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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2021

In the United States, aggressive antitrust enforcement is likely to continue with the appointment of Lina Khan as Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair and the nomination of Jonathan Kanter to lead the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division. The premerger notification landscape continues to shift as filings reach another record high. Technology companies remain in the “hot seat” as legislators in the US House of Representatives introduced five antitrust reform bills that would change the enforcement landscape for digital platforms, including seeking to preclude large digital platform companies from acquiring smaller, nascent competitors. And the US Department of Justice is making good on President Biden’s pledge to regulate “Big Ag” by challenging Zen-Noh Grain Corporation’s proposed acquisition of 38 grain elevators from Bunge North America, Inc.

Meanwhile, in Q1 2021, the European Commission (Commission) published its Guidance on Article 22 of the EU Merger Regulation. The Guidance encourages the EU Member States to refer certain transactions to the Commission even if the transaction is not notifiable under the laws of the referring Member State(s). In Q2, not long after the issuance of the Guidance, the Commission received its first referral request to assess the proposed acquisition of GRAIL by Illumina. In light of the growing global debate on the need for more effective merger control, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager confirmed that the Commission will not soften EU merger policy going forward. The Commission’s statement was made despite the fact no deals have been blocked by the Commission in about the last two years.

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Executive Order Encourages FTC, DOJ to Address Hospital Consolidation, Vigorously Enforce Antitrust Laws

President Biden recently issued an executive order affirming his administration’s policy of enforcing the antitrust laws to “combat the excessive consolidation of industry” and cited healthcare markets as one of several priorities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) already have been actively enforcing the antitrust laws in provider consolidation matters. The FTC is currently challenging the proposed merger of two health systems in New Jersey, and in the past year unsuccessfully challenged the combination of Jefferson Health and Einstein Health in Philadelphia and successfully challenged the proposed combination of two health systems (Methodist Le Bonheur and Saint Francis) in Memphis.

The executive order follows a proposed bill to increase budgets for the FTC and DOJ, FTC resolutions on compulsory process in healthcare investigations, congressional calls to investigate the use of COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund payments for acquisitions, the FTC physician practice acquisition retrospective and other health antitrust developments.

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Government Contractor Pleads Guilty to Bid-Rigging and Procurement Fraud

On June 7, 2021, as part of the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) continuing commitment to prosecuting cases where the government is a victim, a government contractor pleaded guilty to one count of bid-rigging and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into public works contracts for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

Ohio-based Contech Engineered Solutions LLC (Contech) entered its plea of guilty before a federal judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and was sentenced to pay a $7 million criminal fine. Contech was also ordered to pay an additional $1,533,988 in restitution to the NCDOT. Notably, the DOJ did not impose a term of probation on Contech because Contech agreed to improve its compliance program to prevent recurrence of anticompetitive conduct. Contech, however, is required to cooperate with the DOJ, including producing documents and making witnesses available for interviews or testimony.

Contech and its former executive were indicted in October 2020 on six counts of alleged bid-rigging, conspiracy to commit fraud and mail and wire fraud in connection with a decade-long conspiracy involving public works projects in North Carolina.

This prosecution highlights the DOJ’s ongoing commitment to the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) and its efforts to scrutinize public procurements and combat collusion and related fraud in government contracting.

The PCSF has conducted extensive training of law enforcement officers and procurement officers, among others, to help identify scenarios and situations where collusion is more likely to occur. The PCSF is also utilizing data analytics to advance its investigations, building on technological advancements and more useable data sets to target and prosecute anticompetitive conduct.

Importantly, the PCSF has recently doubled in size and has gone global just as the United States has approved unprecedented stimulus spending in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and as the Biden administration is poised to approve a new infrastructure plan. The PCSF has provided tools that allow any individual to report suspected collusion via email or an online tip center. Enforcers’ renewed commitment to procurement collusion—coupled with increased government spending—will likely lead to more investigations and additional prosecutions in 2021.

Contech, a manufacturer of aluminum and other products, conspired with its supplier in bidding on numerous NCDOT public works projects. According to the indictment, the former Contech executive would obtain (or direct his subordinate to obtain) the supplier’s total bid price in advance. Using that information, Contech then submitted bids to be intentionally higher than its supplier. The indictment also alleged that Contech submitted false certifications that its bids were competitive and free of collusion throughout the conspiracy.

The indictment alleged bid-rigging between a manufacturer and its supplier, which is typically a vertical relationship and generally subject to the Rule of Reason rather than per se criminal analysis. Under the Rule of Reason, antitrust enforcers balance the anticompetitive effects of the conduct in question against the procompetitive benefits. Certain anticompetitive conduct, however, [...]

