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Posts Tagged ‘issue certification’

I was privileged to be invited to participate in a recent mini-conference with the Rule 23 Subcommittee to the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, the committee that evaluates and proposed changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for consideration by the Supreme Court.  Click this link to the materials for last week’s mini-conference, which was held in Dallas.

The mini-conference attendees included the Rule 23 Subcommittee, members of the larger Advisory Committee, and representatives of key stakeholders including: federal district court and circuit court judges; academic thought leaders; private plaintiffs’ attorneys; private outside defense attorneys; in-house corporate counsel; non-profit public interest attorneys; and public interest class action objectors.  During the mini-conference, the attendees were encouraged to provide oral feedback on a variety of proposals being considered by the Subcommittee.  Many participants had also provided written comments in advance of the conference, which can also be found by clicking the link in the first paragraph.

The topics under discussion by the subcommittee, and a short summary of the issues discussed during the mini-conference for each topic, are listed below.  Note that I have not given a comprehensive summary of every comment made during the discussion of each topic but have rather focused just on some of the highlights.  For another perspective on the mini-conference, be sure to check out this post from Jocelyn Larkin at the Impact Fund.

Any changes proposed by the subcommittee have to be published for public comment before going to the Supreme Court for approval.  They won’t ultimately go into effect until 2018 even if they are ultimately proposed and approved.  The Rule 23 Subcommittee is still accepting comments, so please feel free to offer your own suggestions.

Topic 1: Disclosures regarding proposed settlements

The Subcommittee’s current draft proposals contemplate providing more detailed guidance to courts in what factors should be considered in approving a class action settlement before ordering notice to be given to the proposed settlement class.  The most extensive proposal sets forth a mandatory list of types of information that must be provided to the trial court before the court orders notice.  The proposed committee notes also state, among other things, that an order to give notice of a proposed settlement to the settlement class is not “preliminary approval” of the settlement and is not a decision to certify the class.  The goal would be to foreclose any argument by the parties that the court has already decided key issues relevant to final approval before any class member has been given notice of the settlement and an opportunity to object.

Several participants expressed concern with including a “laundry list” of information that had to be provided in every case, when not all of the categories of information are relevant in all cases.  Others noted that the list of factors was better suited for the committee comments than in the rule itself, though it was pointed out that comments cannot be added to the rule in the absence of a change to the rule itself.  Several participants suggested inclusion of a “catchall” factor allowing the court to request information not included in the list.

Several comments were raised about the proposed comments clarifying that the determination is a not a “preliminary approval” of the settlement, noting that it could create due process concerns to have a procedure that forces a class member to decide whether to opt out before a determination has been made that class certification is appropriate.  Participant suggestions for addressing this concern included the possibility of using a phrase like “contingent certification,” which would be a formal class certification decision while making clear that the settlement has not been preliminarily approved.

Topic 2: Expanded treatment of settlement criteria

The second topic was whether the Subcommittee should provide more specific criteria in the rule about what the trial court must consider in giving final approval to a settlement.  The proposals contemplate expanding the limited statement in the current rule that the court must determine that a proposed settlement is “fair reasonable and adequate.”  Many of the Circuits have adopted their own tests for what must be considered, and though the factors to be considered tend to be similar, they are not identical from Circuit to Circuit.  One justification for a possible rule change would be to bring national uniformity to the process.  Another goal stated by the Subcommittee would be to encourage more involvement from objectors to ensure an adversarial process at final approval.

The Subcommittee posed the question to the participants whether there would be any value to establishing a uniform list of more detailed standards rather than relying on judicial gloss that may vary from Circuit to Circuit.  Resulting comments were mixed, with one participant commenting that this may be a “solution looking for a problem.”  As with the first topic, several participants noted that it would be good to include a catchall factor or statement that the list of enumerated factors is not exclusive.  Still others observed that courts will likely add factors over time anyway, so that we may end up in the same situation down the road, with the additional factors varying from Circuit to Circuit.  There was also significant discussion about whether the rule or comments should encourage more scrutiny over the amount of attorneys’ fees in comparison to class relief and the actual claims rate should be something that the rule should mandate courts evaluate.

Those who follow this blog probably know that my own feeling is that class relief in settlements should be evaluated based on the adequacy of notice and whether the settlement relief being made available to the class is fair reasonable and adequate in light of the strength of the claims and the litigation risks.  I submit that this evaluation should be made without regard to the claims rate (except to the extent that a low claims rate may require more scrutiny over the notice program) and without regard to the amount of attorneys’ fees being requested (except to the extent that attorneys fees are being paid at the expense of class relief).  However, many of the participants felt strongly that both fees and claims rate should be subject to more scrutiny than courts have traditionally given to those issues.

