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).
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Adap Liptak of the NYTimes has a piece When Lawyers Cut Their Clients Out of the Deal about a cy pres settlement with Facebook. In this settlement (approved by the 9th Circuit) the lawyers got $2.3 million and the clients got a cy pres contribution, apparently $6.5 million to a foundation over which Facebook has some control according to the article. The cy pres recipient is something called the Digital Trust Foundation. A quick google search came up with a bunch of references to the Facebook settlement but no website for this foundation.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the settlement and denied rehearing en banc, with a dissent on rehearing en banc, making this a possible Supeme Court cert grant. (A cert petition was filed on June 26, 2013).
There is a lot of scholarship on the topic of how much lawyers should be paid relative to class members as well as articles critizing cy pres settlements. Some links to this work are below. The problem is this. We regulate entities like Facebook largely by litigation. In the absence of the class action, there would be little or no enforcement of the consumer protection laws. But the class action litigation needs to be funded, and it is funded out of lawyers percentage of the total fund, usually the total fund from a settlement because class actions are almost never litigated. Its very hard to certify a class action, so class actions are often certified for settlement only. The incentive of the lawyers, fearing no class certification or realistic possibility of actually litigating, is to settle. The incentives for defendants, wanting to get the litigation off their books, is to settle cheap. The answer to this problem in my view is to allow classes to be litigated, not to tighten the certification standards further.
If the settlement will deter future misconduct, even if the money doesn't go directly to the class members, there is still a lot of societal value there. But is $8.8 million enough to deter Facebook? Does it have any relationship to the potential value of this lawsuit? That is, what is the value of the claims multiplied by the probability of success?
In my own work, I've suggested that cy pres settlements are not necessarily bad, but that certainly doesn't mean they are always good. Class members should just be polled in determining where cy pres settlements should go. The argument that class members will not appreciate the putative $1 (I think I saw it was $1.12) they would get in a settlement like this one is reasonable. But that doesn't make a settlement like this one okay. Especially in a settlement involving facebook users, who presumably are all connected via facebook, there is no reason why absent class members cannot be polled. Do they "like" this foundation? what would they prefer? Might I suggest Public Citizen as a recipient?
This case might be a fine vehicle for the Supreme Court to consider cy pres settlements. Given how few cases the Court decides, how few class actions actually are filed and litigated (less than 1% of the federal docket) its not clear to me that this is the best use of its time. That said, if the Court does grant cert, it would be wise to consider both the overall benefits and costs of cy pres to consumers and society more generally, not merely the fact that the lawyers got a lot of money here. This is a story of more money than sense.
Monday, July 22, 2013
The presentatons from the 2012 Moscow meeting of the International Association of Procedural Law have been posted to SSRN as a combined UC Irvine Law research paper entitled, Civil Procedure in Cross-Cultural Dialogue: Eurasia Context. Among the many professors whose papers are gathered are Carrie Menkel-Meadow (UC Irvine), Richard Marcus (UC Hastings), Stefaan Voet (Univ. of Ghent), and Jasminka Kalajdzic (Univ. of WIndsor). Here's the abstract:
The Idea of the book is to discuss the evolution of civil procedure in different societies, not only in the well-known civil or common law systems, but also in different countries of Eurasia, Asia, etc. Civil procedure in Europe and North America is a subject of enormous scientific and practical importance. We know a lot about these systems. But we do not know enough about civil procedure in the rest of the world. How does it work and what are the main principles? Culture is one of the main factors that makes civil procedure of these countries different. Therefore it is necessary to discuss the main links between different systems of civil procedure. The discussion was held on the basis of National reports from 24 countries.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Khoury, Menard & Redko on the Role of Canadian Private Law in the Control of Risks Associated with Tobacco Smoking
Professors Lara Khoury and Marie-Eve Couture-Ménard (McGill), and Olga Redko (LL.B./B.C.L. Candidate, McGill) have posted to SSRN their article, The Role of Private Law in the Control of Risks Associated with Tobacco Smoking: The Canadian Experience, 39 Am. J. L., Med. & Ethics 442 (2013). Here's the abstract:
Can private law litigation serve as a tool for advancing public health objectives? With this contentious and oft-asked question in mind, this text tackles Canada’s recent tobacco litigation. This Article first presents critical commentary regarding various lawsuits waged against Canadian cigarette manufacturers by citizens acting as individuals or as parties to class action lawsuits. We then turn to analyze how Canada’s provincial governments rely on targeted legislation to facilitate private law recourses for recouping the healthcare costs of treating tobacco-related diseases. The authors address challenges to the constitutionality of this type of legislation, as well as attempts by manufacturers to transfer responsibility to the federal government.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
As we as scholars and practictioners begin to explore class action alternatives, one problem continues to arise: when to preclude subsesequent litigation. Of course, this problem arose early on in the class action's history, most notably with (b)(2) civil rights cases where some class members disagreed fundamentally over the remedy requested. But the problem has persisted in multidistrict litigation and, perhaps most notably, in parens patriae actions. I explore this problem and propose a solution in my latest piece, titled Adequately Representing Groups. Here's the SSRN abstract, which gives a brief summary of the proposed solution:
Adequate representation and preclusion depend on whether the courts treat a litigant as part of a group experiencing an aggregate harm or as a distinct person suffering individual injuries. And though a vast literature about adequate representation exists in the class-action context, it thins dramatically when contemplating other forms of group litigation, such as parens patriae actions and multidistrict litigation. As class actions have gradually fallen into disfavor and attorneys and commentators seek alternative means for resolving group harms, the relative clarity of Rule 23 wanes. How should courts evaluate adequate representation in parens patriae actions and in multidistrict litigation? The answer to this question matters immensely since adequate representation is critical to precluding relitigation and achieving finality.
This Article suggests that courts should differentiate between inadequate representation claims based on the underlying right at stake. When the underlying right arises from an aggregate harm — a harm that affects a group of people equally and collectively — and demands an indivisible remedy, courts should tolerate greater conflicts among group members when evaluating a subsequent claim of inadequate representation. Because the harm is aggregate and the remedy is indivisible (typically declaratory or injunctive relief), if one group member receives the remedy, then they all receive the remedy. The litigation operates to group members’ benefit or detriment equally, so if one group member is inadequately represented, they are all inadequately represented. Consequently, a subsequent litigant can successfully avoid preclusion only where the lawyers or the named representatives acted contrary to the group’s best interests or attempted to represent an overinclusive, noncohesive group where some members required unique relief that the representative had no selfish reason to pursue.
Conversely, when plaintiffs suffer individual injuries at the same defendant’s hands and unite their claims for economic or efficiency reasons, that aggregation does not convert their individual injuries into an aggregate harm. When counsel fails to fairly represent her client in vindicating that harm, inadequate representation is an individual injury. In multidistrict litigation and Rule 23(b)(3) class actions, which typically include individuals litigating their individual harms together for systematic and litigant efficiency, courts should look for “structural conflicts” between the claimants themselves as well as between the representatives and the claimants. This means that both initially and on a collateral attack, courts should accept fewer conflicts than in cases involving aggregate rights. Accordingly, judges should assess whether there are reasons the lawyers “might skew systematically the conduct of the litigation so as to favor some claimants over others on grounds aside from reasoned evaluation of their respective claims or to disfavor claimants generally vis-à-vis the lawyers themselves.”
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
BNA Law Week reports that the Supreme Court granted cert, vacated the judgments and remanded two class actions yesterday. RBS Citizens NA v. Ross, U.S., No. 12-165, certiorari granted, judgment vacated, remanded 4/1/13; Whirlpool v. Glazer Corp., U.S., No. 12-322, certiorari granted, judgment vacated, remanded 4/1/13.
