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In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litigation

December 30, 2008; as amended January 16, 2009

IN RE: HYDROGEN PEROXIDE ANTITRUST LITIGATION
ARKEMA INC., ARKEMA FRANCE S.A., FMC CORP., KEMIRA CHEMICALS CANADA, INC., KEMIRA OYJ, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil Action No. 05-cv-0666 and MDL No. 1682. (Honorable Stewart Dalzell).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scirica, Chief Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued April 17, 2008

Before: SCIRICA, Chief Judge, AMBRO and FISHER, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

At issue in this antitrust action are the standards a district court applies when deciding whether to certify a class. We will vacate the order certifying the class in this case and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

In deciding whether to certify a class under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, the district court must make whatever factual and legal inquiries are necessary and must consider all relevant evidence and arguments presented by the parties. See Newton v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 259 F.3d 154, 166, 167 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Szabo v. Bridgeport Machs., Inc., 249 F.3d 672, 676 (7th Cir. 2001); Manual for Complex Litigation (Third) § 30.1 (1995)). In this appeal, we clarify three key aspects of class certification procedure. First, the decision to certify a class calls for findings by the court, not merely a "threshold showing" by a party, that each requirement of Rule 23 is met. Factual determinations supporting Rule 23 findings must be made by a preponderance of the evidence. Second, the court must resolve all factual or legal disputes relevant to class certification, even if they overlap with the merits-including disputes touching on elements of the cause of action. Third, the court's obligation to consider all relevant evidence and arguments extends to expert testimony, whether offered by a party seeking class certification or by a party opposing it.

I.

Purchasers of hydrogen peroxide and related chemical products brought this antitrust conspiracy action against chemical manufacturers.*fn1 An inorganic liquid, hydrogen peroxide is used most prominently as a bleach in the pulp and paper industry with smaller amounts appearing in chemicals and laundry products, environmental applications, textiles, and electronics. Hydrogen peroxide is available in solutions of different concentrations and grades depending on its intended use. Major concentrations are 35, 50, and 70 percent. The grades, roughly in order from least- to most-expensive, are: standard, food/cosmetic (which must meet FDA standards), electronic, and propulsion. All defendants sold the standard grade, but not all defendants sold all other grades. Defendants sold different amounts of each of the grades. Each grade has different supply and demand conditions because the grades are sold to end-users in a variety of industries with different economic characteristics. According to defendants, the different grades are not economic substitutes for each other, but plaintiffs disagree. Prices diverge dramatically among grades; electronic or propulsion grade can be as much as five times more expensive than standard grade.

The other two products at issue are sodium percarbonate and sodium perborate, together known as persalts, which are granular solids containing hydrogen peroxide used primarily as detergents. Among the defendants, only Solvay produced and sold sodium percarbonate in the United States during the class period. Solvay Chemicals, Degussa Corp., and FMC sold sodium perborate in the United States during the class period. Akzo, Arkema, and Kemira did not sell or produce sodium perborate in the United States during the class period.

After the United States Department of Justice and the European Commission began investigating possible violations of the antitrust laws in the hydrogen peroxide industry,*fn2 several plaintiffs filed class action complaints against producers of hydrogen peroxide and persalts under § 4 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 15, alleging a conspiracy in restraint of trade violating § 1 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred all cognate federal actions to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which consolidated the cases. See In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 374 F. Supp. 2d 1345 (J.P.M.L. 2005). The consolidated amended complaint alleged that during an eleven-year class period (January 1, 1994--January 5, 2005) defendants (1) communicated about prices they would charge, (2) agreed to charge prices at certain levels, (3) exchanged information on prices and sales volume, (4) allocated markets and customers, (5) agreed to reduce production capacity, (6) monitored each other, and (7) sold hydrogen peroxide at agreed prices.

