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Year in Review: Criminal Enforcement by the DOJ Antitrust Division in 2023

When it comes to antitrust criminal enforcement, 2023 will be remembered as the year when the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division redefined and tested the outer boundaries of its authority. This report looks back at the key events from the DOJ’s year in criminal antitrust enforcement.

Here’s a glimpse of what’s inside:

  • Despite four straight losses and a voluntary dismissal in labor market cases, the DOJ remains undeterred in bringing additional criminal wage-fixing and no-poach suits.
  • DOJ’s Procurement Collusion Strike Force secured several guilty pleas and stiff penalties in 2023 and will most likely continue pursuing aggressive investigative and litigation strategies moving forward.
  • The nearly decade-long investigation of the generic drug industry appears to be ending after the DOJ recently resolved and dismissed the remaining cases.
  • Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco highlighted cybersecurity, tech and national security as areas of heightened risk and thus heightened scrutiny, so corporations in these markets should take heed of the DOJ’s emphasis on corporate compliance in 2024.

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FTC and DOJ: Preserve Your Chats!

  • The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) are updating their standard preservation notices and instructions for responding to all manner of discovery (e.g., second requests, voluntary access letters, compulsory process, etc.). The update will alert parties to the steps that must be taken to preserve communication from popular business collaboration tools and “ephemeral messaging platforms” like Slack, Microsoft Teams and Signal.
  • These platforms are typically set to delete communication data automatically and may lack appropriate capabilities for preserving and extracting data even when a preservation notice is issued. While these tools have become central features in the modern business landscape, the Agencies’ announcement is designed to clearly set out the expectation that companies and individuals will adhere to preservation requirements. Parties could be subject to criminal obstruction of justice charges if they fail to comply.
  • Highlighting the very serious concern these tools raise in the DOJ’s view, Manish Kumar, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, asserted that ephemeral messaging platforms are “designed to hide evidence.”

WHAT HAPPENED

  • On January 26, 2024, the DOJ and FTC (the Agencies) announced an update to their preservation notices and instructions for responding to all manner of discovery to “address the increased use of collaboration tools and ephemeral messaging platforms in the modern workplace” and “reinforce longstanding obligations requiring companies to preserve materials during the pendency of government investigations and litigation.”
  • The Agencies recognize that ephemeral chat messaging is becoming an increasingly important feature of the modern business landscape, and they have sought to collect ephemeral messaging data in the past. However, because these platforms are typically set to delete messages automatically and may lack clear solutions for preserving data, the Agencies have run into dead ends trying to collect such data in prior cases. Indeed, Manish Kumar, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division stated that “these updates to our legal process will ensure that neither opposing counsel nor their clients can feign ignorance when their clients or companies choose to conduct business through ephemeral messages.”
  • This new preservation language will be included in all DOJ and FTC preservation letters, second request specifications, voluntary access letters, compulsory legal process and grand jury subpoenas going forward.
  • While the new language changes are a continuation of the Agencies’ existing preservation policies, they will highlight parties’ obligations with respect to ephemeral messaging data specifically, potentially making it easier for the Agencies to seek sanctions and other recourse against companies who fail to preserve such data.
  • Indeed, the Agencies’ announcement cites a prior case where civil spoliation sanctions resulted from a target’s failure to properly preserve ephemeral messaging data. Likewise, the FTC has also signaled its willingness to refer cases to the DOJ Antitrust Division’s Criminal Liaison Unit for criminal obstruction charges in certain cases.

WHAT THIS MEANS

  • The Agencies have recognized in recent cases that relevant business communications that used to happen over email are [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q2 2023

Topics covered in this edition:

  • FTC Unveils Proposal Detailing Significant Changes to Hart-Scott-Rodino Act Merger Notifications
  • Assa Abloy Settlement Raises Questions on Litigating the Fix and DOJ Consent Decrees
  • Pharmaceutical Industry Remains in Regulators’ Crosshairs
  • “Whole of Government” Competition Mandate Can Impact Deals the FTC and DOJ Do Not Challenge
  • FTC’s Constitutionality Comes Under Fire—Again
  • Divergent Viewpoints in Video Games Sector: Microsoft’s Takeover of Activision Blizzard
  • New Merger Simplification Package from the EC

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Proposed Merger Guidelines Outline Fundamental Change of Approach to Merger Investigation and Enforcement

Mergers and acquisitions will continue to face strong headwinds at the Federal Trade Commission and the US Department of Justice under new proposed Merger Guidelines released on July 19, 2023. The Proposed Guidelines embody the antitrust agencies’ aggressive posture toward merger enforcement under the Biden administration. This On the Subject highlights the most significant changes in the Proposed Guidelines and what steps companies contemplating mergers and other transactions should take in the face of these changes.

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US Federal Agencies Commit to Regulatory Enforcement of AI Systems

A recent announcement by multiple federal agencies has highlighted their intention to enforce their separate regulations against developers, deployers and users of AI systems. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan and officials from the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) each reinforced their worries about automated systems, citing civil rights, fair competition, consumer protection and equal opportunity concerns. Their serious language, joint public commitment and previous enforcement actions in this area make this statement no simple theater.

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Heard at the 2023 Spring Meeting: Part 2

The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, on March 29–31, 2023. The Spring Meeting sessions featured updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and thought-invoking discussions on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. Following Part 1, this post summarizes key takeaways from the second portion of the Spring Meeting, including updates regarding premerger notification filings, labor markets, state antitrust enforcement, compliance programs, national security, consumer protection, interlocking directorates, and remedies.

FTC Zeros in on Missing Material in HSR Filings

  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Competition Director Holly Vedova underscored the consequences of failing to submit Item 4 material in HSR filings. She noted the FTC will bounce filings found to have missing Item 4 documents. If the waiting period has not expired and newly surfaced documents change the scope of the request, the FTC may issue a Second Request. If the waiting period has expired when consequential missing material is realized, the FTC will require a corrective filing for the original transaction and may impose “significant” civil penalties.
  • Vedova also reminded practitioners that changes in a merger agreement can require an additional HSR filing. If material changes are made before the waiting period expires, parties should proactively reach out to the FTC to inquire as to whether further action is needed. Parties may need to amend their original filing or submit a new one entirely.

Labor Markets Remain High Priority

  • The antitrust enforcement agencies have promised continued, fervent action in labor markets. In keeping with this promise, this January, the FTC issued a proposed rule that would make it illegal to enter into or maintain noncompete agreements with employees or independent contractors.
    • FTC Chair Lina Khan emphasized that noncompetes impede business dynamism, innovation, and entry, and eliminating noncompetes is estimated to return $300 billion back into the pockets of American workers.
    • FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter pointed to California as an innovator in labor market enforcement, citing its prohibition on noncompetes. FTC enforcers encouraged the continued submission of public comments on the proposed rule. The comment period is set to close on April 19, 2023.
    • Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Gwendolyn Cooley also noted that enforcing noncompetes has been a hallmark of state enforcement, especially in New York and Washington, and additional states are considering legislation that would ban noncompetes.
  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s Acting Director of Criminal Enforcement Emma Burnham and the Chief of DOJ’s Criminal II Section James Fredericks noted practitioners should expect an uptick in criminal cases in the labor and employment space. DOJ Antitrust Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter stressed that antitrust crimes focused on workers are just as important as those focused on consumers.
  • New York’s antitrust chief, Elinor Hoffman, indicated that New York is focused on labor issues, including no-poach agreements and noncompete clauses that may arise during merger reviews. [...]

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Heard at the 2023 Spring Meeting: Part 1

The American Bar Association’s Antitrust Law Section recently held its annual Spring Meeting in Washington, DC, featuring updates from federal, state, and international antitrust enforcers and in-depth commentary on leading antitrust issues facing the business community today. This post recaps key takeaways from the first portion of the Spring Meeting.

CIVIL ENFORCEMENT AND MERGER REVIEW: US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (DOJ) PRIORITIES

  • Aggressive Enforcement by Any Other Name: DOJ Antitrust Division Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hetal Doshi characterized DOJ’s enforcement posture as “not aggressive enforcement, just enforcement,” but nevertheless opined that the Department’s past practice of erring on the side of under-enforcement has “ill-served” the public.
  • Whole-of-Government Means Whole-of-Government: The Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Maggie Goodlander and Michael Kades highlighted that various federal statutes other than the antitrust laws confer the power to act to preserve competition. They emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue sweeping enforcement priorities to execute President Biden’s recent executive order calling for a whole-of-government approach to protecting competition, including by working in conjunction with other federal agencies like the Departments of Defense, Transportation, and Agriculture.
  • Enforcement Priorities Include Technical Violations of HSR Act, Spoliation, Gun-Jumping: Deputy Assistant Attorney General Goodlander emphasized DOJ’s intent to pursue vigorously violations of the HSR Act, including failures to make required premerger notification filings, failures to provide all Item 4 documents, and “gun-jumping” caused by concerted action prior to the satisfaction of the HSR Act’s waiting period. Goodlander also commented on DOJ’s intent to scrutinize merging parties’ conduct during the due diligence phase to investigate whether parties are using due diligence to conceal and accomplish anticompetitive conduct. Other DOJ officials further emphasized that DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are working to ensure that the agencies’ investigations are not harmed by the use of third-party ephemeral communication platforms and to penalize spoliation of evidence contained in such messaging applications.
  • Hostility Toward Freely Granted Divestitures in Merger Investigations: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Doshi and Andrew Forman conveyed the high bar merging parties face when they offer structural or behavioral remedies, including divestitures, to resolve or head off a DOJ challenge to a merger or acquisition. Doshi and Forman pointed to instances where divestitures and/or carveouts offered in merger transactions have failed and “the American people bear the risk” of anticompetitive harms and asserted that “the idea that a divestiture can cure the feared antitrust issues can’t rest on our hopes of what might happen in the future after the deal and divestiture closes.”
  • Consent Decrees Face Much Stricter Scrutiny: Deputy Assistant Attorneys General Forman, Goodlander, and Kades emphasized the “exacting standard” that must be applied when DOJ is considering entering into a consent decree to resolve a merger challenge. According to the Department officials, the antitrust laws prohibit mergers that may substantially lessen competition, which means that for a consent decree to resolve antitrust concerns, it must eliminate the possibility that a merger could cause harm—an “extremely high bar.”
  • Updated Merger Guidelines to Focus on Relevant [...]

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Customer Reviews: Five-Star Enforcement and the Expanding Regulations

Does your company sell to consumers or businesses that can leave reviews or rate your products? Whether your customers can leave reviews on your website or another public-facing review platform, companies should be aware of new developments in the consumer review enforcement space that may impact how you publicize and conduct your product rating and review system.  If you are not aware of the expanding consumer review regulations, it could cost your company millions or even land you in jail.

CUSTOMER REVIEWS AND PROPOSED REVISIONS

Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act (the Act) prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices. Specifically, as the Act relates to customer reviews: negative customer reviews and ratings cannot be suppressed or hidden; any incentives for reviews must be disclosed; material connections between a reviewer and the reviewed product must be disclosed; and review gating is prohibited. The FTC has heightened its focus on consumer reviews as of late and proposed revisions to the Endorsement Guides for advertisers that would tighten enforcement against posting false positive reviews or manipulating consumer perception by suppressing negative reviews, among other things. The proposed guideline revisions would state that “in procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, or editing consumer reviews of their products, advertisers should not take actions that have the effect of distorting or otherwise misrepresenting what consumers think of their products.” See Federal Register, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, Section IV (C) (July 26, 2022), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/07/26/2022-12327/guides-concerning-the-use-of-endorsements-and-testimonials-in-advertising. In addition to broadening its Endorsement Guides, the FTC has already demonstrated a significant increase in consumer review enforcement—including pursuing increased penalties and new priorities like review hijacking.

