Five Lessons: Ninth Circuit Upholds Decision to Block Idaho Healthcare Merger

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati*

On February 10, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling blocking the merger of St. Luke’s Health Systems, Ltd. (St. Luke’s) and Saltzer Medical Group (Saltzer), and handed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) yet another victory in its efforts to halt consolidation in the healthcare sector.  This opinion is instructive both because of what it reveals on the macro-level about merger review today, and for what it may portend in future healthcare consolidation cases. Continue reading

Will the High Court Permit Backdoor Regulation of Natural Gas Industry Via State-Law Antitrust Suits?

oneokEarlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in ONEOK v. Learjet, an important case that hinges on the scope of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) field preemption under the Natural Gas Act (NGA). I attended to hear the argument in person because Washington Legal Foundation has been quite active in the case.

While it is undisputed that the NGA preempts state-law claims directed at conduct affecting the wholesale rates for natural gas, the Court must now consider whether such claims are preempted when the same alleged conduct affects both wholesale and retail rates. Reversing the district court, the Ninth Circuit rejected ONEOK’s preemption argument on the basis that the state-law claims brought by the plaintiff-purchasers arose from retail gas transactions.

On behalf of ONEOK, Neal Katyal argued that even though the alleged conduct at issue in this case affected both retail and wholesale rates, it still counts as a practice that affects wholesale rates for preemption purposes. The only relevant question, then, is whether plaintiffs’ state-law claims are directed at conduct in the field that the NGA occupies—and they are. The United States, representing FERC’s regulatory interests, filed an amicus brief and argued on the merits in support of ONEOK’s position.

From his questions, Justice Breyer seemed to appreciate the difficulty in setting a strict boundary between wholesale and retail sales in cases where the retail and wholesale prices are both affected by the same conduct. He could prove to be the decisive vote in the case.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Jeffrey Fisher insisted that FERC has no power over antitrust claims tied to retail prices, which the NGA excepts from federal regulation. The State of Kansas as amicus curiae, joined by 20 other states, argued in support of Plaintiffs, with attorney Steven McAllister emphasizing the states’ strong interest in policing antitrust violations.

Justice Kagan seemed fully prepared to side with the Plaintiffs, explaining that so long as no conflict exists between state antitrust liability and regulation by FERC, “I don’t really see a reason … why you would exclude the state entirely, even if nothing the state was doing was conflicting with federal regulation or federal policy.”

In all likelihood, the Supreme Court will issue its decision within the next few months. As WLF’s amicus brief argued, the stakes for the natural gas industry are high. The NGA promotes uniformity, not random regulation by jury verdicts in 50 states. Permitting private plaintiffs to pursue state-law antitrust remedies that second-guess FERC—including in states where antitrust remedies dwarf those available under federal law—would create industry-wide chaos and an unnecessary drag on investment in a vibrant and growing sector of the economy.

The Court agreed to grant review in the case following WLF’s brief in support of the petition for certiorari—and WLF’s separate online analysis of the Solicitor General’s unusual advice to the Supreme Court about (not) granting review in the case. WLF’s brief on the merits provides the Court with additional policy reasons to overrule the Ninth Circuit.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Seventh Circuit Sheds Light on Foreign Reach of Federal Antitrust Laws

Dugan_Brady-WEB135AlfanoFeatured Expert Contributor – Antitrust & Competition, U.S. Department of Justice

Sitting in for Featured Expert Contributor Mark J. Botti on this post are Squire Patton Boggs partner J. Brady Dugan and associate Peter C. Alfano, both in the firm’s DC office.

