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.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 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.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 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.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Trump DOJ’s Next Target: the Illinois Brick Indirect Purchaser Rule?

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.

Continue Reading.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 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.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • 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.

WHAT HAPPENED

  • 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.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: Ninth Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Antitrust Counterclaim against Labor Union Clarifying Scope of Noerr-Pennington Doctrine and the Implied Labor Exemption

Companies are increasingly facing parallel proceedings involving government investigations and follow-on private litigation. These complex cases often involve competing interests between the parties that can influence a judge’s determination on discovery timing and process.

  • Private plaintiffs are incentivized to obtain as much information about the case as early as possible to support their allegations and avoid having the case dismissed on summary judgment.
  • Defendants hope to delay, or save altogether, the expenditure of potentially millions in discovery costs.

For publicly traded companies, earnings calls are routine business events, as are press releases, speeches, investor conferences and trade association meetings. However, in the world of antitrust law, words uttered in these situations can provide fodder for plaintiffs to claim that instead of providing information for investors and the public, the communication’s purpose was to invite competitors to unlawfully collude. In the past several years, allegations that competitors used public statements to carry out a price-fixing agreement have been a common thread in antitrust class actions and multidistrict litigations.

Recently, a federal district court granted summary judgment in an antitrust case based on earnings calls in the airline industry. While the defendants ultimately prevailed, the case stands as a reminder to publicly traded companies to be mindful of antitrust considerations in earnings calls and other public communications.

Read the full article.

Originally published in Law360.com, April 11, 2017.

On 10 March 2017, France finally implemented into French law the EU Directive 2014/104 of 26 November 2014 on antitrust damages actions. The implementation provisions faithfully transpose the Directive, but some concepts still, however, need to be clarified by courts at the EU and French levels.

Read the full article.

In an antitrust case involving bundled discount on sutures, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a lower court decision granting summary judgment in favor of defendants Cardinal Health 200, LLC and Owens & Micro Distribution, Inc.  The Tenth Circuit held that Plaintiff-Appellant Suture Express, Inc. could not prove that the defendants individually possessed market power and that it had not demonstrated that defendants caused substantial adverse effects on competition.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • Suture Express, a distributor focused on the sale of sutures, sued Cardinal Health and Owens & Micro, which are national distributors of a broad array of medical-surgical products, claiming that they had engaged in illegal tying through their practice of bundling sutures with other medical-surgical products in a manner that penalized customers that purchased sutures from other suppliers.
  • The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment and the lower court granted summary judgment to the defendants.  The court held that Suture Express’ claims failed as a matter of law because it could not prove that the defendants individually possessed market power.  The court also held that Suture Express could not meet the antitrust injury requirement because it had not shown that competition had been harmed.
  • The Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.  On the issue of market power, the appellate court agreed with the lower courts’ findings that the defendants’ market shares on the alleged tying products (medical-surgical products excluding sutures) were relatively low (31 percent and 38 percent), there were many examples of customers switching to other distributors, and the defendants’ declining profit margins on medical-surgical products excluding sutures demonstrated that the defendants did not have the ability to control prices.
  • With respect to antitrust injury, the Tenth Circuit stated that the antitrust laws are meant to protect competition, not individual competitors.  The appellate court noted that despite the fact that roughly half of the market was not constrained by the bundling arrangement at issue, Suture Express accounted for a relatively small portion of this piece of the market.  This raised the question of whether it was just Suture Express that was harmed as opposed to competition generally.

WHAT THIS MEANS:

  • Establishing market power when defendants have relatively low market shares is difficult.  While market shares in and of themselves are not determinative of whether market power exists, the courts give market shares significant weight and when evidence of low market shares is combined with the other factors the Tenth Circuit found here, it is difficult for a plaintiff to meet its burden.
  • Vertical pricing arrangements that offer discounts to customers, even if associated with a bundling arrangement, are often viewed as procompetitive.  A plaintiff has the difficult burden of showing that a defendant’s bundle creates anticompetitive effects that outweigh its procompetitive effects.  The plaintiff must demonstrate that the arrangement caused harm not only to the plaintiff, but to competition as a whole.  Even if a plaintiff finds it difficult to compete against a defendant’s bundle, if customers have shown that they are willing and able to switch from the defendant’s bundle, establishing harm to competition will be a challenge.