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Posts Tagged ‘alternative dispute resolution’

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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If you’re a Colorado attorney who didn’t make it to the quarterly CLE luncheon sponsored by the CBA class actions subsection, you missed out.  Dirk W. de Roos and O. Russel Murray gave excellent presentations on developments in class arbitration.  If you’d still like to hear the entire presentation, you’re in luck.  CLE Colorado recorded the audio of the presentation and will include it among its home-study materials.  We’ll have a link on the class action subsection website as soon as it is available.  In the meantime, here are some of the key points:

  • Class arbitration waivers, contracts requiring arbitration but specifying that arbitration proceed on an individual, not class, basis, have been used in a variety of contracts, including employment, executive compensation, consumer, franchise, and settlement agreements.
  • Outside the consumer context, class arbitration waivers have mostly been upheld.
  • Where class arbitration waivers are invalidated, courts most often do so based on traditional contract principles.
  • Class arbitration waivers are increasingly being struck down in consumer agreements, especially in “shrink-wrap” type agreements where the consumer is agreeing simply by using the product.
  • The key U.S. Supreme Court case recognizing the viability of class arbitration (not waivers) is Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle, 539 U.S., 444 (2003).
  • Class arbitration rules generally track FRCP 23, the main difference being that the decision maker is a private neutral instead of a judge.
  • Class arbitration rules differ from traditional arbitration because they lack the key element of privacy and confidentiality.

Each of the speakers had insights that I thought were interesting:

Dirk de Roos noted that a split among jurisdictions on the enforceability of class arbitration waivers may impact whether a nationwide class can be certified in court over a particular issue given the need to apply different standards to decide whether the action can proceed in court as a class action in the first place.

Russel Murray commented that class arbitration involves a convergence of two more general, controversial issues: 1) many people have an animosity toward class actions and favor ways to limit their application and effectiveness, but, on the other hand  2) many other people have deep concerns about the use of arbitration provisions in consumer agreements and are opposed to agreements that potentially limit the ability of consumers to enforce their rights.

Finally, here is one other item worthy of note.  Russel Murray noted that the National Arbitration Forum rules allow collective resolution of claims only on an opt-in basis, as opposed to the opt-out scheme contemplated by Rule 23 and most other class arbitration rules.  This means that only those plaintiffs who affirmatively opt in to the class after notice. 

The possibility of class arbitration agreements that involve restrictions on class actions less than a complete waiver of the right to bring the case on a collective basis is intriguing.  Imagine a cell phone company including a standard term in its agreements that every claim is subject to class arbitration but that the action would proceed under the National Arbitration Forum rules.  This provision would not be a class arbitration waiver in the strict sense, but it would involve a significant limitation on the ability of a plaintiff to seek collective redress as compared to a class action in court.   As far as I know, the enforceability of this type of class arbitration “reduction” provision has not been tested in court.

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