On November 10, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted to approve a new policy statement interpreting the FTC’s authority under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits “unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” The newly adopted policy statement provides a significantly more expansive interpretation of the FTC’s authority and replaces all prior FTC guidance on the scope and meaning of unfair methods of competition under Section 5. The policy statement asserts that the FTC was set up to be an expert body charged with determining what constitutes unfair methods of competition and, accordingly, the FTC is entitled to great weight in its findings.
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.
Seven Corporate Directors Resign: DOJ Ramps Enforcement Against Board Members Serving on Competitors’ Boards
- Seven directors resigned from corporate boards following promises of enforcement of Clayton Act Section 8 (15 U.S.C. § 19) by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Antitrust Division (the Division), the Division announced Wednesday.
- The directors served on the boards of corporations that the DOJ asserted competed in a variety of sectors, including information technology, software, and manufacturing.
WHAT’S THE LEGAL CONCERN
- Section 8 prohibits “interlocking directorates” (per se violation), which occur when the same individual serves simultaneously as an officer or director of two competing companies (direct interlocks) or when different individuals on boards of competing companies act on behalf of and at the direction of a single firm (indirect interlocks through deputization). In its press release, the DOJ noted that some of the interlocks arose because a private equity firm appointed different personnel to the boards of competing companies.
- The goal of Section 8 and the DOJ action is to decrease potential opportunities for the exchange of sensitive information between competitors and the risk of anticompetitive conduct more generally.
- Exemptions might apply. There are de minimis exemptions if a) the competing sales are less than $4.1 million (threshold updated annually); b) the competing sales of either corporation represent less than 2% of its total sales; or c) the competing sales of each corporation are less than 4% of its total sales. A careful analysis (similar to that done in merger analysis) is necessary to determine whether an exemption might apply.
- Not just corporations? While the plain language of Section 8 refers to interlocks involving “corporations,” the DOJ has stated its view that Section 8 also covers interlocks between non-corporate entities, such as LLCs (this is an open area of law).
- Not just the same person? While the plain language of Section 8 states that it applies when the same “person” sits on the board or acts as an officer of two competitors, the DOJ interprets Section 8 broadly to mean that two different individuals appointed by a common entity cannot serve on boards of competitors because the entity is a “person” and is serving on the boards through its designees.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS
- Interlocks can create significant antitrust risk. While the DOJ’s concerns with interlocks seem to be assuaged with the quick removal of the Corporate Director identified, interlocks have served as the factual underpinning for antitrust conspiracy claims. Therefore, companies should be proactive in eliminating problematic interlocks, as the interlock combined with parallel action by competitors in an industry could serve as the factual basis for long and costly conspiracy investigations or litigation and could support complaint allegations to defeat a Twombly-based motion to dismiss.
ANTICIPATE CONTINUED ENFORCEMENT
In the United States, parties continue to be cautious in litigating challenged transactions. Since January 2021, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) filed lawsuits (or threatened to sue) to block 16 transactions. Of those transactions, 12 were abandoned and six are in various stages of litigation. The data suggest that the FTC’s and DOJ’s aggressive merger enforcement policy is raising the stakes for parties to potential mergers and acquisitions, including an increased willingness by the agencies to litigate potentially problematic transactions.
Between May 6 and June 3, 2022, the European Commission (Commission) held a public consultation to seek views on the draft revised Merger Implementing Regulation (Implementing Regulation) and the Notice on Simplified Procedure. This consultation was launched in the context of the Commission’s review process of the procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control.
On April 20, 2022, the UK government proposed new measures to boost consumer protection rights and competition rules. In particular, the UK government’s reforms aim to strengthen the Competition & Markets Authority’s (CMA) powers and alleviate burdens on smaller companies.
On August 29, 2022, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against Kochava, Inc. alleging that Kochava engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by selling the “precise location information” of consumers. This suit comes on the heels of the FTC’s announcement earlier this month that it would “crack down” on “commercial surveillance practices” and July’s warning that the agency would be exercising its enforcement authority against the “illegal” use and sharing of sensitive consumer data.
