Wednesday, January 20, 2016
The Supreme Court ruled today that a plaintiff's case does not become moot when the plaintiff rejects an offer of settlement for complete relief. The ruling means that a case can go on, even after a plaintiff rejects an offer of complete relief.
The ruling is a huge victory for plaintiffs, especially plaintiffs who might lead a class-action. It's also a sharp rebuke of the defense-side tactic to moot out a case or class action by offering full relief to the lead plaintiff--a tactic known as pick-off. By ruling for the plaintiff, and by rejecting the pick-off tactic, today's ruling is also a victory for access to justice, and stands in contrast to the spate of other Court rulings limiting access and favoring corporate defendants.
The case arose when Jose Gomez received an unwanted Navy recruitment text on his cell phone from Navy contractor Campbell-Ewald. Gomez sued Campbell-Ewald under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Before Gomez could move for class certification, however, the defendant offered complete relief; Gomez rejected the offer; and the defendant moved to dismiss the case as moot.
The Court ruled that the case was not moot. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, wrote that under basic contract principles, Campbell-Ewald's offer, once rejected by Gomez, had no continuing effect. With no settlement offer on the table, the parties retained the adversity necessary for an Article III case or controversy--so the rejected offer didn't render the case moot.
Justice Thomas concurred separately to argue that the result should "rest instead on the common-law history of tenders," not contract principles.
Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Scalia and Alito, dissented. The Chief wrote that the rejected settlement offer meant that there was no longer any real dispute in the case:
If there is no actual case or controversy, the lawsuit is moot, and the power of the federal courts to declare the law has come to an end. Here, the District Court found that Campbell agreed to fully satisfy Gomez's claims. That makes the case moot, and Gomez is not entitled to a ruling on the merits of a moot case.