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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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Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decisions in Smith v. Bayer and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, I have wondered aloud whether we would start to see a significant divergence between the standards applicable to class certification in the state and federal courts.  (See the Parting Thoughts Section of this August 31 SCOTUSBlog Post).  My home state of Colorado has been the first to end this speculation, adopting a decidedly more liberal standard for class certification in its decision yesterday in Jackson v. Unocal Corp. than the standards discussed in Dukes and many other lower federal court decisions. 

The main holding of the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in Jackson can be summarized with the court’s statement that:

A trial court must conduct a rigorous analysis of the evidence and find to its satisfaction that each C.R.C.P. 23 requirement is established.

Jackson, Slip Op. at 18.  At first glance, this statement may not seem out of step with the “rigorous analysis” standard commonly recognized by the federal courts.  However, the majority’s intentional use of the phrase “to its satisfaction” rather than “by a preponderance of the evidence” makes the Colorado standard a potentially far less exacting hurdle.  A large portion of Justice Martinez’s majority opinion is dedicated to explaining why the court chose to make the class certification decision a matter of pure judicial discretion by the trial court rather than a matter of evidentiary proof.  The majority opinion makes reference no less than four times to the state’s “policy of favoring the maintenance of class actions” and juxtaposes this policy against a federal policy that the majority characterizes as “limiting class actions.” 

Also key to the majority’s analysis was the language of Colorado’s rule 23 allowing the court to make a “conditional” class certification order, language that has recently been removed from the federal rule.  Because certification can be tentatively granted and later revoked by the trial court in Colorado, the court reasoned, the applicable evidentiary standard should be more flexible and less definitive than the “preponderance” of the evidence standard applied in most federal courts, where (the Jackson court reasoned) the rule requires a single class certification decision.

The majority addressed two other issues that are closely related to the standard of review.  The first was whether a trial court may resolve factual disputes that overlap with the merits of the case.  On that issue, the majority reached the relatively uncontroversial conclusion that a court may consider disputes about facts that overlap with the merits, but “only to the extent necessary to satisfy itself that the requirements of C.R.C.P. 23 have been met.”  Slip op. at 27.   

The second issue was whether the trial court should resolve expert witness disputes in reaching its determination on class certification.  On this issue, the court’s holding was nuanced.  Although it recognized that the trial court must evaluate the competing experts’ opinions in order to determine whether the evidence at trial can be presented in a way to resolve the class claims through a common set of facts, the majority held that a trial court should not rule on the admissibility of the plaintiffs’ expert’s testimony at the class certification phase.  The majority again recognized that this holding was contrary to the holdings of several federal court decisions, but it reasoned that a different standard was justified under the Colorado rule because a trial court had the power to reconsider a preliminary certification order following a pretrial Shreck (the Colorado equivalent of Daubert, not to be confused with Shrek, the surly but loveable ogre) hearing on the admissibility of a plaintiffs’ expert’s testimony.  See id. at 31-32.

A strongly-worded dissent from Justice Eid, who was joined by Justice Rice, criticized the decision by stating, in summary, that:

the majority’s standardless approach makes class certification in Colorado essentially unreviewable by appellate courts and raises serious procedural due process concerns.

Slip Op. at 1 (Eid, J., dissenting).  Justice Eid’s dissent contains a wealth ammunition for academics, commentators, and the courts of other jurisdictions to question the majority’s reasoning.  But alas, for litigants in Colorado, it does not have the force of law.  So, rather than discuss it in depth, I simply commend it to your reading.

There are a host of questions that arise out of Jackson that will likely be the subject of future litigation in the Colorado courts, and I’ll address a few of them now.  However, I’ll apply the Colorado Supreme Court’s class certification standard to the following remarks by saying that they are preliminary and tentative and subject to later reconsideration as the record develops.

Does the Jackson decision mean that trial courts in Colorado should take a “certify first, ask questions later” approach to the certification question?  

