Archive for the ‘Class Action Decisions’ Category

Thomson Reuters contributor Alison Frankel interviewed me for an article she posted today on the class action cases pending during the current Supreme Court term.  Here is a link to her article.  For those who are not familiar with Frankel’s On the Case Blog, be sure to add it to your regular reading list.  She is one of the best in the business.

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I just received my courtesy copy to the latest edition of the Akron Law Review, a symposium issue titled The Class Action After a Decade of Roberts Court Decisions, Volume 48, Issue 4 (2015).  My colleague Dustin Dow and I contributed an article entitled The Practical Approach: How the Roberts Court Has Enhanced Class Action Procedure by Strategically Carving at the Edges.  The contributors to the issue are academics, students, and practitioners from both sides of the bar, including Professor Bernadette Bollas Genetin, Professor Richard Freer, Elizabeth Cabraser, Professor Michael Selmi & Sylvia Tsakos, Andrew Trask, Professor Mark Moller, and Eric Alan Isaacson.  The articles range in perspective from theoretical to historical to practical, with some surveying the Roberts Court’s class action decisions generally, and others focusing on the Roberts Court’s contributions in key areas of the law.

For anyone who follows the Supreme Court’s decisions on class action issues, this is a must-read issue.  Check it out by clicking the link on the symposium title above.

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The October 2015 United States Supreme Court Term is already well underway, and there are several cases on the docket that could have a significant impact on class action practice.  Here is a summary of the three cases this term that I think could have the biggest impact on class action practice going forward:

Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, No. 14-857

The Campbell-Ewald case addresses the tactic known as “picking-off” named plaintiffs in class actions, and deals with the question whether an offer of judgment that would provide a named plaintiff complete relief is sufficient to moot the plaintiffs’ claim, even if it is not accepted.  The case follows the Court’s 2013 decision in Genesis Healthcare v. Symczyk, where the majority opinion assumed, without deciding, that an offer of judgment had mooted the named plaintiffs’ claim in an FLSA collective action, based on a finding that the issue had been waived below.

Oral argument in Campbell-Ewald was held in October.  Justices Alito, Scalia, and Chief Justice Roberts all displayed open hostility to the plaintiffs’ position that she should be allowed to litigate the case even after the defendant had offered everything she hoped to achieve for herself in the case.  Despite these views, however, it remains to be seen whether a majority of the court will ultimately hold that any unaccepted offer of settlement is sufficient to actually moot the plaintiffs’ claim under Article III, or whether the decision will fall short of reaching that sweeping question.  Some of the questions posed by likely swing voter, Justice Kennedy, suggest that he agrees with his conservative colleagues that a litigant who has been offered full relief should not be permitted to proceed with the case, but other questions reflected a reluctance to treat an unaccepted offer the same as a judgment.  This suggests that the Court’s ultimate decision could turn on a more technical procedural analysis rather than the broader and more abstract question of whether a controversy can ever exist following an offer of full relief, but of course the questions posed during oral argument do not always signal the Court’s ultimate analysis.

When the Supreme Court originally granted cert in Campbell-Ewald, there appeared to be a split in the circuits on this question, but since then, the circuits have become aligned with the view that an unaccepted offer in a proposed class action does not moot the named plaintiffs’ claims.  A contrary ruling by the Supreme Court would revive a powerful tool that defendants could wield to effectively preempt many types of consumer class actions, especially those seeking statutory damages for small individual amounts.

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339

Spokeo has been hailed as a case with the potential to end “no-injury” class actions.  Ostensibly at issue is whether Congress has the power to enact legislation that gives a private plaintiff the right to seek statutory damages despite the lack of any concrete injury.  A decision could therefore potentially have a significant impact on class actions brought under a variety of federal statutes that provide a private right of action to recover statutory damages upon proof of a violation, one that goes beyond the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the statute at issue in Spokeo.

However, during today’s oral argument, much of the questioning focused on whether the named plaintiff had, in fact, suffered an injury by alleging that false information had been published on his credit report, and the extent to which Congress actually intended to limit the private right of action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to persons who could show an actual injury.  It seems likely that the outcome of the case will turn on the majority’s view of those two factors.

Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146

Tyson Foods offers the Court an opportunity to further elaborate on the concept of “trial by formula”, discussed in Justice Scalia’s 2011 opinion in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, as well as the standards governing expert testimony at the class certification phase, which the Court touched upon but did not  ultimately address directly in both Wal-Mart and again in the 2013 decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.  It also raises the question whether it is ever proper to certify a damages class that includes individual plaintiffs that undisputedly lack any injury or damages.

Specifically, the Court granted certiorari on the following two questions:

I. Whether differences among individual class members may be ignored and a class action certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified under the Fair Labor Standards Act, where liability and damages will be determined with statistical techniques that presume all class members are identical to the average observed in a sample; and

II. Whether a class action may be certified or maintained under Rule 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified or maintained under the Fair Labor Standards Act, when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.