BNA describes Ross as a case in which a bank is accused of unlawfully denying overtime pay. The allegations involved the enforcement of an unofficial policy and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of class certification.
The Whirlpool case comes out of the Sixth Circuit and a very similar issue class action was certified in the Seventh Circuit. This case involves allegations that Whirlpool sold faulty washing machines that got moldy. I thought the Whirlpool case was a real poster child for the correct use of the issue class action, and I'm not sure on what grounds the Court thinks that Behrend is relevant. It seems to me that it is not, Behrend was not an issue class action and the questions that concerned the majority there related to feasibility of damages determinations. Given the allegations regarding overtime pay in Ross, I understand why that case might have made sense to remand, but Whirlpool is a very different kind of case. There are no damages issues in Whirlpool because it is a liability issue class action.
At a minimum, as after Wal-Mart, I predict we will see a spate of reconsideration motions, decertification motions and more litigation post-Behrend.
ETA: And for commentary on Behrend, see Sergio's Campos' latest post on Scotusblog.
Monday, April 1, 2013
I have posted a new paper, The Problem of Settlement Class Actions, on SSRN. It makes the argument that we should abandon settlement-only class actions as a means of resolving mass disputes. The article focuses first on problems of leverage, including would-be class counsel's inability to take the class claims to trial and the monopsony or "reverse auction" problem. Because of the inherent asymmetry of settlement class action negotiations, would-be class counsel does not adequately represent the interests of the absent class members. The article incorporates these leverage concerns into an account of the illegitimacy of settlement-only class certification as a matter of judicial authority. The problems include not only due process concerns of inadequate representation, but also Rules Enabling Act concerns.
Settlement class actions have been an important form of dispute resolution in mass torts (as well as securities, antitrust, and other areas). Despite the Supreme Court's rejection of two asbestos settlement class actions in Amchem and Ortiz, and despite the problems encountered in the fen-phen nationwide settlement class action shortly thereafter, mass tort settlement class actions have never disappeared, and we need only look at the BP settlement class actions in the Gulf Oil Spill litigation for a well-known recent example.
Needless to say, the argument I am advancing faces an uphill battle. It cuts against entrenched interests of defendants, of plaintiffs' counsel, and of judges, all of whom prefer easier paths to comprehensive negotiated resolutions. The argument also cuts against the grain of most recent thinking on this topic. The ALI Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation, as well as a recent suggestion under consideration by the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, would alter Rule 23 to facilitate settlement class actions even in cases that would be uncertifiable for purposes of litigation. Recent cases such as the Second Circuit's 2012 decision in In re AIG Securities Litigation and the Third Circuit's 2011 en banc decision in Sullivan v. DB Investments have taken new liberties with the Supreme Court's Amchem decision. The article explains what is problematic about the direction these cases have taken.
Here is the abstract:
This article argues that class actions should never be certified solely for purposes of settlement. Contrary to the widespread “settlement class action” practice that has emerged in recent decades, contrary to current case law permitting settlement class certification, and contrary to recent proposals that would extend and facilitate settlement class actions, this article contends that settlement class actions are ill-advised as a matter of litigation policy and illegitimate as a matter of judicial authority. This is not to say that disputes should not be resolved on a classwide basis, or that class actions should not be resolved by negotiated resolutions. Rather, this article contends that if a dispute is to be resolved on a classwide basis, then the resolution should occur after a court has found the matter suitable for classwide adjudication regardless of settlement.
For those who were unable to attend the excellent conference on class actions that was held last month at George Washington Law School, video recordings of the panels can now be found on the conference website.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The Supreme Court released its decision in Comcast v. Behrend today. The Court (with Justice Scalia writing for the majority) overturned the 3rd Circuit and held that the plaintiff does need to introduce evidence in support of its damages model in an antitrust case at the certification stage.
There is a history of antitrust cases touching on procedural issues having significant impact outside the antitrust field (e.g. AT&T v. Twombly). This is likely to be another one.