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.
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
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Professors Andrew Bradt (UC Berkeley Law) and D. Theodore Rave (U. Houston Law) have posted to SSRN their article, The Information-Forcing Role of the Judge in Multidistrict Litigation, Cal. L. Rev. (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
In this article, we address one of the most controversial and current questions in federal civil procedure: What is the proper role of the judge in the settlement of mass-tort multidistrict litigation, or MDL? Due to the Supreme Court’s hostility to class actions, MDL proceedings have begun to dominate the federal civil docket. To wit, nearly half of the federal civil caseload is MDL. Although MDL is structurally different from a class action, the procedure replicates — and in many ways complicates — the principal-agent problems that plagued the class action. Like a class action, nearly all MDL cases are resolved by a comprehensive global settlement agreement, but, unlike a class action, in MDL the judge has no authority to reject a settlement agreement as unfair to the potentially thousands of parties ensnared in the litigation. Here, we argue that, given this limitation, the judge should act as an “information-forcing intermediary,” who reserves the right to offer a non-binding opinion about the fairness of the settlement to send an easy-to-understand signal directly to the parties about their lawyers’ performance. Such a signal will mitigate many of the agency problems inherent to MDL and allow parties to exercise informed consent when choosing whether to accept a settlement. More generally, this article is a call for judges to embrace an information-forcing role at the head of consolidated MDL proceedings.
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)
Monday, July 25, 2016
Sergio Campos has a great new review on JOTWELL of an important report from Adam Zimmerman and Michael Sant'Ambrogio. The report concerns the use of aggregation techniques in administrative agencies and is both conceptually and practically interesting. Both the review and the report are worth reading!
Saturday, July 2, 2016
Hillel Bavli on the Logic of Comparable-Case Guidance in the Determination of Awards for Pain and Suffering and Punitive Damages
Hillel Bavli (Ph.D. Candidate in Statistics in Law & Governance, Harvard; Counsel, Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP) has posted to SSRN his article, The Logic of Comparable-Case Guidance in the Determination of Awards for Pain and Suffering and Punitive Damages, U. Cin. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
Little guidance is provided to fact-finders in arriving at awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. Such awards are therefore highly variable. This article explains why methods involving comparable-case guidance — information regarding awards in comparable cases as guidance for determining damage awards — are generally effective in reducing unpredictability and improving the reliability of awards for pain and suffering and punitive damages. The article addresses major objections to such methods, and provides relevant legal context and direction for implementation.
Professor Alexander Lemann (Research Fellow & Adjunct Professor, Georgetown Law) has posted to SSRN his article, Coercive Insurance and the Soul of Tort Law, 105 Geo. L.J. (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
Scholars have long accepted the idea that there are alternatives to the tort system, particularly insurance, that are better at compensating victims than tort law. Tort law remains necessary, it has been assumed, because insurance lacks the ability to deter conduct that causes harm, and indeed it sometimes creates a moral hazard that increases incentives to engage in risky conduct. Scholars of insurance law, however, have observed that insurance has at its disposal a variety of tools that can help deter risky conduct. Recent technological developments lend dramatic support to this account. New telematics devices being used in automobiles can track acceleration, braking, and even whether a car is exceeding the speed limit on a particular road, allowing insurance companies to identify and penalize individual acts of negligent driving in real time. Insurance can now, in many cases, deter risky conduct more effectively than tort law. And yet tort law incorporates values that insurance cannot.
While much attention has been paid to the implications of these developments for insurance law, the implications for tort theory have been largely ignored. This Article fills that gap. Where insurance coverage is mandatory and premiums are adjusted based on individual acts by individual customers, “coercive insurance” can be understood as a liability rule just like tort law. Comparing the mechanisms by which these systems deter risky conduct, I argue that coercive insurance’s abandonment of certain features central to tort law makes it inherently more efficient in dealing with certain risks. Coercive insurance thus helps resolve the ongoing debate between efficiency and rights-based theories of tort law, undermining the claim that tort law is best understood as a system for achieving efficient deterrence and lending support to the idea that concepts like corrective justice and civil recourse theory are necessary to explain tort law’s purpose and structure.
