Comcast v Behrend is the latest in a series of United States Supreme Court cases in recent years that have restricted the ability of plaintiffs to certify federal class actions. In so doing, it has expanded the scope of the Court's landmark 2011 decision, Walmart v. Dukes (click here for our analysis of that decision).
In Comcast, plaintiffs were subscribers to Comcast's cable-television services. Plaintiffs alleged that Comcast engaged in a practice called "clustering," a strategy of concentrating operations within a particular region, and that this practice violated antitrust law. In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the clustering scheme harmed subscribers in the Philadelphia area by eliminating competition and elevating prices.
Plaintiffs sought to certify the class under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 23(b)(3), which permits certification only if:
the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members."
The district court held that to meet this predominance requirement, plaintiffs needed show:
that the existence of individual injury "was capable of proof at trial through evidence that [was] common to the class rather than individual members" and
that the damages resulting from the injury were measurable "on a class-wide basis" through the use of a "common methodology."
Plaintiffs proposed four theories of antitrust impact. Of these four theories, the district court concluded that only one was capable of class-wide proof, and rejected the rest.
In establishing that damages could be calculated on a class-wide basis, plaintiffs introduced the testimony of an expert, who introduced a model that calculated damages of over $875 million for the entire class. However, despite the fact that the district court had rejected three, and allowed only one, theory of antitrust impact, the model introduced by the expert did not isolate damages resulting from any one theory of antitrust impact.
The District Court approved the certification of the class, and Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, overturned these rulings, holding that the class action was improperly certified.
As Justice Scalia explained,
a model purporting to serve as evidence of damages in this class action must measure only those damages attributable to that theory. If the model does not even attempt to do that, it cannot possibly establish that damages are susceptible of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3)."
The Court rejected the reasoning of the Third Circuit that such inquiry would involve consideration into the "merits," which, the Third Circuit believed, has "no place in the class certification inquiry." To the contrary, Justice Scalia explained, "our cases requir[e] a determination that Rule 23 is satisfied, even when that requires inquiry into the merits of the claim."
Comcast is part of a recent trend in Supreme Court jurisprudence allowing, and indeed even requiring, district courts to examine the merits of the claim in determining the suitability of class certification.
This principle was announced in Walmart v. Dukes, and it is no accident that the Court begins the analysis section of Comcast with an invocation from that 2011 ruling. Moreover, Comcast extends the ruling of Walmart v. Dukes, which considered only Rule 23(a) (the requirement that plaintiffs establish commonality), to the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3).