Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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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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Supreme Court amicus briefAs an attorney defending an antitrust class action, your job is to get your client out of the case as expeditiously and inexpensively as possible. There are several exit points.

For example, with a little help from the US Supreme Court’s Twombly decision, you might find your way out with a motion to dismiss, asserting (among other potential arguments) that plaintiffs fail to allege sufficient allegations that a conspiracy is plausible. This is usually the first battle.

Next, you could reach a settlement with class-action plaintiffs (and have it approved by the Court). This could happen at any point in the case. Oftentimes, case events that change expectations will prompt a settlement—i.e. a Department of Justice decision to drop an investigation or an indictment.

Third, you might prevail on summary judgment (or at least partial summary judgment). One means to winning on summary judgment is to disqualify plaintiff’s expert with a Daubert motion.

Fourth, you can win at trial.

Fifth, if you lose at trial, it is time to find a great appellate lawyer.

So far, these methods to get out of court look just like any other antitrust case (or commercial litigation matter). An attorney defending an antitrust class action, however, has extra way to get its client out of the case: Defeating Class Certification.

Defense attorneys are increasingly turning to class certification as a primary battle point to get their clients out of federal antitrust class actions.

An antitrust class action usually alleges some form conduct that is a per se antitrust violation in which the damages are a small amount for each class member. For example, an antitrust class action plaintiff might allege a price-fixing conspiracy among the major manufacturers in a particular industry. Plaintiffs may allege that the damage is just a few dollars or cents per plaintiff, but collectively the damages are in the millions or tens or hundreds of millions (or more).

Thus, if the Court denies plaintiffs’ motion to certify a class (barring appeal), each individual plaintiff must sue. And since each only has damages of a few dollars or less, litigation just doesn’t make sense. That, in fact, is the point of Federal Rule 23 and class actions generally—to allow relief when the aggregate harm is great but the individual harm is miniscule.

[See this article that I co-authored with Carl Hittinger on the private-attorney general purpose of class actions.]

A defendant that can defeat class certification effectively wins the case.

The US Supreme Court made this task easier for attorneys defending antitrust class actions in the 2013 classic antitrust case of Comcast Corporation v. Behrend, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Back in my DLA Piper days, I wrote about the Comcast case for the Daily Journal shortly after the Supreme Court published it.

This case involved a class action against Comcast that alleged that Comcast’s policy of “clustering” violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Clustering is a strategy of concentrating operations within a particular region. Plaintiffs alleged that Comcast would trade cable systems outside of their targeted region for competitor systems within their region. This would limit competition for both parties, by concentrating the market for each region with fewer cable providers.

But that wasn’t the issue the Supreme Court addressed. The Supreme Court in Comcast v. Behrend instead sought to determine whether the district court properly certified the class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3), which is known as the predominance requirement.

You can read our article about a California antitrust decision rejecting class certification here.

If you want to learn more about how Bona Law approaches the defense of antitrust class action cases, read here.

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Supreme Court amicus briefAn amicus curiae brief is filed by a non-party—usually in an appellate court like the US Supreme Court—that seeks to educate the court by offering facts, analysis, or a perspective that the party briefing doesn’t present. The term amicus curiae means “friend of the court,” and that is exactly what the parties that file these briefs are. They aren’t objective, but they are—without pay—helping out the court, like a friend might. Well, sort of.

Entities filing amicus briefs do so for a reason and that reason isn’t typically just court friendliness. In fact, as we will discuss below, there are many good reasons for someone to file an amicus brief.

Along with antitrust and commercial litigation, I’ve been an appellate litigator my entire career. I started out by clerking for Judge James B. Loken on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (in Minneapolis), then moved on to Gibson Dunn’s appellate group in Washington DC. So, as you might imagine, I’ve participated in many appellate matters. And without question some of my favorite briefs to write are amicus briefs. I’ve filed many of them over the years.

Indeed, at Bona Law, we have already filed five amicus briefs (US Supreme Court, Fourth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Tenth Circuit and the Minnesota Supreme Court).

