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Posts Tagged ‘International Class Action Law’

For those who weren’t able to travel all the way to Israel for the University of Haifa’s recent international class action conference, you’re in luck.  Videos of all of the panel presentations are now available on YouTube.  To access them, go to the conference website at https://lawers.club/ and scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll see links for both photos and videos from the conference.  You can also visit the YouTube channel directly by clicking here.  I’m still working on my commentaries from the conference and will link to each presentation individually in those commentaries.

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I’m very pleased to report that I will be moderating a panel on the use of statistics in class actions at the 3rd Annual International Conference on Dispute Resolution of Consumer Mass Disputes Collective Redress, Class Action, and ADR, sponsored by the University of Haifa in Haifa, Israel.  Our panel presentation will be just one of many excellent presentations on a variety of topics in the ever-evolving area of international class actions and collective redress.  The faculty includes titans of the bench and bar from a variety of jurisdictions, as well as top academic minds from universities around the world.  Registration is still open to attend this excellent conference in a beautiful venue.  Click the link below for more information:

https://lawers.club/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Agenda_compressed.pdf

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After becoming one of the hottest trends during the latter part of the last decade, developments in international class action law have waned a bit over the past couple of years, but a new case may be changing that trend.  An Austrian law student, Max Schrems, made news earlier this week (see examples here and here) when he announced a “class action” against Facebook Ireland, the subsidiary that offers the popular social networking service outside of North America.  Schrems has filed a lawsuit in Austria seeking to pursue, on behalf of himself and other non-North American claimants, a variety of legal claims relating to Facebook’s use of consumer data as well as alleged illegal tracking and surveillance activity.  As reported yesterday by Natasha Lomas at Tech Crunch, more than 25,000 individuals have “joined” the lawsuit so far, by signing up at a website set up for that purpose and assigning their claims to Schrems.

This is by no means the first data privacy lawsuit ever filed against Facebook, and it is difficult to say at this point whether the legal claims have any prospect of success.  However, the case is intriguing from a procedural point of view because it is a suit seeking collective redress on behalf of thousands of non-North American consumers in a jurisdiction that is not known as a hotbed of class action litigation.  Many features of the case serve to illustrate differences between US-style class actions and “class actions” as they are developing in other parts of the world.  I’ve highlighted a few of them below.

Opt In Versus Opt Out

Outside common law jurisdictions like the United States, Canada, Israel, and Australia, collective action procedures generally follow an opt-in model, where each individual litigant has to take affirmative steps to participate in the lawsuit. This is a major distinction with the Rule 23 model followed in the United States, where a certified class binds all class members unless they expressly opt out of the case, and it creates a major limitation to the leverage created by grouping claims together.

Class Action through Private Contract and Novel Application of Existing Procedures

Many civil law countries lack an express mechanism for grouping large numbers of similar claims together into a single case except in very limited circumstances.  Even when specific collective action procedures exist, they can often be pursued only by a consumer association or government regulator rather than by private litigants.  Private litigants have filled the gap by entering into private agreements in which they group together on their own by assigning their individual claims contractually to a single plaintiff who will pursue the claims as a group.  Aggregation of claims by assignment has become a popular practical vehicle for pursuing group litigation, especially in continental Europe.

In Austria, a July 12, 2005 decision by the Austrian Supreme Court set out a two factor test for deciding whether assigned claims can proceed in a single case.  loosely translated, the standard requires that there be some central or significant question common to all claims, and that the factual and legal issues arising out of the individual claims be homogenous in nature as they relate to the common questions.  The Commercial Court of Vienna has applied this standard in several cases to make an initial determination of whether to “admit” the action, or in other words allow the assigned claims to proceed in a single case.  This initial evaluation does bear a resemblance to the class certification procedure applied under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, applicable to class actions in the U.S. courts.

For a more detailed description of the “Austrian-style class action” procedure, see Christian Klausegger‘s chapter on the subject in the World Class Actions book that I have shamelessly promoted on this blog since its publication in 2012.

