Articles Posted in State-Action Immunity

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Author: Aaron Gott

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to decide a circuit split on an important procedural question concerning the state-action immunity to the federal antitrust laws: whether a decision denying the state-action immunity is immediately appealable or must await a final decision just like most issues raised on a motion to dismiss.

The case, SolarCity Corporation v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District, is about a power company that changed its rate structure to make it less appealing for consumers to switch to solar power. Power companies are typically quasi-natural monopolies because of the way power is delivered—through a massive infrastructure of physical lines.

But new technology is changing that: people can generate electricity straight from the sun by installing panels on their roofs, and soon it will be more cost effective to install batteries to hold that power for when it is needed than to continue paying the power company. In places like Southern California, where the price of peak electricity is more than four times the national average, solar power is a no-brainer.

It comes as no surprise that some power companies are using their incumbency to slow the disruption of this innovative technology. SolarCity (now Tesla, Inc.) sued an Arizona power district for attempting to maintain its monopoly over the supply of electrical power in its territory, alleging that the power district created new fees that penalize solar customers, which ultimately had its intended effect: solar retailers received 96% fewer applications for new solar systems among customers in the power district after the new rates took effect.

The power district moved to dismiss, arguing that it is immune from the federal antitrust laws under the state-action immunity. The district court denied the motion because the power district had not met its burden of showing that it acted pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy to displace competition. The power district sought an order certifying the denial for interlocutory appeal, which was also denied. Nevertheless, the power district immediately appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that a denial of the state-action immunity should be immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine.

Before we dive into the Ninth Circuit decision, let’s discuss some of these terms.

The Collateral Order Doctrine

The collateral order doctrine is an exception to the general rule that the federal courts of appeal have jurisdiction to hear only appeals of “final orders” from the district courts.  The exception is narrow and must be strictly applied.

A collateral order is appealable immediately if it meets three requirements: first, the order being appealed must be conclusive. Second, it must address a question that is separate from the merits of the case. Third, it must raise “some particular value of a high order” and evade effective review if not considered immediately.

With these requirements, there are only a few categories of decisions that meet the collateral order doctrine, and they are all “immunities”: Eleventh Amendment immunity, absolute immunity, qualified immunity, foreign and tribal sovereign immunity. Given this, it might seem that the state-action “immunity” also fits. But it isn’t quite that simple because the state-action immunity isn’t actually an immunity, but a judicially recognized exemption.

What Is An Immunity?

Read broadly, an immunity could mean many different things. It could mean immunity from suit, immunity from liability, or even just immunity from money damages.

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For the third time in recent years, the US Supreme Court decided to review an antitrust case involving state-action immunity.

Unlike the first two cases, however, the primary issue in this case is procedural: The petition requesting review fairly described the issue as “Whether orders denying state-action immunity to public entities are immediately appealable under the collateral-order doctrine.”

The case at issue is a Ninth Circuit case called SolarCity Corporation v. Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District. SolarCity, of course, is now a unit of Elon Musk’s Tesla.

You can read our more complete analysis of the upcoming SolarCity case here.

The substantive case underneath the procedural issue involves a monopolization lawsuit by SolarCity against a public entity power company in Arizona, which is the only supplier in that area of traditional electrical power.

Here is what they did: SolarCity, like other solar-energy-panel companies, was having success in selling and leasing rooftop solar panels to customers, especially in sunshine places like Arizona (and Southern California, of course). Instead of viewing the move toward solar power as good for the environment and peoples’ pocketbooks, the power company—a public entity—viewed it as a threat. And, like many government entities that view private enterprise as a threat to their budgets and influence, the power district changed the rules.

That is, the power company changed the pricing structure so customers that acquire power from their own system—a solar-panel system, for example—must pay a prohibitively large penalty. The government entity’s rule change had its intended effect: SolarCity received ninety-six percent fewer applications for new solar-panel systems in that territory.

