Pending Bill Would Permit Interlocutory Appeals of Class Certification Decisions Directly to NC Supreme Court

View Adam Doerr's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comGovernor Cooper vetoed House Bill 239 on April 21, rejecting the General Assembly’s effort to reduce the number of judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals from 15 to 12. The bill has been quite controversial, and four former North Carolina Supreme Court justices have said it would “seriously harm our judicial system.”  Although the bill does not speak in partisan terms, its practical effect would be to prevent Governor Cooper from appointing three (or perhaps two) new judges to the Court of Appeals to replace Republican judges who will reach the mandatory retirement age during his term.1

Mostly overlooked in the public and legislative debate is a major change to appeals in class actions. The bill contains a provision that allows for an appeal of right from “Any trial court’s decision regarding class action certification under G.S. 1A-1, Rule 23.”

As we explained in our analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher, North Carolina currently takes an unusual approach to appeals in class actions. An order denying class certification is immediately appealable because the courts have held that it affects a substantial right under N.C. Gen. Stat. 7A-27. An order granting class certification, by contrast, is generally not immediately appealable. Although the appellate courts have sometimes permitted such appeals, including in Fisher, the courts have avoided stating that orders granting class certification affect a substantial right. In Fisher, for example, the Court held that “that the subject matter of this case implicates the public interest to such a degree that invocation of our supervisory authority is appropriate.”

Our firm’s amicus brief for the NC Chamber in Fisher advocated for a ruling that an order granting class certification could affect a substantial right, permitting interlocutory review. The rationale for this approach is that an order granting class certification is often dispositive because defendants face enormous pressure to settle. Indeed, we have not identified a single post-judgment appeal of an order granting class certification against a private party since North Carolina’s enactment of Rule 23 in 1967.

The substantial rights approach, if adopted, would have been similar to the rule in federal courts, where Rule 23(f) provides that a “court of appeals may permit an appeal from an order granting or denying class-action certification.” To obtain review, the party seeking to appeal must file a petition requesting permission to appeal. Such appeals are infrequently granted; published studies estimate that appellate courts grant less than one in four Rule 23(f) petitions.2

This legislation would go further than the federal approach, and further than the law in other states with which we are familiar, in three important ways. First, appeals under this statute would not be discretionary, in contrast to federal Rule 23. All orders would be appealable, regardless of whether the appellate court thought that interlocutory review was appropriate.

Second, appeals would go directly to the North Carolina Supreme Court, bypassing the Court of Appeals. There are currently only two kinds of appeals that go directly to the Supreme Court: a death penalty conviction and decisions from the North Carolina Business Court. N.C. Gen. Stat. 7A-27(a).  And interlocutory appeals from the Business Court are limited to orders that affect a substantial right, effectively determine or discontinue the action, or grant or refuse a new trial.

Third, House Bill 239 would permit an appeal of “[a]ny trial court’s decision regarding class action certification.” Note the contrast with federal Rule 23(f), which permits appeal from an “order granting or denying class-action certification.” A “decision regarding” class action certification could be significantly broader. For example, is an order denying a motion for decertification a “decision regarding class action certification” that would allow an interlocutory appeal? How about a motion to strike class allegations? Even in federal court, with Rule 23(f)’s more limited language and the appellate court’s discretion as a check, there is litigation over the scope of the right to appeal.3 Here, given the breadth of the language and the Supreme Court’s lack of discretion to reject an appeal, there is significant potential for extensive litigation over the scope of the right to appeal, repetitive appeals, and gamesmanship.

House Bill 239 now goes back to the General Assembly. If it overrides Governor Cooper’s veto, as it did with a recent bill applying party labels to elections of District and Superior Court judges, major changes are coming to class action litigation in North Carolina state courts.

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1 One of the Republican judges, Judge McCollough, announced his retirement on April 24, just over a month early. If he had waited until reaching his mandatory retirement on May 28, the legislature might have overridden the Governor’s veto and the law would have prevented appointment of a successor. As Judge McCullough told the Raleigh News & Observer, he did not want his legacy to be an “impairment to the appeals court” by reducing its size. Governor Cooper has appointed Charlotte attorney John Arrowwood to fill the seat.

