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Year in Review: Criminal Enforcement by the DOJ Antitrust Division in 2023

When it comes to antitrust criminal enforcement, 2023 will be remembered as the year when the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division redefined and tested the outer boundaries of its authority. This report looks back at the key events from the DOJ’s year in criminal antitrust enforcement.

Here’s a glimpse of what’s inside:

  • Despite four straight losses and a voluntary dismissal in labor market cases, the DOJ remains undeterred in bringing additional criminal wage-fixing and no-poach suits.
  • DOJ’s Procurement Collusion Strike Force secured several guilty pleas and stiff penalties in 2023 and will most likely continue pursuing aggressive investigative and litigation strategies moving forward.
  • The nearly decade-long investigation of the generic drug industry appears to be ending after the DOJ recently resolved and dismissed the remaining cases.
  • Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco highlighted cybersecurity, tech and national security as areas of heightened risk and thus heightened scrutiny, so corporations in these markets should take heed of the DOJ’s emphasis on corporate compliance in 2024.

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FTC and DOJ: Preserve Your Chats!

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) are updating their standard preservation notices and instructions for responding to all manner of discovery (e.g., second requests, voluntary access letters, compulsory process, etc.). The update will alert parties to the steps that must be taken to preserve communication from popular business collaboration tools and “ephemeral messaging platforms” like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Signal.
  • These platforms are typically set to delete communication data automatically and may lack appropriate capabilities for preserving and extracting data even when a preservation notice is issued. While these tools have become central features in the modern business landscape, the Agencies’ announcement is designed to clearly set out the expectation that companies and individuals will adhere to preservation requirements. Parties could be subject to criminal obstruction of justice charges if they fail to comply.
  • Highlighting the very serious concern these tools raise in the DOJ’s view, Manish Kumar, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, asserted that ephemeral messaging platforms are “designed to hide evidence.”

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On January 26, 2024, the DOJ and FTC (the Agencies) announced an update to their preservation notices and instructions for responding to all manner of discovery to “address the increased use of collaboration tools and ephemeral messaging platforms in the modern workplace” and “reinforce longstanding obligations requiring companies to preserve materials during the pendency of government investigations and litigation.”
  • The Agencies recognize that ephemeral chat messaging is becoming an increasingly important feature of the modern business landscape, and they have sought to collect ephemeral messaging data in the past. However, because these platforms are typically set to delete messages automatically and may lack clear solutions for preserving data, the Agencies have run into dead ends trying to collect such data in prior cases. Indeed, Manish Kumar, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division stated that “these updates to our legal process will ensure that neither opposing counsel nor their clients can feign ignorance when their clients or companies choose to conduct business through ephemeral messages.”
  • This new preservation language will be included in all DOJ and FTC preservation letters, second request specifications, voluntary access letters, compulsory legal process and grand jury subpoenas going forward.
  • While the new language changes are a continuation of the Agencies’ existing preservation policies, they will highlight parties’ obligations with respect to ephemeral messaging data specifically, potentially making it easier for the Agencies to seek sanctions and other recourse against companies who fail to preserve such data.
  • Indeed, the Agencies’ announcement cites a prior case where civil spoliation sanctions resulted from a target’s failure to properly preserve ephemeral messaging data. Likewise, the FTC has also signaled its willingness to refer cases to the DOJ Antitrust Division’s Criminal Liaison Unit for criminal obstruction charges in certain cases.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • The Agencies have recognized in recent cases that relevant business communications that used to happen over email are [...]

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FTC Announces Annual Merger Notification Threshold and Filing Fee Adjustments

On January 22, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced increased jurisdictional thresholds, increased filing fee thresholds and filing fee amounts for merger notifications made pursuant to the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act).

