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2019 in Review: Overview of Cartel Investigations

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) was active in 2019. At the beginning of 2019, the DOJ was preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations. Throughout 2019, the DOJ made public several new investigations, including in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment, the insulation installation industry and suspension assemblies used in hard disk drives. The DOJ also announced developments in other ongoing investigations.

Meanwhile, the European Commission (Commission) entered into settlements with parties in three cartel cases: Occupant Safety Equipment, FOREX and Canned Vegetables. The Commission imposed total fines of €1,469 million in 2019. In March 2019, the Commission launched an online tool to submit documents and information in the context of leniency and settlement proceedings.

Read the full report.




THE LATEST: DOJ Distinguishes ‘No-Poach’ Agreements

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in three related cases in the Eastern District of Washington yesterday dealing with alleged “no-poach” (or non-solicitation) agreements between franchisors like Carl’s Jr, Auntie Anne’s and Arby’s and their franchisees.
  • In the statement, the DOJ distinguished between “naked” no-poach agreements between competitors and the kinds of no-poach agreements in the franchise context that are typically vertical restraints between the parent company and the individual franchisee.
  • According to the DOJ, naked no-poach agreements should be analyzed as per se, or presumptively anticompetitive and illegal under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, while most vertical restraints should be analyzed under the rule of reason which requires some balancing of potential harms and benefits.
  • The statement did, however, distinguish two scenarios where franchise agreements could still merit per se
  • In a situation where the “franchisees operating under the same brand name agreed amongst themselves (and wholly independent from the franchisor), for example, not to hire any person ever previously employed by another franchisee that is a party to the agreement.” Stigar v. Dough Dough, Inc. et al., No. 2:18-cv-00244-SAB, Statement of Interest of the United States of America at 11 (Mar. 7, 2019).
  • In an agreement between a franchisor and franchisee relating to competition in a market where they actually compete. “If operating in the same geographic market, they both could look to the same labor pool to hire, for example, janitorial workers, accountants or human resource professionals. In such circumstances, the franchisor is competing with its franchisee.” If such agreement is not ancillary to any legitimate and procompetitive joint venture, it would warrant per se Id. at 13.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • For many franchises, the DOJ’s distinction between “naked” and vertical no-poach agreements will represent welcome respite from the onslaught of class actions that have been filed recently.
  • Franchisors and franchisees, however, will still need to demonstrate any past or future no poach agreements are not (1) between franchisees and independent of the franchisor, or (2) operating in the same geographic market where both entities actually compete.
  • It also remains to be seen whether the court will adopt the DOJ’s view on the topic, and how State Attorneys General will react.



THE LATEST: FTC Settles Civil Complaint for Wage-Fixing

A recent settlement shows that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will use its enforcement authority to target employer collusion in the labor market.

WHAT HAPPENED
  • The FTC brought a complaint against a medical staffing agency, Your Therapy Source, LLC, and the owner of a competing staffing agency, Integrity Home Therapy, for allegedly agreeing to reduce the rates they would pay to their staff. Simultaneously, the FTC settled the case with a consent order that forbids the parties from any future attempt to exchange pay information or to agree on the wages to be paid to their staffs.
  • This was the first FTC wage-fixing enforcement action since the FTC and US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued their joint Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals in October 2016. That guidance stated that naked wage-fixing and no-poach agreements—e.g., agreements separate from or not reasonably necessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers—are per se illegal under the Sherman Act.
  • The respondents in the Your Therapy Source case are staffing agencies that allegedly provided therapists such as physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists to home health agencies on a contract basis. The respondents were responsible for recruiting the therapists and paying them a “pay rate” per visit or per patient.
  • According to the complaint, the alleged unlawful agreement began when one home health agency unilaterally notified Integrity that it was going to reduce the “bill rates” that it paid Integrity for its therapists, thus cutting into Integrity’s profit margins. Integrity’s owner then reached out through one of his therapists to the owner of Your Therapy Source and the two exchanged information about their respective rates paid to therapists. The two firms then reached an agreement via text message to reduce the rates they paid therapists.
  • Once the respondents had reached the agreement to reduce therapists’ pay, Integrity’s owner allegedly reached out via text to four other competing therapy-staffing agencies to solicit their participation in the agreement.
  • The FTC’s complaint alleged that this conduct violated Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices.
WHAT THIS MEANS
  • Wage-fixing cases have been notable in the health care industry, with prior DOJ enforcement against a hospital buying group and several class actions against health care providers in the 2000s that alleged the fixing of nurses’ pay.
  • Companies should strictly avoid colluding with other firms on wages, salaries, fringe benefits or other remuneration paid to workers. Companies should also exercise extreme caution in information exchanges regarding wages and benefits, which can lead to improper agreements or result in independent antitrust liability if not properly supervised.
  • Firms should be mindful of the DOJ/FTC’s joint guidance on information sharing in the health care industry (see link at p. 50), which also provides a useful template for how the US antitrust agencies will analyze information sharing more generally. The joint [...]

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DOJ Enforcement Update: Higher Education

According to press reports, the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating several issues related to admission of students to institutions of higher learning.

  • In January, reports emerged that DOJ was investigating whether the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC’s) ethical guidelines violate the antitrust laws. The DOJ appeared to be concerned about an agreement not to recruit students who have enrolled, registered, declared their intent or submitted deposits to other institutions. This could affect so-called early decision programs, under which students pledge to attend a particular school in return for early consideration of their applications. Although early decision programs have existed for many years, the DOJ could be concerned about schools putting “teeth” into such programs by agreeing with each other not to recruit or accept students who pledge to enroll at other schools.
  • In early April, the Wall Street Journal reported that the DOJ had sent letters to a number of colleges and universities asking that they preserve emails and other messages detailing agreements with other schools regarding their communications with one another about admitted students and how they might use that information. The request suggests that the DOJ could be concerned that schools are unlawfully coordinating with one another regarding admission of students, limiting competition among themselves for the highest-performing students.

The DOJ’s nascent activity follows in the footsteps of other antitrust cases in higher education that have alleged horizontal trade restraints. These cases have involved financial aid, faculty hiring and coordinated application processes. The nub of DOJ’s interest is that the Sherman Act requires higher education institutions to compete for students and faculty in much the same way as ordinary businesses must compete for their customers and workers. Courts have acknowledged that some aspects of higher education differ from ordinary commerce and are subject to less rigorous rules than other types of trade restraints. However, as to the core matters of competing for students and faculty, colleges and universities should strictly avoid agreements that limit rivalry among them.   (more…)




DOJ, FTC Issue Antitrust Guidance to Human Resources Professionals

On October 20, 2016, the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued joint Antitrust Guidance to Human Resource (HR) Professionals (the Guidance) involved in hiring and compensation decisions. The agencies issued the guidance to educate HR professionals about how the antitrust laws apply in the employment context. 

Read the full article here.




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