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The U.S. Supreme Court issued its first class-action-related decision of the 2013-14 term today, or more precisely, its first non-mass-action-related decision of the term.  In Mississippi ex rel. Jim Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., Case No. 12-1036 (U.S. Jan. 14, 2014), the Court held that a parens patriae action brought by the Mississippi attorney general on behalf of Missouri citizens was not a “mass action” subject to the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  My partner Casie Collignon has a more detailed write-up on the decision at the BakerHostetler blog Class Action Lawsuit Defense.

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For those of you interested in the topic of statistics in mass and class actions, U. Conn. Law Professor and Mass Tort Litigation Blog contributor Alexandra D. Lahav has written an academic paper on the subject in the Texas Law Review, aptly entitled The Case for “Trial by Formula.”  For Professor Lahav’s synopsis of the paper, a link to the paper, and a brief response to last week’s CAB post on the subject, see this Mass Tort Litigation Blog post.

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This is the third 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 and Session 2.

Session 3: Managing the Mass: Judicial Case Management

As the title suggests, this presentation focused on strategies for judges in managing class and mass actions in different jurisdictions.  Professor Axel Halfmeier, Frankfurt School of Finance and Management presented the case study.  Professor Ianika Tzankova moderated the panel, which consisted of three highly esteemed judges from three very different jurisdictions: The Honorable Lee Rosenthal, U.S. District Court, S.D. Texas, Sir David Steel, High Court of Justice, England & Wales (ret.), The Honorable Ivan Verougstraete, Former President of the Belgian Court of Cassation and Visiting Professor of Law Georgetown University.

Professor Halfmeier’s case study focused on ongoing mass litigation in Germany involving Deutsche Telekom arising out of alleged acts of securities fraud in the late 1990s and in 2000.    The thousands of individual shareholder claims brought by investors in Germany led to the enactment of a new law, roughly translated as the Capital Investors Model Proceedings Act, that provides for the creation of a test case that will be binding on all other similar claims.  Proceedings even under the new law have been slow, due in large part to bureaucratic court procedures in Germany, such as the requirement that the documents in each of the thousands of individual cases have to be hand marked by court clerks.  The last hearing in Telekom case was held in 2010, and the next hearing is not scheduled to occur until 2012. Meanwhile, securities class action litigation involving the same alleged acts had been brought on behalf of U.S. investors in the early 2000s and was resolved in a global settlement in 2005.

Sir David Steel did not pull any punches with his blunt criticism of the German system, commenting in summary that the “German courts need to join the modern world.”  He pointed out that the prospectus fraud claims in the Telekom case are not very complicated and that it should be possible for the courts to deal with them in a much shorter period of time.  He pointed to a number of simple procedural reforms that might have sped up the Telekom litigation, including reform of cumbersome clerical requirements, the imposition of a time bar for claims (he pointed out that the German proceedings had not even been commenced until 2005, roughly 5 years after the event), and rules relating to case assignments (by the time the case was ready for a ruling, the initial judge assigned to the case had reached retirement age), and discretion to impose reasonable pleading deadlines (the plaintiffs were allowed to introduce new claims as recently as 2010). He concluded by likening the Telekom case to the fictitious decades-long Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will contest in the Dickens novel Bleak House, which had spurred judicial reforms in the UK in the Nineteenth Century.  It should be noted (although not discussed specifically during his remarks) that Justice Steel himself has a proven track record of efficient management of mass litigation in a jurisdiction that does not permit class actions.  As an example, he presided over the Buncefield case, a mass tort action arising out of gas pipeline explosions in December 2005.  The case reached a judgment in March 2009, only three years and three months after the explosions giving rise to the claims. 

Judge Verougstraete offered a counterpoint to Justice Steel’s criticisms by pointing out the significant cultural differences between the common law system in the UK and the civil law jurisdictions in Continental Europe.  He went on to point out various constitutional, cultural, and practical barriers to significant judicial case management reforms in European civil law jurisdictions, including: 1) the individual’s right to his day in court is of paramount importance in European jurisdictions and cannot be discarded in the interest of judicial efficiency; 2) discovery reforms are not a solution in Europe because most European jurisdictions do not allow parties to engage in discovery anyway (he noted, however, that judges do have some level of control over the speed with which court-appointed experts and masters complete their investigations and findings); 3) while settlement and alternative dispute resolution procedures are theoretically possible, they haven’t worked yet in speeding the resolution of many mass actions.  Judge Verougstraete also pointed to two possible alternatives to collective litigation in civil law countries: 1) use of the criminal law complaint, which places the financial cost of redress on the State but also cedes control over the litigation; and 2) bundled litigation, although even in bundled litigation, the requirement to provide individual notice to litigants often minimizes the judicial efficiencies created by joining claims together, as was seen in the Telekom matter.  In closing, although he agreed with Justice Steel that civil law jurisdictions in Europe could benefit from legislative reforms streamlining judicial procedure in mass litigation, he warned that there was still the problem of legal tradition and culture, which cannot be changed overnight.

