Vertical Restraints

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.

 

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.

Antitrust Analysis of Joint Ventures: How Big Is Too Big?

In the first post in this series, we introduced the concept of joint ventures (“JVs”), outlined why antitrust law applies to their formation and operation, identified the major antitrust issues raised by JVs, and discussed why you should care about these issues.  In the second installment, we unpacked some of the major antitrust issues surrounding the threshold question of whether a JV is a legitimate collaboration.  The third post in the series discussed ancillary restraints–what they are and how they are analyzed. READ MORE

Antitrust Analysis of Joint Ventures: Ancillary Restraints

In the first post in this series, we introduced the concept of joint ventures (“JVs”), outlined why antitrust law applies to their formation and operation, identified the major antitrust issues raised by JVs, and discussed why you should care about these issues. In the second installment, we unpacked some of the major antitrust issues surrounding the threshold question of whether or not a JV is a legitimate collaboration. This third post in the series discusses ancillary restraints—what they are and how they are analyzed. READ MORE

Antitrust Analysis of Joint Ventures: Structural Considerations

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 first post in this series, we introduced the concept of joint ventures (“JVs”), outlined why antitrust law applies to their formation and operation, identified the major antitrust issues raised by JVs, and discussed why you should care about these issues. In this installment, we will unpack some of the major antitrust issues surrounding the threshold question of whether or not a JV is a legitimate collaboration.  In particular, we will first try to separate the analyses of, on the one hand, JV formation, and on the other, JV operation and structure.  Then we will consider whether a JV (i) constitutes a “naked” agreement between or among competitors which is per se unlawful, (ii) presents no significant antitrust issue because there is only a single, integrated entity performing the JV functions, or (iii) involves restraints within the scope of a legitimate collaboration that are virtually per se lawful.

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Antitrust Analysis of Joint Ventures: An Introduction

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

Joint ventures (“JVs”) can require navigation of a potential minefield of antitrust issues, which we’ll explore in a series of six blog posts beginning with this introductory post. Not all of the law in this area is entirely settled, and there remain ongoing debates about some aspects of the antitrust treatment of JVs.  Indeed, arriving at a coherent and unified view of JV law is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with missing and damaged pieces.

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DOJ Attorney Outlines Considerations in Evaluating Vertical Mergers

DOJ Attorney Outlines Considerations in Evaluating Vertical Mergers Wordcloud Illustration of Merger Acquisition

On November 17, 2016, Jon Sallet, DOJ’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General for litigation, presented a speech at the American Bar Association Antitrust Section’s Fall Forum in which he outlined his views regarding the DOJ’s approach to vertical mergers and other transactions that raise the potential for vertical restraints on competition.  After recapping some of the history regarding the DOJ’s treatment of vertical restraints, Mr. Sallet commented on issues such as merger-related efficiencies, competitive effects, input foreclosure and raising rivals costs, innovation effects, the exchange of competitively sensitive information that could harm interbrand competition, and potential anticompetitive effects in transactions that do not involve a combination of vertically related assets.  Finally, he noted that if the DOJ has concerns regarding anticompetitive effects, it might feel that conduct remedies are insufficient and may require structural remedies or even try to block the transaction.  Any company considering a vertical merger or a transaction that may raise the potential for vertical restraints on competition will benefit from reviewing Mr. Sallet’s speech.  The speech is available here.

 

Tenth Circuit Rules That Invocation of IP Rights Is Presumptively Valid Defense to Antitrust Refusal to Deal Claims

Tenth Circuit Rules That Invocation of IP Rights Is Presumptively Valid Defense to Antitrust Refusal to Deal Claims Detail of a pair of aviator sunglasses on a flight planner

In SOLIDFX, LLC v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., Case Nos. 15-1079 and 15-1097 (opinion available here), the Tenth Circuit aligned itself with the First and Federal Circuits to hold that the invocation of intellectual property rights is a presumptively valid business justification sufficient to rebut a Sherman Act Section 2 refusal to deal claim, but left open some questions about when and how the presumption can (if ever) be rebutted.

