Justia U.S. Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Business Law
Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc.
The United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 limited the funding of American and foreign nongovernmental organizations to those with “a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking,” 22 U.S.C. 7631(f). In 2013, that Policy Requirement was held to be an unconstitutional restraint on free speech when applied to American organizations. Those American organizations then challenged the requirement’s constitutionality when applied to their legally distinct foreign affiliates. The Second Circuit affirmed that the government was prohibited from enforcing the requirement against the foreign affiliates. The Supreme Court reversed. The plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates possess no First Amendment rights. Foreign citizens outside U.S. territory do not possess rights under the U. S. Constitution and separately incorporated organizations are separate legal units with distinct legal rights and obligations. The Court rejected an argument that a foreign affiliate’s policy statement may be attributed to the plaintiffs, noting that there is no government compulsion to associate with another entity. Even protecting the free speech rights of only those foreign organizations that are closely identified with American organizations would deviate from the fundamental principle that foreign organizations operating abroad do not possess rights under the U.S. Constitution. The 2013 decision did not facially invalidate the Act’s funding condition, suggest that the First Amendment requires the government to exempt plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates from the Policy Requirement, or purport to override constitutional law and corporate law principles. View "Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc." on Justia Law
Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media
Media filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), seeking the names and addresses of all retail stores that participate in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and each store’s annual SNAP food stamp redemption data from fiscal years 2005-2010. The USDA declined the request, invoking FOIA Exemption 4, which shields from disclosure “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and privileged or confidential,” 5 U.S.C. 552(b)(4). The Eighth Circuit affirmed an order requiring disclosure. The USDA declined to appeal. The Food Marketing Institute, a trade association of grocers, was permitted to intervene. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, first holding that Institute had standing. Where commercial or financial information is customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is “confidential” under Exemption 4. The Institute’s retailers customarily do not disclose store-level SNAP data or make it publicly available; to induce retailers to participate in SNAP and provide store-level information, the government has long promised retailers that it will keep their information private. The Court declined to “arbitrarily constrict Exemption 4 by adding limitations found nowhere in its terms.” View "Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media" on Justia Law
Apple, Inc. v. Pepper
Apple sells iPhone applications (apps) directly to iPhone owners through its App Store—the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps. Most apps are created by independent developers under contracts with Apple. Apple charges the developers a $99 annual membership fee, allows them to set the retail price of the apps, and charges a 30% commission on every app sale. Four iPhone owners sued, alleging that Apple has unlawfully monopolized the aftermarket for iPhone apps. The Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit concluding that the owners were direct purchasers under the Supreme Court’s “Illinois Brick” precedent. The Supreme Court affirmed. The Clayton Act provides that “any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue,” 15 U.S.C. 15(a), and readily covers consumers who purchase goods or services at higher-than-competitive prices from an allegedly monopolistic retailer. While indirect purchasers who are two or more steps removed from the violator in a distribution chain may not sue, the iPhone owners are not consumers at the bottom of a vertical distribution chain who are attempting to sue manufacturers at the top of the chain. The absence of an intermediary in the distribution chain between Apple and the consumer is dispositive. The Court rejected an argument that Illinois Brick allows consumers to sue only the party who sets the retail price. Apple’s interpretation would contradict the long-standing goal of effective private enforcement and consumer protection in antitrust cases. Illinois Brick is not a get-out-of-court-free card for monopolistic retailers any time that a damages calculation might be complicated. View "Apple, Inc. v. Pepper" on Justia Law
Ohio v. American Express Co.
The Amex credit card companies use a two-sided transaction platform to serve cardholders and merchants. Unlike traditional markets, two-sided platforms exhibit “indirect network effects,” because the value of the platform to one group depends on how many members of another group participate. Two-sided platforms must take these effects into account before making a change in price on either side, or they risk creating a feedback loop of declining demand. Visa and MasterCard have structural advantages over Amex. Amex focuses on cardholder spending rather than cardholder lending. To encourage cardholder spending, Amex provides better rewards than the other credit-card companies. Amex continually invests in its cardholder rewards program and must charge merchants higher fees than its rivals. To avoid higher fees, merchants sometimes attempt to dissuade cardholders from using Amex cards (steering). Amex places anti-steering provisions in its contracts with merchants. The Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit in rejecting claims that Amex violated section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits "unreasonable restraints” of trade. Applying the "rule of reason" three-step burden-shifting framework, the Court concluded the plaintiffs did not establish that Amex’s anti-steering provisions have a substantial anticompetitive effect that harms consumers in the relevant market. Evidence of a price increase on one side of a two-sided transaction platform cannot, by itself, demonstrate an anticompetitive exercise of market power; plaintiffs must prove that Amex’s anti-steering provisions increased the cost of credit-card transactions above a competitive level, reduced the number of credit-card transactions, or otherwise stifled competition. They offered no evidence that the price of credit-card transactions was higher than the price one would expect in a competitive market. Amex’s increased merchant fees reflect increases in the value of its services and the cost of its transactions, not an ability to charge above a competitive price. The Court noted that Visa and MasterCard’s merchant fees have continued to increase, even where Amex is not accepted. The market actually experienced expanding output and improved quality. View "Ohio v. American Express Co." on Justia Law
South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc.
