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Posts Tagged ‘rule 23’

After becoming one of the hottest trends during the latter part of the last decade, developments in international class action law have waned a bit over the past couple of years, but a new case may be changing that trend.  An Austrian law student, Max Schrems, made news earlier this week (see examples here and here) when he announced a “class action” against Facebook Ireland, the subsidiary that offers the popular social networking service outside of North America.  Schrems has filed a lawsuit in Austria seeking to pursue, on behalf of himself and other non-North American claimants, a variety of legal claims relating to Facebook’s use of consumer data as well as alleged illegal tracking and surveillance activity.  As reported yesterday by Natasha Lomas at Tech Crunch, more than 25,000 individuals have “joined” the lawsuit so far, by signing up at a website set up for that purpose and assigning their claims to Schrems.

This is by no means the first data privacy lawsuit ever filed against Facebook, and it is difficult to say at this point whether the legal claims have any prospect of success.  However, the case is intriguing from a procedural point of view because it is a suit seeking collective redress on behalf of thousands of non-North American consumers in a jurisdiction that is not known as a hotbed of class action litigation.  Many features of the case serve to illustrate differences between US-style class actions and “class actions” as they are developing in other parts of the world.  I’ve highlighted a few of them below.

Opt In Versus Opt Out

Outside common law jurisdictions like the United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia, collective action procedures generally follow an opt-in model, where each individual litigant has to take affirmative steps to participate in the lawsuit. This is a major distinction with the Rule 23 model followed in the United States, where a certified class binds all class members unless they expressly opt out of the case, and it creates a major limitation to the leverage created by grouping claims together.

Class Action through Private Contract and Novel Application of Existing Procedures

Many civil law countries lack an express mechanism for grouping large numbers of similar claims together into a single case except in very limited circumstances.  Even when specific collective action procedures exist, they can often be pursued only by a consumer association or government regulator rather than by private litigants.  Private litigants have filled the gap by entering into private agreements in which they group together on their own by assigning their individual claims contractually to a single plaintiff who will pursue the claims as a group.  Aggregation of claims by assignment has become a popular practical vehicle for pursuing group litigation, especially in continental Europe.

In Austria, a July 12, 2005 decision by the Austrian Supreme Court set out a two factor test for deciding whether assigned claims can proceed in a single case.  loosely translated, the standard requires that there be some central or significant question common to all claims, and that the factual and legal issues arising out of the individual claims be homogenous in nature as they relate to the common questions.  The Commercial Court of Vienna has applied this standard in several cases to make an initial determination of whether to “admit” the action, or in other words allow the assigned claims to proceed in a single case.  This initial evaluation does bear a resemblance to the class certification procedure applied under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, applicable to class actions in the U.S. courts.

For a more detailed description of the “Austrian-style class action” procedure, see Christian Klausegger‘s chapter on the subject in the World Class Actions book that I have shamelessly promoted on this blog since its publication in 2012.

Litigation Funding

In Austria, as in many other parts of the world, contingent fees are prohibited.  At the same time, however, court fees are often assessed based on the total amount in dispute, so the more money in dispute, the higher the fees are that have to be paid to the court, in addition to the hourly fees to be paid to counsel. These factors combined significantly limit the incentive to pursue collective litigation in these jurisdictions. They have also led litigants to have to look for alternative ways of funding litigation, the most prevalent of which is private litigation funding by a for-profit institution that is not itself a law firm.  The litigation funder finances the litigation, including payment of court fees and hourly attorney fees, in exchange for a contractual right to earn a profit if the litigation is successful.

Litigation funding is also available in the United States, but it has been slower to develop, primarily because contingent fees and agreements to advance litigation costs do not typically violate rules of ethics or public policy. In fact, the opposite is true: rules prohibiting fee-sharing with non-lawyers can make private litigation funding a tricky proposition in the United States.  As a result, private law firms have the financial means of funding litigation (either on their own or by associating with other firms) and are driven to pursue litigation without the need for financing through the promise of a percentage of the recovery if the case is successful.

The Impact of Morrison and Kiobel

The United States Supreme Court has issued two key recent decisions limiting foreign litigants’ access to the US Courts as a forum for pursuing class actions.  Limitations on access to the class action procedures available in the US courts may lead foreign litigants to experiment more frequently with alternatives  in foreign jurisdictions.  Whether the Facebook class action in Austria is part of a trend in this direction remains to be seen.

What Drives Claims for Collective Redress?

In the United States, the promise of a large contingent fee can incentivize an entrepreneurial lawyer with a creative legal theory to pursue class action litigation even in the absence of widespread public awareness of a perceived wrong.  The procedural and financial barriers to pursuing claims for collective redress largely prevent this phenomenon from occurring outside the United States, Canada, and a few other jurisdictions.  Instead, “class actions” can be pursued as a practical matter only when there is enough public outrage or concern over a particular event or business practice that large numbers of individuals are willing to take the time to participate (or when there is a sufficient number of institutional plaintiffs with the financial resources and incentive to pursue the suit, such as in certain securities fraud and competition/antitrust cases).  This means that both mainstream media and–somewhat ironically in the case of Facebook–social media have a necessary role in the success or failure of collective litigation abroad.

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One of the key questions in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend is the extent to which damages must be susceptible to classwide calculation in order to justify class certification.  In particular, the question is as follows: When the Comcast Court held that class certification was improper because the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that “damages are capable of measurement on a classwide basis,” did it mean that Rule 23(b)(3) certification is never proper if damages cannot be determined on a classwide basis?  If the answer to this question is yes, then consumer class actions are in trouble because it’s a rare case where classwide determination of damages is possible.  But if the answer to this question is no, then as the Comcast dissent suggested, “the opinion breaks no new ground on the standard for certifying a class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).”

Yesterday, in the second of two moldy washing machine class actions that had been vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of Comcast, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals joined the Sixth Circuit in answering “no” to this question.  In Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Nos. 11-8029, 12-8030 (7th Cir., Aug. 22, 2013) (Posner, J.), the court reaffirmed its earlier decision that if common issues predominate over individualized issues in resolving the question of liability, then a class can be certified even if the question damages would require individual determinations. As usual, Judge Posner’s decision is colorful and an interesting read, even for those who disagree with the outcome.  The Sixth Circuit’s decision, which was issued last month, is In re Whirlpool Corp. Front‐Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-4188 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013).

In evaluating the potential broader impact of the Sixth and Seventh Circuit’s decisions, it is important to maintain a clear distinction between the question of damages and the related questions of injury and causation of damages.  Courts have long accepted that individualized damages questions do not prevent class certification, and the moldy washer decisions themselves break little new ground other than to interpret Comcast as not having altered that longstanding principle.  However, saying that individualized questions of damages can be left for a later proceeding is very different than saying that there is a good reason to certify a class when the elements necessary to prove liability itself (which typically include both the existence of injury and causation) cannot all be resolved on a classwide basis.  Individualized questions of whether a given class member has suffered any compensable injury at all or whether the allegedly wrongful conduct caused any alleged injury should still defeat predominance, and neither Sears nor Whirlpool should be read to suggest differently.  In those cases, because the plaintiffs had advanced what these courts concluded was a viable theory of common injury, the only individualized questions related to the amount of, and not the existence of, damages. See In re Whirlpool Corp., slip op. at 22 (“Because all Duet owners were injured at the point of sale upon paying a premium price for the Duets as designed, even those owners who have not experienced a mold problem are properly included within the certified class.)

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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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Professor Eric Voigt of the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University in Alabama has authored an intriguing article entitled A Company’s Voluntary Refund Program for Consumers Can Be a Fair and Efficient Alternative to a Class Action, 31 Review of Litigation 617 (University of Texas 2012).  Voigt proposes that a company’s voluntary efforts in providing refunds to customers in consumer litigation can, in an appropriate case, be a more efficient means of providing collective redress than a class action settlement, which a court should take into account in conducting the superiority analysis required under Rule 23.  Voigt argues that in evaluating superiority of a class action, non-judicial alternatives must be considered in addition to individual lawsuits.  Therefore, he argues, a court must consider whether a company’s voluntary refund program is a more fair and efficient alternative to class action litigation.  He also proposes various procedural and substantive features that should be included in any voluntary refund program to satisfy the requirement that it be a fair and efficient alternative to a class action.  Voigt’s article is one of the first I have seen addressing this issue in detail, and I highly recommend it to practitioners, academics, judges, and policymakers alike.

As Voigt’s analysis suggests, even though it lacks the same preclusive effect as a class action settlement judgment, a voluntary refund program is something that a defendant may consider in attempting to avoid or defeat a class action in an appropriate case.  Candidates for this strategy could include any case where the cost of providing direct relief to customers for 100% of damages that could be claimed in a lawsuit is outweighed by the cost of defending a potential class action combined with the likely cost of having to ultimately settle the case for some smaller amount.   The strategy is far from failsafe because a voluntary refund program lacks the same preclusive effect as a class action settlement, and because a court’s evaluation of the superiority requirement is a matter of discretion.  However, having done a voluntary refund program with the protections proposed in Voigt’s article can provide a strong basis to seek an early ruling not to certify any subsequent class action.  Similarly, even when a class action lawsuit has already been filed, the prospect of doing a voluntary refund program can be used as leverage in bringing down an unreasonable settlement demand from plaintiff’s counsel.  This is especially true in jurisdictions that do not recognize the “catalyst” theory (click link to read 2005 article on the topic by Professor Roy Simon) as a basis for the recovery of attorney’s fees.

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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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According to Pete Kasperowicz at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced legislation in Congress intended to reverse limitations on employment discrimination class actions recognized in the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes

A fact sheet available on Senator Franken’s official website describes the key provisions of the bill as follows:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act will restore workers’ ability to challenge discriminatory employment practices on a class-wide basis. It adds to Title 28 of the U.S. Code a new section 4201, which does the following:

  • Section 4201(a) creates a new judicial procedure – called “group actions” – that workers can use when bringing employment discrimination cases. The requirements for establishing a group action are the same as the pre-Dukes requirements for maintaining a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure—namely, clarifying that the merits of the case need not be proven to certify the group action.
  • Section 4201(b) provides that group actions can be used regardless of whether the group is challenging an objective employment practice, a subjective employment practice, or a mixed employment practice (such as the use of a written test to qualify for an interview).  It also provides that employers’ written anti-discrimination policies can be considered as a defense to certification only insofar as the employer demonstrates that the policy actually has been implemented in practice.
  • Section 4201(c) says that the group actions authorized by this section are subject to the same procedural requirements as class actions authorized by Rule 23. These include notice and opt-out requirements. This section also preserves the application of the Class Action Fairness Act and the availability of appeals.
  • Section 4201(d) says that courts can use statistical analyses and any other procedures they deem necessary to provide justice to prevailing plaintiffs.

It does not appear from Senator Franken’s fact sheet that the bill has significant bipartisan support, and having just been introduced, there is no telling how far it will go towards becoming law in its present form.  However, we’ll keep an eye on any future developments here at CAB.

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For those readers who are interested in additional insights on Judge Posner’s opinion in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., No. 11-3639 (7th Cir., Feb. 24, 2012), which was the subject of Wednesday’s CAB post, here’s a link to an insightful executive alert on the decision, which was authored by colleagues in Baker Hostler’s New York office, partner Deborah Renner and associate Matthew Moody.

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