This is, of course, one of the grossest forms of government abuse and a disgrace to competition. It is also one of the reasons why Luke Wake of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center and I argued both as an amicus in Phoebe Putney and in a law review article that the Supreme Court should adopt a market-participant exception to state-action immunity. If a government entity is a commercial participant in a market, it shouldn’t be immunized from cheating in that market.

Bona Law currently has another case pending in the Ninth Circuit in which government entities that compete in the market violated antitrust laws and are using the shield of state-action immunity to try to get away with it.

The Collateral Order Doctrine

In the SolarCity case, the trial court rejected state-action immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Typically, a defendant that loses a motion to dismiss cannot appeal the issues until later in the case, sometimes after trial. The plaintiff gets to take a shot at proving its case.

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Author: Aaron Gott

Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Benjamin Sasse recently proposed a bill to enact the Restoring Board Immunity Act of 2017, which would give state licensing boards antitrust immunity that they may not otherwise be entitled to under the state-action immunity doctrine. The bill provides this immunity if the states fulfill some conditions: they must make efforts to reform their occupational licensing schemes and either provide active supervision of boards by creating an office to oversee them or provide for a specific form of judicial review of licensing board actions.

While the bill seeks to make some promising advancements to curtail overbearing state occupational regulation, it misses the mark in several ways.

As a Bona Law attorney, I regularly help clients suffering the wrath of professional licensing boards. It is very rewarding work, but it is also difficult work because the entire system—from state executive branches to federal courts—overwhelmingly defers to these licensing boards. The boards are confident in their ability to do whatever they want because they’ve enjoyed extreme deference in constitutional cases since the progressive era.

Our most effective tool is the threat of antitrust litigation—a tool that has only recently been used. First I’ll explain how all of this works so that you can better understand why this bill is a bad idea.

How Licensing Boards Work

Most licensing boards are created by some enabling statute that was pushed through the state legislature after a bunch of competitors in the same industry got together and formed a powerful lobby. Nine times out of ten, a professional licensing board justifies its existence and its conduct with vague and unsupported claims that public welfare is at stake. The enabling legislation often provides the governor the authority to appoint members of the profession, and perhaps one or two “public” members (persons who are not part of the profession), to serve on the licensing board.

Invariably, the board members who also compete in the market eventually use their power on the board to benefit their own pecuniary interests:

Licensing Requirements. . Organizations like the Institute for Justice have analyzed state-by-state data and published significant literature about occupational overregulation. The bill appears most focused on licensing requirements. Antitrust litigation typically does not focus on the licensing requirements category of restraints because they are easy to pretextually justify, because the lobbying effort is protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, and because they primarily affect new entrants (who are unlikely to organize a collective resistance, let alone the resources to finance antitrust litigation).

This raises an important question: if most antitrust litigation against boards does not relate to the occupational licensing reforms sought by the bill, why are we considering a broad antitrust exemption as the carrot for states to implement the reforms?

Expanding the Scope of Practice. Where boards prevent competitors who are not licensees within their jurisdiction from competing with them. A seminal example is what occurred in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC: the North Carolina dental board sent cease-and-desist letters to nondentist teeth whiteners asserting that teeth whitening was the practice of dentistry. Teeth whitening is not mentioned in the North Carolina statutes governing dentistry, but the board asserted it anyway because the dental board members and their professional trade group friends were losing profits to disruptive nondentist competitors who offered lower prices to consumers.

Similarly, the California Veterinary Medicine Board recently sent cease-and-desist letters to animal chiropractors, claiming that performing chiropractic adjustments on animals is the practice of veterinary medicine (even though performing human chiropractic adjustments is not the practice of human medicine).

Setting the Rules of Competition. Where boards prevent competitors who are licensees within their jurisdiction from competing in ways they don’t like. For example, some state funeral director boards have imposed or considered imposing substantial infrastructural requirements on their licensees (such as having an embalming room) with the ultimate goal of restricting the geographic scope of competition.

