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DOJ Faces Setbacks in Labor Market Prosecutions but Remains Determined

WHAT HAPPENED

  • 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.

WHAT’S NEXT

  • 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 [...]

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Views and Lessons from the Trenches of the First Criminal No-Poach Trial

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, [...]

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Heard on Day One of 2022 Antitrust Law Spring Meeting

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 [...]

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Cartel Corner | March 2022

The US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) has continued to actively investigate and pursue alleged criminal violations of antitrust laws and collusive activity in government procurement. US Attorney General Merrick Garland noted in a March 2022 speech at the ABA Institute on White Collar Crime that the Division ended last fiscal year “with 146 open grand jury investigations—the most in 30 years.” As we near the end of the first quarter of 2022, the Division has a record number of criminal cases either in trial or awaiting trial.

In this installment of Cartel Corner, we examine and review recent and significant developments in antitrust criminal enforcement and profile what the Division has highlighted as its key priorities for enforcement. For 2022 and beyond, those priorities are—and likely will remain—identifying and aggressively pursuing alleged violations involving the labor markets, consumer products, government procurement, and the generic pharmaceutical industry.

Access the full report.




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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