First on the House Agenda: HR 985 Raises the Bar Class on Actions

The House of Representatives moves quickly to curtail victims’ rights.

By Jesse Jensen, Esq. Reprinted with permission.

As recognized by the Supreme Court, class action lawsuits play an invaluable role in protecting investors, consumers, and employees by “overcom[ing] the problem that small recoveries do not provide the incentive for any individual to bring a solo action prosecuting his or her rights.” Amgen Inc. v.
Conn. Ret. Plans & Tr. Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184, 1202 (2013).

Yet even after the wave of populist outcry that dominated the
2016 election, the newly-elected majority in the US House of Representatives passed as one of its first acts this year a bill striking at the heart of people’s rights to class action litigation.

The bill — the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017” (H.R. 985) — seeks to frustrate class actions brought by consumers, employees, and investors while tipping the scales in favor of corporate defendants.

A remarkable coalition of consumer rights groups, civil rights advocates, and members of the legal community have united in opposition to H.R. 985. Nonetheless, the House majority passed H.R. 985 without permitting even a single hearing on its merits, and this dangerous and much-criticized legislation now resides with the Senate.

H.R. 985’s radical effects

Author Jesse Jensen is an attorney in the New York office of Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman LLP
Author Jesse Jensen is an attorney in the New York office of Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman LLP

Close examination of H.R. 985 reveals that, far from promoting “fairness,” the bill relies on creative methods to delay, and ultimately dismantle, class action lawsuits.

For example, courts currently permit lawsuits to proceed as class actions only if (among other requirements) the proposed class representative shows that its claims, including its injury, are “typical” of the class’s claims. H.R. 985, however, would prohibit class actions unless the plaintiff demonstrates that each proposed class member suffered “the same type and scope of injury.”

In many types of class actions, this provision could radically pare down what a “class” could be, because the same wrongdoing may injure large groups of consumers or workers to different degrees. For instance, the same dangerous prescription medication may manifest side effects that differ in scope.

While one patient may suffer a lethal heart attack, another may suffer a debilitating stroke. This provision of H.R. 985, however, could be interpreted to rob from the victims of that defect their ability to band together against the pharmaceutical company, even though all suffered from the same faulty medication.

Moreover, H.R. 985 does not explain how precisely a class representative could demonstrate that all of the class members suffered “the same type and scope of injury.” Ultimately, courts could spend years of litigation attempting to settle on an accepted meaning of this restrictive requirement — preventing adjudication of the merits, and any relief to pending classes, in the meantime.

Other provisions of the bill also transparently seek to manufacture delay. For instance, while appellate courts currently have discretion as to when they will hear appeals of class certification decisions, H.R. 985 would require appellate courts to hear all appeals of class certification decisions, no matter how frivolous.

This element of H.R. 985 caught experienced legal scholars and practitioners by surprise, as little-to-no commentary had suggested that appellate courts have failed to oversee appropriately district court rulings on class certification. By unnecessarily burdening appellate courts, this provision of H.R. 985 would add further time and expense to the class certification process.

Near-universal criticism

Other than the US Chamber of  Commerce — the highest-spending lobbying group in the United States — H.R. 985 has received no notable endorsement. Instead, the bill has faced widespread denunciation, including by dozens of consumer, labor, environmental, disability, investor and civil rights advocacy groups, all of whom expressed concern with how the bill would stymie the enforcement of individual legal rights. This disparate alliance includes such prominent organizations as:

  • The AFL-CIO
  • National Disability Rights Network
  • Southern Poverty Law Center

Even beyond this pervasive concern over the bill’s impact, several legal commentators have criticized the bill for fundamentally disregarding Congress’s own acknowledgment that federal courts themselves are best positioned to make rules governing their procedures.

For example, on March 8, 2017, the American Bar Association — a prominent nonpartisan professional association of legal professionals — noted in a public letter to members of the House that H.R. 985 would interfere with the efforts to improve class action procedures already in progress by the policy-making body for the federal courts, the Judicial Conference of the United States, all while wasting judicial resources and unnecessarily delaying and denying claims.

Public outcry

Fortunately, public outcry forced the elimination of one of the bill’s most onerous (and arguably unconstitutional) provisions. The bill’s sponsor, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), voluntarily removed from the legislation a provision that would have forbidden any class representative from being represented by any counsel who had previously served as counsel for the class representative in a different class action.

