Monday, April 1, 2013
I have posted a new paper, The Problem of Settlement Class Actions, on SSRN. It makes the argument that we should abandon settlement-only class actions as a means of resolving mass disputes. The article focuses first on problems of leverage, including would-be class counsel's inability to take the class claims to trial and the monopsony or "reverse auction" problem. Because of the inherent asymmetry of settlement class action negotiations, would-be class counsel does not adequately represent the interests of the absent class members. The article incorporates these leverage concerns into an account of the illegitimacy of settlement-only class certification as a matter of judicial authority. The problems include not only due process concerns of inadequate representation, but also Rules Enabling Act concerns.
Settlement class actions have been an important form of dispute resolution in mass torts (as well as securities, antitrust, and other areas). Despite the Supreme Court's rejection of two asbestos settlement class actions in Amchem and Ortiz, and despite the problems encountered in the fen-phen nationwide settlement class action shortly thereafter, mass tort settlement class actions have never disappeared, and we need only look at the BP settlement class actions in the Gulf Oil Spill litigation for a well-known recent example.
Needless to say, the argument I am advancing faces an uphill battle. It cuts against entrenched interests of defendants, of plaintiffs' counsel, and of judges, all of whom prefer easier paths to comprehensive negotiated resolutions. The argument also cuts against the grain of most recent thinking on this topic. The ALI Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation, as well as a recent suggestion under consideration by the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, would alter Rule 23 to facilitate settlement class actions even in cases that would be uncertifiable for purposes of litigation. Recent cases such as the Second Circuit's 2012 decision in In re AIG Securities Litigation and the Third Circuit's 2011 en banc decision in Sullivan v. DB Investments have taken new liberties with the Supreme Court's Amchem decision. The article explains what is problematic about the direction these cases have taken.
Here is the abstract:
This article argues that class actions should never be certified solely for purposes of settlement. Contrary to the widespread “settlement class action” practice that has emerged in recent decades, contrary to current case law permitting settlement class certification, and contrary to recent proposals that would extend and facilitate settlement class actions, this article contends that settlement class actions are ill-advised as a matter of litigation policy and illegitimate as a matter of judicial authority. This is not to say that disputes should not be resolved on a classwide basis, or that class actions should not be resolved by negotiated resolutions. Rather, this article contends that if a dispute is to be resolved on a classwide basis, then the resolution should occur after a court has found the matter suitable for classwide adjudication regardless of settlement.
For those who were unable to attend the excellent conference on class actions that was held last month at George Washington Law School, video recordings of the panels can now be found on the conference website.
Friday, March 29, 2013
Zachary Savage (J.D. Candidate, NYU), has posted to SSRN his student note, Scaling Up: Implementing Issue Preclusion in Mass Tort Litigation Through Bellwether Trials, N.Y.U. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2013). Here's the abstract:
The civil litigation system aims to resolve disputes in an efficient, centralized, and final manner. In the context of mass tort litigation, one technique courts often use to achieve these goals is what I call “scaling up”: holding individual trials, and then applying results from these trials to similarly situated individuals. Scaling up, however, presents two difficulties. First, the technique risks compromising defendants’ Due Process rights by creating impermissible settlement pressure. Second, scaling up requires the initial court to structure the litigation so that it may serve as a template for follow-on proceedings; where this is not done, attempting to graft the results of one proceeding onto the remaining group of similarly situated individuals may simply lead to more protracted litigation.
Yet these difficulties are not inherent to the technique; in fact, courts can scale up in a way that avoids these problems. In order to mitigate the Due Process problem, courts should not apply the results of individual trials to subsequent trials involving similar claims until a substantial number of trials have been completed, and until it has become clear that any verdicts unfavorable to defendants are not flukes or outliers. And to ensure that scaling up does not simply lead to more protracted litigation, the initial trials should be structured so as to maximize the likelihood that individuals in follow-on litigation can invoke the findings under the issue preclusion doctrine of Parklane Hosiery v. Shore. The American Law Institute has made a proposal with these considerations in mind with respect to issue classes. This Note argues that a similar approach should be taken in the Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) process, where most mass tort litigation occurs today. This approach would be particularly useful if applied to one device that is being used with increasing frequency in the MDL process: the bellwether trial.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The Supreme Court released its decision in Comcast v. Behrend today. The Court (with Justice Scalia writing for the majority) overturned the 3rd Circuit and held that the plaintiff does need to introduce evidence in support of its damages model in an antitrust case at the certification stage.
