Articles Posted in Antitrust Exemptions and Immunities

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Author: Jarod Bona

Congress and the federal courts have—over time—created several exemptions or immunities to antitrust liability.

The US Supreme Court in National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States explained that “The Sherman Act reflects a legislative judgment that ultimately competition will produce not only lower prices, but also better goods and services.” 435 U.S. 679, 695 (1978). And “[t]he heart of our national economy long has been faith in the value of competition.” Id.

National Society of Professional Engineers holds, effectively, that those that think that they should not be subject to competition—for whatever reason—don’t get a free pass.

But there are several areas that do have limited exemptions to federal antitrust liability. Importantly, however, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that courts should narrowly interpret these exemptions.

Here are the primary antitrust exemptions created by Congress and the federal courts:

State-Action Immunity. State-action immunity comes up a lot at Bona law, as we work hard to enforce the federal antitrust laws against anticompetitive state and local conduct. This exemption allows certain state and local government activity to avoid antitrust scrutiny. Lately, the US Supreme Court has narrowed the doctrine, including for state licensing boards that seek its protection when sued under the antitrust laws (North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission). Bona Law also advocates a market-participant exception to state-action immunity, but the courts are split on that issue.

Filed-Rate Doctrine. The filed-rate doctrine is a defense to an antitrust action that is premised on the regulatory rates filed with a federal administrative agency. In many regulated industries (like insurance, energy, shipping, etc.), businesses must, generally, file the rates that they offer to customers with federal agencies. The filed-rate doctrine eliminates antitrust liability for instances in which, to satisfy the antitrust elements, a judge or judge must question or second guess the level of these filed rates (i.e. that they included overcharges resulting from anticompetitive conduct).

Business of Insurance. The McCarran-Ferguson Act exempts certain acts that are the business of insurance and regulated by one or more states from antitrust scrutiny. You can read more about the McCarran-Ferguson Act and its requirements at The Antitrust Attorney Blog.

Baseball. That’s right—there is a baseball exemption to antitrust liability. This is a judge-made doctrine developed long ago. The other sports don’t have an antitrust exemption and the question of whether baseball should have one comes up periodically. If you want to learn more, you should read the five-part series on baseball and antitrust that Luke Hasskamp authored.

Agricultural Cooperatives. The Capper-Volstead Act provides a limited antitrust exemption to farm cooperatives. Under certain circumstances, this Congressional Act allows farmers to pool their output together and increase their bargaining power against buyers of agricultural products. You can read more about this in Aaron Gott’s article on the Capper-Volstead Act.

The Noerr-Pennington doctrine. The Noerr-Pennington immunity—named after two US Supreme Court cases—is a limited antitrust exemption for certain actions by groups or individuals when the intent of that activity is to influence government actions. The Noerr-Pennington doctrine can apply to actions that seek to influence legislative, executive, or judicial conduct. There is, however, an important sham exception to Noerr-Pennington immunity that often comes up in litigation.

You can learn more about the Noerr-Pennington doctrine and antitrust liability here.

Statutory and Non-Statutory Labor Exemptions. The statutory labor exemption allows labor unions to organize and bargain collectively in limited circumstances, including requirements that the union act in its legitimate self-interest and that it not combine with non-labor groups. The non-statutory labor exemption arrives from court decisions that further exempt certain activities that make collective bargaining possible, like joint action by employers that is ancillary to the collective bargaining process.

You can read more about both the statutory and non-statutory labor antitrust exemptions here.

Implied Immunity. Implied immunity occurs in the rare instances in which there is no express antitrust exemption, but the anticompetitive conduct falls into an area of such intense federal regulatory scrutiny that antitrust enforcement must yield to the pervasive federal regulatory scheme.

The typical area where this comes up is with the federal securities laws, which is a good example of pervasive federal regulation. The US Supreme Court case to read for this antitrust exemption is Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC v. Billing, from 2007.

Keep in mind that courts do not easily find implied immunity of the antitrust laws—there must be a “clear repugnancy” or “clear incompatibility” between the antitrust laws and the federal regulatory regime.

Export Trade Exemptions. A little-known exemption involves export trade by associations of competitors. This antitrust exemption arises primarily from the Webb-Pomerene Act and the Export Trading Company Act. These FTC and DOJ guidelines provide more information about this antitrust exemption.

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Author: Jarod Bona

The doctrine of federal antitrust law includes several immunities and exemptions—entire areas that are off limits to certain antitrust actions. This can be confusing, especially because these “exceptions” arise, grow, and shrink over time, at the seeming whim of federal courts.

