Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Litigating Together: Social, Moral, and Legal Obligations

I have posted a draft of the last in a trilogy of articles on nonclass aggregation and thought I would provide a brief retrospective for the interested reader.  The first article in the trilogy is Procedural Justice in Nonclass Aggregation, which explains in-depth the problems and risks presented by nonclass aggregation.  It observes that systemic legitimacy and compliance with judicial decisions hinges on ensuring procedural justice, but that our current system for handling large-scale litigation fails to provide a number of key procedural-justice components including the preference for adversarial litigation, participation opportunities, impartiality, and error correction.  These institutional shortcomings are due in large part to the trade-offs inherent in large-scale litigation.  Those trade-offs include that "litigation is no longer adversarial despite litigants’ preferences, but effective individual litigation is too costly to pursue; aggregate settlements provide few participation opportunities and no avenues for appeal or error correction despite potential conflicts, but, without aggregate settlements, cost and delay could be staggering and the relief may come too late; mediators or special masters might afford claimants additional participation opportunities, but process is then less adversarial and may suffer from legitimacy problems."  Id. at 46. 

The second article in the trilogy is Litigating Groups. In Litigating Groups, I laid the theoretical groundwork for an alternative to our current approach by borrowing insights from other disciplines—social psychology, moral and political philosophy, and behavioral law and economics—and bringing those notions of commitment, community, and groups to bear on nonclass aggregation.  By relying on the other-regarding preferences that tend to form from group membership, I argued that groups of plaintiffs may have or could be encouraged to develop organic or indigenous origins such that they form moral obligations to one another that are reinforced by social and personal norms. (I have also summarized these contentions in a short response to Judge Weinstein - A New Way Forward: A Response to Judge Weinstein.)

The current (and latest) article is the third and final piece in the trilogy.  It's titled Litigating Together, Social, Moral, and Legal Obligations.  This Article translates the theoretical foundation laid in Litigating Groups into concrete, feasible procedures for litigating together.  Although Litigating Groups maintained that plaintiffs who form groups will likely develop other-regarding preferences toward their fellow group members, it did not fully formulate procedures for promoting cooperation and group formation; decide when, whether, or how to impose sanctions when norms and moral obligations fail; contemplate incentives to join the group; or determine when exiting the group is appropriate.  Accordingly, this Article takes up those hard questions as well as the challenge of determining whether and how substantive and procedural law should enforce moral obligations once a certain level of moral interconnectedness exists.  Here's the SSRN abstract:

In a post-Class Action Fairness Act world, the modern mass-tort class action is disappearing. Indeed, multi-district litigation and private aggregation through contracts with plaintiffs’ law firms are the new mass-tort frontier. But something’s amiss with this “nonclass aggregation.” These new procedures involve a fundamentally different dynamic than class actions: plaintiffs have names, faces, and something deeply personal at stake. Their claims are independently economically viable, which gives them autonomy expectations about being able to control the course of their litigation. Yet, they participate in a familiar, collective effort to establish the defendant’s liability. They litigate from both a personal and a collective standpoint.

Current scholarship overlooks this inter-personal dimension. It focuses instead on either touting the virtues of individual autonomy or streamlining mass litigation to maximize social welfare. Both approaches fail to solve the unique problems caused by these personal dimensions: temptations for plaintiffs to hold out and thus derail settlements demanding near unanimity, outliers who remain disengaged from the group but free-ride off of its efforts, and subgroups within the litigation whose members compete for resources and litigation dominance to the group’s detriment. Accordingly, this Article has two principal objectives: one diagnostic, one prescriptive. The diagnosis is this: current procedures for handling nonclass aggregation miss the mark. Process isn’t just an exercise in autonomy or a handy crutch for enforcing substantive laws. Procedures can serve as a means for bringing plaintiffs together, plugging their individual stories into a collective narrative, making sense of that narrative as a community, reasoning together about the right thing to do, and pursuing that end collectively. Thus, the prescription is litigating together.

Along the way, I've developed a few aspects of this overall project in greater detail for various symposia:

 In Aggregation, Community, and the Line Between, I provided a more detailed account of the moral and political theory animating this "litigating together" approach.  This article contends that encouraging plaintiffs to form groups and reach decisions through deliberation relies on a mix of individual consent and moral obligation. Allowing plaintiffs to exercise their free will when deciding whether to associate with others preserves the liberal tenet of self-determination and escapes the anti-democratic criticism leveled at class actions. Yet, a purely liberal approach fails to capture the obligatory aspect of reciprocal promises to cooperate and the communal obligations that attach. Although plaintiffs voluntarily enter into the group, once they are group members and have tied together their collective litigation fates, they should not be permitted to exit when doing so violates their commitments. Of course, the community itself determines the content of its members’ rights and obligations to one another. Thus, the article concludes by explaining the rationale for group autonomy in terms of pluralism and communitarianism. 

In Group Consensus, Individual Consent (which is still very much "in progress," as they say), I explore how this project relates to sections 3.17 and 3.18 of the American Law Institute’s Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation and use those principles as a lens for exploring thematic questions about the value of pluralism, group cohesion, governance, procedural justice, and legitimacy in nonclass aggregation.  Both this project and Litigating Together: Social, Moral, and Legal Obligations are still very much in progress, so, as always, I welcome your comments. 

I'm extremely grateful for all of the helpful comments and criticisms of so many scholars in the field along the way.  I'm also looking forward to tackling new and different projects that have been waiting in the wings for some time now.



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