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

Antitrust Class Action Truck Transmissions

On September 15, 2016, the Third Circuit jump-started a federal antitrust class action involving truck transmissions, holding that a direct purchaser’s assignment of its federal antitrust claims to an indirect purchaser is valid as long as the assignment was written and express—even if there was no consideration for the assignment. The Third Circuit also held that a proposed class representative’s motion to intervene is presumptively timely if made before class certification.  Wallach, et al. v. Eaton Corp., et al., No. 15-3320 (Sept. 15, 2016).

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

Last week, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a summary judgment disposing of numerous antitrust claims brought by an independent servicer against a manufacturer of systems and parts that also provides service. The court emphasized that “[t]his case serves as a reminder that anecdotal speculation and supposition are not a substitute for evidence, and that evidence decoupled from harm to competition—the bellweather of antitrust—is insufficient to defeat summary judgment.” Aerotec Int’l, Inc. v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., No. 14-15562 (9th Cir. Sept. 9, 2016).

Auxiliary Power Units (“APUs”) power an airplane’s air conditioning, cabin lights and instrumentation. Aerotec International, Inc. (“Aerotec’), a small servicer of APUs, including those manufactured by Honeywell International, Inc. (“Honeywell”), complained that Honeywell had stalled Aerotec’s sales efforts and prevented it from reaching cruising altitude through a variety of alleged anticompetitive conduct.

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

Sea Salt Antitrust

A court in the Central District of California recently applied the Act of State doctrine to dismiss a complaint against two private companies that are minority owners of a third company, also a defendant, which is majority-owned by the Mexican government. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee held that the relief the plaintiffs sought would require the court to deem the official acts of a foreign sovereign invalid, and that the private entities had standing to invoke the doctrine.  Sea Breeze Salt, Inc. et al. v. Mitsubishi Corp. et al., CV 16-2345-DMG, ECF No. 45 (Aug. 18, 2016).

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China’s Fair Competition Review System: China Takes Another Significant Step Eight Years After Enacting the Anti-Monopoly Law

Rshutterstock_99699011-2ecognizing concern that the Chinese government intervenes excessively into markets and private economic activities, the China State Council recently released opinions directing the implementation of a fair competition review system (“FCRS”), which is intended to moderate administrative authorities’ issuance of regulations and minimize the government’s interference in China’s economy. Although the CRS has been hailed as “a key step to establish the fundamental status of competition policies,”[1] its success will depend on how it is implemented.

On June 1, 2016, the Opinions of the State Council on Establishing a Fair Competition Review System During the Development of Market-Oriented Systems (“Opinions”) were promulgated and became effective.  The Opinions note that enforcement of current laws sometimes entails “local protectionism, regional blockade, industry barriers, business monopoly, granting preferential policies in violation of the law or illegally prejudicing the interests of market players, and other phenomena contrary to the efforts of building a unified national market and promoting fair competition.”  These so-called “administrative monopolies,” which often are at issue in cases investigated under the Anti-Monopoly Law (“AML”), are at cross purposes to the AML.  In an effort to reduce or eliminate obstacles to economic development, the Opinions call for limiting the government authorities’ administrative powers, establishing the FCRS, preventing new policies and measures that exclude competition, and gradually revising and ultimately abolishing existing provisions that impede fair competition.

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FTC Settles Charges of Illegal Exclusive Contracts with Medical Device Input Supplier Invibio

On April 27, 2016, Invibio—a supplier of polyetheretherketone (“PEEK”) used in medical implants—agreed to settle charges asserted by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) that its exclusive supply contracts with medical device manufacturers, including some of the world’s largest, violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45.[1]  This consent decree may signal a renewed interest at the agency to scrutinize exclusive contract arrangements. The decree also serves as a reminder that, while exclusive contracts are not per se unlawful, companies that have market power and use exclusive contracts face risks under the antitrust and consumer protection laws.

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