Update: In May 2017, we filed an amicus brief to the Minnesota Supreme Court on behalf of the NFIB, supporting a challenge to the Minnesota Unclaimed Property Act. You can also read about this appellate brief on the Bona Law website.

From the attorney’s perspective what I really like about amicus briefs is that they invite opportunities for creativity. The briefs for the parties before the court include necessary but less exciting information like procedural history, standard of review, etc. Then, of course, they must address certain necessary arguments. Even still, there is room for creativity and a good appellate lawyer will take a thoughtful approach to a case in a way that the trial lawyer that knows the case too well may not.

But what is great about writing an amicus brief is that you can pick a particular angle and focus on it, while the parties slog through other necessary details. The attorney writing the amicus brief figures out—with the client’s help—the best contribution they can make and just does it, as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Because the amicus brief should not repeat the arguments from the parties, the attorney writing the brief must develop a different approach or delve deeper into an argument that won’t get the attention it deserves from the parties. This is great fun as the attorney can introduce a new perspective to the case, limited not by the arguments below, but by the broader standard of what will help the court.

This means that the law review article that the attorney saw on the subject that hasn’t developed into case law is fair game. So is the empirical study from a group of economists that may reflect on practical implications of the decision confronting the court. Or the attorney might educate a state supreme court about what other states are doing on the issue. Often an association will explain to the court how the issue affects their members.

The point is that amicus briefs present opportunities to develop issues in ways that party briefs rarely do. Indeed, that is partly why they are valuable to courts.

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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.

Takings and KoontzIf you read The Antitrust Attorney Blog regularly, you might have noticed that I think that the governments—federal, state, and local—tend to overreach into our business, our pursuits, and our lives. And I have strongly advocated that we apply the federal antitrust laws to counter the bloating influence of governments everywhere into our markets.

You may have also noticed my interest in property and real estate. Part of that is personal—I believe that real-estate investing is a great idea. There are many advantages to it. And my wife and I are real-estate investors. Besides antitrust, my firm offers real-estate litigation (in addition to appeals, business litigation, and challenges to government conduct).

Well, these interests have collided into a massive project that I just completed with Luke A. Wake of the National Federation of Independent (NFIB) Small Business Legal Center. We finished the initial version of a law review article entitled Legislative Exactions After Koontz v. St. Johns River Management District.

Update: We are excited to announce that the Georgetown International Environmental Law Review published our article.

This isn’t the first time that Luke Wake and I have written something together. Last year, we published an antitrust article entitled The Market-Participant Exception to State-Action Immunity. Back when I was with DLA Piper, we also worked on an amicus brief together for the NFIB in the U.S. Supreme Court case of FTC v. Phoebe Putney Health System, Inc. Luke is a rising star in the legal world, so you should remember his name.

Koontz v. St. Johns River Management District

In 2013, the Supreme Court enhanced property rights in the United States when it decided Koontz. It was a sharply split decision that included an expertly written dissent by Justice Elena Kagan, who in my view is coming close to equaling Justice Antonin Scalia as the Supreme Court’s top writer.

As an aside, Justice Kagan (then Professor Kagan) was my Administrative Law professor at Harvard Law School and the wit that you see in her opinions was on full display in class. (She did, by the way, mention one day in class that Justice Scalia was her favorite Justice; I don’t think she meant that from an ideological perspective).

Koontz arose in the context of what is called the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, as applied to Takings law. If you don’t know what a Taking is, you can read this short article distinguishing eminent domain and inverse condemnation (takings).

First, some quick background. In 1987, the Supreme Court held in the case of Nollan v. California Coastal Commission that governments cannot attach conditions to permit requirements unless the condition bears a “nexus” to the impact of the proposed project. In 1994, the Supreme Court in Dolan v. City of Tigard further held that such conditions must also bear a rough proportionality to the harm from the proposed project.

The names of the plaintiffs in these cases conveniently rhyme, so people in the takings arena refer to this doctrine as the Nollan and Dolan requirements.

Here is what happened: Coy Koontz, an entrepreneur in the Orlando, Florida area, sought to develop some property that he held. Sounds reasonable enough. The property was zoned commercial and he sought a permit for its development.

