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The Ten Most Significant Class Action Cases of 2011

Posted in Certification

 This was a busy year for class-action jurisprudence. Clearly, most of the Supreme Court cases had some effect on class action practice. But the district and appellate courts also rendered a host of rulings this year that significantly affect class-action practice. Despite what a number of academics and plaintiffs’ lawyers have claimed, the class action is not dead.  That said, it’s probably true, to quote plaintiff’s lawyer Daniel Girard, that while the "death of the class action" is overstated, the "Golden Age of the private attorney-general" is over. There were so many interesting opinions in the past year, with so many implications, that it was hard to identify just ten. Consequently, I’ve cheated a little. The final two entries actually comprise four cases which, taken as pairs, indicate a couple of new trends to watch out for.

  1. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes (S. Ct.) – Whether you think it killed the class action or not, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes (called "Wal-Mart" by some, "Dukes" by others) was the runaway most important case of the year for class-action practitioners. It clarified an ongoing debate about whether Rule 23(b)(2) could be used for money damages (it can’t), it finally provided a standard for Rule 23(a)(2) (a common question must have a common answer), and it finally put to bed a common misreading of Eisen that had justified ignoring inconvenient facts when certifying class actions. Those all make it the most significant decision of the year, even before you get to the press hype.
  2. AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (S. Ct.) – Concepcion is the other case that has been accused of killing the class action (sometimes on its own, sometimes in conjunction with Dukes.) It hasn’t managed that feat, but it has sent what one plaintiffs’ attorney called "a seismic change" through class-action practice. While we’re still feeling the aftershocks it’s clear that it is now more difficult to bring "creative" consumer claims that are governed by clear purchase contracts; and certain individualized employment disputes are also finding their way into arbitration rather than class actions. And that’s before we get into the Supreme Court’s discussion of exactly what due process requires from aggregated litigation.
  3. Pilgrim v. Universal Health Card, LLC (6th Cir.) – This case, the first appellate opinion to address the motion to strike class allegations at the pleading stage, has made the tactic truly viable. For years, class-action defendants have faced down multi-state classes that they knew from prior experience could not get certified. And yet, because courts were reluctant to rule on the viability of these class actions before discovery, defendants faced long and expensive discovery just to get to a legal issue that required no additional facts. Pilgrim marks the first time that an appellate court has recognized that determining whether variations in state law predominate over other issues does not require discovery, it just requires an analysis of the laws in question.
  4. Klier v. Elf Atochem Inc. (5th Cir.) – Thought that cy pres relief was a no-brainer in your class action settlement? Think again. Joined later in the year by the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Nachsin v. AOL, LLC, Klier finally bridles the runaway use of cy pres relief to dress up less valuable class actions. The fact that it also provided a stark critique of the always-problematic medical-monitoring class action was just a bonus.
  5. Smith v. Bayer Corp (S. Ct.) – Significant" does not have to mean "pro-defendant." In Smith, the Supreme Court held (abrogating the Seventh Circuit’s Thorogood opinion last year) that a defeat at class certification does not preclude another class member from bringing the same class action somewhere else. It based this decision on the eminently logical reason that, until a case has been certified as a class action, it is just an individual plaintiff’s case. (That same logic underlies the Seventh Circuit’s recent re-affirmation that one can moot a class action before certification.)
  6. Erica John Fund v. Halliburton (S. Ct.) – Similarly, securities defendants were perfectly happy with the Fifth Circuit’s requirement that a plaintiff demonstrate loss causation when certifying a securities class under a "fraud on the market" theory, even if that requirement could not be found in the text of Rule 23. The Supreme Court, in a short, well-reasoned, and unanimous opinion, definitively closed off that particular line of argument.
  7. In re Bluetooth Headsets Products Liability Litigation (9th Cir.) – The Ninth Circuit’s rejection of a problematic class-action settlement (the class got nothing, the attorneys got $850,000) imposed a common-sense "proportionality" requirement on class counsel fees, recognized that segregation of the fee request from the rest of the settlement does not eliminate perverse incentives for class counsel, and required a cross-check for lodestar-based fees.
  8. Judge Alsup’s Class Settlement Checklist – Judge Alsup has handled a number of class actions in his few years on the bench. And this was the year that he developed a standing order that lays out what he expects from any classwide settlement, before negotiations may even have begun. It’s an outstanding idea, and it provides excellent guidance to plaintiffs and defendants about what they can and can’t accomplish in a settlement in his court. While I may not agree with all of his analysis, I can’t fault his attempt to create certainty in the negotiation process.
  9. In re Aqua Dots Products Liability Litigation (7th Cir.) & Pipefitters Local 636 Insurance Fund v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (6th Cir.) – The Sixth and Seventh Circuits both faced the question of how to handle class actions that, while they might benefit the plaintiff and the plaintiffs’ lawyers, would do no one else any good. Judge Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit pointed out that while it is logical to say that a class action duplicating a voluntary recall is not a good idea, it doesn’t exactly fall under the text of superiority. So instead, he held that a plaintiff who brings a redundant class action is inadequate. The Sixth Circuit, faced with a class action that might benefit the class but would in the process hurt other citizens of Michigan, simply held it not superior to other methods of resolving the controversy (including individual lawsuits).
  10. CE Design v. King Architectural Metals (7th Cir.) & Creative Montessori Learning Centers v. Ashford Gear LLC (7th Cir.) – In a pair of opinions this year, Judge Posner seemed single-handedly determined to restore integrity to the class action. In CE Design, he held that a named plaintiff who has credibility problems cannot serve as an adequate class representative. In Creative Montessori, he held that class counsel who have engaged in deceptive methods to prosecute their class action are not adequate class counsel. The message behind these two cases seems clear: everyone in a class action is expected to be on the up-and-up, not just the defendants.

In making this list, I had to leave off a number of significant developments in class action practice. Taco Bell tried a risky but successful PR strategy this year. The Second Circuit held that subclasses might require their own counsel. The federal appellate courts have split–even after Dukes–on how to treat expert testimony. 2011 was an interesting time for class actions. Perhaps uniquely so. It will be interesting to see how each of these developments shakes out in 2012.

[Note - edited after publication to fix a formatting error and an unfinished sentence.]