Author: Jarod Bona
When you defend antitrust class actions in federal court like we do, you often see a long list of state antitrust claims brought by what are called indirect purchasers. That is because the federal antitrust laws have this strange quirk that usually forbids federal antitrust claims for damages by indirect purchasers.
You can read more about the history of how this doctrine developed here, including Illinois Brick and Hanover Shoe. And you can learn about the most recent Supreme Court developments for indirect purchasers, including the Court’s Apple v. Pepper case, here.
As sometimes happens when the US Supreme Court changes federal antitrust law, politicians melt down and some state governments pass reactive legislation altering their state antitrust statutes. If you are an armchair antitrust litigator, you might recall that after the Supreme Court announced its resale-price-maintenance decision in Leegin, some state governments responded with legislation so these vertical agreements would hold their per-se-violation status, at least under certain state laws.
After the Supreme Court eliminated most indirect-purchaser damage actions (see here for the co-conspirator exception), many states began allowing them under their own antitrust laws. So even though federal law bars these claims, class-action defendants still face them when a separate group of indirect-purchaser class plaintiffs sue in federal court under a hodgepodge of state antitrust laws. And it’s a little messy.
For background, the states that allow indirect purchaser damage actions are called repealer states and those that don’t are called non-repealer states. And the repealer states themselves vary in the scope of what they permit.
So, faced with this mess of conflicting state antitrust laws, class counsel will do what they can to streamline the applicable-law analysis for the presiding judge. Indeed, to achieve class certification, the plaintiff class must show not only that there is commonality among the class members, but also (for most actions) that the common questions predominate over the individual questions. A defendant might defeat class certification by showing that conflicting applicable laws overwhelm common issues of fact and law.
Until recently, it was not uncommon for a plaintiff class to sue a California-based defendant for damages in California federal court, on behalf of indirect purchasers from all the states—repealer and non-repealer alike. Their argument was that under California choice-of-law doctrine, California’s antitrust law—the Cartwright Act—applies to all of the claims because the “bad acts” were done in California, even though many class members experienced the injury outside of California. California, you might have guessed, is a repealer state that allows indirect purchaser damages under its antitrust law.
You can see what a luxurious solution this is for the indirect purchaser class plaintiffs: They can expand their total damages, even to potential class members in non-repealer states and the court need only analyze one jurisdiction’s law, California. And they can avoid writing the tedious briefs canvassing the laws of many different states. I can tell you, first-hand, that this briefing is monotonous for the defense side too—and probably the court.
Choice of Law and Stromberg v. Qualcomm
Of course, this “solution” assumes that it is proper under choice-of-law analysis to apply California law to all of the claims. This issue arose in the Ninth Circuit in 2021, in Stromberg v. Qualcomm, and Judge Ryan D. Nelson, writing for the Court, analyzed it marvelously.
This isn’t an article analyzing this Qualcomm decision, but I’ll tell you about what the court did on choice of law, the implications of that decision, and its broader lesson.
Important Note: Bona Law filed an amicus brief in a different, but potentially related, case in the Ninth Circuit supporting Qualcomm in an antitrust case brought by the FTC. So, based upon that appellate brief, the fact that we represent defendants in antitrust class actions, and that I generally like and respect Qualcomm, which is a San-Diego-based company, you should assume that I am biased. Indeed, if you are a sophisticated reader, you should always try to understand the writer’s perspective and potential biases because they affect the writing, even unintentionally.
Anyway, similar to the scenario above, this was a case in which the plaintiff class convinced the district court to apply California law to indirect purchaser claims from all over the country—both repealer and non-repealer states. In doing so, the court granted class certification, and Qualcomm appealed that grant under Rule 23(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
The Ninth Circuit ultimately condemned the district court’s choice-of-law analysis as faulty. Instead of California law applying to all claims, the laws of each of the other states should have applied to their respective resident plaintiffs.