RICO Damages: Out-of-Pocket Loss vs. Benefit of Bargain — Uniform Misrepresentation & Contract Breach as Bases for Class Certification — Payment as Proof of Reliance — Daubert & Multiple States’ Laws on Class Cert

In re US Foodservice Inc. Pricing Litig., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 18141 (2d Cir. Aug. 30, 2013):

This case concerns allegations of fraudulent overbilling by U.S. Foodservice, Inc. ("USF"), the country's second largest food distributor whose customers have included the United States government, as well as hospitals, schools, restaurant chains, and small businesses across the United States. This interlocutory appeal requires us to determine whether the district court abused its discretion in certifying a nationwide class consisting of about 75,000 USF "cost-plus" customers. The gravamen of plaintiffs' complaint is that USF devised and executed a fraud to overbill these customers in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961-68, and state and tribal contract law. Despite the size of the class and the fact that it implicates the laws of multiple jurisdictions, the district court correctly concluded that both the RICO and contract claims are susceptible to generalized proof such that common issues will predominate over individual issues and a class action is superior to other methods of adjudication. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's certification of this class pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).

BACKGROUND

A. USF and Cost-Plus Pricing

 

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USF sells many of its food products on a cost-plus basis that is common in the industry. Under this pricing model, the final cost to the customer is computed based on the "cost" (also "landed cost" or "delivered cost"), meaning the price at which USF purchases the goods from its supplier, and the "plus," or additional surcharge that USF charges on top of the cost, often expressed as a percentage increase over this cost. Thus, when a customer enters into a contract with USF, its contract does not guarantee it a set price such as $1 per pound of coleslaw, but rather a set increase over the cost at which USF will purchase the coleslaw (i.e., a 5% mark-up). If a supplier increases the price of goods to USF, that cost is passed on to the customer. USF's contracts with its cost-plus customers provide various methods for calculating cost: some contracts base cost on nationally-published price lists, for instance, while others dictate that cost is set by USF's distribution centers based on the local market. This class action centers on contracts that set cost based on the "invoice cost," which refers to the price on the invoice from the supplier to USF.

Finally, promotional allowances -- discounts provided to distributors from suppliers generally in exchange for fulfilling certain conditions, such as order minimums -- are central to cost-plus pricing in the food service distribution industry. Such allowances are more readily available to large distributors and are offered by many (but not all) suppliers to promote their products. USF's customer contracts typically permit USF to keep the benefit of any promotional allowances for itself and do not require that it pass these savings on to the customer. According to USF, without the right to retain these promotional allowances, it would not be able to realize a profit in an extremely competitive market with razor thin margins.

B. The Alleged Fraud and Its Discovery

Plaintiffs allege that USF, beginning at least as early as 1998, engaged in a fraudulent scheme by which it artificially inflated the cost component of its cost-plus billing and then disguised the proceeds of its own inflated billing through the use of purported promotional allowances. The scheme centered on six Value Added Service Providers ("VASPs"), which plaintiffs allege were shell companies established and controlled by USF for the purpose of fraudulently inflating USF's cost to its customers. According to plaintiffs, USF executives Mark Kaiser (who was convicted of securities fraud stemming from a separate fraudulent scheme orchestrated while at USF, see United States v. Kaiser, 609 F.3d 556 (2d Cir. 2010)) and Tim Lee created the VASPs and installed two confederates, Gordon Redgate and Brady Schofield, in leadership positions at the VASPs in order to hide USF's involvement and control. Though Redgate and Schofield ostensibly owned the VASPs, USF funded the VASPs with multimillion dollar, interest-free loans. As noted by the district court, USF retained irrevocable assignment of the VASP shares, controlled "to whom and when the VASPs made payments," and guaranteed their payments to suppliers.

