SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Reiter v. Sonotone Corp.
442 U.S. 330
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT
No. 78-690. Argued April 25, 1979 -- Decided June 11, 1979
Petitioner brought a class action on behalf of herself and all persons in the United States who purchased hearing aids manufactured by respondents, alleging that, because of antitrust violations committed by respondents, she and the class she seeks to represent have been forced to pay illegally fixed higher prices for the hearing aids and related services they purchased from respondents' retail dealers. Treble damages were sought under § 4 of the Clayton Act, which provides that "[a]ny person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws" may bring suit and recover treble damages. Respondents moved to dismiss the damages claim on the ground that petitioner had not been injured in her "business or property" within the meaning of § 4. The District Court held that, under § 4, a retail purchaser is injured in "property" if it can be shown that antitrust violations caused an increase in the price paid for the article purchased; however, it certified the question to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that retail purchasers of consumer goods and services who allege no injury of a commercial or business nature are not injured in their "business or property" within the meaning of § 4, and that the phrase "business or property" was intended to limit standing to those engaged in commercial ventures.
Held: Consumers who pay a higher price for goods purchased for personal use as a result of antitrust violations sustain an injury in their "property" within the meaning of § 4. Pp. 337-345.
(a) Statutory construction must begin with the language employed by Congress. The word "property" has a naturally broad and inclusive meaning comprehending, in common usage, anything of material value owned or possessed. Congress' use of the disjunctive "or" in the phrase "business or property" indicates "business" was not intended to modify "property," nor was "property" intended to modify "business." Giving the word "property" the independent significance to which it is entitled in this context does not destroy the restrictive significance of the phrase "business or property" as a whole. Pp. 337-339.
(b) Monetary injury, standing alone, may be injury in one's "property" within the meaning of § 4. Chattanooga Foundry & Pipe Works v. Atlanta, 203 U.S. 390. Thus, the fact that petitioner was deprived of only money is no reason to conclude that she did not sustain a "property" injury. Pp. 339-340.
(c) Nor does petitioner's status as a "consumer" who purchased goods at retail for personal use change the nature of the injury she suffered or the intrinsic meaning of "property" in § 4. Pp. 340-342.
(d) The legislative history reflects that the treble damages remedy was designed to protect consumers, and that no one questioned the right of consumers to sue under § 4. Thus, to the extent that § 4's legislative history is relevant, it also supports the conclusion that a consumer deprived of money by reason of anticompetitive conduct is injured in "property" within the meaning of § 4. Pp. 342-344.
(e) The fact that allowing class actions such as this may add a significant burden to the federal courts' already overcrowded dockets is an important, but not a controlling, consideration, since Congress created the § 4 treble damages remedy precisely for the purpose of encouraging private challenges to antitrust violations. P. 344.
(f) Respondents' arguments that the cost of defending consumer class actions will have a potentially ruinous effect on small businesses in particular, and will ultimately be paid by consumers, are policy considerations more properly addressed to Congress than to this Court; in any event, they cannot govern the reading of the plain language of § 4. Pp. 344-345.
579 F.2d 1077, reversed and remanded.
BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except BRENNAN, J., who took no part in the decision of the case. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 345.