A recent announcement by multiple federal agencies has highlighted their intention to enforce their separate regulations against developers, deployers and users of AI systems. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan and officials from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) each reinforced their worries about automated systems, citing civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection and equal opportunity concerns. Their serious language, joint public commitment and previous enforcement actions in this area make this statement no simple theater.
DOJ’s Labor Market Prosecution Against Aerospace Employees Dismissed; Alleged Market Allocation Not Within Per Se Rule
On April 28, 2023, a judge from the US District Court for the District of Connecticut dismissed the criminal non-solicitation case brought by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) against six employees of the aerospace industry. The case, known as U.S. v. Patel, et al., ended with the acquittal of all defendants.
The court’s decision was significant as it stated that the case did not “involve a market allocation under the per se rule” as a matter of law. The trial court based its decision on several arguments, themes and rulings made by the defense in the 2022 U.S. v. DaVita, Inc. and Kent Thiry criminal non-solicitation trial. In that trial, McDermott, who represented DaVita’s former CEO, secured an acquittal on all counts.
Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q1 2023
Topics covered in this edition:
- Christine Wilson Resigns as FTC Commissioner
- FTC/Department of Justice Horizontal Merger Guidelines Delayed
- Agencies Maintain Focus on Private Equity, Especially in Healthcare
- Continuing a Trend: FTC Loses Challenge to Meta’s Acquisition of Within
- Agencies Continue to Challenge Transactions Outright Rather than Negotiate Settlements
- New Regulatory Burden: The EU Foreign Subsidies Regulation Enters into Force
- A New Route for Complainants: ECJ Towercast Ruling Confirms Non-Notifiable Acquisition Can Be Abuse of Dominant Position
- CMA’s New Leadership Team Focuses on Digitalisation and Supply Chain Issues Impacting Consumers
Heard at the 2023 Spring Meeting: Part 2
The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, on March 29–31, 2023. The Spring Meeting sessions featured updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and thought-invoking discussions on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. Following Part 1, this post summarizes key takeaways from the second portion of the Spring Meeting, including updates regarding premerger notification filings, labor markets, state antitrust enforcement, compliance programs, national security, consumer protection, interlocking directorates, and remedies.
FTC Zeros in on Missing Material in HSR Filings
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Competition Director Holly Vedova underscored the consequences of failing to submit Item 4 material in HSR filings. She noted the FTC will bounce filings found to have missing Item 4 documents. If the waiting period has not expired and newly surfaced documents change the scope of the request, the FTC may issue a Second Request. If the waiting period has expired when consequential missing material is realized, the FTC will require a corrective filing for the original transaction and may impose “significant” civil penalties.
- Vedova also reminded practitioners that changes in a merger agreement can require an additional HSR filing. If material changes are made before the waiting period expires, parties should proactively reach out to the FTC to inquire as to whether further action is needed. Parties may need to amend their original filing or submit a new one entirely.
Labor Markets Remain High Priority
- The antitrust enforcement agencies have promised continued, fervent action in labor markets. In keeping with this promise, this January, the FTC issued a proposed rule that would make it illegal to enter into or maintain noncompete agreements with employees or independent contractors.
- FTC Chair Lina Khan emphasized that noncompetes impede business dynamism, innovation, and entry, and eliminating noncompetes is estimated to return $300 billion back into the pockets of American workers.
- FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter pointed to California as an innovator in labor market enforcement, citing its prohibition on noncompetes. FTC enforcers encouraged the continued submission of public comments on the proposed rule. The comment period is set to close on April 19, 2023.
- Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Gwendolyn Cooley also noted that enforcing noncompetes has been a hallmark of state enforcement, especially in New York and Washington, and additional states are considering legislation that would ban noncompetes.
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s Acting Director of Criminal Enforcement Emma Burnham and the Chief of DOJ’s Criminal II Section James Fredericks noted practitioners should expect an uptick in criminal cases in the labor and employment space. DOJ Antitrust Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stressed that antitrust crimes focused on workers are just as important as those focused on consumers.
- New York’s antitrust chief, Elinor Hoffman, indicated that New York is focused on labor issues, including no-poach agreements and noncompete clauses that may arise during merger reviews. [...]
Heard at the 2023 Spring Meeting: Part 1
The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section recently held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, featuring updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and in-depth commentary on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. This post recaps key takeaways from the first portion of the Spring Meeting.
CIVIL ENFORCEMENT AND MERGER REVIEW: US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ) PRIORITIES
- Aggressive Enforcement by Any Other Name: DOJ Antitrust Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hetal Doshi characterized DOJ’s enforcement posture as “not aggressive enforcement, just enforcement,” but nevertheless opined that the Department’s past practice of erring on the side of under-enforcement has “ill-served” the public.
