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Editor’s Note: The following guest post was authored by Sara Collins, contributor to the consumer finance website, NerdWallet.  The views expressed in Sara’s article are her own.  Although those of us who tend to represent defendants in consumer class actions may not agree with all of Sara’s views on the benefits of class actions, we can certainly learn something from reading a consumer advocate’s views on the subject.  The article also provides an easy-to-follow primer on how class actions work.  Many thanks to Sara for her contribution. 

Class Actions – Do They Actually Help Consumers? 

By Sara Collins

Consumers in the United States are sometimes victims of bad business behavior. These behaviors cover a huge range of bad acts, particularly in the field of securities. Class actions allow consumers to band together and fight against bad business. As such, they have a number of benefits for consumers and are quite helpful in evening the corporation versus consumer playing field.

What are Consumer Class Actions?

A consumer class action is simply a lawsuit which takes place in a federal or state court. The case is brought by one or a small handful of individuals, acting as representatives for a larger group of consumers, known as the class. Typically the case is seeking damages on behalf of the named individuals in addition to the entire class.

Why is a Consumer Class Action Necessary?

Traditionally, class actions are used to combine small-dollar claims for a large number of people. One small claim is generally too small for a cost-effective suit. Consumer class actions offer a helpful alternative, justifying the litigation expenses and immensely improving the consumer’s odds of success, particularly when it comes to larger corporations.

How do Consumer Class Actions Work?

When a class action is first brought, the court initially decides whether it is a proper class action. This is a process known as class certification. The parties then work towards a trial, though settlement negotiations can take place at any point.  If the parties decide to settle the case, the court must approve the settlement and then order notice given to class action members.

Do Class Actions Work?

They definitely do. Billions of dollars are given back to the public every year which come from consumer class actions. In most cases, the money is given directly to the victims of the suit, rather than going into the hands of the government, lawyers or other non-consumers.

What Long-Term Effects do Consumer Class Actions Cause?

Class actions help to make bad business practices unprofitable. Class actions aggregate the power of isolated consumers, allowing class actions to compete against corporate behemoths. It levels the playing field, forcing businesses to operate in honest and trustworthy ways.  Markets in other countries where class actions are not allowed often suffer from corporate abuses like stock manipulation, insider trading and other problems.

Do Lawyers Benefit Excessively From Consumer Class Actions?

One argument used by businesses to protest the prevalence of consumer class actions is to claim that the lawyers benefit excessively from the cases. In fact, attorney fees in class action cases average just between 20 and 30 percent of the amount recovered. In stark comparison, personal injury lawyers typically reap 35 to 50 percent of their case winnings. Clearly businesses are using false arguments in an attempt to eliminate class actions and thus damages sought against them.

What is the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005?

The Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) was enacted by Congress in order to curb abuse of class action suits in state courts. Evidence showed that many class actions were being filed which benefited the counsel, rather than the consumers. Additionally, many cases were filed in courts which showed prejudice against business defendants, a problematic issue.

CAFA was enacted to extend federal jurisdiction to these state courts in order to diminish such abuses. CAFA has had a mild success and while most benefits are for businesses, some benefits are extended to consumers. Primarily, the legislation limits the monetary benefits for the attorneys. This ensures that money won in settlements goes to the members of the class, rather than the plaintiff counsel.

Consumer class actions are needed to ensure the financial safety of consumers, particularly in the realm of securities. Class actions allow consumers to band together, combining resources in order to sue a corporation as a singular entity. In turn, all consumers reap the benefits of the settlement, helping to prevent future bad behavior from the corporation in question. Class actions undoubtedly have a positive effect on the world of consumers and it is vital they stay legal for the foreseeable future.

Sara Collins is a writer for NerdWallet, a personal finance site dedicated to helping consumers learn about new ways to save money.

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My sincere apologies to the loyal ClassActionBlawg reader for the scarcity of new content lately. I’m on the road this week, but thought I should at least drop a note about two interesting class-action-related developments in the U.S. Supreme Court over the past week:

1) the Court granted cert in  State of Mississippi v. AU Optronics Corp., to address the issue whether parens patriae actions filed by state attorneys general seeking restitution on behalf of state citizens are “mass” actions, permitting removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).  For more on the case, see Deborah Renner’s post on the BakerHostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  If it were up to me, I’d go further and say that parens patriae cases are actually “class” actions under CAFA, but apparently the Court has its own idea about the scope of the issue.

2) The Court vacated Judge Richard Posner’s decision in Butler v. Sears Roebuck & Co. and remanded for reconsideration in light of its recent decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.  This follows the Court’s earlier decision to vacate the Sixth Circuit’s decision in In re Whirlpool Corp. Front-Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation for the same reason.  Given the many questions left unanswered by the Comcast decision, it will be interesting to see what the Sixth and Seventh Circuits do with the moldy washer cases on remand.

