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Posts Tagged ‘alito’

The United States Supreme Court issued its highly-anticipated decision this morning in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339, a case that many commentators have been following as a potential barometer for the Court’s treatment of consumer and class action issues following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.  As it turns out, Justice Scalia’s absence did not impact the outcome of the case, which was decided by a 6-2 majority (though there is of course no way of knowing how Justice Scalia’s participation might have impacted the rationale).

The Petition for Certiorari had originally been granted to answer the question “whether Congress may confer Article III standing upon a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm, and who therefore could not otherwise invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, by authorizing a private right of action based on a bare violation of a federal statute.”  http://www.supremecourt.gov/qp/13-01339qp.pdf (Emphasis added).

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito, answered this question in the negative, holding that a plaintiff must establish “concrete” harm in order to have standing to pursue a statutory cause of action in federal court.  However, the interesting part of the opinion is the Court’s analysis of what may suffice as “concrete” harm.  In particular, the Court held, Congress may identify “intangible” harms and elevate those harms to the status of concrete injuries supporting Article III standing.  Examples of these intangible harms cited in the opinion include reputational harms suffered for common law torts, like libel and slander, that are difficult to measure, as well as other intangible public harms, such as voters’ inability to access public information.

After reiterating that a plaintiff seeking relief for a statutory violation must prove a harm that is both particularized and concrete and my not simply rely on a procedural violation of the statute, the Court did not go on to evaluate whether Robins himself had demonstrated a concrete injury flowing from the Fair Credit Reporting Act violations alleged in the case before the Court.  Instead, the Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to perform that analysis, making clear that “[w]e take no position as to whether the NinthCircuit’s ultimate conclusion—that Robins adequately alleged an injury in fact—was correct.”

My own early take on the decision is that while the opinion does not set definitive rules on the types of intangible injuries that are sufficiently concrete to support Article III standing, the opinion goes a long way towards solidifying and clarifying the analytical framework under which statutory standing issues, and Article III standing issues more generally, should be evaluated.  For the time being, it will be up to the lower courts to apply this analytical framework to specific cases.

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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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The Supreme Court issued its decision today in the first of two arbitration-related class action cases on the 2012-13 docket.  Today’s decision bucks what had been a trend in the Court’s decisions in recent years strongly favoring individual arbitration and limiting the situations in which class arbitration (private arbitration in which the plaintiffs proceed in a representative capacity on behalf of a class) can occur.

In a unanimous ruling, the Court in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter upheld an arbitrator’s decision to interpret an arbitration agreement as allowing for class arbitration, despite express reference to class arbitration in the parties’ written agreement.  Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan reasoned that applicable standard of review prevents the courts from second-guessing whether the arbitrator’s interpretation of the party’s contract was the correct one and only permits review of whether the decision was based on an interpretation of the parties’ agreement.  Because the arbitrator’s decision was clearly based on an analysis of contractual intent, the arbitrator’s decision could not be overturned.  The fact that the arbitrator had interpreted the parties’ agreement as providing for class arbitration and the deferential standard applicable to the arbitrator’s decision distinguished Oxford Health Plans from Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., in which the Court had held that class arbitration cannot be compelled absent express agreement by the parties.

Important to the Court’s decision was the fact that the defendant had conceded that the arbitrator should decide the question of whether the parties had agreed to class arbitration.  It was this concession that let Justice Alito to agree with the Court’s decision.  However, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Alito expressed doubt that any ruling in the class arbitration proceeding would have any preclusive effect as to absent class members, an observation that raises a serious question about whether the Oxford Health decision will be of any practical impact in other cases.  He noted:

Class arbitrations that are vulnerable to collateral attack allow absent class members to unfairly claim the “benefit from a favorable judgment without subjecting themselves to the binding effect of an unfavorable one,” American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U. S. 538, 546– 547 (1974).  In the absence of concessions like Oxford’s, this possibility should give courts pause before concluding that the availability of class arbitration is a question the arbitrator should decide.

Defendants will likely see the concurrence as a roadmap for asking the question to be addressed by a court in the first instance, as opposed to simply conceding that the arbitrator should decide the issue whether class arbitration is allowed. 

There are two clear takeaways from the Oxford Health decision: 1) in drafting an arbitration provision, make sure to address the issue of whether arbitration on a class-wide basis will be allowed.  Under Stolt-Nielsen, agreements that bar class arbitration will be enforced; 2) think carefully before conceding that an arbitrator, rather than a court, should make decisions about how an arbitration agreement should be interpreted.

