All posts by David Wright

Named Plaintiffs Can’t Voluntarily Dismiss Individual Claims in Order to Appeal Class Certification Denial

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comEarlier this year, we hazarded a guess that the Supreme Court was split 4-4 regarding a Ninth Circuit decision holding that a named plaintiff could achieve appellate review of a decision denying class certification by voluntarily dismissing his individual claims. It turns out, based upon the Supreme Court’s decision in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker [], that the internal debate was not so much over whether the Ninth Circuit erred in allowing the appeal, but whether that error had both statutory and constitutional implications. The Supreme Court had accepted certiorari to review “[w]hether 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.” With Justice Gorsuch on the sidelines, the Court unanimously held that the named plaintiffs’ gamesmanship did not allow appellate review, but the justices differed in their reasons for that outcome.

Five members of the Court, led by Justice Ginsburg, concluded that such an appeal was inconsistent with F.R. App. P. 23(f). The majority reasoned that “[r]espondents’ voluntary-dismissal tactic . . . invites protracted litigation and piecemeal appeals,” and would – essentially – turn Rule 23(f)’s “discretionary regime” into a license for plaintiffs to force an interlocutory appeal of a ruling denying class certification. This, the Court noted, would upset “Rule 23(f)’s careful calibration” and “Congress[’] final decision rule would end up a pretty puny one.”

In our previous post, we sounded an alarm about the “one way street” that was a feature of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, noting that “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.” Justice Ginsburg agreed with us on this point, observing in her opinion for the majority that “[t]he one-sidedness of respondents’ voluntary-dismissal device ‘reinforce[s] our conclusion [of no jurisdiction],” and that “the ‘class issue’ may be just as important to defendants.”

Although the majority founded its decision on 28 U.S.C. Section 1291, thereby avoiding the Article III issue, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito and the Chief Justice, wrote a concurring opinion that took the constitutional issue head on. The concurrence argued that there was no Article III “case or controversy” following the named plaintiffs’ dismissal of their claims. Justice Thomas noted that “it has long been the rule that a party may not appeal from the voluntary dismissal of a claim,” and that the parties were “no longer adverse to each other on any claims” after that dismissal. A favorable ruling on class certification could not, the concurring opinion explained, “revive [the named plaintiffs’] individual claims.”

With deference to the Ninth Circuit jurists who proceeded to adjudicate the appeal in Baker, this was not a particularly hard case. In Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463 (1978), the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the so-called “death-knell” doctrine, which had permitted plaintiffs to appeal as of right a district court order denying a motion for class certification. Given that decision, and the fact that Rule 23(f) appellate jurisdiction is discretionary, not mandatory, it is difficult to see how a voluntary dismissal gambit could ultimately succeed. Unfortunately now for Xbox gamers, they will have to litigate their ‘disc gouging’ claims one by one . . . .

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Is an Institutional Investor Subject to the PSLRA’s “Professional Plaintiff” Bar?

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comThe Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (“PSLRA”) establishes special rules in securities class actions. One such rule, found in 15 U.S.C. Sect. 78u-4(a)(3)(B)(vi) and known as the “Five-in-Three Provision,” prevents a “person” from serving as a lead plaintiff in “more than 5 securities class actions” during any three-year period. Does that rule, though, apply to institutional investors? The plain words of the statute certainly suggest so—it is difficult to argue that an institutional investor is not a “person,” and had Congress wanted to exclude institutional investors from this prohibition, it could easily have done so. The Arkansas Teacher Retirement System, an active lead plaintiff, lost this issue in the Eastern District of Virginia last fall, when Judge Ellis found that the statutory language was clear. See Knurr v. Orbitral ATK, Inc., No. 1:16-cv-1031, 2016 WL 661157 (E.D. Va. Nov. 10, 2016) (noting that “it is doubtful that Congress would have hidden a major exemption in a single word,” echoing Justice Scalia’s phrase that “Congress . . . does not . . . hide elephants in mouseholes”).

But, as Judge Ellis also acknowledged, “one purpose of the [PSLRA] is to encourage institutional investors to serve as lead plaintiff.” And the House Conference Report pertaining to the PSLRA states that “institutional investors seeking to serve as lead plaintiff may need to exceed [the limit of lead plaintiffs] and do not represent the type of professional plaintiff this legislation seeks to restrict.” H.R. Conf. Rep. 104-369, at 35 (1995). So how to square this tension?

Recently, in Ollila v. Babcock & Wilcox Enterprises, Inc., No. 3:17-cv-109 (W.D.N.C. May 25, 2017), Judge Cogburn acknowledged these competing lines of authority but ultimately side-stepped the issue. Arkansas Teacher Retirement System, which had lost its argument to serve as lead plaintiff in Knurr, had better success with Judge Cogburn. Judge Cogburn found Knurr “persuasive,” but found “similarly persuasive” “the number of other district court cases that have held that institutional investors are not subject to the ‘five-in-three’ limitation.” Indeed, Judge Cogburn cited case law emphasizing that “the ‘majority’ view is that institutional investors are not subject to the professional plaintiff ‘three-in-five’ bar.”

