Antitrust Lawyer Blog

Commentary on Current Developments

On June 7, 2018, the DOJ’s Makan Delrahim sought to reassure investors that worries that regulators would crack down on proposed vertical combinations were over-blown.  “I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers,” he said.  Noting that some point at the decision to sue to block AT&T from buying Time Warner “as a supposed bellwether”, Delrahim said: “rest assured these concerns are misplaced.”

So, is the Antitrust Division only concerned about vertical mergers in the media industry?

On May 29, 2018, the DOJ approved Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto with a $9 billion asset divestiture.

Background

In September 2016, Bayer agreed to acquire Monsanto.  Bayer and Monsanto overlapped in the research, development, and marketing of seeds, crop protection chemicals, and related agricultural products.  The principal areas of competitive concern related to the seeds business.  The seeds and crop protection businesses are highly concentrated in the United States so from the get go Bayer knew that it needed to propose a comprehensive and complex remedy to resolve the antitrust concerns.

On May 21, 2018, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin urged the DOJ to review the power that large technology firms such as Google have over the U.S. economy.  A “60 Minutes” segment on Sunday devoted to assertions that Alphabet Inc.’s Google wields a destructive monopoly in online search hammered home the notion of the company’s dominance during a time of heightened public concern with technology giants.  The report didn’t include new allegations about the company.  “These issues deserve to be reviewed carefully,” Mnuchin said in a CNBC interview in response to a question about the CBS News report.  “These are issues the Justice Department needs to look at seriously, not for any one company, but as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy.”

The report highlighted how critics and rivals, such as Yelp Inc., are trying to bring Europe’s antitrust approach to Google to the United States.  Margrethe Vestager, the European Union competition commissioner, told CBS that she is intent on stopping Google’s “illegal behavior” in web search, suggesting that the EC isn’t appeased by the company’s proposed solution for the hefty charges the EU filed last year.  “You have to look at the power they have and it’s something the Justice Department I hope takes a serious look at,” Mnuchin said, though he added that “issues of monopolies are out of my lane” and that it’s up to the DOJ to review antitrust violations.

CBS featured guests who argued Google abuses its dominance in search and search advertising.  It didn’t show any evidence that U.S. lawmakers or enforcement agencies will target the company or mention the potential cases Vestager is pursuing against Google for its Android mobile software and advertising business.

More Fallout From The Ill-Advised Tuna Merger

On May 16, 2018, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) announced that a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Christopher Lischewski, the President and CEO of Bumble Bee Foods LLC (“Bumble Bee”), for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices for packaged seafood sold in the United States.

The indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, charges Lischewski with participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of packaged seafood beginning in or about November 2010 until December 2013.  The one-count felony indictment charges that Lischewski carried out the conspiracy by agreeing to fix the prices of packaged seafood during meetings and other communications.  The co-conspirators issued price announcements and pricing guidance in accordance with these agreements.

On April 27, 2018, the FTC announced that Amneal Pharmaceuticals LLC (“Amneal”) may complete its acquisition of an equity share in Impax Laboratories Inc. (“Impax”) so long as Impax divests its rights and assets for ten products to three separate companies.

The FTC concluded that the proposed acquisition would have reduced competition in three markets where both Amneal and Impax competed: (1) generic desipramine hydrochloride tablets; (2) generic ezetimibe and simvastatin immediate release (“IR”) tablets; and (3) generic felbamate tablets.

The FTC also concluded that the proposed acquisition would reduce future competition in seven markets where Amneal or Impax is a current competitor and the other would have been likely to enter the market absent the acquisition: (1) generic aspirin and dipyridamole extended release (“ER”) capsules; (2) generic azelastine nasal spray; (3) generic diclofenac sodium and misoprostol delayed release (“DR”) tablets; (4) generic erythromycin tablets; (5) generic fluocinonide-E cream; (6) generic methylphenidate hydrochloride ER tablets; and (7) generic olopatadine hydrochloride nasal spray.

On April 25, 2018, the DOJ announced that it will require Martin Marietta Materials, Inc. (“Martin Marietta”) to divest quarries in Georgia and Maryland in order to proceed with its proposed $1.625 billion acquisition of Bluegrass Materials Company, LLC (“Bluegrass”) from LG Panadero, L.P. of Panadero Corp. and Panadero Aggregates Holdings, LLC.

