Pursuant to the EU merger control rules, a transaction that falls within the purview of the EU Merger Regulation (EUMR) must be notified to the European Commission (Commission) in advance (Article 4(1) EUMR), and must not be implemented until cleared by the Commission, known as the “standstill” obligation (Article 7[1] EUMR). A principal rationale behind the standstill obligation is to prevent the potentially negative impact of transactions on the market, pending the outcome of the Commission’s investigation.

While the standstill obligation represents a clear-cut rule, it can often be a significant challenge for businesses to apply in practice. Failure to get it right, however, can result in draconian penalties. Indeed, the Commission’s recent €124.5 million fine on Altice, which comes in the wake of a spate of enforcement actions in this arena, bears testimony to an increasingly hard stance against companies flouting the notification requirement/standstill obligation. Continue Reading European Court of Justice Provides Guidance on Scope of the Standstill Obligation Enshrined in the EU Merger Regulation

WHAT HAPPENED

In March, we discussed the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s move to update its standard consent decree language to enhance decree enforceability. Among other things, the changes:

  • Reduced the burden of proof for DOJ to demonstrate a decree violation in court, and
  • Shifted DOJ’s attorney’s fees to the losing party in the event that a decree enforcement action became necessary.

Now, DOJ Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim has further intensified the Division’s compliance focus by announcing the creation of an Office of Decree Enforcement at the Division (Office). The Office would have “the sole goal to ensure compliance with, and enforcement of, [Antitrust Division] decrees.” Continue Reading THE LATEST: DOJ Continues Its Intense Focus on Decree Compliance

United States: January – March 2018 Update

One year into the Trump administration, the US antitrust agencies are finally starting to implement their enforcement policies. Most notably, trial began in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger, which is the Antitrust Division’s first significant vertical challenge in several decades. Judge Richard J. Leon’s opinion in that case could alter the outlook for several other vertical transactions pending before the agencies. While the DOJ was preparing for trial, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was preparing for a transition to five new commissioners, who were approved by the Senate in April. It remains unclear whether the new, Republican-led FTC will be more moderate in its enforcement efforts, similar to prior Republican administrations, or will follow in the footsteps of President Trump’s DOJ, which has been surprisingly aggressive.

EU: January – March 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) continued to be quite active in the first quarter of 2018, clearing five mergers. The most significant decision was the approval of a megamerger in the agrochemical sector—Bayer/Monsanto—where the parties submitted a remedy package that totalled over €6 billion. This remedy package included divestitures of research and development assets that addressed the EC’s concerns about innovation, similar to the EC’s Dow/DuPont clearance last year. In addition to Bayer/Monsanto, two other proposed acquisitions in the chemicals sectors fell through, most notably Celanese/Blackstone, due to excessive divestiture requests required by the Commission. Continue Reading Antitrust M&A Snapshot

On April 27, 2018, the United States Senate confirmed President Trump’s five nominees for Commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Three are Republicans: Chairman Joseph Simons, Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson, and two are Democrats: Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter. The Senate’s vote returns the FTC to a full complement of Commissioners for the first time under the Trump Administration. Of note to participants in the health care sector: the FTC shares civil antitrust law enforcement jurisdiction over the health care industry with the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, but takes the lead when it comes to the health care provider, pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Continue Reading THE LATEST: Health Care Antitrust Enforcement Remains a Top Priority for New FTC Commissioners

According to press reports, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating several issues related to admission of students to institutions of higher learning.

  • In January, reports emerged that DOJ was investigating whether the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC’s) ethical guidelines violate the antitrust laws. The DOJ appeared to be concerned about an agreement not to recruit students who have enrolled, registered, declared their intent or submitted deposits to other institutions. This could affect so-called early decision programs, under which students pledge to attend a particular school in return for early consideration of their applications. Although early decision programs have existed for many years, the DOJ could be concerned about schools putting “teeth” into such programs by agreeing with each other not to recruit or accept students who pledge to enroll at other schools.
  • In early April, the Wall Street Journal reported that the DOJ had sent letters to a number of colleges and universities asking that they preserve emails and other messages detailing agreements with other schools regarding their communications with one another about admitted students and how they might use that information. The request suggests that the DOJ could be concerned that schools are unlawfully coordinating with one another regarding admission of students, limiting competition among themselves for the highest-performing students.

