Continental Inc v. Gte Sylvania Incorporated

Decision Date23 June 1977
Docket NumberNo. 76-15,76-15
Citation433 U.S. 36,97 S.Ct. 2549,53 L.Ed.2d 568
PartiesCONTINENTAL T. V., INC., et al., Petitioners, v. GTE SYLVANIA INCORPORATED
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

In an attempt to improve its market position by attracting more aggressive and competent retailers, respondent manufacturer of television sets limited the number of retail franchises granted for any given area and required each franchisee to sell respondent's products only from the location or locations at which it was franchised. Petitioner Continental, one of respondent's franchised retailers, claimed that respondent had violated § 1 of the Sherman Act by entering into and enforcing franchise agreements that prohibited the sale of respondent's products other than from specified locations. The District Court rejected respondent's requested jury instruction that the location restriction was illegal only if it unreasonably restrained or suppressed competition. Instead, relying on United States v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co., 388 U.S. 365, 87 S.Ct. 1856, 18 L.Ed.2d 1249, the District Court instructed the jury that it was a per se violation of § 1 if respondent entered into a contract, combination, or conspiracy with one or more of its retailers, pursuant to which it attempted to restrict the locations from which the retailers resold the merchandise they had purchased from respondent. The jury found that the location restriction violated § 1, and treble damages were assessed against respondent. Concluding that Schwinn was distinguishable, the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that respondent's location restriction had less potential for competitive harm than the restrictions invalidated in Schwinn and thus should be judged under the "rule of reason." Held:

1. The statement of the per se rule in Schwinn is broad enough to cover the location restriction used by respondent. And the retail-customer restriction in Schwinn is functionally indistinguishable from the location restriction here, the restrictions in both cases limiting the retailer's freedom to dispose of the purchased products and reducing, but not eliminating, intrabrand competition. Pp. 42-47.

2. The justification and standard for the creation of per se rules was stated in Northern Pac. R. Co. v. United States, 356 U.S. 1, 5, 78 S.Ct. 514, 518, 2 L.Ed.2d 545: "There are certain agreements or practices which because of their pernicious effect on competition and lack of any redeeming virtue are conclusively presumed to be unreasonable and therefore illegal without elaborate inquiry as to the precise harm they have caused or the business excuse for their use." Under this standard, there is no justification for the distinction drawn in Schwinn between restrictions imposed in sale and nonsale transactions. Similarly, the facts of this case do not present a situation justifying a per se rule. Accordingly, the per se rule stated in Schwinn is overruled, and the location restriction used by respondent should be judged under the traditional rule-of-reason standard. Pp. 47-59.

537 F.2d 980, affirmed.

Glenn E. Miller, San Jose, Cal., for petitioners.

M. Laurence Popofsky, San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Franchise agreements between manufacturers and retailers frequently include provisions barring the retailers from selling franchised products from locations other than those specified in the agreements. This case presents important questions concerning the appropriate antitrust analysis of these restrictions under § 1 of the Sherman Act, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 1, and the Court's decision in United States v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co., 388 U.S. 365, 87 S.Ct. 1856, 18 L.Ed.2d 1249 (1967).

I

Respondent GTE Sylvania Inc. (Sylvania) manufactures and sells television sets through its Home Entertainment Products Division. Prior to 1962, like most other television manufacturers, Sylvania sold its televisions to independent or company-owned distributors who in turn resold to a large and diverse group of retailers. Prompted by a decline in its market share to a relatively insignificant 1% to 2% of national television sales,1 Sylvania conducted an intensive reassessment of its marketing strategy, and in 1962 adopted the franchise plan challenged here. Sylvania phased out its wholesale distributors and began to sell its televisions directly to a smaller and more select group of franchised retailers. An acknowledged purpose of the change was to decrease the number of competing Sylvania retailers in the hope of attracting the more aggressive and competent retailers thought necessary to the improvement of the company's market position.2 To this end, Sylvania limited the number of franchises granted for any given area and required each franchisee to sell his Sylvania products only from the location or locations at which he was franchised.3 A franchise did not constitute an exclusive territory, and Sylvania retained sole discretion to increase the number of retailers in an area in light of the success or failure of existing retailers in developing their market. The revised marketing strategy appears to have been successful during the period at issue here, for by 1965 Sylvania's share of national television sales had increased to approximately 5%, and the company ranked as the Nation's eighth largest manufacturer of color television sets.

This suit is the result of the rupture of a franchiser-franchisee relationship that had previously prospered under the revised Sylvania plan. Dissatisfied with its sales in the city of San Francisco,4 Sylvania decided in the spring of 1965 to franchise Young Brothers, an established San Francisco retailer of televisions, as an additional San Francisco retailer. The proposed location of the new franchise was approximately a mile from a retail outlet operated by petitioner Continental T. V., Inc. (Continental), one of the most successful Sylvania franchisees.5 Continental protested that the location of the new franchise violated Sylvania's marketing policy, but Sylvania persisted in its plans. Continental then canceled a large Sylvania order and placed a large order with Phillips, one of Sylvania's competitors.

During this same period, Continental expressed a desire to open a store in Sacramento, Cal., a desire Sylvania attributed at least in part to Continental's displeasure over the Young Brothers decision. Sylvania believed that the Sacramento market was adequately served by the existing Sylvania retailers and denied the request.6 In the face of this denial, Continental advised Sylvania in early September 1965, that it was in the process of moving Sylvania merchandise from its San Jose, Cal., warehouse to a new retail location that it had leased in Sacramento. Two weeks later, allegedly for unrelated reasons, Sylvania's credit department reduced Continental' s credit line from $300,000 to $50,000.7 In response to the reduction in credit and the generally deteriorating relations with Sylvania, Continental withheld all payments owed to John P. Maguire & Co., Inc. (Maguire), the finance company that handled the credit arrangements between Sylvania and its retailers. Shortly thereafter, Sylvania terminated Continental's franchises, and Maguire filed this diversity action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California seeking recovery of money owed and of secured merchandise held by Continental.

The antitrust issues before us originated in cross-claims brought by Continental against Sylvania and Maguire. Most important for our purposes was the claim that Sylvania had violated § 1 of the Sherman Act by entering into and enforcing franchise agreements that prohibited the sale of Sylvania products other than from specified locations.8 At the close of evidence in the jury trial of Continental's claims, Sylvania requested the District Court to instruct the jury that its location restriction was illegal only if it unreasonably restrained or suppressed competition. App. 5-6, 9-15. Relying on this Court's decision in United States v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co., supra, the District Court rejected the proffered instruction in favor of the following one:

"Therefore, if you find by a preponderance of the evidence that Sylvania entered into a contract, combination or conspiracy with one or more of its dealers pursuant to which Sylvania exercised dominion or control over the products sold to the dealer, after having parted with title and risk to the products, you must find any effort thereafter to restrict outlets or store locations from which its dealers resold the merchandise which they had purchased from Sylvania to be a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, regardless of the reasonableness of the location restrictions." App. 492.

In answers to special interrogatories, the jury found that Sylvania had engaged "in a contract, combination or conspiracy in restraint of trade in violation of the antitrust laws with respect to location restrictions alone," and assessed Continental's damages at $591,505, which was trebled pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 15 to produce an award of.$1,774,515. App. 498, 501.9

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed by a divided vote. 537 F.2d 980 (1976). The court acknowledged that there is language in Schwinn that could be read to support the District Court's instruction but concluded that Schwinn was distinguishable on several grounds. Contrasting the nature of the restrictions, their competitive impact, and the market shares of the franchisers in the two cases, the court concluded that Sylvania's location restriction had less potential for competitive harm than the restrictions invalidated in Schwinn and thus should be judged under the "rule of reason" rather than the per se rule stated in Schwinn. The court found support for its position in the policies of the Sherman Act and in the decisions of other federal...

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