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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2022

In the United States, parties continue to be cautious in litigating challenged transactions. Since January 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuits (or threatened to sue) to block 16 transactions. Of those transactions, 12 were abandoned and six are in various stages of litigation. The data suggest that the FTC’s and DOJ’s aggressive merger enforcement policy is raising the stakes for parties to potential mergers and acquisitions, including an increased willingness by the agencies to litigate potentially problematic transactions.

Between May 6 and June 3, 2022, the European Commission (Commission) held a public consultation to seek views on the draft revised Merger Implementing Regulation (Implementing Regulation) and the Notice on Simplified Procedure. This consultation was launched in the context of the Commission’s review process of the procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control.

On April 20, 2022, the UK government proposed new measures to boost consumer protection rights and competition rules. In particular, the UK government’s reforms aim to strengthen the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) powers and alleviate burdens on smaller companies.

Access the full issue.




International News Spotlight on Competition Law

In line with the evolution of the economy and the ongoing growth of online business and global trade, we’re seeing a corresponding increase in competition regulation and a rise in enforcement across all authorities. In our latest International News, we take a deep dive into the issues at play.

The growth of the online economy has triggered the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) update of its 20 year old .com Disclosures: How to Make Effective Disclosures in Digital Advertising guide, and the development of an analytical framework for all digital distribution across the European Union. In just one seismic shift under the new EU Vertical Block Exemption Regulation 2022/720, dual-pricing, i.e., setting different wholesale prices for online/offline sales by the same distributor, is no longer considered a hardcore restriction unless its purpose is to prevent the effective use of the internet to sell the goods or services.

In the United States, there is an increased focus on anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions (M&A). The Biden Administration, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, and the FTC have all stated that the regulatory landscape needs to be reshaped to better reflect dynamic markets, and their priority is the aggressive pursuit of litigation against offending parties rather than the granting of consent decrees. The tendency to “sin first and beg forgiveness later” will emphatically no longer work, as a recent French gun-jumping case demonstrates.

Both the United States and the European Union have also turned their attention to investigating wage fixing and no-poach labour market violations that are not connected with M&A or business collaborations. It’s clear that competition/antitrust authorities are determined to expand their remit.

Read our full Spotlight on Competition Law here.




DOJ to Merging Parties: The Time of “Underenforcement” is Over; Fix-It-First or Risk Being Challenged

WHAT HAPPENED

During a conference last week, Ryan Danks, Director of Civil Enforcement at the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ), suggested that merging parties—not the antitrust enforcement agencies—should devise fixes for allegedly anticompetitive transactions.

Danks stated “that something is broken about the way that the antitrust community talks about remedies in the context of mergers, where parties will bring in a three-to-two or four-to-three or even a two-to-one [transactions] and say ‘now we want you, government, to work with us to figure out how to fix this’ . . . that’s not our job. Our job is to maintain competition.”

Danks added that merging parties bear the responsibility for remedying their anticompetitive transactions and have more information on the businesses, allowing them to formulate strong solutions. Such “fix-it-first” approaches may allow merging parties to complete their transactions quicker, avoiding lengthy merger reviews and consent decree negotiations.

Danks also suggested that “the simplest remedy . . . is to just stop an anticompetitive transaction from occurring,” strongly hinting that today’s DOJ would rather challenge an entire transaction than work with the parties on devising a remedy to address specific competitive concerns in limited product or geographic markets.

Jonathan Kanter, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, conveyed similar views in two speeches last week, making it clear that merger enforcement at the DOJ will become even more vigorous.

On September 13, 2022, Kanter:

  • Warned that “[c]ompanies considering mergers that may harm competition should know that the Antitrust Division will not back down from a fight so long as that threat remains.”
  • Emphasized that the Clayton Act’s “expansive definition of antitrust liability” requires the government only to prove that a transaction’s effect “may be substantially to lessen competition.” According to Kanter, antitrust agencies have, for too long, “underenforced a statute that was meant to be prophylactic” by focusing on concrete evidence of a merger’s effect on prices.

On September 16, 2022, Kanter said that antitrust enforcers “can no longer be so cautious to avoid overenforcement that [they] intentionally underenforce the law.”

Moving away from negotiating settlements that allow transactions to proceed while resolving anticompetitive issues is part of a trend of dramatic policy and procedural changes at both the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) designed to discourage mergers and acquisitions (M&A), such as:

  • Suspending early termination of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR) waiting period for transactions that do not raise competitive issues
  • Sending merging parties “close at your own risk” letters, informing the parties that antitrust investigations are ongoing despite expiration of the HSR waiting period
  • Insisting on inclusion of prior approval/prior notice provisions in all merger settlements
  • Including new topics, such as the impact on labor and environment, in Second Requests and adding additional hurdles to modifying Second Requests.

WHAT THIS MEANS FOR MERGING PARTIES

Merging parties should increasingly consider resolving likely competitive issues with their transaction before the antitrust [...]

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FTC Flexes Its Muscle in Suit against Kochava (But May Not Like the Results)

On August 29, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against Kochava, Inc. alleging that Kochava engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by selling the “precise location information” of consumers. This suit comes on the heels of the FTC’s announcement earlier this month that it would “crack down” on “commercial surveillance practices” and July’s warning that the agency would be exercising its enforcement authority against the “illegal” use and sharing of sensitive consumer data.

IN DEPTH

The FTC alleges that Kochava amassed a large amount of sensitive data by tracking the mobile advertising IDs from hundreds of millions of mobile phones, and that such data could be used to track people visiting abortion clinics, domestic abuse shelters, places of worship and other sensitive locations. The FTC then said that Kochava sold that data without first anonymizing it, allowing anyone who purchased the data to use it to track the movements of the mobile device users. The FTC wants to not only block Kochava from selling such data, but also require them to delete and destroy it. In its complaint, the FTC relied on the FTC Act’s general prohibition against “unfair and deceptive acts or practices” and alleged that the company unfairly sold the sensitive data.

Kochava, which beat the FTC to the courthouse and preemptively filed a lawsuit against the FTC prior to the FTC’s complaint, asserted that all of the location data came from third-party data brokers who obtained the information from consenting consumers. Despite the alleged consent, Kochava says it is in the process of implementing steps to remove health services location data from its database. Kochava argued that the litigation was the outcome of the FTC’s failed attempt to implement a vague settlement that had no clear terms and made the problem a moving target.

The Kochava suit brings to the forefront several competing policy considerations, the determination of which could shape the scope of the FTC’s enforcement authority for years to come. The first and foremost issue that the Kochava suit raises is whether the FTC has the authority to effectively impose a consent-based regime for the sale of sensitive consumer information when no federal law enforced by the FTC (other than the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act (COPPA), which applies to data collected about children under 13) expressly provides for that requirement. While it is not uncommon for the FTC to take expansive views of its enforcement authority, that authority has been successfully challenged in recent years. (See AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC, which held that the FTC does not have the statutory authority to seek equitable monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act).) Now, Kochava will test the FTC’s authority to regulate in the privacy space—and the FTC may not like the result.

In the unlikely event that Kochava were to litigate against the FTC all the way to the Supreme Court of the [...]

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Cartel Corner | August 2022

Without question, 2022 has been a remarkably busy time for the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Antitrust Division (Division). Over just a few months, the Division rolled out meaningful revisions to its leniency policy aimed at encouraging prompt reporting of criminal violations, announced that it will (for the first time in nearly  50 years) bring criminal monopolization cases under Section 2 of the Sherman Act, continued to increase enforcement resources, and brought a number of new cases and obtained multiple guilty pleas.

However, activity does not always mean success. If there is any theme that defines the Division’s efforts over the last quarter, it is this: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That is exactly what the Division has done. It tried two labor markets cases, ultimately losing both on a new and untested legal theory. And, over strong objections from a district court, the Division pursued an unprecedented third trial against those in the broiler chicken industry, resulting in a full acquittal for all defendants. None of this, however, has deterred the Division from continuing to pursue new investigations and bring new cases under novel legal theories.

In this installment of Cartel Corner, we examine recent and significant developments in antitrust criminal enforcement and profile what the Division has highlighted as its key enforcement priorities. If the past is prologue, we are bound to see more aggressive antitrust enforcement in the months to come, testing the boundaries of current antitrust law. Whether the Division can ultimately shift those boundaries, however, remains to be seen.

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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.

Access the full issue.




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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