EU: Merger case cleared following offer of FRAND technology license

On 20 April 2016, the European Commission (Commission) cleared, under its merger control rules, the acquisition of Equens and PaySquare by Worldline subject to, amongst others, a commitment to license technology to any customer interested, at Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions.

Worldline is a French provider of payment services and terminals, financial processing and software licensing and e-transactions services. Equens offers a number of services across the value chain of both payments processing and cards processing services. Its fully-owned subsidiary, PaySquare, provides merchant acquiring services.  This transaction combines two large payment systems operators, active across the full value chain in both payment processing and card processing services.

The EU antitrust regulator was concerned that the acquisition would have raised certain issues with respect to, in particular, merchant acquiring services in Germany.  The Commission’s market investigation revealed that Worldline’s Poseidon software and modules are used by the majority of German network service providers (including PaySquare), there are no other readily available alternatives to Poseidon and post-transaction, Worldline would have the ability and the incentives to favour its new subsidiary PaySquare, in terms of price and quality, over other network service providers relying on Poseidon.

In order to address the Commission’s concerns, the companies offered a commitment to grant licenses for the Poseidon software on FRAND terms during a period of 10 years. Specifically, this commitment consists of the following elements:

  • The granting of a license for Poseidon and its modules to third-party network service providers under FRAND terms and capping of the maintenance fees
  • A monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with FRAND terms by a licensing trustee and by a group composed of network service providers
  • Giving access to the Poseidon source code under certain conditions
  • Transferring the governance of the ZVT protocol, on which most German point of sale terminals run, to an independent not for profit industry organisation

The Commission’s decision to accept this commitment is interesting for a number reasons; the Commission generally has a strong preference for structural rather than behavioural undertakings, FRAND obligations are typically applicable to technologies that are standardised, and this case presents the first time that a commitment to licence on FRAND terms has been used as a remedy under the EU Merger Regulation.

EFTA Court to Rule on The Interpretation of Restriction of Competition by Object

A recent request by the Supreme Court of Norway for an advisory opinion from the European Free Trade Association Court may define the legal test for determining whether or not an agreement between competitors restricts competition “by object.”

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Microsoft Antitrust Suit Against InterDigital Stands, Judge Says

On April 13, 2016, the US District Court for the District of Delaware denied InterDigital’s motion to dismiss an antitrust suit filed by Microsoft (Microsoft Mobile, Inc. v. InterDigital, Inc., Case No. 15-cv-723-RGA).  In the suit, Microsoft alleged that InterDigital engaged in an unlawful scheme to acquire and exploit monopoly power over standard essential patents (SEPs) required for 3G and 4G cellular devices.  Specifically, Microsoft asserted that InterDigital falsely promised to license its 3G and 4G SEPs on Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms in order to ensure its SEPs were included in standards set by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).  According to the complaint, InterDigital failed to live up to its commitment to FRAND licensing terms, and instead acquired monopoly power in the 3G and 4G cellular technology markets and used that power to demand supra-competitive royalties, “double-dip” royalty demands, and has pursued “baseless” International Trade Commission litigation against Microsoft and others.

In its motion to dismiss, InterDigital asserted that Microsoft failed to adequately plead a Sherman Act § 2 monopolization claim, namely that Microsoft failed to show that InterDigital possessed and exercised monopoly power and failed to adequately allege injury.  The court disagreed, finding Microsoft’s allegations to be materially similar to those found to be sufficient by the Third Circuit in Broadcom Corp. v. Qualcomm Inc. (2007).  With respect to monopoly power, the court found that Microsoft’s allegations as to the necessary technology standards, market entry barriers, and InterDigital’s market share to be sufficient.  The court found that allegations of an “intentional false promise” to license technology on FRAND terms, which was relied upon in selecting the technology for inclusion in mandatory standards, and breach of such promise was “sufficient to show anticompetitive conduct.”

As to injury, InterDigital asserted that its litigation activity was protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine.  The court held that injury was sufficiently pled, and that the Noerr-Pennington doctrine did not immunize InterDigital as its scheme, as alleged by Microsoft, would have been “ineffective without the threat of litigation” and therefore it was properly included in Microsoft’s anticompetitive scheme allegations.

This latest ruling demonstrates that prospective licensees may be able to raise antitrust claims against SEP holders when negotiations fail and litigation ensues.

Baer to Serve as Acting Associate Attorney General

On Monday, April 11, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed in a press release that Bill Baer will serve in the DOJ’s third-highest ranking position effective April 17, 2016. Baer will be stepping in for Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised Baer’s record at the Antitrust Division, noting that he has worked to obtain $400 million in relief for consumers in a case against Apple for the price-fixing of e-books, achieved a record level of fines from large banks in the LIBOR scandal, and defended consumers in industries from beer and wine to airlines and phone companies.

