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Optical Illusion: Lack of Overcharge Evidence Yields Summary Judgment Victory for Optical Disk Drive Manufacturers

Manufacturers of optical disk drives defeated electronics companies’, retailers’ and indirect purchaser plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims after seven years of litigation. On December 18, 2017, the US District Court for the Northern District of California issued simultaneous orders that granted summary judgment in favor of defendants after finding that the electronics companies, retailers and indirect purchasers failed to demonstrate evidence of injury and causation.

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DOJ and FTC Release New Antitrust Guidelines for International Enforcement and Cooperation

On Friday, January 13, 2017, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released the new Antitrust Guidelines for International Enforcement and Cooperation. These guidelines were jointly developed by the agencies and serve to update the Antitrust Enforcement Guidelines for International Operations that have been in place since April 1995. The new guidelines include a revised discussion on conduct involving foreign commerce, a new chapter on international cooperation, and updated language, case law, and illustrative examples throughout.

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Supreme Court Asked to Clarify the Reach of U.S. Antitrust Laws to Foreign Conduct

On March 16, 2015, AU Optronics Corporation America Inc. (AU Optronics) and Motorola Mobility LLC separately asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act (FTAIA) and the extent to which its language allows foreign conduct to be brought within the scope of the Sherman Act.  The requests for review follow from potentially conflicting holdings from the Seventh and Ninth Circuits in cases that stem from distinct interpretations of the same provisions in the FTAIA and involve the very same conduct – AU Optronics’ and its co-conspirators’ agreement overseas to fix the prices of liquid crystal display (LCD) panels.  The cases have different procedural foundations in that the Ninth Circuit case is a criminal suit brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ), while the Seventh Circuit case is a civil matter in which private parties are seeking damages.

In Hsiung,[i] AU Optronics appeals the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the Sherman Act via the FTAIA can support criminal charges against foreign cartel conduct.  In that case, the court had affirmed AU Optronics’ conviction in July 2014 and rendered an amended opinion on January 30, 2015.  Meanwhile, Motorola Mobility appeals the Seventh Circuit’s finding in Motorola Mobility[ii] that a civil price-fixing claim against the same cartel could not be supported under the same provisions of the FTAIA.  The Seventh Circuit decided the case on November 26, 2014 (after vacating a previous opinion from March 2014) and later amended its opinion on January 12, 2015.  The companies believe that these interpretations of the FTAIA are conflicting and, therefore, ripe for Supreme Court review.

The FTAIA was adopted to clarify the enforcement scope of U.S. federal antitrust laws as applied to anticompetitive conduct that occurs abroad.  Since its enactment, however, lower courts have interpreted the FTAIA differently, which has led to conflicting decisions and legal uncertainty.  Under the FTAIA, all foreign conduct is placed outside the scope of the Sherman Act, unless (1) the alleged conduct involves import commerce (import commerce exemption)  or (2) it has a “direct, substantial, and reasonably foreseeable effect” on U.S. commerce and the criminal charge or civil claim “arises from” that effect (domestic effects exception).

The circuit courts interpreted certain language in these provisions differently, specifically “import commerce” and “direct effect,” and when such effect “gives rise to a Sherman Act claim.”  In Hsiung, the Ninth Circuit considered import commerce to be any conduct affecting an import market, which means that it need not be shown that a foreign defendant directly imported goods himself into the U.S.  As to the domestic effects exception, the Ninth Circuit further explained that foreign conduct has a direct effect on U.S. commerce where the conduct “follows as an immediate consequence of the defendant[s’] activity.”  According to the court, AU Optronics’ conduct had a direct effect on U.S. commerce that gave rise to a Sherman Act claim because the price-fixed goods manufactured abroad were a significant component of [...]

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Seventh Circuit Denies Rehearing in LCD Price-Fixing Suit by Motorola

On January 12, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals refused Motorola Mobility LLC’s petition for a rehearing en banc of its price-fixing claims against foreign manufacturers of liquid crystal display (LCD) panels. Motorola Mobility LLC v. AU Optronics Corp., et al., case number 14-8003. Motorola alleged that these foreign manufacturers violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by conspiring with each other to set the price for LCD panels. Only approximately 1 percent of the panels sold to Motorola by defendants were purchased by and delivered to Motorola in the United States to be used in the assembly of Motorola cellphones. Motorola’s foreign subsidiaries purchased the rest – with 57 percent of all panels bought by a Motorola entity incorporated into cellphones sold abroad, and the remaining 42 percent assembled by the Motorola foreign subsidiary into cellphones and then sold to and delivered to Motorola for resale in the United States. The Northern District of Illinois granted partial summary judgment to the defendants, ruling that Motorola’s claim as to the 99 percent of panels purchased by foreign subsidiaries was barred by the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvement Act (FTAIA), 15 U.S.C. §§ 6a, which has been interpreted to limit the extraterritorial reach of U.S. antitrust law. The district judge certified an order for immediate appeal.

In November, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s partial grant of summary judgment. In his amended opinion filed January 12, Judge Posner determined that the effect of the alleged foreign cartel did not give rise to a federal antitrust claim because the plaintiff could only be injured indirectly. Under federal antitrust jurisprudence, claimants that purchase indirectly and/or suffer derivative harm lack antitrust standing to bring suit in the United States. Posner explained that plaintiff’s foreign subsidiaries were the direct purchasers injured by the alleged LCD panel conspiracy. In response to Motorola’s argument that it and its foreign subsidiaries should be treated as a single entity, Posner asserted that the corporate formalities of the U.S. parent and its foreign subsidiaries should be respected. Motorola decided to have its subsidiaries incorporated in and pay taxes to these foreign jurisdictions, and therefore, the subsidiaries must seek relief in the countries in which they or the alleged conspirators are incorporated. A parent does not have a right to sue for damages on behalf of its foreign subsidiaries in the United States. Importantly, although Posner’s opinion could protect an alleged foreign conspirator from facing treble damages in U.S. civil court, his opinion also made clear that if the alleged price-fixing has a direct, substantial and reasonably foreseeable effect on U.S. commerce, then the FTAIA does not block the U.S. Department of Justice from seeking injunctive or criminal relief.

