP holders in return for that commitment. It also fails to recognize that such policy actions ultimately will embolden certain SEP owners to engage in even more aggressive behavior at a critical period when innovative companies are beginning to incorporate wireless communications SEPs into entirely new industries, such as automobiles and the Internet of Things.

DOJ’s Filing Is Highly Unusual

The DOJ’s decision to insert itself into a case brought by another enforcement agency is exceedingly rare (although not entirely unprecedented). This is especially true because the FTC is representing the interest of consumers by acting pursuant to its authority under the FTC Act. The timing is also curious because the DOJ waited three months after the bench trial ended to file its statement, likely long after the court began drafting its opinion. The statement could be seen as a warning to the court that if it finds an antitrust violation it should not impose a remedy based on the evidence presented at trial.

The DOJ’s statement of interest further begs the question of why the agency thought it was necessary to bring itself into the case. To the extent that Qualcomm believes that the court should order additional briefing and a hearing on the issue of a remedy, even though the issue has seemingly already been addressed, Qualcomm is perfectly capable of presenting those views to the court on its own. In its response, the FTC made clear that it “did not participate in or request” the DOJ to weigh in on the case.

DOJ’s filing notes it is concerned about the risk that an “overly broad remedy” could “reduce competition and innovation in markets for 5G technology and downstream applications that rely on that technology.” But such a statement is remarkable. First, it suggests that the DOJ believes its sister enforcement agency is not concerned about fostering competition and innovation. Second, the statement suggests that the DOJ is willing to second-guess from the sidelines the judgment of both a court and competition agency that have been evaluating in detail the effect of Qualcomm’s business practices. Even if both of those positions are true, it is surprising to see the DOJ submit such a controversial filing in a matter in which AAG Delrahim is recused.

Ultimate Impact of Filing

The DOJ could have had multiple underlying motivations for choosing to submit this filing. Consistent with the split between the DOJ and FTC noted above, the DOJ could be signaling to the court that it disagrees with the FTC’s theory of competitive harm in an effort to influence the outcome on the merits. The DOJ could also be attempting to apply subtle pressure on the FTC to reach a settlement with Qualcomm to avoid drawing further attention to the two agencies’ divergent views on breach of a FRAND commitment. The statement could also be intended to discourage litigants from bringing antitrust cases premised on a breach of FRAND theory, demonstrating that, like in the u-Blox case, the DOJ is not reluctant to intervene.

However, regardless of the DOJ’s intention, its filing is unlikely to achieve any of those objectives. Judge Koh is an experienced judge who is well versed in issues at the intersection of antitrust and intellectual property law and does not shy away from ruling on difficult issues. Notably, when the FTC and Qualcomm jointly requested that she delay ruling on the FTC’s motion for partial summary judgment to pursue settlement negotiations, she denied the request and issued a significant decision holding that Qualcomm’s FRAND commitment means that it must offer licenses to its SEPs to competing chipset suppliers. Judge Koh may also exercise discretion to deny the DOJ’s statement, as the FTC pointed out in its response. More broadly, it is also unlikely that such a public airing of disagreement will go over well with an agency very focused on the state of competition in technology sectors. And the statement is also unlikely to deter private plaintiffs in light of the well-established and increasing body of case law holding that a breach of FRAND can violate competition law. The DOJ’s statement of interest, as unusual as it is, may ultimately amount to nothing more than whistling in the wind.

Not Subject to Per Se Analysis – Sixth Circuit on Plausibly Procompetitive Activity in Connection with a Joint Venture

Businessman hand touching JOINT VENTURE sign with businesspeople icon network on virtual screen Antitrust Analysis of Joint Ventures Antitrust Analysis of Joint Ventures – Structural Considerations

In The Medical Center at Elizabeth Place, LLC v. Atrium Health System, Case No. 17-3863 (6th Cir. Apr. 25, 2019), the Sixth Circuit held that activity in connection with a joint venture that is plausibly procompetitive is not subject to per se analysis or condemnation. In doing so, it aligned itself with the Second, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Circuits, and against the minority approach taken by the Eleventh Circuit.

The Medical Center at Elizabeth Place (MCEP) was a physician-owned, for-profit hospital in Dayton, Ohio. It failed as a physician-owned enterprise and was sold to Kettering Health Network. MCEP alleged that it failed because of the anticompetitive efforts of Premier Health (Premier), a dominant healthcare network in the Dayton area comprising four hospitals. In an earlier opinion, 817 F.3d 934 (6th Cir. 2016), the Court held that Premier comprised multiple competing entities and, therefore, could engage in concerted action.

On remand, the plaintiffs pursued only a per se claim and eschewed a Rule of Reason claim. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendants’ behavior had plausible procompetitive effects and so was not subject to per se analysis.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed. “[A]t the summary judgment phase,” the court held, “the right question to ask regarding per se claims is whether the plaintiff has shown that the challenged restraint is so obviously anticompetitive that it should be condemned as per se illegal. If, in spite of the plaintiff’s efforts, the record indicates that the challenged restraint is plausibly procompetitive, then summary judgment for the defendants is appropriate.” Slip. Op. at 10.

Under Texaco Inc. v. Dagher, 547 U.S. 1 (2006), there are three types of joint venture restraints: (1) those core to the venture’s efficiency-enhancing purpose (such as setting prices for venture products); (2) those ancillary to the venture’s efficiency-enhancing purpose; and (3) restraints nakedly unrelated to the purpose of the venture. Only the last of these three justifies per se treatment. See id. at 7-8; see also Medical Center at Elizabeth Place, Slip. Op. at 11.

The Sixth Circuit held that, in the case of ancillary restraints, defendants need not show that the restraints are necessary to the venture’s efficiency-enhancing purposes. Instead, there only need be a plausible procompetitive rationale for the restraint. See id. at 12-13. “We follow the majority of Circuits and hold that a joint venture’s restraint is ancillary and therefore inappropriate for per se categorization when, viewed at the time it was adopted, the restraint ‘may contribute to the success of a cooperative venture.’” Id. at 14 (cit. omit.).

The Court also rejected MCEP’s argument that the defendants had the burden of proving that a challenged restraint is procompetitive and therefore ancillary. For a per se claim, whether challenged conduct belongs in the per se category is a question of law. See id. at 15.

The Court then reviewed the two kinds of conduct challenged by MCEP. First were “panel limitations,” wherein the hospital defendants stipulated to payers that if they added MCEP to their networks, the hospital defendants would be able to renegotiate prices. The Sixth Circuit held that these restraints supported procompetitive justifications (helping to ensure patient volume and reduced customer premiums). See id. at 16-17.

Second, MCEP challenged a letter by physicians affiliated with the defendants purportedly threatening a loss of patient referrals to doctors who invested in MCEP as well as terminations of leases of MCEP-affiliated doctors and non-compete agreements. But the letter, the Court held, was not a restraint itself but merely an expression of opinion, while the lease terminations arguably prevented free-riding by the doctors and the non-competes were subject to Rule of Reason review.

MCEP also alleged a conspiracy among payers and a conspiracy among physicians not to deal with it. But the Court held that these conspiracy allegations were new and untimely and therefore not properly before the district court.

The Sixth Circuit’s decision further clarifies the limited applicability of the per se rule in the context of joint ventures, and aligns the Sixth Circuit with the majority approach of the other circuits that have considered the issue. However, the Sixth Circuit’s first decision in the case, reported at 817 F.3d 934 (6th Cir. 2016) – where the Court found that the defendant hospitals could conspire with each other despite the existence of a well-crafted joint operating agreement and based on “intent” evidence – remains somewhat opaque and counsels in favor of careful review of joint venture structure and monitoring of joint venture operations.

 

Dusting the Regulatory Framework – French Competition Authority Seeks to Liberalize Distribution of Drugs and Private Medical Biology

On April 4, 2019, just three months after the publication of the European Commission (EC) report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector,” the French Competition Authority (FrCA) issued its report n°19-A-08 on “Distribution of drugs and private medical biology.” While the reports do not have much in common, except maybe the shared concern of excessive prices in the pharmaceutical sector, they both illustrate the keen interest of the European competition authorities in this sector. The focus of the EC report is the market players’ conducts and how they may impede competition. The FrCA report rather focuses on the obstacles to effective competition that may derive from the current legislative and regulatory framework and may translate in a competitiveness gap to the detriment of French-based operators and in higher prices for patients. It deals inter alia with a French “exception”: the monopoly of pharmacies and pharmacists over drug distribution. The report also covers a wide range of French-centric topics from online sales of drugs to capital ownership of private biology medical laboratories and pharmacies, and drug advertisement, as well as the situation of wholesalers-distributors.

Softening the pharmacies and pharmacists’ monopoly over drug distribution

16 of 28 EU Member States have softened the pharmacies’ and/or pharmacists’ monopoly over drug distribution. Among France’s neighboring countries, only Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain have a legislation as restrictive as France, where drugs, whether prescription-only or over-the-counter (OTC), may only be sold in pharmacies by qualified pharmacists.

