FTC “Prior Approval” Policy for Future Transactions Raises Antitrust Risks for Buyers and Sellers

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted July 21, 2021, to repeal a 1995 policy statement that eliminated prior approval and prior notice provisions from most merger settlements. In repealing this longstanding policy—and likely insisting on the inclusion of such provisions in future settlements—the FTC will have significantly greater authority to review and block future transactions of companies who enter into consent orders with the FTC. This policy change will have significant implications for the negotiation of antitrust risk provisions in transaction agreements.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In its 1995 Policy Statement Concerning Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions in Merger Cases, the FTC announced that it would no longer routinely require prior approval of certain future acquisitions in consent orders entered in merger cases.
    • Prior to this statement, FTC consent orders to settle merger reviews routinely required parties to seek and receive the FTC’s prior approval for future acquisitions in the relevant product and geographic markets at issue in the first challenge/consent order for a 10-year period. In some cases, the FTC also included a prior notice provision obligating companies to notify the FTC of any intended transactions that were not subject to the premerger notification and waiting period of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act).
  • On July 21, 2021, the FTC voted 3-2 to rescind its 1995 policy statement, opening the door to requiring prior approval and prior notice provisions in future merger consent orders.

 
WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This policy change substantially increases the FTC’s merger enforcement authority for companies that settle investigations with a consent order and become subject to prior approval requirements.
    • Prior approval provisions place the burden on companies to demonstrate that their transactions are not anticompetitive.
    • The FTC can deny approval for these future transactions with very little—if any—limits on its discretion.
    • This differs significantly from the enforcement regime under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, where the FTC has the burden of proving that a transaction will substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.
  • Prior notice provisions require companies to provide the FTC with advanced notice of certain transactions—even smaller transactions that typically would fall under the HSR threshold (e.g., transactions valued below $92 million). The notification requirement increases the likelihood of FTC investigation for these transactions.
  • By rescinding the 1995 policy statement, the FTC may seek to impose such provisions in its orders as a routine matter. It remains to be seen under what circumstances the FTC will insist on prior approval or prior notice (or how broad they will be crafted). In supporting the repeal, FTC Chair Lina Khan stated that the FTC will employ these provisions based on “facts and circumstances of the proposed transaction.”
    • These prior approval and/or notice provisions, when previously employed, generally lasted for the term of the order—typically 10 years.
    • Generally, the scope of these provisions was limited to the geographic and product market in which the FTC determined that the [...]

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Executive Order Encourages FTC, DOJ to Address Hospital Consolidation, Vigorously Enforce Antitrust Laws

President Biden recently issued an executive order affirming his administration’s policy of enforcing the antitrust laws to “combat the excessive consolidation of industry” and cited healthcare markets as one of several priorities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) already have been actively enforcing the antitrust laws in provider consolidation matters. The FTC is currently challenging the proposed merger of two health systems in New Jersey, and in the past year unsuccessfully challenged the combination of Jefferson Health and Einstein Health in Philadelphia and successfully challenged the proposed combination of two health systems (Methodist Le Bonheur and Saint Francis) in Memphis.

The executive order follows a proposed bill to increase budgets for the FTC and DOJ, FTC resolutions on compulsory process in healthcare investigations, congressional calls to investigate the use of COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund payments for acquisitions, the FTC physician practice acquisition retrospective and other health antitrust developments.

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Federal Circuit Lacks Appellate Jurisdiction over Standalone Walker Process Claims

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ordered the transfer of a case asserting standalone Walker Process antitrust claims involving an unenforceable patent to the regional circuit, in this case the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Chandler v. Phoenix Services LLC, Case No. 20-1848 (Fed Cir. June 10, 2021) (Hughes, J.) originated in the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas, over which the Fifth Circuit has appellate jurisdiction. The decision to transfer was based on a subject matter jurisdiction analysis for Walker Process claims. The Federal Circuit reiterated that its precedent does not mandate exclusive Federal Circuit jurisdiction over all Walker Process cases.

In 2006, Phoenix Services and Mark Fisher (collectively, Phoenix) acquired a company called Heat On-The-Fly and its patent to protect a purported proprietary fracking process. Heat-On-The-Fly, and later Phoenix, sought to enforce the patent against numerous parties. During the patent application process, however, Heat On-The-Fly had failed to disclose numerous public uses of the fracking process prior to the application filing. In 2018, in an unrelated case, Energy Heating, LLC v. Heat On-The-Fly, the Federal Circuit, held that “failure to disclose prior uses of the fracking process rendered the . . . patent unenforceable due to inequitable conduct.” The plaintiffs in the case at hand, Ronald Chandler, Chandler MFG., Newco Enterprises and Supertherm Heating Services (collectively, Chandler), alleged that Phoenix’s continued enforcement of the patent violated Walker Process pursuant to § 2 of the Sherman Act.

Walker Process monopolization claims originate from a 1965 Supreme Court decision that recognized an antitrust cause of action under the Sherman and Clayton Acts when a party fraudulently obtains a patent for the purpose of attempted monopolization. Walker Process Equipment, Inc. v. Food Machinery & Chemical Corp. To succeed on a Walker Process claim, a plaintiff must satisfy two elements:

  • The plaintiff must show that the defendant obtained the patent through knowing and willful fraud on the US Patent & Trademark Office and enforced that patent with knowledge of its fraudulent procurement.
  • The plaintiff must be able to satisfy all other elements for a Sherman Act monopolization claim.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1295(a)(1), the Federal Circuit retains jurisdiction over any civil case arising under any act of Congress relating to patents. In this instance, the Federal Circuit stated that Walker Process antitrust claims may relate to patents “in the colloquial use of the term,” but under 1988 Supreme Court precedent, Christianson v. Colt Indus., the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction only extends to cases where the cause of action is created under federal patent law, or where the plaintiff’s right to relief “necessarily depends on resolution of a substantial question of federal patent law.”

