Archives: United States Supreme Court

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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Oral Argument in Class Action Waiver Cases Postponed to October

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comLast week, we observed that the Supreme Court appeared to be waiting for a ninth justice to decide in an important case involving appealability of class action certification decisions. A news report today* indicates that the Supreme Court has also pushed out arguments concerning the enforceability of class action waivers. As we recently reported in this space, the Court had agreed in three cases to decide whether the NLRA prohibits employers from requiring non-management employees covered by the NLRA to arbitrate their work-related claims individually. For employers, particularly those with a nationwide workforce, this remains one of the few tools available to stave off expensive and risky class litigation from employees. The Court apparently will not hear argument in these cases until the 2017 term, which begins in October. We will be watching the Supreme Court for further developments.

*You may have to register to access the linked article at Law360.

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Important Class Action Apparently Awaits the Ninth Justice

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.com
About a year ago, the United States Supreme Court granted Microsoft’s petition to review this question: “Whether a federal court of appeals has jurisdiction under both Article III and 28 U.S.C. Section 1291 to review an order denying class certification after the named plaintiffs voluntarily dismiss their individual claims with prejudice.” Briefing in the case was completed last June, but the case has yet to appear in the calendar of the fourth sitting of the Supreme Court’s term, which began January 9, 2017. Although the reasons for the delay aren’t pellucid, this is an important case and likely is being held for a time when a full complement of the Court can decide the question.

The case comes from the Ninth Circuit, which held that 28 U.S.C. Section 1291 provided jurisdiction to review the trial court’s decision to strike class allegations, even though the named plaintiffs had dismissed their claims with prejudice. The district court found that the underlying claims, which alleged that a “design defect in the Xbox console gouges game discs,” could not proceed as a class because individual issues predominated. The plaintiffs sought interlocutory review under Rule 23(f), but the Ninth Circuit declined to take the appeal. Under the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463, 466 (1978), this meant the plaintiffs would need to wait until after final judgment in the case before they would be able to obtain review of the class determination. But litigation is expensive, and trying a case about a few game discs—as opposed to millions of them—is not normally an attractive proposition for plaintiffs’ counsel. In most cases, of course, plaintiffs are loath to dismissing their claims as a condition to obtaining review for class claims, but in consumer litigation—where the individual stakes are quite small—this is not so. So the plaintiffs dismissed their claims with prejudice and filed a notice of appeal with the Ninth Circuit. This allowed them to do what Livesay seemed to prohibit—obtain an immediate appeal.

Relying on previous precedent in the circuit, however, the Ninth Circuit held that “a dismissal of an action with prejudice, even when such dismissal is the product of a stipulation, is a sufficiently adverse—and thus appealable—final decision.” Reaching the merits, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court and remanded to allow the class claims to go forward.

This option—if allowed by the Supreme Court—works only for plaintiffs in class action cases, not defendants. If defendants suffer an adverse class certification ruling, and the appellate court does not exercise its discretion to accept the interlocutory appeal, defendants must litigate the case to judgment before obtaining review of the class determination. And appellate courts don’t generally review class certification decisions on an interlocutory basis; one study indicates that less than one-quarter of such petitions are granted. Defendants are thus whipsawed: they can’t obtain interlocutory review of an adverse class certification decision and they can’t afford to take the risk of a class verdict. Put simply, they are at the mercy of a single trial judge and the stakes are enormous. As the Supreme Court has observed, class actions present a significant risk of “in terrorem settlements,” because defendants “[f]aced with even a small chance of a devastating loss . . . will be pressured into settling questionable claims.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, m 131 S. Ct. 1740, 1752 (2011).

But plaintiffs will have an enhanced ability to achieve appellate review if the Ninth Circuit decision is affirmed. Plaintiffs can also try a Rule 23(f) appeal, as they did in Baker. But if they lose, the named plaintiffs can dismiss their claims with prejudice and achieve immediate review of class certification as a matter of right. On its face, this inequality seems to be exactly what the Supreme Court wanted to avoid in Livesay when it refused to recognize the “death knell” doctrine embraced by numerous courts of appeals. There, the Court noted that the doctrine “operates only in favor of plaintiffs even though the class issue—whether to certify, and if so, how large the class should be—will often be of critical importance to defendants as well.”

As evidenced by the amount of amicus participation in this case, this decision is an important one and has significant stakes for consumers and businesses. Our guess is that the current justices are split 4 to 4 on this one, so stay tuned for the outcome of the confirmation process. Judge Gorsuch, for his part, seems to have a conservative view of the finality doctrine. See McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, 630 F.3d 1288 (10th Cir. 2011) (no appellate jurisdiction to consider district court’s order withdrawing approval of a class action settlement, observing that “[s]uch an order simply presses the reset button and marks the case for renewed litigation”).

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U.S. Supreme Court to Decide Circuit Split: Are Class Action Waivers in Employment Arbitration Agreements Enforceable?

View Amanda Pickens’ Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.com

On Friday, the United States Supreme Court granted three petitions for certiorari to determine a quickly developing circuit split. The question before the Court is whether the National Labor Relations Board is correct in its interpretation that class action waiver provisions in certain employment arbitration agreements are illegal under federal labor law. Since 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court permitted such waivers in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, employers have relied upon them to require that disputes be resolved through individual arbitration. The NLRB over the past few years has issued numerous decisions invalidating arbitration agreements because they contained class and collection action waivers. The NLRB has stood its ground and routinely stated that such waivers violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act and are unenforceable.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear three cases. Each involves the question whether the NLRA prohibits employers from requiring the non-management employees covered by the NLRA (employees not defined as “supervisors”) to arbitrate their work-related claims individually rather than as a class. The three cases come from the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits.

The Fifth Circuit, in Murphy Oil USA, Inc.v. NLRB, overturned the NLRB’s decision that Murphy Oil had unlawfully required employees at its Alabama facility to sign an arbitration agreement waiving their right to pursue class and collective actions. The Fifth Circuit held that the pro-arbitration policy of the Federal Arbitration Act overrides federal labor law interests and requires enforcement of the class waivers. On the other side of the circuit split, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits have held that corporations cannot require employees to give up their rights to pursue work-related claims on a class-wide basis. The U.S. Supreme Court will review Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., a case in which the Seventh Circuit held that an arbitration agreement precluding collective arbitration or collective actions violates federal labor law and is unenforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. The Court will also hear Morris v. Ernst & Young, a decision from the Ninth Circuit invalidating Ernst & Young’s mandatory arbitration agreement because it required employees to bring all claims in arbitration and limited such claims to those brought on an individual basis. These decisions put the Seventh and Ninth Circuit squarely at odds with the Second, Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuit, with more yet to weigh in.

The Fourth Circuit has not addressed this issue yet, although it has held that the availability of class arbitration under the terms of the arbitration agreement is a question for the Court, not the arbitrator, to decide, as we discussed last March. North Carolina courts have not addressed the NLRA waiver issue, nor are they likely to have the opportunity, although the Court of Appeals did follow the U.S. Supreme Court in holding that contractual waivers of class proceedings in arbitration agreements are permitted in North Carolina.

Stay tuned for further developments from the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Supreme Court Rebuffs Predominance Challenge to “Donning and Doffing Class”

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comYesterday, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, voting 6 – 2 to uphold a jury verdict in favor of employees in a donning and doffing action. The class of employees, certified under Iowa Wage and Hour law pursuant to Rule 23, and as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act, worked in the kill, cut and retrim departments of a pork processing plant. They were required to use protective gear and complained that they weren’t paid for the time spent to put on and take off the necessary protection equipment. Because Tyson didn’t keep records regarding this “donning and doffing” time, the employees (a 3,344 member class) relied on a study performed by an industrial relations expert to prove the average time spent on that activity.

A jury found Tyson liable for failure to pay the employees and awarded damages of $2.9 million, significantly less than the amount provided for in the expert’s study. The Eighth Circuit, over a dissent, affirmed the verdict in a decision we previously commented on in this post.

By direct contrast to the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the parties in Tyson did “not dispute that there are important questions common to all class members, the most significant of which is whether time spent donning and doffing the required protective gear is compensable work under the FLSA.” (Wal-Mart held that the absence of a common question doomed the class). But the difficulty arose from the fact that each person in the class needed to establish that the amount of time spent donnng and doffing, when added to his regular hours, amounted to more than 40 hours in a given week, so that overtime was owed. How can this be resolved, Tyson suggested, on a class-wide basis?

The key question, as Justice Kennedy framed it, was whether it could be inferred – based on the evidence – that “each employee donned and doffed for the same average time observed in the [expert’s] sample.” Six justices held that it could, and rejected the notion that so-called “representative evidence” was always impermissible to establish liability in favor of a class. Instead, the court determined that “in many cases, a representative sample is ‘the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data’ establishing a defendant’s liability.”

Distinguishing Wal-Mart, the Court emphasized that representative evidence could not be used as a “means to overcoming [the] absence of a common policy.” In Wal-Mart, the “employees were not similarly situated,” and the evidence submitted in favor of one employee’s claim was not probative of another’s. In Tyson, by contrast to Wal-Mart (where “the experiences of the employees . . . bore little relationship to one another”), each employee “worked in the same facility, did similar work and was paid under the same policy.”

The Court gave short shrift to the second question upon which it had accepted certiorari, namely whether a class may be certified if it contains “members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.” In its brief, Tyson had reframed its argument and, in the Court’s estimation, abandoned the argument from its petition. The Court acknowledged that “whether uninjured class members may recover is one of great importance,” but found it was not fairly presented in the case before it, principally because the “damages award has not yet been disbursed nor does the record indicate how it will be disbursed.” In a concurrence, Chief Justice Roberts – who observed that “hundreds of class members suffered no injury” – expressed skepticism that the District Court could devise any means to distribute the aggregate award only to injured class members.

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