Does FTC Glass Settlement Break the Efficiencies Mold?

amurinoFeatured Expert Column – Antitrust/Federal Trade Commission

Andrea Agathoklis Murino,Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

(Editors note: The Legal Pulse would like to (belatedly) congratulate Andrea on her promotion to partner, the announcement for which at the end of last year escaped our discovery)

As expected, on April 11, 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced the resolution of their investigation and administrative court challenge into the $1.7 billion acquisition of Saint-Gobain Containers, Inc. (“St. Gobain”) by Ardagh Group SA (“Ardagh”). In order to allow the transaction to proceed and resolve the pending administrative trial, Ardagh agreed to sell six of its nine glass container manufacturing plants in the United States to an FTC-approved buyer within six months, including all tangible and intangible assets, and customer contracts. (All pleadings and filings for all parties, including the original complaint, which argued that the acquisition would harm competition in the markets for glass containers used to package beer and spirits, are available online.)

The fact that this litigation was resolved via a divestiture of brick-and-mortar facilities in an industry like glass manufacturing is not news of note to this FTC observer. What is worthy of pause, however, is that the vote to approve this consent was not unanimous (it was 3-1) and that the efficiencies defense stands front-and-center in the dispute between the majority and minority.

For the majority, Chairwoman Ramirez and Commissioners Brill and Ohlhausen, found that the transaction as originally structured would have resulted in a violation of Section 7 of the Clayton Act. When presented with a carefully crafted remedy, these Commissioners believed that the remedy would “fully replace[ ] the competition that would have been lost in both the beer and spirits glass container markets had the merger proceeded unchallenged.” Thus, they voted to accept the settlement. Continue reading

WLF Program to Address FTC’s Dual Role in Administrative Litigation: Prosecutorial and Adjudicative

FTC’S ADMINISTRATIVE LITIGATION PROCESS:

Should the Commission Be Both Prosecutor and Judge?

A Washington Legal Foundation Briefing

Tuesday, March 11, 9:30-10:30 a.m.

RSVP to attend in person (2009 Massachusetts Ave., NW) to glammi@wlf.org

To view live online click HERE to register

Our Speakers:

FTC Sets New Rules for Pharma Licenses and Antitrust Approvals

MurinoFeatured Expert Column

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Certain transfers of exclusive patent licenses in the pharmaceutical sector will face new antitrust scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”).*  In a change to long-standing policy, the FTC announced that the transfer of a license providing an exclusive licensee with “all commercially significant rights” over a patent within a therapeutic area will be reportable under the HSR Act.

Under the old scheme, only the transfer of licenses giving the licensee a right to make, use, and sell the product were subject to the provisions of the HSR Act.  This meant that in cases where a licensor retained the right to manufacture the patented pharmaceutical product, even if the licensee had the exclusive right to use and sell the patented pharmaceutical product, the transfer was deemed non-exclusive and thus non-reportable.  The shift means that parties will need to prepare the HSR Act filing itself, observe the mandatory waiting period before closing (typically 30 days), and, of course, be prepared to respond to any competitive concerns raised by the FTC.  Continue reading

High Court Fails To Act On Major Business Case Cert Petitions

supreme courtCross-posted at Forbes.com’s WLF contributor page

Washington Legal Foundation, along with other organizations, business, and individuals with an interest in the Supreme Court and free enterprise cases before it, watched with great anticipation this morning as the justices issued their first new list of certiorari grants since the Court adjourned last June (the so-called Long Conference). We came away from the big cert grant morning, as likely did many other interested parties, wanting more.

The orders list is here. The grants include a tax case, United States v. Quality Stores  addressing whether severance payments made to employees whose employment was involuntarily terminated are taxable. Two other grants relate to the standard of review the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit uses when assessing a district court’s determination that a case is “exceptional” for purposes of imposing attorneys’ fees and other sanctions. Those cases are Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness and Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Management Systems Inc.

The final cert grant impacting free enterprise is Petrella v. MGM, which involves the movie Raging Bull and the defense of laches against claims of copyright infringement. Marcia Coyle at National Law Journal discussed the interesting facts of the case in a September 16 story.

The bigger story from the big cert grant morning was which petitions the Court did not act on. WLF filed amicus briefs in support of review in a number of the cases, which we’ll indicate below (all noted on SCOTUSblog’s “Petitions we Are Watching” page).

Failure to act on these and other petitions does not mean that the Court cannot reconsider them in a future “conference,” and it does not mean that they have been denied. The Court will be issuing an order list on First Monday, October 7, but that order traditionally has only contained cert denials.

The Many Faces of the FTC on Display in Commissioners Review of Administrative Case

MurinoFeatured Expert Column

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

[Editor's Note: Today, Washington Legal Foundation is releasing a Legal Backgrounder in which former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Policy Director David Balto critiques the Commission's administrative litigation process, which features the five Commissioners in the role of both prosecutors and appellate judges. We asked our featured expert FTC blogger, also an FTC alumna, her views on the issue. While WLF respects her thoughts on FTC's administrative litigation process, we respectfully disagree.]

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As an alumna of the FTC, I know first-hand the many roles played by those working inside the agency:  they are investigators, prosecutors, judges, and policy-makers.   On the vast majority of days, those roles mesh seamlessly and without controversy.  But on occasion, as is happening today, there is a clash of roles.  The Commissioners is sitting as an appellate body…charged with reviewing the decision of an FTC Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) that held against the FTC complaint counsel…in a matter that some of the very same Commissioners voted to put into litigation in the first case.

During the hearing, Chairwoman Ramirez and Commissioners Brill, Ohlhausen, and Wright will examine an FTC ALJ decision In the Matter of McWane, Inc..  The case originated in January of 2012 when the Commission, including a then-Commissioner Ramirez and Commissioner Brill, found reason to believe that the defendant, McWane, Inc., a manufacturer of iron waterworks and other plumbing products, had engaged in price-fixing and unlawful information exchange with two competitors, as well as certain exclusionary conduct, and authorized staff to file a Complaint in the FTC’s administrative court.  Following a trial, the ALJ held against the FTC on the first two – and candidly, more serious counts – but found that there was evidence McWane engaged in certain exclusionary conduct and instituted an remedial order on that basis.  Both sides are appealing the portions of the decision held not in their favor.  As they listen, the Commissioners will use the de novo standard of review– which functionally means they can review all of the evidence as they see fit – and therefore ignore the findings of the ALJ.  Continue reading

A Simplistic Compliment Endures: The Roberts Court As “Pro-Business”

supreme court

Cross-posted at WLF’s Forbes.com contributor page

“The Roberts Court is pro-business.”  The Roberts Court “comes to the defense of business.”

Stories peddling this angle seem to be a compulsory part of reporting at the conclusion of each Supreme Court term. The completion of the October 2012 term is no exception. King & Spalding’s Ashley Parrish took strong exception to this characterization of the Court during Washington Legal Foundation’s annual end-of-the-term briefing this past Tuesday. The entire program can be viewed here.

The “pro-business” bromide is a trite and woefully simplistic byproduct of the need to label things. One could argue that the term implies judicial bias, i.e. deciding cases based on the nature of the litigant rather than on the law. It can also be seen as ideological or political in nature. If, for instance, Justice Ginsberg happened to be the Chief Justice at a time when the Court’s rulings favored free enterprise, would we be seeing stories about how pro-business the “Ginsberg Court” is? Further, has anyone seen the justices who rule against business litigants described as “anti-business”?

As an institution which for 36 years has sought to advance legal principles which support the conduct of free enterprise, Washington Legal Foundation views “pro-business” Court as a compliment. We’re pleased that in the nine cases in which we filed during the October 2012 term, seven resulted in victories for “business” litigants. Our perspectives on the law, on the judiciary’s limited role, and on constitutional protections for business entities are prevailing. But WLF should not be alone in applauding this Court’s rulings against plaintiffs’ lawyers, activist groups, and federal regulators. Businesses employ Americans, Americans invest in businesses, and our free enterprise system gives people of all backgrounds a fighting chance to succeed.

