A federal antitrust lawsuit and proposed consent decree filed the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (“DOJ”} on April 3, 2023 against one of the world’s largest video game developers and publishers Activision Blizzard, Inc. (“Activision”) demonstrates DOJ’s resolve to move forward on its recently announced policy of weaponizing federal antitrust law against anticompetitive compensation and other labor market practices in response to President Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, With DOJ and other agencies moving aggressively both to tighten regulatory restraints on longstanding business practices that limit wages and worker competition in the labor force and simultaneously to investigate and challenge perceived anticompetitive workforce practices, all businesses should review and take advisable steps to strengthen the defensibility of any compensation or other workforce or business practices or arrangements likely to invite government or private antitrust challenges.
DOJ Activision Lawsuit
The DOJ Complaint in U.S. vs. Activision Blizzard, Inc. filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on April 3, 2023 alleges Activision and the independently-owned teams in two esports leagues owned and operated by Activision violated Federal antitrust law by implementing a so-called Competitive Balance Tax that penalized teams in the Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues if a team’s player compensation exceeded a threshold set by Activision.
The Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues, like other sports leagues, feature independently owned teams that not only compete to win matches, but also compete to hire and retain the best players. Because Overwatch and Call of Duty are both multiplayer, team-based games, teams in the Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues must recruit and sign a roster of players who fill distinct roles within the game and can work with and complement their teammates’ skills.
The Complaint alleges the Tax had the purpose and effect of limiting competition between the teams and suppressing esports players’ wages, many of which spend thousands of hours honing their skills for a chance to sign with a professional team. Under Activision’s “Competitive Balance Tax,” rules, Activision pressured teams to limit player compensation and minimized the risk that one team would substantially outbid another for a player by fining teams dollar for dollar if their total player compensation exceeded a threshold set by Activision each year. For every dollar a team spent over that threshold, Activision fined the team one dollar and distributed the collected sum pro rata to all non-offending teams in the league.. The Complaint charges the Tax not only harmed the highest-paid players, but also depressed wages for all players on a team. For example, if a team wanted to pay a large salary to one player, the team would have to pay less to the other players on the team to avoid the Tax. Teams also understood that the Tax incentivized their competitors to limit player compensation in the same way, further exacerbating the Tax’s anticompetitive effects.
The DOJ Complaint charges the agreements between Activision and the teams in the Overwatch and Call of Duty Leagues to impose the Competitive Balance Tax constituted an unreasonable restraint of trade in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1. While acknowledging that players in other professional sports leagues have agreed to salary restrictions as part of collective bargaining agreements subject to antitrust exemptions for such collectively bargained limits, the Complaint distinguished the limitations on the players in Activision’s esports leagues as the Activision esports players are not members of a union and never negotiated or bargained for these rules. Accordingly, Activision should be enjoined from implementing the Competitive Balance Tax or any similar rule or restraint that, directly or indirectly, imposes an upper limit on compensation for any player or players in any professional esports league that Activision owns or controls.
A proposed consent decree filed by DOJ concurrently with the Compliant would prohibit Activision from imposing any rule that would, directly or indirectly, limit player compensation or that would tax, fine, or otherwise penalize any team for exceeding a certain amount of compensation for its players in any of Activision’s professional esports leagues. The proposed consent decree with Activision also would require Activision to certify that it has ended all Competitive Balance Taxes in its professional esports leagues, to implement revised antitrust compliance and whistleblower protection policies, and to provide notice and an explanation of the final judgment to teams and players in its professional esports leagues.
As required by the Tunney Act, the proposed consent decree, along with the competitive impact statement, will be published in the Federal Register. Any person may submit written comments concerning the proposed consent decree during a 60-day comment period to Chief, Civil Conduct Task Force, Antitrust Division, Department of Justice, 450 Fifth Street NW, Suite 8600, Washington, D.C. 20530. At the conclusion of the 60-day comment period, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia may enter the final judgment upon finding it is in the public interest.
