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The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Jan. 5 “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Non-Compete Clauses” (NPRMNCC) is the first substantive FTC Act Section 6(g) “unfair methods of competition” rulemaking initiative following the release of the FTC’s November 2022 Section 5 Unfair Methods of Competition Policy Statement. Any final rule based on the NPRMNCC stands virtually no chance of survival before the courts. What’s more, this FTC initiative also threatens to have a major negative economic-policy impact. It also poses an institutional threat to the Commission itself. Accordingly, the NPRMNCC should be withdrawn, or as a “second worst” option, substantially pared back and recast.

The NPRMNCC is succinctly described, and its legal risks ably summarized, in a recent commentary by Gibson Dunn attorneys: The proposal is sweeping in its scope. The NPRMNCC states that it “would, among other things, provide that it is an unfair method of competition for an employer to enter into or attempt to enter into a non-compete clause with a worker; to maintain with a worker a non-compete clause; or, under certain circumstances, to represent to a worker that the worker is subject to a non-compete clause.”

The Gibson Dunn commentary adds that it “would require employers to rescind all existing non-compete provisions within 180 days of publication of the final rule, and to provide current and former employees notice of the rescission.‎ If employers comply with these two requirements, the rule would provide a safe harbor from enforcement.”‎

As I have explained previously, any FTC Section 6(g) rulemaking is likely to fail as a matter of law. Specifically, the structure of the FTC Act indicates that Section 6(g) is best understood as authorizing procedural regulations, not substantive rules. What’s more, Section 6(g) rules raise serious questions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s nondelegation and major questions doctrines (given the breadth and ill-defined nature of “unfair methods of competition”) and under administrative law (very broad unfair methods of competition rules may be deemed “arbitrary and capricious” and raise due process concerns). The cumulative weight of these legal concerns “makes it highly improbable that substantive UMC rules will ultimately be upheld.

The legal concerns raised by Section 6(g) rulemaking are particularly acute in the case of the NPRMNCC, which is exceedingly broad and deals with a topic—employment-related noncompete clauses—with which the FTC has almost no experience. FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson highlights this legal vulnerability in her dissenting statement opposing issuance of the NPRMNCC.

As Andrew Mercado and I explained in our commentary on potential FTC noncompete rulemaking: “[a] review of studies conducted in the past two decades yields no uniform, replicable results as to whether such agreements benefit or harm workers.” In a comprehensive literature review made available online at the end of 2019, FTC economist John McAdams concluded that “[t]here is little evidence on the likely effects of broad prohibitions of non-compete agreements.” McAdams also commented on the lack of knowledge regarding the effects that noncompetes may have on ultimate consumers. Given these realities, the FTC would be particularly vulnerable to having a court hold that a final noncompete rule (even assuming that it somehow surmounted other legal obstacles) lacked an adequate factual basis, and thus was arbitrary and capricious.

The poor legal case for proceeding with the NPRMNCC is rendered even weaker by the existence of robust state-law provisions concerning noncompetes in almost every state (see here for a chart comparing state laws). Differences in state jurisprudence may enable “natural experimentation,” whereby changes made to state law that differ across jurisdictions facilitate comparisons of the effects of different approaches to noncompetes. Furthermore, changes to noncompete laws in particular states that are seen to cause harm, or generate benefits, may allow “best practices” to emerge and thereby drive welfare-enhancing reforms in multiple jurisdictions.

The Gibson Dunn commentary points out that, “[a]s a practical matter, the proposed [FTC noncompete] rule would override existing non-compete requirements and practices in the vast majority of states.” Unfortunately, then, the NPRMNCC would largely do away with the potential benefits of competitive federalism in the area of noncompetes. In light of that, federal courts might well ask whether Congress meant to give the FTC preemptive authority over a legal field traditionally left to the states, merely by making a passing reference to “mak[ing] rules and regulations” in Section 6(g) of the FTC Act. Federal judges would likely conclude that the answer to this question is “no.”

Economic Policy Harms

How much economic harm could an FTC rule on noncompetes cause, if the courts almost certainly would strike it down? Plenty.

The affront to competitive federalism, which would prevent optimal noncompete legal regimes from developing (see above), could reduce the efficiency of employment contracts and harm consumer welfare. It would be exceedingly difficult (if not impossible) to measure such harms, however, because there would be no alternative “but-for” worlds with differing rules that could be studied.

