Archives: North Carolina Business Court

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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Business Court Warns of Enhanced Scrutiny for Disclosure-Only Merger Settlements

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.com We have previously commented about “disclosure only” settlements in class action merger cases, and the increasing scrutiny provided to them by courts here and in Delaware. Judge Bledsoe entered the fray yesterday, approving a settlement of litigation involving the merger of Yadkin Financial Corporation and NewBridge Bancorp in a 44-page order. In a stark preamble to his findings, Judge Bledsoe gave warning that the Business Court would likely be joining their brethren in Delaware in strictly reviewing such settlements in the future. The Court characterized such a shift as a “marked departure from [the Business Court’s] past practices in connection with the consideration of such motions,” and therefore “decline[d] to apply enhanced scrutiny to its consideration of the Motions” in the case before it.

But that reprieve is likely short-lived. In the next sentence, Judge Bledsoe “expressly advises the practicing bar that judges of the North Carolina Business Court, including the undersigned, may be prepared to apply enhanced scrutiny of the sort exercised in In re Trulia Stockholder Litigation, to the approval of disclosure-based settlements and attendant motions for attorneys’ fees hereafter.” We characterized this Delaware authority as “sound[ing] a trumpet of skepticism concerning ‘disclosure only’ settlements.”

The Settlement Agreement reviewed by the Business Court in the NewBridge Bancorp case provided that the Defendants would not object to a fee petition up to $300,000, and—to a penny—that’s what Plaintiffs’ counsel sought in the case. In this space, we have observed that the entry into a disclosure-only settlement “is a ‘kumbayah’ occasion for plaintiffs’ and defense counsel,” and Judge Bledsoe reiterates this point, albeit it in a less colloquial manner, agreeing with the Delaware courts that “the trial court’s assessment typically occurs, as it does here, without the benefit of an adversarial process.”

The Court, after reviewing applicable authority, cut the requested fee award from $300,000 to about $160,000. There were two principal reasons for the reduction. First, the Court concluded that “collectively, the Supplemental Disclosures were only of marginal benefit to the Class.” Indeed, the Court found no “substantial evidence that any of the Supplemental Disclosures were significant to a reasonable shareholder’s decision in voting on the Proposed Transaction.” Second, the Court observed that the average hourly rate charged by Plaintiffs’ counsel was “above the hourly rate customarily charged in North Carolina for similar services” and that “the demands of the Consolidated Action did not require Plaintiffs to retain counsel from outside North Carolina in order to prosecute” the case.

The Court, in contrast to Delaware decisions like Trulia, did not closely scrutinize the claims released by class members as part of the settlement. Judge Bledsoe, in two footnotes, indicated that future requests for approval of disclosure-based settlements will involve such consideration. He stated that the scope of the release needs to be an express factor in the Court’s analysis in future cases, but that the Court was “reluctant to set aside the settlement in light of the approval of prior similar settlements by the Business Court.” In this regard, Judge Bledsoe’s Newbridge Bancorp decision is similar to the Chancery Court’s ruling in In re Riverbed Technology, Inc. Stockholders Litigation, where Chancellor Glasscock explained that, “given the past practice of this Court in examining settlements of this type, the parties in good faith negotiated a remedy—additional disclosures—that has been consummated, with the reasonable expectation that the very broad, but hardly unprecedented, release negotiated in return would be approved by this Court.”

In Delaware, the Chancery Court—having apparently concluded that counsel and the parties were sufficiently on notice following its warning in Riverbed—refused to approve a settlement outright in Trulia, just four months later. Merger challenges in Delaware have significantly declined in the months since that decision.

The effect of Judge Bledsoe’s decision on merger litigation in North Carolina remains to be seen, but this admonition from the Business Court must be reckoned with by shareholders considering class filings in future North Carolina merger litigation.

(Adam Doerr and Tommy Holderness of our firm represented the members of the NewBridge Bancorp Board of Directors in this litigation.)

