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Posts Tagged ‘oral argument’

The Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument Monday in the case of Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles.  At issue is whether a plaintiff can avoid federal removal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) by stipulating to a recovery of less than $5 million on behalf of  a would-be class.  Debra Lyn Bassett has a good preview of the argument over at SCOTUSblog:

http://www.scotusblog.com/2013/01/argument-preview-avoiding-removal-by-limiting-damages/

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Editor’s Note – This article, co-authored by my colleague Tina Amin, 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.

Today is Talk Like a Pirate Day, which is always a reminder of the Alien Tort statute (“ATS”), an arcane law that was originally enacted in 1789 in part to combat piracy.  In recent years, the ATS has been used as a tool for bringing class actions seeking to redress alleged international civil rights abuses arising out of a wide range of conduct including genocide, torture, slavery, apartheid, and environmental contamination.  In a recent ATS case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Case Nos. 06-4800-cv and 06-4876-cv, Nigerian plaintiffs alleged that the defendant company collaborated with the Nigerian government to commit extrajudicial killing, torture, crimes against humanity, and arbitrary arrest and detention.  In its September 17, 2010 decision, the Second Circuit became the first appellate court to reject the proposition that a corporation can be liable under the ATS for such alleged complicity.

On October 17, 2011, the Supreme Court originally accepted Kiobel, No. 10-1491, to address the issue whether a corporation can be liable under the ATS for alleged complicity in human rights abuses by a foreign government.  Oral argument in the Supreme Court was held on February 28, 2012.  A week later, the Court requested supplemental briefing on two related issues.  The first is on the broader issue of whether the U.S. courts have extra-territorial jurisdiction to adjudicate disputes about human rights abuses that occurred entirely outside U.S. borders.   The Court also asked “under what circumstances” the ATS “allows courts to recognize a cause of action” for extraterritorial violations.  The supplemental briefs were filed this summer.

Kiobel has broad potential implications for the future of international class actions in the U.S. courts.  The case is the second in the last three years to raise questions of extraterritorial application of U.S. federal law, along with the Morrison v. National Australia Bank, No. 08-1191, June 24, 2010, which limited the jurisdiction of the U.S. courts over certain international securities class actions.  To date, no federal appeals court has decided an ATS case based solely on an analysis of extraterritoriality, and the courts have assumed the extraterritorial reach of the law since it was resurrected from obscurity a few decades ago.  A ruling for the defendant in Kiobel could be a further sign of a trend closing the doors of the U.S. courts to international class actions and other international disputes.  If this occurs, expect to see additional developments in the area of collective multi-party procedure in other countries, as parties begin to seek redress elsewhere.

Oral argument in Kiobel is set for October 1, 2012.

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It has only been a few months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, holding that state laws holding class arbitration waivers unenforceable as against public policy are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), and the Court is already considering a new case involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements in consumer contracts.  

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Compucredit Corp. v. Greenwood, No. 10-948, in which the issue is whether a federal law’s grant to consumers of a right to sue can be waived through an arbitration agreement.  A copy of the oral argument transcript is now available at the Court’s website.  Most of the questions were directed at issues of statutory construction under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1679 et seq., and in particular whether Congress intended that the right to sue in court be non-waivable.  The Ninth Circuit’s decision below, the limited scope of the question presented for review, and the questions posed at oral argument would all suggest that the Court is unlikely in its ultimate opinion to address some of deeper questions remaining after Conception, such as whether and under what circumstances a consumer arbitration agreement can be held unconscionable under federal law.  Then again, as aptly illustrated in Justice Scalia’s opinion in Concepcion decision, the possibility that the decision will go beyond the limited statutory questions presented and address deeper public policy issues can never be ruled out.

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The United States Supreme Court heard oral argument today in the case of Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., No. 09-1403.  A transcript of the argument is now available on the Court’s website. 

Erica P. John Fund involves the appropriate standard for assessing class certification in securities fraud cases brought under the “fraud on the market theory.”  Much of the argument was focused on whether the lower courts properly applied existing precedent in determining whether common issues predominated and whether the district court improperly considered the merits of the plaintiffs’ claim by requiring proof of loss causation at the class certification stage.  Many of these issues are unique to the securities fraud context.  The “fraud on the market” theory has been rejected in other contexts.  (See, e.g. CAB entry dated April 27, 2009.)  However, one seemingly off-the-wall hypothetical from Justice Breyer helps to illustrate what creates a common rather than an individualized question when evaluating either a securities fraud claim or another other fraud, misrepresentation, or nondisclosure claim: 

JUSTICE BREYER: Does your rule apply in all fraud cases? That is, a thousand farmers say, Mr. Jackson was our common buying agent, and the defendant lied to Mr. Jackson, and he relied on the lie.  It is a common issue whether he relied on the lie or he didn’t rely on the lie. I can understand somebody saying at the certification stage they have to see whether he’s really a common agent. But let’s imagine that’s assumed. The only question left is, did he rely or not rely?

Is that a question for the merits or is that a question for the common — for the —

MR. STERLING: Basic is really an exception that applies only –

JUSTICE BREYER: So you’re saying in the case that I just gave you reliance is for the merits?

MR. STERLING: Correct, Your Honor.

JUSTICE BREYER: Whether he really relied or didn’t rely, the common agent is for the merits?

MR. STERLING: But you couldn’t have

JUSTICE BREYER: Is that — is that your answer is?

MR. STERLING: No, Your Honor. You couldn’t have a case in that situation because reliance is an individual issue.

