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Posts Tagged ‘seventh circuit’

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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Today, Whirlpool and Sears filed petitions for a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court asking seeking review of decisions by the Sixth and Seventh Circuits upholding certification orders in class actions alleging that design defects create a tendency for mold to develop in front-loading washing machines manufactured by the defendants.  The two lower court decisions, which were discussed in this August 23, 2013 CAB Post, are Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Nos. 11-8029, 12-8030 (7th Cir., Aug. 22, 2013) (Posner, J.) and In re Whirlpool Corp. Front‐Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-4188 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013).  Earlier decisions in both cases had previously been vacated and remanded for reconsideration in light of the Court’s decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, and both the Sixth and Seventh Circuits reached the same conclusion on remand: that class certification was proper even though most potential class members were not actually affected by mold in their washing machines.

The issues presented for review in Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler are as follows:

1. Whether the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) is satisfied by the purported “efficiency” of a class trial on one abstract issue, without considering the host of individual issues that would need to be tried to resolve liability and damages and without determining whether the aggregate of common issues predominates over the aggregate of individual issues.

2. Whether a product liability class may be certified where it is undisputed that most members did not experience the alleged defect or harm.

In Whirlpool Corp. v. Glazer the cert petition requests review of the following issues:

1. Whether the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance requirement can be satisfied when the court has not found that the aggregate of common liability issues predominates over the aggregate of individualized issues at trial and when neither injury nor damages can be proven on a classwide basis.

2. Whether a class may be certified when most members have never experienced the alleged defect and both fact of injury and damages would have to be litigated on a member-by-member basis.

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For those readers who may be dissatisfied with my somewhat uneven coverage of all things class action lately, here’s a reminder about a great source for the latest in class action news and trends: the ABA’s Class Actions and Derivative Suits (CADS) Committee Group Page on LinkedIn.  CADS membership is free to all ABA Section of Litigation members.  Participation in the LinkedIn group is a benefit to all CADS members.  For more information on how to join CADS, click here.  For the LinkedIn Group, click here

Some highlights of the content available on the LinkedIn page:

  • A summary of the recent oral argument before the United States Supreme Court in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles
  • Coverage of a recent 7th Circuit decision discussing whether misconduct by putative class counsel requires denial of class certification.
  • Links to articles authored by members in other publications or blogs.
  • Announcements about upcoming CADS events.

And much more…

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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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Last Friday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a significant employment class action decision that may challenge conventional wisdom about the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.   The opinion, authored by respected Judge Richard Posner, is McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., No. 11-3639 (7th Cir., Feb. 24, 2012).

The procedural history of McReynolds is interesting, because the plaintiffs had actually moved for reconsideration of an earlier denial of class certification after the decidedly pro-employer decision in Dukes was announced.  Although the trial court judge was unconvinced to change his earlier decision, he did agree that Dukes presented a good basis for reconsideration of the class action issue, and expressly stated in his decision that he believed the case was a good candidate for an interlocutory appeal under Rule 23(f).

The Seventh Circuit accepted the appeal, and reversed the denial of class certification.  The Seventh Circuit panel recognized that individualized issues would prevent certification of any claims for back pay or damages, but held that certification of the issue of whether the defendant’s challenged employment policies had an adverse impact on members of a protected class would still be appropriate under Rule 23(b)(2), which allows a class to be certified for the purpose of awarding injunctive relief, and Rule 23(c)(4), which allows certification of particular issues.  Essentially, the case would be certified for the purpose of deciding whether the defendant’s challenged policies created a disparate impact to members of a protected class and for the purpose of ruling on plaintiffs’ request to enjoin the practices.  Any claims for back pay, compensatory or punitive damages would then have to be brought as separate proceedings. 

In reaching its conclusion, the court drew a key factual distinction between the practices being challenged in the case before it and the practices that had been challenged in Dukes.  In McReynolds, the practice being challenged was the company-wide policy of “permitting brokers to form their own teams and prescribing criteria for account distributions that favor the already successfulthose who may owe heir success to having been invited to join a successful or promising team.”  The court distinguished this policy, which it characterized as a firm-wide policy of Merrill Lynch, from the allegations in Dukes, which were that the lack of a uniform corporate policy on discrimination created too much discretion in local managers to create locally discriminatory policies.

I’ll be posting more on this decision within the coming week, so stay tuned…

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Having been focused on several other speaking and writing projects recently (in addition to my day job), it’s taken longer than I had hoped to comment on several recent class-action-related decisions by the federal circuit courts of appeals.  Here’s a brief summary of three recent decisions of note:

Washington State v. Chimei Innolux Corp., No. 11-16862 (9th Cir. Oct. 3, 2011) – joining the Fourth Circuit in holding that a parens patriae action brought by state attorneys general or other state officials for the benefit of the state’s citizens is not a “class action” for the purposes of removal under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA).

Klier v. Elf Atochem N. Am., Inc., No. 10-20305 (5th Cir., Sept 27, 2011) – holding in the absence of an express provision in the settlement agreement to the contrary that unclaimed funds should be distributed pro rata to class members who participated in the settlement as opposed to being given to charity as a cy pres distribution.  Take note of the concurrence by Judge Edith H. Jones, which makes a strong argument that in the absence of any agreement to the contrary or express waiver of the right to recover unclaimed funds, the equities favor returning those funds to the defendant rather than paying them to the class or distributing them to charity.

Esurance Ins. Co. v. Keeling, No. 11-8018 (7th Cir., Sept. 26, 2011) – holding that when punitive damages are at issue, the correct standard is whether it would be “legally impossible” for the plaintiff to recover an amount of punitive damages that, when combined with the amount of compensatory damages sought, would exceed the $5 million amount in controversy threshold under CAFA, but concluding that it was not legally impossible under Illinois law, even though it was unlikely, that $4.4 million in punitive damages could be awarded in a case where the compensatory damages were slightly more than $600,000.

A great resource for more timely commentary and analysis on recent class action decision in the federal courts of appeals is Alison Frankel’s blog On the Case.

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The Baker Hostetler website has a new Executive Alert discussing the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Kartman v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co., Case no. 09-1725, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 2830, and its potential implications.  Kartman addressed, among other things, the applicability of Rule 23(b)(2) to consumer class actions in which the ultimate goal is to recover money for class members.  According to the Executive Alert:

This decision is significant in its rejection of the creative attempt to certify a class of consumer claims for injunctive relief, the analysis of the “finality” and “appropriateness” elements of Rule 23(b)(2) for which little authority exists, and the willingness to delve into the merits of the underlying claims to determine that class certification was not appropriate.

Congratulations to my partner, Mark Johnson, and the rest of his team in Columbus on their victory in the case on behalf of State Farm.

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