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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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THE LATEST: Hollywood Writers Guild and Talent Agencies Entangled in Labor/Antitrust Lawsuits and Countersuits

A Hollywood union’s recent amendments to its union rules has sparked federal antitrust lawsuits by talent agencies. The Writers Guild of America (WGA), a labor union and the exclusive collective bargaining representative for writers in the entertainment industry, recently instituted new rules that prohibit its members from dealing with talent agencies that do not adopt the WGA’s new “Code of Conduct.” The WGA’s new Code prohibits its members from dealing with talent agencies that employ “packaging” arrangements, whereby agents forego individual commissions from their clients in lieu of “packaging fees” from production companies for providing pools of talent (writers, actors, directors, etc.). The Code also prohibits WGA’s members from affiliating with “any entity that produces or distributes content.” If WGA members continue to deal with talent agencies that have not adopted the Code, the members face sanctions, up to and including expulsion from the union.

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The Latest: New DOJ Antitrust Division Policy Makes Compliance Programs More Critical than Ever

What Happened:

  • Last week, the Antitrust Division reported that it has changed its Justice Manual to state that it will consider antitrust compliance at the charging stage in criminal antitrust investigations, instead of waiting for plea negotiation or the sentencing stage.
  • Previously, the Antitrust Division had granted leniency only to the first whistleblower to come completely clean. Under the Antitrust Division’s policy reversal, this is no longer the only way to gain credit with the Antitrust Division, and the Antitrust Division will now consider if the Company has “robust” compliance programs when determining whether to bring charges.
  • With the announcement this past Thursday, the Antitrust Division published a guidance document that focuses on evaluating compliance programs in criminal antitrust investigations. This is the first time the Antitrust Division has published guidance on evaluating compliance programs in the context of criminal antitrust violations, and companies can now use this document to determine whether their compliance programs are in line with the Antitrust Division’s standards.
  • The Antitrust Division lists certain factors that Antitrust Division prosecutors should consider when evaluating the effectiveness of an antitrust compliance program. These are:
    1. The design and comprehensiveness of the program
    2. The culture of compliance within the company
    3. Responsibility for, and resources dedicated to, antitrust compliance
    4. Antitrust risk assessment techniques
    5. Compliance training and communication to employees
    6. Monitoring and auditing techniques, including continued review, evaluation and revision of the antitrust compliance program
    7. Reporting mechanisms
    8. Compliance incentives and discipline
    9. Remediation methods
  • In general, when analyzing a program, the Antitrust Division will ask whether the compliance program is well designed, whether it is being applied earnestly and in good faith, and whether it works.
  • Finally, the Antitrust Division also revised sections of its Manual on the processes for recommending indictments, plea agreements and selecting compliance monitors.

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Cartel Snapshot: Mid-Year Update

2019 MID-YEAR UPDATE

The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced three new investigations and several developments in its other investigations, including new investigations in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment and insulation installation contracts. The Antitrust Division also released its Spring 2019 Division Update, which notes that the Division “is preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations at the close of FY 2018.”

In April 2019, the Division held a public roundtable discussion on the Antitrust Criminal Penalty Enhancement & Reform Act (ACPERA), which is due to sunset next year. ACPERA reduces the criminal liability and civil damages exposure of companies and individuals who are granted leniency under the Division’s Leniency Program for cooperating in investigations into cartel and other anticompetitive conduct. The roundtable consisted of a series of panel discussions allowing judges, attorneys, economists, academics, the business community and other interested stakeholders to weigh in on how the law can be improved. The Division was particularly interested in the public’s views on whether ACPERA has properly incentivized the self-reporting of criminal conduct and whether there are issues that have impeded the law’s intended effect.

The European Commission (Commission) announced developments in ongoing investigations in the auto parts industry, and in its government bonds and car emissions cases. The Commission also launched a new online tool to make it easier for companies to submit statements and documents as part of leniency and settlement proceedings in cartel cases.

US DEVELOPMENTS

  • The first new investigation disclosed by the DOJ is in the commercial flooring industry. The DOJ charged a former vice president of a commercial flooring contractor in Chicago of exchanging price information with its rivals to fix prices of contracts for removal and installation of commercial flooring. Assistant Attorney General Delrahim of the Antitrust Division said that the indictment “is the first of what we expect to be many in this ongoing investigation into bid rigging” in the commercial flooring industry.
  • The DOJ disclosed a second new investigation into bid rigging of Government Services Administration (GSA) contracts. The owner of a Texas company pleaded guilty to rigging bids for surplus government equipment—computers for resale and for recycling—in online GSA auctions.
  • The DOJ announced a third new investigation into bid rigging by insulation installation contractors. A manager for a Connecticut-based insulation contractor pleaded guilty for his role in rigging $45 million worth of bids for insulation installation contracts in New England from 2011 to 2018.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into fuel-supply contracts for the armed services remains active. Two more Korean companies pleaded guilty for their involvement in a bid-rigging conspiracy that targeted contracts to supply fuel to US Armed Forces in South Korea.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into price fixing in the promotional products space appears quite active.
  • In May 2019, state attorneys general for 43 states and Puerto Rico brought federal and state antitrust, consumer protection and common law claims against 18 generic [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Regulator Focus on High-Tech Transactions, Acquisitions and Impact on Innovations

Antitrust regulators in the United States and Europe were very active in the final quarter of 2018 closing a large number of cases requiring in-depth investigations. In the United States, regulators continue their focus on the potential need to update their methods of reviewing high-tech transactions with public hearings on the future of antitrust enforcement.

In Europe, recent reviews of Takeda’s acquisition of Shire and the creation of a joint venture between Daimler and BMW show a focus on how transactions will impact innovation for new products.

Read the full issue.