The FTC alleges that Kochava amassed a large amount of sensitive data by tracking the mobile advertising IDs from hundreds of millions of mobile phones, and that such data could be used to track people visiting abortion clinics, domestic abuse shelters, places of worship and other sensitive locations. The FTC then said that Kochava sold that data without first anonymizing it, allowing anyone who purchased the data to use it to track the movements of the mobile device users. The FTC wants to not only block Kochava from selling such data, but also require them to delete and destroy it. In its complaint, the FTC relied on the FTC Act’s general prohibition against “unfair and deceptive acts or practices” and alleged that the company unfairly sold the sensitive data.
Kochava, which beat the FTC to the courthouse and preemptively filed a lawsuit against the FTC prior to the FTC’s complaint, asserted that all of the location data came from third-party data brokers who obtained the information from consenting consumers. Despite the alleged consent, Kochava says it is in the process of implementing steps to remove health services location data from its database. Kochava argued that the litigation was the outcome of the FTC’s failed attempt to implement a vague settlement that had no clear terms and made the problem a moving target.
The Kochava suit brings to the forefront several competing policy considerations, the determination of which could shape the scope of the FTC’s enforcement authority for years to come. The first and foremost issue that the Kochava suit raises is whether the FTC has the authority to effectively impose a consent-based regime for the sale of sensitive consumer information when no federal law enforced by the FTC (other than the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act (COPPA), which applies to data collected about children under 13) expressly provides for that requirement. While it is not uncommon for the FTC to take expansive views of its enforcement authority, that authority has been successfully challenged in recent years. (See AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC, which held that the FTC does not have the statutory authority to seek equitable monetary relief under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act).) Now, Kochava will test the FTC’s authority to regulate in the privacy space—and the FTC may not like the result.
In the unlikely event that Kochava were to litigate against the FTC all the way to the Supreme Court of the [...]
- GPM Investments (GPM) acquired 60 gas stations from Corrigan Oil (Corrigan).
- As part of the acquisition agreement, Corrigan agreed not to compete for a period of time with the gas stations purchased from Corrigan. In addition, Corrigan agreed not to compete with GPM for another 190 gas stations that GPM already owned.
- Few of the 190 existing GPM locations were “anywhere near an acquired Corrigan” gas station.
- Because the transaction would reduce the number of competitors from 3-to-2 or fewer in five areas, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) required divestitures in those areas.
- Additionally, the FTC determined that the non-compete was overbroad, noting that the non-compete was “untethered to protecting goodwill acquired in the acquisition” because it affected gas stations in “areas geographically distinct from the acquired” gas stations. For this reason, the non-compete was highly suspect and warranted FTC scrutiny.
- The FTC required the parties to revise the transaction agreement non-compete such that it was no longer in duration than 3 years and impacted an area no greater than 3 miles from each acquired gas station.
- FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan confirmed that some non-compete agreements that are part of a transaction agreement are “necessary to protect a legitimate business interest in connection with the sale of a business, such as the goodwill acquired in a transaction.”
- Here, the non-compete terms were determined, however, to be “facially” overbroad in scope and unrelated to protecting any goodwill GPM was acquiring with the Corrigan stations.
- The FTC’s action suggests that it is on the lookout for overbroad non-competes that are not reasonably related to a legitimate purpose even if part of a legitimate transaction agreement.
- The action by the FTC provides sellers with an example to argue that onerous non-competes demanded by buyers have the potential to raise antitrust issues that could slow deal timelines, particularly if a non-compete is overbroad in relation to the products impacted, the duration of the non-compete, and/or the breadth of the geography covered.
Alex Grayson, a summer associate in the Washington, DC, office, also contributed to this article.
In the United States, antitrust agencies continue with their aggressive merger enforcement posture. The agencies challenged four transactions this quarter, including multiple vertical mergers. The agencies are increasingly skeptical of merger remedies, including behavioral remedies and divestitures. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are working together to update the current Horizontal Merger Guidelines. The updated guidelines will likely signal a more aggressive enforcement posture.
