Introduction

State licensing boards are state-empowered entities that regulate myriad professions, ranging from the mundane (law) to the mystical (fortune telling).1 They control who can join, how the profession operates, and how their members are disciplined.2 With such power, and the increasing prevalence of licensing boards,3 the question arises: Who regulates these regulators? This is an especially important question because many state licensing boards are composed of active market participants;4 granting regulatory power to the same group being regulated raises the concern that the licensing board will act like a cartel—a group of competitors agreeing to limit competition.5 Although states may have important reasons, such as expertise,6 for delegating regulatory control to active members of a profession, the resulting anticompetitive concerns have led to the scrutiny of licensing boards under the federal antitrust laws.7 Not all board actions are subject to this scrutiny, but in order to be exempt from the federal antitrust laws, the licensing board’s actions must receive sufficient approval from the state.8 Thus, the concern of surreptitious, cartel-like behavior by licensing boards is potentially mitigated by the political accountability of requiring a state official to approve the board’s actions.9

State-empowered entities are immune from federal antitrust scrutiny when their actions, even overtly anticompetitive ones, represent the state acting as a sovereign.10 Recently, in North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v Federal Trade Commission,11 the Supreme Court held that for state licensing boards with a controlling number of active market participants to be shielded by this defense, known as Parker immunity,12 they must satisfy a two-pronged inquiry: (1) Was the action taken pursuant to a clearly articulated state policy, and (2) did the state actively supervise the board’s implementation of that policy?13 If the board fails either prong, the regulation falls within the ambit of the federal antitrust laws and can be enjoined as an anticompetitive practice.14 Although the board itself may enjoy immunity from monetary damages under the Eleventh Amendment,15 the Supreme Court noted that individual board members may face liability for such antitrust violations by the board.16 This gap in immunity for individual board members is a significant concern given the potential for treble damages17 and criminal sanctions.18

The threat of personal liability for individual board members raises the concern that they may be deterred from vigorously pursuing board objectives and that talented professionals may avoid service on a licensing board altogether.19 These same concerns have animated the Court in granting immunity to public officials when they violate an individual’s constitutional or statutory rights that were not clearly established at the time of the violation.20 This defense, known as qualified immunity, has been most commonly invoked in cases arising under 42 USC § 198321 and Bivens v Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics,22 but it has also been recognized by circuit courts for suits arising under other statutes, including the antitrust laws.23 Due to the shared concerns of government efficiency and the common-law-like jurisprudence of both § 1983 and federal antitrust law,24 individual licensing board members should be entitled to invoke a qualified immunity defense for antitrust violations by the board. Applying qualified immunity to licensing board members would not only fill the gap in immunity between the board and its members left in North Carolina State Board,25 but it could also lead to earlier, and less costly, termination of antitrust suits against individual board members at summary judgment.26

This Comment focuses on the question whether individual state licensing board members can claim qualified immunity for antitrust violations by the board. To establish when qualified immunity would be pertinent to antitrust violations, Part I discusses the Supreme Court’s application of Parker immunity to state licensing boards. Part II then identifies the analytical framework the Court has developed for determining when private actors effectuating government objectives (like members of many state licensing boards) can claim qualified immunity. Part III briefly compares Parker and qualified immunity to demonstrate how the two doctrines can complement one another, and then it applies the Court’s analytical approach discussed in Part II to state licensing board members. Although the analysis ultimately indicates that state licensing board members do not fit neatly into the qualified immunity doctrine, this Comment identifies support for extending the defense to individual licensing board members based on historical and policy considerations.

