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FTC “Prior Approval” Policy for Future Transactions Raises Antitrust Risks for Buyers and Sellers

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) voted July 21, 2021, to repeal a 1995 policy statement that eliminated prior approval and prior notice provisions from most merger settlements. In repealing this longstanding policy—and likely insisting on the inclusion of such provisions in future settlements—the FTC will have significantly greater authority to review and block future transactions of companies who enter into consent orders with the FTC. This policy change will have significant implications for the negotiation of antitrust risk provisions in transaction agreements.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • In its 1995 Policy Statement Concerning Prior Approval and Prior Notice Provisions in Merger Cases, the FTC announced that it would no longer routinely require prior approval of certain future acquisitions in consent orders entered in merger cases.
    • Prior to this statement, FTC consent orders to settle merger reviews routinely required parties to seek and receive the FTC’s prior approval for future acquisitions in the relevant product and geographic markets at issue in the first challenge/consent order for a 10-year period. In some cases, the FTC also included a prior notice provision obligating companies to notify the FTC of any intended transactions that were not subject to the premerger notification and waiting period of the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976 (HSR Act).
  • On July 21, 2021, the FTC voted 3-2 to rescind its 1995 policy statement, opening the door to requiring prior approval and prior notice provisions in future merger consent orders.

 
WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • This policy change substantially increases the FTC’s merger enforcement authority for companies that settle investigations with a consent order and become subject to prior approval requirements.
    • Prior approval provisions place the burden on companies to demonstrate that their transactions are not anticompetitive.
    • The FTC can deny approval for these future transactions with very little—if any—limits on its discretion.
    • This differs significantly from the enforcement regime under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, where the FTC has the burden of proving that a transaction will substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.
  • Prior notice provisions require companies to provide the FTC with advanced notice of certain transactions—even smaller transactions that typically would fall under the HSR threshold (e.g., transactions valued below $92 million). The notification requirement increases the likelihood of FTC investigation for these transactions.
  • By rescinding the 1995 policy statement, the FTC may seek to impose such provisions in its orders as a routine matter. It remains to be seen under what circumstances the FTC will insist on prior approval or prior notice (or how broad they will be crafted). In supporting the repeal, FTC Chair Lina Khan stated that the FTC will employ these provisions based on “facts and circumstances of the proposed transaction.”
    • These prior approval and/or notice provisions, when previously employed, generally lasted for the term of the order—typically 10 years.
    • Generally, the scope of these provisions was limited to the geographic and product market in which the FTC determined that the [...]

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Executive Order Encourages FTC, DOJ to Address Hospital Consolidation, Vigorously Enforce Antitrust Laws

President Biden recently issued an executive order affirming his administration’s policy of enforcing the antitrust laws to “combat the excessive consolidation of industry” and cited healthcare markets as one of several priorities. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US Department of Justice (DOJ) already have been actively enforcing the antitrust laws in provider consolidation matters. The FTC is currently challenging the proposed merger of two health systems in New Jersey, and in the past year unsuccessfully challenged the combination of Jefferson Health and Einstein Health in Philadelphia and successfully challenged the proposed combination of two health systems (Methodist Le Bonheur and Saint Francis) in Memphis.

The executive order follows a proposed bill to increase budgets for the FTC and DOJ, FTC resolutions on compulsory process in healthcare investigations, congressional calls to investigate the use of COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund payments for acquisitions, the FTC physician practice acquisition retrospective and other health antitrust developments.

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Government Contractor Pleads Guilty to Bid-Rigging and Procurement Fraud

On June 7, 2021, as part of the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) continuing commitment to prosecuting cases where the government is a victim, a government contractor pleaded guilty to one count of bid-rigging and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into public works contracts for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

Ohio-based Contech Engineered Solutions LLC (Contech) entered its plea of guilty before a federal judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and was sentenced to pay a $7 million criminal fine. Contech was also ordered to pay an additional $1,533,988 in restitution to the NCDOT. Notably, the DOJ did not impose a term of probation on Contech because Contech agreed to improve its compliance program to prevent recurrence of anticompetitive conduct. Contech, however, is required to cooperate with the DOJ, including producing documents and making witnesses available for interviews or testimony.

Contech and its former executive were indicted in October 2020 on six counts of alleged bid-rigging, conspiracy to commit fraud and mail and wire fraud in connection with a decade-long conspiracy involving public works projects in North Carolina.

This prosecution highlights the DOJ’s ongoing commitment to the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) and its efforts to scrutinize public procurements and combat collusion and related fraud in government contracting.

The PCSF has conducted extensive training of law enforcement officers and procurement officers, among others, to help identify scenarios and situations where collusion is more likely to occur. The PCSF is also utilizing data analytics to advance its investigations, building on technological advancements and more useable data sets to target and prosecute anticompetitive conduct.

Importantly, the PCSF has recently doubled in size and has gone global just as the United States has approved unprecedented stimulus spending in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and as the Biden administration is poised to approve a new infrastructure plan. The PCSF has provided tools that allow any individual to report suspected collusion via email or an online tip center. Enforcers’ renewed commitment to procurement collusion—coupled with increased government spending—will likely lead to more investigations and additional prosecutions in 2021.

Contech, a manufacturer of aluminum and other products, conspired with its supplier in bidding on numerous NCDOT public works projects. According to the indictment, the former Contech executive would obtain (or direct his subordinate to obtain) the supplier’s total bid price in advance. Using that information, Contech then submitted bids to be intentionally higher than its supplier. The indictment also alleged that Contech submitted false certifications that its bids were competitive and free of collusion throughout the conspiracy.

The indictment alleged bid-rigging between a manufacturer and its supplier, which is typically a vertical relationship and generally subject to the Rule of Reason rather than per se criminal analysis. Under the Rule of Reason, antitrust enforcers balance the anticompetitive effects of the conduct in question against the procompetitive benefits. Certain anticompetitive conduct, however, [...]

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Out of Bounds: Sports Agencies Flagged for Anticompetitive Bidding Agreements

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) recently sued former joint venture partners because they allegedly coordinated their competitive activities beyond the legitimate scope of their venture. This case illustrates several important points. First, companies who collaborate through joint ventures and similar arrangements need to be mindful that any legitimate collaborative activity does not “spill over” to restrain competition in other unrelated areas. Second, DOJ discovered the conduct during its review of documents produced in connection with a merger investigation. This is the most recent reminder of how broad ranging discovery in merger investigations can result in wholly unrelated conduct investigations and lawsuits. Third, one of the parties was a portfolio company of a private equity sponsor, highlighting how private investors can be targeted for antitrust violations. (more…)




THE LATEST: DOJ and FTC Take Divergent Positions on Intellectual Property Issue

In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Chairman Joseph Simons from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staked out differing interpretations of when antitrust considerations are relevant in standard setting agreements restricted by fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates, a rare divergence of opinion between the two antitrust enforcement agencies.

WHAT HAPPENED:
  • Since AAG Delrahim took over as head of the DOJ Antitrust Division in September 2017 he has consistently hinted at a differing interpretation of antitrust law as it relates to standard essential patents and FRAND rates in the context of antitrust. 
  • Standard essential patents (SEPs) are patents that have been incorporated into a standard by a standard setting organization and industry participants to facilitate interchangeability between products. Often, to be included in a standard, patent holders agree to license a patent essential to that standard at a FRAND rate. 
  • With the proliferation of standards, more scrutiny has been devoted to SEPs and FRAND rates, and some companies have brought antitrust suits relating to “patent hold-up” or the refusal to license a patent on FRAND terms (typically seeking higher royalties or fees on patents for widely adopted standards). 
  • In testimony on October 3, 2018, AAG Delrahim indicated his view was that a patent holder’s unilateral decision not to license a patent—even if that patent is part of a standard—is not conduct intended to be reached by the antitrust laws. AAG Delrahim indicated such a dispute would more appropriately be handled by contract law. 
  • This position differs from that of the FTC, where Chairman Simons has indicated that antitrust law can be relevant in patent hold-up cases.
    •  The FTC demonstrated its view in a recent complaint filed against Qualcomm, Inc. The complaint summarizes the patent hold-up concern:

Once a standard incorporating proprietary technology is adopted, the potential exists for opportunistic patent holders to insist on patent licensing terms that capture not just the value of the underlying technology, but also the value of standardization itself. To address this “hold-up” risk, [standard setting organizations] often require patent holders to disclose their patents and commit to license standard-essential patents (“SEPs”) on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (“FRAND”) terms. Absent such requirements, a patent holder might be able to parlay the standardization of its technology into a monopoly in standard-compliant products.

WHAT THIS MEANS:
  • Going forward, US antitrust enforcement with respect to SEP issues may be limited to the FTC. AAG Delrahim’s speeches indicate that it will be the rare case that the Antitrust Division pursues such cases in the future.
  • This divergence between the two US agencies responsible for enforcing antitrust laws will create confusion for SEP holders and their licensees with respect to the risks of US government intervention. Companies dealing with SEPs and FRAND rates will want to be cognizant of which agency is reviewing, as approaches may be [...]

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THE LATEST: FTC Settles Civil Complaint for Wage-Fixing

A recent settlement shows that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will use its enforcement authority to target employer collusion in the labor market.

WHAT HAPPENED
  • The FTC brought a complaint against a medical staffing agency, Your Therapy Source, LLC, and the owner of a competing staffing agency, Integrity Home Therapy, for allegedly agreeing to reduce the rates they would pay to their staff. Simultaneously, the FTC settled the case with a consent order that forbids the parties from any future attempt to exchange pay information or to agree on the wages to be paid to their staffs.
  • This was the first FTC wage-fixing enforcement action since the FTC and US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued their joint Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals in October 2016. That guidance stated that naked wage-fixing and no-poach agreements—e.g., agreements separate from or not reasonably necessary to a larger legitimate collaboration between the employers—are per se illegal under the Sherman Act.
  • The respondents in the Your Therapy Source case are staffing agencies that allegedly provided therapists such as physical therapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists to home health agencies on a contract basis. The respondents were responsible for recruiting the therapists and paying them a “pay rate” per visit or per patient.
  • According to the complaint, the alleged unlawful agreement began when one home health agency unilaterally notified Integrity that it was going to reduce the “bill rates” that it paid Integrity for its therapists, thus cutting into Integrity’s profit margins. Integrity’s owner then reached out through one of his therapists to the owner of Your Therapy Source and the two exchanged information about their respective rates paid to therapists. The two firms then reached an agreement via text message to reduce the rates they paid therapists.
  • Once the respondents had reached the agreement to reduce therapists’ pay, Integrity’s owner allegedly reached out via text to four other competing therapy-staffing agencies to solicit their participation in the agreement.
  • The FTC’s complaint alleged that this conduct violated Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive acts and practices.
WHAT THIS MEANS
  • Wage-fixing cases have been notable in the health care industry, with prior DOJ enforcement against a hospital buying group and several class actions against health care providers in the 2000s that alleged the fixing of nurses’ pay.
  • Companies should strictly avoid colluding with other firms on wages, salaries, fringe benefits or other remuneration paid to workers. Companies should also exercise extreme caution in information exchanges regarding wages and benefits, which can lead to improper agreements or result in independent antitrust liability if not properly supervised.
  • Firms should be mindful of the DOJ/FTC’s joint guidance on information sharing in the health care industry (see link at p. 50), which also provides a useful template for how the US antitrust agencies will analyze information sharing more generally. The joint [...]

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Cartel Snapshot

The second quarter of 2018 proved to be an active one with a number of US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations resulting in criminal charges against individual executives. However, the DOJ’s total criminal fines still fall below the highs reached in 2014 and 2015. In this period, the European Commission made one notable cartel decision, imposing fines on eight Japanese manufacturers of capacitors.

McDermott’s Cartel Snapshot presents the latest information about active antitrust investigations to inform defense representatives, in-house counsel and agency regulators of the latest compliance risks and private actions. Our highly rated team of competition lawyers has selected the most relevant US and EU cartel matters to support risk management assessments for international cartel defense and to provide insights for legal and business planning.

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Three Lessons from AT&T/Time Warner and Three Strategies for Future Vertical Transactions

The challenges that the government faces in litigating vertical mergers was illustrated in the DOJ’s recent loss in its challenge of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner. The result provides guidance for how companies can improve their odds of obtaining antitrust approval for similar transactions.

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THE LATEST: DOJ Continues Its Intense Focus on Decree Compliance

WHAT HAPPENED

In March, we discussed the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s move to update its standard consent decree language to enhance decree enforceability. Among other things, the changes:

  • Reduced the burden of proof for DOJ to demonstrate a decree violation in court, and
  • Shifted DOJ’s attorney’s fees to the losing party in the event that a decree enforcement action became necessary.

Now, DOJ Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim has further intensified the Division’s compliance focus by announcing the creation of an Office of Decree Enforcement at the Division (Office). The Office would have “the sole goal to ensure compliance with, and enforcement of, [Antitrust Division] decrees.” (more…)




Jury Gives Auto Parts Manufacturer a Pass on DOJ Conspiracy Claims

On November 29, 2017, a Japanese auto parts manufacturer and its US subsidiary defeated the US Department of Justice’s claims that the companies conspired with others to fix prices and rig bids for automotive body sealing products. The case involved a rare trial involving criminal antitrust charges. After 13 days of trial, a jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. and its subsidiary, Green Tokai Co. Ltd. Continue Reading.




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