435 U.S. 679 (1978), 76-1767, National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 76-1767
Citation:435 U.S. 679, 98 S.Ct. 1355, 55 L.Ed.2d 637
Party Name:National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States
Case Date:April 25, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 679

435 U.S. 679 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 1355, 55 L.Ed.2d 637

National Society of Professional Engineers

v.

United States

No. 76-1767

United States Supreme Court

April 25, 1978

Argued January 18, 1978

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The United States brought this civil antitrust suit against petitioner, the National Society of Professional Engineers, alleging that petitioner's canon of ethics [98 S.Ct. 1359] prohibiting its members from submitting competitive bids for engineering services suppressed competition in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. Petitioner defended on the ground, inter alia, that, under the Rule of Reason, the canon was justified because it was adopted by members of a learned profession for the purpose of minimizing the risk that competition would produce inferior engineering work endangering the public safety. The District Court, granting an injunction against the canon, rejected this justification, holding that the canon on its face violated § 1 of the Sherman Act, thus making it unnecessary to make findings on the likelihood that competition would produce the dire consequences envisaged by petitioner. The Court. of Appeals affirmed, although modifying the District Court's injunction in certain respects so that, as modified, it prohibits petitioner from adopting any official opinion, policy statement, or guideline stating or implying that competitive bidding is unethical.

Held:

1. On its face, the canon in question restrains trade within the meaning of § 1 of the Sherman Act, and the Rule of Reason, under which the proper inquiry is whether the challenged agreement is one that promotes, or one that suppresses, competition, does not support a defense based on the assumption that competition itself is unreasonable. Pp. 686-696.

(a) The canon amounts to an agreement among competitors to refuse to discuss prices with potential customers until after negotiations have resulted in the initial selection of an engineer, and, while it is not price-fixing as such, it operates as an absolute ban on competitive bidding, applying with equal force to both complicated and simple projects and to both inexperienced and sophisticated customers. Pp. 692-693.

(b) Petitioner's affirmative defense confirms rather than refutes the anticompetitive purpose and effect of its canon, and its attempt to justify, under the Rule of Reason, the restraint on competition imposed by the canon on the basis of the potential threat that competition poses

Page 680

to the public safety and the ethics of the engineering profession is nothing less than a frontal assault on the basic policy of the Sherman Act. Pp. 693-695.

(c) That engineers are often involved in large-scale projects significantly affecting the public safety does not justify any exception to the Sherman Act. Pp. 695-696.

(d) While ethical norms may serve to regulate and promote competition in professional services, and thus fall within the Rule of Reason, petitioner's argument here is a far cry from such a position; and, although competition may not be entirely conducive to ethical behavior, that is not a reason, cognizable under the Sherman Act, for doing away with competition. P. 696.

2. The District Court's injunction, as modified by the Court of Appeals, does not abridge First Amendment rights. Pp. 696-699.

(a) The First Amendment does not "make it . . . impossible ever to enforce laws against agreements in restraint of trade," Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U.S. 490, 502, and, although the District Court may consider the fact that its injunction may impinge upon rights that would otherwise be constitutionally protected, those protections do not prevent it from remedying the antitrust violations. Pp. 697-698.

(b) The standard against which the injunction must be judged is whether the relief represents a reasonable method of eliminating the consequences of the illegal conduct, and the injunction meets this standard. P. 698.

(c) If petitioner wishes to adopt some other ethical guideline more closely confined to the legitimate objective of preventing deceptively low bids, it may move the District Court to modify its injunction. Pp. 698-699.

181 U.S.App.D.C. 41, 555 F.2d 978, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and III of which BLACKMUN and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 699. BURGER, C.J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 701. BRENNAN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Page 681

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a civil antitrust case brought by the United States to nullify an association's canon of ethics prohibiting competitive bidding by its members. The question is whether the canon may be justified under the Sherman Act, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. (1976 ed.), because it was adopted by members of a learned profession for the purpose of minimizing the risk that competition would produce inferior engineering work endangering the public safety. The District Court rejected this justification without making any findings on the likelihood that competition would produce the dire consequences foreseen by the association.1 The Court of Appeals affirmed.2 We granted certiorari to decide whether the District Court should have considered the factual basis for the proffered justification before rejecting it. 434 U.S. 815. Because we are satisfied that the asserted defense rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Rule of Reason frequently applied in antitrust litigation, we affirm.

I

Engineering is an important and learned profession. There are over 750,000 graduate engineers in the United States, of whom about 325,000 are registered as professional engineers. Registration requirements vary from State to State, but usually require the applicant to be a graduate engineer with at least

Page 682

four years of practical experience and to pass a written examination. About half of those who are registered engage in consulting engineering on a fee basis. They perform services in connection with the study, design, and construction of all types of improvements to real property -- bridges, office buildings, airports, and factories are examples. Engineering fees, amounting to well over $2 billion each year, constitute about 5% of total construction costs. In any given facility, approximately 50% to 80% of the cost of construction is the direct result of work performed by an engineer concerning the systems and equipment to be incorporated in the structure.

The National Society of Professional Engineers (Society) was organized in 1935 to deal with the nontechnical aspects of engineering practice, including the promotion of the professional, social, and economic interests of its members. Its present membership of 69,000 resides throughout the United States and in some foreign countries. Approximately 12,000 members are consulting engineers who offer their services to governmental, industrial, and private clients. Some Society members are principals or chief executive officers of some of the largest engineering firms in the country.

The charges of a consulting engineer may be computed in different ways. He may charge the client a percentage of the cost of the project, may set his fee at his actual cost plus overhead plus a reasonable profit, may charge fixed rates per hour for different types of work, may perform an assignment for a specific sum, or he may combine one or more of these approaches. Suggested fee schedules for particular types of services in certain areas have been promulgated from time to time by various local societies. This case does not, however, involve any claim that the National Society has tried to fix specific fees, or even a [98 S.Ct. 1361] specific method of calculating fees. It involves a charge that the members of the Society have unlawfully agreed to refuse to negotiate or even to discuss the question of fees until after a prospective client has selected the

Page 683

engineer for a particular project. Evidence of this agreement is found in § 11(c) of the Society's Code of Ethics, adopted in July 1964.3

The District Court found that the Society's Board of Ethical Review has uniformly interpreted the

ethical rules against competitive bidding for engineering services as prohibiting the submission of any form of price information to a prospective customer which would enable that customer to make a price comparison on engineering services.4

If the client requires that such information be provided, then § 11(c) imposes an

Page 684

obligation upon the engineering firm to withdraw from consideration for that job. The Society's Code of Ethics thus "prohibits engineers from both soliciting and submitting such price information," 389 F.Supp. 1193, 1206 (DC 1974),5 and seeks to preserve the profession's "traditional" method of selecting professional engineers. Under the traditional method, the client initially selects an engineer on the basis of background and reputation, not price.6

In 1972, the Government filed its complaint against the Society alleging that members had agreed to abide by canons of ethics prohibiting the submission of competitive bids for engineering services and that, in consequence, price competition among the members had been suppressed and customers had been deprived of the benefits of free and open competition. The complaint prayed for an injunction terminating the unlawful agreement.

In its answer, the Society admitted the essential facts alleged by the Government and pleaded a series of affirmative defenses, only one of which remains...

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