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Earlier today, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in two highly anticipated appeals of decisions by the Sixth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeals to grant class certification over breach of warranty claims involving allegedly defective washing machines.  The denial of cert in Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Nos. 11-8029, 12-8030 (7th Cir., Aug. 22, 2013) (Posner, J.) and In re Front‐Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-4188 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013) was a surprise to many commentators who had seen the moldy washer cases as providing the perfect opportunity for the Court to continue its trend clarifying the boundaries of class certification in cases like Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes,  Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, and Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.  The denial of cert means that the Court will not be addressing the question of whether it is appropriate for a federal court to order class certification of discrete, common issues in a case without analyzing whether those issues predominate more generally over the individualized questions, like injury or damages.  That question will be left to the lower courts for the time being.

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In case you missed it, the BakerHostetler class action defense team published its second annual Year-End Review of Class Actions last month.  The 2013 issue was expertly edited by Dustin Dow of our Cleveland office, and features contributions from other members of the firm’s class action defense team across the country.  The 54-page report has a thorough recap of the key class action developments in the U.S. Supreme Court as well as other federal and state courts, summaries of key developments in various substantive areas of law in which class actions are prominent, and a preview of what to look for in 2014.  Click the link above to download a copy.

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2013 was a memorable year for class actions.  I’ve assembled my top 10 most significant developments below.  There were almost enough U.S. Supreme Court decisions to fill up the entire list, but my number 1 development was still a pair of lower court decisions that may also become the story of the year in 2014.

10. Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., 133 S.Ct. 1659 (2013) – Not a class action decision per se, but likely to have significant repercussions on the development of international class action law.  Extraterritorial effect of the Alien Tort Statute is significantly limited.

9. Clapper v. Amnesty Intern. USA, 133 S. Ct. 1138 (2013) - Another non-class action decision already having a significant impact on the question of standing in data privacy class actions.

8. Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, 133 S. Ct. 2064 (2013) - Class Arbitration is not completely dead, but there’s a blueprint for how to kill it.

7. American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2013)- Arbitration continues to reign supreme, even under the “federal law of arbitrability”

6. Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 133 S. Ct. 1523 (2013) – Can class actions be defeated simply by picking off the representatives one at a time?  That’s for the circuits to decide.

5. Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, 133 S.Ct. 1184 (2013) – Supreme Court holds that materiality is a common question and that proof of materiality is not a prerequisite to class certification, but raises questions about the continued viability of the Basic fraud on the market presumption in securities cases.

4. Certiorari granted in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, No 13-317 - That didn’t take long.  On the heels of , Supreme Court agrees to revisit the Basic fraud on the market presumption.

3. Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S.Ct. 1426 (2013) – Limited holding = damages theory has to match theory of liability.  Expansive holding = no class certification unless the question of damages is susceptible to common, classwide proof.  Which holding will be embraced by the lower courts?

2. Standard Fire Ins. Co. v Knowles, 133 S. Ct. 1345 (2013) – First ever CAFA decision limits representative plaintiffs’ ability to bind class prior to class certification.  Can’t avoid federal jurisdiction by stipulating to no more than $4,999,999.99 in damages on behalf of a putative class.

1. Moldy Washing Machine Decisions – Limited Comcast holding prevails so far.  Two lower courts reaffirm class certification orders after remand in light of Comcast.  Issue certification is alive and well, for the moment, but stay tuned to see if the Court takes up these cases in 2014.

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My sincere apologies to the loyal ClassActionBlawg reader for the scarcity of new content lately. I’m on the road this week, but thought I should at least drop a note about two interesting class-action-related developments in the U.S. Supreme Court over the past week:

1) the Court granted cert in  State of Mississippi v. AU Optronics Corp., to address the issue whether parens patriae actions filed by state attorneys general seeking restitution on behalf of state citizens are “mass” actions, permitting removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).  For more on the case, see Deborah Renner’s post on the BakerHostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  If it were up to me, I’d go further and say that parens patriae cases are actually “class” actions under CAFA, but apparently the Court has its own idea about the scope of the issue.

