Author: Luis Blanquez
The Eleventh Circuit recently rejected the City of LaGrange’s attempt to assert state-action immunity from antitrust liability in Diverse Power, Inc. v. City of Lagrange, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 24772 (11th Cir. Ga., Aug. 20, 2019).
And here is why.
In a nutshell, the City of LaGrange provided water services to both its residents and to users outside the city limits, and natural gas to customers both inside and outside the city.
In 2004, the city enacted an ordinance targeting customers outside the city limits. Under the new law, water would be provided for new construction––to users outside the city––only if the builder installed at least: (i) one natural gas furnace, (ii) one natural gas water heater, and (iii) at least one additional natural gas outlet sufficient for potential future use for a clothes dryer, range, grill, pool heater or outdoor lighting fixture.
Diverse Power, a company that provides electrical power that competes with LaGrange’s natural gas service, suffered competitive harm from this ordinance that tied water service to installation of gas (as opposed to electric) appliances. In response, they brought an action under the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts challenging the city’s policy as an unlawful tying arrangement.
LaGrange moved to dismiss the complaint on several bases, including immunity under the state-action doctrine. The District Court denied LaGrange’s motion and held that LaGrange was not entitled to state-action immunity. Diverse Power, Inc. v. City of LaGrange, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 226681 (N.D. Ga., Feb. 21, 2018).
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit also rejected the City’s claim of immunity and held that tying an unrelated service in a different market to the provision of water service fell outside the statutes’ grant of immunity.
If you don’t know what an antitrust tying claim is, you can read our article on tying arrangements.
At first sight, this seems to be a straightforward state-action immunity case. And in fact, it is. But there are two interesting facts worth mentioning here. First, Judge Tjoflat from the Eleventh Circuit revisited the U.S. Supreme Court landmark case FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health Sys., Inc., 568 U.S. 216, (2013). And second, Judge Tjoflat is the same judge who wrote the original Phoebe Putney Opinion FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc., 663 F.3d 1369 (11th Cir. 2011) that the Supreme Court quashed.
Let’s jump into the legal analysis included in the Eleventh Circuit Opinion.
The Court starts by referencing Parker v. Brown, 317 U.S. 341, 62 S. Ct. 307 (1943), and how it held that the Sherman Act shouldn’t be read to bar states from engaging in anticompetitive conduct “as an act of government.” But because political subdivisions—like the City of LaGrange— “are not themselves sovereign[,] they do not receive all the federal deference of the States that create them.”
Instead, political subdivisions enjoy state-action immunity when they undertake activities “pursuant to a ‘clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed’ state policy to displace competition.” This is commonly known as the clear-articulation requirement—the first step in the two-step Midcal test (the second step is active supervision).
The Court then explains that unlike clear-statement requirements in other domains of law, the clear-articulation requirement has traditionally been satisfied by articulations that are admittedly less than clear. The US Supreme Court has, the Court explained, “rejected the contention that [the clear-articulation] requirement can be met only if the delegating statute explicitly permits the displacement of competition.” City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advert., Inc., 499 U.S. 365, 372, 111 S. Ct. 1344, 1350 (1991). Instead, according to these older precedents, state-action immunity applied when a municipality’s anticompetitive conduct is the “foreseeable result” of state legislation. Town of Hallie v. City of Eau Claire, 471 U.S. 34, 42, 105 S. Ct. 1713, 1718 (1985).
The Court then turns to City of Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 499 U.S. 365, 111 S. Ct. 1344 (1991) to illustrate that, even though the state zoning statute under which the city promulgated the zoning restrictions had nothing to do with the suppression of competition, the Supreme Court held that the city’s actions were immune from federal antitrust liability.
In both cases, immunity from federal antitrust liability was based on similarly broad state statutes that were facially unrelated to the suppression of competition. And as the Eleventh Circuit acknowledges now, it was against this legal backdrop that the Supreme Court decided the Phoebe Putney case.
In Phoebe Putney, two Georgia laws—a provision of the state constitution and a concurrently enacted statute—gave municipally created hospital authorities 27 enumerated powers, including “the power ‘[t]o acquire by purchase, lease, or otherwise and to operate projects [i.e., hospitals and other public health facilities].’”
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