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.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 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.

US Developments

  • 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.

EU Developments

  • 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.

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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

In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Chairman Joseph Simons from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staked out differing interpretations of when antitrust considerations are relevant in standard setting agreements restricted by fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates, a rare divergence of opinion between the two antitrust enforcement agencies.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Since AAG Delrahim took over as head of the DOJ Antitrust Division in September 2017 he has consistently hinted at a differing interpretation of antitrust law as it relates to standard essential patents and FRAND rates in the context of antitrust. 
  • Standard essential patents (SEPs) are patents that have been incorporated into a standard by a standard setting organization and industry participants to facilitate interchangeability between products. Often, to be included in a standard, patent holders agree to license a patent essential to that standard at a FRAND rate. 
  • With the proliferation of standards, more scrutiny has been devoted to SEPs and FRAND rates, and some companies have brought antitrust suits relating to “patent hold-up” or the refusal to license a patent on FRAND terms (typically seeking higher royalties or fees on patents for widely adopted standards). 
  • In testimony on October 3, 2018, AAG Delrahim indicated his view was that a patent holder’s unilateral decision not to license a patent—even if that patent is part of a standard—is not conduct intended to be reached by the antitrust laws. AAG Delrahim indicated such a dispute would more appropriately be handled by contract law. 
  • This position differs from that of the FTC, where Chairman Simons has indicated that antitrust law can be relevant in patent hold-up cases.
    •  The FTC demonstrated its view in a recent complaint filed against Qualcomm, Inc. The complaint summarizes the patent hold-up concern:

Once a standard incorporating proprietary technology is adopted, the potential exists for opportunistic patent holders to insist on patent licensing terms that capture not just the value of the underlying technology, but also the value of standardization itself. To address this “hold-up” risk, [standard setting organizations] often require patent holders to disclose their patents and commit to license standard-essential patents (“SEPs”) on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (“FRAND”) terms. Absent such requirements, a patent holder might be able to parlay the standardization of its technology into a monopoly in standard-compliant products.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Going forward, US antitrust enforcement with respect to SEP issues may be limited to the FTC. AAG Delrahim’s speeches indicate that it will be the rare case that the Antitrust Division pursues such cases in the future.
  • This divergence between the two US agencies responsible for enforcing antitrust laws will create confusion for SEP holders and their licensees with respect to the risks of US government intervention. Companies dealing with SEPs and FRAND rates will want to be cognizant of which agency is reviewing, as approaches may be different.
  • While there may be divergence in the US government agencies that enforce the US antitrust laws, the Antitrust Division’s new policy has no impact on the body of case law developed by US courts over the years with respect to SEPs and antitrust liability. Private parties seeking to enforce their rights with respect to SEPs and antitrust law in US courts should not be impacted by the Antitrust Division’s change in policy.

Today, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim announced a series of reforms with the express goal to resolve most merger investigations within six months of filing. The reforms seek to place the burden of faster reviews not only on the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ), but also on the merging parties.

The DOJ will require fewer custodians, take fewer depositions, and commit to shorter time-periods in exchange for merging parties providing detailed information to the DOJ early in the investigation in some cases before a Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filing is made. AAG Delrahim believes that merging parties need to avoid “hid[ing] the eight ball” and work with the DOJ in good faith to remedy transactions that raise competitive concerns.

By announcing these reforms, the DOJ acknowledges that merger reviews are taking longer in recent years. AAG Delrahim cited a recent report noting that the length of merger reviews has increased 65 percent since 2013 and that the average length of a significant merger review is now roughly 11 months. AAG Delrahim believes an assortment of factors contribute to the increasing length of reviews including larger quantities of documents produced during a Second Request, increasing numbers of transactions with international implications, and the DOJ’s insistence on an upfront buyer for most consent orders. Continue Reading DOJ Announces Procedural Reforms Seeking to Resolve Merger Investigations within 6 Months of Filing

United States: April – June 2018 Update

The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.

EU: April – June 2018 Update

In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals. Continue Reading Antitrust M&A Snapshot

WHAT HAPPENED

  • The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently investigating whether advertising sales teams for competing television station owners engaged in anticompetitive conduct regarding communications on performance levels. Per the Journal’s reporting:
  • DOJ is investigating whether the purported communications led to higher rates for television commercials.
  • DOJ’s industry-wide investigation developed from its review of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s (Sinclair) proposed acquisition of Tribune Media (Tribune).
  • As part of the DOJ’s merger review, Sinclair and Tribune received a “Second Request.” Responding to a Second Request typically involves the production of a wide range of company documents regarding competition in the industry under investigation.
  • Many times in the past, merging parties’ Second Request responses have led to separate anticompetitive conduct cases. A few notable examples are provided below:
  • In April 2018, DOJ brought a civil complaint alleging that three rail equipment companies had no-poaching agreements that depressed salaries and competition for their employees. The agreements were discovered during the review of an acquisition involving two of the three companies.
  • In 2003, DOJ filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to block the acquisition of Morgan Adhesives Company by UPM-Kymmene and, at the same time, opened a criminal investigation into price-fixing conduct in the labelstock industry.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Collateral Risk in Merger Reviews

The second quarter of 2018 proved to be an active one with a number of US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations resulting in criminal charges against individual executives. However, the DOJ’s total criminal fines still fall below the highs reached in 2014 and 2015. In this period, the European Commission made one notable cartel decision, imposing fines on eight Japanese manufacturers of capacitors.

McDermott’s Cartel Snapshot presents the latest information about active antitrust investigations to inform defense representatives, in-house counsel and agency regulators of the latest compliance risks and private actions. Our highly rated team of competition lawyers has selected the most relevant US and EU cartel matters to support risk management assessments for international cartel defense and to provide insights for legal and business planning.

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The challenges that the government faces in litigating vertical mergers was illustrated in the DOJ’s recent loss in its challenge of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner. The result provides guidance for how companies can improve their odds of obtaining antitrust approval for similar transactions.

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