Baer was nominated by President Obama and was confirmed to lead the Antitrust Division in December 2012. It has been widely reported that Renata Hesse, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Criminal and Civil Operations, will take the reins upon Baer’s departure.  Hesse previously served as Acting Assistant Attorney General for a short time preceding Baer’s confirmation.

Practitioners do not expect Baer’s move to affect the Division’s track record of aggressive enforcement in recent years. On Friday, at the American Bar Association Antitrust Spring Meeting, Baer stated that the federal government has shown it is serious about stopping what it sees as competition-reducing mergers. Baer emphasized that the government is looking at the overall market as well as the individual pieces, and that lawyers should not “get lost in the weeds as you’re advising your clients about the antitrust merits.”

House Passes GOP-Backed SMARTER ACT Aiming to Harmonize Merger Review Process for FTC and DOJ

On March 23, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act by a vote of 235-171, despite strenuous objections from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The FTC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) review proposed mergers and acquisitions.  Currently, the FTC can challenge transactions under different processes and standards than the DOJ, and those procedures provide several advantages to the FTC.  The SMARTER Act would neutralize those advantages for the FTC by: (1) eliminating the FTC’s ability to use its internal administrative proceedings to challenge unconsummated transactions; and (2) standardizing the criteria for the FTC and DOJ to obtain a preliminary injunction to block a merger in federal court.

The FTC has the authority to pursue administrative relief to challenge a transaction.  Even if the FTC is denied a preliminary injunction in federal court, the agency may continue to seek to block or unwind a transaction in an administrative trial at the FTC’s own in-house court.  That process creates two procedural advantages for the FTC.  First, the FTC can continue to challenge a transaction even after a federal district court denies an injunction.  Second, because the full trial will take place in the FTC’s court, some courts have said that the the standard the FTC uses to obtain a federal court injunction is lower than the standard the DOJ must meet.  The courts will generally grant the FTC an injunction if the case “raise[s] questions going to the merits so serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful as to make them fair ground” for a full hearing “by the FTC in the first instance and ultimately by the Court of Appeals.”  Under that standard, the FTC need not show a substantial likelihood of success at the trial on the merits or irreparable harm.

The DOJ can only challenge transactions in federal court proceedings.  The DOJ can seek a preliminary injunction under Section 15 of the Clayton Act (15 U.S.C. § 25) on the grounds that the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition.  The DOJ is subject to a traditional equitable injunction standard including criteria such as a showing of a substantial likelihood of success and the potential for irreparable harm.

Supporters of the SMARTER Act argue that reform is necessary to ensure consistent and fair application of the antitrust laws.  SMARTER Act supporters also argue that courts apply a more lenient standard to the FTC for blocking a transaction than to the DOJ.  However, those that oppose the SMARTER Act argue that in practice, courts impose the same standards on the FTC and DOJ during injunction hearings.  Those against the SMARTER Act also argue that workload statistics compiled in the DOJ and FTC Annual Competition Reports actually demonstrate that mergers reviewed by the DOJ are more likely to be challenged or receive a Second Request than mergers reviewed by the FTC.  FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez expressed concern that the SMARTER Act “risks undermining the effectiveness of the FTC.”  Chairwoman Ramirez also stated, “We were designed to have this administrative function” and she pointed out that the FTC has not pursued an administrative complaint after losing a preliminary injunction in federal court in more than two decades.  She argues that removing the FTC’s administrative proceedings would eliminate an important function that the expert agency has utilized to helped shape antitrust law and would add workload to the federal courts.

If the SMARTER Act becomes law, it may increase the likelihood that companies could successfully litigate a FTC preliminary injunction merger challenge because the FTC would need to meet the traditional standards for obtaining a preliminary injunction, and not just show that the transaction raises “serious, substantial” issues.  In addition, it could decrease the precedential value of prior FTC merger challenges that federal courts have decided under the current standard, which is often more deferential to the FTC.  Passage of the SMARTER Act to law seems unlikely under the current Obama administration, but could be more likely in a Republican administration.

CJEU to Rule on Extradition of EU Citizens in Criminal Antitrust Proceedings

The first European citizen to be extradited from Europe to the United States for criminal antitrust conduct recently succeeded in having a Berlin court refer the matter of his extradition to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the context of his damages action with regard to his extradition, after a series of multiple setbacks and a 24-month period of imprisonment.

