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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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According to Pete Kasperowicz at The Hill’s Floor Action Blog, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have introduced legislation in Congress intended to reverse limitations on employment discrimination class actions recognized in the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes

A fact sheet available on Senator Franken’s official website describes the key provisions of the bill as follows:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Restoration Act will restore workers’ ability to challenge discriminatory employment practices on a class-wide basis. It adds to Title 28 of the U.S. Code a new section 4201, which does the following:

  • Section 4201(a) creates a new judicial procedure – called “group actions” – that workers can use when bringing employment discrimination cases. The requirements for establishing a group action are the same as the pre-Dukes requirements for maintaining a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure—namely, clarifying that the merits of the case need not be proven to certify the group action.
  • Section 4201(b) provides that group actions can be used regardless of whether the group is challenging an objective employment practice, a subjective employment practice, or a mixed employment practice (such as the use of a written test to qualify for an interview).  It also provides that employers’ written anti-discrimination policies can be considered as a defense to certification only insofar as the employer demonstrates that the policy actually has been implemented in practice.
  • Section 4201(c) says that the group actions authorized by this section are subject to the same procedural requirements as class actions authorized by Rule 23. These include notice and opt-out requirements. This section also preserves the application of the Class Action Fairness Act and the availability of appeals.
  • Section 4201(d) says that courts can use statistical analyses and any other procedures they deem necessary to provide justice to prevailing plaintiffs.

It does not appear from Senator Franken’s fact sheet that the bill has significant bipartisan support, and having just been introduced, there is no telling how far it will go towards becoming law in its present form.  However, we’ll keep an eye on any future developments here at CAB.

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It’s not too late to sign up for next Wednesday’s Strafford Publications Webinar, Statistics in Class Action Litigation: Admissibility, Expert Witnesses and Impact of Wal-Mart v. Dukes.  Click the link on the title of the program for more information and to sign up.

For anyone looking for sneak preview, here are the program slides, which were are the result of the joint efforts of my co-presenters, Brian Troyer of Thompson Hine and Rick Preston of Hitachi Consulting, and me.  We hope you can make it!

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Robert H. Klonoff, Dean of the Lewis and Clark Law School and author of the quintessential class action compendium, Class Actions and Other Multi-Party Litigation in a Nutshell, has authored an excellent research paper entitled The Decline of Class Actions.  The paper which will be published in Volume 90 of the Washington University Law Review, but a draft is now available for free download at SSRN.  Dean Klonoff asserts that recent trends in class action decisions, which make it more difficult for plaintiffs to obtain class certification, have undermined the “compensation, deterrence, and efficiency” objectives underlying Rule 23.  He urges policymakers, rulemakers, and the courts to take a “more balanced approach to classwide adjudication.”

Whether or not you agree with Dean Klonoff’s criticisms from an academic point of view, the article is a must read for anyone looking for a good synopsis of the key developments in the U.S. class action law over the past several years.  From the Class Action Fairness Act to the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Dukes and Concepcion to slightly less glamorous topics such as the necessity of a precise class definition, Klonoff’s article is impressive in its comprehensive analysis of relevant recent developments.

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I’m not sure that WordPress site statististics would be admissible in a class action as proof of readers’ interest, but the recent CAB site stats do appear to show some level of interest in the topic of statistics in class actions. 

So, readers may be interested in an upcoming Strafford Publications webinar in which I will be participating on May 23, 2012, entitled Statistics in Class Action Litigation: Admissibility, Expert Witnesses and Impact of Wal-Mart v. Dukes.  For those of you who think that title sounds familiar, this is an update of a Strafford webinar held last year shortly after the Dukes decision was announced.  Find out if our predictions then were at all close to the mark. 

Here’s a link to the Strafford page for the webinar, where you can get more information and register:

http://www.straffordpub.com/products/statistics-in-class-action-litigation-admissibility-expert-witnesses-and-impact-of-wal-mart-v-dukes-2012-05-23

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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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Editor’s Note: This is a joint post for ClassActionBlawg and the newly-launched Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  Be sure to bookmark the Baker Hostetler blog at www.classactionlawsuitdefense.com for the latest in class action trends and decisions.

A common temptation in class action litigation is to fashion procedures based on “rough justice” to avoid overburdening the courts or attempting to redress alleged mass harm.  Over the past decade, as storage and computing power have increased exponentially, it has become increasingly tempting to use statistical sampling as a proxy for the actual adjudication of facts in class or mass actions.  The idea is that if the facts regarding a statistically significant subset of a class can be evaluated for a particular issue or set of issues, then the results of the evaluation of the sample can be extrapolated across the rest of the class.

One jurisdiction in particular where this approach has gained traction has been California.  There, the use of statistical sampling has been recognized for several years as a means of apportioning damages in some cases.   See Bell v. Farmers Ins. Exchange (2004) 115 Cal.App.4th 715 [9 Cal.Rptr.3d 544] (Bell III).   However, in recent years, plaintiffs have attempted to use statistical sampling as proof of liability, not simply as a means of apportioning damages when liability has been established or (as in Bell III) it is not contested.  This approach was harshly criticized in Part III of Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, (notably, this was the portion of the Dukes opinion with which all nine justices concurred):

The Court of Appeals believed that it was possible to replace such proceedings with Trial by Formula. A sample set of the class members would be selected, as to whom liability for sex discrimination and the backpay owing as a result would be determined in depositions supervised by a master. The percentage of claims determined to be valid would then be applied to the entire remaining class, and the number of (presumptively) valid claims thus derived would be multiplied by the average backpay award in the sample set to arrive at the entire class recovery— without further individualized proceedings. [internal citation omitted].  We disapprove that novel project.

Earlier this year, in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association, No. A125557 & A126827 (Cal. App., Feb.  6, 2012), a division of the California Court of Appeal agreed with the above-quoted dicta in Dukes and rejected an attempt to use statistical sampling to prove liability an a wage and hour class action.  The plaintiff had presented testimony from statistician Richard Drogin, who had also served as an expert for the plaintiffs in Dukes.  Drogin presented a random sampling analysis that purported to estimate the percentage of the defendant’s employees that had been misclassified for purposes of entitlement to overtime pay.  The trial court adopted a sampling approach that was modeled on (but not exactly the same as) Drogin’s proposal.  

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court’s approach was improper and that it violated defendant’s due process rights for a variety of reasons, including that 1) the use of statistics to estimate the total number of employees who had been misclassified deprived the defendant an opportunity to present relevant evidence and individualized defenses as to individual plaintiffs’ alleged misclassification; 2) the court’s statistical methodology was flawed because it arbitrarily used a sample of 20 employees without any basis for concluding that the sample was statistically significant; 3) even the use of sampling as to damages was improper because the methodology used had an unacceptably high margin of error.

The Duran opinion is worthy of careful study for anyone considering the use of statistics in class certification proceedings, both in the employment context and in other types of class actions.  The opinion examines many of the due process problems with allowing proof of liability through statistical sampling, the most significant of which is that it tends to deprive a defendant of presenting evidence in its defense that it would be able to present in an individual case.  It also provides an additional illustration of what the Supreme Court considered an improper “trial by formula” in Dukes.

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