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)
Thursday, April 17, 2014
The Stanford Journal of Complex Litigation is hosting a symposium, "A Complicated Cleanup: The BP Oil Spill Litigation," on Thursday, May 8, 2014 and Friday, May 9, 2014, at Stanford Law School. The keynote address speaker is Kenneth Feinberg, the Gulf Coast Claims Administrator. Other symposium speakers will include Elizabeth Cabraser of Lieff Cabraser, Professor Francis McGovern (Duke), Professor Linda Mullenix (Texas), Professor Maya Stenitz (Iowa), and myself. Panel moderators will include Stanford Law Professors Nora Engstrom, Deborah Hensler, and Janet Alexander.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
As the trial continues to unfold in New York in Chevron's RICO lawsuit against plaintiffs' lawyer Stephen Donziger -- amid accusations of judicial bribes, ghostwritten opinions, and sex scandals -- it is worth noting what happened in Ecuador this week.
On Tuesday, Ecuador's high court, the National Court of Justice, affirmed the underlying judgment against Chevron but reduced the amount from about $19 billion to $9.5 billion. The court eliminated the portion of damages that had been imposed as punishment for Chevron's failure to apologize. Here are news accounts from the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. Chevron's suit against Donziger contends that he engaged in fraud and other misconduct to obtain the massive judgment in the Lago Agrio environmental litigation.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Famed mass tort plaintiffs' lawyer Ron Mottley has passed away, according to an announcement today on the Mottley Rice firm website by his partner Joe Rice. Mottley played a leading role in many of the biggest mass torts -- asbestos, tobacco, 9/11, Gulf oil spill, and lead paint, to name a few. I knew him only from accounts of his work and from reading about him in various books on the tobacco litigation and other mass tort wars. He was known not only for his legal skill and tenacity, but also for his outsized personality and lifestyle. Dionne Searcey at the WSJ law blog describes Mottley as "the gregarious, hard-charging and hard-living attorney who was known for his compassion for victims of corporate wrongdoing."
Update: here's a link to the New York Times article.
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.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Stanley M. Chesley, one of the leading mass tort lawyers of his generation, was disbarred today by the Kentucky Supreme Court (court's opinion here). Chesley played an important role in many of the biggest mass torts of the past forty years: the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, tobacco, breast implants, fen-phen, Bendectin, Bhopal, Lockerbie, Catholic church sex abuse, MGM Grand Hotel, San Juan Dupont Plaza, and other mass torts, as well as numerous antitrust and securities class actions. He was disbarred for his involvement in an aggregate settlement of Kentucky fen-phen claims. The court found that the lawyers violated rules of professional conduct by taking fees in excess of what their fee agreement provided, by including an inappropriate cy pres remedy that advantaged the lawyers rather than the clients, and by failing to comply with the disclosure and informed consent requirements of the aggregate settlement rule.
The Kentucky diet drug settlement also led to the disbarment and imprisonment of Kentucky attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham, as well as criminal, civil, and ethics proceedings and penalties for several other lawyers. For earlier coverage of the Kentucky fen-phen settlement dispute, see here, here, here, here, and here.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Two years ago, I blogged about the need for greater scholarly attention to mass tort crisis management. Since then, crisis-management practice groups at law firms have continued to burgeon. Here's a sampling of crisis-management groups at large law firms: Baker Hostetler, Bingham, Cooley, Covington & Burling, Freshfields, Gibson Dunn, McCarter & English, McDermott Will & Emery, Patton Boggs, Pillsbury Winthrop, Skadden, and Steptoe & Johnson.
For media coverage of recent growth in crisis-management groups, see the following:
(1) Ashby Jones, On Covington and the 'Crisis Management' Boomlet, Wall Street Journal Law Blog (Jan. 6, 2011, 1:37 p.m.);
(2) Leigh Kamping-Carder, Savvy Firms Seek Business Through Crisis Management, Law360 (Feb. 19, 2010, 7:12 p.m.) (online registration required for article); and
(3) David Lat, A Look at Orrick's Crisis Management Practice, Above the Law (Oct. 8, 2009, 11:06 a.m.).
While business schools have offered courses on crisis management and leadership, public-policy schools have offered courses on governmental crisis management, and communications schools have offered courses on crisis communications, law schools appear not to have provided curricular attention to legal crisis management. (The University of Texas School of Law has a course on crisis management, but it appears to track public-policy courses focusing on the government's role in a crisis.) What might a law-school course on legal crisis management look like, focusing on the role of lawyers in preventing, managing, and resolving crises? Here's a draft description I put together for such a course that I've been considering more fully developing:
Legal Crisis Management and the Media
BGSAlthough crisis management has long been an important skill for lawyers, formal crisis management practices today proliferate among global law firms seeking to aid clients facing complex crises that span various countries, practice areas, and advocacy settings such as judicial, legislative, regulatory, or media inquiries. This course will examine and integrate insights on legal crisis management from multiple disciplines, including not only law, but also management, leadership, communications, and public relations. Within law, the course will draw upon ethics, counseling, negotiation, and alternative dispute resolution, and address lawyers' and clients' interaction with the media during a crisis, including global perspectives on the legal limits of media coverage. In addition to developing conceptual approaches, the course will discuss case studies of legal crisis management implicating the law, culture, and media of multiple countries and areas, and consider lawyers' actual and potential contributions to successful resolution of the crises.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Congratulations to Torts Prof blogger Christopher Robinette (Widener) on being elected to the American Law Institute! Having started together with him as Freedman fellows at Temple Law, I can also attest to his longstanding commitment to, and mastery of, tort law!
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Jeffrey S. Lichtman, formerly a partner for nearly 30 years in the Mass Torts and Insurance Litigation group at Skadden Arps in New York, has joined O'Hare Parnagian LLP, which has offices in New York and Scarsdale. Jeff has broad experience in both commercial and products liability litigation, and played significant roles in the defense of the silicone breast-implant litigation, as well as the PPA (phenylpropanolamine) litigation involving appetite suppressants and cough-and-cold mediations. Along the way, he's been repeatedly selected for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America and New York Super Lawyers. I had the good fortune to work with Jeff while I was at Skadden, and so am happy also to attest personally to his extraordinary drive and determination, and his creative intelligence in examining all angles of a case, to advance his client's interests. Best wishes to Jeff on his new endeavor!
Thursday, August 16, 2012
This article argues that there is an unrecognized “anticommons” problem in aggregate litigation. An anticommons occurs when too many owners’ consent is needed to use a resource at its most efficient scale. When many plaintiffs have similar claims against a common defendant, those claims are often worth more if they can be packaged up and sold to the defendant (i.e., settled) as a single unit — that is, the defendant may be willing to pay a premium for total peace. But because the rights to control those claims are dispersed among the individual plaintiffs, transaction costs and strategic holdouts can make aggregation difficult, particularly in cases where class actions are impractical. Recently the American Law Institute has proposed to modify long-standing legal ethics rules governing non-class aggregate settlements to allow plaintiffs to agree in advance to be bound by a supermajority vote on a group settlement offer. By shifting from individual control over settlement decisions to collective decision making, the ALI proposal may offer a way out of the anticommons and allow the group to capture the peace premium. Critics, however, say that allowing plaintiffs to surrender their autonomy will leave them vulnerable to exploitation by the majority and by their lawyers. Viewed through the lens of the anticommons, these concerns are manageable. Similar anticommons problems arise in many areas of law, ranging from eminent domain to oil and gas to sovereign debt. But instead of slavishly preserving the autonomy of individual rights-holders, these areas of law have developed strategies for aggregating rights when doing so will result in joint gains. Drawing from these other contexts, this article argues that the legitimacy of compelling individuals to participate in a value-generating aggregation depends on the presence of governance procedures capable of protecting the interests of the individuals within the collective and ensuring that the gains from cooperation are fairly allocated. Governance is thus the key to legitimizing attempts to defeat the anticommons in mass litigation through aggregation, whether by regulatory means, such as the class action, or contractual precommitment, as in the ALI proposal.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Thomas J. Donahue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has an op-ed entitled, U.S. Firms Prone To 'Tort Tourism' In Foreign Courts, in Investor's Business Daily. The op-ed particularly discusses the Chevron case in Ecuador.
Walter Olson has an op-ed on recent New Hampshire tort reform involving early offers of settlement and loser pays. Although New Hampshire's new approach concerns medical malpractice, one could imagine such reforms subsequently spreading to other areas of tort, including perhaps products liability.
Monday, July 9, 2012
NPR has an extended interview with famed claims administrator Ken Feinberg about his new book, Who Gets What: Fair Compensation After Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.
July 9, 2012 in 9/11, Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Current Affairs, Informal Aggregation, Lawyers, Mass Disasters, Mass Tort Scholarship, Products Liability, Settlement | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O'Grady has an article, Chevron's Ecuador Morass: The U.S. oil company charges that the $18 billion judgment against it was secured by fraud, which discusses Chevron's attempts in federal district court in Miami to obtain records to show bribery of a court expert.
Another article in today's Wall Street Journal discusses recent decisions from the Southern District of New York. In one opinion, the court allowed certain claims by Chevron, including RICO claims, to proceed against attorney Steven Donziger in connection with Donziger's alleged role as advisor in the Ecuadoran lawsuit, but in the other opinion, the court denied Chevron's motion to attach various assets.
