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Kevin Ranlett is a partner in the firm's Supreme Court & Appellate and Consumer Litigation & Class Actions practices. He has defended businesses in numerous complex class and representative actions in state and federal courts across the country and in proceedings before the American Arbitration Association. In addition to drafting critical trial motions, Kevin has a substantial appellate practice. He has written merits or amicus briefs in appeals involving issues of class certification, arbitration, securities law, federal preemption, the Alien Tort Statute, punitive damages, and employment discrimination. He also advises businesses in drafting and enforcing consumer and employee arbitration agreements.

Read Kevin's full bio.

Concept-Changes_Hughway_Sign_44809020Rule 23 may be in for some major changes. The Advisory Committee has commissioned a Rule 23 subcommittee to investigate possible revisions to the class action rules. That subcommittee issued a report (pdf) discussing its progress, and recently has been conducting a “listening tour” of sorts regarding potential rule changes.

Our initial view is that the business community should have serious concerns about the approach that at least some members of the subcommittee appear to be taking, as several proposals are aimed at rolling back judicial decisions—including Supreme Court decisions—that are critical to ensuring that class actions satisfy the requirements of due process.

Here are ten things you need to know from the subcommittee’s report.

Continue Reading Ten Things Class Action Practitioners Need To Know About Potential Amendments To Federal Rule Of Civil Procedure 23

FCC logo“This Order will make abuse of the TCPA much, much easier. And the primary beneficiaries will be trial lawyers, not the American public.” That’s what FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai had to say in his dissent from the FCC’s recent Declaratory Ruling and Order, issued on July 10, 2015. The FCC’s Order reflected the agency’s response to 21 petitions seeking guidance regarding or exemptions from various requirements under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227, and its implementing regulations.

The TCPA prohibits certain fax and automated-dialing practices and authorizes recovery of up to $1,500 per call, text message, or fax sent in willful violation of its restrictions. The TCPA has led to a tidal wave of class-action litigation, and the FCC’s recent Order may hasten that trend.

Most prominently, the FCC’s recent ruling:

Continue Reading FCC Expands Potential Liability under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act for Business-to-Customer Calls and Text Messages

The first bill signed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown—H.B. 2700 (pdf)—changes the rules for handling payment of damages awards in class actions in Oregon state courts. Effective immediately, including for pending actions, the new law attempts to redirect unclaimed damages under class-action settlements or judgments to the state bar’s legal aid program and to charities picked by the judge presiding over each case. In other words, Oregon has effectively mandated cy pres in every class action. (We’ve repeatedly covered—and criticized—the use of cy pres awards in class actions.)

Among other things, the new law amends Oregon Rule of Civil Procedure 32, which governs class actions in state court, to add a new subsection addressing the payment of damages in accordance with “the settlement or judgment in a class action.” The court is authorized to approve a “process” for making payments that “may include the use of claim forms.” But “any amount awarded as damages” that the court finds either hasn’t been timely claimed by class members or simply “is not practicable” to pay to class members must be distributed in the following fashion:

  • “At least 50 percent of the amount not paid to class members” must be given “to the Oregon State Bar for the funding of legal services provided through the Legal Services Program.”
  • “The remainder of the amount not paid to class members” must be given to “any entity” chosen by the court “for purposes” that are “directly related to the class action or directly beneficial to the interests of class members.”

Before enactment of this law, damages in class actions that could not be paid to class members either reverted to the defendant or—in the context of some class-action settlements—were given to a charity picked by the parties and approved by the court.

Proponents of cy pres awards often contend that class members who can’t be paid their damages are better served by a donation to a charity whose mission is related in some fashion to the goals of the class-action lawsuit. Proponents also contend that forcing defendants to pay the full amount of damages they theoretically would owe if liability were established as to all class members—and then all class members actually claimed payments—would better deter future wrongdoing.

More cynical observers of class actions note that cy pres awards are often used by class counsel to puff up the amount of money purportedly recovered in the case in order to justify a higher fee award. Sometimes the recipient of cy pres largesse is picked simply to curry favor with a judge being asked to approve the settlement—for example, a donation to the law school clinic at the judge’s alma mater. And in every case, the use of cy pres eliminates the incentive for class counsel to ensure that class members—the ostensibly injured parties—get the individualized compensation they have been awarded. And while some federal courts have begun to pay closer attention to whether class members actually recover under class settlements, this law encourages Oregon state court judges to ignore that question.

Even worse, the potential of a cy pres award sometimes is used to justify the certification of particularly dubious class actions. For example, take a putative class whose members can’t be identified. Class certification should be denied because the class isn’t ascertainable. But if cy pres were mandatory, the would-be class counsel can always say “so what—let’s just figure out the defendant’s aggregate liability, pay the handful of class members we can identify, and then give the rest away in cy pres in order to punish the defendant.” And never mind, of course, that this procedure would deprive the defendant of the right to cross-examine absent class members or assert individualized defenses. Indeed, there are strong arguments that the use of cy pres—particularly in a litigated case where the defendant has not agreed to it—is unconstitutional (pdf).

