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Expect More Criminal Enforcement & What You Can Do to Minimize Your Risk

OVERVIEW

Antitrust cartel and related collusive scheme enforcement is poised to increase. Several factors support this: (1) the Antitrust Division (the Division) has a 10% budget increase for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021; (2) proposed legislation that would increase its budget by $300 million; (3) Democratic administrations have traditionally been more aggressive in enforcing antitrust laws; (4) according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), last year the Division opened the most grand jury investigations in almost 20 years and by the end of 2020 had the most open grand jury investigations in a decade; (5) increased coordination with international law enforcement agencies, including the Division recently signing a number of cross-border agreements, maintaining active memberships in multilateral organizations dedicated to cross-border antitrust enforcement cooperation and a DOJ official recently noting they have been working at strengthening their relationships with international law enforcement agencies during the pandemic and they expect this to benefit international coordination on investigations and (6) as pandemic limitations on in-person investigative tactics subside (including search warrants and knock and talk interviews, among others), expect a return to overt tactics related to open grand jury investigations.

Historically, cartel enforcement has increased following economic downturns and substantial federal stimulus packages. For example, after the 2008 financial crisis and the 2009 Recovery Act, the DOJ filed 60% more criminal cases than in prior years. We expect this trend to continue in the wake of the unprecedented government stimulus packages passed in 2020 and 2021 and additional potential government spending on infrastructure. In addition to the increased resources, the Division has stepped up its criminal enforcement program with the creation and recent expansion of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), the expansion of criminal investigations and prosecutions into labor markets, higher expectations for corporate cooperators and new potential benefits for corporate entities with compliance programs addressing antitrust violations.

Below we discuss the sectors most likely to be implicated by increased criminal antitrust enforcement, the PCSF and what steps can be taken to prepare and minimize risk in this environment.

EXPECTED INDUSTRY FOCUS

Based on the trends described above and our recent experience at the DOJ, we expect antitrust criminal enforcement to focus in at least the following industries:

  • Healthcare – The DOJ remains active in this sector with its ongoing generics investigations and prosecutions and other cases relating to market allocation and labor markets. In fact, all of the charged labor market cases thus far have been in the healthcare industry. The DOJ has stated that investigations and prosecutions for violations in the healthcare sector remain its top focus and stimulus spending will likely serve to increase the DOJ’s attention to healthcare markets. Although healthcare compliance policies have often focused on other fraud and abuse issues, such as the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Law, compliance with antitrust laws – including for human resources – is now more critical than ever. In addition, the recently signed Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act significantly narrows the exemption [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q4 2020

In the United States, despite initial obstacles because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 rounded out to be the busiest year for mergers and acquisitions (M&A) enforcement in nearly two decades. In the fourth quarter, US agencies challenged five transactions. November 2020 saw the most premerger filings in any month since 2001. Mergers and filings in the United States are predicted to remain at high levels into the new year in light of the current economic climate. The antitrust agencies have continued to maintain that their evaluation and investigation of anticompetitive harm will remain rigorous despite the uncertain times.

In Europe, the European Commission (EC) and the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had a busy last quarter of 2020. The EC completed several in-depth investigations, including the Fiat Chrysler/Peugeot merger. The EC approved this transaction with behavioural remedies. With respect to policy and legislative developments, the EC published the much-anticipated draft of the Digital Markets Act, which is intended to regulate the market behaviour of large online platforms which act as “gatekeepers” in digital markets. Given the end of the transition period for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the CMA published a guidance paper explaining how it will conduct its work following Brexit.

Access the full issue.




Enforcement Agencies Announce Moratorium on Early Termination Program for Merger Reviews

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a joint statement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on February 4, 2021, signaling comprehensive changes to the merger review process. In a significant development, the agencies declared a moratorium on the early termination program for merger reviews. This policy shift signals a potential sea change in antitrust enforcement under the Biden administration.

The Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Premerger Notification program imposes an initial 30-day waiting period, prior to merger consummation, during which the enforcement agencies have an opportunity to evaluate the likely effects of the proposed merger and decide whether to investigate further by issuing a Second Request or ending the HSR review by letting the initial 30-day waiting period expire.

A third potential outcome of the initial 30-day waiting period is early termination. The early termination program under the HSR Act was originally established as an exception to an HSR review if the relevant parties demonstrated a “special business reason.” This policy was reversed after Heublein v. FTC (1982) and since that time early termination of the initial 30-day waiting period has become commonplace if the merger does not merit further review (in 2019 early termination was requested in 74.2% of transactions and granted in 73.5% of those instances). Further review would be merited, if the enforcement agencies determined the transaction posed a risk of a substantial lessening of competition under the Clayton Act.

Pursuant to the moratorium on early terminations, merging parties must now refrain from consummating any proposed transaction for the full initial 30-day waiting period—early termination is not a potential outcome.

The joint statement regarding the early termination moratorium provided the following justifications:

  • The early termination review was precipitated because of the transition to a new presidential administration as well as an “unprecedented volume” of HSR filings;
  • The above factors warrant the use of the full 30-day window to allow the agencies to do “right by competition and consumers;”
  • The suspension of the early termination program “will be brief.”

Past pauses in early terminations coincided with extraordinary circumstances such as the move to an e-filing system at the Premerger Notification Office (PNO) at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic (paused from March 13, 2020, until March 30, 2020) or during periods of government shutdown. However, this current pause appears likely to endure longer than these past instances, given that this pause is driven by the confluence of a number of factors, beyond what was indicated in the joint statement, such as:

  • A longstanding agency funding drought resulting in understaffing
  • Transitioning to a new presidential administration
  • A desire to engage in more expansive investigations under the new Biden administration
  • A large influx in HSR filings in recent months (on pace for a 60% increase in 2021)

From the agencies’ point of view, these changes are necessary to meet their mandate of preventing unfair competition and anticompetitive practices. With agency resources stretched thin due to budget constraints, in addition to an increased [...]

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Notification Threshold under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act Decreased to $92 Million

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) yesterday released decreased thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR). The thresholds are indexed to changes in the gross national product (GNP). They normally increase year over year but have decreased this year because of the economic impacts of COVID-19. We last saw a decrease in connection with the 2008 recession.

Notification Threshold Adjustments

The FTC announced revised thresholds for the HSR pre-merger notifications on February 1, 2021. These decreased thresholds were published in the Federal Register on February 2, 2021, and will become effective on March 4, 2021. These new thresholds apply to any transaction that closes on or after the effective date:

  • The base filing threshold, which frequently determines whether a transaction requires the filing of an HSR notification, will decrease to $92 million.
  • The alternative statutory size-of-transaction test, which captures all transactions valued above a certain size (even if the “size-of-person” threshold is not met), will be adjusted to $368 million.
  • The statutory size-of-person thresholds will decrease slightly to $18.4 million and $184 million.

The adjustments will affect parties contemplating HSR notifications in various ways. Transactions that do not meet the current “size-of-transaction” threshold, but will meet the revised $92 million threshold, will only need to be filed if they will close after the new thresholds take effect.

The adjustments may affect HSR filing fees for certain transactions. Under the rules, the acquiring person must pay a filing fee, although the parties may allocate that fee amongst themselves. Filing fees for HSR-reportable transactions will remain unchanged; however, the size of transactions subject to the filing fee tiers will shift downward as a result of the GNP-indexing adjustments:

Filing Fee Size of Transaction $45,000 $92 million, but less than $184 million $125,000 $184 million, but less than $919.9 million $280,000 $919.9 million or more.



2020 Health Antitrust Year in Review

The federal antitrust enforcement agencies brought three hospital merger challenges and three criminal antitrust enforcement actions in healthcare in the past year. Combined with the incoming Democratic administration, healthcare antitrust enforcement is likely to remain strong in 2021.

