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This is the fifth in a multi-part post summarizing last week’s 5th Annual Conference on the Globalization of Class Actions and Mass Litigation.  Click these links to see the summaries for Session 1, Session 2, Session 3, and Session 4.

Who Has Jurisdiction in a Global Market?

This presentation was chaired by Professor Deborah Hensler, Stanford Law School/Tilburg University and co-founder of the annual conference on the globalization of class actions and the Stanford Global Class Actions Exchange.  The panelists were Mrs. Femke van ‘t Groenewout, Senior Advisor, Responsible Investment PGGM Investments, Mr. Daan Lunsingh Scheurleer, Mass Litigation Partner at NautaDutilh, and Professor Peter Cashman, University of Sydney Law School.

Professor Manual Gomez, Florida International University College of Law, presented the case study, which focused on the Lago Agrio (“sour lake”) litigation in Ecuador against oil company Texaco.  The toxic tort litigation arose out of allegations that Texaco’s dumping activities from the mid 1960s to the early 1990s caused severe degradation of a lake in the Amazon rain forest.  Ten separate proceedings were filed in Ecuador against the two companies.  A separate case was filed in the United States, but the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, but that court dismissed the case on forum non conveniens grounds in 2002, a decision that was upheld by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  A court in Ecuador ultimately rendered an $18 billion judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.  This has led to additional litigation in the United States about whether the judgment was procured by fraud, whether the U.S. courts have the power to enjoin its enforcement globally, and whether agreements made by Texaco, before it was acquired by Chevron in 2001, bind the current corporate parent.  Most recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the judgment.  (For a recent update on the status of the Lago Agrio litigation in the United States, see this September 20, 2011 American Lawyer article by Michael Goldhaber).

The first panelist to comment was Femke van ‘t Groenewout, who provided an institutional investor’s perspective on the issue of global forum selection.  She started by making clear that institutional investors rarely look to litigation as a means to protect investments because it usually is not cost-effective.  Other strategies, such as regulatory engagement and excluding bad actors from the investor’s portfolio, are much more common.  In the few instances where litigation is necessary, institutional investors will look to joining existing class actions and will file opt out actions if necessary.  When asked during the Q&A portion of the presentation what factors dictate whether to take an active role in pursuing litigation, she pointed to multiple factors, including the amount of loss, the degree of misconduct, and the time an effort required to pursue reimbursement. 

To date, nearly all of the litigation that van ‘t Groenewout has been involved in has been brought in the United States.  However, she pointed to what she considers a negative trend in the U.S. courts to exclude foreign investors from the forum, a trend culminating in the Supreme Court’s decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, which barred so-called foreign-cubed securities class actions.  This, she observed, may lead other jurisdictions to open their courthouse doors to foreign investors.  As an example, she pointed to the Royal Dutch Shell settlement in the Netherlands.  In light of the decreased legal protection in the U.S. for foreign investors, she raised the question whether investors will consider whether they can continue to invest in the United States.  In addition to lobbying Congress, she discussed the alternative of pursuing litigation in other parts of the world.  However, there are two problems with this approach 1) there are signficant differences in the substantive securities law in other parts of the world, which makes litigation less efficient and therefore less appealing; and 2) institutional investors are unlikely to want to pay for counsel up front, as opposed to simply paying a percentage of recovery as is customary in the United States.  Van ‘t Groenewout summed up by stating that institutional investors have an obligation to protect their own investors in the case of severe fraud, and they cannot always count on regulators to remedy acts of investor fraud.  Therefore, in her view, institutional investors need more mechanisms for collective redress outside the United States.

Daan Lunsingh Scheurleer opened his remarks by challenging the notion that the Morrison case leaves foreign investors unprotected in the U.S. Courts, pointing out that foreign investors can still seek relief in the U.S. for securities purchased on U.S. exchanges, among other situations.  He then focused on barriers to the development of procedures for transnational litigation in Europe.  There is a prevailing reluctance to create procedures that would impose uncertainty about where a defendant may be sued.  For example, a general rule within European court systems is that a defendant should only be sued in the jurisdiction where it is situated.  There are some exclusions to this general rule, including where there are multiple defendants.  If so, there is a choice.  All of them may be sued in the country where one of them is situated provided that there is enough connectivity between the rest of the defendants and the forum.  In the case of tort law, a defendant may be sued where the tortious act occurred or where the damage is felt.  In a securities case, this means that you can only sue on behalf of investors that reside in a particular jurisdiction.  The challenge for Europeans, Lunsingh Scheurleer concluded, is to convince their lawmakers that they need a remedy in their home jurisdiction, but prevailing cultural norms will make it difficult to implement a system that allows all plaintiffs from multiple European jurisdictions to pursue relief in a single forum.