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Senate Passes Bill to Substantially Increase HSR Merger Filing Fees for Deals Greater Than $5 Billion

On June 6, 2021, the US Senate passed the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act of 2021. The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the Chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights; and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

The bill amends the premerger notification provisions of 15 U.S.C. § 18a and substantially increases the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act (HSR) filing fees for large mergers, while also effectuating a slight decrease in HSR filing fees for smaller mergers. The text of the bill can be found here.

The adjusted HSR filing fees are as follows:

The proposed HSR filing fees are subject to annual increases based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), unless the CPI increase is less than 1%. Any changes must be published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) each year (no later than January 31). The HSR filing fee thresholds themselves will remain correlated to Gross National Product (GNP).

The competition agencies also stand to directly gain from the passage of this bill. Section 3 of the bill authorizes the appropriation of increased funds for both the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and the FTC. The bill appropriates $252 million to the DOJ and $418 million to the FTC, substantially increasing the resources at the disposal of the regulatory agencies and even exceeding the FTC’s requested budget for FY 2022.

The bill is still subject to approval in the House of Representatives and by President Biden. But given the bipartisan support for this bill, its passage appears likely, and it raises the potential for additional bipartisan antitrust legislation in the future.




Expect More Criminal Enforcement & What You Can Do to Minimize Your Risk

OVERVIEW

Antitrust cartel and related collusive scheme enforcement is poised to increase. Several factors support this: (1) the Antitrust Division (the Division) has a 10% budget increase for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021; (2) proposed legislation that would increase its budget by $300 million; (3) Democratic administrations have traditionally been more aggressive in enforcing antitrust laws; (4) according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), last year the Division opened the most grand jury investigations in almost 20 years and by the end of 2020 had the most open grand jury investigations in a decade; (5) increased coordination with international law enforcement agencies, including the Division recently signing a number of cross-border agreements, maintaining active memberships in multilateral organizations dedicated to cross-border antitrust enforcement cooperation and a DOJ official recently noting they have been working at strengthening their relationships with international law enforcement agencies during the pandemic and they expect this to benefit international coordination on investigations and (6) as pandemic limitations on in-person investigative tactics subside (including search warrants and knock and talk interviews, among others), expect a return to overt tactics related to open grand jury investigations.

Historically, cartel enforcement has increased following economic downturns and substantial federal stimulus packages. For example, after the 2008 financial crisis and the 2009 Recovery Act, the DOJ filed 60% more criminal cases than in prior years. We expect this trend to continue in the wake of the unprecedented government stimulus packages passed in 2020 and 2021 and additional potential government spending on infrastructure. In addition to the increased resources, the Division has stepped up its criminal enforcement program with the creation and recent expansion of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), the expansion of criminal investigations and prosecutions into labor markets, higher expectations for corporate cooperators and new potential benefits for corporate entities with compliance programs addressing antitrust violations.

Below we discuss the sectors most likely to be implicated by increased criminal antitrust enforcement, the PCSF and what steps can be taken to prepare and minimize risk in this environment.

EXPECTED INDUSTRY FOCUS

Based on the trends described above and our recent experience at the DOJ, we expect antitrust criminal enforcement to focus in at least the following industries:

  • Healthcare – The DOJ remains active in this sector with its ongoing generics investigations and prosecutions and other cases relating to market allocation and labor markets. In fact, all of the charged labor market cases thus far have been in the healthcare industry. The DOJ has stated that investigations and prosecutions for violations in the healthcare sector remain its top focus and stimulus spending will likely serve to increase the DOJ’s attention to healthcare markets. Although healthcare compliance policies have often focused on other fraud and abuse issues, such as the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Law, compliance with antitrust laws – including for human resources – is now more critical than ever. In addition, the recently signed Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act significantly narrows the exemption [...]

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FTC, DOJ Issue Antitrust Statement On Covid-19 Response Collaborations

On March 24, 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a Joint Antitrust Statement Regarding COVID-19. In this statement, the FTC and DOJ recognize that public health efforts in response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) require government and private cooperation. To address the speed at which companies and individuals must engage in COVID-19 response activities, the FTC and DOJ will respond to COVID-19-related requests for advisory opinions and business review letters within an expedited seven days of receipt of all information.

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Recent Indictments Demonstrate Increased Focus on Bid-Rigging in Government Procurements

Companies involved in the government contracting industry should take note that the government is honing in on anticompetitive conduct affecting government procurements. The federal government has demonstrated an increased interest in this area, and companies should refresh and audit their compliance programs to avoid hefty civil and criminal penalties and potential prison terms for implicated employees.

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DOJ Consent Decree Changes Reduce Room for Error

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 [...]

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Significant Fine Imposed by the French Competition Authority in Floor Coverings Cartel

On October 19, 2017, the French Competition Authority (the “FCA”) imposed a EUR 302 million fine on the three leading companies in the PVC and linoleum floor coverings sector; Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett, as well as the industry’s trade association, SFEC (Syndicat Français des Enducteurs Calandreurs et Fabricants de Revêtements de Sols et Murs), for price-fixing, sharing commercially sensitive information, and signing a non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising.