Nonetheless, even this pared-back version of the bill could not garner a single Democratic vote in the House, and even failed to capture over a dozen Republican votes. Ultimately, however, the substantial GOP House majority advanced the bill to the Senate in March 2017, where it has since been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

Since that time, the Senate has apparently shown no urgency with respect to the legislation, leaving unclear H.R. 985’s fate. Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee refrained from acting on similar anti-class action legislation, also introduced by Rep. Goodlatte. Many commentators believe that, even if H.R. 985 moves forward to the Senate floor, it will face greater scrutiny — and likely revision — than it did in the House.

Ultimately, perhaps the biggest wildcard facing H.R. 985 is whether the new President will attempt to play any role in its future, and what that role would be.

H.R. 985 threatens to erect unnecessary,  costly, and time-consuming barriers to class actions nationwide, and the House of Representatives disappointed the country in making its passage one of its first priorities this year. With the bill now in the Senate’s control, legal experts, advocacy groups, institutional investors, and others should remain vigilant regarding this anti-consumer legislation.


Jesse Jensen is an Attorney in the New York office of Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann LLP (www.blbglaw.com). He can be reached at jesse.jensen@blbglaw.com and 212.554.1584.

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The Senate Should Reject the ‘‘Fairness’’ in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017

Myriam Gilles Vice Dean, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law
Myriam Gilles
Vice Dean, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

By Elizabeth Chamblee Burch And Myriam Gilles

This article is reprinted from the Bloomberg Law Product Safety & Liability Reporter.

Some may argue that House Bill 985, the ‘‘Fairness’’ in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, will weed out frivolous lawsuits and help make America great again.

Don’t be fooled. We know that class litigation isn’t perfect—after all, our academic work focuses on chronicling abuses within class action litigation and outing the cozy relationships that have evolved between plaintiff and defense lawyers. But this bill doesn’t fix what’s ailing the system. Instead, it seeks to eliminate group litigation altogether.

If it becomes law, the bill could prevent consumers from litigating together the next time a company like Volkswagen masks its emissions and thwart General Motors’ victims from joining forces to recover if their car ignition turns off while they’re driving. It would deprive consumers of the right to sue when businesses rip them off little by little, and derail litigation by small businesses hurt by anticompetitive practices.

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch is the Charles H. Kirbo Chair of Law at the University of Georgia School of Law.
Elizabeth Chamblee Burch is the Charles H.
Kirbo Chair of Law at the University of Georgia
School of Law.

This certainly isn’t the first time a Republican-led House has pursued legislation to ‘‘reform’’ complex litigation. But it is the first time that this pernicious, heavy-handed legislation has had a chance of enactment. While the bill’s prospects are aided by Republican control of both Houses of Congress and the presidency, the real momentum behind HR 985 (which is being fasttracked—in and out of committee in less than a week—by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)) is congressional distrust of courts. And this distrust has a new-found respectability; it can now be openly aired because the President himself has repeatedly disparaged the legitimacy and authority of judges who have the temerity to rule against him.

HR 985 would stifle judges’ discretion and override appellate court consensus. For instance, courts have long struggled with cases where there is no good way to determine money damages on a class-wide basis. But over the past 20 years, the federal courts have come to a hard-won consensus that permits ‘‘issue classes’’— where a defendant’s liability gets tried on a class basis, followed by individual damages proceedings. This bill would trash that bipartisan consensus. In fact, one could argue the only class actions it would permit are those where every class member suffered the exact same damages.

The bill rejects not only the wisdom of the courts but also that of the bipartisan federal rules committee. After working to revise the class action rule for several years (and holding countless town hall meetings so that all affected stakeholders could get in their two cents), the committee announced last summer that it was best to leave issue class actions alone—to watch how the doctrine evolves in courts confronted with real cases involving real people.

Other parts of the bill try (ineptly) to simply tell judges how and when to do their jobs. For instance, the bill requires plaintiffs to submit proof like medical records shortly after they sue, and judges must decide whether that proof is sufficient within 30 days of receiving it. This would require the impossible.

For example, over 40,000 plaintiffs sued Merck before it withdrew its painkiller, Vioxx, from the market. No judge in the country has enough clerks (or clones) to fulfill the bill’s mandate under circumstances like that. It is also simply unnecessary: the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure already provide a tried-and-true path for handling just this sort of procedural and administrative tangle.

Interbranch distrust is hardwired into our constitutional structure; as James Madison famously put it, ‘‘ambition must be made to counteract ambition.’’ And it generally serves a positive function, stimulating each of the three branches to check the authoritarian, anti-majoritarian, and expansive impulses of the others.

But in this new era when distrust leads to disrespect—when ‘‘so-called judges’’ are threatened and bullied, called out and castigated—HR 985 serves as alarming example of upended norms and constitutional dysfunction. Given this new reality, now, perhaps more than ever before in our history, we need the federal courts to remain independent sources of authority.

Editor’s Note: The authors have submitted detailed comments on the bill to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice.


Elizabeth Chamblee Burch is the Charles H. Kirbo Chair of Law at the University of Georgia
School of Law.

Myriam Gilles is a Vice Dean and Paul R. Verkuil Research Professor of Law at Benjamin
N. Cardozo School of Law.

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Class Action Certified in Syngenta Corn Market Crash Litigation

Syngenta-Viptera-Corn-Damage-Lawsuit-300x200US District Judge John W. Lungstrum in Kansas certified nine class actions brought by virtually every corn producer in America who suffered a dramatic loss in the value of their crops in 2013 when Syngenta AG shipped genetically-modified corn to China, which responded by banning all US corn.

The National Grain & Feed Association pegged the market-wide losses at $6.3 billion through August 2015 when China turned away at least 1.45 million metric tons of corn starting in November 2013. It contained genetic trait MIR 162 developed by Syngenta, of Basel, Switzerland, and that variety wasn’t approved by China.

The class actions — which are part of sprawling litigation against the company — are denominated In Re: Syngenta Ag Mir 162 Corn Litigation, Case No. 14-md-2591-jwl in MDL No. 2591.

The judge appointed class counsel to be attorneys Don M. Downing of Gray Ritter & Graham, PC in St. Louis, Patrick J. Stueve of Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP in Kansas City, Scott Powell of Hare Wynn Newell & Newton in Birmingham, AL, and William Chaney of Gray Reed & McGraw in Dallas. They are also lead counsel in the federal MDL litigation.

Judge Lungstrum certified a nationwide class to pursue the Lanham Act (false advertising) claims and certification of eight statewide classes (consisting of producers in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota) to pursue negligence claims, as well as tortious interference claims in the Arkansas and Missouri classes, and statutory consumer protection claims in the Illinois and Nebraska classes.

Tens of thousands of plaintiffs

Some 800 federal cases are pending in the multidistrict litigation docket, MDL 2591, before Judge Lungstrum. On top of that:

  • Three more federal actions, involving more than 2,800 plaintiffs, are pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois before U.S. District Judge David R. Herndon.
  • Approximately 2,375 cases, involving over 20,000 plaintiffs, are pending in the Fourth Judicial District of Hennepin County, Minnesota, and consolidated before Judge Thomas M. Sipkins in a case captioned In re Syngenta Litigation, No. 27-cv-15- 3785.
  • In addition, about 200 cases are pending in the Illinois First Judicial Circuit Court before Judge Brad K. Bleyer.

China imports 4 million metric tons of corn per year, and corn is the largest crop export from of the US. Knowing that the clock was ticking on the expiration of its Agrisure Viptera GMO corn patent, Syngenta aggressively commercialized the crop from 2011 to 2014. Despite warnings from industry participants that China had not approved the GMO corn, U.S. exports to China were found to be contaminated with MIR162. China then began rejecting shipments of corn from the U.S.

“These events show corporate greed at its worst. But there is more. To attempt to minimize the perceived impact of its conduct, Syngenta actively misled farmers, industry participants and others about the importance of the Chinese market, the timing and substance of its application for approval in China, the timing of when China was likely to approve MIR162, its ability to “channel” Viptera® to non-Chinese markets and otherwise contain the infiltration of Viptera® into the U.S. corn supply,” the class action complaint states.

Judge Lungstrum rejected all of Syngenta’s arguments against class certification. The company argued unsuccessfully that the terms “corn priced after November 18, 2013” and the term “producer” were vague. The judge said “priced” simply means the date when the price for particular corn is agreed upon by parties for sale, and that producer was defined by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The judge also rejected Syngenta’s argument that the proposed classes were overbroad.

The court added that the plaintiffs do have a class-wide method to show damages and have experts who have created models to determine the per-unit effect on class members’ sales of corn.

“The Court does not foresee any particular difficulties in the management of class actions, and … ascertaining the class members in this case does not require difficult individualized inquiries,” the judge wrote.

 

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Charging that Vitamin E is Bad for Your Heart, Class Action is Revived Against CVS

vitaminThe First US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a class action lawsuit against CVS Caremark pharmacies may proceed in light of misleading labels for Vitamin E it sold that say it promotes “heart health” — when studies show the opposite is true.