Saturday, June 25, 2016
New Book on Class Actions in Context: How Culture, Economics and Politics Shape Collective Litigation
A new book, Class Actions in Context: How Culture, Economics and Politics Shape Collective Litigation, has been published by Edward Elgar Publishing (also available on Amazon). The editors of the book are Associate Dean Deborah Hensler (Stanford Law) and Professors Christopher Hodges (Oxford) and Ianika Tzankova (Tilburg Law). A global group of aggregate-litigation scholars contributed to the book, including Dean Camille Cameron (Dalhousie Law, Canada); Associate Dean Manuel Gomez (Florida International Law); Professors Agustin Barroilhet (U. Chile Law), Naomi Creutzfeldt (Research Fellow, Oxford), Axel Halfmeier (Leuphana U., Germany), Kuo-Chang Huang (Member, Taiwan national congress and formerly of National Cheng-Chi U., Taiwan), Jasminka Kalajdzic (Windsor Law, Canada), Alon Klement (Tel-Aviv U., Israel), Elizabeth Thornburg (SMU Law), and Stefaan Voet (U. Leuven & U. Hasselt, Belgium); and myself.
I authored a chapter, The promise and peril of media and culture: The Toyota unintended acceleration litigation and the Gulf Coast Claims Facility in the United States, and Professor Ianika Tzankova and I co-authored another chapter, The culture of collective litigation: A comparative analysis.
The book was a remarkable and fascinating undertaking, with many of us contributors gathering at several conferences across the globe over recent years to discuss and compare our ongoing research. Here is a brief description of the book:
In recent years collective litigation procedures have spread across the globe, accompanied by hot controversy and normative debate. Yet virtually nothing is known about how these procedures operate in practice. Based on extensive documentary and interview research, this volume presents the results of the first comparative investigation of class actions and group litigation ‘in action’.
Produced by a multinational team of legal scholars, this book spans research from ten different countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including common law and civil law jurisdictions. The contributors conclude that to understand how class actions work in practice, one needs to know the cultural factors that shape claiming, the financial arrangements that enable or impede litigation and how political actors react when mass claims erupt. Substantive law and procedural rules matter, but culture, economics and politics matter at least as much.
This book will be of interest to students and scholars of law, business and politics. It will also be of use to public policy makers looking to respond to mass claims; financial analysts looking to understand the potential impact of new legal instruments; and global lawyers who litigate transnationally.
We are honored that Professor Geoffrey Hazard (Emeritus, UC Hastings Law & Penn Law) offered the following comment on the book:
Class Actions in Context is a penetrating analysis of class and group actions worldwide. A group of international scholars brings to bear legal, economic, and political analyses of this evolving judicial remedy. It explores various substantive claims ranging from consumer protection to securities litigation. Drawing on case studies of practice as well as legal analysis, it demonstrates the importance of factors running from litigation finance to background cultural traditions. It is worth study in every legal system.
Professor Wendy Parmet (Northeastern Law) has posted to SSRN her article, Paternalism, Self-Governance, and Public Health: The Case of E-Cigarettes, 70 U. Miami L. Rev. 879 (2016). Here is the abstract:
This article develops a normative framework for assessing public health laws, using the regulation of e-cigarettes as a case study. Although e-cigarettes are likely far less dangerous to individual users than traditional cigarettes, it remains uncertain whether their proliferation will lead to a reduction of smoking-related disease and deaths or to increased morbidity and mortality. This scientific uncertainty presents regulators with difficult challenges in determining whether and how to regulate e-cigarettes. This article presents a normative framework for analyzing such questions by offering three justifications for public health laws: impaired agency, harm to others, and self-governance. Each justification responds to the common charge that public health laws are impermissibly paternalistic. The self-governance rationale, which is the most robust, and most reflective of public health’s own population perspective, has been the least theorized. This article develops that theory, examining the basis for the justification as well as its limitations. The article then applies its normative framework to the regulation of e-cigarettes, focusing on the FDA’s so-called deeming regulations, which at the time the article was written were pending but have since been promulgated in a substantially similar form. The article supports the FDA’s ultimate decision to ban the sales of e-cigarettes to minors and to require the disclosure of warning labels based upon the impaired agency rationale. However, the scientific uncertainty renders the harm rationale inadequate. As a result, the regulations’ pre-market review requirement must rely on the self-governance rationale for its normative justification. Given the lack of clear legislative guidance and political engagement, the article concludes that the pre-market review provisions are normatively problematic: if public health advocates want to claim the mantle of self-governance, they must take it seriously.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
On Bloomberg BNA Perry Cooper has an important article on MDL leadership fights entitled "MDLs Led By the Usual Suspects, and Not Everyone is Happy."
