Friday, June 2, 2017
HR 985, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2017, has now passed the House and is pending in the Senate's Committee on the Judiciary. How might that bill affect plaintiffs involved in mass torts like mesh, Essure, Yaz, Mirena, NuvaRing, Ortho Evra, Power Morcellator, or the many hip implant suits?
Simply reading the bill, I'm afraid, won't help too much. It's shrouded in legalese. As such, I've marked up the bill to explain in non-legalese which provisions help and hurt mass-tort victims and consumers.
Many of the class action provisions in HR 985 don't affect mass-tort plaintiffs at all since those lawsuits rarely proceed as class actions (albeit, there are some notable exceptions, like the NFL concussion cases and the injuries incurred during the clean-up of the BP oil spill; both litigations were certified as settlement class actions).
There is, however, a possibility for judges to use class actions as a means to step in and ensure that plaintiffs are being adequately represented (and that resulting settlements are fair, reasonable, and adequate). How? Through the issue class action. Unfortunately, as HR 985 is currently written, it would completely eliminate that possibility.
I've studied MDLs for many years now and have written articles that are critical of both repeat player plaintiffs' attorneys and the manner in which judges sometimes handle these cases. Over the past four years, I've collected data on and analyzed 73 multidistrict proceedings. Although I'm still in the process of writing a book about my findings, one thing has become glaringly clear to me: the systematic lack of checks and balances in our courts seem to profit everyone but the plaintiffs.
Analyzing the deals repeat players make, the “common-benefit” attorneys’ fees that the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys receive to run the proceedings, and the judicial rulings in mass-tort cases consolidated over 22 years and settled over 12 years reveals a disturbing pattern: repeat plaintiff and defense attorneys persistently profit from the current system.
Corporate defendants end sprawling lawsuits and lead plaintiffs’ lawyers broker deals that reward them handsomely and sometimes pay litigants very little. For example, in litigation over the acid-reflux medicine, Propulsid, only 37 of 6,012 plaintiffs (0.6 percent) recovered anything through the strict settlement program. Their collective recoveries totaled no more than $6.5 million. Yet, the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys received over $27 million in common-benefit attorneys’ fees, vividly illustrating the worry that a corporate defendant might trade higher fees for less relief to plaintiffs.
So, is reform needed? Absolutely. Is HR 985 the right ticket? No, not as it's currently written.
As such, I've marked up the bill in a way that begins to instill the necessary reforms and eliminates (or changes) provisions that set up further (and unnecessary) roadblocks for plaintiffs. It also explains what the proposed provisions do in plain English: Download HR985 Burch Mark-up
If you want some version of HR 985 to pass, please consider forwarding this revised version to your Senator and do not support the bill as it reads now.
For those who care more about the legalese, I was contacted by a House subcommittee to provide nonpartisan, academic commentary on the bill, which I did. That write up is included here (note, however, that this is a commentary on the original House bill and some changes have been made to the current bill that address a few of the concerns I raised): Download Burch Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act
There's no need to take just my word for it, though. Every other academic that I know of opposes this bill, as has the Federal Rules Committee. This committee, formally known as the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, just happens to include Neil Gorsuch, now Justice Gorsuch (of the U.S. Supreme Court), whose views are reflected in the letter below as well.
And here are links to other academic commentary -
Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. (Columbia Law School): Download Coffee - How Not to Write a Class Action “Reform” Bill _ CLS Blue Sky Blog
Professor Howard Erichson (Fordham Law School): Download Erichson-hr985-letter
Professor Myriam Gilles (Cardozo Law School): Download Gilles Letter to James Park on HR 985
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
With everything else that's dominated the news, it's easy to place the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act" on the back burner. But to forget that it's still an active bill (having now passed the House and pending before the Senate) would be a mistake.
Professor Myriam Gilles (Cardozo) and I recently published an op-ed with Bloomberg Law, which appeared in yesterday's Product Safety & Liability Reporter and will be in next week's Class Action Litigation Report titled Congress's Judicial Mistrust. You can read it here: Download Bloomberg Law - Congress's Judicial Mistrust.
We explained our legal positions more fully in our respective letters to the House Judiciary's subcommittee. Download Burch Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act, Download Gilles Letter to James Park on HR 985.
Friday, March 3, 2017
Bruce Kaufman, the senior legal editor at Bloomberg BNA, has written a very informative series of articles examining the prospects that the House, Senate, and President will enact wide-ranging tort and civil justice "reform" legislation. This legislation includes:
- HR 985, the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act"
- HR 725, the "Innocent Party Protection Act"
- HR 469, the "Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act"
- HR 720, the "Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act" or "Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act"
- and HR 906, the "Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act"
All three articles are worth a careful read. Links and downloads included below, courtesy of Bruce and Bloomberg BNA.
- Part 1: Trump to Weigh Litigation Changes, Download BNA - Trump to Weigh Litigation Changes Long Coveted by Business
- Part 2: Push to Enact Civil Justice Bills Follows Industry Playbook, Download BNA - Push to Enact Civil Justice Bills Follows Industry Playbook
- Part 3: Trump Seen as Supportive of Business-Backed Litigation Bills, Download BNA - Trump Seen as Supportive of Business-Backed Litigation Bills
For those of you who missed the academic roundup on HR 985, you can find it here.
Floor debate on at least four of the bills (including the now merged HR 985 and HR 906, class actions and asbestos) is scheduled to begin as soon as the week of March 6. A seventh bill on medical malpractice reform, HR 1215, may be voted on the week after March 6.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
With House Bill 985 (the "Fairness" in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017), the controversy over current class action practice has escalated. I've been an outspoken critic of the cozy relationships that plaintiffs' lawyers and defense lawyers have developed not only in class actions, but in multidistrict litigation, too. Yet, as I (along with a number of other academics) have discussed, HR 985 doesn't fix what's ailing the system. Instead, it seeks to eliminate most class actions, tramples bipartisan consensus in the appellate courts and federal rules committee, and ineptly tells judges how to do their jobs.
This past January, I attended a conference at Tel Aviv University called Fifty Years of Class Actions--A Global Perspective. As part of that conference, I wrote a paper titled Publicly Funded Objectors, which calls for data collection and suggests that if the U.S. is truly serious about fixing what ails class actions, then it needs to publicly fund those who police them best--nonprofit organizations. I posted the paper on SSRN today.
Now that we have 50 years of class action practice under our belt, we know that practice suggests the need for tune-ups: sometimes judges still approve settlements rife with red flags, and professional objectors may be more concerned with shaking down class counsel than with improving class members’ outcomes. The lack of data on the number of opt-outs, objectors, and claims rates fuels debates on both sides, for little is known about how well or poorly class members actually fare. This reveals a ubiquitous problem—information barriers confront judges, objectors, and even reformers.
Rule 23’s answer is to empower objectors. At best, objectors are a partial fix. They step in as the adversarial process breaks down in an attempt to resurrect the information-generating function that culture creates. And, as the proposed changes to Rule 23’s handling of objectors reflect, turmoil exists over how to encourage noble objectors that benefit class members while staving off those that namely seek rents from class counsel.
Our class-action scheme is not the only one that relies on private actors to perform public functions: citizens privately fund political campaigns, and private lobbyists provide research and information to lawmakers about public bills and policies. Across disciplines, the best responses to those challenges have often been to level up, not down. As such, this Essay proposes a leveling up approach to address judges’ information deficit such that they can better perform their monitoring role. By relying on public funds to subsidize data collection efforts and nonprofit objectors’ information-gathering function, we can disrupt private class counsel’s disproportionate influence.
Put simply, we keep the baby and just throw out the bathwater.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Academics have been busy this week providing commentary on HR 985, the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017." Here's a round-up of the commentary thus far (and please do let me know if I've missed someone).
John Coffee (Columbia): Download Coffee - How Not to Write a Class Action “Reform” Bill _ CLS Blue Sky Blog
Howard Erichson (Fordham): Download Erichson-hr985-letter
Myriam Gilles (Cardozo): Download Gilles Letter to James Park on HR 985
And mine, Elizabeth Chamblee Burch (Georgia): Download Burch Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act
For those of you who like up to the minute commentary, several academics and reporters keep very active twitter accounts that track the bill: @adam_zimmerman, @elizabethcburch, @HowardErichson, @PerryECooper
Monday, February 13, 2017
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would substantially curtail the usefulness of class actions and multidistrict litigation, but would not make things "fairer" for class members.
Alison Frankel has a great write-up on the proposal that includes my preliminary comments along with Professor Myriam Gilles's comments. I'm heartened that representatives are reaching out to academics, because I have a number of concerns with the bill's proposals. If you are likewise concerned, then you should weigh-in, too. The House is marking up the bill on Wednesday.
My comments are available here: Download Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
As our readers surely know, despite its bulky name, multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) is in the news constantly: litigation over Volkswagen's defeat device, GM’s ignition defect, Toyota’s sudden acceleration, asbestos, and medical drugs and devices (pelvic mesh, Yasmin/Yaz, NuvaRing, Vioxx) are just a few of the higher profile MDLs.
MDL now comprises over 36% of the entire federal civil caseload (that number leaps to 45.6% if you exclude social security and prisoner cases), yet courts and Congress have made it more difficult for these cases to proceed as certified class actions. This litigation doesn’t go away without class certification as many tort reformers believe, it simply persists with far less judicial oversight.
