Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

Supreme Court amicus brief

Author: Jarod Bona

As 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 an 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. (like the defendants did in the Lithium Ion Batteries case, which we wrote about here).

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 or market-allocation 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 under Rule 23(f)), 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 tiny.

[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.

And if you want to know more about how class-action settlements work as described in the context of the In re Payment Card Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation, read here.

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Author: Luis Blanquez

As a long-standing antitrust attorney in Europe, making the decision to move from Madrid to San Diego a few years ago to practice law in the U.S. has been a life-changing experience. Both personally and professionally. Learning from other cultures, colleagues, and languages is something I strongly recommend to everyone. It opens your mind and provides you with a different perspective about the world and yourself. And of course, that also applies to the practice of law.

Indeed, when you move to a new jurisdiction you basically become a “newborn” attorney, but with all your past experience in the backpack. That puts you in the best position to approach everything with a “fresh pair of eyes”, which in turn allows you to add value to your team and cases in a unique way.

In that respect, something I noticed during these first years of practicing antitrust law in the U.S. is how district courts, in deciding motions to dismiss cases, disagree on the applicable standard when analyzing antitrust conspiracies. Some apply the summary-judgment or trial-like standard to conspiracy allegations, particularly when confronted with “non-parallel-conduct” cases, despite the fact that a complaint at that stage is constructed without the benefits of discovery. Others misunderstand the language in Twombly about “ruling out the possibility of independent action,”—which is specific to conscious parallelism cases—and they incorrectly add it to the list of pleading requirements.

What is the Biggest Mistake that District Courts Make in Antitrust Cases?

The Antitrust Pleading Standard Is Shifting Back Toward the Plaintiff

TWOMBLY AND THE PLAUSIBILITY STANDARD

For those not familiar with antitrust law, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly changed the antitrust pleading standards in federal court from one of “extreme permissibility” to the current “plausibility” standard. And that was a big deal because it basically re-defined what Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires for a complaint to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6) FRCP.

In antitrust cases, a claim under Section 1 of the Sherman Act requires (i) a contract, combination, or conspiracy; (ii) an unreasonable restraint of trade in the relevant market; (iii) and antitrust injury.

For the first prong, there are two ways to prove a “contract, combination, or conspiracy”: (i) by direct evidence that shows the existence of an agreement; or (ii) through a combination of parallel conduct and “plus factors,” i.e., “economic actions and outcomes that are largely inconsistent with unilateral conduct but largely consistent with explicitly coordinated action.” In re Musical Instruments & Equip. Antitrust Litig., 798 F.3d 1186, 1194 (9th Cir. 2015).

Second, an unreasonable restraint of trade always involves some sort of antitrust illegal conduct such as fixing prices, allocating customers, a group boycott, or rigging bids, among many others.

Last, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint also requires antitrust injury. An antitrust plaintiff must show both constitutional standing and antitrust standing. If you want to know more about antitrust injury, we have written extensively on the subject.

The Elements of Antitrust Injury: A Two-Prong Test

Antitrust Injury and the Classic Antitrust Case of Brunswick Corp v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat

Here I will just focus on the two ways courts may prove a “contract, combination, or conspiracy”: (i) direct evidence, (ii) or circumstantial evidence and “plus factors”. This is the prong where district courts have been struggling when ruling on their motions to dismiss, mainly because Justice Souter’s opinion in Twombly included some language from the landmark summary-judgment decision (Matsushita) that the Court used to explain why in conscious parallelism cases, plaintiffs’ “offer of conspiracy evidence must tend to rule out the possibility that the defendants were acting independently.”

DIRECT EVIDENCE

Direct evidence in a Section 1 antitrust conspiracy means evidence that is explicit and requires no inferences to establish the conclusion that an agreement exists. In plain English, a “smoking gun” in the form of documents, meetings or defendants’ testimony.

Federal courts around the country have agreed––with very limited exceptions––that whenever a complaint includes such non-conclusory allegations of direct evidence of an agreement, there is no need to go any further on the question of whether such an agreement has been adequately pled. And this is important because it means that allegations of direct evidence of an agreement––if sufficiently detailed––are independently adequate and sufficient alone.

