Amicus Brief

Brief of Former Antitrust Officials and Antitrust Scholars to 9th Circuit in CoStar v CRE

Introduction and Summary of Argument

The Sherman Act is the “Magna Carta of free enterprise.” Verizon Commcn’s Inc. v. Law Offs. of Curtis v. Trinko, LLP, 540 U.S. 398, 415 (2004) (citation omitted). It directs itself “not against conduct which is competitive, even severely so, but against conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself.” Spectrum Sports, Inc. v. McQuillan, 506 U.S. 447, 458 (1993). And it does so not to protect corporate or private interests, but from concern for consumer welfare and the public interest. Id. The goal of antitrust law thus “is not to redress losers of legitimate competition; [i]t is to proscribe actions with anticompetitive effect.” Apartments Nationwide, Inc. v. Harmon Publ’g Co., 78 F.3d 584 (6th Cir. 1996) (table); Omega Env’t, Inc. v. Gilbarco, Inc., 127 F.3d 1157, 1163 (9th Cir. 1997) (“[T]he antitrust laws were not designed to equip [a] competitor with [its rival’s] legitimate competitive advantage.”).

For almost four decades, CoStar Group, Inc. and CoStar Realty Information, Inc. (“CoStar”) have provided commercial real estate
(“CRE”) services, including CRE listings and auction services. Commercial Real Estate Exchange Inc. (“CREXi”), launched almost a decade ago, is attempting to build its own CRE platform. CoStar filed suit against CREXi in September 2020, alleging that CREXi “harvests content, including broker directories, from CoStar’s subscription database without authorization by using passwords issued to other companies.” See Dist. Ct. Dkt. 1. In response, CREXi filed eight antitrust counterclaims for violations of the Sherman Act (seven claims) and the Cartwright Act (one claim). Dist. Ct. Dkt. 146. The district court dismissed them all.

In asking this Court to reverse the district court’s decision, CREXi and its amicus make three critical errors. First, CREXi and the FTC try to recast the court’s analysis as incorrectly applying a “refusal-to-deal framework.” Doc. 24 (“FTC Br.”) 10; Doc. 21 (“CREXi Br.”) 32. But the district court did not apply any such framework. Nor did it borrow any of the elements this Court has found must be pleaded in refusal to deal cases. See FTC v. Qualcomm Inc., 969 F.3d 974, 994–95 (9th Cir. 2020). Instead, the court did what courts do when considering antitrust claims—analyze contractual language and market realities in light of the bedrock antitrust principle that “a business generally has the right to refuse to deal with its competitors.” Dist. Ct. Dkt. 340 (“Op.”) 3. There is nothing improper about analyzing antitrust claims against the backdrop of this (and other) “traditional antitrust principles.” Trinko, 540 U.S. at 411.

Second, CREXi and the FTC argue that CoStar’s contractual provisions with brokers are “de facto” exclusivity provisions that violate the Sherman Act. CREXi Br. 62–64; FTC Br. 17–19. Yet both fail to acknowledge that this Court has never “explicitly recognized a ‘de facto’ exclusive dealing theory.” Aerotec Int’l, Inc. v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., 836 F.3d 1171, 1182 (9th Cir. 2016). A careful examination of this theory reveals that it lacks a doctrinal foundation, and that this Court’s cases, historical context, and administrability concerns all counsel strongly against recognizing this theory. In any event, even if this were a viable theory, it is unavailable to CREXi here because CoStar’s express contractual terms plainly do not “substantially foreclose[]” brokers from dealing with CREXi. Id.

Third, CREXi and the FTC both urge this Court to hold that allegations of supracompetitive prices alone are enough to adequately allege direct evidence of market power, and thus that the test applied in Rebel Oil Co., Inc. v. Atl. Richfield Co., 51 F.3d 1421, 1433 (9th Cir. 1995), is “wrong as a matter of law.” CREXi Br. 38. Not so. Direct evidence of market power is “only rarely available.” United States v. Microsoft Corp., 253 F.3d 34, 51 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (en banc) (per curiam). And as the Supreme Court has made clear, market power is “the ability to raise prices profitably by restricting output. Ohio v. Am. Express Co., 138 S. Ct. 2274, 2288 (2018) (quoting Areeda & Hovenkamp § 5.01) (emphasis in original). “[H]igh price alone” thus is not enough to infer market power. Coal. for ICANN Transparency, Inc. v. VeriSign, Inc., 611 F.3d 495, 503 (9th Cir. 2010); see Blue Cross & Blue Shield United of Wis. v. Marshfield Clinic, 65 F.3d 1406, 1412 (7th Cir. 1995) (Posner, J.). A plaintiff seeking to present direct evidence of market power needs to show more than prices above a competitive level. It must show “evidence of restricted output and supracompetitive prices.” Rebel Oil, 51 F.3d at 1434 (emphasis added); Forsyth v. Humana, Inc., 114 F.3d 1467, 1476 (9th Cir. 1997) (“With no accompanying showing of restricted output,” “hig[h] prices” and “high profits … fail[ ] to present direct evidence of market power.”), overruled on other grounds by Lacey v. Maricopa Cnty, 693 F.3d 896 (9th Cir. 2012).

The arguments pushed by CREXi and the FTC, if accepted, would open the floodgates to baseless antitrust suits. Recognizing claims based on the de facto exclusive dealing theory would allow a competitor to transform its rival’s plainly nonexclusive contractual language into exclusive dealing provisions and drag its rival into expensive, protracted discovery based on speculative allegations about third-party conduct. Indeed, there is no end to what a struggling competitor could do with such an amorphous doctrine. So too, permitting a party to establish direct evidence of market power through allegations of supracompetitive prices alone would contravene binding authority and bedrock antitrust principles.

In rejecting these arguments below, the district court properly concluded that CREXi failed to meet its pleading burden for its antitrust
counterclaims. This Court should affirm.

Read the full brief here.