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Merger Litigation Continues in North Carolina

View Adam Doerr's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comLast month, we previewed the challenge to a settlement of litigation involving the Reynolds-Lorillard merger. The Business Court has helpfully made available the transcript of the hearing on approval of the settlement, which took place on February 12. At the hearing, the Court made clear that it was quite familiar with recent changes in merger litigation in Delaware, including the Trulia case, and stated that it was reviewing the settlement under “strict scrutiny,” not a “rubber stamp standard.” Notwithstanding a shareholder objection supported by Professor Sean Griffith, a Fordham professor who has been involved in the recent Delaware cases, the Court approved the settlement.

During the hearing, the Court also raised an interesting issue regarding the risk that plaintiffs’ counsel face in bringing merger cases in North Carolina. As we have previously discussed,  North Carolina does not recognize the common benefit doctrine, meaning that plaintiffs’ counsel in a class action can only receive attorneys’ fees by obtaining a monetary award for the class or entering into a settlement agreement. The Court indicated that this distinction from Delaware law might create a higher contingent risk in bringing such cases in North Carolina. The Court did not rely on this point because the negotiated fee in Reynolds was equivalent to an hourly rate of $325, well within the range the Court has previously approved, but it will be interesting to see whether the Business Court takes an approach similar to the Delaware Chancery Court, which appears inclined to award significant fees for meritorious claims while cutting down or eliminating fees for routine merger challenges.

Merger cases continue to be filed in North Carolina. Just last week, a shareholder sued PowerSecure, an electric and utility technology company incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in Wake Forest, over its proposed merger with Southern Company. See Michael Morris v. PowerSecure International Inc. et al. We will continue to keep you posted on new developments in this interesting and rapidly changing area.

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Disclosure-Only Settlements Face Scrutiny in Business Court

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comWhen two public companies announce an intention to merge, class litigation follows like the night the day. These complaints usually request some sort of preliminary injunctive relief which, if successful, can derail the merger. Rarely, however, do plaintiffs press for this relief. Instead, they opt to resolve the claims, which requires court approval under Rule 23. The resolution can involve the payment of money to shareholders, but many times it does not and instead takes the form of “programmatic relief,” consisting principally of additional disclosures to the class members regarding information related to the merger. Accompanying that resolution, inevitably, is a request for attorney’s fees on behalf of plaintiffs’ counsel and – on the defendants’ side – a release of claims.

The entry into such a settlement frequently is a “kumbayah” occasion for plaintiffs’ and defense counsel: the plaintiffs’ counsel gets a pay day and defense counsel is able to validate the merger and obtain a release against future claims. That’s not to say that such settlements are necessarily collusive: disclosure of material information is the life-blood of the securities laws and can represent real value to shareholders. But it can be hard to distinguish sometimes between information that is truly valuable and minutiae that is simply redundant. A recent case from Delaware’s Chancery Court,  involving the Trulia and Zillow merger, sounds a trumpet of skepticism concerning “disclosure only” settlements.

By design, one person sits betwixt and between these opposing forces: the trial judge. Judge Gale will soon confront this issue at a hearing in the Business Court. James Snyder, the former General Counsel for Family Dollar, submitted an objection to a proposed disclosure-only settlement in the Reynolds-Lorillard merger litigation. Citing the Trulia decision, Snyder asks the Court to eliminate or reduce the fee award proposed by Plaintiffs and not to approve the form of the release. A law professor at Fordham Law School, Sean J. Griffith – who has actively opposed many of these settlements — has supported Snyder’s objection with his own affidavit.

Judge Gale declined Snyder’s request to postpone the fairness hearing, so we should get the benefits of his views on the subject soon. He recently touched on the subject, noting that “the value of such disclosure-only settlements . . . has generated substantial debate.” Stay tuned.