The FCA said the significant fine reflected the gravity of the offence and the long duration of the anticompetitive behavior, which for one company lasted 23 years.

WHAT HAPPENED

The proceedings were originally initiated by unannounced inspections carried out in the floor coverings industry in 2013 by the FCA, acting on information submitted by the DGCCRF (Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control), which resulted in the discovery of three distinct anticompetitive practices.

Price-fixing

The FCA found that the three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France met secretly at so-called “1, 2, 3” meetings, from October 2001 to September 2011, at hotels, on the margins of official meetings of the SFEC or through dedicated telephone lines, in order to discuss minimum prices and price increases for their products. The manufacturers also entered into agreements covering a great deal of other sensitive information, such as the strategies to adopt with regard to specific customers or competitors, organization of sales activities and sampling of new products.

Confidential information exchange via the trade association

The FCA found that from 1990 until the start of the FCA’s investigations in 2013, Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett also exchanged, in the context of official meetings of the SFEC, very precise information relating to their trading volumes, revenues per product category and business forecasts. In its decision, the FCA also raised the active role played by the SFEC, supporting companies in their conduct.

Non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising

The three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France, together with the trade association, also signed a ‘non-compete’ agreement which prevented each company from advertising the individual environmental performance of its products. The FCA considered that this agreement may have acted as a disincentive for manufacturers to innovate and offer new products, earmarked by better environmental performance, compared to the products offered by their competitors.

Neither the manufacturers nor the trade association disputed the facts and all of them sought a settlement procedure. In addition, Forbo and Tarkett, leniency applicants, benefited from fine reductions corresponding to the respective dates they approached the FCA (the sooner, the higher the fine reduction), the quality of the evidence they provided and their cooperation during the investigation.

WHAT THIS MEANS

The FCA’s decision in the floor coverings cartel case has significant impact due to the total amount of the fines imposed which is (i) higher than the aggregate amount of sanctions imposed by the FCA in 2016 (i.e., EUR 202,873,000), and (ii) until now the highest fine imposed by the FCA in 2017, the FCA having imposed a EUR 100 million fine on Engie for abusing its dominant position in the [...]

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Flurry of Antitrust Merger Enforcement Actions as Obama Presidency Comes to a Close

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced several antitrust enforcement actions in advance of the inauguration of President Trump, including settlements for failures to file under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act), a challenge to an unreportable deal and a settlement of a “gun-jumping” claim under the HSR Act. These cases illustrate the importance of compliance with the often complex reporting, waiting period and substantive aspects of antitrust laws in connection with acquisitions of various types, whether or not those acquisitions require premerger reporting. Failure to comply can result in significant financial penalties.

Two HSR “Failure to File” Settlements. On January 17, 2017, the FTC announced two settlements for failures to submit HSR filings and observe the statutory waiting period under the HSR Act prior to consummating acquisitions that met the relevant thresholds. The HSR Act requires notification of certain acquisitions of voting securities, assets and non-corporate interests if the value held as result of the transaction is in excess of certain notification thresholds and size of person thresholds (if applicable), and the transaction is not otherwise exempt. Parties to reportable transactions must observe the statutory waiting period prior to closing. If they fail to file, or otherwise do not observe the waiting period under the HSR Act, the parties may be liable for civil penalties of up to $40,654 per day (which was recently increased from $40,000, effective February 24, 2017).

In the first settlement, Ahmet Okumus agreed to pay $180,000 in connection with failing to notify for his purchases of voting securities of Web.com Group, Inc. (Web.com). According to the complaint, in September 2014, Okumus acquired voting securities of Web.com and as a result, held approximately 13.5 percent of the voting securities of Web.com. Okumus continued to acquire voting securities of Web.com through November 2014. Okumus did not file an HSR notification prior to making these acquisitions, relying on the “investment only” exemption, which exempts acquisitions resulting in holdings of 10 percent or less of the issued and outstanding voting securities if the shares are held solely for the purpose of investment (see 15 U.S.C. § 18a(c)(9) and 16 C.F.R. § 802.9). However, because Okumus held in excess of 10 percent, this exemption was not applicable. In late November of 2014, Okumus made a corrective filing that allowed him to acquire additional Web.com voting securities for approximately five years, provided that the value of the voting securities he held as a result of any acquisition did not exceed the $100 million (as adjusted) notification threshold. In a letter that accompanied his corrective filing, he indicated that the failure to file was inadvertent. The FTC did not seek civil penalties in that instance.

In June of 2016, Okumus began acquiring additional voting securities of Web.com. Later that month he acquired 236,589 voting securities of Web.com, and as a result of that acquisition, Okumus held voting securities valued (per the HSR rules) in excess of the $100 million (as [...]

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