Archives For private antitrust litigation

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021

The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, exhibits a remarkable willingness to cast aside decades of evidentiary standards that courts have developed to uphold the rule of law by precluding factually and economically ungrounded applications of antitrust law. Without those safeguards, antitrust enforcement is prone to be driven by a combination of prosecutorial and judicial fiat. That would place at risk the free play of competitive forces that the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Antitrust law inherently lends itself to the risk of erroneous interpretations of ambiguous evidence. Outside clear cases of interfirm collusion, virtually all conduct that might appear anti-competitive might just as easily be proven, after significant factual inquiry, to be pro-competitive. This fundamental risk of a false diagnosis has guided antitrust case law and regulatory policy since at least the Supreme Court’s landmark Continental Television v. GTE Sylvania decision in 1977 and arguably earlier. Judicial and regulatory efforts to mitigate this ambiguity, while preserving the deterrent power of the antitrust laws, have resulted in the evidentiary requirements that are targeted by the proposed bill.

Proponents of the legislative “reforms” might argue that modern antitrust case law’s careful avoidance of enforcement error yields excessive caution. To relieve regulators and courts from having to do their homework before disrupting a targeted business and its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, the proposed bill empowers plaintiffs to allege and courts to “find” anti-competitive conduct without having to be bound to the reasonably objective metrics upon which courts and regulators have relied for decades. That runs the risk of substituting rhetoric and intuition for fact and analysis as the guiding principles of antitrust enforcement and adjudication.

This dismissal of even a rudimentary commitment to rule-of-law principles is illustrated by two dramatic departures from existing case law in the proposed bill. Each constitutes a largely unrestrained “blank check” for regulatory and judicial overreach.

Blank Check #1

The bill includes a broad prohibition on “exclusionary” conduct, which is defined to include any conduct that “materially disadvantages 1 or more actual or potential competitors” and “presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.” That amorphous language arguably enables litigants to target a firm that offers consumers lower prices but “disadvantages” less efficient competitors that cannot match that price.

In fact, the proposed legislation specifically facilitates this litigation strategy by relieving predatory pricing claims from having to show that pricing is below cost or likely to result ultimately in profits for the defendant. While the bill permits a defendant to escape liability by showing sufficiently countervailing “procompetitive benefits,” the onus rests on the defendant to show otherwise. This burden-shifting strategy encourages lagging firms to shift competition from the marketplace to the courthouse.

Blank Check #2

The bill then removes another evidentiary safeguard by relieving plaintiffs from always having to define a relevant market. Rather, it may be sufficient to show that the contested practice gives rise to an “appreciable risk of harming competition … based on the totality of the circumstances.” It is hard to miss the high degree of subjectivity in this standard.

This ambiguous threshold runs counter to antitrust principles that require a credible showing of market power in virtually all cases except horizontal collusion. Those principles make perfect sense. Market power is the gateway concept that enables courts to distinguish between claims that plausibly target alleged harms to competition and those that do not. Without a well-defined market, it is difficult to know whether a particular practice reflects market power or market competition. Removing the market power requirement can remove any meaningful grounds on which a defendant could avoid a nuisance lawsuit or contest or appeal a conclusory allegation or finding of anticompetitive conduct.

Anti-Market Antitrust

The bill’s transparently outcome-driven approach is likely to give rise to a cloud of liability that penalizes businesses that benefit consumers through price and quality combinations that competitors cannot replicate. This obviously runs directly counter to the purpose of the antitrust laws. Certainly, winners can and sometimes do entrench themselves through potentially anticompetitive practices that should be closely scrutinized. However, the proposed legislation seems to reflect a presumption that successful businesses usually win by employing illegitimate tactics, rather than simply being the most efficient firm in the market. Under that assumption, competition law becomes a tool for redoing, rather than enabling, competitive outcomes.

While this populist approach may be popular, it is neither economically sound nor consistent with a market-driven economy in which resources are mostly allocated through pricing mechanisms and government intervention is the exception, not the rule. It would appear that some legislators would like to reverse that presumption. Far from being a victory for consumers, that outcome would constitute a resounding loss.

Antitrust populists have a long list of complaints about competition policy, including: laws aren’t broad enough or tough enough, enforcers are lax, and judges tend to favor defendants over plaintiffs or government agencies. The populist push got a bump with the New York Times coverage of Lina Khan’s “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” in which she advocated breaking up Amazon and applying public utility regulation to platforms. Khan’s ideas were picked up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for similar public utility regulation and promised to unwind earlier acquisitions by Amazon (Whole Foods and Zappos), Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram), and Google (Waze, Nest, and DoubleClick).

