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Archive for October, 2011

The Colorado Supreme Court’s highly anticipated rulings in four class actions were announced earlier today.  Here are links to the opinions.  I’ll have more commentary on the four decisions soon:

No. 09SC668 – Jackson v. Unocal Corp. - Judgment Reversed (class certification upheld) - Addresses the burden of proof on class certification.

 

No. 09SC1080 – Garcia v. Medved Chevrolet, Inc. - Judgment Affirmed (case to be remanded to trial court to conduct rigorous analysis of class certification) – Addresses the circumstances in which the plaintiff in a fraud class action can establish that reliance, injury, and causation can be tried a class-wide basis.

 

No. 10SC77 – State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Reyher  - Judgment Reversed (denial of class certification upheld) - Addresses the standards for determining whether individual issues predominate and the extent to which the court may consider the merits of a plaintiff’s claims in ruling on class certification.

 

No. 10SC214 – BP America Prod. Co. v. Patterson - Judgment Affirmed (class certification upheld) - Addresses the circumstances in which the plaintiff can prove fraudulent concealment and ignorance of facts giving rise to a claim on a common, class-wide basis.

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A recent article by Ann Woolner of Bloomberg offers an interesting profile of class action pioneer William Lerach, who has been traveling the world and relaxing in his seaside mansion since his release from prison last year.  Lerach was convicted in 2007 for his part in a kick-back scheme in which lawyers agreed to split fees with clients in order to convince them to participate as representatives in class actions.   Whatever you might think about Lerach, it’s hard to deny his influence on the development of modern U.S. class actions.  However, the hubristic conduct that led Lerach to prison, his public lack of remorse for his actions, and the idea that he is now left to live happily ever after, will continue to make him a poster child for those who argue that our U.S.  system of class actions is in need of drastic reform.

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One of the hottest substantive areas in consumer class actions these days is litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S .C. § 227, sometimes called the “fax blast” statute, which prohibits unsolicited faxes and automated calls for the purpose of commercial solicitation.  The TCPA has a statutory penalty provision that allows consumers to recover $500 for each violation.  The ability to collect far more in statutory penalties than the actual damages caused by a given violation makes TCPA violations an appealing target for enterprising plaintiffs’ class action lawyers.  The aggregation of thousands of claims together can create huge monetary exposure for defendants and the potential for easy settlements and the large contingent fees that comes with it.  In this way, the TCPA is similar to other laws with statutory penalties, such as the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), which provides for statutory penalties against a company that produces credit card receipts with too much information on them.

Although it is a federal statute, the TCPA does not provide for federal court jurisdiction in private actions to enforce it.  TCPA class actions may only be filed in or removed to the federal courts if there is diversity jurisdiction under CAFA

This has naturally given rise to the question of whether state laws limiting class actions, such as § 901(b) of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules, which prohibits class actions for claims seeking statutory penalties, are applicable in federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction over TCPA claims.   Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P.A. v. Allstate Insurance Co., the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said yes.  After the Supreme Court remanded for reconsideration in light of Shady Grove, the Second Circuit said yes again, reasoning that the TCPA’s language allowing private enforcement “if otherwise permitted by the laws or rules of court of a State” gave the states broad power to determine how TCPA actions may be prosecuted within their borders.  The Third Circuit has disagreed with this conclusion, holding that State limitations on class actions do not apply in TCPA class actions filed in the federal courts.  Given the Third Circuit’s view, defendants in at least some jurisdictions may have a strong incentive to oppose federal jurisdiction in TCPA cases.

Another question that arises from the peculiar federalist nature of the TCPA is whether a state or federal statute of limitations applies.  Earlier this week, in Giovanniello v. ALM Media LLC, the Second Circuit answered this question and held that a shorter state law limitations period applied rather than the 4-year federal catchall provision. 

Several recent decisions have highlighted a split among both the state and federal the courts about whether TCPA claims should be permitted to be brought as class actions at all.  Of particular note is the recent decision of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division in Local Baking Products, Inc. v. Kosher Bagel Munch, Inc., which provides an excellent survey of the various state and federal court decisions on both sides of the issue.  The court in Local Baking Products ultimately decided that class certification of TCPA claims was not appropriate. It reasoned that class actions are not a superior procedure for enforcing the TCPA because Congress had made statutory penalties available so that individuals would be incentivized to pursue vindication of their rights in individual actions in small claims or other state courts.  In addition to lack of superiority, a common reason offered by other courts for rejecting class certification is that the question of whether faxes or calls were authorized is too individualized for common questions to predominate.

Earlier this month, however, the Supreme Court of Kansas upheld a lower court’s decision granting class certification in a TCPA case.  In Critchfield Physical Therapy v. The Taranto Group, Inc., the court rejected both the argument that individual actions in small claims court would be superior to a class action and the argument that the question of consent was too individualized.  In addition, the court rejected the argument that class actions would not be superior in light of the threat that aggregating thousands of individual statutory penalties together could create an “annihilating” judgment against the defendant that would be disproportionate to any harm to the class.  A similar argument had been successful in a FACTA case in California federal court, but later reversed by the Ninth Circuit in Bateman v. American Multi Cinema, Inc.

Meanwhile, while a bill has been introduced in the U.S. house to “modernize” the TCPA by permitting certain informational robo-calls to be made to mobile phones, among other things, the bill would not modify the private enforcement provisions of the statute.

One quandary facing courts and counsel in TCPA class actions is how to give notice to consumers if a class is certified.  Last month, a Madison County, Illinois judge ordered that notice of a class action for unsolicited faxes under the TCPA should be disseminated by. . . 

. . . you guessed it . . .  

fax.

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I was not able to attend the ABA National Institute on Class Actions program in New York City last week, but class action notice expert and occasional CAB contributor, Dr. Shannon R. Wheatman, Vice President, Kinsella Media (swheatman@kinsellamedia.com), was there and she graciously agreed to send me her notes of what sounds like another great conference. Shannon was a fitting correspondent this year because three federal court judges talked about the need for plain language class action notice, which also happens to be the topic of Shannon’s doctoral dissertation. Shannon’s notes follow below. – PGK

Notes from the 15th Annual National Institute on Class Actions (New York City)

Following an energetic introduction from Goldman Scarlato Karon & Penny partner Dan Karon, Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee kicked things off with his annual review of developments in federal class action law. He focused on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent class action decisions. He noted, “The landscape has changed – and changed dramatically – this year.”

Prof. Coffee began his discussion with the impact of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011). He noted three distinct messages in that decision: (1) a new standard for commonality, (2) individualized money damages are not available under 23(b)(2), and (3) affirmative defenses must receive individualized hearings. Prof. Coffee said the new commonality standard would have the greatest impact on 23(b)(2) classes including employment and environmental litigation. Affirmative defenses will be used by defendants to show that the class is unmanageable or that it fails the predominance requirement. Prof. Coffee provided some ways to get around affirmative defenses: (1) raise a Twombly/Iqbal challenge to affirmative defenses that are not pled with enough specificity to satisfy the “plausibility” standard, (2) seek only partial certification and leave affirmative defenses to be resolved in individual actions, and (3) concede that defendants can raise an affirmative defense, but deny that it can be raised to a jury.

Prof. Coffee discussed dueling class actions and the ruling in Smith v. Bayer Corp., 131 S. Ct. 2368 (2011), which held that the relitigation exception did not permit a federal court to enjoin a class from seeking certification in a West Virginia state court. Basically, Prof. Coffee said, the Court ruled that the benefit of the doubt must go to the state court; a federal court lacks power to bind non-parties, such as absent class members.

The discussion turned to AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011). The Supreme Court’s majority found that state law rules are preempted when they obstruct the Federal Arbitration Agreement’s objectives. Prof. Coffee believes mandatory arbitration clauses will be making their way into more employment contracts.

Highlights of panel discussions

The Practice that Never Sleeps: Reexamining the Class Action Practice and Considering Where It – Indeed, We – Go from Here

This panel (Dan Karon, Judge Colleen McMahon, Judge Benita Y. Pearson, Professor Brian T. Fitzpatrick, J. Philip Cabrese, Derek G. Howard, and Peter M. Ryan) provided a discussion of the state of affairs in class actions. Dan Karon asked the panel “What’s with all of the hostility?” Prof. Fitzpatrick believes it comes from a misperception based entirely upon the outliers that give class actions a bad name. Prof. Fitzpatrick conducted an empirical study of fee awards (filed from 2006-2007) in over 700 cases. He found the average fee award was 15%. So, the “perception that lawyers are getting everything and class members are getting nothing is not true.”

Derrick Howard stated that it is fiction that most class actions are frivolous. The risk of bringing a class action on a contingent basis is substantial. Class action attorneys, he said, are acting as private attorneys general to correct wrongs. It was noted that the DOJ is closing half its antitrust field offices. How will that effect enforcement? Class action attorneys have to be the enforcers.

Judge McMahon, from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said, “Don’t endow us with superhuman powers.” Most class actions are settled with little opposition, she said. Judges cannot “intuit” that something is wrong if no one speaks up. Judge Pearson, from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, said it is important to allow enough time for objectors and intervenors to know and respond in some way to proposed settlements.

This is where things got interesting. Larry Schonbrun, a self-proclaimed professional objector, stood up and told the panel that the court should appoint a class guardian to ensure a settlement is fair and reasonable. Judge McMahon replied, “Who pays for that?” The panel agreed that this would cause a substitution of judgment that was not necessary or even helpful. Schonbrun went on to say that the court has the power to find out if the settlement is unfair but the court chooses not to exercise that power.

Judge Pearson disagreed with Schonbrun and remarked that because a settlement is hard-fought does not mean it is fair and just. She requires the parties to walk her through the terms of the settlement. She also wants to talk with the class representatives.

The content and design of class action notices were discussed. Judge Pearson said she always wants to see what a notice will look like when printed to ensure it is readable. Judge McMahon went on to note that writing a notice is like crafting jury instructions. She told attorneys that they “have to work hard to make it readable” and they “have to work hard to make it comprehensible.” One audience member remarked that there are plain language notice experts who can help attorneys.

Judge Pearson talked about proper deliverability of notice. She said debt collectors can find people and that it can be done without extraordinary costs and time. She seemed to be intimating that some class action notices remain undelivered and that there must be ways to get better addresses.

One attorney on the panel said that when Twombly was decided, everyone thought it was the death knell for class actions. Instead, there was a leveling effect as people adjusted. There is a temptation to interpret Supreme Court decisions as the final word but, as one attorney noted, “A 5-4 decision is not a death knell of anything.” Lawyers are very creative and will find a way to deal with Wal-Mart and Concepcion.

The Empire Cases – AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes from Those Who Made Them Happen”

This panel was comprised of the lawyers involved in Concepcion (F. Paul Bland, Jr. and Andrew J. Pincus) and Wal-Mart (Mark A. Perry and Joseph M. Sellers). Fred Burnside expertly moderated this session. Paul Bland would have liked to see a different case go up for review. There was no factual record in Concepcion because of the categorical rule of evidence set forth in the Discover Bank case.

The panel discussed the net effect of Concepcion. Basically, Concepcion does not require enforcement of a class action ban even when the evidence shows that the plaintiffs could not effectively vindicate their statutory rights in individual arbitration. Fred Burnside said that the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) has to post results. He found more than 100 instances where people arbitrated for less than $100. So, some people appear to be using arbitration to vindicate their rights. However, it was later revealed that there have only been 1,300 AAA claims in the past year.

Joe Sellers began the discussion on Wal-Mart. He remarked that he fielded 74 questions during oral argument and that the defense, led by Mark Perry, received far fewer. He was most surprised that Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor were skeptical of the use of formulas for determining back pay even though they have been used for 35 years. The Court disregarded statistical evidence when it failed to find that a specific employment practice tied together 1.5 million class members. The question was raised whether Daubert applies to expert opinions offered at class certification. Sellers said, “The Court did not decide whether Daubert applies to class certification, although in dictum it suggested” it did.

Melee in Manhattan! Class Action Objectors – Are They Protectors of Absent Class Members or Merely Gadflies?

This was the most highly anticipated panel. Vincent J. Esades put together a panel that included Nancy F. Atlas, from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas and three professional (Ed. Note-see Mr. Frank’s comment below distinguishing his role from that of a “professional objector as that term is often used) objectors (Ted Frank, Darrell Palmer, and Lawrence W. Schonbrun). The crowd followed Dan Karon’s earlier admonition “to not throw chairs,” but the discussion was heated at times.

Judge Atlas said that most judges care enormously about absent class members and protecting the process. She agreed that there are good objections that help fine-tune a settlement by pointing out substantive issues. However, she said, there are a lot of bad objections as well that do not serve to point out any real issues with the settlement. Larry Schonbrun was the most vocal about blaming attorneys for excessive fees and judges for doing a “miserable job in approving fees” just to get the case off the docket. Schonbrun said he doesn’t believe that courts want to hear objections. Darrell Palmer disagreed.

Ted Frank said that he goes after the worst settlements. Palmer said the system falls short because class counsel does not make sure class members know what is going on or how to file a claim. Frank, who often objects to attorneys’ fees, said fees should be based on the amount actually distributed to class members.

Larry Schonbrun revealed that he had been an attorney in one class action but has offered over 150 objections. He fervently believes objections should be raised in every settlement. Darrell Palmer told the crowd that “objecting is a hobby for me.”

Judge Atlas echoed Judges McMahon and Pearson by saying that class action notices need to be “legible and comprehensible to laypersons.” She talked about having a good headline and writing in plain English.

The matter of cy pres awards was raised. Ted Frank said settlement monies should go to the class and not to favorite charities chosen by attorneys or judges.

An audience member asked the objectors how much each of them has accepted to sell appeals over the last decade. Ted Frank said “none,” Darrell Palmer said “a lot,” and Larry Schonbrun declined to answer. Darrell Palmer said the way to stop this practice is to stop paying off objectors. The professional objectors revealed that most objections address attorneys’ fees and poorly written notices.

If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere: Lessons Learned from Class Action Trials for the Rest of Us

This panel (Andrew J. McGuinness, Judge Jack Weinstein, James Donato, David Sanford, Edmund W. Searby, and Thomas M. Sobol) discussed preparing for a class action trial. There really are not many differences between a class action and a very complex individual trial. The rules of evidence are the same and Rule 23 does not deal with trials – only with the notice requirements for certification. The panel discussed that jury members may not even know what a class action means. Judge Weinstein, from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, spoke of the importance of the charge to the jury. Judge Weinstein said he allows more leeway in jury voir dire in class action trials. If the evidence will involve a lot of statistics, he wants to have someone on the jury who will lead the other jurors to understand. Tom Sobol said he likes to come out first with the defense witnesses in order to tell the story to the jury. Jim Donato said the “victory is in the details.” He allowed jurors in one of his cases to ask questions at any time during the trial. Judge Weinstein said he has never allowed unfiltered questions because the risk of mistrial “frightens me.” Edmund Searby said it is best to get class representatives on and off the witness stand as quickly as possible to avoid any damage. The key, he said, is to have a class representative who is likable and credible.

New Kid on the Block – The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: What Is It, How Will It Work, and How Will It Affect Us?

The final panel examined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”). This panel was moderated by Jeffrey A. Leon and included a representative from the CFPB (David M. Gossett); James D. Kole, who practices with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office; defense attorney, Michael Thurman; and plaintiffs’ attorney, Jonathan D. Selbin.

David Gossett provided an overview of the CFPB. The agency is in limbo until a director can be named. The CFPB will be working closely with the FTC on joint regulations. The CFPB will have broader rulemaking powers since it (unlike the FTC) can actually write regulations. Gossett asked any attorney trying to reach a settlement on the same claims as an enforcement action to reach out to the CFPB. He also talked about CAFA notice and how the CFPB will need to be noticed (specific guidelines will be set out in the future). A study on mandatory arbitration clauses will be undertaken before the CFPB considers the propriety of banning them.

Michael Thurman stated that defendants will be happy to learn that the FTC and CFPB will not initiate separate enforcement actions. He also thinks the CFPB’s enhanced rulemaking power is good because it will lay out specific rules for businesses. James Kole said the Illinois Attorney General is viewing the CFPB as a positive force in the realm of consumer fraud protection. Jonathan Selbin asked some key questions on how the CFPB could impact class actions, including the possibility of preemption, exhaustion requirements, discovery and document production, and whether the CFPB can release class claims. He raised the concern that potential settlement with the CFPB could create a reverse auction atmosphere for defendants.

Save the date – 16th Annual National Institute on Class Actions – October 11, 2012 – Washington, DC

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It has only been a few months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, holding that state laws holding class arbitration waivers unenforceable as against public policy are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), and the Court is already considering a new case involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements in consumer contracts.  

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Compucredit Corp. v. Greenwood, No. 10-948, in which the issue is whether a federal law’s grant to consumers of a right to sue can be waived through an arbitration agreement.  A copy of the oral argument transcript is now available at the Court’s website.  Most of the questions were directed at issues of statutory construction under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1679 et seq., and in particular whether Congress intended that the right to sue in court be non-waivable.  The Ninth Circuit’s decision below, the limited scope of the question presented for review, and the questions posed at oral argument would all suggest that the Court is unlikely in its ultimate opinion to address some of deeper questions remaining after Conception, such as whether and under what circumstances a consumer arbitration agreement can be held unconscionable under federal law.  Then again, as aptly illustrated in Justice Scalia’s opinion in Concepcion decision, the possibility that the decision will go beyond the limited statutory questions presented and address deeper public policy issues can never be ruled out.

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A recent CAB post entitled Mexico Joins the Class Action Club provided an update from Mexican attorney Jorge de Hoyos Walther on the passage of recent legislation in Mexico introducing class actions.  If that post piqued your interest, check out this new article authored by Catherine Dunn for Corporate Counsel magazine (available at Law.com) entitled Mexico’s New Class Action Law Opens a Litigation Frontier.  Dunn’s article highlights the key provisions of Mexico’s new class action law and compares and contrasts it both with U.S. class action procedure and the procedures available in other Latin American countries.

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Today’s edition of the Baker Hostetler Employment Class Actions Newsletter has two great articles worth noting.

My colleague here in Denver, Holli Hartman, authored an article summarizing developments in challenges to class arbitration waivers following the Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.

Cleveland Partner Greg Mersol and Summer Associate George Skupski contributed an entry examining the application of Daubert standards to expert testimony at the class certification stage in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.

Although I’m admittedly somewhat biased, I highly recommend both articles, as well as other employment class action-related news and commentary on the firm’s Employment Class Action Blog.

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Having been focused on several other speaking and writing projects recently (in addition to my day job), it’s taken longer than I had hoped to comment on several recent class-action-related decisions by the federal circuit courts of appeals.  Here’s a brief summary of three recent decisions of note:

Washington State v. Chimei Innolux Corp., No. 11-16862 (9th Cir. Oct. 3, 2011) – joining the Fourth Circuit in holding that a parens patriae action brought by state attorneys general or other state officials for the benefit of the state’s citizens is not a “class action” for the purposes of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).

Klier v. Elf Atochem N. Am., Inc., No. 10-20305 (5th Cir., Sept 27, 2011) – holding in the absence of an express provision in the settlement agreement to the contrary that unclaimed funds should be distributed pro rata to class members who participated in the settlement as opposed to being given to charity as a cy pres distribution.  Take note of the concurrence by Judge Edith H. Jones, which makes a strong argument that in the absence of any agreement to the contrary or express waiver of the right to recover unclaimed funds, the equities favor returning those funds to the defendant rather than paying them to the class or distributing them to charity.

Esurance Ins. Co. v. Keeling, No. 11-8018 (7th Cir., Sept. 26, 2011) – holding that when punitive damages are at issue, the correct standard is whether it would be “legally impossible” for the plaintiff to recover an amount of punitive damages that, when combined with the amount of compensatory damages sought, would exceed the $5 million amount in controversy threshold under CAFA, but concluding that it was not legally impossible under Illinois law, even though it was unlikely, that $4.4 million in punitive damages could be awarded in a case where the compensatory damages were slightly more than $600,000.

A great resource for more timely commentary and analysis on recent class action decision in the federal courts of appeals is Alison Frankel’s blog On the Case.

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It’s not too late to sign up for this Thursday’s Strafford Publications Webinar, entitled Statistics in Class Action Litigation: Admissibility and the Impact of Wal-Mart v. Dukes.  Click the link on the title of the program for more information and to sign up.

For anyone looking for sneak preview, here are the program materials, which were are the result of the joint efforts of my co-presenters, Brian Troyer of Thompson Hine and Justin Hopson of Hitachi Consulting, and me.  We hope you can make it!

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