Antitrust litigation both takes a wide variety of forms and encompasses a wide variety of subject matters. Both the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have jurisdiction to investigate and bring actions for violations of the U.S. antitrust laws and state attorneys general similarly are empowered to enforce parallel state antitrust laws. Such government actions may involve allegedly illegal agreements, including agreements whereby two companies agree to merge or otherwise combine business operations, as well as claims for price-fixing, monopolization, and unfair competition. Government agencies can seek injunctions, damages, and significant fines or even incarceration (in criminal antitrust prosecutions).
Private antitrust litigation can involve a single plaintiff and a single defendant in a single jurisdiction but more often involves groups or classes of plaintiffs often pursuing claims in multiple jurisdictions. Anticompetitive conduct that is condemned by the antitrust laws is often alleged to have harmed large groups of consumers or competitors, and the availability of treble damages under the antitrust laws provides a strong incentive for pursuing class claims. As with government antitrust litigation, the subject matter of private antitrust litigation can vary widely, including claims for alleged price fixing, price discrimination, bid rigging, tying, refusals to deal, vertical trade restraints, monopolization, attempted monopolization, and unfair competition.
Because antitrust litigation is often characterized by parallel governmental actions and private litigation spanning multiple domestic and even foreign jurisdictions, managing the risks of monetary and reputational harms consistent with the client’s business needs and goals requires a great deal of sensitivity and judgment on the part of the antitrust litigator. A skilled antitrust litigator must understand his or her client’s overall business operations as well as objectives and be able to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with many claimed stakeholders.
The intersection of antitrust and intellectual property law is an increasing focus in antitrust litigation. In part because patents convey limited monopolies, it is not uncommon for defendants in patent and copyright litigation to assert that plaintiffs have engaged in anticompetitive conduct in violation of the antitrust laws. The ownership and licensing of large portfolios of intellectual property rights — especially patents that are essential to practicing industrywide standards — have been a particular focus of recent antitrust litigation. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice has recently examined the acquisition of large patent portfolios by Microsoft, Apple, and others. And there are numerous pending investigations and litigations concerning whether owners of standards-essential patents are entitled to obtain injunctions against alleged infringers.
Peter T. Barbur, Partner