Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Certification of Cable TV Subscriber Class in Antitrust Action Was Proper

This posting was written by Darius Sturmer, Editor of CCH Trade Regulation Reporter.

Certification of a class of approximately two million non-basic cable television programming services customers in the Philadelphia area—alleging that cable provider Comcast engaged in unlawful monopolization, attempted monopolization, and market or customer allocation through a series of acquisitions and cable system swap arrangements—was a proper exercise of discretion, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia has ruled.

The trial court satisfied the "rigorous analysis" standard established in In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litigation (2008-2 Trade Cases ¶76,453) in determining that questions of fact or law common to class members predominated over individual issues, for purposes of meeting the certification requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3). Certification (2010-1 Trade Cases ¶76,869) was therefore affirmed.

The trial court’s finding that the plaintiffs established by a preponderance of evidence that they would be able to prove, through common evidence, not only class-wide antitrust impact in the form of higher costs for programming but also a common methodology to quantify damages on a class-wide basis was not clearly erroneous, the appellate court decided.

In granting certification, the lower court had limited the class’s theories of class-wide impact to the theory that Comcast’s clustering conduct through the swaps and acquisitions had deterred competition from overbuilders in the Philadelphia market.

Relevant Geographic Market, Antitrust Impact

Arguments that the trial court had failed to apply the correct legal standard for determining the relevant geographic market and had made clearly erroneous factual findings by relying on the plaintiffs' expert for proof of class-wide antitrust impact were rejected by the appellate court.

Comcast’s contention that the relevant geographic market was each complaining individual’s household would have set a market so small as to be impractical and inefficient, whereas the class’s market definition capturing the whole of the Philadelphia area was based on record evidence showing that customers throughout the aggregated area faced similar competitive choices.

Moreover, the trial court had carefully considered the plaintiffs’ theories of class-wide impact before concluding that the class met its burden of demonstrating that the anticompetitive effect of clustering on overbuilder competition was capable of proof through evidence common to the class.

The econometric analysis of the plaintiffs’ damages expert demonstrating that the alleged antitrust impact was class-wide and utilizing a “but-for” pricing model to reach a final conservative estimated overcharge value was sufficiently sound, the appellate court also concluded. The damages model provided a methodology that could establish damages on a class-wide basis using common proof.

Attacks by the cable provider on the merits of the model were premature and missed the point, the court said. Some variation of damages among class members did not defeat certification, the court noted.

Finally, the trial court did not lack any legal authority to certify a per se claim based on the class’s allegations, the appellate court held. Comcast’s request to have the appellate court declare on the merits that the plaintiffs could not establish a per se antitrust violation was beyond the scope of the certification decision from which it appealed, the court explained.

Partial Dissent

A separate opinion partially dissenting from the majority’s conclusion argued that damages could not be proven using evidence common to the entire class. According to the partial dissent, the damages expert’s testimony was incapable of identifying any damages caused by reduced overbuilding in the Philadelphia area—the plaintiffs’ only viable theory of antitrust impact—and thus did not fit the case. Therefore, it was irrelevant and should be deemed inadmissible at trial, leaving the class with no evidence of class-wide proof of damages.

Because of this, the partial dissent stated, the certification order should have been vacated to the extent that it provided for a single class as to proof of damages and remanded to the lower court to consider whether the class could be divided into subclasses for the purpose of proving damages.

The decision in Behrend v. Comcast Corp. will be reported at 2011-2 Trade Cases ¶77,575.

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