by Eric Caligiuri
IP Law Blog
In APPLE INC. v. PEPPER ET AL., case number 17-204, the United States Supreme Court considered a case alleging Apple has monopolized the retail market for the sale of apps and has unlawfully used its monopolistic power to charge consumers higher-than competitive prices. As an early defense in the case, Apple asserted that the consumer plaintiffs could not sue Apple because they supposedly were not “direct purchasers” from Apple under Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, 431 U. S. 720, 745–746 (1977). The Supreme Court disagreed, reasoning the plaintiffs purchased apps directly from Apple and therefore are direct purchasers under Illinois Brick. However, the Court did note that this case was still at the early pleadings stage of the litigation, so the Court did not assess the merits of the plaintiffs’ substantive antitrust claims against Apple, nor did the Court consider any other defenses Apple might have. In other words, the Court’s holding was limited to determining whether the Illinois Brick direct-purchaser rule barred these plaintiffs from suing Apple under the antitrust laws.
As some background on the matter, in 2007, Apple began selling iPhones, and in July 2008, Apple started the App Store. The App Store now contains about 2 million apps that iPhone owners can download. By contract and through technological limitations, the App Store is the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps. For the most part, Apple does not itself create apps. Rather, independent app developers create apps. Those independent app developers then contract with Apple to make the apps available to iPhone owners in the App Store. Through the App Store, Apple then sells the apps directly to iPhone owners. To sell an app in the App Store, app developers must pay Apple a $99 annual membership fee. Apple requires that the retail sales price end in $0.99, but otherwise allows the app developers to set the retail price. Apple also keeps 30 percent of the sales price, no matter what the sales price might be. In other words, Apple pockets a 30 percent commission on every app sale.
In response, in 2011, four iPhone owners sued Apple, alleging that Apple has unlawfully monopolized “the iPhone apps aftermarket.” The plaintiffs allege that, via the App Store, Apple locks iPhone owners “into buying apps only from Apple and paying Apple’s 30% fee, even if” the iPhone owners wish “to buy apps elsewhere or pay less.” Plaintiffs further allege that the 30 percent commission is “pure profit” for Apple and, in a competitive environment with other retailers, “Apple would be under considerable pressure to substantially lower its 30% profit margin.” The plaintiffs then allege that in a competitive market, they would be able to “choose between Apple’s high-priced App Store and less costly alternatives.” And they allege that they have “paid more for their iPhone apps than they would have paid in a competitive market.”
In response to the plaintiffs’ allegations, Apple moved to dismiss the complaint at the pleading stage, arguing that the iPhone owners were not direct purchasers from Apple and therefore may not sue. Apple cited the Illinois Brick case as authority, which held that direct purchasers may sue antitrust violators, but also ruled that indirect purchasers may not sue. The District Court agreed with Apple and dismissed the complaint. According to the District Court, the iPhone owners were not direct purchasers from Apple because the app developers, not Apple, set the consumers’ purchase price. The Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the iPhone owners were direct purchasers under Illinois Brick because the iPhone owners purchased apps directly from Apple. According to the Ninth Circuit, Illinois Brick means that a consumer may not sue an alleged monopolist who is two or more steps removed from the consumer in a vertical distribution chain. Here, however, the consumers purchased directly from Apple, the alleged monopolist. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held that the iPhone owners could sue Apple for allegedly monopolizing the sale of iPhone apps and charging higher than-competitive prices.
In then analyzing the issue, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under Illinois Brick, the iPhone owners were direct purchasers who may sue Apple for alleged monopolization, thus agreeing with the holding of the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court reasoned that Section 4 of the Clayton Act provides that “any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue.” That broad text readily covers consumers who purchase goods or services at higher-than-competitive prices from an allegedly monopolistic retailer. The Court also reasoned that it has previously held that “the immediate buyers from the alleged antitrust violators” may maintain a suit against the antitrust violators, but has also ruled that indirect purchasers who are two or more steps removed from the violator in a distribution chain may not sue.
Applying that reasoning here, and unlike the consumer in Illinois Brick, the iPhone owners are not consumers at the bottom of a vertical distribution chain who are attempting to sue manufacturers at the top of the chain. Thus, the Court determined the absence of an intermediary in the distribution chain between Apple and the consumer is dispositive.
Apple argued that Illinois Brick allows consumers to sue only the party who sets the retail price, whether or not the party sells the good or service directly to the complaining party. But the Court found three main problems with Apple’s argument. First, Apple argued it contradicts statutory text and precedent by requiring the Court to rewrite the rationale of Illinois Brick and to gut its longstanding bright-line rule. However, the Court reasoned any ambiguity in Illinois Brick should be resolved in the direction of the statutory text, which states that “any person” injured by an antitrust violation may sue to recover damages. Second, Apple’s theory is not persuasive economically or legally. It would draw an arbitrary and unprincipled line among retailers based on their financial arrangements with their manufacturers or suppliers. And it would permit a consumer to sue a monopolistic retailer when the retailer set the retail price by marking up the price it had paid the manufacturer or supplier for the good or service but not when the manufacturer or supplier set the retail price and the retailer took a commission on each sale. Third, Apple’s theory would provide a roadmap for monopolistic retailers to structure transactions with manufacturers or suppliers so as to evade antitrust claims by consumers and thereby thwart effective antitrust enforcement.
Next, contrary to Apple’s argument, the Court found the three Illinois Brick rationales for adopting the direct-purchaser rule cut strongly in plaintiffs’ favor. First, it promoted the longstanding goal of effective private enforcement and consumer protection in antitrust cases. Second, Illinois Brick should not be treated as a “get-out-of-court-free card” for monopolistic retailers to play any time that a damages calculation might be complicated. Third, this is a case where multiple parties at different levels of a distribution chain are trying to recover the same passed-through overcharge initially levied by the manufacturer at the top of the chain.
Therefore, in sum, the Court found Illinois Brick does not bar the consumers from suing Apple for Apple’s allegedly monopolistic conduct, and affirmed the judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. However, as noted above, this ruling only considered whether plaintiffs could proceed through the pleadings stage, and did not consider the full merits of the substantive antitrust claims against Apple.
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