Supreme Court Decides Comcast

The Supreme Court weighed back in on the issues of class certification last month in Comcast v. Behrend, No. 11-864 (U.S. 3/27/13). Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia stated that the class had been improperly certified under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3)'s predominance prong, in an opinion that bears careful scrutiny for our readers, but probably did not cover as much ground as some thought it would when cert was granted (no further guidance on Daubert at the class stage).

Plaintiffs brought a class action antitrust suit, under Rule 23(b)(3), claiming Comcast subscribers in the Philadelphia area were harmed because of a specific Comcast strategy that allegedly lessened competition and would lead to higher prices. Comcast allegedly “clusters” their cable television operations within a particular region by swapping their systems outside the region for competitor systems inside the region.  Plaintiffs offered several theories as to why this alleged approach harmed them: it allowed Comcast to withhold local sports programming from its competitors, resulting in decreased market penetration by direct broadcast satellite providers; it allegedly reduced the level of competition from “over-builders,” companies that build competing cable networks in areas where an incumbent cable company already operates; it reduced the level of “benchmark” competition on which cable customers rely to compare prices; and it allegedly increased Comcast’s bargaining power relative to content providers.

The District Court ruled that plaintiffs had to show that the “antitrust impact” of the violation could be proved at trial through evidence common to the class and that the damages were measurable on a class-wide basis through a “common methodology.” The trial court then certified the class, but accepted only one of the four proposed theories of antitrust impact. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting again its artificial separation of class and merits issues:  we "have not reached the stage of determining on the merits whether the methodology is a just and reasonable inference or speculative." The court of appeals concluded that Comcast's attacks on the merits of the methodology had "no place in the class certification inquiry.”

Of course class certification is a procedural step, not the occasion to decide which side has the winning case, but in recent years the Supreme Court has been telling the lower courts that the line between merits and certification is not such a bright line.  The Third Circuit ran afoul of this admonition when it refused to entertain arguments against the damages model that bore on the propriety of class certification simply because they might also be pertinent to the merits determination. A certifying court may have to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question; certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that Rule 23’s prerequisites have been satisfied. Such an analysis will frequently overlap with the merits of the plaintiff ’s underlying claim because a class determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff ’s cause of action. A District Court cannot refuse to evaluate evidence at the class certification stage just because that same evidence relates to the merits of the claims. In so doing, the Court made clear that the rigorous analysis discussed in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), applies to both the Rule 23(a) factors and the Rule 23(b) prerequisites. 

The figures that plaintiffs' expert used were calculated assuming the validity of all four theories of antitrust impact originally proposed, and did not delineate the differences between the allegedly supra-competitive prices prices attributable to over-builder deterrence, and the prices caused by other economic factors.  To ignore that would reduce the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance requirement to a nullity. The questions of individual damages calculations here would inevitably overwhelm questions common to the class in this antitrust case; the plaintiffs' model fell far short of establishing that damages were capable of measurement on a class-wide basis. Thus, the Court made clear that plaintiffs must offer a method sufficient to calculate damages on a class-wide basis in Rule 23(b)(3) class actions or risk losing certification.

 

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