Articles Posted in Class Actions

Appellate-Court-Building-300x182

If you are the antitrust lawyer for a defendant in a class action, defeating class certification is a major victory—usually a complete victory, pending appeal.

You can read a more complete description of the requirements for class certification in our article on the class action antitrust case of Comcast v. Behrend.

But before we talk about the North District of California’s class certification decision in In re Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation, we will hit the highlights of the most common dispute in these type of cases.

It is also important that you know that, as of the date of this blog post, Bona Law represents a defendant in the In re Capacitors Antitrust Litigation, which also will involve a class certification motion from plaintiffs and similar issues. So please evaluate anything I write with that in mind.

In fact, even though we will represent businesses as either plaintiffs or defendants in competitor antitrust litigation, Bona Law will not—except in rare or unusual circumstances—represent a class action of plaintiffs in an antitrust action (at least as of now). We will, however, represent defendants in antitrust class-action cases, as I have many times over my career.

So, the bottom line, is that I come to these issues from the perspective of an antitrust attorney representing defendants in class action litigation. It is a good practice when reading anything to always understand the perspective of the writer, to understand biases, blind spots, or how their experiences can cloud their explanations. I do my best at The Antitrust Attorney Blog to provide useful information rather than propaganda or corporate double-speak, but I am human with all of the weaknesses and limitations that come with that.

Common Class Certification Issues

Every case is different, of course, but here is what usually matters most at the class-certification stage of antitrust class-action litigation:

Plaintiffs will collect a lot of transactional data and other discovery from defendants. They will pass that on to their expert economists, who will submit a report that plaintiffs need to satisfy the elements of class certification—which is their burden. Defendants, of course, have their own expert who will attack plaintiffs’ experts and often present their own economic theories.

The primary issue in dispute is usually whether common issues predominate over individual issues—from Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3). And the most likely disputed issue that may be either common or individual is the impact or damages from the alleged anticompetitive conduct.

The Court is not tasked with determining the merits—including whether there was, in fact, an antitrust conspiracy—so the parties will often at this stage fight over whether if there were a conspiracy, the plaintiffs’ experts can establish a reliable methodology to show that there is a common impact to the many class members. Of course, issues of merits are usually entangled within the class-certification questions.

Another issue that is increasingly important in antitrust class actions is typicality—whether the named or representative class members are “typical” of the unrepresented members of the class.

This battle usually happens on two fronts during class certification: (1) motions to strike the plaintiffs’ expert economists’ testimony for lack of reliability or something similar; and (2) whether plaintiffs can satisfy the elements for class certification.

That, in fact, was where the parties fought in the papers for class certification of the Lithium Ion case.

Class Certification Decision for In re Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation

The Lithium Ion Batteries case involves allegations by named class members of a multi-year, international price-fixing conspiracy among Japanese and Korean manufacturers (and their American subsidiaries) of lithium ion battery cells.

Continue reading →

Supreme Court amicus briefAs an attorney defending an antitrust class action, your job is to get your client out of the case as expeditiously and inexpensively as possible. There are several exit points.

For example, with a little help from the US Supreme Court’s Twombly decision, you might find your way out with a motion to dismiss, asserting (among other potential arguments) that plaintiffs fail to allege sufficient allegations that a conspiracy is plausible. This is usually the first battle.

Next, you could reach a settlement with class-action plaintiffs (and have it approved by the Court). This could happen at any point in the case. Oftentimes, case events that change expectations will prompt a settlement—i.e. a Department of Justice decision to drop an investigation or an indictment.

Third, you might prevail on summary judgment (or at least partial summary judgment). One means to winning on summary judgment is to disqualify plaintiff’s expert with a Daubert motion.

Fourth, you can win at trial.

Fifth, if you lose at trial, it is time to find a great appellate lawyer.

So far, these methods to get out of court look just like any other antitrust case (or commercial litigation matter). An attorney defending an antitrust class action, however, has extra way to get its client out of the case: Defeating Class Certification.

Defense attorneys are increasingly turning to class certification as a primary battle point to get their clients out of federal antitrust class actions.