Our Health Antitrust Year in Review:

  • Examines specific antitrust challenges and enforcement actions that impacted hospitals and health systems, payors and other healthcare companies in 2020;
  • Offers lessons learned from these developments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic; and
  • Provides analysis of the enforcement trends, federal guidelines and state policy updates that are likely to shape the healthcare antitrust landscape in 2021.

Alexandra Lewis, an incoming associate in our Chicago office, also contributed to this Special Report.

Read the full report.




Health Antitrust Litigation Update for Providers | 2020

In 2019, the total number of antitrust cases filed against providers dropped to 20 after the 2018 bump (27 cases). In the latest Health Antitrust Litigation Update for Providers, we discuss what kinds of cases were brought over the past two years and how they were decided, and what cases warrant particular attention in 2020.

Read the full report.




Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2020

In the United States, mergers and acquisitions appear to be bouncing back after a muted start to the year due to COVID-19. Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) filings in Q3 2020 were up significantly over Q2, but still down from the mergers & acquisitions (M&A) boom we saw in Q3 and Q4 of 2019. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, we also saw significant developments in the approaches taken by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) in reviewing proposed acquisitions. The FTC has recently announced an intention to expand its retrospective analysis of consummated mergers; DOJ has restructured its merger review operations to reflect changes in how the economy operates and to allow the regulator to further specialize its review efforts; and the regulators jointly proposed amendments to the HSR premerger notification regulations that are likely to increase the number of filings required for private equity organizations.

In Europe, as a result of the ongoing pandemic, the European Commission (EC) received a lower number of notifications (78) compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019 (106 and 116 respectively). In August, however, the number of notifications made to the EC returned to a level that has been seen in previous years (30). That being said, in September, the number of notifications fell again (24). In terms of key cases, the EC approved the acquisition of Bombardier Transportation by Alstom. With respect to policy and legislative developments, the EC announced a new policy of accepting referrals from national competition authorities in cases where the national thresholds for notification have not been met. This new policy is expected to be implemented by mid-2021. The EC also plans to introduce changes to the merger control procedural rules with a view to bringing more deals within the ambit of the EC’s simplified procedure, and to reduce the amount of information that parties are required to provide.

Access the full issue.




Proposed HSR Rule Changes Likely to Increase Filings and Information Requirements for Private Equity Firms

What Happened:

  • The FTC and DOJ proposed new Hart–Scott–Rodino (HSR) rules that, if issued in final form, will significantly change HSR practice for Private Equity (PE) companies.
  • The Proposed Rules are subject to comment for 60 days after they are published in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and will not go into effect until after that comment period, when they could be issued as proposed, modified, or simply not issued.
  • Under the current rules, HSR focuses on the Ultimate Parent Entity (UPE). For LLCs and partnerships, that means that each fund in a family is normally its own UPE.  Other funds managed by the PE sponsor are deemed “associates” of the UPE, but are not part of the UPE or “Person” making the filing.  Only limited information needs to be provided about “associates,” and only if the associate operates in a similar field to the target company.  The proposed rules will treat all funds and portfolio companies, as well as the PE sponsor, as part of the same “Person” for purposes of determining the filing requirements, and also for completing the HSR form.
  • There is also a proposed exemption for acquisitions of less than 10% of an issuer, regardless of investment intent, if the acquiring person is not in a competitive relationship with the target.  This might reduce filing obligations for companies like hedge funds that might take actions that disqualify themselves from the current investment only exemption.

 

What This Means:

The Proposed Rules change the calculus on whether filings may be required and what needs to be reported if a filing is required as “Associates” would now be deemed part of the same “Person” for the purposes of the HSR Act. Filings are evaluated based on what an “Acquiring Person” will hold.  This is not a change, but changing who is deemed to be in the “Person” could affect transactions in a number of ways.  Below are some examples of the potential impact.

