Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Antitrust & Trade Regulation
by
In 2017, plaintiff Perfectus Aluminum, Inc. filed a civil complaint alleging causes of action for: (1) violation of California Unfair Competition Law; (2) trade libel; and (3) intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. Plaintiff named “Dupré Analytics” as the sole defendant in the complaint and alleged liability based upon the publication of two reports that suggested plaintiff was part of a conspiracy to artificially inflate the sales of a large Chinese aluminum company. Muddy Waters, LLC, doing business as Dupré Analytics (Muddy Waters) responded to the complaint by filing a special motion to strike pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute found in Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. The trial court denied Muddy Waters’s motion on the ground that Muddy Waters failed to show plaintiff’s causes of action arose out of protected activity under section 425.16 and that alternatively, the commercial speech exception found in section 425.17 (c), precluded granting the motion. Muddy Waters petitioned the Court of Appeal for mandamus relief. The Court concluded the trial court erred in denying Muddy Waters’s special motion to strike. Accordingly, the Court ordered a writ of mandate issue directing the superior court to vacate its order denying Muddy Waters’s special motion to strike and to enter a new order granting the motion. View "Muddy Waters v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

by
Appellants Area 55, LLC, and SAB Holdings, LLC appealed a trial court order granting the special motion to strike their first amended complaint for malicious prosecution and the related judgment of dismissal in favor of Respondents Nicholas & Tomasevic, LLP (N&T), Craig Nicholas, and Alex Tomasevic. Appellants included the successors to Vinturi, Inc. (Vinturi), which developed and sold the “ ‘Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator’ for wine-lovers who want to enhance their experience of drinking wine.” Vinturi started selling the Vinturi Aerator in 2006. As sold to the public, the box contained the Vinturi body with a decorative black silicone band, a rubber stand, and a filter screen -- parts all made in China, transported to the United States, and assembled in the United States. From 2006 until 2010, Vinturi sold its aerator in the United States with the statement “ ‘VINTURI IS MANUFACTURED IN THE USA’ ” printed on the bottom panel of the box. Attorney Nicholas filed various consumer fraud claims, challenging Appellants claim the aerator was made in the U.S. when the components were made in China. Appellants were successful in getting two class action cases dismissed. In 2018, Appellants filed the present case for malicious prosecution, resulting in the grant of Respondents' "SLAPP" motion on appeal. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court erred in ruling that Appellants could not establish the prior action was not terminated on its merits. "Thus, for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute, the court erred in ruling that Appellants did not demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the merits of their malicious prosecution claim." In addition, in its de novo review, the Court exercised discretion to reach the additional issues raised by the parties in the motion and opposition: Appellants made a sufficient prima facie showing of the remaining elements of their claim, and Respondents did not defeat Appellants’ claim as a matter of law. Accordingly, the order granting Respondents’ special motion to strike the complaint was vacated and reversed. On remand, the trial court was directed to enter a new and different order denying Respondents’ special motion. View "Area 55 v. Nicholas & Tomasevic" on Justia Law

by
Quidel Corporation (Quidel) petitioned for a writ of mandate and/or prohibition to direct the trial court to vacate its order granting summary adjudication. Quidel contended the trial court incorrectly concluded a provision in its contract with Beckman Coulter, Inc. (Beckman) was an invalid restraint on trade in violation of Business and Professions Code, section 16600. Quidel argued the trial court improperly extended the holding from Edwards v. Arthur Andersen LLP, 44 Cal.4th 937 (2008) beyond the employment context to a provision in the parties’ 2003 BNP Assay Agreement (the Agreement). In its original, published opinion, the Court of Appeal concluded it was not, granted the petition and issued a writ instructing the trial court to vacate the December 2018 order granting summary judgment on the first cause of action. The California Supreme Court then granted review of the Court of Appeal's opinion and ordered briefing deferred pending its decision in Ixchel Pharma, LLC v. Biogen, Inc., S256927. On August 3, 2020, the Supreme Court issued Ixchel Pharma, LLC v. Biogen, Inc., 9 Cal.5th 1130 (2020), which held “a rule of reason applies to determine the validity of a contractual provision by which a business is restrained from engaging in a lawful trade or business with another business.” The Quidel matter was transferred back to the Court of Appeals with directions to vacate its previous opinion and reconsider the case in light of Ixchel. The appellate court issued a new opinion in which it concluded the trial court’s decision was incorrect. The trial court was directed to vacate the December 7, 2018 order granting summary adjudication on the first cause of action. View "Quidel Corporation v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