In December, Motorola petitioned the Seventh Circuit for a rehearing en banc. It argued that defendants purposefully negotiated directly with Motorola in the United States and that Motorola determined the prices and quantities of panels purchased from defendants by its U.S. subsidiaries. The defendants purposefully engaged in business with the plaintiff, and [...]

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Automotive Bearings Price-Fixing Allegations Survive FTAIA Defense

On August 26, 2014, the Eastern District of Michigan denied a motion by a Japanese manufacturer and its U.S.-based subsidiary (NTN Corporation and NTN USA Corporation) to dismiss the direct and indirect purchaser complaints in In re Bearings, 2:12-cv-00500-MOB-MKM (E.D. Mich. Aug. 26, 2014), one of the cases in the In re Automotive Parts Antitrust Litigation MDL, No. 12-md-02311.  Following an investigation by the Japan Fair Trade Commission in 2013, NTN admitted to participating in a conspiracy to fix prices for bearings, which the complaints describe as “friction-reducing devices that allow one moving part to glide past another moving part.”

According to NTN, the plaintiffs were trying to use NTN’s participation in a price-fixing conspiracy in Japan to “link NTN to a different conspiracy in the United States” simply because NTN had “knowledge that some of its bearings sold in foreign markets would enter the United States market.”  This “theory of global United States antitrust jurisdiction,” NTN contended, is prohibited by the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act (FTAIA).

The court was unpersuaded.  The plaintiffs’ allegations depicting foreign investigations were not merely attempts to recover for conduct that occurred in other countries; rather, the existence of foreign investigations and guilty pleas was what “render[ed] Plaintiffs’ claims of a conspiracy directed at the United States plausible.”  According to the court, the FTAIA arguments did not apply to NTN USA, which was alleged to have manufactured and sold bearings in the United States.  And “[w]ith respect to NTN, Plaintiffs allege[d] that NTN USA manufactured and sold price-fixed bearings directly into the United States market at the direction of NTN.”  The court concluded that “[t]he conduct at issue in this case is not the type of conduct Congress sought to exclude from the Sherman Act’s reach.”

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FTAIA and Foreign Sales: Seventh Circuit Limits Extraterritorial Reach of U.S. Antitrust Law in Motorola Mobility v. AU Optronics

On March 27, 2014, in Motorola Mobility LLC v. AU Optronics Corp., the Seventh Circuit set precedent in the growing body of law interpreting the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act (FTAIA).  Judge Posner held that the FTAIA bars antitrust suits over restraints in foreign markets for parts (inputs) used abroad to manufacture products later imported into the United States.  The court held that such price fixing fails the FTAIA’s “direct effects” test, as well as the FTAIA requirement that the effect of the defendant’s conduct “gives rise to” an antitrust claim in the United States.

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Potash Price-Fixing Case Opinion Vacated and to be Reheard En Banc

by Nicole Castle

On December 2, 2011, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted plaintiffs’ petition for rehearing en banc and vacated the opinion issued by a Seventh Circuit panel in Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium Inc., No. 10-1712.  The Seventh Circuit panel had issued an order on September 23, 2011, directing the district court to dismiss a class-action price-fixing complaint against global producers of potash, a mineral used primarily in agricultural fertilizer. 

The plaintiffs alleged a global price-fixing cartel among Canadian, Russian and Belarusian producers of potash, alleging that they fixed potash prices in Brazil, China and India, and the inflated prices in these overseas markets in turn influenced the price of potash sold in the United States.  The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing first that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction under the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act (FTAIA), 15 U.S.C. § 6a, and alternatively, that the complaint did not satisfy the pleading requirements of Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009).  The district court denied the motion to dismiss and the defendants appealed. 

On September 23, 2011, the Seventh Circuit panel reversed the district court and remanded with instruction that the district court dismiss the complaint.  The Seventh Circuit panel held that the complaint failed to satisfy either of the import-related exceptions to the FTAIA.  According to the panel, defendants’ anticompetitive conduct did not “involve” U.S. imports and did not “directly affect” the price of U.S. imports.  The panel used the “plausibility” standard of Twombly and Iqbal to determine whether plaintiffs had adequately pled that the anticompetitive conduct fell within one of the FTAIA’s exceptions.  However, the Seventh Circuit panel did not reach the question of broader sufficiency of the complaint under Twombly and Iqbal.

Plaintiffs then filed the current petition for rehearing en banc.  In their petition, plaintiffs argued that the panel’s opinion conflicted with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in In re Text Messaging Antitrust Litigation, 630 F.3d 622 (7th Cir. 2010).  Plaintiffs also argued that the panel misinterpreted the import-commerce exception in determining whether plaintiffs alleged sufficient anticompetitive conduct that “involved” U.S. import commerce.  According to plaintiffs, the panel’s decision regarding the import-commerce exception conflicted with the Third Circuit’s decision in Animal Sci. Prods., Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., No. 10-2288, 2011 WL 3606995 (3d Cir. Aug. 17, 2011).    

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