In the course of one week, two top level DOJ Antitrust officials in the Trump Administration separately spoke at panels and suggested the possibility of a sea change in federal antitrust law with respect to indirect purchaser lawsuits. The comments further reinforce the Administration’s active focus on antitrust issues.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Makan Delrahim, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division (the Division), spoke at a conference organized by the Antitrust Research Foundation on January 19, 2018, and is reported to have stated that the Division was looking into the possibility of pursuing civil damages on behalf of taxpayers in antitrust price-fixing suits.
  • A few days later, on January 23, 2018, Andrew Finch, DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, spoke at a Heritage Foundation conference and reportedly stated that the Division was “looking at whether or not it might be worthwhile to revisit those rules and suggest the same to the Supreme Court,” referencing the landmark decision Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, which prohibits indirect purchasers from recovering antitrust damages under federal antitrust law.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Trump DOJ’s Next Target: the Illinois Brick Indirect Purchaser Rule?

At the one year anniversary of the Trump administration, antitrust merger enforcement remains similar to the Obama administration, but it is still early to judge given the delays in antitrust appointments and given the DOJ’s lawsuit against the vertical AT&T/Time Warner transaction, the first vertical merger litigation in decades.  Below are some of the recent developments that have impacted merger enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), as well as European regulators.

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The US Federal Trade Commission recently announced increased thresholds for the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 and for determining whether parties trigger the prohibition against interlocking directors under Section 8 of the Clayton Act.

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On 20 December 2017, the French Competition Authority (the FCA) imposed a EUR 25 million fine on a pharmaceutical laboratory, for delaying entry onto the market of the generic version of Durogesic, and for hindering its development through a disparagement campaign.

No public version of the decision is available yet, nonetheless the FCA has already published a detailed press release (available in French).

WHAT HAPPENED

Durogesic is a powerful opioid analgesic, which active substance is fentanyl, usually prescribed in the form of transdermal patch for the treatment of severe pain, including chronic cancer pain. In 2007, a competing pharmaceutical company launched its generic equivalent. Continue Reading French Competition Authority Fines a Pharmaceutical Laboratory EUR 25 Million for Anti-Generic Practices

Manufacturers of optical disk drives defeated electronics companies’, retailers’ and indirect purchaser plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims after seven years of litigation. On December 18, 2017, the US District Court for the Northern District of California issued simultaneous orders that granted summary judgment in favor of defendants after finding that the electronics companies, retailers and indirect purchasers failed to demonstrate evidence of injury and causation.