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The Class Actions, Mass Torts and Derivative Suits Subcommittee of the Colorado Bar Association, now ably chaired by my BakerHostetler partner, Casie Collignon, held its first CLE luncheon of the year this past Friday.  The program, United States Supreme Court vs. Class Actions in 2013, featured excellent commentary about the Supreme Court’s 2013 class action decisions by The Honorable Marcia Krieger, Chief Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, Seth Katz of Burg Simpson, and John Fitzpatrick of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell.  Here are just a few of the many insightful observations made by each of the speakers:

Judge Krieger opened by observing that none of the cases this term have been a surprise from the standpoint of what a trial court judge would have expected given existing law.  Amgen was predictable because the question of materiality in a securities fraud case is unquestionably a common issue, so it is not surprising that it is a question for trial, not a prerequisite for class certification.  Standard Fire can be viewed as a straightforward application of agency law: a plaintiff cannot bind a class of people that he or she doesn’t yet represent.  Comcast exemplifies the importance of examining the plaintiffs’ theory of liability and the relationship to the theory of loss.  Damages are not the same as loss.  The theory by which the plaintiff establishes loss determines the measure of damages.

When asked to identify any trends that she has been seeing in class actions recently, Judge Krieger identified issue certification as a key trend.  She has been seeing more situations where the factual issues may be individualized but there are common legal issues that can be resolved classwide.  She noted that she has been inclined to grant partial certification limited to the common legal issue(s) in that situation.

From the plaintiffs’ perspective, Katz agreed that the outcome of Standard Fire was not surprising, and he went as far as to say that the outcome was correct, noting that plaintiffs’ attorneys shouldn’t be afraid of the federal courts.  Although the holding of Amgen was favorable to plaintiffs, Katz noted an issue that should be of great concern to plaintiffs, and that is the commentary from the conservative wing of the court suggesting that they might be willing to revisit the fraud-on-the-market presumption adopted in Basic Inc. v. Levinson.  Katz sees the potential of a 4-4 split on that issue, with Chief Justice Roberts being the deciding vote.  He predicts market studies being commissioned by both sides over the coming years to demonstrate or disprove the continued efficiency of the markets.

Comcast, Katz noted, caused a collective sigh of relief in the plaintiffs’ bar because it does not go as far as many would have feared by requiring Daubert hearings at the class certification phase.  He noted that one positive impact for plaintiffs arising from the “death of Eisen” (the rejection in decisions like Wal-Mart and Comcast of the idea that merits questions were off-limits at the class certification phase) is that it gives plaintiffs’ counsel an opportunity to obtain merits discovery much earlier in a case than was allowed previously.  On the other hand, Katz expressed fear about the possibility that the Court is trying to raise the bar for plaintiffs with a subtle change in the language about what common proof is necessary on the issue of damages.  Where earlier decisions required that damages be “susceptible to classwide proof,” the Comcast majority phrased the standard as requiring the plaintiff to “prove classwide damages.”  Katz predicts that defendants will argue that this means damages must be uniform, as opposed to simply being susceptible to formulaic calculation.  He noted, however, that the few lower courts that have interpreted Comcast so far have rejected a broad application of the decision.

Fitzpatrick combined philosophical commentary about the evolution of class actions with some practical tips for defense lawyers.  Standard Fire, he argued, is proof that judicial hellholes still exist.  He pointed to Amgen as an example of the dangers of accepting conventional wisdom, pointing out that the outcome in that case might well have been different if the defendants had stipulated to the existence of an efficient market.

Comcast, Fitzpatrick said, provides an opportunity for defendants to prevail at the class certification stage by discrediting a plaintiffs’ expert.  Focus not just on the opinions themselves, he suggested, but also on 1) the existence of bias; 2) the expert’s credentials, and 3) flaws in the methodology.  Scour the country for transcripts about the plaintiffs’ experts.  Look at misstatements and exaggerations in the expert’s CV.  Make sure you find and read all of their prior statements in books, media, and transcripts.  Just as important, Fitzpatrick reminded defense practitioners, is the make sure to prepare your own experts for class certification.

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The Supreme Court issued its first-ever decision interpreting the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) today, and its holding strengthens defendants’ right to a federal forum in class actions. 

The question presented in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles, No. 11-1450, slip op. (U.S., Mar. 19, 2012) was a simple one: can a plaintiff avoid federal jurisdiction under CAFA by stipulating to less than $5 million in damages on behalf of the putative class?  The Court’s unanimous answer was no, and its reasoning is also simple:

Stipulations must be binding . . . [and] a plaintiff who files a proposed class action cannot legally bind members of the proposed class before the class is certified.

Slip op. at 3-4.  