As a matter of interpretation, the Supreme Court demands that courts view such exemptions and immunities narrowly, but they are still an important part of the antitrust landscape. This includes, prominently, the Filed Rate Doctrine, which is the topic of this article.

Here at The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we write about these antitrust exceptions periodically. In particular, we spend a lot of time on state-action immunity, but have also published articles on, for example, the baseball antitrust exemption, the farm cooperative exemption, and the business of insurance exception (which, unlike many others, arose from statute: The McCarran-Ferguson Act).

What is the Filed Rate Doctrine?

The filed rate doctrine is simply a judicially created exception to a civil antitrust action for damages in which plaintiffs challenge the validity of rates or tariff terms that have been filed with and approved by a federal regulatory agency.

But what does that mean?

In some industries, notably insurance, energy, and shipping (or other common carriers), the participants must file the rates that they offer to all or most customers with a government agency. This regulatory agency must then, in some manner, approve those rates. This approach is an exception to a typical market and was more common in certain industries pre-deregulation.

The idea of filing these rates is that the benevolent and all-knowing government agency, rather than the market, will best look after customers. It arises from the same seed as socialism and was particularly popular in the early to mid-20th century when the view that educated people could perform better than markets was in vogue.

Anyway, these “filed rates” are still with us and are a defense, through the filed rate doctrine, to certain antitrust actions.

The filed rate doctrine itself arose in a 1922 US Supreme Court case called Keogh v. Chicago & Northwest Railway Co., 260 U.S. 156 (1922). In that case, the plaintiffs sought antitrust damages by arguing that defendants violated the Sherman Act and the rates charged by certain common-carrier shippers were higher than they would have been in a competitive market.

The defendants, however, had filed these rates with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), a federal agency that had approved them. The Supreme Court responded by precluding plaintiffs’ antitrust lawsuit on that basis, as the rates, once filed, “cannot be varied or enlarged by either contract or tort of the carrier.” It is the legal rate.

The Supreme Court has since reaffirmed this holding, most prominently in a case called Square D Co. v. Niagara Frontier Tariff Bureau, Inc., 476 U.S. 409 in 1986, which you can read at the link if you want to dig deeper.

When Does the Filed Rate Doctrine Preclude Antitrust Liability?

The filed rate doctrine is a defense to an antitrust lawsuit, premised on damages, so long as the claim requires the Court to examine or second guess the rates filed with a federal agency.

So if you are a plaintiff that wants to bring an antitrust action against a defendant that filed rates, you could (1) seek certain types of injunctive relief; and (2) develop your action in a way that doesn’t require the Court to determine liability or calculate damages by comparing current filed rates to a hypothetical rate in a but-for world. This can get complicated, so if you are not an antitrust attorney, you might want to find one.

If you are or represent a defendant that has been sued under the antitrust laws and the defendant company files rates with some agency, you should also seek antitrust-specific guidance. You might have a strong defense.

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Author: Luke Hasskamp

This article—the fifth in a series—addresses some of the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Toolson v. New York Yankees, in particular the litigation involving Curt Flood that ultimately led to the free agency era of professional baseball.

You can find the other parts to this series below:

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 1: The Origins of the Reserve Clause

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (and Strike Out)

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 3: Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 4: Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

Curt Flood takes on baseball

Curt Flood was immensely important in baseball’s labor movement, serving as the plaintiff in the last baseball lawsuit to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and helping to usher in the current “free agency” era of baseball. He was also a star player, spending 15 years in the major leagues with the Cincinnati Red(leg)s, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Washington Senators. He was a three-time All Star, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, and retired with a .293 batting average.

After twelve seasons in St. Louis, on October 7, 1969, the Cardinals traded Flood and several other players, including Tim McCarver, to the Philadelphia Phillies. Yet, Flood, who was still near the peak of his playing years, had no interest in going, citing Philadelphia’s terrible record, dilapidated stadium, and racist fans, at least in Flood’s eyes.

Flood refused to report to Philadelphia and sent a strongly-worded letter to baseball’s commissioner at the time, Bowie Kuhn, noting that he was not “a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood added his belief that “any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.”

Flood’s letter to Kuhn fell on deaf ears, and he filed suit against the League in the Southern District of New York, alleging that baseball’s reserve clause violated antitrust law. Flood, who was then making $90,000 per season, sought $1 million in damages. Flood retained former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who agreed to handle the matter without charge. Flood knew that the lawsuit, which could potentially (and did) take years, would effectively end his playing career.

