The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, on March 29–31, 2023. The Spring Meeting sessions featured updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and thought-invoking discussions on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. Following Part 1, this post summarizes key takeaways from the second portion of the Spring Meeting, including updates regarding premerger notification filings, labor markets, state antitrust enforcement, compliance programs, national security, consumer protection, interlocking directorates, and remedies.
FTC Zeros in on Missing Material in HSR Filings
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Competition Director Holly Vedova underscored the consequences of failing to submit Item 4 material in HSR filings. She noted the FTC will bounce filings found to have missing Item 4 documents. If the waiting period has not expired and newly surfaced documents change the scope of the request, the FTC may issue a Second Request. If the waiting period has expired when consequential missing material is realized, the FTC will require a corrective filing for the original transaction and may impose “significant” civil penalties.
Vedova also reminded practitioners that changes in a merger agreement can require an additional HSR filing. If material changes are made before the waiting period expires, parties should proactively reach out to the FTC to inquire as to whether further action is needed. Parties may need to amend their original filing or submit a new one entirely.
Labor Markets Remain High Priority
The antitrust enforcement agencies have promised continued, fervent action in labor markets. In keeping with this promise, this January, the FTC issued a proposed rule that would make it illegal to enter into or maintain noncompete agreements with employees or independent contractors.
FTC Chair Lina Khan emphasized that noncompetes impede business dynamism, innovation, and entry, and eliminating noncompetes is estimated to return $300 billion back into the pockets of American workers.
FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter pointed to California as an innovator in labor market enforcement, citing its prohibition on noncompetes. FTC enforcers encouraged the continued submission of public comments on the proposed rule. The comment period is set to close on April 19, 2023.
Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Gwendolyn Cooley also noted that enforcing noncompetes has been a hallmark of state enforcement, especially in New York and Washington, and additional states are considering legislation that would ban noncompetes.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s Acting Director of Criminal Enforcement Emma Burnham and the Chief of DOJ’s Criminal II Section James Fredericks noted practitioners should expect an uptick in criminal cases in the labor and employment space. DOJ Antitrust Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stressed that antitrust crimes focused on workers are just as important as those focused on consumers.
New York’s antitrust chief, Elinor Hoffman, indicated that New York is focused on labor issues, including no-poach agreements and noncompete clauses that may arise during merger reviews. [...]
The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section recently held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, featuring updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and in-depth commentary on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. This post recaps key takeaways from the first portion of the Spring Meeting.
CIVIL ENFORCEMENT AND MERGER REVIEW: US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ) PRIORITIES
Aggressive Enforcement by Any Other Name: DOJ Antitrust Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hetal Doshi characterized DOJ’s enforcement posture as “not aggressive enforcement, just enforcement,” but nevertheless opined that the Department’s past practice of erring on the side of under-enforcement has “ill-served” the public.
Whole-of-Government Means Whole-of-Government: The Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Maggie Goodlander and Michael Kades highlighted that various federal statutes other than the antitrust laws confer the power to act to preserve competition. They emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue sweeping enforcement priorities to execute President Biden’s recent executive order calling for a whole-of-government approach to protecting competition, including by working in conjunction with other federal agencies like the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Agriculture.
Enforcement Priorities Include Technical Violations of HSR Act, Spoliation, Gun-Jumping: Deputy Assistant Attorney General Goodlander emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue vigorously violations of the HSR Act, including failures to make required premerger notification filings, failures to provide all Item 4 documents, and “gun-jumping” caused by concerted action prior to the satisfaction of the HSR Act’s waiting period. Goodlander also commented on DOJ’s intent to scrutinize merging parties’ conduct during the due diligence phase to investigate whether parties are using due diligence to conceal and accomplish anticompetitive conduct. Other DOJ officials further emphasized that DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are working to ensure that the agencies’ investigations are not harmed by the use of third-party ephemeral communication platforms and to penalize spoliation of evidence contained in such messaging applications.
Hostility Toward Freely Granted Divestitures in Merger Investigations: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Doshi and Andrew Forman conveyed the high bar merging parties face when they offer structural or behavioral remedies, including divestitures, to resolve or head off a DOJ challenge to a merger or acquisition. Doshi and Forman pointed to instances where divestitures and/or carveouts offered in merger transactions have failed and “the American people bear the risk” of anticompetitive harms and asserted that “the idea that a divestiture can cure the feared antitrust issues can’t rest on our hopes of what might happen in the future after the deal and divestiture closes.”
Consent Decrees Face Much Stricter Scrutiny: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Forman, Goodlander, and Kades emphasized the “exacting standard” that must be applied when DOJ is considering entering into a consent decree to resolve a merger challenge. According to the Department officials, the antitrust laws prohibit mergers that may substantially lessen competition, which means that for a consent decree to resolve antitrust concerns, it must eliminate the possibility that a merger could cause harm—an “extremely high bar.”
Updated Merger Guidelines to Focus on Relevant [...]
On February 3, 2023, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced the withdrawal of three policy statements related to antitrust enforcement in healthcare. Although the withdrawn statements focus on healthcare, DOJ’s decision to withdraw these statements will have broad impacts across industries.
The three policy statements, issued in 1993, 1996, and 2011, relate to competitor collaboration and information sharing, and established “safety zones” of activities shielded from antitrust scrutiny. The 1996 Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care (1996 Statements) were revised and expanded upon the 1993 Statements. Though ostensibly related to healthcare, the guidance has been relied upon by all industries and understood to cover all manner of competitively sensitive information. Two of the safety zones most often relied on by companies relate to competitor exchanges of price and cost information, and competitor joint purchasing arrangements.
