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Archive for May, 2011

David Waller, my partner at Baker Hostetler and hospitality lawyer extraordinaire, posted an entry in the firm’s Hospitality Lawg yesterday entitled AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion – Reconsidering Arbitration in the Hospitality Context.  The article offers practical tips from a transactional lawyer’s perspective on how to take advantage of arbitration agreements in light of the  Supreme Court’s decision. 

Although the article is directed at the hospitality industry, the analysis applies equally to many other industries.   One interesting question that Waller poses is: to what extent it is necessary to include the consumer-friendly aspects of the arbitration provision at issue in Concepcion to ensure enforceability of a class arbitration waiver, such as procedures for streamlining the arbitration process, and attorney’s fees and double damages if the claimant receives more than the company’s final settlement offer?

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In response yesterday’s entry discussing Daniel Fisher’s article on the potential impacts of Concepcion, I got one of the best comments that I’ve ever received on this site.  It comes from Portland complex injury and consumer class action attorney David Sugerman, who blogs at www.davidsugerman.com.  Of course, I disagree with just about every word of it, but with imagery like a bunch of corporate fat cats “fixing to celebrate the opening of the all-you-can-eat trough of greed,” I could not help but re-post it here:

I’m amused. As I said to defense counsel at a large multi-national firm, I guessed that midway through the second glass of champagne, the defense bar realized it had a real problem. He is apparently looking for a new job or to transition into other areas of practice.

Your one concrete example–retail sales–is, as you know, a less viable class because of problems of ascertainment, notice, locating the class, providing notice and obtaining and distributing relief. And not all retail sales cases survive. You likely recall the Gateway case some years ago with the forced mandatory arbitration clause in the paperwork in the box that was deemed accepted upon registration?

I love the concerted talking points in the defense bar that these cases are not done. Those of us who represent consumers know better.

We also know the torrent about to be unleashed when consumers can no longer take concerted action to stop nickel and diming on high-volume, small amount claims. AT&T, Comcast, banks, utilities, credit card companies are fixing to celebrate the opening of the all-you-can-eat trough of greed.

The argument that Congressional or Executive action *might* change things proves too much. Absent such action, consumer class cases are pretty much done. The argument also illustrates the crass overreaching in SCOTUS’ opinion, with views on federalism and statutory construction that are as breathtaking as the Citizens United case.

This is really not a problem for me because I handle a wide range of consumer and plaintiff problems. But my colleagues in high-priced defense firms who defend consumer class actions for a living are likely to have problems.

So no, if I were a high end defense attorney, I wouldn’t take much comfort in Forbes view or the talking points. It’s going to get bleak out there.

Lest you doubt my dire predictions, let’s set a wager for 12 months from the decision on how many consumer class actions have been filed, how many layoffs in the defense industry, or some other agreed-upon metric that we can revisit next year.

Ok, David, friendly banter on.

First, I must say that I don’t know a single defense lawyer who owns a private jet, but I know several plaintiffs’ lawyers who do, so all this talk about “high-priced” defense firms rings a little hollow to me.

Second, defense lawyers will have jobs for as long as there are plaintiffs’ lawyers around to file lawsuits, and somehow I don’t see the plaintiffs’ bar throwing in the towel this easily.  What you may see is simply a shift in the kinds of class actions that get filed in the future, or the industries that are targeted.  I say “targeted” because in my experience trends in consumer class actions are more often driven by the creativity of the entrepreneurial trial bar than by any epidemic of corporate greed.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t well-publicized scandals involving an epidemic of corporate greed (See Enron), but they tend to generate securities or ERISA class actions, not consumer class actions.

Finally, I’ll wager you, although not for money.  Only for pride.  (I’m not made of money after all, I’m just a defense lawyer).  I’ll bet that not only don’t we see a decrease, but we’ll actually see an increase in consumer class actions over the next year.  Sort of like the rash of class actions filed just before CAFA took effect.  I’m not sure at this moment how we’ll measure this, but I’d imagine that there’s a consulting firm out there (no doubt worried about the effect Concepcion is going to have on its own bottom line) planning just the kind of research we need.

So, if you’re a consulting firm looking for a project, we’ve got a job for you (pro bono, of course)…

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Daniel Fisher, who writes the Full Disclosure blog at Forbes.com, posted an article last Friday titled Has Scalia Killed the Class Action?  Fisher’s article one of the best I’ve seen in discussing the potential practical impact that the Supreme Court’s recent class arbitration waiver decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion may have on future consumer class action litigation.  I highly recommend it. 

Although much remains to be seen about Concepcion‘s long-term impact, from a practitioner’s point of view, two things are clear to me. 

