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Apple Inc. v. Pepper

United States Supreme Court

May 13, 2019

587 U.S.____(2019)
v.
ROBERT PEPPER, ET AL. APPLE INC., PETITIONER

          Argued November 26, 2018

          CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

         Apple Inc. sells iPhone applications, or apps, directly to iPhone owners through its App Store-the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps. Most of those apps are created by independent developers under contracts with Apple. Apple charges the developers a $99 annual membership fee, allows them to set the retail price of the apps, and charges a 30% commission on every app sale. Respondents, four iPhone owners, sued Apple, alleging that the company has unlawfully monopolized the aftermarket for iPhone apps. Apple moved to dismiss, arguing that the iPhone owners could not sue because they were not direct purchasers from Apple under Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, 431 U.S. 720. The District Court agreed, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that the iPhone owners were direct purchasers because they purchased apps directly from Apple.

         Held:

Under Illinois Brick, the iPhone owners were direct purchasers who may sue Apple for alleged monopolization. Pp. 4-14.
(a) This straightforward conclusion follows from the text of the antitrust laws and from this Court's precedent. Section 4 of the Clayton Act provides that "any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue." 15 U.S.C. §15(a). That broad text readily covers consumers who purchase goods or services at higher-than-competitive prices from an allegedly monopolistic retailer. Applying §4, this Court has consistently stated that "the immediate buyers from the alleged antitrust violators" may maintain a suit against the antitrust violators, Kansas v. UtiliCorp United Inc., 497 U.S. 199, 207, but has ruled that indirect purchasers who are two or more steps removed from the violator in a distribution chain may not sue. Unlike the consumer in Illinois Brick, the iPhone owners here are not consumers at the bot- torn of a vertical distribution chain who are attempting to sue manufacturers at the top of the chain. The absence of an intermediary in the distribution chain between Apple and the consumer is dispositive. Pp. 4-7.
(b)Apple argues that Illinois Brick allows consumers to sue only the party who sets the retail price, whether or not the party sells the good or service directly to the complaining party. But that theory suffers from three main problems. First, it contradicts statutory text and precedent by requiring the Court to rewrite the rationale of Illinois Brick and to gut its longstanding bright-line rule. Any ambiguity in Illinois Brick should be resolved in the direction of the statutory text, which states that "any person" injured by an antitrust violation may sue to recover damages. Second, Apple's theory is not persuasive economically or legally. It would draw an arbitrary and unprincipled line among retailers based on their financial arrangements with their manufacturers or suppliers. And it would permit a consumer to sue a monopolistic retailer when the retailer set the retail price by marking up the price it had paid the manufacturer or supplier for the good or service but not when the manufacturer or supplier set the retail price and the retailer took a commission on each sale. Third, Apple's theory would provide a roadmap for monopolistic retailers to structure transactions with manufacturers or suppliers so as to evade antitrust claims by consumers and thereby thwart effective antitrust enforcement. Pp. 7-11.
(c) Contrary to Apple's argument, the three Illinois Brick rationales for adopting the direct-purchaser rule cut strongly in respondents' favor. First, Apple posits that allowing only the upstream app developers-and not the downstream consumers-to sue Apple would mean more effective antitrust enforcement. But that makes little sense, and it would directly contradict the longstanding goal of effective private enforcement and consumer protection in antitrust cases. Second, Apple warns that calculating the damages in successful consumer antitrust suits against monopolistic retailers might be complicated. But Illinois Brick is not a get-out-of-court-free card for monopolistic retailers to play any time that a damages calculation might be complicated. Third, Apple claims that allowing consumers to sue will result in "conflicting claims to a common fund-the amount of the alleged overcharge." Illinois Brick, 431 U.S., at 737. But this is not a case where multiple parties at different levels of a distribution chain are trying to recover the same passed-through overcharge initially levied by the manufacturer at the top of the chain, cf. id., at 726-727. Pp. 11-14.

846 F.3d 313, affirmed.

          KAVANAUGH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which GlNS-BURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          KAVANAUGH JUSTICE

         In 2007, Apple started selling iPhones. The next year, Apple launched the retail App Store, an electronic store where iPhone owners can purchase iPhone applications from Apple. Those "apps" enable iPhone owners to send messages, take photos, watch videos, buy clothes, order food, arrange transportation, purchase concert tickets, donate to charities, and the list goes on. "There's an app for that" has become part of the 21st-century American lexicon.

         In this case, however, several consumers contend that Apple charges too much for apps. The consumers argue, in particular, that Apple has monopolized the retail market for the sale of apps and has unlawfully used its monopolistic power to charge consumers higher-than-competitive prices.