Merger Notification Threshold Changes

The HSR Act compels transacting parties to notify the FTC and US Department of Justice (DOJ) of their intent to consummate a transaction if such a transaction meets or exceeds certain jurisdictional thresholds, barring an exemption. The adjusted thresholds apply to all transactions that close on or after the effective date, which will be 30 days after the notice is published in the Federal Register.

The FTC amends the merger notification jurisdictional thresholds on an annual basis based on changes in the gross national product (GNP).

  • The base statutory size-of-transaction threshold, the lowest threshold requiring notification, will increase to $119.5 million.
  • The upper statutory size-of-transaction test, requiring notification for all transactions that exceed the threshold (regardless of the size-of-person test being satisfied), will increase to $478 million.
  • The statutory size-of-person lower and upper thresholds (which apply to deals valued above $119.5 million but not above $478 million) will increase to $23.9 million and $239 million, respectively.

Merger Filing Fee Increases

Following the passage of the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act, the FTC is required to revise filing fee thresholds and filing fee amounts each year. Filing fee threshold changes are based on the percentage change in GNP, and filing fee amounts are based on the percentage increase, if any, in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). As with the merger notification thresholds, the filing fee threshold and filing fee amount adjustments take effect 30 days after publication of the notice in the Federal Register.

The revised filing fee thresholds and filing fee amounts are provided in the table below.




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Fourth Circuit Holds Per-Se Rule Does Not Apply in Bid-Rigging Case

WHAT HAPPENED

A three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned an executive’s bid-rigging antitrust conviction, holding that the district court erred in applying the per se standard to the executive’s alleged bid-rigging conduct.

The executive, Brent Brewbaker, rigged bids between his former employer, Contech, and its distributor, Pomona Pipe Products. The Fourth Circuit found that while Contech and Pomona both submitted competing bids for North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) projects, and Contech coordinated with Pomona to make Contech’s bids slightly higher priced, this conduct could not be deemed inherently unlawful under prior precedent because the entities had a manufacturer-distributor arrangement and were not simply direct competitors. In particular, the Fourth Circuit noted that manufacturer-distributor relationships such as the one between Contech and Pomona do not inherently lead to anticompetitive harm and may enhance competition.

Therefore, given the kind of relationship Contech and Pomona had, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court should have analyzed the conduct under the rule of reason to weigh the competitive implications of the parties’ agreement and conduct.

BACKGROUND

  • Contech manufactured and sold aluminum products.
  • Pomona distributed Contech’s aluminum products and was Contech’s exclusive dealer in North Carolina.
  • NCDOT used a bidding process for aluminum structure projects throughout the state. These projects required both the aluminum product and the services to install the aluminum structures.
  • Contech, Pomona and a third company were the consistent bidders for the NCDOT projects.
  • When either Contech or Pomona won a bid for a project, each would fulfill its contract using the other’s supply or services. Pomona, therefore, served as Contech’s “dealer” with Contech supplying Pomona the aluminum it needed to use in the projects Pomona eventually won; vice versa, Pomona provided necessary services to Contech when Contech won a bid. Neither Contech nor Pomona could win a bid without the products or services of the other.
  • In 2019, Brewbaker took charge of Contech’s bidding for these NCDOT projects and began intentionally submitting losing bids to enable Pomona to win by first asking for Pomona’s total bid price and then adding a markup to Contech’s bid price before submitting the bid to NCDOT.
  • DOJ alleged that Contech and Pomona engaged in bid rigging because they directly competed against each other’s separate bids. Brewbaker and Contech were indicted for violating Section 1 of the Sherman Act and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
  • Contech pleaded guilty to bid rigging and one fraud count.
  • Brewbaker proceeded to trial, and the district court convicted him of bid rigging and five other fraud-related counts (which were not overturned by the Fourth Circuit), upon concluding that Contech and Pomona’s conduct fell squarely within the definition of antitrust “bid rigging” under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

HOW THE DECISION WAS REACHED

  • The Fourth Circuit explained that the rule of reason standard is the default framework used to scrutinize most business practices under the antitrust laws. It weighs [...]