The District Court denied defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. Following extensive discovery,*fn3 plaintiffs moved to certify a class of direct purchasers of hydrogen peroxide, sodium perborate, and sodium percarbonate, over an eleven-year class period. In support of class certification, plaintiffs offered the opinion of an economist. Defendants, opposing class certification, offered the opinion of a different economist. Defendants separately moved to exclude the opinion of plaintiffs' economist as unreliable under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Concluding plaintiffs' expert's opinion was admissible and supported plaintiffs' motion for class certification, the District Court certified a class of direct purchasers of hydrogen peroxide, sodium perborate, and sodium percarbonate under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). See In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 240 F.R.D. 163 (E.D. Pa. 2007). The District Court identified seven issues to be tried on a class-wide basis: (1) whether defendants and others engaged in a combination and conspiracy to fix, raise, maintain, or stabilize prices; allocate customers and markets; or control and restrict output of hydrogen peroxide, sodium perborate, and sodium percarbonate sold in the United States; (2) the identity of the participants in the alleged conspiracy; (3) the duration of the alleged conspiracy and the nature and character of defendants' acts performed in furtherance of it; (4) the effect of the alleged conspiracy on the prices of hydrogen peroxide and persalts during the class period; (5) whether the alleged conspiracy violated the Sherman Act; (6) whether the activities alleged in furtherance of the conspiracy or their effect on the prices of hydrogen peroxide and persalts during the class period injured named plaintiffs and the other members of the class; and (7) the proper means of calculating and distributing damages. The class was defined as:

All persons or entities, including state, local and municipal government entities (but excluding defendants, their parents, predecessors, successors, subsidiaries, and affiliates as well as federal government entities) who purchased hydrogen peroxide, sodium perborate, or sodium percarbonate in the United States, its territories, or possessions, or from a facility located in the United States, its territories, or possessions, directly from any of the defendants, or from any of their parents, predecessors, successors, subsidiaries, or affiliates, at any time during the period from September 14, 1994 to January 5, 2005.

We granted defendants' petition for an interlocutory appeal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f).*fn4

II.

Class certification is proper only "if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the prerequisites" of Rule 23 are met.*fn5 Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 161 (1982); see Beck v. Maximus, Inc., 457 F.3d 291, 297 (3d Cir. 2006); see also Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 615 (1997) (Rule 23(b)(3) requirements demand a "close look"). "A class certification decision requires a thorough examination of the factual and legal allegations." Newton, 259 F.3d at 166.*fn6

The trial court, well-positioned to decide which facts and legal arguments are most important to each Rule 23 requirement, possesses broad discretion to control proceedings and frame issues for consideration under Rule 23. See Amchem, 521 U.S. at 630 (Breyer, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (recognizing that the decision on class certification may implicate "highly fact-based, complex, and difficult matters"). But proper discretion does not soften the rule: a class may not be certified without a finding that each Rule 23 requirement is met. Careful application of Rule 23 accords with the pivotal status of class certification in large-scale litigation, because denying or granting class certification is often the defining moment in class actions (for it may sound the "death knell" of the litigation on the part of plaintiffs, or create unwarranted pressure to settle non-meritorious claims on the part of defendants) . . . .

Newton, 259 F.3d at 162; see id. at 167 ("Irrespective of the merits, certification decisions may have a decisive effect on litigation."); see also Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463, 476 (1978). In some cases, class certification "may force a defendant to settle rather than incur the costs of defending a class action and run the risk of potentially ruinous liability." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 advisory committee's note, 1998 Amendments. Accordingly, the potential for unwarranted settlement pressure "is a factor we weigh in our certification calculus." Newton, 259 F.3d at 168 n.8. The Supreme Court recently cautioned that certain antitrust class actions may present prime opportunities for plaintiffs to exert pressure upon defendants to settle weak claims. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1967 (2007).

III.

Here, the District Court found the Rule 23(a) requirements were met, a determination defendants do not now challenge. Plaintiffs sought certification under Rule 23(b)(3), which is permissible when the court "finds that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy."*fn7 Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). The twin requirements of Rule 23(b)(3) are known as predominance and superiority.

Only the predominance requirement is disputed in this appeal. Predominance "tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation," Amchem, 521 U.S. at 623, a standard "far more demanding" than the commonality requirement of Rule 23(a), id. at 623--24, "requiring more than a common claim," Newton, 259 F.3d at 187. "Issues common to the class must predominate over individual issues . . . ." In re The Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. Sales Practices Litig., 148 F.3d 283, 313--14 (3d Cir. 1998). Because the "nature of the evidence that will suffice to resolve a question determines whether the question is common or individual," Blades v. Monsanto Co., 400 F.3d 562, 566 (8th Cir. 2005), "'a district court must formulate some prediction as to how specific issues will play out in order to determine whether common or individual issues predominate in a given case,'" In re New Motor Vehicles Can. Exp. Antitrust Litig., 522 F.3d 6, 20 (1st Cir. 2008) [hereinafter New Motor Vehicles] (quoting Waste Mgmt. Holdings, Inc. v. Mowbray, 208 F.3d 288, 298 (1st Cir. 2000)).*fn8 "If proof of the essential elements of the cause of action requires individual treatment, then class certification is unsuitable." Newton, 259 F.3d at 172. Accordingly, we examine the elements of plaintiffs' claim "through the prism" of Rule 23 to determine whether the District Court properly certified the class. Id. at 181.

A.

The elements of plaintiffs' claim are (1) a violation of the antitrust laws-here, § 1 of the Sherman Act, (2) individual injury resulting from that violation, and (3) measurable damages. 15 U.S.C. § 15; Am. Bearing Co. v. Litton Indus., Inc., 729 F.2d 943, 948 (3d Cir. 1984); Blades, 400 F.3d at 566.

Importantly, individual injury (also known as antitrust impact) is an element of the cause of action; to prevail on the merits, every class member must prove at least some antitrust impact resulting from the alleged violation. Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561 F.2d 434, 454 (3d Cir. 1977); see Newton,259 F.3d at 188 (In antitrust and securities fraud class actions, "[p]roof of injury (whether or not an injury occurred at all) must be distinguished from calculation of damages (which determines the actual value of the injury)").

In antitrust cases, impact often is critically important for the purpose of evaluating Rule 23(b)(3)'s predominance requirement because it is an element of the claim that may call for individual, as opposed to common, proof. See New Motor Vehicles, 522 F.3d at 20 ("In antitrust class actions, common issues do not predominate if the fact of antitrust violation and the fact of antitrust impact cannot be established through common proof."); Bell Atl. Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 339 F.3d 294, 302 (5th Cir. 2003) ("[W]here fact of damage cannot be established for every class member through proof common to the class, the need to establish antitrust liability for individual class members defeats Rule 23(b)(3) predominance."); see also Blades, 400 F.3d at 572 ("[P]roof of conspiracy is not proof of common injury.").

Plaintiffs' burden at the class certification stage is not to prove the element of antitrust impact, although in order to prevail on the merits each class member must do so. Instead, the task for plaintiffs at class certification is to demonstrate that the element of antitrust impact is capable of proof at trial through evidence that is common to the class rather than individual to its members. Deciding this issue calls for the district court's rigorous assessment of the available evidence and the method or methods by which plaintiffs propose to use the evidence to prove impact at trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 advisory committee's note, 2003 Amendments ("A critical need is to determine how the case will be tried."); see, e.g., In re Linerboard Antitrust Litig., 305 F.3d 145, 155 (3d Cir. 2002) ("reject[ing] the contention that plaintiffs did not demonstrate that sufficient proof was available, for use at trial, to prove antitrust impact common to all the members of the class").

Here, the District Court found the predominance requirement was met because plaintiffs would be able to use common, as opposed to individualized, evidence to prove antitrust impact at trial. On appeal, defendants contend the District Court erred in three principal respects in finding plaintiffs satisfied the predominance requirement: (1) by applying too lenient a standard of proof for class certification, (2) by failing meaningfully to consider the views of defendants' expert while crediting plaintiffs' expert, and (3) by erroneously applying presumption of antitrust impact under Bogosian,561 F.2d at 454--55.

We review a class certification order for abuse of discretion, which occurs if the district court's decision "rests upon a clearly erroneous finding of fact, an errant conclusion of law or an improper application of law to fact." Newton, 259 F.3d at 165. "[W]hether an incorrect legal standard has been used is an issue of law to be reviewed de novo." In re Initial Pub. ...


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