Several former players testified at trial on behalf of Flood, including Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, as well as Bill Veeck, renegade owner of the Chicago White Sox. No current players testified in favor of Flood, however. Following a ten-week bench trial, the district court ruled against Flood and in favor Major League Baseball, finding that the reserve clause had beneficial aspects for the game and its players.

Flood appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit, which affirmed the district court, holding that Federal Baseball and Toolson were binding precedent and, thus, Major League Baseball was not subject to the Sherman Act because baseball did not constitute interstate commerce. The Second Circuit added that baseball was “so uniquely interstate commerce” as the league extended over many states that the “consequent extra-territorial effect of necessary compliance” with multiple state antitrust laws would be “far reaching.” Accordingly, federal law pre-empted the application of state antitrust laws.

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Author: Luke Hasskamp

This article—the fourth in a series—addresses some of the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, where the Court unanimously held that federal antitrust laws did not apply to professional baseball. This includes the “birth” of baseball’s antitrust exemption in the Supreme Court’s 1953 decision in Toolson v. New York Yankees.

You can find the other parts to this series below:

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 1: The Origins of the Reserve Clause

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (and Strike Out)

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 3: Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 5: Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

The evolution of the Commerce Clause

It seems safe to say that it is widely known that baseball is exempt from antitrust laws. But that exemption did not arise in the Court’s 1922 ruling in Federal Baseball. Instead, there, the Court had concluded that the Sherman Act did not apply to baseball at all—because baseball was not a form of interstate commerce. This is an important distinction.

The Sherman Act makes it unlawful to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States . . . .” The reason Congress included “among the several States” in the statute is because its authority to enact the Sherman Act flowed from Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the Commerce Clause.

Specifically, the Commerce Clause gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states . . . .” If the conduct at issue did not affect commerce “among the several states,” Congress had no authority to regulate it. Thus, because the Court determined that baseball did not affect interstate commerce, Congress had no power to subject it to antitrust scrutiny.

The Federal Baseball decision has been widely criticized, both at the time and today. But when considered in context, it is somewhat understandable. For starters, the game in the 1920s was obviously much different than the multi-billion-dollar industry that we know today. There were fewer teams, lower revenues, and games were not yet watched on television—the first televised Major League Baseball game would occur on August 26, 1939, a doubleheader played at Ebbets Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds.

Perhaps an even more understandable explanation for the Federal Baseball outcome was the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause at the time and, specifically, its definition of interstate commerce, which was narrower than it is today.

Federal Baseball was decided during the Lochner era, which encompassed the three decades following the Supreme Court’s 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905). During this period, the Court struck down a number of federal and state laws relating to labor and working conditions, as the Court took a narrow view of states’ police powers and Congress’s powers under the Commerce Clause.

The Lochner era came to an end beginning in 1937, with a series of decisions from the Court upholding several federal and state statutes in this realm, and, importantly, recognizing broader grounds upon which the Commerce Clause could be used to regulate state activity. Instead of viewing the Commerce Clause as a limitation on congressional authority, it now marked one of the most effective means by which Congress could expand its regulatory reach. The narrow definition of interstate commerce was tossed out and activity was now viewed as commerce if it had a “substantial economic effect” on interstate commerce.

Baseball’s deft touch

The late 1930s to the 1950s marked an era of strategic litigation, settlements, and lobbying by baseball. With this expansion of the Commerce Clause, many predicted that it would not be long before the Supreme Court overruled Federal Baseball. Accordingly, baseball sought to avoid legal challenges that would give the Supreme Court an opportunity to do so, and it also worked to negotiate concerns in Congress that led some members to call for legislation clarifying that the Sherman Act should apply to baseball.

An interesting example of the threat faced by professional baseball, and its strategic response to it, arose from the emergence of professional baseball in Mexico soon after World War II. To attract top talent, the Mexican league offered lucrative salaries more than double what players were making in the U.S., causing several players to abandon their contracts and play south of the border. One such player was Danny Gardella, who had been offered $4,500 to play for the New York Giants but $10,000 to play in Mexico for the 1947 season. (The Mexican League was owned by Jorge Pasquel, another colorful character in the long roster of colorful characters in professional baseball, who allegedly used campaigned funds siphoned from the Mexican presidential election to pay for the substantial salaries.)

Perhaps as expected, Major League Baseball was not pleased with the defections, and Commissioner Happy Chandler banned the defecting players for five years, a remarkable penalty considering such strict penalties had only been imposed for violations that impugned the integrity of the game itself, such as gambling or cheating on games. When Gardella returned to the U.S. after the 1947 season—the year in Mexico had not been a success, especially for the Mexican league—he was unable to find a team willing to take him. Thus, he sued in federal court in New York.