JUSTICE BREYER: No. A thousand people say Mr. Jackson is our common buying agent, and the defendant lied to this common buying agent, and he represented us. Relied on that. I’m asking if you that issue of reliance in an appropriate case is for the certification stage?

MR. STERLING: Yes, Your Honor, because

JUSTICE BREYER: Yes.

MR. STERLING: — you still have everybody having to say Mr. Jackson is my agent. That’s

JUSTICE BREYER: And they also have to prove there is a lie?

MR. STERLING: Right. And that’s a — but the individualized question of reliance is simply, is Mr. Jackson your agent or not? Because of that there is no common issue that — that predominates on reliance.

JUSTICE BREYER: Okay.

Slip op. at 44-45.

Setting aside the possibility of an individual question relating to the agency relationship, Justice Breyer’s hypothetical gets to the heart of what could make a fraud claim susceptible to class treatment.  First, although fraud requires reliance, in many contexts, it does not usually require reliance by the plaintiff.  In Justice Breyer’s hypothetical, a single party meets the reliance requirement for the entire class.  In other words, a false statement was made, and there was reliance because Mr. Jackson believed and acted upon it.  There could also be common causation of injury if, due to his reliance on the lie, Mr. Jackson paid $1 per thousand seed when he could have paid $.99 for seed with the same attributes somewhere else. 

The agency issue could very well be an individual issue, as Mr. Sterling surmised, but there really aren’t enough facts in the hypothetical to know this for sure.  For example, there could be a single document that all of the farmers signed, to which there is no dispute about authenticity, and which designates Mr. Jackson as the agent for all.  (Nor does Mr. Sterling’s answer probably help the defendant in a securities fraud case, since the “Mr. Jackson” in a “fraud on the market” claim is the market itself.  If it is an efficient market, so the theory goes, it sets the price that everyone pays regardless of their individual assent.)

The problem with the hypothetical, therefore, is not that it fails to describe the type of fraud claim that might be appropriate for class treatment but instead that it does not describe most real-life fraud cases that are brought as class actions.

In most fraud claims, however, neither the question of reliance nor the question of loss causation is a common question.  In most cases, the reliance that would have to be proved for any class member to prevail would be the class member’s own reliance.  Unless the case involves a situation in which no reasonable person would take any action other than the one that the plaintiff claims could have been taken for class members to avoid injury, reliance is probably not a common question.  Moreover, the existence of a common injury is not necessarily a common question in most cases because the existence of some better alternative often can only be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  

For example, take away the common agent and change the hypothetical as follows, and the common issues go away: A seed salesman sells corn seed to 1000 farmers for $1 per thousand, and falsely claims, uniformly to each of the farmers, that the seeds grow ears of white-colored corn, but truthfully claims that the corn will be drought-tolerant and delicious.  In fact, they the seeds grow ears of slightly yellowish corn.  

Though the fraudulent statement was uniform, the lack of a common agent to rely on it injects problems with reliance and causation that should prevent this claim from being tried (fairly anyway) on a class-wide basis.  Proof of reliance will require that the color of the corn was an important attribute to each farmer, and that he would not have purchased the seeds if they had been advertised as being off-white.  Many farmers may not care what color the corn is, as long as it is drought-tolerant and delicious, and the only way to resolve the reliance question for sure is to adjudicate each farmer’s claim individually.  Proof of causation will require, in addition, that a given farmer had an alternative source of white corn available.  If not, and the farmer would have been compelled to buy the supplier’s seeds regardless of the color, then the false statement, even it if was relied upon, caused no injury.  Note that even in the hypothetical that includes a common agent, causation of injury may not be common because there may be farmers on whose behalf the agent would have been forced to buy the supplier’s seeds regardless of the false statement about color.  These same issues come up any time there was not one obvious course of action and palatable alternative that all members of a would-be class would take if the true facts had been revealed.

So, Justice Bryer’s hypothetical may illustrate the type of fraud claim that would be appropriate for a class action, the unique facts in the example can also serve to illustrate why many fraud claims should not be certified as class actions.

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The Wal-Mart v. Dukes argument was held as scheduled today.  Here is a Wal-Mart v. Dukes Oral Argument Transcript.  Some initial observations:

  • The beginning of the defendant’s argument was focused on the proper standard for reviewing whether the plaintiff had sufficiently common evidence of a uniform policy.
  • It was not until later in the defendant’s argument that the questioning turned to the question certified for review: whether a Rule 23(b)(2) class action should be certified in a class action seeking monetary relief in the form of back pay.  Questioning on this issue continued into the plaintiff’s argument, but then returned to questions of what standard should apply more generally in certifying an employment discrimination class action.
  • On balance, the tougher questioning of the defendant’s attorney was from the more liberal faction of the court, and the tougher question of the plaintiff’s attorney was from the more conservative faction of the court. 
  • However, to the extent the questions can be a sign of a potential split in the Court (always a dangerous assumption), it is interesting that Justice Ginsburg seemed particularly troubled by the plaintiff’s position on the applicability of Rule 23(b)(2) to the back pay claims.
  • Overall, the sentiment seemed to be against allowing Rule 23(b)(2) to be used as a vehicle to resolve individual back pay claims (again, recognizing that the nature and tone of oral argument questions is not a very reliable way to predict outcomes).  However, there seemed to be some support among several Justices for the possibility that a case could be certified under Rule 23(b)(2) for injunctive relief only, on the ground that hiring policies are discriminatory because they are excessively subjective.

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