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WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. (ACT) and its subsidiaries (including Circle K Stores, Inc.) are engaged in the retail sale of gasoline and diesel fuel in the United States, as well as in the operation of convenience stores. ACT is the largest convenience store operator in terms of company-owned stores and is the second-largest chain overall in the United States.
  • Pursuant to an Equity Purchase Agreements, dated July 10, 2017, ACT would acquire, through its wholly owned subsidiary Oliver Acquisition Corp., all of the equity interests of certain Holiday subsidiary companies.
  • The FTC defined the relevant product markets as the retail sale of gasoline and the retail sale of diesel.
  • The FTC defined local geographic markets, identifying ten separate geographic markets in Wisconsin (including Hayward, Siren and Spooner) and Minnesota (including Aitkin, Hibbing, Minnetonka, Mora, Saint Paul and Saint Peter).
  • In its complaint, the FTC stated that the “relevant geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel are highly localized, ranging up to a few miles, depending on local circumstances” and “[e]ach relevant market is distinct and fact-dependent, reflecting the commuting patterns, traffic flows, and outlet characteristics unique to each market.” Additionally, the FTC stated that “[c]onsumers typically choose between nearby retail fuel outlets with similar characteristics along their planned routes.”
  • In its complaint, the FTC alleged that post-merger the transaction would reduce the number of independent competitors from 3-to-2 in five local markets, and from 4-to-3 in five other local markets.
  • The FTC also stated that new entry was unlikely to mitigate the impact of the transaction in these local areas because there are significant entry barriers in the retail gasoline and diesel fuel business, including “the availability of attractive real estate, the time and cost associated with constructing a new retail fuel outlet, and the time associated with obtaining necessary permits and approvals.”
  • The FTC alleged that the proposed acquisition would result in (1) an increased likelihood that ACT and its subsidiaries would unilaterally exercise market power in the relevant markets; and (2) an increased likelihood of collusive or coordinated interaction between the remaining competitors in the relevant markets.
  • The FTC accepted a consent order in which ACT agreed to divest certain of its subsidiary’s and Holiday’s retail fuel outlets and related assets to remedy concern in ten local geographic markets in Wisconsin and Minnesota. ACT must complete the divestiture to a Commission-approved buyer within 120 days after the acquisition closes.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Local geographic markets are highly fact specific. Factors used to determine local geographic markets for retail gasoline and retail diesel include: commuting patterns, traffic flows and outlet characteristics unique to each market.
  • In certain markets where only two or three independent competitors will remain post-transaction, the FTC may allege that the transaction will increase the likelihood of coordination though no collusive or coordinated interaction is alleged. Certain aspects of the fuel industry make it vulnerable to coordination including: (1) competitors can observe each other’s fuel prices easily because retail fuel outlets post their fuel prices on price signs that are visible from the street; and (2) “retail fuel outlets regularly track their competitors’ fuel prices and change their own prices in response.”
  • The FTC and DOJ may not require a buyer-up-front in situations in which they have significant experience in the industries at issue, the assets involved can operate as a stand-alone business, the business is unlikely to be harmed in the period before sale (that is, easy to manage via hold separate), and the asset is a high-value, low-risk asset (e.g., retail fuel business) that is likely to generate substantial interest from more than one potentially acceptable buyer.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Wading into the merging streams of antitrust and patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld dismissal of an antitrust suit where a jury verdict in a parallel case found no patent infringement. Cascades Computer Innovation, LLC v. RPX Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Case No. 16-15782 (9th Cir., December 11, 2017).
  • Cascades Computer Innovation is a non-practicing entity that owns a series of 38 patents (collectively known as the Elbrus portfolio) allegedly used to optimize Android devices. Cascades intended to license these patents for use by companies including Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG Electronics, Dell and RPX (a defensive patent aggregator that purchases patents on behalf of subscriber organizations using membership fees). An agreement couldn’t be reached. Cascades alleged this lack of agreement was due to a conspiracy between the defendants, using RPX, to not seek licenses for use of these patents—an agreement in violation of antitrust law.
  • Cascades filed two related lawsuits against Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others in separate district courts with separate causes of action. In Illinois, Cascades’ claim rested on patent infringement. Although the entire Elbrus portfolio was referenced in the complaint, the court determined only one patent, referred to by the court as “the ‘750 patent,” was truly at issue. Cascades asserted that merely installing the Android mobile device operating system resulted in an infringement of this patent. In California, Cascades relied on antitrust law arguing the agreement between defendants not to purchase licenses amounted to a violation. Again, the ‘750 patent was primarily at issue. Thus, Cascades simultaneously argued that a group of companies infringed on their patent and also that those companies illegally conspired to refuse to obtain licenses for use of that patent.
  • A jury in Illinois determined there was no patent infringement, which undercut Cascades’ argument in California. Without any infringement, the court in California noted “[o]nly those who possess antitrust standing by virtue of having suffered antitrust injury may bring a private action for damages for violation of the antitrust laws” before ruling for the defendants on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The California court reasoned that in order to show antitrust injury, there must be harm to competition, not any particular competitor. The court reasoned that a “failure to license a non-infringed patent typically cannot serve as the basis for a cognizable antitrust injury.” Because Cascades’ entire theory of injury was based upon ongoing infringement of the ‘750 patent, and not on any potential, unalleged future infringement, there was no antitrust injury in the case.
  • On appeal, the 9th Circuit determined the district court “properly recognized the preclusive effect of [the Illinois decision] and correctly reasoned that because the defendants did not infringe the ‘750 patent, Cascades’ failure to license the patent was not a cognizable antitrust injury.” In a footnote, the panel explained, “[h]ere, the defendants were not infringing the valid patent; therefore, they were not using the invention. Thus, the failure to license had no effect on price or quantity of any consumer goods.”
  • In sum, the district court held and the 9th Circuit affirmed that without any infringement there can be no antitrust injury, and thus no antitrust claim.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • While seeking an antitrust remedy where no patent infringement is found represents a relatively novel tactic, alleging an injury without an infringement doesn’t appear to be a winning strategy in private causes of action.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave a speech at the Open Markets Institute on December 6 entitled “Three Ways to Remake the American Economy for All”, in which she repeatedly positioned antitrust policy as a tool to rebalance competition between “big, powerful corporations” and “just about everyone else.”
  • Senator Warren spoke critically about recent antitrust enforcement and advocated three steps for improving antitrust enforcement: (1) block mergers that choke-off competition; (2) crack down on anticompetitive conduct; and (3) get all government agencies to defend competition.
  • On mergers, Senator Warren asserted that “settlement agreements that allowed bad mergers if the companies promised to take actions” have not worked out because “those expertly crafted provisions have been epic failures” and that “[s]tudies show that those settlement conditions often fail to bring about the cost savings and other benefits giant corporations promised.”
  • She advocated that to improve antitrust enforcement “we need to demand a new breed of antitrust enforcers … Enforcers who will turn down papier-mache settlement agreements and actually take cases to court.”
  • Senator Warren stated that increased enforcement is needed not just for horizontal mergers between direct competitors, but also for vertical mergers (e.g., between customers/suppliers). In her view, the “Chicago School party line” that vertical mergers do not harm competition may be accepted theory, but is “not often the reality” when large companies are involved.
  • On anticompetitive conduct, Senator Warren singled out no-poach agreements as an area for increased enforcement—specifically franchises that do not allow an employee of one franchisee to be hired by another franchisee.
  • On getting other agencies to defend competition, Senator Warren noted that while not enforcers like DOJ, other government agencies like the Defense Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Federal Communications Commission, can significantly impact competition through regulation and purchasing.
  • Finally, Senator Warren highlighted several consolidated industries that she views as significantly concentrated for which she would like to see increased antitrust focus including: airlines, banking, healthcare, pharma, agriculture, telecom and tech.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Senator Warren’s theme that antitrust can be used to protect small businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, workers and just about everyone else from the “rich and powerful” shows that increasing antitrust enforcement has become a key party line for the upcoming midterm elections.
  • Additionally, Senator Warren stated that “[t]he individuals who lead the [FTC and DOJ] determine the federal government’s competition priorities,” and have a significant impact on antitrust enforcement by deciding which cases to open or take to court. Given these statements and that several high-profile mergers will be decided before the midterms, we expect that Senator Warren will continue to highlight the potential impact of high-profile mergers on small business and individuals.
  1. Jurisdictional thresholds

French merger control applies if the turnovers of the parties to a transaction (usually the acquirer(s) including its (their) group(s) of companies, and the target) exceeded, in the last financial year, certain (cumulative) thresholds provided in Article L. 430-2, I of the French Commercial Code (the “Code”):

  • Combined worldwide pre-tax turnover of all concerned parties > €150 million; and
  • French turnover achieved by at least two parties individually > €50 million euros; and
  • The transaction is not caught by the EU Merger Regulation.

Specific (and lower) thresholds exist for mergers in the retail sector or in French overseas departments or communities[1].

In the situation of an acquisition of joint control, a transaction can be notifiable where each of the acquirers meets the thresholds even if the target has no presence or turnover in France.

There is no exception applicable to foreign-to-foreign transactions.

Acquisitions of ‘non-controlling’ minority shareholdings are not notifiable.

  1. Filing is mandatory and failure to file or early implementation can be sanctioned

Under Article L. 430-3 of the Code, a notifiable merger cannot be finalized before its clearance by the French Competition Authority (the “FCA”) but the Code does not provide any specific deadline for the notification. There is no filing fee.

Failure to notify a reportable transaction can be sanctioned by the FCA as follows:

  • A daily penalty can be imposed on the notifying party(ies) until they notify the operation or demerge, as the case may be; and
  • A fine can be imposed on the notifying party(ies) up to:
    • For corporate entities: 5% of their pre-tax turnover in France during the last financial year;
    • For individuals: €1.5 million.

Due to the suspensive effect of the filing, these sanctions also apply when the parties start to implement a notified transaction before receiving clearance (so-called ‘gun jumping’) from the FCA.

Nevertheless, individual exemptions may be granted by the FCA to allow undertakings to close before receiving clearance; in practical terms, exemptions are exceptional and limited to circumstances where insolvency proceedings have been opened, or are about to be opened, in relation to the target.

  1. Timeline of merger control procedure

The majority of notified transactions are cleared in Phase I, which lasts 25 business days as from the receipt by the FCA of a complete notification.

A simplified procedure, which lasts for about 15 business days, is available for non-problematic acquisitions, which is often the case for transactions involving private equity funds. Simplified procedures accounted for about 50% of the notified transactions between May 2016 and May 2017.

Phase II is reserved for problematic acquisitions requiring a deeper examination and takes at least an additional 65 business days.

In addition, parties can pre-notify a transaction with the FCA. The pre-notification procedure can prove to be very useful in order to confirm the notifiability of a transaction, the nature and amount of information that will be required by the FCA in the actual filing, and/or obtain a first impression of the FCA’s preliminary analysis of potential competition issues that may be raised by a transaction.

[1]     Thresholds applying to mergers including at least two parties operating one or several shops of retail business (“magasin de commerce de détail”) or one party having its activity, at least in part, in a French overseas department or community are the following:

  • Combined worldwide pre-tax turnover of all concerned parties > €75 million; and
  • French turnover achieved by at least two parties in the retail business sector > €15 million OR turnover achieved by at least two parties in at least one overseas department/community > €15 million (or if active in the retail business sector > €5 million); and
  • The transaction is not caught by the EU Merger Regulation.

On November 29, 2017, a Japanese auto parts manufacturer and its US subsidiary defeated the US Department of Justice’s claims that the companies conspired with others to fix prices and rig bids for automotive body sealing products. The case involved a rare trial involving criminal antitrust charges. After 13 days of trial, a jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. and its subsidiary, Green Tokai Co. Ltd. Continue Reading.