Sep

15

Posted by : Matthew Wild | On : September 15, 2011

In antitrust litigation, defendants routinely resist discovery pending a motion to dismiss.  They rely on Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, arguing that they should not be put through the expense of discovery until the Court decides whether the claims are plausible.  On September 8, 2011, the United States District for the District of Colorado rejected such tactics.  SOLIDFX, LLC v. Jeppesen Sanderson, Inc., 11-CV-01468-WJM-BNB, 2011 WL 4018207 (D. Colo. Sept. 8, 2011).  The Court held that Twombly “does not erect an automatic, blanket prohibition on any and all discovery before an antitrust plaintiff’s complaint survives a motion to dismiss.”  (citation omitted).  It explained that “[w]hen the discovery would not be so burdensome, a closer question is presented, a question calling for the exercise of discretion and the balancing of competing factors.” (citation omitted).  The Court noted that “[a] party seeking a protective order under Rule 26(c) has the burden of demonstrating good cause and cannot sustain that burden simply by offering conclusory statements.  Accordingly, the party moving for a protective order must make a particular and specific demonstration of fact in support of its request.”  The Court denied the stay because the defendant did not make a factual showing of burden.

Plaintiffs would be well advised to press for at least targeted discovery, such as documents produced in government investigations.  To extent that no genuine burden exists, such discovery should be obtainable pending a motion to dismiss regardless of its strength.

Jan

14

Posted by : Matthew Wild | On : January 14, 2011

The Seventh Circuit accepted an interlocutory appeal on a certified question arising from the district court’s denial of a motion to dismiss the second amended complaint in In re Text Messaging Antitrust Litig., No.10-8037, 2010 WL 5367383 (7th Cir. Dec. 29, 2010).  Judge Posner held that the sufficiency of a complaint’s allegations to state a claim was a controlling question of law within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. section 1292(b).  Judge Posner then affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss because:

“The second amended complaint alleges a mixture of parallel behaviors, details of industry structure, and industry practices, that facilitate collusion. There is nothing incongruous about such a mixture. If parties agree to fix prices, one expects that as a result they will not compete in price-that’s the purpose of price fixing. Parallel behavior of a sort anomalous in a competitive market is thus a symptom of price fixing, though standing alone it is not proof of it; and an industry structure that facilitates collusion constitutes supporting evidence of collusion. An accusation that the thousands of children who set up makeshift lemonade stands all over the country on hot summer days were fixing prices would be laughed out of court because the retail sale of lemonade from lemonade stands constitutes so dispersed and heterogeneous and uncommercial a market as to make a nationwide conspiracy of the sellers utterly implausible. But the complaint in this case alleges that the four defendants sell 90 percent of U.S. text messaging services, and it would not be difficult for such a small group to agree on prices and to be able to detect “cheating” (underselling the agreed price by a member of the group) without having to create elaborate mechanisms, such as an exclusive sales agency, that could not escape discovery by the antitrust authorities.

Of note is the allegation in the complaint that the defendants belonged to a trade association and exchanged price information directly at association meetings. This allegation identifies a practice, not illegal in itself, that facilitates price fixing that would be difficult for the authorities to detect. The complaint further alleges that the defendants, along with two other large sellers of text messaging services, constituted and met with each other in an elite “leadership council” within the association-and the leadership council’s stated mission was to urge its members to substitute “co-opetition” for competition.

The complaint also alleges that in the face of steeply falling costs, the defendants increased their prices. This is anomalous behavior because falling costs increase a seller’s profit margin at the existing price, motivating him, in the absence of agreement, to reduce his price slightly in order to take business from his competitors, and certainly not to increase his price. And there is more: there is an allegation that all at once the defendants changed their pricing structures, which were heterogeneous and complex, to a uniform pricing structure, and then simultaneously jacked up their prices by a third. The change in the industry’s pricing structure was so rapid, the complaint suggests, that it could not have been accomplished without agreement on the details of the new structure, the timing of its adoption, and the specific uniform price increase that would ensue on its adoption.”

As this case indicates, Twombly should not be overly difficult to satisfy even in the absence of a governmental investigation to support the conspiracy allegations.  It is also noteworthy that the although the court entertained an interlocutory appeal by permission, such an approach is the exception, not the rule.  Indeed, even in this case, the court expedited the appeal by not accepting additional briefing and not hearing oral argument.

Oct

20

Posted by : Matthew Wild | On : October 20, 2008

In In re Apple & AT&TM Antitrust Litigation, No. 07-CV-05152-JW (N.D. Cal. Oct. 1, 2008) (attached IPhone Decision), plaintiffs alleged that the arrangement in which the Apple IPhone worked exclusively with AT&TM not only for the initial two-year contract period but also for three additional years after their contracts expired with AT&TM violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act.  Plaintiffs also alleged that Apple’s restrictions on dowloadable applications for use on IPhones violated Section 2.  Plaintiffs alleged Section 2 claims of monopolization and attempted monopolization of the market for IPhone applications and monopolization, attempted monopolization and a conspiracy to monopolize the market for voice and data services to IPhone owners.  The Northern District of California held that there were cognizable relevant product markets limited to Apple IPhone customers in these aftermarkets.  The court distinguished cases in which customers voluntarily commit to a lock-in through a contract such as when a franchisee agrees to purchase certain products from its franchisor.  In this case, the Complaint alleged that the lock-in was created through deceit or unbeknownst to the customers at the time of purchase.  The Complaint alleged that the IPhone customers did not know that they could not unlock their IPhones from AT&TM service after the two-year commitment or  the limitation on downloadable applications.  This case is consistent with the Supreme Court’s approach in determining whether aftermarkets represent separate relevant product markets.  The key inquiry is whether the consumer knows or has reason to know of limitations in purchasing products or services in the afermarket before he becomes locked-in by the initial purchase.

Jul

15

Posted by : Matthew Wild | On : July 15, 2008

On July 11, 2008, the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of a franchisee’s tying claim regarding credit and debit card processing services that was nearly identical to a claim that Judge Posner rejected on June 23, 2008 in Sheridan v. Marathon Petroleum LLC. (See July 11, 2008 Post). In Rick-Mik Enterprises Inc. v. Equilon Enterprises, LLC, No. 06-55937, 2008 WL 2697793 (9th Cir. July 11, 2008), a franchisee claimed that the requirement that it use the franchisor’s credit and debit card processing services was tying in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. The Ninth Circuit rejected this claim for the same reasons that the Seventh Circuit did in Sheridan. The Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal because that the complaint lacked (1) allegations that Equilon had market power in the gasoline franchise market and (2) credit and debit card processing services was not a distinct product from the rest of the Equilon gasoline station franchise.

Jul

10

Posted by : Matthew Wild | On : July 10, 2008

On June 23, 2008, the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of a Marathon gas station franchisee’s claim that requiring the use of Marathon transaction processing equipment for transactions with Marathon gas cards violated the Sherman Act. Sheridan v. Marathon Petroleum Co. LLC, No. 07-3543, 2008 WL 2486581 (7th Cir. June 23, 2008). To state a claim for tying in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, the franchisee had to plead, among other things, that Marathon had monopoly power and that sale of one product (the tying product) is conditioned on the purchase of another product (the tied product). Judge Posner found that the complaint lacked sufficient allegations of market power because “[n]o market shares statistics for Marathon either locally or nationally are given, and there is no information in that complaint that would enable local shares to be calculated.” Id. at *4. Judge Posner also found no tying because “[a]ll that [Marathon] has done is require its franchisees to honor Marathon credit cards and to process sales with them through the system designated by Marathon so that customers who use its cards have the same purchasing experience no matter which Marathon gas station they buy from.” There is no requirement that franchisees use the Marathon processing system for other credit cards. Although the issues in this case are straightforward, Judge Posner’s opinion is very useful in explaining under what circumstances a tying arrangement might be illegal.

Feb

25

Posted by : Matthew Wild | On : February 25, 2008

January 7, 2008.  In Kentucky Speedway, LLC v. Nat’l Ass’n of Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc., Civil Action No. 05-138 (WOB), 2008 WL 113987 (E.D.K.y. Jan. 7, 2008), the district court granted summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s Section 1 and 2 claims.   Kentucky Speedway sued because NASCAR refused to sponsor a NEXTEL race at its track.  The Court considered it a “jilted distributor” case.  It found that Kentucky Speedway failed to come forward with sufficient proof of relevant product market — an essential of element of both its Section 1 and 2 claims.   It rejected the proposed relevant markets of a sanctioning market for the NEXTEL race and a hosting market for the same race.  It granted NASCAR’s Daubert motion to exclude Kentucky Speedway’s expert because he did no study to determine the cross-elasticity of demand between NEXTEL races and other potential substitutes such as sporting events in general.  Rather, Kentucky Speedway’s expert assumed only that a Bush NASCAR race event was a potential substitute.