Two Recent Appellate Decisions Illustrate Divergent Approaches To Spokeo

Hundreds of lower courts have interpreted and applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins over the past ten months. We will provide a more comprehensive report on the post-Spokeo landscape in the near future, but the overarching takeaway is that the majority of federal courts of appeals have faithfully applied Spokeo’s core holdings that “Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation,” and that a plaintiff does not “automatically satisf[y] the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to sue to vindicate that right.” Nonetheless, a handful of other decisions have been receptive to arguments by the plaintiffs’ bar that Spokeo did not make a difference in the law of standing, and that the bare allegation that a statutory right has been violated, without more, remains enough to open the federal courthouse doors to “no-injury” class actions.

Two recent decisions by the Seventh and Third Circuits illustrate these contrasting approaches.

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Supreme Court Hears Arguments In Microsoft v. Baker To Address When A Named Plaintiff Can Appeal The Denial Of Class Certification

Earlier today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument (pdf) in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, a case that raises complicated questions about federal appellate jurisdiction and Article III standing, but ultimately involves an important practical question in class action litigation: Can a named plaintiff engineer a right to an immediate appeal of the denial of class certification by voluntarily dismissing his or her claims with prejudice and appealing from the resulting judgment?

From the argument, it was clear that a number of Justices believe that the answer should be “no.” As Justice Ginsburg pointed out several times, the committee charged with amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure crafted Rule 23(f) to give courts discretion to decide whether to allow immediate appeals of orders granting or denying class certification. But plaintiffs maintain that they should be free to challenge the denial of certification immediately by appealing from what their counsel described as a “manufactured final judgment.”  In other words, as Justice Ginsburg put it, “any time … that a class action is brought against a corporation, [Rule] 23(f) is out the window.”

As discussed below, there are many ways in which the Court could decide the issue. That said, businesses should be cautiously optimistic that the Court will reverse the Ninth Circuit and thus reject a dysfunctional regime in which class-action plaintiffs can appeal the denial of class certification while defendants remain able to appeal orders granting class certification only by grace.

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Court Strikes Class Allegations in TCPA Case

The recent decision in Cholly v. Uptain Group, No. 15 C 5030, 2017 WL 449176 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 1, 2017), drives home the point—as we’ve discussed on the blog before—that sometimes the pleadings alone reveal that the requirements for class certification cannot possibly be met. In Cholly, the plaintiff alleged the defendant debt collector violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) by calling her mobile phone using an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) after she had told the defendant to stop calling. The plaintiff sought to represent (i) a class of persons who received calls from the defendant where it did not have consent, and (ii) a subclass of persons who received calls after they revoked consent. But the district court struck all of the plaintiff’s class allegations under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f)—at the pleading stage and before discovery—and ordered that the case proceed on an individual basis.

At the outset, the court recognized that Rule 23(c)(1)(a) requires that it “determine whether to certify an action as a class action ‘[a]t an early practicable time’” and that a motion to strike class allegations under Rule 12(f) is an appropriate device to determine if the case will proceed as a class action. The court concluded that the plaintiff couldn’t satisfy the “typicality” requirement under Rule 23(a)(3) because she originally consented to the defendant’s calls and, thus, “cannot represent a class of persons who received calls from [the defendant] where [it] did not have express consent.”

The court held the plaintiff couldn’t represent the subclass either because she couldn’t meet the predominance requirement under Rule 23(b)(3). In particular, the court found that individual inquiries as to whether the putative class members revoked consent would predominate over any common questions of fact:

In order to determine whether each potential class member did in fact revoke his or her prior consent at the pertinent time, the [c]ourt would have to conduct class-members specific inquiries for each individual. The class members would not be able to present the same evidence that will suffice for each member to make a prima facie showing at the recipients of defendants’ telemarketing calls had validly revoked his or her prior consents.

The plaintiff has filed a petition for leave to appeal under Rule 23(f), and the Seventh Circuit directed the defendant to respond. We’ll report on any major developments.

Supreme Court Will Review Two Important Cases Regarding Scope Of Personal Jurisdiction

Every first-year law student learns that one of the first questions a defendant must ask is whether the court in which a lawsuit is filed has personal jurisdiction—that is, whether the state or federal court can exercise power over the defendant. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the reach of that power, preventing a court from exercising jurisdiction over a defendant that has no ties to the State in which the court sits.

Applying this limitation, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized two kinds of personal jurisdiction: general and specific. General jurisdiction permits courts to adjudicate claims against a defendant arising out of actions occurring anywhere in the world (subject, of course, to any limits specific to a particular cause of action). It requires that the defendant be considered “at home” in the forum.

Specific jurisdiction, by contrast, empowers a court to adjudicate particular claims relating to a defendant’s conduct within the forum. To be subject to specific jurisdiction, the defendant must have established contacts with the forum, and the lawsuit must arise out of those contacts.

Both of these forms of personal jurisdiction have been examined by the Supreme Court in recent years, but the lower courts remain in disarray over how to apply the Court’s precedents. Likely for that reason, the Court has recently agreed to review two cases addressing both facets of personal jurisdiction.

First, the Court granted certiorari in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, in which (in our view) the Montana courts failed to honor Supreme Court precedent establishing limits on general jurisdiction. Second, the Court granted review in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, in which the California courts similarly flouted the limits on specific jurisdiction by allowing out-of-state plaintiffs to sue in California for claims that have nothing to do with the state. Defendants who face class and mass actions should follow both cases closely, and both will be important barometers for whether the Court is committed to maintaining strict limits on the scope of personal jurisdiction. (We filed an amicus brief (pdf) for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Bristol-Myers Squibb explaining the disarray in the lower courts and why that case in particular warranted Supreme Court review.)