The European Commission (Commission) blocked one transaction in Phase II and cleared two transactions. Three transactions were abandoned after the Commission initiated a Phase II investigation. The Commission made use of partial referrals to member state national competition authorities in two cases. It also ordered Hungary to withdraw its decision to prohibit Vienna Insurance Group’s (VIG) acquisition of AEGON Group’s Hungarian subsidiaries on foreign direct investment grounds, holding that Hungary’s prohibition decision infringed Article 21 of the EU Merger Regulation.
In the United Kingdom, the first quarter of 2022 also saw a number of Phase II investigations. Specifically, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) cleared one transaction in Phase II and blocked two other transactions in Phase II. One transaction was abandoned after the CMA initiated a Phase II investigation. The CMA blocked the merger of Cargotec and Konecranes just one month after the EC cleared the transaction subject to commitments in Phase II. The parties abandoned the transaction following the CMA’s decision.
- On back-to-back days this month, defendants charged and prosecuted by the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (the DOJ) were acquitted on all Sherman Act charges in first-of-their-kind criminal antitrust trials involving labor markets.
- On April 14, 2022, in United States v. Jindal, a federal jury in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found two defendants not guilty of violating the Sherman Act by agreeing with competitors on wages they would pay their employees. The jury found one of the defendants guilty of obstructing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation by making false and misleading statements to the FTC and concealing information.
- The following day, in United States v. DaVita, Inc., a Colorado federal jury acquitted DaVita, Inc. and its former chief executive on all counts of violating the antitrust laws by entering into non-solicit agreements with other employers.
- The Jindal case was the DOJ’s first attempt to criminally prosecute so-called alleged “wage-fixing” agreements. Similarly, the DaVita case was DOJ’s first criminal trial targeting alleged no-poach or non-solicit agreements between employers.
- Historically, the DOJ pursued enforcement of alleged anticompetitive labor market practices in the civil context rather than criminally. But in 2016, the DOJ did an about-face and warned employers in its 2016 Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals that it intended to proceed criminally against “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” between horizontal competitors in labor markets. The DOJ’s efforts to investigate and criminally prosecute such agreements under this new policy started ramping up publicly in late 2020.
- The DOJ filed an indictment against Jindal in December 2020 and a superseding indictment against Jindal and another defendant in April 2021. The DOJ alleged that the defendants participated in a conspiracy to lower the rates paid to physical therapists and physical therapist assistants in north Texas. A few months later, in July 2021, the DOJ filed an indictment against DaVita and its former CEO, alleging that they conspired with competitors in the healthcare industry not to solicit each other’s employees. The DOJ returned a superseding indictment in November 2021.
- In both cases, the district courts denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The Jindal court held—for the first time ever—that an alleged wage-fixing conspiracy could constitute a per se criminal violation of the Sherman Act. Similarly, the DaVita court held that no-poach and non-solicit agreements could constitute per se violations—but only if the alleged naked agreements allocate the employment market. The DaVita court refused to announce a blanket rule that all no-poach or non-solicit agreements are subject to per se
- Despite these rulings, the juries in both cases ultimately acquitted the defendants of all antitrust charges brought by the DOJ.
- The DOJ remains committed to investigating and criminally prosecuting wage-fixing and no-poach agreements despite these early setbacks. Since the Jindal indictment in December 2020, the DOJ has [...]
On April 7 and 8, 2022, the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section wrapped up its annual Spring Meeting. The event featured updates and remarks from several antitrust enforcers, including FTC Chair Lina Khan and US Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Jonathan Kanter. In this post, we share key takeaways from the final two days of the Spring Meeting.
FTC and DOJ Will Stay Focused on Litigation: Top officials at both US antitrust agencies highlighted the agencies’ full dockets and noted that litigation to enforce the antitrust laws will remain a top priority.
- Three Directors from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—Holly Vedova, the Director of the Bureau of Competition; Samuel A.A. Levine, Director of Bureau of Consumer Protection; and Elizabeth Wilkins, Director of Office of Policy Planning—all emphasized that the FTC will work as one team and will not hesitate to initiate litigation.
