FTC v. Standard Oil Co. of California
449 U.S. 232 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

FTC v. Standard Oil Co. of California, 449 U.S. 232 (1980)

Federal Trade Commission v. Standard Oil Company of California

No. 79-900

Argued October 15, 1980

Decided December 15, 1980

449 U.S. 232

Syllabus

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a complaint against respondent and several other major oil companies, alleging that the FTC had "reason to believe" that the companies were violating $ 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (Act), which prohibits unfair methods of competition or unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce. While adjudication of the complaint before an Administrative Law Judge was still pending, respondent, having unsuccessfully sought to have the FTC withdraw the complaint, brought an action in Federal District Court, alleging that the FTC had issued its complaint without having "reason to believe" that respondent was violating the Act, and seeking an order declaring the complaint unlawful and requiring that it be withdrawn. The District Court dismissed the action. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the District Court could inquire whether the FTC in fact had made the determination that it had reason to believe that respondent was violating the Act, and that the issuance of the complaint was "final agency action" under § 10(c) of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).

Held: The FTC's issuance of its complaint was not "final agency action" under § 10(c) of the APA, and hence was not judicially reviewable before the conclusion of the administrative adjudication. Pp. 449 U. S. 238-246.

(a) The issuance of the complaint was not a definitive ruling or regulation and had no legal force or practical effect upon respondent's daily business other than the disruptions that accompany any major litigation. Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner,387 U. S. 136, distinguished. Immediate judicial review would serve neither efficiency nor enforcement of the Act. Pp. 449 U. S. 239-243.

(b) Although respondent, by requesting the FTC to withdraw its complaint and awaiting the FTC's refusal to do so, may have exhausted its administrative remedy as to the averment of a "reason to believe," the FTC's refusal to withdraw the complaint does not render the complaint a "definitive" action. Such refusal does not augment the complaint's legal force or practical effect on respondent, nor does it diminish the concern for efficiency and enforcement of the Act. P. 449 U. S. 243.

Page 449 U. S. 233

(c) The expense and disruption in defending itself, even if substantial, does not constitute irreparable injury to respondent. P. 449 U. S. 244.

(d) Respondent's challenge to the FTC's complaint will not become "insulated" from judicial review if it is not reviewed before the FTC's adjudication concludes, since, under the APA, a court of appeals reviewing a cease-and-desist order has the power to review alleged unlawfulness in the issuance of an agency complaint, assuming that the issuance of the complaint is not "committed to agency discretion by law." Pp. 449 U. S. 244-245.

(e) Since issuance of the complaint averring "reason to believe" is a step toward, and will merge in, the FTC's decision on the merits, the claim of illegality in issuance of the complaint is not subject to judicial review as a "collateral" order. Cohen v. Beneficial Loan Corp.,337 U. S. 541, distinguished. P. 449 U. S. 246.

596 F.2d 1381, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 449 U. S. 247. STEWART, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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