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FTC Takes Action Limiting Overbroad M&A Non-Compete

WHAT HAPPENED

  • GPM Investments (GPM) acquired 60 gas stations from Corrigan Oil (Corrigan).
  • As part of the acquisition agreement, Corrigan agreed not to compete for a period of time with the gas stations purchased from Corrigan. In addition, Corrigan agreed not to compete with GPM for another 190 gas stations that GPM already owned.
  • Few of the 190 existing GPM locations were “anywhere near an acquired Corrigan” gas station.
  • Because the transaction would reduce the number of competitors from 3-to-2 or fewer in five areas, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required divestitures in those areas.
  • Additionally, the FTC determined that the non-compete was overbroad, noting that the non-compete was “untethered to protecting goodwill acquired in the acquisition” because it affected gas stations in “areas geographically distinct from the acquired” gas stations. For this reason, the non-compete was highly suspect and warranted FTC scrutiny.
  • The FTC required the parties to revise the transaction agreement non-compete such that it was no longer in duration than 3 years and impacted an area no greater than 3 miles from each acquired gas station.

WHAT’S NEXT

  • FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan confirmed that some non-compete agreements that are part of a transaction agreement are “necessary to protect a legitimate business interest in connection with the sale of a business, such as the goodwill acquired in a transaction.”
  • Here, the non-compete terms were determined, however, to be “facially” overbroad in scope and unrelated to protecting any goodwill GPM was acquiring with the Corrigan stations.
  • The FTC’s action suggests that it is on the lookout for overbroad non-competes that are not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose even if part of a legitimate transaction agreement.
  • The action by the FTC provides sellers with an example to argue that onerous non-competes demanded by buyers have the potential to raise antitrust issues that could slow deal timelines, particularly if a non-compete is overbroad in relation to the products impacted, the duration of the non-compete, and/or the breadth of the geography covered.

Alex Grayson, a summer associate in the Washington, DC, office, also contributed to this article.




DOJ Antitrust Head Signals Aggressive Enforcement against Private Equity Transactions

US antitrust enforcers have signaled that private equity firms are the prime targets for upcoming aggressive antitrust merger enforcement. In a recent interview, US Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stated that the motive of a private equity firm may be “designed to hollow out or roll up an industry and essentially cash out,” which “is often very much at odds with the law, and very much at odds with the competition we’re trying to protect.”[1] His comment comes after Lina Khan, the current Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman, stated that private equity roll-ups would be a focal point for the FTC.[2] It is not entirely unsurprising that progressive antitrust enforcers are focusing on private equity after the industry announced a record 14,730 deals last year globally worth $1.2 trillion, which was nearly double the previous high in 2007.[3] The above comments provide several key takeaways for stakeholders going forward:

  • As a general matter, these statements further solidify the notion that antitrust merger enforcement is going to continue to be extremely aggressive and indicate that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FTC may closely scrutinize private equity transactions even if there is no obvious horizontal or vertical issue. For example, the DOJ and the FTC have already started investigating less traditional theories of harm, such as the impact on labor and the environment.
  • Private equity firms should expect the potential for heightened scrutiny in instances where a private equity firm has engaged in serial acquisitions within the same industry (known as roll-up transactions), especially in healthcare-related fields. It will be important for stakeholders to not only evaluate the current acquisition for competitive issues, but to also consider the impact of a long-term “roll-up” plan and its influence on pricing, service, and quality.
  • Watch for agencies to bring more Clayton Act Section 8 cases, which prohibits interlocking directorates (aka a single firm appointing officers and directors at multiple competitors).[4] Private equity firms often will appoint personnel to the boards of the firm’s portfolio companies, which may consist of horizontal competitors. Going forward, these appointments will require additional attention to avoid running afoul of Section 8.
  • The DOJ and the FTC will also have an enhanced focus on the impact of private equity firms acting as divestiture buyers when the agency orders merging parties to divest assets to preserve competition. Assistant Attorney General Kanter stated, “[I]n many instances, divestitures that were supposed to address a competitive problem have ended up fueling additional competitive problems.”[5]

While the degree to which agencies will more closely scrutinize private equity transactions remains unclear, it is crucial for private equity firms to engage antitrust counsel early in the transaction process both to evaluate the transaction at hand, as well as any future transactions that may, together, bring about enhanced regulatory scrutiny.

