Tag Archives: Commonality/Predominance

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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Congress Considering Major Class Action Reform Legislation

View Adam Doerr's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comRep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, recently introduced a bill that would make significant changes to federal class action litigation. The Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 (H.R. 985) states that it is intended to allow prompt recoveries to plaintiffs with legitimate claims and “diminish abuses in class action and mass tort litigation that are undermining the integrity of the U.S. legal system.”

In its current form, the draft bill would likely eclipse the 2005 passage of the Class Action Fairness Act as the most significant legislation on class actions in decades. Rep. Goodlatte has introduced similar legislation in previous years, but passage is considerably enhanced with unified Republican control of the House, Senate, and Presidency. Among other changes, the bill would enact the following:

  • Prevent certification of a class seeking monetary relief unless the plaintiff “affirmatively demonstrates that each proposed class member suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative or representatives.” (§ 1716) In other words, classes could not include individuals who have not suffered damage, or where damage is not yet clear.
  • Require class counsel to describe how the named plaintiff agreed to be included in the complaint, identify any other class action where the named plaintiff had a similar role, and disclose any family or employment relationship between class counsel and the named plaintiff (in which case certification must be denied). (§ 1717)
  • Require the party seeking certification to show a “reliable and administratively feasible mechanism” for (a) determining whether class members fall within the class definition and (b) distributing monetary relief to “a substantial majority of class members.” (§ 1718(a)). This provision appears to be an effort to impose a formal ascertainability requirement on class certification, as the Fourth Circuit has done in some cases.
  • Make significant changes to attorneys’ fees, including (1) preventing any payment or even determination of fees to class counsel until the distribution of monetary recovery to class members is complete, (2) limiting fee awards to “a reasonable percentage of any payments directly distributed to and received by class members,” and (3) limiting the payment of attorney’s fees based on equitable relief to “a reasonable percentage of the value of the equitable relief.” (§ 1718(b)).
  • Require courts to report, and the Federal Judicial Center to track, disbursements to class members. The Federal Judicial Center would prepare an annual report summarizing how funds paid by defendants in class actions have been distributed, including the largest and smallest amounts paid to any class member and payments to class counsel. (§ 1719) Alison Frankel of Reuters, who writes often and well on class actions, referred to this as “most intriguing idea in House Republicans’ bill to gut class actions.”
  • Bar certification of issue classes (§ 1720), an issue we have previously covered in both a district court case regarding the relationship between predominance and issue certification and when the Supreme Court declined to resolve a circuit split over issue certification.
  • Stay discovery while preliminary motions are pending. (§ 1721) (Interestingly, this provision formally recognizes a “motion to strike class allegations,” a motion that is not currently listed by name under Rule 23, although such motions may be permitted under Rule 23(d)(1)(D), which allows the Court to enter an order to “require that the pleadings be amended to eliminate allegations about representation of absent persons.”)
  • Provide for appellate review of orders granting or denying class certification as a matter of right. (§ 1722) This would be a significant departure from current practice under Rule 23(f), which gives Courts of Appeal substantial discretion in deciding whether to permit such interlocutory appeals.

The bill would also allow more personal injury cases to stay in federal court by changing the diversity jurisdiction analysis in multiple plaintiff cases, and it would make significant changes to multidistrict litigation practice, including barring the transferee judge from conducting a trial unless all parties consent.

The draft legislation is already generating controversy, and this will significantly increase as it advances. In particular, basing attorney’s fee awards on a percentage of the “value of the equitable relief” will be hotly debated. Equitable relief is, by nature, difficult or impossible to value in financial terms. The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has already registered its opposition, noting the difficulty of putting a value on a class relief protecting disabled individuals from abusive conditions or providing them access to treatment, transportation, and community services.

The bill was introduced on February 9. On February 15, following a series of failed attempts by Democrats to introduce amendments, the Judiciary Committee voted on party lines (19-12) to forward to the bill to the full House. We’ll continue to track this legislation and bring you significant updates.

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NC Supreme Court Affirms Certification of 800,000 Member Class (Fisher Part 2)

View Adam Doerr's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.com
As we explained in Part 1 of our analysis of Fisher v. Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corporation, the North Carolina Supreme Court recently exercised jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal and affirmed the certification of a class of hundreds of thousands of current and former tobacco farmers. In the first part, we discussed the Court’s jurisdictional analysis and North Carolina’s unique approach to interlocutory appeals of class certification orders. In this post, we discuss the Court’s substantive analysis of the class certification issues.

