Articles Posted in State-Action Immunity

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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.

Antitrust Group BoycottMaybe everyone really is conspiring against you? If they are competitors—that is, they have a horizontal relationship—they may be committing a per se antitrust violation.

A group boycott occurs when two or more persons or entities conspire to restrict the ability of someone from competing. This is sometimes called a concerted refusal to deal, which unlike a standard refusal to deal requires, not surprisingly, two or more people or entities.

A group boycott can create per se antitrust liability. But the per se rule is applied to group boycotts like it is applied to tying claims, which means only sometimes. By contrast, horizontal price-fixing, market allocation, and bid-rigging claims are almost always per se antitrust violations.

I receive a lot of calls about potential group boycott actions. This is probably the most frustrating type of antitrust conduct to experience as a victim.

Many antitrust violations, like price-fixing, tend to hurt a lot of people a little bit. A price-fixing scheme may increase prices ten percent, for example. Price-fixing victims feel the pain, but it is diffused. Typically either the government or plaintiff class-action attorneys have the biggest incentive to pursue these claims.

Group boycott activity, however, is usually directed toward one or very few victims. The harm is not diffused; it is concentrated. And it is often against a competitor that is just trying to establish itself in the market. The defendants may act like bullies to try to keep that upstart competitor from gaining traction in the market. Sometimes trade associations lead the anticompetitive charge.

Group boycott activity often occurs when someone new enters a market with a different or better idea or way of doing business. The current competitors—who like things just the way they are—band together to use their joint power to keep the enterprising competitor from succeeding, i.e. stealing their customers.

Sometimes group boycott claims are further complicated when the established competitors—the bullies—use their relationships with government power to further suppress competition. Indeed, sometimes the competitors are government power.

This is what occurred in the NC Dental v. FTC case (discussed here, and here; our amicus brief is here): A group of dentists on the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners engaged in joint conduct, using their government power, to thwart teeth-whitening competition from non-dentists. Update: The US Supreme Court upheld the Fourth Circuit’s decision supporting the FTC in its antitrust claim against the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners.

This, in my opinion, is the most disgusting of antitrust violations: a group of bullies engaging government power to knock out innovation and competition. And I am very happy to see the Federal Trade Commission take a pro-active role against such anticompetitive thuggery.

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White TeethThe trade association necessitates a delicate balancing act between anticompetitive conduct condemned by the antitrust laws and pro-competitive information-sharing and best practices that ultimately help consumers.

Trade associations should have antitrust policies and should consistently consult with an antitrust attorney. Antitrust law reserves its greatest scorn to the horizontal agreements—the deals between and among competitors. And a trade association is, by definition, an entity created to bring these competitors together.

Competition Policy International (CPI) published an Antitrust Chronicle this week about trade associations and industry information sharing and I was fortunate that they invited me to publish an article in this issue. My article is called “’But the Bridge Will Fall’ is Not a Valid Defense to an Antitrust Lawsuit.” I discuss one of my favorite Supreme Court cases of all time: National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States.

There are a couple of ways that trade associations—and, really, any group of industry competitors—harm competition and risk antitrust liability. The first and most obvious concern is that the competitors will conspire against their customers or suppliers (don’t forget that buying conspiracies may be illegal too).

For example, a group of competitors may reach agreements on price, output, geographic or product and service markets, contractual terms, etc. These are per se antitrust violations, condemned with little analysis other than whether there was, indeed, an agreement.

The other conspiratorial harm that trade associations or groups of industry competitors can inflict is on competitors from another industry or profession. In my view, this harm is underrated and under-considered. I discussed this concern in a law review article a couple years ago.

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NC Dental PictureThe US Supreme Court does not review many antitrust cases. So when they do, it is kind of a big deal for antitrust attorneys around the world.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, which addressed the scope of state-action immunity from antitrust liability. More specifically, the Court is reviewing whether a state licensing board must satisfy both prongs of what is known as the Midcal test to avoid antitrust scrutiny.

The first element, which everyone agrees applies, requires the defendant entity to show that the State “clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed” the challenged anticompetitive act as state policy. The Supreme Court is deciding whether state licensing boards are subject to the second element as well: whether the policy is “actively supervised by the State itself.” Municipalities and other local governments have a free pass from this second element, but private people and entities must satisfy the active supervision requirement.

So what is the big deal? If an entity—state or private—can show that state-action immunity doesn’t apply, it can violate the antitrust laws at will. It can grab consumer surplus for itself; it can exclude competition; it can behave under different rules than everyone else. And monopoly is quite profitable.

In NC Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a state-sanctioned dental board—composed of six licensed dentists, one licensed dental hygienist, and one public member—engaged in actions to exclude non-dentist teeth-whitening services. As you might recall, Bona Law filed an amicus brief in this case. You can learn about the case and our amicus brief here. Among other points, we argued that the Supreme Court should analyze the case as the Court outlined in American Needle, by reference to whether the units of competition—the independent decision-makers—are private. They are. We also advocated that the Supreme Court apply an active state supervision requirement with some teeth.

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By Jarod Bona and Aaron Gott

We filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of We All Help Patients, Inc. in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. FTC, a federal antitrust case challenging anticompetitive conduct by professional-licensing boards.

Let us tell you a little bit about this interesting case.

The Antitrust Case

The North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners is composed of six licensed dentists, one licensed dental hygienist, and one “public member.” Dentists make a lot of money by offering teeth-whitening services. So when non-dentists started providing teeth-whitening services at a far lower cost, dentists started complaining to the Board about the lower-priced competitors.

Naturally, a Board made up of self-interested private parties had an incentive to do something about it. They began sending cease-and-desist letters to non-dentist teeth whiteners and even went so far as to ask shopping malls to not lease kiosks to teeth whiteners. It wasn’t clear, of course, that North Carolina law limited teeth-whitening services to dentists.

The Board’s actions were, in fact, a conspiracy to restrain trade. The members were competitors that acted in agreement to exclude other competitors. The conspiracy question was not at issue with the US Supreme Court.

The Federal Trade Commission, which has long advocated for “free and unfettered competition as the rule of trade” to protect consumers and economic liberty, issued an administrative complaint against the State Board and ultimately held that the Board engaged in anticompetitive conduct and the state-action immunity doctrine did not apply. The case made its way up through the Fourth Circuit—which agreed with the FTC—and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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TaxisProbably not. But any government agency that files an amicus brief supporting an Institute for Justice case challenging anticompetitive state action deserves some libertarian props.

If I had to name a favorite government agency, I would pick the FTC. I don’t agree with many of their positions, of course, and have gone up against them before. But they work hard to rein in anticompetitive state and local conduct and that is meaningful. In those instances, they are champions of competition. These state and local boards shouldn’t violate the antitrust laws.

Andrew Gavil, the Director of the Office of Policy Planning at the FTC, testified before the House Committee on Small Business on “Competition and the Potential Costs and Benefits of Professional Licensure.” This is an issue that I have studied for many years and the FTC has been and remains a leader in protecting competition from needless entry barriers by state and local boards.

Let’s take a quick look at Andrew Gavil’s written statement, which officially presents the views of the Federal Trade Commission by a 5-0 vote.

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