THE LATEST: DOJ Announces Settlement with Carolinas Health System (Atrium Health) After Two Years of Litigation

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced last week that it and the State of North Carolina have reached a settlement with Carolinas Healthcare System / Atrium Health relating to provisions in contracts between the health system and commercial insurers that allegedly restrict payors from “steering” their enrollees to lower-cost hospitals. The settlement comes after two years of civil litigation, and serves as an important reminder to hospital systems and health insurers of DOJ’s continued interest in and enforcement against anti-steering practices.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • On June 9, 2016, the DOJ and the State of North Carolina filed a complaint in the Western District of North Carolina against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, d/b/a Carolinas Healthcare System, now Atrium Health (Atrium).
  • In its complaint, DOJ accused Atrium of “using unlawful contract restrictions that prohibit commercial health insurers in the Charlotte area from offering patients financial benefits to use less-expensive health care services offered by [Atrium’s] competitors.”
  • DOJ alleged that Atrium held approximately a 50 percent share of the relevant market and was the dominant hospital system in the Charlotte area. DOJ defined the relevant product market as the sale of general acute care inpatient hospital services to insurers in the Charlotte area.
  • DOJ alleged that Atrium used market power to negotiate high rates and impose steering restrictions in contracts with insurers that restrict insurers from providing financial incentives to encourage patients to use comparable lower-cost or higher-quality providers. Such financial incentives include health plan designs that charge consumers lower out-of-pocket costs (such as copays and premiums) for using top-tier providers that offer better value, or for subscribing to a narrow network of providers.
  • Atrium also allegedly prevented insurers from offering tiered networks with hospitals that competed with Atrium in the top tiers, and imposed restrictions on insurers’ sharing of value information with consumers about the cost and quality of Atrium’s health care services compared to its competitors. These “steering restrictions” allegedly reduced competition and resulted in harm to consumers, employers, and insurers in the Charlotte area.
  • Atrium allegedly included these steering restrictions in its contracts with the four largest insurers who in turn provide coverage to more than 85 percent of commercially insured residents in the Charlotte area.
  • On March 30, 2017, the court denied Atrium’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, finding that the government met its initial pleading burden. Atrium had argued that the complaint failed to properly allege that the contract provisions actually lessened competition or lacked procompetitive effects.
  • More than a year later, on November 15, 2018, DOJ announced that the State of North Carolina and DOJ had reached a settlement with Atrium, which prohibits Atrium from continuing its practices of using alleged steering restrictions in contracts with commercial health insurers. The proposed settlement also prevents Atrium from “taking actions that would prohibit, prevent, or penalize steering by insurers in the future.” The agreement lists certain prohibitions and permissions for Atrium; for example, that Atrium [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: July – September 2018 Update

Both US antitrust agencies marked the third quarter of 2018 with significant policy announcements regarding the merger review process. The announced reforms seek to expedite the review process through cooperation between the agencies and the merging parties. Moving first, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed a Model Timing Agreement that provides the FTC Staff with earlier notice of the parties’ intent to substantially comply with a Second Request. Earlier notice allows the FTC Staff to create a more effective timeline for meetings with division management, front office staff and the Commissioners. Less than two months after the FTC revealed its Model Timing Agreement, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced procedural reforms aimed at resolving merger investigations within six months of filing. The DOJ will commit to fewer custodians and depositions in exchange for the merging parties providing key information earlier in the investigation. Overall, these reforms appear to be a positive step forward for parties considering future transactions, but their effectiveness remains uncertain as the agencies start a difficult implementation period. While the FTC timing agreement may provide more certainty around the process, it does not reduce the review timing and actually extends it.

EU: July – September 2018 Update

The European Commission (EC) remained quite active clearing mergers in the third quarter of 2018. Most notably, the EC cleared Apple’s acquisition of Shazam without imposing conditions despite the EC’s stated concerns about access to data as a competitive concern. The EC opened a Phase II investigation into the transaction to investigate the potential for Apple to obtain a competitive advantage over competing music streaming services by accessing Shazam’s consumer data obtained through its music recognition services. In this case, the EC did not find evidence that the access to Shazam’s data would provide Apple a competitive advantage. In addition, the EC found that there were no concerns about Apple potentially restricting Shazam as referral source for Apple’s competitors. Going forward, it is clear that access to data is an issue that the EC will continue to investigate, but it is also clear that the EC is taking a careful approach in assessing when that access will truly lead to a competitive harm.  (more…)




Antitrust M&A Snapshot

United States: April – June 2018 Update

The second quarter of 2018 ushered in a trial defeat for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the beginning of a new era at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In June, Judge Richard J. Leon of the US District Court for the District of Columbia denied the DOJ’s requested injunction of the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition. The case marked the first litigated vertical challenge by the Antitrust Division in nearly 40 years. DOJ filed a notice of appeal of the district court’s decision. At the FTC, four new commissioners were sworn in in May, with a fifth to join upon the approval of current commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen to the US Court of Federal Claims. With the transition nearly complete, new FTC Chairman Joseph Simons announced plans to re-examine and modernize the FTC’s approach to competition and consumer protection laws, possibly charting a new course for FTC antitrust enforcement.

EU: April – June 2018 Update

In this quarter, we saw two significant developments concerning the issue of gun-jumping. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) clarified the scope of the gun-jumping prohibition, ruling that a gun-jumping act can only be regarded as the implementation of a merger if it contributes to a change in control over the target. Second, the European Commission (EC) imposed a €124.5 million fine on Altice for having breached the notification and the standstill obligations enshrined in the EUMR by gun-jumping. The EC also issued two clearance decisions following Phase II investigations in the area of information service activities and the manufacture of basic metals. (more…)




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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Antitrust Merger Enforcement Update: One Year into the Trump Administration

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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