Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Judge Dan Polster entertained a motion to certify a Rule 23(b)(3) negotiation class today in the federal Opiate MDL. Here are a few of my thoughts after listening in.
1. I find myself reluctantly agreeing with the distributor defendants (who objected based on predominance) on the following point: you can’t look to the fact that this might be fair to satisfy predominance under Amchem. This is Richard Nagareda’s point about bootstrapping. And Sonya Winner, who argued on behalf of objecting defendants, raises fair questions about conflicts of interest and notice (e.g., that it may be misleading as to what counties and cities will receive under the allocation formula).
- Judge Polster’s repeated question of what alternative do we have is not an answer to the Amchem question.
- Whether the kind of proposal that Francis McGovern and Bill Rubenstein put forward in their article would improve Rule 23 as a general matter (or a rules amendment) is a separate question. I have qualms about it being implemented on an ad hoc basis in the context of judicial common law, but this is a question that merits more thought.
2. The interplay between the state attorneys general and their local governments is a critical component to all of this. Would local government settlements count as an offset in state AG suits? For an interesting take on this general issue, see Roderick Hills, Jr.’s 1998 article.
3. Judge Polster said that defendants have a “justifiable insistence” on global peace. Why? Is that a fair assumption? When we think we know something, we stop paying attention to it and stop questioning it. But moving from what “is” to what “ought to be” can be a fruitful inquiry. We need an argument as to why and whether global resolution is the correct starting point and for that we need far more evidence.
4. Prediction: Judge Polster will certify the negotiation class, perhaps after tweaking it to help alleviate some of the state AGs concerns. He was its most ardent advocate.
5. If (or when) Judge Polster certifies a negotiation class, he shouldn’t appoint Chris Seeger as co-lead class counsel. One need only follow what is happening now in the NFL Concussion case or read about the Propulsid deal to understand my fears – See Mass Tort Deals Chapters 2 and 5.
- As an aside, Seeger’s review of my book (which incidentally, I didn’t see until going to pull up a link for this post) is hilarious. But hey, thanks for buying it!
Sunday, March 17, 2019
Article in Bloomberg -- Surge in Biometric Privacy Suits Causes Firms to Boost Specialty.
Thursday, February 7, 2019
Professor Nikki Chamberlain (University of Auckland) has posted her article, Class Actions in New Zealand: An Empirical Study, 24 New Zealand Bus. L. Q. 132 (2018). Here is the abstract:
This article contains the first empirical study on opt-in class actions, which are referred to as representative actions, filed under r 4.24 of the High Court Rules 2016 in the New Zealand High Court and the New Zealand Employment Court. The findings of this study reveal that opt-in class actions are now part of the New Zealand legal landscape in substance, if not in name. In particular, the data reflects the rise of consumer class actions in New Zealand, which, in part, have been assisted by litigation funders entering into the market. However, despite an increase in opt-in class actions, New Zealand’s civil procedure mechanism for managing class action litigation is inefficient, uneconomic and creates significant uncertainty for all class action stakeholders. This article examines the empirical data, the trends in the data, and the reasons for those trends. It concludes by discussing why reform is required against the backdrop of this study and New Zealand’s procedural process values as contained in the High Court Rules.
Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Theoretical Inquiries in Law has just published a symposium volume on FiftyYears of Class Actions - A Global Perspective.
