[Originally posted at Gayton Law Blog, April 1, 2015]
The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recent Supreme Court victory in the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners (NCSB or Board) case brought together in common cause both economic libertarians and federal antitrust regulators — groups often at odds with each other respecting important philosophical and policy principles. The FTC’s win, however, gave both groups much reason to celebrate.
The question before the Court was whether unilateral anticompetitive actions of the NCSB, a state-created body, were immune from antitrust law under the “state action” doctrine. The state action doctrine arises from Parker v. Brown, a 1943 Supreme Court decision that sought to reconcile the Sherman Antitrust Act with the constitutional principle of federalism. Federalism is the idea that the U.S. Constitution recognizes both national and state government sovereignty by giving certain limited powers to the national government but reserving other powers to the individual states.
Because the Constitution is the highest law and therefore always trumps statutes, the Court carved out immunity from the Sherman Act for anticompetitive actions of states acting in their sovereign capacity, which includes regulating private actors in a way that restricts competition. In 1980 the Court extended this carve out to include the anticompetitive actions of non-sovereign bodies upon a showing that the actions were the result of clearly articulated state policy and were actively supervised by the state. (See, Cal. Liquor Dealers v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc.) The active supervision requirement ensures that the anticompetitive consequences are only those that the state has deliberately chosen to tolerate in exchange for other public policy goals.
The NCSB was established by the North Carolina Dental Act to be “the agency of the State for the regulation of the practice of dentistry.” In that capacity, the NCSB has authority to administer the licensing of dentists and to file suit to enjoin the unlawful practice of dentistry. Starting in 2006, the NCSB began to send strongly worded cease and desist letters to non-dentist providers of teeth whitening services. People in this occupation grew in numbers in North Carolina – as well as other states — as the popularity of these services increased over a period of years. Often the non-dentist providers are simply individual entrepreneurs operating out of kiosks in shopping malls and similar venues. Licensed dentists also provide teeth whitening services, but typically at substantially higher fees.
Significantly, the N.C. Dental Act is silent with respect to whether teeth whitening constitutes the practice of dentistry. Nonetheless, the NCSB determined that it was, though without hearing or comment and without any independent confirmation by any other state official. In so doing, the Board found that the non-dentists were unlawfully practicing dentistry. Instead of obtaining a judicial order to enjoin the non-dentists as prescribed by statute, however, the NCSB sent out cease and desist letters, which contained strong language including a warning that the non-dentist teeth whiteners were engaging in a criminal act. The letters effectively stopped the provision of teeth whitening services by non-dentists.
In 2010 the FTC sued the Board on antitrust grounds. In response, the NCSB asserted that it was entitled to immunity under the state action doctrine. The FTC rejected that claim and in an administrative hearing ruled that the cease and desist letters constituted unlawful concerted action to exclude non-dentist teeth whiteners from the North Carolina market for such services. The FTC further found that that this exclusion resulted in actual anticompetitive effects in the form of less consumer choice and higher prices. The Commission then ordered the NCSB to stop issuing cease and desist letters to non-dentist providers of teeth whitening services without first obtaining a judicial order.
Key to the FTC’s antitrust finding was that, under the N.C. Dental Act, the majority of NCSB members must be practicing dentists elected to the Board by the community of N.C. licensed dentists. Moreover, throughout the relevant period, most, if not all, of the dentist members of the NCSB performed teeth whitening in their respective practices. In addition, the Board’s actions came after it received several complaints from licensed dentists about the competition from non-dentists teeth whiteners and the lower fees that these providers charged. Only a few dentists suggested that teeth whitening by non-dentists might be harmful to customers. The FTC found the validity of such public health claims tenuous.
The NCSB appealed the FTC’s rejection of its state action defense. The appeal reached the Supreme Court in 2014, and in an opinion handed down last February, the Court held that, under the record facts, the NCSB does not have antitrust immunity. In reaching this conclusion, the Court found that, although the NCSB is a creature of the state and could properly be labeled a state agency, it is nonetheless a non-sovereign body and thus subject to the active supervision requirement for antitrust immunity to obtain. This requirement was not satisfied. (Not at issue was whether the state had a clearly articulated policy to regulate the practice of dentistry. All parties stipulated to this factor.)
The Court’s finding that the NCSB is a non-sovereign body is the key to the decision, and rightly focuses on substance over form. In particular, the Court focused on the fact that the NCSB is majority-controlled by active market participants and that its decisions in this case were unsupervised by any state government officials. Given these circumstances, the Court found there to be a high risk that Board decisions were and are influenced by self-interest instead of public welfare. When this risk is present, it trumps any formal label given by a state to a regulatory body. The Court specifically held that a “state board on which a controlling number of decision makers are active market participants in the occupation the board regulates must satisfy [the] active supervision requirement in order to invoke state action antitrust immunity.”
The practical result of this holding is that the FTC’s finding of illegal anticompetitive conduct stands. This outcome will no doubt yield important benefits to North Carolina citizens. Teeth whitening entrepreneurs can seek to re-enter the market, and consumers of those services will enjoy lower fees resulting from the increased competition. These will be tangible, observable benefits.
Critically, however, the Court’s holding also has important legal and policy implications beyond North Carolina. States will have to re-evaluate their regulatory boards and account for the fact that giving unsupervised control over who is qualified to compete to boards comprised of members whose incomes depend on those decisions may not produce good outcomes. Going forward, states must give greater care not only to establishing such boards, but also to overseeing their decisions. Decisions made behind merely the facade of a state-created agency will be insufficient for a board to obtain state action immunity.
Additionally, the Court’s holding recognizes that license requirements that do not rest on firm evidence of a risk to public health absent licensure serve not only to protect incumbents from healthy competition, but unnecessarily infringe on basic economic liberty and the right to earn a living. As such, the holding implicitly elevates economic liberty to a position as prominent as the antitrust concern. In so doing, the holding is an important victory for economic libertarians, just as it is for antitrust enforcers. It is a rare example of an instance when groups with economic philosophies that often diverge can come together in common celebration. A great win for both.
Theodore A. Gebhard advises attorneys on the effective use and rebuttal of economic and econometric evidence in advocacy proceedings. He is a former Justice Department antitrust economist, Federal Trade Commission attorney, private practitioner, and economics professor. Mr. Gebhard holds an economics Ph.D. as well as a J.D. Nothing in this article is purported to be legal advice. Facts or circumstances described in the article may have changed by the time of posting. You can contact the author via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.