Our own Prof. Burch's work is featured. Cooper writes "Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia Law School in Athens, Ga., who specializes in complex litigation, said she's troubled by the number of “repeat players” she sees among attorneys that represent both plaintiffs and defendants in MDLs."
Elizabeth Cabraser, a frequent leader in MDLs, explains: "The problem for getting new players into the leadership is that there are economic barriers to entry,” she said. “To be part of the leadership you have to write a check. You have to put up the money and spend the time.” Cabraser also links the developments in MDLs to changes in the legal culture. As Cooper quotes her: “We all became plaintiffs’ attorneys because we didn't want to work for big firms—we wanted to do our own thing,” she said. “But in an MDL everything is by committee.”
The article also has some good tidbits on Bellwether trials. One plaintiffs lawyer explains: "Large verdicts in bellwether trials can be great from a plaintiff's perspective, Berezofsky said, but they can give clients an expectation that the resolution of their case will be in keeping with the verdict." This lawyer says that for claimants in the middle of the bell curve, an MDL saves money and time, but not for claimants who have more severe injuries because "global settlements generally don't take into account their individual, specialized injuries."
You can find the paper detailing Burch's findings, Monopolies in MDL Litigation, on SSRN.
Brooke Coleman (Seattle) has posted "One Percent Procedure" on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In this election year, political rhetoric about the one percent is already pervasive, as those with the greatest concentrated wealth prosper and the remaining population stagnates. Because of their affluence, the one percent exercise disproportionate control over political and economic systems. This Article argues that federal civil procedure is similarly a one percent regime. The crème de la crème of the bench and bar, along with equally exclusive litigants, often engage in high-stakes, complex civil litigation. It is this type of litigation that dominates both the elite experience and the public perception of what civil litigation is. This litigation is not particularly common, however; while expensive and well known, it is in the minority. Yet this litigation and the individuals engaged in it have an incongruent influence on how the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and procedural doctrine develop. They create one percent procedure.
This Article interrogates and connects disparate phenomena related to civil litigation, including the recent discovery amendments and the rise of multidistrict litigation. It demonstrates that the elite — those who are deeply steeped in complex, high-stakes litigation — are setting the agenda and determining the rules for how the entire civil litigation game is played. It further argues that the benefits of a one percent procedure system — notably expertise of the participants — are not worth the costs; indeed, that expertise can be detrimental to the design of a civil litigation system.
As in politics and economics, a system that gives too much control to the one percent risks undervaluing and underserving the remaining ninety-nine. Using social and political science, the Article argues that the homogenous policymaking of one percent procedure creates suboptimal results. The Article concludes that the structures giving rise to one percent procedure must be modified and proposes a set of reforms intended to allow the ninety-nine percent representation in, and access to, the process of constructing our shared civil litigation system.
Sunday, May 29, 2016
Professors John C.P. Goldberg (Harvard Law) and Benjamin Zipursky (Fordham Law) have posted to SSRN their forthcoming article, The Myths of MacPherson, 9 J. Tort L. (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
For a symposium marking the centenary of MacPherson v. Buick, we identify three common characterizations of Cardozo’s famous opinion that purport to explain its importance. Unfortunately, each of these characterizations turns out to be a myth. MacPherson is worthy of celebration, but not because it recognizes that negligence law’s duty of care is owed to the world, nor because it displays the promise of an instrumental, policy-oriented approach to adjudication, nor because it embraces a nascent form of strict products liability. These myths of MacPherson reflect deep misunderstandings of tort law, and of Cardozo’s distinctively pragmatic approach to adjudication. Ironically, although they have been largely fostered by progressives, the myths lend support to the cause of modern tort reform. By contrast, an accurate appreciation of MacPherson’s virtues permits an understanding of negligence, tort law, and common law adjudication that provides grounds for resisting regressive reforms.