Side note: state funeral director boards have been among the worst culprits of blatant anticompetitive activity, even going so far as enacting rules to prevent monks who handcraft caskets from competing in the lucrative market for casket sales.

As you can see, boards have substantial power and states don’t seem to care that they regularly abuse it. So at first glance, a bill that incentivizes states to reassess their occupational licensing schemes with a critical eye is probably a good thing, right? If that were what it did, and it didn’t attempt to foreclose otherwise legitimate antitrust claims through the state action doctrine, then it wouldn’t be so objectionable.

The Bill

You can read the text of the bill here, but it works like this: all licensing boards and their members are not subject to the Sherman Act if the following conditions are met:

  1. The actions of the board/member are authorized by a nonfrivolous interpretation of the occupational licensing laws of the state.
  2. The state adopts a policy of using less restrictive alternatives to occupational licensing;
  3. The state either:
    1. Enacts legislation providing for active supervision of the actions of an occupational licensing board, which requires creating a central office to oversee all licensing boards; or
    2. Enacts legislation providing for judicial review of occupational licensing laws.

The bill has a savings clause that states the immunity only applies to “personal qualifications required to engage in or practice a lawful occupation.” As you will see below, this clause could be very important, depending on how courts would construe it.

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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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If you have sold or purchased a home recently, you might be under the impression that real estate commissions—the price to engage a real estate broker—are fixed or otherwise set by law in different geographic markets. They aren’t—to do so amounts to price-fixing, which is a per se violation of the antitrust laws.

Like any other competitor—professional or not—real estate brokers and agents must compete for customer business on price, quality, and everything else. If competing professionals were to join together to fix commissions at a set price, they would violate the antitrust laws. And since it would be a per se violation, there are potential criminal penalties.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division, is engaged in prosecuting some other real-estate participants for per se antitrust violations—bid rigging: Several Northern California real-estate investors have pled guilty for bid rigging public real estate foreclosure auctions. Similar bid rigging of foreclosure auctions apparently occurred in Georgia, as well. We wrote about these bid rigging investigations long ago when DOJ’s antitrust activity was in its early stages.

But let’s return to real estate brokers and commissions: It is true that in most geographic regions, you see commissions at around the same level, no matter who you hire as a real estate agent. That will sometimes happen in a market; there is a rate that is around the market rate and most will price around that rate.  We wrote a prior article about this situation, where real estate commissions ended up at the same level, but not due to any agreement. This was not an antitrust violation.

For some reason, however, there is an impression with real estate commissions that there is a “standard” or “legal” rate that real estate agents must price. If you are a consumer in this industry, it is important that you know that this is absolutely incorrect. If your real estate broker tells you otherwise, have them read one of our most popular articles: Five Antitrust Concerns for Real Estate Professionals.

Then, go ahead and negotiate. That is your right. You don’t have a right to win the negotiation, but real estate agents don’t have a right to agree among each other on prices either.

If you are a competitor for real estate services, it is particularly important that you understand that you can’t fix prices with other agents. If you do, you might find yourself on the wrong side of an antitrust lawsuit—possibly even brought by Bona Law—as we receive a lot of calls and emails about these issues. Or, worse, you could receive a call from a Department of Justice lawyer that opened an investigation into you or your company.

My interest in this issue goes beyond my role running a boutique antitrust law firm: I am also a long time real estate investor and I have a California real estate license. To capitalize on that background, we recently started a new blog directed at real estate investors, called Titles & Deeds. If you want to learn more, you can read about our real estate blog here.

This, of course, leads us to Kansas. I bet you didn’t see that coming. Let me explain.

Are the Kansas Real Estate Commission and its Members About to Violate the Antitrust Laws?

On June 16, 2017, Andrew Finch, Acting Assistant Attorney General for DOJ, wrote a letter to the Kansas Real Estate Commission expressing concern about a regulation the Commission is considering that would make it easier to fix prices by forbidding real estate brokers from competing on price by offering gift cards or similar items.

