Who Can Sue for Unlawful Price Discrimination - Individuals, Corporations, Towns, and Other Governmental Bodies

The courts use the term "standing" to indicate whether or not someone is entitled to sue for relief under the antitrust statutes. Standing is often a complicated question, requiring analysis of various factors set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Associated General Contractors of California, Inc. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 103 S. Ct. 897, 1983 U.S. LEXIS 128, 74 L. Ed. 2d 723 (1983).

These factors to be analyzed, as enunciated by the Supreme Court in Associated General, include (i) the nature of the plaintiff's injury, (ii) whether the injury was of a type sought to be redressed by the antitrust laws, (iii) the directness or indirectness of the asserted injury, (iv) whether others have sued, (v) the existence or not of an identifiable class of persons whose self-interest would normally motivate them to vindicate the public interest in antitrust enforcement, (vi) whether denying plaintiff standing would likely leave a significant antitrust violation undetected or unremedied, (vii) whether the damages claimed are speculative or capable of reasonable calculation, (viii) whether denial of standing is necessary to keep antitrust litigation within judicially manageable limits, (ix) whether denial of standing is needed to avoid the possiblity of duplicative recovery or the risk of having a complex apportionment of damages.

As you can see, the concept of "antitrust standing" is almost at the pure discretion of the district court judge (federal court, because of the exclusivity of jurisdiction of the federal courts over federal antitrust litigation), so that antitrust cases can be (and are) readily dismissed by the courts by stating that in the judge's opinion the plaintiff who has been put out of business by a monopolist has no standing to assert his/her claims.

Here are a variety of examples in which an individual consumer or business entity, government or non-profit institution could have a meritorious claim for price or service discrimination under the Robinson-Patman Act:

The foregoing list is not intended to be all-inclusive, but does suggest the wide range of claims which exist for the unlawful price and service discrimination activities of many large (and small) manufacturers, large wholesalers, superstores and chain stores.

Insofar as antitrust suits by towns, cities, counties, states and state attorneys general are concerned, there generally can be a valid claim for antitrust relief, but with limitations, of course. A claim cannot be one for causing a general decline in the economy of the state, which is no more (according to the courts) than a reflection of injuries to the business or property of consumers for which they may recovery themselves, according to the court. See Hawaii v. Standard Oil Co. of California, 405 U.S. 251, 31 L. Ed.2d 184, 92 S. Ct. 885 (1972) (Supreme Court rejected Hawaii's antitrust claim for damages to its general economy, saying that the plaintiff state must sue instead, if at all, in the capacity of a consumer of goods and services).

In Jefferson County Pharmacutical Association, Inc. v. Abbott Laboratories, 460 U.S. 150, 103 S. Ct. 1011, 1983 U.S. LEXIS 18, 74 L. Ed. 2d 882 (1983), reh. denied, held that the Robinson-Patman Act did not exempt purchases by the state from the Act's coverage. In this case, pharmaceutical products were sold to state and local government hospitals for resale in competition with private pharmacies.

Also, see Burch v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 554 F.2d 633, 1977 U.S. App. LEXIS 13454 (4th Cir. 1977), which held that the Attorney General of the State of Maryland has standing to sue for injunctive relief under Section 16 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 26 in its quasi-sovereign capacity as parents patriae, trustee, guardian, and representative of the citizens of Maryland, and held that allegations of injury to the general economy of Maryland were sufficient to confer standing when the Attorney General is suing for injunctive relief (as distinguished from damages).

On the other hand, see Tugboat, Inc. v. Mobile Towing Co., 534 F.2d 1172, 1976 U.S. App. LEXIS 8076 (5th Cir. 1976), which held that since a parents patriae suit was not aimed at remedying injuries to the state's commercial interests or enterprises, the state lacks standing to bring such a suit under the Clayton Act.

The foregoing cases are provided to give any interested attorney a quick entry into the issue of standing of a town, village or county to sue for damages under the Robinson-Patman Act. There are a variety of types of damages resulting, some of which may be used to qualify for standing, and some which may not.

Anyone interested in exploring the basis for a town, village or county's claim for antitrust damages against superstores must look at The Shils Report, a 250-page survey and report by Professor Edward Shils of the Wharton Business School, published in February, 1997. See The Shils Report, a 250-Page Report and Survey Proving that Big Box / Superstores Are Injuring Towns and Small Businesses in America through Price Discrimination and Other Predatory Practices

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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Carl E. Person