Professor Alexandra Lahav (Connecticut Law), who is also an editor of the Mass Tort Litigation Blog, has posted to SSRN her forthcoming article, The Roles of Litigation in American Democracy, 65 Emory L.J. (forthcoming 2016). Here is the abstract:
Adjudication is usually understood as having two functions: dispute resolution and law declaration. This Article presents the process of litigation as a third, equally important function. Through the repeated performance of litigation, participants perform rule of law values and in so doing, form a collective democratic identity. Litigation does this in five ways. First, it allows individuals, even the most downtrodden, to obtain recognition from a governmental officer (a judge) of their claims. Second, it promotes the production of reasoned arguments about legal questions and presentation of proofs in public, subject to cross examination and debate. Third, it promotes transparency by forcing information required to present proofs and arguments to be revealed. Fourth, it aids in the enforcement of the law in two ways: by requiring wrongdoers to answer for their conduct to the tribunal and by revealing information that is used by other actors to enforce or change existing regulatory regimes. And fifth, litigation enables citizens to serve as adjudicators on juries. Unlike other process-based theories of the benefits of litigation, the theory presented here does not hinge on the sociological legitimacy of procedures or outcomes. The democratic benefits of these performances ought to be considered in the reform of procedural rules.
Professor Christopher Mueller (Colorado Law) has posted to SSRN his forthcoming article, Taking a Second Look at MDL Product Liability Settlements: Somebody Needs to Do It, 65 U. Kan. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2017). Here is the abstract:
This Article examines the forces that lead to the settlement of product liability cases gathered under the MDL statute for pretrial. The MDL procedure is ill-suited to this use, and does not envision the gathering of the underlying cases as a means of finally resolving them. Motivational factors affecting judges and lawyers have produced these settlements, and the conditions out of which they arise do not give confidence that they are fair or adequate. This Article concedes that MDL settlements are likely here to stay, and argues that we need a mechanism to check such settlements for fairness and adequacy. The best way to do so is to allow collateral review of such settlements in suits brought by dissatisfied claimants.
Saturday, April 30, 2016
Russell Gold (Wake Forest) has posted his latest piece, Compensation's Role in Deterrence, on SSRN. Here's the abstract:
There are plenty of non-economic reasons to care whether victims are compensated in class actions. The traditional law and economics view, however, is that when individual claim values are small, there is no reason to care whether victims are compensated. Deterring wrongdoing is tort law’s primary economic objective. And on this score, law and economics scholars contend that only the aggregate amount of money that a defendant expects to pay affects deterrence. They say that it does not matter for deterrence purposes how that money is split between victims, lawyers, and charities. This Article challenges that claim about achieving tort law’s primary objective and argues that there is an economic reason to care whether victims are compensated in class actions. It offers reason to think that compensating victims deters more wrongdoing than the same amount of relief in other forms, at least in damages class actions.
Put a different way, this Article contends that the primary objectives of class actions — compensation and deterrence — are intertwined in ways that scholars have not previously recognized. Compensation affects the amount of reputational harm that class actions inflict on defendants, and anticipating that reputational harm provides a source of deterrence. Because the public values compensating victims in civil litigation, if class actions were frequently to slight compensation that would undermine public perception of the class device; class actions would come to seem more like plaintiffs’ lawyers’ extortion mechanisms than legitimate means of redressing harm. Diminished procedural legitimacy makes the class action a less powerful signal about the validity of the underlying claims, which undermines reputational deterrence.
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.
Our own Howie Erichson has posted his latest piece, Aggregation in Disempowerment: Red Flags in Class Action Settlements, on SSRN. It's a great read for judges and attorneys alike and points out--as the title suggests--provisions in class action settlements that should give judges pause before approving a class settlement.
Here's the abstract:
Class action critics and proponents cling to the conventional wisdom that class actions empower claimants. Critics complain that class actions over-empower claimants and put defendants at a disadvantage, while proponents defend class actions as essential to consumer protection and rights enforcement. This article explores how class action settlements sometimes do the opposite. Aggregation empowers claimants’ lawyers by consolidating power in the lawyers’ hands. Consolidation of power allows defendants to strike deals that benefit themselves and claimants’ lawyers while disadvantaging claimants. This article considers the phenomenon of aggregation as disempowerment by looking at specific settlement features that benefit plaintiffs’ counsel and defendants without benefiting class members. Recognizing that protection of disempowered class members lies with judges who review settlement agreements, the article identifies red flags to alert judges to problematic settlements and fee requests. By showing how certain settlement features reflect defendants’ cooption of the power of aggregation, the article offers a framework for thinking about class action power dynamics in the age of settlement.
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.