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In re Urethane Antitrust Litigation

United States District Court, Tenth Circuit

May 15, 2013

IN RE: URETHANE ANTITRUST LITIGATION. MDL No. 1616 This document relates to: The Polyether Polyol Cases


JOHN W. LUNGSTRUM, District Judge.

In this multi-district class action, the claim by plaintiff class that defendant Dow Chemical Company ("Dow") conspired with other manufacturers to fix prices for certain urethane chemical products, in violation of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. ยง 1, was tried to a jury over a period of four weeks. On February 20, 2013, the jury returned a verdict in plaintiffs' favor. Specifically, the jury found that Dow participated in a price-fixing conspiracy; that the conspiracy caused plaintiff to pay more for chemicals than they would have absent the conspiracy; that such overpayments did not include any overpayments prior to November 24, 2000 (the date four years prior to the filing of this suit); and that plaintiffs suffered damages in the amount of $400, 049, 039.00.

This matter now comes before the Court on Dow's motion to decertify the class (Doc. # 2706) and its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial (Doc. # 2808). For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies both motions. The Court also modifies the class certified in this case to exclude purchases in 2004.

I. Motion to Decertify the Class

A. Untimely Motion

On July 28, 2008, the Court issued its order certifying a class in this case. On January 22, 2013-one day before the start of trial-Dow filed a motion to decertify the class. The Court took the motion under advisement and granted leave to the parties to supplement the motion and plaintiffs' opposition in connection with the briefing on Dow's post-trial motion.[1]

Dow purports to base its motion to decertify on events that have occurred since the Court's 2008 certification order. Dow's arguments are based primarily on the opinions of Dr. James McClave, plaintiffs' damages expert, who created a model purporting to show that prices paid during the alleged conspiracy period exceeded those prices that would have been paid absent a price-fixing conspiracy. Dow has had Dr. McClave's expert report, however, since April 2011. All of the issues raised in Dow's original brief in support of its motion to decertify could have been raised at least a year before trial. Dow has not offered any reason why it could not have filed its motion much earlier and why it instead filed its motion literally on the eve of trial. Reconsideration of the Court's certification order at that time or even post trial would cause severe prejudice to plaintiffs, who prepared for a long and complex trial at great expense and who might find it much more difficult to assert individual claims at this time. Accordingly, except with respect to issues based on events occurring at trial or based on the Supreme Court's recent Comcast opinion, the Court denies this motion as untimely. See, e.g., Gortat v. Capala Bros., Inc., 2012 WL 1116495, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 3, 2012) (late stage of litigation weighs against decertification; granting the eleventh-hour motion to decertify, where facts were known for well over a year, would prejudice class members who have not taken independent steps to protect their rights); In re Sulfuric Acid Antitrust Litig., 847 F.Supp.2d 1079, 1083 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (reconsideration of four-year-old certification order two months before trial after reassignment of the case to a new judge was inappropriate where issues could have been raised at the time of the original order; rescinding order would cause undue harm to plaintiffs); Easterling v. Connecticut Dept. of Corr., 278 F.R.D. 41, 44 (D. Conn. 2011) ("A court should be wary of revoking a certification order at a late stage in the litigation process.") (citing Woe v. Cuomo, 729 F.2d 96, 107 (2d Cir. 1984)); In re Scrap Metal Antitrust Litig., 2006 WL 2850453, at *20 (N.D. Ohio Sept. 30, 2006) ("request to decertify the Plaintiff Class literally on the eve of trial was inappropriate and untimely").[2]

The Court further notes that, even if these issues had been raised in a timely fashion, they would have failed on their merits. First, Dow notes that under Dr. McClave's model, a few class members did not suffer any damages, and Dow argues that each class member must suffer harm from the alleged conspiracy. The Court agrees with plaintiffs, however, that all members of the class may be shown to have been impacted by a conspiracy that elevates prices above the competitive level, even if some members may have mitigated their damages or otherwise did not suffer damages that may be quantified. Moreover, Dow has not cited any authority supporting the argument that the presence of a few "zero-damages" class members necessarily defeats certification. In fact, caselaw is to the contrary. For instance, the Seventh Circuit has noted that a class will almost inevitably include persons who have not been injured by the defendant's conduct, and that fact (or even inevitability) does not preclude certification. See Messner v. Northshore Univ. HealthSystem, 669 F.3d 802, 823 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting Kohen v. Pacific Inv. Mgmt. Co., 571 F.3d 672, 677 (7th Cir. 2009)). The Seventh Circuit further noted that a class is too broad to permit certification only if it includes a great number of members who could not have been harmed by the defendant's conduct (as opposed to a great number who ultimately are shown to have suffered no harm). See id. at 824. Indeed, a "fail-safe" class consisting only of members who suffered damages may be improper because whether the person qualifies as a member then might depend on whether he has a valid claim. See id. at 825. In this case, plaintiffs have shown persuasively that only a very small percentage of class members suffered no damages (particularly considering the class as re-defined, below). Thus, the presence of those few members does not compel decertification.[3]

