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SUGAR INSTITUTE v. UNITED STATES

decided: March 30, 1936.

SUGAR INSTITUTE, INC. ET AL
v.
UNITED STATES



APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK.

Author: Hughes

[ 297 U.S. Page 570]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was brought to dissolve The Sugar Institute, Inc., a trade association, and to restrain the sugar refining companies which composed it, and the individual defendants, from engaging in an alleged conspiracy in

[ 297 U.S. Page 571]

     restraint of interstate and foreign commerce in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. 15 U.S.C. 1. Final decree was entered, which, while it did not dissolve the Institute, permanently enjoined the defendants from engaging directly or indirectly in forty-five stated activities. Defendants bring a direct appeal to this Court under the Act of February 11, 1903, 15 U.S.C. 29.

The record is unusually voluminous.*fn1 The court rendered an exhaustive opinion and made detailed findings of fact (218 in number) with conclusions of law, describing and characterizing the transactions involved. Numerous assignments of error broadly challenge its rulings, and the case has been presented here in extended oral arguments and elaborate briefs. We shall attempt to deal only with the salient and controlling points of the controversy. These involve (1) the special characteristics of the sugar industry and the practices which obtained before the organization of The Sugar Institute, (2) the purposes for which the Institute was founded, (3) the agreement and practices of the members of the Institute, and (4) the application of the Anti-Trust Act and the provisions of the decree.

First. -- The sugar industry and practices prior to the formation of The Sugar Institute. -- Domestic refined sugar, beet sugar, and foreign and insular refined sugar, known in the trade as "off-shore" refined, constitute about 99 per cent. of the Nation's supply. The remainder, consisting of domestic cane sugar, refined particularly in Louisiana, does not appear to be an important factor in the national markets. The fifteen defendant companies, members of the Institute, refine practically all the

[ 297 U.S. Page 572]

     imported raw sugar processed in this country. Their product is known as "domestic refined." Prior to the organization of the Institute in 1927, they provided more than 80 per cent. of the sugar consumed in the United States, and they have since supplied from 70 to 80 per cent. Their proportion of the supply is even greater in the New England and Middle Atlantic States, being more than 90 per cent., while in all but a few States their share is more than 55 per cent. Each of the refiners is engaged extensively in interstate commerce. Their refineries are in the vicinity of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans, Galveston and San Francisco. The raw cane sugar which they use is imported principally from Cuba and to some extent from the insular possessions.

Beet sugar for many years has been an important factor in the domestic market. It is produced and sold chiefly in the middle and far West, providing in some States over 75 per cent. of the supply, and it competes with other sugars in a number of Southern and Middle Atlantic States. Off-shore sugar is refined principally in Cuba and to some extent in the insular possessions. Its important trade areas have been the Middle, Atlantic and Southern States; in some States it constitutes from 25 to 40 per cent. of the total supply. Both beet sugar and off-shore sugar are sold at a small differential below defendants' sugar. The trial court found that there was no agreement between defendants and the beet sugar manufacturers, or with the off-shore interests, to maintain any differential.

The court found that the defendants' refined cane sugar "is a thoroughly standardized commodity in physical and chemical properties." In exceptional cases and localities, certain of the defendants had built up a preference for brand names "sufficient before and after the Institute was organized to enable such brands to command a higher

[ 297 U.S. Page 573]

     price than the sugar of the other defendants in sales from sugar dealers to their trade." In sales by refiners to manufacturers of products containing sugar -- about one-third of the sugar consumed -- "price, not brand, was always the vital consideration." And in the other sales, "one refiner could not ordinarily, by virtue of preference for his brand, obtain a higher price except insofar as another refiner might be giving a lower price by secret concessions."

The court further found that the "basis prices,"*fn2 quoted by the several refiners in any particular trade area, "were generally uniform both before and after the Institute, because economically the defendants' sugar, save for exceptional instances was and is a thoroughly standardized product."

It is a fundamental and earnest contention of defendants that the occasion for the formation of the Institute was the existence of grossly unfair and uneconomical practices in the trade, and that a proper appraisal of the motives and transactions of defendants cannot be made without full appreciation of the sorry condition into which the industry had fallen.