It's chock full of interesting ideas and features a keynote from Professor Arthur Miller (NYU). Here's the table of contents (if the PDF links below don't work, the full volume is available at the link above):
|Yael Braudo, TIL Editorial Board|
|Keynote Address - The American Class Action: From Birth to Maturity|
|Arthur R. Miller|
|Publicly Funded Objectors|
|Elizabeth Chamblee Burch|
|Can and Should the New Third-Party Litigation Financing Come to Class Actions?|
|Brian T. Fitzpatrick|
|The Global Class Action and Its Alternatives|
|Zachary D. Clopton|
|Class Actions in the United States and Israel: A Comparative Approach|
|Alon Klement, Robert Klonoff|
|Regulation Through Litigation — Collective Redress in Need of a New Balance Between Individual Rights and Regulatory Objectives in Europe|
|Towards Collaborative Governance of European Remedial and Procedural Law?|
|Class Action Value|
|When Pragmatism Leads to Unintended Consequences: A Critique of Australia’s Unique Closed Class Regime|
|Vicki Waye, Vince Morabito|
|Rethinking the Relationship Between Public Regulation and Private Litigation: Evidence from Securities Class Action in China|
|Robin Hui Huang|
|The Regime Politics Origins of Class Action Regulation|
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Skadden Arps has posted its Class Action Chronicle for Summer 2017, which includes updates on Third-Party Litigation Funding, Class Certification Decisions, and Class Action Fairness Act Decisions.
Friday, June 2, 2017
HR 985, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2017, has now passed the House and is pending in the Senate's Committee on the Judiciary. How might that bill affect plaintiffs involved in mass torts like mesh, Essure, Yaz, Mirena, NuvaRing, Ortho Evra, Power Morcellator, or the many hip implant suits?
Simply reading the bill, I'm afraid, won't help too much. It's shrouded in legalese. As such, I've marked up the bill to explain in non-legalese which provisions help and hurt mass-tort victims and consumers.
Many of the class action provisions in HR 985 don't affect mass-tort plaintiffs at all since those lawsuits rarely proceed as class actions (albeit, there are some notable exceptions, like the NFL concussion cases and the injuries incurred during the clean-up of the BP oil spill; both litigations were certified as settlement class actions).
There is, however, a possibility for judges to use class actions as a means to step in and ensure that plaintiffs are being adequately represented (and that resulting settlements are fair, reasonable, and adequate). How? Through the issue class action. Unfortunately, as HR 985 is currently written, it would completely eliminate that possibility.
I've studied MDLs for many years now and have written articles that are critical of both repeat player plaintiffs' attorneys and the manner in which judges sometimes handle these cases. Over the past four years, I've collected data on and analyzed 73 multidistrict proceedings. Although I'm still in the process of writing a book about my findings, one thing has become glaringly clear to me: the systematic lack of checks and balances in our courts seem to profit everyone but the plaintiffs.
Analyzing the deals repeat players make, the “common-benefit” attorneys’ fees that the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys receive to run the proceedings, and the judicial rulings in mass-tort cases consolidated over 22 years and settled over 12 years reveals a disturbing pattern: repeat plaintiff and defense attorneys persistently profit from the current system.
Corporate defendants end sprawling lawsuits and lead plaintiffs’ lawyers broker deals that reward them handsomely and sometimes pay litigants very little. For example, in litigation over the acid-reflux medicine, Propulsid, only 37 of 6,012 plaintiffs (0.6 percent) recovered anything through the strict settlement program. Their collective recoveries totaled no more than $6.5 million. Yet, the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys received over $27 million in common-benefit attorneys’ fees, vividly illustrating the worry that a corporate defendant might trade higher fees for less relief to plaintiffs.
So, is reform needed? Absolutely. Is HR 985 the right ticket? No, not as it's currently written.
As such, I've marked up the bill in a way that begins to instill the necessary reforms and eliminates (or changes) provisions that set up further (and unnecessary) roadblocks for plaintiffs. It also explains what the proposed provisions do in plain English: Download HR985 Burch Mark-up
If you want some version of HR 985 to pass, please consider forwarding this revised version to your Senator and do not support the bill as it reads now.
For those who care more about the legalese, I was contacted by a House subcommittee to provide nonpartisan, academic commentary on the bill, which I did. That write up is included here (note, however, that this is a commentary on the original House bill and some changes have been made to the current bill that address a few of the concerns I raised): Download Burch Final Comments on Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act
There's no need to take just my word for it, though. Every other academic that I know of opposes this bill, as has the Federal Rules Committee. This committee, formally known as the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, just happens to include Neil Gorsuch, now Justice Gorsuch (of the U.S. Supreme Court), whose views are reflected in the letter below as well.