Many states tax the retail sales of goods and services in the state. Sellers are required to collect and remit the tax; if they do not in-state consumers are responsible for paying a use tax at the same rate. Under earlier Supreme Court decisions, states could not require a business that had no physical presence in the state to collect its sales tax. Consumer compliance rates are low; it is estimated that South Dakota lost $48-$58 million annually. South Dakota enacted a law requiring out-of-state sellers to collect and remit sales tax, covering only sellers that annually deliver more than $100,000 of goods or services into the state or engage in 200 or more separate transactions for the delivery of goods or services into the state. State courts found the Act unconstitutional. The Supreme Court vacated, overruling the physical presence rule established by its decisions in Quill (1992), and National Bellas Hess (1967). That rule gave out-of-state sellers an advantage and each year becomes further removed from economic reality and results in significant revenue losses to the states. A business need not have a physical presence in a state to satisfy the demands of due process. The Commerce Clause requires “a sensitive, case-by-case analysis of purposes and effects,” to protect against any undue burden on interstate commerce, taking into consideration the small businesses, startups, or others who engage in commerce across state lines. Without the physical presence test, the first inquiry is whether the tax applies to an activity with a substantial nexus with the taxing state. Here, the nexus is sufficient. Any remaining Commerce Clause concerns may be addressed on remand. View "South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc." on Justia Law
Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman
Businesses challenged New York General Business Law section 518, which provides that “[n]o seller in any sales transaction may impose a surcharge on a holder who elects to use a credit card in lieu of payment by cash, check, or similar means,” as violating the First Amendment by regulating how they communicate their prices, and as unconstitutionally vague. The Second Circuit vacated a judgment in favor of the businesses, reasoning that in the context of singlesticker pricing—where merchants post one price and would like to charge more to customers who pay by credit card—the law required that the sticker price be the same as the price charged to credit card users. In that context, the law regulated a relationship between two prices: conduct, not speech. The Supreme Court vacated, limiting its review to single-sticker pricing. Section 518 regulates speech. It is not a typical price regulation, which simply regulates the amount a store can collect. The law tells merchants nothing about the amount they may collect from a cash or credit card payer, but regulates how sellers may communicate their prices. Section 518 is not vague as applied to the businesses; it bans the single-sticker pricing they wish to employ, and “a plaintiff whose speech is clearly proscribed cannot raise a successful vagueness claim.” View "Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman" on Justia Law
Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc.
Corporate citizens of Delaware, Nebraska, and Illinois, sued Americold, a “real estate investment trust” organized under Maryland law, in a Kansas court. Americold removed the suit based on diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. 1332(a)(1), 1441(b). The federal court accepted jurisdiction and ruled in Americold’s favor. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court lacked jurisdiction. The Supreme Court affirmed. For purposes of diversity jurisdiction, Americold’s citizenship is based on the citizenship of its members, which include its shareholders. Historically, the relevant citizens for jurisdictional purposes in a suit involving a “mere legal entity” were that entity’s “members,” or the “real persons who come into court” in the entity’s name. Except for that limited exception of jurisdictional citizenship for corporations, diversity jurisdiction in a suit by or against the entity depends on the citizenship of all its members, including shareholders. The Court rejected an argument that anything called a “trust” possesses the citizenship of its trustees alone; Americold confused the traditional trust with the variety of unincorporated entities that many states have given the “trust” label. Under Maryland law, the real estate investment trust at issue is treated as a “separate legal entity” that can sue or be sued. View "Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc." on Justia Law
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations implementing the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) require that employers’ group health plans furnish preventive care and screenings for women without cost sharing requirements, 42 U.S.C. 300gg–13(a)(4). Nonexempt employers must provide coverage for 20 FDA-approved contraceptive methods, including four that may have the effect of preventing a fertilized egg from developing. Religious employers, such as churches, are exempt from the contraceptive mandate. HHS has effectively exempted religious nonprofit organizations; an insurer must exclude contraceptive coverage from such an employer’s plan and provide participants with separate payments for contraceptive services. Closely held for-profit corporations sought an injunction under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even by a rule of general applicability unless it demonstrates that imposing the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, 42 U.S.C. 2000bb–1(a), (b). As amended by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), RFRA covers “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The Third Circuit held that a for-profit corporation could not “engage in religious exercise” under RFRA and that the mandate imposed no requirements on corporate owners in their personal capacity. The Tenth Circuit held that the businesses are “persons” under RFRA; that the contraceptive mandate substantially burdened their religious exercise; and that HHS had not demonstrated that the mandate was the “least restrictive means” of furthering a compelling governmental interest. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the businesses, holding that RFRA applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held for-profit corporations. The Court declined to “leave merchants with a difficult choice” of giving up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgoing the benefits of operating as corporations. Nothing in RFRA suggests intent to depart from the Dictionary Act definition of “person,” which includes corporations, 1 U.S.C.1; no definition of “person” includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but excludes for-profit corporations. “Any suggestion that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion because their purpose is simply to make money flies in the face of modern corporate law.” The Court rejected arguments based on the difficulty of ascertaining the “beliefs” of large, publicly traded corporations and that the mandate itself requires only insurance coverage. If the plaintiff companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences; the government failed to show that the contraceptive mandate is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the four challenged contraceptive methods. The government could assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives or could extend the accommodation already established for religious nonprofit organizations. The Court noted that its decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate, not all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions. View "Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc." on Justia Law
Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc.
