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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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Enhanced Sharing of Antitrust Evidence: New EU/Japan Cooperation Agreement

On 15 March 2016, the Japan Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) and the European Commission (Commission) announced their intention to upgrade the current antitrust co-operation agreement between Japan and the European Union. The upgrade will have a number of practical and legal implications for companies involved in international antitrust investigations or considering making leniency applications.

The review is understood to focus primarily on the facilitation of exchanges of information and evidence between the JFTC and the Commission. If the negotiations prove successful, it would be the second time that each of the agencies has entered into a “second generation” co-operation agreement.  The JFTC entered into a second generation co-operation agreement with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in April 2015 and a second generation agreement between the European Union and the Swiss Confederation was signed in May 2013.

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Recent Judgments Illustrate How the European Commission Can Correct Its Errors Post-Annulment

As a general proposition, when the validity of a European Commission antitrust decision is challenged before the General Court of the European Union (GCEU), the procedure is one of judicial review, not a retrial on the merits (although the GCEU does have special jurisdiction to increase or reduce the amount of any fine). Thus there are only three possible outcomes: annulment of the Commission’s decision; variation in the amount of any fine, upwards or downwards; or rejection of the challenge altogether.

In the case of annulment, Article 266 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union requires that the Commission “take the necessary measures to comply with the judgment” of the GCEU. Provided that the limitation period has not expired, the Commission may take a new decision on the case, taking care to avoid the illegalities identified by the GCEU in respect of the first decision. The new decision can be different from the first decision, as illustrated by the recent judgments in Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba, but it can also be substantially the same, as illustrated by the recent judgment in Éditions Odile Jacob.

The Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba cases arose out of the gas insulated switchgear cartel. Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba were fined for their participation in the cartel. The companies challenged the Commission’s decision imposing the fines, and the GCEU annulled the fines imposed individually on Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba on the ground that the Commission had infringed the principle of equal treatment by choosing, when calculating the fine, a reference year for Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba which was different from that chosen for the European participants in the infringement.

Following the annulment, the Commission addressed a letter of facts to Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba informing them of its intention to adopt a new decision remedying the unequal treatment criticised by the GCEU. Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba submitted comments on the Commission’s letter of facts and had meetings with the Commission team responsible for the case. Subsequently the Commission adopted a new decision imposing lower individual fines on Mitsubishi Electric and Toshiba than in the first decision.

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Virginia’s Certificate of Need Laws May Stay, Fourth Circuit Says

On January 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld Virginia’s Certificate of Need (CON) laws, ruling that the scheme does not illegally discriminate against out-of-state health care providers. See Colon Health Ctrs. v. Hazel, No. 14-2283 (4th Cir. Jan. 21, 2015).

In Virginia, and the 35 other states with CON laws, health care facilities are required to obtain government approval before establishing or expanding certain medical facilities and undertaking major medical expenditures. CON laws require applicants to show sufficient public need for the expenditure in question and thereby attempt to reduce healthcare costs by preventing excess capacity and unnecessary duplication of services and equipment.

The plaintiff-appellants in the case were two out-of-state outpatient providers that sought to open facilities to provide medical imaging services in Virginia. Their request for a CON for new CT scanners and MRI machines was denied. The plaintiff-appellants subsequently challenged the laws as putting an undue burden on interstate commerce in violation of the dormant commerce clause. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that the CON requirement neither discriminated against nor placed an undue burden on interstate commerce because both in-state and out-of-state providers were required to abide by the CON requirement.

Previously, in October 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) issued a joint statement urging Virginia to consider changes to its CON laws. Both agencies argued that CON requirements create significant competitive concerns by suppressing supply and misallocating resources. Moreover, FTC and DOJ said the requirements have not been shown to lower costs or improve the quality of care for consumers. The agencies said that CON requirements can hinder “the efficient functioning of health care markets” by allowing an existing provider to file challenges to prevent or delay competition from a rival. Additionally, they may enable anticompetitive agreements among providers to pursue CON approval for separate services. The Fourth Circuit’s recent opinion may lessen the likelihood that the FTC or DOJ would separately challenge Virginia’s CON laws, but the agencies are likely to remain active in speaking out against CON requirements in Virginia and elsewhere.




6th Circuit Limits Applicability of the Filed-Rate Doctrine and Holds that Electricity is a “Commodity” under Robinson-Patman

by Nick GrimmerGregory E. Heltzer and Shauna A. Barnes

On June 6, 2012, in Williams v. Duke Energy Int’l, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed a dismissal of Robinson-Patman Act (price discrimination) claims, amongst others.  In the district court, a class of electricity purchaser plaintiffs alleged that defendant electricity providers gave an unfair competitive advantage to several of the defendants’ largest customers by paying them undisclosed rebates in side agreements, such that the favored customers paid effective rates below those approved by the governing agency, while the plaintiffs still had to pay higher agency-approved rates.  The plaintiffs alleged that while the favored customers initially objected to the defendants’ proposed rate plan, they withdrew their objections in exchange for the undisclosed rebates.  The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims under the filed-rate doctrine, which bars challenges to the reasonableness of a “filed rate” (i.e., a rate approved by the governing regulatory agency).

The 6th Circuit reversed, holding that while the “filed-rate doctrine bars challenges to the reasonableness of a filed-rate,” the plaintiffs were not challenging the filed (i.e., approved) rate.  Instead, the court explained that the plaintiffs challenged “the lawfulness and purpose of payments made . . .  pursuant to various side agreements” that were “made outside of the [approved] rate scheme” – that is, these side agreements “were not filed with any agency, including the [governing agency].”  The court held that the plaintiffs properly stated a cause of action by alleging that via rebate payments, the defendants charged certain favored customers less than the actual filed rate, thereby harming the plaintiffs by giving the favored customers an unfair competitive advantage.

The extent to which other circuits will follow Williams is not clear, particularly if award of damages would have the effect of altering the filed rate (a point argued by the Williams defendants, but unaddressed by the 6th Circuit).  In the 8th Circuit (FirstCom, Inc. v. Qwest Corp.), for instance, “to the extent [a plaintiff] seeks recovery for a price discount it was allegedly entitled to, its claims are barred by the filed rate doctrine.”  And in the 11th Circuit (Hill v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc.), the filed-rate doctrine bars claims where “an award of damages to the customer-plaintiff would, effectively, change the rate paid by the customer to one below the filed rate paid by other customers.”  However, these cases (and similar cases, for instance, the 2nd Circuitin Marcus v. AT & T Corp.) did not involve allegations that side deals caused the effective rates to vary from the filed rates.

Another noteworthy holding of Williams is that electricity is a commodity for purposes of the Robinson-Patman Act – a statute that makes it unlawful to price discriminate between purchasers of commodities of like grade and quality.”  This holding is in conflict with district courts in other circuits (Delaware, for instance, in City of Newark v. Delmarva Power & Light Co.) holding that under the Robinson-Patman Act, electricity is not a commodity.  The [...]

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