WHAT HAPPENED

  • The FTC posted a short article indicating that after finalizing a settlement package with FTC Staff, it takes approximately four weeks for the Directors of the Bureau of Competition and the Bureau of Economics (the Directors), as well as the Commission to review the Directors’ recommendations and vote on the package.
  • The FTC explained that an expedited review is unlikely, particularly when the parties’ actions contributed to the timing concerns.
  • The FTC provided a procedure for how parties seeking an expedited review should proceed, and outlining potential scenarios that would cause the FTC to look unfavorably upon the application–g., the parties caused their predicament. Expedited review is unlikely, for example, when:
    • The parties agreed to a too-early drop dead date or a ticking agreement that fails to properly account for antitrust review; or
    • Negotiations between the parties and the FTC on custodian review drag on or the parties provide responses to requests for documents and information that are incomplete.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Since the Merger Remedy Report was released in 2017, both the FTC and DOJ have taken steps to improve best practices for evaluating settlement packages. In particular, greater vetting of both the remedy package and buyer is the new norm, with more extensive information requests to establish the sufficiency of the settlement package. These changes are extending the merger review process when a settlement is necessary to address antitrust enforcer concerns.
  • In addition to its revised best practices for Staff development of settlement packages, this procedural move supports the FTC’s recent focus on developing protocols that allow it to take its due time in reviewing merger remedies.
    • Last month, the FTC published a new Model Timing Agreement that, if agreed to, provides the government additional time to evaluate cases beyond the statutory period.
    • The FTC has followed that move this month by setting out protocols and timing expectations for Directors and Commissioners to vet settlement packages advanced by Staff.
  • The latest move makes clear that the extended development of settlement packages by Staff will not lead to a curtailed review of those same settlement packages by the Directors or the Commission. Antitrust enforcers continue to take the principled view that enforcers must be cautious when approving a merger with remedies and any risks in the process should be shifted to the parties where appropriate.

Indirect purchaser plaintiffs’ motion for class certification in a lithium ion battery suit was denied for failing to show concrete evidence linking increased input costs to increased end-product prices; theoretical inference is not enough.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The US District Court for the Northern District of California denied a motion for class certification for a proposed class of indirect purchasers of lithium ion batteries. In re: Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation, Case No. 13-MD-2420 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 5, 2018).
  • An expert witness for indirect purchaser plaintiffs (IPPs) calculated a 100 percent pass-through rate of price increases on lithium ion batteries to end use products, resulting in an estimated $573 million in damages for the proposed class (or approximately $1.7 billion in treble antitrust damages).
  • Defendants countered by arguing that the expert’s claim of pass-through of supracompetitive pricing was insufficiently substantiated because there was no direct connection between changing input costs and changing end-product prices. Simply put, there was no overcharge attributable to battery cost.
  • The court agreed and held that without more than theory about how much, if any, antitrust harm passed through to IPPs, class certification would be denied.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • In indirect purchaser cases, courts will focus on the pricing dynamics of the products actually purchased by the plaintiffs in relation to alleged cost increases of components of those products. Courts are concerned not only with the fact of pass-through, but also whether the overcharge caused prices to change to the plaintiffs and the class.
  • Future indirect purchaser plaintiffs hoping to get past the class certification phase must show concrete evidence, not merely theory, about pass-through of supracompetitive pricing. This will likely be difficult for end users in cases involving numerous inputs.

The Federal Circuit held Walker Process Claims without a “substantial” patent issue can be heard outside the Federal Circuit based on the US Supreme Court decision in Gunn v. Minton.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The tug-of-war between antitrust and intellectual property continued Friday, February 9, with the Federal Circuit transferring a Walker Process claim to the Fifth Circuit for lack of jurisdiction. Xitronix Corp. v. KLA-Tencor Corp., Case No. 2016-2746 (Fed. Cir., Feb. 9, 2018) (Moore, J.).
  • In Walker Process, the Supreme Court held that a patent holder may be subject to antitrust liability in a situation where the patent was obtained by knowing and willful fraud on the patent office and all the other necessary elements for a Sherman Act charge are present.
  • Here, Xitronix brought a Walker Process claim alleging KLA fraudulently obtained a patent. Though both parties asserted the Federal Circuit had jurisdiction over the claim, the Federal Circuit disagreed.
  • The Federal Circuit specifically asked for supplemental briefing after oral argument relating to Gunn v. Minton, 568 U.S. 251 (2013), to determine whether jurisdiction in the Federal Circuit was proper. In Gunn, the Court held that though the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over patent issues, the law doesn’t bar other courts from hearing malpractice claims relating to pursuing patents.
  • Citing Gunn v. Minton, the Federal Circuit held that though this case would potentially involve “analysis of the [patent] claims and specifications and may require application of patent claim construction principles,” the federal question jurisdictional statute required more than “mere resolution of a patent issue.”

Thus, finding no “substantial” issue of patent law, the Federal Circuit transferred the claim to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether the patent was procured through fraud in order to illegally create or preserve a monopoly.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Going forward, Walker Process claims will not be heard in the Federal Circuit merely because they require some consideration of a patent issue.
  • Gunn v. Minton continues to narrow the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit. Tangential resolution of a patent dispute is not necessarily enough to invoke Federal Circuit jurisdiction.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Wading into the merging streams of antitrust and patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld dismissal of an antitrust suit where a jury verdict in a parallel case found no patent infringement. Cascades Computer Innovation, LLC v. RPX Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Case No. 16-15782 (9th Cir., December 11, 2017).
  • Cascades Computer Innovation is a non-practicing entity that owns a series of 38 patents (collectively known as the Elbrus portfolio) allegedly used to optimize Android devices. Cascades intended to license these patents for use by companies including Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG Electronics, Dell and RPX (a defensive patent aggregator that purchases patents on behalf of subscriber organizations using membership fees). An agreement couldn’t be reached. Cascades alleged this lack of agreement was due to a conspiracy between the defendants, using RPX, to not seek licenses for use of these patents—an agreement in violation of antitrust law.
  • Cascades filed two related lawsuits against Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others in separate district courts with separate causes of action. In Illinois, Cascades’ claim rested on patent infringement. Although the entire Elbrus portfolio was referenced in the complaint, the court determined only one patent, referred to by the court as “the ‘750 patent,” was truly at issue. Cascades asserted that merely installing the Android mobile device operating system resulted in an infringement of this patent. In California, Cascades relied on antitrust law arguing the agreement between defendants not to purchase licenses amounted to a violation. Again, the ‘750 patent was primarily at issue. Thus, Cascades simultaneously argued that a group of companies infringed on their patent and also that those companies illegally conspired to refuse to obtain licenses for use of that patent.
  • A jury in Illinois determined there was no patent infringement, which undercut Cascades’ argument in California. Without any infringement, the court in California noted “[o]nly those who possess antitrust standing by virtue of having suffered antitrust injury may bring a private action for damages for violation of the antitrust laws” before ruling for the defendants on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The California court reasoned that in order to show antitrust injury, there must be harm to competition, not any particular competitor. The court reasoned that a “failure to license a non-infringed patent typically cannot serve as the basis for a cognizable antitrust injury.” Because Cascades’ entire theory of injury was based upon ongoing infringement of the ‘750 patent, and not on any potential, unalleged future infringement, there was no antitrust injury in the case.
  • On appeal, the 9th Circuit determined the district court “properly recognized the preclusive effect of [the Illinois decision] and correctly reasoned that because the defendants did not infringe the ‘750 patent, Cascades’ failure to license the patent was not a cognizable antitrust injury.” In a footnote, the panel explained, “[h]ere, the defendants were not infringing the valid patent; therefore, they were not using the invention. Thus, the failure to license had no effect on price or quantity of any consumer goods.”
  • In sum, the district court held and the 9th Circuit affirmed that without any infringement there can be no antitrust injury, and thus no antitrust claim.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • While seeking an antitrust remedy where no patent infringement is found represents a relatively novel tactic, alleging an injury without an infringement doesn’t appear to be a winning strategy in private causes of action.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On Friday, October 13, acting FTC chairman Maureen Ohlhausen delivered a speech at the Hillsdale College Free Market Forum titled, “Markets, Government, and the Common Good,” highlighting her view on the intersection between IP and antitrust domestically and abroad.
  • Chairman Ohlhausen’s position, that IP rights must be vigorously protected, is in line with her long-held belief that some enforcement of antitrust laws, especially abroad, has been overzealous when it comes to intellectual property.
  • In 2012, Ohlhausen objected to the FTC’s decision to require Robert Bosch GmbH to refrain from pursuing injunctions on certain SEPs (standard essential patents), and she wrote a dissenting opinion on the commission’s consent agreement with Google Inc. and Motorola Mobility Inc. requiring Google to withdraw claims for injunctive relief on SEPs.
  • In Friday’s speech, she argued that though “foreign [governments] take or allow the taking of American proprietary technologies without due payment,” the US should continue to protect patent rights and avoid punishing a company for “a unilateral refusal to assist its competitors.”
  • Ohlhausen also addressed what she termed the current “age of IP skepticism” as it relates to patent-assertion entities (PAEs).
  • She concluded that while some minor changes may be appropriate to promote innovation in the face of “Litigation PAEs” employing nuisance litigation techniques, these changes should be “narrowly tailored to address observed behavior.”
  • She voiced support for case management practices that could mitigate litigation cost asymmetries between PAE plaintiffs and defendants, increased transparency, and rules encouraging courts to stay litigation by PAEs when parallel proceedings are already underway, but eschewed more drastic measures such as the creation of “new, specialized guidelines to address particular types of IP disputes,” which, she argued, are unsupported by the available evidence.
  • In her view, “the key to addressing the US patent system lies in incremental adjustment where necessary based on a firm empirical foundation.”

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Ohlhausen’s concern that certain antitrust enforcement “inappropriately morphs antitrust law into a tool for price regulation” is a notable policy direction that could make the FTC less inclined to pursue cases involving alleged violations of SEPs.
  • Under her direction, any changes forthcoming at the FTC are likely to be minor adjustments reflecting the belief that protecting patent rights is “fundamental to advanc[ing] innovation.”