Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act

Last week, after more than a year of drafting following oral argument, and nearly two years after the original District Court order, a Third Circuit panel (Chief Judge Scirica and Judges Fisher and Greenberg) issued their magnum opus on pleading Section 1 antitrust violations after Twombly and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations ("RICO") Act "enterprises" after Boyle in the consolidated Multi-District Litigation In re: Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

The plaintiffs alleged a massive, "global" conspiracy among the major insurance companies and insurance brokers to artificially allocate customers and rig prices for commercial insurance:

Plaintiffs are purchasers of commercial and employee benefit insurance, and defendants are insurers and insurance brokers that deal in those lines of insurance. According to plaintiffs, defendants entered into unlawful, deceptive schemes to allocate purchasers among particular groups of defendant insurers. The complaints assert that conspiring brokers funneled unwitting clients to their co-conspirator insurers, which were insulated from competition; in return, the insurers awarded the brokers contingent commission payments—concealed from the insurance purchasers and surreptitiously priced into insurance premiums—based on the volume of premium dollars steered their way. As a result of this scheme, plaintiffs allege they paid inflated prices for their insurance coverage and were generally denied the benefits of a competitive market. The question on appeal is whether plaintiffs have adequately pled either a per se violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act (plaintiffs have foresworn a full-scale rule-of-reason analysis) or a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Concluding they had not, the District Court dismissed the complaints. 

(Here’s the First Amended Complaint; the Second Amended Complaint was, I believe, sealed).

§ 1 of the Sherman Act and § 1962 of the RICO Act are almost constitutional in their breadth and power. Here’s the relevant part of § 1 of the Sherman Act:

Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.

And here’s § 1962(c) of the RICO Act:

It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt.

Such breadth is a blessing and a curse for plaintiffs; like with the Bill of Rights, § 1 of the Sherman Act and § 1962 of the RICO Act are so broad, and so empowering, that Courts have spent decades literally ignoring the statutes’ text to narrow the relief available to plaintiffs. See, e.g., Fitzgerald v. Chrysler Corp., 116 F. 3d 225 (7th Cir. 1997)(admitting that a judicially-created exclusion to the meaning of "enterprise" under the RICO Act "doesn’t emerge from the statutory language," but applying it anyway).

The Third Circuit panel does an exceptional job summarizing this unwieldy body of extra-textual precedent on pages 32-42 of the opinion (for § 1 antitrust claims) and 153-172 (for RICO enterprises); any associates or clerks trying to figure out these complex fields could do worse than to review them.

These artificial restrictions force plaintiffs bringing antitrust and RICO claims — who typically only have circumstantial evidence at the beginning of their case given the efforts undertaken by the defendants to conceal their wrongdoing — to make suppositions about how the defendants carried out their scheme.

That’s where Twombly and Iqbal come in. 

In the Insurance Brokerage Antitrust cases, there were, shall we say, a lot of defendants*, defendants who, for purposes of antitrust and RICO allegations, could have been configured in a wide variety of ways. The plaintiffs thus, understandably, had to make some tactical decisions about their allegations, like with the type of antitrust violation alleged:

Although plaintiffs’ 16 First Amended Complaints (FAC) expressly pled a rule-of-reason claim in the alternative, see, e.g., Comm. FAC ¶ 530; EB FAC ¶ 454, their Second Amended Complaints omit any reference to the rule of reason, and their moving papers and appellate arguments make clear they are alleging exclusively per se violations. In their initial motions to dismiss, defendants contended that the First Amended Complaints had not adequately defined a market or pled anticompetitive effects and had thus failed to state a claim under the rule of reason. In response, plaintiffs did not assert that they had, in fact, met these requirements; they argued only that “where plaintiffs allege per se claims,” these requirements do not apply.

And with the type of RICO enterprise they alleged:

While plaintiffs strenuously insist they have adequately pled the existence of “broker-centered enterprises,” they have conspicuously refrained, throughout the district-court proceedings and on appeal, from asserting alternative bilateral or single-entity enterprises.