The district court granted Major League Baseball’s motion to dismiss. The court recognized that Federal Baseball appeared to rest on a shaky foundation, but it also recognized that it was not its place to overturn the decision—the authority rested with the Supreme Court. Gardella appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was heard by Chief Judge Learned Hand, Judge Harrie Chase, and Judge Jerome Frank.

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Author: Luke Hasskamp

This article—the third in a series—focuses on the Supreme Court’s decision in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, in which the Court unanimously held that federal antitrust laws did not apply to professional baseball. It is a curious decision, indeed, preceded by two prior decisions that helped to set the table.

Despite the focus of this series of articles on baseball’s unusual treatment under the antitrust laws, the first two articles did not actually address antitrust law. Instead, the focus was, primarily, contract law. Despite the clear anticompetitive implications of baseball’s reserve clause, which owners used to tie players to a team in perpetuity and to suppress player salaries, the initial challenges to these provisions were based on the law of contracts. And the initial lawsuits did not involve affirmative litigation brought by players but were instead brought by the owners, with the players raising these arguments in their defense.

Now the stage was set for the antitrust laws to enter the picture full force, and not just as a shield to protect players from teams’ requests for injunctions, but also as a sword to affirmatively attack professional baseball as an unlawful trust.

You can find the other parts to this series below:

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 1: The Origins of the Reserve Clause

Baseball and the Antitrust laws Part 2: The Owners Strike Back (and Strike Out)

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 4: Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption

Baseball and the Antitrust Laws Part 5: Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

The antitrust laws and baseball finally intersect: the Hal Chase case

The first antitrust baseball case fully litigated on the merits was American League Baseball Club v. Chase, 149 N.Y.S. 6 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1914), a dispute involving Hal Chase, a star first baseman who moved from the Chicago White Sox of the American League to the Buffalo Buff-Feds of the Federal League.

The suit was brought in New York by the White Sox, who sought to enjoin Chase from playing for Buffalo. At the conclusion of the matter, Judge Bissell rejected Chase’s “novel argument . . . presented with much earnestness” that baseball violated federal antitrust laws. The Sherman Act makes it unlawful to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States . . . .” Judge Bissell had no doubt that baseball was a monopoly, but he concluded that it was not involved in interstate trade or commerce. Instead, he reasoned: “Baseball is an amusement, a sport, a game that . . . is not a commodity or an article of merchandise subject to the regulation of congress . . . .” (Congress is constrained by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the connection to interstate commerce was essential. If baseball did not affect interstate commerce, Congress had no power to regulate it.)

Interestingly, Judge Bissell did rule that baseball had violated New York state law, meaning that the preliminary injunction initially granted could no longer be maintained. And his reasoning suggested that he also would have found baseball to have violated federal antitrust laws had it affected interstate commerce:

“A court of equity insisting that ‘he who comes into equity must come with clean hands’ will not lend its aid to promote an unconscionable transaction of the character which the plaintiff is endeavoring to maintain and strengthen by its application for this injunction. The court will not assist in enforcing an agreement which is a part of a general plan having for its object the maintenance of a monopoly, interference with the personal liberty of a citizen and the control of his free right to labor wherever and for whom he pleases; and will not extend its aid to further the purposes and practices of an unlawful combination, by restraining the defendant from working for any one but the plaintiff.”

Thus, with his legal victory, Chase was able to play with Buffalo for 1914 and 1915. While it was not a devastating blow for organized baseball—because “the question of the dissolution of this combination on the ground of its illegality” was not before the court—it must have seemed like an ominous conclusion to the ruling.

Chase ended up having a remarkable career for several reasons. Many players, including Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson, considered him the best first baseman ever, and he is sometimes considered the first true star of the franchise that would eventually become the New York Yankees. But Chase was also ultimately exposed as a notorious cheater, betting extensively on games and paying and receiving money to fix games. Indeed, he was indicted as part of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal (though his role is disputed), but the State of California refused to extradite him due to a problem with the arrest warrant. He was ultimately blackballed from professional baseball and spent his remaining years on the west coast.

The Federal League takes on Organized Baseball: Round 1

In 1913, the Federal League emerged as a serious competitor to the National and American Leagues. And it intended to do so in court, as well as on the field, where it would wield the threat of a serious antitrust challenge. Indeed, in January 2015, the Federal League finally filed its affirmative suit against the National and American Leagues in federal court in Illinois, alleging that they amounted to a combination in violation of federal and state antitrust laws.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

We’ve discussed the state action doctrine many times in the past. The courts have interpreted the federal antitrust laws as providing a limited exemption from the antitrust laws for certain state and local government conduct. This is known as state-action immunity.

