Tuesday, November 18, 2014
By Howard Erichson
Tomorrow in Philadelphia, lawyers for the NFL and lawyers for former football players will try to persuade Judge Anita Brody to approve their settlement of claims that the League concealed chronic risks of concussions and failed to protect players. The judge, the players, and the public should view the settlement with suspicion.
We have grown so accustomed to "settlement class actions" that we have lost sight of what is strange and troubling about them. Class actions serve an essential function in our legal system by empowering claimants in mass disputes, and I reject the knee-jerk criticisms of class actions that I hear too often. But when the class action tool is exploited by defendants to buy peace on the cheap, and when class members are harmed by the alignment of interests between defendants and class counsel, I feel the need to speak up.
Who reached this agreement with the NFL? Not the thousands of former football players. The deal was struck by lawyers who purported to represent the players but who had not actually gotten the go-ahead to litigate for the class. To litigate a class action, lawyers must get the class certified. But in this case, the lawyers negotiated their settlement before the court certified the class.
It makes sense that the NFL would want to do it this way. By negotiating before class certification, the NFL knew that the plaintiffs’ lawyers lacked the leverage that comes with being able to say, “See you at trial.” And it makes sense that the players’ lawyers would go along. They stand to make $112 million plus up to five percent of each award going forward. If these lawyers failed to reach agreement with the NFL, they risked being cut out if the League struck a deal with someone else.
In a “settlement class action” like the NFL deal, lawyers ask the court to certify the class for settlement only, as opposed to a standard class action that can be litigated or settled. This ought to be the first question people ask when they hear about a class action settlement: Was the class certified for litigation? If not, then class members are especially vulnerable to exploitation.
It is not an obscure problem. As I explain in The Problem of Settlement Class Actions, settlement class actions have become more common than standard class actions. And while good settlements exist, we see mischief too often. Three weeks ago, the Seventh Circuit heard arguments in Pearson v. NBTY, a settlement class action about false labeling for glucosamine supplements. Among numerous other problems, the lawyers’ fees were more than double the amount actually paid to the class. The district court's opinion approving the settlement is disturbing, and Ted Frank's argument for the objectors is powerful. And in Lane v. Facebook, a settlement class action involving claims that Facebook illegally shared information about members’ Internet activity, Facebook paid over $2 million to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, $6.5 million to a foundation that Facebook would partly control, and zero to the class members. Facebook discontinued the challenged program but could reinstate it under a different name. Facebook wiped away its liability while the class members got nothing of value. Chief Justice Roberts was horrified.
Compared to these settlements, the NFL deal looks pretty good. For some players, it offers immediate compensation, and for others it offers long-term insurance. Judge Brody initially rejected the settlement but then gave it preliminary approval after the NFL removed a cap on the fund. But the dynamic of settlement class actions should make us ask questions. The settlement rewards certain diagnoses (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS) over others (CTE). It pays for cognitive impairment but not mood disorders. The objectors make a strong argument that these items are crucial. The settlement imposes a registration requirement and other hurdles that objectors say are intended only to reduce claims. I can see why the deal has drawn so much fire and why Public Citizen sought to intervene.
The truth is, it is always hard to judge whether a class settlement is fair. A settlement, after all, is a compromise. There is no magic formula by which a football fan or a federal judge can evaluate whether the settlement is good enough. What we can ask, however, is whether the settlement resulted from a fair process, a negotiation on a level playing field. The answer is no.
The concern in every settlement class action is that lawyers may have struck the deal not because it was the best the class members could have gotten, but because it was the best the lawyers could get for themselves. If the settlement proves inadequate, then the lawyers get rich, the League gets off easy, and the football players – damaged forever – are left without the money they need to take care of themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.
There is, of course, something the judge can do about it. Reject this settlement, and on a proper motion, certify the class for litigation as well as settlement. Rest assured, there will be a better offer on the table. Although the judge would still face the difficult task of evaluating a class settlement and would still have to be on the lookout for abuse, at least she would know that the players weren’t disempowered from the start.
Friday, October 31, 2014
The Ohio jury's verdict yesterday was in favor of the defendant, Whirlpool, in the moldy washing machine issue class action. BNA has the report.
In re Whirlpool Corp. Front-Loading Washer Prods. Liab. Litig. (Glazer v. Whirlpool Corp.), N.D. Ohio, No. 08-65001, verdict10/30/14
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
The papers in the Deepwater Horizon Settlement cert petition are mostly in. The case is BP Exploration & Production Inc. v. Lake Eugenie Land & Development, Inc. -- you can find the documents on SCOTUSBLOG.
BP's basic argument is that the settlement approved by Judge Barbier in the mass tort class action against it was ultra vires because it contemplated giving money to people who were, according to BP, not injured. The plaintiffs respond that BP is just trying to overturn a settlement it championed through the backdoor now that its unhappy with the deal.
One of the most interesting briefs filed in this dispute is from Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw both the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. The latter was the entity that settled claims arising out of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill immediately after it happened.
Feinberg is a world class mediator and one of the most prominent figures in the mass tort world. The class action settlement that BP is now disputing is the successor to the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which he headed. What the class action did that the Gulf Coast Claims Facility could not do is give BP global peace. In other words, all civil claims against BP arising out of the oil spill are precluded by that class action settlement.
Feinberg's brief asks the Supreme Court to grant cert. The argument is basically the following: claim facilities like the ones he ran apply a causation requirement that parallels that of the tort system. But, he argues, the settlement agreed to by BP does not include as strong a causation requirement, and this threatens the possibility of future compensation funds to solve mass torts. The brief explains:
..the Fifth Circuit's decisions in this case affecting the causation standard, if permitted to stand, threaten to make these sorely needed alterantives to mass tort litigation unlikely to be replicated. Future funds would either adopt the Fifth Circuit's new standard, thereby threatening to overwhelm the claims process with spurious claims, or continue to require causation, thereby channeling claimants toward litigation where the burden of proof is lower. (Feinberg petition at 6).