First, the consumer class action is far from dead.  As Fisher’s article points out, there are many cases that won’t implicate arbitration clauses in consumer contracts at all, such as those involving retail products.  Moreover, even setting aside the prospect of executive branch or Congressional action in effectively overruling Concepcion, there are a variety of legal arguments that are sure to be raised for invalidating or avoiding enforcement of class arbitration waivers in the lower courts, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision.  There are countless theories, many of which have yet to be dreamed up by enterprising plaintiffs’ lawyers, for why a consumer class action in a particular case should be allowed to go forward in court notwithstanding an arbitration provision.

Second, the fact that future legislative or executive action or lower court judicial gloss may water down or limit Concepcion‘s ultimate impact should not keep companies from taking advantage of what is now, at minimum, an enhanced tool for protection against the significant cost of defending against class action litigation.  In the short term, any in-house or outside counsel charged with advising corporate clients should be considering ways to incorporate class arbitration waivers or similar provisions into the client’s form contracts and terms of use.  While it may not be failsafe protection from class actions, a well-drafted, reasonably limited class arbitration waiver, has an exponentially greater chance of being enforced than it did before the Concepcion decision was announced.

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One of the more significant issues relating to the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) that has percolating through the federal courts over the past few years is whether parens patriae actions brought by state attorneys’ general seeking to recover damages for their citizens are “class actions” that can be removed to federal court.  On Friday, a panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 decision holding that parens patriae actions are not class actions subject to removal under CAFA.  West Virginia v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., No. 11-1251 (4th Cir. May 20, 2011) (to be published).

CAFA Law Blog has been covering this issue extensively in recent months, and I expect they will have an entertaining post about the case in the coming days.  For CAFA Law Blog posts on the topic, see this link.

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John Browning, who writes the column Legally Speaking for Dallas Blog, has an interesting article today entitled Standing Up to Class Action Bullies.  The article recounts Taco Bell’s successful public relations campaign in response to a would-be class action, which was ultimately dismissed voluntarily, alleging that it had committed false advertising by not telling customers that its beef was 20% filler.  The story is a reminder that there are a variety of strategies that can be employed in defending against a putative class action, and not all of them involve lawyers.

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I will be speaking on trends in e-discovery at the upcoming Federal Practice Update 2011, co-sponsored by the Federal Bar Association and the CBA Litigation Section.  I hope to be an adequate fill-in for my partner, Karin Jenson, who has an unavoidable client commitment.  In addition to a number of other presentations on a variety of federal practice topics, the afternoon session will highlight a don’t-miss panel presentation of the U.S. District of Colorado Magistrate Judges entitled Pointers for Successful Litigation: The Magistrate Judge’s Role in Your Case.

If you’re interested in attending, here is a link to the event page:

 http://www.cobar.org/cle/item.cfm?EventID=LI052011L

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United States District Court Judge Janet C. Hall issued an order today rejecting the proposed settlement in Wilson v. DirectBuy, Inc., No. 3:09-CV-590 (JCH) (D. Conn. May 16, 2011) (Here is a link to the slip opinion).  The controversial settlement had been opposed by 39 attorneys general, a nonprofit consumer rights organization, and had been singled out by commentators for criticism as a model for class action abuse. 

Judge Hall’s order found fault with many aspects of the settlement, including both the proposed settlement’s procedural and substantive fairness.  Procedurally, Judge Hall was concerned with the nascent stage of the record at the time of the settlement and the lack of discovery performed before the settlement.  Among the court’s substantive concerns were that the in-kind benefits provided under the agreement were similar to a coupon settlement, that the parties had overstated the risks to class members of litigating the case to trial, and that the maximum value of the settlement was too low in comparison to the best possible recovery in order for the settlement to be within the range of reasonableness. 

The court’s opinion expressly does not rule on, although it does discuss, several of the other issues raised by objectors, including the sufficiency of the email notice given to class members and an order by the magistrate judge enjoining a similar lawsuit filed by the State of West Virginia.

It is important to note that the court’s opinion does not at all portend a win for the class at trial.  In fact, pointing to the potential for statewide class actions under individual state consumer protection laws and enforcement actions by individual state attorneys’ general:

[t]he court notes that these state consumer protection statutes may not be suitable for litigation on a nationwide class action basis. . . . However, it appears to the court that they may be well suited for statewide class actions, especially within the states with broadly written consumer protection statutes.  This attempt is already being made in California and Missouri. . . . Further, investigations by state attorneys general are under way in at least a couple states, and, in some states, consumer protection actions can be brought on behalf of consumers. . . .

Therefore, in light of these statutes and the evidence that public and private attorneys are prepared to enforce them, class members appear to have substantially stronger claims than the RICO claims alleged in this case. Because the parties seek to release these state claims via the Settlement Agreement, the strength of these claims must be accounted for in this court’s analysis of the fairness, adequacy, and reasonableness of the Agreement. . . .

Slip op. at 26 (internal citations omitted).

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