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Dutch Competition Authority Fines Cold-Storage Companies for Exchange of Information in the Context of Merger Talks

On 23 March 2016, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) announced that it had fined four cold-storage firms for having put in place anticompetitive arrangements while in extended merger talks with one another.  (case number: 13.0698.31|15.0710.31|15.0327.31|15.0328.31). In addition, ACM fined five individuals for their personal involvement in these anticompetitive arrangements. The case at hand serves as a reminder that gun jumping, which is seen as an infringement of the merger control rules, is not the only antitrust risk associated with an M&A transaction.

While in discussions about a possible merger between them, the cold-storage firms frequently exchanged commercially sensitive information such as the price for food storage, current utilization rates of their storage facilities and whether or not they were looking for work. This information exchange, which took place between 2006 and 2009, sometimes resulted in price fixing, customer allocation or bid rigging. Continue Reading

Sixth Circuit: “Single-Network” Hospitals Not Exempt from Section One Scrutiny

On March 22, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit allowed a claim to proceed under § 1 of the Sherman Act against four hospitals acting as a single network under a joint operating agreement.  Med. Center at Elizabeth Place, LLC v. Atrium Health Sys., No. 14-4166 (6th Cir. Mar. 22, 2016).  A divided panel reversed the ruling of the district court, which had granted summary judgment for the defendant hospitals on the premise that they were operating as a single entity and therefore had not engaged in concerted action subject to § 1. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion sheds light on a topic of growing importance in the health care industry: how to distinguish a lawful joint venture from a horizontal conspiracy.

To answer that question, the majority examined “the nature of the business relationship among the defendants, focusing on whether that relationship remain[ed] that of separate, competing entities or whether there [was] a single center of decisionmaking.”  Id. at 10 (citing American Needle, Inc. v. Nat’l Football League, 560 U.S. 183 (2010)). Even though the joint venture was “a separate corporate entity with its own management structure” and the “joint operating agreement provide[d] for sharing revenue pursuant to an agreed upon formula,” the court decided the record supported a conclusion that defendants were separate actors capable of conspiring under § 1. Id.  In support of this conclusion, the court cited evidence that the intention behind the joint venture was to prevent the plaintiff hospital from entering the local health care market. Id. at 4 (for example, evidence that defendant’s executive told plaintiff, “you are the enemy [and] this is war”).  Additional facts supporting this conclusion included that the hospitals “remain[ed] separate legal entities, each with their own assets, filing their own tax returns and maintaining a separate corporate identity with its own CEO and Board of Directors.” Id. at 11. Further, the hospitals continued to compete with each other for physicians and patients and to make their own decisions regarding staffing and patient care.  Id.

In recent years, as antitrust regulators have subjected mergers in the health care arena to increasing scrutiny, many have viewed joint operating agreements as an attractive alternative. The Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Elizabeth Place serves as an important reminder that courts “look[] beyond labels” in distinguishing lawful joint venture activities from concerted conduct subject to § 1.  Id. at 7. In other words, a formal joint operating arrangement will not spare accused conspirators from antitrust scrutiny, particularly in the face of evidence of anticompetitive intent. Companies should exercise caution to avoid the appearance that a joint venture is being used as a tool to harm competitors or eliminate competition. In both internal documents and external communications, companies should avoid the use of war-like words that may signal anticompetitive intent or effect. It is always prudent to involve counsel in communications with competitors, as these communications pose the highest level of antitrust risk.

 

EU Commission Releases First Findings on Geo-Blocking in E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

On 18 March, the European Commission (Commission) published its initial findings on geo-blocking in the framework of its ongoing antitrust sector inquiry into e-commerce.

The findings are based on responses to questionnaires sent to more than 1400 retailers and digital content providers from all 28 EU Member States in 2015.

The questionnaires focused on geo-blocking practices in the sales of goods (clothing, shoes and accessories, consumer electronics, household appliances, computer games and software, toys and childcare articles, books, media carriers, cosmetic and healthcare products, sports, outdoor, house and garden equipment), and in the provision of digital content services (films, sports, TV programmes, music).

The findings suggest that geo-blocking is a widespread practice. Where the sale of tangible goods is concerned, in most cases the decision to have geo-blocking in place is made unilaterally by the retailer.  In only 12 percent of the cases, retailers were forced by contract to put restrictions in place on cross-border sales.

On the other hand, geo-blocking in digital content is for the most part a contractual requirement imposed by suppliers (for 59 percent of the respondents).

The data on geo-blocking now published by the Commission seem to strengthen the Commission’s suspicions that geo-blocking practices are widespread and may significantly impact intra-EU cross-border trade. The Commission said that geo-blocking may be in breach of competition law, particularly when it results from agreements between businesses or if practised by a dominant market player.

