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Melanie A. Hallas focuses her practice on antitrust and competition matters. Melanie counsels clients on mergers and acquisitions, as well as on antitrust issues in licensing, distribution, pricing and competitor collaborations. Read Melanie A. Hallas' full bio.

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

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

United States: January – March 2018 Update

One year into the Trump administration, the US antitrust agencies are finally starting to implement their enforcement policies. Most notably, trial began in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger, which is the Antitrust Division’s first significant vertical challenge in several decades. Judge Richard J. Leon’s opinion in that case could alter the outlook for several other vertical transactions pending before the agencies. While the DOJ was preparing for trial, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was preparing for a transition to five new commissioners, who were approved by the Senate in April. It remains unclear whether the new, Republican-led FTC will be more moderate in its enforcement efforts, similar to prior Republican administrations, or will follow in the footsteps of President Trump’s DOJ, which has been surprisingly aggressive.

EU: January – March 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) continued to be quite active in the first quarter of 2018, clearing five mergers. The most significant decision was the approval of a megamerger in the agrochemical sector—Bayer/Monsanto—where the parties submitted a remedy package that totalled over €6 billion. This remedy package included divestitures of research and development assets that addressed the EC’s concerns about innovation, similar to the EC’s Dow/DuPont clearance last year. In addition to Bayer/Monsanto, two other proposed acquisitions in the chemicals sectors fell through, most notably Celanese/Blackstone, due to excessive divestiture requests required by the Commission. Continue Reading Antitrust M&A Snapshot

