Alert: The Supreme Court clarified the principles of international comity this week in a ruling pertaining to the long-running vitamin C antitrust class action litigation. International comity is the recognition a nation shows to the legislative, executive or judicial acts of another nation. Principles of comity state that US courts should defer to the laws of other nations when actions are taken pursuant to those laws. In this week’s ruling, Justice Ginsberg wrote that federal courts should accord respectful consideration to foreign government submissions when analyzing comity issues, but are not bound by them. This ruling vacates the Second Circuit’s decision in the case overturning the jury verdict for the class, and is a win for the class of US purchasers of vitamin C. Continue Reading Supreme Court Clarifies Principles of International Comity in Vitamin C Ruling
The US International Trade Commission (ITC) issued an opinion dismissing United States Steel Corporation’s antitrust claim made under Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 against several Chinese steel manufacturers or distributors, ruling that a complainant must show an antitrust injury even in a trade case.
- On Monday, March 19, three of the ITC’s four sitting commissioners upheld an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision to eliminate the antitrust claim from US Steel’s trade case against Chinese steel manufacturers.
- US Steel’s claims were made pursuant to Section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930. Section 337 has primarily been used by US companies to bar the import of items that infringe upon intellectual property rights. A violation of Section 337 requires a showing of “[u]nfair methods of competition [or] unfair acts in the importation of articles.”
- US Steel took a rather novel approach and based one of its Section 337 claims on Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Specifically, US Steel alleged a conspiracy between the Chinese manufacturers to fix prices at below-market prices and control output and export volumes. Though US Steel based its claim on the Sherman Act, it argued before the ALJ and the ITC that it did not need to show antitrust injury to sustain its antitrust claim. US Steel reasoned that because Section 337 is designed to protect American companies and workers, it needed only show harm to those groups.
- In November 2016, an ALJ granted the Chinese manufacturers’ motion to dismiss the antitrust claims, confirming that US Steel is required to show antitrust injury to state an antitrust claim under Section 337.
- The ITC affirmed the ALJ’s dismissal of US Steel’s antitrust claim because it did not meet the pleading requirements of the Sherman Act under substantive federal antitrust law; such an antitrust claim requires antitrust injury to be alleged. The ITC explained that it relies on existing bodies of substantive federal law to avoid conflicts with federal precedent.
- Under US antitrust law, for US Steel to properly allege antitrust injury on the allegation that its competitors fixed prices at below-market prices, the below-market pricing must be predatory. That is, US Steel would be required to prove (a) below-cost pricing and (b) that the Chinese steel manufacturers had a dangerous chance of recouping their losses. US Steel did not—and conceded it could not—satisfy the pleading standard for predatory pricing.
Dealmakers know that a critical part of the merger process is obtaining antitrust clearance from government enforcers. But, even if the antitrust enforcers review and clear a transaction, a third-party can file a private suit alleging the transaction violated the antitrust laws. Recently, an aggrieved customer did just that—it won a substantial jury verdict and is also seeking a court order to unwind the transaction nearly six years after the transaction was announced.
- On February 15, 2018, almost six years after Jeld-Wen announced an acquisition of Craftmaster Manufacturing, Inc. (CMI) in 2012, a federal jury awarded a customer, Steves and Sons (Steves), $58.6 million for antitrust damages and lost profits stemming from the acquisition. Additionally, Steves is seeking to unwind the 2012 Jeld-Wen/CMI transaction through a court order that would force Jeld-Wen to divest of assets sufficient to re-create a competitor as significant as CMI at the time of the acquisition in the doorskin market—that is, restoring competition to pre-transaction levels.
- The Department of Justice (DOJ) reviewed, but did not challenge, Jeld-Wen’s acquisition of CMI, which reduced the number of doorskin suppliers from three to two. Interestingly, the 2012 transaction involved CMI, a company that entered the doorskin market in 2002, when it acquired divested assets because of DOJ concerns about a doorskin merger at that time.
- One of the factors that led to DOJ clearance is that customers did not complain about the transaction. Prior to Jeld-Wen and CMI completing the transaction in 2012, Steves, entered into a long term supply agreement with Jeld-Wen.
