THE LATEST: DOJ Price-Fixing Probe Demonstrates That Deal Risk Is Not the Only Antitrust Concern Merging Parties Should Keep in Mind

Bumble Bee Foods, and two of its senior vice presidents, have recently pled guilty to US Department of Justice (DOJ) charges that they engaged in a conspiracy to fix prices of shelf-stable tuna fish sold in the United States from 2011 to 2013. Bumble Bee agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine that can increase to $81.5 million under certain conditions, and the company’s two senior vice presidents pled guilty and agreed to pay criminal fines as well. The investigation appears to have been prompted by information that the DOJ uncovered during its investigation of Thai Union Group’s (owner of Chicken of the Sea) proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee, which was abandoned after DOJ concerns.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • On December 19, 2014, Thai Union Group, the largest global producer of shelf-stable tuna, announced that it had agreed to acquire Bumble Bee Foods for $1.5 billion. A year later, on December 3, 2015, the DOJ announced that the parties had abandoned the transaction after the DOJ expressed concerns that the acquisition would harm competition. The DOJ stated that “Thai Union’s proposed acquisition of Bumble Bee would have combined the second and third largest sellers of shelf-stable tuna in the United States in a market long dominated by three major brands, as well as combined the first and second largest domestic sellers of other shelf-stable seafood products.”
  • Beyond its comments about the potential for competitive harm from the transaction, however, the DOJ further noted that “[o]ur investigation convinced us – and the parties knew or should have known from the get go – that the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse.”
  • It appears that the DOJ’s concerns that the market for packaged seafood was not functioning competitively spurred the government to proceed with an investigation into potential collusion among the suppliers of packaged seafood. After its investigation, the DOJ concluded that Bumble Bee Foods, two of its senior vice presidents, and other co-conspirators “discussed the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States[,] agreed to fix the prices of those products [and] negotiated prices and issued price announcements for packaged seafood in accordance with the agreements they reached.”

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • In the Mergers & Acquisitions context, the merging parties are most often concerned with the potential risk that antitrust concerns may pose to the deal and the ability to obtain DOJ or Federal Trade Commission (FTC) clearance for the transaction. This criminal investigation by the DOJ demonstrates that the parties need to be aware of their conduct in the market, whether they have engaged in conduct that may be found to be collusive, and the potential consequences of such conduct not only on the proposed transaction but on the companies themselves and their employees.
  • It is critical for companies to regularly monitor the conduct of their employees and provide antitrust training and compliance courses. In a merger between horizontal competitors, before proceeding, each company should do some internal diligence to understand whether a merger investigation may turn up inappropriate communications or agreements with competitors.

Reform of German Competition Law

A number of amendments to the German competition law (Amendment) entered into force on 9 June 2017. The key changes are:

  • Merger control: Introduction of a new “size of transaction”-threshold
  • Sanctions for antitrust law infringements: Rules of liability aligned to EU concept, in particular with respect to “parental liability”
  • Private enforcement: Implementation of EU Cartel Damage Claims Directive.

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Individual Accountability Likely to Continue for Cartel Enforcement

To date, the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) has obtained six corporate guilty pleas, three individual indictments and one individual guilty plea in its long-running investigation into price fixing of capacitors by primarily Japanese manufacturers. Capacitors are small electronic components that are found in nearly every device that is plugged in or powered by a battery.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • In a May 24 sentencing hearing, the DOJ took sharp criticism from Judge James Donato (NDCA) for what he called a “sweetheart deal” by DOJ in its plea agreement with Matsuo Electric Co. The plea called for payment of a $4.17 million fine to be paid over five years.
  • The deal, reached at the same time as an individual plea of Matsuo’s former sales manager Satoshi Okubo, was one that DOJ had touted, arguing that “[t]he simultaneous acceptance of responsibility by a company and the executive who supervised its involvement in the cartel demonstrates in a concrete way their future commitment to lawful conduct and an improved business culture.”
  • Judge Donato saw it another way, arguing that he “didn’t like the idea of corporations holding individuals out to dry in return for leniency.” This comment came in reference to the assertion that Okubo had been asked to serve a one-year prison term so the company would get a lesser sentence.
  • The court did not throw out Matsuo’s sentence altogether, but requested further details about the company’s financial resources so that it could decide whether to accept the corporate plea agreement, in particular the extended payment term. Okubo was sentenced in February.
  • In previous sentencings, Judge Donato had imposed terms of probation on the corporations exceeding those requested by DOJ.

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THE LATEST: FTC Files Complaint Against Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board

This week, the Federal Trade Commission filed an administrative complaint against the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board (LREAB). This complaint is the FTC’s first against a state licensing board since it prevailed in the Supreme Court in the decision in NC State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC in 2015. There, the Court held that immunity from the antitrust laws under the state action doctrine does not apply to a state board that regulates an industry if: 1) a majority of the board members are active participants in the market they are regulating, and 2) the board has not been actively supervised by the state. McDermott reported in detail about the NC Board of Dental Examiners at the time of the decision. The complaint comes on the tail of a settlement agreement between the FTC and a trade organization, the American Guild of Organists, as reported this week.

