Tag Archives: Jurisdictional Issues

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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Judge Gorsuch’s Class Action Opinions After Shook

View Susan Huber's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.com View Kevin Crandall’s’s Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comToday we continue our analysis of Judge Gorsuch’s class action opinions from the Tenth Circuit in an effort to better understand how he may rule if confirmed for the Supreme Court. Last week, we examined Judge Gorsuch’s decision in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners, and we will take up his remaining class action opinions below.

McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, 630 F.3d 1288 (10th Cir. 2011)

In McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, decided three years after Shook, Judge Gorsuch again demonstrates judicial restraint. In McClendon, prisoners brought a class action against the City of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, and various individuals involved in operating the Bernalillo County Detention Center. The parties entered into a pair of settlement agreements in 2005, but four years later the district court issued an order withdrawing its approval of the settlement and giving the plaintiffs permission to rescind those agreements after it found that the County misrepresented certain facts during settlement negotiations. The Tenth Circuit held that the order was not a “final decision,” subject to appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. A final decision, Judge Gorsuch reasoned, dissociates the court from the case and ends the litigation on the merits, while the order withdrawing a settlement approval does “[j]ust the opposite: the order ensures litigation on the merits will continue in the district court.”

Judge Gorsuch empathized with the defendants’ desire for an appeal that might avoid further litigation in a previously settled case that was already fifteen years old: “the delays and costs associated with civil litigation in modern America are substantial and worrisome, and even the most hard-boiled litigator may raise an eyebrow at a case lasting as long as this one.” But neither the utility of the appeal nor the advanced age of the case swayed Judge Gorsuch to take an appeal beyond the bounds of the express authority in § 1291: “Congress’s direction demands our respect, not our rewriting.” Judge Gorsuch concluded his opinion by emphasizing the importance of judicial restraint:

[O]ne thing we may never do is disregard the bounds of our legal authority and assert § 1291 jurisdiction over an appeal where it doesn’t exist. To do so in this case would compound any error the defendants imagine with an impropriety of our own, making matters worse not better. It is, after all, a “central principle of a free society that courts,” no less than the other branches of government, “have finite bounds of authority.” . . . We must respect that principle and those bounds no less when it is hard to do so than when it is easy.

Hammond v. Stamps.com, Inc., 844 F.3d 909 (10th Cir. 2016)

The Tenth Circuit’s holding in Hammond v. Stamps.com, Inc.—that the minimum amount in controversy under the Class Action Fairness Act need only be legally possible and not factually probable—is hardly noteworthy, as it falls squarely in line with the law from other Courts of Appeals. But in Judge Gorsuch’s opinion, his most recent in the class action arena, we see the hallmarks of conservative jurisprudence: interpreting statutory text (here, “in controversy”) with its “traditional meaning”; citation to the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789; and a nod toward the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s textualist approach with a citation to his book, Reading Law. Indeed, it is only after a three-page textual and historical deep dive that Judge Gorsuch cites in the final paragraph of the opinion the “several courts [that] have held as we do today.”

For those of you who yearn to know the facts of the case, Elizabeth Hammond brought a putative class action in New Mexico state court, alleging that Stamps.com engaged in misleading and unlawful trade practices by insufficiently disclosing its subscription fees to customers. She alleged that “hundreds or thousands of persons” called to cancel their Stamps.com subscriptions as a result of Stamps.com alleged wrongdoing, and each class member would “likely” receive $31.98 in damages (the cost of subscribing for two months) or $300 in statutory damages. Stamps.com presented uncontested evidence that 312,680 customers had cancelled their subscriptions during the likely class period, and the company removed the case to federal court because the amount in controversy well exceeded the $5 million threshold for the Class Action Fairness Act. The trial court granted Ms. Hammond’s motion to remand, ruling that the company had not met its burden of establishing the minimum amount in controversy because it failed to exclude from its calculations those customers who cancelled their subscriptions for reasons unrelated to the allegations in the complaint, or as Judge Gorsuch put it, “without proof from Stamps.com establishing how many of its customers were actually deceived, the district court thought the company couldn’t satisfy the $5 million ‘in controversy’ requirement.” The Tenth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s remand order, ruling that federal jurisdiction was proper under CAFA: the proponent of jurisdiction should not have to “argue against himself, task[ed] with the job of proving his own likely liability in a sufficient number of individual cases simply to get a foot in the door of the federal courthouse.”

BP America, Inc. v. Oklahoma ex rel. Edmondson, 613 F.3d 1029 (10th Cir. 2010)

In an earlier CAFA jurisdictional decision, the Tenth Circuit in BP America granted discretionary leave for the propane gas distributor to appeal an order remanding the case to Oklahoma state court. The merits of the jurisdictional question—whether the Attorney General’s lawsuit, brought on behalf of the state and not any individual consumers, constitutes a “mass action” involving monetary relief to 100 or more people under CAFA—were not at issue at this preliminary stage of the appeal.