In this article, we will discuss how the FTC and DOJ have approached this important antitrust exemption over time. And we are going to do it in several steps. First, we will examine the early stages, with the creation of the State Action Task Force. Second, we will consider the reflections from former FTC Commissioner Maureen K. Ohlhausen on the Supreme Court’s 2015 North Carolina Dental Decision; and the  FTC Staff Guidance on Active Supervision of State Regulatory Boards Controlled by Market Participants. Last, we will spend some time on what is an amicus brief, and will analyze some of the most recent briefs on state action immunity filed by the FTC and DOJ.

You might also enjoy our article on why you should consider filing an amicus brief in a federal appellate case.

  1. THE FIRST STEPS: THE MODERN STATE ACTION PROGRAM

In September 2003, the State Action Task Force of the FTC published a report summarizing the state action doctrine, explaining how an overbroad interpretation of the state action doctrine could potentially impede national competition goals. The Task Force stressed that (i) some courts had eroded the clear articulation and active supervision standards, (ii) courts had largely ignored the problems of interstate spillover effects, (iii) and that there was an increasing role for municipalities in the marketplace.

To address these problems, the FTC suggested in its report that the Commission implement the following recommendations through litigation, amicus briefs and competition advocacy: (1) re-affirm a clear articulation standard tailored to its original purposes and goals, (2) clarify and strengthen the standards for active supervision, (3) clarify and rationalize the criteria for identifying the quasi-governmental entities that should be subject to active supervision, (4) encourage judicial recognition of the problems associated with overwhelming interstate spillovers, and consider such spillovers as a factor in case and amicus/advocacy selection, and (5) undertake a comprehensive effort to address emerging state action issues through the filing of amicus briefs in appellate litigation.

Finally, the report outlined previous Commission litigation and competition advocacy involving state action.

  1. PHOEBE PUTNEY AND NORTH CAROLINA DENTAL

FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health Sys. Inc., 133 S. Ct. 1003 (2013).

In Phoebe Putney, two Georgia laws gave municipally hospital authorities certain powers, including “the power ‘[t]o acquire by purchase, lease, or otherwise and to operate projects.” Under these laws, the Hospital Authority of Albany tried to acquire another hospital. Such laws provided hospital authorities the prerogative to purchase hospitals and other health facilities, a grant of authority that could foreseeably produce anticompetitive results.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed foreseeability as the touchstone of the clear-articulation test, id. at 226–27, 113 S. Ct. at 1011, but placed narrower bounds to its meaning. In particular, the Supreme Court held that “a state policy to displace federal antitrust law [is] sufficiently expressed where the displacement of competition [is] the inherent, logical, or ordinary result of the exercise of authority delegated by the state legislature.” Id. at 229, 113 S. Ct. at 1012–13. “[T]he ultimate requirement [is] that the State must have affirmatively contemplated the displacement of competition such that the challenged anticompetitive effects can be attributed to the ‘state itself.’” Id. at 229, 113 S. Ct. at 1012 (citation omitted)

Jarod Bona filed an amicus brief in this case, which you can read here. You can also read a statement from the FTC on this case here.

North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC Decision

We have written extensively about this case in the blog. Please see here and here.

In a nutshell, the FTC took notice, brought an administrative complaint against the board, and ultimately found the board had violated federal antitrust law. Importantly, the FTC also held that the board was not entitled to state-action immunity because its actions interpreting the dental practice act were not reviewed by a disinterested state official to ensure that they accorded with state policy. The Fourth Circuit agreed with the FTC, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The case centered on whether a state professional-licensing board dominated by private market participants had to show both elements of Midcal’s two-prong test: (1) a clear articulation of authority to engage in anticompetitive conduct, and (2) active supervision by a disinterested state official to ensure the policy comports with state policy. Previous Supreme Court decisions exempted certain non-sovereign state actors, primarily municipalities, from the active supervision requirement. The board argued it should be exempt as well.

The Supreme Court rejected the board’s arguments and held that “a state board on which a controlling number of decisionmakers are active market participants in the occupation the board regulates must satisfy Midcal’s active supervision requirement to invoke state-action antitrust immunity.”

Bona Law also filed an amicus brief in this case, which you can find here.

