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Archive for November, 2012

Those of you who have been following my summaries of the 16th Annual Class Action Institute will be pleased to know that the paper of the past year’s class action developments prepared for the conference by Professors Alexandra D. Lahav and John C. Coffee, Jr. is available for free download at SSRN.  Click here for a link to the paper, entitled The New Class Action Landscape: Trends and Developments in Class Certification and Related Topics.  I highly recommend the paper for anyone who is looking for a comprehensive summary of all of the past year’s class action developments.  

For a summary of Professor Coffee’s and Professor Lahav’s oral presentations at the conference, see this October 31 CAB post.  Stay tuned for my summaries of the final two sessions at the conference…

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My partner, Bob Abrams, sent me a copy of the order granting Plaintiffs’ Renewed Motion for Class Certification in Allen v. Dairy Farmers of America, an antitrust class action brought on behalf of dairy farmers alleging monopolization and a conspiracy to fix milk prices by various milk cooperatives and processors.  Abrams’ team has been appointed as class counsel for one of the subclasses certified as part of the order. 

The opinion includes an interesting analysis of at least two important issues: First, the extent to which intra-class conflicts of interest can prevent class certification and the extent to which the creation of subclasses can remedy those conflicts; and Second, the extent to which a defendant can avoid class certification in an antitrust case by pointing out alleged flaws in the plaintiffs’ expert’s opinion that a common, class-wide antitrust injury exists or by presenting conflicting expert testimony.  The second issue is one that may be clarified when the Supreme Court rules later this term on Comcast v. Behrend.

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The new ABA CADS Fall Newsletter is out, and it contains a variety of excellent articles all falling under the common theme “Class Actions 3.0: What’s Next for Class Actions?”  I’m proud to say that the Class Actions 101 piece this issue is an article coauthored by my partner, Casie Collignon, and me entitled A New “Viral” Class Action?  The article introduces the concept of “viral” or “virtual” class actions, where litigants use social media to build support for and to aggregate individual claims, as an alternative to using the class action procedural device.  It’s a novel idea made possible by 21st Century technology, but will it last?  You’ll have to read the article to find out.

Be sure to check out the quarterly CADS Newsletter for other excellent articles on cutting-edge class action issues.  The Newsletter is one of the many benefits of CADS (Class Actions and Derivative Suits) membership.  If you aren’t a member of the CADS Committee, please consider joining.  Membership is free to all ABA Section of Litigation members.

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This is the fourth of what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last month in Chicago.  For more on this excellent conference, see my October 31November 5, and November 6 CAB posts.

The fourth session was entitled “Sifting Through All the Big Shoulders,” Litigating Class Actions Alongside Opt-Outs – Free-Riding or Riding Shotgun.  Vincent J. Esades moderated another distinguished panel, which included Professor Geoffrey Parsons Miller, The Honorable Lee H. Rosenthal, and attorneys Joseph R. Saveri and David C. Eddy.

Managing parallel class and opt out cases in multidistrict litigation is an increasingly common and complicated venture, especially in antitrust litigation, where individual institutional plaintiffs may have a sufficient enough individual stake to justify hiring their own counsel and pursue their own claims.  A potential free-rider problem arises in this context because individual plaintiffs have a right under Rule 23(b)(3) to opt out of any class, at least for the purpose of pursuing damages claims.  This means that individual plaintiffs and their lawyers can take advantage of the time and effort expended by the named plaintiffs and their counsel early on in the case, only to opt out later and pursue their own litigation without having to share the benefits of any recovery with class counsel.

The panelists seemed to agree that there is an inherent tension between the opt out rights embodied in Rule 23 and the burdens on the courts of managing both class and individual litigation over the same issue.   They also seemed to agree that, short of re-writing Rule 23, there is no simple solution to ensure that the parties and attorneys who come late to litigation are not free riders on the efforts of others.  Professor Miller raised the question whether these problems suggest a fundamental change is needed in how mass litigation occurs, including a convergence of mass tort and class actions or a recognition that those labels don’t mean anything in the context of certain multidistrict litigation.  Alternatively, can existing rules of civil procedure could be used to solve the problem?  Whether the solution to this problem is litigation reform, a change in judicial philosophy, or creative solutions already within existing rules, much of the discussion surrounded a very pragmatic question, “What’s the blueprint?”

The allocation of fees and costs between a class and individual plaintiffs raises a host of difficult questions, including 1) can a court force an opt-out to pay a portion of the fees of class counsel? 2) does a court have jurisdiction to require the defendant to pay any portion of any individual settlement with one or more plaintiffs into an escrow account, where a portion of any fee award can be claimed by the counsel for other plaintiffs, depending on the work performed? and 3) if allocation between counsel is somehow permitted, how should non-monetary aspects of settlements be valued, such as agreements to provide a guaranteed source of supply of a particular product?

The judge does, of course, have express case management authority under Rule 16 as well as more general inherent discretionary case management authority.  However, the problem in using these case managemnt tools tends to be a lack of information about the precise problems that need to be resolved.  Judge Rosenthal pointed out that the judge is typically not in a good position to make that decision without the help of the lawyers because there is usually very little information the economic incentives driving different groups of lawyers.   (In what might have been the most quotable quip of the entire program, she implored the three lawyers on the panel, “How do I get you guys to lift up your skirts?”)  If there is more transparency by the parties and their attorneys, she argued, a judge would be a better able to allocate costs fairly.  Once the problems and incentives are identified, there are case management tools available to incentivize conduct properly, even if a judge does not have direct authority to order one party to pay another’s fees.  For example, the judge can help parties to understand the benefits of coordination of efforts voluntarily.

One key question debated by the panelists was whether procedures used in mass tort litigation can be applied to the class action context.  On one hand, as one panelist pointed out, the management of class and individual actions in a single MDL raises different challenges than the management of mass tort cases in an MDL.  In the mass tort context, one panelist pointed out, all the parties and their attorneys have to be involved in the proceedings from the beginning because of the nature of mass torts as a collection of individual actions.  In the class action context, by contrast, individual plaintiffs can wait and see how the class action proceedings develop before having to get involved individually through their own counsel.  On the other hand, as with any complex litigation, there are models and protocols that both parties and judges to look to in order to bring efficiencies to the litigation even when not every problem can be solved.  While mass tort litigation is not completely analogous it can provide a source of ideas for judicial management of certain problems.

In the end, the point was made that this is not so much an issue of jurisprudence as it is a problem of judicial management.  As with any issue with case management, the solutions will develop over time through experience, trial, and error.

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Work commitments have prevented me from commenting in detail on some key developments in class actions over the past week or so, but please be sure to check out my Twitter feed for some links.  The key developments include: 1) the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Amex III to decide whether federal law can apply to hold a class arbitration waiver unconscionable; and 2) Judge Posner’s decision favorable to class certification of warranty claims in case involving allegedly moldy washing machines.

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This is the third of what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last month in Chicago.  For more on this excellent conference, see my October 31 and November 5 CAB posts.

Session 3 examined the conceptual issues and practical challenges that litigants and courts face in cases seeking certification under the different subparts of Rule 23(b), a question that took on increased importance following the Supreme Court’s Decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.   The panel presentation was titled “Don’t Blame Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow!” Rule 23(b)(3) Classes Under Fire and Rule 23(b)(2)’s Emerging Importance.  Jeffrey A. Leon moderated the panel, which consisted of Robert J. Axelrod, E.K. Cottrell, Professor Francis McGovern, and David S. Stellings.  

Unfortunately, due to a computer crash, I lost some of my notes from this presentation, but I have summarized some of the highlights below:

