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Government Amicus Efforts Show Antitrust Policy Via Advocacy

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division has significantly ramped up its private litigation amicus program.

The Antitrust Division has filed an increasing number of amicus briefs and statements of interest at the appellate and district court levels in an effort to influence the development of antitrust law. In this articles, featured in Law 360, our authors explore how analysis of this advocacy may give us the shape of antitrust policy.

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DOJ Will Not Challenge COVID-19 Response Distribution Collaboration

The United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) has issued a second Business Review Letter pursuant to the expedited review process it announced on March 24, 2020 to review conduct related to COVID-19 within seven days. The letter released on April 20, 2020 issued to AmerisourceBergen Corporation, which follows a letter issued last week to medical/surgical distributors, again shows the DOJ is open to creative solutions that combat COVID-19, especially when those solutions are “focused on facilitating the government’s efforts” to get medical supplies where they are needed most.

The Business Review Letter states that the DOJ has no present intention to challenge AmerisourceBergen’s collaboration with federal government agencies, including FEMA and HHS and other private sector distributors to ensure supply and facilitate distribution of medications and other healthcare products to treat COVID-19 patients.

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Price Gouging in the Crosshairs During COVID-19

In the midst of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, states are closely monitoring companies’ pricing of personal protective equipment, food and other essential supplies. Our latest post offers an overview of state price gouging laws and practical considerations for businesses as they face supply pressures and increased consumer demand.

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EU Commission Issues Another Fine for Restrictions on Cross-Border Licensed Merchandise Sales

The European Commission has reiterated its position that if a business allows for the non-exclusive licensing of its products in the EEA, such licensor can no longer control where, to whom, and in what manner (online/off-line) the products can be sold within the EEA.

On 30 January 2020, the Commission fined NBCUniversal Media, LLC, and other Comcast Group companies (collectively, NBCUniversal) EUR 14.327 million for restricting licensees from selling licensed products across customer groups and across countries within the European Economic Area (EEA). This is the third time in one year that the Commission has fined a brand owner for such restrictions, following Nike and Sanrio.

Although agreements restricting out-of-territory sales (i.e., market partitioning by territory) have long been prohibited under Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the Commission’s increased enforcement activity on vertical restraints is remarkable.

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THE LATEST: California Jury Rejects Robinson-Patman Act Claim Against 5-hour Energy Maker

Family-owned wholesalers brought a Robinson-Patman claim against the maker of 5-hour Energy alleging discounts given to Costco amounted to illegal price discrimination. A jury in California rejected the claim after a fact-intensive analysis of competition and potential antitrust injury.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • After seven hours of deliberations, a California jury decided that Living Essentials LLC, the maker of 5-hour Energy, did not engage in illegal price discrimination under the Robinson-Patman Act. U.S. Wholesale Outlet & Distribution, Inc. v. Innovation Ventures, LLC et al., No. 2:18-cv-01077 (C.D.Ca. Oct. 21, 2019).
  • Plaintiff wholesalers argued that the rebates and discounts Living Essentials offered to Costco on the list price for 5-hour Energy amounted to price discrimination.
    • The family-owned wholesalers have endured a steady decline since 2012 in their sales of 5-hour Energy, a decline they claimed accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales for a product with annual retail sales of more than $1 billion.
    • They attribute this decline to unfair price discrimination that provided a competitive advantage to Costco, allowing the membership-only warehouse club to offer the product for less than its competitors. According to plaintiffs, Costco received as much as a 26-cent discount on each 5-hour Energy bottle compared to the wholesalers. The 26-cent discount resulted from a combination of spoilage allowances, early payment discounts and indirect advertisement discounts (including promotion in Costco mailers and at fences and endcaps). The wholesalers alleged this unfair price discrimination created a reasonable possibility of harm to competition.
  • Living Essentials countered that the wholesale distributors are not competitors with Costco and that there was no competitive injury.
    • Living Essentials argued the plaintiff wholesalers did not provide the economic analysis necessary to show actual competition between Costco and the wholesalers, despite having access to the kind of data necessary for such an analysis. Instead, the wholesalers relied on hearsay testimony from customers claiming they purchased 5-hour Energy from both the wholesalers and Costco.
    • Living Essentials pointed to the different products and services available from Costco compared to the wholesalers and argued that it did not view Costco as a vehicle for getting its product into convenience stores—a particularly important method of distribution. Living Essentials offered discounts to wholesalers who purchased 5-hour Energy displays and racks to encourage those wholesalers to resell these products to convenience store customers who would place the displays and racks on their counters. Living Essentials never sold these displays and racks to Costco.
    • Any loss of customers for 5-hour Energy, defendants argued, could be due to store cleanliness, professionalism, free shipping, rewards programs or a number of other reasons beyond the discounts and rebates Living Essentials offered to Costco.
    • Without proof of diverted customers, there was no way to know whether customers lost by these wholesalers went to Costco rather than other competitors in the area, such as Sam’s Club, McLane, or other wholesalers.
  • The jury sided with Living Essentials and found that it had not engaged in illegal price discrimination.

WHAT [...]

