FTC Takes Action Limiting Overbroad M&A Non-Compete

WHAT HAPPENED

  • GPM Investments (GPM) acquired 60 gas stations from Corrigan Oil (Corrigan).
  • As part of the acquisition agreement, Corrigan agreed not to compete for a period of time with the gas stations purchased from Corrigan. In addition, Corrigan agreed not to compete with GPM for another 190 gas stations that GPM already owned.
  • Few of the 190 existing GPM locations were “anywhere near an acquired Corrigan” gas station.
  • Because the transaction would reduce the number of competitors from 3-to-2 or fewer in five areas, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required divestitures in those areas.
  • Additionally, the FTC determined that the non-compete was overbroad, noting that the non-compete was “untethered to protecting goodwill acquired in the acquisition” because it affected gas stations in “areas geographically distinct from the acquired” gas stations. For this reason, the non-compete was highly suspect and warranted FTC scrutiny.
  • The FTC required the parties to revise the transaction agreement non-compete such that it was no longer in duration than 3 years and impacted an area no greater than 3 miles from each acquired gas station.

WHAT’S NEXT

  • FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan confirmed that some non-compete agreements that are part of a transaction agreement are “necessary to protect a legitimate business interest in connection with the sale of a business, such as the goodwill acquired in a transaction.”
  • Here, the non-compete terms were determined, however, to be “facially” overbroad in scope and unrelated to protecting any goodwill GPM was acquiring with the Corrigan stations.
  • The FTC’s action suggests that it is on the lookout for overbroad non-competes that are not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose even if part of a legitimate transaction agreement.
  • The action by the FTC provides sellers with an example to argue that onerous non-competes demanded by buyers have the potential to raise antitrust issues that could slow deal timelines, particularly if a non-compete is overbroad in relation to the products impacted, the duration of the non-compete, and/or the breadth of the geography covered.

Alex Grayson, a summer associate in the Washington, DC, office, also contributed to this article.




DOJ Antitrust Head Signals Aggressive Enforcement against Private Equity Transactions

US antitrust enforcers have signaled that private equity firms are the prime targets for upcoming aggressive antitrust merger enforcement. In a recent interview, US Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stated that the motive of a private equity firm may be “designed to hollow out or roll up an industry and essentially cash out,” which “is often very much at odds with the law, and very much at odds with the competition we’re trying to protect.”[1] His comment comes after Lina Khan, the current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman, stated that private equity roll-ups would be a focal point for the FTC.[2] It is not entirely unsurprising that progressive antitrust enforcers are focusing on private equity after the industry announced a record 14,730 deals last year globally worth $1.2 trillion, which was nearly double the previous high in 2007.[3] The above comments provide several key takeaways for stakeholders going forward:

  • As a general matter, these statements further solidify the notion that antitrust merger enforcement is going to continue to be extremely aggressive and indicate that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FTC may closely scrutinize private equity transactions even if there is no obvious horizontal or vertical issue. For example, the DOJ and the FTC have already started investigating less traditional theories of harm, such as the impact on labor and the environment.
  • Private equity firms should expect the potential for heightened scrutiny in instances where a private equity firm has engaged in serial acquisitions within the same industry (known as roll-up transactions), especially in healthcare-related fields. It will be important for stakeholders to not only evaluate the current acquisition for competitive issues, but to also consider the impact of a long-term “roll-up” plan and its influence on pricing, service, and quality.
  • Watch for agencies to bring more Clayton Act Section 8 cases, which prohibits interlocking directorates (aka a single firm appointing officers and directors at multiple competitors).[4] Private equity firms often will appoint personnel to the boards of the firm’s portfolio companies, which may consist of horizontal competitors. Going forward, these appointments will require additional attention to avoid running afoul of Section 8.
  • The DOJ and the FTC will also have an enhanced focus on the impact of private equity firms acting as divestiture buyers when the agency orders merging parties to divest assets to preserve competition. Assistant Attorney General Kanter stated, “[I]n many instances, divestitures that were supposed to address a competitive problem have ended up fueling additional competitive problems.”[5]

While the degree to which agencies will more closely scrutinize private equity transactions remains unclear, it is crucial for private equity firms to engage antitrust counsel early in the transaction process both to evaluate the transaction at hand, as well as any future transactions that may, together, bring about enhanced regulatory scrutiny.

[1] Stefania Palma and James Fontanella-Khan, “Crackdown on buyout deals coming, warns [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q1 2022

In the United States, antitrust agencies continue with their aggressive merger enforcement posture. The agencies challenged four transactions this quarter, including multiple vertical mergers. The agencies are increasingly skeptical of merger remedies, including behavioral remedies and divestitures. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are working together to update the current Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The updated guidelines will likely signal a more aggressive enforcement posture.

The European Commission (Commission) blocked one transaction in Phase II and cleared two transactions. Three transactions were abandoned after the Commission initiated a Phase II investigation. The Commission made use of partial referrals to member state national competition authorities in two cases. It also ordered Hungary to withdraw its decision to prohibit Vienna Insurance Group’s (VIG) acquisition of AEGON Group’s Hungarian subsidiaries on foreign direct investment grounds, holding that Hungary’s prohibition decision infringed Article 21 of the EU Merger Regulation.

In the United Kingdom, the first quarter of 2022 also saw a number of Phase II investigations. Specifically, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) cleared one transaction in Phase II and blocked two other transactions in Phase II. One transaction was abandoned after the CMA initiated a Phase II investigation. The CMA blocked the merger of Cargotec and Konecranes just one month after the EC cleared the transaction subject to commitments in Phase II. The parties abandoned the transaction following the CMA’s decision.

Access the full issue.




DOJ Faces Setbacks in Labor Market Prosecutions but Remains Determined

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On back-to-back days this month, defendants charged and prosecuted by the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (the DOJ) were acquitted on all Sherman Act charges in first-of-their-kind criminal antitrust trials involving labor markets.
  • On April 14, 2022, in United States v. Jindal, a federal jury in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found two defendants not guilty of violating the Sherman Act by agreeing with competitors on wages they would pay their employees. The jury found one of the defendants guilty of obstructing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation by making false and misleading statements to the FTC and concealing information.
  • The following day, in United States v. DaVita, Inc., a Colorado federal jury acquitted DaVita, Inc. and its former chief executive on all counts of violating the antitrust laws by entering into non-solicit agreements with other employers.
  • The Jindal case was the DOJ’s first attempt to criminally prosecute so-called alleged “wage-fixing” agreements. Similarly, the DaVita case was DOJ’s first criminal trial targeting alleged no-poach or non-solicit agreements between employers.
  • Historically, the DOJ pursued enforcement of alleged anticompetitive labor market practices in the civil context rather than criminally. But in 2016, the DOJ did an about-face and warned employers in its 2016 Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals that it intended to proceed criminally against “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” between horizontal competitors in labor markets. The DOJ’s efforts to investigate and criminally prosecute such agreements under this new policy started ramping up publicly in late 2020.
  • The DOJ filed an indictment against Jindal in December 2020 and a superseding indictment against Jindal and another defendant in April 2021. The DOJ alleged that the defendants participated in a conspiracy to lower the rates paid to physical therapists and physical therapist assistants in north Texas. A few months later, in July 2021, the DOJ filed an indictment against DaVita and its former CEO, alleging that they conspired with competitors in the healthcare industry not to solicit each other’s employees. The DOJ returned a superseding indictment in November 2021.
  • In both cases, the district courts denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The Jindal court held—for the first time ever—that an alleged wage-fixing conspiracy could constitute a per se criminal violation of the Sherman Act. Similarly, the DaVita court held that no-poach and non-solicit agreements could constitute per se violations—but only if the alleged naked agreements allocate the employment market. The DaVita court refused to announce a blanket rule that all no-poach or non-solicit agreements are subject to per se
  • Despite these rulings, the juries in both cases ultimately acquitted the defendants of all antitrust charges brought by the DOJ.

WHAT’S NEXT

  • The DOJ remains committed to investigating and criminally prosecuting wage-fixing and no-poach agreements despite these early setbacks. Since the Jindal indictment in December 2020, the DOJ has [...]

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Views and Lessons from the Trenches of the First Criminal No-Poach Trial

In a landmark case of first impression, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) indicted and brought to trial a federal criminal prosecution alleging agreements between DaVita, Inc., its former CEO Kent Thiry and other companies not to solicit each other’s employees. The case was the first criminal trial of its kind in the Division’s recent efforts to expand Sherman Act liability under Section 1 to include so-called no-poach and non-solicit agreements. Following an eight-day jury trial and two days of deliberation, a Denver jury acquitted Thiry and DaVita on all counts of the unprecedented “no-poach” conspiracy. As the district judge himself succinctly put it to the jury: this case was “a unique case in the field of antitrust law.”

This criminal prosecution in the labor markets reflects a novel and aggressive stance on expanding Sherman Act criminal liability. In pursuit of this policy shift, the Division is trying to jam a square peg into a round hole by characterizing non-solicit and no-poach agreements as per se market allocation agreements. The per se rule creates a judicial shortcut of sorts that makes it easier for the government to prosecute classic cartel conduct such as price-fixing and bid rigging. This case, and related cases, are the first time the per se shortcut has been used in a so-called labor market allocation case. This unprecedented litigation created a watershed moment for the Division’s views that non-solicit and no-poach agreements are per se illegal. The complete acquittal of both defendants and the rulings of the district judge before trial cast doubt on whether the per se standard is appropriate for “no-poach” agreements and whether such agreements should be prosecuted criminally at all.

WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?

Historically, the Division pursued enforcement of alleged anticompetitive labor market practices in the civil context, meaning fines for companies and individuals. In fact, that was the approach the Division took with no-poach and no cold call agreements entered into by major technology and railway companies. The Division engaged in a volte-face and declared it would criminally prosecute such labor market agreements for the first time in October 2016. Without an intervening act of Congress, executive order or ruling by any court, the Division warned that going forward it intended to proceed criminally against “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” between horizontal competitors in the labor market. The Division declared that investigating alleged “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” was a top priority. Ignoring concerns related to the separation of powers, the Division unilaterally cited its discretion and put the full weight of the government into labor market no-poach agreements. That momentum accelerated in December 2020 and continued throughout 2021, with the Division bringing 12 criminal cases against nine individuals and three companies. In short, aggressive and expansive antitrust enforcement from the DOJ is now the new normal.

DOJ SEEKS TO CREATE A NEW CATEGORY OF PER SE LIABILITY AND USES DAVITA AND THIRY AS A TEST CASE

The Division returned a superseding indictment against DaVita, Inc. and Kent Thiry on November 4, [...]

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