Gus Hurwitz on the Application of Chevron to Section 5

Gus Hurwitz —  1 August 2013

Gus Hurwitz is Assistant Professor of Law at University of Nebraska College of Law

Introduction

This post is based upon an in-progress article that explores the applicability of Chevron deference to FTC interpretations of Section 5’s proscription of unfair methods of competition. ( I am happy to circulate a draft of this article to anyone who would like to offer substantive feedback.) The article is prompted by the near-universal belief in the antitrust bar – held by both academics and practitioners – that the FTC is not entitled to Chevron deference.

In my limited space here, I hope to do three things. First, since many readers may not be familiar with Chevron deference, I explain very briefly what it is. Second, I explain why Chevron deference is relevant to Section 5 and to UMC in particular. And third, I debunk three of the most pervasive myths about why the FTC would not receive Chevron deference.

Regardless one’s priors, understanding the relationship between Section 5 and Chevron is essential to understanding the future of FTC-based competition policy. The past 30 years of competition policy debates have addressed the courts as its main audience. The new front – which neither the antitrust hawks or doves has significant experience with – is administrative. Administrative law is very different from the judicially-defined, stare decisis–restrained, common-law venue in which we are all used to playing.

Chevron

Chevron deference is used where a statute enforced by an administrative agency involves an ambiguous legal standard. In such cases, it is unclear whether such ambiguity should be resolved by the courts or by the agency. In its 1984 Chevron opinion, the Court made clear – for various reasons that are hotly debated to this day – that courts should defer to agency interpretations of such ambiguous statutes, provided that the interpretation is permissible within the language of the statute.

It is requisite that any discussion of Chevron cite to the opinion’s famous language:

First, always, is the question whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. If, however, the court determines Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue, the court does not simply impose its own construction on the statute, as would be necessary in the absence of an administrative interpretation. Rather, if the statute is silent or ambiguous with respect to the specific issue, the question for the court is whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute. Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984)

This standard is important to the FTC because Section 5 was deliberately designed to be an ambiguous statute (this is made clear in the legislative history, and has been affirmed consistently by the Court). In the context of UMC, each of “unfair,” “method,” and “competition” bears some modicum of ambiguity – “unfair,” in particular drips with it.

Chevron’s relevance to Section 5

This ambiguity has not been an issue for the past 30 years or so, because the FTC has restrained itself to an interpretation of UMC that is concurrent with the judicially-defined antitrust laws (viz., the Sherman and Clayton Acts). But as the fact of this symposium reflects, recent years have seen increasing pressure for the FTC to embrace a more expansive understanding of its UMC authority under Section 5.

What happens when it does this? What happens, for example, when the FTC asserts that “unfair” embraces more than mere aggregate consumer welfare, but extends to distributional effects as well. There is a not-insane argument that some decreases in total welfare is an acceptable cost to secure greater distributional “fairness.” If the courts afford the Commission Chevron deference, the answer is simple: the Commission wins.

Debunking the myth that Chevron does not apply to Section 5

There is a pervasive belief that Chevron does not apply to Section 5. As a result, antitrust scholarship has largely addressed the courts as its audience, framing debates about Section 5 in the same language and theory as has been embraced by the courts in the context of the Sherman Act. That is, discussions have largely been framed in post-Antitrust Paradox consumer welfare understandings of antitrust law.

This view was clear in the FTC’s 2008 workshop on Section 5 of the FTC Act as a Competition Statute. It has also been captured extensively in Dan Crane’s wonderful work on the FTC as an institution. Anecdotally, as I have wondered about this issue over the past several years, I have encountered many antitrust scholars and practitioners who have assured me that Chevron does not apply to Section 5; and I have encountered none who have believed that it does.

A number of reasons have been offered to explain why Chevron does not apply to Section 5. In the remained of this post, I will debunk the three most pervasive explanations offered for this: that the FTC doesn’t have substantive rulemaking authority, that deference doesn’t apply to statutes that are enforced by multiple agencies (e.g., the FTC and DOJ both enforcing the antitrust laws), and that Indiana Federation of Dentists, 476 U.S. 447 (1986) (the Court’s most recent Section 5 UMC case), provides that Section 5 UMC cases are reviewed de novo by the courts.

