405 U.S. 596 (1972), 70-82, United States v. Topco Associates, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 70-82
Citation:405 U.S. 596, 92 S.Ct. 1126, 31 L.Ed.2d 515
Party Name:United States v. Topco Associates, Inc.
Case Date:March 29, 1972
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 596

405 U.S. 596 (1972)

92 S.Ct. 1126, 31 L.Ed.2d 515

United States


Topco Associates, Inc.

No. 70-82

United States Supreme Court

March 29, 1972

Argued November 16, 1971




The United States brought this injunction action charging a violation of [92 S.Ct. 1128] § 1 of the Sherman Act by appellee, Topco, a cooperative association of about 25 small and medium-sized independent regional supermarket chains operating in 33 States. As its members' purchasing agent, appellee procures more than 1,000 different items, most of which have brand names owned by Topco. The members' combined retail sales in 1967 were 2.3 billion, exceeded by only three national grocery chains. A member's average market share in its area is about 6%, and its competitive position is frequently as strong as that of any other chain. The members own equal amounts of Topco's common stock (the voting stock), choose its directors, and completely control the association's operations. Topco's bylaws establish an "exclusive" category of territorial licenses, under which most members' licenses are issued, and the two other membership categories have proved to be de facto exclusive. Since no member under this system may sell Topco brand products outside the territory in which it is licensed, expansion into another member's territory is, in practice, permitted only with the other member's consent, and, since a member, in effect, has a veto power over admission of a new member, members can control actual or potential competition in the territorial areas in which they are concerned. Topco members are prohibited from selling any products supplied by the association at wholesale, whether trademarked or not, without securing special permission, which is not granted without the consent of other interested licensees (usually retailers), and then the member must agree to restrict Topco product sales to a specific area, and under certain conditions. The Government charged that Topco's scheme of dividing markets violates the Sherman Act because it operates to prohibit competition in Topco brand products among retail grocery chains, and also challenged Topco's restrictions on wholesaling. Topco contended that it needs territorial divisions to maintain its private label program and to enable it to compete with the larger chains; that the association could not exist if the territorial divisions were not exclusive; and that the restrictions on competition in Topco brand sales enable members to meet larger chain competition.

Page 597

The District Court, agreeing with Topco, upheld the restrictive practices a reasonable and pro-competitive.

Held: The Topco scheme of allocating territories to minimize competition at the retail level is a horizontal restraint constituting a per se violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act, and the District Court erred in applying a rule of reason to the restrictive practices here involved. United States v. Sealy Inc., 388 U.S. 350. Topco's limitations upon reselling at wholesale are for the same reason per se invalid under § 1. Pp. 606-612.

319 F.Supp. 1031, reversed and remanded.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN STEWART, and WHITE, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 612. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 613. POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States brought this action for injunctive relief against alleged violation by Topco Associates, Inc. (Topco) of § 1 of the Sherman Act, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 1. Jurisdiction was grounded in § 4 of the Act, 15 U.S.C. § 4. Following a trial on the merits, the United States District Court for the Northern [92 S.Ct. 1127] District of Illinois entered judgment for Topco, 319 F.Supp. 1031, and the United States appealed directly to this Court pursuant to § 2 of the Expediting Act, 32 Stat. 823, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 29. We noted probable jurisdiction, 402 U.S. 905 (1971), and we now reverse the judgment of the District Court.

Page 598


Topco is a cooperative association of approximately 25 small and medium-sized regional supermarket chains that operate [92 S.Ct. 1129] stores in some 33 States.1 Each of the member chains operates independently; there is no pooling of earnings, profits, capital, management, or advertising resources. No grocery business is conducted under the Topco name. Its basic function is to serve as a purchasing agent for its members.2 In this capacity, it procures and distributes to the members more than 1,000 different food and related nonfood items, most of which are distributed under brand names owned by Topco. The association does not itself own any manufacturing, processing, or warehousing facilities, and the items that it procures for members are usually shipped directly from the packer or manufacturer to the members. Payment is made either to Topco or directly to the manufacturer at a cost that is virtually the same for the members as for Topco itself.

All of the stock in Topco is owned by the members, with the common stock, the only stock having voting rights, being equally distributed. The board of directors, which controls the operation of the association, is drawn from the members, and is normally composed of high-ranking executive officers of member chains. It is the board that elects the association's officers and appoints

Page 599

committee members, and it is from the board that the principal executive officers of Topco must be drawn. Restrictions on the alienation of stock and the procedure for selecting all important officials of the association from within the ranks of its members give the members complete and unfettered control over the operations of the association.

Topco was founded in the 1940's by a group of small, local grocery chains, independently owned and operated, that desired to cooperate to obtain high quality merchandise under private labels in order to compete more effectively with larger national and regional chains.3 With a line of canned, dairy, and other products, the

Page 600

association began. It added frozen foods in 1950, fresh produce in 1958, more general merchandise equipment and supplies in 1960, and a branded bacon and carcass beef selection program in 1966. By 1964, Topco's members had combined retail sales of more than $2 [92 S.Ct. 1130] billion; by 1967, their sales totaled more than $2.3 billion, a figure exceeded by only three national grocery chains.4

Members of the association vary in the degree of market share that they possess in their respective areas. The range is from 1.5% to 16%, with the average being approximately 6%. While it is difficult to compare these figures with the market shares of larger regional and national chains because of the absence in the record of accurate statistics for these chains, there is much evidence in the record that Topco members are frequently in as strong a competitive position in their respective areas as any other chain. The strength of this competitive position is due, in some measure, to the success of Topco brand products. Although only 10% of the total goods sold by Topco members bear the association's brand names, the profit on thee goods is substantial, and their very existence has improved the competitive potential of Topco members with respect to other large and powerful chains.

It is apparent that, from meager beginnings approximately a quarter of a century ago, Topco has developed into a purchasing association wholly owned and operated by member chains, which possess much economic muscle, individually as well as cooperatively.


Section 1 of the Sherman Act provides, in relevant part:

Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of

Page 601

trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal. . . .

The United States charged that, beginning at least as early as 1960 and continuing up to the time that the complaint was filed, Topco had combined and conspired with its members to violate § 15 in two respects. First, the Government alleged that there existed:

a continuing agreement, understanding and concert of action among the coconspirator member firms acting through Topco, the substantial terms of which have been and are that each coconspirator member firm will sell Topco controlled brands only within the marketing territory allocated to it, and will refrain from selling Topco controlled brands outside such marketing territory.

The division of marketing territories to which the complaint refers consists of a number of practices by the association.

Article IX, § 2, of the Topco bylaws establishes three categories of territorial licenses that members may secure from the association:

(a) Exclusive -- An exclusive territory is one in which the member is licensed to sell all products bearing specified trademarks of the Association, to the exclusion of all other persons.

(b) Non-exclusive -- A non-exclusive territory is one in which a member is licensed to sell all products bearing specified trademarks of the Association, but not to the exclusion of others who may also be licensed to sell products bearing the same trademarks of the Association in the same territory.

(c) Coextensive -- A coextensive territory is one

Page 602

in which two (2) or more members are licensed to sell all products bearing specified trademarks of the Association to the exclusion of all other persons. . . .

When applying for membership, a chain must designate the type of license that it desires. Membership must first be approved by the board of directors, and thereafter by an...

To continue reading