Khan, Warren, and the other Break Up Big Tech populists don’t clearly articulate how consumers, suppliers — or anyone for that matter — would be better off with their mandated spinoffs. The Khan/Warren plan, however, requires a unique alignment of many factors: Warren must win the White House, Democrats must control both houses of Congress, and judges must substantially shift their thinking. It’s like turning a supertanker on a dime in the middle of a storm. Instead of publishing manifestos and engaging in antitrust hashtag hipsterism, maybe — just maybe — the populists can do something.

The populists seem to have three main grievances:

  • Small firms cannot enter the market or cannot thrive once they enter;
  • Suppliers, including workers, are getting squeezed; and
  • Speculation that someday firms will wake up, realize they have a monopoly, and begin charging noncompetitive prices to consumers.

Each of these grievances can be, and has been, already addressed by antitrust and competition litigation. And, in many cases these grievances were addressed in private antitrust litigation. For example:

In the US, private actions are available for a wide range of alleged anticompetitive conduct, including coordinated conduct (e.g., price-fixing), single-firm conduct (e.g., predatory pricing), and mergers that would substantially lessen competition. 

If the antitrust populists are so confident that concentration is rising and firms are behaving anticompetitively and consumers/suppliers/workers are being harmed, then why don’t they organize an antitrust lawsuit against the worst of the worst violators? If anticompetitive activity is so obvious and so pervasive, finding compelling cases should be easy.

For example, earlier this year, Shaoul Sussman, a law student at Fordham University, published “Prime Predator: Amazon and the Rationale of Below Average Variable Cost Pricing Strategies Among Negative-Cash Flow Firms” in the Journal of Antitrust Enforcement. Why not put Sussman’s theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? The discovery process would unleash a treasure trove of cost data and probably more than a few “hot docs.”

Khan argues:

While predatory pricing technically remains illegal, it is extremely difficult to win predatory pricing claims because courts now require proof that the alleged predator would be able to raise prices and recoup its losses. 

However, in her criticism of the court in the Apple e-books litigation, she lays out a clear rationale for courts to revise their thinking on predatory pricing [emphasis added]:

Judge Cote, who presided over the district court trial, refrained from affirming the government’s conclusion. Still, the government’s argument illustrates the dominant framework that courts and enforcers use to analyze predation—and how it falls short. Specifically, the government erred by analyzing the profitability of Amazon’s e-book business in the aggregate and by characterizing the conduct as “loss leading” rather than potentially predatory pricing. These missteps suggest a failure to appreciate two critical aspects of Amazon’s practices: (1) how steep discounting by a firm on a platform-based product creates a higher risk that the firm will generate monopoly power than discounting on non-platform goods and (2) the multiple ways Amazon could recoup losses in ways other than raising the price of the same e-books that it discounted.

Why not put Khan’s cross-subsidy theory to the test by building an antitrust case around it? Surely there’d be a document explaining how the firm expects to recoup its losses. Or, maybe not. Maybe by the firm’s accounting, it’s not losing money on the discounted products. Without evidence, it’s just speculation.

In fairness, one can argue that recent court decisions have made pursuing private antitrust litigation more difficult. For example, the Supreme Court’s decision in Twombly requires an antitrust plaintiff to show more than mere speculation based on circumstantial evidence in order to move forward to discovery. Decisions in matters such as Ashcroft v. Iqbal have made it more difficult for plaintiffs to maintain antitrust claims. Wal-Mart v. Dukes and Comcast Corp v Behrend subject antitrust class actions to more rigorous analysis. In Ohio v. Amex the court ruled antitrust plaintiffs can’t meet the burden of proof by showing only some effect on some part of a two-sided market.

At the same time Jeld-Wen indicates third party plaintiffs can be awarded damages and obtain divestitures, even after mergers clear. In Jeld-Wen, a competitor filed suit to challenge the consummated Jeld-Wen/Craftmaster merger four years after the DOJ approved the merger without conditions. The challenge was lengthy, but successful, and a district court ordered damages and the divestiture of one of the combined firm’s manufacturing facilities six years after the merger was closed.

Despite the possible challenges of pursuing a private antitrust suit, Daniel Crane’s review of US federal court workload statistics concludes the incidence of private antitrust enforcement in the United States has been relatively stable since the mid-1980s — in the range of 600 to 900 new private antitrust filings a year. He also finds resolution by trial has been relatively stable at an average of less than 1 percent a year. Thus, it’s not clear that recent decisions have erected insurmountable barriers to antitrust plaintiffs.