Presumably, the plaintiffs deliberately chose to avoid rule-of-reason claims (in which the plaintiff is required to demonstrate, e.g., the defendant’s market power in a defined market) and the allegation of "bilateral or single-entity enterprises" to preserve their class action status against all defendants. If, for example, the plaintiffs had split their claims up into multiple allegations of single-entity enterprises, each of those respective defendants tied to a particular scheme would move to decertify themselves from the bigger case. 

In the end, that’s what did the plaintiffs in; their "parallel conduct" allegations ran smack into Twombly**:

Contrary to plaintiffs’ arguments, one cannot plausibly infer a horizontal agreement among a broker’s insurer-partners from the mere fact that each insurer entered into a similar contingent commission agreement with the broker. As the District Court concluded, the first stage of the alleged brokercentered conspiracies—the consolidation of the groups of insurers to which each broker referred business—evinces nothing more than a series of vertical relationships between the broker and each of its “strategic partners.” 2007 WL 2533989, at *15.

Moreover, plaintiffs’ argument proves too much. If the parallel decisions by several insurers to pay contingent commissions imply a horizontal agreement, then it is difficult to see why parallel decisions to pay standard commissions (that is, a fixed percentage of each policyholder’s premium payment) would not also imply an agreement. For that matter, plaintiffs’ logic would divine a horizontal agreement from virtually any parallel expenditures for marketing services, on the mistaken ground that a firm would not pay for advertising, for example, in the absence of an agreement with its competitors to enter into similar contracts with the advertising company. Cf. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 566 (noting that “resisting competition is routine market conduct,” and that “if alleging parallel decisions to resist competition were enough to imply an antitrust conspiracy, pleading a § 1 violation against almost any group of competing businesses would be a sure thing”)

And the same problem hit the RICO claims:

In seeking to establish a “rim” enclosing the insurer-partners in the alleged RICO enterprises, plaintiffs rely on the same factual allegations we found deficient in the antitrust context: that each insurer entered into a similar contingent-commission agreement in order to become a “strategic partner”; that each insurer knew the identity of the broker’s other insurer-partners and the details of their contingent-commission agreements; that each insurer entered into an agreement with the broker not to disclose the details of its contingent-commission agreements; that the brokers utilized certain devices, such as affording “first” and “last looks,” to steer business to the designated insurer; and that, in the Employee Benefits Case, insurers adopted similar reporting strategies with regard to Form 5500. As noted, these allegations do not plausibly imply concerted action—as opposed to merely parallel conduct—by the insurers, and therefore cannot provide a “rim” enclosing the “spokes” of these alleged “hub-andspoke” enterprises. Even under the relatively undemanding standard of Boyle, these allegations do not adequately plead an associationin- fact enterprise. They fail the basic requirement that the components function as a unit, that they be “put together to form a whole.” Boyle, 129 S. Ct. at 2244 (internal quotation marks omitted). Because plaintiffs’ factual allegations do not plausibly imply anything more than parallel conduct by the insurers, they cannot support the inference that the insurers “associated together for a common purpose of engaging in a course of conduct.” Id. (quoting Turkette, 452 U.S. at 583); see id. at 2245 n.4 (stating that “several individuals” who “engaged in a pattern of crimes listed as RICO predicates” “independently and without coordination” “would not establish the existence of an enterprise”) …

In short, plaintiffs’ allegations didn’t "plausibly" suggest any actual agreement among all the insurers; instead, they merely suggested parallel conduct that, in the Third Circuit’s eyes, could just as equally be explained by way of the insurers acting independently.

Thus, the bulk of the claims were dismissed, although the plaintiffs can continue on some of their bid-rigging claims against the Marsh-connected defendants.

But there’s plenty for plaintiffs to be relieved about with the opinion.

First, there’s the massive size of the case. Although the Third Circuit couldn’t outright say it — just like the Supreme Court didn’t say it in deciding Twombly — the sheer size of the Insurance Brokerage Antitrust cases was undoubtedly a factor. The cases were an indictment of the entire commercial insurance industry, with a demand for treble damages (and attorney’s fees) for years of industry-wide conduct, damages that reached into the billions. If you bring a case of that magnitude, you invite heightened scruinty.