Few rules and little appellate oversight on the one hand, plus multi-million dollar “common-benefit fees” for the lead lawyers who shepherd these cases toward settlement on the other may tempt a cadre of repeat attorneys to fill in the gaps in ways that further their own self interest. (Because there are so many cases involved, judges appoint "lead lawyers" to litigate and negotiate on behalf of the entire group of plaintiffs; if their individual attorney isn’t a lead lawyer, then that attorney has little say in how the litigation is conducted.)
To shed light on some of these issues, my co-author, Margaret Williams, and I have posted a revised version of our paper, Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network (forthcoming, Cornell Law Review) on SSRN.
We collected data on who the lead attorneys are (plaintiff and defense side) in all product-liability and sales practice cases that were pending on the MDL docket as of May 2013 (those cases covered a 22-year span), built an adjacency matrix, and employed a two-mode (actors and events) projection of a bipartite network (also known as an affiliation network) to graph the ties between lawyers judicially appointed to leadership positions (the actors) in multidistrict proceedings (the events). (For the non-statistically inclined, this social network analysis is somewhat akin to the kind that Facebook has popularized.)
The point was to reveal what the naked eye cannot see: how those attorneys and MDLs connect to one another. (Detailed, searchable PDFs of the social network with the players and litigations are available here). We also collected data on the publicly available nonclass settlements that repeat players brokered, reviewed news and media accounts of those litigations, and analyzed the common-benefit fees awarded to the lead plaintiffs' lawyers.
Here’s a summary of our key findings:
- Repeat players are prevalent on both the plaintiff and the defense side.
- No matter what measure of centrality we used, a key group of 5 attorneys maintained their elite position within the network.These 5 attorneys may act as gatekeepers or toll takers, for example. This matters considerably, for lead lawyers control the proceeding and negotiate settlements. They can bargain for what may matter to them most: defendants want to end lawsuits, and plaintiffs’ lawyers want to recover for their clients and receive high fee awards along the way.
- By identifying settlement provisions that one might argue principally benefit the repeat players, we examined the publicly available nonclass settlements these elite lawyers designed. Over a 22-year span, we were unable to find any deal that didn’t feature at least one closure provision for defendants, and likewise found that nearly all settlements contained some provision that increased lead plaintiffs’ lawyers’ common-benefit fees. Bargaining for attorneys’ fees with one’s opponent is a stark departure from traditional contingent-fee principles, which are designed to tie lawyers’ fees to their clients’ outcome.
- Based on the evidence available to us, we found reason to be concerned that when repeat players influence the practices and norms that govern multidistrict proceedings—when they “play for rules,” so to speak—the rules they develop may principally benefit them at the plaintiffs’ expense.
A highly concentrated plaintiff and defense bar is nothing new, nor is the disquiet about where that concentration may lead. As scholars have long recognized, repeat play tends to regress our adversarial system from its confrontational roots toward a state of cooperation.
In the criminal context, prosecutors and public defenders routinely work together through plea bargaining, leading them toward mutual accommodation; incumbents form a primary community of interest, whereas clients present secondary challenges and contingencies. As such, adversary features are often overshadowed by regulars’ quid pro quo needs. As Professor Jerome Skolnick has explained, those working group relationships become a social control problem only once they reach a “tipping point where cooperation may shade off into collusion, thereby subverting the ethical basis of the system.” (Social Control in the Adversary System, 11 J. Conflict Resol. 52, 53 (1969)).
As I’ve argued in a separate article, Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation, we've reached that tipping point in MDL, and these circumstances warrant regulation. Even though MDL judges are the ones who entrench and enable repeat players, they also are integral to the solution.
By tinkering with lead-lawyer selection and compensation methods and instilling automatic remands to a plaintiff’s original court after leaders negotiate master settlements, judges can capitalize on competitive forces already in play. Put simply, the antidote is to reinvigorate competition among plaintiffs’ attorneys and I’ve set forth several specific proposals for doing so in Part III of Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation.
For interested judges, that article's appendix also contains a Pocket Guide for Leadership Appointment and Compensation, a Sample Leadership Application form, and sample orders for suggesting remand and replacing leaders who ignore adequate representation concerns.
August 16, 2016 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Current Affairs, Ethics, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Pharmaceuticals - Misc., Prempro, Procedure, Products Liability, Settlement, Vioxx | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
The parties litigating over Volkswagen's emissions defeat device have submitted a proposed class action settlement to Judge Breyer for his approval. After the parties confer with him on June 30, he'll hear arguments over whether to approve that settlement on July 26.
The proposed settlement is available here: Download 1. The settlement money available to class members is a fund of $10,033,000,000, which is based on an assumed 100% buyback of all eligible vehicles and leased eligible vehicles.
If approved, parties who wish to object or opt out must do so before September 16, 2016 (p. 27 describes the opt-out process, which will have to be approved in conjunction with the notice to class members, and p. 28 describes the objection process). Class members must likewise complete and submit a valid claim form before September 1, 2018, and decide on their chosen remedy by December 30, 2018. Put differently, class members will need to take affirmative action to receive relief. Failing to submit a claim or to opt out means that their claims will be extinguished under the settlement (and through general res judicata principles).
The proposal provides VW owners with several options. They can:
- sell their car back to VW for the "vehicle value" (a term of art defined in the settlement on p. 16);
- receive restitution payments calculated based on a percentage of the vehicle value (some owners are eligible for loan forgiveness up to 30% of the vehicle value and owner restitution payment) - an estimate of those settlement payments is available here - Download 7
- terminate their car leases with no early termination penalty;
- modify their vehicle, which should help fix the emissions problems based on the different vehicles;
- or may receive both a restitution payment and a vehicle modification.
An overview of the options available to class members and proposed allocation plan is available here: Download 2
And the proposed short form notice, which is refreshingly straightforward is available for download here: Download 3. The longer notice is here: Download 4. And detailed information on the proposed 5-step claims program and administration is available here: Download 5.
Friday, April 29, 2016
Cathy Sharkey (NYU Law) has posted a new piece on SSRN entitled The BP Oil Spill Settlements, Classwide Punitive Damages, and Societal Deterrence. Here's the abstract:
The BP oil spill litigation and subsequent settlements provide an opportunity to explore a novel societal economic deterrence rationale for classwide supra-compensatory damages. Judge Jack Weinstein was a pioneer in the field of punitive damages class certification. In In re Simon II, he certified a nationwide punitive-damages-only class in a multijurisdiction, multidefendant tobacco lawsuit. Using Judge Weinstein’s innovations in In re Simon II as an analytical lens, the Article evaluates the future prospects for classwide punitive damages claims.
Specifically, the Article considers how private litigants might adopt a societal damages approach in negotiating and achieving class action settlements. Class action settlements readily accommodate the “public law” dimension of societal damages, as demonstrated by the classwide punitive damages settlement with BP’s co-defendant Halliburton. Indeed, on closer inspection, even the BP compensatory damages class settlement has a surrounding aura of societal damages. For even that ostensibly purely compensatory arrangement included an unusual (and mostly overlooked) feature: a provision for supra-compensatory multipliers applicable to certain claimants. This Article advances the new idea that these supra-compensatory multipliers are a form of classwide societal damages embedded within the settlement, and, in turn, a potential blueprint for nascent punitive damages classes of the future.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
In my first post on Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation, I noted that lead lawyers and defendants seem to benefit in tandem from the settlements they negotiate. This second post, Part II, explains how repeat players on both plaintiff and defense sides have perfected a fundamental shift in settlement design.
As I elaborate on pages 19-21, the demise of the mass tort class action makes it more difficult for defendants to achieve holistic closure, for MDL settlements technically bind only those litigants before the court. But defendants have been able to regain a greater degree of finality through a foundational shift in settlement construction: unlike traditional settlements between plaintiffs and defendants, all twelve deals in the dataset were agreements between lead lawyers and defendants.
As such, these deals position lead plaintiffs’ lawyers as settlement gatekeepers, for defendants will not make better offers to others without the threat of trial; doing so would work against their closure goal. These new deals then serve as a mandatory gateway for anyone wanting to settle, and typically require non-lead attorneys to become signatories alongside their clients. Accordingly, all master settlement agreements in the dataset aimed some provisions at plaintiffs’ attorneys and some at their clients. As a later post will explore, it's the provisions targeting plaintiffs' attorneys that raise the most ethical problems.
Making deals with plaintiffs’ attorneys masterfully furthers defendants’ end game in two ways.
First, the agreements impose uniform endorsement requirements on participating attorneys to discourage them from “cherry picking,” a practice in which lawyers settle most cases, but continue litigating those with the strongest claims or most sympathetic facts. By requiring a high percentage of plaintiffs to accept the settlement offer for it to take effect and insisting that individual attorneys recommend that all their clients settle (including clients who had not yet sued or who were pursuing relief elsewhere), defense attorneys essentially conditioned plaintiffs’ attorneys fees on achieving their closure aims.
A plaintiff’s attorney is either “all in” and would collect significant contingent fees from all her settling clients, or “all out” and would have to spend significant resources litigating individual cases. As such, recommendation provisions alter the typical contingent fee model where an attorney’s recovery increases alongside her clients’ recovery and instead ties plaintiffs’ attorneys’ financial self-interest to each other and to the entire claimant base.
This shift also allows defendants to reach some plaintiffs who are outside of the federal court’s jurisdiction, and others who haven’t yet filed suit (through case census provisions - see pp. 27-29). It thereby recaptures some of the finality that class actions once offered through binding absent class members.