The broad ban on noncompetes predictably will prevent—or at least chill—the use of noncompete clauses to protect business-property interests (including trade secrets and other intellectual-property rights) and to protect value-enhancing investments in worker training. (See here for a 2016 U.S. Treasury Department Office of Economic Policy Report that lists some of the potential benefits of noncompetes.) The NPRMNCC fails to account for those and other efficiencies, which may be key to value-generating business-process improvements that help drive dynamic economic growth. Once again, however, it would be difficult to demonstrate the nature or extent of such foregone benefits, in the absence of “but-for” world comparisons.

Business-litigation costs would also inevitably arise, as uncertainties in the language of a final noncompete rule were worked out in court (prior to the rule’s legal demise). The opportunity cost of firm resources directed toward rule-related issues, rather than to business-improvement activities, could be substantial. The opportunity cost of directing FTC resources to wasteful noncompete-related rulemaking work, rather than potential welfare-enhancing endeavors (such as anti-fraud enforcement activity), also should not be neglected.

Finally, the substantial error costs that would attend designing and seeking to enforce a final FTC noncompete rule, and the affront to the rule of law that would result from creating a substantial new gap between FTC and U.S. Justice Department competition-enforcement regimes, merits note (see here for my discussion of these costs in the general context of UMC rulemaking).

Conclusion

What, then, should the FTC do? It should withdraw the NPRMNCC.

If the FTC is concerned about the effects of noncompete clauses, it should commission appropriate economic research, and perhaps conduct targeted FTC Act Section 6(b) studies directed at noncompetes (focused on industries where noncompetes are common or ubiquitous). In light of that research, it might be in position to address legal policy toward noncompetes in competition advocacy before the states, or in testimony before Congress.

If the FTC still wishes to engage in some rulemaking directed at noncompete clauses, it should consider a targeted FTC Act Section 18 consumer-protection rulemaking (see my discussion of this possibility, here). Unlike Section 6(g), the legality of Section 18 substantive rulemaking (which is directed at “unfair or deceptive acts or practices”) is well-established. Categorizing noncompete-clause-related practices as “deceptive” is plainly a nonstarter, so the Commission would have to bases its rulemaking on defining and condemning specified “unfair acts or practices.”

Section 5(n) of the FTC Act specifies that the Commission may not declare an act or practice to be unfair unless it “causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition.” This is a cost-benefit test that plainly does not justify a general ban on noncompetes, based on the previous discussion. It probably could, however, justify a properly crafted narrower rule, such as a requirement that an employer notify its employees of a noncompete agreement before they accept a job offer (see my analysis here).  

Should the FTC nonetheless charge forward and release a final competition rule based on the NPRMNCC, it will face serious negative institutional consequences. In the previous Congress, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced legislation that would strip the FTC of its antitrust authority (leaving all federal antitrust enforcement in DOJ hands). Such legislation could gain traction if the FTC were perceived as engaging in massive institutional overreach. An unprecedented Commission effort to regulate one aspect of labor contracts (noncompete clauses) nationwide surely could be viewed by Congress as a prime example of such overreach. The FTC should keep that in mind if it values maintaining its longstanding role in American antitrust-policy development and enforcement.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” 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.]

In a 3-2 July 2021 vote, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rescinded the nuanced statement it had issued in 2015 concerning the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act. At the same time, the FTC rejected the applicability of the balancing test set forth in the rule of reason (and with it, several decades of case law, agency guidance, and legal and economic scholarship).

The July 2021 statement not only rejected these long-established guiding principles for Section 5 enforcement but left in its place nothing but regulatory fiat. In the statement the FTC issued Nov. 10, 2022 (again, by a divided 3-1 vote), the agency has now adopted this “just trust us” approach as a permanent operating principle.

The November 2022 statement purports to provide a standard under which the agency will identify unfair methods of competition under Section 5. As Commissioner Christine Wilson explains in her dissent, however, it clearly fails to do so. Rather, it delivers a collection of vaguely described principles and pejorative rhetoric that encompass loosely defined harms to competition, competitors, workers and a catch-all group of “other market participants.”  

The methodology for identifying these harms is comparably vague. The agency not only again rejects the rule of reason but asserts the authority to take action against a variety of “non-quantifiable harms,” all of which can be addressed at the most “incipient” stages. Moreover, and perhaps most remarkably, the statement specifically rejects any form of “net efficiencies” or “numerical cost-benefit analysis” to guide its enforcement decisions or provide even a modicum of predictability to the business community.  

The November 2022 statement amounts to regulatory fiat on overdrive, presented with a thin veneer of legality derived from a medley of dormant judicial decisions, incomplete characterizations of precedent, and truncated descriptions of legislative history. Under the agency’s dubious understanding of Section 5, Congress in 1914 elected to provide the FTC with the authority to declare any business practice “unfair” subject to no principle other than the agency’s subjective understanding of that term (and, apparently, never to be informed by “numerical cost-benefit analysis”).

Moreover, any enforcement action that targeted a purportedly “unfair” practice would then be adjudicated within the agency and appealable in the first instance to the very same commissioners who authorized the action. This institutional hall of mirrors would establish the FTC as the national “fairness” arbiter subject to virtually no constraining principles under which the exercise of such powers could ever be deemed to have exceeded its scope. The license for abuse is obvious and the departure from due process inherent.

The views reflected in the November 2022 statement would almost certainly lead to a legal dead-end.  If the agency takes action under its idiosyncratic understanding of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5, it would elicit a legal challenge that would likely lead to two possible outcomes, both being adverse to the agency. 

First, it is likely that a judge would reject the agency’s understanding of Section 5, since it is irreconcilable with a well-developed body of case law requiring that the FTC (just like any other administrative agency) act under principles that provide businesses with, as described by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at least “an inkling as to what they can lawfully do rather than be left in a state of complete unpredictability.”

Any legally defensible interpretation of the scope of unfair methods of competition under Section 5 must take into account not only legislative intent at the time the FTC Act was enacted but more than a century’s worth of case law that courts have developed to govern the actions of administrative powers. Contrary to suggestions made in the November 2022 statement, neither the statute nor the relevant body of case law mandates unqualified deference by courts to the presumed wisdom of expert regulators.

Second, even if a court accepted the agency’s interpretation of the statute (or did so provisionally), there is a strong likelihood that it would then be compelled to strike down Section 5 as an unconstitutional delegation of lawmaking powers from the legislative to the executive branch. Given the concern that a majority of the Supreme Court has increasingly expressed over actions by regulatory agencies—including the FTC, specifically, in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC (2021)and now again in the pending case, Axon Enterprise Inc. v. FTCthat do not clearly fall within the legislatively specified scope of an agency’s authority (as in the AMG decision and other recent Court decisions concerning the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office), this would seem to be a high-probability outcome.

In short: any enforcement action taken under the agency’s newly expanded understanding of Section 5 is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, either as a matter of statutory construction or as a matter of constitutional principle. Given this legal forecast, the November 2022 statement could be viewed as mere theatrics that is unlikely to have a long legal life or much practical impact (although, until judicial intervention, it could impose significant costs on firms that must defend against agency-enforcement actions brought under the unilaterally expanded scope of Section 5). 

Even if that were the case, however, the November 2022 statement and, in particular, its expanded understanding of the harms that the agency is purportedly empowered to target, is nonetheless significant because it should leave little doubt concerning the lack of any meaningful commitment by agency leadership to the FTC’s historical mission to preserve market competition. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that agency leadership seeks to deploy the powerful remedies of the FTC Act (and the rest of the antitrust-enforcement apparatus) to displace a market-driven economy governed by the free play of competitive forces with an administered economy in which regulators continuously intervene to reengineer economic outcomes on grounds of fairness to favored constituencies, rather than to preserve the competitive process.

Reengineering Section 5 of the FTC Act as a “shadow” antitrust statute that operates outside the rule of reason (or any other constraining objective principle) provides a strategic detour around the inconvenient evidentiary and other legal obstacles that the agency would struggle to overcome when seeking to achieve these policy objectives under the Sherman and Clayton Acts. This intentionally unstructured and inherently politicized approach to antitrust enforcement threatens not only the institutional preconditions for a market economy but ultimately the rule of law itself.

[This post is a contribution to Truth on the Market‘s continuing digital symposium “FTC Rulemaking on Unfair Methods of Competition.” 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.]

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.