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Posts Tagged ‘opt out’

Today, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, No. 11–1059, which addresses the practice of “picking off” a named plaintiff in a FLSA collective action by making a full offer of judgment under Rule 68 for the amount of the named plaintiffs’ claim.  In a 5-4 majority opinion authored by Justice Thomas, the Court held that the relation back doctrine does not apply to save the collective action from mootness simply because the named plaintiff also sought relief on behalf of others.  The majority distinguished the case from other decisions applying the relation back doctrine in the Rule 23 context after class certification had been denied, pointing out that a certified class under Rule 23 has an independent legal existence from the named plaintiff.  However, the reasoning of the majority’s decision in Genesis Healthcare Corp. could potentially be applied to support the conclusion that an unaccepted offer of judgment moots even a Rule 23 class action if the offer is accepted or expires prior to a ruling on a motion for class certification one way or the other.

The majority’s decision comes with a major caveat.  The majority declined to address the issue whether a non-accepted offer of judgment actually moots an individual’s claim, despite recognizing a split in the circuits on that issue.  This prompted the following commentary in Justice Kagan’s dissent:

The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so. That is the case here, for reasons I’ll describe. Feel free to relegate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never again arise. . . .  [T]he individual claims in such cases will never become moot, and a court will therefore never need to reach the issue the majority resolves. The majority’s decision is fit for nothing: Aside from getting this case wrong, it serves only to address a make-believe problem. 

Whether Justice Kagan’s cheeky prediction turns out to be prophetic will be up to the lower courts, who are left to decide the underlying question of mootness.  In the short-term, there is little doubt that the Genesis Healthcare decision will prompt a rash of offers of judgment in both FLSA cases and class actions.

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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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Alison Frankel, whose On the Case blog is featured in the Thomson Reuters News and Insight section, posted this interesting article today discussing a novel alternative to the class action as a device to resolve mass disputes.  The procedural device in question is Article 77 of the New York State Code, which allows a trustee to seek court approval of decisions relating to a trust.  Frankel’s article today offers an update on proceedings brought under Article 77 seeking approval of an agreement between institutional investors and the trustee of hundreds of residential mortgage-securitization trusts, which had created in order to allow banks to raise funds in order to offer residential mortgages to consumers.  If approved, the settlement would resolve the claims of not only the institutional investors who reached the settlement with the trustee, but also potential claims of other investors in the trusts.  Thus, Article 77 essentially provides a means of creating a global settlement of all investor’s claims, without allowing the opportunity to opt out, which would have been available if the agreement had been presented as a proposed class action settlement. 

Frankel has done an excellent job of summarizing the issues in the case as well as today’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that the federal courts lack jurisdiction over the case under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) as a result of the securities exception in 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(9)(C) and 1453(d)(3), so I won’t re-summarize the article here but simply commend it to your reading.  The case is BlackRock Fin. Mgmt. Inc. v. The Segregated Account of Ambac Assur. Corp., 11-5309-cv(L), (2d Cir., Feb. 27, 2012).

Although the use of Article 77 to create a binding settlement that does not require an opportunity to opt out may be a novel strategy, the case highlights an often-overlooked option that may be available in any class action litigation involving a trust, benefits plan, or other fund with a custodian or trustee.  This would include certain banking and securities cases or class actions filed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) against a party other than the trustee.  Rather than having to negotiate with class action lawyers, it may be possible in these contexts to come to a global resolution of a dispute by negotiating with the trustee and then seeking court approval of that agreement.  Even if a class action is pending, resolution of the dispute with the trustee may provide grounds to defeat class certification on superiority grounds, since a settlement with a party having a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the fund can be an adequate and significantly more efficient means of resolving any dispute.

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UK legal publication The Lawyer has an interesting article out today for anyone tracking trends in class and collective action reform across the pond.  According to the article, Which?, a consumer organization granted the right to pursue collective redress on behalf of consumers harmed by conduct declared to have violated antitrust laws, isn’t convinced that it would pursue another one after facing several practical barriers in pursuing a case against a sports merchandiser for allegedly selling overpriced replica soccer jerseys.  Among the challenges cited by a lawyer for the group was the fact that few consumers found it worth their while to pursue a claim in light of the relatively modest amounts they stood to gain (£20 per person), the fact that consumers had to provide proof of purchase, and the fact that years had passed by the time the opportunity to make a claim became available. 

The report notes that even after a highly publicized media campaign highlighting the case, only about 500 consumers decided to participate.  The total amount of the settlement payout was around £18,000, plus reasonable litigation costs, as compared to a multi-million dollar penalty imposed against the company for its anti-competitive actions in the first place.   An earlier article by The Lawyervalued those costs at many hundreds of thousands of pounds, dwarfing the amount of the payout.  That article quotes a lawyer for which as saying that the use of an opt-in versus an opt-out system contributed to the discrepancy.

The issue of the cost of litigation versus the actual benefit to victims, however, is one that arises whether the system is opt-in or opt-out.  Even in the U.S., which technically has an opt-out system, actual monetary redress to alleged victims happens as a result of some sort of claim-in process, either as part of a settlement or a distribution of a judgment.  Unclaimed funds are either distributed pro-rata to those class members who do file a claim, returned to the defendant, paid to the government, or distributed to charity as part of a cy pres remedy.  In any event, the system does not in any way guaranty redress to those who don’t have the means to prove their entitlement to relief or who don’t find it worthwhile to pursue a remedy.

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Fullbright & Jaworski International attorneys Antony Corsi and Ian Pegram authored an article published yesterday in the Times Online discussing whether proposed opt-out collective action procedures are likely to lead to huge increases in litigation costs for companies doing business in the UK and due to a rash of frivolous class actions. 

As I have noted in previous entries, the British reforms have been proposed by a quasi-governmental “Public Advisory Body” called the Civil Justice Council.  Following a report issued in February, the CJC held a conference in March and issued specific recommendations for reforms to collective action procedures in August.  Most recently, a conference was held to discuss those recommendations in September in which lawyers, judges, academics, and trade union representatives provided comments on the recommendations.  Reports on all of these events are available on the CJC’s main web page under “What’s New.”

The recommendations would make British collective action procedures more similar to U.S. class actions, but overall collective actions in the UK would still be different from the truly representative class action system in the U.S.  This August 28 ClassActionBlawg entry summarizes the proposed changes.  One of the most significant changes would be the adoption of a procedure allowing collective actions to be brought on an “opt-out” basis (where absent plaintiffs would be bound by the result unless they affirmatively excluded themselves from the litigation).  Currently, the current UK standard for collective actions is “opt-in”, where plaintiffs have to affirmatively join the suit in order to participate.  As examples in the Corsi and Pegram article illustrate, allowing cases to be litigated on an opt-out basis as opposed to an opt-in basis can make a huge difference to the legal exposure, since oftentimes only a very small percentage of the potential plaintiffs bother to participate in an opt-in case.

Corsi and Pegram conclude that despite changes that would add certain features of U.S.-style class action procedure to the UK, those changes are not likely to produce the “American-style excesses” that many in the business community fear.  They point out that the CJC has been particularly sensitive to these concerns and has proposed procedures, including strict oversight by specialist judges, to prevent abuse of the process.  Walter Olson of Point of Law, discussing the article in this entry, opines that other aspects of civil procedure in the UK–such as stricter limits on forum shopping and a loser-pays attorneys fee-shifting rule–are more likely reasons why we might not expect a flood of class action litigation if the reforms are adopted.  As other commentators have pointed out, Europeans have different societal attitudes toward litigation in general and toward the role of the courts in providing redress for private harm, which may also play a part in tempering the legal exposure to businesses that might otherwise be expected to result from an increased availability of collective redress.

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The blog Wait A Second!, which covers civil rights issues in the Second Circuit, posted a synopsis today of a recent New York federal court decision in which a class action defendant was sanctioned as a result of communications with class members following a class certification order.   The case, Romano v. SLS Residential, Inc., 07 Civ. 2034 (SCR) (S.D.N.Y.), involves allegations of fraud and mistreatment of patients by a mental health care facility.  According to the synopsis, the court ordered the defendant to pay $35,000 in sanctions due to, among other things, the defendant’s actions in contacting class members and telling them that their mental health records would become part of the public record unless they opted out of the class.  The court also reportedly voided exclusion requests received following the improper contact and ordered corrective notice to be sent to class members.

The case appears to have involved particularly egregious conduct, but it serves as a more general reminder about the dangers of post-certfication contact with class members.  Certain types of contact cannot be avoided, especially where there is an ongoing relationship between the defendant and class members, but post-certification communications between a defendant and class members that involve the lawsuit itself are usually prohibited unless approved in advance by the court.  In fact, during the exclusion period following certification of a Rule 23(b)(3) class, there are certain restrictions even on what the attorneys appointed as class counsel may say to class members as they consider whether to opt out. 

Both Newberg on Class Actions and the Manual for Complex Litigation  provide extensive information on what types of communications with class members are permitted at each phase of a class action.  It is a good idea for a lawyer or party on either side of a class action to consult these sources and the authorities cited in them before undertaking to initiate contact with absent class members.

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