Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2021

In the United States, aggressive antitrust enforcement is likely to continue with the appointment of Lina Khan as Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair and the nomination of Jonathan Kanter to lead the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division. The premerger notification landscape continues to shift as filings reach another record high. Technology companies remain in the “hot seat” as legislators in the US House of Representatives introduced five antitrust reform bills that would change the enforcement landscape for digital platforms, including seeking to preclude large digital platform companies from acquiring smaller, nascent competitors. And the US Department of Justice is making good on President Biden’s pledge to regulate “Big Ag” by challenging Zen-Noh Grain Corporation’s proposed acquisition of 38 grain elevators from Bunge North America, Inc.

Meanwhile, in Q1 2021, the European Commission (Commission) published its Guidance on Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation. The Guidance encourages the EU Member States to refer certain transactions to the Commission even if the transaction is not notifiable under the laws of the referring Member State(s). In Q2, not long after the issuance of the Guidance, the Commission received its first referral request to assess the proposed acquisition of GRAIL by Illumina. In light of the growing global debate on the need for more effective merger control, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed that the Commission will not soften EU merger policy going forward. The Commission’s statement was made despite the fact no deals have been blocked by the Commission in about the last two years.

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FTC Looks to Fix Repair Restrictions

A newly announced change in Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policy could have dramatic implications for the ways manufacturers of everything from cell phones to cars draft warranties, design products, and distribute replacement parts. Specifically, the FTC has set its sights on repair restrictions.

On July 21, the Commission unanimously voted to approve a policy statement announcing increased antitrust and consumer protection enforcement against business practices that make it difficult for consumers to repair their own products, or use independent repair shops. Manufacturers should take note of this import change in enforcement policy, and promptly evaluate their exposure.

Notably, the FTC’s announcement comes on the heels of President Biden’s executive order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” which encouraged the FTC to address “anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items…” It also follows a recent report by the FTC to Congress addressing repair restrictions, and a July 2019 FTC workshop examining the issue.

One area of particular concern for the FTC is product warranties that require the use of specific service providers or parts. Section 102(c) of a 1975 federal law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA) prohibits companies from conditioning warranty coverage, expressly or impliedly, on a consumer’s use of an article or service identified by brand, trade, or corporate name, unless the company provides that article or service without charge or the company has received a waiver from the FTC.

Recent reports, including empirical analyses cited by the FTC in its report to Congress, suggest that violations of Section 102(c) are widespread. Indeed, one recent analysis by a prominent public interest group alleged that 45 out of 50 companies whose warranties the group examined appeared to violate the provision. Accordingly, Section 102(c) enforcement is likely to play a prominent role in the FTC’s crackdown.

It also appears that the FTC intends to use its broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” to challenge a wide range repair restrictions. In its report to Congress, the FTC highlighted the following practices in particular as “restricting independent repair or repair by consumers:”

  • “Physical restrictions” and “product designs that complicate or prevent repair”;
  • Purposely making parts, repair manuals, and diagnostic software and tools unavailable;
  • Designs that make independent repairs less safe, such as the use of glue to fasten lithium ion cells into mobile phones and other devices;
  • Steering consumers to preferred repair networks using telematics;
  • “Policies or statements that steer consumers to manufacturer repair networks”;
  • “Application of patent rights and enforcement of trademarks;
  • Disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair”;
  • “Software locks, Digital Rights Management and Technical Protection Measures”; and
  • “End User License Agreements.”

The diverse range of practices that the FTC has identified make this shift in enforcement an important issue for a wide range of companies. Still, there are clues to how the FTC may deploy its scarce resources in this area, at least initially.

First, its prior enforcement may provide an indication. In 2015, [...]

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FTC “Prior Approval” Policy for Future Transactions Raises Antitrust Risks for Buyers and Sellers

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted July 21, 2021, to repeal a 1995 policy statement that eliminated prior approval and prior notice provisions from most merger settlements. In repealing this longstanding policy—and likely insisting on the inclusion of such provisions in future settlements—the FTC will have significantly greater authority to review and block future transactions of companies who enter into consent orders with the FTC. This policy change will have significant implications for the negotiation of antitrust risk provisions in transaction agreements.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In its 1995 Policy Statement Concerning Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions in Merger Cases, the FTC announced that it would no longer routinely require prior approval of certain future acquisitions in consent orders entered in merger cases.
    • Prior to this statement, FTC consent orders to settle merger reviews routinely required parties to seek and receive the FTC’s prior approval for future acquisitions in the relevant product and geographic markets at issue in the first challenge/consent order for a 10-year period. In some cases, the FTC also included a prior notice provision obligating companies to notify the FTC of any intended transactions that were not subject to the premerger notification and waiting period of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act).
  • On July 21, 2021, the FTC voted 3-2 to rescind its 1995 policy statement, opening the door to requiring prior approval and prior notice provisions in future merger consent orders.

 
WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This policy change substantially increases the FTC’s merger enforcement authority for companies that settle investigations with a consent order and become subject to prior approval requirements.
    • Prior approval provisions place the burden on companies to demonstrate that their transactions are not anticompetitive.
    • The FTC can deny approval for these future transactions with very little—if any—limits on its discretion.
    • This differs significantly from the enforcement regime under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, where the FTC has the burden of proving that a transaction will substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.
  • Prior notice provisions require companies to provide the FTC with advanced notice of certain transactions—even smaller transactions that typically would fall under the HSR threshold (e.g., transactions valued below $92 million). The notification requirement increases the likelihood of FTC investigation for these transactions.
  • By rescinding the 1995 policy statement, the FTC may seek to impose such provisions in its orders as a routine matter. It remains to be seen under what circumstances the FTC will insist on prior approval or prior notice (or how broad they will be crafted). In supporting the repeal, FTC Chair Lina Khan stated that the FTC will employ these provisions based on “facts and circumstances of the proposed transaction.”
    • These prior approval and/or notice provisions, when previously employed, generally lasted for the term of the order—typically 10 years.
    • Generally, the scope of these provisions was limited to the geographic and product market in which the FTC determined that the [...]

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Executive Order Encourages FTC, DOJ to Address Hospital Consolidation, Vigorously Enforce Antitrust Laws

President Biden recently issued an executive order affirming his administration’s policy of enforcing the antitrust laws to “combat the excessive consolidation of industry” and cited healthcare markets as one of several priorities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) already have been actively enforcing the antitrust laws in provider consolidation matters. The FTC is currently challenging the proposed merger of two health systems in New Jersey, and in the past year unsuccessfully challenged the combination of Jefferson Health and Einstein Health in Philadelphia and successfully challenged the proposed combination of two health systems (Methodist Le Bonheur and Saint Francis) in Memphis.

The executive order follows a proposed bill to increase budgets for the FTC and DOJ, FTC resolutions on compulsory process in healthcare investigations, congressional calls to investigate the use of COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund payments for acquisitions, the FTC physician practice acquisition retrospective and other health antitrust developments.

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Federal Circuit Lacks Appellate Jurisdiction over Standalone Walker Process Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ordered the transfer of a case asserting standalone Walker Process antitrust claims involving an unenforceable patent to the regional circuit, in this case the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Chandler v. Phoenix Services LLC, Case No. 20-1848 (Fed Cir. June 10, 2021) (Hughes, J.) originated in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, over which the Fifth Circuit has appellate jurisdiction. The decision to transfer was based on a subject matter jurisdiction analysis for Walker Process claims. The Federal Circuit reiterated that its precedent does not mandate exclusive Federal Circuit jurisdiction over all Walker Process cases.

In 2006, Phoenix Services and Mark Fisher (collectively, Phoenix) acquired a company called Heat On-The-Fly and its patent to protect a purported proprietary fracking process. Heat-On-The-Fly, and later Phoenix, sought to enforce the patent against numerous parties. During the patent application process, however, Heat On-The-Fly had failed to disclose numerous public uses of the fracking process prior to the application filing. In 2018, in an unrelated case, Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, the Federal Circuit, held that “failure to disclose prior uses of the fracking process rendered the . . . patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.” The plaintiffs in the case at hand, Ronald Chandler, Chandler MFG., Newco Enterprises and Supertherm Heating Services (collectively, Chandler), alleged that Phoenix’s continued enforcement of the patent violated Walker Process pursuant to § 2 of the Sherman Act.

Walker Process monopolization claims originate from a 1965 Supreme Court decision that recognized an antitrust cause of action under the Sherman and Clayton Acts when a party fraudulently obtains a patent for the purpose of attempted monopolization. Walker Process Equipment, Inc. v. Food Machinery & Chemical Corp. To succeed on a Walker Process claim, a plaintiff must satisfy two elements:

  • The plaintiff must show that the defendant obtained the patent through knowing and willful fraud on the US Patent & Trademark Office and enforced that patent with knowledge of its fraudulent procurement.
  • The plaintiff must be able to satisfy all other elements for a Sherman Act monopolization claim.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(1), the Federal Circuit retains jurisdiction over any civil case arising under any act of Congress relating to patents. In this instance, the Federal Circuit stated that Walker Process antitrust claims may relate to patents “in the colloquial use of the term,” but under 1988 Supreme Court precedent, Christianson v. Colt Indus., the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction only extends to cases where the cause of action is created under federal patent law, or where the plaintiff’s right to relief “necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal patent law.”

Here, the Federal Circuit relied on its own 2018 precedent where it analyzed subject matter jurisdiction for Walker Process claims. Xitronix Corp v. KLA-Tencor Corp. (Xitronix I). Xitronix I involved alleged fraud by the defendants to obtain a patent. The Court acknowledged that patent law [...]

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