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Posts Tagged ‘dutch class action’

NOTE: The following is a copy of a post that I did for the recently-released Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog. Be sure to check out the new blog for other fantastic class-action-related content!

Globalization has brought with it the growing problem of how to deal with mass disputes that transcend jurisdictional boundaries, as well as ever-increasing creativity among the members of the plaintiffs’ bar in bringing ever-larger class and mass actions. There is no single global court or other forum for bringing international or cross-border civil disputes, let alone disputes that involve allegations of mass harm. One of the key challenges for lawyers, policymakers, consumers, and businesses in the 21st century is how to efficiently resolve international mass disputes given the realities of globalization and the lack of any clear forum.

From the late 1990s through the first decade of this century, there were several trends favoring the U.S. courts as a global forum for litigating international disputes. However, recently, that trend has reversed, and the U.S. courts are becoming increasingly reluctant to entertain international class action litigation.

One of the hottest trends in securities litigation in the latter part of the last decade was what became known as foreign-cubed (or “f-cubed”) class actions, securities fraud class actions filed on behalf of foreign investors against foreign companies involving securities traded on a foreign exchange. The trend came to an abrupt halt, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), holding that section 10(b) of the Securities and Exchange Act does not have an extraterritorial reach and only applies to securities traded on a U.S. exchange or other transactions that occurs within a U.S. state or territory. Although lower court decisions following Morrison, including a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision, may breathe some life back into the idea of litigating a small subset of primarily foreign securities disputes in the U.S. federal courts, Morrison has generally closed the U.S. courts to foreign-cubed class actions.

Another promising avenue for litigating global mass disputes was international arbitration. A developing strategy was for plaintiffs who had signed form arbitration agreements to seek to compel arbitration on behalf of both themselves and others who had signed the same form of agreement. (Several arbitration associations have implemented specific rules for how class arbitrations should be conducted. Here is a link to the AAA Supplemental Rules for Class Arbitration). The Supreme Court put an end to this strategy when it decided the international price-fixing case, Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010). In Stolt-Nielsen, the Court held that a party to an arbitration agreement could not compel class-wide arbitration unless the parties had expressly agreed to allow class, rather than individual, arbitration.

In the human rights area, the U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act has increasingly been used as a tool to litigate international disputes involving alleged violations of international law over the past two decades. Several circuit courts of Appeals have even allowed actions under the ATCA to be brought against private corporations, under the theory that those corporations aided and abetted a foreign government or foreign official in committing human rights abuses. However, the Circuits split on the issue, and the Supreme Court accepted certiorari to resolve the split in the case of Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491. Following an oral argument held last month, the Supreme Court issued an order directing the parties to submit supplemental briefing to address the extent to which the ATCA should permit the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction at all over acts that took place within a sovereign jurisdiction other than the United States. Questions posed during oral argument, especially by the conservative wing of the Court, suggest skepticism about the allowing U.S. Courts to adjudicate human rights disputes that have nothing to do with the United States.

At the same time that avenues for global mass redress in the U.S. Courts have been closing, doors have been opening in other parts of the world. Class action law continues to develop in Canada and Australia. Israel has a class action procedure that closely mirrors U.S. law. Dozens of other countries in all corners of the world now have procedures allowing at least some form of mass redress. A very recent example is a class action law enacted in Mexico that permits a form of collective litigation that, while quite different from class actions in the United States, provides express mechanisms for seeking collective redress. In 2006, the Netherlands passed a law that allows mass settlements of claims (although it does not provide a procedure for litigating contested class claims), and arguably allows residents of other EU countries to be included. In other countries, the lack of a specific class or collective action procedure has not kept courts from fashioning remedies for mass redress.

The continuing lack of a single global forum for litigating mass disputes and the proliferation of new procedures permitting collective litigation abroad, are likely to have at least one near term practical impact. That is, the development of areas of law dealing with the enforcement of foreign class or collective action judgments. This has already become a reality in a huge environmental contamination case involving the drilling operations of a formal Chevron subsidiary in Ecuador. In 2010, a court in Ecuador entered an $18 million judgment in the case, and proceedings are ongoing in both the U.S. courts and in international arbitration proceedings relating to the enforceability of the judgment.

In a related vein, U.S. courts increasingly find themselves adjudicating disputes under 28 U.S.C. § 1782, which allows litigants discovery in the United States for use in connection with foreign proceedings (see this recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision interpreting the statute).

What does this all mean for potential litigants in global disputes? For any company or even small business that does business internationally, these developments highlight the necessity of keeping up with the constant changes in local laws as well as international trends. The procedures that might have been applicable, and arguments that might have been persuasive a year before, may no longer be viable, but new avenues and theories will have almost certainly taken their place.

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The 5th Annual Conference on the Globalization of Class Actions and Mass Litigation was even better than advertised.  It was an engaging and enlightened gathering of the world’s top experts in the areas of class, collective, and mass litigation.  And what better environment to have a conference on developments in international law than at the beautiful and historic Raad van State in the Hague.  I can’t say enough about the great job that Professors Deborah Hensler, Christopher Hodges, and Ianika Tzanokova did in putting this year’s conference together.

The individual sessions all followed a similar general presentation format, which was very effective.  Each panel presentation was focused around a case study based on the facts of a real case or set of cases.  An academic would present the case study and generally introduce a set of issues flowing from that case study.  A panel of practitioners, judges, and industry or consumer experts would then discuss the application of the problem in different geographic regions, political or judicial frameworks, or other contexts.  The idea was focus the discussion on what is actually happening “on the ground” in the areas of class actions and mass litigation, which was a welcome perspective to those of us for whom what’s happening on the ground is what matters the most.  The panels were diverse enough to offer a variety of viewpoints, but the topics were well-matched to the experiences of the panelists so that the presentations had continuity and a clear focus. 

In the interest of not having to wait another week to post my thoughts on all of the sessions (and in not having a single post of such length that it will put some of you to sleep), I’ll be posting them separately over the next week or so.  Here are my notes of the first session:

Session 1: The Challenge of Mass Communications: Problem or Opportunity?

The case study for this session was presented by Professor Ianika Tzanokova of Tilburg University, who also hosted the conference.  The panel was chaired by Mr. Michael Seymour, International Director of Crisis & Issues Management, Edelman, and the panelists were Mr. Arnold Croiset van Uchelen, Senior Partner AllenOvery LLP, Mr. Ben Knüppe, Trustee of DSB Bank/Former CEO of Dexia Bank, Mr. Jan Maarten Slagter, Director Dutch Retail Shareholder Association (VEB) and Mr. Stephan Holzinger, Holzinger Associates Nederland.

The case study was of the Dexia investment products litigation in The Netherlands, mass litigation that was influenced greatly by media exposure.  The litigation involved financial products called securities lease products, in which customers of Dexia’s predecessors in interest would loan money to consumers to fund investments, a scheme that worked well until the market downturn of the late 1990s.  Dexia had been the subject of a TV program in Holland that resulted in tens of thousands of angry customer calls to the station that broadcast the program. Ultimately multiple special purpose consumer associations were set up for the purpose of aggregating, and ultimately settling, claims.  Throughout the course of the litigation, both the defendant and the competing plaintiffs’ groups had to deal with complex and challenging public relations issues.

Understanding the panel’s discussion requires a basic review of how mass or collective actions are litigated in The Netherlands (and other European civil law jurisdictions).  Dutch law allows consumer associations to represent the interests of consumers, but only to the extent that individual consumers affirmatively consent to the representation.  Essentially, as Arnold Croiset van Uchelen explained, the system is one that relies on assignments and powers of attorney.   When mass claims arise, as they did in the Dexia case, this means that consumer or plaintiff groups compete to round up members, and then compete for the court’s and the defendant’s attention based on the number of claimants that they purport to represent.  One of the practical problems tends to be that victim’s advocates make claims to the media about how many of the claimants that they represent, in the interest of attracting attention to their cause.  Certainly, many of these claims are legitimate, but the opportunity exist for a particular advocacy group to exaggerate the number of claimants that it represents in the hopes of gaining media attention and, ultimately, negotiating leverage.

Speaking from the industry perspective, former CEO of Dexia, Ben Knüppe presented a simple and direct argument about how to deal with the problem of media communications in European mass actions.  The media is always looking for the simple message.  The most radical position tends to get the most press, and as a result, the media often presents the view of fringe groups rather than the more reasonable views of the majority (as an aside, it stuck me how apt this commentary is in describing American politics).  However, it is impossible to regulate how the media will portray the litigants’ competing messages.  So, in Mr. Knüppe’s view, the system is in need of reform to regulate who should be permitted to represent plaintiffs’ interests in mass litigation.

Jan Maarten Slagter offered the unique perspective of someone who represents consumer interests but who has also been a member of the media.  He defended the media by saying that the media always tries to get to “a truth” but pointed out that there are always multiple truths to a story due to differing perspectives.  He then offered some specific guidance to organizations representing plaintiffs’ interests:  A plaintiff’s organization has to play a difficult and subtle game.  It’s important to be the first out of the gate in getting media exposure.  You must show strength in the position of your argument, but you have to be careful to manage expectations.  And when a consumer group achieves a settlement with the defendant, it often has to deal with competing groups and objectors.  In this context, he noted that it is important to take the “wind out of the sails” of these competing interests by showing to the media, and ultimately the public, that you have negotiated the best deal.

Arnold Croiset van Uchelen talked about the roles of different types of media in mass litigation.  Commenting on the role of social media, he noted that it plays an important role in modern litigation because unlike traditional media, it allows for two-way conversations between the media and the public.  However, echoing one of Ben Knüppe’s points, he cautioned that it also tends to allow the most radical elements to come to the forefront.  After commenting that the media tends to side with the plaintiffs in mass litigation because the media “loves misery,” he focused on the potential positive role of traditional media in mass litigation.  He argued that the traditional media could play a stronger role in pointing out distinctions between competing plaintiffs’ groups in order to better serve the public about their choices in obtaining representation.  Later in the presentation, one of the panelists gave an example of a TV station asking consumer groups to provide information about their organization and financing.

Stephan Holzinger had some good advice for those who represent defendants in mass litigation.  Most fundamentally, he remarked on something that should be obvious but that may not be the first instinct for many defendants, “you run best with the truth.”  He also counseled for the need for defendants to engage the media proactively in high-profile litigation as a way to head off problems with other interests, such as employees, suppliers, shareholders, and competitors.  As a specific example, he pointed to Taco Bell’s successful public relations campaign in response to a would-be class action suit accusing it of consumer fraud for not using 100% beef in its tacos.  Ultimately, Taco Bell was able to turn the lawsuit into a successful advertising campaign.

Public relations expert Michael Seymour anchored the panel with some comments about the dynamics of media impact on public perception.  He found it interesting that several of the other panelists had commented about “using” the media in the context of litigation.  He noted that in understanding traditional media, you have to consider that it must always move fast and that it always has only the partial attention of its audience.  He added that social media tends to be effective because people have the most trust in “someone like myself” and that social media creates the impression of a more intimate, one-on-one communication (in case you’re wondering, I wrote this post just for you, seriously).  Seymour offered a few specific points that a party to high-profile litigation should consider in developing an effective PR strategy.  The first is to walk the fine line of advocating your position in the case without going too far in vilifying your opponent, since you may well find yourself sitting across the negotiating table later.  Slagter echoed this point counseling plaintiffs to always be mindful of the “end game” in litigation in developing their media strategy.   Seymour’s second piece of advice to litigants is to understand the “shape” of the case, i.e. how the case will develop and how long each phase will likely take. 

