Section 2 of the Sherman Act
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DOJ Prosecutes Attempted Collusion among Business Competitors for First Time in Decades

On October 31, 2022, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) made good on its intention earlier this year to revitalize efforts surrounding criminal enforcement of Section 2 of the Sherman Act when the president of a paving and asphalt contractor in Montana pleaded guilty to one count of attempting to monopolize the market for certain construction services in Montana and Wyoming. This is the Division’s first criminal prosecution of a Section 2 case in approximately 50 years. While criminal enforcement of antitrust laws has traditionally focused on per se anticompetitive agreements between two or more horizontal competitors, Section 2 primarily focuses on conduct by one firm or company with significant market power. This announcement—and subsequent criminal resolution—marks a significant departure from long-standing DOJ antitrust enforcement of monopolization claims and is a landmark result for the Division’s continued expansion of its criminal enforcement efforts.

Most notably, seemingly unilateral conduct that “attempts” to collude is now subject to criminal prosecution under Section 2, even if such an attempt did not result in any agreement. In contrast, there is no “attempt” component of a Sherman Act Section 1 charge, where the Division has traditionally investigated and prosecuted per se criminal price fixing, bid rigging and market allocation conduct requiring an agreement or “meeting of the minds” between horizontal competitors.

According to court documents, the DOJ alleged that Nathan Nephi Zito attempted to monopolize the markets for highway crack sealing services administered by Montana and Wyoming by proposing that his company and its competitor allocate regional markets. Zito approached a competitor about a “strategic partnership” and proposed that his company would stop competing for projects administered by South Dakota and Nebraska and the competitor would stop competing for projects administered by Montana and Wyoming. Zito allegedly offered a $100,000 payment as additional compensation for lost business in Montana and Wyoming and proposed that they enter into a transaction to “disguise their collusion.” The competitor company then approached the government and cooperated in its investigation, including by recording phone calls with Zito.

This case, the first Section 2 criminal resolution in decades, was prosecuted in coordination with the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), which remains a top priority for the DOJ. The PCSF has been quite active in recent months, obtaining several convictions and bringing new indictments.

Although Section 2 is regularly associated with unilateral monopolist conduct, it also makes it a crime to attempt to monopolize or to conspire to monopolize. The “attempt” provision is what the Division relied on to obtain a conviction in this case, which is essentially an attempted but unconsummated Section 1 market allocation case where one of the potential conspirators cooperated with the government rather than entering into a potentially collusive agreement.

Key takeaways from this case include the following:

  • Now companies need to consider potentially collusive agreements with competitors—or attempts to do the same—that may exclude other competitors from a market in their antitrust risk evaluations. In practice, this could significantly broaden the scope of any compliance [...]

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DOJ Antitrust Division Signals Impending Criminal Monopolization Cases

WHAT HAPPENED

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.

LEGAL BACKGROUND

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.[1] 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.

WHAT’S NEXT

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.[2] 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 [...]

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