Moreover, and more importantly, the sheer number of defendants, and the extraordinary breadth of the allegations against them, is what stretched the plaintiffs claim from "probable" into "implausible." It is understandably difficult for a court to swallow allegations of a vast conspiracy across an entire industry when the plaintiffs only have concrete evidence against a single group of defendants (the Marsh defendants whose misdeeds launched the whole investigation). The real lesson is, if you’re going to file a nationwide suit of that scope, you need either to find yourself a whistleblower or to follow on the coattails of a government investigation (as the claims against the Marsh defendants did). Fair or not, nothing else will work these days.

Second, there’s the actual law in In Re: Insurance Brokerage Antitrust:

 “[A] plaintiff’s obligation to provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). Because Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) “requires a ‘showing,’ rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief,” courts evaluating the viability of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) must look beyond conclusory statements and determine whether the complaint’s well-pled factual allegations, taken as true, are “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 & n.3. The test, as authoritatively formulated by Twombly, is whether the complaint alleges “enough fact[] to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,” id. at 570, which is to say, “‘enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal[ity],’” Arista Records, LLC v. Doe 3, 604 F.3d 110, 120 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556) (alteration in Arista Records).Fn 17

FOONOTE 17:


Twombly affirms that Rule 8(a)(2) requires a statement of facts “suggestive enough” (when assumed to be true) “to render [the plaintiff’s claim to relief] plausible,” that is, “enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal” conduct. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. Iqbal, which reiterated and applied Twombly’s pleading standard, endorses this understanding. See Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949–51. Although Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203 (3d Cir. 2009), stated that Twombly and Iqbal had “repudiated” the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506 (2002), see Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211, we are not so sure. Clearly, Twombly and Iqbal inform our understanding of Swierkiewicz, but the Supreme Court cited Swierkiewicz approvingly in Twombly, see 550 U.S. at 555–56, and expressly denied the plaintiffs’ charge that Swierkiewicz “runs counter” to Twombly’s plausibility standard, id. at 569–70. As the Second Circuit has observed, Twombly “emphasized that its holding was consistent with [the Court’s] ruling in Swierkiewicz that ‘a heightened pleading requirement,’ requiring the pleading of ‘specific facts beyond those necessary to state [a] claim and the grounds showing entitlement to relief,’ was ‘impermissibl[e].’” Arista Records, 604 F.3d at 120 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570 (alterations in Arista Records). In any event, Fowler’s reference to Swierkiewicz appears to be dicta, as Fowler found the complaint before it to be adequate. 578 F.3d at 212; see also id. at 211 (“The demise of Swierkiewicz, however, is not of significance here.”).

(Bolding mine). I previously covered the Second Circuit’s approach to antitrust post-Twombly; it’s good news for plaintiffs to see the same approach approved in the Third Circuit, particularly over a prior Third Circuit case (Fowler). Under Twombly and Iqbal, the issue isn’t whether or not the plaintiff has uncovered enough evidence to make a prima facie case on the face of their complaint — as some defense lawyers have claimed — but rather whether the plaintiff has alleged "enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegality."

The dismissal in In Re: Insurance Brokerage Antitrust might thus prove to have made the law better for plaintiffs in the Third Circuit. That the plaintiffs in the case itself lost many of their claims is of no moment; the case quite literally alleged an industry-wide agreement to commit antitrust and racketeering violations. Plaintiffs with cases of lower orders of magnitude — like those against anything less than dozens of companies at the top of two major industries, insurance and insurance brokering — will have little trouble distinguishing those facts.


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The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") is not all that complicated.

Section 1962(c) provides:

It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such

I was going to write about how the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) had hired Carter Phillips of Sidley Austin — perhaps the most experienced Supreme Court advocate in the country — to "study" the constitutionality of President Obama’s proposed tax on the big banks, which is really just code for "SIFMA hired Phillips to create

JURIST Paper Chase reports:

US security firm Blackwater [JURIST news archive] on Wednesday reached a settlement agreement in seven federal lawsuits filed by Iraqi citizens. The suits claimed that Blackwater, now known as Xe, created a reckless culture [AP report] that resulted in numerous deaths, including the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians [JURIST reports]

Oh, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, will we ever stop blogging about you?

