United States v. United States Gypsum Company, No. 76-1560

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation98 S.Ct. 2864,438 U.S. 422,57 L.Ed.2d 854
Docket NumberNo. 76-1560
Decision Date29 June 1978

Several major gypsum board manufacturers and various of their officials were indicted for violations of § 1 of the Sherman Act by allegedly engaging in a price-fixing conspiracy. One of the types of actions allegedly taken in formulating and effectuating the conspiracy was interseller price verification, i. e., the practice of telephoning a competing manufacturer to determine the price being currently offered on gypsum board to a specific customer. After some of the defendants pleaded nolo contendere and were sentenced, the remaining defendants were convicted after a trial of some 19 weeks. The Government's case focused on the interseller price-verification charge, which the defendants defended on the ground that the price-information exchanges were to enable them to take advantage of the meeting-competition defense contained in § 2(b) of the Clayton Act, as amended by the Robinson-Patman Act (which permits a seller to rebut a prima facie price-discrimination charge by showing that a lower price to a purchaser was made in good faith to meet an equally low price of a competitor). On the verification issue, the trial judge charged the jury that if the price-information exchanges were found to have been undertaken in good faith to comply with the Robinson-Patman Act, verification alone would not suffice to establish an illegal price-fixing agreement, but that if the jury found that the effect of verification was to fix prices, then the parties would be presumed, as a matter of law, to have intended that result. The judge further charged that since only a single conspiracy was alleged, liability could only be predicated on the knowing involvement of each defendant, considered individually, in the conspiracy alleged, the judge having refused the defendants' requested charge directing the jury to determine what kind of agreement, if any, existed as to each defendant before any could be found to be a member of the conspiracy. With respect to the defendants' evidence as to withdrawal from the conspiracy, the judge instructed the jury that withdrawal had to be established by either affirmative notice to every other member of the conspiracy or by disclosure of the illegal enterprise to law enforcement officials. The judge refused the defendants' requested instruction that vigorous price competition during the period in question could also be considered as evidence of abandonment of the conspiracy. After all the testimony had been presented, the jurors were sequestered for deliberation, and apparently disagreement among them arose. After approximately seven days of deliberations, the foreman of the jury informed the judge that he wanted to discuss the jury's condition, and this resulted, with the parties' consent, in an ex parte meeting between the judge and the foreman. Most of the discussion at the meeting involved the jurors' deteriorating health but the foreman also referred to the jury's deadlock; there followed an exchange strongly suggesting that the foreman may have carried away from the meeting the impression that the judge wanted a verdict "one way or the other." The jury rendered its guilty verdict the following morning. The Court of Appeals reversed the convictions on various grounds, holding, inter alia, that verification of price concessions with competitors for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the meeting-competition defense of § 2(b) constitutes a "controlling circumstance" precluding liability under § 1 of the Sherman Act, and thus an instruction allowing the jury to ignore the defendants' purpose in engaging in the alleged misconduct could not be sustained. Held :

1. A defendant's state of mind or intent is an element of a criminal antitrust offense which must be established by evidence and inferences drawn therefrom and cannot be taken from the trier of fact through reliance on a legal presumption of wrongful intent from proof of an effect on prices. Since the trial judge's instruction on the verification issue had this prohibited effect, it was improper. Pp. 434-446.

(a) The Sherman Act is not to be construed as mandating a regime of strict-liability crimes; rather the criminal offenses defined therein are to be construed as including intent as an element. Pp. 436-443.

(b) Action undertaken with knowledge of its probable consequences and having the requisite anticompetitive effects can be a sufficient predicate for a finding of criminal liability under the antitrust laws. Where carefully planned and calculated conduct is being scrutinized in the context of a criminal prosecution, the perpetrator's knowledge of the anticipated consequences is a sufficient predicate for a finding of criminal intent. Pp. 443-446.

