Antitrust Class Action by Assignees of Direct Purchasers of Antidepressant Wellbutrin SR Satisfied Rule 23 Class Action Requirements Pennsylvania Federal Court Holds
Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against SmithKline Beecham Corporation dba GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) alleging antitrust violations arising out of its manufacture and sale of the antidepressant drug Wellbutrin SR. The class action purports to be filed on behalf of “direct purchasers” of the drug, and the class action complaint alleges “(1) Defendant unlawfully extended its monopoly over Wellbutrin SR by making fraudulent assertions to the United States Patent and Trademark Office and by engaging in ‘sham’ litigation against generic drug manufacturers seeking to market less expensive versions of the drug; (2) Because the litigation delayed the market entry of generic versions of Wellbutrin SR, the class members were forced to pay unnecessarily high prices for the drug because no generic alternatives were available for nearly two years after Defendant’s patent monopoly would have expired; and (3) Defendant filed the baseless infringement suits against the generic manufacturers solely to preserve its monopoly during the pendency of the infringement litigation.” In re Wellbutrin SR Direct Purchaser Antitrust Litig., ___ F.Supp.2d ___ (E.D. Pa. May 2, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1-2 (footnotes omitted)]. In essence, plaintiffs allege defendant violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act by requiring that they pay inflated prices “from the time Defendant’s monopoly was extended until the time the price of [the drug] reached competitive levels.” Id., at 4. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss claims in the various class action complaints, and the district court dismissed the claims alleging fraudulent prosecution of a patent and the antitrust claims seeking injunctive relief. Id., at 2 n.4. Plaintiffs moved the district court to certify the litigation as a class action, id., at 2; defense attorneys opposed class action treatment on the grounds that plaintiffs were not adequate representatives of the class and that the definition of the class is overly broad. The district court rejected the defense arguments and certified the litigation as a class action.
The district court had no difficulty in concluding that Rule 23(a)’s numerosity, commonality and typicality requirements had been satisfied. See In re Wellbutrin, at 4-8. With respect to the adequacy of representation of Rule 23(a)(4), defense attorneys did not challenge the qualifications of plaintiffs’ counsel, who the court found to be qualified to represent the class. See id., at 8. Rather, the defense argued (1) that plaintiffs could not represent the class because they are assignees of the direct purchasers (not direct purchasers themselves), (2) that a unique defense exists as to one of the named plaintiffs, “rendering it inadequate to represent the class”; and (3) that “significant conflicts” exist among the class members. Id., at 8-9. The district court rejected each argument. First, it noted that circuit case authority permits the assignment of antitrust claims, see id., at 9-10. Second, it rejected the claim that a defense challenge to the validity of the assignment to named-plaintiff SAJ Distributors will consume SAJ’s attention, id., at 10; as the issue is not likely to be a “major focus” of the class action litigation, the district court concluded that “it is not an issue that will distract SAJ to the detriment of the class itself,” id., at 11. Finally, the district court refused to follow Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 350 F.3d 1181 (11th Cir. 2003), cited in support of the defense claim of a conflict between national drug wholesalers and downstream retail distributors such that the challenged activity may have been financially beneficial to the national wholesalers, explaining at page 14 that “the controlling question is whether the class members suffered an overcharge: if an overcharge occurred, all class members are entitled to recover, whether or not some plaintiffs experienced a net benefit while others experienced a net loss.”
The district court then turned to the issue of whether the case satisfied the requirements for class action treatment under Rule 23(b)(3). It concluded that the predominance aspect of the test was met because “liability depends solely on whether Defendant’s conduct violated federal antitrust law and caused injury to the class.” In re Wellbutrin, at 17. Because plaintiffs’ expert outlined a “colorable method” for establishing a “common impact” of defendant’s allegedly improper conduct, the predominance test was satisfied. Id., at 18, 20. Further, the court easily concluded that the class action mechanism was the superior means of resolving the dispute. See id., at 20-21. The final issue, then, was whether the definition of the class was overly broad, as defense attorneys contended. The district court found that “[t]his dispute is, at its core, a dispute between Plaintiff’s expert and Defendant’s expert,” and that it would be “unfair and unwise” to resolve that dispute at the class action certification stage. Id., at 22.