U.S. District Court Dismisses a Sherman Act Class Action Lawsuit Brought by Former and Current Bureau of Prison Inmates for lack of Antitrust Injury

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 28 February 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan (hereinafter, “District Court”) dismissed  a putative class action lawsuit filed by current and released Bureau of Prison (“BOP”) inmates who purchased MP3 players and music or other audio files against Advanced Technologies Group LLC (“ATG”) and SanDisk Corporation (SanDisk”).

The plaintiffs were former and current BOP inmates. While incarcerated, plaintiffs purchased MP3 players on the BOP-operated facility’s “Commissary List” of items for sale, which included only those products that met special security features and had the ability to interface with BOP’s Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (“TRULINCS”). Indeed, in 2012 BOP and ATG signed a contract granting ATG the exclusive right to supply prison-restricted MP3 players and MP3 music to BOP inmates. In turn, ATG and SanDisk entered into an agreement for SanDisk to exclusively supply the prison-restricted MP3 players to ATG, pursuant to which only one brand and model of MP3 player was available for sale to inmates. The authorized device was not connected to the internet, but could only download approved music and audio books through TRULINCS. Inmates could purchase as many as 1,500 songs, which were stored on the MP3 player. When prisoners were released from BOP custody and they lost access to TRULINC, the MP3 players became inoperable and the prisoners lost access to the purchased audio files. Plaintiffs allege that this loss could only be avoided by buying a post-release MP3 player manufactured by SanDisk and sold by ATG. Also, according to plaintiffs, ATG will not restore any content to a third party player.

Plaintiffs therefore allege that defendants engaged in unlawful tying or a conspiracy to engage in unlawful tying in violation of §1 of the Sherman Act and in unlawful monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy to monopolize in violation of §2 of the Sherman Act. More specifically,  Plaintiffs assert that Defendants unlawfully tied the purchase of prison-restricted MP3 players to the purchase of a post-release MP3 player, and further allege that defendants’ conduct has exclusionary and anticompetitive effects with respect to the market for post-release MP3 players. Defendants argue that Plaintiffs lack antitrust standing.

First, The District Court recalled the relevant factors for the establishment of standing to bring an antitrust action, as articulated by the Supreme Court in Associated Gen. Contractors of Calif. and summarized by the Sixth Circuit in  Southhaven Land. These factors are: (i) the causal connection between the antitrust violation and the harm to the plaintiff and the intent of the defendant to cause that harm, with neither factor alone sufficient to confer standing; (ii) whether the plaintiff’s alleged injury is of the type for which the antitrust laws were intended to provide redress; (iii) the directness of the injury, which addresses the concerns that liberal application of standing principles might produce speculative claims; (iv) the existence of more direct victims of the alleged antitrust violations; and (v) the potential for duplicative recovery or complex apportionment of damages.

Second, the District Court held that, despite the fact that the factors have to be balanced, antitrust injury is a necessary component, and, therefore, where a plaintiff fails to establish an antitrust injury, the court must dismiss the complaint as a matter of law.

Third, the District Court ruled that an injury will not qualify as an antitrust injury unless it is attributable to an anticompetitive aspect of the practice under scrutiny. In this sense, adhering to the principles established in Standfacts Credit Servs., the District Court held that no cognizable antitrust injury could be identified where the alleged injury is a “byproduct of the regulatory scheme” or federal law rather than of the defendant’s business practices, and in this case, the injury stems from BOP policy rather than anticompetitive conduct by Defendants.

In light of the above, the District Court concluded that antitrust injury was lacking to support Plaintiff’s Sherman Act claims against defendants. Therefore, it granted motion to dismiss the defendants’ antitrust complaint as well as additional common law and state law claims.

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