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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 panel discussions allowing judges, attorneys, economists, academics, the business community and other interested stakeholders to weigh in on how the law can be improved. The Division was particularly interested in the public’s views on whether ACPERA has properly incentivized the self-reporting of criminal conduct and whether there are issues that have impeded the law’s intended effect.

The European Commission (Commission) announced developments in ongoing investigations in the auto parts industry, and in its government bonds and car emissions cases. The Commission also launched a new online tool to make it easier for companies to submit statements and documents as part of leniency and settlement proceedings in cartel cases.

US DEVELOPMENTS

  • The first new investigation disclosed by the DOJ is in the commercial flooring industry. The DOJ charged a former vice president of a commercial flooring contractor in Chicago of exchanging price information with its rivals to fix prices of contracts for removal and installation of commercial flooring. Assistant Attorney General Delrahim of the Antitrust Division said that the indictment “is the first of what we expect to be many in this ongoing investigation into bid rigging” in the commercial flooring industry.
  • The DOJ disclosed a second new investigation into bid rigging of Government Services Administration (GSA) contracts. The owner of a Texas company pleaded guilty to rigging bids for surplus government equipment—computers for resale and for recycling—in online GSA auctions.
  • The DOJ announced a third new investigation into bid rigging by insulation installation contractors. A manager for a Connecticut-based insulation contractor pleaded guilty for his role in rigging $45 million worth of bids for insulation installation contracts in New England from 2011 to 2018.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into fuel-supply contracts for the armed services remains active. Two more Korean companies pleaded guilty for their involvement in a bid-rigging conspiracy that targeted contracts to supply fuel to US Armed Forces in South Korea.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into price fixing in the promotional products space appears quite active.
  • In May 2019, state attorneys general for 43 states and Puerto Rico brought federal and state antitrust, consumer protection and common law claims against 18 generic [...]

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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 three distinct anticompetitive practices.

Price-fixing

The FCA found that the three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France met secretly at so-called “1, 2, 3” meetings, from October 2001 to September 2011, at hotels, on the margins of official meetings of the SFEC or through dedicated telephone lines, in order to discuss minimum prices and price increases for their products. The manufacturers also entered into agreements covering a great deal of other sensitive information, such as the strategies to adopt with regard to specific customers or competitors, organization of sales activities and sampling of new products.

Confidential information exchange via the trade association

The FCA found that from 1990 until the start of the FCA’s investigations in 2013, Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett also exchanged, in the context of official meetings of the SFEC, very precise information relating to their trading volumes, revenues per product category and business forecasts. In its decision, the FCA also raised the active role played by the SFEC, supporting companies in their conduct.

Non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising

The three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France, together with the trade association, also signed a ‘non-compete’ agreement which prevented each company from advertising the individual environmental performance of its products. The FCA considered that this agreement may have acted as a disincentive for manufacturers to innovate and offer new products, earmarked by better environmental performance, compared to the products offered by their competitors.

Neither the manufacturers nor the trade association disputed the facts and all of them sought a settlement procedure. In addition, Forbo and Tarkett, leniency applicants, benefited from fine reductions corresponding to the respective dates they approached the FCA (the sooner, the higher the fine reduction), the quality of the evidence they provided and their cooperation during the investigation.

WHAT THIS MEANS

The FCA’s decision in the floor coverings cartel case has significant impact due to the total amount of the fines imposed which is (i) higher than the aggregate amount of sanctions imposed by the FCA in 2016 (i.e., EUR 202,873,000), and (ii) until now the highest fine imposed by the FCA in 2017, the FCA having imposed a EUR 100 million fine on Engie for abusing its dominant position in the [...]

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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 prices. at *1.
  • The Third Circuit agreed with the district court and found that Valspar’s argument failed on two grounds. First, the court explained that Valspar neglected to consider conscious parallelism when it claimed that it was “inconceivable” that defendants executed identical price increases on 31 occasions without a conspiracy. at *5. Price movement in an oligopoly is expected to be interdependent, as rational decision makers anticipate the movements of other firms. Second, Valspar was required to show that defendants’ parallel pricing “went beyond mere interdependence and was so unusual that in the absence of advance agreement, no reasonable firm would have engaged in it.” Id. at *6 (quoting In re Baby Food Antitrust Litig., 166 F.3d 112, 135 (3d Cir. 1999)).
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • The Valspar case is interesting in that it is an opt-out case from the In re Titanium Dioxide class action litigation, in which the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the same evidence that here allowed the District of Delaware, as affirmed by the Third Circuit, to grant it. The Third Circuit attributed the different outcomes in the class and opt-out cases to the fact that the District of Maryland—which sits in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—is not bound by Third Circuit precedent while the District of Delaware is so bound. at *11 (“This resulted in the Maryland court applying a standard quite different from the one we have developed and that the [Delaware court] applied.”).
  • The opinion clarifies the evidence required under Third Circuit precedent to prove a conspiracy in an oligopolistic industry. The court explained that in oligopoly cases, evidence that price increases are not correlated to supply or demand is “largely irrelevant.” at *7. Awareness among defendants of the conscious parallelism is similarly not enough. Id. at *4 n.3. Plaintiffs must show proof of an explicit, manifest agreement. Id. A plaintiff alleging a conspiracy among defendants may not rely on “ambiguous evidence alone” to survive summary judgment. Id. at *5 [...]

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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 June 2017, a former StarKist Co. sales executive pleaded guilty to price fixing.
  • Private plaintiffs filed class action complaints in October 2016 alleging antitrust violations in the packaged seafood industry. The private plaintiffs represent grocery retailers who sold packaged tuna to US consumers.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • Despite the significant costs of participating in DOJ’s Corporate Leniency Program, leniency recipients continue to receive significant value for their cooperation. Conditional leniency recipients like Tri-Union and their employees will not face criminal fines, jail time or prosecution.
  • Full cooperation with DOJ’s program will place heavy demands on leniency applicants, including gathering and translating foreign documents, bringing foreign witnesses to the United States for interviews and testimony, and providing several attorney proffers.
  • It is critical to have a robust compliance program in place to detect any potential or actual violations of antitrust law. Such a program will allow a company to investigate any potential misconduct and, if necessary, report it to DOJ. Time is of the essence when seeking leniency with DOJ’s Corporate Leniency Program.
  • Companies contemplating acquisitions should consider whether any problematic antitrust conduct could arise during the merger review and result in a subsequent criminal investigation.



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. (more…)




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 the United States and elsewhere.”
  • DOJ alleges that Defendants and co-conspirators attended meetings and communicated via text and online messaging platforms regarding pricing for the online sale of customized promotional products.
  • Defendant Custom Wristbands Inc. (d/b/a Kulayful Silicone Bracelets, Kulayful.com, Speedywristbands.com, Promotionalbands.com, Wristbandcreations.com, and 1inchbracelets.com) has agreed to pay a criminal fine in the amount of $409,342. Defendant Angeles faces up to 10 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine.
  • DOJ has announced that both defendants have agreed to cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • The DOJ Antitrust Division continues to investigate the “online promotional products industry” and we anticipate that additional defendants will be charged over the course of the investigation. 
  • DOJ continues to hold individual executives accountable in price fixing cases, even where their corporations plead guilty and agree to cooperate with ongoing investigations.



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