Apparently, according to the DOJ law, Kansas state law forbids real estate brokers from offering rebates, but doesn’t define the term “rebates.” The Kansas state ban, of course, is highly anticompetitive. It directly restricts price competition and harms consumers in Kansas. The Kansas government has unfortunately chosen to protect profits in the real estate profession over the well-being of its citizens.

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Update: As you may have heard, the Senate confirmed Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read below for my thoughts on the confirmation process and Justice Gorsuch and antitrust.

We have entered a Supreme-Court-Justice-Nomination season. These are always interesting times for lawyers, politicians, and real people.

There are only nine Justices on the Supreme Court, so whenever there is an opening, it is a big deal. Appointments are for life, or until a Justice wants to leave, for whatever reason (or impeachment, but we haven’t had to worry about that lately). So the nomination seasons are whenever they are.

For lawyers, it is the rare time when the rest of the country cares about what they care about. Thus, news talk shows and articles are full of attorney quotes, ideas, and predictions about, first, who they think the nominee will be; and second, after the name is known, whether that person is qualified.

A Supreme Court Justice, as a job, is not an easy one. Sure, it comes with some perks like lifetime appointment, cool robes, and the right to interrupt attorneys whenever you want. But it is a lot of pressure because you are making decisions in a wide variety of legal subjects, covering constitutional, statutory, and even federal common law, each of which may create upheavals for huge groups of people.

As a Justice, you can’t afford the time to become and stay an expert in every area of law, but you (and your Justice colleagues) are making decisions that set the parameters for all legal fields, even over experts in those fields. Some may say that this is a feature not a bug. But, from the perspective of the individual Justice, it creates an enormous responsibility to think through everything you do. You can’t just take an opinion off.

Because of the impact and responsibility of a Supreme Court Justice, this isn’t a job for anyone. You have to love the law and want to contribute positively to it—in a way that might even seem a little obsessive.

So let’s talk about qualifications: At least since I’ve been following it, it is unusual to see a nominee for the US Supreme Court that isn’t qualified to work on the Court. That is, the qualifications of the men and women that Presidents of both parties have nominated over the last couple of decades have been impressive and adequate for the extremely high standards of the Court. That includes DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland.

But, unfortunately, the word “qualifications” has become a word that every side, at one time or another, has lifted to mean “I think will do what I want on the rare controversial case that could likely go either way on the law,” or some other interest-focused meaning.

That is because most people, especially people on television, don’t like to just say, honestly, that they support or oppose a particular nominee for pure reasons of self or philosophical interest. Instead, they filter out their own biases by using the word “qualified” or “not-qualified,” or “extremist” or some other mismatched word. The reasons for this probably range from cognitive dissonance to political marketing.

President Donald Trump Nominates Judge Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court

Thanks for sticking around through that long-winded introduction. I added the context I wanted to add, so I can now speak (well, write) more transparently.

Judge Gorsuch is a federal appellate judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (which hears appeals from district courts in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). He has a BA from Columbia, graduated from Harvard Law in 1991 (exactly one decade before I did), and has a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Law from Oxford. He clerked on the DC Circuit with Judge David B. Sentelle, then clerked on the United States Supreme Court with both Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He later worked with the Department of Justice and for many years at a strong law firm.

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FTC State Action ImmunityIn early 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC that the “active state supervision” prong of the state-action immunity from antitrust liability test applied to state licensing boards controlled by market participants. You can read my analysis of the decision here. And you can read the amicus brief that Bona Law filed in the case here.

(Besides the “active state supervision” requirement, state-action-immunity applicants must also demonstrate that the challenged restraint was clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy by a state sovereign, like a state legislature. The Supreme Court recently addressed this requirement in FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc. I filed an amicus brief in this case, which you can review here.)

The Basics of Antitrust Liability and State-Action Immunity for State Regulatory Boards

I have written quite a bit about state action immunity and the NC Dental case, so I won’t give a lot of background here. You can read my prior articles.

But here are the basics: Not surprisingly, state and local governments often engage in anticompetitive behavior. Sometimes this includes conduct that the federal antitrust laws prohibit.