- Vedova noted the FTC’s recent success in several transactions being abandoned after the FTC initiated litigation. She expressed that the Bureau of Competition’s main focus will be litigation, where she believes her bureau will be most effective. Khan echoed these sentiments while speaking on a separate panel, emphasizing that two recently abandoned transactions were in the context of challenges to vertical transactions and that such challenges will continue to be a priority at the FTC.
- Likewise, Kanter noted that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is not afraid to take on big cases or big companies and will not be afraid to litigate. He said the DOJ is just getting started and reiterated that the DOJ has more active cases than it has had in recent years.
Agencies Will Closely Scrutinize Potential Remedies in M&A: Both FTC and DOJ officials emphasized they will continue to examine the effectiveness of remedies and will only pursue strong remedies.
- Kanter said that divestiture remedies will be the rare exception and will no longer be the norm. He further cautioned merging parties to avoid engaging in “regulatory arbitrage” and trying to leverage investigation outcomes in one jurisdiction against another because global cooperation among antitrust enforcers is high.
- Vedova also indicated that the Bureau of Competition has no appetite for weak or uncertain settlements, especially those involving behavioral remedies, which have proven ineffective. The FTC will require meaningful structural relief to resolve competition concerns regarding a transaction.
- Parties should also not expect the FTC to engage in long settlement discussions due to the unprecedented volume of merger reviews. Vedova noted that staff’s time is valuable and is much better spent preparing for litigation rather than negotiating remedies. She further indicated that the FTC will not engage in remedy discussions unless the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) clock is stopped and timing agreements are tolled.
- State attorneys general will similarly evaluate remedies and, if necessary, pursue additional remedies than those sought by federal antitrust enforcers. For example, in a recent dialysis acquisition, the state of Utah sought divestiture of a fourth clinic above the three divestitures required to [...]
This week, the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section kicked off its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, which features updates from the antitrust enforcers and substantive discussions on today’s most pressing antitrust issues. In this post, we share key takeaways from the first day of the Spring Meeting.
Agencies Continue to Be Hostile to M&A: Republican Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson emphasized that the prevailing view under Democratic leadership at the antitrust agencies is that mergers provide no value and only carry costs.
- Progressive leadership wants to “throw sand in the gears” to prevent deals from being proposed altogether. Recent policy changes are aimed at creating uncertainty, heightening risk and raising the transaction costs of doing deals to slow the pace of M&A activity.
- Despite this, there was a precipitous drop in the number of FTC merger enforcement actions in the final year of the Trump administration (31) compared to the first year of the Biden administration (12).
- There is no indication that early termination for Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) pre-merger notification filings will be reinstated.
- “Close At Your Peril” letters are another tactic the agencies are using to heighten deal risk and deter parties from pursuing or consummating transactions, even though the antitrust agencies have always had the authority to investigate and challenge consummated transactions.
- Many panelists commented on the lack of transparency between agency staff and merging parties on recent transactions. If the lack of transparency persists, it may create due process issues and problems for timing agreements that merging parties typically negotiate with staff.
- The antitrust agencies are increasingly skeptical of the efficacy of structural and behavioral remedies to resolve competition concerns regarding a transaction. The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Doha Mekki said merging parties should expect the DOJ to reject “risky settlements” more often and instead seek to block transactions outright. Mekki said literature has shown that many merger settlements failed to protect competition.
Increased Antitrust Litigation Is on the Horizon: DOJ officials said companies should expect an increase in antitrust litigation on both civil and criminal matters.
- The DOJ Antitrust Division has more cases in active litigation than it has had at any time in recent history. It currently has six active litigations involving civil matters and 21 ongoing litigations involving criminal matters.
- The Antitrust Division is not considering cost as a gating factor for bringing new cases. Instead, it is bringing cases where it deems necessary to uphold the law and preserve competition. The DOJ is hiring more attorneys and using shared DOJ resources to support the increased rate of litigation.
- The DOJ is also seeking faster access to the courts. Mekki indicated that in cases where potential anticompetitive harm resulting from a transaction is clear, the agency may file suit while an investigation remains pending and before merging parties have certified substantial compliance.
Updated Merger Guidelines Are Coming: Officials from both the FTC and [...]