Topic 3: Cy pres provisions in settlements

The discussion next turned to one of the most controversial subjects in class action litigation today: whether and under what circumstances cy pres distributions can be included as part of a class action settlement.  The Subcommittee’s current proposal would expressly permit cy pres distributions, but would require priority to be given to direct payments to class members if class members can be identified and if the distribution would be economically feasible, and would require the distribution to be made to a cy pres recipient “whose interests reasonably approximate those being pursued by the class.”

Comments on this topic were as varied as one would expect.  One participant questioned whether it was appropriate for a rule of civil procedure to address a remedy not otherwise authorized by law, though another pointed out that the rule already does address fee awards payable only by agreement.  This led to a discussion about whether the proposed revisions would violate the Rules Enabling Act.  Several participants argued that cy pres distributions in settlements are a matter of contract and therefore should not be problematic, but others disagreed, pointing out that class action settlements are not like other private agreements because they are subject to supervision by the court.  One participant pointed out that cy pres awards can serve a beneficial public purpose by, for example, providing funding for organizations that improve access to justice.  Overall, though, there seemed to be general agreement among those who were not opposed to cy pres distributions altogether that cy pres recipients in class action settlements should bear some relation to the class members and their interests.  Several creative solutions to identifying appropriate cy pres recipients were discussed, including the option of polling class members as part of the notice and claims process.

Topic 4: Objectors

The next topic was objectors.  The current Subcommittee proposal would add a variety of requirements for objectors, including procedural requirements for perfecting a valid objection, and requirements for articulating what the objection is intended to achieve and on whose behalf, and requirements for court approval before objections can be withdrawn.  Other requirements under consideration include express requirements for disclosing any financial consideration being paid to an objector or attorney in exchange for withdrawal of an objection.

There was a near unanimity among the participants that “greenmail” objectors (some would just call them “blackmail” objectors) remain a problem in class action settlements and that it would be beneficial to have procedures to prevent litigants from raising frivolous objections to class action settlements for the sole purpose of attempting to extract a monetary payment.  Perhaps this was because greenmail objectors were one of the few groups not represented at the mini-conference, though I’m sure it’s not easy to identify attorneys willing to self-identify as representative of this group.  Most participants seemed generally supportive of the purpose behind the committee’s proposed rules.  Some questioned whether it was necessary to include an express rule provision that monetary payments to objectors be disclosed since the Class Action Fairness Acts already requires disclosure of any side agreements, but otherwise, this was not one of the more hotly debated topics.

Topic 5: Class Definition & Ascertainability

The Subcommittee is considering adding a section describing the requirements for how a class should be defined and determining whether the class is ascertainable.  This is an active issue in the courts, and one on which the Circuits are split.  The Subcommittee’s current proposal for defining ascertainability includes several alternative wording options, and numerous alternative definitions were proposed by participants and other interested parties in written submissions before the mini-conference, which are included as an appendix to the conference materials (see the link in the first paragraph above).

As has been true in the courts, much of the debate at the mini-conference focused on how to define what level of ascertainability should be required.  Possibilities include: 1) whether the class is defined in such a way that class members would know whether they are in the class, 2) whether the class members can be identified using objective criteria, 3) whether the identification of class members is administratively feasible, and 4) whether the specific members of the class can be both identified and located.  One participant noted that ascertainability is something that should only be an issue in Rule 23(b)(3) classes seeking monetary relief, as opposed to Rule 23(b)(2) classes, where notice is not required under the current rule.  Another participant made the comment that trial plans can be a useful tool in forcing the parties to define a class in a way that makes clear whether the class is identifiable and the class action manageable as a practical matter.

As with some of the other topics, the Subcommittee raised the question whether this is an issue that should be left to the courts to develop before a rule change is appropriate.  My best guess is that this is where the Subcommittee will end up on this issue, given the lack of consensus on how to define the ascertainability requirement.  Of course, one option would be to simply add a provision requiring that the class be “ascertainable” and then see what the courts do with it.

Topic 6: Settlement Class Certification

The Supreme Court issued its decision in Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor in 1997, holding that class certification for settlement purposes was subject to the same requirements as certification for litigation purposes.  Since then, courts have routinely certified settlement classes in cases in which certification would have been doubtful if it had been presented in the contested context.  Recognizing this practical reality, the Subcommittee is considering changes to Rule 23 that would expressly permit settlement class certification in situations where the settlement would be superior to other methods of adjudicating the controversy and the court otherwise finds that the settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate, without the need to establish that the other elements of Rule 23(b)(3) (in particular, predominance).

From my point of view, the general sentiment of the discussion of this topic during the mini-conference seemed to be one of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  The practitioners in the group seemed generally satisfied that the current jurisprudential climate seemed to be allowing settlements in those cases that needed to be settled as class actions, while other alternative procedures, like inventory settlements, had since been developed to permit settlements in mass tort cases of the type at issue in Amchem.  Some of the academics had serious reservations about the Constitutional implications of the proposed rule.  So, overall, the consensus seemed to be that no rule change was necessary at this point.

Topic 7: Issue Class Certification

Rule 23(c)(4) has long provided that class certification may be granted only as to certain issues and not an entire case.  However, the idea of “issue certification” has not been used in practice until recently.  Based on a perception that there was a Circuit split on whether certification of particular issues may be appropriate even if predominance could not be established as to an entire case, the Subcommittee is considering a change that would make clear that predominance is not a requirement for issue certification.  Accompanying this change would be a proposed change to Rule 23(f) that would permit interlocutory appeal of the court’s determination on the merits of the issue certified, prior to a final judgment.  However, since the change was originally suggested, the Circuits seemed to be coming into alignment, raising the question whether a rule change is necessary.

There was not a significant amount of debate at the – about this issue.  Most seemed to be content with the suggestion that the courts be allowed to develop the decisional law on the question of when issue certification is appropriate before a rule change is considered.  My own view is that it would be helpful to at least insert the requirement that the court determine that the resolution of the issue to be certified would “materially advance the litigation.” This would help avoid situations in which issue certification can potentially prolong expensive litigation that ultimately leads to no resolution all because of costs associated with resolving any individual facts in comparison to the amounts to be recovered or the number of class members who ultimately stand to benefit from a resolution of the issue in their favor.  However, the Subcommittee seems to be coming to the conclusion that issue certification reform is not a high priority at this point.

Topic 8: Notice

The Subcommittee has proposed a modification to the rule that is intended to make clear that the “best notice practicable” may include notice by email or other electronic means.  This is intended to remedy a perceived issue that the courts are reluctant to endorse electronic notice as a substitute for first class mail due to statements in the Supreme Court’s now 40-year decision in Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin that best notice practicable is first class mail, when feasible.

Many attendees agreed that a specific reference to electronic notice would be a good idea and would help keep the rule consistent with modern technology and practice.  However, concerns included that electronic mail may deprive lower-income individuals of adequate notice in certain cases.  Another concern was whether the wording that the Subcommittee had proposed could be read to prioritize electronic notice over more traditional forms of notice.

Topic 9: Pick-Off and Rule 68

The rule changes being considered by the Subcommittee on this issue include proposing to amend Rule 68 to state that it does not apply to class actions brought under Rule 23, in an effort to put an end to the tactic of picking off putative class representatives by attempting to moot their individual claims with an offer of judgment.

Most of the attendees agreed that given the shift toward agreement in the federal Circuits that an unaccepted offer of judgment does not moot class claims, along with the fact that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari on that very issue in Campbell-Ewald Company v. Gomez, it would be premature to propose any significant revisions to the rules dealing with Rule 68 offers.

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Along with my colleague, Jacqueline Matthews, I recently authored a commentary on the possible changes to the rule on issue classes, Rule 23(c)(4), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, that were proposed recently in a report issued by the Rule 23 Subcommittee.  Our commentary was among several articles on the Subcommittee’s proposals published by the ABA Section of Litigation’s Class Actions and Derivative Suits Committee (CADS), all of which I strongly recommend.  Please visit the link below to see our article, and if you aren’t already a CADS member, you should strongly consider becoming one.

 

 

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In keeping with the time-honored tradition of end-of-the-year top 10 lists, I’ve assembled my annual list of the top 10 most significant class action developments below.  Whether these are actually the top 10 most significant decisions over the past year may be subject to reasonable debate, so please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section.

1. Certiorari denied in “moldy washer” cases – In my view, the single biggest development impacting class action practice over the past year was the Court’s decision not to take on the question of “issue certification” presented in the Sears and Whirlpool “moldy washer” cases.  This non-decision opens the door for significant litigation over whether isolated issues should be certified for class treatment even where significant individual litigation would be necessary following resolution of the class wide issues.

2. Judge Posner’s class action settlement decisions – Judge Posner wins the award for the jurist having the single biggest impact on class action practice in 2014.  In addition to the Supreme Court declining to take on review of his decision in one of the “moldy washer” cases, Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Judge Posner authored two significant (and harshly worded) decisions discussing the standards for evaluating the fairness of class action settlements, including Eubank v. Pella Corp., Nos. 13-2091, -2133, 2136, -2162, 2202 (7th Cir., June 2, 2014), and Redman v. RadioShack Corp., case number 14‐1470, 14‐1471 and 14‐1658 (7th Cir., Sept. 19, 2014).  These decisions are emblematic of a more general trend in the courts of subjecting class action settlements, especially coupon settlements, to ever-greater scrutiny.