Does Standard Fire mean the end of any debate about the federal courts as a forum for class actions?  Probably not.  Justice Breyer’s well-reasoned opinion makes the issue sound like a no-brainer, but this is an issue that had been far from settled in the lower courts.  The fact that the Supreme Court had to intervene on this issue is in part a symptom of a lingering antagonism by many lower federal court judges toward diversity jurisdiction.  The ruling is unlikely to change the predisposition of some federal judges to look for ways to clear their dockets by remanding diversity cases to the state courts.  Although the effectiveness of this particular method for avoiding CAFA jurisdiction is now settled in defendants’ favor, that is not to say that other tactics for avoiding federal jurisdiction in class actions won’t succeed in the future.

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I’m pleased to announce that the BakerHostetler Class Action Defense Team has just released its 2012 Year-end Review of Class Actions, a joint project with the firm’s Employment Class Actions, Antitrust, and Data Privacy practice teams.  See below for a synopsis of the project.  Click the link above to access a copy of the report itself:

We are pleased to share with you the BakerHostetler 2012 Year-end Review of Class Actions, which offers a summary of some of the key developments in class action litigation during the past year. Class action litigation continues to persist in all areas of civil litigation despite the Supreme Court’s 2011 decisions in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, which were seen by many commentators as marking the beginning of the end of class actions as we know them. But while the Supreme Court’s 2011 decisions have had a significant impact on class action litigation, they have not brought about its demise and are not likely to do so anytime soon. In the last two years, we’ve seen landmark decisions and the addition of important judicial gloss to those decisions. 2013 will be no different as the Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a series of key cases this spring.

We hope you find this Review a useful tool as you move forward into the new year. This comprehensive analysis of last year’s developments in class action procedure and jurisdiction, as well as developments by subject matter will hopefully provide context and insight as you look ahead to 2013’s expected trends in class action law, including the proliferation of privacy class action litigation and class action litigation relating to the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal.

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The Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument Monday in the case of Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles.  At issue is whether a plaintiff can avoid federal removal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) by stipulating to a recovery of less than $5 million on behalf of  a would-be class.  Debra Lyn Bassett has a good preview of the argument over at SCOTUSblog:

http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/01/argument-preview-avoiding-removal-by-limiting-damages/

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This is the first in what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last Thursday in Chicago.  The National Institute sets the gold standard for class action conferences, and this year was no exception.  Program Chair Daniel Karon and the rest of the organizing committee did an excellent job selecting six of the most timely and relevant topics facing class action practitioners today.  As always, the list of panelists was a veritable who’s who in the class action field.  If you ever have the opportunity to attend this annual conference, I highly recommend it.

As has become the custom at the National Institute, Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. kicked off this year’s program with a comprehensive and insightful summary of the year’s key developments in class action law.  This year’s presentation saw what has been a hit solo act turn into an even better duet, as Professor Coffee shared the stage with Connecticut Law Professor Alexandra Lahav.  The session was titled “Holy Cow!  This Year the Courts Said What?!” A Brief History of this Year’s Developments in Class Action Jurisprudence.  Attendees were also treated to a comprehensive, 179-page summary of the year in class actions by Professors Coffee and Lahav entitled The New Class Action Landscape: Trends and Developments in Class Certification and Related Topics.

The first part of Professor Coffee’s presentation covered each of the class action-related cases on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket this term.  Here is a list of those cases with some of Professor Coffee’s insights:

  • Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds v. Amgen, Inc., 660 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2011) – Amgen raises the question whether the plaintiff must establish the materiality of an alleged false statement at the class certification stage of a securities fraud class action.  Professor Coffee believes that this case is a close call, but whichever way it comes out, it does not threaten to end securities class action litigation as we know it.
  • Behrend v. Comcast Corporation, 655 F.3d 182 (3d Cir. 2011) – In Behrend, the Court could decide whether a trial court must perform a full Daubert analysis of expert testimony offered in support of or in opposition to class certification.  The case raises the question, at least in the antitrust context, whether the plaintiff must present a  formal damages model or whether the mere possibility of common proof is enough.
  • Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., 656 F.3d 189 (3d Cir. 2011) – This is a wage and hour case under the FLSA, which has a different procedure than Rule 23.  FLSA claims are more accurately characterized as collective actions, rather than class action.  The issue is whether a settlement offer for the full amount of the named plaintiff’s FLSA claim can moot the claim and prevent the case from proceeding on a collective basis, a concept also known as “picking off.”   One of the arguments that has been raised is that the writ of certiorari should be dismissed as improvident granted, so it is unclear whether the Court will actually enter a substantive ruling.
  • Knowles v. The Standard Fire Insurance Company, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130077 (W.D. Ark. December 2, 2011) – This case raises the question whether a plaintiff can plead around CAFA removal jurisdiction by stipulating to less than $5 million in damages on behalf of the putative class.  Professor Coffee felt confident in making the prediction that the defendant will win.  He points to dicta in the Court’s recent decision in Smith v. Bayer Corporation calling into question whether a plaintiff can do anything to bind the members of a putative class before it is certified.

