If an FTAIA related case is ever taken by the Supreme Court I believe it will be a private civil price fixing damage case like Best Buy Co., Inc. v. Hannstar Display Corporation. The Antitrust Division’s international cartel prosecutions have all involved import commerce; providing a jurisdictional basis without reaching possible FTAIA related commerce. [And if I could decide a case without reaching FTAIA issues, I sure would.] The recent Antitrust Division case filing in capacitors follows this pattern. The Information alleged that both import commerce and FTAIA related commerce were subject to the agreement to fix prices.
There was a very interesting oral argument before the Ninth Circuit on December 11, 2015 dealing with a civil price fixing damage case related to the TFT-LCD price fixing cartel: Best Buy Co., Inc. v. Hannstar Display Corporation. The case raises a number of interesting FTAIA related issues, some of which I’ll discuss below. But if you are interested in viewing the oral argument, the Ninth Circuit makes video available and the Best Buy Co., Inc. v. Hannstar Display Corporation argument can be viewed here.
A couple of key factual notes about the case:
- HannStar, which pled guilty in the criminal TFT-LCD, case only sold panels to foreign entities. It shipped no price fixed panels into the US, nor finished goods because it did not make those. But, some HannStar price fixed panels were assembled into finished products, including desktop and laptop computers and televisions, that were imported into the US. Some of Hannstar’s co-conspirators did sell finished products in the US that contained price fixed screens that were purchased by Best Buy.
- The panel noted that the lack of Hannstar import commerce distinguished this case from the case the United States brought against the cartel, some of whose members imported panels directly into the Unites States so jurisdiction was not based on the FTAIA. United States v. Hsiung,
758 F.3d 1074 (9th Cir. 2014).
- Also, Best Buy in the US purchased finished products with the price fixed screens, distinguishing the case from Motorola Mobility where Motorola’s foreign subsidiary purchased the panels. Motorola Mobility v. AU Optronics, 775 F.3d 816, 826-27 (7th Cir. 2015).
- Best Buy was an opt out plaintiff. As such, it had to prove that it suffered injury as the result of the defendants’ anticompetitive conduct. It could not piggyback on the “class” it had opted out of.
The case involved a special jury verdict form that is at the heart of the appellate argument. The jury found that Best Buy’s injury arose from a conspiracy involving import commerce despite the fact that it was undisputed that Best Buy purchased no LCD screens that were the subject of the cartel agreement. Best But bought only the finished products (laptops, etc) that contained the price-fixed screens. Import commerce comes within in the scope of the Sherman Act without application of the FTAIA. But at the same time, the jury found that the conspiracy did not have a “direct, substantial and reasonably foreseeable effect on trade or commerce.” In other words, jurisdiction could not be based on the FTAIA.
Here are the relevant questions in the Special Verdict form:
Question 1: Did Best Buy prove, by a preponderance of the evidence and in accordance with the instructions given to you, that Toshiba knowingly participated in a conspiracy to fix, raise, maintain or stabilize the prices of TFT-LCD panels? No.
Question 2: Did Best Buy prove, by a preponderance of the evidence in accordance with the instructions given to you, that HannStar knowing participated in a conspiracy to fix, raise, maintain or stability the prices of TFT-LCD panels? Yes.
Question 3: Did Best Buy prove, by preponderance of the evidence and in accordance with the instructions given to you, that the conspiracy involved TFT-LCD panels and/or finished products (e.g., notebook computers, computer monitors, televisions, camcorders, cell phones and digital cameras containing TFT-LCD panels) imported into the United States? Yes.
Question 4: Did Best Buy prove, by preponderance of the evidence and in accordance with the instructions given to you, that the conspiracy involving these imported TFT-LCD panels and/or finished products produced substantial intended effects in the United States? Yes.
Question 5: Did Best Buy prove, by preponderance of the evidence and in accordance with the instructions given to you, that the conspiracy involved conduct that had a direct, substantial and reasonably foreseeable effect on trade or commerce in the United States? No.
Question 8: Did Best Buy prove, by preponderance of the evidence and in accordance with the instructions given to you, that it was injured as a result of the conspiracy in which one or both of the defendants knowingly participated? Yes.
