Justia U.S. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Antitrust & Trade Regulation
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Acting under the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 (ECRA) the Department of Commerce has maintained a so-called Entity List to restrict designated foreign parties from receiving United States exports.   Plaintiff, Changji Esquel Textile Co, operates a spinning mill in Xinjiang. The United States has determined that China abuses the human rights of Uyghurs and other religious or ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, including imprisonment and forced labor. Changji and its parent company filed a lawsuit alleging that the Department, in adding Changji to the Entity List, violated ECRA and its implementing regulations, the APA, and the Due Process Clause. They moved for a preliminary injunction on the theory that the alleged ECRA and regulatory violations were ultra vires. The district court denied the motion on the ground that Plaintiffs are not likely to succeed on this claim.   The DC Circuit affirmed. The court explained that to prevail on an ultra vires claim, Plaintiff must establish three things: “(i) the statutory preclusion of review is implied rather than express; (ii) there is no alternative procedure for review of the statutory claim; and (iii) the agency plainly acts in excess of its delegated powers and contrary to a specific prohibition in the statute that is clear and mandatory.   The court explained that the canons invoked by Plaintiffs can resolve statutory ambiguity in close cases, but they do not allow the court to discern any clear and mandatory prohibition on adding entities to the List for human-rights abuses, particularly given the breadth of section 4813(a)(16) and the deference owed to the Executive Branch in matters of foreign affairs. View "Changji Esquel Textile Co. Ltd. v. Gina Raimondo" on Justia Law

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Federal Express Corporation—commonly known as FedEx—challenged the Department of Commerce’s authority to hold it strictly liable for aiding and abetting violations of the 2018 Export Controls Act.   The DC Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of FedEx’s complaint, holding that Commerce’s regulation, 15 C.F.R. Section 764.2(b), and its strict-liability interpretation of it are not ultra vires. The court concluded that the statutory text, circuit precedent, and deference to the Executive Branch in matters of national security and foreign affairs all support Commerce’s interpretation.   The court explained that the first barrier to FedEx’s ultra vires challenge is that Commerce’s interpretation of its regulation to allow for strict liability in civil enforcement actions does not contravene any clear statutory command. Next, FedEx’s ultra vires argument runs into a second headwind—relevant circuit precedent. The court wrote that given that the DC circuit has already specifically held that Commerce can attach strict liability to the first term in the string of verbs “cause or aid, abet, counsel, command, induce, procure, permit, or approve[,]” 15 C.F.R. Section 764.2(b), there is no basis for the court to hold that Commerce acted ultra vires in attaching that same strict-liability reach to the next two verbs. Further, since FedEx has not shown that its asserted mens rea requirement for aiding and abetting liability was truly settled in the common law at the time the statute was promulgated, or that its common-law meaning fits within this specialized national-security scheme, FedEx’s argument does not come close to satisfying the strict standard for an ultra vires claim. View "Federal Express Corporation v. U.S. Department of Commerce" on Justia Law

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Freight shippers (“Plaintiffs”) alleged that the nation’s four largest freight railroads (“Defendants” or “Railroads”) have violated the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 1, by engaging in a price-fixing conspiracy to coordinate their fuel surcharge programs as a means to impose supra-competitive total price increases on their shipping customers. Before hearing summary judgment motions, the District Court considered Defendants’ motions to exclude certain evidence on which Plaintiffs rely. Defendants argued the challenged documents were inadmissible under 49 U.S.C. Section 10706(a)(3)(B)(ii)(II) (“Section 10706”) as evidence of the Railroads’ discussions or agreements concerning “interline” traffic.   The D.C. Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the District Court’s interpretation of Section 10706, vacated the District Court’s order and remanded for the court to reconsider the evidence at issue. The court held that the District Court’s interpretation of Section 10706 sometimes strays from the literal terms of the statute.  The court reasoned that a discussion or agreement “concern[s] an interline movement” only if Defendants meet their burden of showing that the movements at issue are the participating rail carriers’ shared interline traffic. A discussion or agreement need not identify a specific shipper, shipments, or destinations to qualify for exclusion; more general discussions or agreements may suffice. Further, the court held that a carrier’s internal documents need not convey the substance of a discussion or agreement concerning interline movements to qualify for exclusion under the statute. View "In re: Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge Antitrust Litigation" on Justia Law

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Vermont National Telephone Company filed a qui tam action against Northstar, SNR, DISH, and several affiliated companies (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging they violated the False Claims Act (“FCA”) by making false certifications and manipulating the Commission’s auction rules to secure fraudulent bidding credits on spectrum licenses. The district court dismissed the suit, resting its decision on the FCA’s “government-action bar” and its “demanding materiality standard.”   The D.C. Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal finding that neither basis the district court invoked warranted dismissal.  Defendants argued that the Commission levied civil money penalties by subjecting Northstar and SNR to default payment.  The court reasoned that even assuming that these default payments are civil money penalties, they have no bearing on whether the Commission’s licensing proceeding is a “civil money penalty proceeding” because the default payments were not assessed during the licensing proceeding.   Second, Defendants pointed out that the Commission may assess forfeiture penalties for willful failure to comply with any FCC rule or regulation. Commission regulations, however, authorize assessment of forfeiture penalties only in forfeiture proceedings.   Third, Defendants alluded to "other penalties” that the Commission may impose, however, because the Commission had no authority to assess civil money penalties during its licensing proceeding, which evaluated only Northstar’s and SNR’s long-form applications and the petitions to deny them, the licensing proceeding was not an “administrative civil money penalty proceeding.”  Finally, the court held that Vermont Telephone also satisfied Rule 9(b) by setting forth detailed allegations regarding the “time, place, and manner” of the fraudulent scheme. View "USA, ex rel. Vermont National Telephone Company v. Northstar Spectrum, LLC" on Justia Law

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Until 2016, the FAA maintained a formal “slot control” system at Newark International Airport, requiring each airline to request a “slot” for each takeoff or landing. The FAA currently announces caps on takeoffs and landings for a given scheduling season. Each airline tells the FAA what flights it wants to operate during the upcoming season. The FAA may either approve an airline’s plan or request that it make changes in order to reduce congestion. An airline is not legally barred from operating unapproved flights/In 2010, the Department of Justice (DoJ) conditioned a merger on United’s transferring 36 slots to Southwest Airlines, a low-fare carrier, new to Newark. For five years, the DoJ resisted United’s attempts to acquire more slots. In 2015 the DoJ sued United for attempted monopolization but United remained Newark's dominant carrier. In 2019 Southwest announced it would pull out of Newark; 16 of its slots were in “peak hours.” Spirit Airlines requested five. The DoJ and the Port Authority cautioned the FAA against retiring Southwest’s slots, to preserve competition.The D.C. Circuit vacated the FAA’s decision to retire the slots. The decision was final because it prevented Spirit from operating as many peak-period flights as it would otherwise have done in Summer 2020 and was arbitrary and capricious because the agency disregarded warnings about the effect of its decision on competition at Newark. View "Spirit Airlines, Inc. v. United States Department of Transportation" on Justia Law

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In an action filed by the government to enjoin the vertical merger between AT&T and Time Warner under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, the DC Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of the government's request for a permanent injunction. At issue on appeal was the district court's findings on its increased leverage theory whereby costs for Turner Broadcasting System's content would increase after the merger, principally through threats of long-term "blackouts" during affiliate negotiations.The court held that the government failed to clear the first hurdle in meeting its burden of showing that the proposed merger was likely to increase Turner Broadcasting's bargaining leverage. Furthermore, the government's objections that the district court misunderstood and misapplied economic principles and clearly erred in rejecting the quantitative model were unpersuasive. In this case, the government offered no comparable analysis of data for prior vertical mergers in the industry that showed "no statistically significant effect on content prices" as defendants had. Additionally, the government's expert opinion and modeling predicting such increases failed to take into account Turner Broadcasting System's post-litigation irrevocable offers of no-blackout arbitration agreements, which a government expert acknowledged would require a new model. The court also held that the evidence indicated that the industry had become dynamic in recent years with the emergence of distributors of only on-demand content, such as Netflix and Hulu. View "United States v. AT&T, Inc." on Justia Law

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The DC Circuit held that two Federal Trade Commission attorneys were immune from suit for their conduct during an enforcement action against a medical-records company after the company's CEO publicly criticized the FTC about their investigation, where the company's data-security practices made patient records available over public file-sharing. The court held that qualified immunity protected all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law and, even if the attorneys sought to retaliate for the public criticism, their actions did not violate any clearly established right absent plausible allegations that their motive was the but-for cause of the Commission's enforcement action. Therefore, the court reversed the district court's denial of qualified immunity to the attorneys. View "Daugherty v. Sheer" on Justia Law

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SBA filed suit seeking to enjoin rescission of an informal opinion letter issued by the FTC (the 2016 Letter). The 2016 Letter stated that it was the FTC staff's opinion that telemarketing technology used by SBA's members was subject to the FTC's regulation of so-called "robocalls," and it announced the rescission of a 2009 FTC staff letter that had reached the opposite conclusion. The DC Circuit dismissed the complaint for failure to state claim and held that because the 2016 staff opinion letter did not constitute the consummation of the Commission's decisionmaking process by its own terms and under the FTC's regulations, it was not final agency action. Finally, SBA's speech claims were pleaded as Administrative Procedure claims under 5 U.S.C. 706(2)(B) and could not proceed without final agency action. View "Soundboard Association v. FTC" on Justia Law

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The court affirmed the issuance of a permanent injunction enjoining the merger of Anthem and Cigna under Section 7 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. 18. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining the merger based on Anthem's failure to show the kind of extraordinary efficiencies necessary to offset the conceded anticompetitive effect of the merger in the fourteen Anthem states: the loss of Cigna, an innovative competitor in a highly concentrated market. The court also held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining the merger based on its separate and independent determination that the merger would have a substantial anticompetitive effect in the Richmond, Virginia large group employer market. View "United States v. Anthem" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, users and operators of independent (non-bank) ATMs, filed related actions against Visa, MasterCard, and certain affiliated banks, alleging anticompetitive schemes for pricing ATM access fees. Plaintiffs alleged anticompetitive harm because Visa and MasterCard prevent an independent operator from charging less, and potentially earning more, when an ATM transaction is processed through a network unaffiliated with Visa and MasterCard. The court held that the district court erred in concluding that plaintiffs had failed to plead adequate facts to establish standing or the existence of a horizontal conspiracy to restrain trade under the Sherman Antitrust Act, 15 U.S.C. 1. Accordingly, the court vacated the district court's denial of plaintiff's motion to amend the judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Osborn v. Visa Inc." on Justia Law