Professor Coffee then went on to highlight some of the big developments in the lower courts from over the past year, which include:

The proper burden of proof to be applied at class certification.  The circuits are split on this issue, with some applying a preponderance of the evidence standard and others simply requiring a rigorous analysis with no particular evidentiary standard.

Treatment of expert testimony.  The federal district courts continue to resist resolving a battle of the experts at the class certification stage, but dicta from the Supreme Court in Dukes, as well as holdings by several of the circuits, are putting increasing pressure on the federal courts to perform a Daubert analysis (and the Court could resolve this issue for good in Behrend).

Class Arbitration Waivers.  Some lower courts, especially the Second Circuit, continue to carve out exceptions to the Supreme Court’s ruling favoring arbitration agreements in Concepcion.   One key issue is whether a class arbitration waiver may still be held unconscionable as a matter of federal law.  Professor Coffee quipped that the Second Circuit will only change if the Supreme Court “stuffs it down their throat.”  While unconscionability under state law is no longer a viable argument against enforcing an arbitration clause, clauses with fee-shifting provisions continue to be susceptible to attack.

Settlement Only and Limited Fund Classes.  There is a lower court trend in permitting certification in settlement classes in cases that could not be certified as class actions in contested cases, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s opinion in Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 617 (1997).  The primary justification tends to be that any individualized issues of fact in the case went to manageability, which is no longer an issue in the settlement context.   In cases where courts have found that individualized issues impact both predominance and manageability, settlement classes have continued to be rejected.

Partial Certification.   The question of issue certification has been one of the hottest trends in the federal courts in the wake of Dukes.  Professor Coffee pointed out that the resolution of whether courts allow partial certification tends to be determined whether the fact of certification creates an extortionate threat to settle the case.

Class Action Settlements.  If you read just one class certification decision this year, Professor Coffee recommends Judge Rosenthal’s memorandum opinion in In re: Heartland Payment Systems, Inc. Customer Data Security Breach Litigation, MDL No. 09-2046 (S.D. Tex. March 20, 2012), which has a well-organized, step-by-step analysis of the approval of a class action settlement.

Professor Lahav focused her remarks on what has been happening in the lower courts in response to the three key aspects of the Court’s decision in Dukes: 1) the “new commonality” requirement; 2) the rejection of the use of Rule 23(b)(2) to recover individualized money damages; and 3) the rejection of “trial by formula,” of the use of statistical sampling to solve individualized damages problems.

The “new commonality”.  Among Professor Lahav’s key observations was that in the Title VII context, there must be a policy, but if there is an identifiable policy, the courts will allow discretionary elements of that policy to be attacked.  This trend is best exemplified by Judge Posner’s decision in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc.  As many commentators predicted, Plaintiffs have had better success after Dukes by narrowing the geographic scope of discrimination claims.  This has also been true in the consumer context.  In the civil rights context, allegations of systemic constitutional violations have had success when the courts have focused on the systemic nature of the practice, but not when courts have focused on the effects of a systemic practice on the prospective class members.  In general, there has been an increasing reliance on issues classes to overcome individualized issues that might destroy commonality or predominance.

Rule 23(b)(2) and monetary damages.  The majority opinion in Dukes raised the question whether there can ever be a class with monetary damages.  None of the circuit courts have provided further guidance on when damages might be sufficiently “incidental” to still allow relief.  One area that has seen mixed results since Dukes is the area of medical monitoring class actions, where the remedy sought is medical monitoring of the possible health effects of a toxic exposure but the cost of monitoring can vary from person to person.  Professor Lahav pointed to the Third Circuit’s decision in Gates v. Rohm & Haas Co., No. 10-2108 (3d Cir., Aug. 25, 2011), as potentially supporting arguments on both sides.  Hybrid class actions, where classes are certified based on both Rule 23(b)(2) and 23(b)(3), are becoming increasingly common, especially in the Title VII context.  One unanswered question is whether damages claims are precluded if a Rule 23(b)(2) class is certified but not successful.

Statistical evidence and “trial by formula.”   Statistical evidence is still accepted in contexts where it has been accepted traditionally, e.g. civil rights, disparate impact, and antitrust cases.  It is not allowed in cases where the defendant can raise individualized defenses.  One proposed solution is, again, issues classes, but this creates a class action funding problem – How do lawyers get paid?

Professor Lahav also revisited statistical trends in class actions, focusing primarily on data compiled by the Federal Judicial Center in 2008 which analyzed the impact of the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”).  She made the key point that statistical data on class action trends has been severely lacking since the FJC study, making updated empirical analysis of class action trends difficult.

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