Whether U.S. antitrust laws reach wholly foreign conduct is a question that has been addressed by all levels of the federal court system over the past decade, including by the U.S. Supreme Court.1 Nevertheless, it is a question as to which many companies, in the U.S. and abroad, may feel there is not a clear answer. Consider, for example, a corporation that purchases a product in the U.S. that was finished or assembled overseas. If the finished product includes a component that the assembler purchased at a price that had been inflated by an overseas price-fixing conspiracy among the component manufactures, can the U.S. purchaser of the finished product sue the component seller in U.S. court for treble damages? Can the overseas assembler recover damages from the overseas component manufacturer in the U.S.? Or to put it another way, can a foreign corporation that manufactured and sold a product overseas, to an overseas assembler, be sued for price-fixing in the U.S. by a U.S. customer of the foreign assembler? It will come as no surprise that the answers to these questions are very fact-specific. But recently, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a decision that helps clarify the law. Continue reading

Antitrust and Health Care: FTC’s Off-Again, On-Again Challenge to Georgia Hospital Merger

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Consolidation in the health care industry, and the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC” or “Commission”) perspective on such activity, are being closely watched in antitrust law and policy circles. In April 2011, the FTC challenged the acquisition of Palmyra Park Hospital by Phoebe Putney Health System Inc. (“Phoebe”) in Albany, Georgia. The Commission argued that the combination would result in unduly high market shares (>85%) in the provision of acute care services in a six-county region and result in anticompetitive price increases. Shortly thereafter, the FTC sought and obtained a preliminary injunction (“PI”) from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia halting the transaction pending trial. Typical enough. But here’s where our story starts to take some strange twists. What began that April in a federal district court is an adventure leading from the Supreme Court to local Georgia healthcare regulatory bodies…and possibly, back again. Here’s what happened.

Phoebe responded to the PI not by throwing itself into a trial on the merits, but rather by filing a motion to dismiss on the grounds that by virtue of the state action doctrine, Phoebe’s conduct was permissible. Generally, the state action doctrine provides that where (1) there is a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition and (2) there is active supervision by the state of the policy or activity, otherwise anticompetitive activity will be permitted. Here, Phoebe argued that because it was owned by the Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County, and operated under Georgia’s Hospital Authorities Law, it was immune. Phoebe prevailed on its motion to dismiss in the district court and then again at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Phoebe then completed its purchase of Palmyra, closing the transaction. Continue reading

U.S. Officals Continue Push for Broader International Consensus on Competition Enforcement

Botti2Featured Expert Contributor – Antitrust & Competition, U.S. Department of Justice

Mark J. Botti, Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP with Anthony W. Swisher, Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

*Editor’s Note: With this post we welcome the participation in The WLF Legal Pulse of Featured Expert Contributor on Justice Department-related competition law and policy matters, Mark Botti. Mark is co-leader of Squire Patton Boggs’s Global Antitrust & Competition Practice Group and previously spent 13 years at DOJ’s Antitrust Division. 

___________________

In 2001, the Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) declined to block the proposed merger of General Electric and Honeywell, allowing the deal to proceed with certain limited divestitures. Announced in October of 2000, that deal would bring together two significant players in a number of related market segments, including aircraft engines, avionics, and landing gear. Despite DOJ’s decision not to block the deal outright, the European Union reached a different result, forbidding the transaction under a “conglomerate merger” theory that has long been out of favor in the United States and has drawn significant criticism in the economic and legal literature.

These diverging enforcement decisions spawned a wave of criticism directed at both jurisdictions. How were multinational businesses in a global economy to order their affairs in the face of such conflicting enforcement theories and outcomes? Were they facing a “race to the bottom,” where the most aggressive enforcers effectively held a veto over the decisions of other competition agencies? Continue reading

Court Upholds FTC Rule for Pharma Patent License Transfers

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino,Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Last November, I wrote about a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule which, in a change to long-standing policy, made the transfer of a license providing an exclusive licensee with “all commercially significant rights” over a patent within a therapeutic area reportable under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act. In practice, this meant that licensing agreements which previously required only the signatures of the two parties, now required a waiting period and an FTC blessing.

Shortly before the rule was to become operative, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry group representing biopharmaceutical researchers and biotechnology companies sued to block it. The group argued that the FTC had not observed the appropriate procedures under the Administrative Procedures Act and that the FTC lacked authority to issue an industry-specific rule rather than a rule of general application, among other claims.