Here, the Federal Circuit relied on its own 2018 precedent where it analyzed subject matter jurisdiction for Walker Process claims. Xitronix Corp v. KLA-Tencor Corp. (Xitronix I). Xitronix I involved alleged fraud by the defendants to obtain a patent. The Court acknowledged that patent law [...]

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Second Circuit Rejects FTC Challenge of 1-800 Contacts, Highlighting Procompetitive Trademark Policy

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a final order of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which had found that agreements to refrain from bidding on keyword search terms for internet advertisements violated Section 5 of the FTC Act. The Court made clear that although trademark agreements are not necessarily immune from antitrust scrutiny, they are entitled to significant deference. 1-800 Contacts, Inc. v. Federal Trade Commission, Case No. 18-3848 (2d Cir. June 11, 2021) (Per Curium). The Second Circuit held that the FTC applied an incorrect analytical framework and incorrectly concluded that the agreements were an unfair method of competition under the FTC Act.

1-800 Contacts and its competitors advertise online through search advertising. They bid on search engine keywords, which help display their websites in response to consumer searches. They also bid on negative keywords, which prevent their ads from being displayed when consumers search for specified terms.

Between 2004 and 2013, 1-800 Contacts entered into a series of settlement agreements to resolve trademark disputes with competitors, as well as one commercial agreement with a competitor, all of which included terms prohibiting the parties from using each other’s trademarks, URLs and similar terms as search advertising keywords. The agreements also required the parties to use negative keywords so that a search including one party’s trademarks would not trigger a display of the other party’s ads. 1-800 Contacts enforced these agreements when it believed them to be breached.

The FTC challenged the agreements, alleging that they “unreasonably restrain truthful, non-misleading advertising as well as price competition in search advertising auctions,” violating Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. An administrative law judge (ALJ) subsequently found the agreements to violate Section 5. 1-800 Contacts appealed to the full Commission, which affirmed the ALJ’s decision. 1-800 Contacts appealed.

The Second Circuit vacated the FTC’s decision but noted that the FTC was correct to reject 1-800 Contacts’ argument that trademark settlement agreements are necessarily immune from antitrust scrutiny. Citing the Supreme Court decision in Actavis, the Second Circuit held, “the mere fact that an agreement implicates intellectual property rights does not immunize an agreement from antitrust attack.”

The Second Circuit disagreed with the FTC’s specific antitrust analysis, however. The Court held that the FTC erred by applying an “inherently suspect” analysis—also known as a “quick-look” analysis—rather than the rule of reason. The Court focused on the fact that “the restraints at issue here could plausibly be thought to have a net procompetitive effect because they are derived from trademark settlement agreements,” and the fact that the FTC acknowledged as much by finding that the company’s justifications were “cognizable and, at least, facially plausible.” The Second Circuit also noted that courts have limited experience with these types of agreements. The Court concluded that “[w]hen, as here, not only are there cognizable procompetitive justifications but also the type of restraint has not been widely condemned in our judicial experience . . . . [w]e are bound . . [...]

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Government Contractor Pleads Guilty to Bid-Rigging and Procurement Fraud

On June 7, 2021, as part of the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) continuing commitment to prosecuting cases where the government is a victim, a government contractor pleaded guilty to one count of bid-rigging and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into public works contracts for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

Ohio-based Contech Engineered Solutions LLC (Contech) entered its plea of guilty before a federal judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and was sentenced to pay a $7 million criminal fine. Contech was also ordered to pay an additional $1,533,988 in restitution to the NCDOT. Notably, the DOJ did not impose a term of probation on Contech because Contech agreed to improve its compliance program to prevent recurrence of anticompetitive conduct. Contech, however, is required to cooperate with the DOJ, including producing documents and making witnesses available for interviews or testimony.

Contech and its former executive were indicted in October 2020 on six counts of alleged bid-rigging, conspiracy to commit fraud and mail and wire fraud in connection with a decade-long conspiracy involving public works projects in North Carolina.

This prosecution highlights the DOJ’s ongoing commitment to the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) and its efforts to scrutinize public procurements and combat collusion and related fraud in government contracting.

The PCSF has conducted extensive training of law enforcement officers and procurement officers, among others, to help identify scenarios and situations where collusion is more likely to occur. The PCSF is also utilizing data analytics to advance its investigations, building on technological advancements and more useable data sets to target and prosecute anticompetitive conduct.

Importantly, the PCSF has recently doubled in size and has gone global just as the United States has approved unprecedented stimulus spending in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and as the Biden administration is poised to approve a new infrastructure plan. The PCSF has provided tools that allow any individual to report suspected collusion via email or an online tip center. Enforcers’ renewed commitment to procurement collusion—coupled with increased government spending—will likely lead to more investigations and additional prosecutions in 2021.

Contech, a manufacturer of aluminum and other products, conspired with its supplier in bidding on numerous NCDOT public works projects. According to the indictment, the former Contech executive would obtain (or direct his subordinate to obtain) the supplier’s total bid price in advance. Using that information, Contech then submitted bids to be intentionally higher than its supplier. The indictment also alleged that Contech submitted false certifications that its bids were competitive and free of collusion throughout the conspiracy.

The indictment alleged bid-rigging between a manufacturer and its supplier, which is typically a vertical relationship and generally subject to the Rule of Reason rather than per se criminal analysis. Under the Rule of Reason, antitrust enforcers balance the anticompetitive effects of the conduct in question against the procompetitive benefits. Certain anticompetitive conduct, however, [...]

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