This argument seems to me to be just wrong. The settlement imposed a looser causation requirement than tort law requires. But that causation requirement was agreed to in order for claimants collect under the settlement; it is not the causation requirement of the substantive law. In the future, if a defendant perferred to create a settlement fund of the Feinberg-ian variety, they could do so and rest "easy" that the causation requirement of the substantive law remains as it always was. (Whether the requirement of specific causation is the best requirement from a normative point of view in mass tort litigation I leave to another day).
There is no risk that this settlement will affect future litigation because it is a settlement - the defendant participated in crafting and agreed to the causation requirement applied in the claims facility created by the settlement. One might say it is a form of private lawmaking only applicable to these parties. If a future mass tort defendant doesn't like this type of loosened causation requirement, they don't have to agree to it. In fact, they are free to say "we'll litigate every case" as Merck did for five years in the Vioxx mass tort and then in each and every case the standard causation requirement of the tort law in the relevant jurisdiction will apply.
And what of the argument championed by BP that the settlement pays people who were not injured in fact? Welcome to the world of settlements, Dorothy. What happens in a settlement is this: each party has a sense of what the case is "worth" - that is, the likely result at trial. They discount that amount by the risk of loss. Then they substract from that discounted amount their transactions costs (the costs of litigation). If the resulting number is close for both parties, they settle. See Steven Shavell, Foundations of the Economic Analysis of Law, 401-407 (2004). If they settle, they don't litigate. When they don't litigate, there is no trial.
A settlement means that the plaintiff never has to prove causation, or any other element of her cause of action. If the BP settlment violates Article III because plaintiffs didn't prove their legal entitlements, then every settlement violates Article III. The reason is that in no settlement does plaintiff ever prove that they are entitled to compensation because the very purpose of the settlement is to avoid trial. A plaitniff's entitlement at settlement is always uncertain. If settlements in general are constitutional, then so is this one.
A class action settlement is different than an ordinary settlement because it requires judicial approval. But does that judicial approval require that plaintiff establish injury? Here is the requirement for judicial approval of class action settlements: "If the settlement would bind class members," then the court needs to determine at a fairness hearing that the settlement is "fair, reasonable and adequate." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e)(2). The reason that a fairness hearing is only required "if the settlement woudl bind class members" is that the purpose of the hearing and approval process is to protect absent class members who are to be bound, but are not before the court to state their objections. This requirement is not meant to protect defendants, who are certainly well able to defend their interests and state their objections before the court.
And what was the benefit to BP? Why would BP enter into such a settlement? They wanted global peace. Only a class action settlement can provide that. They were willing to pay a high price for global peace at the time. Now things are different for BP, time has passed and it is in a better position than it was when it made this agreement, but that doesn't make the agreement unconstitutional or violative of the class action rule.
I hope the Supreme Court does not grant certiorari because the Fifth Circuit correctly rejected these claims. The ideas that underly the BP cert petition don't make sense in a litigation system that permits settlement. And they don't make sense under modern jurisprudential understanding of what a right is. People can sue when they think they have a right that has been violated. If the lawsuit goes to trial, then plaintiff will have to meet their burden of proving that they in fact (1) have a right and (2) it was violated. (Actually, they will likely have to show that they have a colorable case long before then). At the beginning of the litigation these things are uncertain. Uncertainty is the space in which settlements happen.
NYU's new Center on Civil Justice is hosting a conference on November 7 titled "The Future of Class Action Litigation: A View from the Consumer Class." Here's a bit more information for those in the area who might be interested (I understand there will be up to 6 CLE hours available):
Co-hosted with the NYU Journal of Law & Business
Keynote Address by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Friday, November 7, 2014
REGISTER HERE. Up to 6 hours of New York State CLE credit will be available to both experienced and newly admitted attorneys under the Areas of Professional Practice Category.
NYU School of Law
Vanderbilt Hall, Greenberg Lounge
40 Washington Square South
Have consumer class actions run their course? Once, they were praised for increasing access to justice by compensating "small claims held by small people." They were also seen as a form of regulation, because they allowed private enforcement of the law by overcoming the economics of small-stakes individual litigation. This view was so widely accepted that the Supreme Court described these "negative value" suits as "the very core of the class action mechanism."
Now, consumer class actions face serious criticism for failing to provide compensation for class members or to achieve effective market regulation. Courts and commentators have questioned whether class members or society benefit from these cases. Perhaps as a result, it is harder to certify a consumer class action today than at any time since the adoption of modern Rule 23 in 1966.
This conference will explore whether consumer class actions deserve the criticism—or the praise—that they have received. Participants will discuss a broad range of issues about the recent development of the law of consumer class actions. The conference will also consider what the criticism of consumer class actions means for the future of class actions more generally. If "the very core" of class actions goes away, what will be left?
