At the DePaul symposium a few weeks back, Professor Suja Thomas argued that the Supreme Court should not take on "oddball" cases, because the outlying facts make for decisions that are too sweeping. (She’s made this argument before about Iqbal and Twombly, so you don’t have to wait for the DePaul Law Review’s Symposium Issue to get the basics.)
As I’ve mentioned before, Professor Thomas is no fan of oddball cases. She argues that:
the Supreme Court and some scholars, including Professor Richard Epstein, have justified the new standard on the basis of the costs in Twombly, an “oddball” case—with massive costs and significant asymmetry of costs—and have not shown that the new standard should apply transsubstantively to cases that do not have such costs, including typical employment discrimination cases. This Essay also shows that Iqbal, while different than Twombly in types of costs, is similarly “oddball” in nature. Moreover, this Essay argues that, despite the lack of significant justification for why the new standard should apply transsubstantively, and also contrary to a prediction of Professor Epstein, the new standard will likely have a revolutionary impact on cases, without the same types of costs as Iqbal and Twombly, including employment discrimination cases.
In other words, what Professor Thomas doesn’t like about oddball cases is that the extreme facts drive results that she believes undermine good legal rules.
While she didn’t write in direct response to Professor Thomas, Professor Suzanna Sherry has produced an essay (to appear in the Supreme Court Review) that takes this argument head on: Hogs Get Slaughtered at the Supreme Court. Professor Sherry’s argument starts from an interesting premise: the reason that the Supreme Court made the sweeping rulings it did in Concepcion and Dukes is not because the majority was necessarily pro-business or anti-plaintiff, but because the lower court (in this case, the Ninth Circuit) had overreached in each case.
And these two cases are not isolated tragedies; they provide a window into a larger problem. Rule 23 turns class counsel into powerful private attorneys general and tempts them to raise the stakes. It allows plaintiffs’ lawyers to chart a course not only for their own clients, but for future litigants. If that course is ill-advised – as it is when the lawyers have incentives, as they often do, to frame issues broadly for the “big win” – the consequences can be disastrous for those future litigants.
If anything, the largest flaw with Professor Sherry’s argument is that it’s incomplete: hogs don’t just get slaughtered on the plaintiff’s side. As the Halliburton and Smith v. Bayer decisions show, defendants who push radical arguments (and the appellate courts that endorse them) can also get reversed quite easily. (Although in those cases, there is more likely to be a client that constrains the attorneys from going too far afield.)
I’d say that in this debate, Professor Sherry has the better end. Oddball cases provide oddball results because they take the rules as they stand, and bring them to absurd results, and courts do not like absurd results. From a policy standpoint, that means that while Professor Sherry’s position–courts that want to preserve current good rules shouldn’t overreach–has practical policy implications, Professor Thomas’s position–the Supreme Court should allow oddball results to stand to preserve otherwise good rules–really doesn’t.
More importantly, Professor Sherry’s approach provides some valuable advice for defense (and plaintiff’s) counsel, particularly when arguing on appeal: don’t get greedy. Appellate litigation, like class action litigation, is a long game . An decisive win at the motion to dismiss is a great outcome, but a defendant who structures their strategy to aim solely for that is likely to face avoidable strategic problems if going all in doesn’t work out. On the other hand, planning carefully, and encouraging the court to make a series of well-grounded rulings that lead to a decision defensible on appeal? That’s your jackpot.