504 F.3d 903 (9th Cir. 2007), 05-15676, Sanders v. Brown

Docket Nº:05-15676.
Citation:504 F.3d 903
Party Name:Steve SANDERS, Individually and as Class Representative, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Edmund G. BROWN Jr., [*] in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of California; Philip Morris USA, Inc.; R.J. Opinion Reynolds Tobacco Company; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; Lorillard Tobacco Company, Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:September 26, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Page 903

504 F.3d 903 (9th Cir. 2007)

Steve SANDERS, Individually and as Class Representative, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Edmund G. BROWN Jr., [*] in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of California; Philip Morris USA, Inc.; R.J. Opinion Reynolds Tobacco Company; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; Lorillard Tobacco Company, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 05-15676.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

September 26, 2007

Argued and Submitted February 15, 2007-Stanford, California.

Page 904

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 905


A. William Urquhart, Thad A. Davis, Kent J. Bullard, Kathleen M. Sullivan (argued), Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, LLP, Los Angeles and Redwood Shores, CA; for the appellant.

Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr., Chief Assistant Attorney General Tom Greene, Senior Assistant Attorney General Dennis Eckhart, Deputy Attorney General Margaret Spencer, Deputy Attorney General Karen Leaf (argued), State of California, Sacramento, CA; Darryl Snider (argued), James F. Speyer, Eric Shapland, Heller Ehrman LLP, Los Angeles, CA; for the appellees.

Page 906

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California; Susan Yvonne Illston, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-04-02281-SI.



CLIFTON, Circuit Judge.

This case involves an indirect legal challenge to the massive settlement agreement between the nation's largest tobacco companies and the attorneys general of 46 states and several territories. The 1998 settlement known as the Master Settlement Agreement, or "MSA," resolved all of these states' and territories' claims against those tobacco companies, which the states had sued for billions of dollars in damages related to the harmful effects of smoking.

Plaintiff Steve Sanders, a smoker, alleges that cigarette prices have skyrocketed in the nine years since the MSA, and that the price increases are the result of an illegal price-fixing scheme that the MSA enabled. On behalf of a putative class of cigarette smokers, Sanders sued the Attorney General of the State of California and the four largest tobacco companies: Philip Morris USA Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and Lorillard Tobacco Co.1 Sanders does not allege that the MSA itself is illegal, but rather alleges that the MSA, the post-MSA price increases, and the state statutes implementing the MSA's terms (the "implementing statutes") are evidence of a cigarette price fixing cartel that violates the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. ; the Cartwright Act, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 16720 et seq. ; other California unfair competition statutes, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq. ; and California's common law of unfair competition. Sanders also alleges that the Sherman Act preempts the implementing statutes.

The defendants moved to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The district court granted the motions and dismissed the claims with prejudice. See Sanders v. Lockyer, 365 F.Supp.2d 1093 (N.D. Cal. 2005). The district court held that the Sherman Act does not preempt the implementing statutes; that Sanders failed to adequately plead an antitrust violation; and that even if Sanders had done so, the defendants were immune from liability. We affirm.

I. Background

The following facts are undisputed for the purpose of the motion to dismiss, unless otherwise noted. The United States cigarette market is dominated by four companies: Philip Morris USA Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., and Lorillard Tobacco Co. Their combined sales have accounted for more than 90 percent of cigarette sales for at least the last decade.

These four companies in the 1990s faced coordinated lawsuits by the attorneys general of most states and U.S. territories, who sought money and other relief to help their governments cope with the harmful effects of smoking and the costs imposed by those effects. In late 1998, the tobacco companies and the attorneys general signed the MSA.2 State courts, including the California Superior Court, then approved

Page 907

the MSA in consent decrees and dismissed the lawsuits against the tobacco companies.

The MSA requires the four major tobacco companies - who, as the initial signatories of the MSA, are known as the "Original Participating Manufacturers" - to pay the states billions of dollars each year. The total annual payments are based on a formula that considers inflation and the total number of individual cigarettes sold in the fifty United States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Each Original Participating Manufacturer (or "OPM") must annually contribute a portion of the total payment that is equal to the OPM's share of that year's cigarette sales (the OPM's "market share"). For example, if an OPM's market share is 25 percent, that OPM must contribute 25 percent of that year's settlement payment.