8:30 - 9:00 am - Registration
(Registration will take place just outside of Greenberg Lounge)
9:00 - 9:15 am - Welcoming Remarks
Introduction – Peter L. Zimroth, Director of the Center on Civil Justice
Remarks - Dean Trevor W. Morrison, NYU School of Law
9:15 - 10:30 am: Panel 1 - The Current State of the Consumer Class Action
Moderator: Samuel Issacharoff, Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law and Faculty Co-Director, Center on Civil Justice, NYU School of Law
When Peace is Not the Goal of a Class Action Settlement
D. Theodore Rave, Assistant Professor of Law, University of Houston Law Center
The Identifiable Consumer: The Ascertainability Doctrine and Rule 68 Offers as Impediments to the Class
Myriam Gilles, Professor of Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
Comments: Andrew Pincus, Mayer Brown LLP
10:30 - 10:45 am - Coffee Break
10:45 am - 12:00 pm: Panel 2 - Reforming the Consumer Class Action
Moderator: Troy A. McKenzie, Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director, Center on Civil Justice, NYU School of Law
Constructing Issue Classes
Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, Associate Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law
Compensation in Consumer Class Actions: Data and Reform
Brian T. Fitzpatrick, 2014-15 FedEx Research Professor of Law, Vanderbilt Law School (with Robert C. Gilbert, , Grossman Roth)
Comments: Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
12:00 - 1:00 pm - Lunch
1:00 - 2:15 pm: Panel 3 - Alternatives to the Consumer Class Action
Moderator: Michael S. Barr, Professor of Law, University of Michigan Law School
Contract Procedure, Regulatory Breakdown
David L. Noll, Assistant Professor of Law, Rutgers University School of Law – Newark
Government Compensation and the Class Action
Adam Zimmerman, Associate Professor of Law, Loyola Law School
Comments: Mark P. Goodman, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
2:15 - 2:30 PM: Break
2:30 - 3:45 PM: Panel 4 - Roundtable Discussion: Consumer Class Actions and the Future of the Class Action
Moderator: Arthur R. Miller, University Professor and Faculty Co-Director, Center on Civil Justice, NYU School of Law
- Sheila A. Birnbaum, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP
- Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
- Charles Delbaum, National Consumer Law Center
- Andrew Pincus, Mayer Brown LLP
- Hon. Lee H. Rosenthal, US District Court for the Southern District of Texas
4:00 - 4:45 pm: Keynote Address
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Introduction by Arthur R. Miller
4:45 - 5:00 PM: Closing Remarks by Peter Zimroth
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Professor Neal Katyal (Georgetown) and Theodore Olson (Gibson Dunn) take part in a Federalist Society panel on class action reform and the BP Deepwater Horizon case; the panel is moderated by Stuart Taylor (Brookings Institution).
Friday, August 22, 2014
In a recent decision authored by Judge Easterbrook, the 7th Circuit suggested that plaintiffs looking to prove that their case falls under the "home state exception" to CAFA can use sampling and extrapolation to prove their allegations. The case is Myrick v. WellPoint, Inc., 2014 BL 229924, 7th Cir., No. 12-3882 , 8/19/14 (citation is to Bloomberg, the Westlaw cite is 2014 WL 4073065). The case concerns allegations about a health insurance policy sold in Illinois.
Judge Easterbrook, explaining that the burden of proving the home state exception is on the party assserting it in the 7th Circuit, explained a potential procedure as follows:
Counsel for the proposed class assumed that there were only two options: determine the citizenship of every policyholder (expensive) or rely on assumptions (cheap). But there's at least one more option: take a random sample of policyholders (100, say), ascertain the citizenship of each of these on the date the case was removed, and extrapolate to the class as a whole. If the sample yields a lopsided result (say, 90% Illinois citizens or only 50% Illinois citizens) then the outcome is clear without the need for more evidence. (The more lopsided the result, the smaller the sample needed to achieve statistical significance.) If the result is close to the statutory two-thirds line, then do more sampling and hire a statistician to ensure that the larger sample produces a reliable result.
Monday, July 14, 2014
Professor Linda Mullenix (U. Texas) has posted to SSRN her article, Ending Class Actions as We Know Them: Rethinking the American Class Action, Emory. L.J. (forthcoming 2014). Here is the abstract:
Class actions have been a feature of the American litigation landscape for over 75 years. For most of this period, American-style class litigation was either unknown or resisted around the world. Notwithstanding this chilly reception abroad, American class litigation has always been a central feature of American procedural exceptionalism, nurtured on an idealized historical narrative of the class action device. Although this romantic narrative endures, the experience of the past twenty-five years illuminates a very different chronicle about class litigation. Thus, in the twenty-first century American class action litigation has evolved in ways that are significantly removed from its golden age. The transformation of class action litigation raises legitimate questions concerning the fairness and utility of this procedural mechanism, and whether class litigation actually accomplishes its stated goals and rationales. With the embrace of aggregative non-class settlements as a primary – if not preferred – modality for large scale dispute resolution, the time has come to question whether the American class action in its twenty-first century incarnation has become a disutilitarian artifact of an earlier time. This article explores the evolving dysfunction of the American class action and proposes a return to a more limited, cabined role for class litigation. In so doing, the article eschews alternative non-class aggregate settlement mechanisms that have come to dominate the litigation landscape. The article ultimately asks readers to envision a world without the twenty-first century American damage class action, limiting class procedure to injunctive remedies. In lieu of the damage class action, the article encourages more robust public regulatory enforcement for alleged violation of the laws.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
Plaintiffs' attorneys huddled in Chicago on Wednesday to strategize about where to ask the MDL Panel to send the GM ignition switch cases. As usual, there are several things that will influence plaintffs' attorneys' pick.
According to this morning's article in the WSJ, Elizabeth Cabraser called the litigation "a perfect storm for a class action." Maybe. But that will largely depend on which circuit and which judge hears the case, how GM's bankruptcy affects the pending claims, and whether attorneys forgo personal injury claims (they will likely be excluded in the class definition) to pursue product liability and economic injuries.
