Why a Common Law Approach to Defining “Unfair Methods of Competition” Won’t Work

Thom Lambert —  17 September 2014

Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act proclaims that “[u]nfair methods of competition . . . are hereby declared unlawful.” The FTC has exclusive authority to enforce that provision and uses it to prosecute Sherman Act violations. The Commission also uses the provision to prosecute conduct that doesn’t violate the Sherman Act but is, in the Commission’s view, an “unfair method of competition.”

That’s somewhat troubling, for “unfairness” is largely in the eye of the beholder. One FTC Commissioner recently defined an unfair method of competition as an action that is “‘collusive, coercive, predatory, restrictive, or deceitful,’ or otherwise oppressive, [where the actor lacks] a justification grounded in its legitimate, independent self-interest.” Some years ago, a commissioner observed that a “standalone” Section 5 action (i.e., one not premised on conduct that would violate the Sherman Act) could be used to police “social and environmental harms produced as unwelcome by-products of the marketplace: resource depletion, energy waste, environmental contamination, worker alienation, the psychological and social consequences of producer-stimulated demands.” While it’s unlikely that any FTC Commissioner would go that far today, the fact remains that those subject to Section 5 really don’t know what it forbids.  And that situation flies in the face of the Rule of Law, which at a minimum requires that those in danger of state punishment know in advance what they’re not allowed to do.

In light of this fundamental Rule of Law problem (not to mention the detrimental chilling effect vague competition rules create), many within the antitrust community have called for the FTC to provide guidance on the scope of its “unfair methods of competition” authority. Most notably, two members of the five-member FTC—Commissioners Maureen Ohlhausen and Josh Wright—have publicly called for the Commission to promulgate guidelines. So have former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic, a number of leading practitioners, and a great many antitrust scholars.

Unfortunately, FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez has opposed the promulgation of Section 5 guidelines. She says she instead “favor[s] the common law approach, which has been a mainstay of American antitrust policy since the turn of the twentieth century.” Chairwoman Ramirez observes that the common law method has managed to distill workable liability rules from broad prohibitions in the primary antitrust statutes. Section 1 of the Sherman Act, for example, provides that “[e]very contract, combination … or conspiracy, in restraint of trade … is declared to be illegal.” Section 2 prohibits actions to “monopolize, or attempt to monopolize … any part of … trade.” Clayton Act Section 7 forbids any merger whose effect “may be substantially to lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly.” Just as the common law transformed these vague provisions into fairly clear liability rules, the Chairwoman says, it can be used to provide adequate guidance on Section 5.

The problem is, there is no Section 5 common law. As Commissioner Wright and his attorney-advisor Jan Rybnicek explain in a new paper, development of a common law—which concededly may be preferable to a prescriptive statutory approach, given its flexibility, ability to evolve with new learning, and sensitivity to time- and place-specific factors—requires certain conditions that do not exist in the Section 5 context.

The common law develops and evolves in a salutary direction because (1) large numbers of litigants do their best to persuade adjudicators of the superiority of their position; (2) the closest cases—those requiring the adjudicator to make fine distinctions—get appealed and reported; (3) the adjudicators publish opinions that set forth all relevant facts, the arguments of the parties, and why one side prevailed over the other; (4) commentators criticize published opinions that are unsound or rely on welfare-reducing rules; (5) adjudicators typically follow past precedents, tweaking (or occasionally overruling) them when they have been undermined; and (6) future parties rely on past decisions when planning their affairs.

Section 5 “adjudication,” such as it is, doesn’t look anything like this. Because the Commission has exclusive authority to bring standalone Section 5 actions, it alone picks the disputes that could form the basis of any common law. It then acts as both prosecutor and judge in the administrative action that follows. Not surprisingly, defendants, who cannot know the contours of a prohibition that will change with the composition of the Commission and who face an inherently biased tribunal, usually settle quickly. After all, they are, in Commissioner Wright’s words, both “shooting at a moving target and have the chips stacked against them.” As a result, we end up with very few disputes, and even those are not vigorously litigated.

Moreover, because nearly all standalone Section 5 actions result in settlements, we almost never end up with a reasoned opinion from an adjudicator explaining why she did or did not find liability on the facts at hand and why she rejected the losing side’s arguments. These sorts of opinions are absolutely crucial for the development of the common law. Chairwoman Ramirez says litigants can glean principles from other administrative documents like complaints and consent agreements, but those documents can’t substitute for a reasoned opinion that parses arguments and says which work, which don’t, and why. On top of all this, the FTC doesn’t even treat its own enforcement decisions as precedent! How on earth could the Commission’s body of enforcement decisions guide decision-making when each could well be a one-off?

I’m a huge fan of the common law. It generally accommodates the Hayekian “knowledge problem” far better than inflexible, top-down statutes. But it requires both inputs—lots of vigorously litigated disputes—and outputs—reasoned opinions that are recognized as presumptively binding. In the Section 5 context, we’re short on both. It’s time for guidelines.

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.

One response to Why a Common Law Approach to Defining “Unfair Methods of Competition” Won’t Work

  1. 

    Much of the language you quote about collusive, coercive, predatory ,etc. practices that lack legitimate independent business justification is a paraphrase of language in the 2nd Circuit’s opinion in the FTC’s “Ethyl” case (729 F.2d. 128) So, you might actually treat that language as the common law at work, rather than the bizarre ramblings of a random FTC Commissioner.

    In that same opinion, the court essentially agrees that adoption of most-favored nations provisions could be considered as a “plus factor” (i.e., conduct contrary to the defendants’ independent self-interest) because they have the effect of the firm “voluntarily penalizing itself for price-discounting.” See footnote 10 for the exact language on MFNs (what the court denotes as a “price protection” policy).