The OPMs expected to raise cigarette prices to help pay for the settlement and feared that smaller manufacturers, which were not part of the negotiations, would seize the chance to compete with cheaper cigarettes, possibly cutting into the OPMs' market share. The settling parties addressed this problem in three ways. First, the MSA offered a carrot to non OPM tobacco companies to join the settlement agreement. These "Subsequent Participating Manufacturers" ("SPMs") could join the settlement within 90 days of the enactment of the MSA. They would not have to make any part of the payments due to the states so long as their market share remained at or below their 1998 market share (or 125 percent of their 1997 market share, whichever was greater). If an SPM's market share increased, however, the SPM would have to contribute to the settlement payment, with the contribution based on the sales in excess of the SPM's 1998 sales (or 125 percent of 1997 sales, if applicable). For example, if an SPM sold 250,000 cigarettes in 1998, and then one year later sold a larger share of the market - say, 300,000 cigarettes - the SPM would have to contribute to the settlement payment. If the extra 50,000 cigarettes equaled 1 percent of the market share, the SPM would have to pay 1 percent of the settlement payment. As of August 15, 2007, forty-four smaller tobacco companies are participating in the MSA as SPMs.3

Second, the OPMs would pay less money under the MSA if their total sales dropped below a certain amount. If the reason for this drop is competition by tobacco companies that did not participate in the MSA, the settlement payment would be reduced even further.

Third, most states have enacted two sets of statutes that allegedly make it harder for non-signatory tobacco companies (and any future market entrants) to undercut the OPMs' and SPMs' market shares. Sanders alleges that the states were motivated to pass these statutes out of fear that the OPMs' higher prices would cause their market share to fall, thereby reducing the amount of the settlement payments to the states. These "implementing statutes" are known in most states as the "Qualifying Act" and the "Contraband Amendment."

Under the "Qualifying Act," non-signatory tobacco companies (also known as "Non-Participating Manufacturers," or "NPMs") have to pay a portion of their revenues into an escrow account. The money in the escrow account acts as a liability reserve. If the NPMs are successfully sued for cigarette-related harms,

Page 908

the money in the escrow accounts will pay the damage awards. Each NPM's payment is based on market share, and is roughly the same per-cigarette cost as the amount that OPMs must pay to abide by the MSA. The payments can only be used to pay a judgment or settlement on a claim against the NPM, up to the amount that the NPM would otherwise pay under the MSA. Any remaining funds in the escrow account revert back to the NPM after twenty-five years.

This law allegedly prevents the NPMs from undercutting the prices of OPMs' cigarettes by taking away the extra profitability that an NPM would enjoy. For example, say that OPMs' sales are such that for a given year, they must pay 25 cents per cigarette to the states under the MSA. This would seem to give NPMs a cost advantage of 25 cents per cigarette. But under the Qualifying Act, if an NPM also sold cigarettes that year, the NPM would have to pay roughly 25 cents per cigarette into an escrow account, which the NPM could not touch for 25 years. In other words, the NPM's cost advantage over the OPMs is erased.

The "Contraband Amendment," for its part, penalizes NPMs who refuse to make escrow payments under the Qualifying Act. The Contraband Amendment allows a state to "de-list" NPMs from a list of approved tobacco manufacturers. De-listing effectively prevents the offending NPM from selling cigarettes in that state.

The California legislature has enacted a Qualifying Act and a Contraband Amendment. Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 104556, 104557 (Qualifying Act); Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 22979(a), (b), and Cal. Rev. & Tax Code § 30165.1(d), (e) (Contraband Amendment).

As expected, the OPMs' cigarette prices rose when the MSA took effect. Sanders alleges, however, that the price increases have far exceeded the tobacco companies' costs of complying with the MSA. The OPMs allegedly raised their prices by $12.20 per carton between late 1998 and early 2002 - more than twice the amount necessary to meet the OPMs' obligations under the MSA. Also, the price increases have been "parallel." Whenever one OPM has raised its cigarette prices, the others have generally matched the increase. Despite these increases, the OPMs' cigarette sales still account for more than 90 percent of the market.

The price increases and other factors have prompted several legal challenges against the MSA, most alleging antitrust and constitutional violations....

To continue reading