FTC alleges that the LREAB violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act by unreasonably restraining price competition for real estate appraisal services provided to appraisal management companies (AMCs) in Louisiana.

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Supreme Court to Patent Holders: Sell Product Anywhere, Exhaust Patent Rights Everywhere

Reversing long-standing Federal Circuit precedent, the United States Supreme Court has now held that a patentee extinguishes its patent rights on a product upon its sale of that product, regardless of (1) whether the patentee placed a restriction on the sale (prohibiting reuse or resale), or (2) whether the sale occurred within the United States.

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THE LATEST: American Guild of Organists Reaches Settlement Agreement with the FTC over Challenged Professional Association Rules

The two current commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approved a final order and consent agreement with the American Guild of Organists (AGO) after a public comment period of two months. The FTC alleged that the AGO violated Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act by agreeing to restrain competition among its organist and choral conductor members. Under the terms of the settlement, the AGO agreed to make certain changes to its rules and policies.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • The AGO represents approximately 15,000 member organists and choral directors in 300 chapters in the United States and abroad.
  • The FTC initiated an inquiry into the AGO’s practices in late 2015 after receiving complaints from consumers and organists regarding guild rules.
  • Specifically, the AGO’s rules required a customer seeking to hire a musician who was not dedicated as the “incumbent musician” in a particular area to pay both the “incumbent musician” in the area as well as the hired musician. The AGO’s Code of Ethics stated that members should “protect themselves” through contracts that secured fees even when not performing.
  • Also, the AGO published compensation schedules and formulas, instructing its membership to use the formulas to determine pricing in their region.
  • Finally, the AGO’s rules prohibited a member from soliciting employment from an organization already employing an “incumbent musician.”
  • The FTC’s complaint alleged that these actions restrained competition by encouraging a fixed pricing schedule between and among the AGO’s membership, and by preventing members from freely seeking or accepting employment. It also alleged that the AGO’s rules and guidelines likely raised prices for consumers seeking to employ organists for special occasions, as well as the organizations that employed organists.
  • The settlement requires the AGO to change its rules and Code of Ethics, and mandates that each chapter of the AGO certify compliance in order to remain in the organization. In particular, the AGO no longer can publicize or endorse any standardized or suggested prices or interfere with any member’s ability to seek work as an organist or choral conductor.

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THE LATEST: EU Commission Fines Facebook EUR 110 million for Providing Incorrect or Misleading Information

The Commission’s EUR 110 million fine on Facebook for breach of its procedural obligations under the EU merger control rules underscores the need to submit full, accurate and reliable information during the Commission’s merger control review process. An intentional or negligent failure to do so will lead to draconian fines—even where the provision of incorrect or misleading information does not have an impact on the ultimate outcome of the Commission’s decision.

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THE LATEST: Rohit Chopra, Progressive Student Loan Watchdog, Recommended for FTC Commissioner

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is composed of five Commissioners each with terms of seven years. The Commissioners are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. At any given time, no more than three Commissioners may be members of the same political party. Currently, Acting Chairman Ohlhausen (R) and Commissioner McSweeny (D) are the only FTC Commissioners. President Trump, therefore, can nominate two republican Commissioners and a democrat or independent commissioner. On May 9, United States Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) formally recommended to President Donald Trump that Rohit Chopra fill the empty Democratic FTC Commissioner position. It is not clear how President Trump will proceed following the recommendation. Prior presidents have typically relied on recommendations from opposition leaders when deciding on a nominee for a minority commissioner.

WHO IS ROHIT CHOPRA?

  • Chopra is a Harvard University (BA) and Wharton School (MBA) graduate who has focused his career on consumer protection; specifically, advocacy for student loan forgiveness and better student loan servicing, and criticism of for-profit universities.
  • Chopra was one of the initial employees of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), founded in July 2010 and proposed in 2007 by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in response to the Great Recession. There, Chopra served as Assistant Director and Student Loan Ombudsman, where he worked to improve student loan servicing and sued ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges Inc. for consumer fraud.
  • In 2015, Chopra became a Senior Fellow at progressive think tank the Center for American Progress.
  • He then joined the Obama Administration as Special Advisor to the Secretary of Education, after having been critical of the Obama Administration’s work on student loan issues while at the CFPB. In particular, he encouraged the Secretary of Education to combat data showing that student loan debt doubled under the Obama Administration and the amount of student loans in default continued to increase.
  • Currently, Chopra serves as a Senior Fellow of the Consumer Federation of America, a non-profit consumer protection organization founded in 1968.

WHAT THIS MEANS?

  • If appointed, Chopra would be a non-lawyer FTC Commissioner without significant experience in antitrust issues, having worked solely in the consumer protection arena.
  • Chopra would replace former FTC Chairman Edith Ramirez, another progressive, who resigned her position effective February 10, 2017.

European Commission Final Report on E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

On 10 May 2017, the European Commission published its final report on the e-commerce sector inquiry. The report is divided into two sections, covering e-commerce issues in relation to consumer goods and digital content. It also identifies business practices that might restrict competition and limit consumer choice. It would be advisable for e-commerce businesses to review their commercial practices and revise them as necessary in light of the Commission’s stated aim of targeting e-commerce business practices that may negatively impact the functioning of the Digital Single Market.

Read the full article. 

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