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Cutting-Edge Issues in Class Action Law and Policy

Why The Supreme Court’s Decision in Halliburton Is Bad News For Investors And The Public

Posted in Class Certification, Securities, U.S. Supreme Court

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in the Halliburton case leaves the securities class action system pretty much unchanged. And that isn’t because the Supreme Court examined the system and concluded it is working well and makes sense.  Instead,  the Court simply didn’t address those questions.

That’s very good news for the lawyers who make their living representing plaintiffs and defendants in these cases.  The gravy train will continue:  $1.1 billion in fees and expenses awarded to plaintiffs’ counsel in 2013, with hourly rates up to $1370.  Defense counsel likely took home a multiple of that amount, given that securities class actions routinely target multiple defendants with separate counsel, and that defense fees pile up in those cases that don’t reach the settlement stage.

But it’s very bad news for investors, who are forced to foot the bill for this economically-irrational litigation system that—in the words of Joseph Grundfest, former SEC Commissioner and current Stanford Law professor— “is broken” because it “fails to efficiently . . . deter fraud and fails [to] rationally compensate those harmed by fraud.”  Professor Donald Langevoort of Georgetown has said: “Were this system sold as an insurance product, consumer-protection advocates might have it banned as abusive because the hidden costs are so large.”  (More information about the dysfunctionality of the securities class action system is collected here.)

Indeed, the Court’s decision almost certainly will make this litigation even more expensive by increasing the scope of the class certification inquiry (while not changing the result in many cases).  That means even more money out of the pockets of shareholders and into the pockets of lawyers and economic experts.

Why did the Court refuse to revisit the correctness of the fraud-on-the-market presumption recognized in Basic Inc. v. Levinson and decline even to consider the mountain of evidence that securities class actions hurt shareholders?  And why is the Court’s tweak of the presumption unlikely to have any real-world effect?

The Punt to Congress

Stare decisis—respect for precedent—is the reason why this potential blockbuster case fizzled.  Ordinarily, the Supreme Court is very reluctant to overrule a prior decision interpreting a federal statute. The Court’s view is that Congress has the power to correct errors in statutory construction.

But Basic is far from a conventional statutory interpretation case: courts, not Congress, created the private cause of action for securities fraud; courts, not Congress, specified the elements that a plaintiff must prove to recover damages; and courts, not Congress, formulated the fraud-on-the market presumption as a substitute for proof of reliance.  For that reason, many observers (including me) thought that the Supreme Court would examine Basic under the different, more flexible stare decisis standard applicable to judge-made federal common law (and decisions under statutes like the antitrust laws that delegate common-law authority to courts). That standard permits the overruling of precedent in a broader range of circumstances, recognizing that Congress has allocated to the courts principal responsibility for supervising those areas of law.

Justice Thomas, writing for himself and Justices Scalia and Alito, applied that more expansive approach.  As he explained, Basic “concerned a judge-made evidentiary presumption for a judge-made element of the implied 10b−5 private cause of action, itself ‘a judicial construct that Congress did not enact in the text of the relevant statutes.’”  For that reason the high bar to overruling precedent that governs statutory construction cases should not apply:

[W]hen it comes to judge-made law like “implied” private causes of action, which we retain a duty to superintend[,] . . . . we ought to presume that Congress expects us to correct our own mistakes—not the other way around. That duty is especially clear in the Rule 10b–5 context, where we have said that “[t]he federal courts have accepted and exercised the principal responsibility for the continuing elaboration of the scope of the 10b–5 right and the definition of the duties it imposes.”

Indeed, Justice Thomas pointed out that Congress in the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act had expressly declined to ratify the courts’ creation of a private cause of action, stating that “[n]othing in this Act . . . shall be deemed to create or ratify any implied private right of action.”  That language makes clear that Congress intended that questions regarding the standards for establishing liability remain the province of the courts.  In Justice Thomas’s words, “Basic’s presumption of reliance remains our mistake to correct.”

The majority in Halliburton did not even respond to these arguments, relying instead on the general rule that “[t]he principle of stare decisis has ‘“special force”’ ‘in respect to statutory interpretation,’” and citing a decision involving the interpretation of statutory language enacted by Congress, not a case relating to judge-made law.