[1] Stefania Palma and James Fontanella-Khan, “Crackdown on buyout deals coming, warns [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q1 2022

In the United States, antitrust agencies continue with their aggressive merger enforcement posture. The agencies challenged four transactions this quarter, including multiple vertical mergers. The agencies are increasingly skeptical of merger remedies, including behavioral remedies and divestitures. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are working together to update the current Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The updated guidelines will likely signal a more aggressive enforcement posture.

The European Commission (Commission) blocked one transaction in Phase II and cleared two transactions. Three transactions were abandoned after the Commission initiated a Phase II investigation. The Commission made use of partial referrals to member state national competition authorities in two cases. It also ordered Hungary to withdraw its decision to prohibit Vienna Insurance Group’s (VIG) acquisition of AEGON Group’s Hungarian subsidiaries on foreign direct investment grounds, holding that Hungary’s prohibition decision infringed Article 21 of the EU Merger Regulation.

In the United Kingdom, the first quarter of 2022 also saw a number of Phase II investigations. Specifically, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) cleared one transaction in Phase II and blocked two other transactions in Phase II. One transaction was abandoned after the CMA initiated a Phase II investigation. The CMA blocked the merger of Cargotec and Konecranes just one month after the EC cleared the transaction subject to commitments in Phase II. The parties abandoned the transaction following the CMA’s decision.

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DOJ Faces Setbacks in Labor Market Prosecutions but Remains Determined

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On back-to-back days this month, defendants charged and prosecuted by the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (the DOJ) were acquitted on all Sherman Act charges in first-of-their-kind criminal antitrust trials involving labor markets.
  • On April 14, 2022, in United States v. Jindal, a federal jury in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found two defendants not guilty of violating the Sherman Act by agreeing with competitors on wages they would pay their employees. The jury found one of the defendants guilty of obstructing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation by making false and misleading statements to the FTC and concealing information.
  • The following day, in United States v. DaVita, Inc., a Colorado federal jury acquitted DaVita, Inc. and its former chief executive on all counts of violating the antitrust laws by entering into non-solicit agreements with other employers.
  • The Jindal case was the DOJ’s first attempt to criminally prosecute so-called alleged “wage-fixing” agreements. Similarly, the DaVita case was DOJ’s first criminal trial targeting alleged no-poach or non-solicit agreements between employers.
  • Historically, the DOJ pursued enforcement of alleged anticompetitive labor market practices in the civil context rather than criminally. But in 2016, the DOJ did an about-face and warned employers in its 2016 Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals that it intended to proceed criminally against “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” between horizontal competitors in labor markets. The DOJ’s efforts to investigate and criminally prosecute such agreements under this new policy started ramping up publicly in late 2020.
  • The DOJ filed an indictment against Jindal in December 2020 and a superseding indictment against Jindal and another defendant in April 2021. The DOJ alleged that the defendants participated in a conspiracy to lower the rates paid to physical therapists and physical therapist assistants in north Texas. A few months later, in July 2021, the DOJ filed an indictment against DaVita and its former CEO, alleging that they conspired with competitors in the healthcare industry not to solicit each other’s employees. The DOJ returned a superseding indictment in November 2021.
  • In both cases, the district courts denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The Jindal court held—for the first time ever—that an alleged wage-fixing conspiracy could constitute a per se criminal violation of the Sherman Act. Similarly, the DaVita court held that no-poach and non-solicit agreements could constitute per se violations—but only if the alleged naked agreements allocate the employment market. The DaVita court refused to announce a blanket rule that all no-poach or non-solicit agreements are subject to per se
  • Despite these rulings, the juries in both cases ultimately acquitted the defendants of all antitrust charges brought by the DOJ.

