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House Passes GOP-Backed SMARTER ACT Aiming to Harmonize Merger Review Process for FTC and DOJ

On March 23, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Standard Merger and Acquisition Reviews Through Equal Rules (SMARTER) Act by a vote of 235-171, despite strenuous objections from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The FTC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) review proposed mergers and acquisitions.  Currently, the FTC can challenge transactions under different processes and standards than the DOJ, and those procedures provide several advantages to the FTC.  The SMARTER Act would neutralize those advantages for the FTC by: (1) eliminating the FTC’s ability to use its internal administrative proceedings to challenge unconsummated transactions; and (2) standardizing the criteria for the FTC and DOJ to obtain a preliminary injunction to block a merger in federal court.

The FTC has the authority to pursue administrative relief to challenge a transaction.  Even if the FTC is denied a preliminary injunction in federal court, the agency may continue to seek to block or unwind a transaction in an administrative trial at the FTC’s own in-house court.  That process creates two procedural advantages for the FTC.  First, the FTC can continue to challenge a transaction even after a federal district court denies an injunction.  Second, because the full trial will take place in the FTC’s court, some courts have said that the the standard the FTC uses to obtain a federal court injunction is lower than the standard the DOJ must meet.  The courts will generally grant the FTC an injunction if the case “raise[s] questions going to the merits so serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful as to make them fair ground” for a full hearing “by the FTC in the first instance and ultimately by the Court of Appeals.”  Under that standard, the FTC need not show a substantial likelihood of success at the trial on the merits or irreparable harm.

The DOJ can only challenge transactions in federal court proceedings.  The DOJ can seek a preliminary injunction under Section 15 of the Clayton Act (15 U.S.C. § 25) on the grounds that the transaction is likely to substantially lessen competition.  The DOJ is subject to a traditional equitable injunction standard including criteria such as a showing of a substantial likelihood of success and the potential for irreparable harm.

Supporters of the SMARTER Act argue that reform is necessary to ensure consistent and fair application of the antitrust laws.  SMARTER Act supporters also argue that courts apply a more lenient standard to the FTC for blocking a transaction than to the DOJ.  However, those that oppose the SMARTER Act argue that in practice, courts impose the same standards on the FTC and DOJ during injunction hearings.  Those against the SMARTER Act also argue that workload statistics compiled in the DOJ and FTC Annual Competition Reports actually demonstrate that mergers reviewed by the DOJ are more likely to be challenged or receive a Second Request than mergers reviewed by the FTC.  FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez expressed concern that the SMARTER Act “risks undermining the effectiveness of the FTC.”  Chairwoman Ramirez also [...]

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FTC Rule Change Simplifies Process Following a Denial of a Preliminary Injunction Motion

On March 14, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced procedural revisions governing the FTC process when it loses an injunction bid in federal court, to block the consummation of a merger pending its in-house administrative proceedings on the legality of the merger.

When the FTC seeks to challenge a merger, the FTC generally seeks an injunction in court to prevent consummation of the merger pending the outcome of an internal administrative proceeding.  If the injunction is implemented, it prevents the parties from integrating the assets and preserves the FTC’s ability to effectively and efficiently fix the merger should it be warranted at the conclusion of the administrative proceeding.

Under the new rules, when the FTC loses its request for an injunction, the pending in-house administrative proceeding will be automatically withdrawn or stayed at the request of the merging parties unless the FTC determines that continuing the litigation would serve the public interest.  The intention of the new procedure it to make clear that the FTC will not automatically continue its internal administrative hearing to block a merger if it fails to win an injunction in federal court.

When deciding whether to continue its administrative proceedings, the FTC will still evaluate a proposed transaction under the same factors it used before the rule change.  The five factors the FTC uses to determine whether it is in the public interest to pursue administrative proceedings are: (1) a federal court’s factual findings and legal conclusions; (2) any new evidence developed during the preliminary injunction proceeding; (3) whether administrative proceedings will resolve important issues of fact, law or merger policy raised by the transaction; (4) an overall evaluation of the costs and benefits; and (5) any other matter that influences whether it would be in the public interest to continue with the merger challenge.

The FTC’s procedural revision will go into force shortly.  It will, therefore, be in effect before the outcome of its preliminary injunction hearing seeking to block the merger between Sysco Corp. and US Foods Inc. pending an internal administrative proceeding.  The preliminary injunction hearing is set in May 2015 before Judge Amit Mehta in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, and the in-house administrative proceeding is set for July.  If the FTC loses the preliminary injunction hearing in federal court, the new procedure will be exercised for the first time.




FTC Dismisses Complaint in LabCorp

by Stephen Wu

Earlier today, the FTC dismissed its complaint against LabCorp after failing to obtain a preliminary injunction in federal district court to prevent LabCorp from further integrating with WestCliff. 

LabCorp had acquired WestCliff, a bankrupt lab services competitor in Southern California, in 2010, but the FTC chose to challenge the transaction in front of one of its administrative law judges and had sought a preliminary injunction from a federal district court to prevent LabCorp from integrating WestCliff pending the outcome of the administrative trial. 

After losing its bid for a preliminary injunction at the district court, the FTC filed an emergency motion for an injunction pending an appeal that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied.  This meant that LabCorp was free to integrate WestCliff pending the outcome of any appeal of the denial of the preliminary injunction or the FTC’s related administrative trial on the merits of the acquisition.

The FTC’s press release can be found at:  https://www.ftc.gov/opa/2011/04/labcorp.shtm.




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