December 14, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment Affirmed Where No Evidence Presented of Conspiracy to Monopolize

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Buccaneer Energy (USA) Inc., v. Gunnison Energy Corporation; SG Interests I, LTD.; SG Interests VII, LTD. on February 3, 2017.

Buccaneer Energy (USA) Inc. (Buccaneer) sued SG Interests I, Ltd.., SG Interests VII, Ltd. (together, SG), and Gunnison Energy Corporation (GEC) (collectively, Defendants) alleging that Defendants had conspired in restraint of trade in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act and that Defendants had conspired to monopolize in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Act. The district court granted summary judgment for the Defendants and the Tenth Circuit affirmed due to Buccaneer’s failure to present sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact on one or more elements of each of its claims.

Defendants each granted each other the option to participate equally in the construction and ownership of any pipeline initiated by the other party. GEC exercised this option to participate in the Bull Mountain Pipeline, which traveled from the Ragged Mountain Area (RM Area) located in Delta and Gunnison Counties, Colorado, to the Questar Interstate pipeline. GEC and SG also equally had ultimate control over the Ragged Mountain Gathering System (RM System), which transported natural gas from the RM Area to the Rocky Mountain natural Gas Pipeline (Rocky Mountain Pipeline).

Buccaneer acquired the Riviera Drilling and Exploration Company’s (Riviera) leases in the RM Area. Buccaneer pursued a means for transporting its expected gas production from GEC on the RM System. GEC offered a rate of $1.52 per MMBtu for interruptible service. Buccaneer countered, revising the interruptible service language but keeping the rate the same. GEC responded raising the rate to $3.92 per MMBtu, and reinserting the interruptible service provisions. Buccaneer did not counteroffer again. Buccaneer failed to secure a transportation agreement and Riviera terminated the Lease Agreement.

Buccaneer filed this case on June 21, 2012 and alleged that the “RM System was essential to effective competition for production rights and the sale of natural gas from the Ragged Mountain Area.” It further claimed that because Defendants refused to provide Buccaneer with access to the RM System, Defendants violated §§ 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act by engaging in a conspiracy in restraint of trade and a conspiracy to monopolize.

The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants on both of Buccaneer’s antitrust claims because Buccaneer did not present evidence to show that Defendants caused, or could cause, injury to competition in a defined market. Buccaneer also did not demonstrate its own preparedness to enter the market. The Tenth Court affirmed, concluding that Buccaneer failed to present sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on either of its claims.

Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States.” 15 U.S.C. § 1. This provision has been construed to forbid only restraints of trade that are unreasonable. The Tenth Circuit analyzed the Defendants’ conduct under the rule of reason because Buccaneer did not allege a per se rule violation.

First, the Tenth Circuit dismissed Buccaneer’s allegation that the Defendants unreasonably denied it access to the RM System, which was Buccaneer claimed was “essential” to Buccaneer’s ability to compete. Buccaneer failed to prove the second element of the “essential facilities doctrine,” a competitor’s inability to duplicate the facility. Here, the relevant facility is the RM System, and while it may be difficult to duplicate, Buccaneer did not present any evidence on the matter. Buccaneer focused on the Bull Mountain Pipeline, which was not at issue in this case.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer did not adequately establish its claim under the rule of reason. Under the rule of reason, the plaintiff has the initial burden of showing an agreement had a substantially adverse effect on competition. The burden then shifts to the defendant to show pro-competitive virtues of such conduct. Then the plaintiff must show that such conduct was not reasonably necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives.  A court must then weigh the harms and benefits of such conduct to determine if it is reasonable.

A plaintiff must show an adverse effect on competition in general, not just that the conduct adversely affected the plaintiff’s business. Buccaneer failed to meets its burden of showing that the challenged conduct had anticompetitive effects. Buccaneer did not present any evidence of actual anticompetitive effect; such as fewer production rights being acquired in the RM Area or that Defendants’ position allowed them to pay less than competitive prices.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed whether Buccaneer had shown harm to competition by Defendants’ possession of market power in the relevant market. The “relevant market” consists of both the product area and the geographic area. The product market consists of products that are sufficiently substitutable with each other based on the purpose for which they are produced, as well as their price, use, and quantities. The geographic market encompasses the area in which competition occurs. Once the relevant market has been identified, a plaintiff must show market power by demonstrating that the defendants had either the power to control price or the power to exclude competition.

Buccaneer asserted that the first relevant product was “production rights” and the relevant geographic market was the RM Area. The Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer did not adequately define either market. Buccaneer did not offer its own definition of the product market for “production rights,” for which it bore the burden of defining. Buccaneer also failed to establish the relevant geographic market with any precision; it simply stated the area and did not define its boarders. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer failed to meet its burden of establishing either the product or the geographic market. The district court therefore did not err when it dismissed the claim for failure to allege a legally sufficient market.

Further, even if Buccaneer did define a relevant market, it did not establish that Defendants possessed market power. Market share, or size, is not enough to establish market power, and the absence of market share creates a presumption that market power does not exist. Buccaneer did not present evidence to demonstrate Defendants’ market share. It did not allege what percentage of the “production rights” market that Defendants possessed. Additionally, Buccaneer did not present evidence that that Defendants created any barriers of entry into the relevant market for competitors. Therefore, Buccaneer failed to satisfy its burden of showing market power and also failed to establish any anticompetitive effect in the alleged market for production rights.

Buccaneer next alleged that the second relevant product was natural gas, which was undisputed. The Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer’s defined relevant market, which was “the market for downstream sales of gas,” was insufficient to address that market for considerations relevant under the rule of reason analysis. Buccaneer also failed to show that the Defendants possessed market power in any relevant market. The Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer did not set forth facts from which a jury could find that the Defendants possessed market power in that market.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit quickly dismissed Buccaneer’s § 2 conspiracy claim because such a claim requires proof of a relevant antitrust market. As with Buccaneer’s § 1 claim, it did not establish a relevant market, so its § 2 claim fails for the same reasons as its § 1 claim.

In conclusion, the Tenth Circuit held that, because Buccaneer failed to present evidence from which a jury could conclude that Defendants’ conduct actually or potentially harmed competition in a relevant antitrust market, both its § 1 and § 2 Sherman Act claims fail. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants on that basis.

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