As highlighted in a recent lawsuit, aerospace and defense contractors can face various antitrust risks when using certain tactics to prevent other companies from hiring their employees. See Hunter v. Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., No. 2:19-CV-411 (S.D. Ohio). The plaintiff, a former intelligence professional who worked at the US government’s Joint Intelligence Operations Center Europe Analytic Center in Molesworth, England (JAC Molesworth), filed an antitrust suit on behalf of herself and a class of JAC Molesworth employees. She alleges that three military intelligence contractors—Booz Allen, CACI and Mission Essential—entered into illegal agreements not to hire one another’s employees. The complaint alleges that the three contractors each had Indefinite Delivery / Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts and, prior to the alleged “no-poach” agreement, competed aggressively to hire employees with experience at JAC Molesworth to provide services under contract task orders. According to the complaint, these alleged no-poach agreements had the effect of suppressing the wages and benefits for skilled workers at JAC Molesworth because they stopped a bidding war for talent.
The US Federal Trade Commission recently announced increased thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 and for determining whether parties trigger the prohibition against interlocking directors under Section 8 of the Clayton Act.
Notification Threshold Adjustments
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced revised thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR) pre-merger notifications on February 15, 2019. These increased thresholds will become effective mid-to-late March. These new thresholds apply to any transaction that closes on or after the effective date.
- The base filing threshold, which frequently determines whether a transaction requires filing of an HSR notification, will increase to $90 million.
- The alternative statutory size-of-transaction test, which captures all transactions valued above a certain size (even if the “size-of-person” threshold is not met), will be adjusted to $359.9 million.
- The statutory size-of-person thresholds will increase slightly to $18 million and $180 million.
The adjustments will affect parties contemplating HSR notifications in various ways. Transactions that meet the current “size-of-transaction” threshold, but will not meet the adjusted $90 million threshold, will only need to be filed if they will close before the new thresholds take effect mid-to-late March.
Parties may also realize a benefit of lower notification filing fees for certain transactions. Under the rules, the acquiring person must pay a filing fee, although the parties may allocate that fee amongst themselves. Filing fees for HSR-reportable transactions will remain unchanged; however, the size of transactions subject to the filing fee tiers will shift upward as a result of the gross national product (GNP)-indexing adjustments:
|$45,000||$90 million, but less than $180 million|
|$125,000||$180 million, but less than $899.8 million|
|$280,000||$899.8 million or more|
Interlocking Directorate Thresholds Adjustment
The FTC also announced revised thresholds for interlocking directorates. The FTC revises these thresholds annually based on the change in the level of GNP. Section 8 of the Clayton Act prohibits a person from serving as a director or officer of two competing corporations if certain thresholds are met. Pursuant to the recently revised thresholds, Section 8 of the Clayton Act applies to corporations with more than $36,564,000 in capital, surplus and undivided profits, but it does not apply where either interlocked corporation has less than $3,656,400 in competitive sales. These new thresholds are effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, expected within the week.
On January 28, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that it had accepted a proposed settlement with office supply distributors Staples and Essendant in connection with Staples’ proposed $482.7 million acquisition of Essendant. The settlement suggests that the FTC is currently more willing than the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to accept conduct remedies to resolve competitive issues raised by vertical mergers.
- The FTC Commissioners voted 3-2 to accept a proposed settlement establishing a firewall to prevent Staples from receiving competitively sensitive customer information from Essendant.
- Staples is the largest reseller of office products in the US, and one of only two retail office supply superstores in the US. Essendant is one of only two nationwide office product wholesale distributors. In September 2018, Staples agreed to acquire Essendant.
- Staples competes with various resellers to sell office supplies to mid-sized companies. Many of those resellers rely on Essendant as their wholesale distributor. In that role, resellers have to provide Essendant with detailed information about their end customers’ identities, purchasing history, product preferences and similar data.
- The FTC alleged in its complaint that the transaction was likely to harm competition by giving Staples access to the commercially sensitive information (CSI) of Essendant’s resellers and those resellers’ end customers. The FTC contended that access to that information could allow Staples to offer higher prices than it otherwise would when bidding against a reseller for an end customer’s business.
- To address this competitive concern, the FTC imposed a conduct remedy. Specifically, the FTC required the parties to establish a firewall limiting Staples’ access to the CSI of Essendant’s resellers and the end customers of those resellers.
- Two FTC Commissioners issued dissenting statements, arguing that the settlement does not fully remedy the transaction’s likely anticompetitive effects. In the dissenters’ view, the evidence suggests that the integrated firm could implement a strategy of raising costs for Staples’ reseller rivals.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- The settlement indicates that the FTC remains willing to cure competitive issues raised by vertical mergers with conduct remedies, such as firewalls, instead of imposing a divestiture or seeking to block the deal.
- Under Makan Delrahim’s leadership, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division has been less receptive of conduct remedies, even in vertical merger cases. Delrahim has stated that conduct remedies are fundamentally regulatory and are inconsistent with the DOJ’s role as a law enforcement agency.
- The DOJ refused to accept conduct remedies to resolve the competitive issues arising from AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. DOJ challenged the transaction in federal court. In June 2018, a DC district court judge ruled against the DOJ, and the case is currently on appeal to the DC Circuit.
- One of the FTC Commissioners, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, argued in her dissenting statement that the FTC should be more willing to challenge, and seek to block vertical mergers when it identifies competitive concerns. That position is more aligned with the DOJ’s currently stated policy, but overall the FTC appears more willing to accept conduct remedies than the DOJ.
In a December 7 speech before the Berkeley-Stanford Advanced Patent Law Institute, the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim (AAG Delrahim) announced that the DOJ will withdraw its assent to the 2013 Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary FRAND Commitments (the Policy Statement) and elaborated upon the DOJ’s enforcement approach to standard setting organizations (SSOs).
- AAG Delrahim voiced support for the right of patent holders to seek injunctions against misuses of their technologies. According to AAG Delrahim, the appropriate test for injunctive relief in patent cases is the one articulated by the US Supreme Court in eBay v. MercExchange. Under the eBay standard, to obtain an injunction, a patent holder must demonstrate that:
- It has suffered an irreparable injury;
- Remedies available at law, such as monetary damages, are inadequate to compensate for that injury;
- Considering the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendant, a remedy in equity is warranted; and
- The public interest would not be disserved by a permanent injunction.
- AAG Delrahim expressed concern that the Policy Statement, which in his view suggests that injunctions may not serve the public interest, may bias courts applying the eBay test against issuing injunctions. Because AAG Delrahim’s stance is that injunctions frequently do serve the public interest, he is worried that the Policy Statement will cause confusion. Based on this worry and AAG Delrahim’s disagreement with the Policy Statement’s position, the DOJ will withdraw its assent to the Policy Statement.
- AAG Delrahim also elaborated upon his concerns with SSOs. He explained that an SSO can act anti-competitively in carrying out two tasks. First, an SSO can act anti-competitively while carrying out the standard setting process (g., by refusing to license a new and innovative technology by a maverick firm that the members of the SSO view as threatening). Second, an SSO can act anti-competitively in adopting and implementing patent policies (e.g., by adopting licensing terms that favor implementers over patent holders).
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Though the DOJ is withdrawing its assent to the Policy Statement, it will attempt to replace it with a new one. AAG Delrahim said that the DOJ will engage the Patent Office to initiate this process. The DOJ is likely to push for language more favorable to standard essential patent holders seeking injunctions.
- The withdrawal of the Policy Statement may affect patent cases not only before federal district courts, but also before the International Trade Commission (ITC). The Policy Statement was designed to inform the ITC, as well as federal courts, on the appropriateness of issuing an exclusion order in patent cases.
- Delrahim announced two policies the DOJ will adopt with respect to SSOs. First, the DOJ will investigate and bring enforcement actions against standard setting practices that are anticompetitive. Second, the DOJ will embrace a policy of encouraging competition between SSOs. As part of the policy, the DOJ may, for example, scrutinize competitors for coordinating a group boycott of an SSO with a patent policy that is unfavorable to their interests.
- The speech was consistent with AAG Delrahim’s previously voiced support of standard essential patent holders and concerns about SSOs. While under AAG Delrahim’s leadership, the DOJ’s enforcement posture will likely align with his views.
Consistent with Assistant Attorney General Delrahim’s speech on September 25, 2018, the DOJ released a new Model Timing Agreement which sets out that it will require fewer custodians, take fewer depositions, and commit to a shorter overall review period in exchange for the provision of detailed information from the merging parties earlier in the Second Request process than has previously been required.
- In November, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) published a new Model Timing Agreement (the Model) much like the FTC’s model published earlier this year. Timing agreements are agreements between agency staff and merging parties that outline expected timing for various events (g., production of documents and data, timeline for depositions and front-office meetings if needed) and help provide clarity for the agencies to conduct an orderly investigation during a Second Request.
- By providing this Model, the DOJ is signaling that it wants certainty on timing during its Second Request reviews and that this Model is a fast way for the parties and the DOJ to come to agreement on these issues.
