Antitrust-Limitation of Actions-Clayton Act Statute of Limitations Tolled on Treble Damage Suits Against Non-Government Defendant Co-Conspirators– Michigan v. Morton Salt Co.
Plaintiffs, several states and smaller governmental units, filed related antitrust treble damage claims against ten rock salt companies that had allegedly conspired to fix prices. These private actions were instituted subsequent to civil and criminal antitrust proceedings brought by the federal government in which four of the ten companies had been named as defendants and five designated as co-conspirators but not prosecuted. Section 5(b) of the Clayton Act provides that when such actions are brought by the government, “the running of the statute of limitations in respect of every private right of action arising under said laws and based in whole or in part on any matter complained of in said proceeding shall be suspended during the pendency thereof and for one year thereafter . . . .” Plaintiffs filed their claims within one year of the termination of the last of the government suits but ·more than four years after the occurrence of the alleged violations. The six companies not prosecuted by the government claimed that the tolling provisions of section 5(b) applied only to former government defendants, and, consequently, that the private actions against them were barred by the Clayton Act’s four-year statute of limitations. The United States District Court for Minnesota held that the Clayton Act’s statute of limitations can be tolled as to parties not prosecuted by the government, and that such tolling commences when the government institutes a related criminal or civil proceeding for violation of the antitrust laws against any alleged co-conspirator and terminates when the related government litigation is concluded. Thus, the court held that none of the plaintiffs’ actions was time-barred.