  • 1. See Aaron Edlin and Rebecca Haw, Cartels by Another Name: Should Licensed Occupations Face Antitrust Scrutiny?, 162 U Pa L Rev 1093, 1096 (2014) (identifying various professions that require licensing). See also generally Morris M. Kleiner, Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition? (Upjohn 2006).
  • 2. See Kleiner, Licensing Occupations at 29 (cited in note 1) (describing the various powers of state licensing boards).
  • 3. See Edlin and Haw, 162 U Pa L Rev at 1096 (cited in note 1) (noting an increase from 5 percent of the population requiring licensing in the 1950s to nearly 33 percent in the modern era).
  • 4. See id at 1103 (finding that 90 percent of licensing boards in Florida and 93 percent in Tennessee are controlled by a majority of “license-holders active in the profession”).
  • 5. See generally id (arguing that state licensing boards should be treated like cartels for purposes of antitrust scrutiny). See also Neil Katsuyama, Note, The Economics of Occupational Licensing: Applying Antitrust Economics to Distinguish between Beneficial and Anticompetitive Professional Licenses, 19 S Cal Interdisc L J 565, 569–77 (2010) (comparing the economics of anticompetitive licensing with the economics of cartels).
  • 6. See North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v Federal Trade Commission, 135 S Ct 1101, 1115 (2015) (“State laws and institutions are sustained by th[e] tradition [of professional codes of ethics] when they draw upon the expertise and commitment of professionals.”) For a discussion of the costs and benefits of having professionals regulate their own profession, see generally Jonathan Rose, Professional Regulation: The Current Controversy, 7 L & Hum Behav 103 (1983). See also Ingram Weber, Comment, The Antitrust State Action Doctrine and State Licensing Boards, 79 U Chi L Rev 737, 755–57 (2012) (discussing some of the costs and benefits of licensing regimes compared to alternatives).
  • 7. See Sherman Antitrust Act, 26 Stat 209 (1890), codified as amended at 15 USC §§ 1–7 (making “[e]very contract, combination . . . or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce” illegal); Clayton Act, 38 Stat 730 (1914) (providing a private right of action for violations of the antitrust laws). See also, for example, North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1117 (affirming enjoinment of a state licensing board’s anticompetitive actions).
  • 8. See North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1110 (noting that the antitrust laws “confer immunity on anticompetitive conduct by the States when acting in their sovereign capacity”), citing Parker v Brown, 317 US 341, 350–51 (1943).
  • 9. See Town of Hallie v City of Eau Claire, 471 US 34, 45 & n 9 (1985) (stating that the political accountability of municipalities, in the form of mandatory disclosure regulations and the electoral process, weighed in favor of laxer antitrust scrutiny compared to state-empowered private actors). See also Sina Safvati, Comment, Public-Private Divide in Parker State-Action Immunity, 63 UCLA L Rev 1110, 1118–26 (2016) (arguing that the limitation of antitrust immunity for state licensing boards is premised, in part, on political accountability).
  • 10. See Hoover v Ronwin, 466 US 558, 574 (1984).
  • 11. 135 S Ct 1101 (2015).
  • 12. The defense is based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Parker v Brown, 317 US 341 (1943). The defense has also been referred to as state action immunity, but this Comment refers to the defense as Parker immunity to avoid any confusion with the doctrine of state action under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • 13. North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1110, quoting California Retail Liquor Dealers Association v Midcal Aluminum, Inc, 445 US 97, 105 (1980) (“Midcal”).
  • 14. See, for example, North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1117 (affirming enjoinment of the board’s anticompetitive actions).
  • 15. See Goldfarb v Virginia State Bar, 421 US 773, 792 n 22 (1975) (leaving unresolved the question whether a state agency can be immune from damages liability for antitrust violations under the Eleventh Amendment).
  • 16. See North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1115 (“[T]his case . . . does not offer occasion to address the question whether agency officials, including board members, may, under some circumstances, enjoy immunity from damages liability.”) (emphasis added). This Comment does not address whether state licensing board members could be immune from monetary damages for antitrust violations by the board under an Eleventh Amendment defense. For a related discussion, see generally Susan Beth Farmer, Altering the Balance between State Sovereignty and Competition: The Impact of Seminole Tribe on the Antitrust State Action Immunity Doctrine, 23 Ohio N U L Rev 1403 (1997) (discussing the interplay between the doctrines of Parker immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity).
  • 17. See 15 USC § 15 (“[A]ny person who shall be injured . . . by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws . . . shall recover threefold the damages . . . including a reasonable attorney’s fee.”) (emphasis added).
  • 18. See Community Communications Co v City of Boulder, 455 US 40, 56 (1982) (noting that municipalities and corporate entities may be susceptible to criminal and civil sanctions under the federal antitrust laws when Parker immunity is unsuccessful). This Comment does not address the question whether individual state licensing board members could face criminal sanctions for antitrust violations by the board.
  • 19. See North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1115 (noting these issues as potential concerns).
  • 20. See Harlow v Fitzgerald, 457 US 800, 807, 818 (1982).
  • 21. See 42 USC § 1983 (authorizing suits for monetary damages when state officials violate an individual’s federal statutory or constitutional rights).
  • 22. 403 US 388 (1971) (authorizing suits for monetary damages when federal officials violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights).
  • 23. See Affiliated Capital Corp v City of Houston, 735 F2d 1555, 1568–70 (5th Cir 1984) (holding that a mayor, who failed to satisfy Parker immunity, still enjoyed qualified immunity against an antitrust claim). Circuit courts permit qualified immunity to be claimed for violations of a variety of other statutes as well. See Anselmo v County of Shasta, 873 F Supp 2d 1247, 1260 n 10 (ED Cal 2012) (collecting cases). But see Hepting v AT&T Corp, 439 F Supp 2d 974, 1009 (ND Cal 2006) (rejecting qualified immunity for federal wiretap statutes based on preemption doctrine and suggesting qualified immunity should be largely limited to the § 1983/Bivens context from which it emerged).
  • 24. See Margaret H. Lemos, Interpretive Methodology and Delegations to Courts: Are “Common Law Statutes” Different?, in Shyamkrishna Balganesh, ed, Intellectual Property and the Common Law 89, 89–90 (Cambridge 2013) (criticizing the pernicious tendency of commentators and courts to refer to some statutes—the most common examples being the Sherman Act and § 1983—as “common law statutes”).
  • 25. See North Carolina State Board, 135 S Ct at 1115 (addressing the concerns of board member liability separately from the Parker immunity holding).
  • 26. Compare Mitchell v Forsyth, 472 US 511, 530 (1985) (authorizing interlocutory appeal for denial of qualified immunity under the collateral order doctrine and considering the claim suitable for immediate resolution), with South Carolina State Board of Dentistry v Federal Trade Commission, 455 F3d 436, 441 (4th Cir 2006) (denying interlocutory appeal for denial of Parker immunity).