Most importantly, the majority did not assess the merits of the arguments challenging Basic—instead dismissing them because they had been considered and rejected by the four-Justice majority in Basic or because they did not “so discredit[] Basic as to constitute ‘special justification’ for overruling the decision.” With respect to the harm to investors from the securities class action system, the Court also refused to engage, saying that “[t]hese concerns are more appropriately addressed to Congress.”

The three Justices concurring in the judgment did address these issues.  They determined that the two assumptions underlying Basic’s presumption of class-wide reliance simply “do not provide the necessary support” for that presumption:

The first assumption—that public statements are “reflected” in the market price—was grounded in an economic theory that has garnered substantial criticism since Basic. The second assumption—that investors categorically rely on the integrity of the market price—is simply wrong.

Moreover, they recognized the reality that “in practice, the so-called ‘rebuttable presumption’ is largely irrebuttable”—“[o]ne search for rebuttals on individual-reliance grounds turned up only six cases out of the thousands of Rule 10b-5 actions brought since Basic,” likely because of the “substantial in terrorem settlement pressures brought to bear by [class] certification.”  That is a critical failing, because “without a functional reliance requirement, the ‘essential element’ that ensures the plaintiff has actually been defrauded, Rule 10b–5 becomes the very ‘“scheme of investor’s insurance”’ [that] the rebuttable presumption was supposed to prevent.”

Of course, the economic burden of this “insurance” falls squarely on investors.  One recent study found that investors’ “total wealth loss” from securities class actions “averages to about $39 billion per year, in order to collect an average of $6 billion in settlements per year ($5 billion per year after plaintiff attorneys’ fees). In other words, because of the filing of securities class actions, shareholders incrementally lost more than six times the settlement amount (or more than seven and half times the amount that shareholders would receive after plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees).”

The majority’s decision to disclaim responsibility for addressing these very real—and very harmful—consequences of judge-made law “‘places on the shoulders of Congress the burden of the Court’s own error.’”

The Tweak With Little Real-World Impact

After declining to reconsider Basic, the Supreme Court majority addressed what has been labeled the “middle ground” argument in the case:  whether the Court should modify the factual showing that a plaintiff must make at the class certification stage in order to gain the benefit of the fraud-on-the-market presumption.

Some news reports have called the Court’s decision on this point a “new burden” on securities class action plaintiffs or a “new hurdle” to obtaining class certification.  But the consensus of informed observers is that the Court’s ruling means more litigation and cost with little ultimate difference in the results of class certification decisions.  Perhaps in some cases class certification may become more difficult, but the big picture is bleak:  The securities class action engine will roll along essentially unchanged, continuing to drain away billions of dollars in shareholder value each year.

To begin with, here’s a bit of background on the Basic presumption.  The Court held in that case that, as an alternative to proving actual reliance on the defendant’s false material misstatement, a plaintiff may—as the Halliburton majority explained—“invok[e] a rebuttable presumption of reliance” by showing that the misrepresentations were publicly known and material, that the security purchased or sold by the plaintiff “traded in an efficient market” and that the plaintiff traded in the security “between the time the misrepresentations were made and when the truth was revealed.”

In that situation, the fraud-on-the-market theory holds that the market price “‘reflects all publicly available information, and, hence, any material misrepresentations’”; that “the typical ‘investor who buys or sells stock at the price set by the market does so in reliance on’ . . . the belief that it reflects all material public information”; and that the investor therefore may be presumed to rely on any misrepresentations.  The presumption can be rebutted “if a defendant could show that the alleged misrepresentation did not, for whatever reason, actually affect the market price, or that a plaintiff would have bought or sold the stock even had he been aware that the stock’s price was tainted by fraud.”

Halliburton’s “middle ground” argument—strongly supported by an amicus brief filed by law professors Adam Pritchard and Todd Henderson—was that Basic’s focus on market efficiency was misplaced, and that plaintiffs should be required to prove “price impact”—meaning that the defendant’s alleged misrepresentation actually affected the stock price—in order to invoke the presumption of reliance.  “In light of the [courts’] difficulties in evaluating efficiency,” the brief argued, “the Court should shift the focus of fraud on the market inquiries from a market’s overall efficiency to the question whether the alleged fraud affected market price.” (emphasis added) Pritchard and Henderson further urged the Court to “limit[]” the “out-of-pocket measure of damages . . . to cases in which the plaintiff can show actual reliance or that a material misstatement has distorted the market price for a security. If a plaintiff cannot make that showing, the remedy should be limited to disgorgement.”