- Whole-of-Government Means Whole-of-Government: The Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Maggie Goodlander and Michael Kades highlighted that various federal statutes other than the antitrust laws confer the power to act to preserve competition. They emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue sweeping enforcement priorities to execute President Biden’s recent executive order calling for a whole-of-government approach to protecting competition, including by working in conjunction with other federal agencies like the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Agriculture.
- Enforcement Priorities Include Technical Violations of HSR Act, Spoliation, Gun-Jumping: Deputy Assistant Attorney General Goodlander emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue vigorously violations of the HSR Act, including failures to make required premerger notification filings, failures to provide all Item 4 documents, and “gun-jumping” caused by concerted action prior to the satisfaction of the HSR Act’s waiting period. Goodlander also commented on DOJ’s intent to scrutinize merging parties’ conduct during the due diligence phase to investigate whether parties are using due diligence to conceal and accomplish anticompetitive conduct. Other DOJ officials further emphasized that DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are working to ensure that the agencies’ investigations are not harmed by the use of third-party ephemeral communication platforms and to penalize spoliation of evidence contained in such messaging applications.
- Hostility Toward Freely Granted Divestitures in Merger Investigations: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Doshi and Andrew Forman conveyed the high bar merging parties face when they offer structural or behavioral remedies, including divestitures, to resolve or head off a DOJ challenge to a merger or acquisition. Doshi and Forman pointed to instances where divestitures and/or carveouts offered in merger transactions have failed and “the American people bear the risk” of anticompetitive harms and asserted that “the idea that a divestiture can cure the feared antitrust issues can’t rest on our hopes of what might happen in the future after the deal and divestiture closes.”
- Consent Decrees Face Much Stricter Scrutiny: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Forman, Goodlander, and Kades emphasized the “exacting standard” that must be applied when DOJ is considering entering into a consent decree to resolve a merger challenge. According to the Department officials, the antitrust laws prohibit mergers that may substantially lessen competition, which means that for a consent decree to resolve antitrust concerns, it must eliminate the possibility that a merger could cause harm—an “extremely high bar.”
- Updated Merger Guidelines to Focus on Relevant [...]
Customer Reviews: Five-Star Enforcement and the Expanding Regulations
Does your company sell to consumers or businesses that can leave reviews or rate your products? Whether your customers can leave reviews on your website or another public-facing review platform, companies should be aware of new developments in the consumer review enforcement space that may impact how you publicize and conduct your product rating and review system. If you are not aware of the expanding consumer review regulations, it could cost your company millions or even land you in jail.
CUSTOMER REVIEWS AND PROPOSED REVISIONS
Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act (the Act) prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices. Specifically, as the Act relates to customer reviews: negative customer reviews and ratings cannot be suppressed or hidden; any incentives for reviews must be disclosed; material connections between a reviewer and the reviewed product must be disclosed; and review gating is prohibited. The FTC has heightened its focus on consumer reviews as of late and proposed revisions to the Endorsement Guides for advertisers that would tighten enforcement against posting false positive reviews or manipulating consumer perception by suppressing negative reviews, among other things. The proposed guideline revisions would state that “in procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, or editing consumer reviews of their products, advertisers should not take actions that have the effect of distorting or otherwise misrepresenting what consumers think of their products.” See Federal Register, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, Section IV (C) (July 26, 2022), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/07/26/2022-12327/guides-concerning-the-use-of-endorsements-and-testimonials-in-advertising. In addition to broadening its Endorsement Guides, the FTC has already demonstrated a significant increase in consumer review enforcement—including pursuing increased penalties and new priorities like review hijacking.
CONSULTANT RECEIVES PRISON SENTENCE FOR BRIBED REMOVAL OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS
In February 2023, Hadis Nuhanovic, a merchant consultant, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for taking part in a global scheme in which he bribed employees of a technology platform to remove negative online reviews on his clients’ products and reinstate suspended accounts, among other illegal activities such as stealing sensitive company information related to product-review rankings and targeting his clients’ competitors on the platform. Nuhanovic, together with a co-defendant, reached out to platform employees in India and bribed them to obtain unfair advantages for his own business’ gain. For example, Nuhanovic admitted that he paid a platform employee to remove negative reviews and further admitted that he operated multiple sham accounts—created using false information—to purchase products from merchants and submit negative reviews about them, with the intention of deceiving consumers and harming the targeted accounts. Additionally, Nuhanovic used his sham accounts to leave positive reviews for his preferred accounts, further deceiving consumers and improving the placement of certain favored products in searches.
In addition to the review bribes, Nuhanovic was investigated for other related crimes to which he ultimately pled guilty. He was sentenced to three years of supervised release on top of the 20 months in prison and forced to forfeit $100,000 and pay $160,000 in unreported taxes.
COMPANY FORCED TO PAY FOR “REVIEW HIJACKING”[...]