An antitrust class action usually alleges some form conduct that is a per se antitrust violation in which the damages are a small amount for each class member. For example, an antitrust class action plaintiff might allege a price-fixing conspiracy among the major manufacturers in a particular industry. Plaintiffs may allege that the damage is just a few dollars or cents per plaintiff, but collectively the damages are in the millions or tens or hundreds of millions (or more).

Thus, if the Court denies plaintiffs’ motion to certify a class (barring appeal), each individual plaintiff must sue. And since each only has damages of a few dollars or less, litigation just doesn’t make sense. That, in fact, is the point of Federal Rule 23 and class actions generally—to allow relief when the aggregate harm is great but the individual harm is miniscule.

[See this article that I co-authored with Carl Hittinger on the private-attorney general purpose of class actions.]

A defendant that can defeat class certification effectively wins the case.

The US Supreme Court made this task easier for attorneys defending antitrust class actions in the 2013 classic antitrust case of Comcast Corporation v. Behrend, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Back in my DLA Piper days, I wrote about the Comcast case for the Daily Journal shortly after the Supreme Court published it.

This case involved a class action against Comcast that alleged that Comcast’s policy of “clustering” violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Clustering is a strategy of concentrating operations within a particular region. Plaintiffs alleged that Comcast would trade cable systems outside of their targeted region for competitor systems within their region. This would limit competition for both parties, by concentrating the market for each region with fewer cable providers.

But that wasn’t the issue the Supreme Court addressed. The Supreme Court in Comcast v. Behrend instead sought to determine whether the district court properly certified the class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3), which is known as the predominance requirement.

Continue reading →

LIBOR Antitrust MDLThe US Supreme Court just issued its decision in an antitrust case called Ellen Gelboim v. Bank of America Corporation. This case arises out of major multi-district litigation (an MDL) centered on allegations that major banks conspired to manipulate the London InterBank Offered Rate (which you probably know as LIBOR) to lower their interest costs on financial instruments sold to investors.

For purposes of Gelboim, the intricate details of the alleged conspiracy are not relevant, but you should know that it led to over 60 actions filed in federal court against the banks.

That sounds like a lot of cases and you might infer from the large number that the defendants must have done something wrong if so many people are suing them. But that isn’t necessarily true.

What happens is that a government agency announces an investigation (or it leaks) or someone has the idea that there is price-fixing, market-allocation, bid-rigging or some related horizontal per se antitrust violation going on.

There are plaintiff law firms all over the country that specialize in bringing these types of lawsuits and when one appears, you see many more very quickly. They follow each other and an antitrust blizzard ensues. It is, in fact, an extremely competitive market among plaintiff firms. And when a big set of cases develop, the plaintiff lawyers are often fighting each other for bigger pieces of the pie more than they battle defendants’ attorneys.

Fortunately, there is a set of procedures that deal with such a situation—Section 1407. This statute created the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML), which may transfer the many related actions “involving one or more common questions of fact” to one district court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings.

Importantly, as the Supreme Court points out, this does not mean that all of the cases are transferred forever into the one district court. They are just there for pre-trial proceedings. Of course, practically speaking, they rarely leave that court as most of these cases are either dismissed or settled. If not, the statute requires that each individual action “shall be remanded by the panel at or before the conclusion” of the pretrial proceedings to the original district court.

Continue reading →

real estate agent antitrustI’ve often written about real estate on this blog. There are two reasons for this.

The first and most important reason is because my wife and I invest in real estate and thus talk about real estate, so it is on my mind. In fact, I have my California real-estate license. Bona Law PC also offers real-estate litigation services.

The second reason is that real-estate, in addition to its many advantages, creates many unique competition issues. Real-estate agents often engage in cut-throat competition with each other, sometimes even within the same brokerage firm. Yet, the nature of their job requires them to work together for almost every transaction.

In addition, the markets to sell real-estate are primarily local, even though national brokerage firms may dominate each individual geographic area. Within each locality, there are often a handful of large brokerage firms.

Finally, the market for real-estate services and commissions suggests some supra-competitive pricing in that most firms in a certain area will charge approximately the same commission. And the splits between the buying and selling agents are often equal as well. In the Minneapolis, Minnesota area for example, at least as of a few years ago, selling agents would often receive 3.3% and buying agents 2.7% of the purchase price. In my current market, a small village in North San Diego County, the buying and selling agents typically split the 5% commission.

Suspiciously, while technology and other competition has reduced relative prices for many professionals, commission percentages have held relatively steady for real-estate agents, despite the fact that buyers and sellers (especially buyers) can do much of their own homework online. How many of you have purchased a house without spending a lot of time online yourself looking at listings?

So does that mean that real-estate brokerage firms and agents are violating the antitrust laws all over the country? Should we coordinate a dramatic—made for the movies—event whereby federal agents knock down the doors of real-estate firms all over the country one morning, handcuffing and booking the agents that would do anything to get you in their car to show you some houses?

Probably not yet.

In November of this year, the Sixth Circuit decided a case called Hyland v. Homeservices of America, Inc. that nicely illustrates the line between antitrust violation and what is often called conscious parallelism or oligopolistic price coordination.

In Hyland, a class of people who sold residential real estate in Kentucky and used certain real-estate agents sued several real-estate brokerages as a class action under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants participated in a horizontal conspiracy to fix the commissions charged in Kentucky real-estate transactions at an anticompetitive rate.

Like agents in many localities, defendants each charged a typical or standard commission rate of 6%, and mostly resist any attempts to negotiate a lower rate. The buying agent’s commission is typically 3%. These numbers may look familiar to you if you bought or sold real estate recently, as real-estate services for most residential real-estate markets are similarly priced.

Continue reading →

Rotten WoodThe defendants in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. failed to show the US Supreme Court the “special justification” necessary to overturn settled precedent.

As we explained in a previous post, the Supreme Court in this case agreed to reconsider its 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson, which allowed a shareholder class in a securities fraud lawsuit to satisfy statutory “reliance” requirements by invoking a presumption that stock prices traded in “efficient” markets incorporate all material information, including alleged misrepresentations.

But between then and now, academics, economists, and commentators chipped away at the economic theory underlying this presumption, which is based upon “the efficient capital markets hypothesis.”

So if a legal precedent depends upon an economic theory that now appears less valid than it did before, do you overrule it or keep it in place because it has ingrained itself into a larger legal structure?

Here is a similar question from real estate: If part of the wood in a load-bearing wall has started to rot, do you replace it? The Supreme Court held that you do, if you can show a “special justification.”

Continue reading →

Antitrust lawsuit costsIf you ask this question to an antitrust lawyer, you will receive some form of “it depends” in response. That’s true. It does depend. And you will inevitably follow up with, “What does it depend upon?” Let’s see if we can begin to answer that question.

What we are discussing here is not a class-action antitrust lawsuit, but an antitrust claim by one business or individual against another. Class-action antitrust cases usually incorporate some contingency-fee approach and are lawyer-centered rather than client-centered cases. That is, the plaintiff law firms act as “private-attorney generals” to enforce the antitrust laws through the class-action vehicle. Those cases are very different than the typical case brought by a company against its competitor, supplier, or customer. You can read our article on defending against class certification in antitrust cases here.

Antitrust cases are expensive. Usually. But if managed effectively, they don’t need to cost nearly as much as they did when big law firms held a virtually monopoly on the cases by convincing clients that only they had the requisite resources to file such a massive claim.

With the combination of technological advancements and third-party providers, I believe that, in many instances, hiring a big law firm to run your antitrust case is a costly mistake. We’ll get into that more below.

I am not going to get into actual numbers here because fees and other costs vary and will change over time. But if you are considering antitrust litigation, studying the components of an antitrust lawsuit will help you (1) understand what you are paying for and (2) figure out how to reduce your costs.

Below are the primary-cost drivers of an antitrust case. Of course, every case is different and a lot can come up in litigation that is unexpected and unusual. That keeps it interesting, but also increases cost variances. The list below doesn’t hit everything, but I hope it helps you.

