The European Commission (EC) has found, on a prima facie basis, that Broadcom abused its dominant position. In order to avert the risk of serious and irreparable damage to competition, Broadcom has been ordered to cease its prima facie abusive conduct with almost immediate effect. This is the first time in 18 years that the EC has made use of such measure and could signal the re-awakening of a once-dormant tool.
Government contractors should be aware that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking new steps to scrutinize public procurement. The DOJ Antitrust Division’s creation of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) means that government procurement enforcement will be a significant focus for the agency moving forward. Although the new strike force builds on past government-wide efforts to detect illegal conduct in public procurement, recent activity from the Antitrust Division has raised the stakes. In light of this, government contractors should broaden their compliance programs to include antitrust so they can avoid heightened monetary penalties and possible prison terms for implicated employees.
I. What Happened
The DOJ’s Antitrust Division took another step to increase its attention on government procurement by focusing resources on a new task force designed to detect anticompetitive behavior amongst government contractors. On October 24, 2019, the Antitrust Division posted a notice in the Federal Register inviting public comment on its implementation of a “Procurement Collusion Strike Force” complaint form. The complaint form will facilitate “reporting by the public of complaints, concerns, and tips regarding potential antitrust crimes affecting government procurement, grants, and program funding.” While the DOJ’s unveiling of the PCSF is significant in itself, the event is just one of several pieces of activity from the Antitrust Division indicating that government contractors must begin to consider antitrust risk much more seriously.
Developments in antitrust class actions over the past year highlight the critical role that the certification decision plays. In the United States, the denial of class certification “may sound the ‘death knell’ of the litigation on the part of plaintiffs.”
To obtain class certification, plaintiffs must satisfy the four requirements in Rule 23(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy) and at least one of the requirements in Rule 23(b). McDermott’s Nicole L. Castle, David L. Hanselman, Jr. and Steven Vaughn authored the section “United States: Class Action Defense” of Global Competition Review’s America’s Antitrust Review 2020, in which they discuss the requirements of the Rules and offer insight for those seeking class certification.
An extract from GCR’s America’s Antitrust Review 2020, first published in September 2019. The whole publication is available at https://globalcompetitionreview.com/edition/1001388/americas-antitrust-review-2020.
Family-owned wholesalers brought a Robinson-Patman claim against the maker of 5-hour Energy alleging discounts given to Costco amounted to illegal price discrimination. A jury in California rejected the claim after a fact-intensive analysis of competition and potential antitrust injury.
- After seven hours of deliberations, a California jury decided that Living Essentials LLC, the maker of 5-hour Energy, did not engage in illegal price discrimination under the Robinson-Patman Act. U.S. Wholesale Outlet & Distribution, Inc. v. Innovation Ventures, LLC et al., No. 2:18-cv-01077 (C.D.Ca. Oct. 21, 2019).
- Plaintiff wholesalers argued that the rebates and discounts Living Essentials offered to Costco on the list price for 5-hour Energy amounted to price discrimination.
- The family-owned wholesalers have endured a steady decline since 2012 in their sales of 5-hour Energy, a decline they claimed accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales for a product with annual retail sales of more than $1 billion.
- They attribute this decline to unfair price discrimination that provided a competitive advantage to Costco, allowing the membership-only warehouse club to offer the product for less than its competitors. According to plaintiffs, Costco received as much as a 26-cent discount on each 5-hour Energy bottle compared to the wholesalers. The 26-cent discount resulted from a combination of spoilage allowances, early payment discounts and indirect advertisement discounts (including promotion in Costco mailers and at fences and endcaps). The wholesalers alleged this unfair price discrimination created a reasonable possibility of harm to competition.
- Living Essentials countered that the wholesale distributors are not competitors with Costco and that there was no competitive injury.
- Living Essentials argued the plaintiff wholesalers did not provide the economic analysis necessary to show actual competition between Costco and the wholesalers, despite having access to the kind of data necessary for such an analysis. Instead, the wholesalers relied on hearsay testimony from customers claiming they purchased 5-hour Energy from both the wholesalers and Costco.