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT) and its subsidiaries (including Circle K Stores, Inc.) are engaged in the retail sale of gasoline and diesel fuel in the United States, as well as in the operation of convenience stores. ACT is the largest convenience store operator in terms of company-owned stores and is the second-largest chain overall in the United States.
  • Pursuant to an Equity Purchase Agreements, dated July 10, 2017, ACT would acquire, through its wholly owned subsidiary Oliver Acquisition Corp., all of the equity interests of certain Holiday subsidiary companies.
  • The FTC defined the relevant product markets as the retail sale of gasoline and the retail sale of diesel.
  • The FTC defined local geographic markets, identifying ten separate geographic markets in Wisconsin (including Hayward, Siren and Spooner) and Minnesota (including Aitkin, Hibbing, Minnetonka, Mora, Saint Paul and Saint Peter).
  • In its complaint, the FTC stated that the “relevant geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel are highly localized, ranging up to a few miles, depending on local circumstances” and “[e]ach relevant market is distinct and fact-dependent, reflecting the commuting patterns, traffic flows, and outlet characteristics unique to each market.” Additionally, the FTC stated that “[c]onsumers typically choose between nearby retail fuel outlets with similar characteristics along their planned routes.”
  • In its complaint, the FTC alleged that post-merger the transaction would reduce the number of independent competitors from 3-to-2 in five local markets, and from 4-to-3 in five other local markets.
  • The FTC also stated that new entry was unlikely to mitigate the impact of the transaction in these local areas because there are significant entry barriers in the retail gasoline and diesel fuel business, including “the availability of attractive real estate, the time and cost associated with constructing a new retail fuel outlet, and the time associated with obtaining necessary permits and approvals.”
  • The FTC alleged that the proposed acquisition would result in (1) an increased likelihood that ACT and its subsidiaries would unilaterally exercise market power in the relevant markets; and (2) an increased likelihood of collusive or coordinated interaction between the remaining competitors in the relevant markets.
  • The FTC accepted a consent order in which ACT agreed to divest certain of its subsidiary’s and Holiday’s retail fuel outlets and related assets to remedy concern in ten local geographic markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota. ACT must complete the divestiture to a Commission-approved buyer within 120 days after the acquisition closes.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Local geographic markets are highly fact specific. Factors used to determine local geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel include: commuting patterns, traffic flows and outlet characteristics unique to each market.
  • In certain markets where only two or three independent competitors will remain post-transaction, the FTC may allege that the transaction will increase the likelihood of coordination though no collusive or coordinated interaction is alleged. Certain aspects of the fuel industry make it vulnerable to coordination including: (1) competitors can observe each other’s fuel prices easily because retail fuel outlets post their fuel prices on price signs that are visible from the street; and (2) “retail fuel outlets regularly track their competitors’ fuel prices and change their own prices in response.”
  • The FTC and DOJ may not require a buyer-up-front in situations in which they have significant experience in the industries at issue, the assets involved can operate as a stand-alone business, the business is unlikely to be harmed in the period before sale (that is, easy to manage via hold separate), and the asset is a high-value, low-risk asset (e.g., retail fuel business) that is likely to generate substantial interest from more than one potentially acceptable buyer.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT) is a Canadian corporation and is engaged in the retail sale of gasoline and diesel fuel in the United States. Circle K Stores, Inc. (Circle K) is a wholly owned subsidiary of ACT. Circle K indirectly owns all of the membership interests in CrossAmerica GP LLC, CrossAmerica Partners LP’s (CAPL) general partner.
  • Pursuant to three separate Asset Purchase Agreements, dated August 4, 2017, ACT would acquire ownership or operation of all Jet-Pep, Inc. retail fuel outlets. Specifically, Circle K would acquire 18 retail fuel outlets, a fuel terminal and related trucking assets and CAPL would acquire 102 Jet-Pep retail fuel outlets.
  • While the purchases did not require an HSR filing, the FTC learned of the transaction, investigated and required remedies before allowing the transaction to proceed.
  • The FTC defined the relevant product markets as the retail sale of gasoline and the retail sale of diesel.
  • The FTC defined the geographic markets as local markets and identified the three separate geographic markets in Alabama including Brewton, Monroeville and Valley.
  • In its complaint, the FTC alleged that post-merger the “number of competitively constraining independent market participants” would be reduced “to no more than three in each local market.”
  • The FTC alleged that the proposed acquisition would result in (1) an increased likelihood that ACT would unilaterally exercise market power in the relevant markets; and (2) an increased likelihood of collusive or coordinated interaction between the remaining competitors in the relevant markets.
  • The FTC accepted a consent order in which ACT agreed to divest certain Jet-Pep retail fuel outlets and related assets to remedy concern in three local geographic markets in Alabama. ACT must complete the divestiture to a Commission-approved buyer within 120 days after the acquisition closes.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This consent decree is a reminder that even when a transaction is not HSR reportable, the transaction may still be reviewed and challenged by the FTC and DOJ.
  • Local geographic markets are highly fact specific. Factors used to determine local geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel include: commuting patterns, traffic flows and outlet characteristics unique to each market.
  • If the proposed divestiture package is something less than a complete, autonomous and operable business unit, the parties must show that their proposed package will enable the buyer to maintain or restore competition in the market.
  • FTC and DOJ may not require a buyer-up-front where they have significant experience in the industries at issue, and where the ownership interest is a high-value, low-risk asset (e.g., retail fuel business) that is likely to generate substantial interest from more than one potentially acceptable buyer.

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 6, 2016, Danone S.A. (Danone) agreed to acquire The WhiteWave Foods Company (WhiteWave) for $12.5 billion.

WhiteWave is the leading manufacturer of fluid organic milk in the United States and one of the top purchasers of raw organic milk. Danone is the leading US manufacturer of organic yogurt (Stonyfield). Nearly 90 percent of the raw organic milk used by Danone to manufacture organic yogurt is supplied via a strategic agreement by CROPP Cooperative (CROPP). As of 2009, the strategic supply agreement between Danone and CROPP also includes Danone providing CROPP with an exclusive license for the production and sale of Stonyfield branded fluid organic milk.