There is a history of antitrust cases touching on procedural issues having significant impact outside the antitrust field (e.g. AT&T v. Twombly). This is likely to be another one.
Friday, March 22, 2013
At Corporate Counsel, there's an interesting piece by journalist Michael Goldhaber entitled Kindergarten Lessons from Chevron in Ecuador. Goldhaber, who has been following this massive and messy litigation for years, offers what he sees as some of the true and false lessons from the ongoing litigation concerning Texaco-Chevron's involvement in oil drilling in Ecuador.
In a nutshell, the litigation involves claims that a Texaco subsidiary caused environmental damage to the Oriente region of Ecuador. Plaintiffs originally sued in the Southern District of New York, but their suit was dismissed on grounds of forum non conveniens. Plaintiffs then filed a lawsuit in Ecuador and won an $18 billion judgment. Chevron contends that the Ecuadorian judgment was obtained by fraud and corruption, and has resisted enforcement of the judgment. Chevron sued plaintiffs' attorney Stephen Donziger and others, asserting RICO and fraud claims. An international arbitration tribunal weighed in pursuant to the Ecuador-US bilateral investment treaty. Plaintiffs are seeking to enforce the judgment in Canada, Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere. This mess of a litigation has been going on for nearly 20 years.
Goldhaber, in prior work, has articulated a strong view that the Ecuadorian judgment was the product of fraud and corruption. In the new article, Goldhaber takes as his starting point the Stanford Journal of Complex Litigation symposium that took place in February. He goes through the basic lessons offered by the participants -- plaintiffs' lawyer Graham Erion, defense lawyer Theodore Boutros, and a host of scholars including myself.
The strongest lesson (and here I am in complete agreement with Goldhaber): "Be careful what you wish for." The irony of this litigation is overwhelming. Texaco fought to have the case dismissed on grounds of forum non conveniens, arguing that Ecuador was a more appropriate forum. The plaintiffs argued that the Ecuadorian courts could not handle the case and that it should remain in the U.S. Ever since the massive judgment, however, the positions have been flipped -- with the plaintiffs insisting that the judgment deserves respect and the defendant contending that the Ecuadorian courts were corrupt. Goldhaber has referred to this as "forum shopper's remorse."
But I do not agree with Goldhaber's next step. Noting that "the abuse of transnational litigation would never have happened had the U.S. held on to the case," he suggests that the doctrine of forum non conveniens be altered to take into account the stakes and political significance of a case:
The great blunder in this dispute was to ship it to Ecuador in the name of forum non conveniens. The U.S. courts could have saved everyone a lot of grief had they recognized that a case is more prone to abuse when the issues are (a) high-stakes or (b) politicized. I learned from Russia's Yukos affair that, even if a weak judicial system has made significant progress, it does not deserve trust in a hot-button case of great magnitude. It was reckless to expect Ecuador (even if it had just adopted a new set of corruption reforms) to handle a huge case pitting gringo oil companies against indigenous rights. My modest suggestion is to incorporate these factors into the FNC analysis.
The adequate alternative forum prong of the forum non conveniens analysis is a low threshold, and deliberately so. A lawsuit alleging environmental harm to Ecuadorian land and medical harm to Ecuadorian citizens, and involving control over Ecuadorian natural resources, belongs in Ecuador. That is the very point of forum non conveniens. A U.S. court should be loath to say that it will hear the case in the U.S. because it thinks the Ecuadorian courts just cannot handle it. A judgment obtained by fraud should not be enforceable elsewhere, but this is better addressed ex post, which is exactly what the current litigation -- albeit in a rather ugly fashion -- is doing. But to have said, ex ante, that the case should be heard in the United States despite all of the public and private interest factors that pointed to Ecuador, would have been a mistake.