In the wake of this Supreme Court decision, state officials requested advice from the FTC about antitrust compliance for state boards responsible for regulating occupations. Shortly after, the FTC published its Staff Guidance on Active Supervision of State Regulatory Boards Controlled by Market Participants. The Commission provided guidance on two questions. First, when does a state regulatory board require active supervision in order to invoke the state action defense? Second, what factors are relevant to determining whether the active supervision requirement is satisfied. If you want to read our summary of the guidance please see here.

  1. THE TOOL OF THE FTC AND DOJ: AMICUS CURIAE BRIEFS

An amicus curiae brief is a persuasive legal document filed by a person or entity in a case, usually while the case is on appeal, in which it is not a party but has an interest in the outcome. Amicus curiae literally means “friend of the court.” Amicus parties try to “help” the court reach its decision by offering facts, analysis, or perspective that the parties to the case have not. There is considerable evidence that amicus briefs have influence, and appellate courts often cite to them in issuing their decisions.

As far as the state action immunity is concerned, the DOJ and FTC have published several amicus briefs. Here are some particularly relevant ones:

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Author:  Aaron Gott

The federal antitrust laws are a decisive proclamation that competition is the best policy—competition leads to better products and services, the greatest value at the lowest price. But, just like with anything else, there are exceptions. Congress and the courts have carved out numerous exceptions from antitrust liability—or as we’ll call them, exemptions. There’s an insurance exemption, a labor exemption, a baseball exemption, a state-action exemption, and many others. And they exist for a variety of reasons. Without the labor exemption, for example, union activity would be a felony. And we have a baseball exemption because, well, America likes baseball.

Today we’re going to talk about one important exemption for the agriculture industry: the farm cooperative exemption. Created by the Capper-Volstead Co-operative Marketing Associations Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 291–92), the farm cooperative exemption provides associations of persons or entities who produce agricultural products a limited exemption from antitrust liability relating to the production, handling, and marketing of farm products.

The farm cooperative exemption has some personal significance to me: I grew up across the street from one in my small Iowa town. And that co-op sponsored one of my little league teams.

At Bona Law, we regularly deal with antitrust exemptions. In fact, we have argued state-action exemption issues before the U.S. Supreme Court several times. As with any other exemption—and this is very important—the farm cooperative exemption is limited, disfavored, and narrowly applied. So it can easily become a trap. Like anything with antitrust, there are plenty of nuances and exceptions. We’re going to address some of those, but you should contact an antitrust lawyer if you really need to know whether the antitrust laws could apply, you’re being sued, or you want to consider suing.

The farm cooperative exemption allows a group of farmers—each of which is a competitor in the market—to come together and essentially act as one farmer. Through a cooperative, farmers pool their output together, agree on a price, and ultimately have more bargaining power in dealing with buyers—who historically were much bigger outfits than the individual farmers competing for their business.

The exemption also allows cooperatives to join together under a common marketing agency.

The exemption is overseen by the USDA, and the act gives direct oversight power to the Secretary of Agriculture. The secretary can, on his own volition, hold hearings, find facts, and issue orders to prevent cooperatives from monopolizing or restraining trade “to such an extent that the price of any agricultural product is unduly enhanced” as a result. But litigation—whether enforcement by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division or private civil lawsuits—is where a cooperative’s fate is usually decided.

Without the exemption, this sort of arrangement would be analytically indistinguishable from a price-fixing cartel, except that price-fixing cartels typically do not operate out in the open, since it is a serious felony. In fact, before 1922 when the act went into effect, farmers who acted together to market their products were sometimes prosecuted under the Sherman Act.

Conditions for the Antitrust Exemption

The Capper-Volstead Act establishes several conditions for the exemption to apply. There are two universal conditions:

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Author: Luke Hasskamp

This is the second of a series of articles examining some of the interesting intersections between the law and baseball, with a focus on baseball’s exemption from federal and state antitrust laws. (Though, like the first article, this one does not quite reach the antitrust issues, as the initial challenges were brought under contract law.)

The first article looked at some of the early conflict between professional baseball players and team owners of the National League, which largely originated from the owners’ adoption of the “reserve clause,” which effectively tied a player to a single team for the entirety of his career, subject to the team’s discretion (and ten-days’ notice). Naturally, this led to litigation, particularly as other leagues emerged that sought to compete with the National League. The National League sued several players who tried to jump to the Players League—and the players won resounding victories in those early cases, with courts refusing to find the one-sided contracts to be enforceable on the ground that they were indefinite agreements and/or lacked mutuality.

The third part of the series is Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court.

The fourth part of the series is baseball’s antitrust exemption.