Myth #1: FTC doesn’t have rulemaking authority

It is widely believed that the FTC doesn’t have substantive UMC rulemaking authority; and folks seem to think that such authority is required for an agency to get Chevron deference. Both of these are beliefs are wrong.

The confusion over the extent of the FTC’s rulemaking authority is somewhat understandable – it has been the subject of much controversy and judicial and Congressional debate for much of the Commission’s existence. This debate has been especially muddled by Congress’s disparate treatment of UMC and UDAP (unfair or deceptive act or practices – a separate offence proscribed by Section 5).

But there really is no question that the FTC has substantive UMC rulemaking authority under Section 6(g). The Supreme Court held so much in National Petroleum Refiners, 482 F.2d 672 (1973) – one of the seminal cases in the administrative law canon. While the FTC Act has been amended several times since National Petroleum Refiners (most notably in 1975, 1980, and 1994), and the Commissions UDAP rulemaking power has been an explicit focus of several of these amendments, none of them has affected the Commission’s UMC rulemaking authority. To the contrary, the amendments and related legislative history expressly preserve the Commission’s UMC rulemaking authority as it existed in 1973.

(The 1975 amendments notes that “The preceding sentence shall not affect any authority of the commission to prescribe rules (including interpretive rules), and general statements of policy, with respect to unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce.” The 1980 Conference report notes that the 1975 amendments “specifically addressed the Commission’s rulemaking authority over ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” and that they expressly declaimed any effect on the Commission’s authority with respect to unfair methods of competition. And the 1994 amendments focused exclusively on unfair acts or practices – omitting both deceptive acts or practices and unfair methods of competition.)

What’s more, substantive rulemaking authority is not the necessary condition for Chevron deference to apply. The necessary condition is that the agency be able to make rules or establish legal norms carrying the force of law. Such rules can be made either through rulemaking or adjudication (and possibly even through other Congressionally-intended mechanisms). See Mead, 533 U.S. 218, 234-35 (2001). There is little, if any, serious question that the FTC was created precisely for this purpose and, to this day, has such power.

Myth #2: Concurrent antitrust jurisdiction means no deference

A second common explanation for why the FTC does not receive the benefit of Chevron deference is that such deference does not extend to statutes enforced by multiple agencies, and that the antitrust laws are enforced by both the DOJ and FTC. Again, this is a misunderstanding of both FTC and administrative law.

On the administrative law front, the question of how concurrent jurisdiction affects deference is handled as a threshold question to be answered by Congressional intent. (For the admin-law geeks among us, this is a step-zero question.) It is possible that Congress intended either, neither, or both agencies with concurrent jurisdiction to be given deference. Whatever Congress intended, is what controls – not a mythical rule that concurrent jurisdiction negates deference.

But this explanation suffers a more basic flaw: the only reason that the FTC and DOJ have concurrent jurisdiction over the antitrust laws is because the FTC has interpreted Section 5 to be concurrent with the antitrust laws enforced by the DOJ. Section 5 (and the FTC itself) was created precisely to be broader than the antitrust laws – and nothing in Section 5 even references the “antitrust laws.” Section 5 may be coextensive with the DOJ-enforced antitrust laws – but only because it encompasses and is broader than them. The FTC does not share jurisdiction over that part of Section 5 that is broader than those laws that the DOJ enforces.

Myth #3: Indiana Federation of Dentists holds Section 5 UMC cases are reviewed de novo

The final myth that I will consider is that Indiana Federation of Dentists requires courts to conduct de novo review of FTC legal determinations under Section 5. This explanation really is quite fascinating as a demonstration of how myths can propagate through the bar – and the importance of interfacing with experts from other specialty areas of the law.

The typically-cited passage from Indiana Federation of Dentists explains that:

The legal issues presented — that is, the identification of governing legal standards and their application to the facts found — are, by contrast, for the courts to resolve, although even in considering such issues the courts are to give some deference to the Commission’s informed judgment that a particular commercial practice is to be condemned as “unfair.”

This language has been cited as requiring do novo review of all legal questions, including the legal meaning of Section 5. Dan Crane has called this an “odd standard,” noting that ordinarily “this is technically a question of Chevron deference, although the courts have not articulated it that way in the antitrust space.” Indeed, it seems remarkable that Indiana Federation of Dentists (decided in 1986) does not even mention Chevron (decided in 1984) – a fact that has led antitrust commentators to believe “One cannot explain judicial posture in the antitrust arena in Chevron terms.”

But this is a misreading of Indiana Federation of Dentists, which is in fact entirely in line with Chevron; and it is a misunderstanding of Chevron’s history. First, it is unsurprising that Indiana Federation of Dentists did not cite to Chevron. The Indiana Federation of Dentists petitioned for cert from a 7th Circuit that had been argued before Chevron was decided, and the Commission was arguing for an uncontroversial interpretation of Section 5 as applying Section 1 of the Sherman Act. The Commission had never structured its case to seek deference, and before the Supreme Court it had no need to argue for any deference.

Moreover, it took several years for the importance of Chevron to become understood, and to filter its way into judicial review of agency statutory interpretation. Over the next several years, the Circuit Courts regularly used Indiana Federation of Dentists to explain the standard of review for various agencies’ interpretations of their organic statutes (including, e.g., HHS, INS Labor, and OSHA). Importantly, these cases recognized that there was some confusion as to the changing standard of review; framed their analysis in terms of Skidmore (the precursor Chevron in this line of cases); and largely reached Chevron-like conclusions, despite Indiana Federation of Dentists’s suggestion of a lower level of deference. Today, Chevron, not Indiana Federation of Dentists, is the law of the land – at least, for every regulatory agency other than the FTC.

Indeed, a close reading of Indiana Federation of Dentists finds that it is in accord with Chevron. The continuation of the paragraph quoted above explains that:

The standard of “unfairness” under the FTC Act is, by necessity, an elusive one, encompassing not only practices that violate the Sherman Act and the other antitrust laws, but also practices that the Commission determines are against public policy for other reasons. Once the Commission has chosen a particular legal rationale for holding a practice to be unfair, however, familiar principles of administrative law dictate that its decision must stand or fall on that basis, and a reviewing court may not consider other reasons why the practice might be deemed unfair. In the case now before us, the sole basis of the FTC’s finding of an unfair method of competition was the Commission’s conclusion that the [alleged conduct] was an unreasonable and conspiratorial restraint of trade in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. Accordingly, the legal question before us is whether the Commission’s factual findings, if supported by evidence, make out a violation of Sherman Act § 1. (emphasis added)

This language critically alters the paragraph’s initial proposition that the legal issues are for determination by the courts. Rather, the Court recognizes that Section 5 is inherently ambiguous. It is therefore to the Commission to choose the legal standard under which that conduct will be reviewed – “a reviewing court may not consider other reasons why the practice might be deemed unfair.”

This is precisely the standard established by Chevron: first, the courts determine whether the statute is ambiguous and, if it is not, the court’s reading of the statute is binding; but if it is ambiguous, the court defers to the agency’s construction. Part of why Chevron is a difficult test is that both parts of this analysis do, in fact, present legal questions for the court. The first step is purely legal, with the court determining on its own whether the statute is ambiguous. Then, at step two, the legal question is whether the agency correctly applied the facts to its declared legal standard – as the Court recognizes in Indiana Federation of Dentists, “the legal question before us is whether the Commission’s factual findings make out a violation of Sherman Act § 1.” Thus, the opening, oft-quoted, first sentence of the paragraph is correct, and is in accord with Chevron: the legal issues presented are for the courts to resolve.

Conclusion

The long-standing belief that FTC interpretations of UMC under Section 5 are not entitled to Chevron deference are almost certainly wrong. I’ve addressed three of the most pervasive myths about this above – there are a couple more, but you’ll need to read the full paper to learn about them and why they are wrong.

Two important questions follow, which we will likely take up in this symposium, and I take up a bit in my article: normatively, should the FTC receive such deference, and, if not, what restraints exist on the scope of the Commission’s Section 5’s UMC power? I’ll conclude with what I believe is the most important takeaway from this post: however we proceed, we must do so with an understanding of both antitrust and administrative law. The relevant audiences for our discussions about these issues are the FTC and Congress – not the courts; and the relevant language is that of policy and statute, not judicial precedent and stare decisis. Administrative law is the unique, beautiful, and scary beast that governs the FTC – those who fail to respect its nuances do so at their own peril.

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