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NC Court of Appeals Approves Payments of Attorneys’ Fees in Class Action Settlements

View Mark Hiller’s Complete Bio at RBH.comCan a class action settlement agreement contain a fee-shifting provision that provides for a payment of attorneys’ fees? In a question of first impression, the North Carolina Court of Appeals said yes, subject to a trial court’s approval of the settlement at a fairness hearing.

In the long-running Ehrenhaus v. Baker case, the Plaintiff brought a class action challenging the merger of Wells Fargo and Wachovia. The parties ultimately entered into a settlement agreement that also provided for a payment of attorneys’ fees to Plaintiff’s counsel. The trial court approved the settlement, but two shareholders objected.

In Ehrenhaus I, the Court of Appeals affirmed the approval of the settlement but remanded the case for additional findings regarding the attorneys’ fees. The Court’s remand implicitly indicated that a defendant could agree to pay fees to plaintiffs’ counsel in settling a class action, subject to court approval. But some of the language in Ehrenhaus I had raised questions about the trial court’s authority regarding fees and how the American Rule—which generally requires litigants to bear their own expenses—applies (or does not apply) in class actions. On remand, after receiving additional evidence, the trial court issued an order approving the payment of attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ counsel, and the two objecting shareholders appealed again.

This Tuesday, in Ehrenhaus II, the Court of Appeals rejected this challenge to the trial court’s decision on fees. The Court began by laying out the law related to fee-shifting. Under the “American Rule,” the Court explained, “a successful litigant may not recover attorneys’ fees . . . unless such a recovery is expressly authorized by statute,” and here it was not. The Court then identified two exceptions to the American Rule in the class action context, but concluded that neither applied. First, under the “common fund doctrine,” a “litigant or a lawyer who recovers a common fund for the benefit of persons other than himself or his client is entitled to a reasonable attorneys’ fee from the fund as a whole.” The Court said that this doctrine did not apply here because Plaintiff’s lawsuit did not result in the establishment of a common fund. Second, under the “common benefit” doctrine, even if no common fund is created, “an award of attorneys’ fees to a litigant’s counsel is permissible when that litigant confers a common monetary benefit upon an ascertainable stockholder class in a shareholder action.” North Carolina, however, has declined to adopt the common fund doctrine.

Although neither the common fund nor common benefit exceptions to the American Rule applied, the Court of Appeals held that the award of attorneys’ fees was permissible. That is because, the Court held, “the award of attorneys’ fees in this case did not trigger the operation of the American Rule” because the fee award “was provided for in a voluntary settlement between the parties.” The Court explained that “our caselaw expressly recognizes the enforceability of settlement agreements providing for the payment of one party’s attorneys’ fees by the other party to the lawsuit.” That rule furthers the “well-established policy of encouraging the settlement of disputes between litigants and is therefore permissible despite a lack of explicit statutory authorization for such an award.”

The Court acknowledged that this was the first time the Court has addressed whether this rule applies in the class action context, which presents “unique” concerns because not all class members will participate in negotiating the settlement or be before the court. Hence, the Court noted, “the settlement of class actions—unlike settlements in ordinary civil actions—must be judicially approved” pursuant to North Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure 23(c), which requires the court to hold a hearing to determine whether the proposed settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. But the Court found no “persuasive argument as to why a trial court’s ability to evaluate the fairness and reasonableness of a class action settlement does not include the concomitant ability to determine whether a provision in such a settlement authorizing the payment of attorneys’ fees is likewise fair and reasonable.”

Accordingly, the Court held that “the parties to a class action may agree to a fee-shifting provision in a negotiated settlement that is—like all other aspects of the settlement—subject to the trial court’s approval in a fairness hearing. During the fairness hearing, the trial court must carefully assess the award of attorneys’ fees to ensure that it is fair and reasonable.”

The Ehrenhaus II decision also addresses an important appellate procedure question regarding Business Court appeals. For more on this issue, see Ehrenhaus Is Here To Stay from the N.C. Appellate Practice Blog.

(Robert Fuller and Adam Doerr of our firm represented the Defendants in this litigation.)

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