Antitrust Litigation & Investigations

Full Ninth Circuit Removes Unwarranted Hurdles to Class Certification in Big Tuna Antitrust Case

Court delivers a necessary course correction in the law of class certification.

There was reason for optimism in August 2021, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted rehearing en banc of a 2-1 decision that would have made it more difficult for antitrust claimants to secure class certification. The three-judge panel in Olean Wholesale Grocery Coop., Inc. v. Bumble Bee Foods LLC, 993 F.3d 774 (9th Cir. 2021) had determined that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) required a district court to find that no more than a de minimis number of class members are uninjured before a class may be certified. Having announced this de minimis rule in its opinion, the court then took the unusual step of inviting the parties to argue whether the full court should rehear the issue en banc.

As we wrote last year when en banc rehearing was granted, with its de minimis rule, “the panel really jumped the median strip.” We argued that the rule conflated the question of whether issues common to the class predominate over issues unique to individual class members with the question of how the class is defined and that the Ninth Circuit's new and unrealistic de minimis requirement erected an unnecessary procedural hurdle to class certification. Other commentators and amici argued that requiring proof that all but a de minimis number of class members are injured requires a determination on the merits, impermissible at the class certification stage.

In welcome news for claimants and attorneys who bring antitrust class actions, the Ninth Circuit sitting en banc decided against the de minimis rule, for all of the foregoing reasons, in Olean Wholesale Grocery Coop., Inc. v. Bumble Bee Foods LLC, No. 19-56514, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 9455 (9th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022).

In a thorough review of the requirements for class certification under Rule 23, the Ninth Circuit held that the movant’s burden is to prove the prerequisites of Rule 23 by a preponderance of the evidence, bringing the Ninth Circuit in line with the law in the First, Second, Third, Fifth, and Seventh Circuits. As for the predominance requirement of a Rule 23(b)(3) class, the court cited In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305, 311 (3d Cir. 2008) as amended (Jan. 16, 2009), to hold that, when assessing whether a plaintiff has proven that a common question related to a central issue in the claim predominates, a district court is limited to resolving whether the evidence establishes that a common question is capable of class-wide resolution, not whether the evidence in fact establishes that plaintiffs would win at trial.”

In rejecting the de minimis rule, the court began with the notion that class-wide proof is not required for all issues. Thus, the need for individualized assessment of a class member’s damages does not preclude a court from certifying a class. It contradicts this notion to require proof of injury of not more than a de minimis number of class members.

The presence of uninjured class members, the court held, does not defeat predominance. Predominance is defeated only where the class members cannot rely on the same body of common evidence to establish the common issue.

The presence of a large number of uninjured class members, however, could require a district court to consider whether the class definition is “fatally overbroad.”

The remedy in that case, the court said, is to “redefine the overbroad class to include only those members who can rely on the same body of common evidence to establish the common issue.” “[T]he problem of a potentially ‘over-inclusive’ class,” the court said, “can and often should be solved by refining the class definition rather than by flatly denying class certification on that basis” (citation and internal quotation omitted).

With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed the three-judge panel and affirmed the certification of the classes by U.S. District Judge Janis L. Sammartino of California’s Southern District*, holding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the methodology employed—statistical regression analysis and other expert evidence—"was capable of showing that a price-fixing conspiracy caused class-wide antitrust impact.”  [*Judge Sammartino subsequently recused herself and the case was reassigned to Chief Judge Dana Sabraw.]

The 9-2 decision was written by Circuit Judge Sandra S. Ikuta. In a dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Kenneth K. Lee said as much as a third of the class members were unharmed. This is a “victory to plaintiffs” who will now be able to settle the action without having to prove their case trial, he said.

The suit was brought by direct purchasers of tuna products, indirect purchasers of bulk-sized tuna products, and individual end purchasers against the owners of Bumble Bee Foods LLC (currently in Chapter 11), StarKist Co., and Chicken of the Sea—which sell more than 80 percent of the packaged tuna in the United States. The industry has also been investigated by the Department of Justice in recent years, resulting in criminal guilty pleas by industry executives for participating in a price-fixing conspiracy.

Nothing in Rule 23 suggests that the presence of more than a de minimis number of uninjured class members affects whether questions affecting only individual class members predominate. 

The now vacated de minimis rule conflates impact with damages and the predominance inquiry with potential overbreadth in the class definition. The Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision is a model of clear thinking and a welcome course correction in the law of class certification.


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