The newest online debate pits the class action defense lawyers at Drug & Device Law against University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Stephen Burbank at PENNumbra, the online supplement to UPenn’s Law Review.

Beck and Herrmann open with a defense of Iqbal

Business Week points us to the major cases.

As Litigation & Trial is a legal, rather than a business, blog, I’m going to take their list of cases but replace their description of each with the actual legal issue at stake, along with links to SCOTUSWiki, which hosts all of the relevant briefs for

In a stunning display of judicial activism, two conservative judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia re-wrote several recent Department of Defense regulations, a sixty-year-old Act of Congress, a basic principle of federalism upheld by dozens of Supreme Court opinions, and millenia of common law to dismiss the Saleh v. Titan Corporation and Ibrahim v. Titan Corporation lawsuits brought by more than a dozen Iraqis who “were beaten, electrocuted, raped, subjected to attacks by dogs, and otherwise abused by private contractors working as interpreters and interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison.” Dissent op., p.1. The United States was not a defendant, nor were the military officers. The lawsuit was solely against the private contractors.

You already know the “allegations” — you’ve probably already seen much of the evidence. There’s no doubt what happened. It was “abhorrent” and “[doesn’t] represent America” according to President Bush. Secretary Rumsfeld assured “[t]he people of the Middle East . . . that we will investigate fully, that we will find out the truth . . . and [that] justice will be served.” Dissent op., p. 2. Ilham Nassir Ibrahim isn’t around for justice; he was beaten to death while in captivity. His widow is one of the plaintiffs.

The prohibition on unauthorized violence, even against prisoners, is universal to civilization. Under the Code of Hammurabi, if a prisoner like Ibrahim died “from blows or maltreatment,” the responsible party’s son was put to death. These days, torture for fun and profit without even the pretense of government authorization violates a panolopy of laws, including the Torture Victim Protection Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, numerous common law torts (assault and battery, wrongful death and survival, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence), government contracting laws, and various international laws and agreements.

To cover their bases, the plaintiffs sued under all of them. Surely at least one such claim would survive under centuries-old Anglo-American legal maxim — reaffirmed by the most important Supreme Court decision in our history — that “where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy by suit or action at law whenever that right is invaded?”

The plaintiffs’ claims were strengthened by the absence of any Executive or Congressional action to stop them, despite numerous claims by the private contractors that the federal government had a substantial interest in the outcome of the case. The Bush and Obama administrations both declined to intervene in the case. Congress for a half-century now has authorized dozens of military actions which included the use of private contractors without passing a single law granting them immunity from suit.

The only related Congressional Act — the Federal Tort Claims Act — expressly says it “does not include any contractor with the United States.”  In fact, the only recent relevant action by either the Executive or Legislative branches is a regulation from the Bush-era Department of Defense stating that, for performance-based service contracts, “contractors [are] accountable for the negligent or willful actions of their employees, officers, and subcontractors.” Dissent op., p. 22. The DoD further explained that ““[i]nappropriate use of force could subject a contractor or its subcontractors or employees to prosecution or civil liability under the laws of the United States and the host nation.” Id at p. 21.

The Supreme Court, too, has made it quite clear that, when a government contractor breaches its agreement with the government and thereby causes a third party harm, that contractor is responsible for the harm. In Miree v. DeKalb County, 433 U. S. 25 (1977), the victims of an airplane crash sued a county airport because it “breached the FAA [flight permission] contracts by owning and maintaining a garbage dump adjacent to the airport, and that the cause of the crash was the ingestion of birds swarming from the dump into the jet engines of the aircraft.” After reiterating (consistent with prior law) that “the issue of whether to displace state law on an issue such as this is primarily a decision for Congress” and noting “Congress has chosen not to do so in this case,” the Supreme Court affirmed the victims’ right to sue. Keep that “primarily a decision for Congress” concept, a basic principle of federalism recently upheld in Wyeth v. Levine, in mind — we’ll come back to it later.

Why, then were the Abu Ghraib cases dismissed? Judicial activism, plain and simple: having no act of Congress, no Executive decision (in fact, regulations to the contrary), and no applicable Supreme Court precedent to support their preferred policy outcome, two conservative judges invented an entirely new judicial doctrine.

The judges didn’t say that, of course. They claimed to be applying existing law.

A bit of background is required to see why that’s not true. Though Miree is the general rule for lawsuits brought by third parties injuried by government contractors who breach their contracts, an exception for government manufacturers who perform their contracts properly was created by Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988), where a United States Marine helicopter copilot was killed when his CH-53D helicopter crashed off the coast of Virginia Beach and he drowned. His family brought a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the CH-53D, alleging that the helicopter was defective because escape hatch opened out instead of inward, and thus was impossible to open underwater.

The Supreme Court held the family could not recover against the manufacturer because that design had been specifically required by the government, and thus the federal procurement specification “preempted” any claims of negligence, rendering the contractor immune from suit for following those specifications. Make no mistake: as the Supreme Court later described Boyle, preemption and immunity for government contractors applies only in the “special circumstance” where the “government has directed a contractor to do the very thing that is the subject of the claim.” Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 74 n.6 (2001)(applying the old Miree rule)

It’s a sensible rule, even though one not enacted by Congress (as Miree and long-standing law said it should be). But it’s also a very limited rule: as Justice Scalia wrote for the Supreme Court, it applies where “the asserted basis of the contractor’s liability (specifically, the duty to equip helicopters with the sort of escape-hatch mechanism petitioner claims was necessary) is precisely contrary to the duty imposed by the Government contract (the duty to manufacture and deliver helicopters with the sort of escape-hatch mechanism shown by the specifications).”

Note those words: “precisely contrary.” Scalia even gave an example of where it would not apply, such as where a government merely purchased air-conditioning units without any requirement contrary to a specific safety feature. As Scalia wrote, “no one suggests that state law would generally be preempted” if someone injured by the lack of that safety feature filed a lawsuit. Of course, absolutely no one suggested that a government contractor who breached their contract would be immune. As Scalia wrote, “conflict there must be” between the federal contract requirements and the lawsuit.

Compare “precisely contrary” and “conflict there must be” to Abu Ghraib, where the contractors intentionally breached their contracts through criminal conduct. Such is even less a case for preemption and immunity than Miree, where the breach was negligent, and which was reaffirmed by Boyle. Yet, Boyle is what the conservative judges claimed they were applying:

The nature of the conflict in this case is somewhat different from that in Boyle–a sharp example of discrete conflict in which satisfying both state and federal duties (i.e., by designing a helicopter hatch that opens both inward and outward) was impossible. In the context of the combatant activities exception, the relevant question is not so much whether the substance of the federal duty is inconsistent with a hypothetical duty imposed by the state or foreign sovereign. Rather, it is the imposition per se of the state or foreign tort law that conflicts with the FTCA’s policy of eliminating tort concepts from the battlefield. The very purposes of tort law are in conflict with the pursuit of warfare. Thus, the instant case presents us with a more general conflict preemption, to coin a term, “battle-field preemption”: the federal government occupies the field when it comes to warfare, and its interest in combat is always “precisely contrary” to the imposition of a non-federal tort duty. Boyle, 487 U.S. at 500.

Slip op., p 13.

Did you catch all of that? The conservative judges took a twenty-year-old Supreme Court case admittedly involving the “special circumstance” where a plaintiff sued alleging a government manufacturer should have done the exact opposite of what the government told them to do, then, by way of a federal statute that expressly says it does not apply to contractors (the FTCA), the conservative judges applied that “special circumstances” to immunitize every private contractor in any “battle-field” — which Abu Ghraib certainly wasn’t — who tortures and kills people without even the pretense of governmental authority.

In order to do that, the conservative judges also ran roughshod over the millenia-old prohibition on abusing prisoners, the centuries-old maxim that every right has a remedy, decades of precedent holding that Congress — not the Courts — is responsible for creating immunities, and recent crystal-clear Department of Defense regulations affirming that private contractors remain responsible for their wrongful conduct.

Judicial activism at its finest. Read the opinion yourself, if you dare. I recommend you start with the fine dissent by Judge Garland.


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