In the course of one week, two top level DOJ Antitrust officials in the Trump Administration separately spoke at panels and suggested the possibility of a sea change in federal antitrust law with respect to indirect purchaser lawsuits. The comments further reinforce the Administration’s active focus on antitrust issues.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Makan Delrahim, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division (the Division), spoke at a conference organized by the Antitrust Research Foundation on January 19, 2018, and is reported to have stated that the Division was looking into the possibility of pursuing civil damages on behalf of taxpayers in antitrust price-fixing suits.
  • A few days later, on January 23, 2018, Andrew Finch, DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, spoke at a Heritage Foundation conference and reportedly stated that the Division was “looking at whether or not it might be worthwhile to revisit those rules and suggest the same to the Supreme Court,” referencing the landmark decision Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, which prohibits indirect purchasers from recovering antitrust damages under federal antitrust law.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Trump DOJ’s Next Target: the Illinois Brick Indirect Purchaser Rule?

At the one year anniversary of the Trump administration, antitrust merger enforcement remains similar to the Obama administration, but it is still early to judge given the delays in antitrust appointments and given the DOJ’s lawsuit against the vertical AT&T/Time Warner transaction, the first vertical merger litigation in decades.  Below are some of the recent developments that have impacted merger enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as European regulators.

Continue Reading.

On November 29, 2017, a Japanese auto parts manufacturer and its US subsidiary defeated the US Department of Justice’s claims that the companies conspired with others to fix prices and rig bids for automotive body sealing products. The case involved a rare trial involving criminal antitrust charges. After 13 days of trial, a jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. and its subsidiary, Green Tokai Co. Ltd. Continue Reading.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • On Thursday, November 16, 2017, newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim, speaking at the American Bar Association Section of Antitrust Law’s Fall Forum, explained where antitrust enforcement fits in the broader Trump administration effort to reduce federal regulations.
  • Delrahim remarked that “antitrust is law enforcement, it’s not regulation.” Antitrust enforcement “supports reducing regulation, by encouraging competitive markets that, as a result, require less government intervention.” Delrahim explained that “[v]igorous antitrust enforcement plays an important role in building a less regulated economy in which innovation and business can thrive, and ultimately the American consumer can benefit.” As a result, the government can minimize regulation related to price, quality, and investment.
  • Delrahim announced that the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) would seek to reduce the number of long-term consent decrees and “return to the preferred focus on structural relief to remedy mergers that violate the law,” thereby limiting the use of behavioral remedies in consent decrees particularly in vertical transactions, where such remedies have historically been common. According to Delrahim, “a behavioral remedy supplants competition with regulation; it replaces disaggregated decision making with central planning.” Delrahim also expressed concern that behavioral remedies simply delay the exercise of otherwise anticompetitive market power.
  • Mentioning by name several consent decrees in vertical transactions containing behavioral provisions in merger cases brought by the Obama administration, Delrahim expressed concern that these remedies “entangle the [Antitrust] Division and the courts in the operation of a market on an on-going basis.” Delrahim cautioned that the lack of enforceability and reliability of behavioral remedies diminish the effectiveness of antitrust enforcement, a risk that consumers should not have to bear.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Delrahim’s stance on behavioral remedies starkly contrasts with previous DOJ policies, followed under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Prior administrations strongly preferred structural remedies, but recognized that behavioral remedies could be appropriate particularly for vertical transactions that presented pro-competitive benefits. The DOJ’s most recent policy paper on remedies (issued by the Obama administration) exemplifies this view, stating: “conduct remedies often can effectively address anticompetitive issues raised by vertical mergers.”
  • Despite the new administration’s disfavored view of behavioral remedies for a vertical merger, such remedies are not off the table. To secure a DOJ consent decree with behavioral remedies for a vertical merger, parties will likely have to show that the transaction “generates significant efficiencies that cannot be achieved without the merger or through a structural remedy.” Delrahim unambiguously stated that this is “a high standard to meet.”
  • Delrahim’s speech appeared aimed at several high profile vertical transactions that are currently under review by the DOJ, likely seeking to explain why the DOJ will insist on structural remedies in transactions where most outside observers thought a behavioral remedy may suffice.
  • It is possible that Joe Simons, President Trump’s unconfirmed appointee for Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, may take a differing stance on behavioral remedies, following prior policy statements. This could result in a slight difference in policies between the Federal Trade Commission and the DOJ in merger enforcement.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On December 1, 2016 Parker-Hannifin agreed to acquire Clarcor for $4.3 billion.
  • The merger agreement included a $200 million divestiture cap – that is, Parker-Hannifin was required, if necessary, to divest assets representing up to $200 million in net sales to obtain antitrust clearance.
  • The initial antitrust waiting period under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR Act) expired on January 17, 2017.
  • Parker-Hannifin completed the acquisition on February 28, 2017.
  • Nearly seven months later on September 26, 2017, the DOJ filed suit in US District Court for the District of Delaware seeking to require Parker-Hannifin to divest either its or Clarcor’s aviation fuel filtration assets.
  • The DOJ did not include in its complaint an allegation or statement that the parties increased prices.
  • The DOJ press release indicates that the parties “failed to provide significant document or data productions in response to the department’s requests.” We believe that this refers to the DOJ’s post-closing investigation.
  • The DOJ did not suggest in its complaint or the press release that the parties failed to provide required documentation under the HSR Act (e.g., Item 4 documents). During the initial 30-day HSR waiting period, the parties are under no obligation to submit documentation or data to DOJ or FTC requests – all responses are voluntary.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Challenges to transactions after the HSR waiting period expired are rare and typically involve a situation where the parties failed to supply required documentation under the HSR Act.
  • Challenges post-HSR clearance are even rarer when the parties complied with their obligations under the HSR Act and supplied all required documentation (e.g., Item 4 documents).
  • The DOJ’s post-HSR clearance action demonstrates that the DOJ may still challenge a transaction post-closing if it later discovers a niche problematic overlap that it did not discover during the initial HSR waiting period.
  • While this challenge may be an aberration, it raises additional considerations when drafting risk allocation provisions in merger agreements for HSR reportable transactions because merger agreements do not typically account for a post-HSR clearance challenge from the DOJ or FTC.
  • DOJ action in this matter suggests the Trump administration is unlikely to be lax in its merger enforcement and will continue to analyze competition in narrow markets.