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Annual EU Competition Review 2018

McDermott’s Annual EU Competition Review summarizes key developments in EU competition rules. During the previous year, several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission. There were also many interesting cases decided by the General Court and the Court of Justice of the European Union. All these new rules and judicial decisions may be relevant for your company and your day-to-day practice.

In our super-connected age, we can be inundated by information from numerous sources and it is difficult to select what is really relevant to one’s business. The purpose of this review is to help general counsel and their teams to be aware of the essential updates.

This review was prepared by the Firm’s European Competition Team in Brussels, Paris and Germany.

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Advocate General Wahl Delivers Opinion on Legality of Bans on Online Sales via Third-Party Platforms in Selective Distribution Systems

According to Advocate General Nils Wahl’s opinion, delivered on July 26, in the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) case Coty Germany GmbH v Parfümerie Akzente GmbH (case C-230/16), suppliers of luxury goods may prohibit their authorized retailers from selling their goods via third-party internet platforms. Such bans do not necessarily infringe Article 101(1) of the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (which prohibits anticompetitive agreements).

Background of the Case

On July 16, 2016, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt lodged a request for a preliminary ruling with the CJEU asking whether selective distribution systems that serve to ensure a “luxury image” for the goods constitute an aspect of competition that is compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU and, whether bans on sales via third-party internet platforms constitute a restriction “by object” and should be viewed as “hardcore restrictions” under the Commission’s Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation (VBER).

The initial dispute arose when Coty, a supplier of luxury cosmetics in Germany, brought an action against one of its authorized retailers, Parfümerie Akzente, for having infringed a provision in Coty’s selective distribution agreement that prohibited the retailers from distributing the luxury products via third-party platforms, such as Amazon, in order to preserve the brand image. The agreement provided that the authorized retailers could only sell the products online through an “electronic store window,” provided that the luxury character of the products was preserved. (more…)




European Commission Final Report on E-Commerce Sector Inquiry

On 10 May 2017, the European Commission published its final report on the e-commerce sector inquiry. The report is divided into two sections, covering e-commerce issues in relation to consumer goods and digital content. It also identifies business practices that might restrict competition and limit consumer choice. It would be advisable for e-commerce businesses to review their commercial practices and revise them as necessary in light of the Commission’s stated aim of targeting e-commerce business practices that may negatively impact the functioning of the Digital Single Market.

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THE LATEST: Tenth Circuit Sides with Defendants in $200 Million Sutures Bundling Case

In an antitrust case involving bundled discount on sutures, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a lower court decision granting summary judgment in favor of defendants Cardinal Health 200, LLC and Owens & Micro Distribution, Inc.  The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff-Appellant Suture Express, Inc. could not prove that the defendants individually possessed market power and that it had not demonstrated that defendants caused substantial adverse effects on competition.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • Suture Express, a distributor focused on the sale of sutures, sued Cardinal Health and Owens & Micro, which are national distributors of a broad array of medical-surgical products, claiming that they had engaged in illegal tying through their practice of bundling sutures with other medical-surgical products in a manner that penalized customers that purchased sutures from other suppliers.
  • The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and the lower court granted summary judgment to the defendants.  The court held that Suture Express’ claims failed as a matter of law because it could not prove that the defendants individually possessed market power.  The court also held that Suture Express could not meet the antitrust injury requirement because it had not shown that competition had been harmed.
  • The Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  On the issue of market power, the appellate court agreed with the lower courts’ findings that the defendants’ market shares on the alleged tying products (medical-surgical products excluding sutures) were relatively low (31 percent and 38 percent), there were many examples of customers switching to other distributors, and the defendants’ declining profit margins on medical-surgical products excluding sutures demonstrated that the defendants did not have the ability to control prices.
  • With respect to antitrust injury, the Tenth Circuit stated that the antitrust laws are meant to protect competition, not individual competitors.  The appellate court noted that despite the fact that roughly half of the market was not constrained by the bundling arrangement at issue, Suture Express accounted for a relatively small portion of this piece of the market.  This raised the question of whether it was just Suture Express that was harmed as opposed to competition generally.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • Establishing market power when defendants have relatively low market shares is difficult.  While market shares in and of themselves are not determinative of whether market power exists, the courts give market shares significant weight and when evidence of low market shares is combined with the other factors the Tenth Circuit found here, it is difficult for a plaintiff to meet its burden.
  • Vertical pricing arrangements that offer discounts to customers, even if associated with a bundling arrangement, are often viewed as procompetitive.  A plaintiff has the difficult burden of showing that a defendant’s bundle creates anticompetitive effects that outweigh its procompetitive effects.  The plaintiff must demonstrate that the arrangement caused harm not only to the plaintiff, but to competition as a whole.  Even if a plaintiff finds it difficult to compete against a defendant’s bundle, if [...]

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Online Sales Restrictions Remain a Hot Topic: UK CMA Issues Statement of Objections

On 9 June 2016, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued a statement of objections (SO) to Ping Europe Limited (Ping), a golf equipment manufacturer, alleging that Ping had breached EU and UK competition law by banning the sale of its golf clubs online.

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