More transactions are likely to require filings

  • For example, if a sponsor manages Fund 1 and Fund 2 and the sponsor arranges a transaction for Fund 1 to acquire USD $80 million of target stock, Fund 2 to acquire $60 million, and co-investors to acquire USD $20 million, currently no filing would be required, while under the Proposed Rules a filing would be required.
  • Currently, no HSR filing is required because Fund 1 is its own “Person” and its acquisition does not exceed the transaction filing threshold (USD $94 million). The same would be true for Fund 2’s acquisition of the USD $60 million—also below the threshold.
  • Under the Proposed Rules, an HSR filing would be required because the “Person” would include the sponsor, Fund 1 and Fund 2 (altogether). The “Person” would be acquiring USD $140 million in stock and that acquisition would exceed the USD $94 million size of transaction filing threshold.
  • Another scenario not currently requiring a filing, but would [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2020

In the United States, despite requesting additional time to review pending mergers, the US antitrust agencies have continued their work through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reached settlements with a number of merging parties during Q2 2020, and the FTC is proceeding to trial in several merger cases. Both the FTC and the DOJ are conducting investigational hearings and depositions via remote videoconferencing technology such as Zoom. The FTC also announced it prevented 12 deals from closing in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Five of the transactions were blocked and another seven were abandoned due to antitrust concerns, putting the FTC on pace for one of its busiest years for merger enforcement in the past 20 years.

In Europe, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the European Commission (EC) warned that merger control filings would likely not be processed as swiftly as usual. The EC encouraged parties to postpone merger notifications because the EC envisaged difficulties, within the statutory deadlines imposed by the EU Merger Regulation, to elicit relevant information from third parties, such as customers, competitors and suppliers. In addition, the EC foresaw limitations in accessing information on a remote basis. This period thus saw a drop in merger notifications to the EC; however, notifications increased in June and July.

Access the full issue.




THE LATEST: Antitrust Agencies Show Frustration with Slow Divestitures

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently extracted a $3.5 million civil penalty from two companies involved in a gas station merger. The FTC asserts the companies violated their settlement agreement with the government, which required the divestment of 10 gas stations within 120 days from the date of the settlement agreement. The parties overshot the divestiture deadline by more than three months. The Commission stated its deadlines are not a suggestion and it will not permit parties to profit from order violations of any kind, including late divestitures.

FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra’s dissenting statement, made in an unrelated case just two weeks prior to this fine, emphasized that divestitures should be completed promptly and raised concerns with settlements involving divestitures that are made “after a prolonged period of time.” Taken together, if there is a change in administrations in November, we may see even more focus on requiring buyers up front or buyers in hand for mergers that require divestitures to gain clearance.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • On July 6, 2020, the FTC imposed a $3.5 million civil penalty on two companies relating to 10 gas stations the Commission required the companies to divest within 120 days of the settlement, to gain clearance for their recent transaction. The companies failed to divest the gas stations by the June 15, 2018, Commission deadline.
    • The FTC noted that “Commission orders carry the force of law” and Commission “deadline[s are] not a suggestion.”
    • The FTC emphasized that it will “vigorously pursue and penalize” parties who attempt to “profit from order violations of any kind, including late divestitures.” The daily civil penalty is $43,280.
    • The Commission voted 5–0 on this settlement and civil penalty.
    • The divestitures were ultimately made more than three months after the original agreed-to deadline.
    • The Commission also claimed that the compliance reports submitted to the FTC were not complete, and the incomplete reports, in and of themselves, constituted consent order violations, commencing the daily civil penalty clock.
  • On June 26, 2020, less than two weeks before the civil penalty in the gas station matter was made public, Commissioner Chopra issued a dissenting statement in the Matter of Eldorado Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. In that case, the Commission allowed the assets to be divested to be retained by Eldorado for a period of roughly a year post-closing. During that period, the divestiture buyer would seek state gaming licensures needed to take ownership, and the casinos to be divested would be operated by an independent trustee.
    • Commissioner Chopra argued that “the Commission should not agree to merger settlements unless divestitures are completed promptly to a qualified buyer ready and willing to compete on day one.”
    • He also stated that “[i]t is risky and makes little sense to propose a complex settlement with a prolonged divestiture period and unorthodox terms to justify a merger that has no meaningful benefits, particularly given [...]

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