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AUTOMATIC CANTEEN COMPANY AMERICA v. FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION

decided: June 8, 1953.

AUTOMATIC CANTEEN COMPANY OF AMERICA
v.
FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT.

Vinson, Warren, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Jackson, Burton, Minton, Douglas and Clark took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Frankfurter

[ 346 U.S. Page 62]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Robinson-Patman Act, directed primarily against sellers who discriminate in favor of large buyers, includes a provision under which proceedings may be had against buyers who knowingly induce or receive discriminatory prices. That provision, § 2 (f) of the Act, is here for construction for the first time as a result of a complaint issued by the Federal Trade Commission against petitioner, a large buyer of candy and other confectionary products for resale through 230,000-odd automatic vending machines operated in 33 States and the District of Columbia. Petitioner, incorporated in 1931, has enjoyed rapid growth and has attained, so we are told, a dominant position in the sale of confectionary products through vending machines.

The Commission introduced evidence that petitioner received, and in some instances solicited, prices it knew were as much as 33% lower than prices quoted other purchasers, but the Commission has not attempted to show that the price differentials exceeded any cost savings that sellers may have enjoyed in sales to petitioner. Petitioner moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that the Commission had not made a prima facie case. This motion was denied; the Commission stated that a prima facie case of violation had been established by proof that the buyer received lower prices on like goods than other buyers, "well knowing that it was being favored over competing purchasers," under circumstances where the

[ 346 U.S. Page 63]

     requisite effect on competition had been shown. The question whether the price differentials made more than due allowance for cost differentials did not need to be decided "at this stage of the proceeding." On petitioner's failure to introduce evidence, the Commission made findings that petitioner knew the prices it induced were below list prices and that it induced them without inquiry of the seller, or assurance from the seller, as to cost differentials which might justify the price differentials. The Commission thereupon entered a cease and desist order. 46 F. T. C. 861. On review, the Court of Appeals affirmed,*fn1 holding that the Commission's prima facie case under § 2 (f) does not require showing absence of a cost justification. 194 F.2d 433.

Section 2 (f) of the Robinson-Patman Act, roughly the counterpart, as to buyers, of sections of the Act dealing with discrimination by sellers, is a vital prohibition in the enforcement scheme of the Act. In situations where buyers may have difficulty in proving their sellers' costs, § 2 (f) could, if the Commission's view in this case prevails, become a major reliance for simplified enforcement of the Act not only by the Commission but by plaintiffs suing for treble damages. Such enforcement, however, might readily extend beyond the prohibitions of the Act and, in doing so, help give rise to a price uniformity and rigidity in open conflict with the purposes of other antitrust legislation. We therefore thought it necessary to grant certiorari. 344 U.S. 809.

[ 346 U.S. Page 64]

     Enforcement of the Clayton Act's original declaration against price discrimination was so frustrated by inadequacies in the statutory language that Congress in 1936 enacted the sweeping amendments to that Act contained in what is known as the Robinson-Patman Act. 49 Stat. 1526, 15 U. S. C. § 13. Chief among the inadequacies had been express exemption of price discrimination in the sales of different quantities of like goods, an exemption that was interpreted as leaving quantity-discount sellers free to grant discounts to quantity buyers that exceeded any cost savings in selling to such buyers. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. v. F. T. C., 101 F.2d 620. In an effort to tighten the restriction against price discrimination inimical to the public interest, Congress enacted two provisions bearing on the issues in this case.*fn2 It made price discrimination in the sale of like goods unlawful without regard to quantity, although quantity discounts, like other price differentials, could still be justified

[ 346 U.S. Page 65]

     if they made no more than "due allowance" for cost differences in sales to different buyers. Congress in addition sought to reach the large buyer, capable of exerting pressure on smaller sellers, by making it unlawful "knowingly to induce or receive a discrimination in price which is prohibited by this section."

Since precision of expression is not an outstanding characteristic of the Robinson-Patman Act, exact formulation of the issue before us is necessary to avoid inadvertent pronouncement on statutory language in one context when the same language may require separate consideration in other settings. Familiar but loose language affords too ready a temptation for comprehensive but loose construction. We therefore think it imperative in this case to confine ourselves as much as possible to what is in dispute here.

We are here asked to settle a controversy involving simply the burden of coming forward with evidence under § 2 (f) of the Act. The record, so abundant in its instances of individual transactions that the Commission itself felt bound to animadvert on undue proliferation of the evidence by Government lawyers,*fn3 may be taken as

[ 346 U.S. Page 66]

     presenting varying degrees of bargaining pressure exerted by a buyer on a seller to obtain prices below those quoted other purchasers. In some instances, so the Commission found, petitioner's method was to "inform prospective suppliers of the prices and terms of sale which would be acceptable to [petitioner] without consideration or inquiry as to whether such supplier could justify such a price on a cost basis or whether it was being offered to other customers of the supplier." 46 F. T. C., at 888. A typical instance of the maximum pressure found by the Commission was a series of negotiations in which representatives of petitioner sought to explain to a prospective supplier the kind of savings he might enjoy in sales to petitioner and might make the basis of a price differential. In such instances, petitioner sometimes gave the supplier estimates of what it considered "representative" percentage savings on various costs such as freight, sales costs, packaging, and returns and allowances.*fn4

The Commission made no finding negativing the existence of cost savings or stating that whatever cost savings

[ 346 U.S. Page 67]

     there were did not at least equal price differentials petitioner may have received. It did not make any findings as to petitioner's knowledge of actual cost savings of particular sellers and found only, as to knowledge, that petitioner knew what the list prices to other buyers were. Petitioner, for its part, filed offers of proof that many sellers would testify that they had never told petitioner that the price differential exceeded cost savings. An offer of proof was in turn made by the Commission as to the testimony of these sellers on cross-examination; such proof would have brought out that petitioner never inquired of its suppliers whether the price differential was in excess of cost savings, never asked for a written statement or affidavit that the price differentials did not exceed such savings, and never inquired whether the seller had made up "any exact cost figures" showing cost savings in serving petitioner.

Petitioner claims that the Commission has not, on this record, made a prima facie case of knowing inducement of prices that "made more 'than due allowance for'" cost differences, while the Commission contends that it has established a prima facie case, justifying entry of a cease and desist order where the buyer fails to introduce evidence. Before proceeding to an examination of the statutory provisions, it is desirable to consider the kind of evidence about which this dispute centers. Petitioner is saying in effect that, under the Commission's view, the burden of introducing evidence as to the seller's cost savings and the buyer's knowledge thereof is put on the buyer; this burden, petitioner insists, is so difficult to meet that it would be unreasonable to construe the language Congress has used as imposing it. If so construed, the statute, petitioner contends, would create a presumption so lacking rational connection with the fact established as to violate due process.

[ 346 U.S. Page 68]

     We have been invited to consider in this connection some of the intricacies inherent in the attempt to show costs in a Robinson-Patman Act proceeding. The elusiveness of cost data, which apparently cannot be obtained from ordinary business records, is reflected in proceedings against sellers.*fn5 Such proceedings make us aware of how difficult these problems are, but this record happily does not require us to examine cost problems in detail. It is sufficient to note that, whenever costs have been in issue, the Commission has not been content with accounting estimates; a study seems to be required, involving perhaps stop-watch studies of time spent by some personnel such as salesmen and truck drivers, numerical counts of invoices or bills and in some instances of the number of items or entries on such records, or other such quantitative measurement of the operation of a business.*fn6

[ 346 U.S. Page 69]

     What kind of proof would be required of a buyer we do not know. The Commission argues that knowledge generally available to the buyer from published data or experience in the trade could be used by petitioner to make a reasonable showing of his sellers' costs. There was no suggestion in the Commission's opinion, however, that it would take a different attitude toward cost showings by a buyer than it has taken with respect to sellers, and "general knowledge of the trade," to use the Commission's phrase, unsupported by factual analysis has as yet been far from acceptable, and indeed has been strongly reproved by Commission accountants, as the basis for cost showings in other proceedings before the Commission.*fn7

No doubt the burden placed on petitioner to show his sellers' costs, under present Commission standards, is heavy. Added to the considerable burden that a seller himself may have in demonstrating costs is the fact that the data not only are not in the buyer's hands but are ordinarily obtainable even by the seller only after detailed investigation of the business. A subpoena of the seller's records is not likely to be adequate. It is not a question of obtaining information in the seller's hands.*fn8 It is a matter of studying the seller's business afresh. Insistence on proof of costs by the buyer might thus have other implications; it would almost inevitably require a degree of cooperation between buyer and seller, as against other buyers, that may offend other antitrust policies, and it might also expose the seller's cost secrets to the prejudice of arm's-length bargaining in the future. Finally, not one but, as here, approximately 80 different sellers' costs may be in issue.

[ 346 U.S. Page 70]

     It is against this background that the present dispute arises. The legislative setting indicates congressional recognition of the need to charge buyers with a responsibility for price discrimination comparable, so far as possible, to that placed on sellers. Thus, at the least, we can be confident in reading the words in § 2 (f), "a discrimination in price which is prohibited by this section," as a reference to the substantive prohibitions against discrimination by sellers defined elsewhere in the Act.*fn9 It is therefore apparent that the discriminatory price that buyers are forbidden by § 2 (f) to induce cannot include price differentials that are not forbidden to sellers in other sections of the Act, and, what is pertinent in this case, a buyer is not precluded from inducing a lower price based on cost ...


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