Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Partial De Facto Exclusive Dealing Claims Have Got to Go!

Thom Lambert —  27 March 2013

Today, a group of eighteen scholars, of which I am one, filed an amicus brief encouraging the Supreme Court to review a Court of Appeals decision involving loyalty rebates.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld an antitrust judgment based on a defendant’s loyalty rebates even though the rebates resulted in above-cost prices for the defendant’s products and could have been matched by an equally efficient rival.  The court did so because it decided that the defendant’s overall selling practices, which involved no exclusivity commitments by buyers, had resulted in “partial de facto exclusive dealing” and thus were not subject to the price-cost test set forth in Brooke Group.  (For the uniniated, Brooke Group immunizes price cuts that result in above-cost prices for the discounter’s goods.)  We amici, who were assembled by Michigan Law’s Dan Crane, believe the Third Circuit’s decision threatens to chill proconsumer discounting practices and should be overruled.

The defendant in the case, Eaton, manufactures transmissions for big trucks (semis, cement trucks, etc.).  So did plaintiff Meritor.  Eaton and Meritor sold their products to the four manufacturers of big trucks.  Those “OEMs” installed the transmissions into the trucks they sold to end-user buyers, who typically customized their trucks and thus could select whatever transmissions they wanted.  Meritor claimed that Eaton drove it from the market by entering into purportedly exclusionary “long-term agreements” (LTAs) with the four OEMs.  The agreements did not require the OEMs to purchase any particular amount of Eaton’s products, but they did provide the OEMs with rebates (resulting in above-cost prices) if they bought high percentages of their requirements from Eaton.  The agreements also provided that Eaton could terminate the agreements if the market share targets were not met. Each LTA contained a “competitiveness clause” that allowed the OEM to purchase transmissions from another supplier without counting the purchases against the share target, or to terminate the LTA altogether, if another supplier offered a lower price or better product and Eaton could not match that offering.  Following adoption of the LTAs, Eaton’s market share grew, and Meritor’s shrank.  Before withdrawing from the U.S. market altogether, Meritor filed an antitrust action against Eaton.

Eaton insisted, not surprisingly, that it had simply engaged in hard competition.  It grew its market share by offering a lower price that an equally efficient rival could have matched.  Meritor’s failure, then, resulted from either its relative inefficiency or its unwillingness to lower its price to the level of its cost.  By immunizing above-cost discounted prices from liability, the Brooke Group rule permits and encourages the sort of competition in which Eaton engaged, and it should, the company argued, control here.

The Third Circuit disagreed.  This was not, the court said, a simple case of price discounting.  Instead, Eaton had engaged in what the court called “partial de facto exclusive dealing.”  The exclusive dealing was “partial”  because OEMs could purchase some transmissions from other suppliers and still obtain Eaton’s loyalty rebates (i.e., complete exclusivity was not required).  It was “de facto” because purchasing exclusively (or nearly exclusively) from Eaton was not contractually required but was instead simply the precondition for earning a rebate.  Nonetheless, reasoned the court, the gravamen of Meritor’s complaint was some sort of exclusive dealing, which is evaluated not under Brooke Group but instead under a rule of reason that focuses on the degree to which the seller’s practices foreclose its rivals from available sales opportunities.  Under that test, the court concluded, the judgment against Eaton could be upheld.  After all, Eaton’s sales practices won lots of business from Meritor, whose sales eventually shrunk so much that the company exited the market.

As we amici point out in our brief to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit ignored the fact that it was Eaton’s discounts that led OEMs to buy so much from the company (and forego its rival’s offerings).  Absent an actual promise to buy a high level of one’s requirements from a seller, any “exclusive dealing” resulting from a loyalty rebate scheme results from the fact that buyers voluntarily choose to patronize the seller over its competitors because the discounter’s products are cheaper.  In other words, low pricing is the very means by which any “exclusivity” — and, hence, any market foreclosure — is achieved.  Any claim alleging that an agreement not mandating a certain level of purchases but instead providing for loyalty rebates results in “partial de facto exclusive dealing” is therefore, at its heart, a complaint about price competition.  Accordingly, it should be subject to the Brooke Group screening test for discounts resulting in above-cost pricing.

The Third Circuit wrongly insisted that Eaton had done something more sinister than win business by offering above-cost loyalty rebates.  It concluded that Eaton “essentially forced” the four OEMs (who likely had a good bit of buyer market power themselves) to accept its terms by threatening “financial penalties or supply shortages.”  But these purported “penalties” and threats of “supply shortages” appear nowhere in the record.

The only “penalty” an OEM would have incurred by failing to meet a purchase target is the denial of a rebate from Eaton.  If that’s enough to make Brooke Group inapplicable, then any conditional price cut resulting in an above-cost price falls outside the decision’s safe harbor, for failure to meet the discount condition would subject buyers to a “penalty.”  Proconsumer price competition would surely be chilled by such an evisceration of Brooke Group.  As for threats of supply shortages, the only thing Meritor and the Third Circuit could point to was Eaton’s contractual right to cancel its LTAs if OEMs failed to meet purchase targets.  But if that were enough to make Brooke Group inapplicable, then the decision’s price-cost test could never apply when a dominant seller offers a conditional rebate or discount.  Because the seller could refuse in the future to supply buyers who fail to qualify for the discount, there would be, under the Third Circuit’s reasoning, not just a loyalty rebate but also an implicit threat of “supply shortages” for buyers that fail to meet the seller’s purchase targets.

This is not the first case in which a plaintiff has sought to evade a price-cost test, and thereby impose liability on a discounting scheme that would otherwise pass muster, by seeking to recharacterize the defendant’s conduct.  A few years back, a plaintiff (Masimo) sought to evade the Ninth Circuit’s PeaceHealth decision, which creates a Brooke Group-like safe harbor for certain bundled discounts that could not exclude equally efficient rivals, by construing the defendant’s conduct as “de facto exclusive dealing.”  Dan Crane and I participated as amici in that case as well.

I won’t speak for Dan, but I for one am getting tired of working on these briefs!  It’s time for the Supreme Court to clarify that prevailing price-cost safe harbors cannot be evaded simply through the use of creative labels like “partial de facto exclusive dealing.”  Hopefully, the Court will heed our recommendation that it review — and overrule — the Third Circuit’s Meritor decision.

[In case you’re interested, the other scholars signing the brief urging cert in Meritor are Ken Elzinga (Virginia Econ), Richard Epstein (NYU and Chicago Law), Jerry Hausman (MIT Econ), Rebecca Haw (Vanderbilt Law), Herb Hovenkamp (Iowa Law), Glenn Hubbard (Columbia Business), Keith Hylton (Boston U Law), Bill Kovacic (GWU Law), Alan Meese (Wm & Mary Law), Tom Morgan (GWU Law), Barak Orbach (Arizona Law), Bill Page (Florida Law), Robert Pindyck (MIT Econ), Edward Snyder (Yale Mgt), Danny Sokol (Florida Law), and Robert Topel (Chicago Business).]

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.