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It Takes More than an Algorithm to Prove an Agreement: An Analysis of Gibson v. Cendyn Group

On May 8, 2024, Chief Judge Miranda Du of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada granted defendants’ motion to dismiss with prejudice the complaint in Gibson v. Cendyn Group, LLC, Docket No. 2:23-cv-00140-MMD-DJA, an antitrust case alleging that hotel operators on the Las Vegas Strip used algorithms to inflate room prices in violation of Section One of the Sherman Act. The court’s reasoning provides litigants on both sides with a framework for future cases.

Plaintiffs claimed that Caesars Entertainment, Inc., Treasure Island, LLC, and Wynn Resorts Holdings, LLC (hereinafter, the “Hotel Operators”) charged supercompetitive prices for rooms through GuestRev (individual rooms) and GroupRev (rooms for groups), which are shared-revenue management systems licensed by the Cendyn Group. Cendyn allegedly spearheaded a hub-and-spoke conspiracy[1] through an algorithm that used price and occupancy data to recommend room rates. The algorithm’s “optimal” rate was visible to individual hotel operators, who were discouraged by system prompts from overriding the recommendation. To establish anticompetitive effects in the relevant market, the plaintiffs relied on third-party economic analyses of revenue and price trends as well as circumstantial evidence known as “plus factors”—e.g., the motive and opportunity to conspire, market structure, the interchangeability of hotel rooms, and inelastic demand.

Before the court entered judgment in favor of defendants, Judge Du closely scrutinized plaintiffs’ claims. In an October 23, 2023 order dismissing plaintiff’s original complaint with leave to amend, the court asked plaintiffs to address: (i) when the conspiracy began and who participated; (ii) whether the Hotel Operators colluded to adopt a shared set of pricing algorithms; (iii) whether the Hotel Operators must accept the price recommendations; and (iv) whether the algorithm facilitated the exchange of non-public information.[2]

In its 2024 decision, the court ruled that plaintiffs’ amended complaint failed to meet these threshold requirements. First, the court disagreed with plaintiffs’ contention that the initial timing of the conspiracy was irrelevant because the Hotel Operators renewed their licensing agreements every year. Because defendants started using Cendyn’s technology at various points in time over a 10-year period, there was “no existing agreement to fix prices that a late-arriving spoke could join” and “a tacit agreement among [the Hotel Operators] was implausible.”[3]

Nor did plaintiffs allege that the Hotel Operators “agreed to be bound by [Cendyn’s] recommendations, much less that they all agreed to charge the same prices.”[4] To the contrary, plaintiffs maintained that Cendyn had difficulty getting customers to accept the recommendations. Even drawing all inferences in plaintiffs’ favor, the court determined that the Hotel Operators were independently reacting to similar pressures within an interdependent market, consistent with lawful conscious parallelism.

Finally, the court rejected plaintiffs’ contention that the Hotel Operators used Cendyn to exchange confidential information or, in the alternative, that Cendyn used machine learning and algorithms to facilitate the exchange of confidential information. The court reasoned that without more evidence, “using data across all your customers for research does not plausibly suggest that one customer has access to the confidential information of another customer—it instead plausibly suggests that Cendyn uses data from various customers to improve its products.”[5] The Cendyn dismissal will not be the last word on the “relatively novel antitrust theory premised on algorithmic pricing.”[6] Pricing algorithms are the focus of three class action lawsuits pending in different jurisdictions.[7] As algorithms become a mainstream tool for pricing, more are certain to follow.

[1] A hub-and-spoke antitrust conspiracy consists of (i) a leading party (“the hub”); (ii) co-conspirators (“the spokes”); and (iii) connecting agreements (“the rim”).

[2] See generally Order, Gibson v. Cendyn Group, Inc., 2:23-cv-00140-MMD-DJA (D. Nev. Oct. 23, 2023).

[3] Order, Gibson v. Cendyn Group, Inc., 2:23-cv-00140-MMD-DJA at 4 (D. Nev. May 8, 2024).

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] Id. at 10.

[6] Id. at 5.

[7] See Cornish-Adebiyi v. Caesars Entertainment, Inc., 1:23-cv-02536-KMW-EAP (D. N.J. filed Mar. 28, 2024); Duffy v. Yardi Sys. Inc., 2:23-cv-01391-RSL (W.D. Wash. filed on Mar. 1, 2024); In re: RealPage, Rental Software Antitrust Litig., 3:23-md-03071 (M.D. Tenn. filed on Nov. 15, 2023).

Copyright © 2024 Robinson & Cole LLP. All rights reserved.
by: Jennifer M. Driscoll of Robinson & Cole LLP

For more news on Algorithmic Price Inflation Lawsuits, visit the NLR Antitrust & Trade Regulation.

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