Introduction to Class Actions and Antitrust Enforcement

Private citizens have the right under federal antitrust laws to “injunctive relief and damages for antitrust violations without regard to the amount in controversy.”  Hawaii v. Standard Oil Co., 405 U.S. 251, 266 (1972).  Class actions enable private citizens to seek relief for these violations without regard to the amount in controversy for each individual claim.  This article discusses the fundamentals of certifying an antitrust class and gives particular attention to three current issues in antitrust class action litigation.  In addition to discussing these class certification fundamentals in general terms, the  article also focuses on one of the more prevalent types of antitrust class action claims – horizontal price-fixing conspiracies.

The Benefits of Class Actions.

By their very nature, class action lawsuits can benefit society.  In a class action lawsuit, a “class representative” sues on behalf of himself and all other persons who were similarly harmed by the same wrongdoer or wrongdoers.  This process enables potential plaintiffs to pool claims for litigation which would be uneconomical to litigate individually.  Such potential plaintiffs “would have no realistic day in court if a class action were not available.”  Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 809 (1985).  Therefore, a practitioner should consider filing an antitrust claim as a class action whenever a large number of persons have been similarly harmed by an alleged wrongdoer or wrongdoers and the individual amount of damages suffered by each potential plaintiff is too small to justify litigating on an individual basis.

Antitrust class actions also further the important public policy of enforcing the antitrust laws.  As one court noted in Town of New Castle v. Yonkers Contracting Co., 131 F.R.D. 38, 41 (S.D.N.Y. 1990): “Since private enforcement of antitrust laws provides a supplement to governmental enforcement, it is our view that class action treatment of alleged antitrust violations is appropriate and desirable.”  The courts, including those in the Eleventh Circuit, have been vigilant in the protection of consumers who have asserted class action claims on behalf of large classes of like consumers who have been victimized by violations of the antitrust laws.  In re Domestic Air Transp. Antitrust Litig.,137 F.R.D. 677 (N.D. Ga. 1991); In re Disposable Contact Lens Antitrust Litig., 170 F.R.D. 524 (M.D. Fla. 1996); Coleman v. Cannon Oil Co., 141 F.R.D. 516, 520 (M.D. Ala. 1992) (“It may be that a class-action lawsuit is the most fair and efficient means of enforcing the law where antitrust violations have been continuous, widespread and detrimental to as yet unidentified consumers.”).  Moreover, class actions enforce the antitrust laws in a cost effective and efficient manner by combining a multitude of the same or similar claims into a single action.

Antitrust violations are often ideal for class action treatment because they frequently involve a large number of persons who have suffered damages in amounts that are small enough to make  litigating them individually cost prohibitive, but that when pooled together are quite large.  Price-fixing cases typically fit this description.  Thus, courts frequently certify classes in cases involving claims of price-fixing.  E.g. In re Polypropylene Carpet Antitrust Litigation, MDL Docket No. 1075 (N.D. Ga. Sept. 5, 1997) (order granting plaintiffs’ motion for class certification) (hereinafter “In re Carpets Sept. 5, 1997 Order”).  In re NASDAQ Market-Makers Antitrust Litig., 169 F.R.D. 493 (S.D.N.Y. 1996); In re Potash Antitrust Litig., 159 F.R.D. at 688-9; In re Catfish Antitrust Litig., 826 F. Supp. 1019 (N.D. Miss. 1993); In re Carbon Dioxide Antitrust Litig., 149 F.R.D. 229, 232 (M.D. Fla. 1993); In re Domestic Air, 137 F.R.D. at 677; Coleman, 141 F.R.D. at 520; In re Workers Compensation Antitrust Litig., 130 F.R.D. 99, 105 (D. Minn. 1990); Cumberland Farms, Inc. v. Browning-Ferris Industries, Inc., 120 F.R.D. 642, 645 (E.D. Pa. 1988); In re Fine Paper Antitrust Litig., 82 F.R.D. 143 (E.D. Pa. 1979), aff’d, 685 F.2d 810 (3d Cir. 1982); In re Corrugated Container Antitrust Litig., 80 F.R.D. 244 (S.D. Tex. 1978); In re Sugar Indus. Antitrust Litig., 1977-1 (CCH) Trade Cas. ¶61,373 (N.D. Cal., May 21, 1976); In re Antibiotic Antitrust Actions, 333 F. Supp. 278 (S.D.N.Y.), amended, 333 F. Supp. 291 (S.D.N.Y.), mandamus denied, 449 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1971).  See also  4 H. Newberg & A. Conte, Newberg on Class Actions §18.05 (3d ed. 1992).

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