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FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION v. SPERRY & HUTCHINSON CO.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT
Argued November 15, 1971
Decided March 1, 1972
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) entered a cease-and-desist order against Sperry & Hutchinson Co. (S&H), the largest and oldest trading stamp company, on the ground that it unfairly attempted to suppress the operation of trading stamp exchanges and other "free and open" redemption of stamps. S&H argued in the Court of Appeals that its conduct was beyond the reach of 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which it claimed permitted the FTC to restrain only such practices as are either in violation of the antitrust laws, deceptive, or repugnant to public morals. The Court of Appeals reversed the FTC, holding that the FTC had not demonstrated that S&H's conduct violated 5 because it had not shown that the conduct contravened either the letter or the spirit of the antitrust laws. Held:
WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Assistant Attorney General McLaren argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Griswold, Harold D. Rhynedance, Jr., Karl H. Buschmann, and Richard H. Stern.
Harold L. Russell argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Samuel K. Abrams, Claus Motulsky, J. Sam Winters, Alan R. Wentzel, and Wayne T. Elliott.
MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
In June 1968 the Federal Trade Commission held that the largest and oldest company in the trading stamp industry, 1 Sperry & Hutchinson (S&H), was violating 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, 38 Stat. 719, as amended, 15 U.S.C. 45 (a) (1), in three respects. The Commission found that S&H improperly regulated the maximum rate at which trading stamps were dispensed by its retail licensees; that it combined with others to regulate the rate of stamp dispensation throughout the industry; and that it attempted (almost invariably successfully) to suppress the operation of trading stamp exchanges and other "free and open" redemption of stamps. The Commission entered cease-and-desist orders accordingly. [405 U.S. 233, 235]
S&H appealed only the third of these orders. Before the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit it conceded that it acted as the Commission found, but argued that its conduct is beyond the reach of 5 of the Act. That section provides, in pertinent part, that:
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed and reversed the Commission, Judge Wisdom dissenting. 432 F.2d 146 (1970). In the lower court's view:
The FTC petitioned for review in this Court. We granted certiorari to determine the questions presented in the petition. 401 U.S. 992 (1971). [405 U.S. 233, 236]
In the normal course, the trading stamp business operates as follows. S&H sells its stamps to retailers, primarily to supermarkets and gas stations, at a cost of about $2.65 per 1200 stamps; retailers give the stamps to consumers (typically at a rate of one for each 10 › worth of purchases) as a bonus for their patronage; consumers paste the stamps in books of 1,200 and exchange the books for "gifts" at any of 850 S&H Redemption Centers maintained around the country. Each book typically buys between $2.86 and $3.31 worth of merchandise depending on the location of the redemption center and type of goods purchased. Since its development of this cycle 75 years ago, S&H has sold over one trillion stamps and redeemed approximately 86% of them.
A cluster of factors relevant to this litigation tends to disrupt this cycle and, in S&H's view, to threaten its business. An incomplete book has no redemption value. Even a complete book is of limited value because most "gifts" may be obtained only on submission of more than one book. For these reasons a collector of another type of stamps who has acquired a small number of green stamps may benefit by exchanging [405 U.S. 233, 237] with a green stamp collector who has opposite holdings and preferences. Similarly, because of the seasonal usefulness or immediate utility 2 of an object sought, a collector may want to buy stamps outright and thus put himself in a position to secure redemption merchandise immediately though it is "priced" beyond his current stamp holdings. Or a collector may seek to sell his stamps in order to use the resulting cash to make more basic purchases (food, shoes, etc.) than redemption centers normally provide.
Periodically over the past 70 years professional exchanges have arisen to service this demand. Motivated by the prospect of profit realizable as a result of serving as middlemen in swaps, the exchanges will sell books of S&H stamps previously acquired from consumers, or, for a fee, will give a consumer another company's stamps for S&H's or vice versa. Further, some regular merchants have offered discounts on their own goods in return for S&H stamps. Retailers do this as a means of competing with merchants in the area who issue stamps. By offering a price break in return for stamps, the redeeming merchant replaces the incentive to return to the issuing merchant (to secure more stamps so as to be able to obtain a gift at a redemption center) with the attraction of securing immediate benefit from the stamps by exchanging them for a discount at his store. 3
S&H fears these activities because they are believed to reduce consumer proclivity to return to green-stamp-issuing stores and thus lower a store's incentive to buy and distribute stamps. The company attempts to pre-empt "trafficking" in its stamps by contractual provisions [405 U.S. 233, 238] reflected in a notice on the inside cover of every S&H stamp book. The notice reads:
In reality, the question is a double one: First, does 5 empower the Commission to define and proscribe an unfair competitive practice, even though the practice does not infringe either the letter or the spirit of the antitrust laws? Second, does 5 empower the Commission to proscribe practices as unfair or deceptive in their effect upon consumers regardless of their nature or quality as competitive practices or their effect on competition? We think the statute, its legislative history, and prior cases compel an affirmative answer to both questions.