by
In this antitrust dispute involving licensing of motion pictures to movie theaters for public exhibition, Flagship obtained a jury verdict against Century. Flagship owned the Palme d'Or theater and Century owned The River theater. The jury found true Flagship's allegations that Century had engaged in "circuit dealing" by entering into licensing agreements with film distributors that covered licenses to play films not just at The River, but at multiple other Century-owned theaters as well, and using these agreements to pressure distributors into refusing to license films to Palme d'Or.The Court of Appeal agreed with Century that Flagship did not present substantial evidence of anticompetitive effects in the relevant market. The court also agreed with Century that this failure of proof warrants reversal, as circuit dealing based on multi-theater licensing agreements is not per se illegal under the Cartwright Act. Therefore, the court reversed the judgment and need not reach Century's remaining arguments on appeal. The court also did not need to address Flagship's case from the court's postjudgment order awarding Flagship attorney fees in an amount lower than Flagship had requested. View "Flagship Theatres of Palm Desert, LLC v. Century Theatres, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Porter Scott, P.C. (hereafter, “Porter Scott”) defended The Johnson Group Staffing Company, Inc. (hereafter, “TJG” or “Johnson Group”) through two rounds of litigation with its chief competitor, Aerotek, Inc. (hereafter, “Aerotek”). Aerotek first sued TJG after TJG’s founder, Chris Johnson, left Aerotek to form TJG. In the lawsuit, Aerotek alleged that TJG and Johnson, among other things, misappropriated trade secrets by soliciting Aerotek’s customers. TJG and Johnson settled with Aerotek a little over a year later. The issue presented for the Court of Appeal's review concerned the ownership of fees awarded under Civil Code 3426.4, and whether the prevailing litigant (here, The Johnson Group Staffing Company, Inc.) or the prevailing litigant’s attorney (here, Porter Scott, P.C.) were entitled to the fees awarded to the “prevailing party.” The Court concluded that, absent an enforceable agreement to the contrary, these fees belonged to the attorney to the extent they exceeded the fees the litigant already paid. Furthermore, the Court concluded that, although the parties here entered into a fee agreement, that agreement did not alter the default disposition of fees in favor of the attorney. Because the trial court reached the same conclusion, the Court of Appeal affirmed its judgment. View "Aerotek v. Johnson Group Staffing Co." on Justia Law

by
In an antitrust dispute involving the licensing of motion pictures to movie theaters for public exhibition, Flagship obtained a jury verdict against Century. The jury found true Flagship's allegations that Century had engaged in a practice known as "circuit dealing" by entering into licensing agreements with film distributors that covered licenses to play films not just at The River, a theater located two miles away from the Palme d'Or, but at multiple other Century-owned theaters as well, and using these agreements to pressure distributors into refusing to license films to the Palme d'Or.The Court of Appeal held that a Cartwright Act plaintiff asserting a non-monopoly circuit-dealing claim must prove not only that a theater-circuit owner entered into film licensing agreements covering more than one of its theaters, but that such agreements caused net harm to competition, as determined by the balancing of anti and procompetitive effects under the rule of reason. In this case, the court held that substantial evidence does not support the jury's finding of anticompetitive effects in the relevant market. Furthermore, this failure of proof warrants reversal, as circuit dealing based on multi-theater licensing agreements is not per se illegal under the Cartwright Act. The court reversed the judgment and concluded that it need not address Century's remaining arguments, as well as Flagship's separate appeal challenging the amount of attorney fees awarded. View "Flagship Theatres of Palm Desert, LLC v. Century Theatres, Inc." on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff Michael Hanna was declared to be a vexatious litigant under several subparts of the California Code of Civil Procedure section 391(b). As a result, and the trial court's determination that Hanna was not reasonably likely to succeed on the merits of this action, Hanna was ordered to furnish a $100,000 security bond. The trial court also imposed a prefiling restriction on Hanna in future litigation, requiring Hanna to seek permission from the presiding justice or presiding judge of the court if he brought a civil action as a pro se litigant. The underlying dispute arose from a 2017 complaint Hanna filed against Little League Baseball, Inc., alleging trade libel and unfair and fraudulent business practices. Hanna alleged he was the president of a youth sports organization known as Team Hemet Baseball and Softball (Team Hemet), and in that capacity, he “executed an agreement” with Little League “for the individual ‘. . . right to conduct a baseball and softball program under the name “Little League”’” for one year. In July 2017, Little League “purportedly” placed Team Hemet on a regional hold, which “prevent[ed] any operations by [Team Hemet] until satisfied.” Hanna alleged that Little League “ha[d] improperly obtained money from [Hanna], and continue[d] to improperly obtain money from the general public.” The trial court dismissed the trade libel claim on demurrer. Little League moved for an order finding Hanna to be a vexatious litigant and requiring him to furnish security, and requested the court judicially notice 14 different civil actions filed from 2009 through 2018 involving Hanna as a pro se plaintiff and a defendant. Hanna challenged the vexatious litigant determination and the determination that he was not likely to succeed on the merits of the action. Hanna further contends that the trial court lacked authority to rule on discovery motions and to impose discovery sanctions after the filing of the motion under section 391.1 to declare Hanna a vexatious litigant and to have him furnish security. The Court of Appeal affirmed the prefiling restriction placed on Hanna’s filing of future actions as a pro se litigant. In the published portion of its opinion, the Court agreed the trial court was without authority to rule on the discovery motions or to impose sanctions. "Under the plain language of section 391.6, all further proceedings in the action should have been stayed once the vexatious litigant motion under section 391.1 was filed." The Court therefore reversed the orders imposing discovery sanctions. Judgment was affirmed in all other respects. View "Hanna v. Little League Baseball" on Justia Law

