Is it Possible to Win a Robinson Patman Act Case Now?


Author: Steven Cernak

Some of us have been asserting for years that Robinson Patman, the federal price-discrimination antitrust law, is merely “forgotten but not gone.”  That is, while there has been no FTC enforcement in decades, a few private lawsuits are filed every year and careful potential defendants still follow Robison Patman compliance programs. Recent statements suggesting a potential FTC revival seemed to jog the memories of practitioners that Robinson Patman remains on the books. Now, a lower court judgment by a dedicated group of plaintiffs and their lawyer provides more evidence that the law is anything but gone.

Clear Eyed Look at Robinson Patman

Very generally, Robinson Patman prohibits a seller of goods from offering lower prices or greater promotional allowances to one purchaser than to another competing purchaser. As we explain in other posts, there are many elements and defenses that make is difficult for a plaintiff to win. Court interpretations of those elements and defenses for the last few decades have only increased that difficulty. Still, one recent case shows that victory at the trial court level is possible.

In L.A. International Corp. v. Prestige Consumer Healthcare, Inc., Defendants manufacture and distribute Clear Eyes eye drops. The suit alleged that Defendants sold Clear Eyes at a lower price and with greater promotional allowances to Costco (specifically, Costco Business Centers that resell to retailers) than to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are several distributors that also buy and resell such products to retailers like local convenience stores. Interestingly, some of these same plaintiffs, and their counsel, have been involved in a long-running series of Robinson Patman cases alleging that the manufacturer of 5-Hour Energy also discriminated in favor of Costco.

Here, the case was filed in August 2018 and went to trial in December 2023. A jury found that Defendants had violated Section 2(a) (and a California unfair competition law) by offering a lower net price to Costco than to most of the Plaintiffs. The jury allocated about $700,000 in actual damages among several of the Plaintiffs. In May 2024, the judge found that Defendants also had violated Section 2(d) by offering greater promotional allowances to Costco and issued an injunction requiring Defendants to offer identical prices and proportionally equal promotional allowances to Plaintiffs going forward.

At the same time as his injunction ruling, the judge rejected Defendants’ arguments about several problems with the jury instructions. Specifically, the judge refused to reconsider the instructions laying out the overall standard that Plaintiffs had to meet as well as how a potential “functional discount” claim was to be evaluated. Unlike the lower court and Ninth Circuit in the 5-Hour Energy case, this judge seemed to have no problem supporting the jury’s verdict that most of the Plaintiffs actually competed with the Costco Business Centers.

So, in many ways, this case is unremarkable. A plaintiff presented evidence to a jury that, following a judge’s instructions mostly copied from ABA Model Instructions, found a Robinson Patman violation and set damages. The judge then followed that verdict and found another violation and provided injunctive relief. Yet, such cases and certainly such plaintiff verdicts are rare today. So, what are the takeaways for other potential plaintiffs or defendants?


First, maybe even more than all antitrust litigation, Robinson Patman litigation is time-consuming and fact intensive. The case took over 5 years to get to trial and the possibility of appeals still exists. The Plaintiffs are located in different parts of California plus Texas and New York. Each Plaintiff had to show at the local level that it competed with a specific Costco Business Center and that such competition was harmed by Defendants’ practices. Given the various elements and defenses and courts’ interpretations of Robinson Patman, no short cuts were possible.

Second, as we explained in prior posts and elsewhere, few courts have seen such a case in the last thirty years. Going back a couple decades further, the courts that did face such cases attempted to interpret Robinson Patman consistently with the rest of the antitrust laws under the then-new Chicago-School focus on competition and consumer welfare. As a result, there are plenty of defendant-friendly Robinson-Patman rulings, opinions, and dicta available.

A true revival would need to deal with such unfriendly caselaw. Many cases in front of many judges and juries would seem to offer the best chance to, over time, change the consideration of the law, both in courts of law and the court of public and expert opinion. For example, the standards in this judge’s jury instructions seem at least slightly more plaintiff friendly than they could have been. Even better if many of those cases were like this one, with small local competitors facing off against big, national favored purchasers in front of a local jury. That is why the FTC’s slow-moving attempt at a Robinson Patman revival focused on a single huge investigation of carbonated beverages (according to published reports), seems odd. (Maybe the FTC should just hire the attorney bringing these cases.)

Finally, the key takeaway is that the answer to the question asked in the title of this post is “yes.” It could be expensive and time-consuming and certainly will not be easy, but such cases can be won, even without a change in the law or its interpretation. And that is why, for savvy potential plaintiffs and defendants, Robinson Patman has never really been gone.

Image by Almeida from Pixabay

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