The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to review a hotly disputed ruling that bars rank-and-file consumers from suing for price-fixing or other antitrust injuries and collecting the triple damages allowed under the Clayton Act of 1914.
The ruling of Judge Myron H. Bright and J. Smith Henley of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last June also would bar the United States from suing federal suppliers who rig prices.
In addition, 41 states, including Maryland and Virginia, protested that the decision effectively nullifies a 1976 law that empowers their attorneys general to sue in behalf of all residents in their jurisdictions when small sums extracted by price fixing from individual citizens make it impractical for the individuals to sue.
The appeals court issued the ruling in dismissing a class action brought in Minneapolis against five manufacturers of hearing aids. They were accused fo combining and conspiring, particularly to set prices charged by retail dealers.
Overturning U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson, the appeals court held that the plaintiff -- Kathleen R. Reiter in behalf of other consumers -- had no right to sue under the Clayton Act's Section 4.
The section allows suits by "any person" injured in his "business or property." But the appellate judge held that hearing-aid buyers weren't injured in either their "business" or their "property."
They also denounced all such class actions as anticompetitive, without merit and "potentially ruinous" to American business. And in so doing, the judges impermissibly substituted their judgment for that of Congress as to how to enforce the antitrust laws, the Justice Department said.
The court also took these other actions:
The justices granted a petition by the Interior Department and the Office of Management and Budget to review a decision that they claim "marks the first significant judicial intervention in the processes of the Executive Branch that culminate in the president's annual submission of his budget to Congress."
Handed down last May by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here, the decision said that, under the National Environmental Impact Act of 1969, environmental impact statements must be filed within the executive branch when federal programs would change the environmental status quo significantly or when an agency takes a "new look" at a program.
The ruling would require agencies to file the statements with budget requests to the OMB, and with OMB's requests to the president.
Consolidation Coal Co., a subsidiary of Continental Oil Co., lost another round in a prolonged effort to suppress evidence needed by the federal government to try a 172-count 1975 indictment accusing Consolidation Coal and supervisers Francis L. Marks and Raymond J. Zitko of conspiring in the knowing submission of false safety data to the Interior Department and of willful violation of coal-mine health and safety standards.
The court rejected petitions by Consolidation and the supervisors to review a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Interior safety officials had probable cause for the warrants they got for a search of Consolidation offices at its mines in Georgetown, Ohio.