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Indian Head Inc. v. Allied Tube & Conduit Corp.

decided: April 22, 1987.

INDIAN HEAD, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT, CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
ALLIED TUBE & CONDUIT CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE, CROSS-APPELLANT



Indian Head, Inc. appeals from a judgment notwithstanding a jury verdict, entered in the Southern District by Judge John E. Sprizzo, holding that defendant Allied Tube & Conduit Corp.'s attempts to influence a private standard-setting organization were protected from antitrust scrutiny under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine. Allied cross-appeals, arguing that, as a matter of law, its behavior did not constitute a violation of the antitrust laws. Judgment n.o.v. vacated and remanded with directions to reinstate the jury's award.

Lumbard, Kearse, and Pratt, Circuit Judges.

Author: Lumbard

LUMBARD, Circuit Judge:

This case requires us to decide whether federal antitrust laws apply to attempts to influence the promulgation of a code of safety standards by private industry. In its complaint, plaintiff Indian Head, Inc. (Carlon) charged that defendant Allied Tube & Conduit Corp. had conspired to prevent inclusion of Carlon's product in industry standards. The jury found for Carlon, and awarded it $3.8 million in damages (before trebling). Carlon now appeals from a judgment for defendant, notwithstanding the jury verdict, entered by Judge John E. Sprizzo in the Southern District on July 31, 1986. Judge Sprizzo reasoned that the doctrine developed in Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc., 365 U.S. 127, 5 L. Ed. 2d 464, 81 S. Ct. 523 (1961), and United Mine Workers of America v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657, 14 L. Ed. 2d 626, 85 S. Ct. 1585 (1965), which protects petitioning of the government from Sherman Act scrutiny, also protects attempts to influence a private standard-setting organization where, as here, governments routinely incorporate that organization's standards into their legal codes. Allied cross-appeals, claiming that, as a matter of law, its conduct did not constitute an unreasonable restraint of trade. We vacate the judgment n.o.v. and remand with directions to reinstate the jury's award.

I.

The evidence presented to the district court established the following: Carlon, a division of Indian Head, Inc., manufactures and sells flexible plastic electrical conduit made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Electrical conduit is hollow tubing used in building construction to carry insulated electrical wires through floors, walls, and ceilings, and outside buildings, and to protect the wires from damage or abuse. Carlon's product competes in the marketplace against steel conduit, of which Allied is the largest producer in the United States. Carlon claims that PVC conduit has a number of significant competitive advantages over steel conduit, including its pliability, its lower installed cost, and its lower susceptibility to short circuiting. On the other hand, as the district court instructed the jury, "there is a scientific basis for a concern about safety of PVC products with respect to toxicity. . . . the parties do not dispute that people disagree on the issue and there is an objective basis for a concern for safety." Allied particularly stresses the fact that, during fires in high-rise structures, PVC conduit may burn, emitting toxic smoke and fumes.

This case arises from Allied's efforts to block Carlon's proposal to include PVC conduit as a permissible type of electrical conduit in the 1981 edition of the National Electrical Code (NEC) -- a model code, promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which establishes product and performance requirements for electrical systems, including electrical conduit. The parties agree that NEC is the most widely disseminated and adopted model code in the world. The parties agree further that a substantial number of state and local governments adopt the NEC as law in whole or in part.*fn1

Every three years, the NFPA -- a private, voluntary organization composed of over 31,500 individual and group members representing industry, labor, academia, insurance, organized medicine, firefighters, and government -- revises the NEC through a multi-step, several-year-long process. The NFPA first submits proposed amendments to the NEC to a Code-Making Panel (CMP) made up of professionals with technical expertise in the area. In order to prevent domination by special interests, no more than one-third of any CMP's membership may represent a single interest. If approved by the CMP, a proposal then goes to the full membership, together with the comments and voting position of each CMP member. After the membership has had an opportunity to comment on the proposal, the CMP considers it a second time, along with the membership's comments. If again approved, the NFPA publishes the proposed amendment to the full membership. The entire membership then votes.