2 We have found that existing research misses a significant number of 23(f) petitions in the Fourth Circuit. These petitions are difficult to research, as the orders are generally not published and require significant effort in PACER to uncover. We plan to share the results of our own research on this issue in a future post.

3 Compare In re Complaint of Ingram Barge Co., 517 F.3d 246, 247 (5th Cir. 2008) (refusing to hear a 23(f) petition from an order granting a motion to strike class action allegations because it was not an order “granting or denying” certification) with In re Bemis Co., Inc., 279 F.3d 419, 421 (7th Cir. 2002) (accepting review of an order granting a motion to strike class allegations because it was the “functional equivalent of denying a motion to certify a case as a class action, a denial that Rule 23(f) makes appealable (at our discretion).”).

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Can a Class Action Proceed when the Named Plaintiff’s Claim Becomes Moot? A Recent View from the North Carolina Business Court

View Mark Hiller’s Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comIn this post we talk about two of our favorite things (relatively speaking): class actions and mootness.  We last looked at these issues when covering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell-Ewald Company v. Gomez, 136 S. Ct. 663 (2016).  There, the Court rejected the defendant’s attempt to “pick off” the named plaintiff in a class action case.  The defendant had made a Rule 68 offer to settle the case for the full value of the plaintiff’s claim.  The plaintiff declined, but the defendant argued that its offer nonetheless mooted the claim.  The Supreme Court rejected that argument, holding that an unaccepted Rule 68 offer does not moot a claim—at least if the defendant does not deposit the Rule 68 money with the court.

But what if the named plaintiff’s claim does become moot?  Can the case stay alive based on the claims of the class?  The Supreme Court has been wrestling with that question for decades, and the answer turns in large part on timing—when did the named plaintiff’s claim become moot?  If it became moot after the class was certified, then the class action is not rendered moot because, at that point, the class has acquired a legal status independent of the plaintiff’s.  See Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975).  The same rule applies if the named plaintiff’s claim became moot after the trial court denied class certification.  If the denial is later reversed, the reversal will relate back to the time of the trial court’s erroneous certification decision.  See U.S. Parole Comm’n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388 (1980).  In both of these situations, the named plaintiff had a live claim at the time the trial court ruled on certification.

That leaves open a third scenario: a named plaintiff whose claim becomes moot before the trial court makes any certification ruling.  What then?  Chief Judge Gale of the North Carolina Business Court faced this question in the recent case of Chambers v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.  To simplify the facts and procedural history, the plaintiff received emergency treatment at a hospital and then objected to the amount of the bill he received.  The plaintiff claimed that the hospital charged uninsured patients, like himself, more for emergency services than the hospital charged its insured patients.  He brought a class action complaint on behalf of himself and other uninsured patients who received emergency services at the hospital.  His initial complaint alleged common law claims and sought damages.  But he later amended the complaint to seek only a declaratory judgment that the hospital may collect only “reasonable payments” for its emergency services, rather than the “regular rates” the hospital charged in its form contract.

Judge Gale first held that the plaintiff’s declaratory judgment claim was moot because the hospital was not seeking to recover the unpaid amount of the plaintiff’s bill.  (The hospital had been seeking to do so earlier in the case, but the hospital dismissed its counterclaims with prejudice after the plaintiff dropped his damages claims.)

That left the more difficult question: Even though the plaintiff no longer had a live claim, could the case continue based on the claim of the putative class?  Judge Gale began by noting that the case did not come within the holdings of Sosna or Geraghty because the court had not ruled on certification at the time the plaintiff’s claim became moot.  (It appears the plaintiff had not yet filed a certification motion.)

