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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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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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For those who practice in the area of insurance-related class actions, I highly recommend an article posted yesterday by Robinson and Cole Partner Wystan Ackerman, who is the primary contributor to his firm’s Insurance Class Actions Insider blog.  The article, Standing to Sue in Insurance Class Action Addressed By Second Circuit, summarizes the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision late last month in Mahon v. Ticor Title Ins. Co., No. 10-3005-cv, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 12947 (2d Cir. Jun. 25, 2012), which held that the “juridical link” doctrine could not be used to give a plaintiff who bought insurance from one insurance company standing to represent a class of insureds who purchased policies from the defendant’s sister companies.

The Mahon decision is an important development in the area of insurance class action law.  Insurance companies are commonly organized into holding company systems.  (The primary reason for this is not to make it more difficult to sue them, but rather so that they can comply with individual states’ domicile, risk-based capital, rate filing, and  other regulatory requirements, as well as to allow the introduction of new products without disrupting the expectations of existing policyholders.)  As a result, the same insurance brand can be sold through a number of different underwriting companies.  At the risk of grossly oversimplifying the concept, the “juridical link” argument, as it has been raised in the insurance class action context, is that companies that are linked together through common ownership, brand, business practices, or sharing of resources can be sued in the same lawsuit by a representative plaintiff that has a claim against any one of them.

Those who prosecute or defend insurance class actions on a regular basis will recognize that the juridical link argument is nothing new.  Use of the juridical doctrine as a tactic to sue multiple, related defendants in a single class action hit its peak in the middle part of the last decade.  However, the tactic has waned in recent years as plaintiffs’ lawyers realized that it was much more efficient to simply round up a separate class representative for each underwriting company than to spend their time and effort briefing the complex procedural and constitutional issues implicated by the juridical link doctrine. 

Even so, as the recentness of the Mahon decision suggests, the argument has not gone away for good, and practical considerations in any given case can make it a tactic worth pursuing.  And, if the doctrine is on the comeback trail as a litigation tactic, Mahon provides an arrow in the quiver of defense attorneys for defeating it.

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David Lat posted an article on the legal industry blog Above the Law yesterday that caught my eye.  Lat’s post, entitled Benchslap of the Day: Second Circuit Rebukes Rakoffdiscusses the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ per curium decision granting a stay pending the appeal of the lower court’s refusal to approve the settlement in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-5227-cv (2d Cir., Mar. 15, 2012).  Although the case is an SEC enforcement action and not a class action, I would argue that the following sentiment from the Second Circuit’s opinion applies with equal force in the class action context:

It is commonplace for settlements to include no binding admission of liability. A settlement is by definition a compromise. We know of no precedent that supports the proposition that a settlement will not be found to be fair, adequate, reasonable, or in the public interest unless liability has been conceded or proved and is embodied in the judgment. We doubt whether it lies within a court’s proper discretion to reject a settlement on the basis that liability has not been conclusively determined.

There is a corollary to this statement, which holds that a settlement does not have to fully compensate alleged victims in order to be fair and reasonable.  Too often, I hear statements by the media, members of the public, and even lawyers and judges, that are critical of a class action settlement because it does not fully compensate the members of a class or because it does not force a defendant to fully pay for the alleged harm.  As the Second Circuit panel’s opinion reminds us, a settlement is a compromise.  Except perhaps in the rare case where liability has already been proven, it is not unfair or unreasonable that a class action settlement does not provide full relief for the alleged victims of some as-yet unproven wrong.  You can bet that I will be citing this decision the next time I face that sort of argument in a class action settlement.

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Alison Frankel, whose On the Case blog is featured in the Thomson Reuters News and Insight section, posted this interesting article today discussing a novel alternative to the class action as a device to resolve mass disputes.  The procedural device in question is Article 77 of the New York State Code, which allows a trustee to seek court approval of decisions relating to a trust.  Frankel’s article today offers an update on proceedings brought under Article 77 seeking approval of an agreement between institutional investors and the trustee of hundreds of residential mortgage-securitization trusts, which had created in order to allow banks to raise funds in order to offer residential mortgages to consumers.  If approved, the settlement would resolve the claims of not only the institutional investors who reached the settlement with the trustee, but also potential claims of other investors in the trusts.  Thus, Article 77 essentially provides a means of creating a global settlement of all investor’s claims, without allowing the opportunity to opt out, which would have been available if the agreement had been presented as a proposed class action settlement. 

Frankel has done an excellent job of summarizing the issues in the case as well as today’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that the federal courts lack jurisdiction over the case under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) as a result of the securities exception in 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(9)(C) and 1453(d)(3), so I won’t re-summarize the article here but simply commend it to your reading.  The case is BlackRock Fin. Mgmt. Inc. v. The Segregated Account of Ambac Assur. Corp., 11-5309-cv(L), (2d Cir., Feb. 27, 2012).

Although the use of Article 77 to create a binding settlement that does not require an opportunity to opt out may be a novel strategy, the case highlights an often-overlooked option that may be available in any class action litigation involving a trust, benefits plan, or other fund with a custodian or trustee.  This would include certain banking and securities cases or class actions filed under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) against a party other than the trustee.  Rather than having to negotiate with class action lawyers, it may be possible in these contexts to come to a global resolution of a dispute by negotiating with the trustee and then seeking court approval of that agreement.  Even if a class action is pending, resolution of the dispute with the trustee may provide grounds to defeat class certification on superiority grounds, since a settlement with a party having a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the fund can be an adequate and significantly more efficient means of resolving any dispute.

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Two readers sent me tips yesterday on important decisions from the Second and Third Circuit Courts of Appeals that will be of interest to class action practitioners:

First, John G. Papianou of the Philadelphia firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP forwarded a copy of the Third Circuit’s decision in Long v. Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc., No. 11-1554 (3d Cir., Jan. 24, 2012).  The Third Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision (summarized in this February 14, 2011 CAB Post) holding that 1) the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) prohibits a merchant from printing a consumer’s expiration month (as opposed to the entire expiration date) on a credit card receipt but that 2) the standard for a willful violation of FAСTA is one of objective reasonableness, meaning that if a merchant acted in conformance with a reasonable, albeit erroneous, interpretation of the statute, it cannot be held liable for a willful violation, regardless of its subjective knowledge or intent.

Second, New York securities class action lawyer Noah L. Shube forwarded a copy of the Second Circuit’s highly anticipated decision in In Re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871 (2d Cir., Feb. 1, 2012).  In that case, the Second Circuit reaffirmed its conclusion invalidating a class arbitration waiver on federal statutory grounds.  The case had been vacated and remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider in light of its recent decision in  AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  Yesterday’s decision follows a previous ruling finding the clause unenforceable, which had previously been vacated, remanded for reconsideration in light of the Court’s decision in Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010), only to be reaffirmed by the Second Circuit in a March 8, 2011 ruling (discussed in this March 9, 2011 CAB entry).  In yesterday’s decision, the Second Circuit relied on the federal law of arbitrability, a concept not squarely addressed in either of the Supreme Court’s recent class arbitration decisions, in holding the class arbitration waiver unenforceable.

The Baker Hostetler class action team is putting together a more detailed alert discussing yesterday’s decision in In re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, and I’ll post a link to that alert as soon as it is available.

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As I have noted in a series of posts recently, class action settlement objectors should not be taken lightly.  (See this August 1, 2011 post and others cited within).  Last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals offered an excellent case in point in its decision in In re Literary Works in Electronic Databases Copyright Litigation, No. 05-5943-cv(L) (2d Cir., Aug. 17, 2011), in which a two-judge majority sided with ten objectors in vacating the approval of a class action settlement involving copyright infringement claims by freelance authors against various publishers who provide content in online databases.   Based in part on principles limiting settlement class certification that were recognized in two well-known Supreme Court opinions from the late 1990s, Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 620 (1997) and Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815 (1999), the court held that the interests of various subclasses within a proposed settlement class had interests that were too divergent to be adequately represented by a single group of class representatives and class counsel.  Andrew Trask has a good summary and some insightful commentary about the decision and its potential future impact on his blog, Class Action Countermeasures.  Alison Frankel offers additional perspective in her column for Thompson Reuters, On the Case.

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