Tuesday, August 16, 2016
As our readers surely know, despite its bulky name, multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) is in the news constantly: litigation over Volkswagen's defeat device, GM’s ignition defect, Toyota’s sudden acceleration, asbestos, and medical drugs and devices (pelvic mesh, Yasmin/Yaz, NuvaRing, Vioxx) are just a few of the higher profile MDLs.
MDL now comprises over 36% of the entire federal civil caseload (that number leaps to 45.6% if you exclude social security and prisoner cases), yet courts and Congress have made it more difficult for these cases to proceed as certified class actions. This litigation doesn’t go away without class certification as many tort reformers believe, it simply persists with far less judicial oversight.
Few rules and little appellate oversight on the one hand, plus multi-million dollar “common-benefit fees” for the lead lawyers who shepherd these cases toward settlement on the other may tempt a cadre of repeat attorneys to fill in the gaps in ways that further their own self interest. (Because there are so many cases involved, judges appoint "lead lawyers" to litigate and negotiate on behalf of the entire group of plaintiffs; if their individual attorney isn’t a lead lawyer, then that attorney has little say in how the litigation is conducted.)
To shed light on some of these issues, my co-author, Margaret Williams, and I have posted a revised version of our paper, Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network (forthcoming, Cornell Law Review) on SSRN.
We collected data on who the lead attorneys are (plaintiff and defense side) in all product-liability and sales practice cases that were pending on the MDL docket as of May 2013 (those cases covered a 22-year span), built an adjacency matrix, and employed a two-mode (actors and events) projection of a bipartite network (also known as an affiliation network) to graph the ties between lawyers judicially appointed to leadership positions (the actors) in multidistrict proceedings (the events). (For the non-statistically inclined, this social network analysis is somewhat akin to the kind that Facebook has popularized.)
The point was to reveal what the naked eye cannot see: how those attorneys and MDLs connect to one another. (Detailed, searchable PDFs of the social network with the players and litigations are available here). We also collected data on the publicly available nonclass settlements that repeat players brokered, reviewed news and media accounts of those litigations, and analyzed the common-benefit fees awarded to the lead plaintiffs' lawyers.
Here’s a summary of our key findings:
- Repeat players are prevalent on both the plaintiff and the defense side.
- No matter what measure of centrality we used, a key group of 5 attorneys maintained their elite position within the network.These 5 attorneys may act as gatekeepers or toll takers, for example. This matters considerably, for lead lawyers control the proceeding and negotiate settlements. They can bargain for what may matter to them most: defendants want to end lawsuits, and plaintiffs’ lawyers want to recover for their clients and receive high fee awards along the way.
- By identifying settlement provisions that one might argue principally benefit the repeat players, we examined the publicly available nonclass settlements these elite lawyers designed. Over a 22-year span, we were unable to find any deal that didn’t feature at least one closure provision for defendants, and likewise found that nearly all settlements contained some provision that increased lead plaintiffs’ lawyers’ common-benefit fees. Bargaining for attorneys’ fees with one’s opponent is a stark departure from traditional contingent-fee principles, which are designed to tie lawyers’ fees to their clients’ outcome.
- Based on the evidence available to us, we found reason to be concerned that when repeat players influence the practices and norms that govern multidistrict proceedings—when they “play for rules,” so to speak—the rules they develop may principally benefit them at the plaintiffs’ expense.
A highly concentrated plaintiff and defense bar is nothing new, nor is the disquiet about where that concentration may lead. As scholars have long recognized, repeat play tends to regress our adversarial system from its confrontational roots toward a state of cooperation.
In the criminal context, prosecutors and public defenders routinely work together through plea bargaining, leading them toward mutual accommodation; incumbents form a primary community of interest, whereas clients present secondary challenges and contingencies. As such, adversary features are often overshadowed by regulars’ quid pro quo needs. As Professor Jerome Skolnick has explained, those working group relationships become a social control problem only once they reach a “tipping point where cooperation may shade off into collusion, thereby subverting the ethical basis of the system.” (Social Control in the Adversary System, 11 J. Conflict Resol. 52, 53 (1969)).
As I’ve argued in a separate article, Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation, we've reached that tipping point in MDL, and these circumstances warrant regulation. Even though MDL judges are the ones who entrench and enable repeat players, they also are integral to the solution.
By tinkering with lead-lawyer selection and compensation methods and instilling automatic remands to a plaintiff’s original court after leaders negotiate master settlements, judges can capitalize on competitive forces already in play. Put simply, the antidote is to reinvigorate competition among plaintiffs’ attorneys and I’ve set forth several specific proposals for doing so in Part III of Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation.
For interested judges, that article's appendix also contains a Pocket Guide for Leadership Appointment and Compensation, a Sample Leadership Application form, and sample orders for suggesting remand and replacing leaders who ignore adequate representation concerns.