SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
Professional Real Estate Investors, Inc. v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
508 U.S. 49
No. 91-1043. Argued Nov. 2, 1992 -- Decided May 3, 1993
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
Although those who petition government for redress are generally immune from antitrust liability, Eastern R. Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc., 365 U.S. 127, such immunity is withheld when petitioning activity "ostensibly directed toward influencing governmental action, is a mere sham to cover . . . an attempt to interfere directly" with a competitor's business relationships, (collectively, PRE) rented id. at 144. Petitioner resort hotel operators videodiscs to guests for use with videodisc players located in each guest's room, and sought to develop a market for the sale of such players to other hotels. Respondent major motion picture studios (collectively, Columbia), which held copyrights to the motion pictures recorded on PRE's videodiscs and licensed the transmission of those motion pictures to hotel rooms, sued PRE for alleged copyright infringement. PRE counterclaimed, alleging that Columbia's copyright action was a mere sham that cloaked underlying acts of monopolization and conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of §§ 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act. The District Court granted summary judgment to PRE on the copyright claim, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. On remand, the District Court granted Columbia's motion for summary judgment on PRE's antitrust claims. Because Columbia had probable cause to bring the infringement action, the court reasoned, the action was no sham, and was entitled to immunity. The District Court also denied PRE's request for further discovery Noerr on Columbia's intent in bringing its action. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Noting that PRE's sole argument was that the lawsuit was a sham because Columbia did not honestly believe its infringement claim was meritorious, the court found that the existence of probable cause precluded the application of the sham exception as a matter of law, and rendered irrelevant any evidence of Columbia's subjective intent in bringing suit.
1. Litigation cannot be deprived of immunity as a sham unless it is objectively baseless. This Court's decisions establish that the legality of objectively reasonable petitioning "directed toward obtaining governmental action" is "not at all affected by any anticompetitive purpose [the actor] may have had." Id. at 140. Thus, neither Noerr immunity nor its sham exception turns on subjective intent alone. See, e.g., Allied Tube Conduit Corp. v. Indian Head, Inc., 486 U.S. 492, 503. Rather, to be a "sham," litigation must meet a two-part definition. First, the lawsuit must be objectively baseless in the sense that no reasonable litigant could realistically expect success on the merits. Only if challenged litigation is objectively meritless may a court examine the litigant's subjective motivation. Under this second part of the definition, a court should focus on whether the baseless suit conceals "an attempt to interfere directly" with a competitor's business relationships, Noerr, supra, 365 U.S. at 144, through the "use [of] the governmental process -- as opposed to the outcome of that process -- as an anticompetitive weapon," Columbia v. Omni Outdoor Advertising, Inc., 499 U.S. 365, 380. This two-tiered process requires a plaintiff to disprove the challenged lawsuit's legal viability before the court will entertain evidence of the suit's economic viability. Pp. 55-61.
2. Because PRE failed to establish the objective prong of Noerr's sham exception, summary judgment was properly granted to Columbia. A finding that an antitrust defendant claiming Noerr immunity had probable cause to sue compels the conclusion that a reasonable litigant in the defendant's position could realistically expect success on the merits of the challenged lawsuit. Here, the lower courts correctly found probable cause for Columbia's suit. Since there was no dispute over the predicate facts of the underlying legal proceedings -- Columbia had the exclusive right to show its copyrighted motion pictures publicly -- the court could decide probable cause as a matter of law. A court could reasonably conclude that Columbia's action was an objectively plausible effort to enforce rights, since, at the time the District Court entered summary judgment, there was no clear copyright law on videodisc rental activities; since Columbia might have won its copyright suit in two other Circuits; and since Columbia would have been entitled to press a novel claim, even in the absence of supporting authority, if a similarly situated reasonable litigant could have perceived some likelihood of success. Pp. 62-65.
3. The Court of Appeals properly refused PRE's request for further discovery on the economic circumstances of the underlying copyright litigation, because such matters were rendered irrelevant by the objective legal reasonableness of Columbia's infringement suit. Pp. 65-66.
944 F.2d 1525 (CA 9 1991), affirmed.
THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. [508 U.S. 51] SOUTER, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 66. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 67.