Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Symposium on New Frontiers in Torts: The Challenges of Science, Technology & Innovation at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles
The Southwestern Law Review Symposium, New Frontiers in Torts: The Challenges of Science, Technology, and Innovation, will take place on Friday, February 7, 2020 at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. The Symposium is the inaugural event of Southwestern Law School’s Panish Civil Justice Program, which was endowed by one of the country’s leading trial lawyers, Southwestern Law School alumnus Brian Panish. The Symposium's first panel will focus on tort practice, addressing an eclectic mix of subjects ranging from predictive analytics and e-discovery to scientific evidence and the cognitive science of jury persuasion. Next, panel two will examine recent trends in financing lawsuits and proposals for changing non-lawyer relationships with law firms. In panel three, the discussion turns to new forms of tort litigation, including recent developments in multidistrict, complex, class, and toxic tort actions such as the opioid mass litigation, among others. The fourth panel will examine tort theory, analyzing both how traditional theories can deal with new tort problems and how new theories may help place old quandaries in sharper focus. The Symposium will also include a luncheon keynote discussion on the past, present, and future of torts. Registration for the symposium is available now.
Speakers and moderators at the symposium will include the following:
- Ronald Aronovsky, Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School;
- Mark Behrens, Partner and Co-Chair, Public Policy Practice Group, Shook, Hardy & Bacon;
- John Beisner, Partner and Leader, Mass Torts, Insurance and Consumer Litigation Group, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP;
- Alan Calnan, Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School;
- Fiona Chaney, Investment Manager and Legal Counsel, Bentham IMF;
- James Fischer, Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School;
- Manuel Gomez, Associate Dean of International and Graduate Studies and Professor of Law, Florida International University College of Law;
- Michael Green, Bess and Walter Williams Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law;
- Gregory Keating, Maurice Jones, Jr. – Class of 1925 Professor of Law and Philosophy, University of Southern California Gould School of Law;
- Richard Marcus, Coil Chair in Litigation and Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law;
- Francis McGovern, Professor of Law, Duke Law School;
- Linda Mullenix, Morris & Rita Atlas Chair in Advocacy, University of Texas at Austin School of Law;
- Brian Panish, Founding Partner, Panish, Shea & Boyle;
- R. Rex Parris, Founding Partner, Parris Law Firm;
- Christopher Robinette, Professor of Law and Director, Advocacy Certificate Program, Widener University Commonwealth Law School;
- Michael Sander, Managing Director and Founder, Docket Alarm, and Director, Fastcase Analytics;
- Victor Schwartz, Partner and Co-Chair, Public Policy Practice Group, Shook, Hardy & Bacon;
- Anthony Sebok, Professor of Law, Yeshiva University Cardozo School of Law;
- Catherine Sharkey, Crystal Eastman Professor of Law, New York University School of Law;
- Kenneth Simons, Chancellor’s Professor of Law, UC Irvine School of Law;
- Byron Stier, Associate Dean for Strategic Initiatives and Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School;
- Dov Waisman, Vice Dean and Professor of Law, Southwestern Law School; and
- Adam Zimmerman, Professor of Law and Gerald Rosen Fellow, Loyola Marymount University Law School Los Angeles.
January 22, 2020 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Class Actions, Conferences, Ethics, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Preemption, Procedure, Products Liability, Punitive Damages, Science, Trial | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, December 10, 2019
Since I published Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation last May, I’ve received a lot of private emails from lawyers in the trenches who agree with my diagnosis of the problems in MDL. As the book details, incentives within multidistrict litigation tend to skew toward insiders’ self-interest, not the public interest or plaintiffs’ interests. Left unchecked, self-interest can takeover. And there are no checks. Consequently, there is an urgent need to improve the mass-tort system and its inhabitants as a whole.
Of course, in writing the book, I knew there would be backlash, particularly from those ensconced within the system who have much to lose from any change in the status quo. And judging from the latest review of my book on Amazon, it appears I’ve struck a nerve.
It comes from Ellen Relkin, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who served as co-lead counsel in DePuy ASR; lead and liaison counsel in Stryker; and on the court-appointed executive committee in Ortho Evra, Yasmin/Yaz, and Biomet.
To begin, I’d like to thank Ms. Relkin for taking time to review the book. I hope very much that it will lead to a dialog and a broader exchange of information, not just between the two of us, but between academics and practitioners more broadly. As my mentor, Richard Nagareda, impressed upon me, ours is a field that is driven deeply by what judges and lawyers do in real time, on the ground, not by what academics say to one another in lofty towers.
It was with that in mind that I began writing what eventually became Mass Tort Deals, which Relkin colorfully dubs a “book parading as empirical research.” It is the culmination of six-years worth of data collection on all the products-liability proceedings pending on the MDL docket as of May 2013, and its Appendix boils down all of that data into 41 pages of tables. All of the documents that I collected are freely available to the public and word searchable here. Whether you love, hate, or are completely indifferent to the book, you are welcome to make use of all of the data and documents without having to pay Pacer fees.
What to make of the data is, of course, open to various interpretations. Mass Tort Deals reflects my conscious choices both about how to present data in an inviting, accessible way, and which case studies and anecdotes might best convey key points. Those choices are based not only on the raw numbers (which are all disclosed), but on many hours of interviews with attorneys and judges as well as reading hundreds of motions, arguments, and court transcripts. Lawyers and judges who lived those proceedings will, invariably, have different opinions about their strengths and weaknesses, as Relkin’s critique demonstrates.
That brings me to Relkin’s specific comments, which I respond to briefly below:
- “The book is biased.”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure what this means. I don’t represent any clients, I don’t consult for lawyers on either side, and my funding comes entirely from my university (no private grants, etc.). I do have a perspective and an opinion from doing extensive research, but I am about as neutral as they come. As Relkin notes, on the other hand, she served as lead counsel in some of the mass tort deals that I criticize and, one presumes, has profited substantially from them.
- “[T]he book criticizes and makes incorrect assumptions without ever interviewing the lead counsel . . .”
As noted, I did speak with a number of plaintiffs’ attorneys on background (including those in DePuy ASR). Those lawyers asked not to be named for fear of retribution, which I describe in Chapter 3. Lance Cooper was the sole attorney who agreed to be interviewed “on the record.” Unlike the lawyers affected by, but not in control of the proceeding, lead lawyers’ positions tend to be apparent from reading the motions that they file and the arguments they make in a hearing’s transcripts.
Despite putting these proceedings under a microscope, however, some critical information just isn’t publicly available, as I note in the book’s Introduction. The terms of most private settlements remain private, and even for those that are publicly available, it is rare indeed to find information on substantive outcomes—who gets what, in other words.
More frustrating still are the many sealed documents. (Reuters has echoed this same frustration in a series of articles on opioids and Propecia.) DePuy ASR was a particularly opaque proceeding in that regard. The leaders, for example, sealed their common-benefit fee and cost awards (motions, orders, etc.). Why insist on secrecy in court-awarded attorneys’ fees?
This is one of the key concerns that I address in Mass Tort Deals: too little disclosure can lead to too much room for abuse of process. The information that is available suggests that there is a systemic lack of checks and balances in MDLs that may benefit insiders like lead plaintiffs’ attorneys, at their clients’ expense. In short, proceedings should be more transparent—deciding issues in secret breeds mistrust.
To that end, if you have data on substantive outcomes (who, exactly, gets what), please share it with me. I would love to know more about how much money is paid out and to whom, how long it takes to administer claims, whether like plaintiffs are treated equally, how much money it costs to put dollars in class members’ hands versus plaintiffs in private settlements, etc.
- “The book overlooks litigation challenges in some of the cases including the enormous costs of trying complex pharmaceutical and medical device cases, especially those with mild to moderate injuries, general and specific medical causation challenges, preemption issues, learned intermediary challenges, among other difficulties in some cases.”
Relkin is correct in that this book is about the procedures used to resolve cases, not substantive tort law. But to the heart of her concern, I discuss costs on pages 24-25, general and specific causation on pp. 112, 116, and 210. And I emphasize the pros and cons of bellwether trials on pp. 107-110.
- “Ms. Burch incorrectly attributes lead counsel in the DePuy ASR settlement, incorrectly interprets and describes features of the settlement, overlooks an enormous and virtually unprecedented benefits of the settlement . . ., incorrectly claims that the Extraordinary Injury Fund awards were unknown when in fact the scheduled award amounts were listed in an appendix to the settlement agreements that have been and are still on-line, among other errors.”
