Antitrust Law Daily State-action doctrine barred Sherman Act claims against Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission
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Thursday, August 27, 2020

State-action doctrine barred Sherman Act claims against Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

By Sheri A. Wattles-Miller, J.D.

A Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code provision banning excessive discounts to retailers was exempt from antitrust laws because it was an undoubted exercise of state sovereign immunity.

A provision of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code that prohibited excessive discounts to a retailer did not violate the Sherman Act because the antitrust claims of a vendor of alcoholic beverages were barred by the state-action doctrine, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans has found. According to the state-action doctrine, the State of Texas was immune from antitrust scrutiny when it enacted the legislation, and the vendor's contention that any ban on liquor or wine discounts was a "hybrid restraint" of trade failed. Moreover, the Commission did not violate the Sherman Act by placing holds on the vendor's applications, denying renewals during administrative proceedings, and seeking to cancel or suspend the vendor's existing permits. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code gave the Commission comprehensive regulatory authority to ensure fair competition within the alcoholic beverage industry, and the provision was an inherent, logical, or ordinary result of that mandate (Spec's Family Partners, Ltd. v. The Executive Director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, August 25, 2020, Duncan, S.).

Background. The vendor operated stores across Texas. The Commission investigated a complaint that the vendor was violating various state laws and regulations, and, in order to settle the matter, it demanded over $8 million to resolve violations allegedly uncovered. Upon completion of its investigation, the Commission filed notice with the State Office of Administrative Hearings seeking cancellation or suspension of the vendor's permits, or alternatively, civil penalties. While the administrative case was pending, the vendor continued to submit applications to the Commission, who place administrative holds on the applications and denied renewals. Ultimately, the administrative proceedings were resolved in favor of the vendor on every allegation except one involving a credit law violation. The vendor then sued the Commission in federal court, bringing claims under the Sherman Act and state law.

Sherman Act. The Sherman Act forbids unreasonable restraints of trade. However, the court noted, it was not intended to restrain a state from activities directed by its legislature. Thus, exercises of a state's sovereign powers are immune from antitrust scrutiny, and state actions are exempt from the antitrust laws. Contrary to the vendor's argument that the provision banning excessive discounts was a "hybrid restraint" of trade, the court found that it was exempt from the operation of antitrust laws because, as legislation, it was an undoubted exercise of sovereign authority.

The vendor also contended that the Commission violated the Sherman Act by placing holds on its applications, denying renewals during the administrative proceedings, and seeking to cancel or suspend its existing permits. In cases where the actions of a state are not clearly exercises of state sovereign power, the Midcal test set forth two requirements for state-action immunity: (1) the state action must be for the purpose of clearly articulated state policy; and (2) must be actively supervised by the state itself. Here, since the vendor did not allege that the Commission (and its members) was a nonsovereign actor regulating markets in which its members participated, only the question of state policy was addressed. The court determined that each of these acts qualified for state-action immunity, because each furthered clearly articulated state policy. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code gave the Commission comprehensive regulatory authority to ensure fair competition within the alcoholic beverage industry, and the Commission’s actions furthered that policy. Thus, the Commission’s actions did not violate the Sherman Act.

Absolute immunity. The vendor argued that the Commission took wrongful acts while the case was proceeding, namely, placing holds on the vendor's applications, protesting those applications, and refusing to issue regular permit renewals. As with prosecutors, state agency officials are immune from liability for their conduct in initiating a prosecution and presenting a state’s case, if that conduct is intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process. Here, the court applied the six Butz factors to determine that the Commission's challenged conduct was akin to the conduct of prosecutors intimately involved in judicial proceedings and therefore "entitled to absolute immunity from suit."

The vendor also contended that the Commission was not immune from its claims that, as part of their investigation, they intentionally procured false testimony to use against the vendor in settlement negotiations and during the administrative proceedings. The court found that these actions fell outside the scope of absolute immunity, because non-testimonial pretrial actions, such as the fabrication of evidence, was not part of the trial, and, thus, not within the scope of absolute immunity.

Sovereign immunity. The vendor’s §1983 claims against the members of the Commission in their official capacities was barred by sovereign immunity, because state sovereign immunity was not abrogated by §1983. In addition, sovereign immunity barred the vendor’s claims for injunctive and declaratory relief against the Commission because the vendor did not allege an ongoing injury, but instead sought rulings on "past alleged deficiencies."

This case is No. 19-20661.

Attorneys: Albert Thomas Van Huff (Monshaugen & Van Huff, PC) for Spec's Family Partners, Ltd. Michael Abrams, Office of the Attorney General, for Executive Director of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

Companies: Spec's Family Partners, Ltd.

MainStory: TopStory Antitrust GCNNews LouisianaNews MississippiNews TexasNews

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