  • The courts are facing an ever-increasing tension between principle and pragmatism in deciding whether to certify class actions and under what procedure they should be certified.
  • Despite significant hurdles to class certification that have been imposed by the Supreme Court and other federal courts in recent years, the plaintiffs’ bar has a creative “gene” that keeps them pushing the envelope and experimenting on new methods of seeking aggregate redress.  This can be seen in many of the decisions in the lower courts over the past year, and is likely to continue into the future.
  • In the near future, we are likely to see mixed results, as some courts become more restrictive in granting class certification, while others are more receptive to creative ways of certifying classes.
  • Discovery and resolution of substantive issues and Daubert challenges are likely to come at an earlier stage in the process, regardless of the procedural vehicle under which certification is sought.
  • There is likely to be much more of a mixture of the subsections of Rule 23 used to certify classes, including combinations of classes in the same trial.
  • ERISA class actions are an area where the Rule 23(b)(2) class actions for monetary relief remain viable after Dukes.  Pennsylvania Chiropractic Ass’n v. Blue Cross Blue Shield Ass’n, No. 09 C 5619 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 28, 2011) provides a textbook list of reasons why courts may continue to refuse to certify ERISA claims for monetary relief after Dukes under Rules 23(b)(1), (2) and (3). 
  • But the Supreme Court’s decision in Cigna Corp. v. Amara, No. 09-804 (S. Ct. May 16, 2011) may have breathed new life into the argument that monetary relief may be available to plan members as part of the equitable relief that courts can provide, especially when a trustee is involved.  Among the equitable remedies  that may be available in a particular case is the “surcharge remedy”, which allows plan members to recover money as an equitable remedy for a trustee’s breach of fiduciary duty.  Amara may pave the way to arguments by plaintiffs that claims against a trustee for payment may be characterized as injunctions, for which certification under Rule 23(b)(2) may be appropriate notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dukes.   However, in February, the Second Circuit rejected the argument that claims for disgorgement made on behalf of a putative class of trustees of thousands of ERISA plans, holding that the necessity to determine how to divide any disgorged amount among the plaintiffs meant that the monetary relief was not “incidental” to any equitable relief as required under Dukes.  Nationwide Life Ins. Co. v. Haddock, 10-4237-cv, 2012 WL 360633 (2d Cir. Feb. 6, 2012).

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This is the second of what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last month in Chicago.  For more on this excellent conference, see this October 31, 2012 CAB Post.

Session 2 addressed a topic of great relevance to all class action practitioners, regardless of the subject matter area of practice.  It was entitled “The Class Definition That Works . . . or Does It?” Strategies for Pleading and Attacking Class Definitions;  The Most Basic and Most Ignored Step in a Class-Action Lawsuits Success or Failure.  The panel of academics, judges and practitioners discussed recent developments in the state and federal courts regarding the requirements for a class definition.  They also discussed practical tips for plaintiffs in articulating a class definition that will withstand attack at the class certification stage, and practical tips for defendants in defeating class certification by attacking the plaintiff’s choice of class definition.  Program Chair Daniel R. Karon moderated the panel discussion, which consisted of The Honorable James G. Carr, Bart D. Cohen, Donald Frederico, Professor Dean Robert Klonoff, Sabrina H. Strong, and Ranae D. Steiner. 

Here are some highlights of the pointers made by the panel during the presentation:

  • Many courts have accepted several additional elements as implicit under Rule 23 and similar state rules of civil procedure, including that the class definition be sufficiently clear and narrow so that the class is ascertainable and not overly broad.  These requirements are implied in order to ensure 1) that the class can be identified from a practical perspective; 2) that the defendant has notice of the claims being made against it and by whom those claims are being made; and 3) that the court can manage the litigation.
  • These issues can also be expressed through the other, express Rule 23 elements.  For example, if a class is not ascertainable, then there is no basis to conclude that numerosity is present.  Similarly, an inability to distinguish class members who have a claim from those who do not should lead the court to conclude that common issues do not predominate.
  • Many trial judges would prefer to consider issues relating to the class definition in terms of the express Rule 23 elements rather than by accepting addition, implicit requirements.
  • Rather than declining to certify altogether, courts are often willing to work with plaintiffs’ counsel to try to come up with alternative class definitions that resolve problems associated with a class as originally proposed.
  • Because most judges are not dealing with these types of issues on a daily basis, the involvement of counsel on both sides is essential to the judge’s well-reasoned evaluation of the potential legal and practical problems with the proposed class definition and whether those problems can be remedied without violating the rights of the defendant or absent class members or overburdening the court.

The panel grouped issues relating to class definitions into various categories.  The panel discussed each of these categories in reference to an example case.  In many instances, the categories overlap, and the example cases often illustrated more than one of the categories.  I have listed below, for each category, the key problems, the example case(s) discussed by the panel, and my notes on insights offered by panelists:

Lack of objective criteria for class membership

Issue – Membership in the class depends on criteria that cannot be established without looking at each class member individually.

Example -  Solo v. Bausch & Lomb Inc., MDL No. 1785, 2009 WL 4287706 (D.S.C. Sept. 25, 2009):  In class action seeking compensation for the lost value of tainted contact lens solution that purchasers were encouraged to dump out as part of a product recall, class defined as consisting of all purchasers who “lack[ed] full reimbursement” for the value of the solution purchased.

Notes - fixes proposed by panel members included 1) Expand definition to remove individualized issues, e.g. “all who purchased”, but this could create overbreadth problems; 2) create subclasses based on date of purchase, and estimate likely amount of consumption for members in each subclass.

Vagueness

Issue – The class definition is too vague and indefinite to determine who is in the class.

ExampleHeisler v. Maxtor Corp., No. 5:06-cv-06634, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125745 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 17, 2010): Class defined as anyone who experienced a hard drive “failure.”  The problem was determining what constituted a “failure” and limiting that phrase to failures caused by the alleged product defect. 

Notes - The Maxtor case provides an example of a decision where the court preferred to characterize the issues in relation to the express Rule 23 requirements.  The case also illustrates a common problem in cases where causation may be an issue.  By trying to limit class membership to only those individuals who suffered harm, the plaintiffs created a vagueness problem.

Failsafe Class

Issue - Class definition includes only those individuals who will ultimately prove their claims on the merits, so that class membership is not determined until a decision on the merits occurs.  The main problem with failsafe class is that it puts the defendant in a lose-lose situation.  Either the class wins at trial, binding the defendant to a classwide judgment, or the defendant prevails but gets no preclusive effect against absent class members.

ExampleNudell v. Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 2002 WL 1543725 (D.N.D. 2002): The court denied certification after determining that class membership hinged on class members’ ability to prove all of the factual issues that would prove their claims on the merits, including that they owned land abutting a railroad easement, that they did not give consent to the placement of utility cables on the easement, and so on. 

Notes - The problem in Nudell may have been due to a failure to develop the record sufficiently to convince the court that class membership could be determined based on objective criteria.  This is an example of a case where problems with the class definition could be remedied.  The case ultimately settled on a classwide basis after the class was re-defined.

Overbreadth

Problem – Class includes members who did not suffer injury or who have no legal right to recover.

ExamplesSanders v. Apple Inc., 672 F. Supp. 2d 978 (N.D. Cal. 2009): In action for deceptive advertising, class definition included all persons who “own” a 20-inch iMac.  The court found this definition overly broad because it included individuals who didn’t purchase the product and those who weren’t deceived by the advertising.  Anderson v. United Fin. Sys. Corp., 281 F.R.D. 292 (N.D. Ohio 2012): Class was found to be overly broad because it included class members whose claims were time-barred and who had no private right of action.

Notes - In some cases, overbreadth can be cured simply by narrowing the class definition.  On others, however, overbreadth is a symptom of predominance issues that may be difficult to remedy.

Class Definitions in Class Action Settlements

The panel also discussed issues in class definition within the settlement context.  As is true with other threshold requirements, the courts are generally more lenient about class definitions in the settlement context than they are in the litigation context, in large part because manageability concerns are lessened when otherwise contested issues do not have to be resolved.  An example is the DeBeers diamond settlement, Sullivan v. D.B. Invs., Inc., 667 F.3d 273 (3d Cir. 2011), where the Third Circuit affirmed certification of a settlement class over objections claiming that some of the class members would not have had a private right of action due to variations in state law.  Whether the inclusion of class members whose claims are barred or significantly weaker than other class members should be a bar to certification of a settlement class probably depends on whether other class members will suffer as a result.  If it’s simply a matter of the defendant agreeing to waive defenses as to a portion of the class, then courts are more likely to overlook variations in the strengths and weaknesses of individual class members’ claims.

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