Archives For noncompete

The business press generally describes the gig economy that has sprung up around digital platforms like Uber and TaskRabbit as a beneficial phenomenon, “a glass that is almost full.” The gig economy “is an economy that operates flexibly, involving the exchange of labor and resources through digital platforms that actively facilitate buyer and seller matching.”

From the perspective of businesses, major positive attributes of the gig economy include cost-effectiveness (minimizing costs and expenses); labor-force efficiencies (“directly matching the company to the freelancer”); and flexible output production (individualized work schedules and enhanced employee motivation). Workers also benefit through greater independence, enhanced work flexibility (including hours worked), and the ability to earn extra income.

While there are some disadvantages, as well, (worker-commitment questions, business-ethics issues, lack of worker benefits, limited coverage of personal expenses, and worker isolation), there is no question that the gig economy has contributed substantially to the growth and flexibility of the American economy—a major social good. Indeed, “[i]t is undeniable that the gig economy has become an integral part of the American workforce, a trend that has only been accelerated during the” COVID-19 pandemic.

In marked contrast, however, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Sept. 15 Policy Statement on Enforcement Related to Gig Work (“gig statement” or “statement”) is the story of a glass that is almost empty. The accompanying press release declaring “FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers” (since when is “taking advantage of workers” an antitrust or consumer-protection offense?) puts an entirely negative spin on the gig economy. And while the gig statement begins by describing the nature and large size of the gig economy, it does so in a dispassionate and bland tone. No mention is made of the substantial benefits for consumers, workers, and the overall economy stemming from gig work. Rather, the gig statement quickly adopts a critical perspective in describing the market for gig workers and then addressing gig-related FTC-enforcement priorities. What’s more, the statement deals in very broad generalities and eschews specifics, rendering it of no real use to gig businesses seeking practical guidance.

Most significantly, the gig statement suggests that the FTC should play a significant enforcement role in gig-industry labor questions that fall outside its statutory authority. As such, the statement is fatally flawed as a policy document. It provides no true guidance and should be substantially rewritten or withdrawn.

Gig Statement Analysis

The gig statement’s substantive analysis begins with a negative assessment of gig-firm conduct. It expresses concern that gig workers are being misclassified as independent contractors and are thus deprived “of critical rights [right to organize, overtime pay, health and safety protections] to which they are entitled under law.” Relatedly, gig workers are said to be “saddled with inordinate risks.” Gig firms also “may use transparent algorithms to capture more revenue from customer payments for workers’ services than customers or workers understand.”

Heaven forfend!

The solution offered by the gig statement is “scrutiny of promises gig platforms make, or information they fail to disclose, about the financial proposition of gig work.” No mention is made of how these promises supposedly made to workers about the financial ramifications of gig employment are related to the FTC’s statutory mission (which centers on unfair or deceptive acts or practices affecting consumers or unfair methods of competition).

The gig statement next complains that a “power imbalance” between gig companies and gig workers “may leave gig workers exposed to harms from unfair, deceptive, and anticompetitive practices and is likely to amplify such harms when they occur. “Power imbalance” along a vertical chain has not been a source of serious antitrust concern for decades (and even in the case of the Robinson-Patman Act, the U.S. Supreme Court most recently stressed, in 2005’s Volvo v. Reeder, that harm to interbrand competition is the key concern). “Power imbalances” between workers and employers bear no necessary relation to consumer welfare promotion, which the Supreme Court teaches is the raison d’etre of antitrust. Moreover, the FTC does not explain why unfair or deceptive conduct likely follows from the mere existence of substantial bargaining power. Such an unsupported assertion is not worthy of being included in a serious agency-policy document.

The gig statement then engages in more idle speculation about a supposed relationship between market concentration and the proliferation of unfair and deceptive practices across the gig economy. The statement claims, without any substantiation, that gig companies in concentrated platform markets will be incentivized to exert anticompetitive market power over gig workers, and thereby “suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, or impose onerous terms on gig workers.” Relatedly, “unfair and deceptive practices by one platform can proliferate across the labor market, creating a race to the bottom that participants in the gig economy, and especially gig workers, have little ability to avoid.” No empirical or theoretical support is advanced for any of these bald assertions, which give the strong impression that the commission plans to target gig-economy companies for enforcement actions without regard to the actual facts on the ground. (By contrast, the commission has in the past developed detailed factual records of competitive and/or consumer-protection problems in health care and other important industry sectors as a prelude to possible future investigations.)

The statement then launches into a description of the FTC’s gig-economy policy priorities. It notes first that “workers may be deprived of the protections of an employment relationship” when gig firms classify them as independent contractors, leading to firms’ “disclosing [of] pay and costs in an unfair and deceptive manner.” What’s more, the FTC “also recognizes that misleading claims [made to workers] about the costs and benefits of gig work can impair fair competition among companies in the gig economy and elsewhere.”

These extraordinary statements seem to be saying that the FTC plans to closely scrutinize gig-economy-labor contract negotiations, based on its distaste for independent contracting (which it believes should be supplanted by employer-employee relationships, a question of labor law, not FTC law). Nowhere is it explained where such a novel FTC exercise of authority comes from, nor how such FTC actions have any bearing on harms to consumer welfare. The FTC’s apparent desire to force employment relationships upon gig firms is far removed from harm to competition or unfair or deceptive practices directed at consumers. Without more of an explanation, one is left to conclude that the FTC is proposing to take actions that are far beyond its statutory remit.

