At both the state and federal level, antitrust enforcement agencies continue to pursue successful challenges to physician practice transactions. This article summarizes two recent enforcement actions, as well as a new state law that requires prior notice of healthcare provider transactions. We also offer practical takeaways for providers pursuing practice acquisitions.

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2019 MID-YEAR UPDATE

The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced three new investigations and several developments in its other investigations, including new investigations in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment and insulation installation contracts. The Antitrust Division also released its Spring 2019 Division Update, which notes that the Division “is preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations at the close of FY 2018.”

In April 2019, the Division held a public roundtable discussion on the Antitrust Criminal Penalty Enhancement & Reform Act (ACPERA), which is due to sunset next year. ACPERA reduces the criminal liability and civil damages exposure of companies and individuals who are granted leniency under the Division’s Leniency Program for cooperating in investigations into cartel and other anticompetitive conduct. The roundtable consisted of a series of panel discussions allowing judges, attorneys, economists, academics, the business community and other interested stakeholders to weigh in on how the law can be improved. The Division was particularly interested in the public’s views on whether ACPERA has properly incentivized the self-reporting of criminal conduct and whether there are issues that have impeded the law’s intended effect.

The European Commission (Commission) announced developments in ongoing investigations in the auto parts industry, and in its government bonds and car emissions cases. The Commission also launched a new online tool to make it easier for companies to submit statements and documents as part of leniency and settlement proceedings in cartel cases.

US DEVELOPMENTS

  • The first new investigation disclosed by the DOJ is in the commercial flooring industry. The DOJ charged a former vice president of a commercial flooring contractor in Chicago of exchanging price information with its rivals to fix prices of contracts for removal and installation of commercial flooring. Assistant Attorney General Delrahim of the Antitrust Division said that the indictment “is the first of what we expect to be many in this ongoing investigation into bid rigging” in the commercial flooring industry.
  • The DOJ disclosed a second new investigation into bid rigging of Government Services Administration (GSA) contracts. The owner of a Texas company pleaded guilty to rigging bids for surplus government equipment—computers for resale and for recycling—in online GSA auctions.
  • The DOJ announced a third new investigation into bid rigging by insulation installation contractors. A manager for a Connecticut-based insulation contractor pleaded guilty for his role in rigging $45 million worth of bids for insulation installation contracts in New England from 2011 to 2018.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into fuel-supply contracts for the armed services remains active. Two more Korean companies pleaded guilty for their involvement in a bid-rigging conspiracy that targeted contracts to supply fuel to US Armed Forces in South Korea.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into price fixing in the promotional products space appears quite active.
  • In May 2019, state attorneys general for 43 states and Puerto Rico brought federal and state antitrust, consumer protection and common law claims against 18 generic drug manufacturers and 15 individuals for what the States call an “overarching conspiracy” to fix the prices of at least 114 generic drugs. The States’ June 2018 complaint alleged 18 drug-specific conspiracies, whereas their new complaint alleges an industry-wide conspiracy.

EU DEVELOPMENTS

  • The Commission sent Statement of Objections in two investigations: European Government Bonds and Car Emissions.
  • For the second time, the Commission imposed a fine on suppliers of car safety equipment. This is the latest Commission decision in the auto parts industry.

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Companies involved in the government contracting industry should take note that the government is honing in on anticompetitive conduct affecting government procurements. The federal government has demonstrated an increased interest in this area, and companies should refresh and audit their compliance programs to avoid hefty civil and criminal penalties and potential prison terms for implicated employees.

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2018 saw a significant upswing in antitrust litigation against health care providers; 27 cases were filed in 2018 versus 17 in 2017. In the latest Antitrust Update for Health Care Providers, we discuss what caused the notable rise, what kinds of cases were brought over the past two years and how they were decided, and what cases warrant particular attention in 2019.

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Standard-essential patent holders and implementers may face uncertainty regarding licensing practices following a May 23 Texas court ruling. In the ruling, a Texas federal judge reached a conclusion different from a recent California court decision—FTC v. Qualcomm—on the question of whether an SEP holder must base its royalty rates on the “smallest salable patent-practicing unit” in order to comply with a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory royalty commitment.

