Recently, a federal district court in California granted partial summary judgment for the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in an important intellectual property and antitrust case involving standard essential patents (SEP). The court’s decision requires an SEP holder to license its SEPs for cellular communication standards to all applicants willing to pay a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rate, regardless of whether the applicant supplies components or end-devices. The decision represents a significant victory for the FTC in enforcing its views of an SEP holder’s commitments to license patents on FRAND terms.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) recently ruled that a jurisdiction clause does not need to refer expressly to disputes arising from a breach of competition law where damages are claimed based on Art. 102 TFEU (i.e., for abuse of a dominant position). This contrasts with the ECJ’s position in follow-on cartel damages claims (under Art. 101 TFEU), where a jurisdiction clause must specifically refer to disputes concerning an infringement of competition law.
Overview of Current Cartel Investigations
Although the third quarter of 2018 saw guilty pleas and new indictments in several current Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations, 2018 continues a downward trend in antitrust enforcement. At its current pace, DOJ’s annual 2018 fines will end around $300 million—well short of the billion-dollar plus highs in 2014 and 2015, during the height of the auto parts and foreign exchange investigations. The same downward trends exists in the EU, where the European Commission did not render any cartel decisions in the third quarter of 2018. Nonetheless, in a sign of things to come, the Commission took significant procedural steps in the ethanol benchmarks and car emissions cases.
- We learned of two new DOJ investigations in the third quarter. First, two executives were arrested on charges of fixing prices of freight forwarding services of containerized goods destined for international shipping. This investigation appears to be distinct from the DOJ’s investigation of roll-on/roll-off international shipping services for vehicles. Second, a foam maker stated in its July 2018 complaint against several chemical companies that the DOJ is investigating the polyurethane industry. The DOJ has not announced an investigation in the polyurethane industry, but one defendant in the foam maker’s case confirmed the existence of the investigation.
- The DOJ secured two more guilty pleas in its ongoing investigation into bid rigging of public real estate foreclosure auctions, one in Mississippi and one in Florida. Unlike the typical case involving auctions on the courthouse steps, the Florida case involved a real estate investor rigging bids in online public foreclosure auctions.
- Eleven state attorneys general have initiated investigations into the use of “no-poach” clauses in employment contracts. The Washington State Attorney General is most active, obtaining agreements from 30 nationwide franchise chains to eliminate the practice of including no-poach clauses in their franchise contracts. While the Washington AG’s investigation first focused on fast-food chains, its investigation has since expanded into other industries.
- The Commission sent a Statement of Objections to two companies in the biofuels sector for conduct concerning ethanol benchmarks. A third company is in settlement talks with the Commission.
- In July 2018, the General Court of the EU confirmed a fine that the Commission had imposed on an investment bank for the conduct of its subsidiary in the power cables cartel on the basis of the parental liability presumption. This is noteworthy because the investment bank held less than 91% of the subsidiary’s shares.
- In September 2018, the Commission opened an in-depth investigation into possible collusion between German car manufacturers on emissions control systems.
- Also in September, the Commission sent a Statement of Objections to a rail company for obstructing its investigation during a dawn raid. The company provided incorrect information and deleted data from a computer. The dawn raid was part of an investigation in the rail passenger transport sector.
United States: July – September 2018 Update
Both US antitrust agencies marked the third quarter of 2018 with significant policy announcements regarding the merger review process. The announced reforms seek to expedite the review process through cooperation between the agencies and the merging parties. Moving first, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed a Model Timing Agreement that provides the FTC Staff with earlier notice of the parties’ intent to substantially comply with a Second Request. Earlier notice allows the FTC Staff to create a more effective timeline for meetings with division management, front office staff and the Commissioners. Less than two months after the FTC revealed its Model Timing Agreement, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced procedural reforms aimed at resolving merger investigations within six months of filing. The DOJ will commit to fewer custodians and depositions in exchange for the merging parties providing key information earlier in the investigation. Overall, these reforms appear to be a positive step forward for parties considering future transactions, but their effectiveness remains uncertain as the agencies start a difficult implementation period. While the FTC timing agreement may provide more certainty around the process, it does not reduce the review timing and actually extends it.
EU: July – September 2018 Update
The European Commission (EC) remained quite active clearing mergers in the third quarter of 2018. Most notably, the EC cleared Apple’s acquisition of Shazam without imposing conditions despite the EC’s stated concerns about access to data as a competitive concern. The EC opened a Phase II investigation into the transaction to investigate the potential for Apple to obtain a competitive advantage over competing music streaming services by accessing Shazam’s consumer data obtained through its music recognition services. In this case, the EC did not find evidence that the access to Shazam’s data would provide Apple a competitive advantage. In addition, the EC found that there were no concerns about Apple potentially restricting Shazam as referral source for Apple’s competitors. Going forward, it is clear that access to data is an issue that the EC will continue to investigate, but it is also clear that the EC is taking a careful approach in assessing when that access will truly lead to a competitive harm. Continue Reading Antitrust M&A Snapshot
Antitrust laws protect competition and consumers. Antitrust enforcement is prevalent in actions concerning manufacturing and consumer goods, among other things. However, recent enforcement activity by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) serves as a reminder that the services industry, particularly healthcare services, is not immune to antitrust scrutiny as well.