When Congress created the Federal Trade Commission in 1914 and charted its power and responsibility [405 U.S. 233, 240] under 5, it explicitly considered, and rejected, the notion that it reduce the ambiguity of the phrase "unfair methods of competition" by tying the concept of unfairness to a common-law or statutory standard or by enumerating the particular practices to which it was intended to apply. Senate Report No. 597, 63d Cong., 2d Sess., 13 (1914), presents the reasoning that led the Senate Committee to avoid the temptations of precision when framing the Trade Commission Act:
Since the sweep and flexibility of this approach were thus made crystal clear, there have twice been judicial attempts to fence in the grounds upon which the FTC might rest a finding of unfairness. In FTC v. Gratz, 253 U.S. 421 (1920), the Court over the strong dissent of Mr. Justice Brandeis (who had been involved in drafting the Trade Commission Act), wrote that while the "exact meaning" of the phrase "`unfair method of competition'. . . is in dispute," the only practices that were subject to this characterization were those that were "heretofore regarded as opposed to good morals because characterized by deception, bad faith, fraud or oppression, or as against public policy because of their dangerous tendency unduly to hinder competition or create monopoly." Id., at 427. This view was reiterated in other opinions over the next decade. See, e. g., FTC v. Curtis Publishing Co., 260 U.S. 568 (1923), and FTC v. Sinclair Refining Co., 261 U.S. 463, 475 -476 (1923). The opinion of the Court of Appeals' majority, citing Sinclair in support of its narrow view of the FTC's leeway, is in the tradition of these authorities.
In FTC v. Raladam Co., 283 U.S. 643 (1931), a unanimous Court held that: "The paramount aim of the act is the protection of the public from the evils likely to result from the destruction of competition or the restriction of it in a substantial degree. . . . Unfair trade methods are not per se unfair methods of competition." (Italics in original.) "It is obvious," the Court continued,
The leading case that recognized a role for the FTC beyond that mapped out in Gratz, FTC v. R. F. Keppel & Bro., Inc., 291 U.S. 304 (1934), also brought Raladam into question; on both counts it sets the standard by which the range of FTC jurisdiction is to be measured today. Keppel & Brothers sold penny candies in "break and take" packs, a form of merchandising that induced children to buy lesser amounts of concededly inferior candy in the hope of by luck hitting on bonus packs containing extra candy and prizes. The FTC issued a cease-and-desist order under 5 on the theory that the popular marketing scheme contravened [405 U.S. 233, 243] public policy insofar as it tempted children to gamble and compelled those who would successfully compete with Keppel to abandon their scruples by similarly tempting children.
The Court had no difficulty in sustaining the FTC's conclusion that the practice was "unfair," though any competitor could maintain his position simply by adopting the challenged practice. "[H]ere," the Court said, "the competitive method is shown to exploit consumers, children, who are unable to protect themselves. . . . [I]t is clear that the practice is of the sort which the common law and criminal statutes have long deemed contrary to public policy." Id., at 313.
En route to this result the Court met Keppel's arguments that, absent an antitrust violation or at least incipient injury to competitors, Gratz and Raladam so straitjacketed the FTC that the Commission could not issue a cease-and-desist order proscribing even an immoral practice. It held:
The perspective of Keppel, displacing that of Raladam, was legislatively confirmed when Congress adopted the 1938 Wheeler-Lea amendment, 52 Stat. 111, to 5. The amendment added the phrase "unfair or deceptive acts or practices" to the section's original ban on "unfair methods of competition" and thus made it clear that Congress, through 5, charged the FTC with protecting consumers as well as competitors. The House Report on the amendment summarized congressional thinking: "[T]his amendment makes the consumer, who may be injured by an unfair trade practice, of equal concern, before the law, with the merchant or manufacturer injured by the unfair methods of a dishonest competitor." H. R. Rep. No. 1613, 75th Cong., 1st Sess., 3 (1937). See also S. Rep. No. 1705, 74th Cong., 2d Sess., 2-3 (1936).
Thus, legislative and judicial authorities alike convince us that the Federal Trade Commission does not arrogate excessive power to itself if, in measuring a practice against the elusive, but congressionally mandated standard of fairness, it, like a court of equity, considers public values beyond simply those enshrined in the letter or encompassed in the spirit of the antitrust laws. 5 [405 U.S. 233, 245]
The general conclusion just enunciated requires us to hold that the Court of Appeals erred in its construction of 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Ordinarily we would simply reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals insofar as it limited the unfair practices proscribed by 5 to those contrary to the letter and spirit of the antitrust laws and we would remand the case for consideration of whether the challenged practices, though posing no threat to competition within the precepts of the antitrust laws, are nevertheless either (1) unfair methods of competition or (2) unfair or deceptive acts or practices.
What we deem to be proper concerns about the interaction of administrative agencies and the courts, however, counsels another course in this case. In this Court the Commission argues that, however correct the Court of Appeals may be in holding the challenged S&H practices beyond the reach of the letter or spirit of the antitrust laws, the Court of Appeals nevertheless [405 U.S. 233, 246] erred in asserting that the FTC could measure and ban conduct only according to such narrow criteria. Proceeding from this premise, with which we agree, the Commission's major submission is that its order is sustainable as a proper exercise of its power to proscribe practices unfair to consumers. Its minor position is that it also properly found S&H's practices to be unfair competitive methods apart from their propriety under the antitrust laws.
The difficulty with the Commission's position is that we must look to its opinion, not to the arguments of its counsel, for the underpinnings of its order. "Congress has delegated to the administrative official and not to appellate counsel the responsibility for elaborating and enforcing statutory commands." Investment Co. Institute v. Camp, 401 U.S. 617, 628 (1971). We cannot read the FTC opinion on which the challenged order rests as premised on anything other than the classic antitrust rationale of restraint of trade and injury to competition.
The Commission urges reversal of the Court of Appeals and approval of its own order because, in its words, "[t]he Act gives the Commission comprehensive power to prevent trade practices which are deceptive or unfair to consumers, regardless of whether they also are anticompetitive." Brief for the FTC 15. It says the Court of Appeals was "wrong in two ways: you can have an anticompetitive impact that is not a violation of the antitrust laws and violate Section 5. You can also have an impact upon consumers without regard to competition and you can uphold a Section 5 violation on that ground." Tr. of Oral Arg. 18. Though completely accurate, these statements cannot be squared with the Commission's holding that "[i]t is essential in this matter, we believe, and as we have heretofore indicated, to determine whether or not there has been or may be an [405 U.S. 233, 247] impairment of competition," Opinion of Commission, 1 App. 175; its conclusion that "[r]espondent . . . prevents . . . competitive reaction[s] and thereby it has restrained trade. We believe this is an unfair method of competition and an unfair act and practice in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and so hold," 1 App. 178; its observation that:
There is no indication in the Commission's opinion that it found S&H's conduct to be unfair in its effect on competitors because of considerations other than those at the root of the antitrust laws. 6 For its part, the [405 U.S. 233, 248] theory that the FTC's decision is derived from its concern for consumers finds support in only one line of the Commission's opinion. The Commission's observation that S&H's conduct limited "stamp collecting consumers' . . . freedom of choice in the disposition of trading stamps," 1 App. 176, will not alone support a conclusion that the FTC has found S&H guilty of unfair practices because of damage to consumers.
Arguably, the Commission's findings, in contrast to its opinion, go beyond concern with competition and address themselves to noncompetitive and consumer injury as well. It may also be that such findings would have evidentiary support in the record. But even if the findings were considered to be adequate foundation for an opinion and order resting on unfair consequences to consumer interests, they still fail to sustain the Commission action; for the Commission has not rendered an opinion which, by the route suggested, links its findings and its conclusions. The opinion is barren of any attempt to rest the order on its assessment of particular competitive practices or considerations of consumer interests independent of possible or actual effects on competition. Nor were any standards for doing so referred to or developed. [405 U.S. 233, 249]
Our view is that "the considerations urged here in support of the Commission's order were not those upon which its action was based." SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 92 (1943). At the least the Commission has failed to "articulate any rational connection between the facts found and the choice made." Burlington Truck Lines v. United States, 371 U.S. 156, 168 (1962).
The Commission's action being flawed in this respect, we cannot sustain its order. "[T]he orderly functioning of the process of review requires that the grounds upon which the administrative agency acted be clearly disclosed and adequately sustained." Chenery, supra, at 94. Burlington Truck Lines, supra, at 169. A court cannot label a practice "unfair" under 15 U.S.C. 45 (a) (1). It can only affirm or vacate an agency's judgment to that effect. "If an order is valid only as a determination of policy or judgment which the agency alone is authorized to make and which it has not made, a judicial judgment cannot be made to do service for an administrative judgment." Chenery, supra, at 88. And as was repeated on other occasions:
[ Footnote 2 ] Often merchandise obtained by redemption is used as a gift.
[ Footnote 3 ] The efforts of some retailers to reissue S&H stamps are not involved in this case. The FTC explicitly left S&H free to seek injunctions against reissuance. 1 App. 169.
[ Footnote 4 ] Though the Court of Appeals referred to state and federal court decisions that approved S&H's practice, our reading of its opinion leaves no doubt that it did not reverse the FTC order on the erroneous theory that such determinations might foreclose a contrary FTC 5 decision. We therefore put aside the Goverment's second question as irrelevant and focus on its first contention.
[ Footnote 5 ] The Commission has described the factors it considers in determining whether a practice that is neither in violation of the antitrust laws nor deceptive is nonetheless unfair:
[ Footnote 6 ] The Commission did explicitly decline to assess S&H's conduct in light of one leading antitrust case. In United States v. Arnold, Schwinn & Co., 388 U.S. 365, 379 (1967), this Court held that: