442 U.S. 330 (1979), 78-690, Reiter v. Sonotone Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 78-690
Citation:442 U.S. 330, 99 S.Ct. 2326, 60 L.Ed.2d 931
Party Name:Reiter v. Sonotone Corp.
Case Date:June 11, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 330

442 U.S. 330 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 2326, 60 L.Ed.2d 931

Reiter

v.

Sonotone Corp.

No. 78-690

United States Supreme Court

June 11, 1979

Argued April 25, 1979

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner brought a class action on behalf of herself and all persons in the United States who purchased hearing aids manufactured by respondents, alleging that, because of antitrust violations committed by respondents, she and the class she seeks to represent have been forced to pay illegally fixed higher prices for the hearing aids and related services they purchased from respondents' retail dealers. Treble damages were sought under § 4 of the Clayton Act, which provides that "[a]ny person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws" may bring suit and recover treble damages. Respondents moved to dismiss the damages claim on the ground that petitioner had not been injured in her "business or property" within the meaning of § 4. The District Court held that, under § 4, a retail purchaser is injured [99 S.Ct. 2328] in "property" if it can be shown that antitrust violations caused an increase in the price paid for the article purchased; however, it certified the question to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that retail purchasers of consumer goods and services who allege no injury of a commercial or business nature are not injured in their "business or property" within the meaning of § 4, and that the phrase "business or property" was intended to limit standing to those engaged in commercial ventures.

Held: Consumers who pay a higher price for goods purchased for personal use as a result of antitrust violations sustain an injury in their "property" within the meaning of § 4. Pp. 337-345.

(a) Statutory construction must begin with the language employed by Congress. The word "property" has a naturally broad and inclusive meaning comprehending, in common usage, anything of material value owned or possessed. Congress' use of the disjunctive "or" in the phrase "business or property" indicates "business" was not intended to modify "property," nor was "property" intended to modify "business." Giving the word "property" the independent significance to which it is entitled in this context does not destroy the restrictive significance of the phrase "business or property" as a whole. Pp. 337-339.

(b) Monetary injury, standing alone, may be injury in one's "property" within the meaning of § 4. Chattanooga Foundry & Pipe Works

Page 331

v. Atlanta, 203 U.S. 390. Thus, the fact that petitioner was deprived of only money is no reason to conclude that she did not sustain a "property" injury. Pp. 339-340.

(c) Nor does petitioner's status as a "consumer" who purchased goods at retail for personal use change the nature of the injury she suffered or the intrinsic meaning of "property" in § 4. Pp. 340-342.

(d) The legislative history reflects that the treble damages remedy was designed to protect consumers, and that no one questioned the right of consumers to sue under § 4. Thus, to the extent that § 4's legislative history is relevant, it also supports the conclusion that a consumer deprived of money by reason of anticompetitive conduct is injured in "property" within the meaning of § 4. Pp. 342-344.

(e) The fact that allowing class actions such as this may add a significant burden to the federal courts' already overcrowded dockets is an important, but not a controlling, consideration, since Congress created the § 4 treble damages remedy precisely for the purpose of encouraging private challenges to antitrust violations. P. 344.

(f) Respondents' arguments that the cost of defending consumer class actions will have a potentially ruinous effect on small businesses in particular, and will ultimately be paid by consumers, are policy considerations more properly addressed to Congress than to this Court; in any event, they cannot govern the reading of the plain language of § 4. Pp. 344-345.

579 F.2d 1077, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except BRENNAN, J., who took no part in the decision of the case. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 345.

Page 334

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether consumers who pay a higher price for goods purchased for personal use as a result of antitrust violations sustain an injury in their "business or property" within the meaning of § 4 of the Clayton Act, 38 Stat. 731, 15 U.S. C § 15.