According to the DOJ’s complaint, Martin Marietta and Bluegrass produce and sell aggregate, an essential input in asphalt and ready mix concrete that is used in road building and other types of construction.  The complaint alleges that, for a significant number of customers in and immediately around Forsyth and north Fulton County, Georgia, and in the Washington County, Maryland area, Martin Marietta and Bluegrass are two of only three competitive sources of aggregate qualified by the respective states’ Departments of Transportation.  According to the complaint, the loss of competition between Martin Marietta and Bluegrass would likely result in higher prices and poorer customer service for aggregate customers in these areas.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Martin Marietta must divest Bluegrass’s Beaver Creek quarry in Hagerstown, Maryland, and all of the quarry’s assets to an acquirer approved by the United States, in consultation with the State of Maryland.  Martin Marietta must also divest the lease to its Forsyth quarry in Suwanee, Georgia, and all of the quarry’s assets to Midsouth Paving, Inc., or an alternate acquirer approved by the United States.

On April 19, 2018, Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General of DOJ’s Antitrust Division delivered the keynote address at the at the University of Chicago’s Antitrust and Competition Conference. The focus of his remarks was “evidence-based enforcement.” He said that “an evidence-based approach requires enforcement built on credible evidence that a practice harms competition and the American consumer, or in the case of merger enforcement, that it creates an unacceptable risk of doing so.”

Delrahim noted that outside of flat out price fixing and naked restraints of trade, which are clearly illegal, “antitrust demands evidence of harm or likely harm to competition, often weighed against efficiencies or procompetitive justifications.”  He added that “taking an evidence-based approach to antitrust law should not be mistaken for an unwillingness to bring enforcement actions.” He said that if there is clear evidence of harm, the antitrust enforcers should vigorously prosecute the antitrust laws. He noted that antitrust enforcers that failed to take action when they had credible evidence and accepted behavioral “band-aid” fixes to anticompetitive mergers should accept some blame.  Delrahim noted that “the Microsoft case proved that an evidence-based antitrust enforcement approach can be flexible in its application to new types of assets and markets—in that case, the computer code and software markets.”

His message was that the U.S. and international antitrust agencies should not simply go to war with digital platform companies rather a more effective approach would be grounded in evidence.  He added that “in certain platform markets involving network effects, there may be barriers to entry or a tendency toward a single firm emerging as the sole winner” and in those situations, “antitrust enforcers may need to take a close look to see whether competition is suffering and consumers are losing out on new innovations as a result of misdeeds by a monopoly incumbent.”

On March 15, Judge Richard Leon said “Fake News” to a report that the trial will start on Wednesday, the 21st.  It will start on Monday at 10:30.  The first couple of days will be devoted to evidentiary objections.  Opening arguments will be on Wednesday and the Judge thinks the trial will take 6-8 weeks.

On March 13, 2018, Judge Leon denied the DOJ’s motion to limit the defendants from presenting evidence regarding Time Warner’s irrevocable offer to distributors that it would go into “baseball-style” arbitration in any carriage disputes over Turner networks and promise not to engage in any blackout of channels during arbitration for a period of 7 years.  AT&T simply had the better of the arguments with respect to the commitment.  Of course it is relevant and the DOJ had sufficient notice – it was in the Answer – and has had the opportunity to conduct discovery related to the commitment.  The time for the DOJ to make this argument was early on before discovery started.

AT&T made a good case that Professor Shapiro’s failure to account for this commitment in his models may have been tied with the DOJ’s motion to have the Arbitration Offer removed from consideration.  Apparently, Shapiro acknowledged that the commitment would benefit distributors in negotiations and that his bargaining model does not account for this market reality in deposition testimony.  A major limitation of the DOJ’s otherwise very good pre-trial brief is that its arguments are theoretical and not based on the facts.  It is somewhat difficult to get a handle on the strength of the DOJ’s arguments in its pre-trial briefs because many passages and key quotations are redacted.  On the whole, AT&T’s pre-trial brief is stronger.  It certainly appears that AT&T is poised to punch holes in the DOJ’s experts’ theories and bargaining model.

On March 7, 2018, the United States Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced it entered into a settlement agreement with Air Medical Group allowing it to acquire AMR for $2.4 billion.

The two providers of ambulance services agreed to divest inter-facility air ambulance transport services in Hawaii to resolve FTC concerns that their proposed merger would likely harm competition among air ambulance transport services that transfer patients between medical facilities on different Hawaiian islands.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Air Medical Group and AMR Holdco are the only two providers of air ambulance services in Hawaii that transport patients between medical facilities on different islands.  Patients depend on these services when they need medical or surgical care that is not available in their local communities, according to the complaint.  Without a remedy, the acquisition is likely to lessen competition and will tend to create a monopoly in the market for inter-facility air ambulance services in Hawaii, in violation of U.S. antitrust laws.  The merger as proposed would also increase the likelihood that consumers, third-party payers, or government health care providers would be forced to pay higher prices or experience a degradation in service or quality, according to the complaint.  The FTC alleges that new entry into the market for inter-facility air ambulance transport services, or expansion by existing firms in adjacent businesses would not be likely, timely, and sufficient to restore the lost competition without a remedy.

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.