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Mary Strimel advises and defends clients on mergers, acquisitions, criminal price-fixing, class actions and other antitrust investigations before the US Department of Justice, the US Federal Trade Commission, and state and federal courts. Her criminal and civil antitrust work has spanned a wide range of industries, including transportation, software, financial markets, data publishing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, glass, industrial products, alcoholic beverages and telecommunications. Read Mary Strimel's full bio.

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.

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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.

To date, the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) has obtained six corporate guilty pleas, three individual indictments and one individual guilty plea in its long-running investigation into price fixing of capacitors by primarily Japanese manufacturers. Capacitors are small electronic components that are found in nearly every device that is plugged in or powered by a battery.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • In a May 24 sentencing hearing, the DOJ took sharp criticism from Judge James Donato (NDCA) for what he called a “sweetheart deal” by DOJ in its plea agreement with Matsuo Electric Co. The plea called for payment of a $4.17 million fine to be paid over five years.
  • The deal, reached at the same time as an individual plea of Matsuo’s former sales manager Satoshi Okubo, was one that DOJ had touted, arguing that “[t]he simultaneous acceptance of responsibility by a company and the executive who supervised its involvement in the cartel demonstrates in a concrete way their future commitment to lawful conduct and an improved business culture.”
  • Judge Donato saw it another way, arguing that he “didn’t like the idea of corporations holding individuals out to dry in return for leniency.” This comment came in reference to the assertion that Okubo had been asked to serve a one-year prison term so the company would get a lesser sentence.
  • The court did not throw out Matsuo’s sentence altogether, but requested further details about the company’s financial resources so that it could decide whether to accept the corporate plea agreement, in particular the extended payment term. Okubo was sentenced in February.
  • In previous sentencings, Judge Donato had imposed terms of probation on the corporations exceeding those requested by DOJ.

Continue Reading Individual Accountability Likely to Continue for Cartel Enforcement

Companies are increasingly facing parallel proceedings involving government investigations and follow-on private litigation. These complex cases often involve competing interests between the parties that can influence a judge’s determination on discovery timing and process.

  • Private plaintiffs are incentivized to obtain as much information about the case as early as possible to support their allegations and avoid having the case dismissed on summary judgment.
  • Defendants hope to delay, or save altogether, the expenditure of potentially millions in discovery costs.

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

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division (the Division) offers leniency to the first company to contact the Division and acknowledge participation in an antitrust conspiracy such as price-fixing, bid-rigging or market allocation. The Division’s leniency program requires the applicant to fully cooperate with the government’s investigation and to candidly acknowledge its wrongdoing, among other requirements. In return, the successful applicant receives a pass from corporate criminal exposure and also receives immunity for its officers, directors and executives.

The leniency program is the crown jewel of the Division’s enforcement regime because of its demonstrated success generating new cases. The program’s ability to attract applicants is based on its transparency and predictability. The level of trust required for companies to air their criminal wrongdoing to prosecuting authorities is not automatic. It has been earned over the years by a program that keeps its promises and works as designed. Therefore, changes to the program are closely watched by the defense bar for any perceived lessening of immunity coverage. Continue Reading THE LATEST: Acting AAG Clarifies Scope of Amnesty for Executives

We reported earlier on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and its legal and practical authority to review M&A transactions for possible risks to US national security posed by foreign ownership of a US business. Sens. Cornyn (R-TX) and Schumer (D-NY) reportedly are working separately on legislation to strengthen CFIUS, which could directly affect some cross-border M&A. Sen. Cornyn’s proposed changes to CFIUS would target Chinese technology investments while Sen. Schumer’s bill would encourage CFIUS to look at economic implications as part of its review.  These legislative efforts follow a bipartisan Congressional request in late Fall 2016 for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to update its periodic analysis of CFIUS, urging the GAO to evaluate the possible expansion of factors considered by CFIUS in its M&A reviews to cover investment reciprocity and net economic benefits.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Now Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) have introduced legislation that would add the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services as voting members of CFIUS. The bill would also direct CFIUS to consider matters of food security, access and safety when it reviews overseas acquisitions of US firms.
  • Though CFIUS may already consider food security as an element of national security, the new proposal would at a minimum enhance this factor. Stabenow said in a statement introducing the bill, “As foreign entities continue their aggressive acquisitions of US food and agriculture companies, it’s imperative that these transactions face additional scrutiny.”

