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Posts Tagged ‘austria’

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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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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