On January 5, 2023, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued a groundbreaking proposed rule that would, if finalized:

  • prohibit most employers from entering into non-compete clauses with workers, including employees and individual independent contractors;
  • prohibit such employers from maintaining non-compete clauses with workers or representing to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause; and
  • require employers to rescind any existing non-compete clause with workers by the compliance date of the rule and notify the affected workers that their non-compete clause is no longer in effect.

The FTC’s notice of proposed rulemaking explains that the FTC considered possible limitations on the rule—such as excluding senior executives or highly paid employees from the ban—but it ultimately proposed a categorical ban on non-competes.  The only exception is for non-competes related to the sale of a business.  However, even this exception is unusually narrow: it would only apply to selling business owners who own at least 25% percent of the business being sold.  (The proposal also would not apply to most non-profits, certain financial institutions, common carriers, and others who are also outside the scope of FTC regulation.)

As discussed in Covington’s January 5 client alert, the FTC explained that it issued the proposed rule due to its belief that non-competes reduce wages, stifle innovation and business, and are exploitative and unnecessary. 

Continue Reading FTC Proposes Rule to Ban Most Non-Competes

On Monday, November 7, the Supreme Court heard argument in Axon Enterprise, Inc. v. FTC and SEC v. Cochran to decide whether a party subject to an FTC or SEC administrative proceeding can simultaneously challenge the constitutionality of an administrative proceeding, or even of the agency itself, in federal district court rather than waiting for final agency action.  At least five Justices expressed some measure of support for the private parties’ arguments, which indicates that the Court may permit certain kinds of collateral constitutional attacks (e.g., due process and appointments clause claims) at the outset of administrative proceedings.

Although predicting the outcome of any case from the oral argument is extremely difficult, three Justices – Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas – expressed strong support for finding in Axon’s and Cochran’s favor. Through their questions, they implied that 28 U.S.C. Section 1331, which grants federal district courts “original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution of the United States,” provides a clear grant of jurisdiction over constitutional claims and neither the FTC Act nor the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“the Exchange Act”) could strip district courts of that jurisdiction. They also suggested that Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB requires a finding for the companies. In PCAOB, the Court held that a district court had jurisdiction to hear an appointments clause challenge to PCAOB’s structure despite the fact that the SEC had not yet issued a final order against Free Enterprise Fund.

Other justices appeared to favor the private parties, but not as overtly. Chief Justice John Roberts’s questions suggested that PCAOB may prove to be an insurmountable barrier to the government’s claims and that the availability of jurisdiction in other forums (i.e., the court of appeals) under the FTC Act and the Exchange Act clearly does not act as an implied removal of jurisdiction from Section 1331. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s questions indicated that he believes that the issue may be decided solely by reference to the “wholly collateral” factor of the Thunder Basin test, which courts have used to guide determinations about when a party may bring an Article III challenge to agency proceedings before those proceedings have concluded. Thunder Basin Coal Co. v. Reich, 510 U.S. 200 (1994) (holding that the statutory review scheme of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act of 1977 precludes a district court from exercising subject-matter jurisdiction over a pre-enforcement challenge to the Act). He stated that clarity, certainty, and speed counseled in favor of permitting district courts to hear constitutional claims.

Continue Reading Supreme Court Considers Whether to Allow Early Constitutional Challenges to FTC and SEC Administrative Proceedings

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a policy statement that dramatically expands the scope of what it considers “unfair methods of competition” under Section 5 of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C. § 45. This represents an aggressive and unprecedented interpretation of the agency’s authority, and indicates that the Commission plans to use rulemaking and enforcement actions to police a broad set of conduct beyond the scope of the antitrust laws (i.e., the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act).

According to the agency’s press release, the policy statement – issued pursuant to a party-line vote of 3-1 – is intended to “restore the agency’s policy of rigorously enforcing the federal ban on unfair methods of competition” with the stated goal of allowing the agency “to exercise its full statutory authority against companies that use unfair tactics to gain an advantage instead of competing on the merits.” And Chair Lina Khan suggested that the agency will enforce Section 5 to “crack down on unfair methods of competition,” as commanded by Congress when it created the FTC.

The policy statement lays out two elements to a Section 5 violation: (1) the conduct must be a method of competition (2) that is unfair. Most of the action will be around the second prong – unfairness – which the policy statement defines as conduct that goes “beyond competition on the merits.” To determine whether the alleged conduct is fair or unfair, the Commission will evaluate two criteria on a sliding scale (i.e., the more evidence of one, the less the Commission believes that there is need for evidence of the other):

Continue Reading The FTC Signals an Unprecedented Expansion in Its Definition of Unfair Methods of Competition

On September 29, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a package of three antitrust bills (H.R. 3843) by a vote of 242-184. The package includes: (1) the Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act; (2) the Foreign Merger Subsidy Disclosure Act; and (3) the State Antitrust Enforcement Venue Act.

The Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act updates the structure and amounts of premerger filing fees that the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and Department of Justice (“DOJ”) collect pursuant to the Hart-Scott Rodino Antitrust Improvement Act of 1976. The Merger Filing Fee Modernization Act reduces fees for smaller transactions, increases fees for mergers valued at $1 billion or greater, and adjusts the filing fee amounts for each future year based on changes in the Consumer Price Index. Finally, the bill requires the FTC and DOJ to report each year on the total revenue generated from premerger notification filing fees, broken out by tier, and the FTC must also include in the report a list of all actions the agency took or declined to take based on a 3-to-2 vote.