         A claim that a monopolistic retailer (here, Apple) has used its monopoly to overcharge consumers is a classic antitrust claim. But Apple asserts that the consumer-plaintiffs in this case may not sue Apple because they supposedly were not "direct purchasers" from Apple under our decision in Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, 431 U.S. 720, 745-746 (1977). We disagree. The plaintiffs purchased apps directly from Apple and therefore are direct purchasers under Illinois Brick. At this early pleadings stage of the litigation, we do not assess the merits of the plaintiffs' antitrust claims against Apple, nor do we consider any other defenses Apple might have. We merely hold that the Illinois Brick direct-purchaser rule does not bar these plaintiffs from suing Apple under the antitrust laws. We affirm the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

         I

         In 2007, Apple began selling iPhones. In July 2008, Apple started the App Store. The App Store now contains about 2 million apps that iPhone owners can download. By contract and through technological limitations, the App Store is the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps.

         For the most part, Apple does not itself create apps. Rather, independent app developers create apps. Those independent app developers then contract with Apple to make the apps available to iPhone owners in the App Store.

         Through the App Store, Apple sells the apps directly to iPhone owners. To sell an app in the App Store, app developers must pay Apple a $99 annual membership fee. Apple requires that the retail sales price end in $0.99, but otherwise allows the app developers to set the retail price. Apple keeps 30 percent of the sales price, no matter what the sales price might be. In other words, Apple pockets a 30 percent commission on every app sale.

         In 2011, four iPhone owners sued Apple. They allege that Apple has unlawfully monopolized "the iPhone apps aftermarket." App. to Pet. for Cert. 53a. The plaintiffs allege that, via the App Store, Apple locks iPhone owners "into buying apps only from Apple and paying Apple's 30% fee, even if" the iPhone owners wish "to buy apps elsewhere or pay less." Id., at 45a. According to the complaint, that 30 percent commission is "pure profit" for Apple and, in a competitive environment with other retailers, "Apple would be under considerable pressure to substantially lower its 30% profit margin." Id., at 54a-55a. The plaintiffs allege that in a competitive market, they would be able to "choose between Apple's high-priced App Store and less costly alternatives." Id., at 55a. And they allege that they have "paid more for their iPhone apps than they would have paid in a competitive market." Id., at 53a.

         Apple moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the iPhone owners were not direct purchasers from Apple and therefore may not sue. In Illinois Brick, this Court held that direct purchasers may sue antitrust violators, but also ruled that indirect purchasers may not sue. The District Court agreed with Apple and dismissed the complaint. According to the District Court, the iPhone owners were not direct purchasers from Apple because the app developers, not Apple, set the consumers' purchase price.

         The Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the iPhone owners were direct purchasers under Illinois Brick because the iPhone owners purchased apps directly from Apple. According to the Ninth Circuit, Illinois Brick means that a consumer may not sue an alleged monopolist who is two or more steps removed from the consumer in a vertical distribution chain. See In re Apple iPhone Antitrust Litig., 846 F.3d 313, 323 (2017). Here, however, the consumers purchased directly from Apple, the alleged monopolist. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit held that the iPhone owners could sue Apple for allegedly monopolizing the sale of iPhone apps and charging higher-than-competitive prices. Id., at 324. We granted certiorari. 585 U.S.__(2018).

         II

         A

         The plaintiffs' allegations boil down to one straightforward claim: that Apple exercises monopoly power in the retail market for the sale of apps and has unlawfully used its monopoly power to force iPhone owners to pay Apple higher-than-competitive prices for apps. According to the plaintiffs, when iPhone owners want to purchase an app, they have only two options: (1) buy the app from Apple's App Store at a higher-than-competitive price or (2) do not buy the app at all. Any iPhone owners who are dissatisfied with the selection of apps available in the App Store or with the price of the apps available in the App Store are out of luck, or so the plaintiffs allege.

         The sole question presented at this early stage of the case is whether these consumers are proper plaintiffs for this kind of antitrust suit-in particular, our precedents ask, whether the consumers were "direct purchasers" from Apple. Illinois Brick, 431 U.S., at 745-746. It is undisputed that the iPhone owners bought the apps directly from Apple. Therefore, under Illinois Brick, the iPhone owners were direct purchasers who may sue Apple for alleged monopolization. That straightforward conclusion follows from the text of the antitrust laws and from our precedents.

         First is text: Section 2 of the Sherman Act makes it unlawful for any person to "monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations." 26 Stat. 209, 15 U.S.C. §2. Section 4 of the Clayton Act in turn provides that "any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue . . . the defendant . . . and shall recover threefold the damages by him sustained, and the cost of suit, including a reasonable attorney's fee." 38 Stat. 731, 15 U.S.C. §15(a) (emphasis added). The broad text of §4-"any person" who has been "injured" ...


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