Antitrust / IP

Merger Non-Compete Clauses – Be Lawful or Be Gone

Non-compete clauses are commonly included in M&A agreements. Although generally recognized as lawful, non-competes must fulfill certain requirements to comply with antitrust and competition laws. A recent FTC enforcement action further clarifies these requirements for the U.S., and serves as a reminder that U.S. antitrust authorities are actively reviewing these provisions.

In January 2019 NEXUS Gas Transmission LLC entered into a Purchase and Sale Agreement (PSA) to acquire Generation Pipeline LLC, a 23-mile natural gas pipeline in the Toledo, Ohio area, from a group of sellers for $160 million.

In the Complaint and Proposed Consent announced on September 13, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took issue with the non-compete clause in the PSA, which would have prohibited one seller, North Coast Gas Transmission (NCGT), from competing with the Generation Pipeline for three years. NCGT not only holds a minority interest in the Generation Pipeline, but also holds the North Coast Pipeline, a 280-mile natural gas pipeline partially serving the same region. In the FTC’s view, the non-compete clause was effectively an agreement by two competitors to cease competition for a period of time. As a condition to receiving antitrust clearance to proceed with the transaction, the parties were required to amend the PSA to eliminate the non-compete clause, enabling NCGT’s North Coast Pipeline to continue competing with the Generation Pipeline. The parties will also be subject to various reporting and compliance requirements for ten years.

It is important to note that even where a transaction does not itself raise antitrust issues – as here, where the FTC did not find any issues with NEXUS’s acquisition of the Generation Pipeline – the antitrust agencies may nonetheless take issue with the ancillary agreements to a transaction. Here, the FTC looked beyond the competitive implications of the primary transaction and investigated the impact of the non-compete clause. Parties should carefully draft and negotiate all M&A agreement clauses that may impact competition, and consult with antitrust counsel as needed.


Who Will Be the Next EU Competition Commissioner?

On November 1, 2019 a new college of European commissioners is due to take office. Practitioners are eager to know who will be in charge of competition.

Designation of the EU commissioners

The new team will have one commissioner per Member State except the UK, which is preparing to exit the EU by October 31. All governments have designated their candidate except Italy, which first needs to complete the formation of a new national government coalition.

Once Italy has designated its candidate, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen will communicate the planned attribution of portfolios among the commissioners-designate in the coming weeks. Later in September/October, the European Parliament will hold “hearings” and vote to confirm or reject the group of candidates.

Candidates and portfolio attributions can still change until the very end of the confirmation process.

Vestager should be senior vice president

Following the European elections, negotiations between national governments and between political groups have resulted in a plan to reshape the power structure of the Commission. Part of that plan is that current competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager will get one of two senior vice presidency posts, and her responsibilities could encompass several policy fields in a sort of “super-portfolio”; but it is still unclear which policies she would oversee.

Potential competition commissioners

Before the elections, Vestager had expressed the wish to continue her work with DG COMP. As senior vice president of the Commission, she could be in charge of competition herself, or she could oversee another commissioner in charge of that portfolio, but it cannot be excluded, either, that competition falls outside her remit completely. No commissioner has overseen competition for two consecutive terms since the reappointment of Karel Van Miert in 1995.

Other countries, notably Poland and Italy, have expressed their interest in the competition portfolio. While it seems that Poland is finally getting agriculture, Italy’s chances will largely depend on the profile of its future candidate.

Another Reminder That the UK Merger Control Regime Is More Than Just Voluntary

On 6 August 2019, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (the “CMA”) imposed an ‘Unwinding Order’ on a U.S. company, Bottomline Technologies (de), Inc (“Bottomline”), active in the business payment automation technology space, and its UK subsidiary (“Bottomline UK”), in connection with its investigation into Bottomline’s completed acquisition of Experian Limited’s Experian Payments Gateway business (the “EPG Business”). The acquisition was completed on 6 March 2019.

An ‘Initial Enforcement Order’ or ‘IEO’, preventing further integration, had already been imposed on Bottomline and Bottomline UK on 22 May 2019.

The Unwinding Order imposes obligations in relation to the handling of information:

  • Bottomline must not use “EPG Confidential Information” (i.e. commercially sensitive information regarding the EPG business) to “solicit” any existing EPG customers in relation to any product or service that competes with the EPG business;
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must “segregate” all EPG Confidential Information (including existing physical and electronic materials) and ensure that such information cannot be accessed by any Bottomline and Bottomline UK representatives or employees other than certain EPG staff, except where necessary to comply with regulatory and/or accounting obligations or with the prior written consent of the CMA;
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must procure that EPG staff destroy or delete any “Bottomline Confidential Information” (i.e. any commercially sensitive information regarding the Bottomline business in respect of any products or services that compete with the EPG business) that they hold; and
  • Bottomline and Bottomline UK must procure that no EPG staff have access to Bottomline Confidential Information, except with the prior written consent of the CMA.

The Unwinding Order remains in force until it is varied or revoked.

This matter reminds us of the risks inherent in proceeding to complete a transaction without having obtained CMA clearance, i.e. the risks of the CMA investigating a transaction (that has been legally completed) and imposing disruptive measures pending the outcome of its investigation. At a more general level, the difficulties of reversal are relative to the scale of implementation and would be far more difficult for instance if employee’ contracts have been terminated, or supply/customer contracts novated or terminated. A careful assessment of whether to voluntarily notify the CMA of a transaction prior to completion should therefore be conducted in respect of transactions involving overlapping businesses in the UK.

Companies, Board Members and Officers Take Note: U.S. Antitrust Agencies Are Focused on Interlocking Directorates

The FTC and the DOJ Antitrust Division have again warned companies, along with their board members and officers, of the legal prohibition on interlocking directorates: when an individual, or an organization’s agent(s), simultaneously serves as an officer or director of two competing companies. In a recent FTC blog, and prior post, the agency flagged the importance of monitoring for interlock issues during standard antitrust compliance. The DOJ Antitrust Division likewise recently made clear in remarks by Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch, that it, too, is closely monitoring interlocks, particularly during transaction reviews. In-house counsel, board members and executive officers must routinely monitor interlock issues, or risk an independent government investigation or side investigation to an M&A review.

The Law

Section 8 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 19, prohibits “interlocking directorates.” The concern is that officer or director interlocks between competitors could result in inappropriate coordination or the sharing of competitively sensitive information, in violation of antitrust laws. The purpose of Section 8 is therefore to “nip in the bud incipient violations of the antitrust laws by removing the opportunity or temptation to such violations through interlocking directorates.” U.S. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 111 F. Supp. 614, 616 (S.D.N.Y. 1953).

Q: Which positions are covered?

A: “Director” means a member of the board of directors, and “officer” means a position elected or chosen by the board. The prohibition applies not only to the same individual serving as an officer and/or director of two competing companies but also to entities (like private equity firms) that have their agent(s) or representative(s) serving in these roles.

Q: Which entities are covered?

A: While the statute specifically refers to interlocks among “corporations,” DOJ Antitrust Division AAG Delrahim recently signaled a willingness to enforce Section 8 against unincorporated entities such as LLCs, as the potential harm is “the same regardless of the forms of the entities.” The FTC has taken similar positions in, for example, investigating interlocks involving banks, which Section 8 exempts, and competing non-bank corporations.

Q: What are “competitive sales”?

A: “Competitive sales” are “the gross revenues for all products and services” sold by one company in competition with the other, “determined on the basis of annual gross revenues for such products and services in [the company’s] last completed fiscal year.” Companies are “competitors” if an agreement between them would violate antitrust laws. 15 U.S.C. § 19(a)(1)(B), (a)(2). The FTC has advised companies to look at their ordinary course business documents and to speak to knowledgeable employees in determining if two companies compete.

Q: Is there a grace period for compliance?

A: If an interlock did not violate Section 8 at the time it was established but, later, changed circumstances cause a prohibited interlock (such as two companies that previously did not compete becoming competitors), the companies or individuals will have one year to cure. During that time frame, parties must remember that other antitrust laws still apply.

When an interlock violates Section 8 from the time it was established, there is no grace period to cure.

The Risks

Section 8 violations are inherently illegal and do not require proof that the interlock resulted in harm to competition. The government’s remedy for a Section 8 violation is injunctive relief—elimination of the offending interlock, typically with an officer or director’s resignation. But any interlock — in violation of Section 8 or not—could give rise to claims under other antitrust laws. Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits combinations and conspiracies in restraint of trade, and Section 5 of the FTC Act prohibits unfair or deceptive acts in restraint of commerce. The FTC has stated it may use Section 5 to reach interlocks that may not “technically meet” the ban in Section 8 of the Clayton Act but which the agency determines may “violate the policy against horizontal interlocks expressed in Section 8.” Private plaintiffs also could bring a Sherman Act claim for treble damages.

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.

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.

_____________

[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]).

 

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.

________________________

[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.

____________________

[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).

German Competition Authority Investigates Amazon

The German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has opened abuse proceedings against Amazon for practices related to the German marketplace amazon.de. This move comes not long after the European Commission initiated a preliminary investigation into Amazon’s use of transaction data.

In both the German and the EU case, the competition concerns appear to be linked to Amazon being not only the largest online retailer but also the largest online marketplace for competing retailers. There are, however, important differences between the two investigations: While the Commission is looking at “exclusionary abuse,” i.e. conduct hindering the competitive opportunities of its rivals, the FCO investigates potential “exploitative abuse,” i.e. imposing conditions that are significantly more onerous for retailers using the marketplace than they would be in a competitive environment (see the FCO’s press release).

The approach of the FCO is based on special features of German competition law, which facilitate proceedings against abuses of market power:

First, regarding the issue of market power, the German prohibition on abusive market conduct applies not only to companies with a dominant market position (as under EU law) but also to companies with “relative market power,” which is a less demanding standard. A company has relative market power if small or medium-sized customers or suppliers are dependent on it and cannot reasonably switch to other companies for the supply or the sale of a particular type of goods or services. The FCO believes that Amazon may be dominant or may have relative market power because it functions as a “gatekeeper.” In fact, Amazon has become so powerful in Germany that many retailers and manufacturers depend on the reach of its marketplace for their online sales.

Second, regarding the existence of abuse, the FCO suspects that Amazon is abusing its market position to the detriment of sellers active on its marketplace by imposing unfair terms and conditions. Here, the FCO relies on the case law of the German Supreme Court, which has decided that the use of unfair terms and conditions by a dominant firm can constitute an abuse – provided it is because of its dominance or relative market power that the firm is able to impose such terms and conditions. In other words: there must be a causal link between the firm’s market power or dominance and the unfair terms and conditions. It is not yet clear how the FCO will establish such a link.

Regarding the terms and practices that will be scrutinized, the FCO has listed the following provisions as being potentially illegal:

  • liability provisions
  • choice of law and jurisdiction clauses
  • rules on product reviews
  • the non-transparent termination and blocking of sellers’ accounts
  • withholding or delaying payment
  • clauses assigning rights to use the information material that a seller has to provide with regard to the products offered
  • terms of business on pan-European dispatch

The FCO’s Amazon investigation shows some similarities to its ongoing proceedings against Facebook (see our previous Blog post). Both cases are focused on the use of unfair terms and conditions. The FCO has said that it will issue its Facebook decision in early 2019. We expect that decision to set the direction for the Amazon investigation.

 

Platform Bans: German Competition Authority Critical Despite Coty Judgment

Since last year’s “Coty” judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), it may have seemed settled that authorized dealers in a selective distribution network can be prohibited from selling products via third-party marketplaces, i.e. online platforms operated by third parties such as Amazon.[1] However, in a recent position paper, the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has expressed a much more nuanced view.[2]

According to the Coty judgment, EU competition law generally allows the banning of online third-party platforms in selective distribution systems, especially for luxury goods. First, where such a ban is applied without discrimination and in a proportionate manner to the distribution of luxury goods and with the objective of preserving the luxury image of such goods, the ban is not considered a restriction of competition. Second, in all other cases – for example where the goods in question are not “luxury goods” – the ban may be justified by the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (VBER), provided the market shares of the parties are below 30 percent.[3]

The FCO, however, makes it clear that there are several issues that remain unsolved, even after the Coty ruling.

First, the FCO points out that the Coty judgment deals with “luxury goods” and that it cannot simply be applied one-to-one to other types of products, including high-quality products. Thus platform bans for non-luxury goods may, in fact, infringe competition law, even within selective distribution systems. In the absence of a clear definition separating “luxury goods” from other (high-quality) branded products, accepting outright bans of online platforms will, therefore, be anything but automatic.

Second, the FCO explains the policy that it proposes to apply outside the (limited) scope of the Coty ruling, i.e. to non-luxury goods, including high-quality branded products: it considers that a general prohibition on using third-party online platforms is likely excessive and that less restrictive measures, such as specific quality requirements, will normally suffice to protect a brand image. For example, the FCO explains that dealers could be required to have their own online shop on the marketplace rather than share a product page with other dealers.

Third, the FCO also puts a question mark over the application of the VBER to third-party platform bans. The ECJ decided in its “Pierre Fabre” judgment that manufacturers generally cannot prevent their distributors from using the internet as a sales channel.[4] An outright ban on internet sales is normally an infringement of EU competition law. However, in “Coty,” the ECJ added that a mere ban of third-party platforms does not amount to a prohibition on using the internet – provided distributors are able to run their own online shops and are unrestricted in using the internet for advertising and marketing purposes so that customers can find their online offers via online search engines. The FCO now points out that consumer preferences and the relative importance of different sales channels may vary between EU member states. According to the FCO, marketplaces and price comparison sites are much more significant in Germany than in other EU member states. In Germany, banning the use of marketplaces could reduce a distributor’s visibility to such an extent that the ban becomes equivalent to a complete ban of online sales and, thus, unlawful.

In a nutshell, the FCO is not prepared to generally accept the legality of third-party platform bans and it can be expected that it will continue to challenge such prohibitions if they have restrictive effects on competition.

However, the FCO also recognizes that Amazon Marketplace has become increasingly important for manufacturers and that many manufacturers can no longer afford to exclude this particular sales channel from their distribution system. The rising market power of Amazon Marketplace is of particular concern for the authority because of Amazon’s dual business model. Amazon is a “hybrid platform” that acts both as an intermediary for online dealers and as an authorized dealer for the same products. The FCO highlights the risks that follow from this setup: in particular, independent dealers could be disadvantaged or squeezed out of the market. The FCO is very clear about its intention to keep online markets open and that it will closely monitor Amazon’s growing market power with this in mind.

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[1] EU Court of Justice judgment of December 6, 2017, Coty Germany GmbH vs. Parfümerie Akzente GmbH, C-230/16, EU:C:2017:941.

[2] “Competition and Consumer Protection in the Digital Economy: Competition restraints in online sales after Coty and Asics – what’s next?” published on the FCO website (link).

[3] Commission Regulation (EU) No 330/2010 of April 20, 2010 on the application of Article 101(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to categories of vertical agreements and concerted practices.

[4] EU Court of Justice judgment of October 13, 2011, Pierre Fabre Dermo-Cosmétique SAS vs. Président de l’Autorité de la concurrence a.o., C-439/09, [2011] ECR I-9447.

Know Your Investors – Their Holdings and Board Seats Can Create Antitrust Risk for Your Company

A recent divesture ordered by the Federal Trade Commission should serve as a reminder that private equity- and venture capital-backed companies need to evaluate the other holdings of their investors and directors to avoid potential antitrust problems.

Background

Red Ventures and Bankrate are marketing companies that connect consumers with providers in various industries. In 2017, Red Ventures entered into an agreement to acquire Bankrate for $1.4 billion. Among other interests, Bankrate operated “Caring.com,” a website used to generate customer leads for providers of senior living facilities. Red Ventures did not offer a competing product in this space, but the FTC nonetheless required the divestiture of Caring.com, citing competitive concerns generated by operations of Red Ventures’ investors and directors.

Specifically, two of the largest shareholders in Red Ventures are private equity firms General Atlantic and Silver Lake Partners, with a combined 34 percent stake, two of seven board seats, and other substantial rights over operations. General Atlantic and Silver Lake separately owned “A Place for Mom” which, like Caring.com, provides an online referral service for providers of senior living facilities. According to the FTC’s complaint, “A Place for Mom” and “Caring.com” were each other’s closest competitors, with the number one and number two positions in the market. Here, the FTC looked behind the actual parties to the transaction to identify potential competitive concerns.

Takeaways

Private equity- and venture capital-backed companies must be aware of the competitive, or potentially competitive, holdings of their investors and directors.

  • As in the Red Ventures/Bankrate acquisition, the separate holdings of significant investors may become a focus of the government’s antitrust review of a transaction.
  • An investor simultaneously holding seats on the boards of two competing companies may violate the statute prohibiting interlocking directorates.[1]
  • Finally, companies should ensure that protections are in place to prevent any scenario – real or implied – where the investor or director could serve as a conduit for the sharing of competitively sensitive information between competing companies.[2]

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[1] See 15 USC § 19.

[2] See 15 USC § 1.

The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2019

As part of Global Competition Review’s The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2019, Orrick attorneys Jay Jurata, Alex Okuliar, and Emily Luken contributed a chapter titled “IP and Antitrust,” examining three important developments this year evolving from recent trends at the intersection of IP and antitrust law.  The chapter is part of GCR’s The Antitrust Review of the Americas 2019, first published in September 2018.

The whole publication can be found here.