Broaden Biden Administration War On “Anticompetitive Labor Market Abuses
The Activision lawsuit is part of a broader focus of the Antitrust Division on using federal antitrust law to combat perceived “anticompetitive labor market abuses” in response to President Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, in which among other things, President Biden affirmed it is the policy of his Administration “to enforce the antitrust laws to combat the excessive concentration of industry, the abuses of market power, and the harmful effects of monopoly and monopsony — especially as these issues arise in labor market” such as noncompete agreements and other practices that restrict ability of workers to compete for wages or other terms of work. As part of the Executive Order’s call for a “total government” attack on these and other identified anticompetitive practices, ordered DOJ, the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”), the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) and other agencies to take all action within their power to put an end to anticompetitive labor practices.
In response to the Executive Order, DOJ, FTC and the NLRB have agreed to cooperate in the investigation and enforcement of federal laws restricting competition among workers regarding wages or other terms and conditions of employment as well as initiated various regulatory and enforcement projects to further strengthen these efforts.
For instance, the FTC on January 18, 2023 published its proposed Non-Compete Clause Rule published January 18, 2023, whose comment period expired on March 20, 2023.
Among other things, the Proposed Rule:
- Would provide it is an unfair method of competition in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act for an employer to enter into or attempt to enter into a non-compete clause with a worker; maintain with a worker a non-compete clause; or, under certain circumstances, represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause;
- Would require employers to rescind existing non-compete clauses no later than the rule’s compliance date; and
- Require an employer rescinding a non-compete clause to provide notice to the worker that the worker’s non-compete clause is no longer in effect.
As proposed, the Proposed Rule would reach to employment and a wide range of other services agreements by defining:
- The term “employer” as a person that hires or contracts with a worker to work for the personproposed rule would define “worker” as a natural person who works, whether paid or unpaid, for an employer; and
- The term “worker” to include an employee, individual classified as an independent contractor, extern, intern, volunteer, apprentice, or sole proprietor who provides a service to a client or customer.
To facilitate compliance, the Proposed Rule would (1) include model language that would satisfy this notice requirementand establish a safe harbor whereby an employer would satisfy the rule’s requirement to rescind existing non-compete clauses where it provides the worker with a notice that complies with this notice requirement.
The Proposed Rule would define the term “non-compete clause” as a contractual term between an employer and a worker that prevents the worker from seeking or accepting employment with a person, or operating a business, after the conclusion of the worker’s employment with the employer.As proposed, however, the Proposed Rule generally would exclude from its definition of a non-compete clause other types of restrictive employment covenants—such as non-disclosure agreements (“NDAs”) and client or customer non-solicitation agreements that generally do not prevent a worker from seeking or accepting employment with a person or operating a business after the conclusion of the worker’s employment with the employers and are not so unusually broad in scope that they function as such.
The Proposed Rule would include a limited exception for non-compete clauses between the seller and buyer of a business.This exception would only apply when the party restricted by the non-compete clause is an owner, member, or partner holding at least a 25% ownership interest in a business entity.The proposed regulatory text would clarify that non-compete clauses covered by this exception would remain subject to federal antitrust law as well as all other applicable law.
The FTC is expected to take quick action to finalize the Proposed Rule now that the comment period has ended. When and if finalized, the requirements of the Proposed Rule are scheduled to take effect 60 days after publication of the Proposed Rule in final form in the Federal Register.
While businesses should stay tuned for further developments regarding the Proposed Rule and other regulatory actions, the DOJ Activision lawsuit and other enforcement actions against businesses attacking compensation or other agreements among competitors impacting workers make clear that businesses immediately could face DOJ or other government or private challenges from their involvement or use of arrangements limiting compensation or other terms of work by workers, nonsolicitation, licensing, antipoaching, noncompete or other practices or agreements historically used by many businesses that have the effect of depressing worker wages or other compensation, freedom to change jobs or other ability to compete in the workplace. In the face of these risks, businesses should consider seeking a review of their existing policies and arrangements for potential exposure under these and other anticompetition regulatory or enforcement changes.
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Chair-Elect of the ABA TIPS Section Medicine & Law Committee, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-OCR, past chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and managed care and employer benefits legal, public policy and operational concerns.
Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns. Her work has included ongoing involvement in health industry and workforce competition and antitrust issues.
For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.
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