Bottom line, in direct evidence scenarios, there is no need to even carry out the Twombly “plausibility” analysis in the first place. To meet the direct evidence standard the evidence must explicitly support the asserted proposition without requiring any inference. In re Citric Acid Litig., 191 F.3d 1090, 1093 (9th Cir. 1999) (“Citric Acid”)

This is the only threshold that a plaintiff should meet in order to survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss when providing direct evidence.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE, PARALLEL CONDUCT AND “PLUS FACTORS”

But like everything meaningful in life, things are rarely that straightforward in antitrust law. Thus, in alleging a conspiracy, a plaintiff may present either direct evidence (or if that’s not possible), circumstantial evidence of defendants’ conscious commitment to a common scheme designed to achieve an unlawful objective. This is a mouthful, so let’s try to bring some light to it.

District courts have the power to insist on some degree of specificity in pleading before allowing an antitrust complaint relying on allegations of circumstantial evidence of agreement to proceed. That’s why the Supreme Court in Twombly offered some guidance as to how to properly plead an agreement in parallel conduct cases:

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Author: Jarod Bona

This is part two of an article about the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Apple v. Pepper, the classic antitrust cases of Illinois Brick and Hanover Shoe, indirect purchaser lawsuits, and state antitrust claims. If you haven’t read that article, you should because it provides the background for this article.

If you read it, but it has been awhile because we published it a long time ago—yes, we’ve been busy opening offices and hiring new attorneys (and attorneys and attorneys)—here is where we left off:

We described how the US Supreme Court decided to deal with the issue of both direct purchasers and indirect purchasers wanting damages for alleged antitrust violations. The Supreme Court first prohibited defendants from raising the defense that direct purchasers “passed-on” any damages to indirect purchasers (Hanover Shoe).

Later, the Supreme Court prohibited indirect purchasers from seeking damages for federal antitrust claims (Illinois Brick).

When the indirect purchasers—represented by a resourceful bunch—then ran to the states and brought actions under state antitrust law, the Supreme Court reviewed whether those claims should be preempted by federal law. They (perhaps surprisingly), let the claims continue to go forward (California v. ARC America Corp.).

So the Supreme Court left a bit of a mess in the antitrust class action world. Defendants can’t argue that direct purchasers passed on any damages, indirect purchasers can only bring injunctive actions under federal antitrust law, and indirect purchasers bring damage actions under state antitrust laws (but only some state antitrust laws because not all of them allow indirect purchaser damage claims). Antitrust class actions are certainly complex.

By the way, before we dig into the issues, just a reminder that we at Bona Law are biased in favor of antitrust class action defendants because we defend class action lawsuits. We don’t represent plaintiff classes in class actions (despite many requests to do so).

The Supreme Court and Apple v. Pepper

The US Supreme Court took up Apple v. Pepper and had to determine whether certain plaintiffs were direct or were indirect purchasers in this antitrust class action. Phrased that way, the case doesn’t look that interesting. But before the decision came out, there was some speculation about whether the Supreme Court would gut the entire indirect/direct purchaser structure. The present structure doesn’t make much sense and isn’t based upon statute anyway (like much of federal antitrust law, I suppose).

Apple v. Pepper involves an antitrust class action lawsuit by consumers purchasing Apps from Apple and App developers (indeed—the actual source of their purchase is part of the controversy). They contend that Apple “has monopolized the retail market for the sale of apps and has unlawfully used its monopolistic power to charge consumers higher-than-competitive prices.” (slip p. 1).

For those of you that recently arrived from 1985, here is how the Apple App Store works: If you own an IPhone and want to add an app to your phone, you have no choice but to purchase it through the Apple App Store, which—according to the US Supreme Court—contains about 2 million apps available for download.

You might think to yourself, “Wow, Apple has been busy; it must be a lot of work to create 2 million separate apps.” But, no, Apple isn’t doing that themselves and they aren’t even hiring out to do it. Instead, independent app developers create the apps and, through contract, the apps are sold in the app store to consumers (my use of passive voice here is purposeful—as telling you who is selling them takes a position in this case; sort of, anyway).

The app developers pay Apple a $99 membership fee and get to pick the price for their app, so long as it ends in $0.99—an old marketers trick. No matter what the sales price, Apple keeps 30 percent of the revenue for each sale.

Apple asserted that the consumers can’t sue for damages under federal antitrust law because they are indirect purchasers under Illinois Brick, and the App developers are the direct purchasers from Apple. Plaintiffs, by contrast, allege that they are—literally—direct purchasers because they purchase Apps from Apple in the Apple App Store.

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Author: Jarod Bona

Thanks to a 1977 US Supreme Court case called Illinois Brick v. Illinois, class-action-antitrust plaintiff claims may look strange.

You might expect to see named plaintiffs for a class of allegedly injured parties suing defendants (and it is usually multiple defendants) under the federal antitrust laws for damages. And you do see that—those are usually called the “direct purchasers.”

But what is unexpected is that you also often see another separate group of putative class members suing for the same alleged anticompetitive conduct in the same federal court, except they are suing under state antitrust laws—but only some state antitrust laws—for damages. These are usually called the “indirect purchasers.” And they can sue for antitrust damages under the state antitrust laws of what are called the “Illinois Brick repealer states.”

(The indirect purchasers also often sue for injunctive relief under federal antitrust law.).

This doesn’t seem to make much sense. What is going on here?

Good question.

I’ll do my best to explain.

But first, I want to remind you that even though Bona Law represents both plaintiffs and defendants in antitrust litigation, we do not typically represent class action plaintiffs in antitrust cases, and in fact, represent defendants in antitrust class actions. Indeed, this has been a large part of my career, going back to my time at Gibson, Dunn and DLA Piper. So—for that reason—I may be biased on these plaintiff antitrust class action v. defendant issues. That bias could seep into my description and explanations below.

Let’s use an antitrust price-fixing case to illustrate how this works (as many large antitrust class action cases involve price-fixing anyway):

So let’s say that the world figures out that the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice is investigating three companies, making up an industry, for price-fixing. How did the world figure that out? Well, maybe DOJ obtained criminal indictments or a public company had to make note of it in its SEC filing?

You will then often see a blizzard of antitrust filings in federal courts throughout the country by an industry of antitrust class action plaintiff lawyers. As described above, some of these will be for direct purchasers and some for indirect purchasers.

Simply stated, a direct purchaser is someone that purchased a product directly from a defendant. An indirect purchaser is someone that purchased the product that came from a defendant, but not directly—instead, through some intermediary like a retailer or distributor.

If both direct purchasers and indirect purchasers are part of the same lawsuit or suing a single group of defendants under the same claim, there is this sticky question of, even conceding that there was price-fixing, who was damaged and by how much? That is, the price-fixing may have increased the prices that the direct purchasers literally paid compared to the but-for world without price-fixing, but what if the direct purchasers were retailers or distributors that merely passed along all or some of that overcharge to people that purchased from them (i.e. indirect purchasers)? Then the direct purchasers weren’t really injured or their damages were less than the amount of the overcharge from defendants’ price fixing.

What do you do with that?

Well, in 1968, the Supreme Court in Hanover Shoe, Inc. v. United Shoe Machinery Corp. said you had to ignore that problem. That is, the Supreme Court forbid antitrust defendants from raising as a defense that the direct purchasers had passed on any overcharge.

Okay, well, sometimes if you ignore a problem, it will go away.

But then indirect purchasers began suing under the federal antitrust laws and defendants were thus potentially subject to paying damages twice: Once to direct purchasers that had passed on overcharges (they couldn’t use that as a defense) and a second time to indirect purchasers who had received the overcharge from direct purchasers.

This hardly seemed fair, so the United States Supreme Court in the classic case of Illinois Brick v. Illinois decided in 1977 to put a stop to it: Henceforth, indirect purchasers could no longer sue for damages under the federal antitrust laws. So—again—the Supreme Court essentially said that we were just going to ignore the problem of pass-through from direct purchasers to indirect purchasers.