According to plaintiffs, the purpose of the VASPs was not to provide legitimate services, but to permit USF to overcharge its customers via the generation of fraudulent marked-up invoices that misrepresented USF's cost for the goods provided to its customers. USF allegedly negotiated the purchase of goods from suppliers without input from the VASPs. USF then directed suppliers to bill goods to the VASPs, but often to deliver them directly to USF. The VASPs then generated a second invoice, ostensibly to "sell" the goods to USF, using a higher price dictated by Kaiser or Lee. USF purported to pay the VASPs and then used the higher VASP prices in setting the landed cost for its cost-plus pricing. USF customers unwittingly paid the inflated amounts and the VASPs then completed the scheme by kicking back the fraudulent mark-ups to USF disguised as legitimate promotional allowances. The VASPs retained nominal transaction fees sufficient to cover operating expenses, including handsome salaries for Redgate and Schofield.***

Discussion

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We first briefly outline the substance of plaintiffs' claims against USF. To prevail on their civil RICO claim, plaintiffs must show "(1) a substantive RICO violation under § 1962; (2) injury to the plaintiff's business or property, and (3) that such injury was by reason of the substantive RICO violation." UFCW Local 1776 v. Eli Lilly & Co., 620 F.3d 121, 131 (2d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). Here, plaintiffs allege that USF and its VASPs constituted an enterprise as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1961(4) that engaged in a pattern of racketeering activity, namely mail and wire fraud, see 18 U.S.C. §§ 1341, 1344, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c). Specifically, they assert that USF devised a scheme to defraud its customers in which it mailed to customers phony invoices generated by the VASPs to inflate prices above what the customers were contractually obligated to pay. Similarly, the plaintiffs assert that USF breached the terms of its cost-plus contracts by using the VASP invoices to calculate the cost component of the amounts billed to customers, thereby causing these customers to pay prices higher than they should have paid under the contracts. ***

A. Predominance

i) The RICO Claim

 

The predominance requirement is satisfied "if resolution of some of the legal or factual questions that qualify each class member's case as a genuine controversy can be achieved through generalized proof, and if these particular issues are more substantial than the issues subject only to individualized proof." Eli Lilly & Co., 620 F.3d at 131 (quoting Moore v. PaineWebber, Inc., 306 F.3d 1247, 1252 (2d Cir. 2002)); see also Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184, 1196 (2013) (in securities fraud class action, explaining that "Rule 23(b)(3) . . . does not require a plaintiff seeking class certification to prove that each element of her claim is susceptible to classwide proof[,]" but rather, requires "that common questions predominate over any questions affecting only individual class members" (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted)). USF argues that this has not been shown as to the RICO claim because: (1) a misrepresentation necessary to prove mail or wire fraud cannot be established through common evidence; (2) plaintiffs' reliance on any purported misrepresentation by USF, necessary here to prove causation, cannot be shown using common evidence; and (3) plaintiffs suffered no injury to their business or property that can be shown with common evidence. We disagree with each of these contentions.

a) Misrepresentation

We have previously observed that fraud claims based on uniform misrepresentations to all members of a class "are appropriate subjects for class certification" because, unlike fraud claims in which there are material variations in the misrepresentations made to each class member, uniform misrepresentations create "no need for a series of mini-trials."

Moore, 306 F.3d at 1253. Here, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that USF's alleged misrepresentation was uniform and susceptible to generalized proof. Specifically, plaintiffs allege that the VASP-related invoices mailed from USF to its cost-plus customers included the same fraudulent misrepresentation: namely, that the cost component of USF's billing was based on the invoice cost from a legitimate supplier and not from a shell VASP controlled by USF and established for the purpose of inflating the cost component. While each invoice obviously concerned different bills of goods with different mark-ups, the material misrepresentation -- concealment of the fact of a mark-up inserted by the VASP -- was the same in each.

The allegations here are most akin to those in Klay v. Humana, Inc., where plaintiffs alleged that defendant HMOs systemically underpaid doctors by uniformly misrepresenting to them that the HMOs were "honestly pay[ing] physicians the amounts to which they were entitled." 382 F.3d 1241, 1258 (11th Cir. 2004), abrogated on other grounds by Bridge v. Phx. Bond & Indem. Co., 553 U.S. 639 (2008). There, the Eleventh Circuit upheld certification of the physician class on the basis that the doctors' RICO claims were "not simply individual allegations of underpayments lumped together," but rather focused on a centralized corporate conspiracy to defraud, which could be proven through generalized evidence -- and which, absent certification, would have to be reproven in each case. Id. at 1257-58. Similarly here, the thrust of the RICO claim is USF's scheme to create and employ the VASPs to inflate the invoices so as to overbill each class member in the exact same manner.

USF contends that the customer invoices cannot be deemed to misrepresent cost without reference to the parties' underlying contractual arrangement, defeating any resort to generalized proof. But even assuming arguendo that this is correct, the district court specifically found after reviewing the evidence that USF's cost-plus contracts are substantially similar in all material respects. In re U.S. Foodservice, 2011 WL 6013551, at *14. This finding is supported, moreover, by Deloitte, Ahold's auditor, which reviewed the contracts to determine USF's potential legal exposure and concluded that the key term of "invoice cost" is "consistently defined." J.A. at 900-01. In short, because the question whether the invoices materially misrepresented the amounts due USF is common to all plaintiffs, the class will "prevail or fail in unison" on this point -- rendering certification appropriate. Amgen, 133 S. Ct. at 1191.

b) Causation

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As we have noted, "proof of misrepresentation -- even widespread and uniform misrepresentation -- only satisfies half of the equation" in cases such as this because plaintiffs must also demonstrate reliance on a defendant's common misrepresentation to establish causation under RICO.

 

Footnote 6. While the Supreme Court has clarified that first-party reliance is not an element of a RICO claim predicated on mail fraud, see Bridge, 553 U.S. at 649, it may be, as it is here, "a necessary part of the causation theory advanced by the plaintiffs." Eli Lilly, 620 F.3d at 133.

McLaughlin v. Am. Tobacco Co., 522 F.3d 215, 223 (2d Cir. 2008), abrogated on other grounds by Bridge v. Phx. Bond & Indem. Co., 553 U.S. 639 (2008). Certification is inappropriate where "reliance is too individualized to admit of common proof." Id. at 224-25 (concluding that certification was improper where many factors other than defendants' alleged misrepresentations about health consequences of light cigarettes may have led individuals to purchase them). The fact that class members will show causation by establishing reliance on a defendant's misrepresentations, however, does not place fraud-based claims entirely beyond the reach of Rule 23, provided that individualized issues will not predominate. See id.

Such is the case here. First, payment, as we have said, "may constitute circumstantial proof of reliance upon a financial representation." Id. at 225 n.7. As in Klay, the defendant here is alleged to have sent the plaintiffs false billing information (albeit in this case misrepresenting the amount of money due rather than, as in Klay, that the proper amount had been paid). Klay, 382 F.3d at 1259. In cases involving fraudulent overbilling, payment may constitute circumstantial proof of reliance based on the reasonable inference that customers who pay the amount specified in an inflated invoice would not have done so absent reliance upon the invoice's implicit representation that the invoiced amount was honestly owed. Fraud claims of this type may thus be appropriate candidates for class certification because "while each plaintiff must prove reliance, he or she may do so through common evidence (that is, through legitimate inferences based on the nature of the alleged misrepresentations at issue)." Id.***

c) Injury

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Our case law is clear that "damages as compensation under RICO § 1964(c) for injury to property must, under the familiar rule of law, place [the injured parties] in the same position they would have been in but for the illegal conduct." Commercial Union Assurance Co., PLC v. Milken, 17 F.3d 608, 612 (2d Cir. 1994). Granted, we have said that because RICO "compensates only for injury to 'business or property,'" a victim who is induced to part with his property by the misrepresentations of a fraudster is generally not entitled to "benefit of the bargain" damages -- meaning recovery of what the fraudster promised, as opposed to the property the victim lost. McLaughlin, 522 F.3d at 228 (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c)); see also Fleischhauer v. Feltner, 879 F.2d 1290, 1300 (6th Cir. 1989); Heinold v. Perlstein, 651 F. Supp. 1410, 1412 (E.D. Pa. 1987) ("Where, as here, the only property to which a plaintiff alleges injury is an expectation interest that would not have existed but for the alleged RICO violation, it would defy logic to conclude that the requisite causation exists."). This case, however, is not about such inducement, but concerns a fraud that occurred after plaintiffs already had a protectable interest in their cost-plus contracts with USF. See Heinold, 651 F. Supp. at 1411 (distinguishing between RICO violations that induce the formation of a contract and RICO violations that "interfere[] with a contract extant at the time of that conduct"); see also Liquid Air Corp. v. Rogers, 834 F.2d 1297, 1310 (7th Cir. 1987) (holding RICO victim entitled to recover benefits due under contract where defendants engaged in fraud after the formation of contract in order to deprive victim of benefits of its bargain).

USF, having entered into contracts that entitled its customers to "costplus" pricing, is alleged to have systematically deceived them into believing they were being afforded such pricing when, in fact, they were being overcharged. The key inquiry in such a circumstance is not what price customers could have procured elsewhere at the point of purchase, but rather the amount of overcharge -- the amount customers paid USF as a result of its deception. The measure of damages as compensation for this injury is straightforward: customers are entitled to the difference between the amount they paid on fraudulently inflated cost-plus invoices and the amount they should have been billed (or, stated differently, the price increase due to the use of VASPs). We accordingly conclude that USF's contention that the district court abused its discretion in certifying the RICO class because RICO damages cannot be shown on a class-wide basis is without merit.

ii) The Contract Claims

Certifying plaintiffs' breach of contract claims raises additional concerns because the contracts here are not uniform and they implicate the laws of many jurisdictions. ***

a) Contract Variations and Extrinsic Evidence

 

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To be clear, courts properly refuse to certify breach of contract class actions where the claims require examination of individual contract language. See, e.g., Broussard v. Meineke Discount Muffler Shops, Inc., 155 F.3d 331, 340 (4th Cir. 1998); Spencer v. Hartford Fin. Servs. Grp., Inc., 256 F.R.D. 284, 304 (D. Conn. 2009) (declining to certify class for breach of contract claims where contracts defined cost and value differently such that the language of each contract "would need to be carefully considered to determine whether defendants breached each contract at issue"); cf. Sprague v. Gen. Motors Corp., 133 F.3d 388, 398 (6th Cir. 1998) (decertifying class of early retirees in ERISA case where "side deals" contained myriad variations as to what each retiree was promised). In such cases, however, courts have determined that the language variations were material to the issue of breach. Here, USF's own expert testified that the contracts "essentially all [say] the same thing" and that in the food service industry, "[i]t [is] well understood . . . what a cost plus contract is," J.A. at 2938. Similarly, USF's own auditor found that USF's contracts are consistent in how they define invoice cost, J.A. at 900-01. The district court's conclusion that USF's cost-plus contracts are substantially similar in all material respects, see In re U.S. Foodservice, 2011 WL 6013551, at *14, is amply supported by the record.

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The fact that each of these contracts is governed by the UCC, moreover, further supports the district court's conclusion that common issues will predominate in the adjudication of these contract claims. Plaintiffs allege, inter alia, that USF breached its cost-plus contracts because the use of VASPs to inflate costs was dishonest, commercially unreasonable, and a breach of USF's implied duty of good faith. See Cmplt. ¶¶ 152-53; see also U.C.C. §1-203 ("Every contract or duty within this Act imposes an obligation of good faith in its performance or enforcement."). The UCC's implied duty of good faith, in turn, requires not only "honesty in fact" between contracting parties but also "the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing in the trade." U.C.C. § 2-103(1)(b) (defining "good faith" for merchants); see id. § 1-201(b)(20) (defining "good faith" for non-merchants). See also U.C.C. § 1-203 cmt. (explaining that the duty of good faith is implemented by the provisions on course of dealing and trade usage, and "directs a court toward interpreting contracts within the commercial context in which they are created, performed, and enforced."); 1B Larry Lawrence, Lawrence's Anderson on the Uniform Commercial Code § 1-304:42 (3d ed. 2012) ("U.C.C. § 1-201(b)(20) establishes an objective test for good faith: whether the party acted in observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing. The commercial reasonableness of the party's behavior relates solely to the fairness of the behavior.").

We agree with the district court that the question of breach with regard to plaintiffs' contract claims will focus predominantly on common evidence to determine whether, in fact, USF used controlled middlemen to inflate invoice prices and whether such a practice departs from prevailing commercial standards of fair dealing so as to constitute a breach. See U.C.C. § 2-103(1)(b). In this regard, we find the Eleventh Circuit's decision in Allapattah Services, Inc. v. Exxon Corp., 333 F.3d 1248, instructive. There, plaintiffs alleged that Exxon breached its contracts with its dealers by overcharging them on fuel purchases. Id. at 1252. Though the contracts were not identical, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the class certification because the dealer agreements were materially uniform insofar as they imposed the same duty of good faith on Exxon. Thus, the question of whether Exxon had violated its duty was common to all class members. Id. at 1261. The same holds true here.

