By Linda O’Brien, J.D., LL.M.
Claims by two owners of a towing and wrecking service against state highway patrol officers for wrongful interference with their business operations in violation of the Sherman Act were barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity, the federal district court in St. Louis has decided (Robbins v. Becker, January 21, 2014, Autrey, H.).
Mark and Gail Robbins are the owners of I-44 Truck Center and Wrecker Service, LLC, and I-44 Wrecker Service, LLC, which provide towing and wrecker services to semi tractor-trailers and other private and commercial vehicles along the Interstate 44 corridor near St. Louis, Missouri. The Robbins filed suit against 14 Missouri State Highway Patrol Officers, alleging interference with their business operations in violation of the Sherman Act, the U.S. Constitution and state law. The Robbins claimed that, following a confrontation between Mark Robbins and some officers in 1999, the officers maliciously conspired with each other and third parties to exclude I-44 from a “rotation list” for selecting towing and wrecker companies to respond to highway accidents. The officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which was denied by the court. Upon appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis remanded the case for further consideration of the officers’ qualified immunity claims.
Government officials performing discretionary functions are shielded from liability for civil damages unless their conduct violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable official would have known, according to the court. In applying a two-part analysis of whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, the court looked at (1) whether the facts demonstrated that the officers’ conduct violated a constitutional or statutory right and (2) whether the asserted constitutional or statutory right was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct.
Constitutional claims. The court found that the Robbins’ claims did not give rise to a violation of substantive due process because the protection applies to “state actions that threaten to deprive persons of the right to pursue their chose occupation.” State actions that exclude a person from one particular job are not actionable. The Robbins also could not establish a violation of their Equal Protection rights. The record showed that the officers were clearly exercising their discretionary decision making duties and not motivated by maliciousness in deciding which towing company to call. Moreover, the plaintiffs failed to present evidence that any other towing company was treated differently from I-44.
Sherman Act. To establish a claim under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, a plaintiff must show: (1) the existence of a conspiracy; (2) the agreement unreasonably restrained trade under either a per se rule of illegality or rule of reason analysis; and (3) the restraint affected interstate commerce, the court stated. In the case, there was no liability for an alleged conspiracy since the officers are members with the same entity and they could not conspire among themselves. Regarding the claim under Section 2, the alleged anti-competitive conduct must lack a legitimate business purpose and does not extend to the exercise of business judgment. The Robbins failed to show that the officers acted with the requisite intent in view of the officers’ evidence that the decision to call a certain towing company was based on numerous legitimate purposes, such as the nature and location of the accident and the need to quickly clear blocked roadways. Since the Robbins established no violation of a constitutional or statutory right, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on their federal claims, the court concluded.
The case is No. 4:10CV1552 HEA.
Attorneys: Brandy B. Barth (Pleban and Petruska Law, LLC) for Mark Robbins, Gail Robbins, I-44 Truck Center and Wrecker Service LLC and I-44 Wrecker Service, LLC. Doug Leyshock, Attorney General, for Randy Becker, Sr.
Companies: I-44 Truck Center and Wrecker Service, LLC; I-44 Wrecker Service, LLC
MainStory: TopStory Antitrust MissouriNews
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