The Illinois Brick Court actually described three primary reasons for refusing to allow indirect purchaser suits for damages under the federal antitrust laws. First, doing so would allow for more effective enforcement of the antitrust laws (as splitting rewards for the overcharge among two different classes might dilute incentives of one or the other to file federal antitrust claims). Second, prohibiting indirect purchaser federal antitrust claims would avoid complicated damages calculations. And finally, allowing both direct and indirect purchaser federal antitrust claims would create the potential for duplicative damages against defendants.

Maybe now the problem would go away?

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Author: Jarod Bona

Lawyers, judges, economists, law professors, policy-makers, business leaders, trade-association officials, students, juries, and the readers of this blog combined spend incredible resources—time, money, or both—analyzing whether certain actions or agreements are anticompetitive or violate the antitrust laws.

While superficially surprising, upon deeper reflection it makes sense because less competition in a market dramatically affects the prices, quantity, and quality of what companies supply in that market. In the aggregate, the economic effect is huge, thus justifying the resources we spend “trying to get it right.” Of course, in trying to get it right, we often muck it up even more by discouraging procompetitive agreements by over-applying the antitrust laws.

So perhaps we should focus our resources on the actions that are most likely to harm competition (and by extension, all of us)?

Well, one place we can start is by concentrating on conduct that is almost always anticompetitive—price-fixing and market allocation among competitors, as well as bid-rigging. We have the per se rule for that. Check.

There is another significant source of anticompetitive conduct, however, that is often ignored by the antitrust laws. Indeed, a doctrine has developed surrounding these actions that expressly protect them from antitrust scrutiny, no matter how harmful to competition and thus our economy.

As a defender and believer in the virtues of competition, I am personally outraged that most of this conduct has a free pass from antitrust and competition laws that regulate the rest of the economy, and that there aren’t protests in the street about it.

What has me so upset?

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Aspen Mountains

Author: Jarod Bona

Yes, in certain narrow circumstances, refusing to do business with a competitor violates Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which regulates monopolies, attempts at monopoly, and exclusionary conduct.

This probably seems odd—don’t businesses have the freedom to decide whether to do business with someone, especially when that person competes with them? When you walk into a store and see a sign that says, “We have the right to refuse service to anyone,” should you call your friendly antitrust lawyer?

The general rule is, in fact, that antitrust law does NOT prohibit a business from refusing to deal with its competitor. But the refusal-to-deal doctrine is real and can create antitrust liability.

So when do you have to do business with your competitor?

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Author: Robert Everett Johnson, The Institute for Justice

Robert Everett Johnson litigates cases protecting private property, economic liberty, and freedom of speech. He is also a nationally-recognized expert on civil forfeiture. Bona Law has a strong relationship with The Institute for Justice, going back to Jarod Bona’s clerkship with the group after his first year of law school. We highly recommend that you check out the wonderful work they do for freedom and liberty.

You may have heard: The First Amendment has been weaponized.

Justice Kagan said so in Janus v. State, County and Municipal Employees, where her dissent accused the majority of “weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.” Justice Breyer agreed, dissenting in NIFLA v. Becerra and complaining that (contrary to the majority opinion) “professionals” should not “have a right to use the Constitution as a weapon.” And the New York Times took up the cry, publishing a front-page Sunday article titled “How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment.”

All of this sounds frightening, but the truth is more reassuring. Courts are doing what they are supposed to do: As the amount of economic regulation has increased, it has inevitably restricted freedom of speech, and now courts are restoring the balance. Lawyers should embrace this newly vibrant First Amendment, and should ask themselves how it can serve the interests of their clients.

Rights Are—And Should Be—Weapons

The truth is, the First Amendment has always been a weapon. After all, that’s exactly what constitutional rights are—weapons to be used against the government. When critics say the First Amendment has been “weaponized,” all they really mean is it is being enforced.