The only concrete thing I can find to respond to here is Relkin’s claim about the Extraordinary Injury Fund. As I observed on p. 140, the DePuy ASR settlements did estimate a claimant’s base award, but even after another search of the settlement’s website, I still don’t see any amounts actually paid out to clients listed anywhere. Of course, it’s certainly possible that I’ve missed something. So, here’s a link to the website if you’d like to dig in.
- “The two unhappy clients she quotes from a New York Times article are certainly not a representative sample. Using that standard, one could go on ‘Rate My Professor’, and while finding many good reviews of Professor Burch, would find some students who gave her unfavorable ratings.”
Okay, I couldn’t resist. It appears the last posting I received on “Rate My Professors” was in 2011 and of the 8 total posts, I received 7 “Awesome’s” and 1 “Good” (which still wrote “Great prof”). (Personally, I’m partial to the one that said “Amazing teacher. Funny, pretty, witty, and just downright brilliant,” but hey, maybe I am biased.)
More to the point, writing the book did make me realize that I needed to hear directly from plaintiffs, hence the Procedural Justice Study that I began over a year ago.
Relkin kindly mentions that “she would have been happy to share the many thank you notes from enormously grateful clients who fared very well,” so I hope that she and other plaintiffs’ lawyers will ask their Yasmin/Yaz and Ortho Evra clients to participate in the Procedural Justice Study as well as any clients they might have in the other covered women’s health proceedings: Pelvic Mesh, Talcum Powder, Mentor ObTape, Mirena, Norplant, Fen-Phen, Dalkon Shield, NuvaRing, Silicone Gel Breast Implants, Power Morcellator, Ephedra, Fosamax, Monat Hair Care, Rio Hair Naturalizer, Prempro, and Protegen Sling.
Please disseminate the survey link broadly to your clients; I absolutely want to hear from all of them. By way of background, the study does not ask for any confidential information (settlement or otherwise); the basic info it seeks include things that plaintiffs can readily find in their complaint. The study’s focus is on how plaintiffs feel about their experience with the justice system—the judges, the lawyers, etc.
My aim in this is to update and expand upon RAND’s 1989 Perception of Justice survey by identifying what litigants care about in the MDL context. I hope to hear from as many plaintiffs as possible (their names and any identifying information will be kept completely confidential).
Happy to hear from each of you, too. And if there are things I should know more about, consider this an open invitation to contact me.
Thursday, September 26, 2019
Over at our sister blog, Business Law Prof Blog, Professor Ben Edwards has been making his way through my recent book, Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation. He does an excellent job of both summarizing and commentating on each chapter. So, if you just don't have the time to do a deep dive into a new book right now but want the quick and dirty takeaway alongside thoughtful, insightful commentary, here are the links to his posts so far:
Chapter 1 - Mass Tort Deal Making - on the nuts and bolts of class actions vs. multidistrict proceedings
Chapter 2 - Mass Tort Deals - on whether quid-pro-quo arrangements exist between lead plaintiffs' attorneys & defense lawyers
Chapter 3 - Mass Tort Deals - on repeat player dynamics in aggregate litigation (leadership appointments, etc.)
Chapter 4 - Mass Tort Deals - on judges coercing facilitating mass tort settlements
Chapter 5 - Mass Tort Deals - on the likeness between MDL deals and arbitration
Chapter 6, on reform proposals, will be coming next week.
If you're interested in all of the data and documents in the book, they are all available for free online. That site also has some data visuals that aren't in the book, like this one (clicking the image will bring up an interactive version):
September 26, 2019 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Asbestos, Books, Class Actions, Current Affairs, Ethics, Lawyers, Mass Disasters, Mass Tort Scholarship, Medical Devices - Misc., Pharmaceuticals - Misc., Procedure, Products Liability, Settlement, Trial, Vioxx | Permalink | Comments (0)
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!
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Last week, I sat down with Nicolas Terry, who hosts the podcast, The Week in Health Law. We discussed the role of repeat players in multidistrict litigation leadership (on both sides), the functions and control of MDL judges, the ongoing opioid litigation, and my new book--Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation.
If you like podcasts and civil procedure, it might be just the thing for a morning commute. Just click on the icon below.
If you're interested in the opioid suits and online reading is more your style, then you might prefer the conversation that Jenn Olivia and I had, which is written up on Harvard Law's Bill of Health (click on the icon below). While you're on the blog, you'll find lots of useful information if you search by category: Opioid Crisis.
Thursday, May 16, 2019
For judges, lawyers, and even academics toiling away in the world of mass torts, getting a handle on the big picture can be tough. I've seen many empirical claims made when it comes to the push for or against creating federal rules specific to mega-MDLs, all of which are mass torts. Yet, most lack real, empirical data.
For the past six years, I've been collecting data on all of the products-liability proceedings that were pending on the MDL docket as of May 2013. (Yes, yes, I live a thrilling life.) Like a hoarder, I've squirreled away data on Lone Pine orders, Daubert motions, class-certification motions, plaintiff fact sheets, summary judgment motions, census orders, class action settlements, private aggregate settlements, and on and on and on. Those data-collection efforts have culminated in a book that is out today, Mass Tort Deals. There is ton of information in the book's appendix on all of the information I just mentioned. Here's a way to Download Index to Data.
One thing I noticed along the way was that neither Pacer nor Bloomberg Law allow you to search inside the text of MDL dockets, which can be long and unwieldy in and of themselves, as many of you know. So, with the help of the wonderful UGA Law School IT department, I've created a free website that allows you to search the text of the thousands of MDL documents that I've been stockpiling for the past six years. It includes all of the documents that I relied on for the book and I will continue to update it periodically.
As for the book, Mass Tort Deals marshals this wide array of empirical data to suggest that the systematic lack of checks and balances in our courts may benefit everyone but the plaintiffs. Multidistrict proceedings, which place a single judge in charge of similar lawsuits filed across the country, consume a substantial portion of the federal courts’ civil caseload. As the figure below shows, many MDLs are product liability proceedings (for an interactive version, click here):
And if you consider not just the number of proceedings, but the number of actions pending in those proceedings, products-liability suits dominate (for an interactive version, click here):
Of course, most of these product-liability proceedings are not run-of-the-mill disputes. Litigation over products like pelvic and hernia mesh, opioids, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder, Roundup, and hip implants are headline-grabbing media magnets.
Federal judges certify a small handful of these proceedings (principally those without personal injuries) as class actions, which affords them judicial safeguards. But as tort reform has made its way into civil procedure, it has effectively clamped down on class actions. As you can see from the graphic below, most product-liability proceedings within my dataset ended in private, aggregate settlement (click here for an interactive version):
As readers of my work know, I've voiced some concerns with adequate representation and repeat players in MDLs. Judges and academics have long raised questions about arms-length bargaining and adequate representation in the class-action context, even though Rule 23 builds in some safeguards. In class actions, for example, judges have the authority to appoint class counsel; consider whether counsel adequately represents class members; ensure that any class settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate; and award class counsel’s attorney’s fee.
Given my qualms about what lawyers are doing (Chapter 2 and 3) and what judges are doing (Chapter 4), should we implement rules for MDL proceedings? Not necessarily. Our system needs a makeover, yes. But Chapter 6 uses basic economic and social principles as the bedrock of reform.
I suggest ways in which we can build opportunities for dissent and competition into the fabric of multidistrict proceedings and incentivize lawyers to use them.
But doing so relies on judges. Educating judges and encouraging them to select leaders via a competitive process, tie leaders’ fees to the benefits they confer on plaintiffs, open the courthouse doors to hear about those benefits (or not) directly from the plaintiffs, and remand those litigants who don’t want to settle can allow the vibrant rivalries within the plaintiffs’ bar to see to it that dissent and competition flourish.
As attorneys object and compete, they are likely to divulge new information, thereby equipping judges with pieces of the puzzle that they currently lack. In short, Chapter 6 explains how arming judges with procedures that better align plaintiffs’ attorneys’ self-interest with their clients’ best interest equips courts to hold parties accountable even without legislation or rulemaking.
From diagnosis to reforms, my goal in Mass Tort Deals isn’t to eliminate these lawsuits; it’s to save them.
May 16, 2019 in Informal Aggregation, Lawyers, Mass Disasters, Mass Tort Scholarship, Medical Devices - Misc., Pharmaceuticals - Misc., Procedure, Products Liability, Regulation, Settlement, Trial, Vehicles, Vioxx | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, March 17, 2019
Article in Bloomberg -- Surge in Biometric Privacy Suits Causes Firms to Boost Specialty.
Tuesday, December 4, 2018
Today's post is really a plea for help with a new project that I've just started. I've created a new survey that allows plaintiffs to tell me about their interaction with the court system and their attorneys.
I’m hoping to hear directly from plaintiffs who are involved in women’s health mass torts like pelvic mesh, breast implants, NuvaRing, Mirena, and Yasmin/Yaz.
If you're a plaintiff involved in one of those cases, please consider taking this short survey. It will ask you questions about whether you had opportunities to tell your side of the story and present evidence, how you felt your lawyer handled your case, how you felt about the process and your outcome, and whether you used third-party funding.
If you're a lawyer or reporter, I'd love your help publicizing the project. Participants' answers will be kept completely confidential, and I am not asking for details that would be covered by a confidentiality provision in a settlement.
I am not affiliated with the courts or with the lawyers on either side in any way and I do not have any clients of my own. I don’t consult for any of the lawyers in these cases, and all of my funding comes from the University of Georgia—not from a private company or interest. In other words, I have no financial ties that affect the way I conduct my research.
Here's more information about me and the research I am doing: https://www.elizabethchambleeburch.com/womens-mdls
If you have questions, please feel free to contact me--if confidentiality is important, please use email@example.com rather than my University of Georgia email.
December 4, 2018 in Aggregate Litigation Procedures, Current Affairs, Lawyers, Mass Tort Scholarship, Medical Devices - Misc., Pharmaceuticals - Misc., Prempro, Products Liability | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
I'm at a conference on litigation funding and realized it might be useful, especially for journalists, to think through what we mean when we talk about litigation funding or litigation finance.
Journalists and others tend to describe all forms of investment that support litigation under one umbrella: “litigation funding.” But in fact the litigation funding market is highly specialized. Types of litigation funding should be considered separately because they are very different financial products with different costs and benefits. This is my stab at setting out the parameters of this space:
- Commercial litigation funding. This type of litigation funding is offered by investors and can be used by either plaintiffs or defendants. The funding agreements involve sophisticated parties on both sides, either firms or clients. It well recognized in international arbitration and is increasingly used in other types of commercial cases. Funding may be for an individual litigation or for a portfolio of suits.
- Appeals funding. This type of funding is given to lawyers against fees (often contingency) and to clients against expected recoveries.
- Patent litigation funding. These involve three types of entities. First, some entities purchase patents and prosecute patent infringers but have no relationship to the inventors. Second, a company may sue the infringers and give a small percentage of the recovery to the inventors. Third, universities or companies may monetize their patent portfolios using a funder.
- Law firm financing. Law firms may obtain financing usually structured as a loan with their receivables as collateral.
- Consumer litigation funding. These funders provide small retail level non-recourse loans to individual tort or contract plaintiffs, typically under $5,000. This type of funding is the most like “payday” loans.
- Mass tort monetizations. These types of funders may advance money to lawyers against future earned fees and to clients against expected recoveries in aggregate tort litigation such as multidistrict litigation after a settlement matrix is in place. Depending on how it is used, this may be more like law firm financing for a portfolio of cases of a particular type (cases filed against a particular defendant for example) or consumer litigation funding, directly offered to the client. These funders specialize in mass torts, but loans to lawyers should be differentiated from advances to clients because lawyers are sophisticated market actors who can protect themselves, whereas tort clients tend to be more vulnerable.
(This was edited to correct the amount that individuals usually obtain from consumer funding).
Saturday, July 29, 2017
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.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York, who is noted for his opinions in many mass torts including Agent Orange, has surpassed 50 years on the bench. Shibani Gokhale, At 95, Weinstein Keeps Going After 50 Years on Bench, Law.com (July 13, 2017).
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
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
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)
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.
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.