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • More broadly, the bipartisan legislative activity suggests an increased likelihood that CFIUS reform will gain traction in the Congress. Further support for broadening the scope and force of CFIUS may come from the Trump Administration, which would be consistent with its “America first” trade policy.
  • Any businesses with planned or pending cross-border M&A activity in the US, including those in the agribusiness sector, should monitor these developments.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS, commonly pronounced “syphius”) reviews M&A transactions that may pose a risk to national security through foreign control of a US business.  (See our recent article).  CFIUS is composed of members from the Departments of Treasury (chair), Homeland Security, State, Defense and other agencies.  It has the power to recommend to the President that a transaction be stopped, and is well known for its reviews of the Dubai Ports World and IBM/Lenovo deals, both of which it approved (though the former was terminated because of strong political opposition).  By law, its process is fairly secretive, although it holds itself to tight deadlines for issuing final recommendations.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • As reported February 21, Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Schumer (D-NY) are separately working on legislation that would strengthen CFIUS’ hand in reviewing proposed acquisitions.
  • In the face of skyrocketing investment by Chinese companies in US firms, Senator Cornyn’s bill would require CFIUS to look harder at proposed Chinese acquisitions of US technology companies.
  • Reportedly, Senator Schumer’s bill would take a different tack, requiring CFIUS to consider economic implications in addition to national security concerns as part of its review. Currently CFIUS’ mandate is restricted to considering national security issues that may include national defense, technological leadership, critical infrastructure, foreign government influence and export controls compliance.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Companies considering sensitive cross-border transactions involving US business should watch any proposed legislation closely.
  • The Trump Administration has not yet addressed these specific legislative ideas, but President Trump may be likely to support legislation that furthers his “Buy American, Hire American” theme.
  • Currently CFIUS can initiate review of a deal either by voluntary disclosure from the parties or on its own initiative, even post-closing. Thus, any legislation that broadens CFIUS’ mandate or that alters the voluntary nature of self-notifying, could add a significant regulatory burden to cross-border transactions.
  • CFIUS’ current investigative timeline of 30 days (initial review) plus 45 days (investigation if concerns exist) looks unlikely to change and will continue to provide some regulatory certainty for parties.

There have been a series of investigations, class action suits and high value settlements involving agreements not to solicit employees. In addition, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division made a splash a few months ago when it announced that it would criminally investigate and prosecute employers that engage in certain “naked” no-poach or wage-fixing agreements.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Employees filed a civil class action against the Carl’s Jr. hamburger chain because of a no-hire provision in its franchisee agreements.
  • The plaintiffs allege that Carl Karcher Enterprises (CKE), the franchisor, includes the no-hire provisions in its standard agreement to prevent its restaurants from hiring each other’s shift leaders. According to the complaint, the clause appears in the same part of the agreement that also prevents franchisees from competing for each other’s customers.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The plaintiffs’ bar continues to view employee no-hire/non-solicitation agreements as a profitable area to bring class actions.
  • The DOJ’s policy guidance states that only “naked” agreements among employers will justify criminal enforcement. This means agreements that are not ancillary to some other joint competitive activity. Here, the restraint is arguably ancillary to operating a franchise chain.
  • Plaintiffs’ success likely will hinge on whether they can show that the agreement between the franchisor and its franchisees is really among separate entities rather than a single economic unit under the Copperweld
  • The Franchisor’s business justifications also are likely to be important as this litigation progresses.
  • Companies need to be sensitive to employment restrictions involving other employees such as non-solicitation or no-hire agreements.