- Living Essentials pointed to the different products and services available from Costco compared to the wholesalers and argued that it did not view Costco as a vehicle for getting its product into convenience stores—a particularly important method of distribution. Living Essentials offered discounts to wholesalers who purchased 5-hour Energy displays and racks to encourage those wholesalers to resell these products to convenience store customers who would place the displays and racks on their counters. Living Essentials never sold these displays and racks to Costco.
- Any loss of customers for 5-hour Energy, defendants argued, could be due to store cleanliness, professionalism, free shipping, rewards programs or a number of other reasons beyond the discounts and rebates Living Essentials offered to Costco.
- Without proof of diverted customers, there was no way to know whether customers lost by these wholesalers went to Costco rather than other competitors in the area, such as Sam’s Club, McLane, or other wholesalers.
- The jury sided with Living Essentials and found that it had not engaged in illegal price discrimination.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Distinguishing customers by channel for potentially different discounts or promotions can raise Robinson-Patman Act risk if customers perceive they compete differently than their classification or if consumers view customers as competitors regardless of how the supplier has classified them.
- A well-defined channel distribution strategy can withstand Robinson-Patman Act scrutiny, but it can be a fact-intensive analysis to determine which customers compete against each other and, therefore, which customers belong in which channels.
- Scanner data can be a useful tool in determining whether customers are purchasing a product at one store versus another store and whether customers are price sensitive.
- Discounts and rebates should be subjected to Robinson-Patman Act analysis before being offered only to a subset of customers.
Today, companies looking to merge with others across jurisdictions would do well to consider antitrust issues at the beginning of the transaction process; regulatory antitrust challenges to M&A are increasing globally. On Corporate Counsel, McDermott partners Jon B. Dubrow and Joel R. Grosberg discuss six risks to deals from antitrust regulators, such as vertical merger enforcement changes at the US DOJ, and ways to manage them.
- Recent developments indicate that pharmaceutical deals are attracting greater scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
- In September 2019, FTC Chairman Joseph Simons reportedly stated that the FTC will more closely scrutinize deals with overlaps involving products that are still in clinical study or development. Because of the high failure rate of products in early phases of study, the FTC typically has focused on overlaps between marketed products or products near Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval, g., products in Phase III of the FDA pipeline. Chairman Simons’s statement makes clear that the FTC plans to examine earlier stage products while reviewing deals.
- In 2018, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition announced in a speech that the FTC would favor divestitures of marketed drugs over pipeline drugs in pharmaceutical deals. Traditionally, when the FTC has had a concern about overlapping products, it has allowed the merging parties to decide which of the overlapping products to divest to remedy the concern. The director explained that, unlike marketed products, pipeline products may be costly to transfer or never be brought to market, eliminating a potential source of future competition.
- Legislators on Capitol Hill have placed pressure on the FTC to scrutinize pharmaceutical deals with more vigor. Nine US senators wrote the FTC in September to voice concerns about the effect of pharmaceutical deals on innovation and prices. In their letter, the senators specifically highlighted divestitures of pipeline products, stating that such divestitures may not sufficiently address threats to competition because pipeline products may never make it to market.
A Hollywood union’s recent amendments to its union rules has sparked federal antitrust lawsuits by talent agencies. The Writers Guild of America (WGA), a labor union and the exclusive collective bargaining representative for writers in the entertainment industry, recently instituted new rules that prohibit its members from dealing with talent agencies that do not adopt the WGA’s new “Code of Conduct.” The WGA’s new Code prohibits its members from dealing with talent agencies that employ “packaging” arrangements, whereby agents forego individual commissions from their clients in lieu of “packaging fees” from production companies for providing pools of talent (writers, actors, directors, etc.). The Code also prohibits WGA’s members from affiliating with “any entity that produces or distributes content.” If WGA members continue to deal with talent agencies that have not adopted the Code, the members face sanctions, up to and including expulsion from the union.
- On September 4, 2019, the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) sued to block Novelis Inc.’s proposed $2.6 billion acquisition of Aleris Corporation.
- DOJ alleged that the transaction would combine two of only four North American producers of aluminum auto body sheet (ABS). DOJ further alleged that Aleris was a new and disruptive rival supplier of aluminum ABS whose expansion into the North American market immediately impacted pricing.
- Prior to DOJ’s suit to block the transaction, the merging parties and DOJ agreed that the dispute boiled down to a single dispositive issue: whether aluminum ABS constitutes a relevant product market, and specifically, whether the market for aluminum ABS also includes steel ABS.
- DOJ and the merging parties agreed to refer this product market issue to arbitration pursuant to the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996 (5 U.S.C. § 571 et seq.) and the Antitrust Division’s implementing regulations (61 Fed. Reg. 36,896 (July 15, 1996).
- In a filing in federal court the DOJ explained that it decided to arbitrate rather than litigate the merger in federal court because all sides agreed that the case turned on the single question of product market definition and referring the matter to arbitration would lessen the burden on the Court and reduce litigation costs to the merging parties and to the United States.
- DTE and Enbridge’s natural gas pipeline joint venture, Nexus, agreed to purchase the Generation Pipeline (Generation).
- Generation was owned by a group of sellers including North Coast Gas Transmission (North Coast).
- Generation’s primary asset is a 23-mile pipeline that serves the Toledo, Ohio, area.
- North Coast continues to own a competing pipeline near Toledo, Ohio.
- The purchase agreement contained a non-compete provision that prevented the sellers, including North Coast, from competing in three counties surrounding Toledo, Ohio, for three years.
- After an investigation, the FTC announced a settlement with DTE, Enbridge and Nexus to remedy the FTC’s concern with the non-compete provision by requiring the purchase agreement to be amended to remove the non-compete provision.
- The FTC Commissioners were unanimous in their conclusion that the challenged non-compete was unlawfully broad, though several Commissioners issued concurring statements regarding the import of the FTC’s action in this case.
On 10 September 2019, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen nominated Margrethe Vestager as Competition Commissioner for a second consecutive term. As part of a structural shake-up of the Commission, involving the institution of eight Vice-Presidents, three of whom will be “Executive Vice Presidents”, she will additionally serve as “Executive Vice President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age”. As head of the competition portfolio Ms. Vestager will be supported by DG-Comp. As chief coordinator of the digital portfolio she will be supported by the Commission’s Secretariat-General. With respect to the latter role in particular, Ms. Vestager will be charged with ensuring that “Europe fully grasps the potential of the digital age and strengthens its industry and innovation capacity” and will be responsible for specific initiatives including new laws governing digital platforms and a potential tax on digital companies. Subject to European Parliament consent, which is expected to be given, she will carry out this dual rule until 2024.
What This Means:
Ms. Vestager’s mission as Competition Commissioner will be based on the following priority actions:
- Strengthening competition enforcement in all sectors: this tenet focuses on improving case detection, expediting investigations and facilitating cooperation with and between EU national competition authorities, including global cooperation among competition authorities.
- Evaluate and review Europe’s competition rules: this will cover antitrust regulations that are due to expire during her mandate (e.g. the Verticals Block Exemption Regulation (Reg. 330/2010), the ongoing review of the merger control rules and the review of State aid rules and guidance.
- Use of the sector inquiry instrument in new and emerging markets: in the context of new and emerging markets, sector inquiries will be carried out in markets that the Commission believes are not working as well as they should, and that breaches of the antitrust rules might be a contributory factor. Ms. Vestager already presided over the Commission’s sector inquiry into the e-commerce sector in 2015.
- Develop tools and policies to address the distortive effects linked to state-owned companies or subsidized companies from outside the EU but operating in the EU.
While it is somewhat unusual for a Competition Commissioner to be re-elected for a second term, her re-nomination serves as a testament to widespread appreciation for her unwavering commitment to ensuring consumer welfare. That being said, and against the Commissioner’s mandate to secure enhanced global cooperation amongst competition authorities, the move will likely raise eyebrows on Capitol Hill. This is principally because of Ms. Vestager’s alleged crusade against many of the biggest U.S. tech companies, a path likely to be pursued during the Commissioner’s second term in office. Indeed, her mandate over rule-making related to the digital economy could also give her increased influence over global tech regulation. Furthermore, her mission appears to be heavily influenced by the fall-out of the failed Alstom/Siemens railway merger. It will be interesting to see, for example, what role, if any, industrial policy will play under the EU Merger Regulation going forward. With Ms. Vestager’s focus on tech and her stance on the role of industrial policy under the EU Merger Regulation, her second tenure is likely to be a bumpy one.