Archives For Supreme Court

[The following is a guest post by Thomas McCarthy on the Supreme Court's recent Amex v. Italian Colors Restaurant decision. Tom is a partner at Wiley Rein, LLP and a George Mason Law grad. He is/was also counsel for, among others,

So he's had a busy week....]

The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (June 20, 2013) (“Amex”) is a resounding victory for freedom-of-contract principles.  As it has done repeatedly in recent terms (see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011); Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown (2012)), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) makes arbitration “a matter of contract,” requiring courts to “rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 3.  In so doing, it rejected the theory that class procedures must remain available to claimants in order to ensure that they have sufficient financial incentive to prosecute federal statutory claims of relatively low value.  Consistent with the freedom-of-contract principles enshrined in the FAA, an arbitration agreement must be enforced—even if the manner in which the parties agreed to arbitrate leaves would-be claimants with low-value claims that are not worth pursuing.

In Amex, merchants who accept American Express cards filed a class action against Amex, asserting that Amex violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by “us[ing] its monopoly power in the market for charge cards to force merchants to accept credit cards at rates approximately 30% higher than the fees for competing credit cards.”  Amex at 1-2.  And, of course, the merchants sought treble damages for the class under Section 4 of the Clayton Act.  Under the terms of their agreement with American Express, the merchants had agreed to resolve all disputes via individual arbitration, that is, without the availability of class procedures.  Consistent with that agreement, American Express moved to compel individual arbitration, but the merchants countered that the costs of expert analysis necessary to prove their antitrust claims would greatly exceed the maximum recovery for any individual plaintiff, thereby precluding them from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights under the Sherman Act.  The Second Circuit sided with the merchants, holding that the prohibitive costs the merchants would face if they had to arbitrate on an individual basis rendered the class-action waiver in the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

In a 5-3 majority (per Justice Scalia), the Supreme Court reversed.  The Court began by highlighting the Federal Arbitration Act’s freedom-of-contract mandate—that “courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms, including terms that specify with whom [the parties] choose to arbitrate their disputes, and the rules under which that arbitration will be conducted.”  Amex at 2-3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  It emphasized that this mandate applies even to federal statutory claims, “unless the FAA’s mandate has been overridden by a contrary congressional command.”  Amex at 3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  The Court then briefly explained that no contrary congressional command exists in either the federal antitrust laws or Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (which allows for class actions in certain circumstances).

Next, the Court turned to the merchants’ principal argument—that the arbitration agreement should not be enforced because enforcing it (including its class waiver provision) would preclude plaintiffs from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights.  The Court noted that this “effective vindication” exception “originated as dictum” in prior cases and that the Court has only “asserted [its] existence” without ever having applied it in any particular case.  Amex at 6.  The Court added that this exception grew out of a desire to prevent a “prospec­tive waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory reme­dies,” explaining that it “would certainly cover a provision in an arbitration agreement forbidding the assertion of certain statutory rights.”  The Court added that this exception might “perhaps cover filing and administrative fees attached to arbitration that are so high as to make access to the forum impracticable,” Amex at 6, but emphasized that, whatever the scope of this exception, the fact that the manner of arbitration the parties contracted for might make it “not worth the expense” to pursue a statutory remedy “does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy.”  Amex at 7.

The Court closed by noting that its previous decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion “all but resolves this case.”  Amex at 8.  In Concepcion, the Court had invalidated a state law “conditioning enforcement of arbitration on the availability of class procedures because that law ‘interfere[d] with fundamental attributes of arbitration.’”   As the Court explained, Concepcion specifically rejected the argument “that class arbitration was necessary to prosecute claims ‘that might otherwise slip through the legal system’” thus establishing “that the FAA’s command to enforce arbitration agreements trumps any interest in ensuring the prosecution of low value claims.”  Amex at 9 (quoting Concepcion).  The Court made clear that, under the FAA, courts are to hold parties to the deal they struck—arbitration pursuant to the terms of their arbitration agreements, even if that means that certain claims may go unprosecuted.  Responding to a dissent penned by Justice Kagan, who complained that the Court’s decision would lead to “[l]ess arbitration,” contrary to the pro-arbitration policies of the FAA, Amex dissent at 5, the Court doubled down on this point, emphasizing that the FAA “favor[s] the absence of litigation when that is the consequence of a class-action waiver, since its ‘principal purpose’ is the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 9 n.5 (emphasis added).

