Antitrust Lawyer Blog Commentary on Current Developments

Articles Posted in Antitrust Litigation Highlights

On September 5, 2018, Judge Trevor N. McFadden of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted the Federal Trade Commission’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing Tronox Ltd. (“Tronox”) from completing its proposed $2.4 billion acquisition of National Titanium Dioxide Company Ltd. (“Cristal”) until after a final ruling in the FTC’s administrative proceedings challenging the deal.  Federal Trade Commission v. Tronox Ltd. (D.D.C. Sept. 12, 2018).  It is a huge victory for the FTC.

Background

On February 21, 2017, Tronox inked a deal to buy Cristal for $1.67 billion and a 24% stake in the new entity. The transaction would have created the largest TiO2 company in the world, based on titanium chemical sales and nameplate capacity.

On March 5, 2018, Sparton Corporation (“Sparton”) announced the termination by Sparton and Ultra Electronics Holdings plc (“Ultra”) of their July 7, 2017 merger agreement.

According to Sparton, during the review of the proposed merger by the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the United States Navy (“Navy”) expressed the view that instead of the parties proceeding with the merger, each of Sparton and Ultra should enhance its ability to independently develop, produce and sell sonobuoys and over time work toward the elimination of their use of the companies’ ERAPSCO joint venture for such activities. DOJ staff then informed Sparton and Ultra that it intended to recommend that the DOJ block the merger. The parties expected the DOJ would follow this recommendation and seek an injunction in court to block the merger. As a result of the view of the Navy and the DOJ’s position, Ultra and Sparton determined it was in the best interests of the parties to proceed to terminate the merger agreement.

Also according to Sparton, the parties understand that the DOJ intends to open an investigation to evaluate their ERAPSCO joint venture. Sparton said that based on historical practice, the company anticipates the Navy will assist in funding Sparton’s transition to independently develop, produce and sell sonobuoys.

On March 5, 2018, the United States Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) filed an administrative complaint alleging that J.M. Smucker Co.’s (“Smucker”) proposed $285 million acquisition of Conagra Brands, Inc.’s (“Conagra”) Wesson cooking oil brand may substantially lessen competition and reduce competition for canola and vegetable oils in the United States.

Smucker currently owns the Crisco brand, and by acquiring the Wesson brand, it would control at least 70% of the market for branded canola and vegetable oils sold to grocery stores and other retailers.  Smucker and Conagra both manufacture and sell a wide range of food products, including canola and vegetable oil, other types of oils, and shortening.  The FTC also claims that other branded canola and vegetable oils available in the United States, such as Mazola and LouAna, each control only a small share of the market, and do not hold the same brand equity.  Furthermore, building sufficient brand equity to expand would require substantial investment and take at least several years.

Under the proposed acquisition, Smucker would obtain all intellectual property rights to the Wesson brand, as well as inventory and manufacturing equipment.

On February 21, 2018, Judge Leon ruled against AT&T Inc.’s (“AT&T”) ability to discover evidence that would support its selective enforcement defense.

Background

On November 21, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Antitrust Division filed a complaint in federal court block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc. (“Time Warner”).

On February 12, 2018, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) filed an administrative complaint against Benco, Henry Schein, and Patterson, the three largest national full service dental supply distributors in the United States for allegedly conspiring to refuse to provide discounts to or otherwise serve buying groups representing dentists and against Benco for inviting a fourth competing distributor to take part in the illegal conspiracy.  As is typical with FTC conduct cases, the complaint was brought under Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The FTC alleges that three distributors agreed to boycott buying groups, which sought discounts and lower prices for dental supplies and equipment on behalf of solo and small-group dental practices.  The FTC further alleges that the agreement deprived solo and small-group dental practices from the benefits of participating in buying groups.

Benco and Henry Schein allegedly entered into an agreement whereby both distributors would refuse to provide discounts to or compete for the business of buying groups.  The complaint details email, phone, and text communications between executives of the two companies evidencing the agreement, as well as attempts to monitor and ensure compliance with the agreement.  On Oct. 1, 2013, a Benco executive called his counterpart at Henry Schein and “reaffirmed Benco’s commitment against buying groups.” After the call, neither distributor bid on a buying group contract.  The FTC’s complaint also alleges that Patterson joined the illegal agreement.

