Header graphic for print

Class Defense Blog

Cutting-Edge Issues in Class Action Law and Policy

Another California Court Does Backflips to Thwart Arbitration and Elevate The Class-Action Device

Posted in Arbitration

The hostility of some California courts to arbitration—and their resistance to preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)—has produced nearly three decades of U.S. Supreme Court reversals. The most recent is AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, which held that the FAA preempted the Discover Bank rule, under which the California Supreme Court had blocked enforcement of consumer arbitration agreements that required individual rather than class arbitration. Last week’s decision in Imburgia v. DirecTV, Inc. (pdf) demonstrates that resistance to Concepcion lives on in the California courts, even at the cost of creating a split with the Ninth Circuit on the same issue in the same contract used by the same company.

Specifically, DirecTV’s arbitration agreement—like many others—provides that the arbitration agreement shall not be enforced if a court invalidates the ban on class arbitration. Taking advantage of the specific wording of the agreement, a panel of the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles held that the preemptive effect of Concepcion did not apply and the agreement could be invalidated on the basis of the very Discover Bank rule that Concepcion held was preempted.

The arbitration clause at issue in Imburgia appeared in Section 9 of DirecTV’s customer agreement; the arbitration clause expressly precluded class actions and class arbitration. Section 10 provided that “Section 9 shall be governed by the Federal Arbitration Act.” Section 9 also stated, after the sentence that waived class procedures: “If, however, the law of your state would find this agreement to dispense with class arbitration procedures unenforceable, then this entire Section 9 is unenforceable.”

The Imburgia court held that the reference to “the law of your state” should be read to invalidate the arbitration agreement if the class waiver would be unenforceable under state law without regard to the preemptive effect of the FAA. That is, the court held, the agreement was subject to state-law rules that are invalid under the FAA even though the arbitration agreement explicitly provided that the FAA would govern. That holding takes an idiosyncratic view of the Supremacy Clause, which mandates that federal law—including the FAA—trumps contrary state law. Under the Supremacy Clause, once state law has been displaced by federal law, the state law cannot survive in some shadow universe. Rather, state law is not “law” when it has been declared unconstitutional, whether because it violates the First Amendment or the Supremacy Clause because it is preempted by a federal statute.

Imburgia also expressly conflicts with the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Murphy v. DIRECTV, Inc., 724 F.3d 1218 (9th Cir. 2013), which enforced the same clause and rejected the same argument. The Ninth Circuit explained that “Section 2 of the FAA, which under Concepcion requires the enforcement of arbitration agreements that ban class procedures, is the law of California and of every other state.” DirecTV may well seek further review in light of this conflict.

In the meantime, Imburgia offers businesses a pair of cautionary lessons. First, businesses that use arbitration clauses should not underestimate the pockets of resistance to Concepcion and other recent Supreme Court precedents—especially in some California state courts.

Second, the decision underscores the importance of careful drafting of arbitration clauses that waive class actions. Even though the Supreme Court has made clear that any doubts concerning the scope of arbitral agreements should be resolved in favor of arbitration, the court here—like other courts hostile to arbitration—chose to construe the language of the arbitration clause against the drafter. And viewed in that (improper) light, it is easy to see why the wording of DirecTV’s clause, and in particular the use of the phrase—“[i]f … the law of your state would find …”—unnecessarily appeared to give state law special stature. Choice-of-law issues have bedeviled companies in the past—as detailed in an article (pdf) one of us has published, it is important for companies to address the governing law carefully in their agreements and thus minimize the risk that hostile courts will apply the wrong law to defeat arbitration.

Federal Court Upholds FTC’s Authority To Bring Enforcement Actions Over Data-Security Standards; Will Class Actions Follow?

Posted in Class Action Trends

Already, 2014 has been an eventful year in the world of data breaches and cybersecurity. In addition to a flurry of litigation over high-profile breaches at the start of the year, the National Institute for Standards and Technology released its long-anticipated Cybersecurity Framework. The latest development is the recent decision in the closely-watched Wyndham case, in which a federal district court has just held that the Federal Trade Commission may use its “unfairness” authority under Section 5(a) of the FTC Act to enforce data-security standards. As a result, companies can expect the FTC to continue—and perhaps even expand—its efforts to regulate data-security standards through enforcement actions. And (as we have seen time and time again) where the FTC leads, the plaintiff’s bar often follows by filing class actions piggybacking on the agency’s allegations.