The Cooperative’s first challenge to class certification involved the argument that plaintiffs’ claims were derivative. The Cooperative argued that, like a North Carolina corporation, it was entitled to receive a written demand from members to take suitable action before filing suit. The Court declined to decide this question, holding that the derivative demand requirement in section 55-7-42 of the General Statues did not address class certification. The Court also noted that Rule 23 and the Court’s precedent did not require the trial court to consider whether class claims are derivative. The Court explicitly stated that it “express[ed] no opinion” on the derivative issues and noted that the Cooperative could make this argument via a motion to dismiss. Under the Court’s analysis, derivative and class certification issues are distinct, at least under the somewhat unique circumstances of this case.

The Court then turned to the core Rule 23 issues of commonality and manageability. Citing Crow v. Citicorp Acceptance Co., 319 N.C. 274 (1987), which apparently retains its status as one of the leading North Carolina decisions on Rule 23, the Court noted the requirement that there be no conflict of interest between the class representative and the unnamed class members. The Cooperative had argued that one of the named Plaintiffs was a member of the Cooperative’s board of directors, a conflict of interest that should have precluded class certification. The Court disagreed, noting that the plaintiffs had not alleged that individual members of the board had engaged in misconduct, and that none of the directors was named as an individual defendant. Accordingly, the Court held, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in certifying the class.

Interestingly, the Court implies that it would have affirmed the trial court had it reached the opposite conclusion:

Although a trial court might review a class representative’s other activities and find that these activities create a conflict of interest with class members, here the trial court exercised its discretion and determined that Renegar is capable of representing the interests of class members.

The fact that a hypothetical trial court might have found that this conflict of interest prevented certification serves as an important reminder of the demanding standard of review for class certification decisions. This statement also illustrates how opinions like Fisher have important limitations as precedent at the trial level. Litigants in future cases won’t be able to cite Fisher as stating a general rule that directors can serve as class representatives in a case challenging decisions in which they participated. Rather, future plaintiffs will only be able to say that, under the circumstances of this case, it was not an abuse of discretion to certify a class despite the fact that a director was named as a class representative. Of course, their opponents would be equally justified in noting, based on the language quoted above, that a denial of certification on this basis would probably have been affirmed in similar fashion.

Next, the Court turned to the Cooperative’s claims that other conflicts of interest among members of the class precluded certification. These alleged conflicts included that (1) some class members still participated in the cooperative and others did not, (2) some class members were involved in a federal case where they claimed their interests were not being represented in the Fisher action, and (3) certain class members who sold tobacco during years where the Cooperative had positive revenues had claims that other class members lacked. The Court did not engage these questions in any detail, and it did not address the federal lawsuit at all. Instead, it emphasized that the “trial court may be in the best position to determine whether any conflicts among class members warrant denial of class certification,” and that the trial court had “considered defendant’s arguments and rejected them.” Again, the abuse of discretion standard played a central role in the Court’s analysis.

The Court then turned questions of commonality and manageability. Citing its 2014 decision in Beroth Oil Co. v. NC DOT, 367 N.C. 333 (2014), the Court noted that Beroth involved a “discrete fact-specific inquiry” for members of the class, as we discussed in our analysis of the case. Here, the Court noted, the “trial court identified many issues of law and fact that are common to the class.” And, as with its discussion of conflicts of interest, the Court implied that it may well have affirmed the opposite conclusion, noting that “the trial court exercised its broad discretion to allow, rather than deny, class certification.”

Finally, the Court affirmed the trial court’s manageability finding, noting the “extremely large number of similarly situated class members and the impracticality of requiring them to protect their rights through filing hundreds of thousands of individual lawsuits.” The Court did not address whether the individual class members would actually have pursued such claims, given the fact that many of them may not have farmed tobacco for decades or had a claim to any reserves, nor did it address the Cooperative’s argument that the size of the class and lengthy class period would make the class action unmanageable. Once again, it deferred to the trial court, noting that it could not conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by ruling that a class action was superior to individual litigation.

