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.
Today, in CalPERS v. ANZ Securities, Inc. (pdf), the Supreme Court recognized a crucial limitation on the doctrine that allows a class action to toll the deadline for absent class members to bring their own separate individual suits. We’ve been following this issue in the CalPERS appeal for some time. (See our previous reports on this appeal.)
In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court held that the American Pipe tolling doctrine does not apply to statutes of repose. As a result, the three-year statute of repose in the Securities Act of 1933 barred a suit that CalPERS had filed against the underwriters for certain Lehman Brothers debt securities more than three years after the securities were issued, but while a timely class action bringing similar claims was pending.
Yesterday afternoon, the Supreme Court heard oral argument (pdf) in CalPERS v. ANZ Securities, a case that asks whether a plaintiff asserting violations of Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 can file suit after the three-year outer limit for such suits has passed, if a class action encompassing the plaintiff’s claims was timely filed and remained pending. The answer to that important question, which has divided the federal courts of appeals, will tell defendants facing suit over the issuance of securities whether the Securities Act’s three-year repose period is a real protection against belated lawsuits or simply a limited protection that dissolves once a timely class action is filed. Yesterday’s argument suggested the Court, too, may be divided about how to resolve this debate.
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.
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.
We’ve often argued that when the principal rationale for approving a low-value class settlement is that the claims are weak, that is a signal that the case should not have been filed as a class action in the first place. The Second Circuit recently reached that exact conclusion when considering a proposed class settlement in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) case, holding that the putative class couldn’t be certified and that the FDCPA claims should be dismissed.
[Editors’ note: Today we’re featuring a guest post by Tim Fielden, who is in-house counsel at Microsoft. His post spotlights an emerging—and important—issue in class-action litigation.]
In two recent decisions, the Ninth Circuit has carved out a new path for plaintiffs seeking immediate review of the denial of class certification: voluntarily dismiss the complaint under Rule 41(a), appeal from the final judgment, and challenge the class certification denial on appeal. If this tactic gains currency, plaintiffs (but not defendants) will have the right to an immediate appeal from any adverse class certification ruling. But at least four circuits have rejected this tactic, and the maneuver contravenes a unanimous Supreme Court decision limiting review of class decisions. As a result, defendants have reason to hope that these Ninth Circuit decisions will have limited and short-lived impact.
Plaintiffs have long sought early review of class certification denials without the bother of pursuing their individual claims to judgment on the merits. But in Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463 (1978), the Supreme Court rejected arguments that an order denying class certification should be immediately appealable, either as a final “collateral order” or because the denial of certification signals the “death knell” for the case when plaintiffs decide not to proceed to an appealable final judgment. The Court explained that because only Congress may expand the grounds for appellate review, “the fact that an interlocutory order may induce a party to abandon his claim before final judgment is not a sufficient reason for considering it a ‘final decision’ within the meaning of § 1291.” Id. at 477. And the Court added that the death knell doctrine unfairly “operates only in favor of plaintiffs [by giving them an immediate right to appeal] even though the class issue … will often be of critical importance to defendants as well.” Id. at 476.
As a result, plaintiffs for years had only limited routes to immediate review after a denial of class certification. Absent the district court’s certification of the decision for review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) or the court of appeals’ acceptance of mandamus review, a plaintiff could obtain review of a class certification denial only by taking her individual case to trial and then appealing from the judgment on the merits. In 1998, Congress created a new avenue to review, amending Rule 23 to allow parties to file a petition seeking permission for an immediate appeal of adverse class decisions, which the courts of appeals could grant or deny at their discretion.
The Ninth Circuit’s End Run Around Rule 23(f)
In Berger v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 741 F.3d 1061 (9th Cir. 2014), the Ninth Circuit opened a new route for plaintiffs seeking interlocutory review of the denial of class certification. In Berger, the plaintiff chose not to seek Rule 23(f) review, which the Ninth Circuit could have exercised its discretion to deny. Instead, he voluntarily dismissed his case and appealed from the final judgment. In essence, he made good on the “death knell” threat from Coopers & Lybrand: he ended his case in response to the class certification order. Ignoring Coopers & Lybrand, the Berger panel held that the Rule 41 dismissal was sufficiently adverse to the plaintiff’s interests to create appellate jurisdiction, because Berger dismissed his individual claims with prejudice without settling. Id. at 1066.
Unlike in Berger, the plaintiffs in Baker v. Microsoft Corp., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 4317 (9th Cir. Mar. 18, 2015), sought Rule 23(f) review of the district court’s order striking class allegations, but the Ninth Circuit denied review. Months later, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed, declaring their intent to seek review of the order striking class allegations. Before the decision in Berger, Microsoft asked the Ninth Circuit to dismiss, relying on Coopers & Lybrand and a Ninth Circuit opinion dismissing an appeal from a Rule 41(b) dismissal after the denial of class certification. In the meantime, Berger was decided. And the Baker panel, following Berger, decided that it had jurisdiction over the appeal. Neither the Baker nor Berger panels mentioned the previous (and conflicting) Ninth Circuit decision.