Second, when combined with the defendant's ability to walkaway from the deal if too few claimants consent to settle, provisions aimed at plaintiffs' attorneys (attorney-recommendation provisions, attorney' withdrawal provisions - see pp. 19-26) collectively reduce the demand for legal representation. The settlement effectively becomes the only “game” in town.
Like oligopolists, leaders are able to thwart competition and reduce demand by using attorney withdrawal and recommendation provisions to restrict the legal services market (at least for those with similar allegations against the same defendant). When defendants threaten to abandon the deal if too few plaintiffs participate, and participating attorneys must recommend the deal to all of their clients and withdraw from representing those who refuse, leaders can regulate the legal service being offered and control a sufficiently large share of that market
In this sense, master settlements can recreate bottleneck problems where dominant firms raise competitors’ costs by obtaining exclusionary rights; once defendants negotiate master settlements with plaintiffs’ leadership, that agreement typically becomes the only settlement option.
Why should we be concerned? Apart from inherent economic concerns that arise under these conditions, the next post will explore why provisions targeting attorneys are ethically troubling.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
I've spent the better part of the past year and a half analyzing the publicly available nonclass aggregate settlements that have taken place in multidistrict litigation alongside leadership appointments, common-benefit fees, and, where available, recovery to the plaintiffs. This has given me an in-depth look at what's happening (or has happened) in Propulsid, Vioxx, Yasmin/Yaz, DePuy ASR Hip Implant, Fosamax (2243), American Medical Systems pelvic mesh litigation, Biomet, NuvaRing, and Actos. I've also analyzed fee practices in Baycol, Ortho Evra, Avandia, Mentor Corp. ObTape, Prempro, Chantix, Pradaxa, and Ethicon Pelvic Repair.
This endeavor has been deeply unsettling for a variety of ethical, doctrinal, and systemic reasons. Professors Erichson and Zipursky's prior work on Vioxx opened our eyes to troubling provisions in that deal, but I had no idea how widespread the problems were or how they had evolved over time from deal to deal until now.
Propulsid appears to be the primogenitor, for all subsequent deals in the data replicated some aspect of its closure provisions. But Propulsid is extraordinarily troubling: 6,012 plaintiffs abandoned their right to sue in court in favor of settling. Only 37 of them (0.6 percent) recovered any settlement money through the physician-controlled claims review process, receiving little more than $6.5 million in total. Lead lawyers, on the other hand, received over $27 million in common-benefit fees through a deal they negotiated directly with the defendant (and had the court approve). Sadly, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
I posted the fruits of my labor on SSRN today in a piece titled, Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation. It's a 70+ page tomb, so I'll be covering specific aspects of it over the next few weeks in a series of blog posts. It's not only an indictment of current practices and procedures, but it offers myriad ways for judges to improve MDL practice. It even comes complete with handy pocket guides for judges, leadership application forms, and leadership applicant scoring sheets in the appendix.
For those of you who love data, there are several tables that may be of interest: Table 1: Provisions Benefitting Defendants Occurring within the Analyzed Settlements on p. 20; Table 2: Common-Benefit Fee Practices on p. 33; and Table 3: Common-Benefit Awards and Nonclass Claimant Recovery within the Data on p. 48.
Today's post simply introduces the paper, so here is the summary:
When transferee judges receive a multidistrict proceeding, they select a few lead plaintiffs’ lawyers to efficiently manage litigation and settlement negotiations. That decision gives those attorneys total control over all plaintiffs’ claims and rewards them richly in common-benefit fees. It’s no surprise then that these are coveted positions, yet empirical evidence confirms that the same attorneys occupy them time and again. When asked, repeat players chalk it up to their experience and skill—no one can manage and negotiate as well as they can. Off the record, however, any plaintiff’s lawyer who’s been involved in multidistrict litigation will explain repeat players’ dominance with stories of backroom deals, infighting, and payoffs. Yet, when judges focus on cooperation and consensus in selecting leaders and then defer to those leaders in awarding common-benefit fees, they dampen open rivalry and enable repeat actors to mete out social and financial sanctions on challengers.
Anytime repeat players exist and exercise both oligopolistic leadership control across multidistrict proceedings and monopolistic power within a single proceeding, there is concern that they will use their dominance to enshrine practices and norms that benefit themselves at consumers’ (or here, clients’) expense. Apprehensiveness should increase when defense lawyers are repeat players too, as they are in multidistrict litigation. And anxiety should peak when the circumstances exhibit these anti-competitive characteristics, but lack regulation as they do here. Without the safeguards built into class certification, judicial monitoring and appellate checks disappear. What remains is a system that permits lead lawyers to act, at times, like a cartel.
