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Posts Tagged ‘easterbrook’

Brian Wolfman, Co-director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, has two excellent recent posts on Public Citizen’s Consumer Law and Policy Blog that provide food for thought on the need for class action reform, and the best way to achieve reform if it is needed.

In the most recent of the two articles, Paying the Lawyer’s Expenses in Class Actions, Wolfman discusses the social importance of allowing plaintiffs’ attorneys to recover their reasonable costs incurred in successfully pursuing a class action settlement or judgment, but discusses a recent case in which two attorneys from a prominent plaintiffs’ firm were sanctioned for having claimed reimbursement for fancy dinners and first class airline tickets.  Wolfman warns about the negative impact that this type of conduct has on public perception of class actions, and makes the valuable point that even minor abuses of the system for personal gain threatens to bring scrutiny to the class action mechanism more generally, which limits access to justice that class actions may provide in meritorious cases.

In an earlier article, Important 7th Circuit Decision Rejecting Shareholder Derivative Suit, Wolfman applauds Judge Frank Easterbrook’s opinion throwing out the settlement of a shareholder derivative suit after finding that the underlying suit lacked merit and should be dismissed.  Wolfman makes the point that rather than approving a settlement that provides little or no benefit to class members on the grounds that the merits of the claims are weak, the better solution from a public policy perspective is to dismiss the case entirely.  He sums up this point concisely, “[a]n obviously meritless case should not benefit the lawyers and no one else.”

The two articles illustrate two important conceptual principles on which many consumer advocates and corporate interests may find themselves in complete agreement: First, it is the potential for abuse of class actions, and not the class action mechanism itself, that often provides the basis for legitimate criticism.  Second, courts can preserve the fairness and integrity of class action mechanism without the need for systematic reform simply by applying common sense restraints in the face of clear abuse.  I think that both of these points are correct as a matter of principle, and they are both eloquently illustrated by Wolfman’s posts.

My only question is whether the idea of preventing abuse through the application by the courts of common sense constraints, while pure in theory, is truly realistic in practice.  It only works to the extent that all judges will act as carefully and thoughtfully as the judges in the two cases highlighted above.  If courts do not dismiss all frivolous cases when a defendant files a motion to dismiss, what choice does a defendant have as a practical matter but to consider buying peace on the best terms possible, which often means paying off the lawyers at the expense of a class that the defendant doesn’t believe was harmed anyway?  And, if some courts continue let frivolous claims proceed in the hopes that the parties will settle, or turn a blind eye to small excesses in fee and cost petitions, then basic human nature says that some (but certainly not all) plaintiffs’ lawyers will continue to commit these abuses, and some (but not all) defense lawyers will play along to serve their own interests.  In the end, the cynic will question whether relying on the diligence and intellectual honesty of the judiciary and the professional integrity of the bar is a realistic path to reform.

On the other hand, for those of us who are practitioners and not policymakers, professional responsibility, appeal to reason, diligence, and intellectual honesty are the only tools we have at our disposal at maintaining the integrity of the judicial process.

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Having been focused on several other speaking and writing projects recently (in addition to my day job), it’s taken longer than I had hoped to comment on several recent class-action-related decisions by the federal circuit courts of appeals.  Here’s a brief summary of three recent decisions of note:

Washington State v. Chimei Innolux Corp., No. 11-16862 (9th Cir. Oct. 3, 2011) – joining the Fourth Circuit in holding that a parens patriae action brought by state attorneys general or other state officials for the benefit of the state’s citizens is not a “class action” for the purposes of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).

Klier v. Elf Atochem N. Am., Inc., No. 10-20305 (5th Cir., Sept 27, 2011) – holding in the absence of an express provision in the settlement agreement to the contrary that unclaimed funds should be distributed pro rata to class members who participated in the settlement as opposed to being given to charity as a cy pres distribution.  Take note of the concurrence by Judge Edith H. Jones, which makes a strong argument that in the absence of any agreement to the contrary or express waiver of the right to recover unclaimed funds, the equities favor returning those funds to the defendant rather than paying them to the class or distributing them to charity.

Esurance Ins. Co. v. Keeling, No. 11-8018 (7th Cir., Sept. 26, 2011) – holding that when punitive damages are at issue, the correct standard is whether it would be “legally impossible” for the plaintiff to recover an amount of punitive damages that, when combined with the amount of compensatory damages sought, would exceed the $5 million amount in controversy threshold under CAFA, but concluding that it was not legally impossible under Illinois law, even though it was unlikely, that $4.4 million in punitive damages could be awarded in a case where the compensatory damages were slightly more than $600,000.

A great resource for more timely commentary and analysis on recent class action decision in the federal courts of appeals is Alison Frankel’s blog On the Case.

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