Judge Gale then addressed whether the putative class claim could proceed based on an exception to the mootness doctrine for claims that are “so inherently transitory that the trial court will not have even enough time to rule on a motion for class certification before the proposed representative’s individual interest expires.”  Judge Gale explained that the classic example of an “inherently transitory” claim was one that inevitably becomes moot with the passage of time, such as a challenge to pretrial detention.  In those cases, dismissing a case as moot would mean that no plaintiff could challenge the defendant’s conduct, because any plaintiff’s individual claim would become moot before the case could be fully litigated.  Judge Gale said that the plaintiff’s claim—challenging the hospital’s emergency-services rates for uninsured patients—doesn’t fit into that passage-of-time category for “inherently transitory” claims.

But that left another possibility—one that circles us back to Campbell-Ewald: Can a claim be “inherently transitory” when the claim becomes moot, not because it is time-sensitive, but because the defendant has “picked off” the claim by offering to pay its full amount before the trial court makes a decision on certification?  Judge Gale noted that the Ninth Circuit has applied the “inherently transitory” exception in this scenario (as have several other federal circuit courts).  But ultimately, Judge Gale did not have to decide whether to follow this interpretation of the “inherently transitory” exception, because he concluded that there was no evidence showing that the hospital tried to pick off the plaintiff’s claim.  To the contrary, Judge Gale stated, the plaintiff’s claim became moot only when the plaintiff decided to dismiss his claims seeking damages.  Judge Gale agreed with the hospital that, had the plaintiff maintained those claims, then the hospital’s dismissal of its counterclaims “would not have mooted [plaintiff’s] declaratory claim.”

Conclusions

So, what to take away from all this?

First, class action law is complicated, especially when mootness is thrown into the mix.

Second, the law is pretty clear that a class action is not rendered moot when the named plaintiff has a live claim at the time the trial court decides whether to certify the class.

Third, the law is less clear whether the class action is rendered moot when the named plaintiff’s claim becomes moot before the trial court makes a certification decision.  In that scenario, the issues will likely focus on whether the case fits into exceptions to the mootness doctrine, such as the “inherently transitory” exception discussed above.

Fourth, there will likely be continued developments in the law as to whether a defendant’s effort to pick off a named plaintiff succeeds in mooting the plaintiff’s claim, and if so, whether that effort satisfies the “inherently transitory” exception such that a live case or controversy still exists.

We’ll keep you updated as the law develops.

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Seventh Circuit Weighs In on “White or No Underwear” Policy

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comOccasionally, we see something outside of the Carolinas that is quirky enough to merit a mention in this space.  Such is the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Mulvania v. Sheriff of Rock Island County, No. 16-1711 (7th Cir. Mar. 9, 2017).  According to Wikipedia, “In 2015 Rock Island (Illinois) was ranked the 32nd ‘Best Small City’ in the country.”  Not influencing those rankings, apparently, was the policy of the Rock Island County Jail, which “requires female detainees to wear either white underwear or no underwear at all.”  What, you ask, might be the “compelling government interest” that allegedly supports such a policy?  As the Seventh Circuit described, “[t]he Sheriff’s sole stated rationale for the underwear policy was to prevent detainees from extracting ink from colored underwear.”  This was a problem, in the Sheriff’s mind, because “detainees could use that ink to make tattoos.”   Despite the dearth of examples of such tattoo creation by detainees, the Sheriff testified that the policy was founded on such “security concern[s].”  This policy apparently has not been confined to Rock Island County; indeed, the defense argued that the white underwear policy was “within the correctional mainstream.”

The district court denied certification of the “underwear class” and granted summary judgment in favor of defendants.  On the merits, the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the record supported the inference that “the asserted security concern about tattoo ink from underwear is not genuine.”

The district court’s class certification decision was based on predominance and numerosity.  As to predominance, the court found that the “damages would vary for individual class members based on factors such as how long a detainee was deprived of her underwear, whether she was on her menstrual cycle or pregnant and other considerations.”  The absence of a “simple or formulaic method to calculate damages,” in the view of the lower court, precluded class certification.

The Seventh Circuit summarily reversed this determination, noting that “this reasoning was a mistake.”  According to the Court of Appeals, “it has long been recognized that the need for individual damages determinations at [a] later stage of the litigation does not itself justify the denial of certification.”

Alas, however, there were not enough underwear detainees to mount a class challenge.  After observing that “a forty-member class is often regarded as sufficient to meet the numerosity requirement,” the Seventh Circuit held that the class period only yielded 29 members–there was no basis upon which the plaintiffs’ amended complaint “related back” to the initial complaint, which might have supported a higher number.

It remains unclear, as of this post, whether Rock Island’s policy has been amended and whether this case will impact its ranking as the “Best Small City.”

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Recent Filings – March Digest

View Amanda Pickens’ Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comNot every class action court filing in North and South Carolina becomes a full-length post on our blog. Here is a recap of March’s filings:

Angeles-Gomez, et al. v. Rick Wolf Landscape, LLC, et al., No. 2:17-cv-00009 (E.D.N.C. March 31, 2017) (putative collective and class action brought under FLSA and state wage and hour laws by current and/or former employees of the defendant landscaping and lawn care business and its managing members for alleged unpaid overtime compensation).

Isaman, et al. v. Housekeeping Services of Hilton Head, LLC, et al., No. 9:17-cv-00800 (D.S.C. March 26, 2017) (putative class action and purported collective action brought under FLSA and state wage and hour laws alleging Housekeeping Services of Hilton Head, the low country’s largest cleaning service, failed to pay hourly wages due including overtime compensation).

Oldfield Community Association, et al. v. TI Oldfield Development, LLC, et al., No. 9:17-cv-00794 (D.S.C. March 24, 2017) (purported class action removed from South Carolina state court to federal court brought by a non-profit corporation formed for the benefit of homeowners and lot owners of Oldfield, a Beaufort County community, alleging defendant board and director members misappropriated funds, breached fiduciary duties, etc. and requesting a preliminary injunction).

Beasley, et al. v. Bojangles Restaurants, Inc., et al., No. 1:17-cv-00255 (M.D.N.C. March 21, 2017) (purported class action and collective action brought under FLSA by employees alleging defendants misclassified them and failed to pay overtime compensation).

Blue Ridge Podiatry Assocs., P.A. v. Annexmed Billing Servs. Inc., et al., No. 1:17-cv-00078 (W.D.N.C. March 20, 2017) (putative class action brought under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act alleging the defendants sent unsolicited fax advertisements to plaintiff and the proposed class in June 2016 without prior express consent).

Sandviks v. PhD Fitness, LLC, No. 1:17-cv-00744 (D.S.C. March 17, 2017) (products liability class action lawsuit alleging defendant, a manufacturer of sports-oriented dietary supplement products, has marketed their products in a systematically misleading manner and these misrepresentations regarding ingredients and proper dosing have injured plaintiffs).

Bobiak, et al. v. The Morgan Group, Inc., No. 3:17-cv-00142 (W.D.N.C. March 17, 2017) (putative collective and class action brought by employees of The Morgan Group, a high-end multifamily development, construction and property management company, for recovery of unpaid wages and unpaid overtime/bonus compensation under FLSA and state wage and hour laws).

Indian Harbor Insurance Co. v. Kriewaldt, et al., No. 2:17-cv-00732 (D.S.C. March 17, 2017) (putative class and declaratory judgment action brought by Indian Harbor Insurance Co. seeking a determination from the federal court of its defense and coverage obligations based on two underlying South Carolina state court lawsuits, one a class action, which allege construction defects caused by the defendants in a Charleston townhome development).

Fuerte, et al. v. Convergys Corp., et al., No. 4:17-cv-00701 (D.S.C. March 14, 2017) (putative collective and class action brought under FLSA and state wage and hour laws by at-home customer representative employees of Convergys, a customer outsourcing company, who performed required “off the clock” and computer technical malfunction work but allege not to have been compensated for this time).

Mauer v. Argos Therapeutics, Inc., et al., No. 1:17-cv-00216 (M.D.N.C. March 14, 2017) (putative class action brought by shareholders of Argos, an immune-oncology company, alleging the company violated federal securities laws by making false statements in its securities filings).