3. Basic framework remains largely unchanged after Halliburton II – One of only three Supreme Court decisions of significance on class action issues this past year, the Court largely maintained the status quo in declining to overrule the framework for evaluating “fraud on the market” theory of reliance in securities class actions.

4. Whirlpool trial ends with victory for the defendant – Not long after the Supreme Court declined review, the first of the “issue” class cases went to trial against Whirlpool.  The trial ended in a defense verdict, although as I wrote in October, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing for defendants in the long-term.

5. Court clarifies removal pleading standards in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens – In one of the Roberts Court’s most helpful class-action-related decisions, at least from a practical standpoint, the majority removed barriers to corporate defendants’ ability to remove cases under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), clarifying that jurisdictional facts need only be pled, not supported by evidence, in the notice of removal.

6. California Supreme Court issues significant decision on the use of statistical evidence to support class certification – An individual state court decision has to be pretty significant to make my annual top 10 list, but I think Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association fits the bill.  The decision is one of the most comprehensive to date in addressing the potential pitfalls of reliance on statistics as a proxy for common, class wide proof.

7. Supreme Court holds in AU Optronics that consumer actions brought by state attorneys general are not “mass actions” subject to the Class Action Fairness Act – It’s probably a misnomer to call AU Optronics a “class action” case, since the issue presented was whether actions brought by state AGs on behalf of consumers were “mass actions.”  But because the case involved interpretation of CAFA, it makes this year’s list.

8. International class and collective action litigation continues to expand – Class, collective, and multi-party actions continue to expand outside of the United States and Canada.  Examples included France joining the list of Civil Law jurisdictions in Europe to enact a “class action” law, and a group action in Austria, joined by more than 25,000 litigants, challenging Facebook privacy policies.

9. Data breach class actions proliferate – High profile data breaches and hacking incidents made news, and resulted in class actions, in 2014.  From a rash of payment card breaches impacting customers of large retailers like Target and Home Depot to the more recent Sony hacking incident, data breach class action litigation shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

10. Supreme Court grants, then dismisses, certiorari in Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi, v. IndyMac MBS, avoiding a high court ruling on the question of whether statute of repose can be tolled for absent class members under the American Pipe tolling doctrine.  In what has become a trend of the past year, this is yet another missed opportunity for the Supreme Court to address a class action issues of significance.

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Whirlpool Corporation made headlines yesterday when a Ohio federal court jury issued a verdict finding that the manufacturer’s washers did not have a defect that caused them to develop mold.  The verdict comes in the first of the “moldy washer” cases to reach a trial, following the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in 2013 that the case should be certified as a class action despite the inability to resolve the question of damages on a class wide basis.  Along with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Nos. 11-8029, 12-8030 (7th Cir., Aug. 22, 2013), the Sixth Circuit’s decision in  In re Whirlpool Corp. Front‐Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-4188 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013) have come to epitomize the concept of “issue certification,” where a class is certified for the purpose of resolving some, but not all, of the issues in the a case.  Both the Sixth and Seventh Circuits held that classes should be certified to decide the question whether the washers had a defect, despite strong objection from the defendants, who presented evidence showing that a vast majority of washing machine purchasers had never complained about any mold problems.  Last year, the Supreme Court declined certiorari review in both cases.

The Whirlpool jury’s decision that the washers were not, in fact, defective is seemingly a huge win for the defense bar, but the verdict also provides fodder for courts to justify granting class certification on isolated issues in other cases where it is clear that individual damages trials would be necessary.  As Judge Posner rationalized in reaffirming the original decision in Butler following remand by the Supreme Court to reconsider in light of the Court’s Comcast decision:

Sears argued that most members of the plaintiff class had not experienced any mold problem. But if so, we pointed out, that was an argument not for refusing to certify the class but for certifying it and then entering a judgment that would largely exonerate Sears—a course it should welcome, as all class members who did not opt out of the class action would be bound by the judgment.

Butler, slip op. at 4.  Certainly, that is the scenario that has played out for Whirlpool, at least as to a class of Ohio purchasers (with more trials of other state-wide class claims to come).

