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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.

A recent settlement shows that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will use its enforcement authority to target employer collusion in the labor market.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • The FTC brought a complaint against a medical staffing agency, Your Therapy Source, LLC, and the owner of a competing staffing agency, Integrity Home Therapy, for allegedly agreeing to reduce the rates they would pay to their staff. Simultaneously, the FTC settled the case with a consent order that forbids the parties from any future attempt to exchange pay information or to agree on the wages to be paid to their staffs.
  • This was the first FTC wage-fixing enforcement action since the FTC and US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued their joint Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals in October 2016. That guidance stated that naked wage-fixing and no-poach agreements—e.g., agreements separate from or not reasonably necessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers—are per se illegal under the Sherman Act.
  • The respondents in the Your Therapy Source case are staffing agencies that allegedly provided therapists such as physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists to home health agencies on a contract basis. The respondents were responsible for recruiting the therapists and paying them a “pay rate” per visit or per patient.
  • According to the complaint, the alleged unlawful agreement began when one home health agency unilaterally notified Integrity that it was going to reduce the “bill rates” that it paid Integrity for its therapists, thus cutting into Integrity’s profit margins. Integrity’s owner then reached out through one of his therapists to the owner of Your Therapy Source and the two exchanged information about their respective rates paid to therapists. The two firms then reached an agreement via text message to reduce the rates they paid therapists.
  • Once the respondents had reached the agreement to reduce therapists’ pay, Integrity’s owner allegedly reached out via text to four other competing therapy-staffing agencies to solicit their participation in the agreement.
  • The FTC’s complaint alleged that this conduct violated Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • Wage-fixing cases have been notable in the health care industry, with prior DOJ enforcement against a hospital buying group and several class actions against health care providers in the 2000s that alleged the fixing of nurses’ pay.
  • Companies should strictly avoid colluding with other firms on wages, salaries, fringe benefits or other remuneration paid to workers. Companies should also exercise extreme caution in information exchanges regarding wages and benefits, which can lead to improper agreements or result in independent antitrust liability if not properly supervised.
  • Firms should be mindful of the DOJ/FTC’s joint guidance on information sharing in the health care industry (see link at p. 50), which also provides a useful template for how the US antitrust agencies will analyze information sharing more generally. The joint guidance provides a safety zone for wage, salary and benefit surveys where:
    • The survey is managed by a third party
    • The information provided by survey participants is more than 3 months old
    • There are at least five providers reporting data on which each statistic is based, no individual provider’s data represents more than 25 percent on a weighted basis of that statistic, and any information disseminated is sufficiently aggregated that it would not allow recipients to identify the prices charged or compensation paid by any particular provider.
  • Although FTC’s settlement in this matter was civil in nature, these same facts could also have led to a criminal investigation by the DOJ Antitrust Division. The agencies’ 2016 Human Resources Guidance specified that naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements among employers could be prosecuted criminally. More recently, the DOJ has stated that it has several criminal investigations open into employer collusion in the labor market.

WHAT HAPPENED

In March, we discussed the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s move to update its standard consent decree language to enhance decree enforceability. Among other things, the changes:

  • Reduced the burden of proof for DOJ to demonstrate a decree violation in court, and
  • Shifted DOJ’s attorney’s fees to the losing party in the event that a decree enforcement action became necessary.

Now, DOJ Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim has further intensified the Division’s compliance focus by announcing the creation of an Office of Decree Enforcement at the Division (Office). The Office would have “the sole goal to ensure compliance with, and enforcement of, [Antitrust Division] decrees.” Continue Reading THE LATEST: DOJ Continues Its Intense Focus on Decree Compliance

According to press reports, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating several issues related to admission of students to institutions of higher learning.

  • In January, reports emerged that DOJ was investigating whether the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC’s) ethical guidelines violate the antitrust laws. The DOJ appeared to be concerned about an agreement not to recruit students who have enrolled, registered, declared their intent or submitted deposits to other institutions. This could affect so-called early decision programs, under which students pledge to attend a particular school in return for early consideration of their applications. Although early decision programs have existed for many years, the DOJ could be concerned about schools putting “teeth” into such programs by agreeing with each other not to recruit or accept students who pledge to enroll at other schools.
  • In early April, the Wall Street Journal reported that the DOJ had sent letters to a number of colleges and universities asking that they preserve emails and other messages detailing agreements with other schools regarding their communications with one another about admitted students and how they might use that information. The request suggests that the DOJ could be concerned that schools are unlawfully coordinating with one another regarding admission of students, limiting competition among themselves for the highest-performing students.

The DOJ’s nascent activity follows in the footsteps of other antitrust cases in higher education that have alleged horizontal trade restraints. These cases have involved financial aid, faculty hiring and coordinated application processes. The nub of DOJ’s interest is that the Sherman Act requires higher education institutions to compete for students and faculty in much the same way as ordinary businesses must compete for their customers and workers. Courts have acknowledged that some aspects of higher education differ from ordinary commerce and are subject to less rigorous rules than other types of trade restraints. However, as to the core matters of competing for students and faculty, colleges and universities should strictly avoid agreements that limit rivalry among them.   Continue Reading DOJ Enforcement Update: Higher Education

WHAT HAPPENED

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) implemented new provisions in merger consent decrees that:

  • Make it easier for DOJ to prove violations of a consent decree and hold parties in contempt;
  • Allow DOJ to apply for an extension of the decree’s term if the court finds a violation; and
  • Shift DOJ’s attorneys’ fees and costs for successful enforcement onto the parties.