2) The Court vacated Judge Richard Posner’s decision in Butler v. Sears Roebuck & Co. and remanded for reconsideration in light of its recent decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.  This follows the Court’s earlier decision to vacate the Sixth Circuit’s decision in In re Whirlpool Corp. Front-Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation for the same reason.  Given the many questions left unanswered by the Comcast decision, it will be interesting to see what the Sixth and Seventh Circuits do with the moldy washer cases on remand.

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The Class Actions, Mass Torts and Derivative Suits Subcommittee of the Colorado Bar Association, now ably chaired by my BakerHostetler partner, Casie Collignon, held its first CLE luncheon of the year this past Friday.  The program, United States Supreme Court vs. Class Actions in 2013, featured excellent commentary about the Supreme Court’s 2013 class action decisions by The Honorable Marcia Krieger, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, Seth Katz of Burg Simpson, and John Fitzpatrick of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell.  Here are just a few of the many insightful observations made by each of the speakers:

Judge Krieger opened by observing that none of the cases this term have been a surprise from the standpoint of what a trial court judge would have expected given existing law.  Amgen was predictable because the question of materiality in a securities fraud case is unquestionably a common issue, so it is not surprising that it is a question for trial, not a prerequisite for class certification.  Standard Fire can be viewed as a straightforward application of agency law: a plaintiff cannot bind a class of people that he or she doesn’t yet represent.  Comcast exemplifies the importance of examining the plaintiffs’ theory of liability and the relationship to the theory of loss.  Damages are not the same as loss.  The theory by which the plaintiff establishes loss determines the measure of damages.

When asked to identify any trends that she has been seeing in class actions recently, Judge Krieger identified issue certification as a key trend.  She has been seeing more situations where the factual issues may be individualized but there are common legal issues that can be resolved classwide.  She noted that she has been inclined to grant partial certification limited to the common legal issue(s) in that situation.

From the plaintiffs’ perspective, Katz agreed that the outcome of Standard Fire was not surprising, and he went as far as to say that the outcome was correct, noting that plaintiffs’ attorneys shouldn’t be afraid of the federal courts.  Although the holding of Amgen was favorable to plaintiffs, Katz noted an issue that should be of great concern to plaintiffs, and that is the commentary from the conservative wing of the court suggesting that they might be willing to revisit the fraud-on-the-market presumption adopted in Basic Inc. v. Levinson.  Katz sees the potential of a 4-4 split on that issue, with Chief Justice Roberts being the deciding vote.  He predicts market studies being commissioned by both sides over the coming years to demonstrate or disprove the continued efficiency of the markets.

Comcast, Katz noted, caused a collective sigh of relief in the plaintiffs’ bar because it does not go as far as many would have feared by requiring Daubert hearings at the class certification phase.  He noted that one positive impact for plaintiffs arising from the “death of Eisen” (the rejection in decisions like Wal-Mart and Comcast of the idea that merits questions were off-limits at the class certification phase) is that it gives plaintiffs’ counsel an opportunity to obtain merits discovery much earlier in a case than was allowed previously.  On the other hand, Katz expressed fear about the possibility that the Court is trying to raise the bar for plaintiffs with a subtle change in the language about what common proof is necessary on the issue of damages.  Where earlier decisions required that damages be “susceptible to classwide proof,” the Comcast majority phrased the standard as requiring the plaintiff to “prove classwide damages.”  Katz predicts that defendants will argue that this means damages must be uniform, as opposed to simply being susceptible to formulaic calculation.  He noted, however, that the few lower courts that have interpreted Comcast so far have rejected a broad application of the decision.

Fitzpatrick combined philosophical commentary about the evolution of class actions with some practical tips for defense lawyers.  Standard Fire, he argued, is proof that judicial hellholes still exist.  He pointed to Amgen as an example of the dangers of accepting conventional wisdom, pointing out that the outcome in that case might well have been different if the defendants had stipulated to the existence of an efficient market.

Comcast, Fitzpatrick said, provides an opportunity for defendants to prevail at the class certification stage by discrediting a plaintiffs’ expert.  Focus not just on the opinions themselves, he suggested, but also on 1) the existence of bias; 2) the expert’s credentials, and 3) flaws in the methodology.  Scour the country for transcripts about the plaintiffs’ experts.  Look at misstatements and exaggerations in the expert’s CV.  Make sure you find and read all of their prior statements in books, media, and transcripts.  Just as important, Fitzpatrick reminded defense practitioners, is the make sure to prepare your own experts for class certification.

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The United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, No. 11-864 today.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the class of cable subscribers had been improperly certified.  Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, reasoned that the expert testimony offered by the plaintiff to show that antitrust damages were capable of class-wide proof addressed alleged damages that did not logically flow from the plaintiff’s theory of class-wide liability.  The majority held that the trial court had erred by refusing to consider questions concerning the expert testimony on damages that might overlap with the “merits,” while the Third Circuit had erred by accepting the plaintiffs’ contention that it had a class-wide theory of damages through expert testimony without actually scrutinizing the factual basis for that contention:

The Court of Appeals simply concluded that respondents “provided a method to measure and quantify damages on a classwide basis,” finding it unnecessary to decide “whether the methodology [was] a just and reasonable inference or speculative.” 655 F. 3d, at 206.  Under that logic, at the class-certification stage any method of measurement is acceptable so long as it can be applied classwide, no matter how arbitrary the measurements may be.  Such a proposition would reduce Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement to a nullity.

The dissenting Justices would have dismissed the writ of certiorari as having been improvidently granted.  The dissent’s criticism of the majority’s holding has more to do with the procedural posture of the case and the methodology used by the majority in reaching its factual conclusions than with the legal class certification concepts underlying the majority’s reasoning.  In particular, the dissent faulted the majority for having changed the issue on review after the conclusion of briefing and took issue with the majority’s analysis of the factual basis for the expert’s opinions.

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I’m pleased to announce that the BakerHostetler Class Action Defense Team has just released its 2012 Year-end Review of Class Actions, a joint project with the firm’s Employment Class Actions, Antitrust, and Data Privacy practice teams.  See below for a synopsis of the project.  Click the link above to access a copy of the report itself:

We are pleased to share with you the BakerHostetler 2012 Year-end Review of Class Actions, which offers a summary of some of the key developments in class action litigation during the past year. Class action litigation continues to persist in all areas of civil litigation despite the Supreme Court’s 2011 decisions in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, which were seen by many commentators as marking the beginning of the end of class actions as we know them. But while the Supreme Court’s 2011 decisions have had a significant impact on class action litigation, they have not brought about its demise and are not likely to do so anytime soon. In the last two years, we’ve seen landmark decisions and the addition of important judicial gloss to those decisions. 2013 will be no different as the Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a series of key cases this spring.

We hope you find this Review a useful tool as you move forward into the new year. This comprehensive analysis of last year’s developments in class action procedure and jurisdiction, as well as developments by subject matter will hopefully provide context and insight as you look ahead to 2013′s expected trends in class action law, including the proliferation of privacy class action litigation and class action litigation relating to the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal.

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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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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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The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in another class action to be heard during the October 2012 term.  In Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, No. 11-864, an antitrust class action, the Court will address the following issue:

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.

The case is an appeal from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in 2011 upholding the district court’s finding that the plaintiff had presented by a preponderance of the evidence that damages could be proved on a common, class-wide basis.  However, a lengthy opinion from Judge Jordan, concurring in part and dissenting in part, took issue with the conclusions reached by the plaintiffs’ expert that antitrust damages could be established on a common basis for the class as a whole. 

As with many of the cases addressed by the Supreme Court over the past few years, this case provides an opportunity for the court to either enter a specific ruling narrowly tailored to the area of law in which it applies (here, antitrust or competition law) or a sweeping ruling impacting the procedure governing class certification more generally.  In particular, the Behrend case could potentially resolve the issue whether difficulties in proving damages on a class-wide basis is a reason to deny certification.  For many years, lower courts have relied on the rule that individualized damages issues are not a barrier to class certification.   A reversal of that rule could have a major impact on the viability of class actions in a variety of contexts.

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