Second, Dow points to the fact that Dr. McClave's model provided for the extrapolation of damages for some class members. Dow argues that Dr. McClave therefore did not show that such members suffered an adverse impact from the alleged conspiracy. Dow did not seek to exclude Dr. McClave's testimony on this basis before trial, however, and Dr. McClave was thus permitted to testify that such members did suffer impact and damages. Nor has Dow provided any expert opinion at this time to show that Dr. McClave's method was unreliable. Again, Dow has failed to support this argument with any relevant precedent, and the Court is not persuaded that Dr. McClave's model was not capable of showing impact and the amount of damages in a class-wide manner.[4]

Third, Dow complains that 2004 purchases were included in the class definition even after plaintiffs abandoned any claim of a conspiracy during that year. As plaintiffs note, however, any problems from the inclusion of such members within the class are obviated by modification of the class to exclude those members. Dow opposes such a modification, but at this stage, such modification is far superior to decertification. See Woe, 729 F.2d at 107 ("Indeed, it is an extreme step to dismiss a suit simply by decertifying a class, where a potentially proper class' exists and can easily be created."). As Dow has stressed in seeking decertification, Rule 23 permits alteration of the class certification order before final judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(c)(1)(C). Dow has not pointed to any significant prejudice from plaintiffs' failure to seek a modification of the class definition before trial.[3] Dow had clear notice of the temporal scope of plaintiffs' claim well before trial, and the Court actually instructed the jury as if the class included only purchasers through 2003. Thus, the Court now modifies the definition of the plaintiff class to exclude the year 2004. See, e.g., Garcia v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 890 F.Supp.2d 1273, 1297 (D. Kan. 2012) (modifying class definition post trial) (citing authority).

Fourth, Dow argues that plaintiffs' claim of fraudulent concealment presents individual issues too substantial to allow for class certification. The Court notes that, because of the jury's verdict, no such individual issues were considered, and Dow has not cited any authority suggesting that such issues could nonetheless provide the basis for post-trial decertification. Moreover, Dow's argument on this issue has not changed since the Court's certification order, and the Court declines to reconsider that order as it relates to this issue.

B. The Supreme Court's Comcast Opinion

In its reply brief, Dow raised a new argument based on the Supreme Court's opinion in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S.Ct. 1426 (2013), issued on March 27, 2013. Specifically, Dow argues that Dr. McClave's model and opinions do not provide a proper causal link between plaintiff's theory of liability and the impact on the class members, and that impact is therefore incapable of class-wide proof as required for certification of a class action. This argument, based on Dr. McClave's expert report, is arguably untimely, as it could have been raised well before trial. Moreover, Dow failed to raise this specific argument in either its original brief in support of its motion for decertification or its supplemental post-trial brief, and the Court would ordinarily refuse to entertain an argument raised for the first time in a reply brief. Nevertheless, in light of the intervening Supreme Court decision and the fact that plaintiffs were given an opportunity to file a sur-reply addressing the Comcast opinion, the Court will consider the merits of this argument.

In Comcast, which related to the provision of cable-television services, plaintiffs alleged illegal swap agreements in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act and monopolization in violation of Section 2 of that Act. See id. at 1430. Plaintiffs alleged four different theories of antitrust impact, but the district court accepted only one of those theories as capable of classwide proof. See id. at 1431. The Supreme Court reversed the district court's class action certification on the basis that plaintiffs' regression model (created by the same Dr. McClave who testified in this case) did not isolate damages resulting from the sole accepted theory of antitrust impact, but instead was based on a determination of hypothetical prices in the absence of all of the anticompetitive activities alleged by the plaintiffs. See id. at 1431-35. Thus, the Court held that the model failed to establish that damages were capable of measurement on a classwide basis, and in the absence of another methodology, questions of individual damage calculations would overwhelm common questions, and plaintiffs could therefore not establish predominance under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(3). See id. at 1433.

Dow argues that Dr. McClave's model in the present case is similarly flawed. Specifically, Dow notes that in his expert report, Dr. McClave stated that plaintiffs had alleged an illegal conspiracy to fix prices and to allocate customers, that he had assumed that those allegations are true, and that he had determined impact to the class from such activities by determining what prices would have been in the absence of those activities. Because plaintiffs later abandoned their theory relating to the allocation of customers, Dow thus argues that, as in Comcast, Dr. McClave's model cannot provide a proper causal link between the sole remaining theory (price-fixing) and impact to the class in the form of supracompetitive prices, because Dr. McClave's model cannot exclude the possibility that other prohibited conduct (the allocation of customers) actually caused prices to exceed competitive levels.

The Court rejects this argument. The key distinction between this case and Comcast is the stage of litigation involved. In Comcast, the district court certified a class action based on particular testimony by Dr. McClave, and the Supreme Court found that testimony insufficient on interlocutory appeal. In the present case, Dow did not raise this issue at the pretrial class certification stage. Nor did Dow raise this issue in attacking the reliability of Dr. McClave's methodology in its pretrial Daubert motion, and the Court concluded that Dr. McClave's methodology was sufficiently reliable to allow his expert testimony. Nor did Dow object to Dr. McClave's testimony at trial on this basis. Thus, on the present state of the record, Dr. McClave's methodology is defined by his trial testimony.

At trial, Dr. McClave gave his opinion that the conspiracy alleged by plaintiffs-a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy-impacted nearly every class member because prices during the alleged conspiracy period exceeded those that would have prevailed absent that conspiracy, which competitive prices were determined from an analysis of prices during a post-conspiracy benchmark period. Thus, in his testimony, Dr. McClave did provide a causal link between the single price-fixing conspiracy alleged by plaintiffs at trial and the impact to plaintiffs. Although Dow points to Dr. McClave's initial report, that report was not in evidence at trial. Dow did not object to his testimony on this basis, and Dow had every opportunity to cross-examine him about whether the impact on plaintiffs could have resulted from some other wrongdoing, such as customer allocation. Neither side presented any evidence at trial of any illegal customer allocation. Accordingly, there is no basis to strike Dr. McClave's testimony or to conclude that his methodology could not provide a proper causal link between plaintiff's theory of liability and the classwide impact. Dow's motion for decertification is therefore denied.

II. Motion for Judgment Based on the Verdict

Dow argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff's antitrust claim based on the jury's verdict. Specifically, Dow argues that plaintiffs alleged a single five-year price-fixing conspiracy lasting from 1999 through 2003; that the jury's award of damages only beginning in November 2000 shows that it did not find a conspiracy of the five-year duration alleged by plaintiffs; and that plaintiffs' sole claim therefore fails. The Court rejects this argument for judgment in Dow's favor.

Dow essentially argues, without any supporting authority, that plaintiffs were required to predict, with temporal exactness, the precise conspiracy that the jury would find. In other words, according to Dow, if the jury decided that the conspiracy did not exist for even a single day within the alleged conspiracy period, or that plaintiffs otherwise failed to meet their burden of proof to show a conspiracy and impact and damages with respect to that single day, then plaintiffs' entire claim of conspiracy would fail as a matter of law. Dow has not shown that that position represents the law of antitrust conspiracy, however, and the absurdity of its premise-that Dow could escape liability for an illegal antitrust conspiracy because plaintiffs alleged a longer conspiracy than that found by the jury-convinces the Court that it should not create new law by adopting Dow's position. As the Court instructed, the jury was not required to find that all of the means and methods alleged by plaintiffs were actually used to carry out the conspiracy; nor was it required to find that each of the alleged co-conspirators actually participated in the conspiracy. See ABA Model Jury Instructions in Civil Antitrust Cases at B-4 (2005); see also, e.g., United States v. Suntar Roofing, Inc., 897 F.2d 469, 476 (10th Cir. 1990) (in criminal antitrust case, jury was not required to find conspiracy involving all of the alleged co-conspirators).

In this case, the jury found that plaintiffs were harmed by an illegal conspiracy involving Dow for at least a portion of the period alleged by plaintiffs. The fact that plaintiffs failed to prevail with respect to the entire period does not provide a basis to award Dow judgment on the ...

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