How Will Justice Gorsuch Rule in Class Actions? A Look at Shook and Judicial Restraint

View John Wester's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comThe nomination of Tenth Circuit Judge Neil M. Gorsuch for the Supreme Court has jurists and reporters forecasting how, if confirmed, he will rule in cases raising “hot” Constitutional issues. The “hot” question for those of us who litigate class actions is how Justice Gorsuch would engage the next landmark class action, especially since he would replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the Court, author of two of the most significant class action opinions in recent years, Comcast Corp. v. Behrend and Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes.

We will be examining some of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions in an attempt to answer this question, beginning with the 2008 opinion he wrote for a unanimous panel of the Tenth Circuit, denying class certification, in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners, 543 F. 3d 557. The linchpin of the outcome in Shook was adherence to the abuse of discretion standard of review. Indeed, twice in his opinion, Judge Gorsuch observes that, were the court evaluating whether to certify the class in the first instance, it may well have allowed a class action to proceed. For example, he observed:

In this case, we believe the district court’s decision fell within the boundaries set out by Rule 23(b)(2), governing case law, and the facts as alleged. While we very well may have made a different decision had the issue been presented to us as an initial matter, and while other district courts perhaps could have chosen, or could choose, to certify similar classes, we cannot say the district court’s assessment was beyond the pale.

What comes through as a lodestar for Judge Gorsuch’s reasoning is his vigilance for honoring the rubric of Rule 23, separate from a merits analysis. Shook is a suit alleging violations of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The 2008 opinion marked a return trip to the Tenth Circuit for the parties. In the first ruling denying class relief, the district court had “conflated” an analysis of the merits of the relief available to the plaintiffs with threshold class certification requirements of Rule 23. Judge Gorsuch was specific in describing this error: “the court focused entirely on the PLRA, reasoning that the relief plaintiffs sought was beyond its jurisdictional competence after the passage of the PLRA and that class certification is properly denied when the court lacks the authority to order the prospective remedy requested.” On remand, the district court repeated the outcome on class certification, denying it again, but, as Judge Gorsuch described the second round: “[the district court] did so this time with reference to Rule 23’s strictures. We find that the district court’s analysis of the Rule 23 framework is free of the legal errors we identified in its first effort.”

Judge Gorsuch’s opinion in Shook reflects careful scholarship—drawing support from leading Supreme Court class action precedent, from decisions by five other circuit courts, and from five law review articles—all evaluating detailed features of Rule 23—to explain why the present case, under an abuse of discretion standard, should remain in the “certification denied” column: “It is precisely these features that distinguish our case from the many and diverse civil rights cases whose certifications we have upheld and will continue to uphold.” His approach in Shook fits the overall reputation for scholarship, judicial restraint, and “rules-following” that Judge Gorsuch has earned during his judicial service.

Taking into account this reputation and his reasoning in Shook, those who labor in class action cases might wonder how far will Justice Gorsuch’s deference to trial court discretion run when the next Wal-Mart-themed case reaches the Supreme Court. Recognizing that the record for each case is distinctive, the trial court ruling in Wal-Mart stood on a significant volume of evidence—statistical and anecdotal—pointing to gender discrimination. As Justice Ginsburg observed in dissent, focusing on the commonality requirement:

The District Court’s identification of a common question, whether Wal-Mart’s pay and promotions policies gave rise to unlawful discrimination, was hardly infirm. The practice of delegating to supervisors large discretion to make personnel decisions, uncontrolled by formal standards, has long been known to have the potential to produce disparate effects. Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware. The risk of discrimination is heightened when those managers are predominantly of one sex, and are steeped in a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes.

Would Judge Gorsuch’s adherence to abuse of discretion standard of review and his recognition that trial judges operate within a range of acceptable determinations lead to his siding with Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting view? Or, was Judge Gorsuch’s application of the abuse of discretion standard in Shook influenced by its context, an appeal arising from the district court’s denial of certification? Perhaps we’ll learn the answer with the next Supreme Court class action that pits judicial restraint against an inclination toward denial of certification.

We will continue our analysis of Judge Gorsuch’s class action opinions in future posts.

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About John Wester

John Wester concentrates in the trials and appeals of complex civil litigation, including corporate, partnership, and shareholder rights disputes, federal securities cases, unfair trade practice issues, tax controversies, patent infringement claims, and employment discrimination suits. Many of his cases have been brought as class actions.