What happened in Wyndham?

The Wyndham action arose when a group of hackers allegedly penetrated the hospitality chain’s networks from 2008 to 2010, and compromised over a half-million payment card numbers. Already facing the substantial financial and reputational harm caused by the hackers’ crime, Wyndham next found itself facing a civil action filed by the FTC.  In its initial and amended complaints, the FTC alleged that Wyndham had not maintained reasonable and appropriate data security measures. The agency claimed that Wyndham had engaged in (1) deception through alleged misrepresentations of the company’s data-security practices; and (2) “unfair” conduct based upon the harms allegedly suffered as a result of the purportedly unreasonable data-security practices.

Wyndham moved to dismiss the amended complaint, arguing, among other things, that the FTC’s “unfairness” authority does not extend to data security, that the FTC had failed to provide fair notice of what Section 5 of the FTC Act requires, and that Section 5 does not govern the security of payment card data. Wyndham—joined by a number of amici—pointed to the FTC’s lack of clear statutory authority, the continued legislative debates about data-security standards, and the FTC’s failure to establish standards through rulemaking as powerful reasons why the FTC lacked the authority to regulate data-security practices through Section 5 enforcement actions.

The district court was not persuaded. It concluded that more narrow data-security requirements enacted by Congress complemented, rather than precluded, the FTC’s assertion of authority under Section 5. The court also disagreed with defendants about the import of the ongoing legislative debates and prior statements by the FTC about the limits of its authority to regulate data security. The court thus declined “to carve out” what it understood to be “a data-security exception to the FTC’s authority.” The court likewise held that the FTC did not need to promulgate rules before exercising that authority, and that the FTC had adequately pled its unfairness claim. Finally, the court rejected the defendants’ challenge to the FTC’s deception claim.

Implications of the Wyndham decision

Many observers believe that the district court’s decision—and the resulting headlines—may serve to boost the FTC’s efforts to regulate data security. From our perspective, the decision (unless it is overturned on appeal) may have a significant effect on data-breach class actions as well for at least three reasons.

First, past FTC actions have spawned follow-on class litigation. Continued or possibly expanded FTC activity in the field of data security thus does not bode well for companies that must defend themselves first from hackers and then from regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys who seek to turn a company’s victimization into a basis for claimed liability.

Second, the district court’s highlighting of what it called “data-security insufficiencies” may foreshadow a focus on simplistic checklists rather than on risk-based data security practices. These supposed “insufficiencies” include allegations that the company stored unencrypted data, used outdated operating systems, and failed to require the use of complex passwords. These purported “insufficiencies” were described in a manner bereft of any context—and in particular, without any reference to the specific risks facing the company or the company’s overall security response. But data security is not one-size-fits-all. Context does matter.  For that reason, the creation of a data security checklist through litigation, whether by the FTC or by a putative class representative, will benefit no one.

Third, the district court’s willingness to authorize case-by-case development of security standards—including through the use of consent orders that provide little or no guidance to non-parties—promises legal and regulatory uncertainty for companies in an area that cries out for stable and predictable guidelines. This uncertainty will only increase if class actions are allowed to further complicate the existing patchwork of data-security standards.

At bottom, the Wyndham decision is troubling for companies that seek to manage data-security risks and stave off unnecessary and inappropriate litigation. Indeed, the district court appeared resigned to the prospect of more litigation in this area, noting that “we live in a digital age that is rapidly evolving” and that will raise “a variety of thorny legal issues that Congress and the courts will continue to grapple with for the foreseeable future.” Companies certainly should hope that the district court was wrong to forecast more litigation, but should be prepared for continued legal uncertainty and the opportunistic litigation it will generate.

We’ll be discussing the Wyndham decision—along with many other new trends and strategies in data breach and privacy class actions—in a webinar next week.  We hope that clients and friends of the firm will consider joining us for that discussion.