Choice of procedural law, like how to apply Rule 23, can vary. Under Chan v. Korean Airlines, Ltd. (D.C. Cir. 1989), the Van Dusen doctrine, which holds that transferee courts must apply the choice of law interpretation of the transferor circuit, may not apply to 1407 transfers. Rather, when it comes to procedural and other federal law matters, Korean Airlines suggests that transferee courts are obligated to follow their own interpretation of the relevant law. Several circuits follow this rationale including the Second, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh. Other circuits, including most notably, the Seventh, have held that a transferee court should use transferor court's interpretation of federal law.
According to Bloomberg, several plaintiffs' attorneys are pushing for a California venue before Judge James Selna, who is currently handling the Toyota acceleration MDL. This strategy makes sense on several fronts. The Ninth Circuit, which originally upheld (in part) the certification in Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., has shown a willingness to resolve aggregate cases through class actions. And given that courts in the Ninth Circuit apply their own procedural law where circuit splits are concerned, this could further help plaintiffs. Finally, Judge Selna, who certified an economic loss settlement class action in the Toyota litigation, is a logical choice.
But other plaintiffs' attorneys (and of couse GM) have other ideas about where the MDL should land. Bloomberg reports:
Other plaintiffs want the cases to be heard in Chicago, Miami or Corpus Christi,Texas, where they have sued. GM wants the cases consolidated in the federal court in Manhattan, about a mile from where a prior incarnation of the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Company lawyers say proximity to the bankruptcy court trumps Selna’s experience.
While the Panel considers the forum requests by the parties, it is in no way limited to those venues. There are several factors that it typically cites in favor of forum selection such as the location of discovery materials, convenience of the witnesses, location of grand jury proceedings, possibility of coordination with related state-court proceedings, where the majority of cases are located, knowledge of the transferee judge, and the willingness and motivation of a particular judge to handle an MDL docket. Of these factors, the transferee judge is by far the most important. The Panel tends to look for judges who have handled MDLs successfully in the past. And, for better or worse, "successful" means quick settlement (see here, p. 11-12 for more).
The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigaiton is comprised of seven judges from around the country. Judge David Proctor is the Panel's newest edition and was added just this year to replace Judge Paul Barbadoro.
For more on the process that will--and should--unfold once a transferee judge is appointed and how those judges should go about appointing lead lawyers, see here.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
As I've slowly emerged from my grading slump, I've caught up on a number of interesting articles dealing with class actions, two of which are authored by Professor Jay Tidmarsh at Notre Dame. In case you missed them, too, I thought I'd mention them here.
The first is a new take on auctions. Auctions have been proposed and used to pick class counsel, but Tidmarsh proposes using them to increase settlement prices. Once the parties reach a settlement, the court puts the class's claims up for auction. If an entity--presumably a corporation, though perhaps a third-party financier?--outbids the settlement price, that entity purchases the class's rights to sue and can continue to litigate against the defendant. Here's the idea in Tidmarsh's own words in his SSRN abstract:
Although they promise better deterrence at a lower cost, class actions are infected with problems that can keep them from delivering on this promise. One of these problems occurs when the agents for the class (the class representative and class counsel) advance their own interests at the expense of the class. Controlling agency cost, which often manifests itself at the time of settlement, has been the impetus behind a number of class-action reform proposals.
This Article develops a proposal that, in conjunction with reforms in fee structure and opt-out rights, controls agency costs at the time of settlement. The idea is to allow the court, once a settlement has been achieved, to put the class’s claims up for auction, with the settlement acting as reserve price. An entity that outbids the settlement becomes owner of the class’s claims, and may continue to pursue the case against the defendant. A successful auction results in more compensation for the class. On the other hand, if no bids are received, the court has evidence that the settlement was fair. The prospect of a settlement auction also deters class counsel and the defendant from negotiating a sweetheart deal that sells out the class.
The Article works through a series of theoretical and practical issues of settlement auction, including the standards that a court should use to evaluate bids, the limitations on who may bid, and the ways to encourage the emergence of an auction market.
Tidmarsh's second article returns to a long-espoused notion: trial by statistics (or, as Justice Scalia used in the pejorative sense in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, "Trial by Statistics."). Here's the abstract, which explains the idea concisely:
“Trial by statistics” was a means by which a court could resolve a large number of aggregated claims: a court could try a random sample of claim, and extrapolate the average result to the remainder. In Wal-Mart, Inc. v. Dukes, the Supreme Court seemingly ended the practice at the federal level, thus removing from judges a tool that made mass aggregation more feasible.
After examining the benefits and drawbacks of trial by statistics, this Article suggests an alternative that harnesses many of the positive features of the technique while avoiding its major difficulties. The technique is the “presumptive judgment”: a court conducts trials in a random sample of cases and averages the results, as in trial by statistics. It then presumptively applies the average award to all other cases, but, unlike trial by statistics, any party can reject the presumptive award in favor of individual trial. The Article describes the circumstances in which parties have an incentive to contest the presumption, and explores a series of real-world issues raised by this approach, including problems of outlier verdicts, strategic behavior by parties, and the parties’ risk preferences. It proposes ways to minimize these issues, including a requirement that the party who reject a presumptive judgment must pay both sides’ costs and attorneys’ fees at trial.
The Article concludes by showing that this approach is consonant with important procedural values such as efficiency, the accurate enforcement of individual rights, dignity, and autonomy.
Friday, May 16, 2014
I posted a new article to SSRN this morning that's been a labor of love for well over a year now. I'm excited about this new piece for a few reasons.
First, it debuts an original data set of all lead lawyers appointed in 72 product liability and sales practices MDLs that were pending as of May 14, 2013. As such, it's the only paper (that I know of) that includes empirical evidence on plaintiffs-side repeat players appointed to leadership positions. (Yes, it includes a list of some of the most entrenched repeat lawyers and law firms as an appendix.) (If this is of interest, have a look at Margaret Williams, Emery Lee, and Catherine Borden's recently published paper in the Journal of Tort Law titled Repeat Players in Federal Multidistrict Litigation, which looks at all plaintiffs' attorneys in MDLs using social network analysis.)
