Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Acting Antitrust Chief Defends U.S. Challenge to AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

This posting was written by Jeffrey May, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

Sharis Arnold Pozen, Acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, discussed civil antitrust enforcement efforts at the 38th annual Fordham Competition Law Institute’s international antitrust law and policy conference on September 7.

In what panel moderator A. Paul Victor called her “maiden speech” as newly appointed acting antitrust chief, Pozen talked about how civil non-merger enforcement was "alive and well" at the Antitrust Division.

Pozen had intended to focus her comments on non-merger enforcement, saying that she had said a lot about mergers recently. A week earlier, Pozen had delivered remarks at a press conference on the filing of the U.S. suit challenging AT&T Corporation’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA Inc. Moreover, a trial had just begun in the Justice Department’s action to halt H&R Block Inc.’s proposed acquisition of 2SS Holdings, Inc., the maker of TaxACT do-it-yourself tax preparation software.

Horizontal Merger Guidelines

The official took issue with the suggestion that the Justice Department’s complaint in the AT&T/T-Mobile case did not reflect recent changes to the joint FTC/Justice Department Horizontal Merger Guidelines. Commentators have suggested that the Justice Department’s complaint in the case relies too heavily on market share analysis and structural presumptions.

In her remarks at Fordham, Pozen said that the complaint in the AT&T/T-Mobile case does in fact represent the approach taken in the Horizontal Merger Guidelines and current Antitrust Division practice. She reiterated that the combination is a four-to-three merger that takes out an innovator.

The Horizontal Merger Guidelines (CCH Trade Regulation Reporter ¶13,100), which were revised in August 2010, recognize the continuing need for market definition in merger analysis; however, the focus is on the competitive effects of a transaction. The analysis need not start with market definition, according to the revised guidelines.

There has also been speculation that Sprint Nextel’s private suit challenging the AT&T/T-Mobile transaction could represent an effort by Sprint to bolster a weak Justice Department case. Pozen refused to comment on the Sprint suit other than to say that Sprint’s case was also before Judge Ellen Huvelle. Pozen did not know whether the suits would be combined.

Further information about the Justice Department’s lawsuit to block the AT&T/T-Moble deal appears here in an August 31 posting on Trade Regulation Talk.

Non-Merger Enforcement

With respect to civil, non-merger enforcement, Pozen discussed a number of recently-filed cases in sectors that “affect consumers’ pocketbooks.” In the health care industry, she explained that the Antitrust Division filed its first lawsuit since 1999 challenging a monopolist with engaging in traditional anticompetitive unilateral conduct. United Regional Health Care System of Wichita Falls—the largest hospital in Wichita Falls—agreed to settle allegations that it unlawfully used contracts with commercial health insurers to maintain its monopoly for hospital services in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.

Another action noted in the health care area was the Antitrust Division’s ongoing lawsuit against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, challenging the health insurer’s use of most favored nation (MFN) clauses in its provider agreements with various hospitals. The insurer has appealed a federal district court’s denial of its motion to dismiss (2011-2 Trade Cases ¶77,568), and the Justice Department has asked for dismissal of the appeal.

In another “key industry for consumers,” the Justice Department is pursuing claims against American Express, challenging payment card rules that allegedly restrict price competition at the point of sale. MasterCard and Visa have agreed to settle similar civil charges (2011-1 Trade Cases ¶77,529).

Pozen noted that the Antitrust Division is “vigilantly watching for signs of anticompetitive conduct across the economy.” She also pointed out that the Antitrust Division was willing to litigate to judgment if necessary. This point is reflected in the ongoing litigation against Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and American Express.

International Cooperation, Coordination

The acting antitrust chief said that she worked closely with her predecessor, Christine Varney, setting antitrust priorities. Among these priorities is a commitment to international cooperation, which she intends to carry forward.

The recent Memorandum of Understanding between the Antitrust Division and FTC and China’s three antitrust agencies (CCH Trade Regulation Reporter ¶13,512) is a first step towards an enduring relationship, said Pozen. She noted that the federal antitrust agencies were pursuing a similar agreement with India, as that country develops its competition regime.

Pozen reminded practitioners that antitrust agencies around the globe are talking to each other. She noted that many parties recognize the benefits of international coordination in investigations and suggested that permitting the agencies to share information can be beneficial to all who are involved.

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