The Supreme Court majority rejected these arguments and refused to alter the proof needed to invoke the presumption.  It held only that a defendant may submit price impact evidence prior to class certification to demonstrate “that the alleged misrepresentation did not actually affect the stock’s market price and, consequently, that the Basic presumption does not apply.”

Most observers believe that this ruling—which places the burden on the defendant to introduce price impact evidence sufficient to rebut the presumption—will do little to change class certification results, but definitely will increase the cost and complexity of the fight over class certification as defendants submit expert analyses demonstrating the lack of price impact and plaintiffs commission their own studies to prove the opposite.  (Economic consulting firms will do better than ever given the inevitable demand for competing price impact studies.  Come to think of it, investing in one might be a good bet—particularly a firm that is not publicly traded, and therefore would not likely be subject to a class action lawsuit.)

As Professor Henderson, one of the two proponents of the price impact approach, explained:

The ruling will make these cases more expensive…without targeting the worst corporate actors….My prediction is that the average case will get longer and cost more, since defendant corporations will put on evidence that plaintiffs will have to respond to….So, all in all, I think this is very disappointing.

His co-author, Professor Pritchard, said (subscription): “We are adding to the expense. We are not getting rid of any weak lawsuits.”

The plaintiffs’ bar has been unable to disguise its glee.  Salvatore Graziano (of the plaintiffs-side securities class action firm Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann) told one reporter: “I don’t see this decision having much impact at all.” “It’s a non-event.”  David Boies, who represents the plaintiffs in Halliburton, said: “Defendants have always been permitted to try to prove the absence of price impact, and permitting them to do so at the class-certification stage will not significantly limit securities lawsuits in the future.”

In sum, plaintiff and defense-side lawyers can breathe a sigh of relief—there will be little or no change in the status quo for them.

But for investors, there is a change for the worse: these lawsuits will be more expensive and impose an even greater burden on innocent shareholders, who ultimately pay all of the costs of the securities class action system. 

Supreme Court Refuses To Overturn Fraud-On-The-Market Presumption, But Adjusts Presumption To Allow Evidence of Absence Of “Price Impact” At Class Certification Stage

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

The securities class action industry was launched a quarter-century ago when the Supreme Court recognized the so-called “fraud-on-the-market” presumption of reliance in most putative securities class actions.  The result has been that—despite Congressional efforts at securities litigation reform—most securities class actions that survive the pleadings stage are likely to achieve class certification, forcing defendants to settle.  In the meantime, as explained in prior blog posts, the best economic thinking has shifted, calling the empirical assumptions underlying the fraud-on-the-market presumption into question.

In Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. (pdf), decided today, the Supreme Court declined to abandon that presumption, instead largely maintaining the status quo.  The Court did clarify one key aspect of how class certification works in the securities context, holding that defendants are now entitled to attempt to rebut the presumption by introducing evidence at the class certification stage that there was no “price impact”—i.e., that misrepresentation alleged in a particular lawsuit did not affect the stock’s price.  This adjustment will make it possible for defendants to challenge class certification in a number of securities class actions, but is unlikely to alter the landscape of securities litigation significantly—a result that is troubling from a policy perspective because (for reasons we have previously stated) securities class actions generally benefit the lawyers who bring and defend them rather than the investors.

We provide more details about the decision below. Continue Reading

California Court Says No Need To Resolve Disputes Over Substantive Law In Evaluating Whether Class Can Be Certified

Posted in Class Certification, Commonality, Employment, Predominance

Suppose that you’re a trial court considering a motion for class certification.  And suppose that the parties present you with two competing statutory interpretations.  One legal standard permits the case to be adjudicated with common evidence.  And the other standard would require  individualized inquiries.  What should you do?  Should you decide what the law is and then see whether the putative class claims can be tried in a single trial?

The surprising answer of the California Court of Appeal is in Hall v. Rite Aid Corp. (pdf) is “No.”  Hall appears to conclude that commonality and predominance need not be established under the correct substantive legal standards.  Rather, if the plaintiffs propose a legal standard dispensing with individualized inquiries, the very question whether that standard applies is a common issue supporting class certification.

Hall is another decision in a growing series of “suitable seating” cases addressing a California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order that requires employers to provide employees with “suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” The plaintiffs in Hall—cashier-clerks who divided their time between check-out counters, stockrooms, and sales floors—construed the Order to require seats to be provided to every employee for every task where providing seats would be reasonable. In particular, the plaintiffs contended that Rite Aid had a duty to provide a seat to any employee who worked at a check-out counter for any period of time, even if for much of that time the employee would not be able to perform the job while sitting.  Rite Aid, in contrast, contended that the duty to provide a seat depended on the employee’s duties as a whole, so that the Order would not require providing a seat to an employee working at a check-out counter if the employee worked mostly at tasks where seating was inappropriate, or if check-out duties would not allow the employee to sit most of the time.  Thus, under plaintiffs’ legal theory, any failure to have a seat at a check-out counter was a violation requiring no further inquiry, while under Rite Aid’s theory such a failure would violate an employee’s rights only under certain, largely individualized circumstances.

Agreeing with Rite Aid’s view of the substantive law, the trial court decertified a class.  The San Diego-based Court of Appeal reversed.  In its view, the disputed legal elements of the plaintiffs’ claim were themselves common legal issues supporting class certification.  According to that court, deciding exactly what the law required the plaintiff had to prove in common was an impermissible predetermination of the action’s merits, and thus fell afoul of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court.

True, Brinker had disapproved a “free-floating inquiry into the validity of the complaint’s allegations” at the class certification stage.  Yet the California Supreme Court also recognized that when “legal issues germane to the certification inquiry bear as well on aspects of the merits, a court may properly evaluate them”; indeed, [t]o the extent the propriety of certification depends on disputed threshold factual or legal questions, a court may, and indeed must, resolve them.”

It seems to me that, when one interpretation of a Wage Order would require resolution of myriad individualized issues, and the other interpretation would permit the same issues to be resolved in common, the “propriety of certification” under Brinker would depend on the correct legal standard.  Not so, according to the Hall court, which viewed the very dispute over the legal standard as a common issue supporting class certification.

The Hall opinion would seem to allow a plaintiff to obtain class certification simply by advancing a theory of liability that omits inherently individualized elements such as causation and injury, on the ground that the validity of the plainly erroneous legal theory could be determined on a class-wide basis.  And the Hall approach raises significant unanswered questions.  The opinion suggests that defendants—especially employers whose policies are challenged—should want threshold legal questions to be decided after class certification so that the entire class is bound by the result.  But if class counsel is wrong about the legal theory, and in fact the legality of the employer’s policy depends on individual circumstances, does the entire class lose because the class plaintiff’s overbroad theory fails, even though some or even many class members would have valid claims under the proper, more individualized standard?  That might create adequacy and due process problems, elevating the interests of the class-action lawyers over those of their clients.  But if determination of the legal issue on a class basis instead simply results in decertification of the class, allowing new actions under the correct theory, then it makes no sense to defer the decision as to what, exactly, plaintiffs must prove through common evidence.

The issue surfaced indirectly in the California Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in Duran v. US Bank NA (pdf), which we recently discussed.  Duran rejected the use of questionable statistical sampling that swept away individualized issues and defenses in a wage-and-hour class action.  The Court’s evaluation of the class-certification and trial-management issues hinged on a view of the governing law under which an employee’s exempt status under the overtime laws hinged on whether the employee actually spent more than half-time carrying out duties that were exempt (there, sales outside the employer’s facility).  Justice Liu’s concurring opinion suggested a possible legal test—different from the Court’s view—that would turn on the employer’s reasonable expectations about the balance of exempt or nonexempt activity within a particular job classification, not on the employees’ actual work practices. If that test correctly stated the obligation, Justice Liu suggested, the application of the exemption could be determined as a common issue without the need for statistical sampling. Hall raises the troubling possibility that a litigant could seek to avoid individualized issues by restating the governing legal test along the lines of Justice Liu’s concurrence in Duran, and then claim that the choice between Justice Liu’s formulation and the formulation adopted in the Court’s opinion itself was a common issue of law.   In my view, such an approach would be inconsistent with Duran and Brinker.

 

POM v. Coke Does Not Alter The Landscape for Food False Advertising Class Actions

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

After the oral argument in POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co. (pdf), No. 12-761, the Supreme Court appeared all but certain to allow competitors to sue for false advertising under the Lanham Act over labels of FDA-regulated food products.  Food manufactures have been waiting to see just how broad the ruling would be and whether it would affect the onslaught of consumer class actions challenging food and beverage labels.  The wait is over, and the POM v. Coke decision, while effecting a dramatic change in competitor actions, should have little impact on consumer class actions.

As described by the Supreme Court, here are the facts of the case:  POM markets a juice product labeled “Pomegranate Blueberry 100% Juice,” which consists entirely of pomegranate and blueberry juices.  Coke (under its Minute Maid brand) markets “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices,” a competing product that contains 99.4% apple and grape juices, with pomegranate, blueberry, and raspberry juices accounting for the remaining 0.6%.  The label on the Minute Maid product features a picture of all five fruits and the words “Pomegranate Blueberry” in a larger font than the words “Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.”  Significantly, the Minute Maid label complies with the technical labeling rules set out in the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and FDA’s related regulations for naming a flavored juice blend.

POM alleged that Coke’s product name and label violate the Lanham Act’s false-advertising provision because (according to POM) consumers will be fooled into thinking there is more pomegranate and blueberry juice in the product than there really is.  The district court and Ninth Circuit rejected the Lanham Act claims, accepting Coke’s argument  that because juice labeling is pervasively regulated by FDA, applying generalized principles of false advertising under the Lanham Act would destroy the uniform, national labeling standard announced by the agency under the FDCA.  As the Ninth Circuit put it, “the FDCA and its regulations bar pursuit of both the name and labeling aspect” of the Lanham Act claim because allowing the claim would “undermine the FDA’s regulations and expert judgments” about how juices may and should be included in the product name.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in an opinion by Justice Kennedy.  In analyzing whether one federal statute (the FDCA) precludes a remedy available under another (the Lanham Act), the Court ruled that the FDCA and Lanham Act can be harmonized because they are “complementary and have separate scopes and purposes” and—unlike FDCA’s express preemption of state-law claims—neither statute “discloses a purpose” by Congress to bar competitor suits like POM’s.  (A more detailed discussion of the Court’s opinion is available here.)  Notably—although the Court repeatedly tells us that the FDCA and Lanham Act can get along—the opinion never actually does the hard work of harmonizing Coke’s compliance with the FDCA’s detailed rules for naming flavored juice blends with POM’s theory of liability challenging the FDCA-compliant name under a generalized theory of false advertising.

By contrast with competitor lawsuits, the Court’s decision should have virtually no impact on food labeling consumer class actions.  While the Court expressed the view that consumers will be indirect beneficiaries of competitor Lanham Act claims over allegedly misleading labels, it made clear that its decision does not address or alter the interplay between state consumer protection laws or consumer suits and the FDCA.  In other words, the decision does not in any way undermine preemption principles that would apply to state-law claims challenging labels regulated by FDA.  That’s important not just for food companies facing consumer class actions, but also to avoid a problem the Court specifically recognized in its decision: the “disuniformity that would arise from the multitude of state laws, state regulations, state administrative agency rulings, and state-court decisions that are partially forbidden by the FDCA’s pre-emption provision.”  Though the Court correctly recognizes the resulting chaos if each state could impose non-identical labeling requirements, it characterizes the potential disuniformity from the potential tension between the FDCA and the Lanham Act a result that Congress envisioned.

Whether the Court was right or wrong about that, one thing is clear:  In creating food labels, food companies should consider not only what the FDCA and federal regulations say, but also analyze the potential risks of competitor lawsuits under the Lanham Act.  We will have more to say about these issues on a webinar tomorrow; interested clients or friends of the firm may register for the webinar here. 

 

 

California Supreme Court Rejects Exceptionally Poor Sampling Method, But Leaves Open Many Questions About Sampling And Class Certification

Posted in Class Certification

In Duran v. U.S. Bank N.A. (pdf), the California Supreme Court recently addressed an important question in the context of state-court class actions: Can plaintiffs invoke statistical sampling in an attempt to prove class-wide liability and overcome the presence of individual questions that ordinarily would defeat class certification?