The First Amendment has been used, time and time again, as a weapon to resist government power. When the NAACP invoked the First Amendment to protect their right to solicit clients for civil rights litigation, they used the First Amendment as a weapon. When unions invoked the First Amendment to protect the right to picket their employers, they used the First Amendment as a weapon. And when students invoked the First Amendment to protect their right to protest the Vietnam War, they also used the First Amendment as a weapon.

What is the alternative to a “weaponized” First Amendment? We could retire the First Amendment from active service and hang it on the wall like a soldier’s antique gun. We could continue to protect speech with little real-world impact—protests at funerals and animal crush videos come to mind—while exempting speech that threatens the status quo. That kind of neutered First Amendment would be a shiny object to admire, but it would not secure freedom of speech in any meaningful sense. Fortunately, the First Amendment is more than a shiny object on the wall.

Economically-Motivated Speech Is Still Speech

While the First Amendment has always been a weapon, something has changed in recent years. When people say the First Amendment has been “weaponized,” they really mean it has been applied to uphold free speech rights in the context of economic regulation. But that is as it should be: Speech does not become any less valuable because it is associated with economic activity.

There is no question that the Supreme Court is increasingly willing to uphold First Amendment claims that arise in the economic context. This Term, Janus upheld the right of employees not to contribute money to a public union, and NIFLA rejected the argument that speech receives less protection because it is uttered by a “professional.” Other recent cases have applied the First Amendment to regulations of credit card pricing schemes, as well as restrictions on the sale of drug prescription information. There is no reason to think any of that will change with the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, as he has previously applied the First Amendment to regulations of internet service providers.

This is a good thing. As Justice Kennedy put it, writing in 1993 in Edenfield v. Fane: “The commercial marketplace, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish.” Indeed, speech in the commercial marketplace often touches on some of the most important facets of human life: Doctors speak to patients about matters of life and death; financial professionals speak to clients about their financial security; and even your local grocer can convey information critical to your health. The importance of these subjects only makes the free flow of information all the more vital to a free society.

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Author: Jarod Bona

In an antitrust case deciding a non-antitrust-specific issue, the US Supreme Court held in Animal Science Products, Inc. v. Hebei Welcome Pharmaceutical Co. (the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation) that to determine foreign law in federal courts, judges are not strictly bound by that foreign government’s statements.

The judge should “accord respectful consideration to a foreign government’s submission,” but it is his or her call in making the ultimate decision.

The Supreme Court in this case is interpreting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 44.1, which states that when deciding foreign law—sometimes that is necessary in federal court—a judge may “consider any relevant material or source . . . whether or not submitted by a party.”

This decision arose out of the Vitamin C Antitrust Litigation, which is an antitrust class-action lawsuit against four Chinese corporations that manufacturer and export, you guessed it, Vitamin C. Purchasers of the vitamin sued Chinese vitamin C sellers, alleging that they agreed to fix the price and quantity of Vitamin C exported to the United States from China. Price fixing, of course, is a per se antitrust violation.

(Read here if you want to learn more about defending an antitrust class action case.)

The Chinese vitamin C sellers argued that they are shielded from US antitrust law liability by the act-of-state doctrine.

But what is the act-of-state doctrine?

Good question.

US courts under the act-of-state doctrine should not judge the validity of an official act of a foreign government committed within that foreign government’s borders. This is a doctrine that extends beyond antitrust law.

In Animal Science Products, the defendants argued that China law required them to fix prices as part of a “regulatory pricing regime.”

The parties, however, disputed whether China law actually mandated the fixed prices. To help resolve that question, the Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the Chinese vitamin C sellers’ argument that China law required defendants to fix prices.

(You can read our article here on the many reasons to file amicus briefs).

So the trial court had to figure out whether China law mandated price fixing. And to assist it, China’s Ministry of Commerce weighed in via amicus brief.

What would you do?

Would you just agree with whatever China says about its own law? Or would you do an independent examination and decide?

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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.

Update: The parties reached a settlement and filed a stipulated dismissal dated March 20, 2018. So the US Supreme Court will not hear this case.

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.

Update: The parties reached a settlement and jointly dismissed the case from the US Supreme Court.

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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