Basic economic principles demonstrate that noncompetitive markets can result in higher prices and lower outputs, and agency costs chronicle ways in which unmonitored agents’ self-interest can lead them astray. By analyzing the nonclass deals that repeat players design, this Article introduces new empirical evidence that multidistrict litigation is not immune to market or agency principles. It demonstrates that repeat players on both sides continually achieve their goals in tandem—defendants end massive suits and lead plaintiffs’ lawyers increase their common-benefit fees. But this exchange may result in lower payouts to plaintiffs, stricter evidentiary burdens in claims processing, or higher plaintiff-participation requirements in master settlements.
These circumstances warrant regulation, for both multidistrict litigation and class actions are critical to redressing corporate wrongdoing. Even though judges entrench and enable repeat players, they are integral to the solution. By tinkering with selection and compensation methods and instilling automatic remands after leaders negotiate master settlements, judges can capitalize on competitive forces already in play. By tapping into the vibrant rivalries within the plaintiffs’ bar, judges can use dynamic market solutions to remap the existing regulatory landscape by invigorating competition and playing to attorneys’ strengths.
As always, your comments are welcome (the draft is still just that, a draft) - please email any comments or corrections to me eburch at uga.edu. More soon...
Friday, January 29, 2016
There's obviously been a lot in the news about multidistrict litigation--from Lance Cooper's allegations in GM to the recent selection of the plaintiffs' leadership slate in VW. But what do we really know about the settlements that come out of those large MDLs? On one hand, the answer is not much. Many of the deals are secret because they are private. But sometimes those private deals are nevertheless publicly available. And when they are, we read them. And analyze them.
The results can be a little disturbing. Given all of the hubbub over Cooper's allegations in GM (see Lahav's post), my co-author Margaret Williams and I decided to go ahead and release the findings of our recent study, Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network, on SSRN.
While past studies have considered repeat play on the plaintiffs’ side, this study is the first comprehensive empirical investigation of repeat play on both sides. It won't surprise most readers to learn that we found robust evidence of repeat play among both plaintiff and defense attorneys. What may be more interesting is that we used social-network analysis to demonstrate that a cohesive multidistrict-litigation leadership network exists, which connects people, law firms, and the proceedings themselves.
While repeat play may not be surprising for those in the know, the fact that repeat players exist matters considerably. Lead lawyers control the litigation, dominate negotiations, and design settlements.
To consider repeat players’ influence, we examined the publicly available nonclass settlements these attorneys negotiated, looking for provisions that one might argue principally benefit the attorneys, and not one-shot plaintiffs. By conditioning the deal on achieving a certain claimant-participation rate and shifting the deal-making entities from plaintiffs and defendants to lead lawyers and defendants, repeat players tied all plaintiffs’ attorneys’ financial interests to defendants’ ability to achieve closure.
Over a 22-year span, we were unable to find any publicly available nonclass settlement that didn’t feature at least one closure provision (which benefits the defendant), and likewise found that nearly all settlements contained some provision that increased lead lawyers’ fees. Based on the limited settlements available to us, we found reason to be concerned that when repeat players influence the practices and norms that govern multidistrict proceedings—when they “play for rules,” so to speak—the practices they develop may principally benefit them at the expense of one-shot plaintiffs.
Of course, our research doesn't speak directly to the allegations in GM, but it does make those allegations far less surprising. And if you compare our list of repeat players to the names of those appointed in Volkswagen, you'll see a lot of familiar names.
Friday, May 8, 2015
On February 27, 2015, the Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, held a hearing on the state of class actions post-CAFA. The witnesses' lack of ideological diversity (with Professor Moore as a single exception) is extremely troubling. The committee heard testimony from: Andrew Pincus (Partner, Mayer Brown, U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform), John Parker Sweeney (President, DRI - the Voice of the Defense Bar), Jessica D. Miller (Partner, Skadden Arps), and Professor Patricia Moore (St. Thomas Univ. School of Law).
Thursday, April 30, 2015
In conjunction with its annual meeting each year, the American Law Institute hosts a CLE the day before the meeting begins. This year, there are two programs that may be of interest to readers on Sunday, May 17, 2015:
1) Changes for Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23? An Open Forum with the Rule 23 Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules; and
2) Ethical Issues in Class Actions and Non-Class Aggregate Litigation.
The panels run from 1:30-3:00 p.m. and 4:00-6:00 p.m., respectively and are located in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C. I understand that panel members on the second panel will include Bob Klnonoff, Elizabeth Cabraser, Judge Diane Wood, Judge Lee Rosenthal, Sam Issacharoff, John Beisner, and myself among others. Hope to see you there!
There's been a lot of chatter over the past few years about the greater use of issue classes. The Rule 23 Subcommittee in its recent report (p. 41) indicated that issue classes top its agenda for possible reform and there's been a greater willingness to rely on Rule 23(c)(4) among the circuit courts over the last few years. Much of the scholarship on issue classes thus far, however, has focused on how to use issue classes in conjunction with Rule 23(b)(3)'s predominance requirement. Professor Laura Hines (Kansas) has, for instance, written a series of articles on the topic and there have been several debates in symposium pages, such as DePaul's 2013 symposium.
Whatever side of the debate one adheres to on the to-be-or-not-to-be question, the courts are embracing issue classes. Thus, there remains much work to be done on discerning which issues should qualify for certification, how to think about Seventh Amendment Reexamination Clause questions, and how to compensate plaintiffs' attorneys who initiate issue classes.
I've recently written a paper on issue classes that takes some steps toward fleshing out these problems. The paper is long since it's meant to be a one-stop shop for judges and attorneys on the subject, but here are the critical points worth underscoring:
First, one of the main difficulties of our system is that the focus in massive lawsuits has shifted to the ways in which the plaintiffs are dissimilarly situated, even when the defendant's conduct is uniform. Take the GM ignition switch debacle or the Toyota acceleration cases, for example. Corporate actions are nonindividuated; it doesn't make sense to litigate what GM or Toyota did in 40,000 different cases. (Draft pp 5-8) But defendants have successfully shifted the procedural focus to how their behavior affected claimants, which tends to defeat class certification because common questions do not predominate over individual ones. The issue class has the potential to recapture what is common to the plaintiffs: defendant's conduct--at least so long as that conduct is nonindividuated. One can capture this notion by divvying up the legal elements in any claim or defense as "conduct components," which concern the defendant's conduct, or "eligibility components," which concern a plaintiff's eligibility for relief. (Draft pp 15-29)
Second, by embracing the standard suggested by the ALI's Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation, courts can ease the supposed tension (to the extent any remains) between Rule 23(c)(4) and Rule 23(b)(3). (Draft pp 31-32) Courts should certify issue classes where resolving the issue would "materially advance the resolution of multiple civil claims by addressing the core of the dispute in a manner superior to other realistic procedural alternatives, so as to generate significant judicial efficiencies." (Principles, 2.02(a)(1), 2.02 cmt. a, 2.08, 2.08 cmt. a) Predominance is embedded in the "materially advance" language and superiority is included as a condition that certifying the issue would be "superior to other realistic alternatives" such that it "generate[s] significant judicial efficiencies." Moreover, the courts themselves seem to have reached a general consensus on this matter, with even the Fifth Circuit embracing issue classes in In re Deepwater Horizon, 739 F.3d 790, 804 (5th Cir. 2014). (Draft p. 30)
Third, courts must figure out a way to compensate (and thus incentivize) plaintiffs' attorneys. This is perhaps the trickiest part because of both the lack precedent and doctrinal hurdles such as Lexecon. Lexecon presents a special challenge in multidistrict litigation cases where issue classes might prove most useful. Nevertheless, one need not invent a theory out of whole cloth. Charging liens and the common-benefit doctrine provide sound analogies for fashioning a coherent path forward. (Draft pp 42-50)
Finally, there are some hurdles to making issue classes stick, such as preclusion doctrines, adequate representation, and the Seventh Amendment Reexamination Clause. Thus, the paper concludes by suggesting solutions to these problems and arguing that preclusion can provide a way to coordinate dispersed public and private regulators.
As always, comments are welcome (eburch at uga.edu).
April 30, 2015 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Class Actions, Current Affairs, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Procedure, Products Liability, Tobacco, Vioxx | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Friday, February 6, 2015
Perry Cooper, of the BNA Class Action Litigation Report, published a special report yesterday titled "Issue Classes Swell in Consumer Suits: Are Potential Rewards Worth the Risk?" A subscription is required to read the full article, but it does a nice job of portraying different points of view on the topic - John Beisner and Jessica Miller (Sadden Arps) for the defense, Gary Mason (Whitfield Bryson & Mason) for the plaintiffs, and some of my own views as an academic.
Issue classes have been on my mind for awhile now as well as the minds of many others--the Rule 23 Subcommittee has indicated that the topic tops their list for potential rule changes. As such, I've been working on an article titled "Constructing Issue Classes." I'm still tweaking it, so it's not available for public consumption yet, but for those interested in the topic, here's the gist of it:
Issue classes under Rule 23(c)(4) have the potential to adjudicate collectively what actually unites plaintiffs: defendant's uniform conduct. One can separate the elements of any cause of action into "conduct elements" that relate to the defendant's conduct--what the defendant knew, when the defendant knew it, etc.--or "eligibility elements" that relate to the plaintiff's eligibility for relief--specific causation, damages, etc. When defendant's conduct toward the plaintiffs is uniform, as it was for example in the smelly washing machine cases, then adjudicating elements relating to that conduct collectively can even out resource imbalances between plaintiffs' attorneys and defendants and reduce the possibility of inconsistent verdicts.