In a lengthy opinion on May 30, 2014, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, sided with the FTC and tossed PhRMA’s claims, finding that the FTC had followed the correct processes, had a reasoned basis for creating and instituting this rule, and should be shown deference. This bottom line is this puts us right back to where the FTC hoped it would be back in November: the transfer of “all commercially significant rights” over a patent is a HSR-reportable event.

That’s the headline but there are at least two questions that result from the opinion worth pausing to consider. First, this rule continues to only apply to the pharmaceutical industry. There are virtually no other industries with HSR-specific rules applicable only to them. Does this mean the FTC plans to extend HSR-specific rules to other industries? Or is the pharma industry so important in its own right that proper antitrust enforcement demands a different set of rules? Only time will tell. More importantly, perhaps, the FTC has not defined the phrase “all commercially significant rights.” What are the contours of this definition? What’s included or excluded? How, if at all, will the FTC provide guidance to the pharma community? PhRMA has up to 60 days to appeal so this may not be the last word. Stay tuned.

Justices Should Decline Solicitor General’s Misguided Advice, Review State Antitrust Liability Case

oneokIn adopting the Natural Gas Act (NGA), Congress determined that wholesale natural gas pricing issues should be the exclusive preserve of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and thus that State efforts to regulate the wholesale market were preempted.  Courts uniformly barred States from seeking to regulate any “practice . . . affect[ing]” the wholesale rates charged by natural gas companies—until a 2013 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision that is the subject of a pending Supreme Court certiorari petition.  ONEOK, Inc. v. Learjet, Inc., No. 13-271.  The decision below would permit plaintiffs’ lawyers to proceed with antitrust challenges under state laws to industry practices that directly affected wholesale prices.  The court reasoned that preemption was inappropriate because the challenged practices also directly affected a small number of retail natural gas sales.

In response to an invitation from the justices, the Solicitor General of the United States last week filed a brief urging that certiorari be denied.  Interestingly, however, the Solicitor General’s brief agrees with the defendants (natural gas suppliers who engage primarily in wholesale transactions) that the Ninth Circuit’s anti-preemption ruling was dead wrong.  The Solicitor General recommends against Supreme Court review primarily because he concludes that other courts are unlikely to repeat the Ninth Circuit’s error, particularly with respect to transactions arising after Congress revised the NGA in 2005.  But in light of the Ninth Circuit’s fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of NGA preemption, I am far less sanguine that it will eventually see the error of its ways.  Unless review is granted, there is every reason to believe that the Ninth Circuit will adhere to its anti-preemption precedent in future cases.

On ten or more occasions every term, the justices request the views of the Solicitor General on whether the Court should grant specific certiorari petitions.  The Solicitor General correctly recognizes in his ONEOK brief that merely because the decision below was incorrect is not alone sufficient grounds to recommend that review be granted.  The Court has limited the size of its docket to about 75 cases per term.  The justices thus usually adhere to the dictates of Supreme Court Rule 10, which states that the Court generally will grant certiorari only in cases that raise an “important question of federal law” and that have decided the question in a manner that conflicts with a relevant decision of the Supreme Court or other appellate courts.  Accordingly, the Solicitor General not infrequently recommends that the Court deny a certiorari petition even though he concludes, as here, that the decision below was incorrectly decided.

But the Solicitor General’s principal rationale for recommending a denial of certiorari—that the Ninth Circuit’s error is of reduced importance because it is unlikely to be repeated—is subject to serious question.  The plaintiffs accuse natural gas traders of having manipulated privately published price indices in 2001-02.  Because buyers and sellers rely on those indices as reference points for pricing all types of natural gas transactions, the direct effect of the alleged manipulation was to raise wholesale natural gas prices.  While conceding that wholesale purchasers were barred by the NGA from challenging the alleged manipulation on state antitrust grounds, the Ninth Circuit held that preemption did not extend to suits brought by retail purchasers who challenged the very same manipulation, because retail sales fall outside of FERC’s jurisdiction.  The court concluded this despite the fact that the alleged manipulation unquestionably was a “practice . . . affect[ing]” wholesale prices within the meaning of the NGA.

Continue reading