Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court’

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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In keeping with the time-honored tradition of end-of-the-year top 10 lists, I’ve assembled my annual list of the top 10 most significant class action developments below.  Whether these are actually the top 10 most significant decisions over the past year may be subject to reasonable debate, so please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.

1. Certiorari denied in “moldy washer” cases – In my view, the single biggest development impacting class action practice over the past year was the Court’s decision not to take on the question of “issue certification” presented in the Sears and Whirlpool “moldy washer” cases.  This non-decision opens the door for significant litigation over whether isolated issues should be certified for class treatment even where significant individual litigation would be necessary following resolution of the class wide issues.

2. Judge Posner’s class action settlement decisions – Judge Posner wins the award for the jurist having the single biggest impact on class action practice in 2014.  In addition to the Supreme Court declining to take on review of his decision in one of the “moldy washer” cases, Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Judge Posner authored two significant (and harshly worded) decisions discussing the standards for evaluating the fairness of class action settlements, including Eubank v. Pella Corp., Nos. 13-2091, -2133, 2136, -2162, 2202 (7th Cir., June 2, 2014), and Redman v. RadioShack Corp., case number 14‐1470, 14‐1471 and 14‐1658 (7th Cir., Sept. 19, 2014).  These decisions are emblematic of a more general trend in the courts of subjecting class action settlements, especially coupon settlements, to ever-greater scrutiny.

3. Basic framework remains largely unchanged after Halliburton II – One of only three Supreme Court decisions of significance on class action issues this past year, the Court largely maintained the status quo in declining to overrule the framework for evaluating “fraud on the market” theory of reliance in securities class actions.

4. Whirlpool trial ends with victory for the defendant – Not long after the Supreme Court declined review, the first of the “issue” class cases went to trial against Whirlpool.  The trial ended in a defense verdict, although as I wrote in October, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing for defendants in the long-term.

5. Court clarifies removal pleading standards in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens – In one of the Roberts Court’s most helpful class-action-related decisions, at least from a practical standpoint, the majority removed barriers to corporate defendants’ ability to remove cases under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), clarifying that jurisdictional facts need only be pled, not supported by evidence, in the notice of removal.

6. California Supreme Court issues significant decision on the use of statistical evidence to support class certification – An individual state court decision has to be pretty significant to make my annual top 10 list, but I think Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association fits the bill.  The decision is one of the most comprehensive to date in addressing the potential pitfalls of reliance on statistics as a proxy for common, class wide proof.

7. Supreme Court holds in AU Optronics that consumer actions brought by state attorneys general are not “mass actions” subject to the Class Action Fairness Act – It’s probably a misnomer to call AU Optronics a “class action” case, since the issue presented was whether actions brought by state AGs on behalf of consumers were “mass actions.”  But because the case involved interpretation of CAFA, it makes this year’s list.

8. International class and collective action litigation continues to expand – Class, collective, and multi-party actions continue to expand outside of the United States and Canada.  Examples included France joining the list of Civil Law jurisdictions in Europe to enact a “class action” law, and a group action in Austria, joined by more than 25,000 litigants, challenging Facebook privacy policies.

9. Data breach class actions proliferate – High profile data breaches and hacking incidents made news, and resulted in class actions, in 2014.  From a rash of payment card breaches impacting customers of large retailers like Target and Home Depot to the more recent Sony hacking incident, data breach class action litigation shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

10. Supreme Court grants, then dismisses, certiorari in Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi, v. IndyMac MBS, avoiding a high court ruling on the question of whether statute of repose can be tolled for absent class members under the American Pipe tolling doctrine.  In what has become a trend of the past year, this is yet another missed opportunity for the Supreme Court to address a class action issues of significance.

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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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Earlier today, the Supreme Court granted cert in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Company, LLC v. Owens, No. 13-719, in which it will take up the contours of the standard for providing factual support in a notice of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA).  Specifically, the issue presented is as follows:

Whether a defendant seeking removal to federal court is required to include evidence supporting federal jurisdiction in the notice of removal, or is alleging the required “short and plain statement of the grounds for removal” enough?

This is the third CAFA removal case that the Court has accepted in as many years.  During the October 2012 term, the Court decided Standard Fire Ins. Co. v Knowles, 133 S. Ct. 1345 (2013), in which it held that a class representative may not avoid CAFA jurisdiction by stipulating to a recovery of damages of less than $5,000,000 on behalf of members of the proposed class.  Earlier in the current term, the Court decided Mississippi ex rel. Jim Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., Case No. 12-1036 (U.S. Jan. 14, 2014), holding that a parens patriae action brought by a state attorney general on behalf of Mississippi residents was not a “mass action” subject to CAFA.


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The U.S. Supreme Court issued its first class-action-related decision of the 2013-14 term today, or more precisely, its first non-mass-action-related decision of the term.  In Mississippi ex rel. Jim Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., Case No. 12-1036 (U.S. Jan. 14, 2014), the Court held that a parens patriae action brought by the Mississippi attorney general on behalf of Missouri citizens was not a “mass action” subject to the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  My partner Casie Collignon has a more detailed write-up on the decision at the BakerHostetler blog Class Action Lawsuit Defense.

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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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