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.

Azim Makanojiya founded Zaappaaz Inc. as a nineteen-year-old university student and quickly turned it into a multi-million dollar business.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • On Tuesday, August 7, online retailer Zaappaaz Inc. and its twenty-nine-year-old president and founder, Azim Makanojiya, agreed to plead guilty for conspiring to fix the prices of “customized promotional products” such as silicone wristbands and lanyards.
  • According to an Information filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the company  “engaged in a conspiracy with other persons and entities engaged in the sale of customized promotional products,” which was carried out in part “via text and online messaging platforms.”  The alleged conspirators reportedly used social media platforms Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp to coordinate their price-fixing efforts.
  • Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division explained the significance of the charges in a press release, stating that, “[a]s today’s charges show, criminals cannot evade detection by conspiring online and using encrypted messaging.”  “In addition,” he continued, “today’s charges are a clear sign of the Division’s commitment to uncovering and prosecuting collusion that affects internet sales.  American consumers have the right to a marketplace free of unlawful collusion, whether they are shopping at retail stores or online.”
  • While Zaappaaz Inc. has agreed to pay a $1.9 million criminal fine, the Department of Justice has not yet indicated what sentence it will support for the company’s president, Azim Makanojiya. He could face up to 10 years in prison for violating the Sherman Act, though in practice sentences tend to be much shorter, especially when defendants agree to cooperate with an ongoing investigation, as both defendants have done here.
  • At this time, the Department of Justice has not named any of Zaappaaz Inc.’s competitors as alleged conspirators, but other companies in the promotional products industry are reportedly under investigation.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The successful prosecution of Zaappaaz Inc. and Makanojiya reflects efforts by the Antitrust Division to keep pace with technological developments while policing conspiratorial activity in both the online and brick-and-mortar arenas.
  • Meanwhile, its decision to file charges against Makanojiya is consistent with a trend of holding individual executives accountable for their role in corporate criminal activity.
  • Retailers should take note that the Division’s enforcement efforts are not limited to concentrated markets for commodities or essential services; sellers of low-value, readily abundant consumer goods can find themselves under the Division’s scrutiny as well.

McDermott’s Antitrust M&A Snapshot is a resource for in-house counsel and others who deal with antitrust M&A issues but are not faced with these issues on a daily basis. In each quarterly issue, we will provide concise summaries of Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Department of Justice (DOJ) and European Commission (EC) news and events related to M&A, including significant ongoing investigations, trials and consent orders, as well as analysis on the trends we see developing in the antitrust review process.

Read the full report here.

On July 19, 2017, the Second Circuit vacated the convictions and dismissed the indictments of two individuals accused of playing a role in the manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). United States v. Allen, No. 16-898-cr, Slip Op. at 3 (2d Cir. July 19, 2017). The ruling was based on the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which provides that “[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” US Const. amend. V. The Second Circuit’s decision clarifies that this protection against self-incrimination is an “absolute” “trial right” that applies to all criminal defendants in US courts (including non-citizens) and to all compelled testimony (including testimony given during a foreign government’s investigation). United States v. Allen, No. 16-898-cr, Slip Op. at 55. The court’s clarification of the Fifth Amendment’s scope has important implications for US antitrust enforcers prosecuting international cartels and for individuals ensnared in cross-border criminal investigations alike.

Continue Reading Second Circuit Clarifies Fifth Amendment Law, with Implications for US Prosecution of International Cartels

On June 21, 2017, US District Judge Sue L. Robinson blocked EnergySolutions, Inc.’s proposed acquisition of Waste Control Specialists LLC (WCS), applying a strict standard for the “failing firm” defense to a merger challenge. The parties compete in the disposal of low level radioactive waste (LLRW). WCS had argued that it would be forced to exit the market due to heavy operating losses if the transaction were not approved. Judge Robinson’s recently released opinion provides insights into how aggressively a putative failing firm must shop its assets to third parties before it can qualify for the failing firm defense to an otherwise anticompetitive merger.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit in November 2016 to enjoin the proposed acquisition of WCS by EnergySolutions, arguing that the merger would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the LLRW disposal industry. DOJ alleged that EnergySolutions and WCS are the only significant competitors in this industry for the relevant geographic market.
  • The court found that the government easily established a prima facie case of anticompetitive effects by demonstrating that the proposed acquisition would create a firm controlling an exceedingly high percentage of the relevant market and result in a significant increase in market concentration. Judge Robinson identified two product markets: the disposal of higher-activity LLRW, and the disposal of lower-activity LLRW. In both markets she found that the relevant measures of concentration “blow past the presumptive barriers” for harm to competition, especially in regards to higher-activity LLRW where the transaction would result in a “merger to monopoly.” 
  • The defendants’ main defense to rebut the government’s prima facie case was that WCS was a “failing firm.” The failing-firm doctrine considers the possible harm to competition resulting from an acquisition preferable to the negative impact on competition, loss to stockholders, and negative effect on local communities that results when a company goes out of business. Judge Robinson’s opinion explains that in order to assert a valid failing firm defense, the defendants must show that WCS faces the “grave possibility of business failure” and that there was no “other prospective purchaser.” 
  • Judge Robinson avoided deciding the more difficult question concerning whether WCS indeed faced imminent business failure, finding instead that the defendants failed to demonstrate that EnergySolutions was the only available purchaser. According to Judge Robinson, WCS’s parent company failed to make the necessary “good faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers” that would have lesser negative effects on competition. 
  • The opinion highlights the fact that once it was clear that the parent company was serious about selling all of WCS, the parent company had already agreed to several deal protection devices, such as a 30-day exclusivity period with EnergySolutions, and a “no-talk” provision in the merger agreement. WCS and its parent company thus did not respond to other companies that reached out to express interest in acquiring WCS after the transaction with EnergySolutions was announced.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Judge Robinson’s application of the failing-firm doctrine is consistent with the approach taken in the joint Federal Trade Commission (FTC)/DOJ Horizontal Merger Guidelines, which require the failing firm to demonstrate that “it has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers that would keep its tangible and intangible assets in the relevant market and pose a less severe danger to competition than does the proposed merger.” 
  • The opinion is also consistent with a March 2015 article, published by the FTC and discussed here, that addressed the agency’s application of the failing firm doctrine to the health care context. In the article, the FTC explained that the mere fact that the acquired firm may be clearly failing does not quell the FTC’s concerns. Rather, the agency will seek information from the failing firm regarding its search for alternative offers, and reach out to other prospective purchasers to see if they were contacted and whether they have interest in acquiring the failing firm.
  • As Judge Robinson’s opinion demonstrates, in the rare case where merging parties believe that the “failing-firm” defense may be available to rebut a presumption of anticompetitive effects, the owners of the failing company should make serious, good faith efforts to seek out alternative offers that pose less danger to competition than a proposed merger. Further, owners of the failing company should not agree to any deal protection devices or exclusivity periods with the acquiring firm. The failing company should be aware that in soliciting reasonable alternative offers, the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines consider any offer to purchase the assets of the failing firm for a price above the liquidation value to be a reasonable alternative offer.

Noah Feldman-Greene, McDermott summer associate, also contributed to this Antitrust Alert post.