Supreme Court to Decide Whether All Evidence Supporting Removal Under the Class Action Fairness Act Must Be Submitted With The Notice of Removal

Posted in Motions Practice, U.S. Supreme Court

To remove a civil action from state court to federal court, the defendant must “file … a notice of removal … containing a short and plain statement of the grounds for removal.” 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a). Today, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, No. 13-719, to decide whether a notice of removal must also include evidence supporting jurisdiction if the facts establishing jurisdiction do not appear on the face of the state-court complaint. The Court’s resolution of this issue will be important to all businesses seeking to remove state-court class actions to the federal courts.

Owens, the plaintiff in Dart Cherokee, filed a class action in Kansas state court seeking to recover oil and gas royalties, but did not specify the amount sought. The defendants responded by filing a notice of removal that invoked the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. The notice alleged that the royalties at issue exceeded $8.2 million, and thus satisfied the CAFA’s $5 million jurisdictional minimum. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2). When Owens moved to remand the suit to state court, the defendants filed a declaration supporting the jurisdictional facts alleged in their notice of removal. Relying on Tenth Circuit precedent, the district court remanded the case on the ground that the defendants had not “establish[ed] by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million” because they had “fail[ed] to incorporate any evidence supporting [their] calculation in the notice of removal, such as an economic analysis of the amount in controversy or settlement estimates.” The district court refused to consider the evidence filed with the opposition to the motion to remand, holding that the defendants “were obligated to allege all necessary jurisdictional facts in the notice of removal.” A divided panel of the Tenth Circuit denied leave to appeal; and rehearing en banc was denied by an equally divided court, over a published dissent.

According to the petition for certiorari, the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits apply a notice-pleading standard, requiring that notices of removal include allegations but not evidence. Furthermore, the petition contends, the First, Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits have either allowed or required district courts to consider post-notice removal evidence when deciding whether to remand.

The correct articulation of the procedures and evidentiary burdens for seeking removal, especially under the CAFA, will be of substantial interest to any business that may prefer a federal forum to state court. In many consumer class actions, it is a challenge to assemble sufficient evidence of the size of the putative class and the potential value of their claims by the 30-day deadline for a notice of removal. The Dark Cherokee case will determine whether defendants will continue to have the option, now available in most circuits, of pleading jurisdictional facts in the notice and establishing them with evidence some weeks later in the opposition to any motion to remand.

Class-Action Plaintiffs Must Offer Evidence Showing That They Meet Class-Certification Requirements

Posted in Adequacy, Class Certification, Predominance, Securities

A recent decision denying certification of a securities-fraud class action underscores that plaintiffs must prove with evidence that they satisfy the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, not merely allege that they do so or promise that they can.

The decision in In re Kosmos Energy Limited Securities Litigation arose from a class action filed in the Northern District of Texas by plaintiffs challenging certain statements made in connection with the defendant’s initial public offering (“IPO”). The court denied the plaintiff’s motion to certify a putative class of stock purchasers.

In its opinion, the court provided a useful overview of class-certification law, explaining that courts have moved “away from the presumptively pro-plaintiff view” of class actions that had prevailed decades ago. The court explained that “[g]oing forward, the clear directive to plaintiffs seeking class certification—in any type of case—is that they will face a rigorous analysis by the federal courts, will not be afforded favorable presumptions from the pleadings or otherwise and must be prepared to prove with facts—and by a preponderance of the evidence—their compliance with the requirements of Rule 23” (emphases added)

The court concluded that the plaintiff had failed to provide evidence establishing that it would be an adequate class representative or that common issues of law or fact would predominate over individualized ones. The plaintiff had attempted to rest in large part on allegations in the complaint and broad statements in dicta in past decisions. The court didn’t buy it.

The court first explained that “adequacy is the plaintiff’s burden to prove—not the defendant’s burden to disprove.” The court also criticized the plaintiff’s declaration attesting in impossibly vague terms that she had “reviewed” the pleadings and “supervised” her lawyers. As the court put it, “this type of generic detail is really no detail at all, for it provides naught by which to assess [the plaintiff’s] credibility, her knowledge about the underlying facts of the case, or how much of what she has stated may have been prompted by counsel. Indeed, any potential class representative in any securities case could make almost identical assertions.”

