The Supreme Court has resolved many important questions about personal jurisdiction.  But somewhat surprisingly, it has not decided a fundamental question that arises in class actions – to establish specific personal jurisdiction (meaning case-linked personal jurisdiction) over a defendant, must the plaintiff establish that the defendant has sufficient connections to the forum with respect to all plaintiffs’ claims, or only the named plaintiffs’ claims?  Not only has the Supreme Court not decided this question, but no court of appeals has yet decided it.  The D.C. Circuit will likely be the first, in a case now pending – Molock v. Whole Foods Market.  We filed a brief (pdf) in Molock on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.

As we explain in the brief, the Supreme Court has gone a long way toward resolving this question.  Two terms ago, the Supreme Court decided Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court (BMS) (pdf), which addressed how courts should assess personal jurisdiction in a mass tort action.  In that case, 86 California residents and 592 plaintiffs from other states sued BMS in California, alleging injuries from taking the drug Plavix.  The nonresident plaintiffs did not claim any connections to California:  They “were not prescribed Plavix in California, did not purchase Plavix in California, did not ingest Plavix in California, and were not injured by Plavix in California.”  The California Supreme Court nevertheless upheld the state court’s assertion of specific personal jurisdiction over the defendant for all of the plaintiffs’ claims.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, explaining that due process requires a plaintiff-by-plaintiff, claim-by-claim assessment, so a court in an action with multiple plaintiffs must find that the defendant has the necessary connection to the forum for each plaintiff’s claim.

We think that the same principles apply to class actions.  The Molock case helps to illustrate the point.  In Molock, residents of the District of Columbia and residents of many other states sued Whole Foods in federal court in D.C. to challenge certain employment practices.  Like the nonresident plaintiffs in BMS, the nonresident plaintiffs in Molock did not live or work in the District of Columbia.  Their claims simply are not based on any conduct that occurred in the forum.  And they should not be able to bootstrap their claims against Whole Foods just because those claims are similar to the resident plaintiffs’ claims.    

In our brief, we urge the D.C. Circuit to adopt the following rule:  A court may allow a class action to proceed only if the defendant is subject to specific personal jurisdiction in the forum with respect to every class member’s claim.  If some class members cannot show the necessary connection between their claims and the defendant’s activities in the forum, then they could not maintain their claims as individual actions in the forum – and so they should not be able to bring them in a class action, either.  This is the same rule that the Supreme Court applied in BMS; the only difference is that BMS was a mass action and Molock is a class action.  But the requirements of due process are the same.  A defendant should not be required to come to a jurisdiction to defend itself against claims when that jurisdiction has no real interest in those claims.  And the Rules Enabling Act reinforces this point, because it bars plaintiffs from using the class-action device to abridge defendants’ substantive rights, including the right to contest personal jurisdiction over any individual claim.

Our brief also explains why a contrary rule would be troubling.  It would encourage abusive forum shopping, permitting plaintiffs’ lawyers to bring a nationwide class action suit anywhere that even a single individual whose claim has a requisite forum connection is willing to sign up as a named plaintiff.  That result would make the due process limitations on personal jurisdiction all but meaningless, and it would violate basic principles of federalism by permitting a court in a state that has no legitimate interest in the vast majority of the putative class’s claims to nonetheless adjudicate those claims.

Briefing is still ongoing in Molock, and it is currently scheduled to wrap up in April.  The D.C. Circuit has not yet scheduled oral argument.  We will keep you posted on the latest developments in this case and other appeals presenting the same issue.

We have repeatedly discussed in this space the ongoing debate among the federal courts about ascertainability—a red-hot topic in class action litigation these days. (For a more detailed look at our views on the ascertainability doctrine, see the amicus brief (pdf) that we filed on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers in support of a pending cert petition.) That topic—and the debate among the lower courts—shows no sign of slowing down, as evidenced by new decisions issued by the Second, Sixth, and Third Circuits over the past two months. The central takeaway from these decisions is that while ascertainability is not a panacea for defendants facing consumer class actions, the doctrine (or variations on the ascertainability theme) should help defeat class actions in many circuits when class members cannot be identified without individualized inquiries.

Continue Reading Making sense of the cascade of appellate decisions on ascertainability

We’ve previously blogged about Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court (“BMS”), in which the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review a decision of the California Supreme Court that adopted an unusual—and extraordinarily expansive—view of California courts’ power to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant.

We filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the California Chamber of Commerce, the American Tort Reform Association, and the Civil Justice Association of California, arguing that the California court’s holding conflicted with numerous Supreme Court decisions making clear that in order to invoke specific jurisdiction, a plaintiff’s claims must arise out of the defendant’s in-state conduct.  (The views in this post are ours, and not those of our clients.)

The case was argued in April, and the Court announced its decision today. The result is an 8-1 opinion rejecting the California Supreme Court’s approach and, in our view, recognizing important limits imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause on the ability of courts to adjudicate cases that aggregate the claims of plaintiffs from many jurisdictions.

The immediate impact of the decision is to limit the forums where nationwide mass actions in state court can proceed to those states in which the defendant is subject to general jurisdiction (usually the state of incorporation and principal place of business).  In addition, as we discuss below, the decision raises substantial questions about whether nationwide class actions can proceed in jurisdictions where a defendant is not subject to general jurisdiction. Continue Reading Supreme Court’s Decision In Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court Rejects Expansive View Of Specific 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.)

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

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.

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

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

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.