WHAT’S NEXT

  • The DOJ remains committed to investigating and criminally prosecuting wage-fixing and no-poach agreements despite these early setbacks. Since the Jindal indictment in December 2020, the DOJ has [...]

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Heard on Day Two and Three of 2022 Antitrust Law Spring Meeting

On April 7 and 8, 2022, the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section wrapped up its annual Spring Meeting. The event featured updates and remarks from several antitrust enforcers, including FTC Chair Lina Khan and US Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Jonathan Kanter. In this post, we share key takeaways from the final two days of the Spring Meeting.

FTC and DOJ Will Stay Focused on Litigation: Top officials at both US antitrust agencies highlighted the agencies’ full dockets and noted that litigation to enforce the antitrust laws will remain a top priority.

  • Three Directors from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—Holly Vedova, the Director of the Bureau of Competition; Samuel A.A. Levine, Director of Bureau of Consumer Protection; and Elizabeth Wilkins, Director of Office of Policy Planning—all emphasized that the FTC will work as one team and will not hesitate to initiate litigation.
  • Vedova noted the FTC’s recent success in several transactions being abandoned after the FTC initiated litigation. She expressed that the Bureau of Competition’s main focus will be litigation, where she believes her bureau will be most effective. Khan echoed these sentiments while speaking on a separate panel, emphasizing that two recently abandoned transactions were in the context of challenges to vertical transactions and that such challenges will continue to be a priority at the FTC.
  • Likewise, Kanter noted that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is not afraid to take on big cases or big companies and will not be afraid to litigate. He said the DOJ is just getting started and reiterated that the DOJ has more active cases than it has had in recent years.

Agencies Will Closely Scrutinize Potential Remedies in M&A: Both FTC and DOJ officials emphasized they will continue to examine the effectiveness of remedies and will only pursue strong remedies.

  • Kanter said that divestiture remedies will be the rare exception and will no longer be the norm. He further cautioned merging parties to avoid engaging in “regulatory arbitrage” and trying to leverage investigation outcomes in one jurisdiction against another because global cooperation among antitrust enforcers is high.
  • Vedova also indicated that the Bureau of Competition has no appetite for weak or uncertain settlements, especially those involving behavioral remedies, which have proven ineffective. The FTC will require meaningful structural relief to resolve competition concerns regarding a transaction.
  • Parties should also not expect the FTC to engage in long settlement discussions due to the unprecedented volume of merger reviews. Vedova noted that staff’s time is valuable and is much better spent preparing for litigation rather than negotiating remedies. She further indicated that the FTC will not engage in remedy discussions unless the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) clock is stopped and timing agreements are tolled.
  • State attorneys general will similarly evaluate remedies and, if necessary, pursue additional remedies than those sought by federal antitrust enforcers. For example, in a recent dialysis acquisition, the state of Utah sought divestiture of a fourth clinic above the three divestitures required to [...]

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Heard on Day One of 2022 Antitrust Law Spring Meeting

This week, the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section kicked off its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, which features updates from the antitrust enforcers and substantive discussions on today’s most pressing antitrust issues. In this post, we share key takeaways from the first day of the Spring Meeting.

Agencies Continue to Be Hostile to M&A: Republican Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson emphasized that the prevailing view under Democratic leadership at the antitrust agencies is that mergers provide no value and only carry costs.

  • Progressive leadership wants to “throw sand in the gears” to prevent deals from being proposed altogether. Recent policy changes are aimed at creating uncertainty, heightening risk and raising the transaction costs of doing deals to slow the pace of M&A activity.
  • Despite this, there was a precipitous drop in the number of FTC merger enforcement actions in the final year of the Trump administration (31) compared to the first year of the Biden administration (12).
  • There is no indication that early termination for Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) pre-merger notification filings will be reinstated.
  • “Close At Your Peril” letters are another tactic the agencies are using to heighten deal risk and deter parties from pursuing or consummating transactions, even though the antitrust agencies have always had the authority to investigate and challenge consummated transactions.
  • Many panelists commented on the lack of transparency between agency staff and merging parties on recent transactions. If the lack of transparency persists, it may create due process issues and problems for timing agreements that merging parties typically negotiate with staff.
  • The antitrust agencies are increasingly skeptical of the efficacy of structural and behavioral remedies to resolve competition concerns regarding a transaction. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Doha Mekki said merging parties should expect the DOJ to reject “risky settlements” more often and instead seek to block transactions outright. Mekki said literature has shown that many merger settlements failed to protect competition.

