Allied Tube v. Indian Head, Inc.
486 U.S. 492 (1988)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Allied Tube v. Indian Head, Inc., 486 U.S. 492 (1988)

Allied Tube & Conduit Corp. v. Indian Head, Inc.

No. 87-157

Argued February 24, 1988

Decided June 13, 1988

488 U.S. 492

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The National Fire Protection Association -- a private organization that includes members representing industry, labor, academia, insurers, organized medicine, firefighters, and government -- sets and publishes product standards and codes related to fire protection. Its National Electrical Code (Code), which establishes requirements for the design and installation of electrical wiring systems, is routinely adopted into law by a substantial number of state and local governments, and is widely adopted as setting acceptable standards by private product-certification laboratories, insurance underwriters, and electrical inspectors, contractors, and distributors. Throughout the relevant period, the Code permitted the use of electrical conduit made of steel. Respondent, a manufacturer of plastic conduit, initiated a proposal before the Association to extend Code approval to plastic conduit as well. The proposal was approved by one of the Association's professional panels, and thus could be adopted into the Code by a simple majority of the members attending the Association's 1980 annual meeting. Before the meeting was held, petitioner, the Nation's largest producer of steel conduit, members of the steel industry, other steel conduit manufacturers, and independent sales agents collectively agreed to exclude respondent's product from the 1981 Code by packing the annual meeting with new Association members whose only function was to vote against respondent's proposal. After the proposal was defeated at the meeting and an appeal to the Association's Board of Directors was denied, respondent brought suit in Federal District Court, alleging that petitioner and others had unreasonably restrained trade in the electrical conduit market in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. The jury found petitioner liable, but the court granted a judgment n.o.v. for petitioner, reasoning that it was entitled to antitrust immunity under the doctrine of Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc.,365 U. S. 127. The Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: Noerr antitrust immunity does not apply to petitioner.

(a) The scope of Noerr protection depends on the source, context, and nature of the anticompetitive restraint at issue. Where a restraint is the result of valid governmental action, as opposed to private action,

Page 486 U. S. 493

those urging the governmental action enjoy absolute immunity from antitrust liability for the anticompetitive restraint. In this case, the relevant context is the standard-setting process of a private association without official authority that includes members having horizontal and vertical business relations and economic incentives to restrain competition. Such an association cannot be treated as a "quasi-legislative" body simply because legislatures routinely adopt its Code, and thus petitioner does not enjoy the immunity afforded those who merely urge the government to restrain trade. Pp. 486 U. S. 499-502.

(b) Nor does Noerr immunity apply to petitioner on the theory that the exclusion of plastic conduit from the Code, and the effect that exclusion had of its own force in the marketplace, were incidental to a valid effort to influence governmental action. Although, because a large number of governments routinely adopt the Code into law, efforts to influence the Association's standard-setting process are arguably the most effective means of influencing legislation regulating electrical conduit, and although Noerr immunity is not limited to "direct" petitioning of government officials, the Noerr doctrine does not immunize every concerted activity that is genuinely intended to influence governmental action. There is no merit to the argument that, regardless of the Association's nonlegislative status, petitioner's efforts to influence the Association must be given the same wide berth accorded legislative lobbying or efforts to influence legislative action in the political arena. Pp. 486 U. S. 502-504.

(c) Unlike the publicity campaign to influence legislation in Noerr, petitioner's activity did not take place in the open political arena, where partisanship is the hallmark of decisionmaking, but took place within the confines of a private standard-setting process. The validity of petitioner's efforts to influence the Code is not established, without more, by petitioner's literal compliance with the Association's rules, for the hope of the Code's procompetitive benefits depends upon the existence of safeguards sufficient to prevent the standard-setting process from being biased by members with economic interests in restraining competition. An association cannot validate the anticompetitive activities of its members simply by adopting rules that fail to provide such safeguards. At least where, as here, an economically interested party exercises decisionmaking authority in formulating a product standard for a private association that comprises market participants, that party enjoys no Noerr immunity from any antitrust liability flowing from the effect the standard has of its own force in the marketplace. Pp. 486 U. S. 505-510.

817 F.2d 938, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ.,

Page 486 U. S. 494

joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined.

Page 486 U. S. 495

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner contends that its efforts to affect the product standard-setting process of a private association are immune from antitrust liability under the Noerr doctrine primarily because the association's standards are widely adopted into law by state and local governments. Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc.,365 U. S. 127 (1961) (Noerr). The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that Noerr immunity did not apply. We affirm.

I

The National Fire Protection Association (Association) is a private, voluntary organization with more than 31,500 individual and group members representing industry, labor, academia, insurers, organized medicine, firefighters, and government. The Association, among other things, publishes product standards and codes related to fire protection through a process known as "consensus standard making." One of the codes it publishes is the National Electrical Code (Code), which establishes product and performance requirements for the design and installation of electrical wiring systems. Revised every three years, the Code is the most influential electrical code in the nation. A substantial number of state and local governments routinely adopt the Code into law with little or no change; private certification laboratories, such as Underwriters Laboratories, normally will not list and label

Page 486 U. S. 496

an electrical product that does not meet Code standards; many underwriters will refuse to insure structures that are not built in conformity with the Code, and many electrical inspectors, contractors, and distributors will not use a product that falls outside the Code.

Among the electrical products covered by the Code is electrical conduit, the hollow tubing used as a raceway to carry electrical wires through the walls and floors of buildings. Throughout the relevant period, the Code permitted using electrical conduit made of steel, and almost all conduit sold was in fact steel conduit. Starting in 1980, respondent began to offer plastic conduit made of polyvinyl chloride. Respondent claims its plastic conduit offers significant competitive advantages over steel conduit, including pliability, lower installed cost, and lower susceptibility to short circuiting. In 1980, however, there was also a scientific basis for concern that, during fires in high-rise buildings, polyvinyl chloride conduit might burn and emit toxic fumes.

Respondent initiated a proposal to include polyvinyl chloride conduit as an approved type of electrical conduit in the 1981 edition of the Code. Following approval by one of the Association's professional panels, this proposal was scheduled for consideration at the 1980 annual meeting, where it could be adopted or rejected by a simple majority of the members present. Alarmed that, if approved, respondent's product might pose a competitive threat to steel conduit, petitioner, the Nation's largest producer of steel conduit, met to plan strategy with, among others, members of the steel industry, other steel conduit manufacturers, and its independent sales agents. They collectively agreed to exclude respondent's product from the 1981 Code by packing the upcoming annual meeting with new Association members whose only function would be to vote against the polyvinyl chloride proposal.

Combined, the steel interests recruited 230 persons to join the Association and to attend the annual meeting to

Page 486 U. S. 497

vote against the proposal. Petitioner alone recruited 155 persons -- including employees, executives, sales agents, the agents' employees, employees from two divisions that did not sell electrical products, and the wife of a national sales director. Petitioner and the other steel interests also paid over $100,000 for the membership, registration, and attendance expenses of these voters. At the annual meeting, the steel group voters were instructed where to sit and how and when to vote by group leaders who used walkie-talkies and hand signals to facilitate communication. Few of the steel group voters had any of the technical documentation necessary to follow the meeting. None of them spoke at the meeting to give their reasons for opposing the proposal to approve polyvinyl chloride conduit. Nonetheless, with their solid vote in opposition, the proposal was rejected and returned to committee by a vote of 394 to 390. Respondent appealed the membership's vote to the Association's Board of Directors, but the Board denied the appeal on the ground that, although the Association's rules had been circumvented, they had not been violated. [Footnote 1]

In October, 1981, respondent brought this suit in Federal District Court, alleging that petitioner and others had unreasonably restrained trade in the electrical conduit market in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. 26 Stat. 209, 15 U.S.C. § 1. A bifurcated jury trial began in March, 1985. Petitioner conceded that it had conspired with the other steel interests to exclude respondent's product from the Code, and that it had a pecuniary interest to do so. The jury, instructed under the rule of reason that respondent carried the burden of showing that the anticompetitive effects of petitioner's actions outweighed any procompetitive benefits of standard-setting,

Page 486 U. S. 498

found petitioner liable. In answers to special interrogatories, the jury found that petitioner did not violate any rules of the Association and acted, at least in part, based on a genuine belief that plastic conduit was unsafe, but that petitioner nonetheless did "subvert" the consensus standard-making process of the Association. App. 23-24. The jury also made special findings that petitioner's actions had an adverse impact on competition, were not the least restrictive means of expressing petitioner's opposition to the use of polyvinyl chloride conduit in the marketplace, and unreasonably restrained trade in violation of the antitrust laws. The jury then awarded respondent damages, to be trebled, of $3.8 million for lost profits resulting from the effect that excluding polyvinyl chloride conduit from the 1981 Code had of its own force in the marketplace. No damages were awarded for injuries stemming from the adoption of the 1981 Code by governmental entities. [Footnote 2]

The District Court then granted a judgment n.o.v. for petitioner, reasoning that Noerr immunity applied because the Association was "akin to a legislature" and because petitioner,

"by the use of methods consistent with acceptable standards of political action, genuinely intended to influence the [Association] with respect to the National Electrical Code, and to thereby influence the various state and local legislative bodies which adopt the [Code]."

App. to Pet. for

Page 486 U. S. 499

Cert. 28a, 30a. The Court of Appeals reversed, rejecting both the argument that the Association should be treated as a "quasi-legislative" body because legislatures routinely adopt the Code and the argument that efforts to influence the Code were immune under Noerr as indirect attempts to influence state and local governments. 817 F.2d 938 (CA2 1987). We granted certiorari to address important issues regarding the application of Noerr immunity to private standard-setting associations. [Footnote 3] 484 U.S. 814 (1987).

II

Concerted efforts to restrain or monopolize trade by petitioning government officials are protected from antitrust liability under the doctrine established by Noerr,365 U. S. 127 (1961); Mine Workers v. Pennington,381 U. S. 657, 381 U. S. 669-672 (1965); and California Motor Transport Co. v. Trucking Unlimited,404 U. S. 508 (1972). The scope of this protection depends, however, on the source, context, and nature of the anticompetitive restraint at issue. "[W]here a restraint upon trade or monopolization is the result of valid governmental action, as opposed to private action," those urging the governmental action enjoy absolute immunity from antitrust liability for the anticompetitive restraint. Noerr, supra, at 365 U. S. 136; see also Pennington, supra, at 381 U. S. 671. In addition, where, independent of any government action, the anticompetitive restraint results directly from private action, the restraint cannot form the basis for antitrust liability if it is "incidental" to a valid effort to influence governmental action. Noerr, supra, at 365 U. S. 143. The validity of such efforts, and thus the applicability of Noerr immunity, varies with the context and nature of the activity. A publicity campaign directed at the general public, seeking legislation or executive action, enjoys antitrust immunity even when the campaign employs unethical

Page 486 U. S. 500

and deceptive methods. Noerr, supra, at 365 U. S. 140-141. But in less political arenas, unethical and deceptive practices can constitute abuses of administrative or judicial processes that may result in antitrust violations. [Footnote 4] California Motor Transport, supra, at 404 U. S. 512-513.

In this case, the restraint of trade on which liability was predicated was the Association's exclusion of respondent's product from the Code, and no damages were imposed for the incorporation of that Code by any government. The relevant context is thus the standard-setting process of a private association. Typically, private standard-setting associations, like the Association in this case, include members having horizontal and vertical business relations. See generally 7 P. Areeda, Antitrust Law

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