There is a strong possibility that the panel decisions in Baker and Berger are not the end of the story.
In Baker, Microsoft has filed a petition for en banc review (pdf), arguing that, among other things, Berger and Baker conflict with Coopers & Lybrand and at least one prior Ninth Circuit opinion.
The petition also notes the existence of a long-standing circuit split on this issue. A 25-year-old Second Circuit decision reached the same result as Berger and Baker. See Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 903 F.2d 176, 179 (2d Cir. 1990). But at least four other circuits have rejected this approach to seeking appellate review of the denial of class certification. Most recently, in Camesi v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, 729 F.3d 239 (3d Cir. 2013), the Third Circuit held that it lacked appellate jurisdiction when workers dismissed their individual complaints with prejudice in an attempt to appeal the district court’s ruling decertifying their collective actions. The Third Circuit rejected their “procedural sleight of hand to bring about finality,” and held that “voluntary dismissals … constitute impermissible attempts to manufacture finality[.]” Id. at 245. The Fourth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits agree that they lack jurisdiction over such an appeal. See Rhodes v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 636 F.3d 88, 100 (4th Cir. 2011); Telco Grp., Inc. v. AmeriTrade, Inc., 552 F.3d 893, 893-94 (8th Cir. 2009) (per curiam); Bowe v. First of Denver Mortg. Investors, 613 F.2d 798, 800-02 (10th Cir. 1980).
This conflict provides reason to believe that the Ninth Circuit should grant rehearing en banc. Businesses should watch further proceedings in Baker closely.
In NECA-IBEW v. Goldman Sachs, the Second Circuit arguably opened up a new door in class action litigation when it held that investors in one securities offering had standing to represent a putative class of investors in other offerings, as long as the fraud claims on both securities gave rise to “the same set of concerns.” (Our past coverage of that decision is here.) The Second Circuit’s recent decision in Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund v. The Bank of New York Mellon, argued by our colleague Charles Rothfeld, clarifies and narrows that ruling, especially as to claims for breach of contract.
At issue in Policemen’s Fund were a series of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trusts. These trusts hold pools of mortgages and thus receive the stream of interest and principal payments from mortgage borrowers; beneficial ownership interests in the trusts are then sold to investors. The Policemen’s Fund plaintiffs are investors in 15 residential mortgage securitizations who sued the trustee (the Bank of New York Mellon) for alleged breaches of the trust agreements, state law duties, and the federal Trust Indenture Act. The question in the case was whether the named plaintiffs—who had invested in some RMBS trusts within the class definition but had not invested in many others —nonetheless had standing to sue on behalf of putative class members who had invested in those other trusts. (The case also involved questions about the scope of the Trust Indenture Act; the court ultimately decided that the TIA doesn’t apply to most RMBS; please see our report on the securities-law aspects of the decision for more details.)
The Second Circuit held that the named plaintiffs did not have standing to sue on behalf of the putative class members who had invested in trusts that the named plaintiffs had not. And helpfully for defendants, the court held that the named plaintiffs’ claims did not implicate the “same set of concerns” as those of the other class members by focusing on the proof required for each claim. Specifically, the court observed that “the absent class members’ claims” in NECA “were similar to those of the named plaintiffs in all essential respects,” because the alleged misstatements were in a shelf registration statement, and all of the securities were issued from the same shelf. In other words, the court explained, “the defendants’ alleged Securities Act violations inhered in making the same misstatements across multiple offerings.” By contrast, the court explained, the claims at issue in Policemen’s Fund required that the alleged misconduct “be proved loan-by-loan and trust-by-trust”; the claims depend upon the potentially varying conduct of the trustee and the entities the trustee purportedly should have supervised.
The Second Circuit’s analysis thus represents a rejection of a free-floating and malleable approach, which some commentators have argued that NECA permits, to the question whether the claims involve the “same set of concerns.” Indeed, the court shot down the plaintiffs’ arguments that relied on such a nebulous conception of class standing. First, the plaintiffs had suggested that it was the trustee’s allegedly common “policy of inaction” that was at issue, not its loan-specific conduct. That doesn’t solve the standing problem, the Second Circuit held, because “they would still have to show which [securitization] trusts actually had deficiencies that required BNYM to act in the first place.” Second, the plaintiffs proposed to use statistical sampling to show defects across securitizations. But the court held that such a methodology, (which we have criticized before) would require that plaintiffs “augment” the proof that they would have offered on their own claims; that prospect “does nothing to reassure us that Plaintiffs themselves have any real interest in litigating the absent class members’ claims.”