The safety zone on information exchanges (Statement 6 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge an exchange of price or cost information (e.g., employee compensation) if the following three conditions were met:
The exchange is managed by a third party (e.g., a trade association or consultant).
The information is more than three months old.
The exchange has five or more participants contributing data, and no individual participant’s data represents more than 25% of any statistic; and no individual participant’s data can be identified.
Companies have relied on this safety zone in conducting surveys and benchmarking related to pricing, supply costs, and salaries. These surveys have served as critical compliance tools. Organizations exempt from federal income tax often use surveys to demonstrate fair market value compensation to safeguard against claims of private inurement and private benefit. Similarly, healthcare companies routinely use benchmarking studies to demonstrate fair market value compensation for compliance with fraud and abuse laws.
Group Purchasing Organizations
The safety zone on joint purchasing arrangements (Statement 7 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge joint purchasing arrangements (e.g., group purchasing organizations (GPOs)) if the following two conditions were met:
The purchases account for less than 35% of the total sales of the purchased product or service.
The cost of the products or services purchased jointly accounts for less than 20% of the participants’ revenues.
DOJ cited changes in the healthcare landscape as the rationale for withdrawing these policy statements, specifically indicating that the statements were “overly permissive” on information sharing. In a speech the day before DOJ’s announcement, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General (DAAG) Doha Mekki stated that the safety zone factors “do not consider the realities of a transformed industry” and “understate the antitrust risks of competitors sharing competitively sensitive information.” DAAG Mekki explained that:
Information exchanges managed by third parties can have the same anticompetitive effects—and the use of a third party enhances anticompetitive effects.
New algorithms and AI learning increase the competitive value of historical information (more [...]
In the United States, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lost four merger challenges (Illumina/GRAIL, UnitedHealth/Change Healthcare, U.S. Sugar/Imperial Sugar and Booz Allen/EverWatch) in September. The losses demonstrate that parties willing to litigate can have success in court. The absence of “smoking gun” documents and lack of a presumption of anticompetitive effects (based on market shares and concentration) made these cases very difficult for the government. The judges in these cases tended to credit structural and behavioral remedies that the government felt were insufficient and were persuaded by real-world testimony from executives and third parties contradicting the government’s theories of changed economic incentives from the transactions.
In July 2022, the European Parliament published the final text of the European Union’s upcoming instrument to address distortive foreign subsidies, following a provisional political agreement reached between the EU lawmakers in June (Foreign Subsidies Regulation). The Foreign Subsidies Regulation introduces a new mandatory screening mechanism including notification obligations and the European Commission’s right of ex officio investigations, which will have a considerable impact on M&A transactions and procurement procedures.
The Foreign Subsidies Regulation will enter into force once it is formally adopted by EU lawmakers and published in the Official Journal. It will become directly applicable across the European Union six months after entry into force. The notification obligations will start to apply nine months after entry into force. The Commission also is currently drafting procedural rules on how to notify transactions, how to calculate time limits, and the process for preliminary reviews and in-depth probes when there is a suspicion of distortive foreign subsidies.
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.
In Illumina v Commission, the General Court has confirmed the authority of the European Commission (EC) under Article 22 EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) to examine a transaction that does not have a European dimension, but which is the subject of a referral request made by a Member State – even if the transaction is not notifiable in that Member State.
Article 22 EUMR includes a referral mechanism whereby one or more Member States may request the EC to examine any transaction insofar as it does not have an EU dimension but affects trade between Member States and threatens to significantly affect competition within the territory of the Member State or States making the request (Article 22 Conditions).
With a view to ensuring that non-notifiable yet potentially problematic mergers do not fly under the radar of merger control review, in March 2021 the EC issued practical guidance (Article 22 Guidance) on when it might be appropriate for a Member State to refer such mergers to the Commission. The EC referred in particular to the digital and pharmaceutical sectors (see our On the Subject on the Article 22 Guidance here).
In Illumina v Commission, which concerns a transaction in the pharma sector, the General Court has confirmed that the EC has the authority to examine transactions that do not have a European dimension nor fall within the scope of the national merger control rules of EU or EFTA Member States.
On September 21, 2020, Illumina, an American company specializing in genomic sequencing, announced its intention to acquire sole control of Grail, an American biotechnology company which relies on genomic sequencing to develop cancer screening tests, to “Launch New Era of Cancer Detection” (the Transaction).
The EUMR thresholds were not met by the Transaction, nor were any EU or EFTA Member State thresholds. The Transaction was therefore not notified to the EC nor any of the EU or EFTA Member States. However, on December 7, 2020, the EC received a complaint concerning the Transaction and, on investigation, reached the preliminary conclusion that the Transaction appeared to satisfy the Article 22 Conditions for referral to the EC by a national competition authority. The EC subsequently on February 19, 2021 sent a letter to the Member States (the Invitation Letter) to inform them of the Transaction and to invite them to submit a referral request under Article 22. The French competition authority obliged and other Member States subsequently requested, each in its own right, to join.
On March 11, 2021, the EC informed Illumina and Grail of the referral request (the Information Letter) and about a month later, on April 19, 2021, it accepted the referral request, along with the respective requests to join (the Contested Decisions). This prompted Illumina, supported by Grail, to file suit before the General Court (against the Contested Decisions and the Information Letter).
On substance, Illumina argued that (i) the EC lacked the competence to initiate, under Article 22 EUMR, an [...]
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.
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.
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 [...]
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 [...]