On October 14, 2014, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that could have significant implications for hybrid public/private “regulatory” bodies. Many such bodies, like state and local wine commissions, operate in the alcohol beverage space.
In North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, 717 F.3d 359 (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the actions of a state’s Board of Dental Examiners (Board) were subject to antitrust scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). North Carolina clothes the Board with considerable authority to enforce the state’s laws concerning the unauthorized practice of dentistry by non-licensed persons. The majority of the Board, however, consists of practicing dentists and dental hygienists.
The case arose from the Board’s actions to stop non-licensed persons from offering “teeth whitening” services within the state. Seemingly responding to complaints from established dental practices, the Board issued cease-and-desist letters to numerous non-dentists offering teeth whitening services, effectively driving such over-the-counter services from the state. The FTC subsequently investigated the Board’s actions, ultimately issuing an order prohibiting the Board from taking further action to restrict competition in teeth whitening services to persons licensed by the Board.
The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the Board’s actions are immune from antitrust scrutiny under the State Action Doctrine. That doctrine shields from antitrust scrutiny the actions of a state when functioning in its capacity as a sovereign government. For example, while private parties cannot set or fix prices, the legislature of a state may fix prices free from the restrictions of antitrust law.
The Fourth Circuit, agreeing with the FTC, held that the state action doctrine did not apply. The Court of Appeals explained that public/private hybrid entities (such as bar associations) remain subject to the antitrust laws to ensure that their private members do not act in their own commercial self-interest. Relying heavily on the Supreme Court’s 1980 Midcal Aluminum decision that struck down a post-and-hold price posting law in California, the Fourth Circuit required the Board to show “active supervision” by the state government before it would permit the Board’s actions to receive the benefit of state action immunity. The court then agreed with the FTC that the Board had failed to make that showing.
How the Supreme Court rules in the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners case will impact how public/private hybrid entities must operate within the alcohol beverage industry. A number of states, for example, have established wine boards and commissions consisting primarily or wholly of private participants in the state’s wine industry. These boards, however, may have the power to shape and implement state policies, such as establishing marketing orders, state wine trails and the like. Clear national application of the antitrust laws to such bodies’ conduct could restrict current activities or at least require more careful internal policing to avoid potential exposure under the antitrust laws.