During the years 1917 to 1919, when the industry was under governmental control, prices were fixed and all forms of concessions and rebates were forbidden. The court found that, perhaps as early as 1921 and increasingly thereafter, the practice developed on the part of some, but not all, refiners of giving secret concessions. There were five refiners*fn3 who never indulged in that

[ 297 U.S. Page 574]

     practice, but the others, called "unethical" refiners, did so to such an extent that at least 30 per cent. of all the sugar sold by the refiners in 1927 carried secret concessions of some kind. The need of secrecy was urgent, for as soon as it was known that a specific concession was granted it would be generally demanded. That concessions were widely granted was generally known in the trade, and while each refiner was able to find out in a general way the approximate prices and terms of his competitors, it was impossible to know with any degree of accuracy the actual prices and terms granted in the innumerable transactions. The court also found that various causes contributed to the development of these selling methods on the part of the unethical refiners, chief among which was an overcapacity since the war of at least 50 per cent. Other probable causes were the lack of statistical information as to amount of production, deliveries and stocks on hand, leading to over-production, the uncertainties prevailing in the market for raw sugar which made the refined sugar industry highly speculative, the fact that, since 1922, most sugar has been sold through brokers, and the standardization of defendants' products which made their sales almost entirely dependent upon prices, terms and conditions. The concessions granted were largely, although not entirely, arbitrary. They were given principally to large buyers, but no system was followed in that respect. Even though there may not have been extensive resort to misrepresentations, "defendants entertained genuine fears that purchasers were falsely representing prices which they said they could procure from competing sellers."

Consumption of sugar in the United States decreased in 1927. The public "slimness campaign" of that year had substantial effect in discouraging the use of sugar. Certain distributors refrained from pushing sales because they could not sell profitably, but others were aggressive

[ 297 U.S. Page 575]

     and sugar was generally available. While certain smaller distributors suffered because of the advantage enjoyed by some larger ones, that advantage was attributable in the greatest measure to efficiency, and the larger distributors did not obtain monopolies. The court found that there was "no substantial evidence that the situation caused, or would cause, substantial injury to the 'ethical' refiners as a class," although they may have been inconvenienced and probably believed that the sales methods of their competitors were harmful. The declining profits for the year 1927 were attributable at least in large part, the court found, to causes other than the secret concession system, such as the "slimness campaign," over-production and dumping.

But whatever question there may be as to particulars, the evidence and findings leave no doubt that the industry was in a demoralized state which called for remedial measures. The court summed up the facts in the following finding:

"29. The industry was characterized by highly unfair and otherwise uneconomic competitive conditions, arbitrary, secret rebates and concessions were extensively granted by the majority of the companies in most of the important market areas and the widespread knowledge of the market conditions necessary for intelligent, fair competition were lacking. The refiners were disturbed economically and morally over the then prevailing conditions. At least one refiner, American,*fn4 was concerned about the possibility of liability under the Clayton Act because of the discriminations resulting from the various concessions."

Second. -- The purposes for which the Institute was founded. -- Defendants emphasize the nature of the proceedings taken in the formation of the Institute. The

[ 297 U.S. Page 576]

     court found that the refiners held a series of meetings, beginning in the summer of 1927, for a discussion of conditions "with particular reference to undesirable practices and secret concessions." In September of that year, there were submitted to the Department of Justice a proposed certificate of incorporation and by-laws for a trade association, together with a number of suggestions respecting trade practices. A "Code of Ethics" was likewise submitted to the Department of Justice and discussed with its officials, with the result that some changes wre made, and the Code as concertedly adopted in January, 1928, was substantially identical with that worked out when those discussions were held. The court found that "with the exception of two minor changes, the Code has retained its original form." It has been supplemented from time to time by "Interpretations," that is, rulings interpreting or amplifying the provisions of the Code.The Department of Justice made three investigations of the Institute in 1928, 1929 and 1930 and had complete access to the files of the Institute. As new issues of the "Code" and "Interpretations" were printed, copies were forwarded to the Department.

Defendants stress their dealings with the Department of Justice as evidence of their good faith and of the propriety and legality of their purposes. "The functionings of the Institute," they insist, "were always under the eye of the Department." The court, however, found that the Department "was not notified of various important steps taken by the Institute in connection with illegal restraints," nor was it notified "as to those activities charged by the Government and denied warded to the Department.

Defendants stress their dealings with the Department of Justice as evidence of their good faith and of the propriety and legality of their purposes. "The functionings of the Institute," they insist, "were always under the eye of the Department." The court, however, found that the Department "was not notified of various important steps taken by the Institute in connection with illegal restraints," nor was it notified "as to those activities charged by the Government and denied by defendants in this case." The Department did not conduct a comprehensive investigation of the restraints here involved until the end of 1930.

Defendants urge that the abolition of the vicious and discriminatory system of secret concessions, through the

[ 297 U.S. Page 577]

     adoption of the principle of open prices publicly announced, without discrimination, was their dominant purpose in forming the Institute, and that other purposes were the supplying of accurate trade statistics, the elimination of wasteful practices, the creation of a credit bureau, and the institution of an advertising campaign. The court recognized the existence of these purposes in its finding:

"35. Among the purposes of the defendants in organizing the Institute were: (a) the selling of sugar on open, publicly announced prices, terms, and conditions; (b) the gathering of trade statistics not previously available; (c) the elimination of practices which they deemed wasteful; and (d) the institution of an advertising campaign to increase consumption. But these purposes were for the most part only incidental to defendants' actual dominant purposes in forming and operating under the Institute."

The "dominant purposes" were found to be as follows:

"36. I find that defendants' dominant purposes in organizing the Institute were: to create and maintain a uniform price structure, thereby eliminating and suppressing price competition among themselves and other competitors; to maintain relatively high prices for refined, as compared with contemporary prices of raw sugar; to improve their own financial position by limiting and suppressing numerous contract terms and conditions; and to make as certain as possible that no secret concessions should be granted. In their efforts to accomplish these purposes, defendants have ignored the interests of distributors and consumers of sugar."

Defendants charge that the finding as to the illegality of their dominant purposes was "wholly without foundation." They charge that the finding was built upon an "inherent suspicion" and not upon the evidence. The Government answers by pointing to the elaborate review

[ 297 U.S. Page 578]

     of the evidence in the court's opinion and findings. We think that it is manifest that the finding as to dominant purposes was not based upon any assumption a priori, but was an inference of fact which the court drew from the facts it deemed to be established with respect to the scope of the agreement between the members of the Institute and the actual nature and effect of their concerted action. The court found that the defendants "in most of their activities" had "gone much further than was reasonably necessary to accomplish their professed aims of eliminating fraud, waste and secret, unfair or illegal discrimination." The pith of the matter is in the following finding:

"37. At the inception of the Institute, defendants adopted a general agreement ostensibly to abolish all discriminations between customers but which in general purpose and effect amounted to an agreement not to afford different treatment to different customers, regardless of the varying circumstances of particular transactions or classes of transactions and regardless of the varying situation of particular refiners, distributors or customers or classes thereof. Under the guise of performing the agreement, against discriminations, defendants limited and suppressed numerous important contract terms and conditions in the particulars herein set forth, chiefly for the purpose and with the effect of accomplishing the objectives described in finding 36."

We turn to the transactions from which the inference of purpose is drawn.

Third. -- The agreement and practices of the members of the Institute. -- The evidence consists of the "Code of Ethics" and "Interpretations," oral testimony, the minutes of the Institute, and correspondence. Eliminating charges not sustained, the findings of restraints of trade rest upon the basic agreement of the refiners to

[ 297 U.S. Page 579]

     sell only upon prices and terms openly announced, and upon certain supplementary restrictions.

1. The "basic agreement." -- The "Code of Ethics" provided as follows:

"All discriminations between customers should be abolished. To that end, sugar should be sold only upon open prices and terms publicly announced."

There was nothing new in the mere advance announcement of prices. The court found that prior to the Institute, "general price changes were listed on the Refiners' Bulletin Boards, and brokers, customers and news agencies were notified, and frequently, as a courtesy, competitors would be telephoned. Except for notifying the Institute, price changes during the post-Institute period have been announced in this way.... Before the Institute, general price changes, including general ...


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