So if a label must be imposed, did the Roberts Court earn its “pro-business” stripes this term? If one looks strictly at the numbers, generally it did.

By our count, in the 28 cases which directly affected free enterprise, free enterprise “won” 21 and “lost” 7. Continue reading

Commissioner Wright Moves to Advance Discussion on FTC Act Section 5

MurinoFeatured Expert Column

Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati*

Still just a few months into his tenure, Federal Trade Commissioner Joshua Wright made good on his early promise to move Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act into the public dialogue. N1  On June 19, 2013, Wright released a “Proposed Policy Statement Regarding Unfair Methods of Competition Under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” together with an accompanying explanatory speech.  Some two months after announcing his intention (about which I wrote here), the proposal calls for the FTC to “recast its unfair methods of competition authority with an eye toward regulatory humility in order to effectively target plainly anticompetitive conduct” by clarifying the standards and limits the FTC will employ in the context of Section 5.  Wright’s call to arms is necessary, he says, because the failure to articulate clear standards by which Section 5 will be prosecuted creates uncertainty for the business community and consumers, and risks the Commission’s credibility as an expert body and future steward of Section 5.

Importantly, Wright’s proposal is not merely an intellectual think piece.  Rather, Wright provides for a specific definition of conduct that will violate Section 5, as well as concrete examples.  There is no doubt in his mind (or in the mind of this observer), that Section 5 was intended to condemn conduct beyond that which the Sherman or Clayton Acts capture.  But he finds that without a precise definition, the Commission’s ability to consistently apply Section 5, and the ability of businesses and consumers to meaningfully predict whether their conduct could be found violative of Section 5, is virtually impossible.  Thus, he proposes defining “an unfair method of competition [as] an act or practice that (1) harms or is likely to harm competition significantly and (2) lacks cognizable efficiencies.”  Continue reading

Newest Commissioner Makes the “Wright” Call for FTC Act’s Section 5

MurinoGuest Commentary

By Andrea Agathoklis Murino, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

In a speech last week, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) newest Commissioner, Joshua D. Wright, provided an unusually candid and public exploration of his would-be agenda as a sitting Commissioner.  Foremost among his to-do list is the issuance of a binding public “Unfair Methods Policy Statement,” that would specify both guiding and limiting principles the FTC would use in the application of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.  Section 5, though deceptively straight-forward in language, has a tortured history of enforcement and remains among the more muddled doctrines in United States competition law today.  Commissioner Wright’s bold attempt to eliminate this uncertainty is assuredly the “Wright” call.

All seem to agree that Section 5 was established to reach conduct that could otherwise not be condemned under the Sherman or Clayton Acts.  There is uniform consensus behind the history of the legislation that the FTC was designed to be a tribunal which could assess potential Section 5 violations using its accumulated and competition-specific expertise and knowledge in ways that a generalist adjudicator could not.  Like so much in life, this was easier in theory than in practice.  I certainly agree with Commissioner Wright that Section 5 enforcement has fallen short.  You need look no further than the fact that not since the 1960s – over 50 years ago – is there a case where the FTC prevailed on a Section 5 appeal.  Indeed, for most of the years since, Section 5 was barely used as it was intended at all.

Using deliberate and determined language, Commissioner Wright’s call-to-arms begins with the premise that there is an “unfortunate gap between the theoretical promise of Section 5 as articulated by Congress and its application in practice by the Commission.”  He then moves on to explain that there is little hope for Section 5 application if the FTC cannot properly articulate its enforcement policy, and most importantly, that this Commission can “put an end to the state of affairs” by issuing a “policy statement articulating its views on the appropriate application of its signature statute in unfair methods of competition cases.”   Continue reading

Vigorous Antitrust Enforcement Forecast at WLF Media Briefing Event

FTC_Man_Controlling_TradeAt Washington Legal Foundation’s media briefing program last Tuesday, Same Administration, New Management: What to Expect from DOJ and FTC on Antitrust and Consumer Protection, speaker Janet McDavid noted the aggressive challenges William Baer, the Justice Department’s new Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, initiated against mergers when he was director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition.

