Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

Vitamin-C-antitrust-class-action-supreme-court-300x200

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?

Continue reading →

SolarCity-Picture-300x174

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.

Continue reading →

Solar-City-Antitrust-Picture-300x200

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.

Continue reading →

Supreme-Court-Building-300x200

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

Contact Information