On April 29, 2013, the Supreme Court declined to review a decision that had created uncertainty as to when a manufacturer’s customer loyalty program may violate antitrust laws. Most circuits considering the issue have found that companies can use loyalty programs or long-term agreements, as long as the rebates do not price the product below cost. The Third Circuit, however, found that a manufacturer’s customer loyalty program amounted to an unlawful “de facto exclusive dealing contract,” despite the above-cost price of the product. The Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Third Circuit opinion to stand raises many questions as to when manufacturers may use incentive programs and which legal standard will be used to analyze these agreements. Regardless of where a company is located, if the company’s products are sold within the Third Circuit (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands), then that company may be impacted by this decision.
The case of ZF Meritor, LLC v. Eaton Corp., 696 F.3d 254 (3d Cir. 2012) cert. denied, ___ U.S. __, 2013 WL 673880 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2013), involved two manufacturers of heavy-duty truck transmissions. The defendant, a leading supplier of these transmissions in North America, signed long-term agreements with its customers. Those agreements provided incentives to its customers, offering rebates to those who purchased a specified percentage of their parts from the defendant manufacturer. The plaintiff, a competitor in the heavy-duty transmission market, brought suit, claiming that the defendant's long-term agreements constituted illegal exclusive dealing contracts. After trial, a jury found that the agreements stifled competition and violated antitrust laws. The defendant sought to overturn the jury verdict, arguing that its agreements were lawful, because it priced its transmissions above cost. The U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware upheld the jury verdict, however, finding that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that defendant's conduct unlawfully foreclosed competition. Defendant appealed to the Third Circuit.
On appeal, the defendant urged the Third Circuit to follow the First, Second, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits, which apply a “price-cost test” when analyzing long-term agreements which offer above-cost rebates. Under the “price-cost test,” a company is not engaging in anticompetitive conduct if it prices its products above cost. Instead, the Third Circuit applied the “rule of reason” test and found that the customer loyalty program constituted a “de facto exclusive dealing arrangement.” Under the rule of reason, “exclusive dealing arrangements can exclude equally efficient (or potentially equally efficient) rivals, and thereby harm competition, irrespective of below-cost pricing.” Therefore, the Third Circuit upheld the District Court jury verdict, stating that defendant's “conduct unlawfully foreclosed a substantial share of the HD transmission market, which would otherwise have been available for rivals.” The defendant then appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, allowing the Third Circuit’s decision to stand.
In refusing to consider the Third Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court has failed to resolve a conflict in the circuits as to how long-term agreements containing rebates or other incentives will be analyzed by the courts. This conflict removes the predictability of a single “price-cost” standard applied across all circuits and creates uncertainty for manufacturers who wish to offer loyalty programs to their customers. In the future, manufacturers hoping to offer such programs may want to ensure that their agreements can withstand both the price-cost test and rule of reason analysis.