The DOJ’s nascent activity follows in the footsteps of other antitrust cases in higher education that have alleged horizontal trade restraints. These cases have involved financial aid, faculty hiring and coordinated application processes. The nub of DOJ’s interest is that the Sherman Act requires higher education institutions to compete for students and faculty in much the same way as ordinary businesses must compete for their customers and workers. Courts have acknowledged that some aspects of higher education differ from ordinary commerce and are subject to less rigorous rules than other types of trade restraints. However, as to the core matters of competing for students and faculty, colleges and universities should strictly avoid agreements that limit rivalry among them.   Continue Reading DOJ Enforcement Update: Higher Education

Overview of Current Cartel Investigations

Antitrust enforcement remained active in 2017, with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) pursuing both new and long-developed investigations. However, total fines obtained by the DOJ declined sharply from recent years as the automotive parts and foreign exchange investigations wound down. At the end of 2017, and the start of 2018, the European Commission handed down decisions in a number of significant antitrust cartel investigations related to air freight, trucks, maritime carriers and several automotive parts.

US Developments

  • In November 2017, an Ohio jury acquitted two Japanese firms, Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. and Green Tokai Co. Ltd., of price fixing and bid rigging charges in the market for automotive body seals. This was the DOJ’s first auto parts case to go to trial and a potential bellwether for the attitude that US juries might take toward foreign defendants. The defense focused on evidence of intense price competition for the allegedly rigged components during the conspiracy period.
  • In the capacitors investigation, US District Court Judge James Donato of the Northern District of California caught the attention of the industry when he refused to accept the guilty pleas of three companies to horizontal price-fixing. According to the court, these negotiated corporate pleas were not sufficient to penalize the companies and prevent future price fixing agreements. The court called one agreement a “sweetheart deal” and stated that another negotiated plea was merely a “drop in the bucket.” Although the court later accepted open-ended “B” pleas in those cases, the court’s rejection of the traditional fixed-sentence “C” plea agreements may signal less deference to agencies with respect to negotiated plea agreements with companies.
  • Over the past few years, the DOJ has exercised greater leniency in sentencing defendants who claim an inability to pay a large fine, hewing to the principle that punishment and deterrence should not put companies out of business. For example, in the packaged seafood investigation, DOJ gave Bumble Bee Foods a $111 million reduction in penalty for inability to pay and cooperation credit. It is likely that the DOJ will continue to evaluate fines in light of companies’ ability to pay them, including companies in smaller industries such as the promotional products cases. However, companies should be aware that judges may not always accept inability-to-pay defenses. Notably, one reason for Judge Donato’s rejection of the capacitor guilty pleas related to his skepticism about one company’s assertion that it was unable to pay a higher fine.

EU Developments

  • The European Commission continues its investigation into anticompetitive behavior in the automotive parts sector. Most recently, the Commission imposed fines on manufacturers of occupant safety systems, spark plugs and braking systems, totaling €185 million. In each case, the companies agreed to settle with the Commission, which means that they received a fine reduction in exchange for admitting to the Commission’s objections.
  • The Commission imposed a record fine on a truck manufacturer which had decided not to settle with the Commission, contrary to the other participants in the cartel.
  • The Commission re-adopted its previous decision to impose fines on air cargo carriers, after its decision had been annulled by the General Court of the EU.
  • The European Commission confirmed in July 2017 that German car makers Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, BMW and Daimler are “undergoing examination by the Commission.” The companies are believed to have cooperated on how to meet emissions standards for diesel vehicles. Volkswagen and Daimler are believed to have been among the first companies to cooperate with the European Commission. In October 2017, the Commission confirmed that it had carried out inspections at the premises of car manufacturers in Germany.

Read the full report here.

The US International Trade Commission (ITC) issued an opinion dismissing United States Steel Corporation’s antitrust claim made under Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 against several Chinese steel manufacturers or distributors, ruling that a complainant must show an antitrust injury even in a trade case.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On Monday, March 19, three of the ITC’s four sitting commissioners upheld an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision to eliminate the antitrust claim from US Steel’s trade case against Chinese steel manufacturers.
  • US Steel’s claims were made pursuant to Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930. Section 337 has primarily been used by US companies to bar the import of items that infringe upon intellectual property rights. A violation of Section 337 requires a showing of “[u]nfair methods of competition [or] unfair acts in the importation of articles.”
  • US Steel took a rather novel approach and based one of its Section 337 claims on Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Specifically, US Steel alleged a conspiracy between the Chinese manufacturers to fix prices at below-market prices and control output and export volumes. Though US Steel based its claim on the Sherman Act, it argued before the ALJ and the ITC that it did not need to show antitrust injury to sustain its antitrust claim. US Steel reasoned that because Section 337 is designed to protect American companies and workers, it needed only show harm to those groups.
  • In November 2016, an ALJ granted the Chinese manufacturers’ motion to dismiss the antitrust claims, confirming that US Steel is required to show antitrust injury to state an antitrust claim under Section 337.
  • The ITC affirmed the ALJ’s dismissal of US Steel’s antitrust claim because it did not meet the pleading requirements of the Sherman Act under substantive federal antitrust law; such an antitrust claim requires antitrust injury to be alleged. The ITC explained that it relies on existing bodies of substantive federal law to avoid conflicts with federal precedent.
  • Under US antitrust law, for US Steel to properly allege antitrust injury on the allegation that its competitors fixed prices at below-market prices, the below-market pricing must be predatory. That is, US Steel would be required to prove (a) below-cost pricing and (b) that the Chinese steel manufacturers had a dangerous chance of recouping their losses. US Steel did not—and conceded it could not—satisfy the pleading standard for predatory pricing.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: US Steel’s Section 337 Antitrust Claim Rejected by ITC Commissioners

WHAT HAPPENED

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) implemented new provisions in merger consent decrees that:

  • Make it easier for DOJ to prove violations of a consent decree and hold parties in contempt;
  • Allow DOJ to apply for an extension of the decree’s term if the court finds a violation; and
  • Shift DOJ’s attorneys’ fees and costs for successful enforcement onto the parties.

DOJ has implemented these provisions in four decrees to date1, and has communicated that it will require the same in future decrees.

WHAT THIS MEANS

For merger decrees, by reducing its burden of proof for decree violations, DOJ is shifting additional risk to parties for divestitures that do not go as planned. Willfulness is not a required element of civil contempt2, so the change to the burden of proof is significant. Parties will need to be sure to commit to realistic divestiture timelines and asset packages that will not present undue implementation challenges.

For non-merger decrees, settling parties will need to remain vigilant against decree violations or even the appearance of them, as the DOJ has ratcheted up its ability to obtain large settlements and civil penalties for violations.

THE CHANGES

The DOJ states that its changes are driven by the principle that antitrust enforcement is law enforcement, not regulation3. Nonetheless, the main impact of the changes is to increase the risk and potential cost on merging parties.

Preponderance Is Now Enough: Reversing the “clear and convincing evidence” standard that has been in place for civil contempt cases since at least the 1960s4, DOJ is now requiring settling parties to agree that a preponderance of the evidence will be enough for a showing of civil contempt and for an appropriate remedy. DOJ states that under the old standard, the DOJ frequently had to engage in extensive discovery when faced with a violation, giving the parties an incentive to hold out from a resolution and “exacerbate the situation.”5 Under a preponderance of the evidence standard, it will be easier for the DOJ to bring an enforcement action without conducting a full CID investigation.

Fee-Shifting Now the Norm: The DOJ now requires the shifting of fees and costs to the parties in the event a violation is proven. DOJ states that fee-shifting provisions are standard fare in many private contracts. Their use by DOJ is designed to discourage violations of consent decrees and speed resolution of disputes.

DOJ Can Request Extension of Decrees: Settling parties must now agree that in the event a court finds a violation, DOJ can request a one-time extension of the decree’s term. The extension that DOJ can request is not time-limited, and the new language does not set forth a standard for when the court should grant DOJ’s request. For decrees that involve costly monitoring and affirmative compliance, this open-ended provision may greatly raise the cost of disputing an alleged violation.

CONCLUSION

The DOJ’s new provisions shift risk and cost to settling parties in the event of a dispute over alleged violations of a decree. Merging parties may disagree about whether these changes further the administration’s deregulatory agenda. Nonetheless, the changes are here to stay, and parties are advised to proceed with appropriate caution in (1) agreeing to realistic divestiture timelines and asset packages and (2) implementing comprehensive decree compliance programs to avoid investigation for an actual or perceived violation.


  1. See Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v Vulcan Materials Company (Dec. 22, 2017); Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v TransDigm Group Incorporated (Dec. 21, 2017); Competitive Impact Statement, U.S. v Parker-Hannifin Corporation (Dec. 18, 2017); Plaintiff United States’ and Defendant ABI’s Joint Motion and Memorandum for Entry of Modified Proposed Final Judgment, U.S. v. Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, 1:16-cv-01483 (Mar. 15, 2018).
  2. See McComb v. Jacksonville Paper Co., 336 U.S. 187 (1949).
  3. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew C. Finch, Remarks to New York State Bar Association Antitrust Section, Jan. 25, 2018, available at https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/file/1028896/download
  4. See, e.g., Schauffler ex rel. NLRB v. Local 1291, International Longshoremen’s Assoc., 292 F.2d 182 (3rd Cir. 1961).
  5. Supra note ii.

The Chinese government announced on March 13, 2018, that it will consolidate the duties of three competition agencies into a new government agency to handle all antitrust matters. While it is too early to tell how this reorganization will impact China’s review of transactions and conduct cases, we believe that this change could lead to greater consistency and potentially more experienced attorneys reviewing competition matters.

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced that it has challenged a merger between Wilhelmsen Maritime Services (Wilhelmsen) and Drew Marine Group (Drew) because of an overlap in service to “global fleet customers,” a narrow customer segment that purchases marine water treatment chemicals and services.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • The FTC issued an administrative complaint and filed a complaint in federal court seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, asserting that Wilhelmsen’s proposed $400 million acquisition of Drew would significantly reduce competition in the market for marine water treatment chemicals and services used by global fleets.
  • The FTC enforcement action focuses on a narrow sub-segment of customers, global fleet customers, that buys marine water treatment chemicals and services.
  • The FTC distinguished global fleet customers from other marine water treatment chemical customers on the basis that:
  • (1) global fleets have specialized needs that only a few suppliers can meet
    (turn-key global sales, service and delivery capabilities, as well as consistent and reliable product supply); and
  • (2) these customers seek out suppliers via requests for proposal and direct negotiation and therefore potential suppliers can price discriminate to that subset of customers.
  • Because of the specific needs of global fleet customers and because global fleet suppliers can identify which customers are seeking service for global fleets, suppliers are able to price discriminate to the global fleet customer set.
  • The FTC alleged a harm to competition because their investigation showed Wilhelmsen and Drew are each other’s closest competitors based on company documents, statements by the business personnel, and bid data showing that the companies are most frequently the first and second choice for global fleet customers. In addition, the FTC noted that Wilhelmsen and Drew would control at least 60 percent of the market with the next largest competitor having less than a 5 percent share.
  • The FTC complaint disparaged the remaining market participants as unable to practicably compete with Wilhelmsen and Drew to service global fleets because they are perceived as offering lower quality products with less reliability, having more limited service capabilities, and failing to price competitively.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • The FTC’s enforcement action continues a trend of applying price discrimination markets. These markets are characterized by: (1) buyers with special requirements that only select suppliers can service; and (2) sellers who can identify the buyers with those special requirements and selectively price based upon the knowledge of those special needs.
  • Antitrust enforcement of price discrimination markets lead to narrower product market definitions. Therefore, applying price discrimination markets may result in antitrust enforcers challenging mergers that appear lawful when viewed as a broader market.
  • There is increased risk of price discrimination markets being applied by antitrust enforcers in industries in which:
    • The customers’ end uses differ for the same product;
    • Merging companies’ documents recognize distinctions among customer groups; and
    • Groups of customers require unique product characteristics.