The gig statement next tries to tie the FTC’s new gig program to violations of the FTC Act (“unsubstantiated claims”); the FTC’s Franchise Rule; and the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, violations of which “can trigger civil penalties.” The statement, however, lacks any sort of logical, coherent explanation of how the new enforcement program necessarily follows from these other sources of authority. While a few examples of rules-based enforcement actions that have some connection to certain terms of employment may be pointed to, such special cases are a far cry from any sort of general justification for turning the FTC into a labor-contracts regulator.

The statement then moves on to the alleged misuse of algorithmic tools dealing with gig-worker contracts and supervision that may lead to unlawful gig-worker oversight and termination. Once again, the connection of any of this to consumer-welfare harm (from a competition or consumer-protection perspective) is not made.

The statement further asserts that FTC Act consumer-protection violations may arise from “nonnegotiable” and other unfair contracts. In support of such a novel exercise of authority, however, the FTC cites supposedly analogous “unfair” clauses found in consumer contracts with individuals or small-business consumers. It is highly doubtful that these precedents support any FTC enforcement actions involving labor contracts.

Noncompete clauses with individuals are next on the gig statement’s agenda. It is claimed that “[n]on-compete provisions may undermine free and fair labor markets by restricting workers’ ability to obtain competitive offers for their services from existing companies, resulting in lower wages and degraded working conditions. These provisions may also raise barriers to entry for new companies.” The assertion, however, that such clauses may violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act or Section 5 of the FTC Act’s bar on unfair methods of competition, seems dubious, to say the least. Unless there is coordination among companies, these are essentially unilateral contracting practices that may have robust efficiency explanations. Making out these practices to be federal antitrust violations is bad law and bad policy; they are, in any event, subject to a wide variety of state laws.

Even more problematic is the FTC’s claim that a variety of standard (typically efficiency-seeking) contract limitations, such as nondisclosure agreements and liquidated damages clauses, “may be excessive or overbroad” and subject to FTC scrutiny. This preposterous assertion would make the FTC into a second-guesser of common labor contracts (a federal labor-contract regulator, if you will), a role for which it lacks authority and is entirely unsuited. Turning the FTC into a federal labor-contract regulator would impose unjustifiable uncertainty costs on business and chill a host of efficient arrangements. It is hard to take such a claim of power seriously, given its lack of any credible statutory basis.

The final section of the gig statement dealing with FTC enforcement (“Policing Unfair Methods of Competition That Harm Gig Workers”) is unobjectionable, but not particularly informative. It essentially states that the FTC’s black letter legal authority over anticompetitive conduct also extends to gig companies: the FTC has the authority to investigate and prosecute anticompetitive mergers; agreements among competitors to fix terms of employment; no-poach agreements; and acts of monopolization and attempted monopolization. (Tell us something we did not know!)

The fact that gig-company workers may be harmed by such arrangements is noted. The mere page and a half devoted to this legal summary, however, provides little practical guidance for gig companies as to how to avoid running afoul of the law. Antitrust policy statements may be excused if they provided less detailed guidance than antitrust guidelines, but it would be helpful if they did something more than provide a capsule summary of general American antitrust principles. The gig statement does not pass this simple test.

The gig statement closes with a few glittering generalities. Cooperation with other agencies is highlighted (for example, an information-sharing agreement with the National Labor Relations Board is described). The FTC describes an “Equity Action Plan” calling for a focus on how gig-economy antitrust and consumer-protection abuses harm underserved communities and low-wage workers.

The FTC finishes with a request for input from the public and from gig workers about abusive and potentially illegal gig-sector conduct. No mention is made of the fact that the FTC must, of course, conform itself to the statutory limitations on its jurisdiction in the gig sector, as in all other areas of the economy.

Summing Up the Gig Statement

In sum, the critical flaw of the FTC’s gig statement is its focus on questions of labor law and policy (including the question of independent contractor as opposed to employee status) that are the proper purview of federal and state statutory schemes not administered by the Federal Trade Commission. (A secondary flaw is the statement’s unbalanced portrayal of the gig sector, which ignores its beneficial aspects.) If the FTC decides that gig-economy issues deserve particular enforcement emphasis, it should (and, indeed, must) direct its attention to anticompetitive actions and unfair or deceptive acts or practices that harm consumers.

On the antitrust side, that might include collusion among gig companies on the terms offered to workers or perhaps “mergers to monopoly” between gig companies offering a particular service. On the consumer-protection side, that might include making false or materially misleading statements to consumers about the terms under which they purchase gig-provided services. (It would be conceivable, of course, that some of those statements might be made, unwittingly or not, by gig independent contractors, at the behest of the gig companies.)

The FTC also might carry out gig-industry studies to identify particular prevalent competitive or consumer-protection harms. The FTC should not, however, seek to transform itself into a gig-labor-market enforcer and regulator, in defiance of its lack of statutory authority to play this role.

Conclusion

The FTC does, of course, have a legitimate role to play in challenging unfair methods of competition and unfair acts or practices that undermine consumer welfare wherever they arise, including in the gig economy. But it does a disservice by focusing merely on supposed negative aspects of the gig economy and conjuring up a gig-specific “parade of horribles” worthy of close commission scrutiny and enforcement action.

Many of the “horribles” cited may not even be “bads,” and many of them are, in any event, beyond the proper legal scope of FTC inquiry. There are other federal agencies (for example, the National Labor Relations Board) whose statutes may prove applicable to certain problems noted in the gig statement. In other cases, statutory changes may be required to address certain problems noted in the statement (assuming they actually are problems). The FTC, and its fellow enforcement agencies, should keep in mind, of course, that they are not Congress, and wishing for legal authority to deal with problems does not create it (something the federal judiciary fully understands).  

In short, the negative atmospherics that permeate the gig statement are unnecessary and counterproductive; if anything, they are likely to convince at least some judges that the FTC is not the dispassionate finder of fact and enforcer of law that it claims to be. In particular, the judiciary is unlikely to be impressed by the FTC’s apparent effort to insert itself into questions that lie far beyond its statutory mandate.

The FTC should withdraw the gig statement. If, however, it does not, it should revise the statement in a manner that is respectful of the limits on the commission’s legal authority, and that presents a more dispassionate analysis of gig-economy business conduct.

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Svetlana Gans and Eugene Scalia look at three potential traps the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could trigger if it pursues the aggressive rulemaking agenda many have long been expecting. From their opening:

FTC Chairman Lina Khan has Rooseveltian ambitions for the agency. … Within weeks the FTC is expected to begin a blizzard of rule-makings that will include restrictions on employment noncompete agreements and the practices of technology companies.

If Ms. Khan succeeds, she will transform the FTC’s regulation of American business. But there’s a strong chance this regulatory blitz will fail. The FTC is a textbook case for how federal agencies could be affected by the re-examination of administrative law under way at the Supreme Court.

The first pitfall into which the FTC might fall, Gans and Scalia argue, is the “major questions” doctrine. Recently illuminated in the Supreme Court’s opinion in West Virginia v. EPA decision, the doctrine holds that federal agencies cannot enact regulations of vast economic and political significance without clear congressional authorization. The sorts of rules the FTC appears to be contemplating “would run headlong into” major questions, Gans and Scalia write, a position shared by several contributors to Truth on the Market‘s recent symposium on the potential for FTC rulemakings on unfair methods of competition (UMC).

The second trap the authors expect might trip up an ambitious FTC is the major questions doctrine’s close cousin: the nondelegation doctrine. The nondelegation doctrine holds that there are limits to how much authority Congress can delegate to a federal agency, even if it does so clearly.

Curiously, as Gans and Scalia note, the last time the Supreme Court invoked the nondelegation doctrine involved regulations to implement “codes of fair competition”—nearly identical, on their face, to the commission’s current interest in rules to prohibit unfair methods of competition. That last case, Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, is more than 80 years old. The doctrine has since lain dormant for multiple generations. But in recent years, several justice have signaled their openness to reinvigorating the doctrine. As Gans and Scalia note, “[a]n aggressive FTC competition rule could be a tempting target” for them.

Finally, the authors anticipate an overly aggressive FTC may find itself entangled in yet a thorny web wrapped around the very heart of the administrative state: the constitutionality of so-called independent agencies. Again, the relevant constitutional doctrine giving rise to these agencies results from another 1935 case involving the FTC itself: Humphrey’s Executor v. United States. While the Court in that opinion upheld the notion that Congress can create agencies led by officials who operate independently of direct presidential control, conservative justices have long questioned the doctrine’s legitimacy and the Roberts court, in particularly, has trimmed its outer limits. An overly aggressive FTC might present an opportunity to further check the independence of these agencies.

While it remains unclear the precise rules the FTC seek try to develop using its UMC authority, the clearest signs are that it will focus first on labor issues, such as emerging research around labor monopsony and firms’ use of noncompete clauses. Indeed, Eric Posner, who joined the U.S. Justice Department Antitrust Division earlier this year as counsel on these issues, recently acknowledged that: “There is this very close and complicated relationship between labor law and antitrust law that has to be maintained.”

If the FTC were to upset this relationship, such as by using its UMC authority either to circumvent the National Labor Relations Board in addressing competition concerns or to assist the NLRB in exceeding its own statutory authority, it would be unsurprising for the courts to exercise their constitutional role as a check on a rogue agency.

Biden administration enforcers at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have prioritized labor-market monopsony issues for antitrust scrutiny (see, for example, here and here). This heightened interest comes in light of claims that labor markets are highly concentrated and are rife with largely neglected competitive problems that depress workers’ income. Such concerns are reflected in a March 2022 U.S. Treasury Department report on “The State of Labor Market Competition.”

Monopsony is the “flip side” of monopoly and U.S. antitrust law clearly condemns agreements designed to undermine the “buyer side” competitive process (see, for example, this U.S. government submission to the OECD). But is a special new emphasis on labor markets warranted, given that antitrust enforcers ideally should seek to allocate their scarce resources to the most pressing (highest valued) areas of competitive concern?

A May 2022 Information Technology & Innovation (ITIF) study from ITIF Associate Director (and former FTC economist) Julie Carlson indicates that the degree of emphasis the administration’s antitrust enforcers are placing on labor issues may be misplaced. In particular, the ITIF study debunks the Treasury report’s findings of high levels of labor-market concentration and the claim that workers face a “decrease in wages [due to labor market power] at roughly 20 percent relative to the level in a fully competitive market.” Furthermore, while noting the importance of DOJ antitrust prosecutions of hard-core anticompetitive agreements among employers (wage-fixing and no-poach agreements), the ITIF report emphasizes policy reforms unrelated to antitrust as key to improving workers’ lot.