I also explain why appointing a leadership group comprised of predominately repeat players can cause inadequate representation problems. For example, repeat players playing the long game have rational, economic incentives to curry favor with one another, protect their reputations, and develop reciprocal relationships to form funding coalitions and receive client referrals. As such, extra-legal, interpersonal, and business concerns may govern their interactions and trump their agency obligations to uniquely situated clients who could threaten to bust a multi-million dollar deal. Non-conforming lawyers may be ostracized and informally sanctioned, which promotes cooperation, but deters dissent and vigorous representation. Over time, expressing contrary opinions could brand the dissenting lawyer a defector, which could decrease lucrative leadership opportunities. (Other reasons abound, which I explain on pages 25-27 of the paper.)
Second, it provides some much needed guidance for transferee judges. Although the Manual for Complex Litigation remains the go-to guide for transferee judges, it hasn't been updated in 10 years. So much has changed since the fourth edition was published in 2004. Accordingly, in "Judging Multidistrict Litigation," I suggest best practices for appointing and compensating lead lawyers. Judges can compensate lead lawyers on a coherent and more predictable basis by distilling current theories down to their common denominator: quantum meruit. Quantum-meruit awards would align fees with other attorney-fee decisions and compensate leaders based on the value they actually add.
Third, as anyone familiar with the area knows, settlement review in nonclass litigation is controversial at best. After judges expressly deny class certification they then harken back to Rule 23 and their "inherent equitable authority" to comment on settlements. So, employing a quantum-meruit theory for awarding lead lawyers' attorneys' fees would give judges a legitimate private-law basis for scrutinizing settlements. Because courts must evaluate the case's success to determine how much compensation is merited, it could likewise help stymie a trend toward self-dealing where repeat players insert fee provisions into master settlements and require plaintiffs and their attorneys to "consent" to fee increases to obtain settlement awards.
The article is forthcoming in N.Y.U. Law Review in April of 2015, so I still have a bit of time to tinker with it and welcome comments in the interim (eburch at uga.edu). In the meantime, here's the formal SSRN abstract.
High-stakes multidistrict litigations saddle the transferee judges who manage them with an odd juxtaposition of power and impotence. On one hand, judges appoint and compensate lead lawyers (who effectively replace parties’ chosen counsel) and promote settlement with scant appellate scrutiny or legislative oversight. But on the other, without the arsenal class certification once afforded, judges are relatively powerless to police the private settlements they encourage. Of course, this power shortage is of little concern since parties consent to settle.
Or do they? Contrary to conventional wisdom, this Article introduces new empirical data revealing that judges appoint an overwhelming number of repeat players to leadership positions, which may complicate genuine consent through inadequate representation. Repeat players’ financial, reputational, and reciprocity concerns can govern their interactions with one another and opposing counsel, often trumping fidelity to their clients. Systemic pathologies can result: dictatorial attorney hierarchies that fail to adequately represent the spectrum of claimants’ diverse interests, repeat players trading in influence to increase their fees, collusive private deals that lack a viable monitor, and malleable procedural norms that undermine predictability.
Current judicial practices feed these pathologies. First, when judges appoint lead lawyers early in the litigation based on cooperative tendencies, experience, and financial resources, they often select repeat players. But most conflicts do not arise until discovery and repeat players have few self-interested reasons to dissent or derail the lucrative settlements they negotiate. Second, because steering committees are a relatively new phenomenon and transferee judges have no formal powers beyond those in the Federal Rules, judges have pieced together various doctrines to justify compensating lead lawyers. The erratic fee awards that result lack coherent limits. So, judges then permit lead lawyers to circumvent their rulings and the doctrinal inconsistencies by contracting with the defendant to embed fee provisions in global settlements—a well recognized form of self-dealing. Yet, when those settlements ignite concern, judges lack the formal tools to review them.
These pathologies need not persist. Appointing cognitively diverse attorneys who represent heterogeneous clients, permitting third-party financing, encouraging objections and dissent from non-lead counsel, and selecting permanent leadership after conflicts develop can expand the pool of qualified applicants and promote adequate representation. Compensating these lead lawyers on a quantum-meruit basis could then smooth doctrinal inconsistencies, align these fee awards with other attorneys’ fees, and impose dependable outer limits. Finally, because quantum meruit demands that judges assess the benefit lead lawyers’ conferred on the plaintiffs and the results they achieved, it equips judges with a private-law basis for assessing nonclass settlements and harnesses their review to a very powerful carrot: attorneys’ fees.
May 16, 2014 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Class Actions, Ethics, Informal Aggregation, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Procedure, Products Liability, Settlement, Vioxx, Zyprexa | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, March 14, 2014
In a decision issued on March 3, the Fifth Circuit held that BP must stick to the settlement it signed on to, even if it doesn't like any longer the broad approach to compensation it once agreed to. As Professor and former Soliciter General Charles Fried said, in sum and substance, a contract is a promise. Here is an excerpt from the Fifth Circuit opinion:
There is nothing fundamentally unreasonable about what BP accepted but now wishes it had not. One event during negotiations in the fall of 2012 suggests reasons for just requiring a certification [instead of proof of causation]. The claims administrator, in working through how the proposed claims processing would apply in specific situations, submitted a hypothetical to BP and others. It posited three accountants being partners in a small firm located in a relevant geographic region. One of the three partners takes medical leave in the period immediately following the disaster, thus reducing profits in that period because that partner is not performing services for the firm. At least some of the firm's loss, then, would have resulted from the absence of the partner during his medical leave. BP responded that such a claim should be paid.