Plaintiff Ronda Kaufman alleges that one study reflects “that those taking vitamin E had higher rates of heart failure and were more likely to be hospitalized for heart failure,” while another study found “an increase in mortality that progressively increased as daily dosage exceeds 150 IU.” The complaint further states that “[a]ll variations of [CVS’s] pill type vitamin E products exceed the 150 IU level shown to increase mortality in this study.”

No Preemption

The court ruled that the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(5), does not preempt the lawsuit, brought under New York’s consumer protection law. The case is Kaufman v CVS Caremark Corp. (PDF), 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-1199 (Sept. 6, 2016).

Kaufman purchased CVS-brand Vitamin E 400 International Unites (iu) with a label making four statements that are subject to the requirements of FDCA section 343(r)(6): that Vitamin E “supports antioxidant health”; that Vitamin E helps “maintain healthy blood vessels”; that Vitamin E “supports heart health”; and that Vitamin E “supports the immune system.”

Kaufman claims that there exist no scientifically valid studies establishing that CVS’s heart health statements are truthful and not misleading. Most studies about Vitamin E simply presume that it promotes heart health.

In fact, Kaufman cited 7 studies indicating that Vitamin E can even damage the heart. One study found that increasing Vitamin E intake may increase the risk for heart failure. Another found that “high-dosage” Vitamin E supplements of 400 IU or more–the very dosage that Kaufman purchased–may increase all-cause mortality. “This indication, which the studies at least render plausible, would seem to mean that Vitamin E can play a role in harming heart health,” the court says.

Accordingly, the label can plausibly be viewed as misleading within the meaning of the FDCA. “Federal law does not, therefore, preempt application of New York state law for the purpose of holding CVS accountable for misleading consumers by failing to satisfy those requirements,” the court ruled.

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6 Mass Tort and Class Action Cases to Watch

Credit: ADR Toolbox
Credit: ADR Toolbox

By John H. Beisner, Jessica D. Miller and Jordan M. Schwartz of Skadden Arps

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down several decisions addressing overbroad or “no-injury” class actions, and a number of important issues are percolating in the lower courts as well. Below are some issues that are likely to be at the forefront of class action practice in the coming year.

1. The Future of Overbroad Class Actions. The future of overbroad or no-injury class actions could turn on the resolution of two cases before the Supreme Court. The first is Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, a case involving Article III standing under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The specific question at issue in Spokeo is whether Congress can confer Article III standing on a plaintiff who has not suffered any concrete harm apart from alleging a bare violation of a federal statute. The second case is Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, a wage-and-hour class action that, according to the petition for certiorari, involves the question “whether a class action may be certified … when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.” Although there are other issues at play in this closely watched case — and several justices suggested at oral argument that the Court might not address the overly broad certification issue — the Court’s ultimate decision still could have significant implications for no-injury class actions. (See “2015-16 Supreme Court Update.”)

2. Ascertainability Law Remains in Flux. Defendants in 2015 were dealt a setback in their bid to strengthen the law governing ascertainability in consumer class actions outside the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Most recently, in Mullins v. Direct Digital, LLC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit expressly parted ways with the Third Circuit’s landmark 2013 decision inCarrera v. Bayer Corp., which had recognized a defendant’s due process right to challenge class membership at the class certification stage. The Seventh Circuit disagreed with what it described as a “heightened” ascertainability requirement that would serve as a death knell for consumer fraud class actions involving products of so little cost that no consumer would bother to keep a receipt. The Mullins decision highlights a deep circuit split on the parameters of the implied requirement of ascertainability, offering the Supreme Court a prime opportunity to weigh in on this important issue. While it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will take up theMullins case and resolve the divide, ascertainability will continue to make its way through the federal appellate courts. Notably, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has previously strived to avoid the question, likely will be the next circuit court to offer its views on ascertainability in Jones v. ConAgra Foods Inc. A decision is expected in early 2016.

3. No Changes to Issues Certification Provision. After studying issues classes in 2015, the Rule 23 Subcommittee of the federal Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Civil Rules recently decided against pursuing changes to the provision governing issues classes (Rule 23(c)(4)) that many believed would encourage more frequent use of that device. This is a positive development for defendants given that the subcommittee had considered a proposal under which class treatment of certain issues would have been permitted whenever there are any common questions capable of resolution on a classwide basis — even if the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) was not met as to other issues. Such a proposal would have effectively codified the trend by the Sixth and Seventh circuits of employing Rule 23(c)(4) as a means to facilitate class certification in cases where individualized issues would otherwise predominate. The subcommittee decision all but guarantees that issues classes will remain a hotly debated issue in 2016.

