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14 July 2011
On June 17 2011 the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice updated its policy guide to merger remedies.(1) The new policy guide, which replaces the division's 2004 guidance, is intended to serve as a tool for division staff, merging parties and the bar seeking greater transparency into the division's current approach to merger remedies. Notably, the updated policy guide better reflects the division's recent willingness to craft innovative and comprehensive remedies, including conduct remedies in vertical transactions and other appropriate cases. Until recently, the division had shied away from conduct remedies to avoid the perceived difficulties of enforcement and the costs of excessive government entanglement in the marketplace, but that was because there was little vertical merger enforcement during the Bush administration.
The press release accompanying the new policy guide notes that the goal of any merger remedy is to provide an effective remedy to eliminate the anti-competitive effects of a proposed transaction. However, the division has now formalised its intention to seek a wide variety of conduct remedies in vertical transactions in order to prevent post-merger behaviour that might harm consumers. Divestiture is still the preferred remedy for mergers that involve horizontal issues, although the new policy guide notes that even in horizontal matters, a mixture of structural and conduct remedies may be considered. To rebut the common criticism that conduct remedies are easily evaded because the provisions are often vague or subject to multiple interpretations, the new policy guide stresses that clear and careful drafting will be especially important in creating effective conduct relief.
Since Christine Varney became the assistant attorney general for antitrust in April 2009, the division has imposed a variety of conduct remedies in several important mergers. While vertical merger challenges and behavioural relief were exceedingly rare in the prior administration, the current division has not hesitated to employ any form of relief to address competition concerns, even in some of its most high-profile cases. For instance, conduct remedies are included in the consent decrees entered into by the division in the following cases, which all included vertical issues:
The division's new policy guide outlines a panoply of remedies available to address the unique competition concerns raised in vertical mergers. The most common conduct remedies include the following:
Other conduct remedies include requiring notice of non-reportable mergers, supply contracts, restriction on reacquisition of scarce personnel assets and arbitration provisions. In addition, many cases will require some combination of structural and behavioural relief.(2)
According to the new policy guide, no remedy is effective unless it can be enforced. To help to ensure that parties comply with all remedies as they are designed, the division has placed evaluation and oversight responsibility with the newly created General Counsel's Office, directed by J Robert Kramer II, the division's former director of operations.
By concentrating enforcement in the General Counsel's Office, the division hopes to ensure that remedies are strictly enforced. It also hopes to develop and disseminate remedy best practices and conduct ex post reviews of remedy effectiveness. In addition, consent decrees must include provisions that allow the division to monitor compliance. For example, they may require that the parties agree to provide reports or allow the division to inspect documents or interview employees.
If the parties violate a consent decree, they may be held in civil and/or criminal contempt. Civil contempt is meant to compel compliance with the court order, while criminal contempt is meant to punish those who wilfully violate a clear and definite order. Criminal penalties include fines, imprisonment or both.
For further information on this topic please contact Janet L McDavid or Charles E Dickinson at Hogan Lovells US LLP by telephone (+1 202 637 5600) or by fax (+1 202 637 5910) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
(1) Available at www.justice.gov/atr/public/guidelines/272350.pdf.
(2) The division's January 18 2011 consent decree with Comcast-NBCU, for example, includes non-discrimination and mandatory licensing provisions, prohibitions on restrictive licensing practices and the divestiture of governance and voting rights in Hulu, the online media distributor in which NBCU held an ownership stake (www.justice.gov/atr/cases/f266100/266160.pdf).
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