Continue reading →

antitrust blizzardJust like the Antitrust Law Journal, I am a big fan of Antitrust Magazine, also published by the American Bar Association. Whereas the Antitrust Law Journal is celebrated for its depth and economic and academic focus, Antitrust Magazine offers great practical discussion of cutting-edge issues targeted to antitrust lawyers like myself.

The magazine is perfect for long plane flights—like the one I had yesterday from New York. I pass up the Wi-Fi option on flights to read my favorite medium, actual paper. It is refreshing to the point that I actually look forward to this time to sit and read without electronic interruption.

Of course, I had my almost four-year-old son next to me, so my interruptions came in a different form. Minus an occasional frustrated outburst borne from too much traveling, he behaved quite well and fell asleep in the final twenty minutes of the five-hour flight to Sunny San Diego. We enjoyed New York, but it is always great to be home.

The theme of the Spring 2014 Antitrust Magazine is “Trying a Cartel Case.” Success in trial, of course, arrives only with great preparation well before trial and the articles in the magazine effectively made that point.

Trial is an important skill, but it is merely the tip of the larger mountain that you create from the very beginning of a case. Everything you do should advance toward summary judgment and trial and seemingly insignificant or minor decisions early in a case could have much larger ramifications later.

Continue reading →

Employees and antitrustThat’s right, the antitrust laws care so much about competition that they even prohibit agreements among competitors to not steal. In a society that morally condemns stealing, this is counter-intuitive (and a good reason to learn a little bit about antitrust).

You might wonder now whether I will engage in some philosophy gymnastics to convince you that stealing is okay. No, but I will provide a concrete example, then offer some advice. Not as fun, but perhaps more useful.

So California is abuzz with recently released documents in an antitrust class action by employees against giant Silicon Valley employers like Google, Inc., Apple Inc., Intel Corp and Adobe Systems Inc. The case is scheduled for trial soon and news reports suggest a settlement is likely.

Update: As expected, the parties have reportedly agreed to settle the antitrust case.

What happened? The class-action employees accused major Silicon Valley employers of agreeing not to steal each other’s employees. If true, that’s kind of a big deal under the antitrust laws.

It doesn’t sound so bad, right? How can anyone get any work done if everyone is trying to steal everyone’s employees? And it just seems impolite. Competitors are so tough on each other—can’t we have just a little bit of dignity and not try to hire away your competitor’s employees? The sort of war that can ensue among competing employers for a scarce resource—quality technology employees—can make a truce very tempting.

Continue reading →

Illinois BrickWhile waiting for my flight to leave San Diego on my way to Washington, DC for the ABA Antitrust Spring Meeting, I saw on Twitter—the best source for immediate Supreme Court news—that the Supreme Court had decided Lexmark International, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc. 

The Supreme Court in that case clarified standing requirements for Lanham Act claims, which create liability for false association and false advertising. The Lanham Act often comes up in legal battles between competitors, as competition often devolves into allegedly false statements about each other’s products or services.

The case is significant for standing in general, but I wonder if it may have some antitrust implications down the road as the lower courts grapple with its broader implications.

Continue reading →

Supreme Court BuildingOn March 5, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether the fraud-on-the-market presumption in securities class actions should survive. The case is Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund and it could be groundbreaking. If the Supreme Court jettisons the presumption, it will close a major avenue for securities class-action lawsuits.

Update: The US Supreme Court issued its decision on June 23, 2014.

But what does this mean for antitrust lawsuits? We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, some background: In 1988, the Supreme Court held in Basic v. Levinson that when a shareholder class sues a company under Rule 10b-5 (for misrepresentation, etc.), it need not show that the individual class members relied on the misrepresentations because the stock market is “efficient” and such statements are quickly incorporated into the stock price.

So if you purchased a share of stock after a management official said that the company increased revenue twenty-percent year-over-year even though the manager knew that the revenue numbers were not accurate, you purchased stock that was already inflated from the statements because the market incorporated those statements immediately into the stock price.

Remember the classic book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street? It is all about efficient-market theory. Great book, by the way.

Continue reading →