Mr. Baer wasted no time substantiating Ms. McDavid’s point, filing suit to prevent the consummation of a merger between America’s highest market-share brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Mexico’s largest, Grupo Modelo.

If the Justice Department takes action to keep inexpensive beer inexpensive (an action certainly counter to governments’ taxation and other policies aimed at advancing temperance), the business community can be sure that it won’t hesitate to move against other combinations, joint ventures, etc. in the next four years. Our hour-long program would be thus be a worthy investment of time.

In addition to Ms. McDavid, a partner at Hogan Lovells LLP, WLF’s January 29 program (which can be viewed by clicking the title above) included experienced perspectives from Squire Sanders partner Brady Dugan and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Of Counsel Andrea Murino. WLF Legal Policy Advisory Board Chairman, K&L Gates Counsel Dick Thornburgh, moderated the discussion.

In addition to assessing the future of merger review and enforcement, the speakers addressed civil exclusionary conduct actions; FTC and DOJ approaches to intellectual property (including standards-essential patents and patent “trolls”); criminal enforcement; international antitrust cooperation; and the division of labor between the two federal agencies.

A Powerpoint deck including slides utilized by Ms. McDavid and Ms. Murino can be downloaded here.

Addendum (Feb. 5): Further evidence of a more aggressive approach to mergers can also be seen in the Justice Department’s challenge to an already-consumated merger between two online product review companies.  Read more about it from several of Janet McDavid’s colleagues here.

Update: DOJ/USPTO’s Curiously Timed “Statement” on Standards-Essential Patents

DOJusptoIn our January 8 post, FTC’s Standards-Essential Patent Settlement: The Real “Elephant” in the Room?, we advanced the question of how much of a role regulatory turf has played in motivating the Federal Trade Commission’s recent actions regarding “standard-essential patents” (SEPs). SEPs are a major legal policy issue, and the Commission and the Justice Department both want to be the cop on the beat regarding alleged competition-related abuses of such patents.

The concept of a turf battle seems a bit more plausible to us today after reading about, and then reading, a joint Justice Department-U.S. Patent Office “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/Rand Commitments.” While not directed specifically at any case or open docket, the statement is clearly aimed at the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and its consideration of injunction requests in cases involving SEP patents.

After five pages of extolling the purposes and virtues of SEPs, the statement offers that in “some circumstances” injunctions or exclusions “may be inconsistent with the public interest.” One page later though, the agencies state, “This is not to say that consideration of the public interest factors set out in the statute would always counsel against the issuance of an exclusion” where patents are encumbered by a F/RAND commitment. It goes on to note some of those exceptional circumstances, adding, “This list is not an exhaustive one.”

The statement also declares, “The DOJ is the executive-branch agency charged with protecting U.S. consumers by promoting and protecting competition” (emphasis ours). FTC shares the same consumer protection mission, though it is an independent, not an “executive-branch,” agency.

The DOJ/USPTO statement’s declaration of regulatory primacy, the timing of its release (one week after the FTC settlement with Google), and the statement’s complete failure to reference the very relevant Google consent decree, are certainly all very curious.

The possibility of regulatory turf battles should be of interest not only to inside-the-Beltway antitrust policy types, but also to anyone effected by government action on standards-essential patents. In its statement, DOJ/USPTO related a desire to “ensure greater certainty concerning the meaning of a F/RAND commitment.” DOJ/USPTO’s perspective on SEPs and injunctions arguably differs in some significant respects from what four FTC Commissioners said regarding the Google consent decree, fomenting, not alleviating, uncertainty from the U.S. government.