Hegeman v. Babcock & Wilcox Enters., et al., No. 3:17-cv-00125 (W.D.N.C. March 13, 2017) (putative class action on behalf of shareholders of Babcock & Wilcox, a provider of energy and environmental technologies and services for power and industrial markets, asserting federal securities violations for the company providing alleged false and misleading statements and failing to provide material facts about the company).

Lawrence, et al. v. General Panel Corp., No. 2:17-cv-00600 (D.S.C. March 3, 2017) (putative class action removed from South Carolina state court and brought by homeowners alleging structures known as SIPS, manufactured by Defendant using sheets of oriented strand board, were defective and have caused damage to their homes and buildings).

Ollila, et al. v. Babcock & Wilcox Enters., Inc. et al.; No. 3:17-cv-00109 (W.D.N.C March 3, 2017) (putative class action brought by shareholders of Babcock & Wilcox Enterprises, Inc., a technology-based provider of power generation equipment, alleging violations of securities laws claiming the company’s officers and/or directors made false and misleading statements in press releases, analyst conference calls and SEC filings starting in 2015).

Speights, et al. v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina; No. 9:17-cv-594 (D.S.C. March 3, 2017) (putative class action removed from South Carolina state court brought by consumers alleging Blue Cross and Blue Shield denied requests to pay for healthcare that was approved and/or requested by physicians).

Jeffers, et al.v.Toyota Motor Corporation, et al., No. 4:17-cv-00577 (D.S.C. March 2, 2017) (purported class action brought under consumer protection laws alleging defendants manufactured defective dashboards in various car models and have not adequately handled a warranty program that was promised in previous litigation relating to the same issue).

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Dish Network Hopes for a New Trial of Telemarketing Class Action Lawsuit after $20.5 Million Jury Verdict

View Amanda Pickens’ Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comDish Network has asked the Middle District of North Carolina for a new trial in its telemarketing class action lawsuit after a jury found Dish liable for violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. After a five-day trial ending on January 19th, a jury awarded damages to the class of $20.5 million.

The lawsuit was filed in 2014 by lead plaintiff Thomas Krakauer alleging Satellite Systems Network, an authorized Dish dealer, called him multiple times between 2009 and 2011 despite being listed on the Do Not Call registry. In September 2015, Judge Catherine Eagles certified two classes, both consisting of persons on the Do Not Call registry who received telemarketing calls from Dish or Satellite System Network between 2010 and 2011.

After the United States Supreme Court decided Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, Dish filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, to decertify the class. We highlighted the issues before the Spokeo Court in our previous blog post. In Spokeo, the United States Supreme Court vacated and remanded a decision allowing a consumer who suffered no concrete harm to sue Spokeo Inc. for procedural violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But the Supreme Court left the opportunity open for plaintiffs in other cases to rely on procedural violations entailing a risk of “concrete injury” to establish standing. The Supreme Court found that the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis was incomplete because it failed to consider both requirements of an injury-in-fact, that the injury be both concrete and particularized. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion concerned only the particularization of the injury-in-fact.

In August 2016, in a six-page opinion, Judge Eagles denied Dish’s motion to dismiss and to decertify the class based on Spokeo. Judge Eagles noted that although Spokeo “clarified the meaning of a concrete injury,” it did not fundamentally change the doctrine of standing. She found that now “a concrete injury ‘must exist,’ but it can be intangible.” Judge Eagles held that the telemarketing calls made in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act were more than bare procedural violations; the calls “form[ed] concrete injuries because unwanted telemarketing calls are a disruptive and annoying invasion of privacy.” Dish sought an interlocutory appeal of this decision, which was also denied.

Now, after a five-day trial and a $20.5 million jury verdict, Dish is hoping for a new trial. Dish claims, among other things, that the verdict violates Dish’s due process rights because Judge Eagles allowed the jury to impose aggregate damages, rather than allowing Dish to defend each individual claim of an improper phone call. The jury calculated damages by assigning $400.00 per call to the 51,119 distinct phones calls, totaling approximately $20.5 million. Plaintiffs’ response to Dish’s motion for a new trial is due March 28th. If Dish’s motion for a new trial is denied, Dish will likely appeal these issues to the Fourth Circuit. Stay tuned for further developments.

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