But at what cost?  Before the litigation sees any final resolution, Whirlpool will have paid its legion of outside attorneys to defend it in MDL proceedings, motions to dismiss, class certification discovery,  class certification proceedings, two trips to the Seventh Circuit, two trips to the Supreme Court, trial preparation, trial, post-trial motions, and inevitably more appeals, all to achieve “exoneration” in the face of allegations that a small number of their customers experienced mold in their washing machines.  The plaintiffs’ attorneys will have spent a similar amount of time and efforts on their side of all of these proceedings.  And, with the plaintiffs’ attorneys vowing to press ahead with more statewide class trials, the parties are still no closer to having any clear process for resolving the dispute on a global basis.  It doesn’t take a law and economics expert to spot the inefficiencies in this process.

Although the Whirlpool verdict arguably illustrates Judge Posner’s point that the defendant could very well win on the class issue and bind the entire class, that is small consolation for other defendants facing the prospect of expensive class trial proceedings for the purpose of giving a shot at redress to a tiny fraction of its customers who may claim some small injury from a product defect, data breach, misleading label, or any other general business practice.  As much as it serves to “largely exonerate” Whirlpool, the jury’s rejection of the claimed defect calls into question the wisdom of allowing the product defect issue go forward on a class wide basis in the first place rather than requiring the individual claimants to press forward with their claims individually.

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This is the first in what will be six posts summarizing my notes of the six presentations at the ABA’s 16th Annual Class Actions Institute held last Thursday in Chicago.  The National Institute sets the gold standard for class action conferences, and this year was no exception.  Program Chair Daniel Karon and the rest of the organizing committee did an excellent job selecting six of the most timely and relevant topics facing class action practitioners today.  As always, the list of panelists was a veritable who’s who in the class action field.  If you ever have the opportunity to attend this annual conference, I highly recommend it.

As has become the custom at the National Institute, Columbia Law Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. kicked off this year’s program with a comprehensive and insightful summary of the year’s key developments in class action law.  This year’s presentation saw what has been a hit solo act turn into an even better duet, as Professor Coffee shared the stage with Connecticut Law Professor Alexandra Lahav.  The session was titled “Holy Cow!  This Year the Courts Said What?!” A Brief History of this Year’s Developments in Class Action Jurisprudence.  Attendees were also treated to a comprehensive, 179-page summary of the year in class actions by Professors Coffee and Lahav entitled The New Class Action Landscape: Trends and Developments in Class Certification and Related Topics.

The first part of Professor Coffee’s presentation covered each of the class action-related cases on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket this term.  Here is a list of those cases with some of Professor Coffee’s insights:

  • Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds v. Amgen, Inc., 660 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2011) – Amgen raises the question whether the plaintiff must establish the materiality of an alleged false statement at the class certification stage of a securities fraud class action.  Professor Coffee believes that this case is a close call, but whichever way it comes out, it does not threaten to end securities class action litigation as we know it.
  • Behrend v. Comcast Corporation, 655 F.3d 182 (3d Cir. 2011) – In Behrend, the Court could decide whether a trial court must perform a full Daubert analysis of expert testimony offered in support of or in opposition to class certification.  The case raises the question, at least in the antitrust context, whether the plaintiff must present a  formal damages model or whether the mere possibility of common proof is enough.
  • Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., 656 F.3d 189 (3d Cir. 2011) – This is a wage and hour case under the FLSA, which has a different procedure than Rule 23.  FLSA claims are more accurately characterized as collective actions, rather than class action.  The issue is whether a settlement offer for the full amount of the named plaintiff’s FLSA claim can moot the claim and prevent the case from proceeding on a collective basis, a concept also known as “picking off.”   One of the arguments that has been raised is that the writ of certiorari should be dismissed as improvident granted, so it is unclear whether the Court will actually enter a substantive ruling.
  • Knowles v. The Standard Fire Insurance Company, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130077 (W.D. Ark. December 2, 2011) – This case raises the question whether a plaintiff can plead around CAFA removal jurisdiction by stipulating to less than $5 million in damages on behalf of the putative class.  Professor Coffee felt confident in making the prediction that the defendant will win.  He points to dicta in the Court’s recent decision in Smith v. Bayer Corporation calling into question whether a plaintiff can do anything to bind the members of a putative class before it is certified.

Professor Coffee then went on to highlight some of the big developments in the lower courts from over the past year, which include:

The proper burden of proof to be applied at class certification.  The circuits are split on this issue, with some applying a preponderance of the evidence standard and others simply requiring a rigorous analysis with no particular evidentiary standard.

Treatment of expert testimony.  The federal district courts continue to resist resolving a battle of the experts at the class certification stage, but dicta from the Supreme Court in Dukes, as well as holdings by several of the circuits, are putting increasing pressure on the federal courts to perform a Daubert analysis (and the Court could resolve this issue for good in Behrend).

