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Cartel Corner | March 2022

The US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) has continued to actively investigate and pursue alleged criminal violations of antitrust laws and collusive activity in government procurement. US Attorney General Merrick Garland noted in a March 2022 speech at the ABA Institute on White Collar Crime that the Division ended last fiscal year “with 146 open grand jury investigations—the most in 30 years.” As we near the end of the first quarter of 2022, the Division has a record number of criminal cases either in trial or awaiting trial.

In this installment of Cartel Corner, we examine and review recent and significant developments in antitrust criminal enforcement and profile what the Division has highlighted as its key priorities for enforcement. For 2022 and beyond, those priorities are—and likely will remain—identifying and aggressively pursuing alleged violations involving the labor markets, consumer products, government procurement, and the generic pharmaceutical industry.

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E-Commerce: National Competitions Authorities Weigh In on Sales Restrictions Regarding Online Marketplaces

In May 2015, the European Commission launched a two-year, industry-wide inquiry into the e-commerce sector to gather data on the functioning of e-commerce markets, so as to identify possible competition concerns. This sector inquiry focuses particularly on potential barriers erected by companies to cross-border online trade in goods and services where e-commerce is most widespread (e.g. electronics, clothing and shoes), as well as in digital content.

While the European Commission intends to provide specific guidance on European e-commerce issues when it publishes its final report in 2017, early insights can be found in national competition authorities’ recent decisions, particularly in France and Germany.

In France, the French Competition Authority (FCA) announced on 18 November 2015 the closure of an investigation into the contractual practices of the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas, as a result of Adidas’ change in its online sales policy.

This FCA investigation, which had been carried out in coordination with the German Bundeskartellamt (BKA), centered on the company’s restriction of online sales for its selective distributors. The conditions for online sales, which were introduced in 2012, included restrictions on retailers from selling via large online platforms such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace.

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Natural Gas Companies Settle Antitrust Suit Stemming from Joint Bidding

by Jon B. Dubrow and Cerissa Cafasso

On Monday, April 22, 2013, after rejecting the initial settlement agreement, Judge Richard Matsch (D. Colo.) approved a revised settlement of a suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against two energy companies for conspiring not to compete for mineral rights leases.  Gunnison Energy Corp. (GEC) and SG Interests I Ltd. and SG Interests VII Ltd. (collectively "SGI”) will each pay a fine of $275,000 to the DOJ to settle allegations of agreeing not to bid against each other in violation of antitrust law for natural gas leases on government land in western Colorado.  These fines are in addition to those related to alleged False Claims Act violations, for which SGI and GEC paid government fines of $206,250 and $245,000 respectively.  The new settlement is twice the amount of the fines in the original settlement.

McDermott Will & Emery wrote an article in February 2012 analyzing the DOJ’s initial complaint against the parties, and the competitive implications of joint bidding.  At the time, the parties had agreed to pay a total of $550,000 in fines.  The court rejected the settlement in December 2012 finding that it was not in the public interest.  "There is no basis for saying that the approval of these settlements would act as a deterrence to these defendants and others in the industry, particularly as GEC considers ‘joint bidding’ to be common in the industry."  Further, the settlement amount was "nothing more than the nuisance value of [the] litigation."  Additionally, as reflected in the newly approved deal, the court wanted the alleged Sherman Act violations and False Claims Act violations settled separately, with a payment for the Sherman Act claims separate from, and in addition to, any amount due under the False Claims Act.  At heart, it appears Judge Matsch wanted any settlement he approved to be meaningful enough to have a deterrent effect on future agreements.

This was the DOJ’s first challenge to an anti-competitive bidding agreement for mineral rights leases, but it is just one of the recent cases in which joint bidding activities have become the focus of antitrust scrutiny.  In Summer 2012, the DOJ opened an investigation into Chesapeake Energy’s acquisition of oil and gas properties in Michigan and the possibility that Chesapeake conspired with Encana Corp. to allocate bids on those properties.  In 2006, the DOJ began investigating the joint bidding practices of private equity firms in connection with leveraged buyouts.  That investigation led to class action suits against private equity firms.  One of those suits survived a motion for summary judgment last month.

It is important to note that the DOJ is paying attention to joint bidding practices and taking action.  As noted in the SGI/GEC matter, while joint bidding may in fact be common practice in the energy field, it is not necessarily lawful.  Each arrangement should be evaluated for potential anticompetitive effects.




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