With respect to predominance, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were effectively asking for an assumption that securities class actions are certifiable. That “assumption,” the court explained, was “ill-founded.” The court also emphasized that “[w]hile Defendants offered a 107-page Expert Report demonstrating the need for individual inquiries into investor knowledge, Lead Plaintiff offered no proof from which to draw an inference that individual inquiries may not be required if the Court were to certify this putative class . . . .”

This decision is good news for businesses—and not just in the context of securities-fraud class actions. True, those suits are subject to heightened pleading requirements set forth in the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (“PSLRA”). But the court’s denial of class certification rested on fundamental principles arising from Rule 23 itself, which applies to all class actions in federal court.

Plaintiffs Can’t Evade Removal Under Class Action Fairness Act By Suing For Only Declaratory Relief

Posted in Motions Practice

Over the years, the plaintiffs’ bar has used a wide variety of stratagems to try to prevent defendants from removing class actions to federal court. We’ve previously blogged about several of them. A recent Eleventh Circuit decision addresses yet another page from the plaintiffs’ playbook.

Defendants often can remove significant class actions under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) when there is at least minimal diversity of parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million. In South Florida Wellness, Inc. v. Allstate Insurance Co. (pdf), the plaintiffs tried to prevent the defendant from satisfying CAFA’s $5 million amount-in-controversy requirement by suing for only a classwide declaratory judgment. The plaintiffs’ theory of liability apparently would have put roughly $68 million at stake—the difference between the formula for reimbursement that the defendant insurance company had used and the formula the plaintiffs alleged should have been used. But the plaintiffs argued that because they weren’t directly seeking money damages, it would be “too speculative” to value the declaratory relief at issue as exceeding CAFA’s $5 million threshold; not every class member necessarily would capitalize on the declaratory judgment, the plaintiffs contended.

The district court agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument and remanded the case. But the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the value of the declaratory judgment sought could be calculated concretely enough. The appropriate touchstone for that value is “how much will be put at issue,” not the expected value of the plaintiff’s claims “discounted by the chance[s] that the plaintiffs will lose on the merits,” that “the putative class will not be certified, or that some of the unnamed class members will opt out.” “[F]or amount in controversy purposes,” the Eleventh Circuit reaffirmed, “the value of injunctive or declaratory relief is the value of the object of the litigation measured from the plaintiff’s perspective.”

The defendant insurance company had offered unrebutted evidence that the difference between the amount in claims that it in fact had paid to class members and the amount that class members could receive if the theory outlined in plaintiffs’ complaint was entirely successful was $68 million. That calculation, the Eleventh Circuit held, satisfied CAFA’s $5 million amount-in-controversy requirement. In so holding, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the additional steps needed to convert the declaratory judgment into dollars in each class member’s pockets—i.e., mailing a demand letter and potentially filing a lawsuit supported by proof on some elements—made the value of the declaratory judgment too speculative for removal purposes.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in South Florida Wellness should be helpful to businesses trying to remove class actions that seek only declaratory relief. In fact, the court’s reminder that CAFA’s amount-in-controversy requirement looks to the maximum potential value of the claims rather than the discounted expected value following litigation should be helpful in explaining why removal is proper under CAFA in cases seeking all kinds of relief.

Use the “Consumer” in Consumer Class Actions to Defeat Certification

Posted in Ascertainability, Class Certification, Predominance, Typicality

Plaintiffs routinely bring consumer class actions under statutes that allow only consumers—not businesses—to bring claims, or that are limited to transactions solely for personal or household purposes. See, e.g., Electronic Funds Transfer Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1693a(2); Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, 12 U.S.C. § 2606(a)(1); California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 1780. But in some cases, the “consumer” requirement can be the Achilles’ heel for class certification. If it is difficult to determine whether a particular customer is a “consumer” without individualized inquiries, a proposed class action may flunk the predominance, ascertainability, and manageability requirements for class certification.

For example, in a recent zip-code class action, Leebove v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the retailer was accused of improperly requiring customers paying by credit card to provide their phone numbers and addresses in violation of California’s Song-Beverly Credit Card Act. But that statute creates a private right of action only for a “natural person to whom a credit card is issued for consumer credit purposes.” Cal. Civ. Code § 1747.02(d). Business entities and people who use corporate credit cards are not eligible to sue.