But, owing to federalism and the fact that governments get away with things they shouldn’t, sometimes state and federal governments have a get-out-of-antitrust-liability card called “state-action immunity.” Like all antitrust exemptions, Courts interpret the scope of state-action immunity narrowly.

In most situations, a state or local government seeking state-action immunity must demonstrate that (1) the state sovereign—usually the legislature or state supreme court acting legislatively—clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed the challenged restraint as state policy (See Phoebe Putney); and (2) that the state actively supervises the anticompetitive policy.

Before the US Supreme Court decided the NC Dental case, it was an open question whether state licensing or regulatory boards were required to show both prongs of what is called the Midcal test, or just the first prong. That is, it wasn’t a given that these state boards had to show active supervision. I addressed that very issue in a law review article, which you can read here. But apparently my article wasn’t enough to end discussion on the issue, so the US Supreme Court went ahead and addressed it in the NC Dental v. FTC case.

The Supreme Court in NC Dental went on to hold that a state board on which a controlling number of decision-makers are market participants in the regulated occupation must satisfy the active supervision requirement to invoke state-action antitrust immunity.

(As an aside, certain municipalities do not need to show active state supervision, but I suspect that courts will continue to narrow this exception. Luke Wake and I argued in another law review article that whenever the government entity becomes a market-participant, it should lose its state-action immunity entirely. I mention this here because it is often a local government entity that competes directly in the market and tries to invoke state-action immunity.).

So we now know that anticompetitive conduct by state regulatory boards are subject to antitrust scrutiny unless they can show both prongs of the Midcal test, including active state supervision. But what is active state supervision?

What is Active State Supervision for State-Action Immunity from Antitrust?

Active Supervision is something that the US Supreme Court has on occasion addressed, but there isn’t a clear standard. It simply hasn’t come up enough to create a dense body of law. So the guidance is slim.

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Teladoc antitrustIt is easier to succeed in business without competition than with it. And if you are used to practicing your profession in a particular way, it is quite uncomfortable when new approaches develop that undercut your business.

(As an aside, Aaron Gott and I just published an article for CIO Story that discussed this idea in the context of the legal profession: Disrupting the Traditional Law Firm Model.)

Indeed, the first reaction is that the “guild” scrambles to find ways to stop the newcomers, often citing health, safety, or consumer protection reasons to cover what are, in fact, really actions of self-preservation. Several years ago, I published a law review article called “The Antitrust Implications of Licensed Occupations Choosing Their Own Exclusive Jurisdiction,” that discussed the antitrust implications of this problem.

North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC

More recently, the United States Supreme Court decided a case called North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC. In that case, the Supreme Court held that a state board made up of dentists was not immune from the antitrust laws when it collectively acted to limit the market for teeth-whitening to dentists.

In the NC Dental case, dentists noticed that their high-margin teeth-whitening was facing lower-priced competition from non-dentists. They predictably reacted by citing health, safety, and consumer concerns and did what they could—collectively—to destroy their competitors and thus their competition.

That they did so through what was, in fact, a state board was no concern to the US Supreme Court because when an entity—even a state entity—is made up of a group of competitors it is in many ways just like a private trade association. If the competitors collectively violate the antitrust laws by excluding competition, they must face antitrust liability.

What the Supreme Court did not do in NC Dental, however, is determine the scope of what is an antitrust violation. For that, we must turn to basic antitrust doctrine. And like any other antitrust application, doctrine develops around different types of actions and situations.

One pertinent example, of course, is the state board made up of private competitors that seek to exclude their competition. The scope of antitrust liability—separate and apart from any state-action immunity issues—is an underdeveloped area of antitrust doctrine because there weren’t a great many cases of this nature.

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NC Dental DecisionIf you haven’t yet heard, the Supreme Court upheld the FTC’s antitrust action against North Carolina’s state dental board. And I think they did a good job with the opinion.