Key takeaways from the ITIF report include:

  • Labor markets are not highly concentrated. Local labor-market concentration has been declining for decades, with the most concentrated markets seeing the largest declines.
  • Labor-market power is largely due to labor-market frictions, such as worker preferences, search costs, bargaining, and occupational licensing, rather than concentration.
  • As a case study, changes in concentration in the labor market for nurses have little to no effect on wages, whereas nurses’ preferences over job location are estimated to lead to wage markdowns of 50%.
  • Firms are not profiting at the expense of workers. The decline in the labor share of national income is primarily due to rising home values, not increased labor-market concentration.
  • Policy reform should focus on reducing labor-market frictions and strengthening workers’ ability to collectively bargain. Policies targeting concentration are misguided and will be ineffective at improving outcomes for workers.

The ITIF report also throws cold water on the notion of emphasizing labor-market issues in merger reviews, which was teed up in the January 2022 joint DOJ/FTC request for information (RFI) on merger enforcement. The ITIF report explains:

Introducing the evaluation of labor market effects unnecessarily complicates merger review and needlessly ties up agency resources at a time when the agencies are facing severe resource constraints.48 As discussed previously, labor markets are not highly concentrated, nor is labor market concentration a key factor driving down wages.

A proposed merger that is reportable to the agencies under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act and likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant labor market is also likely to have an anticompetitive effect in a relevant product market. … Evaluating mergers for labor market effects is unnecessary and costly for both firms and the agencies. The current merger guidelines adequately address competition concerns in input markets, so any contemplated revision to the guidelines should not incorporate a “framework to analyze mergers that may lessen competition in labor markets.” [Citation to Request for Information on Merger Enforcement omitted.]

In sum, the administration’s recent pronouncements about highly anticompetitive labor markets that have resulted in severely underpaid workers—used as the basis to justify heightened antitrust emphasis on labor issues—appear to be based on false premises. As such, they are a species of government misinformation, which, if acted upon, threatens to misallocate scarce enforcement resources and thereby undermine efficient government antitrust enforcement. What’s more, an unnecessary overemphasis on labor-market antitrust questions could impose unwarranted investigative costs on companies and chill potentially efficient business transactions. (Think of a proposed merger that would reduce production costs and benefit consumers but result in a workforce reduction by the merged firm.)

Perhaps the administration will take heed of the ITIF report and rethink its plans to ramp up labor-market antitrust-enforcement initiatives. Promoting pro-market regulatory reforms that benefit both labor and consumers (for instance, excessive occupational-licensing restrictions) would be a welfare-superior and cheaper alternative to misbegotten antitrust actions.

[The tenth entry in our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium comes from guest contributor Kacyn H. Fujii, a 2022 J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. Kacyn’s entry comes via Truth on the Market‘s “New Voices” competition, open to untenured or aspiring academics (including students and fellows). You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

On July 9, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to “curtail the unfair use of noncompete clauses and other clauses or agreements that may unfairly limit worker mobility.” This executive order raises two questions. First, does the FTC have the authority to issue such a rule? And second, is FTC rulemaking a better solution than adjudication to solve the widespread use of noncompetes? This post contends that the FTC possesses rulemaking authority and that FTC rulemaking is a better solution than adjudication for the problem of noncompete use, especially for low-wage workers.

FTC’s Rulemaking Authority

In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in National Petroleum Refiners Association v. FTC held that the Federal Trade Commission Act permitted the FTC to promulgate rules under its unfair methods of competition (UMC) authority. Specifically, it interpreted Section 6(g), which gives the FTC the authority “to make rules and regulations for the purpose of carrying out the provisions in this subchapter,” to allow rulemaking to carry out the FTC’s Section 5 authority. In his remarks at the 2020 FTC workshop on noncompetes, Richard Pierce of George Washington University School of Law argued that no court today would follow National Petroleum’s reasoning, even going so far as to call its logic “preposterous.” BYU Law’s Aaron Nielson agreed that some of National Petroleum’s reasoning was outdated but conceded that its judgment might have been correct. Meanwhile, FTC Chair Lina Khan and former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra have spoken in favor of the FTC’s competition-rulemaking authority, both from a legal and policy perspective.

National Petroleum’s focus on text is consistent with the approaches that courts today take. The court first addressed appellees’ argument that the FTC may carry out Section 5 only through adjudication, because adjudication was the only form of implementation explicitly mentioned in Section 5. The D.C. Circuit noted that, although Section 5(b) granted the FTC adjudicative authority, nothing in the text limited the FTC only to adjudication as a means to implement Section 5’s substantive protections. It dismissed the appellee’s argument that expressio unius meant that adjudication was the only mechanism the agency had available to implement Section 5. The D.C. Circuit also rejected the district court’s interpretation of the legislative history, because it was too ambiguous to find Congress’s “specific intent.” Similar to the approach courts take today, National Petroleum gave the text primacy over legislative history, putting significant weight on the fact that the language of Sections 5 and 6(g) is broad.

It is true that, as Nielson notes, courts today would not so readily dismiss employing canons like expressio unius. But courts today would not necessarily employ expressio unius either. The language of Section 6(g) authorizing FTC use of rulemaking is clear and broad, expressly including Section 5 among the sections the FTC may implement through rulemaking, so Congress may have not thought it necessary to explicitly mention rulemaking in Section 5. Given how clear the language is, it also does not seem so farfetched that a court today would decide to not apply the expressio unius canon to imply an exception to the language. As the Court has commented in rejecting the expressio unius canon’s implications, “the force of any negative implication [from this canon] depends on context,” and can be negated by indications that an enactment was “not meant to signal any exclusion.”