- After the transaction, Steves became dissatisfied with Jeld-Wen’s treatment and alleged that it received less favorable price terms, reduced product quality and output, and worse service.
- As a result, in 2016—four years after closing—the customer filed a complaint alleging that Jeld-Wen’s acquisition of CMI violated the antitrust laws.
WHAT THIS MEANS
- Business leaders must understand that even if antitrust enforcers clear a merger, not only can they revisit that decision, but third parties can also sue for damages or to unwind the transaction.
- Steves did not complain about the merger until years after the transaction and yet still won a substantial verdict. This case is a reminder that business leaders must independently weigh the merits of their customer’s position (regardless of the antitrust enforcers’ posture regarding the same case) and manage the business appropriately after close to avoid a customer lawsuit.
- Secondarily, business leaders must realize that customer lawsuits can also create significant operational issues that distract from the company’s business objectives. For example, not only may company personnel be distracted from running the business while assisting with the defense of the litigation, the company may also face significant legal costs, as well as invasive discovery. Further, a complaint filed by one private litigant could spur follow-on litigation from other aggrieved customers or third parties. Buyers should be cognizant of those risks and should consider whether mollifying any aggrieved customers or suppliers would avoid litigation.
Indirect purchaser plaintiffs’ motion for class certification in a lithium ion battery suit was denied for failing to show concrete evidence linking increased input costs to increased end-product prices; theoretical inference is not enough.
- The US District Court for the Northern District of California denied a motion for class certification for a proposed class of indirect purchasers of lithium ion batteries. In re: Lithium Ion Batteries Antitrust Litigation, Case No. 13-MD-2420 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 5, 2018).
- An expert witness for indirect purchaser plaintiffs (IPPs) calculated a 100 percent pass-through rate of price increases on lithium ion batteries to end use products, resulting in an estimated $573 million in damages for the proposed class (or approximately $1.7 billion in treble antitrust damages).
- Defendants countered by arguing that the expert’s claim of pass-through of supracompetitive pricing was insufficiently substantiated because there was no direct connection between changing input costs and changing end-product prices. Simply put, there was no overcharge attributable to battery cost.
- The court agreed and held that without more than theory about how much, if any, antitrust harm passed through to IPPs, class certification would be denied.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- In indirect purchaser cases, courts will focus on the pricing dynamics of the products actually purchased by the plaintiffs in relation to alleged cost increases of components of those products. Courts are concerned not only with the fact of pass-through, but also whether the overcharge caused prices to change to the plaintiffs and the class.
- Future indirect purchaser plaintiffs hoping to get past the class certification phase must show concrete evidence, not merely theory, about pass-through of supracompetitive pricing. This will likely be difficult for end users in cases involving numerous inputs.
The Federal Circuit held Walker Process Claims without a “substantial” patent issue can be heard outside the Federal Circuit based on the US Supreme Court decision in Gunn v. Minton.
- The tug-of-war between antitrust and intellectual property continued Friday, February 9, with the Federal Circuit transferring a Walker Process claim to the Fifth Circuit for lack of jurisdiction. Xitronix Corp. v. KLA-Tencor Corp., Case No. 2016-2746 (Fed. Cir., Feb. 9, 2018) (Moore, J.).
- In Walker Process, the Supreme Court held that a patent holder may be subject to antitrust liability in a situation where the patent was obtained by knowing and willful fraud on the patent office and all the other necessary elements for a Sherman Act charge are present.
- Here, Xitronix brought a Walker Process claim alleging KLA fraudulently obtained a patent. Though both parties asserted the Federal Circuit had jurisdiction over the claim, the Federal Circuit disagreed.
- The Federal Circuit specifically asked for supplemental briefing after oral argument relating to Gunn v. Minton, 568 U.S. 251 (2013), to determine whether jurisdiction in the Federal Circuit was proper. In Gunn, the Court held that though the Federal Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over patent issues, the law doesn’t bar other courts from hearing malpractice claims relating to pursuing patents.
- Citing Gunn v. Minton, the Federal Circuit held that though this case would potentially involve “analysis of the [patent] claims and specifications and may require application of patent claim construction principles,” the federal question jurisdictional statute required more than “mere resolution of a patent issue.”
Thus, finding no “substantial” issue of patent law, the Federal Circuit transferred the claim to the Fifth Circuit to determine whether the patent was procured through fraud in order to illegally create or preserve a monopoly.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Going forward, Walker Process claims will not be heard in the Federal Circuit merely because they require some consideration of a patent issue.
- Gunn v. Minton continues to narrow the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit. Tangential resolution of a patent dispute is not necessarily enough to invoke Federal Circuit jurisdiction.
In the course of one week, two top level DOJ Antitrust officials in the Trump Administration separately spoke at panels and suggested the possibility of a sea change in federal antitrust law with respect to indirect purchaser lawsuits. The comments further reinforce the Administration’s active focus on antitrust issues.
- Makan Delrahim, DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division (the Division), spoke at a conference organized by the Antitrust Research Foundation on January 19, 2018, and is reported to have stated that the Division was looking into the possibility of pursuing civil damages on behalf of taxpayers in antitrust price-fixing suits.
- A few days later, on January 23, 2018, Andrew Finch, DOJ’s Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, spoke at a Heritage Foundation conference and reportedly stated that the Division was “looking at whether or not it might be worthwhile to revisit those rules and suggest the same to the Supreme Court,” referencing the landmark decision Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, which prohibits indirect purchasers from recovering antitrust damages under federal antitrust law.
Manufacturers of optical disk drives defeated electronics companies’, retailers’ and indirect purchaser plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims after seven years of litigation. On December 18, 2017, the US District Court for the Northern District of California issued simultaneous orders that granted summary judgment in favor of defendants after finding that the electronics companies, retailers and indirect purchasers failed to demonstrate evidence of injury and causation.
- Wading into the merging streams of antitrust and patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld dismissal of an antitrust suit where a jury verdict in a parallel case found no patent infringement. Cascades Computer Innovation, LLC v. RPX Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Case No. 16-15782 (9th Cir., December 11, 2017).
- Cascades Computer Innovation is a non-practicing entity that owns a series of 38 patents (collectively known as the Elbrus portfolio) allegedly used to optimize Android devices. Cascades intended to license these patents for use by companies including Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG Electronics, Dell and RPX (a defensive patent aggregator that purchases patents on behalf of subscriber organizations using membership fees). An agreement couldn’t be reached. Cascades alleged this lack of agreement was due to a conspiracy between the defendants, using RPX, to not seek licenses for use of these patents—an agreement in violation of antitrust law.
- Cascades filed two related lawsuits against Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others in separate district courts with separate causes of action. In Illinois, Cascades’ claim rested on patent infringement. Although the entire Elbrus portfolio was referenced in the complaint, the court determined only one patent, referred to by the court as “the ‘750 patent,” was truly at issue. Cascades asserted that merely installing the Android mobile device operating system resulted in an infringement of this patent. In California, Cascades relied on antitrust law arguing the agreement between defendants not to purchase licenses amounted to a violation. Again, the ‘750 patent was primarily at issue. Thus, Cascades simultaneously argued that a group of companies infringed on their patent and also that those companies illegally conspired to refuse to obtain licenses for use of that patent.
- A jury in Illinois determined there was no patent infringement, which undercut Cascades’ argument in California. Without any infringement, the court in California noted “[o]nly those who possess antitrust standing by virtue of having suffered antitrust injury may bring a private action for damages for violation of the antitrust laws” before ruling for the defendants on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The California court reasoned that in order to show antitrust injury, there must be harm to competition, not any particular competitor. The court reasoned that a “failure to license a non-infringed patent typically cannot serve as the basis for a cognizable antitrust injury.” Because Cascades’ entire theory of injury was based upon ongoing infringement of the ‘750 patent, and not on any potential, unalleged future infringement, there was no antitrust injury in the case.
- On appeal, the 9th Circuit determined the district court “properly recognized the preclusive effect of [the Illinois decision] and correctly reasoned that because the defendants did not infringe the ‘750 patent, Cascades’ failure to license the patent was not a cognizable antitrust injury.” In a footnote, the panel explained, “[h]ere, the defendants were not infringing the valid patent; therefore, they were not using the invention. Thus, the failure to license had no effect on price or quantity of any consumer goods.”
- In sum, the district court held and the 9th Circuit affirmed that without any infringement there can be no antitrust injury, and thus no antitrust claim.