United States District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal focused her remarks on what jurisdictions with developing complex litigation procedures can learn from the experience of the United States.  While the United States has a well-developed body of rules governing case management of complex litigation, U.S. Courts still have problems in managing complex litigation, and we “haven’t gotten there” in terms of perfecting efficient management of complex litigation.   Judge Rosenthal agreed that there is a divide between civil and common law jurisdictions but argued that there are a lot of things that a judge can do in either type of jurisdiction manage cases.  She provided examples of key areas where courts and policymakers need to focus in evaluating effective case management techniques: 1) early and effective court supervision; 2) cooperation by counsel; 3) development of a case management plan cooperatively between the court and counsel; 4) communication between counsel, the court, and both representative and absent parties; 5) effective management of electronic discovery issues (notably, Judge Rosenthal is one of the foremost thought leaders on e-discovery issues in the United States); 6) management of attorney’s fees awards (this is a topic addressed by Judge Vaughn Miller in Session 2); 7) effective trial planning; 8) if there is a settlement, an effective plan for assessing and administering the settlement.  She went on to point out that although many judges are much more comfortable in a passive role (decision maker) rather than active role (manager), effective case management requires a judge to carry out both of these roles at appropriate times.  In other words, a judge must be both a neutral decider and an effective case manager.  An effective case manager also has to be both flexible and pragmatic.  Despite having the tools for effective case management, Judge Rosenthal admitted that many judges in the United States are still viewed as being ineffective case managers.  In summarizing the experience of the U.S. judiciary, Judge Rosenthal opined that the United States has the tools in place for effective case management, but U.S. courts are still far from institutionalizing effective case management techniques.

As one member of the audience observed during the question and answer portion of the presentation, the three panelists represent the cream of the crop in their respective judicial systems, both as case managers and as jurists.  Judges from around the world have a lot to learn from their pearls of wisdom.

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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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I commented recently on the fact that the well publicized “class-action” trial against the United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs was never actually certified as a class action.  Instead, the case is being pursued by two nonprofit veterans’ advocacy groups who are pursuing the case on behalf of their members based on a concept called associational standing.  The popular media often uses the misnomer “class action” to define a wide range of lawsuits in which one or a few litigants prosecute a case on behalf of a larger group of interested parties.  Here is a partial glossary of them, along with some other terms often associated with representative actions:

Class Actions – Class actions are brought by one or more class representatives on behalf of a larger group of similarly situated people or legal entities.  Rule 23, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and similar state rules of civil procedure, govern whether a case can proceed as a class action.  A case does not become a true class action until the judge certifies a class.  Before a class is certified, lawyers and courts often refer to the case as a putative class action.

Derivative Suits – These lawsuits are brought by shareholders of a corporation on behalf of the corporation to pursue the rights of the corporation that the corporation itself has failed to enforce.  Derivative suits are governed by Rule 23.1, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and similar state court rules.  A lawyer considering a lawsuit for corporate wrongdoing may face a choice between filing the case as a class action or a derivative suit.  See this recent WSJ Law Blog article for a recent example.

Collective actions – Some statutes, notably the federal Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA) and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), allow a court to certify a collective action as opposed to a representative action.  The key difference between these collective actions and representative actions like class actions is that in a collective action, absent parties are asked whether they want to opt in to the lawsuit.  By contrast, in a class action, absent parties are bound by the result of the litigation unless they opt out of the case after getting notice.  Many FLSA cases are brought as both collective actions and class actions.   The collective action procedure covers the FLSA claim, while the class action procedure governs any related state law claims.  Here’s a good article for more detail on the distinctions between collective actions and class actions.

Attorney general actions – State attorneys general and other governmental authorities (like the Federal Trade Commission) may, by statute, bring actions to enforce the rights of consumers and the public at large.  Here’s a link to the Colorado Attorney General’s consumer protection page.  See the Federal Trade Commission website for examples of consumer actions being pursued by the FTC.