Judge Gorsuch’s opinion adopts multiple factors to consider in deciding whether to grant discretionary leave to appeal under CAFA § 1453, including whether the appeal presents an important, unsettled, or at least “fairly debatable” CAFA-related question and a weighing of the relative harms to the parties should an appeal be refused or entertained.

Heller v. Quovadx, Inc., 245 F. App’x 839 (10th Cir. 2007)

Although it actually predates Shook, the unpublished decision of Heller v. Quovadx, Inc., is worth noting, if only to highlight the wry humor employed by Judge Gorsuch in dismissing a non-class member’s argument that denying him standing to object to a settlement would violate his Fifth Amendment rights. In addition to the fact that the non-class member presented “no evidence or relevant legal argument to support his contentions,” he also “spen[t] the bulk of his brief noting the inefficiencies and burdens of paper-based litigation.” Perhaps a sentiment with which class action lawyers and judges can relate all too well.

Substantively, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that the non-class member lacked standing to object to the proposed settlement. Non-class members opposed to a proposed settlement cannot object directly and instead must seek to intervene under Rule 24.

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Seventh Circuit Weighs in on Offers of Judgment

View David Wright's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comIn this space, we concentrate on class action decisions in the Carolinas, as well as Fourth Circuit and United States Supreme Court precedent. Occasionally, though, we venture beyond these jurisdictions to highlight issues of particular note, including those where courts are divided. We’ve previously reported here how offers of judgment interact with mootness. In Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, the United States Supreme Court held that an unaccepted settlement offer, even if it offers all relief sought in the case, does not render a case moot when the affected party seeks relief on behalf of a class. Last Friday, the Seventh Circuit considered a question not resolved by Gomez: What happens when the named representative accepts a Rule 68 offer of judgment? Can he still appeal the denial of class certification? Like the question of appellate standing upon which the Supreme Court accepted certiorari in Microsoft, the answer is significant.

In Wright v. Calumet City, Illinois, No. 14-cv-10351 (7th Cir. Feb. 17, 2017), the Seventh Circuit acknowledged a split of authority on this question: “Where the Rule 68 offer is accepted but by its terms exempts the class certification issue, courts are divided as to whether the plaintiff retains a concrete interest sufficient to meet the case or controversy requirement of Article III.” The Seventh Circuit noted that Wright’s claim to standing was particularly strained because he accepted the Rule 68 offer without reservation, and he preserved no interest in receiving an incentive award. Wright argued that he had a sufficient interest in the case because his offer of judgment did not include attorney’s fees for the class claim (as opposed to his individual claim), but – as the Seventh Circuit observed – Lewis v. Continental Bank Corp.,  494 U.S. 472, 480 (1990) holds that “an interest in attorneys’ fees is, of course, insufficient to create an Article III case or controversy where none exists.” The court noted that there is some tension between Lewis and Deposit Guaranty National Bank v. Roper, 445 U.S. 326 (1980), in which the Supreme Court allowed plaintiffs, whose individual claims had been satisfied, to appeal the denial of class certification based on their asserted interest in shifting attorney’s fees to the class members. But the court distinguished Wright’s case from Roper on the ground that Wright had accepted the Rule 68 offer “as satisfaction of all of the relief that he sought in the district court.” In Roper, by contrast, the district court entered judgment for the plaintiffs in the amount tendered by the defendant, even though the plaintiffs had refused that offer. Thus, even under Roper, Wright’s claims are moot.

There will likely be more permutations on the Rule 68/mootness issues, so stay tuned.

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North Carolina Joins the Tsunami Wave of Volkswagen Litigation

View Amanda Pickens’ Complete Bio at RBH.com
Vinson v. Volkswagen Group of America, Inc., No. 1:15-cv-00213 (W.D.N.C. September 23, 2015), a case filed this Wednesday in the Western District of North Carolina, is one of at least twenty-five class actions filed against Volkswagen in courts across the country this week. In addition, at least 27 state attorneys general have launched a multi-state investigation into the German automaker’s 2.0-liter diesel vehicles.

The Plaintiffs in the WDNC case, as in the other actions, allege that Volkswagen intentionally defrauded the EPA and consumers by installing a “defeat device” on its diesel vehicles. The device can detect when an automobile is undergoing official emissions testing. The device switches on emissions controls during the testing to ensure the vehicle passes the emissions test. During normal usage of the cars, however, the emissions controls are turned off and the vehicles emit nitrogen oxide at levels up to 40 times the standard permitted under the Clean Air Act.

The flood of lawsuits began last week after Volkswagen acknowledged rigging emissions technology on its diesel vehicles to pass air-quality tests. During the launch of one of its newest vehicles, Volkswagen’s CEO, Michael Horn, admitted that Volkswagen “was dishonest with the EPA and the California Air Resources Board and with all of you” and “in my German words, we have totally screwed up.” According to German automaker, as many as 11 million cars worldwide may be affected.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation is likely to transfer these cases to a single judge for pretrial proceedings.

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