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Supreme Court Will Review NLRB’s Anti-Arbitration D.R. Horton Rule

As we’ve noted in this space before, one of the most persistent efforts to undermine the Supreme Court’s decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion—which held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) generally requires enforcing arbitration agreements that waive class or collective proceedings—has been spearheaded by the National Labor Relations Board. In 2012, the Board concluded in the D.R. Horton case (pdf) that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects the ability of employees to engage in “concerted activities” (for example, union organizing), supersedes the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the FAA in Concepcion and its progeny and requires that employees be allowed to bring class actions (either in court or in arbitration).

Until recently, the D.R. Horton rule had been rejected by every appellate court to consider it—the Second Circuit, Fifth Circuit, and Eighth Circuit as well as the California and Nevada Supreme Courts—not to mention numerous federal district courts. But last year, the Seventh Circuit and Ninth Circuit parted ways with this consensus, agreeing with the Board and concluding that (at least in some circumstances) agreements between employers and employees to arbitrate their disputes on an individual basis are unenforceable.

This circuit split all but guaranteed that the Supreme Court would need to step in, and sure enough, last Friday, the Court granted certiorari in three cases involving the validity of the D.R. Horton rule. (We drafted amicus briefs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in each case). One case, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., arises out of a Board decision finding that an employer had engaged in an unfair labor practice by entering into arbitration agreements with its employees, and the other two, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, are private-party disputes in which employees invoked D.R. Horton to challenge their arbitration agreements.

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Ninth Circuit rejects meaningful ascertainability requirement for class certification, cementing deep circuit split

Can you have a class action if class members can’t reliably be found? That question is at the heart of the debate over ascertainability—one that has divided the federal courts. Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit weighed in, holding in Briseno v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. (pdf) that plaintiffs need not demonstrate “an administratively feasible way to identify class members [as] a prerequisite to class certification.”

That conclusion is disappointing.

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D.C. Circuit Weighing FCC’s Controversial 2015 TCPA Declaratory Ruling

Today, a panel of the D.C. Circuit—composed of Judges Srinivasan and Pillard and Senior Judge Edwards—heard argument in ACA International v. FCC, the consolidated appeals from the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order, which greatly expanded the reach of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). (An audio recording of the argument is here, and Kevin attended the argument.) The case has been closely watched, and a number of TCPA class actions around the country have been stayed to await the D.C. Circuit’s decision.  More detail is below the fold, but here are our quick impressions from the argument:

  • The panel asked tough questions of lawyers for both sides in an argument that went two full hours over the allotted 40 minutes.
  • The panel focused most of its attention on the FCC’s new—and far-reaching—definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS, or “autodialer”). All three judges expressed discomfort with the fact that the FCC’s new definition could be read to cover smartphones.
  • Judge Edwards repeatedly voiced criticisms of the FCC’s expansive readings of the TCPA across the board, and may be inclined to vacate large portions of the FCC’s Declaratory Ruling.
  • Judge Pillard seemed the most receptive to the FCC’s arguments.
  • Judges Srinivasan was the hardest to read, but it seems possible that he might join Judge Edwards in setting aside major portions of the FCC’s Declaratory Ruling.

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Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Try to Spin Spokeo

330px-Supreme_Court_Front_Dusk-150x120.jpgA peculiar thing happened after the Supreme Court announced its decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (pdf) on Monday.

Even though the Court ruled in favor of Spokeo—vacating the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that the plaintiff had standing to sue and holding that the court of appeals had applied a legal standard too generous to plaintiffs—both sides declared victory. (Full disclosure: I argued on behalf of Spokeo in the Supreme Court.)

Spokeo tweeted:

Jay Edelson,

What’s going on?

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Supreme Court Holds in Spokeo that Plaintiffs Must Show “Real” Harm to Have Standing to Sue for Statutory Damages

The Supreme Court today issued its decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (pdf), a closely-watched case presenting the question whether Article III’s “injury-in-fact” requirement for standing to sue in federal court may be satisfied by alleging a statutory violation without any accompanying real world injury.

The Court held that a plaintiff must allege “concrete” harm—which it described as harm that is “real”—to have standing to sue, and that the existence of a private right of action under a federal statute does not automatically suffice to meet the “real” harm standard. The decision is likely to have a meaningful impact on class action litigation based on alleged statutory violations. Justice Alito authored the opinion for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Kagan. (We and our colleagues represented Spokeo before the Supreme Court.)

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The CFPB’s Proposed Anti-Arbitration Rule

The rule (pdf) just proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to regulate arbitration agreements is not a surprise: the Bureau has said for months that it was developing such a rule.

This post examines the details of the proposal—how it would regulate arbitration, its scope, and its effective date. We also discuss the course of the rulemaking process, including potential judicial review of any final rule. In a future post, we’ll evaluate the CFPB’s purported justifications for the regulation.

The bottom line: The CFPB’s proposal is effectively a blanket ban on the use of arbitration by companies in the consumer financial services arena. It is an attempt to overrule by regulation the Supreme Court’s landmark decision five years ago in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (in which we represented AT&T). Businesses that are concerned about the ramifications of this proposal will have 90 days from the date the proposal is published in the Federal Register to submit comments to the agency, and if a rule is adopted in the present form of the proposal, parties are certain to seek judicial review.

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