After noticing the positive effects on prices of the enlargement of the distribution channels for certain medical devices, the FrCA advocates for a liberalization of pharmacies’ monopoly over the sale of OTC drugs, to allow drugstores and supermarkets to sell them as well. For the sake of public health, it is suggested to preserve the pharmacists’ monopoly over their sale, meaning that OTC drugs could be sold in drugstores or supermarkets but only by qualified pharmacists on whom no sales targets may be applied, and in delineated spaces with their own cash point.

Softening the regime applicable to advertising issued by pharmacists

The current regulations provide for a strict framework for advertising issued by pharmacies, be it done in favor of the pharmacies themselves or of any product, drug or other, marketed by them.

According to the FrCA, the way those regulations are currently being construed translates into excessive restrictions and prevents pharmacists from using any form of advertising, including when it does not pertain to medicinal products and therefore does not present any risk to public health.

One of the detrimental consequences thereof is the absence of any real competitive pressure between pharmacies and significant price disparities. For instance, the FrCA has found price disparities between pharmacies ranging from 103.4% to 431% for certain drugs.

The FrCA considers that softening the framework for advertising issued by pharmacists and increasing price transparency would contribute to boost competition between them, and between pharmacists and supermarkets and drugstores commercializing the same personal care products.

One of the recommendations issued by the FrCA in that respect would be to better distinguish between advertisement for drugs and for personal care products: by, for instance, allowing pharmacists to put in place rebates and loyalty programs for the latter.

Softening the rules applicable to online drug distribution

Directive 2011/62/EU obliges EU Member States to allow online sales of OTC drugs and permits online sales of prescription drugs. Implementation of the Directive has noticeably differed between countries. For instance, the UK and the Netherlands have allowed online sales for both OTC and prescription drugs by pure-players. Germany, Portugal, Sweden and Denmark have allowed the sale of any drug (OTC or prescription), but only by websites leaning on a physical pharmacy. Finally, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Ireland have limited online sales to OTC drugs and impose a physical pharmacy.

Questioning the effectiveness of the legal framework in France, the report points out that online sales of drugs are not very well developed in France. Most French patients still think the practice is illegal or non-existent. As a result, online sales of OTC represent only 1% of total sales in France vs 14.3% of total sales in Germany. Besides, the French offer of online sales is very limited compared to that of other European countries.

According to the FrCA, the development of online sales is impeded by the numerous legal constraints facing France-based players. In particular, the prohibition of joint websites between pharmacies is being challenged because it prevents them from pooling their resources. Furthermore, the FrCA points out the difficulty for pharmacies to get visibility since the law prohibits advertising of online sales websites, comparison price websites and paid referencing.

Here again, the FrCA considers that the solution would be to soften the applicable legal framework to provide patients with better information on the online sale of medicines, as well as on the actors authorized to do so. This enhanced information would promote the emergence of an economic model better suited to the development of competitive national operators capable of competing effectively with foreign players.

Other issues addressed

The report also points out several improvable aspects that could help balance the market. The FrCA points out the rules of capital ownership of pharmacies and private medical biology laboratories that could be softened to allow better access to financing and, regarding private biology medical laboratories, to put an end to an asymmetry existing as a result of a softening in the rules of capital ownership followed by a step backward, which has created an unjustified difference between laboratories that could benefit from the softening and the ones that were created after the step backward. Finally, the FrCA advocates for a revision of the method of remuneration of wholesalers-distributors, allowing for a fairer compensation of the heavy public service mission weighing on them.

Conclusion

This report is another illustration of what could start to become an interesting trend at the FrCA: using its power to deliver opinion to invite the legislator to tackle the inefficiencies and barriers to competition created by old and sometimes overly rigid rules in regulated sectors. In the same vein, one may mention its report of February 21, 2019, n° 19-A-04, on the broadcasting sector, where the FrCA advocates for a softened regulation of the sector to consider the development of new technologies and market entry of new players.

While this trend is welcome for France-based players and also for consumers in general, it remains to be seen how these recommendations will be used (or not) by the legislator.

 

China’s Conditional Approval of Bayer’s Acquisition of Monsanto: Lessons for Future Merger Cases in China

On March 13, 2018, China’s Ministry of Commerce (“MOFCOM”)[1] announced its Conditional Approval following antitrust review of a concentration of undertakings relating to Bayer’s proposed merger with Monsanto (“Merger”) (Bayer and Monsanto are hereinafter collectively referred to as the “Parties”). This matter, plus three other mergers approved with restrictive conditions by MOFCOM or SAMR in 2018, suggests some trends in China’s approach to antitrust merger review, as discussed below.[2]

In the Bayer/Monsanto matter, the Parties filed a declaration on concentration of undertakings with MOFCOM on December 5, 2016. Afterwards, the Parties withdrew and refiled the declaration twice, and MOFCOM’s review period for each refiled declaration was extended once, with the last one extended to March 15, 2018, which indicates the complexity of the Merger and the antitrust review.

During the review process, MOFCOM raised the concern that the Merger would or might have the effect of eliminating and restricting competition in the following markets: (1) China’s non-selective herbicide market; (2) China’s vegetable seed market (long-day onion seeds, carrot seeds and large-fruit tomato seeds, etc.); (3) field crop traits (corn, soybean, cotton, and oilseed rape); and (4) digital agricultural markets.

According to Article 27 of the Anti-Monopoly Law, the Ministry of Commerce conducted an in-depth analysis of the impact of the Merger on market competition from the following aspects, among others: (i) the market concentration of the relevant market; (ii) the market share and the control of the market by the participating operators in the relevant market; (iii) the impact on market entry and technological progress; and (iv) the impact on consumers and other relevant operators. MOFCOM solicited opinions from relevant government departments, industry associations, downstream customers and industry experts, and held multiple symposiums to understand relevant market definitions, market participants, market structures, industry characteristics, etc. Based on its analysis, MOFCOM believed that the Merger would or might have the effect of eliminating or restricting competition in the four markets, as mentioned above.

MOFCOM then timely informed the Parties of its review opinions and conducted multiple rounds of negotiations with the Parties on how to reduce the adverse impact of the Merger on competition. For the restrictive conditions submitted by the Parties, MOFCOM, in accordance with the “Provisions of MOFCOM on Imposing Additional Restrictive Conditions on the Concentration of Business Operators (for Trial Implementation),” evaluated mainly the following aspects, among others: (i) the scope and effectiveness of divested business; (ii) the divested business’ continuity, competitiveness and marketability; and (iii) the effectiveness of conditions requiring actions to be taken. On March 13, 2018, after evaluation, MOFCOM decided to approve the Merger with additional restrictive conditions, requiring Bayer, Monsanto and the post-merger entity to fulfil the following obligations:

  1. Globally divesting (i) Bayer’s vegetable seed business, (ii) Bayer’s non-selective herbicide business (glyphosate business), and (iii) Bayer’s corn, soybean, cotton, and oilseed rape traits businesses. The above divestitures include divesting related facilities, personnel, intellectual properties (including patents, know-how and trademarks) and other tangible and intangible assets.
  2. Allowing all Chinese agricultural software application developers to connect their digital agricultural software applications to the digital agriculture platform(s) of Bayer, Monsanto and the post-merger entity in China, and allowing all Chinese users to register with and use the digital agricultural products or applications from Bayer, Monsanto and the post-merger entity, within five years from the date when Bayer’s, Monsanto’s and the post-merger entity’s commercialized digital agricultural products enter the Chinese market, and based on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.

This case, as well as the other three mergers approved with restrictive conditions by MOFCOM or SAMR in 2018, suggests the following trends in China’s antitrust review of mergers:

  •  Economic analysis and market research tools are more frequently being introduced for case analysis. In the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, MOFCOM frequently used the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (“HHI”) to analyze market concentration issues, and MOFCOM also held hearings/seminars to discuss issues related to market definition, market structure and industry characteristics with industry experts.
  • Potential effects of excluding or limiting competition without proved market shares may also be considered in the antitrust review. In the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, as to the large fruit tomato seeds market, Monsanto’s market share was 10-20%, which was believed to be much larger than that of other competitors. Considering that Bayer was an important competitor in the market, MOFCOM believed that Bayer’s potential in the Chinese market had not yet been fully reflected in its own market share, and that the Merger might render the market less competitive. Thus, in addition to market shares, the Parties’ market power or potential for expansion will also be considered when determining whether or not a merger might exclude or limit the competition in the market.
  • The impact on technological progress will be assessed and the theory of damaging innovation is likely to be adopted. In the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, MOFCOM adopted a “damaging innovation” theory by positing that a merging party’s innovative level and research and development (R&D) ability should be considered in assessing its market position. After the merger, because there are fewer R&D competitors, the merging parties might have less incentive to innovate and they might reduce R&D investment and delay the release of new products to the market, consequently causing an adverse impact on innovation in the whole market. It seems likely that Chinese antitrust officials will continue to consider the technological factor and will apply the damaging innovation theory when necessary for reviewing complicated transactions.
  • Structural conditions and conditions requiring certain actions to be taken may be combined as remedies. Finally, in the Bayer/Monsanto Merger, MOFCOM imposed both structural conditions (requiring global divestiture of certain of Bayer’s businesses) as well as conditions requiring certain actions to be taken (requiring that the Parties make their platforms and digital agricultural products available to Chinese users). Similar combined remedies were imposed in two of the three other approved mergers in 2018. Again, it seems likely this trend will continue.