That fact was crucial for defeating class certification in Leebove. As the court explained, “before liability could be established with respect to each class member, individualized proof regarding whether each class member’s credit card was issued as a consumer or as a business card would have to be produced.” Although the court also identified other defects in the proposed class, the need for mini-trials as to whether each class member qualified as a “consumer” under the statute was key to the court’s holding that the plaintiffs had failed to establish predominance.

There should be many other opportunities to make this kind of argument either in opposing a motion for class certification or in moving to strike class allegations at the very outset of the case. Here are some ideas (and helpful authority):

  • If the class is defined to include only consumers, does the need for individualized inquiries into whether a purchaser qualifies as a consumer or a business render the class non-ascertainable? See, e.g., Walewski v. Zenimax Media, Inc., 502 F. App’x 857, 861 (11th Cir. 2012).
  • Alternatively, is the class overbroad because it includes businesses? See, e.g., Mazur v. eBay Inc., 257 F.R.D. 563, 567 (N.D. Cal. 2009).
  • Or is the question whether the putative class member qualifies as a consumer so individualized as to either defeat predominance or make a classwide trial unmanageable? See, e.g., Kennedy v. Natural Balance Pet Foods (pdf), 361 F. App’x 785, 787 (9th Cir. 2010); Johnson v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Group, LLC (pdf), 285 F.R.D. 573, 583 (E.D. Cal. 2012); Ballard v. Branch Banking & Trust Co., 284 F.R.D. 9, 13-16 (D.D.C. 2012); Ewert v. eBay Inc., 2010 WL 4269259, at *9 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 25, 2010).
  • Finally, if the named plaintiff himself or herself arguably is not a “consumer” under the applicable law, are his or her claims typical of those of the absent class members? See, e.g., Aberdeen v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. (pdf), 2009 WL 7715964, at *6 (C.D. Cal. June 23, 2009), aff’d in relevant part, 422 F. App’x 617 (9th Cir. 2011).

 

Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Filing A Class Action Tolls Statute of Repose Under Federal Securities Laws

Posted in Securities, U.S. Supreme Court

Last year, we reported on the Second Circuit’s ruling in Police & Fire Retirement System of City of Detroit v. IndyMac MBS, Inc. (pdf), 721 F.3d 95 (2d Cir. 2013), that the filing of a class action does not toll the statute of repose in the Securities Act of 1933 for would-be class members who later seek to intervene or file their own suits. On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that it has chosen to review the Second Circuit’s ruling. Now, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to establish a uniform national rule that the tolling principles applicable to statutes of limitation under American Pipe and Construction Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), do not apply in the very different statute-of-repose context.

In American Pipe, the Supreme Court held that the filing of a class action suspends the statute of limitations as to all putative class members so long as they remain members of the proposed class. But lower courts have reached different conclusions on whether this American Pipe tolling applies to the three-year statute of repose for claims under Sections 11, 12(a)(2), and 15 of the Securities Act. As our previous post described, in the IndyMac case, the Second Circuit rejected an effort by putative class members to revive class claims under Section 11 of the Securities Act after the period of repose had expired. (The district court had first concluded that the named plaintiffs lacked standing to assert the claims.) The Second Circuit reasoned that the American Pipe rule cannot be applied to the Securities Act’s statute of repose because the Supreme Court held in Lampf, Pleva, Lipkind, Prupis & Petigrow v. Gilbertson, 501 U.S. 350 (1991), that equitable tolling does not apply to a repose period and because the Rules Enabling Act does not allow a court to use Rule 23—the source of any legal tolling—to “abridge, enlarge or modify” the repose promised by the Securities Act.

One of the absent class members who had sought to intervene petitioned for a writ of certiorari. It argued that IndyMac conflicted with a Tenth Circuit decision, Joseph v. Wiles, 223 F.3d 1155 (10th Cir. 2000), which held that American Pipe tolling applied to the Securities Act’s statute of repose. The petitioner also asserted a conflict with Federal Circuit decisions applying American Pipe to time limits for suits against the United States. In my view the claimed conflicts are mirages. That said, the Supreme Court—having now granted certiorari—has a perfect opportunity to bless the Second Circuit’s well-reasoned conclusion that there is no basis for American Pipe tolling of the repose period created by Section 13 of the Securities Act. That provision is an absolute bar to stale claims. Would-be plaintiffs should not be able to use American Pipe to bring such claims after Section 13 has cut off liability for a challenged securities offering.

Reading the Halliburton Argument’s Tea Leaves

Posted in Securities, U.S. Supreme Court

Does today’s oral argument before the Supreme Court in the Halliburton case provide any clues regarding the Court’s likely decision?  (For background regarding the case, see yesterday’s post.)

Not necessarily.

“Court-watchers” are often quick to predict a case’s outcome based on the argument—and are very often wrong.  Remember the health care law that was certain to be declared unconstitutional, except it actually was upheld?  (I’ve had a similar experience.  After my argument on behalf of the petitioner in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, a number of press reports confidently predicted that Justice Scalia was going to vote “against the business community”; he wrote the Court’s opinion upholding the enforceability of AT&T’s arbitration clause.)

Today, as is often the case, the Justices’ questions explored a variety of issues, but most Members of the Court did not show their hands.

To be sure, the questions asked by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan seemed to indicate strong support for the plaintiff’s position. But that is no surprise based on those Justices’ views regarding legal issues in the class certification arena (including Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, and other cases).

But the questions and comments by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito are much harder to pigeonhole.

Those Justices focused almost exclusively on the second question presented by the certiorari petition:  whether the decision in Basic v. Levinson should be modified if the Court does not overrule it. (The principal modification proposed by Halliburton—and echoed in the “law professors’ amicus brief” that received much attention during the argument—is that plaintiffs should be required to prove at the class certification stage not only that the securities in question traded on an efficient market but also that the alleged misrepresentations in fact distorted the securities’ market price.)

That discussion could mean that these Justices have little interest in overruling Basic—the view expressed in a number of early press reports.

But it also could mean that the Justices had no unanswered questions about that part of the case.  After all, large sections of the parties’ briefs, along with many of the amicus filings, set forth the pros and cons of the fraud-on-the-market doctrine, battled over the applicable stare decisis principles, and disputed whether passage of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act locked Basic in place.  And the consequences of a decision to overrule Basic are clear: the pre-Basic reliance standard would apply.

A number of issues regarding the proposed modification of Basic are much less clear. First, its practical effect—in terms of what that approach would require plaintiffs to establish and whether it would screen out illegitimate class actions— is uncertain.  Many of the questions focused on that issue.

Second, whether requiring proof of an actual price impact at the class certification stage is consistent with the Court’s decisions rejecting arguments that other issues in securities class actions must be determined at the class certification stage because they are prerequisites for application of the fraud-on-the-market doctrine.  Those decisions include the Court’s earlier ruling in this case (addressing loss causation) and in Amgen v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds (addressing materiality). Many of the questions today asked whether a price-impact requirement could be distinguished from these other prerequisites—if it cannot, this option might be rejected on the ground that it is inconsistent with the Court’s recent precedents.

So it is equally likely—perhaps even more likely—that the questioning focused on this area because the possibility of modifying Basic generated more uncertainties that required clarification before the Justices could decide how to resolve the case—not because they already have decided that overruling Basic is off the table.

It also is worth emphasizing two points that do seem clear from the argument.  At least four Members of the Court (the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito) have real concerns about the current state of securities class action litigation, including the fact that class actions that are certified almost always settle—and virtually never are decided on the merits—as well as the burdens that such litigation imposes on investors.  (Justice Thomas’s past opinions suggest that he shares those concerns.)

And there seemed to be little acceptance by these Justices of the plaintiff’s argument that the PSLRA placed reconsideration of Basic off-limits to the Court. Justice Alito quoted Section 203 of the Act (not cited in the parties’ briefs), which states, “[n]othing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be deemed to create or ratify any implied private right of action.”  Justice Scalia said:  “As I understand the history of these things, there was one side that wanted to overrule Basic and the other side that wanted to endorse Basic, and they did neither one. They simply enacted a law that assumed that the courts were going to continue Basic. I don’t see that is – is necessarily a ratification of it. It’s just an acknowledgement of reality.”

Later in the argument, Justice Scalia hypothesized that the PSLRA might have no impact if Basic were overruled, but Halliburton’s counsel corrected that erroneous impression: “The PSLRA includes securities class actions under both the [Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934]. It’s not just limited to 10(b)(5). So to Justice Scalia’s point, there is actually not a single provision of the PSLRA that would be rendered inoperable.”

With these Members of the Court concerned about the problems entailed by securities class actions and apparently concluding that Congress has not codified Basic, reports of Basic’s survival may be premature.  We will have to wait until June to see which path the Court chooses.

 

Does Precedent or Congressional Action Prevent the Supreme Court from Reconsidering the Fraud-on-the Market Doctrine in Halliburton?

Posted in Securities, U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court will grapple with private securities class actions when it hears oral argument tomorrow in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. The principal question in the case is the continuing validity of the fraud-on-the-market doctrine, endorsed by the Court twenty-five years ago in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, which relieves plaintiffs asserting claims under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of the obligation to prove actual reliance, and permits the reliance element of a securities fraud claim to be satisfied presumptively by proof that the securities at issue traded on an efficient market.

A significant part of the debate in the Halliburton briefs addresses new scholarship contradicting the views of economists who developed the hypothesis underlying fraud-on-the-market. That is precisely what Justice White predicted in his Basic dissent: “[W]hile the economists’ theories which underpin the fraud-on-the-market presumption may have the appeal of mathematical exactitude and scientific certainty, they are—in the end—nothing more than theories which may or may not prove accurate upon further consideration. . . . I doubt we are in much of a position to assess which theories aptly describe the functioning of the securities industry.”

But the defenders of fraud-on-the-market, perhaps recognizing the doctrine’s tenuous status based on the economic learning over the past quarter-century, focus considerable attention on three arguments unrelated to the doctrine’s merits:

  • Principles of stare decisis prevent the Court from overturning Basic;
  • Congress ratified Basic’s endorsement of fraud-on-the-market when it enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act; and
  • Securities class actions benefit investors and, because they would be harder to bring if Basic were overturned, the Court should leave fraud-on-the-market in place.

To spare readers (and myself) an exegesis into economic analysis, this post focuses on these contentions, explaining why a fair appraisal of these arguments in fact demonstrates that the Court is obligated to assess Basic on the merits, and overrule the decision if the fraud-on-the-market presumption can no longer be justified.

Continue Reading

Supreme Court to Decide Whether Fair Labor Standards Act Requires Compensating Employees for End-of-Shift Security Screenings

Posted in Employment, U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court makes its biggest headlines when it wades into the biggest issues of the day. But the Supreme Court also maintains a substantial docket of seemingly small—but ultimately important—technical questions.

In recent years, the Court has been particularly interested in defining precisely when an hourly employee is on and off the clock. For example, earlier this term, the Court held in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. that employers need not compensate certain workers for time spent donning and doffing safety gear. The Court will answer a related question next term. Yesterday, the Court granted certiorari to decide whether end-of-shift security screenings to prevent theft are compensable time under the Fair Labor Standards Act, as amended by the Portal-to-Portal Act.

Although such screenings may take only a matter of minutes, when aggregated over the course of a two-year limitations period for numerous employees, the damages exposure can be substantial. That explains why a series of nationwide back-pay class actions have been filed in the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s decision that time spent in security screenings must be compensated.

The Supreme Court will now review that decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, No. 13-433. The legal issue is whether security screenings are “integral and indispensable” to employees’ “principal activities” or merely “preliminary” or “postliminary” to those activities. Under the Ninth Circuit’s view, security screenings are compensable because the task is necessary to the employees’ work and done for the benefit of the employer. But the Second Circuit has described security procedures as “modern paradigms of the preliminary and postliminary activities described in the Portal-to-Portal Act.”

Integrity Staffing is likely to be among the first cases heard when the Court reconvenes after its summer recess. Until then, expect the wave of related class actions to continue.