CONSULTANT RECEIVES PRISON SENTENCE FOR BRIBED REMOVAL OF NEGATIVE REVIEWS

In February 2023, Hadis Nuhanovic, a merchant consultant, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for taking part in a global scheme in which he bribed employees of a technology platform to remove negative online reviews on his clients’ products and reinstate suspended accounts, among other illegal activities such as stealing sensitive company information related to product-review rankings and targeting his clients’ competitors on the platform. Nuhanovic, together with a co-defendant, reached out to platform employees in India and bribed them to obtain unfair advantages for his own business’ gain. For example, Nuhanovic admitted that he paid a platform employee to remove negative reviews and further admitted that he operated multiple sham accounts—created using false information—to purchase products from merchants and submit negative reviews about them, with the intention of deceiving consumers and harming the targeted accounts. Additionally, Nuhanovic used his sham accounts to leave positive reviews for his preferred accounts, further deceiving consumers and improving the placement of certain favored products in searches.

In addition to the review bribes, Nuhanovic was investigated for other related crimes to which he ultimately pled guilty. He was sentenced to three years of supervised release on top of the 20 months in prison and forced to forfeit $100,000 and pay $160,000 in unreported taxes.

COMPANY FORCED TO PAY FOR “REVIEW HIJACKING”

[...]

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DOJ Signals Heightened Scrutiny on Information Exchanges and Competitor Collaborations

WHAT HAPPENED

On February 3, 2023, the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division announced the withdrawal of three policy statements related to antitrust enforcement in healthcare. Although the withdrawn statements focus on healthcare, DOJ’s decision to withdraw these statements will have broad impacts across industries.

The three policy statements, issued in 19931996, and 2011, relate to competitor collaboration and information sharing, and established “safety zones” of activities shielded from antitrust scrutiny. The 1996 Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care (1996 Statements) were revised and expanded upon the 1993 Statements. Though ostensibly related to healthcare, the guidance has been relied upon by all industries and understood to cover all manner of competitively sensitive information. Two of the safety zones most often relied on by companies relate to competitor exchanges of price and cost information, and competitor joint purchasing arrangements.

Information Exchanges

The safety zone on information exchanges (Statement 6 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge an exchange of price or cost information (e.g., employee compensation) if the following three conditions were met:

  1. The exchange is managed by a third party (e.g., a trade association or consultant).
  2. The information is more than three months old.
  3. The exchange has five or more participants contributing data, and no individual participant’s data represents more than 25% of any statistic; and no individual participant’s data can be identified.

Companies have relied on this safety zone in conducting surveys and benchmarking related to pricing, supply costs, and salaries. These surveys have served as critical compliance tools. Organizations exempt from federal income tax often use surveys to demonstrate fair market value compensation to safeguard against claims of private inurement and private benefit. Similarly, healthcare companies routinely use benchmarking studies to demonstrate fair market value compensation for compliance with fraud and abuse laws.

Group Purchasing Organizations

The safety zone on joint purchasing arrangements (Statement 7 of the 1996 Statements) stated that, in general, the agencies would not challenge joint purchasing arrangements (e.g., group purchasing organizations (GPOs)) if the following two conditions were met:

  1. The purchases account for less than 35% of the total sales of the purchased product or service.
  2. The cost of the products or services purchased jointly accounts for less than 20% of the participants’ revenues.

DOJ cited changes in the healthcare landscape as the rationale for withdrawing these policy statements, specifically indicating that the statements were “overly permissive” on information sharing. In a speech the day before DOJ’s announcement, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General (DAAG) Doha Mekki stated that the safety zone factors “do not consider the realities of a transformed industry” and “understate the antitrust risks of competitors sharing competitively sensitive information.” DAAG Mekki explained that:

  • Information exchanges managed by third parties can have the same anticompetitive effects—and the use of a third party enhances anticompetitive effects.
  • New algorithms and AI learning increase the competitive value of historical information (more [...]

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Antitrust M&A Snapshot | Q4 2022

Topics covered in this edition:

• DOJ Sees First Merger Win After String of Losses
• FTC Brings Suit Against Microsoft/Activision
• Updated Merger Guidelines Expected Soon
• Merger Fees Changing
• The EC Launches a Consultation on Its Draft Revised Market Definition Notice
• UK Orders a Chinese Firm to Divest Its 83% Controlling Stake in a Welsh Semiconductor Wafer Factory Based on National Security Concerns

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McDermott Will & Emery Juriste Nabil Lakhal contributed to this newsletter. 




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