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The Supreme Court heard argument last week in the case that many commentators were calling a possible death knell for consumer class actions.  (See previous CAB posts on  Nov. 4, 2010 and Nov. 9, 2010)

So does the future of consumer class actions still seem dire after oral argument?

The basic issue is whether the Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state contract law when state courts find class arbitration waivers unconscionable.  In other words, if an arbitration clause forecloses the possibility of a consumer class action, can state courts declare the waiver unconscionable, and therefore invalid?

Moreover, if states are permitted to find arbitration clauses that bar class actions unconscionable, will it end arbitration as a viable tool of conflict resolution?  Companies may avoid arbitration provisions in the future because none will want to deal with class arbitrations, which offer all the procedure of court litigation plus plenty of liability exposure, without the benefit of judicial review.

 Several Justices made comments suggesting a lack of comfort in telling states they can’t decide for themselves what constitutes an unconscionable contract.  If that sentiment plays out in the opinion, concerns about federalism and states rights may play a larger role in the outcome than any pro-business or pro-consumer bias or any leaning for or against class actions among the Court’s members.

 JUSTICE SCALIA: “What if — what if a State finds it unconscionable to have an arbitration clause in an adhesion contract which requires the arbitration to be held at a great distance from — from where the other party is and requires that party to pay the cost of the arbitration? Can a State not find that to be unconscionable?”

Justice Kagan followed up on the theme, questioning AT&T Mobility’s apparent position that state courts should generally have discretion to find contract provisions unconscionable, except class arbitration waivers.

JUSTICE KAGAN:  “… how about a provision prohibiting certain kinds of attorney’s fees? How about a provision prohibiting certain kinds of — a law prohibiting certain kinds of discovery provisions? And you said that would be fine, for the State courts to hold those things unconscionable, but it’s not fine for the State court to hold a class arbitration prohibition unconscionable. So what separates the two? How do we know when something is on one side of the line and something is on the other?”

In the face of arguments that California’s unconscionability law is disproportionately hostile to arbitration waivers, Justice Ginsberg, among others, observed that California applies its unconscionability doctrine equally to both arbitration contracts as well as non-arbitration contracts.

JUSTICE GINSBURG: “There is nothing that indicates that California’s laws are applying a different concept of unconscionability. You haven’t come up and said, oh, look what they did here. And in another case they said it has to shock the conscience.  Maybe across the board, California is saying: We think that unconscionability should have a broader meaning. Is it unfair to the weaker party to the bargain? Is there really no genuine agreement here? And if that is so, that will fit our definition of unconscionability.  How do we draw the line between a law that says discovery has to happen in arbitration, and one that says a — in a contract of adhesion, if the superior party retains the right to do discovery but tells the inferior party, you can’t? And a State says, that’s unconscionable.”

In response, Andrew Pincus, the attorney representing AT&T Mobility, with the help of Justice Alito, made the point that the California courts did in fact apply the state’s unconscionability doctrine differently to the class arbitration waiver in the Concepcion’s contract.  That is, the lower courts did not focus on the fairness of the contract’s terms to the Concepcions, the  actual plaintiffs before the court.  This runs contrary to the way most contract terms are assessed for fairness.  Instead, the courts focused on the contract’s fairness to a future class of possible plaintiffs.  If the lower courts had viewed the generous arbitration clause in the Concepcion’s phone contract for its fairness to the Concepcions, the contract may not have been deemed unconscionable.  Instead, the lower courts appear to have found the arbitration clause unconscionable merely because it barred the class action device.

 MR. PINCUS: “First of all, let me explain why the hypotheticals that you posit and that Justice Scalia posited and that Justice Sotomayor posited have been addressed under the traditional unconscionability doctrine that we described. In all of those cases, what courts have said is this provision — we are measuring whether it is unconscionable at the time of contracting; we are looking at the effect on the party before the court; can this person get to arbitration, is the fee too high, is it too far away. What about — we are looking at the effect on this particular person and we are deciding whether it shocks the conscience or whatever their across-the-board State standard is.  And in all of those cases, that’s what those courts do, and that’s why those provisions have been  invalidated, because they are invalidated under an evenhanded application of the unconscionability provisions that courts apply when they assess –”

 JUSTICE ALITO: “I thought that — I don’t want to interrupt your complete answer.”

 MR. PINCUS: “Sure.”

 JUSTICE ALITO: “But I thought that was the gist of your argument, the heart of your argument, that traditional unconscionability in California and elsewhere focuses on unfairness to the party who is before the tribunal. So here it would be unfairness to the Concepcions, rather than unfairness to other members of the class who are not before the court.”

 MR. PINCUS: “That’s exactly right, Justice Alito.”

 Read the entire transcript or listen to an audio recording at Scotus Blog

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