Antitrust

After Almost Two Decades the EU Commission Finally Revived Interim Measures

On June 26, 2019, the EU Commission opened a formal investigation into U.S. chipmaker Broadcom’s alleged abuse of dominance. In a rather unexpected move, the EU Commission informed the company, on the same day, of its intention to impose interim measures, a long-forgotten tool.

Broadcom, which is a major supplier of components for TV and modem chipsets, is being suspected of having put in place contractual restrictions to exclude its competitors from the market.

Hearings were held in late August.

On October 16, 2019, the EU Commission, likely unconvinced by Broadcom’s arguments, ordered Broadcom to unilaterally cease applying exclusivity clauses contained in its agreements with six manufacturers of TV set-top boxes and modems, withhold commercial advantages granted to some of its customers, and refrain from agreeing to the same provisions or like provisions for the time being.

The investigation on the merits is still ongoing.

Commenting on the October decision, Commissioner Vestager justified the recourse to interim measures, which had not been used for almost two decades, by saying that DG COMP had “strong indications” of Broadcom having engaged in exclusive or quasi-exclusive dealings with key customers and that “in the absence of intervention, Broadcom’s behavior [was] likely to create serious and irreversible harm to competition.

In her official statement about the Broadcom case, Commissioner Vestager made it clear that it would not remain a one-off case and that she was “committed to making the best possible use of this important tool,” whose advantages (efficiency, quickness) seemed to have been “re-discovered” on this occasion.

So, why such a change?

Interim measures, a tool long neglected by the EU Commission

The EU Commission’s power to impose interim measures was first recognized by the EU judge in 1980 in the Camera Care case. In this case, the judge ruled that the EU Commission had the power “to take interim measures which are indispensable for the effective exercise of its functions and, in particular, for ensuring the effectiveness of any decisions requiring undertakings to bring to an end infringements which it has found to exist.

The conditions to impose such interim measures were further clarified by subsequent caselaw.

Regulation 1/2003 later codified them as follows: “In cases of urgency due to the risk of serious and irreparable harm to competition, the Commission, acting on its own initiative may by decision, on the basis of a prima facie finding of infringement, order interim measures” (Article 8).

This codification, which could have been viewed as an opportunity to develop the use of this tool, has, instead, discouraged the EU Commission from doing so.

The conditions set forth in Article 8 of Regulation 1/2003 were indeed perceived as significantly harder to fulfill than the caselaw conditions until then applicable. The risk of a false positive (or Type 1 errors) was another reason for the EU Commission’s reluctance to use interim measures.

Thus, while decisions imposing such measures were already rare, there have simply been none since the entry into force of Regulation 1/2003.

The Commission is regularly asked to revisit its overly cautious approach to interim measures to no avail – until the Broadcom case.

Interim measures is a tool already used with some success by EU national competition authorities and is intended to be further developed at a national level

The EU Commission’s status quo contrasted with the dynamism of certain EU Member States’ competition authorities.

With an impressive track record of 27 cases of interim measures imposed between 2002 and 2019, the French Competition Authority (“FrCA”) has been by far one of the most active. While the greater use of interim measures by the FrCA may be explained by a lower burden of proof (condition of “likelihood of competition infringement” for the FrCA versusprima facie finding of infringement” for the EU Commission; condition of “serious and immediate harm” construed broadly for the FrCA versus serious and irreparable damage to competition as a whole for the EU Commission), it is also the result of a greater interventionism.

The fact that certain national competition authorities, like the FrCA, have used interim measures for years, with some success (including in the high-tech industry), has necessarily inspired the EU Commission.

It may also well be that, with the upcoming implementation of the ECN+ Directive that requires all Member States to enable their competition authorities to resort to interim measures, the EU Commission felt increased pressure to lead by example.

Dusted off tools for new challenges

The development of fast-moving markets and the hot debate as to whether the traditional tools of antitrust law are sufficient to tackle the issues posed by some big tech companies also explain the timely resurgence of interim measures.

While, around the world, legislators, academics, practitioners and competition authorities themselves continue to devise the best possible answer(s), competition authorities must find solutions to address everyday concerns voiced by consumers, clients and competitors confronted with potentially unlawful conduct adopted by big tech companies.

Dusting off some tools from the existing toolbox clearly forms part of the solution. It has been the case with the notion of exploitative abuse, voluntarily left aside from the Commission’s enforcement priorities back in 2009, and now revived.

It may now be the case with interim measures.

Conclusion

The EU Commission’s change of approach to interim measures is good news: certain circumstances do require prompt action to preserve competition on the markets and avoid irreversible harm to consumers, something which can only be achieved by interim measures given the long duration of the investigation on the merits.

This renewed interest for interim measures should not however make the EU Commission forget too quickly what it has long feared, namely Type 1 errors. Interim measures are prone to these errors which are very costly for the companies concerned and the economy in general. They can discourage companies from innovating and have the power to adversely affect public opinion for years to the detriment of the investigated companies even if the companies are cleared at the end of the day.

We can, of course, count on companies facing such measures to remind the EU Commission of these limits, as necessary.

In any event, to know whether this tool has definitively found its place in the EU Commission’s arsenal, one will have to wait for the EU judge’s reaction either in the Broadcom case, if Broadcom appeals the October decision (which seems highly likely), or in the following case of appeal against interim measures. If the EU Judge sets the bar too high in terms of the standard of proof required from the EU Commission, it will probably consign interim measures to oblivion. If the EU Judge is less demanding, it will open a rift that the EU Commission is sure to rush into.

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.


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

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

Naked No-Poach Agreements Are Per Se Unlawful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

FTC Puts “Standalone” Section 5 Enforcement Approach on the Record

For the first time in its 101-year history, the Federal Trade Commission yesterday issued a policy statement outlining the extent of its authority to police “unfair methods of competition” on a “standalone” basis under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.[1]  In a terse Statement of Enforcement Principles, the Commission laid out a framework for its Section 5 jurisprudence that was predictably tethered to the familiar antitrust “rule of reason” analysis but also sets forth a potentially expansive approach to enforcement.[2]  Indeed, the Commission’s approach could encompass novel enforcement theories premised on acts or practices that “contravene the spirit of the antitrust laws” as well as those incipient acts that, if allowed to mature or complete, “could violate the Sherman or Clayton Act.”[3]  Commissioner Ohlhausen’s lone dissent recognizes these potentially disconcerting developments for private industry.[4] READ MORE

EU’s Highest Court Confirms that Seeking an Injunction for SEPs May Constitute an Abuse of a Dominant Position

On July 16, 2015, the EU’s highest court, the Court of Justice, rendered its long-awaited ruling on whether seeking an injunction for a standard-essential patent (“SEP“) against an alleged patent infringer constitutes an abuse of a dominant position pursuant to Article 102 TFEU.  The judgment was in response to a request for a preliminary ruling from the Landgericht Düsseldorf (Regional Court of Düsseldorf, Germany)[1] in the course of a dispute between Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd (“Huawei“) and ZTE Corp. together with its German subsidiary ZTE Deutschland GmbH (together, “ZTE“).

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