27 March 2013

Law in Plain English: Comcast v. Behrend

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.


Several Comcast subscribers filed a class action lawsuit against Comcast alleging that Comcast violated the Sherman Anti-trust Act by "clustering." The suit alleged that Comcast made illegal swap agreements to concentrate, or "cluster," operations in particular regions. For example, Comcast bought Adelphia's Philadelphia operations (to increase their share of subscribers from 24% to nearly 70% in the region) and in return sold their operations in Palm Beach, Florida and Los Angeles, California, to Adelphia to allow Adelphia to cluster their operations in those regions. The question before the Court was whether the District Court should have certified the class action without resolving whether the subscribers has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that their case was susceptible to awarding damages on a class-wide basis. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the District Court improperly certified the class. To meet the requirements for a class action, the subscribers must show that “the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members." In other words, the plaintiff's damages model needed to show damages on a classwide basis. To do so, the court may need to inquire into the substance ("merits") of the plaintiff's claims, and how their alleged damages were actually related to their alleged injury. In this case, the District Court failed to do this. As a result, the class would not be certified. The practical impact of this decision is that it makes it more difficult to certify class actions in certain circumstances because the plaintiffs will have to introduce sufficient evidence to link their theory of damages to their claimed injury.
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