This is a position that any party seeking class certification will likely take in the wake of Jackson.  However, a review of all four companion cases decided by the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday makes clear that this is not a permissible approach.  Jackson vests wide discretion in the trial court to grant or deny certification depending on whether the class certification elements are met to the court’s satisfaction, but it also requires the trial court to consider evidence presented by both sides in analyzing whether class treatment is appropriate.  These conclusions are reflected by the results in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Reyher, in which the court applied its new standard and held that a trial court had acted within its discretion in denying class certification after a rigorous analysis, and Garcia v. Medved Chevrolet, Inc., in which it determined that the trial court had erred by granting class certification without taking into consideration the evidence presented by the defendant showing that individual questions would predominate.

Is the “rigorous analysis” standard meaningless in light of the trial court’s vast discretion under Jackson?

 Justice Eid’s dissent argues that the majority’s decision renders the “rigorous analysis” requirement a purely procedural requirement.  In other words, as long as the trial court goes through all the motions, the court still has relatively unfettered discretion to grant or deny certification.  This may be true as an analytical matter, but as a practical matter, performing the “rigorous analysis” requires the trial judge to think critically about how the trial is actually going to be conducted.  It also prevents the trial judge from glossing over what may turn out to be insurmountable practical problems in fairly adjudicating the case through common, class-wide evidence.  Thus, even if a “rigorous analysis” is a purely procedural requirement, that does not mean that it will have no impact on the outcome of class certification motions.

Has the Colorado Supreme Court resurrected the pre-Dukes misinterpretation of Eisen as prohibiting any analysis of the merits of the case?

That the answer to this question is no may not be completely clear from the majority’s opinion in Jackson itself, but it becomes clear when Jackson is read in combination with Justice Martinez’s companion opinion in Reyher.  While, curiously, the majority opinion in Jackson makes no reference to Dukes, the opinion in Reyher cites Dukes approvingly in holding that a trial court cannot simply accept the plaintiff’s allegations as true.  The line that can’t be crossed is that the trial court cannot prejudge the merits, a conclusion that is consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co.

Is class certification now effectively unreviewable in the Colorado appellate courts?

The widely disparate outcomes in the three companion cases decided along with Jackson reflect that appellate review will still have a function after Jackson.  An appellate court may clearly find 1) that the trial court conducted a rigorous analysis of the evidence and acted within its discretion in either granting (Jackson, Patterson) or denying (Reyher) class certification; or 2) that the trial court failed to conduct a rigorous analysis of the evidence and therefore the case must be remanded (Garcia).   What is less clear is whether there ever going to be circumstances in which an appellate court could find that a trial court performed a rigorous analysis but abused its discretion in deciding the outcome of the class certification motion, and whether, if so, the appellate court could dictate the result of the class certification motion rather than remanding that decision to the trial court.

What are the practical implications of Jackson?

There many potential practical implications of the Jackson decision.  First, the standard in Colorado is clearly less stringent than the federal court standard.  This raises the prospect that plaintiffs will view Colorado as a favorable forum for class action litigation, and it will almost certainly raise the stakes in battles over forum selection and federal jurisdiction.  Moreover, given the trial court judge’s broad discretion over the class certification, the particular leanings and predispositions of the trial court judge become pivotal in the likely success or failure of a class action.

Second, the court’s emphasis on the tentative nature of class certification decisions under Colorado Rule 23 means that even once they are certified, class actions in Colorado are likely to be subjected to repeated efforts at decertification as the case progresses.

Third, the emphasis on the “rigorous analysis” standard increases the likelihood that, despite the lack of a clear standard for resolving the issue, class certification will necessitate a mini-trial involving the presentation of live witnesses and a fully-developed record, likely increasing the cost of discovery and the class certification process itself.

On the other hand, none of these potential impacts would be a drastic change from the way that class actions are already being litigated in the Colorado Courts.  Parties already fight over removal and forum selection, courts already conduct evidentiary hearings on class certification motions, and defendants already make repeated efforts at decertifying a class.  Thus, the legacy of  Jackson may ultimately be merely to validate the existing customs and practices for litigating  class actions in Colorado.