Increased Antitrust Litigation Is on the Horizon: DOJ officials said companies should expect an increase in antitrust litigation on both civil and criminal matters.

  • The DOJ Antitrust Division has more cases in active litigation than it has had at any time in recent history. It currently has six active litigations involving civil matters and 21 ongoing litigations involving criminal matters.
  • The Antitrust Division is not considering cost as a gating factor for bringing new cases. Instead, it is bringing cases where it deems necessary to uphold the law and preserve competition. The DOJ is hiring more attorneys and using shared DOJ resources to support the increased rate of litigation.
  • The DOJ is also seeking faster access to the courts. Mekki indicated that in cases where potential anticompetitive harm resulting from a transaction is clear, the agency may file suit while an investigation remains pending and before merging parties have certified substantial compliance.

Updated Merger Guidelines Are Coming: Officials from both the FTC and [...]

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Cartel Corner | March 2022

The US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) has continued to actively investigate and pursue alleged criminal violations of antitrust laws and collusive activity in government procurement. US Attorney General Merrick Garland noted in a March 2022 speech at the ABA Institute on White Collar Crime that the Division ended last fiscal year “with 146 open grand jury investigations—the most in 30 years.” As we near the end of the first quarter of 2022, the Division has a record number of criminal cases either in trial or awaiting trial.

In this installment of Cartel Corner, we examine and review recent and significant developments in antitrust criminal enforcement and profile what the Division has highlighted as its key priorities for enforcement. For 2022 and beyond, those priorities are—and likely will remain—identifying and aggressively pursuing alleged violations involving the labor markets, consumer products, government procurement, and the generic pharmaceutical industry.

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Kanter Signals DOJ to Follow FTC Lockstep, Calls for Substantial Change to Competition Enforcement Approach

In remarks delivered on January 18, 2022, and January 24, 2022, Jonathan Kanter, the Assistant Attorney General (AAG) for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division, laid out the areas where he perceives shortcomings in antitrust enforcement. These speeches signaled that the Division, under Kanter’s direction, will take a more aggressive stance toward perceived anticompetitive conduct, echoing the changes in enforcement priorities at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Overview of AAG Kanter’s Remarks

  • Kanter intends to shape the regulatory landscape to better reflect dynamic markets. Both speeches featured a cohesive overarching message: Kanter believes that the regulatory and jurisprudential antitrust regime does not reflect and cannot address the market realities that exist today. Kanter believes that the Supreme Court of the United States’ 1992 opinion in Eastman Kodak v. Image Technology Services supports a change in approach because “[l]egal presumptions that rest on formalistic distinctions rather than actual market realities are generally disfavored in antitrust law.”[1] To address widespread increases in market concentration as well as “the economic and transformational technological changes” that define today’s economy, Kanter intends to revise the Division’s approach for analyzing mergers and conduct.[2]
  • Kanter seeks to revive dormant areas of antitrust enforcement, in particular monopolization cases with a focus on tech “platform” companies. Kanter stated that the Division has failed to adequately address certain areas of antitrust enforcement. He noted that it has been almost 20 years since the Division’s last major monopolization case.[3] Dominant tech platforms have “extracted private data” and “have few, if any, realistic alternatives,” he said.[4] Shortly after Kanter’s comments about prioritizing monopolization cases, Richard Powers, the deputy for criminal enforcement, stated that the Division will now evaluate Section 2 conduct for criminal charges.[5] Powers’s comments signal a dramatic change in enforcement, reversing decades of policy in which Section 2 charges were only brought in the civil context. These statements from Division leadership mirror those of FTC Chair Lina Khan, who has repeatedly called for more robust antitrust enforcement, and indicate that Kanter intends to reshape the Division, both in terms of resource allocation and approach to anticompetitive conduct, from a civil and criminal perspective.
  • Kanter laid out the Division’s overarching priorities clearly in his remarks. The Division intends to take a more aggressive stance on vertical merger enforcement, reformulate the Horizontal and Vertical Merger Guidelines to better reflect market realities (in the government’s view), enter into fewer consent decrees and instead litigate cases to generate judicial opinions and advance the relevant case law, and bring more civil and criminal conduct cases.