DOJ Signals Heightened Scrutiny on Information Exchanges and Competitor Collaborations
On February 3, 2023, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced the withdrawal of three policy statements related to antitrust enforcement in healthcare. Although the withdrawn statements focus on healthcare, DOJ’s decision to withdraw these statements will have broad impacts across industries.
The three policy statements, issued in 1993, 1996, and 2011, relate to competitor collaboration and information sharing, and established “safety zones” of activities shielded from antitrust scrutiny. The 1996 Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care (1996 Statements) were revised and expanded upon the 1993 Statements. Though ostensibly related to healthcare, the guidance has been relied upon by all industries and understood to cover all manner of competitively sensitive information. Two of the safety zones most often relied on by companies relate to competitor exchanges of price and cost information, and competitor joint purchasing arrangements.
The safety zone on information exchanges (Statement 6 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge an exchange of price or cost information (e.g., employee compensation) if the following three conditions were met:
- The exchange is managed by a third party (e.g., a trade association or consultant).
- The information is more than three months old.
- The exchange has five or more participants contributing data, and no individual participant’s data represents more than 25% of any statistic; and no individual participant’s data can be identified.
Companies have relied on this safety zone in conducting surveys and benchmarking related to pricing, supply costs, and salaries. These surveys have served as critical compliance tools. Organizations exempt from federal income tax often use surveys to demonstrate fair market value compensation to safeguard against claims of private inurement and private benefit. Similarly, healthcare companies routinely use benchmarking studies to demonstrate fair market value compensation for compliance with fraud and abuse laws.
Group Purchasing Organizations
The safety zone on joint purchasing arrangements (Statement 7 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge joint purchasing arrangements (e.g., group purchasing organizations (GPOs)) if the following two conditions were met:
- The purchases account for less than 35% of the total sales of the purchased product or service.
- The cost of the products or services purchased jointly accounts for less than 20% of the participants’ revenues.
DOJ cited changes in the healthcare landscape as the rationale for withdrawing these policy statements, specifically indicating that the statements were “overly permissive” on information sharing. In a speech the day before DOJ’s announcement, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General (DAAG) Doha Mekki stated that the safety zone factors “do not consider the realities of a transformed industry” and “understate the antitrust risks of competitors sharing competitively sensitive information.” DAAG Mekki explained that:
- Information exchanges managed by third parties can have the same anticompetitive effects—and the use of a third party enhances anticompetitive effects.
- New algorithms and AI learning increase the competitive value of historical information (more [...]
Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q4 2022
Topics covered in this edition:
• DOJ Sees First Merger Win After String of Losses
• FTC Brings Suit Against Microsoft/Activision
• Updated Merger Guidelines Expected Soon
• Merger Fees Changing
• The EC Launches a Consultation on Its Draft Revised Market Definition Notice
• UK Orders a Chinese Firm to Divest Its 83% Controlling Stake in a Welsh Semiconductor Wafer Factory Based on National Security Concerns
McDermott Will & Emery Juriste Nabil Lakhal contributed to this newsletter.
Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q3 2022
In the United States, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lost four merger challenges (Illumina/GRAIL, UnitedHealth/Change Healthcare, U.S. Sugar/Imperial Sugar and Booz Allen/EverWatch) in September. The losses demonstrate that parties willing to litigate can have success in court. The absence of “smoking gun” documents and lack of a presumption of anticompetitive effects (based on market shares and concentration) made these cases very difficult for the government. The judges in these cases tended to credit structural and behavioral remedies that the government felt were insufficient and were persuaded by real-world testimony from executives and third parties contradicting the government’s theories of changed economic incentives from the transactions.
In July 2022, the European Parliament published the final text of the European Union’s upcoming instrument to address distortive foreign subsidies, following a provisional political agreement reached between the EU lawmakers in June (Foreign Subsidies Regulation). The Foreign Subsidies Regulation introduces a new mandatory screening mechanism including notification obligations and the European Commission’s right of ex officio investigations, which will have a considerable impact on M&A transactions and procurement procedures.
The Foreign Subsidies Regulation will enter into force once it is formally adopted by EU lawmakers and published in the Official Journal. It will become directly applicable across the European Union six months after entry into force. The notification obligations will start to apply nine months after entry into force. The Commission also is currently drafting procedural rules on how to notify transactions, how to calculate time limits, and the process for preliminary reviews and in-depth probes when there is a suspicion of distortive foreign subsidies.
Why Courts Are Rejecting Agencies’ Merger Challenges
The US Department of Justice’s and the Federal Trade Commission’s losses in three merger challenges in September and a fourth in October demonstrate that merging parties can close difficult transactions if willing to fight the agencies in court. In this Law360 article, McDermott’s Jon B. Dubrow, Joel R. Grosberg and Matt Evola discuss these four cases and what they mean for merging parties.