Articles Posted in Pleading standards

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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.

What is the Biggest Mistake that District Courts Make in Antitrust Cases?

The Antitrust Pleading Standard Is Shifting Back Toward the Plaintiff

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).

Second, an unreasonable restraint of trade always involves some sort of antitrust illegal conduct such as fixing prices, allocating customers, a group boycott, or rigging bids, among many others.

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.

The Elements of Antitrust Injury: A Two-Prong Test

Antitrust Injury and the Classic Antitrust Case of Brunswick Corp v. Pueblo Bowl-O-Mat

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

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:

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Author: Jarod Bona

In 2007, the Supreme Court issued a bombshell of a case called Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, which caused both antitrust lawyers and civil procedure law professors to rethink how they go about their work.

For those of you not obsessed with law or antitrust, Twombly changed the antitrust pleading standards in federal court from one of extreme permissibility to the current “plausibility” standard.

Courts quickly began applying Twombly beyond antitrust cases, and it now is THE case for motions to dismiss that argue that plaintiffs have not plead enough to move to the next stage of litigation.

When the Supreme Court decided Twombly, it created a surge of excitement, and federal courts began dismissing cases left and right because plaintiffs had not alleged sufficient facts to show a “plausible” claim to relief, under antitrust or other laws.

Since then, I don’t think I have seen any antitrust complaint that wasn’t followed by a motion to dismiss, usually citing Twombly. Notably, courts coupled this elevated standard with refusals to start discovery until after plaintiffs leaped the motion-to-dismiss hurdle.

I believe, however, that the antitrust-pleading-standard pendulum is beginning to shift back toward the plaintiff.

Update: On November 10, 2014, the United States Supreme Court in Johnson v. City of Shelby issued a new plaintiff-friendly pleading decision.

Update 2: You can read my new article on antitrust pleading standards here: “What is the Biggest Mistake that District Court Judges Make in Antitrust Cases?”

Update 3: Read this article from Luis Blanquez: What is the Twombly Motion to Dismiss Standard for Antitrust Cases? Comparing the Ninth and Second Circuits.

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Antitrust Pleading StandardsI won’t hide the ball; I’ll just tell you the answer: Federal district courts deciding motions to dismiss an antitrust case too often apply the summary-judgment standard to conspiracy allegations, particularly when confronted with non-parallel-conduct cases.

This isn’t scientific or empirical—it is my observation and is enough of an issue that more than one federal appellate court has complained about it over the last few years.

The motion to dismiss standard for antitrust conspiracies is, to be fair, somewhat confusing thanks to a case called Bell Atlantic v. Twombly. You can read my prior article about Twombly and pleading standards here.

Before the US Supreme Court decided Twombly in 2007, courts applied a very deferential standard to antitrust motions to dismiss, including conspiracy allegations.

Courts used to follow an old Supreme Court case called Conley v. Gibson (1957) (which you will find cited in many, maybe even most, motion-to-dismiss decisions preceding Twombly). Under Conley, a complaint satisfied specificity requirements if it stated facts that made it “conceivable” that plaintiff could prove its legal claims. A court could only dismiss a claim if it appeared that a plaintiff could prove—the famous phrase—“no set of facts” in support of his or her claim that would entitle the plaintiff to relief.

The Twombly Decision

I remember when I read the Supreme Court’s Twombly decision for the first time. Justice Souter wrote the majority opinion. At the time, I was with DLA Piper and represented a defendant in the In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation (Here is an article about the litigation from Bill Kolasky, who was one of the joint defense group leaders). The case was still with the trial court during one of the motion-to-dismiss briefing rounds. (Usually when a court dismisses an antitrust complaint for the first time, it will do so without prejudice and with leave to amend, which leads to another round of motion-to-dismiss briefing).

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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.

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