Question 9: For Best Buy’s direct purchases only, what is the amount of damages Best Buy proved, by preponderance of the evidence and in accordance with the Court’s instructions, that it suffered as a result of the conspiracy? $ 7,471,943
The FTAIA issues in the case are particularly confusing because Question 3 in the Special Verdict form was in the alternative “did the conspiracy involve panels and/or finished productsimported into the United States?” HannStar argued that the jury was wrong in finding that the conspiracy involved import commerce because HannStar never sold panels in the US and Best Buy bought only finished products. “The conduct at issue was the agreement to fix the price of panels—wholly foreign conduct. [The conspiracy was] not to import finished products containing those panels to the US” HannStar attorney Belinda Lee, Latham & Watkins, argued. Lee noted that HannStar engaged in price-fixing on liquid crystal display panels, not finished goods. HannStar then argued that since the jury did not find an FTAIA basis for jurisdiction [that the conspiracy produced a direct substantial and reasonably foreseeable effect in the United States], there is no jurisdiction. “The jury was asked and they said no; they found no domestic effect,” Lee told the panel. Best Buy, therefore failed to prove that its claims arose from conduct covered by FTAIA.
Because the jury found import commerce, an issue in the case became whether the sale of the finished product (i.e. a laptop with affixed price LCD screen) could as a matter of law constitute import commerce. This invoked the “targeting” theory, i.e. that a cartel could be found to be covered by the Sherman Act even if there was no imports into the US if the cartel “targeted” the US. Judge Kim Wardlaw said that the jury had found there was substantial intent on the part of the defendants to create price effects in the US market. Was this enough to make the good import commerce (which jury found) or as a matter of law does this evidence only go to the domestic effects test? (and, confusingly, the jury found no domestic effects).
Judge Susan Graber expressed concern that finding import commerce jurisdiction based on a component part price fix could expand Sherman Act jurisdiction over foreign commerce beyond what Congress intended. She gave an example of a $10 foreign-based price fixed gas cap on a $50,000 car that is then imported into the United States. Is that import commerce? What about where the part is little in a big product? And the harm is quite small? The Court clearly was concerned with drawing the line [but in the instant case, the TFT-LCD screens were a fairly large cost import of the finished product.]
Hannstar attorney Lee argued (correctly I believe) that the issue of whether a component part price fix can provide Sherman Act jurisdiction relates only to whether the FTAIA’s “direct, substantial, and reasonably foreseeable” effect on commerce test is met. And on that question the jury answered “No.” Import commerce is defined as a purchase by a US consumer of the price fixed product. There is, however, some support for the proposition that in certain circumstances the import commerce exception requires only that the defendants’ anticompetitive conduct “target import goods or services,” Animal Sci. Prods., Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 470 (3d Cir. 2011); Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium Inc., 683 F.3d 845, 855 (7th Cir. 2012) (en band). I don’t think, however, the targeting analysis applies to whether components priced fixed in foreign commerce but imported into the US in a finished product constitutes import commerce. Such a reading would essentially render moot the FTAIA jurisdictional basis of “direct, substantial and reasonably foreseeable effect” on US commerce.
There were a couple of other interesting features of the case:
- Opt Out: There can be advantages to being an opt out plaintiff, but there may also be some downsides. Plaintiffs in class action just have to prove some import commerce, but since Best Buy was an opt out, it had to demonstrate their own purchases trace back to import commerce or the FTAIA domestic effect.
- Which Best Buy? Again as an opt out Best Buy had to trace its purchases to one of the conspirator companies and because Best Buy also has foreign subsidiaries it had to establish that the US company made the purchases (To avoid a Motorola Mobility situation). It seemed Best Buy overcame this hurdle, but it is something plaintiffs need to watch out for. B failed to trace the purchases from BB entities in US to HannStar. If foreign entities you have Motorola.
A final note: The jury in Best Buy’s trial ordered HannStar to pay almost $7.5 million in damages. The Court then trebled the award to more than $22 million. But because Best Buy had settled with so many of HannStar’s co-conspirators, the court reduced the award to zero. Ouch!
Best Buy was represented by Katherine Wiik of Robins Kaplan LLP.
Thanks for reading.