And here are links to other academic commentary -
Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. (Columbia Law School): Download Coffee - How Not to Write a Class Action “Reform” Bill _ CLS Blue Sky Blog
Professor Howard Erichson (Fordham Law School): Download Erichson-hr985-letter
Professor Myriam Gilles (Cardozo Law School): Download Gilles Letter to James Park on HR 985
Friday, May 12, 2017
An Iowa class action (subject to CAFA's local class exception) has been approved by the Iowa Supreme Court. Here is the report from Iowa radio. You can find the opinion here: Freeman v. Grain Processing Corporation.
The court considers arguments that individual defenses ought to defeat class certification, as well as arguments based in the Supreme Court's opinions in Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods and rejects them. It explained:
GPC argues that class certification will deny it the fair opportunity to contest whether individual homeowners have suffered injury or damage. We disagree. The plaintiffs have proposed a formula for damages. GPC can contest the appropriateness of that formula before the jury. If a special jury verdict is entered approving this formula and that verdict is supported by substantial evidence, then potentially this formula can be used in subsequent claims administration by the court while preserving GPC’s due process and jury trial rights. If no damage formula is approved, then there would have to be subsequent individual trials on damages. Either way, GPC’s rights would be protected. (33)
One additional aspect of the case is worth noting. The Court specifically differentiates this nuisance class action, which alleges injury in the form of property damage, from a personal injury action and distinguishes some federal precedent on that basis. As I show in a forthcoming article in NYU Law Review called Mass Tort Class Actions: Past, Present and Future, that is a common pattern for mass tort classes that have been certified for litigation. For example, the first asbestos class actions certified were property damages classes. In that article, I review all the mass tort class actions considered by the federal court from the promulgation of the class action rule through Amchem, and explain how they relate to developments in tort law during the same period. I will be posting this article to SSRN in July.
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.
Friday, March 3, 2017
Bruce Kaufman, the senior legal editor at Bloomberg BNA, has written a very informative series of articles examining the prospects that the House, Senate, and President will enact wide-ranging tort and civil justice "reform" legislation. This legislation includes:
- HR 985, the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act"
- HR 725, the "Innocent Party Protection Act"
- HR 469, the "Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act"
- HR 720, the "Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act" or "Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act"
- and HR 906, the "Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act"
All three articles are worth a careful read. Links and downloads included below, courtesy of Bruce and Bloomberg BNA.
- Part 1: Trump to Weigh Litigation Changes, Download BNA - Trump to Weigh Litigation Changes Long Coveted by Business
- Part 2: Push to Enact Civil Justice Bills Follows Industry Playbook, Download BNA - Push to Enact Civil Justice Bills Follows Industry Playbook
- Part 3: Trump Seen as Supportive of Business-Backed Litigation Bills, Download BNA - Trump Seen as Supportive of Business-Backed Litigation Bills
For those of you who missed the academic roundup on HR 985, you can find it here.
Floor debate on at least four of the bills (including the now merged HR 985 and HR 906, class actions and asbestos) is scheduled to begin as soon as the week of March 6. A seventh bill on medical malpractice reform, HR 1215, may be voted on the week after March 6.
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
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Class actions and MDL have real problems that need fixing. I have written about these problems at length, most recently in Aggregation as Disempowerment. But the new bill that just passed the House Judiciary Committee does not fix any of the real problems. Instead, it is a crass attempt to undermine any effort by plaintiffs to seek justice in mass disputes.
The bill, H.R. 985, the "Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017," seeks to reduce defendants' exposure to liability for mass harms by tightening the standard for class certification, imposing an ascertainability requirement, delaying the payment of class counsel fees, limiting the use of issue class actions, expanding diversity jurisdiction, mandating Lone Pine orders in MDL, banning trials in MDL, and capping MDL personal injury attorneys' fees at 20%, among other things. As Beth Burch noted, the bill does not make things fairer for those who have been wronged.
