Multi-district litigation is becoming more and more common in class actions, and has added another strategic dimension to the cases.

For plaintiffs it adds the question of which law firm should lead the consolidated litigation.
 And, as should be clear by now, that is no small question for plaintiffs.

But the other issue it complicates–for both sides–is forum-shopping. Forum-shopping tends to be unavoidable in class-action litigation.  For plaintiffs, forum-shopping usually involves choosing the best possible mix of favorable law, favorable judges, favorable demographics, and potential interference from other plaintiffs’ firms. [For a fuller discussion of the factors plaintiffs consider in forum-shopping, be sure to check the Class Action Playbook, coming out in September.] For defendants, forum-shopping is often limited to the question of whether to remove a case or not.

But, once the question of consolidating multiple cases into multi-district litigation arises, those questions get reopened, and the field of possible choices expands to include any federal district court. While the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) should only consolidate cases that share "common issues," few guidelines constrain where it may assign a consolidated case. Since the specific court chosen can have a material effect on how the case gets conducted, what factors does the JPML take into account?

Margaret Wilson (of Vanderbilt University) and Tracey George (of the Federal Judicial Center) have set out to answer that question. In their recent paper "Deciding Who Decides: Consolidating Multidistrict Litigation," they set out to test whether any factors about the case–or the panel–influenced the assignment of MDL cases. Their conclusion?

As the model shows only two factors are statistically significant in their relationship to the assignment of a case. Higher numbers of recommendations for a district and those districts currently represented on the Panel were more likely to receive a transfer.

(Emphasis added.)  Not only were the districts represented on the Panel more likely to receive the transferred case, it was the judges on the Panel who were most likely to oversee those cases.

Judges who take senior status are statistically less likely to be assigned the MDL, all else being equal. Judges who previously served as Chief Judge, however, and current JPML judges were all statistically significantly more likely to be assigned the MDL.

This result has a certain logic to it. Judges are likely to know the resources of their own districts, and may also be likely to decide they are best qualified to handle a multi-district case.

What are the implications of this finding? If a defense lawyer finds itself arguing before the JPML, it may make sense to argue for the most favorable district represented on the Panel as the best destination. At the very least, doing so may constitute a good backup plan.