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In re High Pressure Laminates Antitrust Litigation

May 15, 2006

IN RE: HIGH PRESSURE LAMINATES ANTITRUST LITIGATION


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Brieant, J.

Memorandum and Order

Before this Court is Defendant Wilsonart's motion pursuant to Rule 50(a)(1) Fed.R.Civ.P. for judgment as a matter of law (Doc. 348), filed on April 28, 2006. Opposition papers by the lead Class Plaintiffs do not appear currently on the docket sheet, but the Court received a courtesy copy of these papers on May 12, 2006. Opposition papers were filed by the Florida Sub-Class Plaintiffs on May 9, 2006. The matter was fully submitted to the Court on May 12, 2006.

Background/Facts:

On April 10, 2006, the Court began a civil jury trial in this civil antitrust litigation. Familiarity with the facts, circumstances, and parties to this case on the part of the reader is assumed here. The Plaintiffs have rested, and this motion has been considered while the trial was in recess. Defendant Wilsonart contends, and the Plaintiffs deny, that the Plaintiffs have not (1) presented evidence that tends to exclude the possibility that Wilsonart acted independently in its own self-interest during the class period, and (2) that Plaintiffs have not introduced any evidence from which a reasonable jury can infer that it is more likely than not that a conspiracy or agreement to fix prices existed among the HPL manufacturers during the class period. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is denied.

Judgment as a matter of law is proper when "a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). A court considering a request for judgment as a matter of law must "'consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was made and ...give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from the evidence.'" Tolbert v. Queens Coll., 242 F.3d 58, 70 (2d Cir. 2001) (quoting Smith v. Lightning Bolt Prods., Inc., 861 F.2d 363, 367 (2d Cir. 1988)). "'The court cannot assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury.'" Id. (quoting Smith, 861 F.2d at 367).

In the context of antitrust litigation, as stated by Our Court of Appeals in Twombly v. Bell Atl. Corp., 425 F.3d 99, 113-114 (2d. Cir. 2005):

A plaintiff's claim, under the ordinarily applicable standard, will not survive a defendant's motion for summary judgment [or judgment as a matter of law] ...where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the [plaintiff on that claim]. In making this determination, all inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts . . . must be viewed in the light most favorable to the [plaintiff]. In a case brought under Section 1 of the Sherman Act, however, the range of permissible inferences from ambiguous evidence is limited, because antitrust laws prohibit only contracts, combinations, or conspiracies -- and not independent parallel conduct -- that operate unreasonably to restrain trade. Although parallel conduct can be probative evidence bearing on the issue of whether there is an antitrust conspiracy, it may also, as the district court in the instant case pointed out, simply [be] the result of similar decisions by competitors who have the same information and the same basic economic interests. Accordingly, in a Section 1 case where there is no direct, smoking gun evidence, conduct as consistent with permissible competition as with illegal conspiracy does not, standing alone, support an inference of antitrust conspiracy.

The relevant inquiry is whether the Plaintiffs have presented evidence over and above mere parallelism. This Court concludes that they have. Plaintiffs have shown the existence of additional circumstances, so-called "plus factors", which, when viewed in conjunction with the parallel price movement, can serve to allow the jury to find that the Plaintiffs have presented evidence that tends to exclude the possibility that Wilsonart acted independently, and that it is more likely than not that an agreement to fix prices existed.

"Plus Factors":

As stated by Our Court of Appeals in Apex Oil Co. v. Di Mauro, 822 F.2d 246, 253 (2d. Cir. 1987):

Since mere parallel behavior can be consistent with independent conduct, courts have held that a plaintiff must show the existence of additional circumstances, often referred to as "plus" factors, which, when viewed in conjunction with the parallel acts, can serve to allow a fact-finder to infer a conspiracy. Such circumstances might include a common motive to conspire or a high level of interfirm communications. (Internal citations omitted).

Even such plus factors may not "necessarily lead to an inference of conspiracy," Apex at 254, making it "difficult to hold that the parallel acts 'tend to exclude the possibility' of independent action. Id. For example, "such factors in a particular case could lead to an equally plausible inference of mere interdependent behavior, i.e., actions taken by market actors who are aware of and anticipate similar actions taken by competitors, but which fall short of a tacit agreement." Id. This is not the case here. There is still considerable doubt, as supported by the record and described below, as to whether Defendant's interpretation of the "plus factors" evidence presented is equally as plausible as Plaintiffs.

I. Evidence of Parallel Acts That Were Against The Apparent Individual Economic Self-Interest of the Alleged Conspirators:

Plaintiffs presented evidence from which a jury may infer that the parallel acts were "against the apparent individual economic self-interest of the alleged conspirators." Modern Home Institute, Inc. v. Hartford Acci. & Indem. Co., 513 F.2d 102, 111 (2d. Cir. 1975). "Such a showing, if successful, might tend to exclude the possibility of independent parallel behavior." Apex at253 citing Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561 F.2d 434, 446 (3d Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 1086, 55 L. Ed. 2d 791, 98 S. Ct. 1280 (1978); see also Matsushita Elec. ...


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