General Court Upholds European Commission’s Power to Review Illumina-Grail Despite Untriggered Turnover Thresholds

In Illumina v Commission, the General Court has confirmed the authority of the European Commission (EC) under Article 22 EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) to examine a transaction that does not have a European dimension, but which is the subject of a referral request made by a Member State – even if the transaction is not notifiable in that Member State.

INTRODUCTION

Article 22 EUMR includes a referral mechanism whereby one or more Member States may request the EC to examine any transaction insofar as it does not have an EU dimension but affects trade between Member States and threatens to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State or States making the request (Article 22 Conditions).

With a view to ensuring that non-notifiable yet potentially problematic mergers do not fly under the radar of merger control review, in March 2021 the EC issued practical guidance (Article 22 Guidance) on when it might be appropriate for a Member State to refer such mergers to the Commission. The EC referred in particular to the digital and pharmaceutical sectors (see our On the Subject on the Article 22 Guidance here).

In Illumina v Commission, which concerns a transaction in the pharma sector, the General Court has confirmed that the EC has the authority to examine transactions that do not have a European dimension nor fall within the scope of the national merger control rules of EU or EFTA Member States.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On September 21, 2020, Illumina, an American company specializing in genomic sequencing, announced its intention to acquire sole control of Grail, an American biotechnology company which relies on genomic sequencing to develop cancer screening tests, to “Launch New Era of Cancer Detection” (the Transaction).

The EUMR thresholds were not met by the Transaction, nor were any EU or EFTA Member State thresholds. The Transaction was therefore not notified to the EC nor any of the EU or EFTA Member States. However, on December 7, 2020, the EC received a complaint concerning the Transaction and, on investigation, reached the preliminary conclusion that the Transaction appeared to satisfy the Article 22 Conditions for referral to the EC by a national competition authority. The EC subsequently on February 19, 2021 sent a letter to the Member States (the Invitation Letter) to inform them of the Transaction and to invite them to submit a referral request under Article 22. The French competition authority obliged and other Member States subsequently requested, each in its own right, to join.

On March 11, 2021, the EC informed Illumina and Grail of the referral request (the Information Letter) and about a month later, on April 19, 2021, it accepted the referral request, along with the respective requests to join (the Contested Decisions). This prompted Illumina, supported by Grail, to file suit before the General Court (against the Contested Decisions and the Information Letter).

On substance, Illumina argued that (i) the EC lacked the competence to initiate, under Article 22 EUMR, an [...]

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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.

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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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