2. A good-faith belief, rather than an absolute certainty, that a price concession is being offered to meet an equally low price offered by a competitor suffices to invoke the § 2(b) defense; exchanges of price information, even when putatively for the purpose of Robinson-Patman Act compliance, must remain subject to close scrutiny under the Sher- man Act. Therefore, the Court of Appeals erred in treating interseller price verification even as a limited "controlling circumstance" exception precluding Sherman Act liability. Pp. 447-459.

3. The ex parte meeting between the trial judge and the jury foreman was improper, and the Court of Appeals would have been justified in reversing the convictions solely because of the risk that the foreman believed the judge was insisting on a dispositive verdict. Such a meeting is pregnant with possibilities for error, since it is difficult to contain, much less to anticipate, the direction the conversation will take at such a meeting, any occasion which leads to communication with the whole jury panel through one juror inevitably risks innocent misstatements of the law and misinterpretations despite the undisputed good faith of the participants, and the absence of counsel from the meeting aggravates the problems of having one juror serve as a conduit for communication with the whole panel. Here the meeting was allowed to drift into a supplemental instruction relating to the jury's obligation to reach a verdict, and counsel were denied any chance to correct whatever mistaken impression the foreman might have taken from the meeting. Pp. 459-462.

4. The trial judge's charge concerni g participation in the conspiracy, although perhaps not completely clear, was sufficient, but his charge on withdrawal from the conspiracy was erroneous, since it limited the jury's consideration to only two circumscribed and arguably impractical methods of demonstrating withdrawal, rather than permitting consideration of any affirmative acts inconsistent with the object of the conspiracy and communicated in a manner reasonably calculated to reach coconspirators. Pp. 462-465.

550 F.2d 115, affirmed.

Daniel M. Friedman, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

W. Donald McSweeney, Chicago, Ill., H. Francis DeLone, Philadelphia, Pa., and Fred H. Bartlit, Jr., Chicago, Ill., for respondents. [Amicus Curiae Information from page 425 intentionally omitted] Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the following questions: (a) whether intent is an element of a criminal antitrust offense; (b) whether an exchange of price information for purposes of compliance with the Robinson-Patman Act is exempt from Sherman Act scrutiny; (c) the adequacy of jury instructions on membership in and withdrawal from the alleged conspiracy; and (d) the propriety of an ex parte meeting between the trial judge and the foreman of the jury.


Gypsum board, a laminated type of wall-board composed of paper, vinyl, or other specially treated coverings over a gypsum core, has in the last 30 years substantially replaced wet plaster as the primary component of interior walls and ceilings in residential and commercial construction. The product is essentially fungible; differences in price, credit terms, and delivery services largely dictate the purchasers' choice between competing suppliers. Overall demand, however, is governed by the level of construction activity and is only marginally affected by price fluctuations.

The gypsum board industry is highly concentrated, with the number of producers ranging from 9 to 15 in the period 1960-1973. The eight largest companies accounted for some 94% of the national sales with the seven "single plant producers" 1 accounting for the remaining 6%. Most of the major producers and a large number of the single-plant producers are members of the Gypsum Association which since 1930 has served as a trade association of gypsum board manufacturers.


Beginning in 1966, the Justice Department, as well as the Federal Trade Commission, became involved in investigations into possible antitrust violations in the gypsum board industry. In 1971, a grand jury was empaneled and the investigation continued for an additional 28 months. In late 1973, an indictment was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania charging six major manufacturers and various of their corporate officials with violations of § 1 of the Sherman Act, ch. 647, 26 Stat. 209, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 1.2

The indictment charged that the defendants had engaged in a combination and conspiracy "[b]eginning sometime prior to 1960 and continuing thereafter at least until sometime in 1973," App. 34, in restraint of interstate trade and commerce in the manufacture and sale of gypsum board. The alleged combination and conspiracy consisted of:

"[A] continuing agreement understanding and concern of action among the defendants and co-conspirators to (a) raise, fix, maintain and stabilize the prices of gypsum board; (b) fix, maintain and stabilize the terms and conditions...

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