Page 335

I

Petitioner brought a class action on behalf of herself and all persons in the United States who purchased hearing aids manufactured by five corporations, respondents here. Her complaint alleges that respondents have committed a variety of antitrust violations, including vertical and horizontal price fixing.1 Because of these violations, the complaint alleges, petitioner and the class of persons she seeks to represent have been forced to pay illegally fixed higher prices for the hearing aids and related services they purchased from respondents' retail dealers. Treble damages and injunctive relief are sought under §§ 4 and 16 of the Clayton Act, 38 Stat. 731, 737, as amended, 15 U.S.C. §§ 15 and 26.

Respondents moved for dismissal of the complaint or summary judgment in the District Court. Among other things, respondents argued that Reiter, as a retail purchaser of hearing aids for personal use, lacked standing to sue for treble damages under § 4 of the Clayton Act because she had not been injured in her "business or property" within the meaning of the Act.

The District Court held that, under § 4, a retail purchaser is injured in "property" if the purchaser can show that antitrust violations caused an increase in the price paid for the article purchased. The District Court relied on Chattanooga Foundry & Pipe Works v. Atlanta, 203 U.S. 390, 396 (1906), and the legislative history of the Clayton Act set forth in Brunswick Corp. v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat Inc., 429 U.S. 477,

Page 336

486 n. 10 (1977), indicating that Congress intended to give a § 4 remedy to consumers. 435 F.Supp. 933, 935-938 (Minn. 1977).

The District Court determined, however, that the respondents had raised a "controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion," id. at 938, and accordingly certified the question for interlocutory review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). It then stayed further proceedings in the case and declined to express any opinion on the merits of the other issues raised by respondents' motions or on the certifiability of the class.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that retail purchasers of consumer goods and services who allege no injury of a commercial or business nature are not injured in their "business or property" within the meaning of § 4. 579 F.2d 1077 (CA8 1978). Noting the absence of any holdings on this precise issue by this Court or other courts of appeals, the court reasoned that the phrase "business or property" was intended to limit standing to those engaged in commercial ventures. It relied on the legislative history and this Court's statement in Hawaii v. Standard Oil Co., 405 U.S. 251, 264 (1972), that "business or property" referred to "commercial interests or enterprises." A contrary holding, the Court of Appeals observed, would add a substantial volume of litigation to the already strained dockets of the federal courts, and could be used to exact unfair settlements from retail businesses. Small and medium-sized retailers would be especially hard hit by "gigantic consumer class actions," and granting standing to retail consumers might actually have an anticompetitive impact as a consequence. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals thought

it sensible as a matter of policy and compelled as a matter of law that consumers alleging no injury of a commercial or competitive nature are not injured in their property under section 4 of the Clayton Act.

579 F.2d at 1087.

Page 337

We [99 S.Ct. 2330] granted certiorari, 439 U.S. 1065 (1979).2 We reverse.3

II

As is true in every case involving the construction of a statute, our starting point must be the language employed by Congress. Section 4 of the Clayton Act, 38 Stat. 731, provides:

Any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue therefor in any district court of the United States . . . without respect to the amount in controversy, and shall recover threefold the damages by him sustained, and the cost of suit, including a reasonable attorney's fee.

15 U.S.C. § 15 (emphasis added).

On its face, § 4 contains little in the way of restrictive language. In Pfizer Inc. v. Government of India, 434 U.S. 308 (1978), we remarked:

"The Act is comprehensive in its terms and coverage, protecting all who are made victims of the forbidden practices

Page 338

by whomever they may be perpetrated." Mandeville Island Farms, Inc. v. American Crystal Sugar Co., 334 U.S. 219, 236; cf. Perma Life Mufflers, Inc. v. International Parts Corp., 392 U.S. 134, 138-139. And the legislative history of the Sherman Act demonstrates that Congress used the phrase "any person" intending it to have its naturally broad and inclusive meaning. There was no mention in the floor debates of any more restrictive definition.

Id. at 312.

Similarly here, the word "property" has a naturally broad and inclusive meaning. In its dictionary definitions and in common usage "property" comprehends anything of material value owned or possessed. See, e.g., Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1818 (1961). Money, of course, is a form of property.

Respondents protest that, if the reference to "property" in § 4...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP