On April 9, 2014, Terrell McSweeny was confirmed by the Senate as the fifth and final Federal Trade Commissioner. She joins fellow Democrat appointees Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and Commissioner Julie Brill. It is the two Republican appointees, Commissioners Maureen Ohlhausen and Josh Wright, however, who have been making the most news in the last several months with dissents and speeches. Now that the FTC is at full-strength, clients should be on the lookout for a more active discussion of new FTC initiatives.
McSweeny is a relative newcomer to the antitrust community, serving as Senior Counsel for Competition Policy in the Justice Department's Antitrust Division since 2012. She held several positions supporting Vice President Joseph Biden, both as Vice President and Senator, and worked on earlier Democratic presidential campaigns. At her confirmation hearing, she pledged to "continue the [FTC's] tradition of collegiality and consensus-oriented decision making," but described no specific initiatives she planned to pursue. She received support from the few Senators present at the hearing and her confirmation vote was 95-1.
During the many months when there were two Democrat and two Republican Commissioners, the FTC continued to be very active in clearing mergers, challenging fraudulent activities and issuing rules and guidance for businesses of all types. Almost all those actions that required votes of the Commissioners received unanimous support. The two Republican Commissioners, however, have publicly dissented from some current and past FTC actions involving intellectual property, FTC Act Section 5 and particular mergers. Also, the lack of a fifth vote caused a rare 2-2 split on claims of collusion in the recent McWane case.
On intellectual property, Ohlhausen vigorously dissented to a portion of the Commission's late 2012 Robert Bosch consent agreement resolving merger issues. She objected only to the finding of an unfair method of competition when the patent holder sought injunctive relief on a standard essential patent over which there was dispute about a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory license (FRAND). Ohlhausen saw that issue as one better left to courts or standard setting organizations adjudicating contract provisions. She similarly dissented early in 2013 when the FTC obtained a consent agreement in Google/Motorola Mobility that again required a patent holder to forego unrestricted use of injunction actions as part of a FRAND dispute. While Wright took no part in those actions, he reiterated his earlier academic writing in an April 2013 speech that patent and contract law were better than antitrust law in dealing with FRAND disputes involving standard essential patents. In a March 2014 speech, he called those decisions deviations from the principle embedded in past FTC decisions and guidelines that the antitrust analysis should be symmetrical whether the rights were for intellectual property or real property.
Wright has taken the lead on the Section 5 issues. As explained in our earlier alert, FTC Section 5 allows the FTC to go beyond the Sherman Act and prevent "unfair methods of competition," but opinions about the extent of that power have varied with the identities of the commissioners. Wright proposed specific guidance to be issued by the FTC that would tether the FTC's power here to modern antitrust's "harm to competition" concept. In a July 2013 speech, Ohlhausen endorsed the concept of guidance from the FTC and suggested a limited use of Section 5 similar to Wright's. Brill questioned the need for such guidance, pointing to the limited number of recent Section 5 actions and no groundswell from business for such guidance, and thought it only made sense when the Commission was back to full strength. On several occasions, Chairwoman Ramirez has said that the periodic Commission actions and Commissioners' speeches were sufficient guidance on the issue.
Finally, Wright dissented (Ohlhausen was recused) from the September 2013 challenge to theNielsen/Arbitron merger. The Commission was concerned about the effect of the merger on a market that does not now exist. While acknowledging that merger review necessarily involves some level of prediction, he thought the effects of a merger on such a "future market case" beyond the ability of any enforcer to predict. Finally, Wright was the lone dissent from the December 2013 decision to require changes in the Fidelity National/Lender Processing merger before allowing it to proceed. Wright would have allowed the merger to close with no changes, observing that "modern economics" required something more before concluding that the mere reduction in competitors would increase the likelihood of post-merger collusion in the industry.
In the McWane matter, FTC complaint counsel claimed the company excluded some competitors from a slice of the ductile iron pipe fitting market through a loyalty rebate program while also colluding with those same competitors to raise prices in the overall market. The FTC Administrative Law Judge found exclusion but not collusion. The four sitting commissioners missed two deadlines to issue an opinion because, according to media reports, they were deadlocked. Finally, the deadlock was broken but only on exclusion — Wright dissented from a finding that there was sufficient evidence that the rebate program constituted anticompetitive exclusive dealing. The commissioners deadlocked 2-2 on the collusion claims so the ALJ's finding of insufficient evidence was allowed to stand and those claims were dismissed. More details can be found at our alert here.
These dissents and deadlocks can overstate the differences among the commissioners. Since Chairwoman Ramirez rose to her current role last year and the Commission was left shorthanded, the FTC's enforcement and education activities have continued apace, usually supported by unanimity from the four commissioners. Also, Ramirez has not publicly indicated any particular initiatives she had been unable to pursue because of the lack of a third Democratic vote. Still, the McSweeny addition will give her the opportunity to regain the initiative from her Republican colleagues. Clients should be alert for any changes in the debates or new initiatives now that the Commission is back to full strength.