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)
Friday, February 8, 2019
Professor Sarah L. Swan (Florida State Law) has posted to SSRN her manuscript, Preempting Plaintiff Cities, Fordham Urb. L. J. (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
Within the city-state relationship, states hold an enormous amount of power. Recently, states have been using that power to pass extremely aggressive preemption laws that prohibit cities’ regulatory efforts on many fronts. These new preemption laws most commonly occur in the context of red states limiting the regulatory scope of blue cities, inflaming those already tense city-state relationships and cutting into what many view as the appropriate scope of local autonomy.
But despite this intense clash in the regulatory sphere, when we move away from the world of city regulation and toward the world of city litigation, things look surprisingly different. Although cities have been bringing forward hundreds of quite controversial claims against corporate wrongdoers for harms ranging from the subprime mortgage crisis to the opioid epidemic, such plaintiff city litigation has provoked relatively little state hostility. States have not ratcheted up their response to this exercise of city power in at all the same way as they have for regulation. Rather, states have shown a remarkably limited appetite for preempting plaintiff city litigation.
What accounts for these differing responses? Three main factors are likely in play. First, while regulatory preemption is largely the result of intense political polarization, states have historically viewed litigation against corporate wrongdoers in less partisan terms. Both blue and red states have themselves engaged in this type of litigation, and there is thus an institutional tradition of flexibility in this context. Second, and relatedly, the issues at the heart of plaintiff city litigation are often not as politically divisive as those at the heart of the preempted regulations. Harms like lead paint poisoning and the opioid epidemic have attracted widespread condemnation, while many of the regulation preemption subjects remain hotly contested. Finally, unlike regulation, litigation is not an obvious instrument of governance. It has unpredictable outcomes, it is not an exclusively governmental power, and it relies on existing law.
Since plaintiff city litigation operates mostly outside of state crosshairs, it can provide a space for cities looking to pursue progressive goals. Plaintiff city litigation may not achieve the same immediate governance goals as regulation, but it does have significant political benefits for cities and their residents. Thus, even in an era of rampant regulatory preemption and deep political animosity between cities and states, plaintiff city litigation presents a viable parallel track for cities to continue their pursuit of urban social justice. Although such litigation does not directly address the contentious issues forming the basis of regulatory battles, it does offer a means of protecting vulnerable communities and advancing goals of democratic equality in other ways.
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 6, 2019
Professor Eri Osaka (Toyo University) has posted to SSRN her manuscript, Current Status and Challenges in the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Compensation Scheme: An Example of Institutional Failure? Here is the abstract:
The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster brought widespread and long-term damage. Soon after the accident, the government hastily set up the Fukushima nuclear disaster compensation scheme under the existing law to deal with a large number of compensation claims by the victims. It published the compensation guidelines and established the nuclear damage alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process to promote the voluntary efforts by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) as well as victims to resolve their nuclear damage disputes. It also has been pouring public money into TEPCO.
This paper examines whether the scheme has been functioning well, in other words, whether the victims have been compensated through the scheme. Section 2 gives an overview of the scheme. It begins with the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, the basis of the current scheme. Next it explains the responsibilities fulfilled by the government and TEPCO under the scheme. It also briefly addresses the current discussion on the scheme reform. As it turns out, the current scheme is far from successful. Then, Section 3 focuses on litigation as a realistic tool to change the malfunctioning scheme under existing conditions. It introduces a discussion of the current development of cases pursuing just and equitable relief for the nuclear damage victims. However, litigation is not a panacea. Section 3 also discusses its obstacles and possible solutions.
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).
Monday, October 9, 2017
A new and really fascinating case study about environmental mass tort litigation against Du Pont was posted recently by the NBER. You can find the piece here. It demonstrates how a company came to ignore the injuries that its product (in this case a toxin called C8) and how it can be that this decision was value maximizing for shareholders.
The bottom line answer is that the company's ability to hide information and delay payment of any penalties, combined with the relatively low exposure in tort and regulatory penalties, made it sensible because it knew it would not have to internalize the full costs of its conduct. It demonstrates that information and secrecy is at the core of the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of regulation and litigation.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
There is a persistent question in multidistrict proceedings: what duties do lead lawyers owe to individual plaintiffs who have no direct attorney-client relationship with them?
That's the question at the heart of a recent opinion by Judge David Herndon in the Yazmin/Yaz litigation, although the opinion itself is about whether remand to state court is appropriate. (Spoiler: Judge Herndon thinks it's isn't.)
After the negotiating parties in the underlying MDL reached a global settlement for the ATE (arterial thromboembolism) cases, Judge Herndon issued a series of orders designed to usher plaintiffs into the deal. One of those was a Lone Pine order that required every non settling plaintiff to produce fact sheets, over three years worth of pharmacy and medical records, and a case-specific expert on general and specific causation--all within three months. Those who didn't comply faced dismissal.
As you might guess, the plaintiffs currently suing missed that deadline and their various attorneys failed to respond to Bayer's motion to dismiss. As such, with new counsel, they are now suing lead counsel (Micheal S. Burg, Roger Denton, Michael A. London, and Mark R. Niemeyer) for legal malpractice under Illinois common law.
What question lies at the heart of the case? You guessed it: what duties do lead lawyers owe to non-client plaintiffs in a multidistrict proceeding?
Returning for a moment to the question of federal jurisdiction, given the way that the complaint is framed, jurisdiction appears to lie under CAFA, 28 USC 1332(d)(2) (it's pled on behalf of a class). But the parties take different routes. Disgruntled plaintiffs argue that it's a mass action that contains fewer than 100 people (despite it being pled as a class action), and defendants argue that it presents federal question jurisdiction under 1331. Relying on Grable and Gunn, the court agrees.
I confess, I'm not yet convinced that these state-law malpractice claims implicate a federal issue under Grable.
Either way, as Judge Herndon (and lead lawyers) framed it, even if the dissatisfied plaintiffs sued individually, federal question jurisdiction would lie over their claims, thereby allowing defendants to remove and send it to Judge Herndon. Judge Herndon, you may recall, presided over the original claims and appointed the leaders in the first place.
There hasn't been a ton written on the fiduciary question, but Professor Charlie Silver's work comes readily to mind. In his article, The Responsibilities of Lead Lawyers and Judges in Multidistrict Litigation, he writes:
Given that both lawyers who represent individual claimants and lawyers who handle class actions are fiduciaries, it would be surprising to discover that lead lawyers in MDLs were not. . . . Given the dearth of authority directly on point, judges may take guidance from other bodies of law. If they do, they will quickly conclude that lead attorneys are fiduciaries. Mass tort lawyers are fiduciaries, and so are lawyers who represent plaintiff classes. These examples are the most analogous to lead counsel.
My own view is similar. Without imposing fiduciary duties on lead lawyers, all sorts of mischief could result. Of course, whether lead lawyers in Yasmin/Yaz breached those duties in a way that amounts to malpractice is a separate question. But, given the lengths they've taken to have the malpractice claims heard before Judge Herndon, leaders clearly think they have a much better chance there than in IL state court.
Casey et. al. v. Roger Denton, et. al. is worth following. Here are a few of the relevant documents:
Sunday, August 6, 2017
Professor James Henderson (Cornell Law) has posted to SSRN his article, The Impropriety of Punitive Damages in Mass Torts, 52 Ga. L. Rev. (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
Punitive damages have been around for centuries in classic one-on-one tort actions and are here to stay. Mass torts, of more recent origin and not without difficulties, have matured to the point that this article is comfortable referring to most of them as traditional. Notwithstanding the legitimacy of both institutions when employed separately, loud warning signals should sound when, as with drinking and driving, they are combined. Potentially destructive mixes of punitive damages and mass torts have, unfortunately, been prevalent in traditional, fault-based mass tort actions. The difficulties are mostly administrative. Although punitive damages are conceptually compatible with fault-based mass torts, courts administer punitive awards in ways that are so capricious as to generate gross unfairness and inefficiency. And if for that reason the warning signals should be loud in connection with punitive awards in traditional mass torts, they should be downright deafening if and when courts consider awarding punitives in what this article refers to as emerging, nontraditional, enterprise-liability-based forms of mass tort.
Given that these serious difficulties cannot be eliminated by marginal reforms, this article argues that punitive damages are manifestly inappropriate in, and must be eliminated from, all forms of mass tort. Of course, a broad proscription would require courts to overrule precedent in connection with traditional mass torts, and this article explains how this could be accomplished. By contrast, such a proscription would come early enough in the development of emerging forms of mass tort to nip punitive awards in the bud without the need to overrule longstanding precedent. Thus, if courts are going to eliminate punitive awards in mass torts, now is the time for them to act.
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.
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
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
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Professors Andrew Bradt (UC Berkeley Law) and D. Theodore Rave (U. Houston Law) have posted to SSRN their article, The Information-Forcing Role of the Judge in Multidistrict Litigation, Cal. L. Rev. (forthcoming). Here is the abstract:
In this article, we address one of the most controversial and current questions in federal civil procedure: What is the proper role of the judge in the settlement of mass-tort multidistrict litigation, or MDL? Due to the Supreme Court’s hostility to class actions, MDL proceedings have begun to dominate the federal civil docket. To wit, nearly half of the federal civil caseload is MDL. Although MDL is structurally different from a class action, the procedure replicates — and in many ways complicates — the principal-agent problems that plagued the class action. Like a class action, nearly all MDL cases are resolved by a comprehensive global settlement agreement, but, unlike a class action, in MDL the judge has no authority to reject a settlement agreement as unfair to the potentially thousands of parties ensnared in the litigation. Here, we argue that, given this limitation, the judge should act as an “information-forcing intermediary,” who reserves the right to offer a non-binding opinion about the fairness of the settlement to send an easy-to-understand signal directly to the parties about their lawyers’ performance. Such a signal will mitigate many of the agency problems inherent to MDL and allow parties to exercise informed consent when choosing whether to accept a settlement. More generally, this article is a call for judges to embrace an information-forcing role at the head of consolidated MDL proceedings.
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)
Monday, July 25, 2016
Sergio Campos has a great new review on JOTWELL of an important report from Adam Zimmerman and Michael Sant'Ambrogio. The report concerns the use of aggregation techniques in administrative agencies and is both conceptually and practically interesting. Both the review and the report are worth reading!