We wrote an amicus brief in this case and I have been studying these issues for years, so let me tell you some of my thoughts.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the Court’s majority opinion and Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissent, which Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined.

State Action Immunity Background

You can read a brief summary of the case here, but here is nutshell: The North Carolina dental board, consisting mostly of practicing dentists, took certain actions to keep non-dentists from offering teeth-whitening services in North Carolina. Noticing the blatant anticompetitive conduct, the FTC sued them under the federal antitrust laws.

The issue at the Supreme Court, however, wasn’t whether the conduct violated the antitrust laws or whether it was anticompetitive, which (in my view, the FTC’s view, and the Fourth Circuit’s view) it clearly was. The issue was whether the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners can use what is called the State-Action-Immunity doctrine as a shield from federal antitrust law.

To invoke state-action immunity (which is technically an exemption not an immunity), an entity must satisfy the Midcal test, which requires that it show (1) the state as a sovereign clearly articulated authority for the entity to engage in anticompetitive conduct; and (2) active supervision by the state as sovereign. Under prior case law, municipalities need only show the first requirement (we will discuss this point further below).

The issue in NC Dental v. FTC (link to the Court’s opinion) was whether state licensing boards must demonstrate active supervision as well as the first prong—clear articulation. NC Dental didn’t show active supervision, so if they must do so under law, their state-action-immunity defense fails. And that is what happened.

North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission

Significantly, the second line of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is “A majority of the board’s members are engaged in the active practice of the profession it regulates.” The opinion says a lot, but this core fact—competitors regulating competitors—is what ultimately matters.

After discussing the factual context of the case, the Supreme Court started its Section II—the legal background section—with the following line: “Federal antitrust law is a central safeguard for the Nation’s free market structure.” I expect that attorneys and judges will quote this line for years. You can compare it to the Court’s quote from National Society of Professional Engineers (which was originally from Standard Oil v. FTC): “The heart of our national economy long has been faith in the value of competition.”

Here is another good line from the same paragraph of NC Dental: “The antitrust laws declare a considered and decisive prohibition by the Federal Government of cartels, price fixing and other combinations or practices that undermine the free market.” So Justice Kennedy—the Court’s libertarian?—sets a positive free-market foundation.

There is, of course, a tension between the free-market policies of the federal antitrust laws and federalism. That, in fact, is what the state-action immunity doctrine is all about. Under federalism, “in some spheres [the States] impose restrictions on occupations, confer exclusive or shared rights to dominate a market, or otherwise limit competition to achieve public objectives.” So the Court’s task is to demarcate the line between the obligations of federal antitrust law and the states’ rights to depart from this free-market policy.

You can read more about this tension between federal antitrust law and federalism in an article I wrote with Luke Wake for Competition. In that article, we argue that the Court should apply a market-participant exception to state-action immunity. That is, if a state or local government engages in commercial competition rather than regulation, it should not be able to invoke the state-action immunity shield; it must play by the same rules as other competitors. As an aside, you might notice the Court’s language in NC Dental distinguishing between regulation and market-participants. I certainly noticed it.

In resolving the tension between federalism and federal antitrust law, the Court—as it did recently in Phoebe Putney—points out that state-action immunity, like other antitrust exemptions, is disfavored.

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The US Supreme Court issued its eagerly awaited decision today in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission. As you might recall, this case involved an antitrust challenge by the FTC against a state dental board made up of practicing dentists that took actions to exclude non-dentists, i.e. their competitors, from the teeth-whitening business in North Carolina.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether the North Carolina dental board could invoke the state-action-immunity doctrine to exempt itself from antitrust scrutiny. To obtain state-action immunity, defendants typically have to show (1) that the challenged restraint is clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy; and (2) that the policy is actively supervised by the state.

Previous Supreme Court decisions had established that the second requirement, active supervision, did not apply to municipalities. Until today, it was an open question whether state licensing boards, and state agencies in general, had to establish active state supervision over their activities as part of state-action immunity. According to the Supreme Court, they do.