Author: Jarod Bona
You might wonder why industry trade associations can lobby the government without obvious antitrust sanction, even when—which is common—they seek regulations or actions that ultimately harm competition.
The answer is found in the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, which we will discuss today.
What is the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?
The Noerr-Pennington immunity is a limited exemption from antitrust liability for certain actions by individuals or groups that are intending with that action to influence government decision-making, which can be legislative, executive, or judicial.
Importantly, for the Noerr-Pennington immunity to apply, the challenged action cannot be a sham that merely covers up an intent to interfere with a competitor’s ability to compete. The question of whether an action fits within the “sham” exception to Noerr-Pennington is often an area of intense dispute between the parties to litigation. You can learn more about the sham exception later in this article.
The purpose of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is to protect the fundamental right to petition the government, including filing litigation in the courts. It also seeks to support the flow of information to the government. If you’ve read the First Amendment to our Bill of Rights, you might be familiar with this petitioning the government thing.
You may wonder why the doctrine has such an odd name—Noerr-Pennington. Why didn’t they name it the “government-petitioning” immunity or the “you-can-sue-who-you-want-without-incurring-antitrust-liability” doctrine?
Did two people named Noerr and Pennington invent the doctrine?
No—the Noerr-Pennington immunity developed from two cases in the crazy 1960s: Eastern Railroad Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, 365 U.S. 127 (1961) and United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965—better known as the first year the Minnesota Twins made the World Series, losing to the Dodgers).
In Noerr Motor Freight (we’ll describe the case with the party name that made the doctrine title), a group of railroad companies conducted a joint publicity campaign targeting legislation that would make it harder for trucking companies to compete with them. Even though defendants’ conduct was anticompetitive in intent, the Court held that joint action for legislation was of sufficient importance to society that it should be exempt from antitrust liability.
In Pennington, a union and a group of large mining companies escaped antitrust liability for their group effort (i.e. conspiracy) to try to induce the Labor Department to set minimum wages at a level that would make it difficult for small mining companies to compete.
From these two cases, the doctrine took off and was expanded to other contexts, including court filings. Of course, there are limits and parties facing antitrust scrutiny can’t just point to some potential eventual political impact to their actions to capture Noerr-Pennington immunity.
Interestingly, the US Supreme Court in Allied Tube and Conduit Corp v. Indian Head, Inc., 486 U.S. 492 (1988), rejected Noerr-Pennington immunity for anticompetitive conduct before a private standard-setting body, even though local governments typically enact the standards set by that standard-setting group. If you are interested in where the lines are to meet the government petitioning part of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, you should read Allied Tube.
What is the Sham Exception to the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?
As you might expect with any exception, parties that want to get away with antitrust liability try to fit their conduct within it. That is one reason why the Supreme Court makes it clear that exceptions, exemptions, and immunities to the antitrust laws should be construed narrowly. (Unfortunately, many courts below the Supreme Court have not yet figured that out with respect to state-action immunity, as they are still applying it more broadly than I believe the Supreme Court has ordered through its recent decisions).
Anyway, to avoid abuse of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, courts apply what is called a “sham exception.” This exception applies when the challenged conduct is intended to interfere with competition, rather than to legitimately influence official government conduct.
It isn’t always easy to understand when the “sham” exception applies, but one way to understand the difference is to compare the “process” of government petitioning from the “outcome” of government petitioning. When the anticompetitive conduct arises from the actual process—i.e. baseless litigation that bankrupts a competitor because of the legal fees—the sham exception applies. When the harm from the challenged conduct arises from the outcome of government petition—i.e. successfully convincing a government agency to pass a grossly anticompetitive regulation—the sham exception is less likely to apply.
One example of potentially “sham” petitioning activity outside of a litigation context is a situation in which a competitor will challenge its market adversary’s licensing application (of some sort) in an effort to delay it or otherwise interfere with its granting, outside of any issues with the merits.
Sometimes what you will see in the reality of a dispute is a combination of legitimate petitioning activity and other coercive anticompetitive conduct. In those instances, an antitrust defendant cannot use the activity protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine to shield the other unprotected anticompetitive conduct. Courts often have to distinguish between the two categories of conduct.
Probably the most common context for the sham exception to Noerr-Pennington immunity is litigation as anticompetitive conduct. The US Supreme Court in Professional Real Estate Investors, Inc. v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 508 U.S. 49 (1993) set the elements for determining whether the filing of litigation qualifies as a “sham.”
First, “the lawsuit must be objectively baseless in the sense that no reasonable litigant could realistically expect success on the merits. If an objective litigant could conclude that the suit is reasonably calculated to elicit a favorable outcome, the suit is immunized under Noerr, and an antitrust claim premised on the sham exception must fail.”
Second, the Court described a subjective component to the inquiry: “Under this second part of our definition of sham, the court should focus on whether the baseless lawsuit conceals ‘an attempt to interfere directly with the business relationships of a competitor’  through the ‘use of [of] the governmental process—as opposed to the outcome of that process—as an anticompetitive weapon.’”
Professional Real Estate Investors at 60-61.
As additional issues arising from the Professional-Real-Estate-Investors test, courts have also considered—but not resolved definitively—whether the Noerr-Pennington immunity can apply when (1) the defendant’s proceedings in court or administrative agencies include acts of fraud or misrepresentations; and (2) when defendant’s challenged court or agency actions consist of repetitive claims to harass a competitor even when some of the claims may have apparent objective merit.
This, of course, is just a simple outline of the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. If you have an issue in this area, you should consult with a really good antitrust attorney.