We raise this not for the purpose of analyzing an issue we conclude is not relevant to our decision, namely, whether BP is estopped from its current arguments. Instead, we mention it in order to identify the practical problem mass processing of claims such as these presents, a problem that supports the logic of the terms of the Settlement Agreement. These are business loss claims. Why businesses fail or, why one year is less or more profitable than another, are questions often rigorously analyzed by highly-paid consultants, who may still reach mistaken conclusions. There may be multiple causes for a loss. ... The difficulties of a claimant's providing evidentiary support and the claims administrator's investigating the existence and degree of nexus between the loss and the disaster in the Gulf could be overwhelming. The inherent limitations in mass claims processing may have suggested substituting certification for evidence, just as proof of loss substituted for proof of causation. ...
In re Deepwater Horizon, --- F.3d ----, 2014 WL 841313, *5 (5th Cir. 2014).
Readers may also be interested in a Bloomberg News article by Laura Calkins and Jeff Feeley entitled BP Must Live with $9.2 Billion Oil Spill Deal, Court Says. In other BP news, looks like it can drill in the Gulf of Mexico again, according to the NYTimes.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Torts scholars John Goldberg (Harvard) and Benjamin Zipursky (Fordham) have written a thoughtful analysis of the fraud-on-the-market issue that the Supreme Court will consider this week when it hears oral argument in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund. They gave me permission to post their analysis here, which I thought readers would find worthwhile. By breaking down the issues in fraud-on-the-market securities class actions, Goldberg and Zipursky help clarify the link between a defendant's allegedly wrongful conduct and widespread harm that plaintiffs allege was caused by that conduct -- a link that is at the core of mass tort disputes as well as securities litigation.
Parsing Reliance in Securities Fraud
John C.P. Goldberg, Harvard Law School
Benjamin C. Zipursky, Fordham Law School
In Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., to be argued before the Supreme Court on March 5, the Justices could drastically curtail federal-court class-action lawsuits for securities fraud. At issue in Halliburton is the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson. Basic held that it is not necessary for investors such as the Erica P. John Fund to prove that they actually read and relied upon the particular fraudulent statements alleged to have caused the their losses. Public misstatements by a company like Halliburton have the capacity to defraud the market as a whole and distort the prices for all investors. Basic’s “fraud-on-the-market” theory, as it is called, affords investors who can prove that the defendant made misrepresentations about important matters a presumption that the misrepresentations negatively affected the stock’s value. It is widely agreed that, without Basic’s presumption, securities fraud suits could rarely proceed as class actions. For a variety of reasons – the fact that Congress has weighed in extensively on securities fraud and left Basic untouched, the substantial pro-defendant changes that the Court and Congress have already made to securities fraud law, the expressed wishes of the S.E.C. to retain Basic because of the indirect regulatory force private actions supply, and the value of stare decisis – we think the Court would do best to leave Basic intact. It appears, however, that while some of the Justices may be similarly inclined, others are leaning toward overruling Basic, and others may be looking for a middle ground. With the fate of Basic in play, it is worth getting clear on some aspects of fraud-on-the-market doctrine that have typically been confused, and were in fact confused in Justice Blackmun’s Basic opinion itself.
The first and most important point to make about Basic’s so-called “presumption of reliance” is that it is not one presumption (as we have explained in a recent article offering a detailed analysis comparing securities fraud to common law fraud, see John C.P. Goldberg & Benjamin C. Zipursky, The Fraud-on-the-Market Tort, 66 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 1756 (2013)); Basic’s “presumption” is actually two presumptions (both favoring plaintiffs) and one affirmative defense (favoring defendants). Thus, if the Court decides to rethink “the presumption of reliance,” it will actually be rethinking two or three ideas, not one.
Basic’s first presumption allows a plaintiff to establish a legally cognizable injury by establishing that she bought or sold securities at a market price that was distorted by the defendant’s misrepresentations. This is an important departure from common law fraud, the tort from which the law of securities fraud has evolved. In a suit for common law fraud, it is critical for the plaintiff to establish that she, personally, made a decision in reliance on the information contained in the defendant’s misrepresentations. This is because the core injury at the heart of common law fraud is an interference with a person’s right to make decisions free from deception. Basic’sso called “presumption” of reliance – like many presumptions in the law – departed substantively from this aspect of the common law. A securities fraud plaintiff need not demonstrate that she was misled into believing that certain false propositions were true. Instead, according to Basic, she need only prove economic loss caused by the misrepresentation—that she bought or sold the defendant’s stock at a price distorted by the defendant’s misrepresentations, irrespective of whether she ever learned of the content of the defendant’s false statements.
Basic’s second presumption is evidentiary rather than substantive. It allows securities fraud plaintiffs to use a certain kind of circumstantial evidence to prove that the defendant’s misrepresentations in fact distorted market prices. If a misrepresentation is “material” and disseminated to the public, and if the securities are sold on an “efficient” market, it will be presumed that the misrepresentation caused a price distortion. Like many evidentiary presumptions, the materiality-based presumption of price distortion may be rebutted by evidence that the misrepresentation had no effect.
Justice Blackmun’s opinion in Basic also bundled a third idea into the so-called “presumption of reliance,” but this idea is actually an affirmative defense for the defendant, one akin to the consent defense to the tort of battery and the assumption of risk defense to the tort of negligence. Even if it is established that the defendant’s misrepresentations caused a price distortion and a loss to the plaintiff, the defendant can nonetheless escape liability by proving that the plaintiff was actually aware of the falsity of the misrepresentation and chose to engage in the market transaction nevertheless. Defendant Halliburton’s petition to overrule Basic has nothing to do with this third aspect of Basic.