Although Fisher generally follows existing precedent in Crow and Beroth, it provides an important demonstration of this Supreme Court’s willingness to defer to trial courts on class certification. We’ll be watching to see if that holds in future cases as the Court changes, and we’ll also monitor whether North Carolina appellate courts will begin to take a more permissive approach towards interlocutory review of orders granting class certification more generally. As for Fisher itself, the case has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings, although it’s unclear where that will be, given that Judge Jolly was handling the case as a Rule 2.1 judge and has since retired. We’ll continue to follow this case, which offers the potential to raise many interesting issues as it proceeds, especially in the areas of class notice and administration.

(John Wester of our firm served as amicus counsel to the NC Chamber in Fisher.)

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Class Certified on Failure To Notify Employees of Impending Hospital Closure

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comFailure to give the requisite 60-days’ notice to a group of employees under the WARN Act seems like it implicates a quintessential common question for adjudication under Rule 23. But in Hutson v. CAH Acquisition Company 10, LLC, 1:15CV742 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 15, 2016), Defendant gamely tried to suggest that there were factual issues that must be resolved as to each plaintiff. Admittedly, the case was a bit more complicated than the typical WARN Act case – the closing of the employer’s facility was postponed, and there apparently was confusion about just what the employer explained to employees about the postponement. But Judge Osteen did not pause long in certifying the class, observing that “whether the [new] notice was timely and sufficient under the WARN Act or whether notice was in effect given at all, are questions of law and fact common to the class.” Judge Osteen similarly rejected defendant’s typicality argument, holding that the claims at issue all “arise out of the exact same conduct, and rest on the exact same legal theories as those of the proposed class.” The prospect of adjudicating 130 individual claims under the WARN Act – for the same closure event – seems daunting, and Judge Osteen’s decision on class certification was right down the middle of the fairway on this one.

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Court Refuses to Certify Class in Product Defect Case

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comIn February 2014, the Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred a series of cases against Pella Corporation, a window manufacturer, to the District of South Carolina. Judge Norton dismissed most of the claims, but preserved claims alleging breach of express warranty with respect to Pella’s failure to repair or replace windows under its limited warranty. The windows, so plaintiffs alleged, leaked, and the plaintiffs sought certification of a class consisting of owners of structures in New York from 1997 through 2007 who had made a claim under Pella’s Limited Warranty. The “common issue” upon which Plaintiffs founded their class certification contentions was whether the windows were defective.

The court first grappled with whether changes in the design of the windows during the class period destroyed commonality under Rule 23(a). The issue there, as Judge Norton saw it, was whether “the design variations had any impact on the windows’ vulnerability to water intrusion.” Without deciding this issue, the court assumed that the design changes did not, and focused on another problem created for class certification – New York law requires that a warranty “actually be breached,” not simply that a product exhibit a defect. Pella, the court reasoned, could not be said to have breached the terms of its own warranty unless it received notice of a defect. And the multiple defects asserted compounded this issue, leading the trial judge to observe that “[w]hatever the outcome of plaintiffs’ proposed class trial, the court will need to make individual determinations as to the underlying cause of each class member’s warranty claim.” Without definitively resolving the commonality issue, the Court determined that plaintiffs had problems showing predominance under Rule 23(b)(3). The court acknowledged that it was not uncommon to certify product liability claims, but distinguished the case before it – which principally involved a challenge to the failure to repair and replace the windows, rather than the plaintiffs’ initial purchase of a defective window. Relying on Fourth Circuit precedent, the court observed that “[t]here is no question that individual inquiries into causation and affirmative defenses may preclude class certification.” (citing to Lienhart v. Dryvit Sys. Inc., and Broussard v. Meineke Discount Muffler Shops, Inc.).

This case is one of several where plaintiffs – recognizing potential commonality problems – have moved for issue certification under Rule 23(c)(4), a subject we have addressed in earlier posts here. Judge Norton noted that “the emerging majority,” including two district court decisions in the Fourth Circuit, have “found that a court ‘may use Rule 23(c)(4) to certify a class as to an issue regardless of whether the claim as a whole satisfies the predominance test in Rule 23(b)(3).’” Although Judge Norton seemed amenable to avoiding the predominance problem through issue certification, he articulated – like many courts – that issue certification would not make a Rule 23 proceeding “superior,” citing Farrar (which we previously covered here). In the end, the court’s decision was founded on this point, concluding that “class certification – even on the limited issue of whether the windows contained a defect – is not superior to other methods of adjudication.”

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