As readers of our blog know, ascertainability is one of the most contentious issues in class action litigation these days.  Ascertainability is the main issue presented in Jones v. ConAgra Foods, No. 14-16327, a pending Ninth Circuit case in which the plaintiff and his amici have mounted a full-scale attack on whether the ascertainability requirement even exists.  Along with our colleagues Andy Pincus and Dan Jones, we have filed an amicus brief (pdf) on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States arguing that ascertainability is a critical requirement for class certification, and that due process forbids courts from relaxing that requirement in the name of certifying a class.

As we explain in the brief, the plaintiff in Jones proposed a consumer class whose members will be largely impossible to identify.  The putative class consists of California residents who purchased certain Hunt’s canned tomato products bearing particular labels.  Who are these people?  The answer cannot be found through objective documentation:  Consumers typically do not keep receipts or packaging from food products (or other similar products) that likely were purchased or consumed years ago.  The plaintiff in Jones says that this hurdle can be overcome by allowing absent class members to file affidavits testifying that they purchased a particular product (presumably based on their recollection).  But that testimony and recollection (under the plaintiff’s proposal) would be immune from challenge by the defendant (for example, through cross-examination).

The district court properly held (pdf) that this proposal flunked the ascertainability requirement implicit in Rule 23.  On appeal, Jones and his amici (Public Citizen and the Center for Science in the Public Interest) argue that the approach to ascertainability adopted by the district court is a recent invention of the Third Circuit in Carrera v. Bayer Corp.  (We’ve discussed Carrera extensively.)  They contend that the ascertainability requirement should be either eliminated from the class certification analysis altogether or substantially relaxed in order to clear the runway for consumer class actions.

In our brief, we explain why that view is mistaken.  Here are some of the key points from our brief:

  • The assumption by the plaintiff and his amici that the ability to certify class actions is to be promoted at every turn is deeply misguided.  Class actions are a means of dispute resolution, not an end in themselves.  As the Supreme Court recently reiterated in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, class actions are an “exception to the usual rule” that cases are litigated individually, and it is therefore critical that courts apply a “rigorous analysis” to the requirements governing class certification before a lawsuit is approved for class treatment.
  •  Ascertainability is one of those requirements that, like many other class certification requirements, is rooted in well-established principles of due process.  It seems hard to dispute that if the named plaintiff were to sue a company over a particular product on his own, he would have to prove at trial that he purchased the challenged product and that he was injured as a result.  As a matter of due process, the defendant would have to be given the opportunity to challenge the plaintiff’s evidentiary showing, including through cross-examination, and to have a court or jury resolve any factual disputes.
  • The fact that a plaintiff has chosen to bring a class action cannot alter the due process rights of defendants.  A Rule 23 class action is the sum of the individual class members’ claims within it—nothing more.  The Supreme Court made this clear in Dukes when it held that a class can’t be certified “on the premise that [the defendant] will not be entitled to litigate its * * * defenses to individual claims.”  Interpreting Rule 23 otherwise would violate the Rules Enabling Act, which embodies the due process principle that procedural rules cannot “abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.”  28 U.S.C. § 2072(b).
  • Ascertainability ensures that due process is honored by preserving defendants’ ability to challenge any would-be class member’s claim of eligibility and right to recovery.  Without a reliable and administratively feasible method for identifying who is in a class, defendants will have no way to bring such challenges, short of extensive individualized fact-finding and an unmanageable series of mini-trials.
  • Virtually all courts to consider the issue have insisted that plaintiffs demonstrate that a proposed class is ascertainable.  And the notion that ascertainability should be relaxed or ignored in order to make consumer class actions easier to bring runs headlong into defendants’ due process rights.
  • The policy argument advanced by the plaintiff and his amici that unascertainable class actions of this sort are beneficial cannot be squared with the evidence.  In a theme we have explored on this blog, the ordinary justification for class actions—that they offer benefits for class members who would not pursue relief on their own—is simply inapplicable to cases involving class members who can’t be identified; when such class actions are certified, only a handful of class members actually receive benefits.

We will be watching Jones v. ConAgra closely to see whether the Ninth Circuit—which oversees the so-called “Food Court”—continues to ensure that ascertainability is satisfied in class actions.  But the Ninth Circuit is not the only circuit that will address the question.  This Friday (February 6), the Eleventh Circuit will hear oral argument in Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc., No. 14-11648.  (We’ve covered the district court’s decision in Karhu.)  In Karhu, plaintiffs argue that class members can be identified through claimant affidavits and retailer records.  Like the plaintiffs in Jones, the Karhu plaintiffs argue that Carrera was wrongly decided and should not be followed.

Will either circuit create a split with Carrera and other cases?  Stay tuned!

There seem to be two prevailing conceptions of class actions.  In one view, a class action is a way of determining many similar claims at once by evaluating common evidence that reliably establishes liability (and lays a ground work for efficiently calculating damages) for each class member.  That is, the class device produces the same results as individual actions would, but more efficiently.  In the other view—one we consider misguided—a “class” of plaintiffs complaining about similar conduct can have their claims determined through statistical sampling even if no common evidence will provide a common answer to common factual or legal questions. Instead, this theory holds, the results of mini-trials can simply be extrapolated to the entire class, even if individual results would vary widely.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit took a step deeper into the second camp in Jimenez v. Allstate Insurance Co. (pdf), delivering a ringing endorsement of statistical sampling as a way to establish liability as well as damages.

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