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- While seeking an antitrust remedy where no patent infringement is found represents a relatively novel tactic, alleging an injury without an infringement doesn’t appear to be a winning strategy in private causes of action.
- On October 2, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit unsealed its opinion in Valspar Corp. v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., No. 16-1345 2017 WL 4364317 (3d Cir. Sept. 14, 2017) in which the court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for defendant on the grounds that plaintiff lacked sufficient evidence to allege a conspiracy to fix prices.
- Valspar alleged that titanium dioxide suppliers engaged in price-fixing, citing evidence that the manufacturers announced 31 price increases in a twelve year period and other circumstantial evidence. at *5. The parties agreed that the titanium dioxide market is oligopolistic, with a handful of firms, substantial barriers to entry, and no substitute products. Id. at *1.
- After Valspar settled with all defendants but DuPont, the latter moved for summary judgment. The district court found that Valspar lacked evidence of an actual agreement among defendant suppliers to fix prices. at *1.
- The Third Circuit agreed with the district court and found that Valspar’s argument failed on two grounds. First, the court explained that Valspar neglected to consider conscious parallelism when it claimed that it was “inconceivable” that defendants executed identical price increases on 31 occasions without a conspiracy. at *5. Price movement in an oligopoly is expected to be interdependent, as rational decision makers anticipate the movements of other firms. Second, Valspar was required to show that defendants’ parallel pricing “went beyond mere interdependence and was so unusual that in the absence of advance agreement, no reasonable firm would have engaged in it.” Id. at *6 (quoting In re Baby Food Antitrust Litig., 166 F.3d 112, 135 (3d Cir. 1999)).
WHAT THIS MEANS:
- The Valspar case is interesting in that it is an opt-out case from the In re Titanium Dioxide class action litigation, in which the United States District Court for the District of Maryland denied defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the same evidence that here allowed the District of Delaware, as affirmed by the Third Circuit, to grant it. The Third Circuit attributed the different outcomes in the class and opt-out cases to the fact that the District of Maryland—which sits in the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit—is not bound by Third Circuit precedent while the District of Delaware is so bound. at *11 (“This resulted in the Maryland court applying a standard quite different from the one we have developed and that the [Delaware court] applied.”).
- The opinion clarifies the evidence required under Third Circuit precedent to prove a conspiracy in an oligopolistic industry. The court explained that in oligopoly cases, evidence that price increases are not correlated to supply or demand is “largely irrelevant.” at *7. Awareness among defendants of the conscious parallelism is similarly not enough. Id. at *4 n.3. Plaintiffs must show proof of an explicit, manifest agreement. Id. A plaintiff alleging a conspiracy among defendants may not rely on “ambiguous evidence alone” to survive summary judgment. Id. at *5 (quoting In re Chocolate Confectionary Antitrust Litig., 801 F.3d 383, 396 (3d Cir. 2015)).
On July 24, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of an antitrust counterclaim brought by ICTSI Oregon, Inc. (ICTSI), the operator of a marine shipping facility, against the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). ILWU is a labor union that represents many ICTSI employees, including longshoremen and mechanics. PMA is a multi-employer collective bargaining association covering the West Coast of the United States, which represents employers, including ICTSI, in negotiations with labor unions.
The opinion elucidates the current law surrounding the scope of Noerr-Pennington immunity and the implied labor exemption to antitrust liability.
- ICTSI’s antitrust counterclaim arose out of a labor dispute concerning ILWU’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with PMA, which required that all “reefer work” (i.e., plugging, unplugging and monitoring refrigerated shipping containers) performed by PMA members must be assigned to ILWU workers. When ICTSI instead assigned its reefer work to a rival union, the collective bargaining agreement administrator, the Joint Coast Labor Relations Committee, notified ICTSI that it was in violation of the CBA and faced monetary fines and expulsion from the collective bargaining association.
- ICTSI initiated a proceeding before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to resolve the dispute. The NLRB ruled that the rival union workers were entitled to the reefer work. While the NLRB proceedings were pending, ILWU and PMA filed suits in the US District Court for the District of Oregon seeking an injunction ordering ICTSI to comply with the Joint Committee decision and assign the work to ILWU.