Sandeep Vaheesan –
The Supreme Court has waged a multi-decade war on private rights of action. It has subverted the rights of consumers, workers, small businesses, and others to hold corporations accountable for wrongdoing through lawsuits. The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) has been a preferred tool of the Court. Since the 1980s, it has reinvented this modest statute, converting the FAA into a quasi-constitutional sledgehammer for corporations to wield against private lawsuits, especially class actions. And the evisceration of private enforcement of law goes beyond arbitration. The Court has rewritten class certification, pleading, and summary judgment standards to help businesses ward off private lawsuits and accountability.
On top of these general procedural hurdles, the Supreme Court has imposed special burdens on parties seeking to vindicate their rights under the federal antitrust laws. Congress enacted an expansive private remedy originally in the Sherman Act and subsequently in the Clayton Act. Section 4 of the Clayton Act grants “any person” injured by an antitrust violation the right to recover treble damages and legal fees from the violator. Since the 1970s, however, the Supreme Court has effectively rewritten this text. While once recognizing that Section 4 “is comprehensive in its terms and coverage, protecting all who are made victims of the forbidden practices by whomever they may be perpetrated[,]” the Court has severely restricted who can enforce the antitrust laws. Two doctrines deserve special consideration. First, the Court held that, in general, only parties who purchased a good or service directly from the antitrust violator can obtain damages for overcharges. Second, it created the amorphous “antitrust injury” doctrine and granted the lower courts the power to dismiss disfavored substantive claims on supposedly procedural bases.
These procedural changes raise the age-old question: what good is substantive law if it cannot be enforced? The described procedural changes have not affected the substantive law (though the courts have done that too in certain areas) but it has prevented some of the most motivated parties from enforcing the law. Consumers and businesses injured by antitrust violations have long been the lead enforcers of the antitrust laws. Their role is only accentuated by the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission’s unwillingness to enforce multiple areas of antitrust law. This combination of judicial hostility to private cases and bureaucratic lethargy has turned much of the substantive law into a dead letter.