I would like to see thoughtful reforms to help courts distinguish meritorious from non-meritorious claims. I would like to see thoughtful reforms to protect claimants from unfair settlements in both class actions and MDL. And I would like to see thoughtful reforms to ensure that fees reflect what lawyers actually accomplish, not inflated settlement valuations. The abuses in class actions and non-class mass litigation happen mostly in settlement, not litigation and adjudication. But that is not what this bill would address. Instead, its provisions are aimed mostly at protecting defendants from the kinds of class actions and mass litigation that actually empower consumers, employees, citizens, and others to fight corporate and government wrongdoing.
Even where the bill aims at real problems (such as its provision to expand diversity jurisdiction to reach plaintiffs suing diverse defendants but who join with a non-diverse plaintiff), it goes too far, failing to match its solution to the problem of magnet jurisdiction in nationwide mass disputes.
In my letter to Congressional leaders, I attempt to explain which of the provisions of H.R. 985 are especially problematic, and why. If you're interested, you can find the letter here:
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
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
The parties litigating over Volkswagen's emissions defeat device have submitted a proposed class action settlement to Judge Breyer for his approval. After the parties confer with him on June 30, he'll hear arguments over whether to approve that settlement on July 26.
The proposed settlement is available here: Download 1. The settlement money available to class members is a fund of $10,033,000,000, which is based on an assumed 100% buyback of all eligible vehicles and leased eligible vehicles.
If approved, parties who wish to object or opt out must do so before September 16, 2016 (p. 27 describes the opt-out process, which will have to be approved in conjunction with the notice to class members, and p. 28 describes the objection process). Class members must likewise complete and submit a valid claim form before September 1, 2018, and decide on their chosen remedy by December 30, 2018. Put differently, class members will need to take affirmative action to receive relief. Failing to submit a claim or to opt out means that their claims will be extinguished under the settlement (and through general res judicata principles).
The proposal provides VW owners with several options. They can:
- sell their car back to VW for the "vehicle value" (a term of art defined in the settlement on p. 16);
- receive restitution payments calculated based on a percentage of the vehicle value (some owners are eligible for loan forgiveness up to 30% of the vehicle value and owner restitution payment) - an estimate of those settlement payments is available here - Download 7
- terminate their car leases with no early termination penalty;
- modify their vehicle, which should help fix the emissions problems based on the different vehicles;
- or may receive both a restitution payment and a vehicle modification.
An overview of the options available to class members and proposed allocation plan is available here: Download 2
And the proposed short form notice, which is refreshingly straightforward is available for download here: Download 3. The longer notice is here: Download 4. And detailed information on the proposed 5-step claims program and administration is available here: Download 5.
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.
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 21, 2016
I've spent the better part of the past year and a half analyzing the publicly available nonclass aggregate settlements that have taken place in multidistrict litigation alongside leadership appointments, common-benefit fees, and, where available, recovery to the plaintiffs. This has given me an in-depth look at what's happening (or has happened) in Propulsid, Vioxx, Yasmin/Yaz, DePuy ASR Hip Implant, Fosamax (2243), American Medical Systems pelvic mesh litigation, Biomet, NuvaRing, and Actos. I've also analyzed fee practices in Baycol, Ortho Evra, Avandia, Mentor Corp. ObTape, Prempro, Chantix, Pradaxa, and Ethicon Pelvic Repair.
This endeavor has been deeply unsettling for a variety of ethical, doctrinal, and systemic reasons. Professors Erichson and Zipursky's prior work on Vioxx opened our eyes to troubling provisions in that deal, but I had no idea how widespread the problems were or how they had evolved over time from deal to deal until now.
