Governor 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.
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).”).