Spicy Documents Serve up a Paltry Antitrust Meal

David Balto —  13 November 2014

There is always a temptation for antitrust agencies and plaintiffs to center a case around so-called “hot” documents — typically company documents with a snippet or sound-bites extracted, some times out of context. Some practitioners argue that “[h]ot document can be crucial to the outcome of any antitrust matter.” Although “hot” documents can help catch the interest of the public, a busy judge or an unsophisticated jury, they often can lead to misleading results. But more times than not, antitrust cases are resolved on economics and what John Adams called “hard facts,” not snippets from emails or other corporate documents. Antitrust case books are littered with cases that initially looked promising based on some supposed hot documents, but ultimately failed because the foundations of a sound antitrust case were missing.

As discussed below this is especially true for a recent case brought by the FTC, FTC v. St. Luke’s, currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the FTC at each pleading stage has consistently relied on “hot” documents to make its case.

The crafting and prosecution of civil antitrust cases by federal regulators is a delicate balancing act. Regulators must adhere to well-defined principles of antitrust enforcement, and on the other hand appeal to the interests of a busy judge. The simple way of doing this is using snippets of documents to attempt to show the defendants knew they were violating the law.

After all, if federal regulators merely had to properly define geographic and relevant product markets, show a coherent model of anticompetitive harm, and demonstrate that any anticipated harm would outweigh any procompetitive benefits, where is the fun in that? The reality is that antitrust cases typically rely on economic analysis, not snippets of hot documents. Antitrust regulators routinely include internal company documents in their cases to supplement the dry mechanical nature of antitrust analysis. However, in isolation, these documents can create competitive concerns when they simply do not exist.

With this in mind, it is vital that antitrust regulators do not build an entire case around what seem to be inflammatory documents. Quotes from executives, internal memoranda about competitors, and customer presentations are the icing on the cake after a proper antitrust analysis. As the International Center for Law and Economics’ Geoff Manne once explained,

[t]he problem is that these documents are easily misunderstood, and thus, while the economic significance of such documents is often quite limited, their persuasive value is quite substantial.

Herein lies the problem illustrated by the Federal Trade Commission’s use of provocative documents in its suit against the vertical acquisition of Saltzer Medical Group, an independent physician group comprised of 41 doctors, by St. Luke’s Health System. The FTC seeks to stop the acquisition involving these two Idaho based health care providers, a $16 million transaction, and a number comparatively small to other health care mergers investigated by the antitrust agencies. The transaction would give St. Luke’s a total of 24 primary care physicians operating in and around Nampa, Idaho.

In St. Luke’s the FTC used “hot” documents in each stage of its pleadings, from its complaint through its merits brief on appeal. Some of the statements pulled from executives’ emails, notes and memoranda seem inflammatory suggesting St. Luke’s intended to increase prices and to control market share all in order to further its strength relative to payer contracting. These statements however have little grounding in the reality of health care competition.

The reliance by the FTC on these so-called hot documents is problematic for several reasons. First, the selective quoting of internal documents paints the intention of the merger solely to increase profit for St. Luke’s at the expense of payers, when the reality is that the merger is premised on the integration of health care services and the move from the traditional fee-for-service model to a patient-centric model. St Luke’s intention of incorporating primary care into its system is in-line with the goals of the Affordable Care Act to promote over all well-being through integration. The District Court in this case recognized that the purpose of the merger was “primarily to improve patient outcomes.” And, in fact, underserved and uninsured patients are already benefitting from the transaction.

Second, the selective quoting suggested a narrow geographic market, and therefore an artificially high level of concentration in Nampa, Idaho. The suggestion contradicts reality, that nearly one-third of Nampa residents seek primary care physician services outside of Nampa. The geographic market advanced by the FTC is not a proper market, regardless of whether selected documents appear to support it. Without a properly defined geographic market, it is impossible to determine market share and therefore prove a violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act.

The DOJ Antitrust Division and the FTC have acknowledged that markets can not properly be defined solely on spicy documents. Writing in their 2006 commentary on the Horizontal Merger Guidelines, the agencies noted that

[t]he Agencies are careful, however, not to assume that a ‘market’ identified for business purposes is the same as a relevant market defined in the context of a merger analysis. … It is unremarkable that ‘markets’ in common business usage do not always coincide with ‘markets’ in an antitrust context, inasmuch as the terms are used for different purposes.

Third, even if St. Luke’s had the intention of increasing prices, just because one wants to do something such as raise prices above a competitive level or scale back research and development expenses — even if it genuinely believes it is able — does not mean that it can. Merger analysis is not a question of mens rea (or subjective intent). Rather, the analysis must show that such behavior will be likely as a result of diminished competition. Regulators must not look at evidence of this subjective intent and then conclude that the behavior must be possible and that a merger is therefore likely to substantially lessen competition. This would be the tail wagging the dog. Instead, regulators must first determine whether, as a matter of economic principle, a merger is likely to have a particular effect. Then, once the analytical tests have been run, documents can support these theories. But without sound support for the underlying theories, documents (however condemning) cannot bring the case across the goal line.

Certainly, documents suggesting intent to raise prices should bring an antitrust plaintiff across the goal line? Not so, as Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook has explained:

Almost all evidence bearing on “intent” tends to show both greed and desire to succeed and glee at a rival’s predicament. … [B]ut drive to succeed lies at the core of a rivalrous economy. Firms need not like their competitors; they need not cheer them on to success; a desire to extinguish one’s rivals is entirely consistent with, often is the motive behind competition.

As Harvard Law Professor Phil Areeda observed, relying on documents describing intent is inherently risky because

(1) the businessperson often uses a colorful and combative vocabulary far removed from the lawyer’s linguistic niceties, and (2) juries and judges may fail to distinguish a lawful competitive intent from a predatory state of mind. (7 Phillip E. Areeda & Herbert Hovenkamp, Antitrust Law § 1506 (2d ed. 2003).)

So-called “hot” documents may help guide merger analysis, but served up as a main course make a paltry meal. Merger cases rise or fall on hard facts and economics, and next week we will see if the Ninth Circuit recognizes this as both St. Luke’s and the FTC argue their cases.