DOJ has implemented these provisions in four decrees to date1, and has communicated that it will require the same in future decrees.

WHAT THIS MEANS

For merger decrees, by reducing its burden of proof for decree violations, DOJ is shifting additional risk to parties for divestitures that do not go as planned. Willfulness is not a required element of civil contempt2, so the change to the burden of proof is significant. Parties will need to be sure to commit to realistic divestiture timelines and asset packages that will not present undue implementation challenges.

For non-merger decrees, settling parties will need to remain vigilant against decree violations or even the appearance of them, as the DOJ has ratcheted up its ability to obtain large settlements and civil penalties for violations.

THE CHANGES

The DOJ states that its changes are driven by the principle that antitrust enforcement is law enforcement, not regulation3. Nonetheless, the main impact of the changes is to increase the risk and potential cost on merging parties.

Preponderance Is Now Enough: Reversing the “clear and convincing evidence” standard that has been in place for civil contempt cases since at least the 1960s4, DOJ is now requiring settling parties to agree that a preponderance of the evidence will be enough for a showing of civil contempt and for an appropriate remedy. DOJ states that under the old standard, the DOJ frequently had to engage in extensive discovery when faced with a violation, giving the parties an incentive to hold out from a resolution and “exacerbate the situation.”5 Under a preponderance of the evidence standard, it will be easier for the DOJ to bring an enforcement action without conducting a full CID investigation.

Fee-Shifting Now the Norm: The DOJ now requires the shifting of fees and costs to the parties in the event a violation is proven. DOJ states that fee-shifting provisions are standard fare in many private contracts. Their use by DOJ is designed to discourage violations of consent decrees and speed resolution of disputes.

DOJ Can Request Extension of Decrees: Settling parties must now agree that in the event a court finds a violation, DOJ can request a one-time extension of the decree’s term. The extension that DOJ can request is not time-limited, and the new language does not set forth a standard for when the court should grant DOJ’s request. For decrees that involve costly monitoring and affirmative compliance, this open-ended provision may greatly raise the cost of disputing an alleged violation.

CONCLUSION

The DOJ’s new provisions shift risk and cost to settling parties in the event of a dispute over alleged violations of a decree. Merging parties may disagree about whether these changes further the administration’s deregulatory agenda. Nonetheless, the changes are here to stay, and parties are advised to proceed with appropriate caution in (1) agreeing to realistic divestiture timelines and asset packages and (2) implementing comprehensive decree compliance programs to avoid investigation for an actual or perceived violation.


  1. See Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v Vulcan Materials Company (Dec. 22, 2017); Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v TransDigm Group Incorporated (Dec. 21, 2017); Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v Parker-Hannifin Corporation (Dec. 18, 2017); Plaintiff United States’ and Defendant ABI’s Joint Motion and Memorandum for Entry of Modified Proposed Final Judgment, U.S. v. Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, 1:16-cv-01483 (Mar. 15, 2018).
  2. See McComb v. Jacksonville Paper Co., 336 U.S. 187 (1949).
  3. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew C. Finch, Remarks to New York State Bar Association Antitrust Section, Jan. 25, 2018, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/file/1028896/download
  4. See, e.g., Schauffler ex rel. NLRB v. Local 1291, International Longshoremen’s Assoc., 292 F.2d 182 (3rd Cir. 1961).
  5. Supra note ii.

In the course of one week, two top level DOJ Antitrust officials in the Trump Administration separately spoke at panels and suggested the possibility of a sea change in federal antitrust law with respect to indirect purchaser lawsuits. The comments further reinforce the Administration’s active focus on antitrust issues.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Makan Delrahim, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division (the Division), spoke at a conference organized by the Antitrust Research Foundation on January 19, 2018, and is reported to have stated that the Division was looking into the possibility of pursuing civil damages on behalf of taxpayers in antitrust price-fixing suits.
  • A few days later, on January 23, 2018, Andrew Finch, DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, spoke at a Heritage Foundation conference and reportedly stated that the Division was “looking at whether or not it might be worthwhile to revisit those rules and suggest the same to the Supreme Court,” referencing the landmark decision Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, which prohibits indirect purchasers from recovering antitrust damages under federal antitrust law.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Trump DOJ’s Next Target: the Illinois Brick Indirect Purchaser Rule?

On November 29, 2017, a Japanese auto parts manufacturer and its US subsidiary defeated the US Department of Justice’s claims that the companies conspired with others to fix prices and rig bids for automotive body sealing products. The case involved a rare trial involving criminal antitrust charges. After 13 days of trial, a jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. and its subsidiary, Green Tokai Co. Ltd. Continue Reading.

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.

Continue Reading

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