Florida, however, had enacted comprehensive environmental restrictions that required a state agency to review any such applications to determine whether the proposed project will reduce wetlands. So, in this case, Mr. Koontz couldn’t develop his land unless the St. Johns River Management District blessed the project.

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LIBOR Antitrust MDLThe US Supreme Court just issued its decision in an antitrust case called Ellen Gelboim v. Bank of America Corporation. This case arises out of major multi-district litigation (an MDL) centered on allegations that major banks conspired to manipulate the London InterBank Offered Rate (which you probably know as LIBOR) to lower their interest costs on financial instruments sold to investors.

For purposes of Gelboim, the intricate details of the alleged conspiracy are not relevant, but you should know that it led to over 60 actions filed in federal court against the banks.

That sounds like a lot of cases and you might infer from the large number that the defendants must have done something wrong if so many people are suing them. But that isn’t necessarily true.

What happens is that a government agency announces an investigation (or it leaks) or someone has the idea that there is price-fixing, market-allocation, bid-rigging or some related horizontal per se antitrust violation going on.

There are plaintiff law firms all over the country that specialize in bringing these types of lawsuits and when one appears, you see many more very quickly. They follow each other and an antitrust blizzard ensues. It is, in fact, an extremely competitive market among plaintiff firms. And when a big set of cases develop, the plaintiff lawyers are often fighting each other for bigger pieces of the pie more than they battle defendants’ attorneys.

Fortunately, there is a set of procedures that deal with such a situation—Section 1407. This statute created the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), which may transfer the many related actions “involving one or more common questions of fact” to one district court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings.

Importantly, as the Supreme Court points out, this does not mean that all of the cases are transferred forever into the one district court. They are just there for pre-trial proceedings. Of course, practically speaking, they rarely leave that court as most of these cases are either dismissed or settled. If not, the statute requires that each individual action “shall be remanded by the panel at or before the conclusion” of the pretrial proceedings to the original district court.

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Antitrust Injury and Brunswick

photo credit: ginnerobot via photopin cc

Antitrust injury is one of the most commonly fought battles in antitrust litigation. It is also one of the least understood antitrust concepts.

No matter what your antitrust theory, it is almost certain that you must satisfy antitrust-injury requirements to win your case. So you ought to have some idea of what it is.

The often-quoted language is that antitrust injury is “injury of the type the antitrust laws were intended to prevent and that flows from that which makes the defendant’s acts unlawful.” You will see this language—or some variation—in most court opinions deciding antitrust-injury issues. The language and the analysis are from the Classic Antitrust Case entitled Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc., decided by the US Supreme Court in 1977.

Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, Inc.

If your antitrust attorney is drafting a brief on your behalf and antitrust injury is in dispute—which is quite likely—he or she will probably cite Brunswick Corp.

Since antitrust injury is synonymous with Brunswick Corp., let’s talk about the actual case for a moment. If you are passionate about the market for bowling alleys, you’ll love this case.

If you were around in the 1950s, you probably know that bowling was a big deal. The industry expanded rapidly, which was great for manufacturers of bowling equipment. But sometimes good things come to an end and the bowling industry went into a sharp decline in the early 1960s. These same manufacturers began to have trouble, as bowling alleys starting paying late or not at all for their leased equipment.

A particular bowling-equipment manufacturer—Brunswick Corp—began acquiring and operating defaulted bowling centers when they couldn’t resell the leased equipment.  For a period of seven years, Brunswick acquired 222 centers, some that it either disposed of or closed. This buying binge turned it into the largest operator of bowling centers, by far.

This was a problem for a competing bowling-alley operator and competitor, Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat, who sued under the Clayton Act, arguing that certain acquisitions in their territory “might substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.” Without the acquisition, the purchased bowling alleys would have gone out of business, which would have benefited Pueblo, a competitor.

The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court, which rejected the Clayton Act claim for lack of antitrust injury. The reason is that even though Pueblo was, indeed, harmed by the acquisition, it wasn’t a harm that the antitrust laws were meant to protect. The acquisition actually increased competition. Absent the acquisition, Pueblo would have gained market share. But with the acquisition, the market included both Pueblo and the bowling alleys that would have left the market—i.e. more competition.

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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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