Articles Posted in Financial and Insurance Industry

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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, 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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Downtown HartfordIn many instances, conduct involving the business of insurance is, indeed, exempt from antitrust liability.

So why does insurance sometimes get a free pass?

In 1945, Congress passed a law called The McCarran-Ferguson Act. Insurance, of course, has traditionally been regulated by the States. Territorial and jurisdictional disputes between the States and the Federal government are a grand tradition in this country. We call it Federalism. In 1945, it appears that the states won a battle over the feds.

As a result, in certain instances, business-of-insurance conduct can escape federal antitrust scrutiny.

The business of insurance isn’t the only type of exemption from the antitrust laws. There are a few. At The Antitrust Attorney Blog, we have discussed state-action immunity quite a bit (as suing state and local governments under the antitrust laws is a favorite topic of mine). And the US Supreme Court is presenting reviewing a state-action immunity case (NC Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC). The courts disfavor these exemptions and interpret them narrowly.

But back to the insurance-business exemption and The McCarran-Ferguson Act. Do you notice that I keep calling it the “business of insurance” exemption and not the insurance-company exemption? That is because the courts don’t just exempt insurance companies from antitrust scrutiny. No, the exemption only applies to the business of insurance and in certain circumstances.

Below are the basic elements a defendant must satisfy to invoke the McCarran-Ferguson Act:

  1. The conduct in question must be regulated by the state or states.
  2. The conduct must qualify as the business of insurance—the business of insurers is not sufficient.
  3. The conduct must not consist of a group boycott or related form of coercion.

Each of these elements, in turn, has its own requirements, case law, and doctrinal development. The most interesting of the three elements is how to define the business of insurance.

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Rotten WoodThe defendants in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. failed to show the US Supreme Court the “special justification” necessary to overturn settled precedent.

As we explained in a previous post, the Supreme Court in this case agreed to reconsider its 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson, which allowed a shareholder class in a securities fraud lawsuit to satisfy statutory “reliance” requirements by invoking a presumption that stock prices traded in “efficient” markets incorporate all material information, including alleged misrepresentations.

But between then and now, academics, economists, and commentators chipped away at the economic theory underlying this presumption, which is based upon “the efficient capital markets hypothesis.”

So if a legal precedent depends upon an economic theory that now appears less valid than it did before, do you overrule it or keep it in place because it has ingrained itself into a larger legal structure?

Here is a similar question from real estate: If part of the wood in a load-bearing wall has started to rot, do you replace it? The Supreme Court held that you do, if you can show a “special justification.”

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Supreme Court BuildingOn March 5, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the fraud-on-the-market presumption in securities class actions should survive. The case is Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund and it could be groundbreaking. If the Supreme Court jettisons the presumption, it will close a major avenue for securities class-action lawsuits.

Update: The US Supreme Court issued its decision on June 23, 2014.

But what does this mean for antitrust lawsuits? We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, some background: In 1988, the Supreme Court held in Basic v. Levinson that when a shareholder class sues a company under Rule 10b-5 (for misrepresentation, etc.), it need not show that the individual class members relied on the misrepresentations because the stock market is “efficient” and such statements are quickly incorporated into the stock price.

So if you purchased a share of stock after a management official said that the company increased revenue twenty-percent year-over-year even though the manager knew that the revenue numbers were not accurate, you purchased stock that was already inflated from the statements because the market incorporated those statements immediately into the stock price.

Remember the classic book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street? It is all about efficient-market theory. Great book, by the way.

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