By holding parties to the deal they struck regarding the resolution of their disputes, the Court properly vindicates the FAA’s freedom-of-contract mandates.  And even assuming the dissenters are correct that there will be less arbitration in individual instances, the opposite is true on a macro level.  For where there is certainty in contract enforcement, parties will enter into contracts.  Amex thus should promote arbitration by eliminating uncertainty in contracting and thereby removing a barrier to swift and efficient resolution of disputes.

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).]

William & Mary’s Alan Meese has posted a terrific tribute to Robert Bork, who passed away this week.  Most of the major obituaries, Alan observes, have largely ignored the key role
Bork played in rationalizing antitrust, a body of law that veered sharply off course in the middle of the last century.  Indeed, Bork began his 1978 book, The Antitrust Paradox, by comparing the then-prevailing antitrust regime to the sheriff of a frontier town:  “He did not sift the evidence, distinguish between suspects, and solve crimes, but merely walked the main street and every so often pistol-whipped a few people.”  Bork went on to explain how antitrust, if focused on consumer welfare (which equated with allocative efficiency), could be reconceived in a coherent fashion.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Bork’s book and his earlier writings on which it was based.  Chastened by Bork’s observations, the Supreme Court began correcting its antitrust mistakes in the mid-1970s.  The trend began with the 1977 Sylvania decision, which overruled a precedent making it per se illegal for manufacturers to restrict the territories in which their dealers could operate.  (Manufacturers seeking to enhance sales of their brand may wish to give dealers exclusive sales territories to protect them against “free-riding” on their demand-enhancing customer services; pre-Sylvania precedent made it hard for manufacturers to do this.)  Sylvania was followed by:

  • Professional Engineers (1978), which helpfully clarified that antitrust’s theretofore unwieldy “Rule of Reason” must be focused exclusively on competition;
  • Broadcast Music, Inc. (1979), which held that competitors’ price-tampering arrangements that reduce costs and enhance output may be legal;
  • NCAA (1984), which recognized that trade restraints among competitors may be necessary to create new products and services and thereby made it easier for competitors to enter into output-enhancing joint ventures;
  • Khan (1997), which abolished the ludicrous per se rule against maximum resale price maintenance;
  • Trinko (2004), which recognized that some monopoly pricing may aid consumers in the long run (by enhancing the incentive to innovate) and narrowly circumscribed the situations in which a firm has a duty to assist its rivals; and
  • Leegin (2007), which overruled a 96 year-old precedent declaring minimum resale price maintenance–a practice with numerous potential procompetitive benefits–to be per se illegal.

Bork’s fingerprints are all over these decisions.  Alan’s terrific post discusses several of them and provides further detail on Bork’s influence.

And while you’re checking out Alan’s Bork tribute, take a look at his recent post discussing my musings on the AALS hiring cartel.  Alan observes that AALS’s collusive tendencies reach beyond the lateral hiring context.  Who’d have guessed?

I’ve recently posted to SSRN a new paper with the same name as this post.  The paper asserts, in greater detail, a number of points I’ve previously made on TOTM:

  • Health insurance premiums will rise under the (SCOTUS-modified) ACA, because the Act’s “guaranteed issue” and “community rating” mandates will generate widespread adverse selection that cannot be corrected through the (now constitutionally constrained) penalty system the Act imposes.
  • Underlying medical costs will continue to outpace inflation because the ACA does nothing to alleviate the primary driver of health inflation: the lack of price competition among providers, an artifact of the federal tax code’s encouragement of overly generous health insurance policies that ultimately amount to “pre-paid health care.”
  • Insurance coverage will expand far less than ACA proponents promisedbecause (1) the Act encourages employers to drop insurance coverage for lower-income workers, and (2) SCOTUS has largely disabled the Act’s Medicaid expansion.

I’ve been talking about these matters quite a bit lately.  On Constitution Day, I participated in this discussion of the ACA with my Missouri colleagues Phil Peters (a health law expert), Josh Hawley (a constitutional scholar and former Roberts clerk), and Stan Hudson (associate director of MU’s Center for Health Policy).  (My remarks begin at 23:45.)  On September 25, I presented a lecture on the ACA at my undergraduate Alma Mater, Wheaton College.  My PowerPoint presentation is not visible in the Wheaton video, but I’m happy to share it with anyone who’s interested.  Just email me at lambertt at missouri dot edu.