On February 14, 2018, it was reported that AT&T Inc. (“AT&T”) identified as a potential witness for trial, Makan Delrahim, the head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Antitrust Division. AT&T’s request for the antitrust chief to testify is highly unusual, but would appear necessary given that AT&T is claiming as a defense that the DOJ’s action to block the deal is an “improper selective enforcement of the antitrust laws.”

It is common practice in the early stages of litigation to be overly inclusive when identifying witnesses for trial, and just because Delrahim is named does not necessarily mean that he will testify. However, when alleging selective enforcement as a defense, AT&T will necessarily need to put on proof of the improper discrimination behind the DOJ’s decision to block its deal with Time Warner, and presumably no one would be in a better position to testify as to the DOJ’s decision than the actual decision maker: Delrahim.

In addition to its witness list, AT&T has also requested internal communications between Delrahim’s office and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, including emails, phone calls and other communications between the White House and officials at the DOJ.

Historically, the FTC and DOJ have sought to unwind consummated mergers that are deemed to be anticompetitive.  During Trump’s first year in office, the FTC and DOJ have demonstrated their willingness to unwind anticompetitive mergers that somehow sneaked by the regulators.

FTC Seeks to Unwind Merger of Prosthetic Knee Manufacturers

On December 20, 2017, the FTC filed an administrative complaint to unwind the merger of Otto Bock HealthCare North America, Inc., (“Otto Bock”) and FIH Group Holdings, LLC (“Freedom”), two manufacturers of prosthetic knees equipped with microprocessors that adapt the joint to surface conditions and walking rhythm.  In September 2017, the parties simultaneously signed a merger agreement and consummated the merger without the FTC having an opportunity to review the deal.  Apparently, the merger was not HSR reportable.  According to the FTC, the merger eliminated direct and substantial competition between head to head competitors that engaged in intense price and innovation competition.  While the litigation is ongoing, the parties agreed to a Hold Separate and Asset Maintenance Agreement, which prevents them from continuing the integration of the two businesses.  The FTC did not allege any violation of the HSR ACT.

On December 20, 2017, the FTC issued an administrative complaint seeking to unwind a merger between prosthetic knee manufacturers Otto Bock HealthCare North America, Inc. (“Otto Bock”) and FIH Group Holdings, LLC (“Freedom”).

On September 22, 2017, Otto Bock and Freedom simultaneously executed a merger agreement and consummated their merger.  Since closing the acquisition, Otto Bock took steps to integrate Freedom’s business, including personnel, intellectual property, know-how, and other critical assets.

According to the FTC’s administrative complaint, the merging parties are head-to-head competitors in the manufacture of prosthetic knees with microprocessors that adapt the joint to surface conditions and walking rhythm.  Specifically, the FTC alleges that Otto Bock and Freedom engaged in intense price competition as well as offered dueling improvements in innovation.  The deal eliminated head-to-head competition between the two companies, removed a significant and disruptive competitor, and entrenched Otto Bock’s position as the dominant supplier.

On December 15, 2017, a federal district court granted the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) and North Dakota Attorney General’s request for a preliminary injunction against Sanford Health’s proposed acquisition of Mid Dakota Clinic, a large multispecialty group, pending the FTC’s administrative trial on the merits scheduled for January of 2018.  FTC v. Sanford Health, et al., Case. No. 1:17-cv-00133 (D. N.D. Dec. 15, 2017).

Background

In June of 2017, the FTC and the North Dakota Attorney General sued to block the merger of the two largest physician groups in Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota.  The FTC alleged that the two groups had based on physician headcount at 75 percent of the physicians for adult primary care physician services, pediatric services, and obstetrics and gynecology services, and 100 percent of the general surgery physician services in the Bismarck-Mandan area.  The merger would eliminate competition between them and substantially lessen competition in the four markets.

On December 6, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren sharply criticized the state of antitrust enforcement in a speech at the Open Markets Institute.

She said that antitrust enforcers adopted the Chicago School principles, which narrowed the scope of the antitrust laws and allowed mega-mergers to proceed resulting in many concentrated industries.  She believes that antitrust enforcers already have the tools to reduce concentrated markets and that they simply must start enforcing the law again.

Senator Warren’s recommendations included stronger merger enforcement, cracking down on anticompetitive conduct and increasing agency involvement in defending competition.