Class Arbitration Waivers.  Some lower courts, especially the Second Circuit, continue to carve out exceptions to the Supreme Court’s ruling favoring arbitration agreements in Concepcion.   One key issue is whether a class arbitration waiver may still be held unconscionable as a matter of federal law.  Professor Coffee quipped that the Second Circuit will only change if the Supreme Court “stuffs it down their throat.”  While unconscionability under state law is no longer a viable argument against enforcing an arbitration clause, clauses with fee-shifting provisions continue to be susceptible to attack.

Settlement Only and Limited Fund Classes.  There is a lower court trend in permitting certification in settlement classes in cases that could not be certified as class actions in contested cases, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s opinion in Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 617 (1997).  The primary justification tends to be that any individualized issues of fact in the case went to manageability, which is no longer an issue in the settlement context.   In cases where courts have found that individualized issues impact both predominance and manageability, settlement classes have continued to be rejected.

Partial Certification.   The question of issue certification has been one of the hottest trends in the federal courts in the wake of Dukes.  Professor Coffee pointed out that the resolution of whether courts allow partial certification tends to be determined whether the fact of certification creates an extortionate threat to settle the case.

Class Action Settlements.  If you read just one class certification decision this year, Professor Coffee recommends Judge Rosenthal’s memorandum opinion in In re: Heartland Payment Systems, Inc. Customer Data Security Breach Litigation, MDL No. 09-2046 (S.D. Tex. March 20, 2012), which has a well-organized, step-by-step analysis of the approval of a class action settlement.

Professor Lahav focused her remarks on what has been happening in the lower courts in response to the three key aspects of the Court’s decision in Dukes: 1) the “new commonality” requirement; 2) the rejection of the use of Rule 23(b)(2) to recover individualized money damages; and 3) the rejection of “trial by formula,” of the use of statistical sampling to solve individualized damages problems.

The “new commonality”.  Among Professor Lahav’s key observations was that in the Title VII context, there must be a policy, but if there is an identifiable policy, the courts will allow discretionary elements of that policy to be attacked.  This trend is best exemplified by Judge Posner’s decision in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc.  As many commentators predicted, Plaintiffs have had better success after Dukes by narrowing the geographic scope of discrimination claims.  This has also been true in the consumer context.  In the civil rights context, allegations of systemic constitutional violations have had success when the courts have focused on the systemic nature of the practice, but not when courts have focused on the effects of a systemic practice on the prospective class members.  In general, there has been an increasing reliance on issues classes to overcome individualized issues that might destroy commonality or predominance.

Rule 23(b)(2) and monetary damages.  The majority opinion in Dukes raised the question whether there can ever be a class with monetary damages.  None of the circuit courts have provided further guidance on when damages might be sufficiently “incidental” to still allow relief.  One area that has seen mixed results since Dukes is the area of medical monitoring class actions, where the remedy sought is medical monitoring of the possible health effects of a toxic exposure but the cost of monitoring can vary from person to person.  Professor Lahav pointed to the Third Circuit’s decision in Gates v. Rohm & Haas Co., No. 10-2108 (3d Cir., Aug. 25, 2011), as potentially supporting arguments on both sides.  Hybrid class actions, where classes are certified based on both Rule 23(b)(2) and 23(b)(3), are becoming increasingly common, especially in the Title VII context.  One unanswered question is whether damages claims are precluded if a Rule 23(b)(2) class is certified but not successful.

Statistical evidence and “trial by formula.”   Statistical evidence is still accepted in contexts where it has been accepted traditionally, e.g. civil rights, disparate impact, and antitrust cases.  It is not allowed in cases where the defendant can raise individualized defenses.  One proposed solution is, again, issues classes, but this creates a class action funding problem – How do lawyers get paid?

Professor Lahav also revisited statistical trends in class actions, focusing primarily on data compiled by the Federal Judicial Center in 2008 which analyzed the impact of the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”).  She made the key point that statistical data on class action trends has been severely lacking since the FJC study, making updated empirical analysis of class action trends difficult.

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My partner, Casie Collignon, recently attended CLE International’s conference Class Actions: Plaintiff and Defense Perspectives in Chicago earlier this month, and she graciously agreed to share a summary of her notes.  Here they are for anyone who was unable to attend.  I’ll be attending the ABA’s 16th National Institute on Class Actions next week, so stay tuned for my notes from that conference as well.

On October 4th and 5th, esteemed panels of class action plaintiff and defense lawyers, along with multiple reputable class action administrators, gathered for panel discussions involving class action trends across the country from all perspectives. Below are just a few of the highlights from the conference:

  • Class Actions are not dead after DukesDukes may not have had the one-sided effect that everyone anticipated. Program Co-Director Francis Citera of Greenberg Traurig noted that class certification decisions after Dukes have been, despite popular opinion, very balanced.  In the federal courts since Dukes, there have been 32 cases certified, 33 denials of class certification, and 15 cases where certification was denied in part and granted in part.
  • Manageability remains key to certification – Even though the Dukes, Concepcion, and Comcast trends are on the tips of all class action practitioners’ tongues, manageability is still a top concern from all perspectives.  The Honorable William J.  Bauer of the Seventh Circuit opined about the importance of being able to be able to show the Court what a class action trial will actually look like.  This sentiment was echoed by plaintiff’s class action lawyer Kenneth Wexler of Wexler Wallace, who suggested that all plaintiffs’ class certification motions should be accompanied by an actual trial plan.  Defense attorney Sascha Henry of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton opined  that the defense practitioner can take advantage of both the existence of a plaintiff’s trial plan or the lack of a trial plan in the manageability context.  For example, if there is no trial plan at all, the defendant can argue that the plaintiffs   have not alleged a practical way to manage the case and therefore have not met their burden of proving the manageability requirement.  Alternatively, if a plan is submitted, then the defendant has a precise manageability roadmap to attack. 
  • New settlement notice program trends – While traditional mailers and post card notices still reign supreme for claim rates, Patrick Izie of Class Action Services discussed some new media trends in class action settlements.  He opined that new media, such as QR codes, mobile device notifications, and coupon websites can have a dramatic impact on your claims rates without increased costs. And, even though the parties may not have intended their class settlements to appear on websites such as duckydeals.com, once these types of sites start listing your class action settlements, you can expect claims rates to spike.
  • Class Certification may never truly be over –   Attorney for the plaintiff in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Linda Friedman of Stowell & Friedman, and class action defense lawyer Andrew Trask of McGuireWoods, both agreed that an important lesson to be learned from both the Merrill Lynch case and the recent denial of the motion to dismiss in the smaller Walmart case which is back pending in the Northern District of California, is that no ruling in the class certification context is ever truly permanent. Thus, the class action community should be on the lookout for second and even third bites at the apple with smaller proposed classes and arguments for issue class certification.

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Editor’s Note – This article is a joint submission to CAB and the BakerHostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  Please visit our firm’s blog for more riveting class action-related content.

A definitive ruling on whether courts may certify class actions to decide discrete issues, as opposed to cases or claims, will have to wait.  Last Monday, the United States Supreme Court denied a writ of certiorari to review the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 672 F.3d 482 (7th Cir. 2012).

In McReynolds, which was decided after the Court’s ruling in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the Seventh Circuit had reversed a denial of certification of a class in a disparate impact employment discrimination case, holding that a class could be certified for the limited purpose of resolving the issue of whether a specific policy of the Defendant created an unlawful disparate impact on black stock brokers.  For a more detailed summary of Judge Posner’s decision in McReynolds, see Deborah Renner’s March 1, 2012 CALD post.

The issues that had been presented for review by the Supreme Court were as follows:

(1) Whether the Seventh Circuit’s certification of a disparate impact injunction class conflicts with this Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, which rejected certification of a nationwide class that, like this one, asserted disparate impact claims based on employment policies requiring the exercise of managerial discretion; and

(2) whether the Seventh Circuit erred in holding, in conflict with other circuits, that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 23(c)(4) permits class certification of a discrete sub-issue when the claim as a whole does not satisfy Rule 23(b) and hundreds of individual trials would be needed to determine liability.

The denial of certification means that the lower federal courts will be left to decide whether and under what circumstances “issue certification” is permitted.  A procedural tool not often applied in practice until recently,  issue certification, at least in some form, is expressly permitted under FRCP 23(c)(4) (“When appropriate, an action may be brought or maintained as a class action with respect to particular issues.”).  However, a common question that arises in the interpretation of this language, and the one that had been presented for review in McReynolds, is whether issue certification is permitted when the resolution of the issue certified would not eliminate the need to resolve individualized issues before any claim could be resolved.