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[1] In April 2018, the anti-monopoly law enforcement agencies under the three ministries, i.e. the Ministry of Commerce, the National Development and Reform Commission and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, were incorporated into the newly-formed State Administration for Market Regulation (“SAMR”) based on the State Administration for Industry and Commerce.

[2] See Announcement No. 31 [2018] of the Ministry of Commerce – Announcement on Anti-monopoly Review Decision concerning the Conditional Approval of Concentration of Undertakings in the Case of Acquisition of Equity Interests of Monsanto Company by Bayer Aktiengesellschaft Kwa Investment Co. [Effective], available at http://fldj.mofcom.gov.cn/article/ztxx/201803/20180302719123.shtml.

 

EU State Aid Tax Ruling Cases: Not Yet the End of It?

More than a couple of years ago, a lot of fuss was made around the first string of State Aid tax rulings cases of the European Commission (Starbucks, Fiat, Apple, the Belgian scheme relating to the excess profit of multinational companies). Everyone has indeed heard about the massive amounts of State Aid, sometimes wrongly qualified by journalists as “fines”, that the European Commission ordered various EU Member States to recover from companies having benefitted of reportedly special and preferential tax treatment (e.g., up to €13 billion from Apple in the Irish tax ruling case).

At the time, some pretended that the approach taken by the European Commission was totally unheard of and that it was just another way for the European Commission to harass large U.S. companies.

They were not quite right.

The approach taken by the European Commission undoubtedly hinges on old precedents and on the European Commission guidance on the application of the State Aid rules to measures relating to direct business taxation (1998). What seems true however is that the European Commission, experiencing political pressure from the European Parliament in the aftermath of LuxLeaks, may have sometimes acted in haste at the cost of a lack of robustness of the underlying legal reasoning. The first setback suffered by the European Commission before the EU judge (annulment of the decision against the Belgian scheme relating to the excess profit of multinational companies) or the early closure by the European Commission (without any in-depth investigation) of the case against the Luxembourg tax ruling in favor of McDonald’s, tend to illustrate this point. But these findings do not equally apply to all tax ruling cases (about ten cases). It goes without saying that not all the tax rulings cases will come to a happy ending for beneficiaries. The case against Gibraltar which decided not to appeal the European Commission’s decision ordering recovery of €100 million of unpaid taxes from multinational companies is a good counter-example.

To see the bright side, the refined analytical grid which will soon emerge from those cases will at least help the EU Member States and (actual or potential) beneficiaries of tax rulings within the EU to better assess their own risks.

Why is it important to keep an eye on these developments?

  • There may still be a few more State Aid cases to come regarding tax rulings. Since the beginning of 2019, no less than two new investigations have been launched by the European Commission (Nike, Huhtamäki). They signal that some rulings are still under review;
  • The financial stakes may be high;
  • The time limitation period for the European Commission to order recovery of the aid is 10 years; and
  • Should the aid be deemed unlawful and incompatible, State Aid recipients bear in fine the risk of recovery.

That said, it remains difficult to predict what the next cases will be. Part of the answer probably lies with the statements of Commission’s officials who suggested that the European Commission would prioritize what it would perceive as the most caricatural cases.

It would however be surprising if this was to remain at the heart of the European Commission’s State Aid priorities once it has exhausted its current stock of rulings (those made known in the context of LuxLeaks, Panama Papers or Paradise Papers or those requested from the EU Member States in the years 2013-2014). With the State Aid cases that prompted changes of practices from EU Member States and the new legislative safeguards (e.g., EU Directive 2016/1164 laying down rules against tax avoidance practices that directly affect the functioning of the internal market to be transposed by EU Member States this year), one may indeed reasonably think that the State Aid tax rulings subject will gradually lose its topicality…at least until the next tax scandal.

Hell or High Water for Nidec

The phrase “come hell or high water” is said to have originated in the late 1800s in reference to the conditions cattle herders encountered when they trekked from Texas to the Midwest across large prairies in the summer heat and through deep rivers. In the merger context, a hell or high water (HOHW) clause requires a buyer to take all action necessary, including divestitures, to secure approval from competition authorities. On March 8, 2019 Whirlpool Corp. sued Nidec Corp. in the Southern District of New York alleging that Nidec breached its obligations under their Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) to take all actions required to secure antitrust approvals. The case highlights the importance of antitrust risk sharing provisions in merger agreements and how courts interpret HOHW provisions.

The Whirlpool Complaint

On April 24, 2018 Nidec and Whirlpool entered into the SPA for Nidec’s $1.1 billion purchase of Whirlpool’s Embraco compressor business unit. Whirlpool manufactures home appliances and related products. Whirlpool’s Embraco business unit manufactures refrigeration compressors for kitchen refrigerators and freezers and for light commercial uses such as beverage coolers. Nidec manufactures electric motors and related products. Nidec’s Secop business unit is an Embraco competitor that also manufactures refrigeration compressors.

Given the competitive overlap in refrigeration compressors, the parties anticipated the transaction would encounter significant antitrust issues. The SPA contained several provisions that allocated the antitrust risk to Nidec:

  • Conditions to Closing: Nidec agreed to obtain approvals from competition authorities, including approval from the European Commission (EC).
  • HOHW Provision: Nidec agreed to “take any and all actions and do all things necessary, proper or advisable” to obtain all competition approvals. If any competition authority raised objections, Nidec agreed “to hold separate or to divest, license or otherwise dispose of any of the businesses or properties or assets of [Nidec], and of its Affiliates, or [Embraco].”
  • Closing Date: Nidec agreed to secure all antitrust approvals in time for closing on April 24, 2019.

The EC can approve a transaction during a Phase I investigative period if the parties offer remedies sufficient to address any competitive concern. Whirlpool alleges that Nidec prolonged and hindered the EC’s Phase I review of the transaction. Specifically, Whirlpool alleges that Nidec:

  • Failed to make timely submissions to the EC;
  • Wasted valuable time making futile arguments that no remedy should be required; and
  • Submitted a series of five remedies that failed to address the EC’s competitive concerns.

According to Whirlpool, the obvious remedy was to divest all of Secop, a clear-cut remedy that would have addressed all of the EC’s concerns. Nidec, however, refused to offer this remedy, and on November 28, 2018 the EC opened an in-depth, or Phase II, investigation of the transaction. The EC’s press release announcing the in-depth investigation noted that it tested various commitments submitted by Nidec and found that they were insufficient to address the EC’s competitive concerns.

Although Nidec ultimately agreed to divest all of Secop, it continued to prolong and hinder remedy discussions during the Phase II investigation. For example, Nidec (1) delayed responding to the EC’s request for an upfront buyer, (2) failed to effectively market Secop and (3) failed to offer attractive terms to potential buyers.

As of March 8, 2019, the date Whirlpool filed its complaint, Nidec had not reached a deal with a buyer acceptable to the EC. With the April 24, 2019 closing date fast approaching, Whirlpool seeks an order requiring Nidec to meet its HOHW obligations and immediately divest Secop at no minimum price and at whatever terms required to effect an immediate sale. In the alternative, if Nidec fails to sell Secop, Whirlpool seeks the appointment of a trustee fully empowered to immediately sell Secop.

Takeaways

HOHW provisions are not commonly used in merger agreements because they signal to the competition agencies that the parties believe the transaction raises competitive concerns and can provide the agencies significant leverage to extract a remedy. Here, Whirlpool clearly anticipated significant antitrust problems and successfully shifted all risk to Nidec by obtaining a pure HOHW provision that placed no cap on the assets that could be subject to divestiture. It appears from the complaint that rather than honor its HOHW commitment, Nidec took steps to avoid making all necessary divestitures for EC clearance of the transaction.

Whirlpool argues for a strict interpretation of the HOHW provision. Whirlpool would require a buyer to promptly propose a divestiture remedy that no reasonable competition agency could reject. Nidec will likely argue for a more flexible interpretation. It is reasonable to argue no remedy is necessary before offering remedies, and it is reasonable to offer alternative divestiture packages to test a competition agency’s bottom line. There is very little case law on a party’s obligations under a HOHW provision. If Whirlpool and Nidec are unable to settle this dispute before the April 24, 2019 closing date, we may get greater clarity on what constitutes a breach of HOHW provision.