 
Vertical Merger Enforcement to Become a Focal Point for Regulators

  • Kanter stated that agency enforcement of vertical mergers has been lacking. Kanter believes that the Division has placed too much value on the potential efficiencies of vertical mergers without identifying the relevant theories of harm presented by such transactions.
  • The Division intends to [...]

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DOJ Antitrust Division Signals Impending Criminal Monopolization Cases

WHAT HAPPENED

On March 2, 2022, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers revealed that the DOJ intends to investigate and pursue alleged criminal violations against individuals or companies who violate Section 2 of the Sherman Act. For more than 40 years, criminal enforcement of antitrust laws have focused nearly exclusively on hardcore, per se anticompetitive agreements (i.e., price fixing, output restriction or market allocation) among two or more horizontal competitors. Section 2 of the Sherman Act, on the other hand, primarily focuses on conduct by one firm or company with significant market power and, typically, is a means to bring a civil case for monopolization or anticompetitive use of the existing monopoly power.

LEGAL BACKGROUND

This marks a radical departure from longstanding DOJ antitrust enforcement of monopolization claims. In general, the DOJ has refrained from Section 2 criminal prosecutions.

Section 2 makes it illegal to acquire or maintain monopoly power through anticompetitive means and focuses primarily on unilateral or one-sided anticompetitive behavior. Courts (including the Supreme Court of the United States) generally have analyzed Section 2 cases under the “rule of reason,” which weighs both procompetitive and anticompetitive effects of conduct.

Because the rule of reason imposes a balancing test that is akin to the preponderance of evidence standard, the higher criminal burden of proof could clash with existing jurisprudence and agency guidelines on Section 2 enforcement standards. In contrast, Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits anticompetitive agreements—where courts have automatically deemed certain types of agreements, such as agreements to fix prices, allocate markets or rig bids—as illegal “per se,” because they (through ample judicial and economic experience) have been deemed to produce little or no procompetitive effects.

DOJ’s HISTORY WITH SECTION 2

In the last 50 years, the vast majority of criminal cases that the Antitrust Division has brought involved per se illegal agreements under Section 1. The Antitrust Division appears to have initiated very few criminal Section 2 cases during that same period with mixed success. For instance, in United States v. Cuisinarts, the DOJ prosecuted the defendant under Section 2 for per se resale price maintenance agreements.[1] The defendant agreed to pay a $250,000 fine for a plea of nolo contendere. However, today, the per se criminal treatment of resale price maintenance is in serious doubt as the long line of Supreme Court decisions from GTE Sylvania to Leegin have firmly placed most vertical resale price restraints for Section 2 under the rule of reason standard.

WHAT’S NEXT

In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission and the DOJ released a joint publication called the “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals” when announcing expanded criminal enforcement in labor markets for wage fixing and no-poaching agreements.[2] We expect the DOJ to release similar guidance with respect to criminal prosecution of Section 2 claims.

The policy shift raises a host of additional questions, such as what types of conduct under Section 2 the Division intends to focus [...]

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Mitigating Antitrust Risk in Defense Deals Amid Scrutiny

As the Biden administration calls for tougher antitrust enforcement, the aerospace and defense (A&D) industry faces increased antitrust scrutiny. In this Law360 article, McDermott’s Jon Dubrow, Lisa Rumin and Anthony Ferrara explain how policy changes by the Federal Trade Commission, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Defense may affect A&D industry participants in various aspects of their businesses, including mergers and acquisitions, teaming agreements and labor practices. The authors also offer suggestions to help these companies mitigate antitrust risk arising from heightened antitrust scrutiny of the industry.

Read more here.




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