On March 2, 2022, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Powers revealed that the DOJ intends to investigate and pursue alleged criminal violations against individuals or companies who violate Section 2 of the Sherman Act. For more than 40 years, criminal enforcement of antitrust laws have focused nearly exclusively on hardcore, per se anticompetitive agreements (i.e., price fixing, output restriction or market allocation) among two or more horizontal competitors. Section 2 of the Sherman Act, on the other hand, primarily focuses on conduct by one firm or company with significant market power and, typically, is a means to bring a civil case for monopolization or anticompetitive use of the existing monopoly power.
This marks a radical departure from longstanding DOJ antitrust enforcement of monopolization claims. In general, the DOJ has refrained from Section 2 criminal prosecutions.
Section 2 makes it illegal to acquire or maintain monopoly power through anticompetitive means and focuses primarily on unilateral or one-sided anticompetitive behavior. Courts (including the Supreme Court of the United States) generally have analyzed Section 2 cases under the “rule of reason,” which weighs both procompetitive and anticompetitive effects of conduct.
Because the rule of reason imposes a balancing test that is akin to the preponderance of evidence standard, the higher criminal burden of proof could clash with existing jurisprudence and agency guidelines on Section 2 enforcement standards. In contrast, Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits anticompetitive agreements—where courts have automatically deemed certain types of agreements, such as agreements to fix prices, allocate markets or rig bids—as illegal “per se,” because they (through ample judicial and economic experience) have been deemed to produce little or no procompetitive effects.
DOJ’s HISTORY WITH SECTION 2
In the last 50 years, the vast majority of criminal cases that the Antitrust Division has brought involved per se illegal agreements under Section 1. The Antitrust Division appears to have initiated very few criminal Section 2 cases during that same period with mixed success. For instance, in United States v. Cuisinarts, the DOJ prosecuted the defendant under Section 2 for per se resale price maintenance agreements. The defendant agreed to pay a $250,000 fine for a plea of nolo contendere. However, today, the per se criminal treatment of resale price maintenance is in serious doubt as the long line of Supreme Court decisions from GTE Sylvania to Leegin have firmly placed most vertical resale price restraints for Section 2 under the rule of reason standard.
In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission and the DOJ released a joint publication called the “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals” when announcing expanded criminal enforcement in labor markets for wage fixing and no-poaching agreements. We expect the DOJ to release similar guidance with respect to criminal prosecution of Section 2 claims.
The policy shift raises a host of additional questions, such as what types of conduct under Section 2 the Division intends to focus [...]