Litigation Funding

In Austria, as in many other parts of the world, contingent fees are prohibited.  At the same time, however, court fees are often assessed based on the total amount in dispute, so the more money in dispute, the higher the fees are that have to be paid to the court, in addition to the hourly fees to be paid to counsel. These factors combined significantly limit the incentive to pursue collective litigation in these jurisdictions. They have also led litigants to have to look for alternative ways of funding litigation, the most prevalent of which is private litigation funding by a for-profit institution that is not itself a law firm.  The litigation funder finances the litigation, including payment of court fees and hourly attorney fees, in exchange for a contractual right to earn a profit if the litigation is successful.

Litigation funding is also available in the United States, but it has been slower to develop, primarily because contingent fees and agreements to advance litigation costs do not typically violate rules of ethics or public policy. In fact, the opposite is true: rules prohibiting fee-sharing with non-lawyers can make private litigation funding a tricky proposition in the United States.  As a result, private law firms have the financial means of funding litigation (either on their own or by associating with other firms) and are driven to pursue litigation without the need for financing through the promise of a percentage of the recovery if the case is successful.

The Impact of Morrison and Kiobel

The United States Supreme Court has issued two key recent decisions limiting foreign litigants’ access to the US Courts as a forum for pursuing class actions.  Limitations on access to the class action procedures available in the US courts may lead foreign litigants to experiment more frequently with alternatives  in foreign jurisdictions.  Whether the Facebook class action in Austria is part of a trend in this direction remains to be seen.

What Drives Claims for Collective Redress?

In the United States, the promise of a large contingent fee can incentivize an entrepreneurial lawyer with a creative legal theory to pursue class action litigation even in the absence of widespread public awareness of a perceived wrong.  The procedural and financial barriers to pursuing claims for collective redress largely prevent this phenomenon from occurring outside the United States, Canada, and a few other jurisdictions.  Instead, “class actions” can be pursued as a practical matter only when there is enough public outrage or concern over a particular event or business practice that large numbers of individuals are willing to take the time to participate (or when there is a sufficient number of institutional plaintiffs with the financial resources and incentive to pursue the suit, such as in certain securities fraud and competition/antitrust cases).  This means that both mainstream media and–somewhat ironically in the case of Facebook–social media have a necessary role in the success or failure of collective litigation abroad.

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According to an article in the Korea JoongAng Daily, a Korean court has issued the first ever judgment in a collective action arising out of a data breach caused by alleged mismanagement of the data, as opposed to intentional conduct.  The Seoul Western District Court’s judgment in favor of 2,882 petitioners against SK Communications was for a total of approximately USD 534,200.   Although the amount may be insignificant by U.S. standards, the judgment reflects a key development in the development of both collective litigation and privacy law abroad.

Postscript: for more on the case, see this story published February 19.

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For those of you interested in the forthcoming book, World Class Actions, here’s a quick update.  The page proofs should be ready by the end of next week, and barring unexpected delay, we are still on pace for an early summer publication date.  For those that haven’t yet heard about the book, it is a guide to class and collective action litigation around the world.  Here’s a link to the Oxford University Press web page for the book where you will find a more detailed synopsis.  I’ll continue to post updates as the publication date approaches.

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Those of you who attended last month’s 5th Annual Conference on the Globalization of Class Actions (or followed my series of posts summarizing the conference) will know that the Netherlands has been on the forefront of global mass dispute resolution as a result of its statute allowing for collective settlements.  Today, the Amsterdam Court of Appeal issued a ruling dismissing two objections to a collective settlement and declaring it binding even though the defendants, and most of the plaintiffs, were domiciled outside of the Netherlands.  Here is a synopsis of the ruling from Daan Lunsingh Scheurleer and Ianika Tzankova of NautaDutilh N.V.

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Fellow class action blogger and defense lawyer Andrew Trask has posted some key insights from his notes of the 5th Annual Conference on the Globalization of Class Actions, on his excellent blog, ClassActionCountermeasures.  I had the pleasure of finally meeting Andrew in person at the conference, and he was every bit as engaging in person as he is online.

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