There’s great irony in Chief Justice Roberts’ reasoning in the recent Affordable Care Act ruling.  In reading the ACA to impose a tax for failure to carry health insurance, thereby assuring the Act’s constitutionality, Justice Roberts also doomed the Act to failure.  Let me explain.

As the government repeatedly stressed, the individual mandate (now interpreted as a disjunctive order either to carry health insurance or to pay a “tax”) is necessary because of two “popular” provisions of the ACA: guaranteed issue (i.e., insurance companies are not allowed to deny or drop coverage because of preexisting conditions) and community rating (i.e., insurance companies must set common rates and can’t charge higher premiums to sick people or those susceptible to sickness). Taken together, those two provisions create a terribly perverse incentive for young, healthy people:  Don’t buy health insurance until you get sick!  After all, you can always sign up immediately upon becoming ill or injured (thanks to guaranteed issue), and (thanks to community rating) the insurer can’t charge you a higher price reflective of the greater likelihood — certainty, really — that you’ll make big claims.  To prevent young, healthy people from dropping their insurance, thereby leaving only the older and infirm in the pool of premium-paying insureds, the law must create incentives for them to buy insurance.  The penalty-backed individual mandate was ostensibly designed to do so.

But there’s a problem: penalties don’t deter if they’re set too low.  If a parking meter costs a dollar, but the penalty for not feeding the meter is only a quarter, who’s going to feed the meter?  Unless the expected penalty for an expired meter (the fine times the likelihood of detection) exceeds a buck, feeding the meter’s irrational.

What does this have to do with the ACA?  Well, the statutory penalty for not carrying health insurance is really low — way lower than the cost of insurance.  As Justice Roberts observed:

[I]ndividuals making $35,000 a year are expected to owe the IRS about $60 for any month in which they do not have health insurance. Someone with an annual income of $100,000 a year would likely owe about $200. The price of a qualifying insurance policy is projected to be around $400 per month.

So what is the young man or woman, fresh out of college and beginning a career, going to do — pay the $400/month or pay $60/month until he or she gets sick, at which point he/she can call up the insurance company and be assured of coverage (guaranteed issue) at rates not reflecting his/her impaired health (community rating)?  Surely a great many young people will take the latter tack, especially since — as Justice Roberts repeatedly emphasized — they’re not acting “unlawfully” in doing so.

Then we’ve got real problems.  Health insurance premiums are based on the likely health care expenditures of the pool of insureds.  The greater the percentage of young and healthy (low expenditure) folks in the pool, the lower the premiums.  Conversely, when the young and healthy drop out so that the pool of insureds is older and more infirm, premiums will rise.  And, of course, the higher insurance premiums rise, the more sensible it becomes for the relatively healthy to drop their insurance, pay the small “tax” instead, and wait to get sick before signing up for increasingly costly coverage.  It’s a pernicious cycle.

None of this is rocket science, and proponents of the ACA certainly understood these dangers when the statute was enacted.  They likely assumed, though, that the deficient penalties for failure to carry insurance were a “bug” that Congress would eventually fix once the Act was put in place and became operative.  Proponents needed for the penalties to be low so that they could get the statute through the political process; they figured they could fix the deficiencies later.

Justice Roberts’ opinion, though, will make it very hard for Congress to raise the penalty for not carrying health insurance.  The small size of the penalty was one of three factors that, according to the Chief Justice, transformed the penalty into a tax for constitutional purposes.  He explained:

[T]he shared responsibility payment may for constitutional purposes be considered a tax, not a penalty: First, for most Americans the amount due will be far less than the price of insurance, and, by statute, it can never be more.  It may often be a reasonable financial decision to make the payment rather than purchase insurance, unlike the “prohibitory” financial punishment in Drexel Furniture. Second, the individual mandate contains no scienter requirement. Third, the payment is collected solely by the IRS through the normal means of taxation — except that the Service is not allowed to use those means most suggestive of a punitive sanction, such as criminal prosecution.

This reasoning suggests that the penalty for failure to carry health insurance can count as a tax for constitutional purposes only if it is kept so small as to be ineffective.  Justice Roberts has thus transformed what was effectively a “bug” in the ACA into a “feature” of the statute — one that is required for the Act to constitute a valid exercise of congressional power.  He has damned the ACA in the process of saving it.

But market-oriented folks shouldn’t rejoice.  It’s true that Justice Roberts’ reasoning has assured that the ACA, if not repealed, will implode. That will occur because the combination of guaranteed issue, community rating, and constitutionally required low penalties will drive young and healthy folks from the pool of insureds, causing health insurance premiums to spiral upward and inducing even more people to opt for the “tax” over costly coverage.  Congress will eventually have no choice but to restructure or repeal the Act.  But its replacement won’t be pretty.  Look out for the argument, “We tried a solution involving private insurance.  It failed.  Now our only option is a single-payer system.”

Justice Roberts’ decision may turn out to have been an even bigger gift to the left than anyone initially thought.

David Post has a really interesting post this morning on the Volokh Conspiracy about the implications of issue versus outcome voting in NFIB v. Sebelius.  Post and Steve Salop’s 1992 Georgetown Law Journal article sets forth an analysis of issue versus outcome voting.  The blog post works through that analysis in the context of the healthcare decision.  Its too long to excerpt.  But go check it out (the comments, thus far, are also pretty good).

I’ve got nothing to add on the substantive merits of today’s big decision – but the following line got my attention:

To an economist, perhaps, there is no difference between activity and inactivity; both have measurable economic effects on commerce. But the distinction between doing something and doing nothing would not have been lost on the Framers, who were “practical statesmen,” not meta- physical philosophers.

That is all.

(HT: David Schleicher)

President Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court thinking that Warren was a conservative.  Of course,Warren turned out to be a very liberal Justice.  Eisenhower later said that appointing Warren was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

Is John Roberts the Earl Warren of this century?

I am the co-editor of the Supreme Court Economic Review, a peer-review publication that is one of the country’s top-rated law and economics journals, along with my colleagues Todd Zywicki and Ilya Somin.  SCER, along with its publisher, the University of Chicago Press, have put together a new submissions website.  If you have a relevant submission, please submit at the website for our review.

A colleague sent along the 2011 Washington & Lee law journal rankings.  As co-editor of the Supreme Court Economic Review (along with Todd Zywicki and Ilya Somin) I was very pleased to notice how well the SCER is faring by these measures.  While these rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt or two, by “Impact Factor” here are the top 3 law journals in the “economics” sub-specialty:

  1. Supreme Court Economic Review (1.46)
  2. Journal of Legal Studies (1.31)
  3. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies (1.2)

SCER comes in third in the “Combined” rankings behind Journal of Empirical Legal Studies and the Journal of Legal Studies.

SCER is a peer-reviewed journal and operates on an exclusive submission basis.  You can take a look at our most recent volume here.  If you have an interesting law & economics piece (hint: it need not be related to a Supreme Court case) you’d like to submit, please consider us.

Submissions can be emailed to: scer@gmu.edu

UPDATE: I should also note that George Mason’s Journal of Law, Economics and Policy also ranks very well by these measures!  It is a student-run journal here at GMU Law and comes in 13th and 16th in the “economics” category by impact factor and combined ranking, respectively.

Speaking of JLEP ….

JLEP will be hosting a great symposium in conjunction with GMU’s Information Economy Project (directed by Tom Hazlett) on Friday: The Digital Inventor: How Entrepreneurs Compete on Platforms.   I have the privilege of moderating one of the panels.  But the lineup of speakers is just terrific.

  • Richard Langlois, University of Connecticut, Department of Economics 
  • Thomas Hazlett, Prof. of Law & Economics, George Mason University
  • Andrei Hagiu, Harvard Business School, Multi-Sided Platforms
  • Salil Mehra, Temple University Beasley School of Law, Platforms and the Choice of Models
  • Donald Rosenberg, Qualcomm, Inc.
  • Anne Layne-Farrar, Compass-Lexecon, The Brothers Grimm Book of Business Models: A Survey of Literature and Developments in Patent Acquisition and Litigation
  • James Bessen, Boston University School of Law, The Private Costs of Patent Litigation
  • David Teece, Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley