In the wake of COVID-19, public officials across the United States have expressed a willingness to prosecute price gougers and companies that facilitate sales of goods with inflated prices. In this video, Vic Domen, government antitrust investigations and prosecutions lawyer and partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, discusses various consumer protection issues that are arising in the United States as a result of COVID-19.
In the wake of COVID-19, some sellers of essential goods and services have tried to greatly increase the cost of their products to take advantage of increased demand. However, sellers should be aware that public officials across the United States have expressed a willingness to prosecute price gougers and companies that facilitate sales of goods with inflated prices. State attorneys general are at the forefront of investigating and prosecuting instances of price gouging.
As the United States reacts and adjusts to the developing COVID-19 situation, the two federal antitrust agencies – the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice Antitrust Division – have revised certain rules and procedures relating to their civil merger investigation processes to address these new challenges. Although both agencies have shifted most of their personnel to remote working arrangements, agency staff have demonstrated a willingness to be reasonable and accommodating.
While antitrust and consumer protection laws provide flexibility for firms to respond to changing market conditions, such as those created by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that certain conduct will remain prohibited by antitrust and consumer protection laws no matter the circumstances.
Until recently, the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) ability to seek monetary equitable remedies (particularly disgorgement and restitution) for alleged antitrust violations went virtually unchallenged. However, the most recent appellate case that interprets the FTC's monetary equitable remedies under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act leaves open many questions about the FTC's ability to seek monetary equitable remedies in antitrust cases pursuant to Section 13(b).
The Department of Justice Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission have announced the release of the 2020 Draft Vertical Merger Guidelines (VMG) for a 30-day comment period. As with any guidelines issued by the agencies, the finalised VMG will be instructive for the agencies' review of vertical mergers and will be persuasive but not binding on the courts should a contested merger enter litigation.
California's governor recently signed a bill designed to enhance antitrust scrutiny of patent settlements between branded and generic pharmaceutical companies. The bill follows the California attorney general's nearly $70 million settlement in Summer 2019 with several pharmaceutical companies based on patent settlements that the attorney general claimed violated the Cartwright Act and is yet another example of diverging interpretations between federal and state antitrust laws.
The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division recently released the Hart-Scott-Rodino Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2018, covering 1 October 2017 to 30 September 2018. This report is the first opportunity to review data regarding the merger challenges issued exclusively during Trump's administration. The data underscores the importance and benefit of advance planning and strategy to avoid a second request investigation whenever possible.
In a historic shift, the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division will now consider providing credit to companies in the charging and sentencing stages of an antitrust criminal investigation if they have a robust and effective antitrust compliance programme. While a positive step, significant questions remain regarding the extent to which the opportunity for compliance credit will incentivise companies to self-report criminal antitrust violations and how the guidance interacts with the division's leniency programme.
The assistant attorney general recently suggested that antitrust enforcers should update their analytical framework to account for modern corporate structures, signalling the potential for antitrust violations when officers and directors serve multiple competing companies. The assistant attorney general's speech is a reminder that behaviour that is not explicitly prohibited by the letter of the antitrust statutes may still raise eyebrows.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recently signed a new memorandum of cooperation to strengthen their ability to combat cartels and other anti-competitive conduct. According to the section chief of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, the memorandum codifies the FBI's relationship with the ACCC and provides an opportunity for increased information and resource sharing.
Second requests can be expensive, time consuming and distracting to clients' employees. One way to ease the burden of a second request is to avoid it altogether. While second requests are inevitable for some transactions, certain strategies can help to lessen the likelihood of one being issued.
Litigants often enter into settlement agreements without giving much thought to whether those agreements could form the basis for an antitrust claim – and for good reason because most settlement agreements simply resolve a dispute through money payments. However, agreements that restrict rivals' abilities to engage in advertising or other competitive activities could fall foul of the antitrust laws.
Department of Justice Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch recently stated that the Antitrust Division is re-examining whether, and to what extent, it should recognise pre-existing compliance programmes with some form of credit, including potentially at the charging stage or at sentencing. This might take the form of fine discounts of up to 20% for companies that have a credible and effective compliance programme.
The US Department of Justice Antitrust Division has further intensified its compliance focus by announcing the creation of the Office of Decree Enforcement, which will have the sole goal of ensuring compliance with, and enforcement of, Antitrust Division decrees. Firms that operate under existing decrees should stay ahead of any complaints of violation, as a newly energised and dedicated enforcement office will likely be investigating any claimed default.
According to press reports, the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating several issues relating to the admission of students to institutions of higher learning. The DOJ expects institutions of higher learning to compete freely for students and faculty much as ordinary businesses compete for customers and employees. In today's high-enforcement environment, college and university counsel should be alert to Sherman Act pitfalls and seek antitrust counsel if close calls arise.
The International Trade Commission (ITC) has issued an opinion dismissing US Steel Corporation's antitrust claim made under Section 337 of the Tariff Act 1930 against several Chinese steel manufacturers and distributors, ruling that a complainant must show an antitrust injury even in a trade case. The case demonstrates that a complainant with a Section 337 antitrust claim before the ITC must satisfy the same antitrust pleading requirements that a plaintiff in a federal court is required to satisfy.
It is difficult to predict how the antitrust trends and policies that have evolved over the past decade will play out under the Trump administration. The president has already made some picks for antitrust leadership that suggest – consistent with his overall pro-business platform – that antitrust enforcement will decrease in some areas. Thus, the cartel space will be an interesting one to watch.
With the departure of now former Chair Edith Ramirez in early February 2017, among the most discussed vacancies in the new administration is the post of permanent chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). According to reports, one leading candidate is Acting Chair Maureen Ohlhausen, whose selection could have significant implications for FTC policy areas, particularly with respect to disgorgement remedies in antitrust cases.
Although tolling agreements are increasingly common in the energy industry, parties that have or may have an interest in acquiring the other party to the agreement must be careful to avoid assuming beneficial ownership of the target before complying with the Hart-Scott-Rodino reporting requirements if Hart-Scott-Rodino notification is required. Failure to do so may result in the tolling agreement constituting evidence of gun jumping and the acquiring person being subject to significant penalties.