In 1980, when Carlon's proposal was being considered, a simple majority of those present at the annual meeting was sufficient to approve or reject a proposal. Disappointed members can appeal the membership's vote to NFPA's Standards Council and ultimately to its Board of Directors. Finally, NFPA rules also permit de novo review of a defeated proposal by the CMP, the Standards Council, and the Board of Directors, in a procedure known as a Tentative Interim Amendment (TIA). If adopted, a TIA includes or excludes a proposal on an interim basis until the next code cycle.

On September 18, 1978, Carlon began the process of obtaining NEC approval for PVC conduit by submitting its proposal, known as Article 331, to the NFPA, along with a fact-finding report by the Underwriters Laboratories. The NFPA directed the proposal to CMP-8, which initially rejected it. However, in December, 1979, based on further fact-finding and field demonstrations by Carlon, CMP-8 reversed its earlier decision and approved Article 331 for review by the full membership. The NFPA then scheduled the article for consideration by the full membership at the next annual meeting, to be held in Boston in May, 1980.

Recognizing that inclusion of PVC conduit in the NEC might adversely affect its sales of steel conduit, Allied's representatives met with a number of different groups, including other members of the steel industry, to gather votes in opposition to Article 331. On January 30, 1980, the Steel Rigid Conduit and Electrical Section of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) held a meeting to discuss the matter. At that meeting, and at a full meeting of the NEMA Steel Section held in February, everyone agreed to bring as many voters as possible to the upcoming NFPA meeting; Allied itself pledged to bring at least 100 people to vote against Article 331. Additional meetings and communications were held among the steel interests to coordinate their efforts to block Article 331's adoption. Acting within the letter of NFPA rules, Allied eventually arranged for 155 persons -- including employees, sales agents, the agents' employees, company executives, employees of two of Allied's divisions, and the wife of the national sales director -- to join the NFPA, to register as voting members, and to attend the annual meeting to vote against the proposal. Allied also paid over $100,000 for the membership, registration, and attendance expenses of these voters. The other steel interests similarly recruited and paid for the expenses of voters at the May, 1980 meeting. In total, the steel interests gathered 230 votes.

Carlon made no attempt to sign up additional employees or sales agents other than the four already scheduled to attend the meeting. Until about April 18, 1980, H. F. van der Voort, who coordinated Carlon's efforts to amend the NEC, apparently believed that the NFPA's rules did not permit a motion from the floor to return Article 331 to CMP-8. On or about April 18, van der Voort discovered that such a motion could, in fact, be made. By this time, Carlon could not have signed up additional members to vote at the May meeting; under NFPA rules, only those who have been NFPA members for at least 30 days could vote at an annual meeting. However, Carlon did solicit support from members of the Society of Plastics Industry, the NEMA plastics section, other members of the plastics industry, NFPA's railroad and health care sections, and the Fire Marshals Association of North America.

At the annual meeting, Allied instructed its personnel where to sit, based upon a detailed seating chart, and appointed group leaders to instruct the voters "how the discussion is progressing and how to vote." Boxed lunches were provided and the voters were told to "stay nailed to their seats" until the end of two evening sessions. Group leaders used walkie-talkies and hand signals to facilitate communication. Few of Allied's voters had any of the technical documentation necessary to follow the meeting; nor did any of them speak in opposition to Article 331 in the course of the meeting.

Two votes were taken on the motion to return Article 331 to CMP-8. The first, a voice vote, was inconclusive. The second, a standing vote, approved the motion by a vote of 394-390. To insure its victory, Allied insisted that its representatives remain in their seats until 2:00 a.m., when the NFPA membership voted to approve the entire NEC without Article 331. Carlon immediately appealed the decision of the membership to the Standards Council, which referred the appeal to the Board of Directors. Finding that the NFPA rules had been circumvented but not violated, the Board denied the appeal, and returned Article 331 to the CMP-8. In June, 1980, Carlon applied for a TIA including Article 331 in the 1981 NEC. After the proposed TIA wound its way through the various levels of the ...


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