Others argue that National Petroleum’s interpretation of Sections 5 and 6(g) would not hold up in light of newer interpretive moves deployed by courts. For example, former FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen and former Assistant Attorney General James Rill contend that the FTC should not have broad competition-rulemaking authority because of the “elephants-in-mouseholes” doctrine articulated in Whitman v. American Trucking. They invoke AMG Capital Management v. FTC as evidence that the Court is wary about “allow[ing] a small statutory tail to wag a very large dog.” The Court in AMG considered whether Section 13(b) of the FTC Act, which expressly authorized the FTC to seek injunctive relief from the federal courts, also permitted the agency to seek monetary damages. The Court concluded that the FTC could not seek monetary damages from courts. Permitting this would allow the FTC to bypass its administrative process altogether, thus contravening Congress’ goals by failing to “produce[] a coherent enforcement scheme.” However, Sections 5 and 6(g) are distinguishable from the statutory provision at issue in AMG. Unlike Section 13(b), which did not explicitly grant the FTC authority to seek monetary damages, Section 6(g) does explicitly give the FTC rulemaking authority to carry out the other provisions of the Act with no limitations on this broad language.  Meanwhile, there is no “coherent enforcement scheme” that would be served by limiting Section 6 only to methods to carry out Section 5’s adjudicative authority. Rulemaking authority does not detract from the FTC’s ability to adjudicate.

One could also argue that, according to the “specific over the general” canon, adjudication should be the FTC’s primary implementation method: Section 5(b), which is very specific in its description of the FTC’s adjudicative authority, should govern over Section 6(g), which discusses rulemaking only in general language. But there is no inherent conflict between the general and specific provisions here. Even if adjudication was intended as the primary implementation method, Section 5 does not explicitly preclude rulemaking as an option in its text. There may be valid functional reasons that Congress would want an agency that acts primarily through adjudication to also have substantive rulemaking authority. National Petroleum itself observed that “the evolution of bright-line rules [through adjudication] is often a slow process” and that “legislative-type” rulemaking procedures allow the agency to consider “broad range of data and argument from all those potentially affected.” In addition, as Emily Bremer of Notre Dame Law School observes, Congress consistently sets more specific guidelines for adjudication to meet individual agency and program needs, resulting in “extraordinary procedural diversity” across adjudication regimes. The greater level of specificity with respect to adjudication in Section 5(b) of the FTC Act may simply reflect Congress’ perceived need to delineate adjudication regimes in further detail than it does for rulemaking.

In addition, some who are doubtful about the FTC’s rulemaking authority have cited legislative context. Specifically, Ohlhausen and Rill argue that the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act demonstrates Congress’ concern with the FTC having expansive rulemaking power. Thus, broad competition-rulemaking authority would be inconsistent with the approach Congress took in Magnuson-Moss. However, the passage of Magnuson-Moss also implies that Congress thought the FTC had existing rulemaking power that Congress could limit—thus validating National Petroleum’s overall holding that the FTC did have rulemaking authority. In addition, Congress could have also extended Magnuson-Moss’s limits on rulemakings to competition-rulemaking authority but decided to apply it only to the FTC’s consumer-protection authority. This interpretation is supported by the text as well. The Magnuson-Moss provision expressly states that its changes “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.” Congress specifically exempted competition rulemaking from Magnuson-Moss’s additional procedural requirements. If anything, this demonstrates that Congress did not want to interfere with the FTC’s competition authority.

The history of the FTC Act also supports that Congress would not have wanted to create an expert agency limited only to adjudicative authority. The FTC Act was passed during a time of unprecedented business growth, in spite of the passage of the Sherman Act in 1890. More specifically, Congress enacted the FTC Act in response to Standard Oil. Standard Oil established rule-of-reason analysis that some decried as a judicial “power grab.” Even though members of Congress disagreed about the proper scope of the FTC’s authority, all of the proposed plans for the FTC reflected Congress’ deep objections to the existing common law approach to antitrust enforcement. Congress was concerned that the existing approach was “yielding a body of law that was inconsistent, unpredictable, and unmoored from congressional intent.” Its solution was to create the FTC. The legislative context supports interpreting the statute to give the FTC all of the tools—including rulemaking—to respond effectively to nascent antitrust threats.

Finally, the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication does not mean that it lacks the authority to promulgate rules. Assuming the relevance of historical practice—an assumption AMG cast doubt upon when it spurned the FTC’s longstanding interpretation of the FTC Act—there are reasons that an agency may choose adjudication over rulemaking that have nothing to do with its views of its statutory authority. The FTC’s preference for adjudication may simply have reflected the policy-focused views of its leadership. For example, James Miller, who chaired the FTC from 1981 to 1985, had “fundamental objections to marketplace regulation through rulemaking” because he thought Congress would exert too much pressure on rulemaking efforts. He attempted to thwart ongoing rulemaking efforts and instead vowed to take an “aggressive” approach to enforcement through adjudication. But this does not mean he thought the FTC lacked the authority to promulgate rules at all. Over the past several decades, the courts and federal antitrust enforcers have taken a non-interventionist or laissez-faire approach to enforcement. The FTC’s history of not relying on rulemaking may simply be indicators of the agency’s policy preferences and not its views of its authority.

In short, National Petroleum’s interpretive moves are sound and its conclusion that the FTC possesses UMC-rulemaking authority should stand the test of time. 

Benefits of FTC Rulemaking for Curbing Non-Compete Use

President Biden’s executive order also raised the question of whether FTC rulemaking is the right tool to address the problem of liberal noncompete use. This post argues that FTC rulemaking would have tangible benefits over adjudication, especially for noncompetes that bind low-wage workers.

The Problem with Noncompetes

Noncompete clauses, which restrict where an employee may work after they leave their employer, have been used widely even in contexts divorced from the justifications for noncompetes. Typical justifications for noncompetes include protecting trade secrets and goodwill, increasing employers’ incentives to invest in training, and improving employers’ leverage in negotiations with employees. Despite these justifications, noncompetes are used for workers who have no access to trade secrets or customer lists. According to a survey conducted in 2014, 13.3% of workers that made $40,000 per-year or less were subject to a noncompete, and 33% of those workers reported being subject to a noncompete at some point in the past. Noncompete use reduces worker mobility, even for those workers not themselves bound by noncompetes. It also results in lower wages for those bound by noncompetes. Interestingly, these effects on worker mobility and wages are present even in states where noncompetes are unenforceable.

Although noncompetes are typically governed on the state level, the magnitude of noncompete use could pose an antitrust problem. Noncompetes help employers maintain “high levels of market concentration,” which “reduce[s] competition rather than spur[ring] innovation.” However, it can be very difficult for private parties and state enforcers to challenge noncompete use under antitrust law. One employer’s use of noncompetes is unlikely to have an appreciable difference on the labor market. The harm to labor markets is only detectable in aggregate, making it virtually impossible to succeed on an antitrust challenge against an employer’s use of noncompetes. Indeed, University of Chicago Law’s Eric Posner has observed that, as of 2020, there were “a grand total of zero cases in which an employee noncompete was successfully challenged under the antitrust laws.” According to Posner, courts either claim that noncompetes involve “de minimis” effects on competition or do not create “public” injuries for antitrust law to address.

And while there have been a handful of settlements between state attorneys general and companies that use noncompetes—like the settlement between then-New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood and WeWork in 2018—these settlements capture only the most egregious uses of noncompetes. There are likely many other companies who use noncompetes in anticompetitive ways, but they do not operate at such scale as to warrant an investigation. State attorneys general have resource constraints that limit them to challenge only the most harmful restraints on workers. Even if these cases went to trial, instead of settling, their precedential effect would thus set only the upper bound for what is an anticompetitive use of noncompete agreements.

Further, the FTC’s current approach of relying on adjudication is unlikely to be effective in curbing widespread noncompete use. Scholars have critiqued the FTC’s historical reliance on adjudication, saying that it has failed to generate “any meaningful guidance as to what constitutes an unfair method of competition.” Part of this is because antitrust law largely relies on rule-of-reason analysis, which involves a “broad and open-ended inquiry” into the competitive effects of particular conduct. Given the highly fact-specific nature of rule-of-reason analysis, the holding of one case can be difficult to extend to another and thus leads to problems in administrability and efficiency. Even judges “have criticized antitrust standards for being highly difficult to administer.” Reliance on the rule of reason also leads to a lack of predictability, which means that market participants and the public have less notice about what the law is.

In addition, private parties cannot litigate UMC claims under Section 5 of the FTC Act; the agency itself must determine what counts as an unfair method of competition. Perhaps because of resource constraints, the FTC has only brought a “modest number” of cases that “provide an insufficient basis from which to attempt to generate substantive rules defining the Commission’s Section 5 authority.”

Benefits of Rulemaking

FTC rulemaking under its UMC authority would avoid many of the problems of a case-by-case approach. First, rulemaking would provide clarity and efficiency. For example, a rule could declare it illegal for employers to use noncompetes for employees making under the median national income. Such a rule clearly articulates the FTC’s policy and is easy to apply. This demonstrates how rulemaking can be more efficient than adjudication. In order to implement a similar policy through adjudication, the FTC may have to bring many cases covering various industries and defendants that employ low-wage workers, given the nature of rule-of-reason analysis.

Rulemaking is also more participatory than adjudication. Interested parties and the general public can weigh in on proposed rules through the notice-and-comment process. Adjudication involves only those who are party to the suit, leaving “broad swaths of market participants watching from the sidelines, lacking an opportunity to contribute their perspective, their analysis, or their expertise, except through one-off amicus briefs.” However, low-wage workers are unlikely to have the resources required to prepare and submit an amicus brief and may not even be aware of the litigation in the first place. In contrast, it is much easier for low-wage workers or their future employers to participate in the notice-and-comment process, which only requires submitting a comment through an online form. Unions or employee-rights organizations can help to facilitate worker participating in rulemaking as well.

A uniform approach through rulemaking means that more workers will be on notice of the FTC’s policy. Worker education is an important factor in solving the problem. Even in states where noncompetes are not enforceable, employers still use and threaten to enforce noncompetes, which reduces worker mobility. A clear policy articulated by the FTC may help workers to understand their rights, perhaps because a national rule will get more media attention than individual adjudications.

Although it may be true that rulemaking is, in general, less adaptable than adjudication, there may be a category of cases where our understanding is unlikely to change over time. For example, agreements to fix prices are so clearly anticompetitive that they are per se illegal under the antitrust laws. Our understanding of the anticompetitive nature of price fixing is highly unlikely to change over time. 

Noncompetes for low-wage workers should be in this category of cases. This use of noncompetes is divorced from traditional justifications for noncompetes. The nature of the work for low-wage workers—say, for janitors or cashiers—is unlikely to ever require significant employer resources for training or disclosure of customer lists or trade secrets. Given the negative effects that noncompetes can have on mobility and wages, even in states where they are not enforceable, they clearly do more harm than good to the labor market. It is difficult to imagine that market conditions or economic understanding would change this.

Further, even though rulemaking can take time, the FTC’s adjudicative process is not necessarily much better. In 2015, adjudications through the FTC’s administrative process typically took two years. Former FTC Commissioner Philip Elman once observed that case-by-case adjudication “may simply be too slow and cumbersome to produce specific and clear standards adequate to the needs of businessmen, the private bar, and the government agencies.” Even if rulemaking takes longer, it may still be more efficient because of a rule’s ability to apply across the board to different industries and types of workers. It may also be more efficient because it is better able to capture all of the relevant considerations through the notice-and-comment process.

It is true that some states already have a bright-line rule against noncompetes by making noncompetes unenforceable. Even so, there is value in establishing a bright-line rule through rulemaking at a federal level: this provides greater uniformity across states. In addition, rulemaking could have some value if it is used to establish notice requirements—for example, the FTC could promulgate a rule requiring employers to notify employees of the relevant noncompete laws. Notice requirements are one example where case-by-case adjudication would be especially ineffective.

Conclusion

In certain contexts, rulemaking is a better alternative to adjudication. Noncompete use for low-wage workers is one such example. Rulemaking provides more uniformity, notice, and opportunity to participate for low-wage workers than adjudication does. And given that both state noncompete law and federal antitrust law require such fact-specific inquiries, rulemaking is also more efficient than adjudication. Thus, the FTC should use its competition-rulemaking authority to ban noncompete use for low-wage workers instead of relying only on adjudication.

[Continuing our FTC UMC Rulemaking symposium, today’s first guest post is from Richard J. Pierce Jr., the Lyle T. Alverson Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. We are also publishing a related post today from Andrew K. Magloughlin and Randolph J. May of the Free State Foundation. You can find other posts at the symposium page here. Truth on the Market also invites academics, practitioners, and other antitrust/regulation commentators to send us 1,500-4,000 word responses for potential inclusion in the symposium.]

FTC Rulemaking Power

In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed a prolific young scholar, Lina Khan, to chair the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Khan strongly dislikes almost every element of antitrust law. She has stated her intention to use notice and comment rulemaking to change antitrust law in many ways. She was unable to begin this process for almost a year because the FTC was evenly divided between Democratic and Republican appointees, and she has not been able to elicit any support for her agenda from the Republican members. She will finally get the majority she needs to act in the next few days, as the U.S. Senate appears set to confirm Alvaro Bedoya to the fifth spot on the commission.   

Chair Khan has argued that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define the term “unfair methods of competition” as that term is used in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Section 5 authorizes the FTC to define and to prohibit both “unfair acts” and “unfair methods of competition.” For more than 50 years after the 1914 enactment of the statute, the FTC, Congress, courts, and scholars interpreted it to empower the FTC to use adjudication to implement Section 5, but not to use rulemaking for that purpose.

In 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5. Congress responded by amending the statute in 1975 and 1980 to add many time-consuming and burdensome procedures to the notice-and-comment process. Those added procedures had the effect of making the rulemaking process so long that the FTC gave up on its attempts to use rulemaking to implement Section 5.

Khan claims that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” even though it must use the extremely burdensome procedures that Congress added in 1975 and 1980 to define “unfair acts.” Her claim is based on a combination of her belief that the current U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the 1973 D.C. Circuit decision that held that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5 and her belief that a peculiarly worded provision of the 1975 amendment to the FTC Act allows the FTC to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” even though it requires the FTC to use the extremely burdensome procedure to issue rules that define “unfair acts.” The FTC has not attempted to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition” since Congress amended the statute in 1975. 

I am skeptical of Khan’s argument. I doubt that the Supreme Court would uphold the 1973 D.C. Circuit opinion, because the D.C. Circuit used a method of statutory interpretation that no modern court uses and that is inconsistent with the methods of statutory interpretation that the Supreme Court uses today. I also doubt that the Supreme Court would interpret the 1975 statutory amendment to distinguish between “unfair acts” and “unfair methods of competition” for purposes of the procedures that the FTC is required to use to issue rules to implement Section 5.

Even if the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” I am confident that the Supreme Court would not uphold an exercise of that power that has the effect of making a significant change in antitrust law. That would be a perfect candidate for application of the major questions doctrine. The court will not uphold an “unprecedented” action of “vast economic or political significance” unless it has “unmistakable legislative support.” I will now describe four hypothetical exercises of the rulemaking power that Khan believes that the FTC possesses to illustrate my point.

Hypothetical Exercises of FTC Rulemaking Power

Creation of a Right to Repair

President Biden has urged the FTC to create a right for an owner of any product to repair the product or to have it repaired by an independent service organization (ISO). The Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion in Eastman Kodak v. Image Technical Services tells us all we need to know about the likelihood that it would uphold a rule that confers a right to repair. When Kodak took actions that made it impossible for ISOs to repair Kodak photocopiers, the ISOs argued that Kodak’s action violated both Section 1 and Section 2 of the Sherman Act. The Court held that Kodak could prevail only if it could persuade a jury that its view of the facts was accurate. The Court remanded the case for a jury trial to address three contested issues of fact.

