American Needle Inc. v. National Football League

PETITIONER: American Needle, Inc.
RESPONDENT: National Football League, et al.
LOCATION: NFL Properties

DOCKET NO.: 08-661
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 560 US 183 (2010)
GRANTED: Jun 29, 2009
ARGUED: Jan 13, 2010
DECIDED: May 24, 2010

ADVOCATES:
Gregg H. Levy - for the respondents
Glen D. Nager - for the petitioner
Malcolm L. Stewart - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

American Needle Inc. filed suit in an Illinois federal district court against the National Football League ("NFL") and Reebok International Ltd. alleging that the teams' exclusive licensing agreement with Reebok violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. American Needle argued that because individual NFL teams separately own their team logos and trademarks, their collective agreement to authorize NFL Properties to award the exclusive headwear license to Reebok, was in fact a conspiracy to restrict other vendors' ability to obtain licenses for the teams' intellectual property. The district court disagreed and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed. It held that NFL teams were a single entity for purposes of antitrust laws, and thus could not have conspired to restrict trade. Therefore, the court stated that the teams were free to license their intellectual property on an exclusive basis.

Question

1) Are the NFL and its members a single entity for the purposes of antitrust laws?

2) Is the agreement of NFL teams with Reebok subject to Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, when teams own and control the use of their separate logos and trademarks and, but for their agreement not to, could compete with each other in the licensing and sale of team products?

Media for American Needle Inc. v. National Football League

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 2010 in American Needle Inc. v. National Football League

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 24, 2010 in American Needle Inc. v. National Football League

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Stevens has our opinion in this morning case 08-661 American Needle versus the National Football League.

John Paul Stevens:

The Washington Redskins football team has its own trade name and trademarks as to each as do each of the 31 other teams in the National Football League.

Since 1963 however, all 32 teams have used a jointly owned corporation, National Football League properties, NFLP to market their intellectual property.

For almost 40 years NFLP granted non-exclusive licenses to a number of different vendors, one of which was the petitioner in this case American Needle.

In 2000 however the teams authorized a NFLP to grant exclusive licenses which it did, because they declined to renew petitioner's license it brought this action against the teams and NFLP seeking treble damages under the Sherman Act.

The District Court granted summary judgment to the defendants, holding in effect that the defendants constituted a single economic enterprise incapable of conspiring with itself.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

We granted certiorari and now reverse.

We do not reach the question whether petitioner has alleged a violation of the Sherman Act but we reject the argument that the 32 teams constitute a single entity for antitrust purposes.

For reasons stated in an opinion filed with the clerk, we hold that their conduct must be judged under the rule of reason.

Our opinion is unanimous.

I also have the disposition to announce in number 08-6261 Robertson against Watson.

The Writ of certiorari is dismissed as an improvidently granted, The Chief Justice has written a dissent in which Justices, Scalia, Kennedy and Sotomayor had joined.

Justice Sotomayor has also filed a brief dissenting statement that Justice Kennedy has joined.