 

More Affordable and Innovative Medicines and Treatments in Europe – Has the Competition Enforcement Met the 2009 Objective?

A decade ago, the European Commission conducted a thorough sectoral inquiry into the European pharmaceutical sector that identified antitrust shortcomings impeding access to more affordable and innovative medicines and treatments. Concluding this inquiry by setting priority actions for the years to come, former Competition Commissioner Kroes called for “… more competition and less red tape …” (sic).

Since this statement, there has been intense enforcement activity in the sector not only by the European Commission itself, but also by the European Union Member States’ antitrust authorities.

In its report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector” issued on January 28, 2019, the European Commission takes stock of their actions in this space.

The past enforcement record (2009-2017): intense activity, hard stance towards pharmaceutical companies with the use of novel or less known theories of harm

Between 2009 and 2017, no less than 29 infringement decisions were issued by European antitrust authorities, leading to fines totaling over €1 billion, while the European Commission asked for structural remedies for 25% of the reportable mergers in the sector.

Antitrust enforcement

In total, European antitrust authorities investigated over a hundred cases during the 2009-2017 period. Their investigations related to a wide range of medicines and many of the actors involved in the pharmaceutical sector: manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors.

Applying Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (or its national equivalent), which prohibits anticompetitive agreements and cartels, European antitrust authorities condemned, for the first time, certain pay-for-delay agreements, whereby a generic company agrees to restrict or delay its independent entry onto the market in exchange for benefits transferred from the originator. They also condemned practices of collusion in tenders, price fixing, conduct aimed at excluding competitors or limiting their ability to compete, and other types of coordination between competitors.

Besides, European antitrust authorities found that the misuse of the regulatory framework, whereby a dominant company misleads public authorities and misuses the regulatory procedures, can infringe Article 102 TFEU (or its national equivalent). Similarly, disparagement and other practices curbing demand for generics were found to infringe Article 102 TFEU. Reviving the neglected notion of exploitative abuse, European antitrust authorities found that under certain circumstances, a dominant pharmaceutical firm may infringe Article 102 TFEU if it imposes unfair terms and conditions or excessive pricing. In these cases, the reward for innovation seemed to have weighed little in the balance against the alleged harm caused to patients.

Merger control

19 of the 80 mergers reviewed by the Commission over the 2009-2017 period were subject to structural remedies, namely divestitures, offered by the merging firms. Antitrust concerns in those cases related to the risks of (i) price increases for some medicines in one or several Member States, (ii) depriving patients and national healthcare systems of some medicinal products, and (iii) diminishing innovation in relation to certain treatments developed at the EU or even global level.

All in all, the Commission takes a positive view: it considers that active competition enforcement throughout the European Union has fostered innovation, choice and affordability by intervening where companies, unilaterally or jointly, relax competitive pressures that force them to innovate further or prevent others from innovating or illegitimately exploiting their market power.

What’s next?

After this positive assessment, the question that finally arises is whether pharmaceutical companies remain in the spotlight in Europe and should expect the same level of attention from the European antitrust authorities.

The response is, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on the standpoint), yes, definitely.

The now numerous precedents and case law have undoubtedly helped the sector to put some order into the practices implemented in the past. However, the critical challenges facing pharmaceutical companies for years (succession of blockbusters, very high cost and remuneration of innovation, very lengthy development process, etc.) weaken them and may still lead them to adopt either defensive or aggressive strategies at risk from an antitrust perspective. The European Commission remains fully aware of such risk and ultimately recommends that: “Authorities … remain vigilant and pro-active in investigating potentially anti-competitive situations, including where new practices used by companies or new trends in the industry are concerned, such as the growing relevance of biosimilars.”

So, it is most likely not the end of the story …

2019 Antitrust Writing Awards Nominees

Two articles authored (or co-authored) by Orrick attorneys have been nominated for a 2019 Antitrust Writing Award from Concurrences, published by The Institute of Competition Law. Concurrences picks its Antitrust Writing Award winners in part by popular vote. You can view the articles and cast your vote(s) here:

Voting closes on March 26, 2019.

EU: Parent Companies Are Liable for Cartel Damages Caused By Their Liquidated Subsidiaries

In a landmark judgment (Case C‑724/17, Vantaa vs. Skanska Industrial Solutions and others), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided on March 14, 2019 that companies cannot use corporate restructuring to escape their liability for cartel damages.

Background

The Skanska case concerned a cartel in the asphalt market in Finland. Seven companies were ultimately fined for their participation in the cartel. After the cartel became public, the municipality of Vantaa, which had bought asphalt during the cartel period, requested compensation from the cartelists. However, several companies had already been dissolved in “voluntary liquidation procedures.” Their sole shareholders (among them Skanska) had then acquired the dissolved companies’ assets and continued their economic activity.

The liquidation of the companies involved in the cartel did not prevent the Finnish authorities from imposing fines on their parent companies. They applied the “principle of economic continuity,” which is well established in the law on fines for EU competition law infringements. However, Skanska disputed that this principle should also apply in civil damages matters. It argued that it could not be held liable because it was not personally involved in the cartel.

The Decision of the European Court of Justice

The ECJ did not follow the arguments of Skanska and the other defendants and found that the defendants could be held liable for the harm caused by their former subsidiaries.

According to the ECJ, the EU prohibition of cartels will be effective, punitive and deterrent only if the associated right to seek private damages is also effective. The identification of the liable entity for a damage claim is governed by EU law and must be based on the same interpretation of the “concept of undertaking” as for the imposition of fines. This means, in particular, that companies cannot circumvent the right of victims to claim damages by dissolving the legal entity which participated in the cartel.

Practical Implications

The Skanska judgment is the latest of a series of judgments in the EU that have strengthened the rights of claimants in antitrust damages actions. It has closed the door for defendants to use corporate restructurings to escape their responsibilities. While Skanska concerns a very specific situation of legal succession, the ECJ’s reasoning implies that the entire case law on the “concept of undertaking” may be applied in private damages cases. As a consequence, corporate parents may be held liable for infringements of group companies to a far greater extent than previously thought.

The Skanska judgment will also have implications for M&A transactions. Since the “concept of undertaking” attaches liability to assets rather than to a particular legal entity, the buyer of a business in an asset deal needs to consider the possibility of being held financially accountable for antitrust infringements of the seller. This aspect should be part of any due diligence.

CMA Orders Parties to Unwind Integration During Ongoing Investigation

For  the first time, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has flexed its regulatory muscles by ordering the unwinding – during the course of its ongoing investigation – of a completed acquisition. In a demonstration of its willingness to use all of the tools at its disposal – regardless of deal size or complexity – the CMA ordered Tobii AB (Tobii) to reverse any integration that had taken place as a result of its completed acquisition of Smartbox Assistive Technology Limited and Sensory International Ltd (Smartbox).

 

Background

Tobii announced its acquisition of Smartbox for £11 million in cash through a debt-financed deal in August 2018. Both are relatively small tech companies that provide specialist “augmentative and assistive communication” (AAC) for those with speech disabilities through hardware and software solutions, including eye-gaze cameras.

Following completion of the transaction, Tobii took various steps to integrate the Smartbox business, including entering into an agreement (Reseller Agreement) whereby Smartbox would act as reseller of Tobii products in the UK and Ireland, the discontinuation of certain Smartbox R&D projects, and the withdrawal of certain Smartbox products from the market.

CMA Investigation

In September 2018, the CMA opened an investigation into the completed transaction and subsequently found that it would lead to less choice, higher prices and reduced innovation for customers. The CMA gave the parties one week to submit undertakings to address these concerns, or the CMA would proceed to an in-depth, Phase 2 investigation.

Despite the parties offering various undertakings designed to alleviate the CMA’s concerns, these were not deemed sufficient and, on February 8, 2019, the CMA referred the transaction for Phase 2 investigation, simultaneously imposing an interim order preventing preemptive action.

Unwinding Order

Following further investigation during the Phase 2 process, the CMA issued – for the first time – an unwinding order. The order requires the parties to reverse integration and restore the parties to the positions in which they would have been had the integration not taken place. The parties are required to fulfil any open orders pursuant to the Reseller Agreement, but terminate it once these are fulfilled. Moreover, the unwinding order requires Smartbox to supply certain products which had been discontinued. Smartbox is also required to reinstate all R&D projects, including investment and staff allocations, which were discontinued due to the acquisition.

In imposing the unwinding order, the CMA concluded that the integration actions taken by the parties might prejudice the Phase 2 reference or impede the taking of any action by the CMA to rectify competitive harm caused by the transaction.

The CMA is scheduled to make its final decision on the transaction by July 25, 2019.

Practical Implications

The imposition of an order to unwind integration in a small tech deal could be seen as the CMA wielding a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but the Tobii/Smartbox case reflects several of the CMA’s priorities for 2019, including an increased focus on tech deals and the protection of vulnerable consumers.

The willingness of the CMA to use the full range of merger control tools at its disposal impacts not only tech deals, but deals in all industry sectors, regardless of size and complexity. Parties in completed transactions, which might affect competition in the UK, but which are not notified to the CMA, should consider carefully what steps to take in terms of integration, and whether and how those steps could be reversed if required to do so by a CMA unwinding order.

The CMA’s approach in this case also highlights the perils of not notifying transactions prior to completion. While the UK merger control regime is voluntary in theory, the consequences of not notifying are such that, in practice, the regime requires parties to carry out a careful pre-transaction assessment of the impact on competition in the UK and the risk of the CMA’s launching an investigation, instead of simply concluding that filing is not required because the UK regime is voluntary.

For more information, contact Douglas Lahnborg ([email protected]) or Matthew Rose ([email protected]).

 

New EU Rules on Foreign Investments: All You Need to Know About the New Screening Mechanism

The Council of the European Union (EU) has adopted a new regulation “establishing a framework for the screening of foreign direct investments into the Union” (the Regulation). This is the first time the EU is equipping itself with a comprehensive framework to monitor investments into EU businesses by investors from outside the EU.

The new rules create a cooperation mechanism where EU member states and the European Commission are able to exchange information and raise concerns. The Commission will have the possibility to issue opinions in cases concerning several member states, or where an investment could affect a project or program of interest to the whole EU. However, EU member states remain in charge of reviewing, and potentially blocking, foreign investments on grounds of security or public order. The decision to set up and maintain national screening mechanisms also continues to be in the hands of individual member states.

In the following, we give an overview of the main features of the Regulation.

The New Regulation

Until recently, there were no measures at the level of the EU on the review and control of foreign direct investments. At the national level, such measures have existed in several member states – and amid growing concerns about the impact that certain foreign investments may have on national interests, some member states have made their review procedures significantly more stringent in recent years. However, the decentralized and fragmented nature of the national review procedures raised questions about their effectiveness in addressing adequately the potential (cross-border) impact of foreign investments in sensitive sectors.

To respond to such concerns, the European Commission proposed the Regulation in 2017.

The objective of the Regulation is not to harmonize the formal foreign investment mechanisms used in EU member states, or to replace them with a single EU mechanism. Rather, it provides a mechanism for EU-wide cooperation and information sharing to allow member states to make informed decisions taking into account all relevant risks and protect pan-European interests. The decision on whether to set up a review mechanism or to review a particular foreign investment remains the sole responsibility of the member states.

The EU Council adopted the Commission’s proposal on March 5, 2019. The Regulation will enter into effect after a transitional period of 18 months following its publication in the Official Journal, expected to take place on March 21, 2019.

Under the Regulation, the competent authorities of the EU member states remain in charge of screening foreign direct investments under the applicable national laws. The role of the European Commission is to facilitate coordination and to advise member states where it considers that an investment would likely affect security or public order in one or more member states.

Transactions Subject to Review

The Regulation does not put in place a review requirement for foreign investments; rather, it sets up a procedural framework for screening mechanisms created by the EU member states. The rules of the Regulation apply to any national “procedure allowing to assess, investigate, authorize, condition, prohibit or unwind foreign direct investments.”

The definition of “foreign direct investments” is broad and does not require an investment above a defined threshold of shareholder rights or the acquisition of control in the target company. Any investment “aiming to establish or to maintain lasting and direct links” with a business in “in order to carry on an economic activity” in an EU member state is sufficient. The investment must be made by a “foreign investor,” defined as “a natural person of a third country or an undertaking of a third country.” Third countries are countries outside the EU. Therefore, the Regulation does not apply to the screening of cross-border investments inside the EU.

 

Procedure

The aim of the Regulation is to enhance cooperation and increase transparency between EU member states and the European Commission. To this end, it creates a “cooperation mechanism” that requires member states to inform each other and the Commission of incoming foreign direct investments affecting security and public order (→ EU Cooperation Mechanism for the Screening of Foreign Direct Investments):

  • Where a member state screens a foreign direct investment, it is obliged to notify the other member states and the Commission by providing, “as soon as possible,” certain information on the investment (→ Information Requirements). The other member states can then comment and the Commission can issue a (nonbinding) opinion within certain time limits, normally within 35 calendar days following the notification (this period is extended if other member states or the Commission request additional information).
  • Where a foreign direct investment in a member state is not undergoing screening and other member states or the Commission considers that the investment is likely to affect security or public order, the latter may request from the former certain information on the investment (→ Information Requirements). The other member states and the Commission may then provide comments or a (nonbinding) opinion, respectively, to the member state receiving the foreign direct investment. The time limit for comments and opinions is 35 calendar days following the receipt of information on the investment, although extensions are possible.

Although the final screening decision is the sole responsibility of the member state receiving the foreign investment, it is required to give “due consideration” to the comments of the other member states and the opinion of the Commission. Moreover, in cases where the Commission believes that the foreign direct investment may affect projects or programs of “Union interest,” the member state receiving the investment is required to take “utmost account” of the Commission’s opinion and provide an explanation if the opinion is not followed. Project and programs of “Union interest” are defined in the Annex of the Regulation. They currently include:

  • European GNSS programs (Galileo & EGNOS);
  • Copernicus;
  • Horizon 2020;
  • Trans-European Networks for Transport (TEN-T);
  • Trans-European Networks for Energy (TEN-E);
  • Trans-European Networks for Telecommunications;
  • European Defence Industrial Development Programme; and
  • Permanent structured cooperation (PESCO).

In addition to creating the cooperation mechanism, the Regulation also imposes certain minimum standards for the national screening mechanisms of EU member states. These include:

  • National rules and procedures must be transparent and not discriminate between third countries.
  • Member states must set out the circumstances triggering a screening, the grounds for screening and the applicable detailed procedural rules.
  • Member States must apply timeframes that allow them to take into account the comments of other member states and the opinions of the Commission under the coordination mechanism.
  • Confidential information must be protected.
  • Foreign investors and the undertakings concerned must have the possibility to seek recourse against screening decisions of the national authorities.
  • National screening mechanism must include measures necessary to identify and prevent circumvention.

Substantive Assessment

The Regulation does not attempt to harmonize national rules on foreign investments in the EU member states. However, it does provide a list of factors that the member states and the European Commission may take into consideration when conducting their assessment. This includes potential effects on the following:

  • critical infrastructure (incl. energy, transport, water, health, communications, media, data processing, finance);
  • critical technologies and dual use items (incl. artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, cybersecurity, aerospace, defense, energy storage, quantum, nuclear, nano- or biotechnologies);
  • supply of critical inputs (incl. energy, raw materials, food);
  • access to sensitive information (incl. personal data); or
  • freedom and pluralism of the media.

 

M&A HSR Premerger Notification Thresholds Increase in 2019

Takeaways

  • The new minimum HSR threshold is $90 million and applies to transactions closing on or after April 3, 2019.
  • The current threshold of $84.4 million is in effect for all transactions that will close through April 2, 2019.
  • Failure to file may result in a fine of up to $42,530 per day of non-compliance.
  • The HSR Act casts a wide net, catching mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

The Federal Trade Commission has announced new HSR thresholds for 2019. The thresholds are adjusted annually, and were delayed this year by the government shutdown. Transactions closing on or after April 3, 2019 that are valued in excess of $90 million potentially require an HSR premerger notification filing to the U.S. antitrust agencies. The HSR Act and Rules require that parties to certain transactions submit an HSR filing and wait up to 30 days (or more, if additional information is formally requested) before closing, which gives the government time to review the transaction for potential antitrust concerns. The HSR Act applies to a wide variety of transactions, including those outside the usual M&A context. Potentially reportable transactions include mergers and acquisitions, minority stock positions (including compensation equity and financing rounds), asset acquisitions, joint venture formations, and grants of exclusive licenses, among others.

Determining reportability: Does the transaction meet the Size of Transaction test?

The potential need for an HSR filing requires determining whether the acquiring person will hold an aggregate amount of voting securities, non-corporate interests, and/or assets valued in excess of the HSR “Size of Transaction” threshold that is in place at the time of closing. Calculating the Size of Transaction may require aggregating voting securities, non-corporate interests, and assets previously acquired, with what will be acquired in the contemplated transaction. It may also include more than the purchase price, such as earnouts and liabilities. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine what must be included in determining your Size of Transaction.

If the transaction will close before April 3, 2019, the $84.4 million threshold still applies; closings as of April 3, 2019 will be subject to the new $90 million threshold.

Determining reportability: Do the parties to the transaction have to meet the Size of Person test?

Transactions that satisfy the Size of Transaction threshold may also have to satisfy the “Size of Person” thresholds to be HSR-reportable. These new thresholds are also effective for all closings on or after April 3, 2019. Talk to your HSR counsel to determine which entity’s sales and assets must be evaluated.

Filing Fee

For all HSR filings, one filing fee is required per transaction. The amount of the filing fee is based on the Size of Transaction.

Failure to File Penalty

Failing to submit an HSR filing can carry a significant financial penalty for each day of non-compliance.

Always consult with HSR counsel to determine if your transaction is HSR-reportable. Even if the Size of Transaction and Size of Person tests are met, the transaction may be exempt from the filing requirements.

Agree to Disagree: Competition Authorities Differ on Approach to Digital Platforms

Tech giants have captured the attention of competition agencies around the world. As we have previously shared, the FTC is in the midst of a series of hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century, including sessions on Big Data, Privacy, and Competition and the Antitrust Framework for Evaluating Acquisitions of Potential or Nascent Competitors in Digital Marketplaces. Multiple European regulators (the EU, Germany and now Austria) recently launched investigations into Amazon. Technology platforms are a priority for many other enforcers as well, from China to Australia to the UK.

With different competition authorities weighing in on how to assess tech competition, there is the potential for divergence in intensity of enforcement as well as whether existing competition doctrine suffices. Disparities are borne out by recent statements emanating from U.S., Australian, and UK competition agencies and officials.

Fresh remarks from the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division indicate the agency does not support a regulatory approach to platforms and the digital economy. In a speech last week, agency head Makan Delrahim addressed Antitrust Enforcement in the Zero-Price Economy, noting that while zero-price strategies have “exploded” with the rise of digital platforms, “the strategy of selling a product or service at zero price is not new, nor is it unique to the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim acknowledged the divergent views of how antitrust enforcement should treat such products and services, which range from exemption from antitrust scrutiny entirely to the creation of new, specially crafted rules and standards. Rejecting both of these “extreme views” as “misplaced,” he emphasized the ability of current antitrust doctrine – including the consumer welfare standard – to tackle the issue, stating: “[W]e do not need a wholesale revision of the antitrust laws to address competitive concerns in these contexts. . . . [O]ur antitrust laws and principles are flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of the digital economy.” Mr. Delrahim called for “careful case-by-case analysis” in enforcement. He touted the innovation and benefits that zero-price strategies have brought to consumers, crediting the country’s “pro-market economic and legal structures” and cautioning against “distortions of our antitrust standards” to address issues like privacy and data protection if they do not impede the functioning of the free market.

His speech echoes a view Mr. Delrahim and others at the Antitrust Division have expressed previously regarding the need (or lack thereof) for new rules to address the antitrust implications of “big data.” In an October 2018 speech regarding startups, innovation, and antitrust policy, Mr. Delrahim remarked that “accumulation of data drives innovation and benefits consumers” in many ways (including by enabling zero-price offerings), and that forced sharing risks undermining innovation by reducing incentives for both incumbents and new entrants. Invoking Trinko,[1] he stated that “free and competitive markets” – not antitrust agencies or courts – are best equipped to determine “how much data should be shared, with whom, and at what price.” Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bernard Nigro, Jr. has taken a similar position, stating that “forced sharing of critical assets reduces the incentive to invest in innovation” and that “where benefits to sharing exist, they can be best captured by the parties negotiating in a free and competitive market, not by government regulation.”

By contrast, other jurisdictions and industry observers considering the competitive implications of digital platforms have questioned the status quo. In their view, control of valuable data provides a competitive advantage and raises entry barriers that may entrench a platform’s dominant position and lead to competitive or consumer harm. At a higher level, France and Germany just announced an effort to overhaul competition rules to enable European companies to better develop technologies that compete on the global stage.

For example, last week the Australian Productivity Commission and the New Zealand Productivity Commission released a joint report that reviews how most effectively to address the challenges and harness the opportunities the digital economy creates (particularly for small- to medium-sized enterprises). In a section titled “Existing competition regulation may not be adequate for digital markets,” the report addressed the challenges of applying existing laws to the digital economy, including (among others) that zero-price goods and services complicate the analysis of market definition and market power, and that data “is an increasingly important business input and may be a source of market power” but is not adequately captured in traditional competition policy. Although the report acknowledged that in some cases technological developments might obviate the need for regulation (and in others the mere threat of regulation may be enough), it posited that new regulation might be necessary to maintain competitive markets: “[I]f ‘winner-take-most’ markets do end up prevailing, competition regulators may need to consider extending tools such as essential service access regimes to digital services.” An essential service (or “essential facilities”) regime would treat a digital platform’s data as an input essential to competition and require the platform to provide its competitors with reasonable access to it. In contrast to the Productivity Commissions’ suggestion, U.S. competition enforcers to date have been loath to treat digital platforms as essential facilities.

The Productivity Commissions’ report comes on the heels of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry preliminary findings released in December. The ACCC expressed similar concerns about the rise of digital platforms and the threat they pose to consumers and the competitive process. Addressing what it found to be Google’s and Facebook’s market power in a number of markets,[2] the report encouraged governments to be “responsive, and indeed proactive, in reacting to and anticipating challenges and problems” posed by digital platforms. It offered eleven preliminary recommendations to address these concerns, including: amending merger law to expressly consider potential competition and the data at issue in the transaction, requiring advance notice of any acquisition by a large digital platform of a business with activities in Australia, and tasking a regulatory authority with monitoring the conduct of vertically integrated digital platforms. The report also proposed areas for further analysis, such as: a digital platforms ombudsman, the monitoring of intermediary pricing and opt-in targeted advertising. As such, indications from Australia suggest calls for more competition intervention have some teeth.

The UK may have a similar appetite, as indicated by a new Parliament publication addressing “Disinformation and ‘fake news.’” The statement calls for increased oversight and greater transparency into “how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data,” highlighting Facebook’s treatment and monetization of user data as an example of why intervention is needed. In addition to recommending a compulsory Code of Ethics overseen by an independent regulator with “statutory powers to monitor relevant tech companies,” the publication advocated for greater competition law scrutiny of and enforcement against digital platforms, including an investigation of Facebook and a “comprehensive audit” of the social media advertising market. Invoking existing “legislative tools” such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, and antitrust and competition law, the report cautioned: “The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight.”

Operating under an international patchwork of competition approaches can present a challenge to global enterprises. Technology-focused, data-intensive businesses should consider seeking antitrust counsel to monitor developing competition trends and implications across jurisdictions.

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[1] Verizon Communic’ns, Inc. v. Law Offices of Curtis V. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 407-08 (2004).

[2] The preliminary report finds that Google has market power in online search, online search advertising and news media referral services, and that Facebook has market power in social media services, display advertising and news media referral services.

A Boiling Frog? Merger Enforcement of Early-Stage Tech Companies

Fable has it that a frog placed in tepid water slowly brought to a boil will not perceive danger until it is too late to leap. According to some critics, U.S. high tech merger review has a similar problem insofar as it fails to adequately consider and challenge acquisitions of startups that, on their face, appear to constitute incremental changes to competitive dynamics but that over time may suppress competition. Indeed, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official confirmed last week that the agency faces “withering criticism of antitrust” and its enforcement with respect to competitor acquisitions of startup companies.

The comments were made during a conference in San Francisco by Michael Moiseyev, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition and a leading enforcer with responsibility for merger and acquisition review. Without identifying particular transactions, he acknowledged that players in the venture capital (VC) space have characterized the U.S. antitrust agencies as “snookered” in permitting certain early-stage companies to be acquired.

Making the case that an existing competitor’s acquisition of a nascent, potential rival poses “a substantial lessening of competition” (Clayton Act, § 7) is a high hurdle for the U.S. agencies to clear. Mr. Moiseyev assessed the state of current case law as both “terrible” and “unforgiving.” The agency’s most recent challenge invoking a potential competition theory resulted in a district court concluding that the FTC had failed to provide evidence the target would have launched a new, competing technology. FTC v. Steris Corp., No. 1:2015cv01080 (N.D. Ohio 2015). In that matter, the FTC had sued and invoked the theory that the target, if it were not acquired, was poised to create “actual potential competition” for the U.S. market leader by importing technology currently offered by just one European facility. The merging parties undermined that theory by demonstrating a dearth of customer commitment to using the would-be-imported technology.

Yet criticism of a perceived lack of U.S. agency challenges in the tech sector continues to mount.

Under this pressure, will the U.S. agencies take a fresh lens to acquisitions of new and innovative competitors? The key analytical question is how to evaluate whether those companies would evolve to constrain actual, current competition. This fall, the FTC’s ongoing policy hearings devoted a day to acquisitions of potential competitors in tech markets. Nearly all participants endorsed studies of the effects of past transactions via merger retrospectives. Several panelists advised that the agencies scrutinize more closely transactions involving dominant platforms and whether the underlying deal removes a nascent competitive threat. Other participants in the hearings emphasized that the competitive analysis should focus on harms to innovation but that an information imbalance at times constrains the agencies’ ability to assess emerging industry developments.

We do not know whether a boiling frog is in our midst. Nevertheless, if you are advising VCs or a company that is considering an acquisition involving an innovative, new or potential competitor, reach out to antitrust counsel to consult on these issues.

Japan Introduces ”Commitment Procedure” for Alleged Antitrust Violations

On December 30, 2018, an amendment to the Japan Antimonopoly Act (the Act) to introduce “Commitment Procedure” became effective. The Commitment Procedure is a new procedure to resolve alleged violations of the Act voluntarily by an agreement between the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) and a company under investigation. It is similar to an antitrust consent decree under U.S. law.

The Commitment Procedure was introduced in accordance with the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, first signed by 12 countries but then by 11 countries after withdrawal of the United States.

The Commitment Procedure is expected to provide opportunities to JFTC and companies under investigation to remediate alleged violations of the Act at an early stage, as an alternative to issuing cease-and-desist orders and/or imposing surcharge payments. With respect to its scope, according to the Policies Concerning Commitment Procedures, the following conducts will not be subject to the Commitment Procedure, and certain conducts such as Private Monopolization and Unfair Trade Practices (e.g. abuse of superior bargaining position) could be subject to it:

  • When an alleged violation is a so-called hardcore cartel matter such as bid rigging or price fixing;
  • When an investigated company has committed the same violation multiple times within 10 years; or
  • When an alleged violation is malicious and substantial and could result in criminal accusation.

A typical flow of the Commitment Procedure is: (i) JFTC issues notice of an alleged violation of the Act to a company under investigation, (ii) the company under investigation voluntarily composes and submits to JFTC within 60 days a plan to remediate the violation and (iii) JFTC decides whether or not to approve the plan. As a result of JFTC’s approval of and the investigated company’s compliance with the plan, JFTC will not issue a cease-and-desist order and/or surcharge payment order.

In practice, it will be important for an investigated company to closely communicate with JFTC and promptly conduct an internal investigation to seek possible options including taking advantage of the Commitment Procedure and avoiding a possible cease-and-desist order and/or surcharge payment.

The New Madison Approach Goes to Court

On January 11, 2019, the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division (Division) filed a Notice of Intent to File a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit filed by u-blox against Interdigital in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to obtain a license consistent with Interdigital’s voluntary commitment to license its 2G, 3G and 4G telephony Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Simultaneous with the filing of its Complaint, u-blox filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to prevent Interdigital from further interfering with u-blox’s customer relationships. The Division argued that the Court would benefit from hearing its views on granting a TRO based on u-blox’s claim that Interdigital monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology markets. Intervening in a District Court case is highly unusual and is yet another clear signal that the Division has reversed the Obama Antitrust Division’s antitrust treatment of FRAND violations, despite the disparity between the Division’s current position and numerous well-reasoned U.S. court decisions that have carefully considered these issues and come to precisely the opposite conclusions.

Retro-Jefferson Approach[1]

By way of background, standard setting involves competitors and potential competitors, operating under the auspices of Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs), agreeing on a common standard and incorporating patented technology. Patents that are incorporated into a standard become much more valuable once a standard becomes established and commercially deployed on a widespread level, and it becomes impossible for companies manufacturing devices that incorporate standardized technology to switch to alternative technologies. In these circumstances, patent holders may gain market power and the ability to extract higher royalties than would have been possible before the standard was set. This type of opportunistic conduct is referred to as “patent hold-up.” To address the risk of patent hold-up, many SSOs require patent holders to commit to license their SEPs on FRAND terms. FRAND commitments reduce the risk that SEP holders will exercise market power by extracting exorbitant licensing fees or imposing other more onerous licensing terms. One way to address patent hold-up is through breach of contract and antitrust suits against holders of FRAND-encumbered SEPs.

The Obama Antitrust Division advocated the position that, under appropriate circumstances, the antitrust laws may reach violations of FRAND commitments. This position was, and remains, consistent with applicable legal precedent. For example, in 2007 the Third Circuit recognized in Broadcom v. Qualcomm, 501 F.3d 297, that a SEP-holder’s breach of a FRAND commitment can constitute a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act where the SEP-holder makes a false FRAND promise to induce an SSO to include its patents in the standard and later, after companies making devices that incorporate the standard are locked in, demands exorbitant royalties in violation of the FRAND commitment. Numerous other cases similarly stand for the proposition that it is appropriate to apply competition law to the realm of FRAND-encumbered SEPs. See, e.g., Research in Motion v. Motorola, 644 F. Supp. 2d 788 (N.D. Tex. 2008); Microsoft Mobile v. Interdigital, 2016 WL 1464545 (D. Del. Apr. 13, 2016).

The Obama Antitrust Division also took the position that in most cases it is inappropriate to seek injunctive relief in a judicial proceeding or an exclusion order in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) as a remedy for the alleged infringement of a FRAND-encumbered SEP. Injunctions and exclusion orders (or the threat of one) are generally incompatible with a FRAND commitment and unfairly shift bargaining power to the patent holders. In the Obama Antitrust Division’s view, money damages, rather than injunctive or exclusionary relief, are generally the more appropriate remedy. Again, the Obama Antitrust Division’s policy reflected case law recognizing the same principles. See, e.g., Apple v. Motorola, 757 F.3d 1286 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

The Obama Antitrust Division articulated its views on the use of exclusion orders against the infringing use of SEPs in a joint statement issued by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on January 8, 2013 entitled “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments” (Joint Policy Statement). The Joint Policy Statement urged the ITC to consider that “the public interest may preclude issuance of an exclusion order in cases where the infringer is acting within the scope of the patent holder’s F/RAND commitment and is able, and has not refused, to license on F/RAND terms.”

New Madison Approach

The Division is now of the view that the Obama Antitrust Division’s focus on patent implementers and its concerns with hold-up were misplaced, even though many courts and other regulatory bodies around the world have noted the significance of the hold-up problem. The Division currently does not believe that hold-up is an antitrust problem. According to the Division, the more serious risk to competition and innovation is the “hold-out” problem. The hold-out problem arises when companies making products that innovate upon and incorporate the standard threaten to under-invest in the implementation of a standard, or threaten not to take a license at all, until their royalty demands are met. The Division further has questioned the role of antitrust law in regulating the FRAND commitment, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – and numerous other competition agencies around the world – has engaged in enforcement efforts to curb allegedly anticompetitive SEP licensing practices, many of which are directed at Qualcomm (which is the subject of an ongoing trial between the FTC and Qualcomm in Federal District Court in California).

Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the term the “New Madison Approach” to describe his approach to the application of antitrust law to patent rights.[2] The four premises of the New Madison Approach are:

  • The antitrust laws should not be used as a tool to police FRAND commitments that patent holders make to SSOs.
  • To ensure maximum incentives to innovate, SSOs should focus on implementer hold-out, rather than focus on patent hold-up.
  • SSOs and courts should not restrict the right of a patent holder to seek or obtain an injunction or exclusion order.
  • A unilateral and unconditional refusal to license a patent should be considered per se legal.

The Division has taken at least three concrete steps to implement the New Madison Approach. First, it has opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by implementers, for example to exclude alternative technologies. Second, in a December 7, 2018 speech in Palo Alto, California, AAG Delrahim announced that DOJ was withdrawing its support of the Joint Policy Statement. According to AAG Delrahim, the Joint Policy Statement created confusion to the extent it suggests a FRAND commitment creates a compulsory licensing scheme and suggests exclusion orders may not be appropriate in cases of FRAND-encumbered patents. AAG Delrahim noted he would engage with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to draft a new statement. Finally, the Division intervened in the u-blox case.

u-blox v. Interdigital

u-blox presents a fact pattern that commonly arises in FRAND cases. Since 2011, u-blox has licensed Interdigital patents that had been declared essential to the 2G, 3G and 4G standards. U-blox relied on Interdigital’s FRAND commitments, and its devices are now allegedly locked into 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology. u-blox alleges that in its most recent round of negotiations, Interdigital is demanding supra-competitive royalty rates. Among its various claims, u-blox alleges Interdigital breached its contractual obligation to offer its SEPs on FRAND terms and has monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G technology markets in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. u-blox also alleges that Interdigital threatened its customers to force u-blox to pay excessive, non-FRAND royalties. u-box has asked the court to set a FRAND rate and filed a TRO to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its contractual relationships.

On January 11, 2019, the Division filed its Notice of Intent to explain its views concerning u-blox’s monopolization cause of action. The Division further explained that due to the partial government shutdown, it was unable to submit a brief before the TRO hearing scheduled for January 31, 2019, and asked that the TRO hearing be delayed until after DOJ appropriations have been restored, or in the alternative, to order DOJ to respond. Although not stated in the Notice of Intent, the Division can be expected to argue that it would be improper to grant a TRO based on a claim of monopolization because the antitrust laws should play no role in policing Interdigital’s FRAND commitment where contract or common law remedies are adequate. On January 14, 2019, u-blox responded that it would withdraw reliance on its monopolization claim to support its request for a TRO and instead rely on its breach of contract and other claims.