Oral argument in Tyson Foods is set for next Monday, November 10.

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Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson issued an order granting certification in the consolidated MDL proceeding brought on behalf of issuing banks claiming damages resulting from Target’s 2013 payment card hacking incident.  Click Here for a copy of the order.  The BakerHostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog will feature a more detailed write-up on the decision soon.

In the way of initial reaction, I don’t think the decision will be impactful in cases outside the specific context of issuing bank class actions against retailers in payment card breach cases because of unique issues having to do with common injury and causation of loss.  In particular, in evaluating whether variations in injury and causation should prevent certification, Judge Magnuson distinguished the issuing bank case from the class actions brought on behalf of individual consumers arising from the same breach.  Judge Magnuson observed that while the injuries alleged by consumers are largely potential future injuries that may or may not occur, the banks claimed to have already suffered concrete injuries in the form of the cost of reissuing cards to customers.  Thus, he reasoned that the any individualized issues regarding causation and injury were not present with regard to the financial institutions’ claims, and any issues regarding variations in the amount of damages did not prevent class certification.  This distinction means that the decision will be of limited value to plaintiffs in consumer data breach class actions.

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Whirlpool Corporation made headlines yesterday when a Ohio federal court jury issued a verdict finding that the manufacturer’s washers did not have a defect that caused them to develop mold.  The verdict comes in the first of the “moldy washer” cases to reach a trial, following the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in 2013 that the case should be certified as a class action despite the inability to resolve the question of damages on a class wide basis.  Along with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Nos. 11-8029, 12-8030 (7th Cir., Aug. 22, 2013), the Sixth Circuit’s decision in  In re Whirlpool Corp. Front‐Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-4188 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013) have come to epitomize the concept of “issue certification,” where a class is certified for the purpose of resolving some, but not all, of the issues in the a case.  Both the Sixth and Seventh Circuits held that classes should be certified to decide the question whether the washers had a defect, despite strong objection from the defendants, who presented evidence showing that a vast majority of washing machine purchasers had never complained about any mold problems.  Last year, the Supreme Court declined certiorari review in both cases.

The Whirlpool jury’s decision that the washers were not, in fact, defective is seemingly a huge win for the defense bar, but the verdict also provides fodder for courts to justify granting class certification on isolated issues in other cases where it is clear that individual damages trials would be necessary.  As Judge Posner rationalized in reaffirming the original decision in Butler following remand by the Supreme Court to reconsider in light of the Court’s Comcast decision:

Sears argued that most members of the plaintiff class had not experienced any mold problem. But if so, we pointed out, that was an argument not for refusing to certify the class but for certifying it and then entering a judgment that would largely exonerate Sears—a course it should welcome, as all class members who did not opt out of the class action would be bound by the judgment.

Butler, slip op. at 4.  Certainly, that is the scenario that has played out for Whirlpool, at least as to a class of Ohio purchasers (with more trials of other state-wide class claims to come).

But at what cost?  Before the litigation sees any final resolution, Whirlpool will have paid its legion of outside attorneys to defend it in MDL proceedings, motions to dismiss, class certification discovery,  class certification proceedings, two trips to the Seventh Circuit, two trips to the Supreme Court, trial preparation, trial, post-trial motions, and inevitably more appeals, all to achieve “exoneration” in the face of allegations that a small number of their customers experienced mold in their washing machines.  The plaintiffs’ attorneys will have spent a similar amount of time and efforts on their side of all of these proceedings.  And, with the plaintiffs’ attorneys vowing to press ahead with more statewide class trials, the parties are still no closer to having any clear process for resolving the dispute on a global basis.  It doesn’t take a law and economics expert to spot the inefficiencies in this process.

Although the Whirlpool verdict arguably illustrates Judge Posner’s point that the defendant could very well win on the class issue and bind the entire class, that is small consolation for other defendants facing the prospect of expensive class trial proceedings for the purpose of giving a shot at redress to a tiny fraction of its customers who may claim some small injury from a product defect, data breach, misleading label, or any other general business practice.  As much as it serves to “largely exonerate” Whirlpool, the jury’s rejection of the claimed defect calls into question the wisdom of allowing the product defect issue go forward on a class wide basis in the first place rather than requiring the individual claimants to press forward with their claims individually.

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The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision earlier today in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., No. 13-317 (Halliburton II), its most highly-anticipated class-action-related decision of the October 2013 term.  Those who were hoping for a sea-change in securities class action jurisprudence were left disappointed, as the Court, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, declined to overrule its 25-year-old decision in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988).  Rather than abolish the framework established in Basic, which provides a means for securities fraud plaintiffs to satisfy the elements of class certification through a class-wide presumption of reliance on material misrepresentations, the Court instead held that a defendant can rebut the presumption by demonstrating, at the class certification stage, that the alleged misrepresentations did not actually have any impact on the stock price.  In doing so, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision barring the defendant from offering evidence of non-impact on stock price at the class certification stage.

The Court distinguished its earlier decision in the same case, Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., 563 U.S. ___ (2011) (Halliburton I), in which it held that a plaintiff should not be required to prove materiality of the alleged misrepresentation at the class certification stage.  The distinction between the issue of materiality of a misrepresentation (a merits issue not appropriate for the class certification phase according to Halliburton I), and the issue of whether a misrepresentation actually had a common price impact on the stock (a proper class certification question according to Halliburton II) is the key to making sense of the Court’s decision today.  As Justice Roberts stated:

[P]rice impact differs from materiality in a crucial respect. Given that the other Basic prerequisites must still be proved at the class certification stage, the common issue of materiality can be left to the merits stage without risking the certification of classes in which individual issues will end up overwhelming common ones. And because materiality is a discrete issue that can be resolved in isolation from the other prerequisites, it can be wholly confined to the merits stage.

Price impact is different. The fact that a misrepresentation “was reflected in the market price at the time of [the]transaction”—that it had price impact—is “Basic’s fundamental premise.” Halliburton I, 563 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 7). It thus has everything to do with the issue of predominance at the class certification stage. That is why, if reliance is to be shown through the Basic presumption,the publicity and market efficiency prerequisites must be proved before class certification. Without proof of those prerequisites, the fraud-on-the-market theory underlying the presumption completely collapses, rendering class certification inappropriate.

Halliburton II, slip op., at 21-22.  In other words, a merits question that is indisputedly common to the class should not be considered prior to class certification, but a merits question that also bears on whether the issues to be resolved at trial are truly common or individualized in the first place must be considered as part of the class certification decision.

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The California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association yesterday, addressing the use of statistical sampling as a way of evaluating aggregate liability and damages in a class action. Although Duran is a wage and hour case, its analysis is pertinent to the use of statistical evidence in a variety of other class action contexts.

In the opening line of his majority opinion, Justice Corrigan referred to Duran “an exceedingly rare beast” because it was a wage and hour class action that had proceeded all the way through trial to verdict.  In the trial court, the plaintiff had presented testimony from statistician Richard Drogin, who had also notably served as an expert for the plaintiffs in Walmart Stores Inc. v. Dukes.  Drogin proposed a random sampling analysis that purported to estimate the percentage of the defendant’s employees that had been misclassified for purposes of entitlement to overtime pay.  The trial court did not rely on Drogin’s analysis but instead came up with its own sampling approach, which involved pulling the names of 20 class members, hearing testimony from these witnesses along with the named plaintiffs, and then extrapolating the court’s factual findings across the entire class in order to determine the defendant’s liability.

The supreme court affirmed a decision by the Court of Appeal holding that this sampling approach violated due process and was a manifest abuse of discretion.  Generally, there were two independent reasons for the supreme court’s conclusion: 1) the use of random sampling deprived the defendant of the opportunity to present individualized evidence supporting its defenses to the claims; and 2) the sampling method adopted by the court was inherently flawed and unreliable.

Without categorically rejecting the use of statistics as a tool in managing class action litigation, the supreme court identified numerous conceptual limitations on its use.  First, “[s]tatistical methods cannot entirely substitute for common proof . . . .  There must be some glue that binds class members together apart from statistical evidence.”  So, while statistics may serve as circumstantial evidence to support a common issue–such as the existence of centralized policy or practice, they may not be used as a substitute for establishing commonality or for avoiding individualized determination of individual issues–such as by generalizing effects of a given policy or practice on large groups of claimants where the effects vary in actuality.

Second, a trial court cannot utilize statistical evidence in a way that prevents the individual adjudication of individual defenses.  Although courts are encouraged to develop innovative procedures in managing individual issues, a court cannot ignore individual issues altogether or prevent them from being decided on an individual basis.

Third, if statistical evidence is to be used as part of a litigation plan for managing complex class action, the methods to be employed should be presented, evaluated, and scrutinized at the class certification stage.  The court should not simply assume that statistical methods will permit class treatment and certify the class based on this hypothetical possibility.

Fourth, the court must ensure that the statistical method to be employed has to be reliable, based on statistically valid data, and not prone to a high margin of error.  In other words, junk science or ad hoc, rough justice are not enough.

The Duran opinion is worthy of careful study for anyone considering the use of statistics in class certification proceedings, both in the wage and hour context and in class actions more generally.  It also provides a colorful illustration of the due process and manageability problems posed by the “trial by formula” approach to class actions that the United States Supreme Court criticized in Dukes.

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