Court Declines To Certify Damages Class in Baseball Blackout Suit

By on June 17, 2015

On May 14, 2015, the Southern District of New York issued two opinions in Laumann v. Nat’l Hockey League, No. 12-cv-1817, excluding plaintiffs’ damages expert under Daubert and denying plaintiffs’ motion to certify a damages class. The court did, however, certify a class under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) for the purpose of pursuing injunctive relief. The case is part of a growing body of case law in which courts have considered Daubert motions at the class certification stage. The plaintiffs had sought to certify two classes of individuals who purchased “out-of-market” baseball or hockey packages, either online or through a television service provider.

The plaintiffs in Laumann alleged that agreements between the defendants—sports leagues, regional television networks that produce each team’s games, and television service providers—violated Section 1. The challenged restraint was “territorial exclusivity,” the restriction on regional networks from selling content to consumers who live outside the network’s geographic market. Instead, a Yankees fan who lives in Iowa, for example, could only watch Yankees games by purchasing an “out-of-market package,” a bundle that includes all games except games involving teams from the Iowa region. The agreements required “blackouts” of games in class members’ home team areas, thereby requiring out-of-market package subscribers to also subscribe to a local cable package in order to watch their favorite teams. Plaintiffs’ theory of damage was that, without the challenged restraint, regional sports networks would sell content directly to out-of-market fans, and therefore consumers would have a second option, which would put downward pressure on the price of the all-inclusive out-of-market package. The court held that having fewer options and paying higher prices were distinct forms of injury that were both recognizable. Laumann, 2015 WL 2330107 (class certification opinion), at *8.

The court decided to exclude the opinion of plaintiffs’ damages expert because his model was “largely untethered from the actual facts of th[e] case.”  Laumann, 2015 WL 2330036 (Daubert opinion), at *11.  Therefore, the model was not a “scientifically-reliable way to predict with some precision the prices of [out-of-market] telecasts,” and it had to be excluded. Id. at *10. The expert, Dr. Noll, used the defendants’ viewership data to create a model with variables estimated by statistical techniques. The court noted that “many pages of Dr. Noll’s declarations consist[ed] almost entirely of complex equations beyond the comprehension of the Court or the lawyers in this case.” Id. At *5. Defendants’ economist called the model “junk science” that “relie[d] too heavily on mathematical assumptions and random error, and too little on actual data about consumers and their preferences,” and in effect the court agreed. Id. at *7, *14.

Regarding class certification, the court held that, with Dr. Noll’s opinion excluded, a class could not be certified under Rule 23(b)(3). The court noted that Rule 23(b)(3) requires plaintiffs to “show that they can prove, through common evidence, that all class members were . . . injured by the alleged conspiracy.” Laumann, 2015 WL 2330107 (class certification opinion), at *9 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Sykes v. Mel S. Harris & Assoc., 780 F.3d 70, 82 (2d Cir. 2015)). “Here, Dr. Noll’s model was the common evidence—and the model [was] excluded.  Therefore, no (b)(3) class [could] be certified.” Id. The court went on to hold that “every class member has suffered an injury, because every class member, as a consumer in the market for baseball or hockey broadcasting, has been deprived of an option— à la carte channels—that would have been available absent the territorial restraints,” and this injury “unite[d] the class.” Id. at *11. It therefore allowed the plaintiffs to proceed as a class to pursue injunctive relief under Rule 23(b)(2).






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