The court’s answer to that question is a mixed bag for business. The court firmly rejected the haphazard approach to sampling used by the trial court in the lawsuit against U.S. Bank. But the court left open the troubling possibility that sampling might be used in support of class certification in the future. Continue Reading

Primary Jurisdiction is Gaining Some Weight in the Food Court

Posted in Class Action Trends, Motions Practice

The plaintiffs’ bar continues to file consumer class actions challenging food and beverage labels en masse, especially in the Northern District of California—also known as the “Food Court.” One particular line of cases—at least 52 class actions, at last count—targets companies selling products containing evaporated cane juice. The battle over evaporated cane juice has become the latest front in the war over whether federal courts should apply the primary-jurisdiction doctrine and dismiss or stay food class actions while awaiting guidance from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

In these cases, plaintiffs allege that the term “evaporated cane juice” is misleading because (in their view) it disguises the fact that the ingredient is a type of “sugar”; they contend that the ingredient  should be identified as “sugar.” Their theory rests almost entirely on a draft guidance that the FDA issued in 2009, in which the agency proposed the ingredient be called “dried cane syrup” (notably, not “sugar”), and invited public comment on the issue. That guidance suggested that the name “evaporated cane juice” not be used because it suggests the ingredient is a juice.

In response to these lawsuit, many defendants have emphasized that the FDA’s 2009 guidance not only is non-binding, but that the existence of the guidance establishes that the FDA is examining the precise issue underlying plaintiffs’ theory of liability. Accordingly, defendants argue, courts should let the agency finish its work. Or, put another way, because the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act squarely authorizes the FDA to regulate the names of ingredients as part of its power to prescribe uniform national standards for food labels, the issue is within the FDA’s “primary jurisdiction.” Thus, as we have contended in advancing the primary-jurisdiction argument, the issue should be decided by an expert agency, not via litigation brought by profit-motivated consumer class action lawyers.

How have these arguments fared? Because the FDA did not take action for over four years after issuing the 2009 draft guidance, plaintiffs had a great deal of success in convincing courts that the FDA was not actively addressing the evaporated-cane-juice issue further and therefore that applying the primary-jurisdiction doctrine was inappropriate.

All that changed in March 2014, when the FDA published a notice in the Federal Register reopening the comment period on the 2009 draft guidance and emphasizing that it has “not reached a final decision on the common or usual name for” evaporated cane juice and that it “intend[s] to revise the draft guidance, if appropriate, and issue it in final form.” [Our firm recently filed a comment with the FDA on this issue.]

As if a light had been switched on, virtually every court to consider the issue since the March notice—at least 10 class actions so far—has ruled in favor of deferring to the FDA’s primary jurisdiction in evaporated-cane-juice cases. This overwhelming trend is welcome news.

But from our perspective, the fact that the FDA recently reiterated its interest in this area should not have been necessary to trigger the primary-jurisdiction doctrine. Indeed, even before the March 2014 notice, the question of the proper labeling of evaporated cane juice was one within the primary jurisdiction of the FDA, as at least one court recognized.

To be sure, as one judge has put it, whether the FDA (or another regulatory agency) “has shown any interest in the issues presented by the litigants” appears to be an “unofficial fifth factor” that influences courts grappling with whether primary jurisdiction should be applied in a given case. Greenfield v. Yucatan Foods, L.P., — F. Supp. 2d –, 2014 WL 1891140, at *4-5 (S.D. Fla. May 7, 2014). But this “unofficial fifth factor” is neither necessary nor part of the four, well-recognized factors for applying primary jurisdiction: “(1) [a] need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration.” Clark v. Time Warner Cable, 523 F.3d 1110, 1115 (9th Cir. 2008).

The same factors were satisfied in the evaporated-cane-juice context even before the March 2014 notice.  And—speaking more generally—uncertainty over when the FDA will act should not be treated as an invitation for different courts to apply different state laws and develop differing labeling regimes.

Here’s hoping for a few more helpings of primary jurisdiction at the Food Court—and a few more scoops of uniformity and certainty for the food and beverage industry.

More Thoughts On Ascertainability And Why It Matters In Deciding Whether To Certify A Class Action

Posted in Ascertainability, Class Certification

Can you have a class action if you can’t figure out who’s in the proposed class? According to many in the plaintiffs’ bar, the answer is “yes.” But as we have discussed in prior blog posts, there is an emerging consensus to the contrary. Most courts agree that plaintiffs in consumer class actions have the burden of proving that members of the putative class can be identified (i.e., that the class is ascertainable). And most of those courts have held that it is not sufficient for plaintiffs to rely upon affidavits by would-be class members who attest that they fall within the class definition.

The Third Circuit adopted both of those principles last fall in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013). As we have reported, that court recently denied en banc review over objections by plaintiffs’ lawyers that taking ascertainability seriously would render many class actions unsustainable.

As it turns out, a growing number of other courts are following Carrera’s lead in holding that classes whose membership cannot be determined flunk the ascertainability requirement and therefore cannot be certified.

For example, in Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (pdf) (S.D. Fla. Mar. 3, 2014), the court refused to certify a putative class of purchasers of weight-loss supplements. The court explained that the plaintiffs had failed to show any objective, administratively feasible method of ascertaining the identities of class members. Class members could not be identified from the defendants’ records because the products were sold to retailers, and defendants therefore had no database of end-user consumers. The plaintiffs could not show that the purchasers could be identified from the records of third-party retailers. And, of course, few if any purchasers would have retained receipts from such purchases years after the fact.

The plaintiffs argued that class members could simply submit affidavits confirming that they bought the supplements at issue during the relevant time period. But the court recognized that this process would be extremely unwieldy, and would inevitably devolve into “a series of mini-trials” over the circumstances of particular purchases that would “defeat the purpose of class action treatment.” And the court added—citing Carrera—that simply exempting the affidavits from individualized challenges would lead to fraudulent claims, which “could dilute the recovery of genuine class members.”

Similarly, a federal court recently decertified a California class action—in part on ascertainability grounds— in In re Pom Wonderful LLC Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation (pdf) (C.D. Cal. Mar. 25, 2014). The plaintiffs alleged that Pom Wonderful had misled a class of California customers with purportedly false or misleading statements in advertising about the “various health benefits” of “certain Pom juice products.” But the court held that class members could not be identified, and therefore that no “ascertainable class exists.” In reaching that conclusion, the court provided some useful guidance on how ascertainability works:

  • “Class actions, and consumer class actions in particular, each fall on a continuum of ascertainability dependent upon the facts of the particular case or product.”
  • “While no single factor is dispositive, relevant considerations include the price of the product, the range of potential or intended uses of a product, and the availability of purchase records.”
  • “In situations where purported class members purchase an inexpensive product for a variety of reasons, and are unlikely to retain receipts or other transaction records, class actions may present such daunting administrative challenges that class treatment is not feasible.”

Applying these principles, the court readily concluded that the proposed class in Pom Wonderful “falls well towards the unascertainable end of the spectrum.” That was so for multiple reasons, including that (i) “millions of consumers paid only a few dollars per bottle”; (ii) “[f]ew, if any consumers, are likely to have retained receipts”; (iii) “[n]o bottle, label, or package included any of the alleged misrepresentations” (as they were all contained in advertising); and (iv) “consumer motivations” for purchasing Pom juice “likely vary greatly, and could include a wide array of sentiments such as ‘I was thirsty,’ ‘I wanted to try something new,’ ‘I like the color,’ ‘It mixes well with other beverages,’ or even, ‘I like the taste,’ or, as Plaintiffs contend, ‘It prevents prostate cancer.’” As a result, “there is no way to reliably determine who purchased [the challenged] products or when they did so.”

(The decision also contains an extensive discussion of why the plaintiffs’ proposed damages models failed to satisfy the predominance requirement under Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.)

Carrera, Karhu, and Pom Wonderful should be helpful for defendants who oppose class certification when the proposed class consists of purchasers of consumer products for which there are no customer lists. In these cases, plaintiffs often have no real plan for satisfying the ascertainability requirement other than by inviting a show of hands—via barebones affidavits—from the (relatively few) individuals who might want a small payout from a potential class fund.

In response, defendants routinely (and appropriately) argue that affidavits are not good enough, because due process entitles them to challenge an individual’s claim that he or she purchased a given product, such as by cross examination at a trial. Recognizing that the right to individualized cross-examination would render a trial unmanageable—making class certification inappropriate—plaintiffs sometimes argue that fraudulent claims can be winnowed out through the use of a claims administrator.

That approach strikes us as improper. To be sure, in class action settlements, the parties often agree that a claims administrator may make judgments to determine whether a claimant truly is a class member who qualifies for benefits and to assess whether any submitted claims are fraudulent. But that agreement reflects one of the compromises of settling a case, in which defendants trade away the right to cross-examine each putative class member in exchange for certainty, finality, and—most significantly—a substantial discount on the potential liability claimed by the plaintiff and his or her counsel.

By contrast, in a litigated case, defendants’ due process rights cannot be so easily jettisoned. In the absence of party agreement, how can it be that the administrative determinations of an outside third party serve as an adequate substitute for a defendant’s right to cross-examine its accusers and for judicial resolution of factual disputes? (We leave to one side whether assessments by claims administrators would be accurate, but commend to our readers an article by Alison Frankel discussing an interesting amicus brief on the subject that was filed in Carrera.)

* * *

In short, when it comes to ascertainability, the list of questions goes on and on. Defendants targeted by consumer class actions where customer lists are not readily available may wish to insist upon answers.

Third Circuit Rejects Effort At End Run Around The Ascertainability Requirement

Posted in Ascertainability, Class Certification

We previously wrote about the Third Circuit’s decision in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., which reversed a district court’s class-certification order because there was no reliable way to ascertain class membership—indeed, no way to identify who was a member of the class aside from a class member’s own say-so. Last week, the full Third Circuit denied (pdf) the plaintiff’s request to rehear the case en banc over the dissent of four judges. The clear message of Carrera is that when plaintiffs file class actions that have no hope of compensating class members for alleged wrongs because the class members can’t be found, courts should refuse to let these actions proceed.

As we discuss below, the denial of rehearing is significant in itself, given the concerted efforts by Carrera and his amici to draw attention to the case. But what might be most significant about this latest set of opinions is what even the dissenting judges did not say.

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Are You Objecting to Personal Jurisdiction In Magnet Jurisdictions Yet?

Posted in Motions Practice, U.S. Supreme Court

Until recently, many large companies have resigned themselves to the assertion of personal jurisdiction by courts in any state in which they do business—so long as the plaintiff has named the right corporate entity as defendant. That’s because the conventional wisdom has been that large companies are subject to personal jurisdiction nationwide because they do a lot of business in every state.

The Supreme Court recently has provided reason to revisit that assumption, however. Two recent decisions by the Court place significantly tighter limitations on the assertion of personal jurisdiction, equipping businesses with new defenses against forum-shopping by plaintiffs’ class-action lawyers.

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Class Action Can’t Be Remanded To State Court Just Because The Plaintiff Says It’s Uncertifiable

Posted in Motions Practice

When was the last time you saw a plaintiffs’ lawyer seeking to represent a class argue that the class couldn’t be certified? Readers might wonder whether this is a trick question. In a sense, it is. In Hoffman v. Nutraceutical Corp. (pdf), the Third Circuit upheld the denial of a motion to remand a class action to state court, rejecting the argument—made by the named plaintiff himself!—that a class could not be certified under controlling circuit precedent. The Third Circuit acknowledged that the plaintiff was right about the governing law, but pointed out that the relevant jurisdictional inquiry was whether the stakes placed in issue by the proposed complaint satisfy the Class Action Fairness Act’s $5 million amount-in-controversy requirement—not whether the requirements of Rule 23 are satisfied.

So what gives? It turns out that—according to the Third Circuit—named plaintiff Harold Hoffman “is an attorney who has made a habit of filing class actions in which he serves as both the sole class representative and sole class counsel.” And that’s what Mr. Hoffman had done here by filing a putative class action in New Jersey state court against a nutritional supplement company—offering to serve as both class representative and class counsel. The company removed the case to federal court, and Mr. Hoffman moved to remand the case to state court. The district court rejected that motion, and—after the case was dismissed on the merits—Hoffman contended on appeal that the case should have been returned to state court because it was a “legal certainty” that the $5 million amount in controversy could not be met in his case. As summarized by the Third Circuit, Mr. Hoffman argued that “because [he] is both the sole class representative and the sole attorney for the class, the purported class cannot possibly be certified under established Third Circuit law. … Thus, he reasons, the amount in controversy of the action—as least while the case remains in federal court—is tantamount to the value of Hoffman’s individual claim, roughly $200, rather than the aggregate value of the class members’ claims, which would easily exceed $5 million.”

Mr. Hoffman was correct that, under the Third Circuit’s precedent—like the prevailing rule in many other federal circuits—a named plaintiff cannot serve as class counsel. That is so because, as a number of federal courts have explained, a class representative cannot adequately monitor the class counsel—and guard against counsel’s incentives to maximize attorneys’ fees rather than the class’s recovery—when the class rep is class counsel.

The plaintiff in Hoffman suggested that state courts might tolerate class actions in which the named plaintiff is the class counsel even though federal courts will not. That argument, however, runs afoul of the very reason CAFA was enacted: to avoid the application of lax certification standards to class actions involving claims worth $5 million or more. For that reason, the Third Circuit rightly rejected Mr. Hoffman’s attempt at an end-run around CAFA.