by
Ben-E-Lect, a third-party insurance claim administrator, developed a medical expense reimbursement plan; employers could buy a group policy of medical insurance with a high deductible and self-fund to pay for the healthcare expenses employees incurred within the annual deductible or any copay requirement. The practice of employers’ using such plans in conjunction with a high-deductible health plan is called “wrapping.” Ben-E-Lect was the state’s largest third-party administrator for small group employers who wrapped their employee medical policies. Anthem provides fully insured health plans to the California small group employer market. Beginning in 2006, Anthem announced a series of policies that limited wrapping. In 2014, Anthem prohibited wrapping all Anthem plans. Employer groups who used Anthem plans certified they would not wrap Anthem policies, and agents certified they would not advise employers to enter into any employer-sponsored wrapping plan. Ben-E-Lect sued Anthem.The court of appeal affirmed that Anthem’s policy to prohibit wrapping its health insurance products violated the Cartwright Act (Bus. & Prof. Code, 16700); interfered with Ben-E-Lect’s prospective business relationships; and was an illegal, coercive, vertical group boycott under the antitrust rule of reason (Bus. & Prof. Code, 17200), because Anthem told its insurance agents that if they wrapped any Anthem policies they would be subject to termination loss of sales commissions. The court affirmed an award of $7.38 million and an injunction. The trial court considered sufficient evidence of market power and market injury. View "Ben-E-Lect v. Anthem Blue Cross Life and Health Insurance Co." on Justia Law

by
Taxi companies and taxi medallion owners sued Uber, alleging violations of the Unfair Practices Act’s (UPA) prohibition against below-cost sales (Bus & Prof. Code, 17043) and of the Unfair Competition Law (section 17200). The UPA makes it unlawful “for any person engaged in business within this State to sell any article or product at less than the cost thereof to such vendor, or to give away any article or product, for the purpose of injuring competitors or destroying competition” but does not apply “[t]o any service, article or product for which rates are established under the jurisdiction of the [California] Public Utilities Commission [(CPUC)] . . . and sold or furnished by any public utility corporation.” Uber is a “public utility corporation” under section 17024 and is subject to CPUC’s jurisdiction. CPUC has conducted extensive regulatory proceedings in connection with Uber’s business but has not yet established the rates for any Uber service or product.The trial court ruled the exemption applies when the CPUC has jurisdiction to set rates, regardless of whether it has yet done so, and dismissed the case. The court of appeal affirmed, reaching “the same conclusion as to the applicability of section 17024(1) as have three California federal district courts, two within the last year, in cases alleging identical UPA claims against Uber.” View "Uber Technologies Pricing Cases" on Justia Law

by
John H. Donboli, JL Sean Slattery, and Del Mar Law Group LLP (collectively the Del Mar Attorneys) filed a mislabeling lawsuit on behalf of a putative class of consumers who claimed they were misled by "Made in the U.S.A." labels on designer jeans manufactured by Citizens of Humanity (Citizens). Citizens's jeans were allegedly made with imported fabrics and other components. The focus of the purported class action was that the "Made in the U.S.A." labels violated former Business and Professions Code section 17533.7. However, a new law was passed after the complaint was filed that relaxed the previous restrictions and, ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. Citizens then filed this malicious prosecution action against the named plaintiff in the prior case (Coni Hass), a predecessor plaintiff (Louise Clark), and the Del Mar Attorneys. Each defendant filed a motion to strike the complaint under the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. Finding that Citizens met its burden to establish a probability of prevailing on the merits, the trial court denied defendants' motions. Appellants Hass and the Del Mar Attorneys appealed, contending Citizens failed to make a prima facie showing that it would prevail on its claims. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding: (1) there were no undisputed fact on which it could determine, as a matter of law, whether the Del Mar Attorneys and Clark had probable cause to pursue the underlying actions; (2) there was evidence which would have supported a reasonable inference the Appellants were pursuing the litigation against Citizens with an improper purpose; and (3) the district court's dismissal of the underlying action, with prejudice, constituted a favorable termination in the context of a malicious prosecution suit. View "Citizens of Humanity, LLC v. Hass" on Justia Law