Eleventh Circuit Holds That Evidence Requiring The Court To Make Inferences Cannot Be “Direct” Evidence Of An Antitrust Conspiracy
11/21/2023On October 30, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of defendants Ring Power Corporation, Ziegler, Inc., and Thompson Tractor Company, Inc., because plaintiff International Construction Products, LLC (ICP) failed to present sufficient evidence—direct or circumstantial—to establish a conspiracy to boycott under Section 1 of the Sherman Act. International Construction Products, LLC v. Ring Power Corporation, No. 22-10231, 2023 WL 7127515 (11th Cir. Oct. 30, 2023).
Plaintiff ICP, a heavy construction equipment distributor, had entered into an arrangement with IronPlanet, a heavy construction equipment auction site, for IronPlanet to sell ICP’s new heavy construction equipment on a dedicated online storefront (the “Arrangement”). IronPlanet terminated the Arrangement with ICP after one month. Thereafter, ICP alleged that Defendants, dealers of heavy construction equipment manufactured by non-party Caterpillar, Inc., conspired to boycott IronPlanet unless IronPlanet terminated its relationship with ICP.
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida bifurcated discovery and limited the parties in the first phase to discovery on the issue of whether a conspiracy existed. After this first phase of discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to Defendants on the Sherman Act claims, finding that Plaintiff failed to show evidence of a conspiracy among Defendants that would exclude the possibility of permissible independent action. The Eleventh Circuit agreed, holding that neither Plaintiff’s direct or indirect evidence was sufficient to show that Defendants conspired to boycott IronPlanet unless it ended its relationship with ICP.
Specifically, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Plaintiff’s purported “direct” evidence, which included ICP or non-party communications, was definitionally not “direct” evidence of a conspiracy among Defendants because finding a conspiracy from that evidence required the court to make inferences and assumptions about the parties involved in the communications and their motivations. Id. at *6. The Court found further that this circumstantial evidence was insufficient because Plaintiff failed to submit any evidence of “plus” factors. The Court found that, counter to Plaintiff’s arguments, “ICP cannot preclude summary judgment by reliance on circumstantial evidence alone, without any discussion or argument of plus factors because ‘[m]ere equipoise of the evidence does not establish an agreement.’” Id. at *8.