Like the district court, we anticipate that adjudication of the breach of contract claims will largely parallel adjudication of the RICO claims. The common issues will include USF's creation and control of the VASPs, the actual services, if any, the VASPs provided, USF's efforts to hide the true nature of the VASPs from its customers (which in the breach of contract setting is circumstantial proof that customers did not know of and never acquiesced in USF's course of performance), and trade usage concerning controlled middlemen like the VASPs. Since the record does not indicate the existence of material differences in contract language or other significant individualized evidence, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that common issues will predominate over any individual issues, and that USF's claim to the contrary should be rejected.

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c) Variations in State Contract Law

USF next argues that certification was improper because this multi-state class action implicates the laws of many jurisdictions. We agree that putative class actions involving the laws of multiple states are often not properly certified pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) because variation in the legal issues to be addressed overwhelms the issues common to the class. See, e.g., Castano v. Am. Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 741 (5th Cir. 1996) ("In a multi-state class action, variations in state law may swamp any common issues and defeat predominance."); Sacred Heart Health Sys., Inc. v. Humana Military Healthcare Servs., Inc., 601 F.3d 1159, 1183 (11th Cir. 2010). However, these concerns are lessened where the states' laws do not vary materially. See Klay, 382 F.3d at 1262 ("[I]f the applicable state laws can be sorted into a small number of groups, each containing materially identical legal standards, then certification of subclasses embracing each of the dominant legal standards can be appropriate."). Thus, the crucial inquiry is not whether the laws of multiple jurisdictions are implicated, but whether those laws differ in a material manner that precludes the predominance of common issues. See Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1017 (D.C. Cir. 1986) ("[N]ationwide class action movants must creditably demonstrate, through an 'extensive analysis' of state law variances, 'that class certification does not present insuperable obstacles.'" (quoting In re Sch. Asbestos Litig., 789 F.2d 996, 1010 (3d Cir. 1986))).***

B. Expert Testimony

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The Supreme Court has not definitively ruled on the extent to which a district court must undertake a Daubert analysis at the class certification stage. In Wal-Mart, the Court offered limited dicta suggesting that a Daubert analysis may be required at least in some circumstances. See 131 S. Ct. at 2553-54 ("The District Court concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class-action proceedings. We doubt that is so . . . ." (internal citation omitted)). In In re IPO, we disavowed our earlier statement that "an expert's testimony may establish a component of a Rule 23 requirement simply by not being fatally flawed," 471 F.3d at 41, without deciding whether or when a Daubert analysis forms a necessary component of a district court's rigorous analysis. But see id. at 41 (noting that a district judge must be afforded "considerable discretion to limit both discovery and the extent of the hearing on Rule 23 requirements").

We need not reach that question here either, as the record indicates that even though the district court did not conduct a Daubert hearing, it considered the admissibility of the expert testimony on the papers after USF had indicated that it was "happy to rely on the papers." S.A. at 608, 719; see United States v. Williams, 506 F.3d 151, 161 (2d Cir. 2007) (noting that the "formality of a separate hearing" is not always required for a district court to "effectively fulfill[] its gatekeeping function under Daubert"). As its opinion makes clear, the district court did make the requisite findings, concluding with respect to Damico's proposed damages model that it is appropriately "based on USF's alleged fraudulent pricing," "provides for a universal calculation of damages" because USF "almost always used an invoice to calculate prices," and that "the only feasibility-related issue is the potential need for manual input of certain customers." In re U.S. Foodservice, 2011 WL 6013551, at *15-16. Similarly the court concluded that industry practice can be used to establish whether "USF customer[s] had any reason to know of" USF's VASP pricing. Id. at *11. We therefore see no reason to disturb the district court's considered conclusions on the issue of expert testimony. See United States v. Farhane, 634 F.3d 127, 158 (2d Cir. 2011) (noting that Daubert inquiry is flexible, that "district courts enjoy considerable discretion in deciding on the admissibility of expert testimony," and that "[w]e will not disturb a ruling respecting expert testimony absent a showing of manifest error").

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