- Some highlights of the DOJ Model include:
- Parties must wait 60 days after substantial compliance to consummate transactions and give 10 days’ notice prior to closing.
- The Model limits the number of custodians to 20 per party and depositions to 12 per party, except in extenuating circumstances.
- The Model reserves the DOJ’s ability to add 5 more custodians at any time prior to filing a complaint, with the requirement that parties must produce those individual’s responsive documents within 15 days or the agreed timing will be tolled.
- For document productions, depending on production method (technology assisted review or linear review), all responsive, non-privileged documents must be produced approximately 30-45 days before substantial compliance. Production of potentially privileged documents ultimately deemed not privileged must be produced approximately 10-25 days before the substantial compliance certification date.
- Most data productions are required 30-45 days before substantial compliance.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it and the State of North Carolina have reached a settlement with Carolinas Healthcare System / Atrium Health relating to provisions in contracts between the health system and commercial insurers that allegedly restrict payors from “steering” their enrollees to lower-cost hospitals. The settlement comes after two years of civil litigation, and serves as an important reminder to hospital systems and health insurers of DOJ’s continued interest in and enforcement against anti-steering practices.
- On June 9, 2016, the DOJ and the State of North Carolina filed a complaint in the Western District of North Carolina against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, d/b/a Carolinas Healthcare System, now Atrium Health (Atrium).
- In its complaint, DOJ accused Atrium of “using unlawful contract restrictions that prohibit commercial health insurers in the Charlotte area from offering patients financial benefits to use less-expensive health care services offered by [Atrium’s] competitors.”
- DOJ alleged that Atrium held approximately a 50 percent share of the relevant market and was the dominant hospital system in the Charlotte area. DOJ defined the relevant product market as the sale of general acute care inpatient hospital services to insurers in the Charlotte area.
- DOJ alleged that Atrium used market power to negotiate high rates and impose steering restrictions in contracts with insurers that restrict insurers from providing financial incentives to encourage patients to use comparable lower-cost or higher-quality providers. Such financial incentives include health plan designs that charge consumers lower out-of-pocket costs (such as copays and premiums) for using top-tier providers that offer better value, or for subscribing to a narrow network of providers.
- Atrium also allegedly prevented insurers from offering tiered networks with hospitals that competed with Atrium in the top tiers, and imposed restrictions on insurers’ sharing of value information with consumers about the cost and quality of Atrium’s health care services compared to its competitors. These “steering restrictions” allegedly reduced competition and resulted in harm to consumers, employers, and insurers in the Charlotte area.
- Atrium allegedly included these steering restrictions in its contracts with the four largest insurers who in turn provide coverage to more than 85 percent of commercially insured residents in the Charlotte area.
- On March 30, 2017, the court denied Atrium’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that the government met its initial pleading burden. Atrium had argued that the complaint failed to properly allege that the contract provisions actually lessened competition or lacked procompetitive effects.
- More than a year later, on November 15, 2018, DOJ announced that the State of North Carolina and DOJ had reached a settlement with Atrium, which prohibits Atrium from continuing its practices of using alleged steering restrictions in contracts with commercial health insurers. The proposed settlement also prevents Atrium from “taking actions that would prohibit, prevent, or penalize steering by insurers in the future.” The agreement lists certain prohibitions and permissions for Atrium; for example, that Atrium may not enforce existing alleged anti-steering provisions, and must allow payors to be transparent with consumers about price, cost and quality information. However, Atrium is permitted to enforce other contract provisions that protect against carve outs (where an insurer unilaterally removes a health care service from coverage in a health plan), and may restrict payor steering for any co-branded plan or narrow network in which Atrium is the most prominently-featured provider.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Going forward, both DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are likely to investigate similar contract provisions by health systems susceptible to allegations of market power. The resolution of the Atrium matter comes just one month after Senator Chuck Grassley sent a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons, asking FTC to investigate certain allegedly anticompetitive hospital system managed care contracting practices and to assess how prevalent they are in the marketplace. Senator Grassley’s October 10 letter cited to a recent Wall Street Journal article detailing various provisions said to increase health care costs and restrict patient choice, including anti-steering provisions. The letter cited to the then-pending Atrium case specifically. In the wake of the Grassley letter and the Atrium settlement, hospital systems that have entered into alleged anti-steering provisions with payors may need to expect inquiry from the FTC or DOJ.