Ultimately, Judge Cogburn took refuge in a section of the PSLRA that permits the court to override the “professional plaintiff limitation.” See 15 U.S.C. Sect. 78u-4(a)(3)(B)(vi). The putative financial losses of ATRS, which exceeded $5 million in the case, “dwarf[ed] those alleged by the competing institutional plaintiff,” leading the court to exercise its discretion to appoint ATRS as lead plaintiff even in the face of its activism in shareholder class actions across the country.

It remains to be seen whether the textual argument of Judge Ellis will ultimately hold sway in the Fourth Circuit.

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Is a Class Representative Adequate if He Waives Viable Claims in Order to Preserve Commonality?

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comClass actions don’t work if the class representative has a conflict with the class he or she purportedly represents. As the United States Supreme Court noted over 70 years ago, “a selection of representatives for purposes of litigation, whose substantial interests are not necessarily or even probably the same as those whom they are deemed to represent, does not afford that protection to absent parties which due process requires.” Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32, 45 (1940). A decision this week from Judge Higginson out of the Fifth Circuit provides an interesting commentary on this subject in the context of a consumer class action.

In Slade v. Progressive Insurance Co., No. 15-30010 (5th Cir. May 9, 2017), plaintiffs claimed that Progressive Insurance shorted its insureds when paying for vehicle losses. Progressive used something called “WorkCenter Total Loss” to calculate the base value of total loss vehicles. Plaintiffs said that “lawful sources” – such as the NADA Guidebook or the Kelly Blue Book – had higher values and therefore resulted in plaintiffs “receiving lower payouts on their insurance claims.”

The Fifth Circuit treated with dispatch a couple of aspects of the district court’s class certification decision. First, the Court held that the damages theory was in fact “class wide,” and therefore consistent with Comcast v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). Second, the district court had inexplicably certified a fraud class. As the Court of Appeals observed, “[t]his court has held consistently that a ‘fraud class action cannot be certified when individual reliance will be an issue.’”

But the bulk of Judge Higginson’s opinion discusses a more complicated issue. The insurance company used two basic factors to determine a vehicle’s value. First, it used a “base value” based on the WorkCenter Total Loss calculation. Second, it used a “condition adjustment,” recognizing that the value of the automobile in question might have either a higher or lower value based on its particular condition. The former sounds like a class-wide issue, but the latter looks to be quite individualistic.

Recognizing this dilemma, the named plaintiffs decided not to challenge the “condition adjustment.” As the Court of Appeals observed, “Plaintiffs’ class certification motion may have run into predominance problems because condition adjustments appear to be highly individualized.” But this waiver, the Fifth Circuit noted, comes with a potential cost. Although the plaintiffs’ waiver solved the predominance problems, it raised questions about the adequacy of the class representatives. “When the class representative proposes waiving some of the class’s claims, the decision risks creating an irreconcilable conflict with the class.” As the Court observed, citing a Seventh Circuit opinion, “A representative can’t throw away what would be a major component of the class’s recovery.”

But simply because a class plaintiff decides, as a strategic matter, to waive a claim does not necessarily mean she is inadequate. The court must inquire into, at least, “(1) the risk that unnamed class members will forfeit their right to pursue the waived claim in future litigation”; (2) the value of the waived claim; and (3) the strategic value of the waiver, which can include the value of proceeding as a class (if the waiver is key to certification).” In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit directed the district court to undertaken this analysis on remand. A central aspect of this inquiry is the res judicata effect of the waiver, which the Fifth Circuit said was “uncertain here.” Indeed, the Court observed that “courts have inconsistently applied claim preclusion to class actions.”

The Court of Appeals provided a bit of a road-map to the district court, identifying – as possible options on remand –

  • declining to certify the class because of preclusion risks
  • certifying the class, but tailoring the notice and opt-out procedure to alert the class to the risk of preclusion
  • concluding that the benefits of proceeding as a class outweigh any preclusion risks or
  • defining the class in a way to exclude individuals who have a quarrel with the condition adjustment.

Stay tuned, and consider carefully how class representatives and courts resolve the tension between waiving the claims of absent class members and strategically limiting the class to claims that can actually be certified.

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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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House Passes Fairness in Class Action Act of 2017

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comLargely following party lines, the House of Representatives on March 9, 2017, passed H.R. 985: Fairness in Class Action Act of 2017, which we highlighted in this space. One central feature of this bill, which we noted, is an appeal as of right of class certification decisions. This provision represents a radical departure from current practice, in which discretionary appeals are infrequently granted to the U.S. Courts of Appeal. A study done several years ago, which looked at seven years of filings, concluded that less than one quarter of such appeals are granted.

As we have explained here, the limited appellate review of class certification decisions have resulted in a variety of procedural gyrations designed to achieve automatic appellate review, particularly in consumer class actions. If this bill is passed by the Senate, no such legerdemain will be required. Going forward, the Courts of Appeal will be required to review class certification decisions.

To be sure, one consequence of an appeal of right for class certification decisions will be the lengthening of class litigation, and with it the consequent expense. But, in purely financial terms, a federal district judge makes no decision that comes close to having the consequences of a decision to certify a class. Should millions of dollars rest on one judge’s determination with no real opportunity for review? The House said “no.” Let’s see whether the Senate agrees.

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