The fifth part of the series is Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

By the time the 1890 season ended—with the National League champion Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the American Association champion Louisville Colonels participating in a best-of-seven game “world” series that ended in a tie—it seemed that the reserve clause was doomed. But forces conspired to give the teams, yet again, the upper hand.

To begin, the Players League ended its first season as a financial failure, causing the League to disband. This relieved the National League of a major competitor. The National League received more good news following the 1891 season, when the American Association, another professional league, failed. This meant that, once again, there was only one professional league in town. Thus, even though the players had won important cases invalidating the reserve clause, they had nowhere else to play, which would remain the case for the next decade.

Things got a little more interesting in 1901 with the arrival of the American League, which emerged as a serious competitor. Indeed, the National League had instituted a per player salary cap of $2,400, while the American League offered salaries of up to $6,000, causing dozens of players to switch leagues.

One such player was Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie, a star player for the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies. Indeed, Lajoie was one of the first superstars of the game and was highly sought by the upstart American League. (Indeed, he refused to take a bad photo.) Despite his contract with the National League, Lajoie signed with the new American League team in town: the Philadelphia Athletics (which was to be managed by Connie Mack, who remained the manager of the Athletics for an incredible 50 years—the longest-serving manager in Major League Baseball history—amassing records for wins (3,731), losses (3,948), and games managed (7,755)).

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Author: Luke Hasskamp

This is the first of a series of articles intended to address some of the interesting intersections between the law and baseball, particularly baseball’s curious exemption from federal and state antitrust laws. More generally, it’s about the struggle between team owners and players since the dawn of professional baseball, and some of the quirks to emerge along the way.

You can read the second part of the baseball and antitrust series here: The Owners Strike Back (And Strike Out).

The third part of the series is Baseball Reaches the Supreme Court.

The fourth part of the series is baseball’s antitrust exemption.

The fifth part of the series is Touch ’em all, Curt Flood.

This article starts at the beginning with a fledgling set of teams in the National League in the late 19th century—with team owners trying to turn consistent profits and players beginning to emerge as stars, and the tension between the two.

The trouble started in 1879, when the owners of the teams in the National League agreed on the “reserve clause” which was a provision included in player contracts that effectively bound the player to his team for his entire career. (Here’s an example of such a reserve clause.)

At the time, most National League teams were losing money and faced bleak financial prospects. To curb expenses, the teams agreed on a strategy to keep salaries down: each team would be allowed to “reserve” up to five players for the following season. This meant that no other team could sign a reserved player unless he received permission to do so.

As expected, each team elected to reserve their five best players, i.e., their most expensive players. With no market competing for players’ services, team owners were able to suppress salaries for elite talent and increase profits. Indeed, just two seasons after the adoptions of the reserve clause, most teams had become profitable, the first time that had happened.

 Due to this success, the owners saw no reason to limit the reserve clause to the top five players. They steadily increased the reserve limit until, by 1887, a team was permitted to reserve its entire roster, 14 players at the time. 1887 is also the year that the reserve clause became an explicit provision in players’ contracts; until then, it had at first been a secret agreement between the owners and then, after it leaked, simply become a league rule that all players were required to abide by. Importantly (for the owners), the reserve clause crept beyond the National League into other competing leagues that would emerge during that time, including the American Association and the American League, which both agreed to honor National League’s reserve lists.

At this time, the contracts were decidedly one sided. Although teams effectively controlled a player for the entirety of his career, nothing bound the teams to their players, except for their contracts (and virtually all contracts had one-year terms). Any player could be traded or sold at any time, and they could be released on just 10-days’ notice.

John Montgomery Ward became an important early figure in challenges to baseball’s reserve clause. Known as Monte Ward during his playing days, he began his career at 19 as a pitcher for the Providence Grays. In 1879, he went 47–19 with 239 strikeouts and a 2.15 ERA, pitching 587 innings. The following season Ward went 39–24 with 230 strikeouts and a 1.74 ERA pitching 595.0 innings. Ward also has the distinction of pitching the second perfect game in professional history as well as the longest complete game shutout, going 18 innings in a 1-0 win over the Detroit Wolverines 1–0 on August 17, 1882, a record that will never be broken. (He also has a pretty epic baseball card.)

Following an injury to his pitching arm that, remarkably, was not attributed to his workload but to a mishap while sliding, Ward’s performance as a pitcher began to diminish, so the Grays sold him to the New York Gotham before the 1883 season (they were renamed the New York Giants in 1885.) The move was fortuitous for several reasons, including the fact that it enabled Ward to enroll at Columbia Law School, where he graduated in 1885.