Parens patriae actions – Parens patriae actions are a species of attorney general actions in which the government brings claims to recover monetary losses on behalf of its citizens.  In these actions, the government stands in the shoes of individual citizens and prosecutes the action to recover money for their benefit.  Here’s a link to a paper addressing parens patriae actions.

Private attorney general actions – Some statutes allow any person to bring an action to protect the rights of the public.  Until recently, an example of a statute allowing this type of action was the California Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code Section 17200, which allowed a case to be brought on behalf of consumers injured by a defendant’s act of unfair competition, whether or not the plaintiff him or herself was harmed in any way.  This changed recently when the voter referendum Proposition 64 was passed, which requires a litigant to have lost money or other property as a result of the challenged practice, and must be able to satisfy the requirements for a class action in order to be allowed to pursue a UCL claim in a representative capacity.  A great resource for developments on the UCL is Kimberly Kralowec’s blog The UCL Practitioner.  Another example is California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA), also called the Bounty Hunter Statute, which allows employees to pursue violations of the state labor code whether or not they had suffer injury, including the ability to pursue statutory penalties on behalf of the state and to share in any recovery of those penalties.  Here’s a link to an interesting California Court of Appeal decision addressing both PAGA and the UCL and the viability of an assignment of representative claims under those laws.

Qui tam actions – The federal False Claims Act is another example of a law that allows a private individual to pursue an action on behalf of the government.  An individual who has information about the misappropriate or theft of government funds may file an lawsuit under the Act known as a qui tam action.  The government has an opportunity to decide to take over the prosecution of the case, but if it declines, the person who filed the action may proceed and in the event of a recovery, he or she is entitled to a portion of the recovery.  Here is a link to an article summarizing the federal False Claims Act.

Associational actions – An association may, in some circumstances, bring an action on behalf of its members.  See this previous entry regarding the recent trial against the VA for more discussion on the requirements for associational standing.

Mass actions – Many lawsuits that people commonly associate with the term “class action” are really mass actions.  Mass actions are cases that involve the joinder of many individual claims for discovery, resolution of certain legal issues, or other purposes.  Unlike class actions, however, each claim ultimately has to be brought by an individual plaintiff, who must have some involvement in the proceedings.  Examples include many products liability cases, like those involving alleged injuries caused by tobacco, asbestos, or pharmaceuticals, where a common set of acts form the basis of a the claim for liability but where the effects are too individualized to establish all of the requirements necessary to support a true class action.  They may also be cases involving claims that arise from a single catastrophic event, like an airplane crash, toxic leak, or oil spill.  A well-known example is the Exxon Valdez oil spill case.  When numerous mass actions against the same defendant or group of defendants are filed in the federal courts, the cases are often transferred to a single district court under rules promulgated by the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL)

Bellwether trials – This is not so much a type of lawsuit but rather a procedural device to assist in resolving cases involving similar claims.  A bellwether trial is a essentially a sample test case, where one claim or set of claims are tried first to establish a precedent for the rest.  Bellwether trials generally cannot be used to bind parties in one case to the results of another, but they can be a useful tool for providing information to assist attorneys with valuing similar cases for settlement purposes.  Here are some good entries discussing bellwether trials from the Drug and Device Blog and the Mass Tort Litigation Blog.

Aggregator actions – For lack of a better phrase, this novel procedural vehicle involves the assignment of various plaintiffs’ right to pursue a lawsuit to a single person or entity, called an aggregator.  This procedural device is at issue in a case now pending before the United States Supreme Court.  See this entry at SCOTUS Blog.

Virtual representation – This is a concept applied in the trusts and estates area.  Under the doctrine of virtual representation, the participation in a proceeding of one heir or trust beneficiary can sometimes be deemed to be sufficient to protect the interests of unborn, unascertainable, or minor beneficiaries who could not otherwise appear.  See page 20 of this comprehensive summary of the 2005 Uniform Trust Code.

Non-mutual offensive collateral estoppel – The doctrine of collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, provides that a party can be prevented from relitigating certain issues that were previously resolved against it.  Ordinarily, the concept applies to issues that were previously litigated between the same parties, but is sometimes possible for a plaintiff to bind a defendant to an earlier ruling in a case in which the plaintiff was not a party, if the earlier case involved a plaintiff with similar interests, and if the defendant had the same incentives to defend the lawsuit.  This doctrine has been applied only in very limited situations.  For a good analysis, see this Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion

Reverse Bifurcation – Is a controversial procedure used in the West Virginia courts in which the punitive damages phase of a mass tort case against a defendant is tried before the liability phase.  See previous entries here, here, and here.

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