WhiteWave and CROPP are the two largest purchasers and top competitors for purchasing raw organic milk from farmers in the Northeast US. Additionally, WhiteWave, CROPP and Danone-CROPP are the only nationwide competitors for the sale of fluid organic milk to retailers and have a 91 percent share of nationwide branded fluid organic milk: Horizon (WhiteWave), Organic Valley (CROPP) and Stonyfield (Danone-CROPP). Continue Reading THE LATEST: Entanglements and Concentrated Markets Require Divestiture in the Dairy Industry

A private lawsuit filed by Retrophin Inc. (Retrophin), under then-CEO Martin Shkreli, likely triggered an investigation by the FTC into a consummated transaction.  Both the private lawsuit and the FTC complaint resulted in settlement.  In addition, the FTC levied a $100 million penalty.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In 2013, Questcor Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Questcor) acquired the U.S. rights to Synacthen Depot (Synacthen) from Novartis (Mallinckrodt later acquired Questcor).
  • Questcor’s $135 million deal with Novartis out-bid several companies seeking to acquire Synacthen, including biopharmaceutical company Retrophin, who bid $16 million for the Synacthen license.
  • In 2014, Retrophin (under then-CEO Martin Shkreli) filed suit against Questcor, alleging that the purpose of the transaction between Questcor and Novartis was to eliminate competition for Achthar, Novartis’ ACTH drug used to treat infantile spasms and nephrotic syndrome, by shutting down Synacthen.
  • Retrophin’s case was settled in 2015 with Mallinckrodt (who acquired Questcor in the interim) paying Retrophin $15.5 million.
  • There are reports that the FTC challenged the consummated transaction of Questcor/Novartis following Retophin’s lawsuit. The FTC’s challenge recently resulted in a $100 million monetary payment and licensing of Synacthen for treatment of infantile spasms and nephrotic syndrome to an FTC approved licensee.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Even if a transaction is non-reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act, the FTC or DOJ may open an investigation into the transaction. The Questcor/Novartis transaction was not reported under the then-existing HSR rules because Novartis, the licensor, retained some manufacturing rights to Synacthen.
  • The FTC and DOJ may learn about potentially anticompetitive transactions in numerous ways, including HSR filings, news reports, complaints from disgruntled customers or competitors, private litigation involving the transaction, and as shown here, from the losing bidder.
  • HSR clearance or a determination that a transaction is not HSR reportable does not mean that the transaction is free and clear of government antitrust investigations or private litigation.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has looked at licensing boards many times in the past and advocated for regulations with less restriction that promote competition.  There are numerous examples of antitrust regulators’ interest in occupational licensing and competition concerns, including Advanced Practice Registered Nurses in the VA, non-lawyers in the provision of legal services, and dental regulatory boards.  Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen recently gave a speech at the Antonin Scalia Law School addressing economic liberty, including a critique of occupational licensing where she stated, “I challenge anyone to explain why the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the public from rogue interior designers carpet-bombing living rooms with ugly throw pillows.”

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Acting Chairman Ohlhausen reiterated her view that occupational licensing inhibits economic liberty. “Market dynamics will naturally weed out those who provide a poor service, without danger to the public.  For many other occupations, the costs of added regulation limit the number of providers and drive up prices.  These costs often dwarf any public health or safety need and may actually harm consumers by limiting their access to beneficial services.”
  • In the 1950s, less than five percent of jobs required a license. Today, approximately 25 to 30 percent of jobs require a license.
  • Different states regulate different occupations, and licensing requirements for the same occupations often vary significantly among states.
  • In her speech, Acting Chairman Ohlhausen said she is creating an Economic Liberty Task Force within the FTC. This task force will focus on occupational licensing regulations.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • We will likely see an increase in FTC actions involving licensing boards, such as in North Carolina Dental, where it is not the state itself acting but self-interested active market incumbents who impose occupational licensing requirements that limit competition.
  • The FTC Task Force will seek to “eliminate and narrow overbroad occupational licensing restrictions that are not narrowly tailored to satisfy legitimate health and safety goals.”
  • The FTC will help states identify problematic occupational licensing and reforms that promote reciprocity among states. We could see a roll back of occupational regulations.
  • Licensing boards and those who are involved in licensing regulations should examine the ways in which the regulation affects or could affect competition, whether there is evidence that a regulation is necessary to achieve the targeted policy goal, whether the regulation is narrowly tailored to meet the policy goal, and whether a less restrictive alternative is available to achieve the policy goal and benefit competition.