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If Past is Prologue, Ramped up Antitrust Compliance is Critical

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought not only a healthcare crisis, but also one of the worst economic downturns in history. As businesses emerge from this crisis, there may be increased risk that employees may cross the line and engage in anticompetitive conduct. Therefore, it is critical that companies and individuals prepare now to ensure that antitrust compliance and, if necessary, reporting of conduct through internal hotlines are strongly encouraged. In this article, published on Bloomberg Law, our authors explore the risks associated with antitrust cartel conduct, review enforcement by government authorities following past economic crises, and outline compliance steps companies and individuals should take to minimize enforcement risks. Access the Full Article.

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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.

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Procurement Collusion Strike Force’s Focus on Detection Yielding New Investigations

On March 3, 2020, the American Bar Association (ABA) hosted a Q&A with two members of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF)—Mark Grundvig, the Assistant Chief of the DOJ Antitrust Division’s Criminal II section, and Marcus Mills, Special Agent, Major Fraud Investigations Division, USPS Office of Inspector General. During the course of the Q&A, Mr. Grundvig and Mr. Mills provided their perspective on the goals and progress of the PCSF. WHAT HAPPENED: The PCSF representatives explained that the PCSF is heavily focused on improving detection of per se antitrust violations such as bid-rigging, price-fixing and market-allocation. To improve detection, the PCSF is: Training agents on per se antitrust violations and other anticompetitive conduct to improve agents’ ability to spot antitrust violations; Training industry participants via tradeshows and industry conferences on per se antitrust violations and other anticompetitive conduct to increase...

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Close Scrutiny for Class Settlements Where Plaintiff Attorneys Take Lion’s Share

Two recent US antitrust class action settlements drew additional scrutiny from federal judges, showing that the allocation of settlement funds between a proposed class and their attorneys will be carefully reviewed for fairness to class members. WHAT HAPPENED: On January 17, 2020, Judge Janis L. Sammartino denied a motion for preliminary approval of a settlement between Chicken of the Sea and a proposed class of caterers, restaurants and commercial food preparers from 27 states and DC regarding allegations of price-fixing for canned tuna. The proposal would allocate about 77% of the total settlement to attorney fees, costs and expenses, and leave the proposed class with $1.5 million or less of the total $6.5 million settlement amount. The judge indicated concern that the agreement may not have been negotiated at arm’s length, that the filings lacked a claim administration plan and that “class members will collectively receive approximately 6.85% of the...

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Cartel Snapshot: Mid-Year Update

2019 MID-YEAR UPDATE The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced three new investigations and several developments in its other investigations, including new investigations in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment and insulation installation contracts. The Antitrust Division also released its Spring 2019 Division Update, which notes that the Division “is preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations at the close of FY 2018.” In April 2019, the Division held a public roundtable discussion on the Antitrust Criminal Penalty Enhancement & Reform Act (ACPERA), which is due to sunset next year. ACPERA reduces the criminal liability and civil damages exposure of companies and individuals who are granted leniency under the Division’s Leniency Program for cooperating in investigations into cartel and other anticompetitive conduct. The roundtable consisted of a series of...

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Significant Fine Imposed by the French Competition Authority in Floor Coverings Cartel

On October 19, 2017, the French Competition Authority (the “FCA”) imposed a EUR 302 million fine on the three leading companies in the PVC and linoleum floor coverings sector; Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett, as well as the industry’s trade association, SFEC (Syndicat Français des Enducteurs Calandreurs et Fabricants de Revêtements de Sols et Murs), for price-fixing, sharing commercially sensitive information, and signing a non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising. The FCA said the significant fine reflected the gravity of the offence and the long duration of the anticompetitive behavior, which for one company lasted 23 years. WHAT HAPPENED The proceedings were originally initiated by unannounced inspections carried out in the floor coverings industry in 2013 by the FCA, acting on information submitted by the DGCCRF (Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control), which resulted in the discovery of...

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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...

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THE LATEST: DOJ’s Packaged Seafood Probe Yields Conditional Leniency Applicant

On Monday, September 11, Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, the US subsidiary of Thai Union Group, announced it blew the whistle on competitors in the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation of the packaged seafood industry. The “Chicken of the Sea” canned tuna manufacturer also said it received conditional leniency from DOJ in exchange for its cooperation. WHAT HAPPENED: In 2015, DOJ began investigating the packaged seafood industry for anticompetitive conduct, including price fixing. DOJ’s investigation followed a failed merger between Thai Union and Bumble Bee Foods LLC. In May 2017, Bumble Bee pleaded guilty to violations of Sherman Act Section One. Bumble Bee agreed to fix the price of shelf-stable tuna fish from as early as the first quarter of 2011 through at least the fourth quarter of 2013. The company agreed to pay a $25 million fine, which was substantially reduced to protect the company from insolvency. Two Bumble Bee executives also pleaded guilty....

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Joint FTC / DOJ Guidance: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

Businesses and individuals in Texas, Florida, the Southeast, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are preparing for a massive recovery and reconstruction effort in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have issued antitrust guidance that reiterates key principles of permissible and impermissible competitor collaboration and provides useful examples related to disaster recovery. As before, the DOJ will criminally prosecute businesses involved in naked price-fixing, bid-rigging, or market-allocation agreements. The FTC and DOJ will investigate and take action against civil violations of the antitrust laws. At the same time, the federal antitrust laws are sufficiently flexible to allow pro-competitive collaborations that benefit consumers as set forth in the FTC/DOJ Antitrust Guidelines for Collaborations Among Competitors. Joint ventures and other collaborations can...

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THE LATEST: Another E-Commerce Retailer Pleads Guilty in DOJ Investigation of Online Promotional Products Industry

On August 14, 2017, we reported on an online retailer’s guilty plea for conspiring to fix the prices of “customized promotional products” such as silicone wristbands and lanyards, and the ongoing US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into the online promotional products industry. On August 22, 2017, DOJ announced two more guilty pleas in the investigation, announcing that e-commerce company Custom Wristbands Inc. and its owner and CEO Christopher Angeles had pled guilty to violating the Sherman Act, 15 USC § 1. WHAT HAPPENED: According to an Information filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas by DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, Defendant Angeles and his co-conspirators engaged in a conspiracy from at least as early as June 2014 through at least June 2016 to “suppress and eliminate competition by fixing and maintaining prices of customized promotional products, including wristbands, sold in...

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