Halliburton’s challenge to Basic’s presumption of reliance relates to the combination of the substantive and evidentiary presumptions described above. The Court in Basic allowed that materiality (given an efficient market) was enough, from an evidentiary point of view, to create a rebuttable presumption of price distortion, and it additionally concluded – as a substantive matter – that distortion suffices to replace the impact-on-plaintiff finding that reliance fulfills in the common law tort of fraud. It is these two ideas, taken together, that have permitted securities fraud plaintiffs to go forward without direct proof of reliance. Crucially, although Basic itself describes the combined effect of these two presumptions as establishing indirect proof of reliance, that description is inaccurate. Taken together, they instead amount to indirect proof of distortion, not of reliance.
Clarifying the distinction between the evidentiary and substantive aspects of the presumption in Basic is critical for evaluating what is and what is not at issue in Halliburton. Halliburton contends that Basic should be overruled because the efficient-market hypothesis has been rejected by economists during the quarter century since Basic was decided. Whether the efficient-market hypothesis actually has been rejected is a highly contentious issue. Even assuming, however, that it is unsound, that affects only the evidentiary aspect of the presumption of reliance—that is, only the part of Basic which states that material representations in an open market will be reflected in the market’s pricing of securities, and hence can be presumed to have distorted their price. If the evidentiary side of Basic is rejected or modified, that still leaves intact the substantive side of the presumption of reliance – the side which states that price distortion caused by the misrepresentations will suffice in place of individual reliance.
Appreciating the irrelevance of the efficient-market hypothesis to the substantive side of Basic is critically important for two reasons. First, the substantive side of Basic has received little cogent criticism over the decades. The courts that first recognized private rights of action under federal securities laws did so on the ground that those laws were established in the midst of the Great Depression to protect investors from losses resulting from deceptive practices. Under these circumstances, it was eminently sensible for these courts to interpret federal law as including an individual right to be free from economic harm caused by deceptive practices, whether through price distortion or individual reliance. And since then, both Congress and the Court have shown a steady commitment to the substantive side of Basic.
Second, price distortion is a common issue of fact in securities fraud litigation. This means that the securities defense bar’s effort to undermine securities class actions through a critique of the efficient-market hypothesis is misconceived. The alleged shakiness of the efficient-market hypothesis is an argument against the evidentiary side of Basic, not against its substantive side. But the substantive side -- the move from reliance to price distortion – is what makes class actions an appropriate vehicle for 10b-5 claims. If the Court is truly persuaded by the efficient-market hypothesis critique, and is not moved by stare decisis or any other reasons to leave Basic untouched, then it is, at most, the evidentiary side of the presumption of reliance that might bear revisiting. Of course, new questions might then arise at or before trial as to whether event studies or other sorts of evidence will suffice to establish price distortion, but that is a different matter, unconnected to the general question of whether distortion-based 10b-5 claims can be adjudicated as class actions.
The wrong of causing economic loss through misrepresentations that distort market prices is not identical to common law fraud. But it is closer to what Congress actually sought to protect in the Securities Exchange Act, it is consistent with what Congress has very thoughtfully kept alive in its more recent securities legislation, and its justifiability has nothing to do with the soundness of the efficient-market hypothesis. So long as this wrong remains the core of 10b-5 claims, class actions will continue to be an appropriate means for resolving them.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Mass harm exerts enormous pressure on civil justice systems to provide efficient but fair procedures for redress. In this context, settlement of mass disputes is easily understood as a common good. Yet settlements involving hundreds or thousands of claims, often across jurisdictions, raise concerns about the substantive fairness of the compromise reached by lawyers, and the ability of the court system to ensure meaningful oversight. Unburdening the judicial system from mass claims comes at a price; how much rough justice are we prepared to accept?
The difficulty of balancing these competing interests is ubiquitous. Canadian class action settlement practice is no exception. In this book chapter, I first explore the realities of this form of litigation, and to some extent debunk the myth that class actions inevitably result in large monetary settlements. I then turn to a brief discussion of the incentives and disincentives to settle large claims, for both plaintiffs’ lawyers and defendants. In Part III, I describe and critique the judicial framework for the approval of proposed settlements. I finish by pointing out the lack of alternatives to class proceedings and conclude that, though not perfect, the Canadian class action settlement system stands as a model for consideration by other jurisdictions wrestling with the problem of mass disputes.
The chapter is part of the forthcoming book, Resolving Mass Disputes: ADR and Settlement of Mass Claims (Edward Elgar 2013), edited by Christopher Hodges and Astrid Stadler.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether parens patriae actions brought by state attorneys general are removable as mass actions under the Class Action Fairness Act. (Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp., U.S., No. 12-1036) The lower courts have split on the issue, with the Fifth Circuit holding that such actions are removable when the citizens are the "real parties in interest," and the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits reaching the opposite conclusion. The Fifth Circuit, in Louisiana ex rel. Caldwell v. Allstate Insurance Co., held that because the attorney general sought damages on behalf of insurance policy holders, the policy holders were the real parties in interest to that relief. But other courts, even within the Fifth Circuit, have distinguished that reasoning. Judge Fallon, for example, in some of the Vioxx cases, held that the Kentucky attorney general's action against Merck was not removable as a class action. He distinguished Caldwell, reasoning that it was decided under CAFA's mass action provision and the citizens of Kentucky were not the real parties in interest. Instead, the Kentucky attorney general was requesting injunctive relief and civil penalties, not damages as was the case in Caldwell.
