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FTC Looks to Fix Repair Restrictions

A newly announced change in Federal Trade Commission (FTC) policy could have dramatic implications for the ways manufacturers of everything from cell phones to cars draft warranties, design products, and distribute replacement parts. Specifically, the FTC has set its sights on repair restrictions.

On July 21, the Commission unanimously voted to approve a policy statement announcing increased antitrust and consumer protection enforcement against business practices that make it difficult for consumers to repair their own products, or use independent repair shops. Manufacturers should take note of this import change in enforcement policy, and promptly evaluate their exposure.

Notably, the FTC’s announcement comes on the heels of President Biden’s executive order “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” which encouraged the FTC to address “anticompetitive restrictions on third-party repair or self-repair of items…” It also follows a recent report by the FTC to Congress addressing repair restrictions, and a July 2019 FTC workshop examining the issue.

One area of particular concern for the FTC is product warranties that require the use of specific service providers or parts. Section 102(c) of a 1975 federal law known as the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act (MMWA) prohibits companies from conditioning warranty coverage, expressly or impliedly, on a consumer’s use of an article or service identified by brand, trade, or corporate name, unless the company provides that article or service without charge or the company has received a waiver from the FTC.

Recent reports, including empirical analyses cited by the FTC in its report to Congress, suggest that violations of Section 102(c) are widespread. Indeed, one recent analysis by a prominent public interest group alleged that 45 out of 50 companies whose warranties the group examined appeared to violate the provision. Accordingly, Section 102(c) enforcement is likely to play a prominent role in the FTC’s crackdown.

It also appears that the FTC intends to use its broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” to challenge a wide range repair restrictions. In its report to Congress, the FTC highlighted the following practices in particular as “restricting independent repair or repair by consumers:”

  • “Physical restrictions” and “product designs that complicate or prevent repair”;
  • Purposely making parts, repair manuals, and diagnostic software and tools unavailable;
  • Designs that make independent repairs less safe, such as the use of glue to fasten lithium ion cells into mobile phones and other devices;
  • Steering consumers to preferred repair networks using telematics;
  • “Policies or statements that steer consumers to manufacturer repair networks”;
  • “Application of patent rights and enforcement of trademarks;
  • Disparagement of non-OEM parts and independent repair”;
  • “Software locks, Digital Rights Management and Technical Protection Measures”; and
  • “End User License Agreements.”

The diverse range of practices that the FTC has identified make this shift in enforcement an important issue for a wide range of companies. Still, there are clues to how the FTC may deploy its scarce resources in this area, at least initially.

First, its prior enforcement may provide an indication. In 2015, [...]

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THE LATEST: US Steel’s Section 337 Antitrust Claim Rejected by ITC Commissioners

The US International Trade Commission (ITC) issued an opinion dismissing United States Steel Corporation’s antitrust claim made under Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 against several Chinese steel manufacturers or distributors, ruling that a complainant must show an antitrust injury even in a trade case.

WHAT HAPPENED
  • On Monday, March 19, three of the ITC’s four sitting commissioners upheld an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision to eliminate the antitrust claim from US Steel’s trade case against Chinese steel manufacturers.
  • US Steel’s claims were made pursuant to Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930. Section 337 has primarily been used by US companies to bar the import of items that infringe upon intellectual property rights. A violation of Section 337 requires a showing of “[u]nfair methods of competition [or] unfair acts in the importation of articles.”
  • US Steel took a rather novel approach and based one of its Section 337 claims on Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Specifically, US Steel alleged a conspiracy between the Chinese manufacturers to fix prices at below-market prices and control output and export volumes. Though US Steel based its claim on the Sherman Act, it argued before the ALJ and the ITC that it did not need to show antitrust injury to sustain its antitrust claim. US Steel reasoned that because Section 337 is designed to protect American companies and workers, it needed only show harm to those groups.
  • In November 2016, an ALJ granted the Chinese manufacturers’ motion to dismiss the antitrust claims, confirming that US Steel is required to show antitrust injury to state an antitrust claim under Section 337.
  • The ITC affirmed the ALJ’s dismissal of US Steel’s antitrust claim because it did not meet the pleading requirements of the Sherman Act under substantive federal antitrust law; such an antitrust claim requires antitrust injury to be alleged. The ITC explained that it relies on existing bodies of substantive federal law to avoid conflicts with federal precedent.
  • Under US antitrust law, for US Steel to properly allege antitrust injury on the allegation that its competitors fixed prices at below-market prices, the below-market pricing must be predatory. That is, US Steel would be required to prove (a) below-cost pricing and (b) that the Chinese steel manufacturers had a dangerous chance of recouping their losses. US Steel did not—and conceded it could not—satisfy the pleading standard for predatory pricing.

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Third Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Defendant in Titanium Dioxide Price-Fixing Case

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • On October 2, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit unsealed its opinion in Valspar Corp. v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., No. 16-1345 2017 WL 4364317 (3d Cir. Sept. 14, 2017) in which the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for defendant on the grounds that plaintiff lacked sufficient evidence to allege a conspiracy to fix prices.
  • Valspar alleged that titanium dioxide suppliers engaged in price-fixing, citing evidence that the manufacturers announced 31 price increases in a twelve year period and other circumstantial evidence. at *5. The parties agreed that the titanium dioxide market is oligopolistic, with a handful of firms, substantial barriers to entry, and no substitute products. Id. at *1.
  • After Valspar settled with all defendants but DuPont, the latter moved for summary judgment. The district court found that Valspar lacked evidence of an actual agreement among defendant suppliers to fix prices. at *1.
  • The Third Circuit agreed with the district court and found that Valspar’s argument failed on two grounds. First, the court explained that Valspar neglected to consider conscious parallelism when it claimed that it was “inconceivable” that defendants executed identical price increases on 31 occasions without a conspiracy. at *5. Price movement in an oligopoly is expected to be interdependent, as rational decision makers anticipate the movements of other firms. Second, Valspar was required to show that defendants’ parallel pricing “went beyond mere interdependence and was so unusual that in the absence of advance agreement, no reasonable firm would have engaged in it.” Id. at *6 (quoting In re Baby Food Antitrust Litig., 166 F.3d 112, 135 (3d Cir. 1999)).
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • The Valspar case is interesting in that it is an opt-out case from the In re Titanium Dioxide class action litigation, in which the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the same evidence that here allowed the District of Delaware, as affirmed by the Third Circuit, to grant it. The Third Circuit attributed the different outcomes in the class and opt-out cases to the fact that the District of Maryland—which sits in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—is not bound by Third Circuit precedent while the District of Delaware is so bound. at *11 (“This resulted in the Maryland court applying a standard quite different from the one we have developed and that the [Delaware court] applied.”).
  • The opinion clarifies the evidence required under Third Circuit precedent to prove a conspiracy in an oligopolistic industry. The court explained that in oligopoly cases, evidence that price increases are not correlated to supply or demand is “largely irrelevant.” at *7. Awareness among defendants of the conscious parallelism is similarly not enough. Id. at *4 n.3. Plaintiffs must show proof of an explicit, manifest agreement. Id. A plaintiff alleging a conspiracy among defendants may not rely on “ambiguous evidence alone” to survive summary judgment. Id. at *5 [...]

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