The Foreign Merger Subsidy Disclosure Act requires parties submitting premerger notifications to disclose detailed information on subsidies from a “foreign entity of concern.” A foreign entity of concern is defined under 42 U.S.C. § 18741(a) and includes those designated foreign terrorist organizations, on the Specially Designated and Blocked Persons List, and alleged to be involved in espionage or unauthorized conduct detrimental to the national security or foreign policy of the United States. The definition further covers entities owned by, controlled by, or subject to the direction of the governments of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, or the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Continue Reading U.S. House of Representatives Passes Antitrust Legislative Package

The Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment has published a draft new law to protect Irish critical technology and infrastructure from potentially harmful non-European foreign investment.  The Screening of Third Country Transactions Bill 2022 legislatesto curb so-called “third country” (meaning non-European Union/non-European Economic Area countries) hostile actors using ownership of, or influence over businesses and assets in the Irish state to harm Ireland’s security or public order. 

First time to screen

It will be the first time Ireland has screened investment from a non-European country with a view to halting that investment if it poses such a threat.  The draft new law responds to the EU Investment Screening Regulation (EU) 2019/452 (“Regulation” – see more in Covington blogs here and here) which allows – but does not oblige – European Union Member States to screen foreign investment for risks to their security or public order.  

EU fears

The Regulation reflected a growing concern within Europe about the purchase of strategic European companies by foreign-owned firms, those concerns now heightened as a result of Covid and, more recently, by the war in Ukraine. 

The European Commission (“EC”) guided on June 22 2021, that “(s)uch transactions may put European collective security or public order at risk, especially when foreign investors are state owned or controlled, including through financing or other means of direction…while remaining open to investment, the EU is equipped to protect its essential interests.” 

Continue Reading Ireland to screen non-European foreign investments

On 22 March 2022, the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”) issued two separate preliminary rulings – Bpost and Nordzucker – which clarify how the protection against double jeopardy (“non bis in idem principle”) should be applied in instances where an identical competition law infringement is sanctioned in parallel investigations, either by different regulatory authorities of the same EU Member State or by multiple national competition authorities (“NCAs”) from different EU Member States.

The key takeaways from the two judgments are as follows:

  • the non bis in idem principle applies to competition law due to the criminal aspect embedded in the relevant administrative penalties;
  • the non bis in idem principle only applies if the facts are identical – a mere reference to a fact in a decision is not sufficient to demonstrate that an authority has ruled on that element;
  • different national authorities can impose fines for an identical infringement if the legislation on which they rely pursues complementary objectives;
  • the non bis in idem principle also applies to situations where an NCA has granted leniency to a company such that only a declaratory finding infringement (without fine) can be made.

Background

In Bpost, the ECJ  examined whether the Belgian NCA could impose a fine on Bpost for an abuse of a dominant position (through the application of a rebate system) even though Bpost had already been fined for the same rebate system by the Belgian postal regulator.

Continue Reading European Court of Justice clarifies scope of protection against double jeopardy in successive antitrust investigations

In Enel, a judgment of 12 May 2022 (C-377/20), the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) complemented the framework for analysing exclusionary abuses developed in earlier case-law, notably where it applies to a context of market liberalisation:

  • Abuse: The concept of “abuse” relates to conduct that departs from “competition on the merits”. Conduct that an equally efficient competitor can replicate is generally not abusive (“equally efficient competitor test”).
  • Anti-competitive effects: While it is not necessary to demonstrate actual anti-competitive effects or the company’s intention to carry out an exclusionary strategy, such factors are relevant in assessing whether the conduct is abusive or not.
  • Harm: Conduct that harms consumers indirectly as a result of its effect on the structure of the market is per se abusive; it is not required to demonstrate an actual or potential direct harm to consumers.
  • Objective justification: The prohibition set out in Article 102 TFEU does not prohibit   conduct that is objectively justified and proportionate, or where the behaviour is counterbalanced or outweighed by pro-consumer efficiency-benefits.

The judgment largely endorses the opinion of Advocate General Rantos (see our blog post), but adds some important nuance.

Continue Reading The CJEU sets out an analytic framework on exclusionary abuses in the context of market liberalisation

In his State of the Union address last week, President Biden declared that he wants to: “strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, and demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”  This statement comes just a couple of weeks after Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced the Kids

When the UK left the EU on 31 December 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) gained new powers, functions and responsibilities previously exclusively reserved to the European Commission (the “Commission”).

This blog explores how the CMA has tackled its increased workload in the first year post-Brexit, under the shadow of the global pandemic, and the extent to which the CMA’s practice has diverged from EU law.

  1. The CMA’s merger caseload hasn’t increased as much as expected…

The CMA predicted a 50% increase in the number of merger cases post-Brexit. This has not materialized. Between April 2015 and March 2020, the CMA reviewed on average 60 transactions annually. As the pandemic took hold, this dropped to just 38 between April 2020 and March 2021.

Between April and December 2021, the CMA opened 41 merger investigations, suggesting the CMA will be on course to review 60 transactions by the end of March – a 50% increase on 2020-21, but still down on the CMA’s pre-pandemic caseload.

  1. … but outcomes of investigations into transactions also reviewed by the Commission have generally been consistent.

Since Brexit, the CMA has reviewed 11 transactions which were also notified to the Commission. Only two resulted in different outcomes: one transaction cleared unconditionally by the CMA at Phase 1 required remedies at Phase 2 to obtain Commission clearance; and one where the CMA is undertaking a Phase 2 investigation despite the transaction being cleared with remedies at Phase 1 by the Commission.

While this broad consistency of decisions is likely to be welcomed by businesses, it should also be recalled that:
Continue Reading Trends, developments and divergence from EU law? The CMA’s first year as a global competition authority

On the heels of the FTC’s opposition to Lockheed Martin’s acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed’s termination of the deal, the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report expressing concerns about the state of competition among its contractors.  Of particular note, the report encourages DoD action to (1) increase oversight of M&A transactions and (2)