Monday, May 7, 2012
Interesting article in today's Wall Street Journal on the increasing influence of businesspersons in managing law firms -- Practicing Business: Professional Managers Gain Wider Presence at Law Firms, by Jennifer Smith and Ashby Jones. As defense firms expand their offices globally and sometimes exceed a billion dollars in annual revenue, business expertise is clearly beneficial, but must be integrated with professional ethical responsibilities and firm culture. Not discussed in the article are the possible benefits to plaintiffs' firms in including businesspersons. Increasingly, plaintiffs' firms in mass torts are collaborating globally, as well, and might benefit from specialized business insight.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
On Tuesday, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions and sentences of William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham for their handling of a massive settlement of fen-phen claims. Here is the Sixth Circuit opinion, and here are news accounts from Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg. The lawyers had been sentenced to 25 years and 20 years, respectively. The opinion provides interesting and useful background on the diet drugs litigation and settlement, and it offers a picture of how badly things can go when mass tort aggregate settlements are mishandled. Because the Daubert exclusion of defendants' expert was an issue on appeal, the Sixth Circuit referred to my trial testimony as an expert on behalf of the United States -- I don't know whether I should be offended or flattered that I was accused of espousing ivory tower ideals, but I take some solace in knowing that the court thought the ivory tower had it right.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
You don't need the Mass Tort Litigation Blog to tell you that the imminent BP trial has been stayed pending settlement talks. In the meantime, here are some thoughts from the ever relevant George Conk. Special shout out for his poetic references: Diving Into the Wreck: BP and Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf.
I was just at a wonderful conference at the Charleston School of Law on Mass Torts and the Federal Courts where Feinberg spoke. One of the key questions at the conference is the extent to which claims facilities (BP, 9/11, etc.) are unique and unlikely to be repeated or the wave of the future. The interesting thing about BP is that it shows the interaction between claims facilities and litigation - its not one or the other. Speakers mentioned how companies trying to get ahead of a litigation may well look to the BP model. Others questioned whether BP was really special because the company was prepared to admit liability (although not gross negligence).
I was especially interested by the remarks of Sheila Birnbaum, currently running the 9/11 Fund for first responders and who mediated settlements for the 94 families who chose not to participate in the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Even the families who wanted a public trial to find out what happened ultimately settled because of the uncertainty of trial. This raises important questions about the purpose of litigation for individuals: is it ultimately to get compensation? How important is it to get to the "truth"? How important is vindication? Punishment? When people settle (or waive their right to litigate prior to filing suit), what kind of consent do we want and does money ultimately satisfy? Lynn Baker, who was at the conference, referred me to the following article that addresses some of these questions: Gillian Hadfield, Framing the Choice Between Cash and the Courthouse: Experiences with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. This continues to be relevant, especially if Funds become a model rather than a one-off.
Monday, February 6, 2012
Professor Catherine Sharkey (NYU) has posted to SSRN her article, The Vicissitudes of Tort: A Response to Professors Rabin, Sebok & Zipursky. Here is the abstract:
This response essay probes three themes that tie together three articles submitted for a tort symposium on “The Limits of Predictability and the Value of Uncertainty.” First, I explore the use of unpredictability as a code word for an assault on tort doctrine in response to an out-of-control tort system. In his historical account of the evolution of tort, Professor Rabin focuses on the canonical “no duty” rules of the nineteenth century and the contemporary rules-based limitations on open-textured liability in the twentieth century. But largely missing from this account is the story of rules promoting tort liability, such as strict liability, vicarious liability, negligence per se, and the like. Second, I probe the link between unpredictability and insurance. I argue that Professor Sebok’s efforts to distinguish champerty from illegal gambling and to analogize it to a form of insurance will inevitably fall short of establishing social acceptance or embrace of the practice. Third, I highlight the role of the U.S. Supreme Court and its incursions into the state law domain of tort in the name of predictability. Professor Rabin is doubtful that the U.S. Supreme Court will achieve great strides in its endeavor to quell unpredictability in punitive damages. Professor Zipursky has considerable angst about the Court’s making inroads into privacy and emotional distress torts. Such incursions are in keeping with the Court’s longer-term project of procedural reform of the civil litigation system in the name of unpredictability, but are novel in their ambition to launch frontal attacks.
Fordham Lecture on Third-Party Litigation Funding by Lisa Rickard fo U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform
Lisa Rickard, the President of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, will present the 2012 Noreen E. McNamara Memorial Lecture at Fordham Law School in New York. Her lecture is entitled, The Commercialization of Legal Practice: Legal and Ethical Perils of Third-Party Litigation Funding, and the lecture will take place at 6:00 p.m., February 28, 2012.