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.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
SCOTUS Oral Argument in Mutual Pharm. Co. v. Bartlett: Generic Pharmaceutical Manufacturers' Potential Immunity from Suit
Widener University School of Law and the Widener Law Journal are presenting a day-long symposium, Perspectives on Mass Tort Litigation, on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Honorable Eduardo Robreno of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania will present a luncheon address, Federal Asbestos Litigation: Black Hole or New Paradigm? Other participants include Hon. Thurbert Baker (McKenna Long); Mark Behrens (Shook Hardy); John Beisner (Skadden); S. Todd Brown (SUNY Buffalo); Scott Cooper (Schmidt Kramer); Amaris Elliot-Engel (Legal Intelligencer); Michael Green (Wake Forest); Deborah Hensler (Stanford); Mary Kate Kearney (Widener); Randy Lee (Widener); Bruce Mattock (Goldberg Persky); Tobias Millrood (Pogust Braslow); Linda Mullenix (Texas); Christopher Robinette (Widener); Susan Raeker-Jordan (Widener); Sheila Scheuerman (Charleston); Victor Schwartz (Shook Hardy); William Shelley (Gordon & Rees); Aaron Twerski (Brooklyn); Nicholas Vari (K&L Gates); and Nancy Winkler (Eisenberg Rothweiler). I will also participate via Skype videoconference. Here's the brochure: Download Widener 2013 MTL Symposiu Brochure
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
In an opinion by Justice Breyer, the Court unanimously rejected a stipulation by a proposed class representative to limit recovery for the putative class to less than $5 million, in an apparent attempt by plaintiffs to avoid removal to federal court unde the Class Action Fairness Act. See also SCOTUSblog.
Friday, March 15, 2013
The Florida Supreme Court affirmed the preclusive effect of Engle - giving further support to the development of issue class actions. The opinion is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2013/sc12-617.pdf
Thursday, February 28, 2013
The allegation that sugar is "toxic" and the recent article in the NYTimes "The Extraodinary Science of Junk Food" indicates that fast food litigation may indeed be the next tobacco. I am interested, do we have readers who are litigating or defending cases? I found a 2008 article in Findlaw on the subject for those interested: Obesity, the Next Tobacco?
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
The Supreme Court just issued its ruling in Amgen v. Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds. You can find the slip opinion here.
The Court held that a finding of materiality is not necessary at the class certification stage for a Securities Class Action. Ultimately, of course, plaintiff will have to prove that the representation was material, but the Court said that proof can wait until after class certification. This holding is consistent with the Court's holding in Erica P. John Fund v. Halliburton last year. In that case, the Court unanimously held that plaintiff need not prove loss causation. You can find the opinion in that case here.
The Court held in Amgen that since materiality is an issue that is common to the whole class (to think of it in Wal-Mart v. Dukes's language, if plaintiff cannot carry her burden a finding that the representation was not material will decide all the claims "in one stroke").
The majority was written by Justice Ginsburg. Justice Thomas, Scalia and Kennedy dissented and Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
CNN.com has a photo essay by Hiroko Tanaka showing deformed Vietnamese children whose conditions may stem from Agent Orange herbicide sprayed by the United States during the Vietnamese War. The story accompanying the photos discusses the difficulties in tracing causation. For more on the diseases potentially caused by Agent Orange, see the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs' webpage on Veterans' Diseases Associated with Agent Orange.
Should scholars be thinking about inter-generational mass torts as a distinct subfield, perhaps not only including Agent Orange, but also DES? Will increasingly global mass tort litigation enable new claims based on the spraying of Agent Orange decades ago?
Monday, January 21, 2013
Corporate Counsel has a short piece, Crafting a Defense in Food-Labeling Class Actions, by O'Melveny's Kelsey Larson and Carlos Lazatin.
Skadden has issued a useful analysis of upcoming cases to watch and potential developments for 2013 in class actions and product liability. The analysis includes contributes by Skadden's John Beisner, J. Russell Jackson, and Jessica Miller.
The Stanford Journal of Complex Litigation is hosting a symposium on the Chevron Litigation on February 8, 2013. Our own Howard Erichson will be speaking on the ethics of transnational litigation.
Here is a description:
The ongoing litigation between Chevron and the people of Lago Agrio, Ecuador regarding alleged environmental harms dating from Texaco’s oil exploration and extraction in Ecuador now spans three continents and nearly twenty years; and concerns the largest judgment ever awarded in an environmental lawsuit, eighteen billion dollars. The litigation has been called both “a shakedown,” and “a landmark victory,” yet it continues to be litigated around the world and divide both the bar and the academy. What are the consequences of this case? With complex litigation becoming increasingly transnational, what general lessons can be drawn from this case? These questions are at the heart of SJCL’s inaugural symposium.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Rich Freer (Emory) has posted a draft of his latest piece, The Supreme Court and the Class Action: Where We are and Where We Might be Going, on SSRN. Here's the abstract:
In 2010 and 2011, the Supreme Court decided five class action cases. In 2012, it has agreed to hear four more. This piece summarizes what the Court has done and where it appears to be going concerning aggregate litigation. The goal of this piece is more practical than theoretical: to place all nine cases in context and draw preliminary conclusions about the impact these cases have had and will have -- not only on class action practice, but in other areas, including the Erie Doctrine, waivers of class arbitration, anti-suit injunctions, the binding effect of judgments on class members, enforcement of Rule 10b-5, and the apparent efforts of defendants to front-load litigation by demanding greater consideration of merits-based facts (and qualification of experts) at the class certification stage.
The cases dealing with waivers of class arbitration implicate the role of the civil suit in law enforcement. If small (usually consumer) claims cannot be pursued on an aggregate basis, they may never be vindicated; individuals and lawyers will not find it economically feasible to do so. Yet the Court appears unwilling to recognize a public-policy exception to the primacy of contract. Thus, if the underlying contract waives aggregate litigation or arbitration, apparently this will not be trumped by the concern that the relevant law (often consumer protection laws) will not be enforced through civil litigation.
Friday, November 30, 2012
On November 26 the Supreme Court denied cert in RJ Reynold Tobacco Co. v. Clay, an appeal from a Florida state court decision to give the Engle court ruling preclusion effect.
Engle, recall, is the tobacco issue class action certified and upheld by the Florida Supreme Court. Does the denial of cert pave the way for issues class actions to flourish (at least for the moment) or is this just not the right vehicle?
See Scotusblog for a summary and links. ADL
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Prof. John C. Coffee and I have posted "The New Class Action Landscape: Trends and Developments in Certification and Related Topics" on SSRN.
This is a memorandum that provides an overview of the trends and highlights in class certification rulings from 2012. Its going to be another interesting year for class actions at the Supreme Court and we provide a summary and evaluation of the upcoming cases, in addition to highlighting appellate and district court cases of interest.
On Friday, Nov. 30, Fordham Law School will host a symposium entitled Lawyering for Groups: Civil Rights, Mass Torts, and Everything in Between. Organized by Benjamin Zipursky and myself, the conference participants include Elise Boddie, Elizabeth Burch, Kristen Carpenter, Brian Fitzpatrick, Bruce Green, Samuel Issacharoff, Alexandra Lahav, Troy McKenzie, Nancy Moore, Russell Pearce, Theodore Rave and Eli Wald. It is co-sponsored by the Stein Center for Law and Ethics and by the Fordham Law Review, which will publish the papers.
As I read the authors' drafts in preparation for the symposium, I am struck by how difficult the fundamental questions remain. What does it mean, really, for a lawyer to represent a group of similarly situated claimants? Is it a bundle of individual lawyer-client relationships, or is it better understood in practice as a relationship between a lawyer and a group, with the primary duty owed to the group as a whole? Does class certification fundamentally change the nature of the representation, or in some cases is the class action better understood as an acknowledgement of the reality of mass representation and the imposition of a set of procedural protections?
I am struck, as well, by how these questions transcend any particular area of practice. The symposium grew out of Ben Zipursky's and my shared interest in the ethics of group lawyering. He and I have lectured to mass tort lawyers on ethics in mass tort litigation, as well as to civil rights lawyers on the ethics of civil rights litigation. Each area brings its own challenges, but the core questions about collective representation apply to both. Convinced that these issues deserve attention, we pulled together a group of proceduralists and ethicists with widely varying views on aggregate litigation and different areas of expertise. I'm looking forward to learning a lot. The agenda is here.