Implications of the Division’s Intervention in the u-blox Case

The Division’s filing of a Notice of Interest in the u-blox case is highly unusual. The Division rarely intervenes in district court cases, and it may be unprecedented for the Division to intervene at the TRO stage. It is also difficult to explain why the Division chose to intervene on this motion. While u-blox was relying on its antitrust claim, among several other claims, to support its TRO request, u-blox was only seeking an order to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its customer relationships while the court adjudicated its request for a FRAND rate. It is also notable that the Division put its thumb on the scale in the aid of Interdigital, a company that often finds itself in FRAND litigation.

The Division appears to be attempting to aggressively implement the New Madison Approach that the antitrust laws should protect innovators. The Division’s decision to withdraw its assent to the Joint Policy Statement appears to have been a clear signal to the ITC that it is free to grant an exclusion order in SEP cases. The Division’s intervention in the u-blox case is a clear signal that it is willing to intervene at the district court level to advance its view that the antitrust laws are not an appropriate vehicle to enforce FRAND commitments where there are adequate remedies sounding in contract or other common law theories.

To date, the Division has used speeches to make policy arguments that the antitrust laws should not be used to enforce FRAND commitments. If the Division ever gets the opportunity to present its views to a district court, watch to see what legal arguments it can marshal to support its policy position. Also watch to see whether the Division attempts to participate in other FRAND cases.

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[1] Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the phrase in his March 16, 2018 speech at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “The ‘New Madison’ Approach to Antitrust and Intellectual Property Law” based on the initial understanding of patent rights held by Thomas Jefferson, the first patent examiner of the U.S. (and a former president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence). AAG Delrahim describes the retro-Jefferson view of patents as conferring too much power on patent holders at the expense of patent implementers and that such power should be constrained by the antitrust laws or Standard Setting Organizations.

[2] The term “New Madison Approach” is based on the understanding of intellectual property rights held by James Madison, the principal drafter of the U.S. Constitution. Madison believed strong IP protections were necessary to encourage innovation and technological progress.

FTC v. Qualcomm: Trial and Possible Implications

Orrick partner Jay Jurata has published an article in Competition Policy International weighing in on the important issues raised in the closely-watched trial now under way in FTC v. Qualcomm. This article analyzes important developments in the case as it has proceeded – including the significant motion to dismiss and partial summary judgment rulings – and offers thoughts on the just commenced trial. To read the full article, please visit here.

Courts Question FTC Enforcement Method

The FTC has long asserted it has the authority to bring actions in federal court to obtain injunctive relief and equitable monetary remedies (e.g. disgorgement, consumer redress) for unfair and deceptive practices. This view of the agency’s scope of authority has stood for years without much question or challenge. But two recent district court decisions may change all that by limiting the agency’s ability to petition a federal court to those situations in which it can demonstrate a defendant is “about to violate” the law. On December 11, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court heard oral argument in one of the district court cases – FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc. – with a decision expected in the first half of 2019. If the Third Circuit upholds the district court’s ruling, it will complicate FTC enforcement efforts and push more cases into the agency’s administrative process.

The FTC’s Enforcement Powers

The FTC can initiate an enforcement action if it has “reason to believe” that the consumer protection or antitrust laws are being violated. Before 1973, the FTC could exercise its enforcement powers only through administrative adjudications, which do not allow for financial relief or an immediate prohibition on future wrongdoing.[1] While the FTC has the power to seek financial remedies through its administrative process, the penalties are limited by a three-year statute of limitations, and the FTC must demonstrate that the conduct was clearly “dishonest or fraudulent.”[2]

In 1973, Congress amended the FTC Act to add Section 13(b) and give the FTC the authority to (1) seek injunctive relief in federal court pending the completion of the FTC administrative proceeding when the FTC “has reason to believe” that a person or entity “is violating, or is about to violate” any law enforced by the FTC, and (2) seek a permanent injunction “in proper cases.” Following the enactment of Section 13(b), the FTC adopted an expansive view of its power to bring federal court enforcement actions, and started bringing cases in federal court seeking monetary relief under equitable doctrines such as restitution, disgorgement, and rescission of contracts. The FTC also asserted that its statutory power to seek a “permanent injunction” was a standalone grant of authority that entitled the FTC to bring a federal court action irrespective of whether a defendant “is violating, or is about to violate” the law. By tying its theories to these doctrines, the FTC took much of its enforcement activity outside otherwise applicable requirements, including the three-year statute of limitations and proof of a defendant’s dishonesty or fraud. Until this year, courts universally accepted the FTC’s expansive view of its authority under Section 13(b). As a result, it is the FTC’s policy that “[a] suit under Section 13(b) is preferable to the adjudicatory process because, in such a suit, the court may award both prohibitory and monetary equitable relief in one step.”[3]

Recent Decisions

Two recent court decisions have raised questions about the FTC’s view of its authority to sue in federal court solely over a defendant’s prior conduct. In FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc., the FTC sued the defendant in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, alleging that between 2006 and 2012 ViroPharma had engaged in an anticompetitive campaign of repetitive and meritless filings with the FDA to delay generic competition and therefore maintain its monopoly on its branded drug. ViroPharma moved to dismiss the FTC’s complaint, arguing that the FTC had exceeded its authority under Section 13(b). Specifically, ViroPharma asserted that Section 13(b) does not provide the FTC with independent authority to seek a permanent injunction under Section 13(b), but rather limits permanent injunction actions to those cases where the FTC can show that a defendant “is violating or is about to violate” the law. On March 20, 2018, Judge Richard Andrews granted ViroPharma’s motion to dismiss, and rejected the FTC’s long-held assertion that Section 13(b) provides it with the independent authority to seek permanent injunctive relief in federal court, including relief for past violations of the FTC Act and regulations.[4] Judge Andrews held that the FTC’s authority to seek permanent injunctive relief is dependent on the FTC alleging facts that plausibly suggest a defendant is either (1) currently violating a law enforced by the FTC or (2) is about to violate such a law. Because the FTC’s complaint against ViroPharma was based on conduct that occurred five years before the filing of the complaint, the court found that the FTC failed to plead facts that demonstrate that ViroPharma was either violating or “about to” violate the law.

Subsequently, on October 15, 2018, Judge Timothy Batten, in the Northern District of Georgia, cited the ViroPharma decision in finding that the FTC’s permanent injunction authority under 13(b) authority is limited to situations where a defendant is “about to” violate the law. In FTC v. Hornbeam the FTC brought a federal court enforcement action alleging that the defendants were marketing memberships in online discount clubs to consumers seeking payday, cash advance or installment loans, in ways that violated the FTC Act, the FTC’s Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act. The court rejected the FTC’s argument that courts must defer to the FTC’s determination that it has “reason to believe” that the defendants were about to violate the law.[5] Rather, the court – citing the decision in ViroPharma – held that when the FTC exercises its Section 13(b) authority it must meet federal court pleading standards and set forth sufficient facts that each defendant is “about to” violate the law.

Takeaways

If followed, the ViroPharma and Hornbeam decisions could significantly limit the FTC’s ability and willingness to pursue claims in federal court, and shift enforcement actions to the FTC’s administrative process. It is unclear how such a shift to administrative enforcement will impact how the FTC approaches enforcement actions and negotiates consent orders to resolve its investigations. On the one hand, companies may be hesitant to go through the FTC’s administrative process given that it is a notoriously slow process over which the FTC Commissioners exercise the final decision-making authority. On other hand, the FTC’s limited ability to seek financial remedies through the administrative process may provide companies greater leverage in negotiating consent decrees.

The FTC is acutely aware of the potential threat posed by these decisions, as evidenced by its decision to forgo filing an amended complaint in favor of immediately appealing the court’s ruling in ViroPharma to the Third Circuit. In its appeal to the Third Circuit, the FTC stated that if the ViroPharma holding had been applied in past cases it “would likely have doomed hundreds of other Section 13(b) actions that the FTC has filed over the years – cases that collectively have recovered many billions of dollars for victimized American consumers.”[6]

On December 11, 2018, the Third Circuit heard oral argument in ViroPharma. During oral argument the three-judge panel expressed skepticism at the FTC’s argument that Judge Andrews applied the wrong pleading standard by requiring that the FTC plead sufficient facts to show that a violation of federal law was “imminent.” A decision by the Third Circuit is expected in the first half of 2019. The Hornbeam case is still pending in the Northern District of Georgia as the FTC decided to amend its complaint following the court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss.

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[1] 15 U.S.C. § 45(b).

[2] 15 U.S.C. § 57b.

[3] https://www.ftc.gov/about-ftc/what-we-do/enforcement-authority.

[4] FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc., No. 17-131-RGA, 2018 WL 1401329 (D. Del. 2018).

[5] FTC v. Hornbeam, No. 1:17-cv-03094-TCB (N.D. Ga. Oct. 15, 2018).

[6] FTC v. Shire ViroPharma, Inc., No. 18-1807, Document No. 003112960825 at 47 (3d Cir. June 19, 2018).