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New FTC, DOJ Merger Guidelines Create Challenges and Opportunities

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) issued their updated Merger Guidelines on December 18, 2023. These guidelines represent a significantly more enforcement-oriented approach than the prior guidelines, and they largely follow the contours of draft guidelines released in July 2023. Companies should be aware of the Merger Guidelines and their implications as they formulate strategies for assessing potential merger and acquisition options.

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2023

Topics covered in this edition:

  • FTC Unveils Proposal Detailing Significant Changes to Hart-Scott-Rodino Act Merger Notifications
  • Assa Abloy Settlement Raises Questions on Litigating the Fix and DOJ Consent Decrees
  • Pharmaceutical Industry Remains in Regulators’ Crosshairs
  • “Whole of Government” Competition Mandate Can Impact Deals the FTC and DOJ Do Not Challenge
  • FTC’s Constitutionality Comes Under Fire—Again
  • Divergent Viewpoints in Video Games Sector: Microsoft’s Takeover of Activision Blizzard
  • New Merger Simplification Package from the EC

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Proposed Merger Guidelines Outline Fundamental Change of Approach to Merger Investigation and Enforcement

Mergers and acquisitions will continue to face strong headwinds at the Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Justice under new proposed Merger Guidelines released on July 19, 2023. The Proposed Guidelines embody the antitrust agencies’ aggressive posture toward merger enforcement under the Biden administration. This On the Subject highlights the most significant changes in the Proposed Guidelines and what steps companies contemplating mergers and other transactions should take in the face of these changes.

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Cartel Corner | July 2023

In the first half of 2023, antitrust enforcers remained remarkably busy both in the United States (US) and across the European Union (EU). The US Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Antitrust Division (Division) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have continued their aggressive and novel effort to drag antitrust enforcement into the labor markets. The DOJ Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) has pursued its crackdown on antitrust and fraud involving government procurement with a number of recent cases. And DOJ has pushed the boundaries under Section 2 of the Sherman Act—both by revitalizing the criminal provisions of the law and by pursuing “attempts” to monopolize criminally. The European Union has also kept the pressure on those doing business overseas, imposing significant fines in recent matters and upgrading its online leniency program to make it easier for companies to report wrongdoing.

In this installment of Cartel Corner, we examine this continued aggressiveness toward antitrust enforcement. While these government enforcement efforts have not always been successful, they have nonetheless reframed the landscape for many companies and individuals. What was once thought of as a civil antitrust violation at worst—or no violation at all—is now often pursued criminally. And antitrust enforcers are speaking in more strident tones as they attempt to remake, in certain ways, the way companies do business in the United States and abroad.

Whether antitrust enforcers are ultimately successful remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the trend is real, and it is one that all companies should be prepared to address in the weeks and months to come.

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US Federal Agencies Commit to Regulatory Enforcement of AI Systems

A recent announcement by multiple federal agencies has highlighted their intention to enforce their separate regulations against developers, deployers and users of AI systems. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan and officials from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) each reinforced their worries about automated systems, citing civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection and equal opportunity concerns. Their serious language, joint public commitment and previous enforcement actions in this area make this statement no simple theater.

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DOJ’s Labor Market Prosecution Against Aerospace Employees Dismissed; Alleged Market Allocation Not Within Per Se Rule

On April 28, 2023, a judge from the US District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed the criminal non-solicitation case brought by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) against six employees of the aerospace industry. The case, known as U.S. v. Patel, et al., ended with the acquittal of all defendants.

The court’s decision was significant as it stated that the case did not “involve a market allocation under the per se rule” as a matter of law. The trial court based its decision on several arguments, themes and rulings made by the defense in the 2022 U.S. v. DaVita, Inc. and Kent Thiry criminal non-solicitation trial. In that trial, McDermott, who represented DaVita’s former CEO, secured an acquittal on all counts.

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