- The Atrium settlement follows the resolution of another DOJ challenge to anti-steering provisions. Earlier this year, in American Express, the Supreme Court rejected DOJ’s challenge to the anti-steering rules that the credit card company imposed on merchants. The cases are distinguishable in part due to the difference in market share of defendants. American Express held 26.4 percent of the credit card market, whereas Atrium allegedly holds 50 percent of the relevant market asserted by DOJ.
- Many watched the Atrium case as an opportunity for further guidance from the courts on the competitive implications of anti-steering practices, but the settlement means practitioners and industry members must continue to wait for judicial consideration of these types of provisions in the health care industry.
- The Atrium matter serves as a reminder of the agencies’ interest in alleged anti-steering and other restrictive contracting practices. Now is an opportune time for hospital systems to review their managed care contracting practices for potential antitrust risk under the rule of reason, particularly hospital systems with relatively high shares within concentrated service areas or that have contracting provisions with payors representing a majority of the local patient population that could be characterized as allegedly restrictive.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and six broadcast television companies reached settlements last week after the DOJ claimed that the companies shared competitively sensitive information that allowed the parties to alter the way prices were set in the television spot advertising market. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim explained in a speech at the ABA Antitrust Section Fall Forum on November 15 that the government’s investigation was triggered by information produced in the merger investigation of two of the defendants, Sinclair and Tribune, which was abandoned earlier this year. The case has important implications for companies and serves as a cautionary tale related to information sharing.
- The investigation reportedly began from DOJ’s review of the $3.9 billion proposed acquisition of Tribune by Sinclair earlier this year. The parties abandoned the merger this past summer after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) referred the matter to an administrative law judge and delayed approval.
- On November 13, DOJ filed a complaint and competitive impact statement against six television broadcast station companies, each of whom sells spot advertising to advertisers in the US or owns and operates broadcast television stations. With the complaint, DOJ simultaneously filed six proposed settlements with defendants.
- The complaint alleges that the defendants and other broadcasters reciprocally exchanged revenue pacing information and other forms of competitively sensitive sales information in specific designated marketing areas in real time for each individual competitor. Pacing information shows a station’s remaining advertising inventory and that station’s performance compared to the market.
- DOJ claimed that the information sharing occurred both directly between parties and through Sales Reps Firms, who represent broadcast stations in negotiations with advertisers or advertisers’ agents over spot advertising. This indirect sharing occurred despite the existence of firewalls to prevent coordination and information sharing between sales teams at the Sales Reps Firms representing competing stations. DOJ claimed that the exchanges occurred with defendants’ knowledge and frequently at defendants’ instruction.
- As a result of the information sharing, DOJ argued that the stations were able to understand the availability of spot advertisement inventory on competitors’ stations in real time. DOJ also argued that the stations used the information to anticipate whether other companies would raise, maintain, or lower prices for spot advertising. The information exchanges therefore “distorted the normal price-setting mechanism in the spot advertising market and harmed the competitive process” and were unreasonable restraints of interstate trade and commerce.
- The settlements that are proposed by DOJ prohibit defendants from sharing competitively sensitive information directly or indirectly. The settlements require defendants to institute antitrust compliance officers, and compliance and reporting programs, and to fully cooperate in the DOJ’s ongoing investigation. The final judgments are set to expire seven years from the date of entry, but give DOJ the ability to terminate after five years.
- The proposed settlements indicate that DOJ recognizes certain allowable exchanges of information. DOJ explains that aggregated competitively sensitive information may be communicated if it is handled by a fully independent third party, so long as the information is historical total revenue or other geographic or characteristic information, and is sufficiently aggregated so it does not allow recipients to identify the specifics.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- This case is an example of DOJ strictly enforcing the rules on information sharing between competitors. The proposed settlements clarify that high-level, aggregated, historical information may be shared, but not real-time information about individual competitors.
- DOJ is not retracting its position on exchanges of price and cost information that fall in the “antitrust safety zone” described in the 1996 Statement of DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Enforcement Policy on Provider Participation in Exchanges of Price and Cost Information. In that statement, DOJ and FTC together outlined that surveys managed by third parties, that contain information greater than 3 months old, and that have at least five providers reporting, with no individual representing more than 25 percent of the data, can be shared without challenge though the surveys include prices for services, wages, salaries, or other sensitive information. These guidelines were not followed in the case at hand, which illustrates the importance of staying in the “safety zone.”
- The matter also demonstrates how a merger investigation can lead to a collateral investigation and significant consequences for the parties.
- Companies, especially those in consolidated industries such as the television broadcasting business here, are best served by confirming that all parties understand the guidelines regarding information sharing, and instituting antitrust compliance programs to ensure that guidelines are followed.
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