The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) was active in 2019. At the beginning of 2019, the DOJ was preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations. Throughout 2019, the DOJ made public several new investigations, including in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment, the insulation
Anthony S. Ferrara focuses his practice on regulatory and antitrust matters. Read Anthony S. Ferrara's full bio.
Last month, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released updated Vertical Merger Guidelines in draft form. These guidelines provide a useful resource for aerospace and defense contractors involved in M&A transactions. Vertical competition issues frequently arise in this industry given the nature of the supply base and contracting and supply relationships between companies operating at different levels of the supply chain.
This is the first time the antitrust agencies have released updated guidelines for analyzing vertical mergers since 1984. Although the agencies have updated the Horizontal Merger Guidelines several times since then (most recently in 2010), they have not provided similar updated guidance to businesses regarding vertical merger enforcement until now. The new guidelines summarize the practices, standards, and theories the agencies have used in evaluating vertical mergers for a number of years. Although the guidelines do not signal any shifts in current agency practice, they do provide the business community greater transparency about how the agencies analyze vertical mergers. This is helpful for the aerospace and defense industry, which is particularly susceptible to vertical competition issues given the heavy reliance on contracting out important elements at different levels of the supply chain.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is considering a rulemaking to address the use of non-compete provisions in employment contracts. On January 9, 2020, the FTC held a day-long workshop to start a public conversation on whether it should use its rulemaking power to take on this issue. The two Democratic Commissioners have expressed strong support for an FTC rulemaking, while the Republican Commissioners appear less open to a rulemaking effort.
If the FTC were to regulate non-competes, this would be a significant development in an area traditionally governed by state law. It remains unclear whether the FTC will move forward with a rulemaking and what a potential FTC rule would look like. However, the FTC workshop highlights growing concern about non-competes and their impacts on workers and labor markets.
The US antitrust regulators continue to challenge consummated transactions. On January 3, 2020, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against Axon Enterprise, Inc., challenging its consummated acquisition of VieVu, a body-worn camera competitor, from Safariland. The FTC also challenged non-compete agreements that Axon and Safariland signed in connection with the acquisition. The complaint demonstrates the FTC’s continued focus on challenging consummated transactions, and on defining “price discrimination markets” around sets of customers with unique needs. The FTC’s challenge also shows that merging parties should avoid signing non-compete agreements that are not reasonably limited in scope and duration. If these agreements are not appropriately tailored to achieving a legitimate business interest, the FTC may challenge them as anticompetitive.
- On September 4, 2019, the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) sued to block Novelis Inc.’s proposed $2.6 billion acquisition of Aleris Corporation.
- DOJ alleged that the transaction would combine two of only four North American producers of aluminum auto body sheet (ABS). DOJ further alleged that Aleris was a new and disruptive rival supplier of aluminum ABS whose expansion into the North American market immediately impacted pricing.
- Prior to DOJ’s suit to block the transaction, the merging parties and DOJ agreed that the dispute boiled down to a single dispositive issue: whether aluminum ABS constitutes a relevant product market, and specifically, whether the market for aluminum ABS also includes steel ABS.
- DOJ and the merging parties agreed to refer this product market issue to arbitration pursuant to the Administrative Dispute Resolution Act of 1996 (5 U.S.C. § 571 et seq.) and the Antitrust Division’s implementing regulations (61 Fed. Reg. 36,896 (July 15, 1996).
- In a filing in federal court the DOJ explained that it decided to arbitrate rather than litigate the merger in federal court because all sides agreed that the case turned on the single question of product market definition and referring the matter to arbitration would lessen the burden on the Court and reduce litigation costs to the merging parties and to the United States.
Standard-essential patent holders and implementers may face uncertainty regarding licensing practices following a May 23 Texas court ruling. In the ruling, a Texas federal judge reached a conclusion different from a recent California court decision—FTC v. Qualcomm—on the question of whether an SEP holder must base its royalty rates on the “smallest salable…
On May 21, a California federal judge ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its suit against Qualcomm in a much-anticipated decision, concluding that Qualcomm violated the FTC Act by maintaining its monopoly position as a modem chip supplier through a number of exclusionary practices, including refusing to license standard essential patents…
The first quarter of 2019 proved to be as active as ever for antitrust regulators in both the United States and Europe. In the United States, vertical merger enforcement was the focus of a few high-profile matters. The US DOJ has been working on an update to the Non-Horizontal Merger Guidelines, possibly providing clarification for…
On February 15, a Texas federal jury found that Ericsson did not breach its obligation to offer HTC licenses to its standard-essential patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. The verdict ended a nearly two-year dispute as to whether FRAND obligations preclude a licensing offer based on end products rather than components. Ericsson succeeded in convincing the jury that its FRAND commitment does not require it to base royalty rates for its SEPs on the value of smartphone chips rather than the phones themselves. The jury verdict suggests that other SEP holders may be able to successfully argue that basing royalty rates on end products rather than components does not violate their FRAND obligations.
Ericsson holds patents that the parties agreed are essential to the 2G, 3G, 4G and WLAN wireless communication standards, and made a commitment to several standard setting organizations to license those SEPs on FRAND terms. HTC makes smartphones that implement Ericsson’s SEPs and brought suit against Ericsson in April 2017, alleging that Ericsson overcharges for its SEPs.
The US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas ruled that for the purposes of honoring a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) commitment, a pool member is not required to base royalties for its standard essential patents (SEPs) on the value of components. HTC America Inc. et al. v. Ericsson Inc., Case No. 6:18-cv-00243-JRG (E.D. Tex. Jan. 7, 2019) (Gilstrap, J). According to the court, Ericsson’s commitment to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) does not specify whether it must use the value of components or end-user devices to calculate royalty rates. Thus, there is no ETSI prescribed methodology for calculating the license fee under the FRAND commitment.
Ericsson holds patents that are essential to the 2G, 3G, 4G and WLAN wireless communication standards and made a commitment to ETSI to license those SEPs on FRAND terms. HTC makes smartphones that implement Ericsson’s SEPs and alleged that Ericsson is overcharging for SEP licenses. According to HTC, Ericsson’s FRAND commitment to ETSI requires it to base its royalties on the value of the “smallest salable patent-practicing unit (SSPPU) in the phones.” In October 2018, Ericsson moved for a ruling that its FRAND commitment does not require this method of calculation and allows Ericsson to base its royalties on the value of end-user devices, i.e., smartphones.