Propulsid appears to be the primogenitor, for all subsequent deals in the data replicated some aspect of its closure provisions. But Propulsid is extraordinarily troubling: 6,012 plaintiffs abandoned their right to sue in court in favor of settling. Only 37 of them (0.6 percent) recovered any settlement money through the physician-controlled claims review process, receiving little more than $6.5 million in total. Lead lawyers, on the other hand, received over $27 million in common-benefit fees through a deal they negotiated directly with the defendant (and had the court approve). Sadly, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
I posted the fruits of my labor on SSRN today in a piece titled, Monopolies in Multidistrict Litigation. It's a 70+ page tomb, so I'll be covering specific aspects of it over the next few weeks in a series of blog posts. It's not only an indictment of current practices and procedures, but it offers myriad ways for judges to improve MDL practice. It even comes complete with handy pocket guides for judges, leadership application forms, and leadership applicant scoring sheets in the appendix.
For those of you who love data, there are several tables that may be of interest: Table 1: Provisions Benefitting Defendants Occurring within the Analyzed Settlements on p. 20; Table 2: Common-Benefit Fee Practices on p. 33; and Table 3: Common-Benefit Awards and Nonclass Claimant Recovery within the Data on p. 48.
Today's post simply introduces the paper, so here is the summary:
When transferee judges receive a multidistrict proceeding, they select a few lead plaintiffs’ lawyers to efficiently manage litigation and settlement negotiations. That decision gives those attorneys total control over all plaintiffs’ claims and rewards them richly in common-benefit fees. It’s no surprise then that these are coveted positions, yet empirical evidence confirms that the same attorneys occupy them time and again. When asked, repeat players chalk it up to their experience and skill—no one can manage and negotiate as well as they can. Off the record, however, any plaintiff’s lawyer who’s been involved in multidistrict litigation will explain repeat players’ dominance with stories of backroom deals, infighting, and payoffs. Yet, when judges focus on cooperation and consensus in selecting leaders and then defer to those leaders in awarding common-benefit fees, they dampen open rivalry and enable repeat actors to mete out social and financial sanctions on challengers.
Anytime repeat players exist and exercise both oligopolistic leadership control across multidistrict proceedings and monopolistic power within a single proceeding, there is concern that they will use their dominance to enshrine practices and norms that benefit themselves at consumers’ (or here, clients’) expense. Apprehensiveness should increase when defense lawyers are repeat players too, as they are in multidistrict litigation. And anxiety should peak when the circumstances exhibit these anti-competitive characteristics, but lack regulation as they do here. Without the safeguards built into class certification, judicial monitoring and appellate checks disappear. What remains is a system that permits lead lawyers to act, at times, like a cartel.
Basic economic principles demonstrate that noncompetitive markets can result in higher prices and lower outputs, and agency costs chronicle ways in which unmonitored agents’ self-interest can lead them astray. By analyzing the nonclass deals that repeat players design, this Article introduces new empirical evidence that multidistrict litigation is not immune to market or agency principles. It demonstrates that repeat players on both sides continually achieve their goals in tandem—defendants end massive suits and lead plaintiffs’ lawyers increase their common-benefit fees. But this exchange may result in lower payouts to plaintiffs, stricter evidentiary burdens in claims processing, or higher plaintiff-participation requirements in master settlements.
These circumstances warrant regulation, for both multidistrict litigation and class actions are critical to redressing corporate wrongdoing. Even though judges entrench and enable repeat players, they are integral to the solution. By tinkering with selection and compensation methods and instilling automatic remands after leaders negotiate master settlements, judges can capitalize on competitive forces already in play. By tapping into the vibrant rivalries within the plaintiffs’ bar, judges can use dynamic market solutions to remap the existing regulatory landscape by invigorating competition and playing to attorneys’ strengths.
As always, your comments are welcome (the draft is still just that, a draft) - please email any comments or corrections to me eburch at uga.edu. More soon...
Monday, April 18, 2016