In the US, third parties may fund private antitrust litigation and plaintiffs’ attorneys are allowed to work under a contingency fee arrangement, subject to court approval. A compelling case could be funded by deep-pocketed supporters of the populists’ agenda, big tech haters, or even investors. Perhaps the most well-known example is Peter Thiel’s bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s takedown of Gawker. Before that, the savings and loan crisis led to a number of forced mergers which were later challenged in court, with the costs partially funded by the issuance of litigation tracking warrants.

The antitrust populist ranks are chock-a-block with economists, policy wonks, and go-getter attorneys. If they are so confident in their claims of rising concentration, bad behavior, and harm to consumers, suppliers, and workers, then they should put those ideas to the test with some slam dunk litigation. The fact that they haven’t suggests they may not have a case.

A basic premise of antitrust law (also called competition law) is that competition among private entities enhances economic welfare by reducing costs, increasing efficiency, and spurring innovation.  Government competition agencies around the world also compete, by devising different substantive and procedural rules to constrain private conduct in the name of promoting competition.  The welfare implications of that form of inter-jurisdictional competition are, however, ambiguous.  Public choice considerations suggest that self-interested competition agency staff have a strong incentive to promote rules that spawn many investigations and cases, in order to increase their budgets and influence.  Indeed, an agency may measure its success, both domestically and on the world stage, by the size of its budget and staff and the amount of enforcement activity it generates.  That activity, however, imposes costs on the private sector, and may produce restrictive rules that deter vigorous, welfare-enhancing competition.  Furthermore, and relatedly, it may generate substantial costs due to “false positives” – agency challenges to efficient conduct that should not have been brought.  (There are also costs stemming from “false negatives,” the failure to bring welfare-enhancing enforcement actions.  Decision theory indicates an agency should seek to minimize the sum of costs due to false positives and false negatives.)  Private enforcement of competition laws, until recently largely relegated to the United States, brings additional costs and complications, to the extent it yields ill-advised lawsuits.  Thus one should cast a wary eye at any increase in the scope of enforcement authority within a jurisdiction, and not assume automatically that it is desirable on public policy grounds.

These considerations should be brought to bear in assessing the implications of the 2014 European Union (EU) Damages Actions Directive (Directive), which is expected to yield a dramatic increase in private competition law enforcement in the EU.  The Directive establishes standards EU nations must adopt for the bringing of private competition lawsuits, including class actions.  The 28 EU member states have until December 27, 2016 to adopt national laws, regulations, and administrative provisions that implement the Directive.  In short, the Directive (1) makes it easier for private plaintiffs to have access to evidence; (2) gives a final finding of violation by a national competition agency conclusive effect in private actions brought in national courts and prima facie presumptive effect in private actions brought in other EU nations; (3) establishes clear and uniform statutes of limitation; (4) allows both direct and indirect purchasers of overpriced goods to bring private actions; (5) clarifies that private victims are entitled to full compensation for losses suffered, including compensation for actual loss and for loss of profit, plus interest; (6) establishes a rebuttable presumption that cartels cause harm; and (7) provides for joint and several liability (any participant in a competition law infringement will be responsible towards the victims for the whole harm caused by the infringement, but may seek contribution from other infringers).

By facilitating the bringing of lawsuits for cartel overcharges by both direct and indirect purchasers (see here), the Directive should substantially expand private cartel litigation in Europe.  (It may also redirect some cartel-related litigation from United States tribunals, which up to now have been the favorite venues for such actions.  Potential treble damages recoveries still make U.S. antitrust courts an attractive venue, but limitations on indirect purchaser suits and Sherman Act jurisdictional constraints requiring a “direct, substantial and reasonably foreseeable effect” effect on U.S. commerce create complications for foreign plaintiffs.)  Given the fact that cartels have no redeeming features, this feature may be expected to increase disincentives for cartel conduct and thereby raise welfare.  (The degree of welfare enhancement depends on the extent to which legitimate activity may be misidentified as cartel conduct, yielding “false positive” damage actions.)

The outlook is less sanguine for non-cartel cases, however.  The Directive applies equally to vertical restraints and abuse of dominance cases, which are far more likely to yield false positives.  In my experience, EU enforcers are more comfortable than U.S. enforcers at pursuing cases based on attenuated theories of exclusionary conduct that have a weak empirical basis.  (The EU’s continued investigation of Google, based on economically inappropriate theories that were rejected by the U.S. FTC, is a prime example.)  In particular, the implementation of the Directive will raise the financial risks for “dominant” or “potentially dominant” firms operating in Europe, who may be further disincentivized from undertaking novel welfare-enhancing business practices that preserve or raise their market share.  This could further harm the vitality of the European business sector.

Hopefully, individual EU states will seek to implement the Directive in a manner that takes into account the serious risk of false positives in non-cartel cases.  The welfare implications of the Directive’s implementation are well worth further competition law scholarship.