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Can Deals That Do Not Trigger an HSR Filing Raise Antitrust Concerns? Yes, Buyer and Sellers Beware!

Doyle, Barlow & Mazard PLLC

The federal antitrust agencies continue their emphasis on investigating, challenging, and unwinding consummated transactions that are not reportable under the Hart Scott Rodino (“HSR”) Act.

Most recently, on November 6, 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) issued an Opinion and Final Order in which the Commission upheld the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) decision that Otto Bock HealthCare North America, Inc.’s (“Otto Bock”) acquisition of FIH Group Holdings, LLC (“Freedom”) was anticompetitive and that Otto Bock must divest Freedom’s entire business with the limited exceptions granted by the ALJ.  The Commission’s order was approved by all five commissioners and continues the trend of unwinding consummated acquisitions that are deemed to be anticompetitive.

Accordingly, buyers must be aware of the risks of closing a non-reportable transaction that eliminates competition.  Here are a couple of points to keep in mind:

First, Non-Reportable Transactions That Eliminate a Competitor May Raise Antitrust Scrutiny

Indeed, corporate executives that enter into non-reportable acquisitions of their competitors must be aware that in some cases these deals entail significant antitrust risk.  Just because the deal is not reportable under the HSR Act does not mean that the federal or state antitrust agencies won’t investigate, challenge, and unwind it.

Second, Size of Transaction Does Not Matter

The antitrust agencies can investigate and unwind a deal, no matter the size of the transaction.  The antitrust agencies have challenged consummated deals valued as low as $3 million (see George’s/Tysons,  Complaint, United States v. George’s Foods, LLC, No. 5:11-cv-00043 (W.D. Va. May 10, 2011).  Other small deals challenged by the agencies include Renown Health’s $3 and $4 million deals; a $5 million transaction (Complaint, United States v. Election Sys. & Software, Inc., No. 1:10-cv-00380 (D.D.C. Mar. 8, 2010)Magnesium Elektron/Revere Graphics, a $15 million deal; Charlotte Pipe/Star Pipe, a $19 million deal; Dun & Bradstreet’s $29 million deal;  BazaarVoice/Power Reviews; and the list goes on.

Third, Length of Transaction Has Been Closed Does Not Matter

The FTC has challenged a consummated transaction more than eight years after the transaction closed (see Complaint, Graco Inc., No. 101 0215 (F.T.C. Apr. 17, 2013).

Fourth, Disgorgement of Profits Is Possible

The agencies have sought disgorgement of profits earned from post-merger price increases to remedy the anti-competitive effects of a consummated merger.  For example, under the terms of the consent order in FTC v. Hearst Trust, Hearst agreed to disgorge $19 million in profits earned from price increases following its acquisition of MediSpan, Inc. (Final Order, FTC v. Hearst Trust, No. 1:01CV00734 (D.D.C. Nov. 20, 2001)).  In another example from the DOJ, U.S. v. Twin America, LLC, et. al, Twin America, Coach, and City Sights together were required to pay $7.5 million in disgorgement to remedy alleged violations of Section 7 of the Clayton Act, Section 1 of the Sherman Act, as well as New York State law, including the Donnelly Act (see Proposed Final Judgment, United States v. Twin America, LLC, Civil Action No. 12-cv-8989 (ALC) (GWG) (March 16, 2015)).  In one case, the DOJ and New York State sought disgorgement of defendants’ illegal profits earned from increased prices charged after the formation of an illegal joint venture that eliminated competition and created a monopoly in “hop-on, hop-off” bus tours in New York City.

How Does the Government Learn of Non-Reportable Anticompetitive Mergers?

In the absence of an HSR notification, the agencies become aware of possibly anticompetitive mergers through the companies own press releases, news reports, complaints from competitors or customers, information from other investigations, or, in some cases, self-reporting by the parties.

Background of Otto Bock/Freedom Deal

On September 22, 2017, Otto Bock and Freedom simultaneously executed a merger agreement and consummated their merger.  The transaction did not require a pre-merger notification filing in the United States so the FTC did not have a chance to evaluate whether the acquisition was anticompetitive prior to the closing.  But, shortly after the deal Otto Bock issued an ill advised press release that highlighted that the deal combined the #1 and #3 players in the field of prosthetics in the United States, led to market share gains and strengthened its leading position.  Believing that “antitrust issues had already been clarified”, they closed the deal and then Otto Bock took steps to integrate Freedom’s business, including personnel, intellectual property, know-how, and other critical assets.

Shortly after the closing, the FTC started an investigation and within three months took action by filing an administrative complaint seeking to unwind the merger.  At the same time, Otto Bock agreed with the FTC to hold the businesses separate during the litigation to preserve the acquired business from Freedom.  According to the FTC’s administrative complaint, the merging parties were head-to-head competitors in the manufacture of microprocessor prosthetic knees (“MPKs”) and the deal eliminated head-to-head price and innovation competition, removed a significant and disruptive competitor, and entrenched Otto Bock’s position as the dominant supplier of MPKs.

Otto Bock made a number of arguments in its defense.  First, it offered a divestiture of Freedom’s MPK assets to an identified buyer, which it argued eliminated the FTC’s allegations of purported harm.  The FTC, however, rejected the remedy as insufficient.  It also argued that the efficiencies would outweigh the procompetitive effects and that Freedom was a failing firm.

ALJ Decision in Otto Bock

On April 29, 2019, the ALJ upheld the FTC’s administrative complaint finding that the transaction substantially lessened competition in the relevant market for the sale of MPKs to prosthetic clinics in the United States.  The deal eliminated competition between Otto Bock and Freedom that spurred innovation and lower prices.  The ALJ found that Otto Bock’s divestiture remedy was insufficient and found that the appropriate remedy was the divestiture of all the assets acquired with the possible exception of certain foot products that are not necessary to competition in the relevant MPK market.  On May 8, 2019, Otto Bock filed a notice of appeal stating that it would appeal the entirety of the ALJ’s initial decision and order. 

Commission Opinion and Order

The Commission found that there was a presumption of harm based on high market shares and concentration levels.  In addition, the Commission found that the record evidence of competitive harm was compelling.  The evidence confirmed that Otto Bock possesses the leading share of U.S. MPK sales with the C-Leg 4 and showed that Otto Bock and Freedom vigorously competed against each other in terms of price and innovation competition.  Internal documents showed that they would respond against each other with price promotions and discounts.  If one came out with a new generation, the other would try to “leap frog” the other.  The evidence further demonstrated that Otto Bock viewed Freedom as a direct competitive threat and demonstrated that one of the reasons for the acquisition was to eliminate the development of Freedom’s new MPK, the Quattro, that had the nickname the “C-Leg Killer”.  Part of the reason for the acquisition was to make sure that no other competitor acquired Freedom’s Quattro.  In summary, the Commission upheld the ALJ’s decision that the acquisition substantially lessened competition and that to fully restore the competition lost from the acquisition, Otto Bock must divest Freedom’s entire business with the limited exceptions granted by the ALJ.

Lessons Learned

The FTC’s investigation, challenge, and successful litigation serve as a reminder to corporate executives and antitrust counsel that antitrust risks do not end once a deal closes, and that a transaction is not free of antitrust risks simply because the transaction is not reportable under the HSR Act.  The Commission’s Opinion and Order unwinding the merger further demonstrates the risks of closing a deal that presents significant antitrust concerns and makes clear that such challenges will continue to be pursued by the FTC.  The Commission’s Opinion and Final Order requiring a complete divestiture of the business that was acquired also makes clear that when the FTC is evaluating a proposed remedy that its goal is to fully restore competition.  When a buyer proposes to sell a carve out of assets instead of a whole business to a divestiture buyer, it must show how the partial divestiture of assets to the divestiture buyer restores competition.

Corporate and private counsel should be aware of the likely consequences and the risks of consummating transactions that raise significant competitive issues.  The risks may include: defending against costly and lengthy government investigations as well as government and private litigation; unwinding the merger through either complete or partial divestitures even after integration has taken place; and disgorging profits gained from the alleged anticompetitive merger.  Accordingly, before competitors execute a transaction agreement, counsel should conduct a preliminary assessment of whether the proposed transaction gives rise to substantive antitrust issues no matter the deal’s size.

Andre Barlow
(202) 589-1838

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