However, the Commission also recognized that retailers and service providers may have valid reasons to put geo-blocking in place to restrict cross-border sales. In light of this, the Commission may decide to address the conditions under which geo-blocking is justified in further legislation or guidance to businesses first, rather than take  immediate enforcement measures on the back of the sector inquiry.

Any ensuing enforcement action would have to take place on a case-by-case basis, separately from the overall sector inquiry.

It is expected that the Commission will present its final report on the present inquiry by the middle of 2016.

Judge Merrick Garland’s Antitrust Past: A Brief Summary

Since President Obama announced Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States last Wednesday, March 16, 2016, many have opined on his qualifications as well as the political fight about his confirmation this election year.  A few articles have noted Judge Garland’s academic background—that he taught Advanced Antitrust at his alma mater, Harvard Law School, while working in private practice in the 1980s.  During that time, Judge Garland also published articles in the Yale Law Journal and Harvard Law Review on antitrust issues.

Although his time as an antitrust academic ended nearly 30 years ago, Judge Garland’s articles remain relevant and continue to be cited by the courts and legal academics.  For example, his article, Antitrust and State Action: Economic Efficiency and the Political Process, 96 Yale L.J. 486 (1986), was cited by Justice Kennedy in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, 135 S. Ct. 1101 (2015), in February 2015.  In Antitrust and State Action, Judge Garland argued that courts and legal theorists should not rely on antitrust principles of economic efficiency to justify interference with state regulations and should not permit preemption of state regulations except where state governments delegate market regulation to private parties.  96 Yale L.J. at 487-88.  The Supreme Court cited Judge Garland’s article in recognizing this limited exception to state immunity.  N.C. State Bd. of Dental Examiners, 135 S. Ct. at 1111.

Since his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1997, Judge Garland has been on several panels deciding antitrust cases, but has not authored any opinions.  The panel decisions, however, can give us some insight as to how he may decide antitrust issues if his nomination is successful:

  • In In re Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge Antitrust Litigation, 725 F.3d 244 (D.C. Cir. 2013), the court vacated class certification in a price-fixing case and remanded to the district court for consideration under Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). In particular, the D.C. Circuit was concerned that Plaintiff’s damages model yielded false positive results, which, “if accurate, [] would shred the plaintiffs’ case for certification” because “[c]ommon questions of fact cannot predominate where there exists no reliable means of proving classwide injury in fact.”  In re Rail Freight, 725 F.3d at 252-53.
  • The court held interlocutory review under Rule 23(f) was not appropriate where defendant’s challenges to class certification—that plaintiffs lacked antitrust standing—was a merits question unrelated to the Rule 23 factors. In re Lorazepam & Clorazepate Antitrust Litig., 289 F.3d 98, 107-09 (D.C. Cir. 2002).
  • In Andrix Phamaceuticals, Inc. v. Biovail Corp. Int’l, 256 F.3d 799 (D.C. Cir. 2001), the court held that the district court erred in dismissing with prejudice defendant’s counterclaim based on lack of antitrust injury or standing where the defendant could have amended its counterclaim to allege a cause of action. In that case, plaintiff had an agreement with a third-party that contained “allegedly anticompetitive provisions, including [plaintiff’s] pledge to continue to . . . forestall other applicants from receiving final FDA approval . . .[, which] could reasonably be viewed as an attempt to allocate market share and preserve monopolistic conditions.”  at 811.  Thus, the agreement could have caused defendant’s injury by delaying entry into the market.

Judge Garland’s earlier antitrust cases included: (i) granting the FTC’s emergency motion to enjoin the merger of baby food manufacturers H.J. Heinz Company and Milnot Holding Corporation; (ii) affirming dismissal of an “essential facilities” claim because plaintiffs were not competitors of defendant; and (iii) affirming dismissal of a group boycott claim brought by a doctor against seven defendants because the plaintiff failed to present evidence tending to exclude the possibility that the alleged conspirators acted based on legitimate rather than anticompetitive reasons.  FTC v. Heinz, H.J. Co., Case No. 00-5362, 2000 WL 1741320 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 8, 2000); Thomas v. Network Sols., Inc., 176 F.3d 500 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Ostrzenski v. Columbia Hosp. for Women Found, Inc., 158 F.3d 1289 (D.C. Cir. 1998).

In sum, these decisions reflect a measured application of the law that is neither pro-plaintiff nor pro-defendant.  Judge Garland’s understanding of economic theory underlying antitrust law can, as shown in Rail Freight, benefit antitrust defendants faced with class certification motions that hinge on plaintiffs’ experts flawed analyses.

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