The federal circuits are split on whether issue certification is allowed to resolve discrete issues short of a full claim.  The Fifth Circuit has not allowed issue certification in a class action for damages where predominance cannot otherwise be satisfied, and it has not allowed issue certification in a class action for injunctive or declaratory relief in cases when monetary relief is the predominant relief sought.  Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 745 n.21 (5th Cir. 1996) (“[a] district court cannot manufacture predominance through the nimble use of subdivision (c)(4).”); Allison v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 151 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1998).  [Ed. Note: just before the Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari, in McReynolds, the 5th Circuit issued its decision in Rodriquez v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., No. 11-40056 (Sept. 14, 2012), a case that the McReynolds plaintiffs argued in supplemental briefing to the Supreme Court eliminated the Circuit split.  In Rodriguez, the 5th Circuit approved of the use of Rule 23(c)(4) to certify a class for the purpose of resolving injunctive and equitable relief, leaving damages for a different proceeding].  The Second Circuit has been more open to issue certification. Robinson v. Metro North Commuter,  R.R. Co., 267 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2001) (holding that “litigating the pattern-or-practice liability phase [of a disparate treatment discrimination case] for the class as a whole would both reduce the range of issues in dispute and promote judicial economy”); In re Nassau County Strip Search Cases, 461 F.3d 219 (2d Cir. 2006) (holding that “a court may employ Rule 23(c)(4) to certify a class on a particular issue even if the action as a whole does not satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement.”). The approach taken by Judge Posner in McReynolds generally follow the Second Circuit’s approach by allowing issue certification even where predominance would not be satisfied with respect to the claim as a whole.

An interesting feature of issue certification is that unlike full-blown class certification of a claim or case, issue certification does not necessarily put a defendant at risk of catastrophic liability in a single stroke, because any individualized defenses to liabilty on the claim as a whole may still be available even after the common issue is decided.  On the other hand, it is this feature that often begs the question whether issue certification has any utility in materially advancing litigation that will inevitably require individualized proceedings before reaching finality.  It also leaves the procedure vulnerable to a great risk of misinterpretation and abuse, which may explain the Fifth Circuit’s skepticism.  Plaintiffs may seek and courts may grant issue certification on the mistaken impression that to certify part of a class will hasten the resolution of litigation.  Defendants may fear issue certification based on a mistaken belief that certification of even part of a class action puts them at risk of aggregated liability.

The real question with issue certification tends to be whether formally certifying an issue for class-wide treatment creates any practical efficiency that materially advances litigation.

In many cases, there are legal issues, the answer to which indisputably have class-wide implications, but the question arises whether formal certification of these issues is even necessary.  For example, common legal issues are often resolved in a preliminary motion.  Even if these issues are not resolved on a class-wide basis after a formal order of certification, their resolution has a practical class-wide effect.  Examples would be decisions on the interpretation of a particular statutory provision.  For example, does the statute confer a private right of action?  Is proof of injury required as an essential element of a statutory claim? Whatever the initial court’s decision on this type of issue is likely to have a practical impact on any later litigation, so the resolution of the issue in the first case to address it tends to have a practical impact on any other affected litigants that usually avoids the need for duplicate litigation on the same issue.

In other cases, resolution of issue, however indisputably common, can often bring the litigation no further to conclusion.  For example, in products liability case against a tobacco company, resolution of the factual issue whether cigarettes cause cancer probably does not move most cases closer to resolution because the primary issue in the case is going to be whether cigarettes caused the plaintiff’s cancer.

A big problem with issue certification is that resolution of important issue in a vacuum, without proper context, can have disastrous and unfair consequences later in a case. Answering the question whether the defendant was “negligent” is a problem in most cases becuase the question of “negligence usually depends not simply on whether the defendant breached an applicable standard of care, but also whether that breach caused injury to the plaintiff.  So, certifying the question of “negligence” is usually inappropriate due to the necessity to resolve individualized questions of fact.  Unless the question on which the class is to be certified is very well defined, certification in these types of case can create serious problems.  Certification of whether the defendant breached an applicable standard of care may be a more appropriate question for certification, but only if resolution of that question could materially advance the litigation to a resolution.  In many cases, as in the tobacco example noted above, certifying a preliminary question of “breach of the standard of care” does not create any real efficiencies in the litigation as a practical matter.

Thus, there are serious questions whether issue certification has any social utility in many cases.  However, not only are there situations in which issue certification is not only beneficial from the perspective of judicial economy, but there are also situations in which issue certification can be used by a defendant to its own advantage.  They include:

1) a case in which certification appears imminent, despite the presence of individualized issues; in these cases, issue certification provides a an alternative to full blown certification in a way that may preserve the defendant’s ability to avoid having a determination of mass liability in a single case or the defendant’s ability to raise important individualized defenses.

2) to illustrate the analytical and manageability flaws in certification of an entire case or claim.  In some cases, pointing out issue certification as an option may serve not only to provide an option short of full-blown certification, but also to show to the court how certification of merely the issues that are truly common may not create any real efficiency in resolving the litigation.  In these cases, pointing out that issue certification is an option may serve to avoid class certification in its entirety.

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