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Cutting-Edge Issues in Class Action Law and Policy

Cert Petition Asks Supreme Court To Decide Whether Congress Can Allow Uninjured Plaintiffs To Sue In Federal Court

Posted in U.S. Supreme Court

For years, defendants have argued that federal courts may not entertain class-action lawsuits when the plaintiff does not allege that he or she suffered any concrete personal harm and instead relies solely on an “injury in law” based on an alleged exposure to a technical violation of a federal statute. As we (and others) have contended, Article III of the U.S. Constitution places limits on the jurisdiction of federal courts, and therefore forbids lawsuits when a plaintiff has not suffered an “injury in fact”—one of the critical elements of standing. That requirement has constitutional dimensions; as the Supreme Court explained in DaimlerChrysler Corp v. Cuno, “[n]o principle is more fundamental to the judiciary’s proper role in our system of government than the constitutional limitation of federal-court jurisdiction to actual cases or controversies.” Thus, although Congress enjoys significant latitude to create private causes of action, it cannot invent standing to sue in federal court when, in the absence of the federal statute, a plaintiff could not allege a real and palpable injury.

Nearly two years ago, the Supreme Court appeared poised to answer the question whether Congress can essentially create Article III standing in First American Financial Corp. v. Edwards. But—in a surprising turn of events—the Court dismissed the case as improvidently granted on the last day of its term. Readers can be forgiven if they don’t remember the occasion, as it was the same day that the Court issued its far more attention-getting rulings in the health-care cases. Yet the non-decision was extremely significant: as Deepak Gupta, one of the leading appellate lawyers in the plaintiffs’ bar, tweeted, “On pins and needles for First Am Fin’l v Edwards standing decision tomorrow. Oh yeah, and I hear there’s some health thing pending too.” Kevin Russell of SCOTUSblog similarly observed: “Lost in the hubbub of the health care decision is the Court’s surprise punt in a case that many (including myself) thought would be the sleeper case of the Term.”

Fast forward to now: As soon as next Friday (March 7), the Supreme Court will decide whether to grant a petition for certiorari (pdf) that we have filed in Charvat v. First National Bank of Wahoo, which presents essentially the same question as in First American: “Whether Congress has the authority to confer Article III standing to sue when the plaintiff suffers no concrete harm and alleges as an injury only a bare, technical violation of a federal statute.”

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What The NIST Cybersecurity Framework Might Mean for Class Actions

Posted in Class Action Trends

After a year of public-private collaboration and considerable anticipation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s (NIST) cybersecurity framework for critical infrastructure has arrived. The interest in the framework has only grown after several high profile data breaches in late 2013 have cast an unrelenting spotlight on cybersecurity issues. The framework presents businesses with important questions about whether and how they should use it, and—as cybersecurity-related class actions multiply—how the plaintiffs’ bar intends to invoke the framework.

After attempts at more comprehensive legislation faltered, President Obama issued an executive order (EO 13636) requiring development of the framework. By design, the framework is both voluntary and limited in its application. Most significantly, it only applies to critical infrastructure. In addition, it contemplates the creation of incentives to support its adoption and possible follow-on regulatory “actions to mitigate cyber risks,” and leaves unresolved the ongoing debate over information sharing and attendant liability protections.

But while the framework is voluntary, it likely will be influential. The Administration, for example, has said that in developing the framework it intended to “leverage” “common cybersecurity practices” to improve the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure. For critical infrastructure operators, multiple questions arise, including (1) will regulators rely on the framework; (2) how, if at all, will insurance markets account for the framework; and (3) will plaintiffs’ attorneys invoke the framework to exert leverage of their own via class action litigation.

Even before the framework’s introduction, many observers recognized the possibility that—in light of the SEC’s increasing emphasis on the appropriate disclosure of cyber risks— the plaintiff’s bar would press securities litigation alleging material omissions or misrepresentations about such risks. Recognizing that such lawsuits may be inevitable, businesses that operate critical infrastructure surely will want to take account of the framework both in assessing their cybersecurity posture and in disclosing the existence of cyber risks. In particular, companies should consider whether to incorporate elements of the framework (e.g., a “Framework Profile”) into their public disclosures.

Another significant issue is that, because the framework arguably may facilitate board-level awareness and management of cyber risk, plaintiffs may be more likely to bring actions against officers and directors for breach of fiduciary duties in connection with cyber incidents. Although the success of such actions remains to be seen, the release of the framework underscores the importance of cybersecurity to corporate boards and top executives.

At the same time, in our view, businesses should be reassured by the fact that nothing in the framework suggests that a company’s decision not to adopt an individual element—what it calls an “informative reference”—should form the basis of a future lawsuit, whether for data breach or other harm. Indeed, the framework specifically states that it is not a checklist and that it is not “one-size fits all.” Transforming an “informative reference” from the framework into a stand-alone requirement is not a mandate that the framework contemplates or supports. Attaching liability to individual “informative references” would create static cybersecurity checklists that the framework specifically rejects; indeed, it would frustrate the continued development of appropriate cybersecurity protections that the framework itself is aimed to encourage. Companies should therefore be prepared to defend against attempts to elevate the framework into liability standards, which would frustrate the Framework’s goal of providing a “prioritized, flexible, repeatable, performance-based, and cost-effective approach” to managing cybersecurity risk.

The stakes of cyber attacks are high. So too are the stakes of litigation that are likely to ensue. The NIST Framework doubtless will be cited in that litigation, but, properly understood, it should not form the basis of a claim. To that end, we will be watching closely to see whether the plaintiff’s bar seeks to use the framework in ways that would defeat its stated purposes.

En Banc Ninth Circuit Will Clarify When a Subdivided Mass Action Can Be Removed Under CAFA

Posted in Motions Practice

Back in December, we blogged about two cases in the Ninth Circuit that were the latest skirmishes in the fight over whether plaintiffs can evade removal under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”) by artificially subdividing their mass actions. Plaintiffs have sought to make an end-run around CAFA’s provision permitting removal of mass actions raising “claims of 100 or more persons that are proposed to be tried jointly” (28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i)), by bringing parallel mass-action cases of fewer than 100 persons each, and asking that the cases be treated together for as many purposes as possible without crossing the line into a joint trial.

Some courts, such as the Eighth Circuit in Atwell v. Boston Scientific, have resisted those efforts.  But a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit had issued two decisions—Romo v. Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., and its companion case, Corber v. Xanodyne Pharmaceuticals—affirming orders remanding cases in which the plaintiffs had sought joint treatment of two just-under-100-plaintiff mass actions under a California state-law procedure that allows coordination of certain civil actions “for all purposes.”

On Monday, the Ninth Circuit granted rehearing en banc (pdf) in both Romo and Corber. Although it’s perilous to predict how an en banc panel will rule in those cases, it isn’t hard to deduce why a majority of the court’s active judges might have thought the cases warranted rehearing. As we previously explained, the panel’s approach in Romo seems excessively formalistic; the panel focused on whether the plaintiffs had used the magic words of asking for a “joint trial,” while failing to consider the reality of how the mass actions were likely to be litigated.  And the panel had, of course, created a circuit split with the Eighth Circuit in Atwell.

We’ll continue watching these cases, which are of tremendous importance to defendants’ right under CAFA to remove mass actions to federal court.

 

Will A New Wave Of Class Actions Spring From Patent Infringement Litigation?

Posted in Class Action Trends

It is no secret that many private class actions are filed as follow-on lawsuits to news reports, government investigations, regulatory developments, and identical earlier-filed class actions. But a recent gambit by the plaintiffs’ bar is among the more creative efforts we have seen. Earlier this week, a well-known plaintiffs’ firm filed Dang v. Samsung Electronics Co., in the Northern District of California. The complaint alleges that Apple’s victory over Samsung (at least in part) in certain highly publicized patent infringement actions establishes that Samsung has violated California’s consumer protection law as well as warranty statutes in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

The background of the patent battle between Apple and Samsung is well known, so we mention only a few highlights. In fall 2013, the federal court for the Northern District of California found Samsung liable for infringing several patents relating to Apple’s iPhone. The International Trade Commission also found that certain devices were infringing and precluded Samsung from importing or selling those devices. The same court already has granted partial summary judgment to Apple in a second patent lawsuit targeting additional Samsung devices, with a jury trial set for the end of March. (The battles are not over, to be sure.)

The Dang lawsuit alleges that Samsung induced consumers to purchase its devices by concealing its infringing activities, and that once those activities became known, the resale prices of Samsung smartphones and tablets “dropped dramatically,” injuring consumers and unjustly enriching Samsung. Mr. Dang alleges that “[h]ad [he] known the Product he purchased infringed on the patents held by [Samsung’s] competitor, Apple, he would not have purchased the Product.” He seeks to represent everyone in the U.S. who has purchased one of the allegedly infringing devices since 2008—a proposed class that undoubtedly totals in the millions.

Will Dang become a model for other plaintiffs’ lawyers to follow? The short answer: It depends on whether courts will accept the notion that the alleged infringement harms consumers (as opposed to competitors). Color us skeptical—to put it mildly, we have a number of questions:

  • How plausible is it that the interpretation of complex technology patents matters to consumers when they purchase a product?
  • How many Samsung purchasers even know that there is litigation involving Apple patents, much less the determination of the claims?
  • In light of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Mazza v. American Honda Motor Co.—a case we have discussed before—what are the chances that a nationwide class could be certified given the variations among state warranty and consumer protection laws?
  • Is it realistic to believe that injury and damages can be proven on a classwide basis?

Nevertheless, it is easy to see why plaintiffs’ lawyers might find these kinds of cases attractive. If the result of a battle between competitors is that a product has been determined to be infringing by a court or agency, that may substantially reduce the work a plaintiffs’ lawyer needs to do to pursue the case. And that lawyer will likely argue that key aspects of liability have already been established before the class action even gets started.

The theory espoused in Dang parallels the strategies used by plaintiffs’ firms in the recent wave of false advertising class actions against food and beverage manufacturers. As we have discussed, many of these lawsuits rely on California’s wholesale incorporation of the federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”). Plaintiffs attempt to convert alleged technical violations of FDCA labeling requirements into consumer claims alleging that the mere sale of such products is illegal—without the need to show that class members actually were deceived by or relied on the alleged mislabeling. And most of those lawsuits have landed in the Northern District of California—now known as the nation’s “Food Court.”

It’s no coincidence that the Dang lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of California by two plaintiffs’ firms that are highly active in the Food Court wars. Will plaintiffs’ lawyers next flock to copycat class actions seeking to leverage findings of patent infringement? Stay tuned. We’ll be monitoring the situation.

 

What’s Going On With Class Actions Alleging That Businesses That Record Customer-Service Calls Are Violating California’s Invasion of Privacy Act?

Posted in Class Action Trends

Since 2006, companies based outside California have been alert to the potential burdens of class actions under California’s Invasion of Privacy Act (“CIPA”), Cal. Penal Code § 630 et seq. The laws of most states, as well as federal law, allow telephone calls to be recorded with the consent of one party to the call. Accordingly, companies in those states usually can record customer service calls for quality-assurance purposes without the need to procure the customer’s consent because the call-center employee, as a party to the call, can consent to the recording. California, however, is one of 12 states that allow recording only if all parties to the call consent. (The other so-called “two-party consent” states are Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.) The plaintiffs’ bar has been trying to use California’s extremely pro-plaintiff privacy laws, such as the CIPA, to turn this innocuous business practice into an opportunity to extract class-action settlements from companies.

In 2006, the California Supreme Court held that CIPA applies even when one party to the conversation is outside California in a state that authorizes recording with the consent of a single party to the call. Kearney v. Salomon Smith Barney, Inc., 39 Cal. 4th 95 (2006). The court explained that, under California’s choice-of-law rules, California had the overriding interest in applying its privacy laws, such as CIPA, whenever “national or international firms” headquartered outside of California record “conversations with their California clients or customers.” And, like Flanagan v. Flanagan, 27 Cal. 4th 766 (2002), Kearney applied CIPA regardless of the content of the conversations, though that likely was because Kearney involved calls to a financial institution and Flanagan involved calls between family members—i.e., situations where callers arguably have an expectation of privacy. Nonetheless, an onslaught of consumer class actions followed and continue to this day.

Companies facing CIPA suits have been making progress. More and more courts are recognizing that CIPA was not intended to apply to calls to customer-service centers. See Shin v. Digi-Key Corp., 2012 WL 5503847 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 17, 2012); Sajfr v. BBG Commc’ns, Inc., 2012 WL 398991 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 10, 2012). They’ve also recognized that customer-service calls usually do not involve private information. See Faulkner v. ADT Sec. Servs., Inc., 706 F.3d 1017, 1020 (9th Cir. 2013); Shin; Safjr. And they’ve found that individualized issues of privacy and consent under CIPA preclude class certification. See Torres v. Nutrisystem, Inc., 289 F.R.D. 587 (C.D. Cal. 2013).

The recent decision in Jonczyk v. First National Capital Corp., No. 13-cv-959-JLS (C.D. Cal. Jan. 14, 2014), provides another arrow in companies’ quivers—and a large one at that. In that case, First National and its employee were located in California and the plaintiff called in from her home in Missouri. The district court applied a conflict-of-law analysis and concluded that the law of Missouri (a one-party consent state) should apply, not California’s CIPA. The court distinguished Kearney, which involved Salomon Smith Barney’s California clients, and held that California had little interest in a Missouri resident’s claims, while Missouri had valid interests in limiting the reach of its wiretapping statute. In so holding, the court cited our victory in Mazza v. American Honda Motor Co., 666 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 2012) for the proposition that “maximizing consumer and business welfare … does not inexorably favor greater consumer protection.” The district court’s extension of Mazza to the privacy context, and CIPA specifically, represents a significant step forward for companies doing business in California. The decision should be particularly helpful to companies in California who receive out-of-state customer calls that are recorded.

En Banc Ninth Circuit Demands That Courts Serve As Gatekeepers For Expert Testimony—Will That Rule Be Extended to Class Actions?

Posted in Class Certification

In the battle over class certification, expert testimony proffered by both plaintiffs and defendants is playing an increasingly important role. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether the test for admissibility of expert testimony announced in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals applies at the class-certification stage, although it has certainly dropped hints to that effect, including in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes. In our view, it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Court expressly holds that Daubert applies to expert testimony offered in support of or opposition to class certification.

Accordingly, defendants should pay careful attention to Daubert’s standards—both in bolstering their own experts and in attacking the experts put forward by plaintiffs. The wisdom of doing so was recently underscored by the Ninth Circuit’s sharply-divided en banc decision in Estate of Barabin v. AstenJohnson, Inc. (pdf). As my colleagues Evan Tager and C.J. Summers explain in a recent alert, Barabin “significantly strengthened and expanded the gatekeeper role of both trial and appellate courts in determining whether to admit expert testimony.” Their discussion of Barabin is well worth reading for all class-action practitioners.

Do Employers Have To Pay Unionized Workers For Time Spent Donning and Doffing Safety Gear? Supreme Court Says No.

Posted in Employment, U.S. Supreme Court

In recent years, one of the hottest types of collective actions against employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is what is commonly called a “donning and doffing claim”—a lawsuit for unpaid wages for time employees spent changing clothes for work, such as putting on uniforms, safety gear, and the like. In a recent decision, Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp. (pdf), No. 12-417, the Supreme Court unanimously clarified the rules for these collective actions.

One of the major fights in donning and doffing suits is over the meaning of a key provision of the FLSA that exempts employers from having to compensate employees for off-the-clock “time spent in changing clothes … at the beginning or end of each workday” (29 U.S.C. § 203(o)) if a collective bargaining agreement so provides. Many agreements do exactly that.

Nonetheless, parties have litigated for years over what activities are exempt under Section 203(o). The plaintiffs’ bar typically takes a very narrow view of what constitutes “changing clothes” under the statute. The Court’s decision today takes a far more practical view of the statute. Sandifer makes clear that time spent donning or doffing protective gear that is (1) designed and used to cover the body and (2) commonly regarded as an article of dress—including hard hats, protective jackets, and protective coverings for the arms and legs—is exempt if the employees’ collective bargaining agreement so provides. In addition, minimal time spent putting on or removing other protective gear (such as safety glasses and earplugs) during this time is likewise exempt. Sandifer is therefore likely to reduce the number of circumstances that would allow plaintiffs to succeed in bringing donning-and-doffing lawsuits under the FLSA.

We provide more details about the decision in Sandifer after the jump.
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Why Did A Federal Court Slash Class Counsel’s Proposed Fee Award In A Zip-Code Class Action By More Than 80 Percent?

Posted in Class Action Settlements

Here’s a great formula for becoming a rich plaintiffs’-side class-action lawyer:

  1. Copy-and-paste some cookie-cutter complaints alleging technical statutory violations. 
  2. Send demand letters to a group of deep-pocketed targets and negotiate coupon settlements with them before even filing the complaints.
  3. Then seek a six- or seven-figure award of attorneys’ fees for doing no heavy lifting, bearing no risk of non-payment, and providing no meaningful social benefit. 

But a district judge in Massachusetts recently changed the equation by cutting a class counsel’s fee request by more than eighty percent in Brenner v. J.C. Penney Co. (pdf).

Brenner was one of a series of class actions filed in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling in Tyler v. Michaels Stores that it violates Massachusetts’ privacy statute for a vendor to request a customer’s zip code and that the customer can seek redress in court without proving monetary loss. The plaintiff in Brenner was one of a stable of clients of the law firm that secured the decision in Tyler. On Brenner’s behalf, the law firm sent demand letters to Penney’s and other stores within days of the issuance of the decision in Tyler. The firm then proceeded to negotiate a settlement with Penney’s under which one subclass would receive a $25 gift certificate—better known as a coupon in class-action parlance—and a second subclass would receive a $10 gift certificate. The firm filed the complaint and the notice of settlement at the same time and then immediately filed a motion for class certification. The only disputed issue was the amount of attorneys’ fees.

The law firm requested a fee award of $450,000 without any supporting documentation. Clearly skeptical, the district court (Stearns, J.) required the firm to submit its fee records. The court then reviewed the records and concluded that the amount of hours purportedly expended, the deployment of partners on “grunt work” that should have been done by associates, and the duplication of effort by multiple partners were unjustified. The court accordingly reduced the lodestar to just under $80,000. It then proceeded to reject the law firm’s argument for a risk multiplier. The court appeared bemused by the law firm’s rather cheeky contention that the results it obtained were “extraordinary,” “exceptional,” and “unparalleled,” observing that “the case required no extensive litigation effort, given J.C. Penney’s willingness to settle the case almost at its inception” and that, given the decision in Tyler, the result “was virtually preordained.” The court also pointed out that “this is not a case where the firm chose to take on what might have appeared a quixotic quest on behalf of a plaintiff unable to afford counsel. To the contrary, it was [the law firm] that sought out Ms. Brenner as a plaintiff in this and several other nearly identical cases.”

In prior posts, we have identified a number of arguments that defendants can raise in seeking dismissal of lawyer-driven, no-injury class actions like Brenner—including Article III standing if the case is in federal court. Brenner suggests that defendants beleaguered by no-injury class actions may have another option—reduce the incentive for bringing these suits by agreeing to an early settlement and then resisting any fee award that is disproportionate to the negligible benefits obtained in the settlement.

Supreme Court Holds that CAFA Doesn’t Let Defendants Remove State AG Actions to Federal Court

Posted in Class Action Trends, Motions Practice, U.S. Supreme Court

When state attorneys general file suits to seek monetary recoveries based on claimed injuries to private citizens, those lawsuits look like, walk like, and quack like class actions. In fact, in most of these so-called “parens patriae” cases, the same private plaintiffs’ lawyers that bring private class actions are retained to represent states in exchange for the potential to garner substantial attorneys’ fees. While most class actions and mass actions of significance can be removed to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (“CAFA”), the Supreme Court held today in Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp. (pdf), that lawsuits in which the state is the sole named plaintiff do not as a technical matter fall within CAFA’s coverage of “mass actions,” and therefore that such lawsuits may proceed in state courts. The likely impact of the decision is that businesses will face more class-action-style cases in state-court forums.

CAFA allows defendants to remove, among other things, “mass actions” from state to federal court. Under the statute, a mass action is “any civil action … in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i). The question facing the Court in Hood was whether a parens patriae suit filed by a State as the sole plaintiff constitutes a mass action when the suit includes claims for restitution based on injuries suffered by the State’s citizens.

The case arose out of a lawsuit filed in state court by the State of Mississippi alleging that manufacturers of liquid crystal displays (“LCDs”) had formed a cartel to restrict competition and raise prices. The State sought, among other forms of relief, restitution for its own purchases of LCD products and for the purchases of its citizens. The manufacturers removed the case to federal court, arguing that it qualified as a mass action. The district court found that the case was a mass action, but remanded under CAFA’s “general public exception.” On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed, agreeing with the district court that the case qualified as a mass action but finding that no exception to federal jurisdiction under CAFA existed. The Fifth Circuit’s decision conflicted with rulings in the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Circuits, which had all held that similar lawsuits were not “mass actions” under CAFA.

The Supreme Court granted review to resolve the circuit split. Today, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Sotomayor, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s decision, holding that such parens patriae actions do not qualify as mass actions under CAFA. The Court held that the “100 or more persons” language in CAFA’s mass action provision refers to named plaintiffs only, and does not encompass unnamed persons who are real parties in interest. Slip op. 5-10. Citing CAFA’s numerosity requirement (28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(5)(B)), the Court noted that Congress knew how to include unnamed persons in a definition, but chose not to do so with respect to mass actions. Id. at 6. Further, the Court determined that the “100 or more persons” were later specified as the “plaintiffs” in the same provision and that the term “plaintiffs” could not include unnamed parties. Id. at 6-8. The Court concluded that construing “plaintiffs” to include unnamed real parties in interest would stretch the meaning of “plaintiff” beyond its common understanding as a party who brings a civil suit. Id. at 8-9.

In addition, the Court noted CAFA’s requirement that a removed case shall not be transferred to another court “unless a majority of the plaintiffs in the action request transfer.” Id. at 10. If “plaintiffs” included unnamed parties, the Court found, it would be difficult for a court to poll all of the real parties in interest to decide whether the case could be transferred. Id. In addition, the Court found that the mass action provision functions largely as a “backstop” to ensure that plaintiffs cannot evade federal jurisdiction under CAFA by naming a host of plaintiffs rather than using the class device. Id. at 11. According to the Court, if Congress wanted CAFA to authorize removal of representative actions brought by a state, it would have provided for the removal under the class action mechanism, not the mass action provision. Id.

Finally, the Court found that it was not proper in the mass action context to apply a background principle requiring courts to look behind the pleadings to ensure that parties are not improperly creating or destroying diversity jurisdiction. Id. at 11-13. According to the Court, this background principle had not previously been applied to count up unnamed parties but was typically applied to determine which parties’ citizenship should be considered in determining diversity. Id. at 12. In addition, by prohibiting defendants from joining unnamed individuals to turn a case into a mass action, see 28 U.S.C. 1332(d)(11)(B)(ii)(II), Congress indicated that it did not want courts to look behind the pleadings to attempt to find the real parties in interest. Id. at 13.

Today’s decision is highly significant for businesses. State attorneys general already have been filing enforcement actions in increasing numbers. And, as we have discussed before, some members of the plaintiffs’ bar have been lobbying states to deputize them as acting attorneys general so that they may file lawsuits as parens patriae actions in order to avoid federal jurisdiction and instead proceed in state court, which they perceive as a more hospitable forum. The Court’s decision today will likely encourage the private plaintiffs’ bar to redouble those efforts.

Two Washer Cases Provide the Supreme Court with Its Best Opportunity Since Wal-Mart v. Dukes to Make Sense of Class-Certification Standards

Posted in Class Certification, Commonality, Predominance, U.S. Supreme Court

At its conference on January 10, the Supreme Court can get serious about fixing consumer class actions. The Justices should take up that challenge, because it will consider two certiorari petitions that seek review of class certifications—involving alleged “moldy odors” in high-tech front loading washing machines—that are prime examples of what has gone wrong with the lower federal courts’ application of Rule 23. We’re somewhat biased: along with our partner Steve Shapiro and our co-counsel at Wheeler Trigg, we represent the petitioners in Whirlpool Corporation v. Glazer, No. 13-431, and Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, No. 13-430; copies of our cert petitions are available here, and our reply is available here (pdf).

But we and our clients are by no means alone in thinking that these cases present excellent vehicles for the Justices to bring more rigor and fairness to the application of Rule 23(a) and (b)(3). A bevy of amici has filed briefs in support of certiorari, explaining to the Court why the technology industry, appliance and other manufacturers, retailers, and U.S. businesses in general need the Court to intervene. Commentators too have seen in these cases the chance for the Supreme Court to clean up the class action mess. See, for example:

  • this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Governor John Engler, President of the Business Roundtable (subscription required);
  • this editorial in the Washington Examiner;
  • this article in the New York Law Journal by Michael Hoenig (subscription required); and 
  • this piece by Desmond Hogan and Erica Songer in InsideCounsel

In Whirlpool, plaintiffs allege that Whirlpool front-loading washing machines have a design defect that makes it possible for the machines to produce moldy odors. In Sears, the plaintiffs allege that Kenmore-brand washers made by Whirlpool have the same design defect and that some also have a manufacturing defect that on occasion may produce a false error code. In both cases, the alleged odor and error-code issues have manifested for only a tiny portion of purchasers—less than five percent according to Whirlpool and Sears service records and independent surveys by Consumer Reports. Yet the Sixth Circuit in Whirlpool approved certification of a class of all Ohio residents who bought 21 differently designed washing machine models. And the Seventh Circuit did the same in Sears for a class of buyers of 27 different models in six different States, the relevant laws of which vary. Over the course of the class period not only did the design of the machines change, but so did the instructions given to consumers to protect against any moldy odors. Individual owners used their machines differently, cared for them differently, and operated them in varied conditions.

As we explain in our briefs, both courts of appeals ignored a raft of individualized issues that make it impossible for plaintiffs to satisfy the class-certification requirement that common issues predominate over individual ones. Only class-member-specific inquiries could determine the crucial questions of whether any particular buyer experienced the alleged issues with moldy odors or error codes at all, whether the alleged defect or other factors caused any such issues, whether the buyer followed care and use instructions, whether problems manifested during the warranty period, whether the buyer requested and received adequate warranty service, and whether any damages resulted from any alleged defect (among other questions). And the fact that the certified classes are filled with uninjured buyers fatally undermines constitutional standing to litigate the class claims and threatens to unfairly dilute the rights of the few class members who may actually have injuries.

The harms caused by the decisions of the Sixth and Seventh Circuits are not limited to the violence those decisions have done to Rule 23’s requirements. Indeed, the adverse social and economic consequences of certification of these sorts of cases cannot be overstated. The introduction of front-loading washers reflected years of innovation to improve water- and electrical-efficiency in response to regulatory mandates. Independent testing shows that front-loading washers perform very well both on those measures and on cleaning capability. Yet every manufacturer of front-loading washers is now the subject of class actions across the Nation.

Massive class action litigation of this sort is immensely costly. Those costs end up being absorbed by consumers. Class suits over products that for the vast majority of owners perform as advertised undermine the generous warranty programs that manufacturers and retailers offer to quickly address problems actually experienced by individual customers. And they deter innovation. Any manufacturer must think twice before creating an innovative product when the reward is an onslaught of class litigation. What technologically advanced new product does not have glitches or sporadic issues? That is what warranty programs are designed for—to keep customers happy and coming back despite the likelihood of teething troubles in advanced, innovative products that make all our lives better.

Of course, the Supreme Court has tried before to bring more rigor to Rule 23 analysis—but many lower federal courts have ignored the message. Take the Sears case, in which the Seventh Circuit thumbed its nose at a litany of Supreme Court precedents. After the Supreme Court GVR’d the Seventh Circuit’s initial certification decision in light of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, Judge Posner seemed perplexed about why his ruling had been vacated. Despite the GVR, he concluded that there was “no possibility” that the holding in Comcast could apply. And although the Supreme Court in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes ruled that “common answers,” not “common questions,” are the key to satisfying the Rule 23(a) commonalty requirement, Judge Posner wrote that asking for “common answers” would place too “heavy” a burden on plaintiffs to justify certification. And why the stretch to certify? Because, in his view, individual claims would be too “meager” to make “suing worthwhile.” But that “ends-justifies-the-means” rationale for class actions runs counter to the Supreme Court’s repeated teachings that substantive law cannot be modified to pave the way for employing the class device.

What explains this flouting of precedent? The Seventh Circuit’s realpolitik approach recognizes that once cases are certified they tend to “quickly settl[e]” without any adjudication of the merits and using some mechanical “schedule of damages”—a result the Seventh Circuit deemed “efficient” (never mind that the Supreme Court repeatedly has identified blackmail settlements as a problem, not a solution). Indeed, the Court has again and again admonished that “[t]he class action is ‘an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only’”—as the Court said in both Dukes and Comcast. For that reason, Court said just last Term in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant that Rule 23’s stringent requirements should “in practice exclude most claims” from class treatment; but federal trial and appeals courts still treat those requirements as authorizing class certification of “most claims.” So long as that departure from precedent continues, class actions will effectively impose a tax on every American, with the only beneficiaries being the plaintiffs’ bar, as a recent empirical study our colleagues conducted documents. Granting certiorari and reversing certification in the washer cases would go a long way indeed to putting the class action device back on track.