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Posts Tagged ‘picking off’

Thomson Reuters contributor Alison Frankel interviewed me for an article she posted today on the class action cases pending during the current Supreme Court term.  Here is a link to her article.  For those who are not familiar with Frankel’s On the Case Blog, be sure to add it to your regular reading list.  She is one of the best in the business.

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The October 2015 United States Supreme Court Term is already well underway, and there are several cases on the docket that could have a significant impact on class action practice.  Here is a summary of the three cases this term that I think could have the biggest impact on class action practice going forward:

Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, No. 14-857

The Campbell-Ewald case addresses the tactic known as “picking-off” named plaintiffs in class actions, and deals with the question whether an offer of judgment that would provide a named plaintiff complete relief is sufficient to moot the plaintiffs’ claim, even if it is not accepted.  The case follows the Court’s 2013 decision in Genesis Healthcare v. Symczyk, where the majority opinion assumed, without deciding, that an offer of judgment had mooted the named plaintiffs’ claim in an FLSA collective action, based on a finding that the issue had been waived below.

Oral argument in Campbell-Ewald was held in October.  Justices Alito, Scalia, and Chief Justice Roberts all displayed open hostility to the plaintiffs’ position that she should be allowed to litigate the case even after the defendant had offered everything she hoped to achieve for herself in the case.  Despite these views, however, it remains to be seen whether a majority of the court will ultimately hold that any unaccepted offer of settlement is sufficient to actually moot the plaintiffs’ claim under Article III, or whether the decision will fall short of reaching that sweeping question.  Some of the questions posed by likely swing voter, Justice Kennedy, suggest that he agrees with his conservative colleagues that a litigant who has been offered full relief should not be permitted to proceed with the case, but other questions reflected a reluctance to treat an unaccepted offer the same as a judgment.  This suggests that the Court’s ultimate decision could turn on a more technical procedural analysis rather than the broader and more abstract question of whether a controversy can ever exist following an offer of full relief, but of course the questions posed during oral argument do not always signal the Court’s ultimate analysis.

When the Supreme Court originally granted cert in Campbell-Ewald, there appeared to be a split in the circuits on this question, but since then, the circuits have become aligned with the view that an unaccepted offer in a proposed class action does not moot the named plaintiffs’ claims.  A contrary ruling by the Supreme Court would revive a powerful tool that defendants could wield to effectively preempt many types of consumer class actions, especially those seeking statutory damages for small individual amounts.

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339

Spokeo has been hailed as a case with the potential to end “no-injury” class actions.  Ostensibly at issue is whether Congress has the power to enact legislation that gives a private plaintiff the right to seek statutory damages despite the lack of any concrete injury.  A decision could therefore potentially have a significant impact on class actions brought under a variety of federal statutes that provide a private right of action to recover statutory damages upon proof of a violation, one that goes beyond the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the statute at issue in Spokeo.

However, during today’s oral argument, much of the questioning focused on whether the named plaintiff had, in fact, suffered an injury by alleging that false information had been published on his credit report, and the extent to which Congress actually intended to limit the private right of action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to persons who could show an actual injury.  It seems likely that the outcome of the case will turn on the majority’s view of those two factors.

Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146

Tyson Foods offers the Court an opportunity to further elaborate on the concept of “trial by formula”, discussed in Justice Scalia’s 2011 opinion in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, as well as the standards governing expert testimony at the class certification phase, which the Court touched upon but did not  ultimately address directly in both Wal-Mart and again in the 2013 decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.  It also raises the question whether it is ever proper to certify a damages class that includes individual plaintiffs that undisputedly lack any injury or damages.

Specifically, the Court granted certiorari on the following two questions:

I. Whether differences among individual class members may be ignored and a class action certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified under the Fair Labor Standards Act, where liability and damages will be determined with statistical techniques that presume all class members are identical to the average observed in a sample; and

II. Whether a class action may be certified or maintained under Rule 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified or maintained under the Fair Labor Standards Act, when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.

Oral argument in Tyson Foods is set for next Monday, November 10.

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Today, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, No. 11–1059, which addresses the practice of “picking off” a named plaintiff in a FLSA collective action by making a full offer of judgment under Rule 68 for the amount of the named plaintiffs’ claim.  In a 5-4 majority opinion authored by Justice Thomas, the Court held that the relation back doctrine does not apply to save the collective action from mootness simply because the named plaintiff also sought relief on behalf of others.  The majority distinguished the case from other decisions applying the relation back doctrine in the Rule 23 context after class certification had been denied, pointing out that a certified class under Rule 23 has an independent legal existence from the named plaintiff.  However, the reasoning of the majority’s decision in Genesis Healthcare Corp. could potentially be applied to support the conclusion that an unaccepted offer of judgment moots even a Rule 23 class action if the offer is accepted or expires prior to a ruling on a motion for class certification one way or the other.

The majority’s decision comes with a major caveat.  The majority declined to address the issue whether a non-accepted offer of judgment actually moots an individual’s claim, despite recognizing a split in the circuits on that issue.  This prompted the following commentary in Justice Kagan’s dissent:

The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so. That is the case here, for reasons I’ll describe. Feel free to relegate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never again arise. . . .  [T]he individual claims in such cases will never become moot, and a court will therefore never need to reach the issue the majority resolves. The majority’s decision is fit for nothing: Aside from getting this case wrong, it serves only to address a make-believe problem. 

Whether Justice Kagan’s cheeky prediction turns out to be prophetic will be up to the lower courts, who are left to decide the underlying question of mootness.  In the short-term, there is little doubt that the Genesis Healthcare decision will prompt a rash of offers of judgment in both FLSA cases and class actions.

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The latest issue of the ABA Section of Litigation magazine Litigation News has a very useful article for class action practitioners entitled Mooting the Class.  The article is authored by Litigation News Associate Editor John W. Joyce. 

The article discusses the various approaches taken in different federal circuits in determining whether settlement with the named class representative renders a class action moot.  The article also includes some helpful practice tips on the subject from seasoned class action practitioners on both sides of the bar.  If you are a defendant considering this tactic, or a plaintiff trying to prevent it, you’d be wise to read this article.

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