In his remarks, Professor Cashman pointed out some additional barriers to the development of transnational litigation procedures within any given country, including: 1) the problem of exercising personal jurisdiction over class members in other countries (he noted that this issue is still murky in both the United States and Canada); 2) uncertainty about whether the courts of another jurisdiction give preclusive effect to the judgment (as an example, he pointed to the Canadian courts, where even the judgment of a court in one Province is not enforceable in the courts of another Province); 3) forum non conveniens issues, such as those highlighted by the case study; and 4) other issues of comity, such as what one court does while the same issue is pending in a court within another jurisdiction.

Professor Hensler observed that there is a tension between finding a single forum versus taking into account the fact that there are differences in the substantive laws from one jurisdiction to another.  Cashman has a somewhat modest proposal to solve this quandary: create an international MDL process for the adjudication of transnational mass claims.  He suggested several existing mechanisms that could be used to establish an MDL process, including conventions, treaties, or simply a memorandum of understanding between courts.  He also pointed to protocols that are already being developed by the courts of the United States and Canada to assist with the cooperative management of cross-border litigation. 

When asked what he thought about the possibility of an international MDL process as a solution to the problem of transnational disputes, Lunsingh Scheurleer responded that it was hard to envision a framework that would apply to all sorts of claims in all situations.  He thought it might be possible to come up with different procedures for different claims that bore a “family resemblance” to one another, but that it would be hard to find a “one-size fits all” approach.  It might, however, be possible to come up with a set of simple rules that could help guide courts in some situations.  For example, a rule requiring that tort claims be moved to the corporate law umbrella might provide more predictability because it could permit a defendant to be sued in its home jurisdiction by all alleged victims, regardless of their country of residence.

Van ‘t Groenewout said that she favored the idea of an MDL process in principle, but noted that there are some cases where it is clearly more appropriate to litigate in a single jurisdiction. 

Hensler noted that one problem with the MDL concept is that discovery procedures differ so widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The panelists were asked whether international arbitration might be a solution.  Van ‘t Groenewout pointed out that fraud claims aren’t contract claims, so class actions often better fit than arbitration.  Lunsingh Scheurleer pointed out another practical problem to the idea, at least with respect to consumer claims: arbitration agreements with consumers are generally not enforceable in Europe.

There are a few interesting side notes in this presentation.  The first is that the Lago Agrio litigation has many interesting facets that overlap with all of the earlier presentations at the conference.  As Professor Gomez pointed out in presenting the case study, the litigation in Ecuador was the subject of mass public relations campaigns, a topic discussed in Session 1.  There were also significant case management concerns raised in the litigation both in Ecuador and the United States, a topic discussed in Session 3.  Finally, as discussed by Alison Frankel in this December 12, 2011 article, the litigation has been supported through investments from private litigation funders, a topic discussed in Session 2

Finally, someone (I believe it was Professor Tzankova) noted during this presentation that the conference had been the subject of a story that day in the local Amsterdam media in which the assertion was made that the conference was  contributing to a “claims” consciousness in the Netherlands.  I assumed that this was another way of saying that there was a fear that hosting a conference on the globalization of class actions was going to turn the Dutch sue-happy.  We shall see…

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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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The avid reader of CAB (maybe there are more than one of you now, but I don’t want to be presumptuous) will notice that I often comment on developments in class and collective actions outside the United States.  If you really want to keep abreast of the exiting trends in representative and multi-party litigation around the World, you don’t want to miss the upcoming Fifth Annual Conference on the Globalization of Class Actions and Mass Litigation, to be held December 8 and 9, 2011, in the Hague, Netherlands.  This annual conference is co-sponsored by the world’s leading academic experts in global collective and class litigation and the slate of speakers features the world’s leading practitioners, policymakers, and academics on the subject.

I have already signed up to attend this year.  Registration is only 300 Euros, and air travel to the Netherlands is inexpensive in December, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t sign up too! 

Here is a short synopsis of the conference from the Tilburg University website, where you can get more information, including a copy of the agenda, and information on how to register:

Despite continuing controversy and strong opposition from some sectors, class action procedures and mass litigation continue to proliferate around the world. What challenges do class and mass actions present to judges, litigators, business enterprises, and civil society?

On December 8-9 2011 judges, practitioners and scholars will gather together at Raad van State in the Hague, Netherlands, to share information, experiences and recommendations on these issues. The conference is co-organized by Deborah Hensler (Stanford Law School), Christopher Hodges (Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and Erasmus University) and Ianika Tzankova (Tilburg University).

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