California v. American Stores Co.,
495 U.S. 271 (1990)

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U.S. Supreme Court

California v. American Stores Co., 495 U.S. 271 (1990)

California v. American Stores Company

No. 89-258

Argued Jan. 19, 1990

Decided April 30, 1990

495 U.S. 271


Shortly after respondent American Stores Co., the fourth largest supermarket chain in California, acquired all of the outstanding stock of the largest chain, the State filed suit in the District Court alleging, inter alia, that the merger constituted an anticompetitive acquisition violative of § 7 of the Clayton Act, and would harm consumers throughout the State. The court granted the State a preliminary injunction requiring American to operate the acquired stores separately pending resolution of the suit. Although agreeing that the State had proved a likelihood of success on the merits and the probability of irreparable harm, the Court of Appeals set aside the injunction on the ground that the relief granted exceeded the District Court's authority under § 16 of the Act to order "injunctive relief." The court relied on an earlier decision in which it had concluded, on the basis of its reading of excerpts from subcommittee hearings, that § 16's draftsmen did not intend to authorize the remedies of "dissolution" or "divestiture" in private litigants' actions. Thus, held the court, the "indirect divestiture" effected by the preliminary injunction was impermissible.

Held: Divestiture is a form of "injunctive relief" authorized by § 16. Pp. 495 U. S. 278-296.

(a) The plain text of § 16 -- which entitles

"[a]ny person . . . to . . . have injunctive relief . . . against threatened loss or damage . . . when and under the same conditions and principles as injunctive relief against threatened conduct that will cause loss or damage is granted by courts of equity"

-- authorizes divestiture decrees to remedy § 7 violations. On its face, the simple grant of authority to "have injunctive relief" would seem to encompass that remedy just as plainly as the comparable language in § 15 of the Act, which authorizes the district courts to "prevent and restrain violations" in antitrust actions brought by the United States, and under which divestiture is the preferred remedy for illegal mergers. Moreover, § 16 states no restrictions or exceptions to the forms of injunctive relief a private plaintiff may seek or a court may order, but, rather, evidences Congress' intent that traditional equitable principles govern the grant of such relief. The section's "threatened loss or damage" phrase does not negate the court's power to order divestiture. Assuming, as did the lower courts, that the merger in question violated the

Page 495 U. S. 272

antitrust laws, and that the conduct of the merged enterprise threatens economic harm to consumers, such relief would prohibit that conduct from causing that harm. Nor does the section's "threatened conduct that will cause loss or damage" phrase limit the court's power to the granting of relief against anticompetitive "conduct," as opposed to "structural relief," or to the issuance of prohibitory, rather than mandatory, injunctions. That phrase is simply a part of the general reference to the standards that should be applied in fashioning injunctive relief. Section 16, construed to authorize a private divestiture remedy, fits well in a statutory scheme that favors private enforcement, subjects mergers to searching scrutiny, and regards divestiture as the remedy best suited to redress the ills of an anticompetitive merger. Pp. 495 U. S. 278-285.

(b) The legislative history does not require that § 16 be construed narrowly. American's reliance on the subcommittee hearing excerpts cited by the Court of Appeals and on Graves v. Cambria Steel Co., 298 F. 761 (1924) -- each of which contains statements indicating that private suits for dissolution do not lie under § 16 -- is misplaced. At the time of the Act's framing, dissolution was a vague and ill-defined concept that encompassed the drastic remedy of corporate termination as well as divestiture. Thus, the fact that Congress may have excluded the more severe sanction does not imply that the equitable formulation of § 16 cannot permit divestiture. Since the inferences that American draws simply are not confirmed by anything else in the legislative history or contemporaneous judicial interpretation, § 16 must be taken at its word when it endorses the "conditions and principles" governing injunctive relief in equity courts. There being nothing in the section that restricts, courts' equitable jurisdiction, the provision should be construed generously and flexibly to enable a chancellor to impose the most effective, usual, and straightforward remedy to rescind an unlawful stock purchase. Pp. 495 U. S. 285-295.

(c) Simply because a district court has the power to order divestiture in appropriate § 16 cases does not mean that it should do so in every situation in which the Government would be entitled to such relief under § 15. A private litigant must establish standing by proving "threatened loss or damage" to his own interests, and his suit may be barred by equitable defenses such as laches or "unclean hands." Pp. 495 U. S. 295-296.

872 F.2d 837, (CA 9 1989), reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. KENNEDY, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 495 U. S. 296.

Page 495 U. S. 273

Page 495 U. S. 274

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