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Class Action Countermeasures Discussions of the Strategic Considerations Involved In Class Action Defense

How to Oppose Abandoned Claims

Posted in Certification

It’s a situation familiar to many class-action defendants: a plaintiff files a complaint with, say, ten causes of action. But, by the time the case reaches the certification stage, she’s voluntarily dismissed nine of them–including the ones that actually address the alleged harm–in favor of an attenuated theory that she thinks stands the best chance of getting certified. (For example, a case that’s clearly about fraud somehow morphs into a breach-of-contract case; or a tort case about an alleged safety defect becomes a breach-of-express-warranty case specifically disclaiming any future physical injuries.) No individual plaintiff in her right mind would assert this claim in an individual lawsuit; among other things, doing so would preclude her from later asserting her stronger claim. But this is, of course, not an individual lawsuit, it is a proposed class action.

Usually, defendants sigh and begin researching the caselaw on adequacy, preparing to argue that any plaintiff who would abandon perfectly logical (but not certifiable) claims in favor of a riskier streamlined claim is not doing her absent class members any favors. In fact, she is selling the potentially valid claims of her fiduciaries (the absent class members) in exchange for a chance at certification.

Now, Professor Edward F. Sherman of the Tulane Law School has proposed an alternative argument in his article in the George Washington Law Review, "Abandoned Claims” in Class Actions: Implications for Preclusion and Adequacy of Counsel.

Like many academic articles, this one isn’t afraid of taking the long way around to get to its point. So it provides brief discussions of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Cooper v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the Fifth Circuit’s recent ruling in McClain v. Lufkin Industries, Inc., and a line of Texas state-law cases on preclusion. But, toward the end of the article, Professor Sherman begins to make some interesting points about preclusion and abandoned claims. Most notably, he recommends:

a court should make a determination as to whether the omitted claims are likely to be of importance to the class and whether the risk of preclusion is high enough to refuse certification. The practice of some plaintiffs’ attorneys of shotgunning all possible claims into a complaint should not establish that none of those claims can ever be omitted or else there would be inadequate representation. Multiple causes of action can be repetitious and overlapping, and class counsel should have some leeway in structuring a class action to be the most efficient and effective vehicle to serve the interests of the class. In the cases that find that abandoning claims is inadequate representation, there are hints that courts are particularly concerned with strategic abandonment no matter how important those claims might be to some class members. Paring down a class action so that it can be certified should not in itself be considered inadequate representation. It is often in the interests of the class members to do just that, particularly where there is little likelihood, in the absence of a class action, that class members can and will pursue the claims in individual suits. In (b)(3) class actions, a certifying court is required to find that "a class action is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy," which includes whether the class members are interested "in individually controlling the prosecution or defense of separate actions." A similar determination that there is little likelihood that class members will want to sue individually on omitted claims might be required should class certification be opposed on the basis of abandoning claims.

(Emphasis added, internal footnotes omitted.) This reasoning suggests that perhaps defendants should try opposing plaintiffs who abandon claims on superiority, as well as adequacy, grounds. After all, if class members can do better by asserting individual lawsuits, then that’s what they should be doing, rather than waiting for a class representative without an actual theory to recover on their behalf.