Author: Luis Blanquez
As a long-standing antitrust attorney in Europe, making the decision to move from Madrid to San Diego a few years ago to practice law in the U.S. has been a life-changing experience. Both personally and professionally. Learning from other cultures, colleagues, and languages is something I strongly recommend to everyone. It opens your mind and provides you with a different perspective about the world and yourself. And of course, that also applies to the practice of law.
Indeed, when you move to a new jurisdiction you basically become a “newborn” attorney, but with all your past experience in the backpack. That puts you in the best position to approach everything with a “fresh pair of eyes”, which in turn allows you to add value to your team and cases in a unique way.
In that respect, something I noticed during these first years of practicing antitrust law in the U.S. is how district courts, in deciding motions to dismiss cases, disagree on the applicable standard when analyzing antitrust conspiracies. Some apply the summary-judgment or trial-like standard to conspiracy allegations, particularly when confronted with “non-parallel-conduct” cases, despite the fact that a complaint at that stage is constructed without the benefits of discovery. Others misunderstand the language in Twombly about “ruling out the possibility of independent action,”—which is specific to conscious parallelism cases—and they incorrectly add it to the list of pleading requirements.
TWOMBLY AND THE PLAUSIBILITY STANDARD
For those not familiar with antitrust law, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly changed the antitrust pleading standards in federal court from one of “extreme permissibility” to the current “plausibility” standard. And that was a big deal because it basically re-defined what Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires for a complaint to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12(b)(6) FRCP.
In antitrust cases, a claim under Section 1 of the Sherman Act requires (i) a contract, combination, or conspiracy; (ii) an unreasonable restraint of trade in the relevant market; (iii) and antitrust injury.
For the first prong, there are two ways to prove a “contract, combination, or conspiracy”: (i) by direct evidence that shows the existence of an agreement; or (ii) through a combination of parallel conduct and “plus factors,” i.e., “economic actions and outcomes that are largely inconsistent with unilateral conduct but largely consistent with explicitly coordinated action.” In re Musical Instruments & Equip. Antitrust Litig., 798 F.3d 1186, 1194 (9th Cir. 2015).
Last, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint also requires antitrust injury. An antitrust plaintiff must show both constitutional standing and antitrust standing. If you want to know more about antitrust injury, we have written extensively on the subject.
Here I will just focus on the two ways courts may prove a “contract, combination, or conspiracy”: (i) direct evidence, (ii) or circumstantial evidence and “plus factors”. This is the prong where district courts have been struggling when ruling on their motions to dismiss, mainly because Justice Souter’s opinion in Twombly included some language from the landmark summary-judgment decision (Matsushita) that the Court used to explain why in conscious parallelism cases, plaintiffs’ “offer of conspiracy evidence must tend to rule out the possibility that the defendants were acting independently.”
Direct evidence in a Section 1 antitrust conspiracy means evidence that is explicit and requires no inferences to establish the conclusion that an agreement exists. In plain English, a “smoking gun” in the form of documents, meetings or defendants’ testimony.
Federal courts around the country have agreed––with very limited exceptions––that whenever a complaint includes such non-conclusory allegations of direct evidence of an agreement, there is no need to go any further on the question of whether such an agreement has been adequately pled. And this is important because it means that allegations of direct evidence of an agreement––if sufficiently detailed––are independently adequate and sufficient alone.
Bottom line, in direct evidence scenarios, there is no need to even carry out the Twombly “plausibility” analysis in the first place. To meet the direct evidence standard the evidence must explicitly support the asserted proposition without requiring any inference. In re Citric Acid Litig., 191 F.3d 1090, 1093 (9th Cir. 1999) (“Citric Acid”)
This is the only threshold that a plaintiff should meet in order to survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss when providing direct evidence.
CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE, PARALLEL CONDUCT AND “PLUS FACTORS”
But like everything meaningful in life, things are rarely that straightforward in antitrust law. Thus, in alleging a conspiracy, a plaintiff may present either direct evidence (or if that’s not possible), circumstantial evidence of defendants’ conscious commitment to a common scheme designed to achieve an unlawful objective. This is a mouthful, so let’s try to bring some light to it.
District courts have the power to insist on some degree of specificity in pleading before allowing an antitrust complaint relying on allegations of circumstantial evidence of agreement to proceed. That’s why the Supreme Court in Twombly offered some guidance as to how to properly plead an agreement in parallel conduct cases: