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Archive for October, 2012

This is the first in what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last Thursday in Chicago.  The National Institute sets the gold standard for class action conferences, and this year was no exception.  Program Chair Daniel Karon and the rest of the organizing committee did an excellent job selecting six of the most timely and relevant topics facing class action practitioners today.  As always, the list of panelists was a veritable who’s who in the class action field.  If you ever have the opportunity to attend this annual conference, I highly recommend it.

As has become the custom at the National Institute, Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. kicked off this year’s program with a comprehensive and insightful summary of the year’s key developments in class action law.  This year’s presentation saw what has been a hit solo act turn into an even better duet, as Professor Coffee shared the stage with Connecticut Law Professor Alexandra Lahav.  The session was titled “Holy Cow!  This Year the Courts Said What?!” A Brief History of this Year’s Developments in Class Action Jurisprudence.  Attendees were also treated to a comprehensive, 179-page summary of the year in class actions by Professors Coffee and Lahav entitled The New Class Action Landscape: Trends and Developments in Class Certification and Related Topics.

The first part of Professor Coffee’s presentation covered each of the class action-related cases on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket this term.  Here is a list of those cases with some of Professor Coffee’s insights:

  • Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds v. Amgen, Inc., 660 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2011) – Amgen raises the question whether the plaintiff must establish the materiality of an alleged false statement at the class certification stage of a securities fraud class action.  Professor Coffee believes that this case is a close call, but whichever way it comes out, it does not threaten to end securities class action litigation as we know it.
  • Behrend v. Comcast Corporation, 655 F.3d 182 (3d Cir. 2011) – In Behrend, the Court could decide whether a trial court must perform a full Daubert analysis of expert testimony offered in support of or in opposition to class certification.  The case raises the question, at least in the antitrust context, whether the plaintiff must present a  formal damages model or whether the mere possibility of common proof is enough.
  • Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., 656 F.3d 189 (3d Cir. 2011) – This is a wage and hour case under the FLSA, which has a different procedure than Rule 23.  FLSA claims are more accurately characterized as collective actions, rather than class action.  The issue is whether a settlement offer for the full amount of the named plaintiff’s FLSA claim can moot the claim and prevent the case from proceeding on a collective basis, a concept also known as “picking off.”   One of the arguments that has been raised is that the writ of certiorari should be dismissed as improvident granted, so it is unclear whether the Court will actually enter a substantive ruling.
  • Knowles v. The Standard Fire Insurance Company, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130077 (W.D. Ark. December 2, 2011) – This case raises the question whether a plaintiff can plead around CAFA removal jurisdiction by stipulating to less than $5 million in damages on behalf of the putative class.  Professor Coffee felt confident in making the prediction that the defendant will win.  He points to dicta in the Court’s recent decision in Smith v. Bayer Corporation calling into question whether a plaintiff can do anything to bind the members of a putative class before it is certified.

Professor Coffee then went on to highlight some of the big developments in the lower courts from over the past year, which include:

The proper burden of proof to be applied at class certification.  The circuits are split on this issue, with some applying a preponderance of the evidence standard and others simply requiring a rigorous analysis with no particular evidentiary standard.

Treatment of expert testimony.  The federal district courts continue to resist resolving a battle of the experts at the class certification stage, but dicta from the Supreme Court in Dukes, as well as holdings by several of the circuits, are putting increasing pressure on the federal courts to perform a Daubert analysis (and the Court could resolve this issue for good in Behrend).

Class Arbitration Waivers.  Some lower courts, especially the Second Circuit, continue to carve out exceptions to the Supreme Court’s ruling favoring arbitration agreements in Concepcion.   One key issue is whether a class arbitration waiver may still be held unconscionable as a matter of federal law.  Professor Coffee quipped that the Second Circuit will only change if the Supreme Court “stuffs it down their throat.”  While unconscionability under state law is no longer a viable argument against enforcing an arbitration clause, clauses with fee-shifting provisions continue to be susceptible to attack.

Settlement Only and Limited Fund Classes.  There is a lower court trend in permitting certification in settlement classes in cases that could not be certified as class actions in contested cases, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s opinion in Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 617 (1997).  The primary justification tends to be that any individualized issues of fact in the case went to manageability, which is no longer an issue in the settlement context.   In cases where courts have found that individualized issues impact both predominance and manageability, settlement classes have continued to be rejected.

Partial Certification.   The question of issue certification has been one of the hottest trends in the federal courts in the wake of Dukes.  Professor Coffee pointed out that the resolution of whether courts allow partial certification tends to be determined whether the fact of certification creates an extortionate threat to settle the case.

Class Action Settlements.  If you read just one class certification decision this year, Professor Coffee recommends Judge Rosenthal’s memorandum opinion in In re: Heartland Payment Systems, Inc. Customer Data Security Breach Litigation, MDL No. 09-2046 (S.D. Tex. March 20, 2012), which has a well-organized, step-by-step analysis of the approval of a class action settlement.

Professor Lahav focused her remarks on what has been happening in the lower courts in response to the three key aspects of the Court’s decision in Dukes: 1) the “new commonality” requirement; 2) the rejection of the use of Rule 23(b)(2) to recover individualized money damages; and 3) the rejection of “trial by formula,” of the use of statistical sampling to solve individualized damages problems.

The “new commonality”.  Among Professor Lahav’s key observations was that in the Title VII context, there must be a policy, but if there is an identifiable policy, the courts will allow discretionary elements of that policy to be attacked.  This trend is best exemplified by Judge Posner’s decision in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc.  As many commentators predicted, Plaintiffs have had better success after Dukes by narrowing the geographic scope of discrimination claims.  This has also been true in the consumer context.  In the civil rights context, allegations of systemic constitutional violations have had success when the courts have focused on the systemic nature of the practice, but not when courts have focused on the effects of a systemic practice on the prospective class members.  In general, there has been an increasing reliance on issues classes to overcome individualized issues that might destroy commonality or predominance.

Rule 23(b)(2) and monetary damages.  The majority opinion in Dukes raised the question whether there can ever be a class with monetary damages.  None of the circuit courts have provided further guidance on when damages might be sufficiently “incidental” to still allow relief.  One area that has seen mixed results since Dukes is the area of medical monitoring class actions, where the remedy sought is medical monitoring of the possible health effects of a toxic exposure but the cost of monitoring can vary from person to person.  Professor Lahav pointed to the Third Circuit’s decision in Gates v. Rohm & Haas Co., No. 10-2108 (3d Cir., Aug. 25, 2011), as potentially supporting arguments on both sides.  Hybrid class actions, where classes are certified based on both Rule 23(b)(2) and 23(b)(3), are becoming increasingly common, especially in the Title VII context.  One unanswered question is whether damages claims are precluded if a Rule 23(b)(2) class is certified but not successful.

Statistical evidence and “trial by formula.”   Statistical evidence is still accepted in contexts where it has been accepted traditionally, e.g. civil rights, disparate impact, and antitrust cases.  It is not allowed in cases where the defendant can raise individualized defenses.  One proposed solution is, again, issues classes, but this creates a class action funding problem – How do lawyers get paid?

Professor Lahav also revisited statistical trends in class actions, focusing primarily on data compiled by the Federal Judicial Center in 2008 which analyzed the impact of the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”).  She made the key point that statistical data on class action trends has been severely lacking since the FJC study, making updated empirical analysis of class action trends difficult.

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My partner, Casie Collignon, recently attended CLE International’s conference Class Actions: Plaintiff and Defense Perspectives in Chicago earlier this month, and she graciously agreed to share a summary of her notes.  Here they are for anyone who was unable to attend.  I’ll be attending the ABA’s 16th National Institute on Class Actions next week, so stay tuned for my notes from that conference as well.

On October 4th and 5th, esteemed panels of class action plaintiff and defense lawyers, along with multiple reputable class action administrators, gathered for panel discussions involving class action trends across the country from all perspectives. Below are just a few of the highlights from the conference:

  • Class Actions are not dead after DukesDukes may not have had the one-sided effect that everyone anticipated. Program Co-Director Francis Citera of Greenberg Traurig noted that class certification decisions after Dukes have been, despite popular opinion, very balanced.  In the federal courts since Dukes, there have been 32 cases certified, 33 denials of class certification, and 15 cases where certification was denied in part and granted in part.
  • Manageability remains key to certification – Even though the Dukes, Concepcion, and Comcast trends are on the tips of all class action practitioners’ tongues, manageability is still a top concern from all perspectives.  The Honorable William J.  Bauer of the Seventh Circuit opined about the importance of being able to be able to show the Court what a class action trial will actually look like.  This sentiment was echoed by plaintiff’s class action lawyer Kenneth Wexler of Wexler Wallace, who suggested that all plaintiffs’ class certification motions should be accompanied by an actual trial plan.  Defense attorney Sascha Henry of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton opined  that the defense practitioner can take advantage of both the existence of a plaintiff’s trial plan or the lack of a trial plan in the manageability context.  For example, if there is no trial plan at all, the defendant can argue that the plaintiffs   have not alleged a practical way to manage the case and therefore have not met their burden of proving the manageability requirement.  Alternatively, if a plan is submitted, then the defendant has a precise manageability roadmap to attack. 
  • New settlement notice program trends – While traditional mailers and post card notices still reign supreme for claim rates, Patrick Izie of Class Action Services discussed some new media trends in class action settlements.  He opined that new media, such as QR codes, mobile device notifications, and coupon websites can have a dramatic impact on your claims rates without increased costs. And, even though the parties may not have intended their class settlements to appear on websites such as duckydeals.com, once these types of sites start listing your class action settlements, you can expect claims rates to spike.
  • Class Certification may never truly be over –   Attorney for the plaintiff in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Linda Friedman of Stowell & Friedman, and class action defense lawyer Andrew Trask of McGuireWoods, both agreed that an important lesson to be learned from both the Merrill Lynch case and the recent denial of the motion to dismiss in the smaller Walmart case which is back pending in the Northern District of California, is that no ruling in the class certification context is ever truly permanent. Thus, the class action community should be on the lookout for second and even third bites at the apple with smaller proposed classes and arguments for issue class certification.

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Editor’s Note – This article is a joint submission to CAB and the BakerHostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  Please visit our firm’s blog for more riveting class action-related content.

A definitive ruling on whether courts may certify class actions to decide discrete issues, as opposed to cases or claims, will have to wait.  Last Monday, the United States Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari to review the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 672 F.3d 482 (7th Cir. 2012).

In McReynolds, which was decided after the Court’s ruling in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the Seventh Circuit had reversed a denial of certification of a class in a disparate impact employment discrimination case, holding that a class could be certified for the limited purpose of resolving the issue of whether a specific policy of the Defendant created an unlawful disparate impact on black stock brokers.  For a more detailed summary of Judge Posner’s decision in McReynolds, see Deborah Renner’s March 1, 2012 CALD post.

The issues that had been presented for review by the Supreme Court were as follows:

(1) Whether the Seventh Circuit’s certification of a disparate impact injunction class conflicts with this Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, which rejected certification of a nationwide class that, like this one, asserted disparate impact claims based on employment policies requiring the exercise of managerial discretion; and

(2) whether the Seventh Circuit erred in holding, in conflict with other circuits, that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 23(c)(4) permits class certification of a discrete sub-issue when the claim as a whole does not satisfy Rule 23(b) and hundreds of individual trials would be needed to determine liability.

The denial of certification means that the lower federal courts will be left to decide whether and under what circumstances “issue certification” is permitted.  A procedural tool not often applied in practice until recently,  issue certification, at least in some form, is expressly permitted under FRCP 23(c)(4) (“When appropriate, an action may be brought or maintained as a class action with respect to particular issues.”).  However, a common question that arises in the interpretation of this language, and the one that had been presented for review in McReynolds, is whether issue certification is permitted when the resolution of the issue certified would not eliminate the need to resolve individualized issues before any claim could be resolved.

The federal circuits are split on whether issue certification is allowed to resolve discrete issues short of a full claim.  The Fifth Circuit has not allowed issue certification in a class action for damages where predominance cannot otherwise be satisfied, and it has not allowed issue certification in a class action for injunctive or declaratory relief in cases when monetary relief is the predominant relief sought.  Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 745 n.21 (5th Cir. 1996) (“[a] district court cannot manufacture predominance through the nimble use of subdivision (c)(4).”); Allison v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 151 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1998).  [Ed. Note: just before the Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari, in McReynolds, the 5th Circuit issued its decision in Rodriquez v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., No. 11-40056 (Sept. 14, 2012), a case that the McReynolds plaintiffs argued in supplemental briefing to the Supreme Court eliminated the Circuit split.  In Rodriguez, the 5th Circuit approved of the use of Rule 23(c)(4) to certify a class for the purpose of resolving injunctive and equitable relief, leaving damages for a different proceeding].  The Second Circuit has been more open to issue certification. Robinson v. Metro North Commuter,  R.R. Co., 267 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2001) (holding that “litigating the pattern-or-practice liability phase [of a disparate treatment discrimination case] for the class as a whole would both reduce the range of issues in dispute and promote judicial economy”); In re Nassau County Strip Search Cases, 461 F.3d 219 (2d Cir. 2006) (holding that “a court may employ Rule 23(c)(4) to certify a class on a particular issue even if the action as a whole does not satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement.”). The approach taken by Judge Posner in McReynolds generally follow the Second Circuit’s approach by allowing issue certification even where predominance would not be satisfied with respect to the claim as a whole.

An interesting feature of issue certification is that unlike full-blown class certification of a claim or case, issue certification does not necessarily put a defendant at risk of catastrophic liability in a single stroke, because any individualized defenses to liabilty on the claim as a whole may still be available even after the common issue is decided.  On the other hand, it is this feature that often begs the question whether issue certification has any utility in materially advancing litigation that will inevitably require individualized proceedings before reaching finality.  It also leaves the procedure vulnerable to a great risk of misinterpretation and abuse, which may explain the Fifth Circuit’s skepticism.  Plaintiffs may seek and courts may grant issue certification on the mistaken impression that to certify part of a class will hasten the resolution of litigation.  Defendants may fear issue certification based on a mistaken belief that certification of even part of a class action puts them at risk of aggregated liability.

The real question with issue certification tends to be whether formally certifying an issue for class-wide treatment creates any practical efficiency that materially advances litigation.

In many cases, there are legal issues, the answer to which indisputably have class-wide implications, but the question arises whether formal certification of these issues is even necessary.  For example, common legal issues are often resolved in a preliminary motion.  Even if these issues are not resolved on a class-wide basis after a formal order of certification, their resolution has a practical class-wide effect.  Examples would be decisions on the interpretation of a particular statutory provision.  For example, does the statute confer a private right of action?  Is proof of injury required as an essential element of a statutory claim? Whatever the initial court’s decision on this type of issue is likely to have a practical impact on any later litigation, so the resolution of the issue in the first case to address it tends to have a practical impact on any other affected litigants that usually avoids the need for duplicate litigation on the same issue.

In other cases, resolution of issue, however indisputably common, can often bring the litigation no further to conclusion.  For example, in products liability case against a tobacco company, resolution of the factual issue whether cigarettes cause cancer probably does not move most cases closer to resolution because the primary issue in the case is going to be whether cigarettes caused the plaintiff’s cancer.

A big problem with issue certification is that resolution of important issue in a vacuum, without proper context, can have disastrous and unfair consequences later in a case. Answering the question whether the defendant was “negligent” is a problem in most cases becuase the question of “negligence usually depends not simply on whether the defendant breached an applicable standard of care, but also whether that breach caused injury to the plaintiff.  So, certifying the question of “negligence” is usually inappropriate due to the necessity to resolve individualized questions of fact.  Unless the question on which the class is to be certified is very well defined, certification in these types of case can create serious problems.  Certification of whether the defendant breached an applicable standard of care may be a more appropriate question for certification, but only if resolution of that question could materially advance the litigation to a resolution.  In many cases, as in the tobacco example noted above, certifying a preliminary question of “breach of the standard of care” does not create any real efficiencies in the litigation as a practical matter.

Thus, there are serious questions whether issue certification has any social utility in many cases.  However, not only are there situations in which issue certification is not only beneficial from the perspective of judicial economy, but there are also situations in which issue certification can be used by a defendant to its own advantage.  They include:

1) a case in which certification appears imminent, despite the presence of individualized issues; in these cases, issue certification provides a an alternative to full blown certification in a way that may preserve the defendant’s ability to avoid having a determination of mass liability in a single case or the defendant’s ability to raise important individualized defenses.

2) to illustrate the analytical and manageability flaws in certification of an entire case or claim.  In some cases, pointing out issue certification as an option may serve not only to provide an option short of full-blown certification, but also to show to the court how certification of merely the issues that are truly common may not create any real efficiency in resolving the litigation.  In these cases, pointing out that issue certification is an option may serve to avoid class certification in its entirety.

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Tiger Joyce, President of the American Tort Reform Association, authored an impassioned op-ed for the Washington Times yesterday entitled A Class-action Blow to U.S. Manufacturing.  Joyce argues that the entire manufacturing industry is at risk if the United States Supreme Court declines to grant certiorari of the Sixth Circuit’s decision in the case of Whirlpool v. Glazer, No. 12-322, in which the court upheld class certification of claims that washing machines were defectively designed, causing chronic mold problems.  Whether Joyce’s warning is hyperbole or prescience remains to be seen, but the case does raise some interesting issues of note to class action practitioners.  The issues presented for review are as follows:

1. Whether a class may be certified under Rule 23(b)(3) even though most class members have not been harmed and could not sue on their own behalf.

2. Whether a class may be certified without resolving factual disputes that bear directly on the requirements of Rule 23.

3. Whether a class may be certified without determining whether factual dissimilarities among putative class members give rise to individualized issues that predominate over any common issues.

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Forbes columnist Daniel Fisher has authored an excellent preview of the three class-action-related cases set to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this term.  The article, entitled Class-Action Lawyers Face Triple Threat At Supreme Court, previews the issues in each of the three cases and summarizes what’s at stake for class action lawyers.  The article points out that although the three decisions have potential to spell disaster for class action plaintiffs given the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, two of the three class-action-related decisions last term came out in favor of the plaintiffs.  I highly recommend this article, as well as Fisher’s work more generally.

For quick reference, the three cases set for decisions on class action issues this term, and the questions presented for review, are as follows:

Comcast v. Behrend, No. 11-864 – “Whether a district court may certify a class action without resolving whether the plaintiff class has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that the case is susceptible to awarding damages on a class-wide basis.”

Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, No. 11-1450 – “When a named plaintiff attempts to defeat a defendant’s right of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 by filing with a class action complaint a ‘stipulation’ that attempts to limit the damages he ‘seeks’ for the absent putative class members to less than the $5 million threshold for federal jurisdiction, and the defendant establishes that the actual amount in controversy, absent the ‘stipulation,’ exceeds $5 million, is the ‘stipulation’ binding on absent class members so as to destroy federal jurisdiction?”

Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans, No. 11-1085 – “1. Whether, in a misrepresentation case under SEC Rule 10b-5, the district court must require proof of materiality before certifying a plaintiff class based on the fraud-on-the-market theory.  2. Whether, in such a case, the district court must allow the defendant to present evidence rebutting the applicability of the fraud-on-the-market theory before certifying a plaintiff class based on that theory.”

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