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A recent decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is important for competitors involved in joint ventures because it states what mode of antitrust analysis—the per se rule or the rule of reason—applies to the conduct of joint ventures when it is challenged as anticompetitive. The decision is also significant because the court describes some steps joint venturers can take to improve the odds that their conduct will be analyzed under the more lenient rule of reason.

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On May 21, a California federal judge ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its suit against Qualcomm in a much-anticipated decision, concluding that Qualcomm violated the FTC Act by maintaining its monopoly position as a modem chip supplier through a number of exclusionary practices, including refusing to license standard essential patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. Qualcomm likely will appeal the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but in the meantime, the court’s sweeping decision is likely to affect the course of dealing between SEP-holders and licensees. The decision is likely to substantially affect the ways in which SEP-holders take their technology and associated components that they manufacture to market.

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The first quarter of 2019 proved to be as active as ever for antitrust regulators in both the United States and Europe. In the United States, vertical merger enforcement was the focus of a few high-profile matters. The US DOJ has been working on an update to the Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines, possibly providing clarification for merging parties.

Meanwhile in Europe, although the European Commission cleared a number of merger control proceedings with remedies, the European Commission also blocked two transactions during the first quarter of 2019.

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Hélène de Cazotte, a trainee in the Firm’s Brussels office, also contributed to this publication.

The tenth of the FTC’s Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century focused on competition and consumer protection issues in US broadband markets. The panelists addressed developments in US broadband markets, technology, and law since the FTC staff’s 2007 Broadband Connectivity Competition Policy report and the FTC staff’s 1996 Competition Policy in the New High-Tech, Global Marketplace report.

Four panels of industry experts broadly discussed: (i) how the FTC should identify and evaluate advertising claims by internet service providers (ISPs) with respect to delivery speed; (ii) how broadband networks and markets have evolved since the 2007 Broadband Report; and (iii) how the FTC should identify and evaluate anticompetitive conduct in the broadband industry.

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Originally published by Competition Policy International, April 2019.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in three related cases in the Eastern District of Washington yesterday dealing with alleged “no-poach” (or non-solicitation) agreements between franchisors like Carl’s Jr, Auntie Anne’s and Arby’s and their franchisees.
  • In the statement, the DOJ distinguished between “naked” no-poach agreements between competitors and the kinds of no-poach agreements in the franchise context that are typically vertical restraints between the parent company and the individual franchisee.
  • According to the DOJ, naked no-poach agreements should be analyzed as per se, or presumptively anticompetitive and illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, while most vertical restraints should be analyzed under the rule of reason which requires some balancing of potential harms and benefits.
  • The statement did, however, distinguish two scenarios where franchise agreements could still merit per se
  • In a situation where the “franchisees operating under the same brand name agreed amongst themselves (and wholly independent from the franchisor), for example, not to hire any person ever previously employed by another franchisee that is a party to the agreement.” Stigar v. Dough Dough, Inc. et al., No. 2:18-cv-00244-SAB, Statement of Interest of the United States of America at 11 (Mar. 7, 2019).
  • In an agreement between a franchisor and franchisee relating to competition in a market where they actually compete. “If operating in the same geographic market, they both could look to the same labor pool to hire, for example, janitorial workers, accountants or human resource professionals. In such circumstances, the franchisor is competing with its franchisee.” If such agreement is not ancillary to any legitimate and procompetitive joint venture, it would warrant per se Id. at 13.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • For many franchises, the DOJ’s distinction between “naked” and vertical no-poach agreements will represent welcome respite from the onslaught of class actions that have been filed recently.
  • Franchisors and franchisees, however, will still need to demonstrate any past or future no poach agreements are not (1) between franchisees and independent of the franchisor, or (2) operating in the same geographic market where both entities actually compete.
  • It also remains to be seen whether the court will adopt the DOJ’s view on the topic, and how State Attorneys General will react.