DRI Brief Urges Supreme Court To Enforce Antitrust Statute Of Limitations

October 18, 2017

DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar has filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the certiorari petition in Ferrellgas Partners, L.P. v. Morgan-Larson, LLC, No. 17-441.  In its brief, DRI urges the Supreme Court to grant review and clarify the scope and application of the “continuing violation doctrine” insofar as it applies to the running of the four-year statute of limitations in private-party treble damages suits alleging that a defendant violated federal antitrust law.  The brief was authored by Capital Appellate Advocacy founder Larry Ebner, who chairs DRI’s nine-member Amicus Committee.

The Clayton Antitrust Act’s four-year statute of limitations states that “Any action to enforce any cause of action [for violation of federal antitrust laws] shall be forever barred unless commenced within four years after the cause of action accrued.”  15 U.S.C. § 15b.  But in a 5–4 en banc decision, the Eighth Circuit held in Ferrellgas Partners that despite this strongly worded provision, the “continuing violation doctrine” allows plaintiffs in putative class-action litigation filed in 2014 to proceed with claims seeking treble damages for an alleged price-fixing conspiracy successfully completed in 2008.

An earlier wave of litigation alleging the same conspiracy―concerning defendants’ fill-level reductions in exchangeable propane gas tanks sold to consumers for use in residential heaters and barbecue grills―was settled in 2010.  According to the en banc majority, each sale to the plaintiffs in a price-fixing conspiracy starts the four-year limitations period running again.  The four dissenting Eighth Circuit judges, however, contended that a continuing violation based on sales requires a plausible showing of a live, ongoing conspiracy sometime during the limitations period to survive a motion to dismiss.

DRI’s amicus brief urges the Court to grant review in order to resolve lower courts’ confusion and disagreement by clarifying or refining the continuing violation doctrine in private-party antitrust suits.

DRI explains that this issue implicates at least three core civil justice objectives:  (i) strict enforcement of statutory limitations periods for filing private-party damages suits; (ii) dismissal of civil actions at the pleadings stage for failure to allege sufficient facts stating a plausible claim for relief; and (iii) class-action fairness, especially prior to certification.

DRI’s brief discusses why statutes of limitations promote civil justice; why the antitrust statute of limitations serves the public interest, regardless of whether there is merit to antitrust allegations; why an expansive continuing violation exception would defeat the purpose of the antitrust statute of limitations; and why any continuing violation exception must comply with the Supreme Court’s existing standards for pleading plausible claims for relief.

The complete text of DRI’s amicus brief can be found here, or by clicking the DOWNLOAD button above.