In a landmark case of first impression, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) indicted and brought to trial a federal criminal prosecution alleging agreements between DaVita, Inc., its former CEO Kent Thiry and other companies not to solicit each other’s employees. The case was the first criminal trial of its kind in the Division’s recent efforts to expand Sherman Act liability under Section 1 to include so-called no-poach and non-solicit agreements. Following an eight-day jury trial and two days of deliberation, a Denver jury acquitted Thiry and DaVita on all counts of the unprecedented “no-poach” conspiracy. As the district judge himself succinctly put it to the jury: this case was “a unique case in the field of antitrust law.”
This criminal prosecution in the labor markets reflects a novel and aggressive stance on expanding Sherman Act criminal liability. In pursuit of this policy shift, the Division is trying to jam a square peg into a round hole by characterizing non-solicit and no-poach agreements as per se market allocation agreements. The per se rule creates a judicial shortcut of sorts that makes it easier for the government to prosecute classic cartel conduct such as price-fixing and bid rigging. This case, and related cases, are the first time the per se shortcut has been used in a so-called labor market allocation case. This unprecedented litigation created a watershed moment for the Division’s views that non-solicit and no-poach agreements are per se illegal. The complete acquittal of both defendants and the rulings of the district judge before trial cast doubt on whether the per se standard is appropriate for “no-poach” agreements and whether such agreements should be prosecuted criminally at all.
WHERE DID THIS COME FROM?
Historically, the Division pursued enforcement of alleged anticompetitive labor market practices in the civil context, meaning fines for companies and individuals. In fact, that was the approach the Division took with no-poach and no cold call agreements entered into by major technology and railway companies. The Division engaged in a volte-face and declared it would criminally prosecute such labor market agreements for the first time in October 2016. Without an intervening act of Congress, executive order or ruling by any court, the Division warned that going forward it intended to proceed criminally against “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” between horizontal competitors in the labor market. The Division declared that investigating alleged “naked wage-fixing or no-poach agreements” was a top priority. Ignoring concerns related to the separation of powers, the Division unilaterally cited its discretion and put the full weight of the government into labor market no-poach agreements. That momentum accelerated in December 2020 and continued throughout 2021, with the Division bringing 12 criminal cases against nine individuals and three companies. In short, aggressive and expansive antitrust enforcement from the DOJ is now the new normal.
DOJ SEEKS TO CREATE A NEW CATEGORY OF PER SE LIABILITY AND USES DAVITA AND THIRY AS A TEST CASE
The Division returned a superseding indictment against DaVita, Inc. and Kent Thiry on November 4, [...]