For business, the ideal arrangement with the government may be to be regulated, but not very much.
That situation helped title insurance companies in Connecticut, Wisconsin, Montana and Arizona beat back charges from the Federal Trade Commission that they were unlawfully getting together to fix prices on title searches.
One good defense against allegations of conspiring with competitors is the "state action doctrine."
This says that joint efforts are not against the law if they are done to comply with public policy outlined by the government.
The joint activity doesn't have to be compelled by the government; it's enough if the cooperation among competitors is monitored by the state and the efforts are fulfilling some clear policy to replace competition with regulation.
When the FTC moved against title insurance companies, it admitted that their collective rate bureaus, which set uniform rates for title searches, were authorized by Connecticut, Wisconsin, Montana and Arizona.
But the antitrust enforcers argued that supervision of the system was so slight in those states that the antitrust exemption simply didn't apply.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last month rejected that argument.
Federal antitrust enforcers have no business judging either the strictness or the effectiveness of state regulation, Judge William D. Hutchinson said in the Jan. 9 opinion in Ticor Title v. FTC.
The Philadelphia judges borrowed four factors listed last year by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston to see if state enforcement is aggressive enough.
They want evidence that state regulators: have the power to make sure companies are complying with public policy; have a decent staff and budget; can use state courts to back up their orders; and have "engaged in some basic level of activity" in using their powers.
That's enough, the Ticor decision says. And the four states in question meet that minimum standard.
The FTC is overstepping its authority when it tries to impose on state regulators more zeal than they choose to exhibit.
In other cases, courts ruled that:
An employee who has finished work for the day and is leaving the company premises is still "on authorized business" until reaching a public thoroughfare. Using that yardstick, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia decided that an insurance company must pay $100,000 to the estate of a woman murdered by her estranged husband while she was in a covered walkway connected to the building in which she worked.
The group life insurance policy on the woman covered death resulting from "a felonious assault while on authorized business."
The ruling is the first defining the phrase "on authorized business" in an insurance contract.
(McMillian v. State Mutual, Dec. 28) Finger pointing is not a very good defense in tax cases. The government can go after the personal wealth of the "responsible person" if a corporation does not pay taxes that are due. An executive assessed a penalty under that approach argued that the family business's bank really had control of corporate funds and so was the responsible person.
But U.S. District Court Judge Ellen B. Burns in New Haven found that argument was beside the point: There can be more than one "responsible person" in an organization, she ruled.
(Knudsen v. U.S., Jan. 2) A weekend skeleton force may shield a small business from some federal employee insurance requirements. The federal law requiring companies to tell departing employees that they can continue medical insurance by paying their own premium has an exception for businesses with fewer than 20 employees on a typical business day.
The U.S. District Court in Denver found that meant fewer than 20 workers on at least half of the working days, but in making the calculation agreed to count Saturdays, even though the company in question required fewer than 25 percent of its staff to work weekends.
(Martinez v. Dodge Printing, Jan. 9) The woman has to give back the engagement ring if the wedding does not take place. Most courts that have examined the question have said the ownership of the ring hinges on who is at fault for the breakup. But the Iowa Court of Appeals adopted a "no fault" approach. Even though the man is not likely to say so at the time, the judges ruled, both parties implicitly accept the fact that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that becomes legally final only when there is a wedding. (Fierro v. Hoel, Dec. 27)
Daniel B. Moskowitz is a Washington editor with Business Week newsletters.