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One of the hottest substantive areas in consumer class actions these days is litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S .C. § 227, sometimes called the “fax blast” statute, which prohibits unsolicited faxes and automated calls for the purpose of commercial solicitation.  The TCPA has a statutory penalty provision that allows consumers to recover $500 for each violation.  The ability to collect far more in statutory penalties than the actual damages caused by a given violation makes TCPA violations an appealing target for enterprising plaintiffs’ class action lawyers.  The aggregation of thousands of claims together can create huge monetary exposure for defendants and the potential for easy settlements and the large contingent fees that comes with it.  In this way, the TCPA is similar to other laws with statutory penalties, such as the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), which provides for statutory penalties against a company that produces credit card receipts with too much information on them.

Although it is a federal statute, the TCPA does not provide for federal court jurisdiction in private actions to enforce it.  TCPA class actions may only be filed in or removed to the federal courts if there is diversity jurisdiction under CAFA

This has naturally given rise to the question of whether state laws limiting class actions, such as § 901(b) of New York’s Civil Practice Law and Rules, which prohibits class actions for claims seeking statutory penalties, are applicable in federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction over TCPA claims.   Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P.A. v. Allstate Insurance Co., the Second Circuit Court of Appeals said yes.  After the Supreme Court remanded for reconsideration in light of Shady Grove, the Second Circuit said yes again, reasoning that the TCPA’s language allowing private enforcement “if otherwise permitted by the laws or rules of court of a State” gave the states broad power to determine how TCPA actions may be prosecuted within their borders.  The Third Circuit has disagreed with this conclusion, holding that State limitations on class actions do not apply in TCPA class actions filed in the federal courts.  Given the Third Circuit’s view, defendants in at least some jurisdictions may have a strong incentive to oppose federal jurisdiction in TCPA cases.

Another question that arises from the peculiar federalist nature of the TCPA is whether a state or federal statute of limitations applies.  Earlier this week, in Giovanniello v. ALM Media LLC, the Second Circuit answered this question and held that a shorter state law limitations period applied rather than the 4-year federal catchall provision. 

Several recent decisions have highlighted a split among both the state and federal the courts about whether TCPA claims should be permitted to be brought as class actions at all.  Of particular note is the recent decision of the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division in Local Baking Products, Inc. v. Kosher Bagel Munch, Inc., which provides an excellent survey of the various state and federal court decisions on both sides of the issue.  The court in Local Baking Products ultimately decided that class certification of TCPA claims was not appropriate. It reasoned that class actions are not a superior procedure for enforcing the TCPA because Congress had made statutory penalties available so that individuals would be incentivized to pursue vindication of their rights in individual actions in small claims or other state courts.  In addition to lack of superiority, a common reason offered by other courts for rejecting class certification is that the question of whether faxes or calls were authorized is too individualized for common questions to predominate.

Earlier this month, however, the Supreme Court of Kansas upheld a lower court’s decision granting class certification in a TCPA case.  In Critchfield Physical Therapy v. The Taranto Group, Inc., the court rejected both the argument that individual actions in small claims court would be superior to a class action and the argument that the question of consent was too individualized.  In addition, the court rejected the argument that class actions would not be superior in light of the threat that aggregating thousands of individual statutory penalties together could create an “annihilating” judgment against the defendant that would be disproportionate to any harm to the class.  A similar argument had been successful in a FACTA case in California federal court, but later reversed by the Ninth Circuit in Bateman v. American Multi Cinema, Inc.

Meanwhile, while a bill has been introduced in the U.S. house to “modernize” the TCPA by permitting certain informational robo-calls to be made to mobile phones, among other things, the bill would not modify the private enforcement provisions of the statute.

One quandary facing courts and counsel in TCPA class actions is how to give notice to consumers if a class is certified.  Last month, a Madison County, Illinois judge ordered that notice of a class action for unsolicited faxes under the TCPA should be disseminated by. . . 

. . . you guessed it . . .  

fax.

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