The Court’s reasoning in Kodak is inconsistent with any version of a right to repair that the FTC might attempt to create through rulemaking. The Court expressed its view that allowing an ISO to repair a product sometimes has good effects and sometimes has bad effects. It concluded that it could not decide whether Kodak’s new policy was good or bad without first resolving the three issues of fact on which the parties disagreed. In a 2021 report to Congress, the FTC agreed with the Supreme Court. It identified seven factual contingencies that can cause a prohibition on repair of a product by an ISO to have good effects or bad effects. It is naïve to expect the Supreme Court to change its approach to repair rights in response to a rule in which the FTC attempts to create a right to repair, particularly when the FTC told Congress that it agrees with the Court’s approach immediately prior to Khan’s arrival at the agency.

Prohibition of Reverse-Payment Settlements of Patent Disputes Involving Prescription Drugs

Some people believe that settlements of patent-infringement disputes in which the manufacturer of a generic drug agrees not to market the drug in return for a cash payment from the manufacturer of the brand-name drug are thinly disguised agreements to create a monopoly and to share the monopoly rents. Khan has argued that the FTC could issue a rule that prohibits such reverse-payment settlements. Her belief that a court would uphold such a rule is contradicted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 opinion in FTC v. Actavis. The Court unanimously rejected the FTC’s argument in support of a rebuttable presumption that reverse payments are illegal. Four justices argued that reverse-payment settlements can never be illegal if they are within the scope of the patent. The five-justice majority held that a court can determine that a reverse-payment settlement is illegal only after a hearing in which it applies the rule of reason to determine whether the payment was reasonable.

A Prohibition on Below-Cost Pricing When the Firm Cannot Recoup Its Losses

Khan believes that illegal predatory pricing by dominant firms is widespread and extremely harmful to competition. She particularly dislikes the Supreme Court’s test for identifying predatory pricing. That test requires proof that a firm that engages in below-cost pricing has a reasonable prospect of recouping its losses. She wants the FTC to issue a rule in which it defines predatory pricing as below-cost pricing without any prospect that the firm will be able to recoup its losses.

The history of the Court’s predatory-pricing test shows how unrealistic it is to expect the Court to uphold such a rule. The Court first announced the test in a Sherman Act case in 1986. Plaintiffs attempted to avoid the precedential effect of that decision by filing complaints based on predatory pricing under the Robinson-Patman Act. The Court rejected that attempt in a 1993 opinion. The Court made it clear that the test for determining whether a firm is engaged in illegal predatory pricing is the same no matter whether the case arises under the Sherman Act or the Robinson-Patman Act. The Court undoubtedly would reject the FTC’s effort to change the definition of predatory pricing by relying on the FTC Act instead of the Sherman Act or the Robinson-Patman Act.

A Prohibition of Noncompete Clauses in Contracts to Employ Low-Wage Employees

President Biden has expressed concern about the increasing prevalence of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low wage employees. He wants the FTC to issue a rule that prohibits inclusion of noncompete clauses in contracts to employ low-wage employees. The Supreme Court would be likely to uphold such a rule.

A rule that prohibits inclusion of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees would differ from the other three rules I discussed in many respects. First, it has long been the law that noncompete clauses can be included in employment contracts only in narrow circumstances, none of which have any conceivable application to low-wage contracts. The only reason that competition authorities did not bring actions against firms that include noncompete clauses in low-wage employment contracts was their belief that state labor law would be effective in deterring firms from engaging in that practice. Thus, the rule would be entirely consistent with existing antitrust law.

Second, there are many studies that have found that state labor law has not been effective in deterring firms from including noncompete clauses in low-wage employment contracts and many studies that have found that the increasing use of noncompete clauses in low-wage contracts is causing a lot of damage to the performance of labor markets. Thus, the FTC would be able to support its rule with high-quality evidence.

Third, the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2021 opinion in NCAA v. Alstom indicates that the Court is receptive to claims that a practice that harms the performance of labor markets is illegal. Thus, I predict that the Court would uphold a rule that prohibits noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees if it holds that the FTC can use notice-and-comment rulemaking to define “unfair methods of competition,” as that term is used in Section 5 of the FTC Act. That caveat is important, however. As I indicated at the beginning of this essay, I doubt that the FTC has that power.

I would urge the FTC not to use notice-and comment rulemaking to address the problems that are caused by the increasing use of noncompete clauses in low-wage contracts. There is no reason for the FTC to put a lot of time and effort into a notice-and-comment rulemaking in the hope that the Court will conclude that the FTC has the power to use notice-and-comment rulemaking to implement Section 5. The FTC can implement an effective prohibition on the inclusion of noncompete clauses in employment contracts applicable to low-wage employees by using a combination of legal tools that it has long used and that it clearly has the power to use—issuance of interpretive rules and policy statements coupled with a few well-chosen enforcement actions.

Alternative Ways to Improve Antitrust Law       

There are many other ways in which Khan can move antitrust law in the directions that she prefers. She can make common cause with the many mainstream antitrust scholars who have urged incremental changes in antitrust law and who have conducted the studies needed to support those proposed changes. Thus, for instance, she can move aggressively against other practices that harm the performance of labor markets, change the criteria that the FTC uses to decide whether to challenge proposed mergers and acquisitions, and initiate actions against large platform firms that favor their products over the products of third parties that they sell on their platforms.