Policemen’s Fund is an important step toward reining in what—if NECA-IBEW were interpreted the wrong way—could have been an unbounded test for class standing (itself a novel and amorphous doctrine). Now, if the proof that the plaintiff would present on its own claim does not—at a minimum—go a long way toward proving the claims of absent class members, then the tag-along claims may be dismissed at the pleading stage for lack of standing rather than waiting for class certification. That aspect of the Policemen’s Fund ruling significantly limits the ability of plaintiffs’ firms to leverage small investor clients who are not representative of a proposed class to bring overly broad class actions.
Today is Halloween, an occasion when our thoughts turn to jack o’lanterns, ghosts, and zombies. We are particularly fascinated by zombies—the dead returned to life. But we’re not the only ones. In a decision earlier this week, a majority of the National Labor Relations Board voted to reanimate the dead.
The Board’s zombie of choice? Its decision nearly three years ago in D.R. Horton (pdf), in which the Board sought to push back on arbitration agreements that require individual arbitration rather than class or collective actions. As our readers know by now, most courts have accepted the Supreme Court’s clear and emphatic message that the Federal Arbitration Act protects the right of contracting parties to agree to resolve any disputes through arbitration on an individual basis. But the NLRB, which hears complaints alleging unfair labor practices, came to a different conclusion in D.R. Horton, concluding that individual arbitration interferes with the right of employees to engage in “concerted activities” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act— and that its interpretation of the NLRA trumps the FAA. Yet, for reasons we—along with many other critics—have discussed, that approach gets it exactly backward. The Supreme Court has held that the FAA takes precedence in the absence of a contrary congressional command. Nothing in the NLRA itself (as opposed to the Board’s own policy views) evinces a clear congressional command to override the FAA. And the Board itself cannot override a congressional enactment like the FAA.
For these reasons, the Board’s D.R. Horton ruling has been rejected by almost every court to consider it: by the Fifth Circuit (on direct review), by the Second Circuit, by the Eighth Circuit, by more than a dozen federal district courts, and— most recently— by the California Supreme Court.
But the Board, rather than acquiescing in the face of this avalanche of judicial authority, has sought to resurrect it. Earlier this week, by a 3–2 vote, the Board issued its decision in Murphy Oil USA (pdf), reaffirming D.R. Horton and rejecting the views of the courts. The Board dismissed most of the contrary authority in cavalier fashion—disparaging the Second and Eighth Circuit’s decisions for their “abbreviated” analysis, and refusing to engage with the California Supreme Court’s decision or any federal district court decision because those courts don’t typically exercise direct review over Board decisions.
As for the Fifth Circuit’s decision, the Board complained that the court gave “too little weight to [Board] policy” and that “[t]he costs to Federal labor policy imposed by the Fifth Circuit’s decision would be very high.” But this assessment simply underscores the error in the Board’s ways: An agency’s general policy views, no matter how strongly felt, cannot override the powerful congressional mandate favoring the enforcement of arbitration agreements that is embodied in the FAA. And even though the Board has authority to set policy under the NLRA, the Board’s view of what the FAA requires is not entitled to any weight at all, because Congress has never given the agency authority to interpret or administer that statute.
In response to the Fifth Circuit’s legal analysis, the Board did little more in Murphy Oil than repeat its view— resting on nothing more than the Board’s say so in D.R. Horton— that the right to engage in “concerted activities” under Section 7 includes an unwaivable substantive right to class-action procedures. But nothing in the text of the NLRA commands or even suggests that result. Although the Board purported to find an “inherent conflict” between the NLRA and the FAA, the purported conflict in fact arises only from the Board’s questionable interpretation of the NLRA, not from anything inherent in the statute itself. At bottom, the Board’s position rests on its own view of federal labor policy, not any congressional command, and an agency’s views cannot override what Congress enacted in the FAA. (Moreover, as the Fifth Circuit pointed out, the agency’s insistence that the purported right to class-action procedures is a nonwaivable substantive right under the NLRA is questionable even on its own terms.)
The Board’s decision will not be the last word on this matter. As in D.R. Horton, this latest decision is subject to direct review by a federal court of appeals, which will be free to reject the Board’s position and deny enforcement of its order. Given the weight of judicial authority rejecting D.R. Horton and the Board’s failure to respond to that authority in a convincing manner, the Board’s position will likely continue to be met with skepticism in the courts. For now, however, employers that use arbitration agreements with their employees may face possible challenges from the Board or from employees seeking to pursue class or collective actions. In short, the D.R. Horton zombie will continue to stalk the land for the immediate future.
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.