On September 14, 2017, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), introduced new legislation to curtail market concentration and enhance antitrust scrutiny of mergers and acquisitions. As the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Klobuchar is the leading Senate Democrat for antitrust issues.

Two bills were submitted to the Senate: the Consolidation Prevention and Competition Promotion Act (CPCPA) and the Merger Enforcement Improvement Act (MEIA). The CPCPA is co-sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Ed Markey (D-MA). The MEIA is co-sponsored by Senators Blumenthal, Markey and Gillibrand, along with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Al Franken (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Both bills propose amendments to the Clayton Act. Earlier this year, Senate democrats announced these legislative proposals as part of their “A Better Deal” antitrust agenda.

WHAT DO THE BILLS PROPOSE:

  • Notably, the CPCPA proposes to revise the Clayton Act so that in challenging an acquisition, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) would only have to show that the proposed transaction materially lessens competition rather than significantly lessens competition, which is the current standard. The legislation defines “materially lessens competition” to mean “more than a de minimis amount.” This change would reduce the burden of proof for the government in challenging an acquisition.

Continue Reading Senate Democrats Push for Tougher Merger Enforcement

On Monday, September 11, Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, the US subsidiary of Thai Union Group, announced it blew the whistle on competitors in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation of the packaged seafood industry. The “Chicken of the Sea” canned tuna manufacturer also said it received conditional leniency from DOJ in exchange for its cooperation.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In 2015, DOJ began investigating the packaged seafood industry for anticompetitive conduct, including price fixing. DOJ’s investigation followed a failed merger between Thai Union and Bumble Bee Foods LLC.
  • In June 2017, a former StarKist Co. sales executive pleaded guilty to price fixing.
  • Private plaintiffs filed class action complaints in October 2016 alleging antitrust violations in the packaged seafood industry. The private plaintiffs represent grocery retailers who sold packaged tuna to US consumers.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Despite the significant costs of participating in DOJ’s Corporate Leniency Program, leniency recipients continue to receive significant value for their cooperation. Conditional leniency recipients like Tri-Union and their employees will not face criminal fines, jail time or prosecution.
  • Full cooperation with DOJ’s program will place heavy demands on leniency applicants, including gathering and translating foreign documents, bringing foreign witnesses to the United States for interviews and testimony, and providing several attorney proffers.
  • It is critical to have a robust compliance program in place to detect any potential or actual violations of antitrust law. Such a program will allow a company to investigate any potential misconduct and, if necessary, report it to DOJ. Time is of the essence when seeking leniency with DOJ’s Corporate Leniency Program.
  • Companies contemplating acquisitions should consider whether any problematic antitrust conduct could arise during the merger review and result in a subsequent criminal investigation.

Businesses and individuals in Texas, Florida, the Southeast, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are preparing for a massive recovery and reconstruction effort in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued antitrust guidance that reiterates key principles of permissible and impermissible competitor collaboration and provides useful examples related to disaster recovery. Continue Reading Joint FTC / DOJ Guidance: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s criminal case against an heir location service provider collapsed when the US District Court for the District of Utah ruled that the government’s Sherman Act § 1 case was barred by the statute of limitations. The court held that the alleged conspiracy ceased when the alleged conspirators terminated their market division guidelines, and that continued receipt of proceeds tied to the alleged conspiracy did not extend the limitations period. The court further rejected DOJ’s argument that the case should be subject to the per se standard, instead finding the alleged anti-competitive agreement amongst competitors to be unique and subject to the rule of reason.

This ruling opens a crack in the line of Sherman Act per se cases, creating an opportunity for defendants to argue for rule of reason treatment where there are novel factual issues.

Continue Reading

On August 14, 2017, we reported on an online retailer’s guilty plea for conspiring to fix the prices of “customized promotional products” such as silicone wristbands and lanyards, and the ongoing US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the online promotional products industry. On August 22, 2017, DOJ announced two more guilty pleas in the investigation, announcing that e-commerce company Custom Wristbands Inc. and its owner and CEO Christopher Angeles had pled guilty to violating the Sherman Act, 15 USC § 1.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • According to an Information filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas by DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, Defendant Angeles and his co-conspirators engaged in a conspiracy from at least as early as June 2014 through at least June 2016 to “suppress and eliminate competition by fixing and maintaining prices of customized promotional products, including wristbands, sold in the United States and elsewhere.”
  • DOJ alleges that Defendants and co-conspirators attended meetings and communicated via text and online messaging platforms regarding pricing for the online sale of customized promotional products.
  • Defendant Custom Wristbands Inc. (d/b/a Kulayful Silicone Bracelets, Kulayful.com, Speedywristbands.com, Promotionalbands.com, Wristbandcreations.com, and 1inchbracelets.com) has agreed to pay a criminal fine in the amount of $409,342. Defendant Angeles faces up to 10 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine.
  • DOJ has announced that both defendants have agreed to cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The DOJ Antitrust Division continues to investigate the “online promotional products industry” and we anticipate that additional defendants will be charged over the course of the investigation. 
  • DOJ continues to hold individual executives accountable in price fixing cases, even where their corporations plead guilty and agree to cooperate with ongoing investigations.