The issue is an important one as the standard for certifying a class action has become more rigorous. Many commentators have argued that state attorneys general should step into the breach to provide relief and deterrence when actions aren't certifiable as class actions. Yet, questions remain about this approach. Specifically, most parens patriae statutes do not contain the same protections as Rule 23 does with regard to adequate representation. Plus, courts are often unsure how to evaluate issue or claim preclusion when a private citizen sues in the wake of a parens patriae action.
For the interested reader, yesterday's BNA Class Action Litigation Report had an article by Jessie Kokrda Kamens about the oral argument. Her take was that even though some justices questioned state attorneys generals' motives in bringing parens patriae actions, they weren't ready to declare them removable under CAFA.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Defendants in the moldy washers cases have filed cert petitions once again after the 6th and 7th Circuits reinstated those liability only (or issue) class actions. You can find the briefs here and here.
It doesn't make sense for the Supreme Court to grant cert, but stranger things have happened.
Why don't I think the Court should grant cert? Commonality is clear, there aren't real damages issues because its an issue class action and the circuits are coming together on the question of issue class actions and their parameters (coalescing around the ALI proposals and the Manual on Complex Litigation) and these are squarely in the field where class actions are most useful - consumer claims. In other words, there's nothing adventuresome here for the Court to consider.
For more defense side links with a different point of view see the Volokh Conspiracy.
Monday, September 23, 2013
Marketplace has a segment about lead paint litigation today featuring our own Elizabeth Burch. The trigger is a lead paint trial that closed in California today. See here for a news story. The question posed is how the lead paint manufacturers have escaped the kind of liability that tobacco or asbestos. What's the difference? Here are some theories. Caveat: These are just some ruminations, not a definitive work on lead paint by any stretch.
1. Who's doing the suing?
Municipalities vs. victims: Beth points out that in these lead paint suits municipalities or states are pursuing a public nuisance theory against the paint manufacturers and this makes them different than some more successful mass torts. Some courts think that this doctrine is a bad fit with the wrong at issue. But not all lead paint cases have been brought by municipalities. In the beginning, much like tobacco or asbestos, these cases were brought on behalf of victims. This is a late-stage litigation after failures at the individual or group victim level.
Poor children vs. workers: The victims of lead paint were poor children who ingested the paint chips, whereas in the tobacco and asbestos cases they were adult workers. This is not a doctrinal explanation but a socio-political one.
Scienter: In tobacco there was evidence of misrepresentation and manipulation. That seems to be a big part of the argument in the California courtroom from press reports: what did the lead manufacturers know and when?
2. What's the doctrine?
Market share liability. First, and I think most importantly, the idea of market-share liability failed to gain traction after some initial gains early on. Without being able to tie a particular manufacturer to the apartment where the paint was ingested, plaintiff can't show that this manufacturer caused the harm. In that sense lead not like asbestos (where work places kept records) or tobacco (where people know what brand they smoked).
Public nuisance doctrine is a relatively novel theory for this type of mass tort. That doesn't make it wrong, but it doesn't make it an easy sell to courts either.
3. Is there insurance? The asbestos manufacturers had more insurance coverage than you'd think due to some loose underwriting in mid-century. What is the lead paint manufacturers' coverage and how is this affecting these suits?
More theories welcome.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Friday, August 30, 2013
According to a news report, BP today asked the Fifth Circuit to reverse the district court's approval of the Gulf oil spill settlement. I have not seen the court filing, but according to this AP report as published by the NY Times, "BP is trying to persuade a federal appeals court that it should throw out a judge's approval of the company's multibillion-dollar settlement with Gulf Coast residents and businesses. Last year, BP PLC joined plaintiffs' attorneys in urging U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to give the deal his final approval. On Friday, however, the company's lawyers argued in a court filing that Barbier's more recent interpretation of settlement terms have allowed businesses to receive hundreds of millions of dollars for inflated or fictitious claims." As told in the Houston Chronicle, BP would still support the settlement if the Fifth Circuit were to decide in BP's favor on its earlier appeal challenging Judge Barbier's rulings on the generosity of payouts.
BP's decision to ask for reversal of its settlement class action (a deal that BP had negotiated and agreed to, and for which BP had previously argued in favor of judicial approval), is a fascinating turn of events in light of the history of the Gulf Oil Spill litigation and settlement. Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP established a compensation fund to pay claims. Kenneth Feinberg was named administrator of the fund, which came to be knows as the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF), and the GCCF proceeded to settle thousands of claims. But BP later joined with a group of plaintiffs' lawyers to negotiate a settlement class action that would replace the GCCF as settlement mechanism. For BP, a settlement class action offered a greater prospect of finality because it could bind all class members who fail to opt out, whereas the GCCF settlement program could bind only those claimants who chose to accept their compensation offers. In other words, even though the claims systems strongly resembled each other, a key difference is that a settlement class action uses the adjudicative power of the court to bind class members, in contrast to the claims facility, which depended upon the consent of individual claimants to settle their claims.
I've argued elsewhere that settlement class actions should be impermissible because they use the power of the courts to disadvantage claimants. But the BP news drives home the point that the opposite problem can occur -- a defendant may feel disadvantaged by a settlement class action because it deprives the defendant of control over the settlement process.
Monday, August 19, 2013
Am Law Litigation Daily has an article on the tobacco companies' filing another certiorari petition in an Engle progeny case: Tobacco Companies Seek Supreme Court Cert in Engle Case, by Ross Todd. Here's their petition for a writ of certiorari. The appellate team includes Greg Katsas (Jones Day), Paul Clement (Bancroft), and Miguel Estrada (Gibson Dunn).
I've previously addressed issue preclusion, verdict variability, and problems with the Engle case in my article, Jackpot Justice: Verdict Variability and the Mass Tort Class Action, 80 Temp. L. Rev. 1013 (2007).