Lexmark sells the only type of toner cartridges that work with its laser printers; remanufacturers acquire and refurbish used Lexmark cartridges to sell in competition with Lexmark’s new and refurbished cartridges. Lexmark’s “Prebate” program gives customers a discount on new cartridges if they agree to return empty cartridges to the company. Every Prebate cartridge has a microchip that disables the empty cartridge unless Lexmark replaces the chip. Static Control makes and sells components for cartridge remanufacture and developed a microchip that mimicked Lexmark’s. Lexmark sued for copyright infringement. Static Control counterclaimed that Lexmark engaged in false or misleading advertising under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and caused Static Control lost sales and damage to its business reputation. The district court held that Static Control lacked “prudential standing,” applying a multifactor balancing test. The Sixth Circuit reversed, applying a “reasonable interest” test. A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed. The Court stated that the issue was not “prudential standing.” Whether a plaintiff comes within a statute’s zone of interests requires traditional statutory interpretation. The Lanham Act includes in its statement of purposes, “protect[ing] persons engaged in [commerce within the control of Congress] against unfair competition.” “Unfair competition” is concerned with injuries to business reputation and sales. A section 1125(a) plaintiff must show that its injury flows directly from the deception caused by the defendant’s advertising; that occurs when deception causes consumers to withhold trade from the plaintiff. The zone-of-interests test and the proximate-cause requirement identify who may sue under section 1125(a) and provide better guidance than the multi-factor balancing test, the direct-competitor test, or the reasonable-interest test. Static Control comes within the class of plaintiffs authorized to sue under section 1125(a). Its alleged injuries fall within the zone of interests protected by the Act, and it sufficiently alleged that its injuries were proximately caused by Lexmark’s misrepresentations. View "Lexmark Int’l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc." on Justia Law
United States v. Woods
Woods and McCombs participated in a tax shelter to generate paper losses to reduce their taxable income. They purchased currency-option spread packages consisting of a long option, for which they paid a premium, and a short option, which they sold and for which they collected a premium. Because the premium paid was largely offset by that received, the net cost of the packages was substantially less than the cost of the long option alone. Woods and McCombs contributed the spreads, plus cash, to partnerships, which used the cash to purchase stock and currency. In calculating their basis in the partnership interests, they considered only the long component of the spreads and disregarded the nearly offsetting short component. When the partnerships’ assets were disposed of for modest gains, they claimed huge losses. Although they had contributed $3.2 million in cash and spreads to the partnerships, they claimed losses of more than $45 million. The IRS sent notices, finding that the partnerships lacked “economic substance,” disallowing related losses, and concluding that the partners could not claim a basis greater than zero for their partnership interests and that tax underpayments would be subject to a 40-percent penalty for gross valuation misstatements. The district court held that the partnerships were properly disregarded as shams but that the penalty did not apply. The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed, first holding that the district court had jurisdiction to make the determination. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act authorizes courts in partnership-level proceedings to provisionally determine the applicability of any penalty that could result from an adjustment to a partnership item, even though imposing the penalty requires a subsequent, partner-level proceeding. In the later proceeding, a partner may raise reasons why the penalty may not be imposed on him personally. However, the valuation-misstatement penalty applies in this case. Once the partnerships were deemed shams, no partner could legitimately claim a basis greater than zero. Any underpayment resulting from use of a non-zero basis would be attributable to a partner having claimed an adjusted basis that exceeded the correct amount. When an asset’s adjusted basis is zero, a valuation misstatement is automatically deemed gross. The valuation¬misstatement penalty encompasses misstatements that rest on both legal and factual errors, so it is applicable to misstatements that rest on use of a sham partnership. View "United States v. Woods" on Justia Law