National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, No. 76-1767

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSTEVENS
Citation435 U.S. 679,5 L.Ed.2d 637,98 S.Ct. 1355
Docket NumberNo. 76-1767
Decision Date25 April 1978
PartiesNATIONAL SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES

435 U.S. 679
98 S.Ct. 1355
5 L.Ed.2d 637
NATIONAL SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES.

No. 76-1767.
Argued Jan. 18, 1978.
Decided April 25, 1978.
Syllabus

The United States brought this civil antitrust suit against petitioner, the National Society of Professional Engineers, alleging that petitioner's canon of ethics 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, 69 S.Ct. 684, 691, 93 L.Ed. 834, 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.

Lee Loevinger, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Howard E. Shapiro, Washington, D. C., for respondent.

Page 681

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, 98 S.Ct. 51, 54 L.Ed.2d 70. 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 he 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 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, at 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 in issue. In that defense, the Society averred that the standard set out in the Code of Ethics was reasonable because competition among professional engineers was contrary to the public interest. It was averred that it would be cheaper and easier for an engineer "to design and specify inefficient and unnecessarily expensive structures and

Page 685

methods of construction." 7 Accordingly, competitive pressure to offer engineering services at the lowest possible price would adversely...

To continue reading

Request your trial
784 practice notes
  • Justice Department, Antitrust Division,
    • United States
    • Federal Register March 18, 2002
    • March 18, 2002
    ...restore competitive conditions in the market affected by Microsoft's unlawful conduct. See Nat'l Soc'y of Prof'l Eng'rs v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 697 (1978); United States v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 366 U.S. 316, 326 (1961). The RPFJ accomplishes these goals. By contrast, p......
  • United States v. Microsoft Corporation, Civil Action No. 98-1232 (TPJ) (D. D.C. 9/14/1998), Civil Action No. 98-1232 (TPJ).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 14, 1998
    ...competitors' output more than they further Microsoft's legitimate objectives, see, e.g., National Soc'y of Prof'l Eng'rs v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 691 (1978); American Ad Management, Inc. v. GTE Corp., 92 F.3d 781, 791 (9th Cir. 1996), or if Microsoft's objectives could be achieved by......
  • Pontius v. Children's Hosp., Civ. A. No. 78-987.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • December 30, 1982
    ...commerce, which is a result that Congress certainly did not intend. National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 687-88, 98 S.Ct. 1355, 1363, 55 L.Ed.2d 637 (1978). Therefore, the United States Supreme Court has employed a "rule of reason" standard when evaluat......
  • McCourt v. California Sports, Inc., Nos. 78-1462
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • June 27, 1979
    ...v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 433 U.S. 36, 97 S.Ct. 2549, 53 L.Ed.2d 568 (1977); National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 98 S.Ct. 1355, 55 L.Ed.2d 637 Appellants' defense of 9A is cast principally in public policy argument. It runs: Star players like McCourt prod......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
742 cases
  • United States v. Microsoft Corporation, Civil Action No. 98-1232 (TPJ) (D. D.C. 9/14/1998), Civil Action No. 98-1232 (TPJ).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 14, 1998
    ...competitors' output more than they further Microsoft's legitimate objectives, see, e.g., National Soc'y of Prof'l Eng'rs v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 691 (1978); American Ad Management, Inc. v. GTE Corp., 92 F.3d 781, 791 (9th Cir. 1996), or if Microsoft's objectives could be achieved by......
  • Pontius v. Children's Hosp., Civ. A. No. 78-987.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • December 30, 1982
    ...commerce, which is a result that Congress certainly did not intend. National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 687-88, 98 S.Ct. 1355, 1363, 55 L.Ed.2d 637 (1978). Therefore, the United States Supreme Court has employed a "rule of reason" standard when evaluat......
  • McCourt v. California Sports, Inc., Nos. 78-1462
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • June 27, 1979
    ...v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 433 U.S. 36, 97 S.Ct. 2549, 53 L.Ed.2d 568 (1977); National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 98 S.Ct. 1355, 55 L.Ed.2d 637 Appellants' defense of 9A is cast principally in public policy argument. It runs: Star players like McCourt prod......
  • Solyndra Residual Trust v. Suntech Power Holdings Co., Case No: C 12–05272 SBA
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Northern District of California
    • March 31, 2014
    ...that no elaborate study of the industry is needed to establish their illegality.” Nat'l Soc. of Prof'l Eng'rs v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 692, 98 S.Ct. 1355, 55 L.Ed.2d 637 (1978). “Pricefixing agreements between two or more competitors, otherwise known as horizontal pricefixing agreeme......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 firm's commentaries
40 books & journal articles
  • Partial Price-Fixing and Semi-Collusion
    • United States
    • Antitrust Bulletin Nbr. 66-4, December 2021
    • December 1, 2021
    ...take on that character”).23. Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar, 421 U.S. 773 (1975).24. National Soc’y of Prof. Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 682 (1978).25. Jeffrey L. Harrison & Price Fixing, Professions, and Ancillary Restraints: Coping with Maricopa County, 1982 U. ILL.L.REV. 92......
  • ANTITRUST VIOLATIONS
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-3, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...that free competition among business entities will produce the best price levels.”); Nat’l Soc’y of Prof’l Eng’rs v. United States, 435 U.S. 679, 695 (1978) (“The Sherman Act ref‌lects a legislative judgment that ultimately competition will produce not only lower prices, but also better goo......
  • Identifying Anticompetitive Agreements in the United States and the European Union
    • United States
    • Antitrust Bulletin Nbr. 62-2, June 2017
    • June 1, 2017
    ...See note 65 supra and text.81. 441 U.S. 1 (1979).82. One year earlier, in National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States, 435 U.S. 679 (1978), the Supreme Courthad anticipated the characterization approach endorsed in BMI. The Court began its review of the professional society’......
  • DISAPPROVAL OF QUICK-LOOK APPROVAL: ANTITRUST AFTER NCAA v. ALSTON.
    • United States
    • Washington University Law Review Vol. 100 Nbr. 1, September 2022
    • September 1, 2022
    ...[section]1. (14.) Standard Oil Co. v. United States, 221 U.S. 1, 58-60 (1911). (15.) See Nat'l Soc'y of Pro. Eng'rs v. United States. 435 U.S. 679, 692 (1978) (explaining the "two complementary categories of antitrust (16.) N. Pac. Ry. Co. v. United States. 356 U.S. 1, 5 (1958). See also NY......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT