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I’m a few weeks behind in reporting this, but I still thought it was worth noting that the Florida Supreme Court held oral argument last month in a case that could test the the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision on class arbitration waivers in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  In McKenzie Check Advance of Florida LLC v. Wendy Betts, SC11-514, the plaintiff relied on factual evidence in an attempt to prove that the lack of a class action device has made it impossible for her to obtain legal representation to pursue her claims in arbitration.  The case thus potentially raises the question of whether a case-specific finding of unconscionablility, as opposed to a statewide policy invalidating class arbitration waivers more generally, is permissible despite the Court’s holding in Concepcion (I say potentially because it appears that there are factual questions about whether the evidence really supports the proposition that there would be no lawyer willing to take the plaintiff’s case in an individual arbitration).  Recall that the arbitration provision at issue in Concepcion contained several consumer-friendly features, which could have supported the conclusion that it did not actually deprive a consumer of any opportunity to vindicate his or her rights, although Justice Scalia’s majority opinion did not turn on the existence of these features.

This AP article by Bill Kaczor has a good summary of the arguments on both sides and some of the key questions posed during oral argument.  A link to the video feed of the oral argument can be found here (although the server was not responding when I tried to play it).

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In a recent post entitled Concepcion a Year Later, Are Consumer Class Actions Dead Yet?, I invited readers to offer their perspectives on trends in the enforceability of class arbitration waivers now that a year after the Concepcion decision.  In response, Jessie Kokrda Kamens at the Bloomberg BNA Class Action Litigation Report send me a copy of her recent article, Post-Concepcion, Plaintiffs Chalk Up Few Victories, Look to Government for Relief.  Kamens offers the perspectives of several leading class action practitioners on how the law on class arbitration waivers has developed in the lower courts since Concepcion, as well as their predictions on how the law will develop into the future.  Among the observations made in the article:

  • Although class arbitration waivers were upheld in 76 cases, plaintiffs were successful in invalidating arbitration clauses in several key cases, mostly on various federal law grounds.
  • Use of “consumer-friendly” provisions, such as the one at issue in Concepcion that provided for monetary incentives for individuals to pursue arbitration, makes it much more likely that an arbitration clause will be upheld.
  • Observers are eagerly awaiting several federal and state regulatory and legislative developments that may impact the enforceability of class arbitration waivers, including the results of a study being conducted by the federal Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB) pursuant to Dodd-Frank about the impact of arbitration clauses on consumer financial products, several bills being considered by Congress, and a bill being considered in the California legislature that would render void contracts that contain class action waivers.

Thanks to Bloomberg BNA (www.bna.com) for granting permission to post a copy of the article on this site.  For those of you who are not subscribers, I highly recommend the Bloomberg BNA Class Action Litigation Report.  It is one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources of class action cases and trends available.

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On May 1, we received the following comment in response to a post from last May entitled Will AT&T v. Concepcion Really Kill the Consumer Class Action?

Melissa 

It has been almost a year. Could someone tell me, in their opinion, what effect Concepcion has had on consumer class actions over the last 11 months?

According to a recent New York Times article by David Segal titled A Rising Tide Against Class Action Suits, the effect has been significant.  The article cites a report from the consummer advocacy group, Public Citizen, which found 76 opinions relying on Concepcion as a reason to prevent class actions from “moving ahead.”

I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the number of opinions cited in the Public Citizen report, and there is no doubt that Concepcion has had an impact on class action litigation, both in consumer class actions and in other subject matter areas.  However, I would caution that simply looking at the number of class actions that have been unsuccessful due to class arbitration waivers does not tell the whole story.   Here are a few observations to consider in assessing the impact of Concepcion:

  • Concepcion has not been treated by the lower courts as foreclosing all arguments for declaring an arbitration clause invalid.  A case in point is the Second Circuit’s recent decision in In re Amex III., which relied on the federal common law of arbitrability in declaring a class arbitration waiver invalid.
  • Class action litigation has been on the decline in substantive areas that are not impacted by arbitration clauses, such as in securties class actions.
  • There are many areas of consumer class action litigation that remain unaffected by arbitration clauses because they either involve claims where there may be no contractual relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant, including statutory penalty class actions such as TCPA class actions class actions and certain data privacy class actions, or they involve areas of the law where arbitration clauses are prohibited, including many insurance class actions.  A careful review of the data may show that consumer class action litigation has simply shifted to these areas.
  • Recognizing that arbitration clauses do not necessarily provide a magic talisman against class action litigation and that implementing an overly consumer-friendly arbitration clause may actually encourage litigation, not all companies have rushed to adopt arbitration clauses into their consumer contracts.

In summary, I would say that while Concepcion‘s ban on state laws invalidating arbitration clauses has become an important consideration in litigating consumer class actions, it has not brought about their end.

I’d love to hear what readers have to say about their own perspectives on this issue.  Please feel to comment below.

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NOTE: The following is a copy of a post that I did for the recently-released Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog. Be sure to check out the new blog for other fantastic class-action-related content!

Globalization has brought with it the growing problem of how to deal with mass disputes that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, as well as ever-increasing creativity among the members of the plaintiffs’ bar in bringing ever-larger class and mass actions. There is no single global court or other forum for bringing international or cross-border civil disputes, let alone disputes that involve allegations of mass harm. One of the key challenges for lawyers, policymakers, consumers, and businesses in the 21st century is how to efficiently resolve international mass disputes given the realities of globalization and the lack of any clear forum.

From the late 1990s through the first decade of this century, there were several trends favoring the U.S. courts as a global forum for litigating international disputes. However, recently, that trend has reversed, and the U.S. courts are becoming increasingly reluctant to entertain international class action litigation.

One of the hottest trends in securities litigation in the latter part of the last decade was what became known as foreign-cubed (or “f-cubed”) class actions, securities fraud class actions filed on behalf of foreign investors against foreign companies involving securities traded on a foreign exchange. The trend came to an abrupt halt, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), holding that section 10(b) of the Securities and Exchange Act does not have an extraterritorial reach and only applies to securities traded on a U.S. exchange or other transactions that occurs within a U.S. state or territory. Although lower court decisions following Morrison, including a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision, may breathe some life back into the idea of litigating a small subset of primarily foreign securities disputes in the U.S. federal courts, Morrison has generally closed the U.S. courts to foreign-cubed class actions.

Another promising avenue for litigating global mass disputes was international arbitration. A developing strategy was for plaintiffs who had signed form arbitration agreements to seek to compel arbitration on behalf of both themselves and others who had signed the same form of agreement. (Several arbitration associations have implemented specific rules for how class arbitrations should be conducted. Here is a link to the AAA Supplemental Rules for Class Arbitration). The Supreme Court put an end to this strategy when it decided the international price-fixing case, Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). In Stolt-Nielsen, the Court held that a party to an arbitration agreement could not compel class-wide arbitration unless the parties had expressly agreed to allow class, rather than individual, arbitration.

In the human rights area, the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act has increasingly been used as a tool to litigate international disputes involving alleged violations of international law over the past two decades. Several circuit courts of Appeals have even allowed actions under the ATCA to be brought against private corporations, under the theory that those corporations aided and abetted a foreign government or foreign official in committing human rights abuses. However, the Circuits split on the issue, and the Supreme Court accepted certiorari to resolve the split in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491. Following an oral argument held last month, the Supreme Court issued an order directing the parties to submit supplemental briefing to address the extent to which the ATCA should permit the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction at all over acts that took place within a sovereign jurisdiction other than the United States. Questions posed during oral argument, especially by the conservative wing of the Court, suggest skepticism about the allowing U.S. Courts to adjudicate human rights disputes that have nothing to do with the United States.

At the same time that avenues for global mass redress in the U.S. Courts have been closing, doors have been opening in other parts of the world. Class action law continues to develop in Canada and Australia. Israel has a class action procedure that closely mirrors U.S. law. Dozens of other countries in all corners of the world now have procedures allowing at least some form of mass redress. A very recent example is a class action law enacted in Mexico that permits a form of collective litigation that, while quite different from class actions in the United States, provides express mechanisms for seeking collective redress. In 2006, the Netherlands passed a law that allows mass settlements of claims (although it does not provide a procedure for litigating contested class claims), and arguably allows residents of other EU countries to be included. In other countries, the lack of a specific class or collective action procedure has not kept courts from fashioning remedies for mass redress.

The continuing lack of a single global forum for litigating mass disputes and the proliferation of new procedures permitting collective litigation abroad, are likely to have at least one near term practical impact. That is, the development of areas of law dealing with the enforcement of foreign class or collective action judgments. This has already become a reality in a huge environmental contamination case involving the drilling operations of a formal Chevron subsidiary in Ecuador. In 2010, a court in Ecuador entered an $18 million judgment in the case, and proceedings are ongoing in both the U.S. courts and in international arbitration proceedings relating to the enforceability of the judgment.

In a related vein, U.S. courts increasingly find themselves adjudicating disputes under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, which allows litigants discovery in the United States for use in connection with foreign proceedings (see this recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision interpreting the statute).

What does this all mean for potential litigants in global disputes? For any company or even small business that does business internationally, these developments highlight the necessity of keeping up with the constant changes in local laws as well as international trends. The procedures that might have been applicable, and arguments that might have been persuasive a year before, may no longer be viable, but new avenues and theories will have almost certainly taken their place.

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During a reception yesterday, I met Lance Tanaka, local Denver representative of the American Arbitration Association (AAA), who tipped me off to AAA’s class arbitrations page.  The site has several great public resources for anyone interested in class arbitration rules or cases, including:

If you are interested in the topic of class arbitrations more generally or are trying to find out more information on a specific case that is the subject of class arbitration, check out these essential resources.  Many thanks to Lance for the tip.

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