There were several interesting questions posed during the Q&A portion of the presentation.  One question involved what happens in the middle of the case, after the initial media exposure has died down but before a final resolution.  Knüppe noted that in the Dexia case, opposing counsel was very good about not leaking information to the press during negotiations that led to a final settlement.  However, in order to maintain a flow of information during the negotiations, periodic newsletters were sent to concerned shareholders to advice them on the status of the case.

Another series of questions asked about the relationship between media and the judiciary.  First, the panel was asked to what extent courts in different jurisdictions may take into account media publicity about a case in their decision making.  The general consensus was that the media should not impact judicial decision making, but panelists provided examples of instances where courts either commented on media exposure in their judgments or admitted after a case that media exposure had been on their minds at the time of the decision.  Second,  the panel was asked to what extent it is appropriate for a judge to make use of media in case management.  This question generated a discussion about a key distinction between truly representative class actions in the United States and mass actions in Europe.  In the United States, the court has an obligation to ensure that absent class members are provided information about the case and to take on an affirmative role in managing the delivery of that information.  In Europe, by contrast, the role of communicating with individual consumers is left to the firm or association that the consumer selects as his or her representative, and if the court has any role at all, it is merely to ensure that attorneys represent who they say they represent. 

Oxford Professor Christopher Hodges had an interesting observation to wrap up the session.  He talked about the media’s social responsibility in seeking an ultimate truth with regard to high-profile litigation rather than simply reporting on the allegations being made.  He pointed as an example to litigation claiming that infant vaccinations caused autism.  He noted that although the litigation had been based on a medical hypothesis that was later debunked, the initial media attention that had been given to the plaintiffs’ claims generated among some segments of the public a fear of vaccinations that continues to have serious negative public health consequences, long after the litigation.

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As reported by various news sources today and summarized in this entry from Ben Hallman at The Am Law Litigation Daily, a Dutch court has approved a settlement of claims of a class of institutional investors against Royal Dutch Shell.  The settlement was approved under a 2005 Dutch law that allows collective settlements on an opt-out basis, although it doesn’t allow class action suits outside the settlement context. For more detail on the law, the Dutch Act on Collective Settlement of Mass Damages, see this 2008 American Lawyer article by Michael Goldhaber, also cited in Hallman’s post.  The settlement resolved claims of European investors who originally had been included in a would-be international class of investors in a New Jersey federal court in a “foreign cubed” class action–a class action filed on behalf of foreign investors who bought a foreign company’s stock on a foreign exchange.  Rather than settle with the plaintiffs’ attorneys who had filed the U.S. case, however, the company agreed with a separate firm to settle the European investor’s claims in a European forum.

Goldhaber’s article describes the facts and history of the case and legislation in a fair amount of detail, so I will simply refer anyone interested in the details to that article.  As described in the article, however, the Dutch settlement came about as a result of a series of events that may or may not continue to be repeated into the future: 1) a class action filed in the U.S. that included European investors; 2) the Dutch company’s agreement to settle in Dutch court with attorneys representing non-U.S. investors; 3) a decision by the U.S. court to decline to exercise jurisdiction over the claims of the non-U.S. investors; and, finally, 4) approval of the European settlement by the Dutch courts.

It would seem that whether the Dutch Act on Collective Settlement of Mass Damages becomes a common vehicle for resolving potential liability for European companies is contingent, at least in part, on how long the viability of “foreign cubed” class actions remains unsettled in the U.S.  The Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent Morrison decision (discussed in this October 2008 ClassActionBlawg entry) was a setback for plaintiffs seeking to pursue foreign-cubed claims in U.S. courts, but did not foreclose the possibility of foreign-cubed claims entirely.  If it became widely established that foreign-cubed cases have little or no likelihood of success in U.S. courts, then plaintiffs’ lawyers would be less likely to pursue those claims in the U.S. in the first place and defendants would presumably face less pressure to settle under the Dutch law, which does not support class liability in a contested case.  However, until the law surrounding U.S. federal court jurisdiction in foreign-cubed cases does become more well-defined, Royal Dutch Shell’s strategy could signify a trend.

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