Tag Archives: Manageability

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

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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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Court Certifies State Wage and Hour Claims Alongside FLSA Collective Claims

View David Wright's Complete Bio at RBH.com We have reported recently in this space on the certification of state wage and hour claims. Judge Gergel recently continued with this trend, certifying a class of Jamaican workers at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort who contend they weren’t paid enough by the Resort. See Moodie v. Kiawah Island Inn Co., LLC, No. 2:15-cv-1097 (D.S.C. Aug. 24, 2015). Defendants argued that the differences in class members were such that the court would have to certify six classes, but the Court rejected that notion, saying the argument stemmed from a “novel proposition that Plaintiffs must propose [a] separate class for every claim in the complaint.” Immediately following that, Judge Gergel gave a nod to “issue certification” in dicta, citing the language of Rule 23(c)(4) without wrestling with the difficulties looming in a surface analysis of that question, something which we have dealt with before here. The Court found that the legality of deductions made from the wages of the putative class was “central to the validity of each one of the claims,” and rejected the defense argument that a conflict arose by virtue of the representation of former employees by current employees. Citing Gunnells v. Healthplan Servs., Inc., Judge Gergel also rejected the argument that difficulties in determining damages resulted in a predominance problem for the class. In so holding, the Court did not grapple with the numerous cases post-Gunnells, including Comcast and its progeny that illustrate how individual damages issues can threaten the viability of class relief. In certifying the class, the Court paid particular attention to the difficulties associated with some 500 workers filing individual claims, noting that “class members are residents of a foreign country, likely to have limited financial resources, unfamiliar with the U.S. Court system, and have relatively small claims.”

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Fourth Circuit Upholds District Court’s Decision Not to Provide Pre-Certification Notice to Putative Class Members

View David Wright's Complete Bio at RBH.comIn an “opt out” class action, sending notice to class members following class certification is not only routine, but required by due process. But does a district court have the right to order notice prior to a decision on class certification? In Gardener v. GMAC, Inc., No. 14-208 (4th Cir. Aug. 6, 2015), both the district court and the Fourth Circuit “assumed for the sake of argument” that Rule 23(d)(1)(B) provides the trial court with that authority. But each declined to accept the plaintiffs’ argument that the facts warranted such notice. Observing that pre-certification dismissal does not amount to res judicata of the absent class members’ claims, Judge Diaz concluded that the district court’s decision not to order notice before it granted summary judgment fell well within the court’s discretionary powers. The panel’s decisions suggests that unnamed class members’ interests must be “compelling” in order to justify pre-trial notice.

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Judge Cogburn Issues Order Discussing Communications to Class Members During Pendency of Class Proceedings

View David Wright's Complete Bio at RBH.com We previously reported on Judge Cogburn’s decision to certify a class in an employee misclassification case, Rehberg v. Flowers Baking Co of Jamestown, LLC, No. 3:12-cv-596 (W.D.N.C. March 23, 2015). In May, the Fourth Circuit denied Defendants’ Rule 23(f) appeal, and so the case is proceeding in the district court. The class members have distributorship agreements with the Defendants that condition payments (in the event of any sale, conveyance or assignment) upon execution of a release. Class counsel apparently became irritated with the effect of these releases (and the communications accompanying them) and asked the Court to supervise this process, something a district court has broad authority to do. See generally Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 100 (1981). Defendants agreed to send certain “curative notices” and to inform class members of their right to petition the court to seek invalidation of the release, and the Court agreed this was reasonable. Judge Cogburn also sided with Defendants’ view that claims under the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act can be released by private agreement, and therefore declined generally to invalidate the general releases signed by class members.

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Business Court Approves Non-Opt-Out Class Settlement in Merger Case

View David Wright's Complete Bio at RBH.comThe North Carolina Business Court has seemed to settle upon a methodology in approving “disclosure only” settlements in merger cases. Following Judge Gale’s decision in In re Harris Teeter Merger Litigation, Judge Bledsoe certified a non-opt-out settlement class last week in In re PokerTek Merger Litigation, No. 14-CVS-105679 (Jan. 22, 2015), observing that such classes have become the norm both in Business Court and in Delaware. The key to such certification, as Judge Bledsoe observed, was that the case involve predominantly “equitable claims,” rather than claims for “money judgments.” As Justice Scalia recognized in analyzing Federal Rule 23, this is an important distinction: Rule 23(b)(2) “does not authorize class certification when each class members would be entitled to an individualized award of monetary damages.” Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2557 (2011) (observing that “[o]ne possible reading of [Rule 23(b)(2) is that it applies only to requests for . . . injunctive or declaratory relief” on behalf of the class as a whole). Although the federal courts, since Wal-Mart, have been more active in rejecting proposed settlements on commonality grounds, see, e.g., Rodriguez v. National City Bank, 726 F.3d 372 (3d Cir. 2013), a case in which plaintiffs seek to enjoin a merger on behalf of a class of shareholders does not typically present these difficulties. The procedure in PokerTek followed what is fast becoming a template: (i) filing of a complaint seeking injunctive relief; (ii) settlement discussions that yield an MOU; (iii) an agreement to provide additional disclosures to shareholders; (iv) an agreement not to oppose fees up to a certain amount; and (v) withdrawal of the request for injunctive relief, including a release in favor of the defendants by the settlement class.

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