Chief Justice Roberts has said that the U.S. Supreme Court might be interested in hearing a case that presents appropriate questions about the use of cy pres awards in class-action settlements in federal court. Of course, if the case arises in federal court, those questions might be framed in terms of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), which tasks federal judges with assessing the fairness of class settlements. If the case arises from the Oregon courts—which may be a possibility thanks to H.B. 2700—more fundamental questions of due process would be raised, with potentially much larger ramifications for class-action litigation.

In our first post of 2015, we wanted to congratulate our colleague and mentor, Evan Tager, for his recent recognition as a Litigation Trailblazer and Pioneer by the National Law Journal.

Evan has been at the forefront of major developments in the law—including those affecting class action and mass tort litigation.  As this profile notes, Evan has been a leader on at least two major issues.  First, he helped convince courts of the need for due process limitations on excessive punitive damages awards, ultimately prevailing in BMW of North America v. Gore.  And second—working with us and others at the firm—Evan spearheaded Mayer Brown’s efforts on behalf of AT&T to craft and enforce arbitration agreements that require fair individual arbitration instead of class actions, culminating in the win for the business community in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.

Evan’s award is reason enough for us to write this post.  But what the award does not capture is that, in addition to being among the very best appellate lawyers who represent businesses, he is a wonderful teacher, mentor, and friend.  Evan has guided the two of us, as well as many other Mayer Brown lawyers, as our careers have developed.  Indeed, Evan encouraged us to launch this blog.  So we have especially good reason to celebrate Evan’s recent accomplishment.

We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later this week—Archis will have a blog post on the Seventh Circuit’s 2014 cases addressing class settlements.

One of the hottest areas in class actions is litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  And one of the most significant issues in TCPA litigation is the existence and scope of vicarious liability.  The key question is to what extent are businesses liable for the actions of third-party marketers who, without the consent of the recipient, send text messages or place calls using autodialers or prerecorded voices or transmit faxes?

Some plaintiffs had argued that businesses are strictly liable for TCPA violations committed in their name by third-party marketers.  Last year, the FCC rejected that approach in a declaratory ruling.  As we explained in our report, the FCC instead concluded that plaintiffs instead must prove liability under “federal common law principles of agency.”

But that declaratory ruling was decided in the context of telemarketing.  Should the same rule apply to alleged TCPA violations involving unsolicited marketing faxes?  Can plaintiffs revive their old arguments that businesses are strictly liable for faxes advertising their services sent by others?  Or are businesses not liable for TCPA violations that they themselves don’t commit?

The Eleventh Circuit recently considered this issue in Palm Beach Golf Center-Boca, Inc. v. John G. Sarris, D.D.S., P.A.  In that case, a marketer had allegedly sent several thousand unsolicited faxes advertising the services of a dental practice.  When a recipient of a fax sued the dental practice under the TCPA, the district court granted summary judgment in part because the plaintiff had failed to show that the dental practice was vicariously liable for the marketers actions.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed.  The court explained that the FCC’s prior declaratory ruling that the limited scope of vicarious liability for TCPA violations applied only to telemarketing calls.  But rather than decide what the vicarious-liability standard should be for faxes, the court held—based on a letter brief (pdf) submitted by the FCC—that the recipient of the fax didn’t need to prove vicarious liability at all.  Instead, the court held that  the dental practice could be viewed as the sender itself and therefore the recipient could attempt to show that the dental practice had directly violated the TCPA itself.

That result is hard to swallow.  The dental practice, after all, hadn’t actually sent any faxes itself.  And although it had hired the marketer, the evidence presented to the district court apparently showed that the dental practice had no direct role in the fax campaign—it didn’t decide to whom to send faxes or even approve the final language of the fax itself.  And it certainly didn’t press the button to send the faxes.

Nonetheless, the court held—based on the FCC’s letter brief—that the recipient of the fax could proceed to trial on the theory that the dental practice had committed a direct violation of the TCPA.  The TCPA makes it unlawful “to use any telephone facsimile machine, computer, or other device to send, to a telephone facsimile machine, an unsolicited advertisement.”  Under a natural reading of this language, one would think that the dental practice itself neither “use[d]” a fax machine nor “sen[t]” a fax.  But in the FCC’s view, a business is the “send[er]” of a fax transmitted by a third party so long as the fax was either sent on the business’s “behalf” or if the fax “advertise[s] or promote[s]” the business’s “goods or service.”

The FCC’s position conflates direct and vicarious liability for alleged TCPA violations involving faxes.  There are accordingly strong reasons to think that other courts should refuse to defer to the FCC’s interpretation.  That said, businesses whose marketing activities may include third-party fax campaigns should be aware of the potential that courts will, like the Eleventh Circuit in Palm Beach Golf Center, adopt the FCC’s position and authorize claims for direct liability under the TCPA.

The ABA Journal is putting together its annual list of the 100 best legal blogs.  There are many great legal blogs out there; if you think this is one of them, we’d be grateful if you would consider nominating us for the list.

To put in a good word for us, please use this form on the ABA Journal’s website.  The deadline for nominations is August 8, 2014.

Many thanks in advance for your support!

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.

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.

Continue Reading Are You Objecting to Personal Jurisdiction In Magnet Jurisdictions Yet?

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

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

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

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

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