Justia Commercial Law Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Antitrust & Trade Regulation
Thornhill Motor Car, Inc. v. Honorable Miki Thompson
The Supreme Court granted a writ of prohibition sought by Thornhill Motor Care, Inc. to prevent the Circuit Court of Mingo County from enforcing its order denying Petitioner's motion to dismiss based on improper venue, holding that Thornhill established that it was entitled to the writ.Moore Chrysler, Inc. brought this action against Thornhill in Mingo County, alleging violations of W. Va. Code 17A-6A-1 to -18 and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Thornhill moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to W. Va. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3) on the basis of improper venue, asserting that the proper venue for this lawsuit was in Logan County pursuant to the general venue statute, W. Va. Code 56-1-1. The circuit court denied the motion, basing its ruling on a specific venue statute, W. Va. Code 17A-6A-12(3), which governs declaratory judgment actions brought by new motor vehicle dealers against manufacturers or distributors. Thornhill then sought the writ of prohibition at issue. The Supreme Court granted the writ, holding that the circuit court committed clear legal error in applying section 17A-6A-12(3) rather than section 56-1-1. View "Thornhill Motor Car, Inc. v. Honorable Miki Thompson" on Justia Law
San Francisco Print Media Co. v. The Hearst Corp.
The San Francisco Examiner sued the San Francisco Chronicle, claiming that the defendant sold a certain type of print advertising in the Chronicle at prices that violated California’s Unfair Practices Act (UPA, Bus. & Prof. Code, 17000) and Unfair Competition Law (UCL, 17200). The trial court granted the defendant summary judgment. The court of appeal affirmed. The trial court properly rejected the claim of below-cost sales under the UPA after excluding the opinion of the plaintiff’s expert on costs. The plaintiff had disclaimed reliance on specific transactions to prove the Chronicle’s alleged underpricing of its print advertising, leaving only the aggregate cost analysis prepared by that expert to establish the occurrence of alleged below-cost sales. The plaintiff’s expert lacked the foundational knowledge to conduct the requisite cost analysis and based his analysis on another individual’s non-UPA-related pricing analysis without understanding its foundations, such as some of the included cost components. Summary judgment was proper as to the claim for unlawful use or sale of loss leaders under the UPA because the plaintiff failed to identify the loss leader sales on which this claim was based. The trial court did not err in granting summary judgment on the causes of action for secret and unearned discounts under the UPA. View "San Francisco Print Media Co. v. The Hearst Corp." on Justia Law
Hinrichs v. DOW Chemical Co.
The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals affirming the circuit court's dismissal of Chris Hinrichs and Autovation Limited's (collectively, Hinrichs) common law misrepresentation claims against the DOW Chemical Company and reversing the circuit court's dismissal of Hinrichs' statutory claim under Wis. Stat. 100.18, holding that the court of appeals did not err.Specifically, the Supreme Court held that, with regard to Hinrichs' common law claims, neither the "fraud in the inducement" exception nor the "other property exception" to the economic loss doctrine applied to allow Hinrichs' common law claims to go forward. With regard to Hinrichs' statutory claims the Court held (1) the economic loss doctrine does not serve as a bar to claims made under section 100.18; (2) because one person can be "the public" for purposes of section 100.18(1), the court of appeals did not err in determining that dismissal for failure to meet "the public" factor of the section 100.18 claim was in error; and (3) the heightened pleading standard for claims of fraud does not apply to claims made under section 100.18 and that Hinrichs' complaint stated a claim under the general pleading standard. View "Hinrichs v. DOW Chemical Co." on Justia Law
Spartan Concrete Products LLC v. Argos USVI Corp.
Spartan, which operated on St. Croix, sought to displace Heavy Materials as the sole provider of ready-mix concrete on St. Thomas. Upon entering the St. Thomas market, Spartan started a price war that caused financial losses to Spartan while Heavy Materials retained its dominant position. After three years of fierce competition, the companies reached a truce: Spartan agreed to sell on St. Croix while Heavy Materials would keep selling on St. Thomas. Spartan then sued Argos, a bulk cement vendor, alleging violations of the Robinson-Patman Act, 15 U.S.C. 13(a), by giving Heavy Materials a 10 percent volume discount during the price war. The district court entered judgment for Argos and denied Spartan leave to amend its complaint to include two tort claims, finding undue delay and prejudice. The Third Circuit affirmed. Although Argos gave Heavy Materials alone a 10 percent volume discount on concrete, Spartan presented no evidence linking this discount to its inability to compete in the St. Thomas market. Spartan did compete with Heavy Materials for three years and not only lowered its retail prices, but also began a price war and achieved a nearly 30 percent share of the St. Thomas retail ready-mix concrete market. View "Spartan Concrete Products LLC v. Argos USVI Corp." on Justia Law
Apple, Inc. v. Pepper
Apple sells iPhone applications (apps) directly to iPhone owners through its App Store—the only place where iPhone owners may lawfully buy apps. Most apps are created by independent developers under contracts with Apple. Apple charges the developers a $99 annual membership fee, allows them to set the retail price of the apps, and charges a 30% commission on every app sale. Four iPhone owners sued, alleging that Apple has unlawfully monopolized the aftermarket for iPhone apps. The Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the suit concluding that the owners were direct purchasers under the Supreme Court’s “Illinois Brick” precedent.The Supreme Court affirmed. The Clayton Act provides that “any person who shall be injured in his business or property by reason of anything forbidden in the antitrust laws may sue,” 15 U.S.C. 15(a), and readily covers consumers who purchase goods or services at higher-than-competitive prices from an allegedly monopolistic retailer. While indirect purchasers who are two or more steps removed from the violator in a distribution chain may not sue, the iPhone owners are not consumers at the bottom of a vertical distribution chain who are attempting to sue manufacturers at the top of the chain. The absence of an intermediary in the distribution chain between Apple and the consumer is dispositive. The Court rejected an argument that Illinois Brick allows consumers to sue only the party who sets the retail price. Apple’s interpretation would contradict the long-standing goal of effective private enforcement and consumer protection in antitrust cases. Illinois Brick is not a get-out-of-court-free card for monopolistic retailers any time that a damages calculation might be complicated. View "Apple, Inc. v. Pepper" on Justia Law
Connecticut Fine Wine and Spirits LLC v. Seagull
Total Wine challenged provisions of Connecticut’s Liquor Control Act and regulations as preempted by the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. 1. Connecticut’s “post and hold” provisions require state-licensed manufacturers, wholesalers, and out-of-state permittees to post a “bottle price” or “can price” and a “case price” each month with the Department of Consumer Protection for each alcoholic product that the wholesaler intends to sell during the following month; they may “amend” their posted prices to “match” competitors’ lower prices but are obligated to “hold” their prices at the posted price (amended or not) for a month. Connecticut’s minimum-retail-price provisions require that retailers sell to customers at or above a statutorily defined “[c]ost,” which is not defined as the retailer’s actual cost. The post-and-hold number supplies the central component of “[c]ost” and largely dictates the price at which Connecticut retailers must sell their alcoholic products. The Second Circuit affirmed dismissal of the complaint. Connecticut’s minimum-retail-price provisions, compelling only vertical pricing arrangements among private actors, are not preempted. The post-and-hold provisions were not preempted because they “do not compel any agreement” among wholesalers, but only individual action. The court also upheld a price discrimination prohibition as falling outside the scope of the Sherman Act. View "Connecticut Fine Wine and Spirits LLC v. Seagull" on Justia Law
Innovation Ventures, LLC v. Nutrition Science Laboratories, LLC
Innovation sold 5-Hour Energy. In 2004, it contracted with CN to manufacture and package 5-Hour. Jones, CN's President and CEO, had previously manufactured an energy shot. When the business relationship ended, CN had extra ingredients and packaging, which Jones used to continue manufacturing 5-Hour, allegedly as mitigation of damages. The companies sued one another, asserting breach of contract, stolen trade secrets or intellectual property, and torts, then entered into the Settlement, which contains an admission that CN and Jones “wrongfully manufactured” 5-Hour products and forbids CN from manufacturing any new “Energy Liquid” that “contain[s] anything in the Choline Family.” CN received $1.85 million. CN was sold to a new corporation, NSL. Under the Purchase Agreement, NSL acquired CN's assets but is not “responsible for any liabilities ... obligations, or encumbrances” of CN except for bank debt. The Agreement includes one reference to the Settlement. NSL, with Jones representing himself as its President, took on CN’s orders and customers, selling energy shots containing substances listed in the Choline Family definition. Innovation sued. Innovation was awarded nominal damages for breach of contract. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the rejection of defendants’ antitrust counterclaim, that NSL is bound by the Settlement, and that reasonable royalty and disgorgement of profits are not appropriate measures of damages. Jones is not personally bound by the Agreement. Upon remand, Innovation may introduce testimony that uses market share to quantify its lost profits. The rule of reason provides the proper standard for evaluating the restrictive covenants; Defendants have the burden of showing an unreasonable restraint on trade. View "Innovation Ventures, LLC v. Nutrition Science Laboratories, LLC" on Justia Law
Field v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass’n
The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the intermediate court of appeals (ICA) affirming the circuit court’s order and granting summary judgment for Defendant in this case arising out of the uncompleted sale of one business to another, holding that the plaintiff raised genuine issues of material fact as to its unfair method of competition (UMOC) claim.Specifically, the Court held (1) to raise an issue of material fact as to the nature of the competition requirement of a UMOC claim following the close of discovery, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s alleged anticompetitive conduct could negatively affect competition, but the plaintiff need not prove that the defendant in fact harmed competition; (2) to survive summary judgment, a plaintiff may generally describe the relevant market without resort to expert testimony and need not be a competitor of or in competition with the defendant; and (3) the plaintiff in this case raised genuine issues of material fact as to the first and second elements of a UMOC claim, and the circuit court erred erred in holding that the plaintiff was estopped from asserting the UMOC claim based on waiver, judicial estoppel and collateral estoppel. View "Field v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass’n" on Justia Law
Ohio v. American Express Co.
The Amex credit card companies use a two-sided transaction platform to serve cardholders and merchants. Unlike traditional markets, two-sided platforms exhibit “indirect network effects,” because the value of the platform to one group depends on how many members of another group participate. Two-sided platforms must take these effects into account before making a change in price on either side, or they risk creating a feedback loop of declining demand. Visa and MasterCard have structural advantages over Amex. Amex focuses on cardholder spending rather than cardholder lending. To encourage cardholder spending, Amex provides better rewards than the other credit-card companies. Amex continually invests in its cardholder rewards program and must charge merchants higher fees than its rivals. To avoid higher fees, merchants sometimes attempt to dissuade cardholders from using Amex cards (steering). Amex places anti-steering provisions in its contracts with merchants.The Supreme Court affirmed the Second Circuit in rejecting claims that Amex violated section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits "unreasonable restraints” of trade. Applying the "rule of reason" three-step burden-shifting framework, the Court concluded the plaintiffs did not establish that Amex’s anti-steering provisions have a substantial anticompetitive effect that harms consumers in the relevant market. Evidence of a price increase on one side of a two-sided transaction platform cannot, by itself, demonstrate an anticompetitive exercise of market power; plaintiffs must prove that Amex’s anti-steering provisions increased the cost of credit-card transactions above a competitive level, reduced the number of credit-card transactions, or otherwise stifled competition. They offered no evidence that the price of credit-card transactions was higher than the price one would expect in a competitive market. Amex’s increased merchant fees reflect increases in the value of its services and the cost of its transactions, not an ability to charge above a competitive price. The Court noted that Visa and MasterCard’s merchant fees have continued to increase, even where Amex is not accepted. The market actually experienced expanding output and improved quality. View "Ohio v. American Express Co." on Justia Law
Ortiz v. Ferrellgas Partners, L.P.
Defendants are the nation’s largest distributors of pre-filled propane exchange tanks, which come in a standard size. Before 2008, Defendants filled the tanks with 17 pounds of propane. In 2008, due to rising prices, Defendants reduced the amount in each tato 15 pounds, maintaining the same price. Plaintiffs, indirect purchasers, who bought tanks from retailers, claimed this effectively raised the price. In 2009, plaintiffs filed a class action alleging conspiracy under the Sherman Act. Plaintiffs settled with both Defendants. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission issued a complaint against Defendants, which settled in 2015 by consent orders, for conspiring to artificially inflate tank prices. In 2014, another group of indirect purchasers (Ortiz) brought a class action against Defendants, alleging: “Despite their settlements, Defendants continued to conspire, and ... maintained their illegally agreed-upon fill levels, preserving the unlawfully inflated prices." The Ortiz suit became part of a multidistrict proceeding that included similar allegations by direct purchasers (who bought tanks directly from Defendants for resale). The Eighth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the direct-purchaser suit as time-barred, holding that each sale in a price-fixing conspiracy starts the statutory period running again. The court subsequently held that the indirect purchasers inadequately pled an injury-in-fact and lack standing to pursue an injunction to increase the fill levels of the tanks and may not seek disgorgement of profits. View "Ortiz v. Ferrellgas Partners, L.P." on Justia Law