Antitrust enforcement and healthcare policy were two priorities under President Obama. So, too, was antitrust enforcement within healthcare markets. The current administration prompted speculation on whether it would change its emphasis in any of these respects. We examine in this article whether the Trump Administration, now a year and a half into its term, has shifted focus or instead has stayed in the hunt for antitrust violations in the healthcare industry. As discussed below, the record of healthcare antitrust enforcement actions over the last five years, spanning both administrations, demonstrates that healthcare has been and remains a priority for civil and criminal antitrust enforcement by the US antitrust agencies and state Attorneys General. Continue Reading Healthcare and Antitrust Enforcement: Continuity through the Administrations
In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Chairman Joseph Simons from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staked out differing interpretations of when antitrust considerations are relevant in standard setting agreements restricted by fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates, a rare divergence of opinion between the two antitrust enforcement agencies.
- Since AAG Delrahim took over as head of the DOJ Antitrust Division in September 2017 he has consistently hinted at a differing interpretation of antitrust law as it relates to standard essential patents and FRAND rates in the context of antitrust.
- Standard essential patents (SEPs) are patents that have been incorporated into a standard by a standard setting organization and industry participants to facilitate interchangeability between products. Often, to be included in a standard, patent holders agree to license a patent essential to that standard at a FRAND rate.
- With the proliferation of standards, more scrutiny has been devoted to SEPs and FRAND rates, and some companies have brought antitrust suits relating to “patent hold-up” or the refusal to license a patent on FRAND terms (typically seeking higher royalties or fees on patents for widely adopted standards).
- In testimony on October 3, 2018, AAG Delrahim indicated his view was that a patent holder’s unilateral decision not to license a patent—even if that patent is part of a standard—is not conduct intended to be reached by the antitrust laws. AAG Delrahim indicated such a dispute would more appropriately be handled by contract law.
- This position differs from that of the FTC, where Chairman Simons has indicated that antitrust law can be relevant in patent hold-up cases.
- The FTC demonstrated its view in a recent complaint filed against Qualcomm, Inc. The complaint summarizes the patent hold-up concern:
Once a standard incorporating proprietary technology is adopted, the potential exists for opportunistic patent holders to insist on patent licensing terms that capture not just the value of the underlying technology, but also the value of standardization itself. To address this “hold-up” risk, [standard setting organizations] often require patent holders to disclose their patents and commit to license standard-essential patents (“SEPs”) on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (“FRAND”) terms. Absent such requirements, a patent holder might be able to parlay the standardization of its technology into a monopoly in standard-compliant products.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Going forward, US antitrust enforcement with respect to SEP issues may be limited to the FTC. AAG Delrahim’s speeches indicate that it will be the rare case that the Antitrust Division pursues such cases in the future.
- This divergence between the two US agencies responsible for enforcing antitrust laws will create confusion for SEP holders and their licensees with respect to the risks of US government intervention. Companies dealing with SEPs and FRAND rates will want to be cognizant of which agency is reviewing, as approaches may be different.
- While there may be divergence in the US government agencies that enforce the US antitrust laws, the Antitrust Division’s new policy has no impact on the body of case law developed by US courts over the years with respect to SEPs and antitrust liability. Private parties seeking to enforce their rights with respect to SEPs and antitrust law in US courts should not be impacted by the Antitrust Division’s change in policy.
Today, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim announced a series of reforms with the express goal to resolve most merger investigations within six months of filing. The reforms seek to place the burden of faster reviews not only on the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), but also on the merging parties.
The DOJ will require fewer custodians, take fewer depositions, and commit to shorter time-periods in exchange for merging parties providing detailed information to the DOJ early in the investigation in some cases before a Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filing is made. AAG Delrahim believes that merging parties need to avoid “hid[ing] the eight ball” and work with the DOJ in good faith to remedy transactions that raise competitive concerns.
By announcing these reforms, the DOJ acknowledges that merger reviews are taking longer in recent years. AAG Delrahim cited a recent report noting that the length of merger reviews has increased 65 percent since 2013 and that the average length of a significant merger review is now roughly 11 months. AAG Delrahim believes an assortment of factors contribute to the increasing length of reviews including larger quantities of documents produced during a Second Request, increasing numbers of transactions with international implications, and the DOJ’s insistence on an upfront buyer for most consent orders. Continue Reading DOJ Announces Procedural Reforms Seeking to Resolve Merger Investigations within 6 Months of Filing
- The FTC posted a short article indicating that after finalizing a settlement package with FTC Staff, it takes approximately four weeks for the Directors of the Bureau of Competition and the Bureau of Economics (the Directors), as well as the Commission to review the Directors’ recommendations and vote on the package.
- The FTC explained that an expedited review is unlikely, particularly when the parties’ actions contributed to the timing concerns.
- The FTC provided a procedure for how parties seeking an expedited review should proceed, and outlining potential scenarios that would cause the FTC to look unfavorably upon the application–g., the parties caused their predicament. Expedited review is unlikely, for example, when:
- The parties agreed to a too-early drop dead date or a ticking agreement that fails to properly account for antitrust review; or
- Negotiations between the parties and the FTC on custodian review drag on or the parties provide responses to requests for documents and information that are incomplete.
WHAT THIS MEANS
- Since the Merger Remedy Report was released in 2017, both the FTC and DOJ have taken steps to improve best practices for evaluating settlement packages. In particular, greater vetting of both the remedy package and buyer is the new norm, with more extensive information requests to establish the sufficiency of the settlement package. These changes are extending the merger review process when a settlement is necessary to address antitrust enforcer concerns.
- In addition to its revised best practices for Staff development of settlement packages, this procedural move supports the FTC’s recent focus on developing protocols that allow it to take its due time in reviewing merger remedies.
- Last month, the FTC published a new Model Timing Agreement that, if agreed to, provides the government additional time to evaluate cases beyond the statutory period.
- The FTC has followed that move this month by setting out protocols and timing expectations for Directors and Commissioners to vet settlement packages advanced by Staff.
- The latest move makes clear that the extended development of settlement packages by Staff will not lead to a curtailed review of those same settlement packages by the Directors or the Commission. Antitrust enforcers continue to take the principled view that enforcers must be cautious when approving a merger with remedies and any risks in the process should be shifted to the parties where appropriate.
- On August 7, the FTC published a new Model Timing Agreement. Timing agreements are agreements between FTC staff and merging parties that outline the FTC’s expected timing for various events in order for it to conduct an orderly investigation during a Second Request.
- The FTC expects the Model Timing Agreement to be used as drafted (or in a similar form) for all transactions that receive a Second Request. The FTC has used timing agreements frequently in the past, as has the DOJ, but the FTC has now published a model, which means this is likely to become the standard practice moving forward.
- Parties are not required to enter into a timing agreement. However, in practicality, if parties do not agree to the timing agreement, the agency will proceed as if it must be in court to block the deal within 30 days of compliance. Therefore, it will prepare for litigation and will not consider settlement options or engage with the parties on the issues in the same way it would if the agency had more time under a timing agreement.
- Some highlights of the new Model Timing Agreement are provided below (Note: All days listed refer to calendar days):
- Parties must provide 30 days’ notice before certifying substantial compliance, and such notice cannot be provided until at least 10 days after signing the timing agreement.
- Parties cannot close a proposed transaction until a specified time period after substantial compliance with the Second Request. The model indicates this will be 60 days in less complex matters or 90 days in more complex matters, but could be longer than 90 days in “matters involving particularly complicated industries.”
- Parties must provide 30 days’ notice before consummating the proposed transaction and cannot provide notice more than 40 days before the date on which they have a good faith basis to believe they will have cleared other closing conditions and will be able to complete the transaction, absent an FTC action to block the transaction.
- The agreement includes a stipulated Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) which will be entered in the event of a challenge. The TRO prevents the parties from consummating the transaction until after five days following a ruling on a motion for preliminary injunction.
- The timing agreement contains other timing-related provisions such as for document productions and investigational hearings as part of the FTC’s investigation.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Though the Model Timing Agreement does not affect the statutory expiration of the HSR waiting period, it commits the parties not to consummate the transaction for a much longer period and, therefore, effectively extends the waiting period far longer than the 30 days specified under the HSR Act.
- The 40-day notice required before the closing date means that if there is another condition in the way of closing, such as an ongoing investigation before the European Commission or in China, the parties cannot provide their notice of the anticipated closing date to the FTC. The FTC will not be forced to litigate until the parties are in a position to complete their transaction in the near term, absent an FTC challenge.
- The FTC has made clear that parties either have to sign up to a much longer period for the HSR review process than the statute specifies or be in an adversarial posture that is less likely to lead to the agency closing its investigation or settling the matter and more likely to lead to a court challenge.
United States: April – June 2018 Update
The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.
EU: April – June 2018 Update
In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals. Continue Reading Antitrust M&A Snapshot