As you may imagine, a lot rides on that one trial. Issue classes work by generating two-way preclusion in follow-on cases. In the Ohio "smelly washer" trial against Whirlpool, the defense verdict meant that defendants could preclude class members from relitigating those same issues in subsequent cases. (Granted, the class was limited to Ohio purchasers, but did include some 100,000 consumers.) The high stakes suggest that anytime courts certify an issue for class treatment they should be prepared to allow an interlocutory appeal on the merits (not just the certification question as Rule 23(f) permits). It also means that courts shouldn't certify trivial issues for class treatment. As the ALI in its Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation suggest, the issue class should "materially advance the resolution of the claims," which would be the case with regard to most conduct-related questions.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
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
Saturday, October 4, 2014
I've been a bit slow in posting this, but Louisiana Law Review hosted an excellent symposium last spring titled The Rest of the Story: Resolving the Cases Remanded by the MDL. As part of that symposium, I wrote a piece titled Remanding Multidistrict Litigation. Remands are something that have received scant attention in the scholarly literature, but are a constant hope for many plaintiffs' lawyers involved in multidistrict litigation (well, at least those who aren't on the steering committees).
I just got around to posting the piece on SSRN today. Here's the abstract:
Multidistrict litigation has frequently been described as a “black hole” because transfer is typically a one-way ticket. The numbers lend truth to this proposition. As of 2010, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation remanded only 3.425% of cases to their original districts. That number dwindled to 3.1% in 2012, and to a scant 2.9% in 2013. Retaining cases in hopes of forcing a global settlement can cause a constellation of complications. These concerns range from procedural justice issues over selecting a forum and correcting error, to substantive concerns about fidelity to state laws, to undermining democratic participation ideals fulfilled through jury trials in affected communities. Yet, if transferee judges remanded cases after overseeing discovery into common issues, they could alleviate those concerns while avoiding inconsistent rulings on common questions and streamlining discovery.
Despite the potential upside, remand rarely occurs because it disfavors those with litigation control—transferee judges, lead plaintiffs’ attorneys, and defendants. Transferee judges deem settlement a hallmark of their success. Lead plaintiffs’ lawyers try to increase their fees by inserting fee provisions into settlements. Likewise, plaintiffs’ attorneys can bypass doctrinal uncertainties over weak claims by packaging plaintiffs together in a global settlement. And aggregate settlements allow defendants to resolve as many claims as possible in one stroke, take their hit, and return to business, which their shareholders view as a net positive. The remand process itself defers to these vested interests. Although the Panel could remand cases at a party’s request, in practice it appears never to have done so. Rather, it waits for the transferee judge to admit defeat and suggest remand—thereby conceding failure.
For transferee judges to begin remanding cases, the “pro-settlement” norm and “remand-as-a-failure” stigma must change. Accordingly, transferee judges should routinely entertain a suggestion for remand by a party or initiate them sua sponte as soon as discovery on common issues concludes and only case-specific issues remain. Likewise, the Panel should seriously consider parties’ remand requests even when the transferee judge does not support them. This reopens a direct line for parties to request remand when common discovery ends, but the transferee judge prefers to hold cases hostage in hopes of coercing settlement.
Monday, August 4, 2014
Professor Linda Mullenix has posted a new article titled "Designing Compensatory Funds: In Search of First Principles" on SSRN. It takes on several high-profile compensation funds and may have something of interest to say about how GM is designing its own compensation fund. Here's the abstract:
The World Trade Center Victims’ Compensation Fund of 2001 ushered in a new age of fund approaches to resolving claims for mass disasters in the United States. Since then, numerous funds have been created following several mass events injuring large numbers of claimants. The Gulf Coast Claims Facility, created in the immediate aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion, represented a further expansion of fund design and operation. The funds that have been implemented since 2001, including the World Trade Center Fund, have been the object of both praise as well as criticism. Notably, all these funds have been designed and implemented after the events giving rise to a universe of mass claimants. This article suggests that the policy recommendations for future fund design largely fail to address antecedent threshold questions about the nature of the events giving rise to possible recourse to a fund for compensation of claims. Although such compensation funds have been intended to provide an alternative to the tort compensation system and to operate largely outside the purview of the judicial system, instead most fund designs have relied on tort notions of corrective justice that mimic the tort system. However, many funds have in practice entailed mixed theories of corrective and distributive justice, confusing the purpose, utility, and goals of such funds. This article asks fundamental questions about the goals of such funds and whether and to what extent disaster compensation funds comport with theories of justice. It suggests that certain types of mass disaster events ought not to be resolved through fund auspices at all, while only a limited universe of communitarian harms should give rise to such a response. Finally, a communitarian fund designed ex-ante might more fairly be based on theories of distributive justice based on an egalitarian social welfare norm.
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.