Articles Posted in US Supreme Court

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.

You may also enjoy our article on the Bona Law website describing antitrust injury.

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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American Needle (Football)When you think about antitrust cases, you usually consider the question—often framed at the motion to dismiss stage as a Twombly inquiry—whether the defendants actually engaged in an antitrust conspiracy.

But, sometimes, the question is whether the defendants are actually capable of conspiring together.

That isn’t a commentary on the intelligence or skills of any particular defendants, but a serious antitrust issue that can—in some instances—create complexity.

So far I’ve been somewhat opaque, so let me illustrate. Let’s say you want to sue a corporation under the antitrust laws, but can’t find another entity they’ve conspired with so you can invoke Section 1 of the Sherman Act (which requires a conspiracy or agreement). How about this: You allege that the corporation conspired with its President, Vice-President, and Treasurer to violate the antitrust laws. Can you do that?

Probably not. In the typical case, a corporation is not legally capable of conspiring with its own officers. The group is considered, for purposes of the antitrust laws, as a “single entity,” which is incapable of conspiring with itself. Of course, the situation is complicated if we aren’t talking about the typical corporate officers, but instead analyzing a case with a corporation and corporate agents (or perhaps in a rare case, even employees) that are acting for their own self-interest and not as a true agent of the corporation. The question, often a complex one, will usually come down to whether there is sufficient separation of economic interests that the law can justify treating them as separate actors.

A lot of tricky issues can arise when dealing with companies and their subsidiaries as well. In Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corporation, for example, the United States Supreme Court held that the coordinated activities of a parent and its wholly-owned subsidiary are a single enterprise (incapable of conspiring) for purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

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By Jarod Bona and Aaron Gott

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

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

The Antitrust Case

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

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

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

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

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Rotten WoodThe defendants in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. failed to show the US Supreme Court the “special justification” necessary to overturn settled precedent.

As we explained in a previous post, the Supreme Court in this case agreed to reconsider its 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson, which allowed a shareholder class in a securities fraud lawsuit to satisfy statutory “reliance” requirements by invoking a presumption that stock prices traded in “efficient” markets incorporate all material information, including alleged misrepresentations.

But between then and now, academics, economists, and commentators chipped away at the economic theory underlying this presumption, which is based upon “the efficient capital markets hypothesis.”

So if a legal precedent depends upon an economic theory that now appears less valid than it did before, do you overrule it or keep it in place because it has ingrained itself into a larger legal structure?

Here is a similar question from real estate: If part of the wood in a load-bearing wall has started to rot, do you replace it? The Supreme Court held that you do, if you can show a “special justification.”

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PomegranateMany of my cases will pit one competitor against another in litigation. An antitrust claim is often at the center of the dispute, but a number of other claims can find their way into the case; sometimes even in a starring role.

Litigation between competitors can include, for example, trade secret or intellectual property disputes, tortious interference claims, and Lanham Act claims, to name just a few. Our focus today is on the Lanham Act because the U.S. Supreme Court last week issued an interesting opinion on its scope in POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca Cola Company.

The question was whether The Federal, Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) precluded a plaintiff from filing a Lanham Act claim related to food labeling. Justice Kennedy explained for a unanimous court (which did not include Justice Breyer) that plaintiffs can pursue their claim about pomegranate-blueberry juice labeling: The statutes don’t conflict—they complement each other.

First, some background. The Lanham Act is a federal private right of action to enforce trademark rights, as well as (and relevant here) “unfair competition through misleading advertising or labeling.” What is particularly interesting about the Act is that it is specifically designed for competitors. That is, consumers that discover false advertising or labeling can’t bring a Lanham Act case. Only competitors that can “allege an injury to a commercial interest in reputation or sales,” have standing. You might recall that the Court addressed Lanham Act standing earlier this term in Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., discussed here.

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