4. Multidistrict Litigation Abuses. Congress enacted the multidistrict litigation (MDL) statute years ago so that overlapping cases could be centralized before a single judge for coordinated pretrial proceedings, generating much-needed efficiencies for parties and courts. However, rather than use this mechanism to efficiently resolve cases and conserve resources, plaintiffs’ attorneys increasingly are using MDLs to warehouse meritless claims in the hope that the sheer number of cases will pressure defendants into settlements. One way to weed out baseless claims is by expanding the use of plaintiff fact sheets and Lone Pine orders that would require plaintiffs to satisfy a minimum evidentiary threshold at the outset of litigation, before the parties proceed to expensive and burdensome discovery. While fact sheets and Lone Pine orders have become increasingly popular in MDL proceedings, they often are imposed as requirements late in the litigation. With growing awareness that MDL proceedings are becoming magnets for meritless suits, in 2016, MDL courts may start using these tools earlier in litigation to maximize their value and impose serious sanctions for failure to comply with them, including the dismissal of cases.

5. Cy Pres. In 2015, plaintiffs continued to test the limits of cy pres, the practice of distributing class funds to third-party charities instead of the allegedly aggrieved class members. Federal appellate courts have continued to be somewhat skeptical of cy pres, including the Eighth Circuit, which recently vacated a district court’s order distributing residual funds to a third-party legal services organization after two rounds of direct distribution to class members. The Court of Appeals recognized that cy pres distributions “have been controversial in the courts of appeals,” but stated that district courts are “ignoring and resisting circuit cy pres concerns and rulings in class action cases.” Indeed, the practice is on the rise, as demonstrated by a comparison of the number of reported decisions approving/denying class settlements with cy pres components in 2009 and 2014. Thus, it is not surprising that the Rule 23 Subcommittee decided to look into the issue. However, after studying it throughout 2015, the subcommittee recently decided not to add a Rule 23 provision governing cy pres. As a result, the battle over cy pres — and whether it effectuates the interests of absent class members — will continue to play out in federal courts.

6. Third-Party Litigation Funding. Several noteworthy developments in the third-party litigation funding (TPLF) arena took place in 2015, including the announcement by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, of an investigation into TPLF usage and practices. According to a press release Sen. Grassley issued on August 27, 2015, the two senators are “examining the impact third party litigation financing is having on civil litigation in the United States.” To that end, the senators sent letters to Burford Capital, Bentham IMF and Juridica Investments Ltd., three of the largest TPLF funders, requesting information regarding their TPLF activities in the United States. Another development over the past year has been TPLF’s expansion into the mass tort arena, as illustrated in a breach-of-contract complaint recently filed in Texas state court against the plaintiffs’ law firm AkinMears. The suit was brought by a former employee of the law firm, who was hired to secure third-party litigation funding for television ads and the direct purchase of transvaginal-mesh mass tort lawsuits from other plaintiffs’ lawyers. This lawsuit is worthy of close attention because it may provide new information about the ways in which TPLF is being used to fund and expand mass tort litigation.

Republished from JD Supra.

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Class Action Filed against Floor & Décor over Formaldehyde in Chinese Flooring

formaldehydeResidents of California, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas and Georgia filed a class action lawsuit against Floor & Décor Outlets of America, Inc., for allegedly selling Chinese-made laminate flooring which contained excessive levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

The lawsuit was filed by Robertson & Associates in federal district court in Atlanta, Georgia on behalf of similarly situated residents who purchased the flooring over the last four years.

Testing performed by certified and independent laboratories on laminate flooring purchased by Plaintiffs revealed formaldehyde gas emissions more than triple the legal limit established by California Air Resources Board’s (“CARB”) regulations. The lawsuit alleges that Floor & Décor falsely advertised that its Chinese-made laminate flooring sold across the country complied with the CARB formaldehyde emission standards, when it did not. The Plaintiffs also allege that Floor & Décor fraudulently concealed these material facts from consumers who purchased Chinese-made laminate flooring from the Defendant.

Causes cancer

Formaldehyde gas is known to cause cancer and can also cause chronic respiratory irritation, burning eyes, nose and throat irritation, coughing, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Formaldehyde has also been linked to the exacerbation of asthma in sensitive individuals. People may be exposed to formaldehyde gas without knowing they are being exposed or that they are at risk. The health risks are significantly greater for susceptible persons such as children, the elderly or those with asthma.

Floor & Decor presently has 58 retail stores in 17 states, including Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

 

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