Using his legal training, Ward organized and led the first labor union in professional sports, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. The principal goal of the Brotherhood was to raise player salaries, which had remained stagnant even though baseball’s popularity (and revenues) had risen considerably. A chief target of the Brotherhood’s effort was the reserve clause, which continued to suppress players’ salaries and limit their mobility.

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Noerr-Pennington-Immunity-300x190

Author: Jarod Bona

You might wonder why industry trade associations can lobby the government without obvious antitrust sanction, even when—which is common—they seek regulations or actions that ultimately harm competition.

The answer is found in the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which we will discuss today.

What is the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?

The Noerr-Pennington immunity is a limited exemption from antitrust liability for certain actions by individuals or groups that are intending with that action to influence government decision-making, which can be legislative, executive, or judicial.

Importantly, for the Noerr-Pennington immunity to apply, the challenged action cannot be a sham that merely covers up an intent to interfere with a competitor’s ability to compete. The question of whether an action fits within the “sham” exception to Noerr-Pennington is often an area of intense dispute between the parties to litigation. You can learn more about the sham exception later in this article.

The purpose of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is to protect the fundamental right to petition the government, including filing litigation in the courts. It also seeks to support the flow of information to the government. If you’ve read the First Amendment to our Bill of Rights, you might be familiar with this petitioning the government thing.

You may wonder why the doctrine has such an odd name—Noerr-Pennington. Why didn’t they name it the “government-petitioning” immunity or the “you-can-sue-who-you-want-without-incurring-antitrust-liability” doctrine?

Did two people named Noerr and Pennington invent the doctrine?

No—the Noerr-Pennington immunity developed from two cases in the crazy 1960s: Eastern Railroad Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, 365 U.S. 127 (1961) and United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965—better known as the first year the Minnesota Twins made the World Series, losing to the Dodgers).

In Noerr Motor Freight (we’ll describe the case with the party name that made the doctrine title), a group of railroad companies conducted a joint publicity campaign targeting legislation that would make it harder for trucking companies to compete with them. Even though defendants’ conduct was anticompetitive in intent, the Court held that joint action for legislation was of sufficient importance to society that it should be exempt from antitrust liability.

In Pennington, a union and a group of large mining companies escaped antitrust liability for their group effort (i.e. conspiracy) to try to induce the Labor Department to set minimum wages at a level that would make it difficult for small mining companies to compete.

From these two cases, the doctrine took off and was expanded to other contexts, including court filings. Of course, there are limits and parties facing antitrust scrutiny can’t just point to some potential eventual political impact to their actions to capture Noerr-Pennington immunity.

Interestingly, the US Supreme Court  in Allied Tube and Conduit Corp v. Indian Head, Inc., 486 U.S. 492 (1988), rejected Noerr-Pennington immunity for anticompetitive conduct before a private standard-setting body, even though local governments typically enact the standards set by that standard-setting group. If you are interested in where the lines are to meet the government petitioning part of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, you should read Allied Tube.

What is the Sham Exception to the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?

As you might expect with any exception, parties that want to get away with antitrust liability try to fit their conduct within it. That is one reason why the Supreme Court makes it clear that exceptions, exemptions, and immunities to the antitrust laws should be construed narrowly. (Unfortunately, many courts below the Supreme Court have not yet figured that out with respect to state-action immunity, as they are still applying it more broadly than I believe the Supreme Court has ordered through its recent decisions).

Anyway, to avoid abuse of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, courts apply what is called a “sham exception.” This exception applies when the challenged conduct is intended to interfere with competition, rather than to legitimately influence official government conduct.

It isn’t always easy to understand when the “sham” exception applies, but one way to understand the difference is to compare the “process” of government petitioning from the “outcome” of government petitioning. When the anticompetitive conduct arises from the actual process—i.e. baseless litigation that bankrupts a competitor because of the legal fees—the sham exception applies. When the harm from the challenged conduct arises from the outcome of government petition—i.e. successfully convincing a government agency to pass a grossly anticompetitive regulation—the sham exception is less likely to apply.

One example of potentially “sham” petitioning activity outside of a litigation context is a situation in which a competitor will challenge its market adversary’s licensing application (of some sort) in an effort to delay it or otherwise interfere with its granting, outside of any issues with the merits.

Sometimes what you will see in the reality of a dispute is a combination of legitimate petitioning activity and other coercive anticompetitive conduct. In those instances, an antitrust defendant cannot use the activity protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine to shield the other unprotected anticompetitive conduct. Courts often have to distinguish between the two categories of conduct.

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