US District Judge Florence Pan’s decision to block Penguin Random House LLC’s planned $2.2 billion acquisition of Simon & Schuster represented the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s first major merger win following a string of losses this fall. Judge Pan’s decision is significant because she accepted the DOJ’s theory that the merger would lead to lower compensation for best-selling authors. This decision may embolden the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to challenge more transactions based on the impact on labor and salaries rather than the impact on consumer prices.
On November 10, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted to approve a new policy statement interpreting the FTC’s authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” The newly adopted policy statement provides a significantly more expansive interpretation of the FTC’s authority and replaces all prior FTC guidance on the scope and meaning of unfair methods of competition under Section 5. The policy statement asserts that the FTC was set up to be an expert body charged with determining what constitutes unfair methods of competition and, accordingly, the FTC is entitled to great weight in its findings.
In the United States, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lost four merger challenges (Illumina/GRAIL, UnitedHealth/Change Healthcare, U.S. Sugar/Imperial Sugar and Booz Allen/EverWatch) in September. The losses demonstrate that parties willing to litigate can have success in court. The absence of “smoking gun” documents and lack of a presumption of anticompetitive effects (based on market shares and concentration) made these cases very difficult for the government. The judges in these cases tended to credit structural and behavioral remedies that the government felt were insufficient and were persuaded by real-world testimony from executives and third parties contradicting the government’s theories of changed economic incentives from the transactions.
In July 2022, the European Parliament published the final text of the European Union’s upcoming instrument to address distortive foreign subsidies, following a provisional political agreement reached between the EU lawmakers in June (Foreign Subsidies Regulation). The Foreign Subsidies Regulation introduces a new mandatory screening mechanism including notification obligations and the European Commission’s right of ex officio investigations, which will have a considerable impact on M&A transactions and procurement procedures.
The Foreign Subsidies Regulation will enter into force once it is formally adopted by EU lawmakers and published in the Official Journal. It will become directly applicable across the European Union six months after entry into force. The notification obligations will start to apply nine months after entry into force. The Commission also is currently drafting procedural rules on how to notify transactions, how to calculate time limits, and the process for preliminary reviews and in-depth probes when there is a suspicion of distortive foreign subsidies.
On October 31, 2022, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) made good on its intention earlier this year to revitalize efforts surrounding criminal enforcement of Section 2 of the Sherman Act when the president of a paving and asphalt contractor in Montana pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to monopolize the market for certain construction services in Montana and Wyoming. This is the Division’s first criminal prosecution of a Section 2 case in approximately 50 years. While criminal enforcement of antitrust laws has traditionally focused on per se anticompetitive agreements between two or more horizontal competitors, Section 2 primarily focuses on conduct by one firm or company with significant market power. This announcement—and subsequent criminal resolution—marks a significant departure from long-standing DOJ antitrust enforcement of monopolization claims and is a landmark result for the Division’s continued expansion of its criminal enforcement efforts.
Most notably, seemingly unilateral conduct that “attempts” to collude is now subject to criminal prosecution under Section 2, even if such an attempt did not result in any agreement. In contrast, there is no “attempt” component of a Sherman Act Section 1 charge, where the Division has traditionally investigated and prosecuted per se criminal price fixing, bid rigging and market allocation conduct requiring an agreement or “meeting of the minds” between horizontal competitors.
According to court documents, the DOJ alleged that Nathan Nephi Zito attempted to monopolize the markets for highway crack sealing services administered by Montana and Wyoming by proposing that his company and its competitor allocate regional markets. Zito approached a competitor about a “strategic partnership” and proposed that his company would stop competing for projects administered by South Dakota and Nebraska and the competitor would stop competing for projects administered by Montana and Wyoming. Zito allegedly offered a $100,000 payment as additional compensation for lost business in Montana and Wyoming and proposed that they enter into a transaction to “disguise their collusion.” The competitor company then approached the government and cooperated in its investigation, including by recording phone calls with Zito.
This case, the first Section 2 criminal resolution in decades, was prosecuted in coordination with the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), which remains a top priority for the DOJ. The PCSF has been quite active in recent months, obtaining several convictions and bringing new indictments.
Although Section 2 is regularly associated with unilateral monopolist conduct, it also makes it a crime to attempt to monopolize or to conspire to monopolize. The “attempt” provision is what the Division relied on to obtain a conviction in this case, which is essentially an attempted but unconsummated Section 1 market allocation case where one of the potential conspirators cooperated with the government rather than entering into a potentially collusive agreement.
Key takeaways from this case include the following:
- Now companies need to consider potentially collusive agreements with competitors—or attempts to do the same—that may exclude other competitors from a market in their antitrust risk evaluations. In practice, this could significantly broaden the scope of any compliance [...]
The US Department of Justice’s and the Federal Trade Commission’s losses in three merger challenges in September and a fourth in October demonstrate that merging parties can close difficult transactions if willing to fight the agencies in court. In this Law360 article, McDermott’s Jon B. Dubrow, Joel R. Grosberg and Matt Evola discuss these four cases and what they mean for merging parties.