Geoffrey Miller is one of the few law professors out there who consistently investigates real empirical questions about class actions. He’s published on the role of objectors in class-action settlements, the use of non-pecuniary relief, and even the effect of judicial review on settlement rates. So when Miller comes out with a policy proposal–as he does in a recent article in the University of Illinois Law Review, it’s worth paying attention to what he says.
Miller starts from the premise that "something is wrong with settlements." (If one were glib, one could say that his critique proves that something is right with settlements. Nobody’s pleased with them.) His proposed solution? The preliminary judgment. As Miller proposes it, at any point, a party could move the court to declare whether it believed the plaintiff could establish her case by a preponderance of the evidence currently available.
A preliminary judgment is simply a tentative assessment of the merits of a case or any part of a case, based on the same sorts of information that the courts already consider on motions for summary judgment. The difference between a preliminary judgment and a summary judgment is that the court, in a preliminary judgment, would not be limited to deciding issues with which no reasonable jury could disagree. Instead, the court would provide its own provisional judgment on the merits of the case based on the information provided by the parties. A preliminary judgment, once given, would convert into a final judgment after the expiration of a reasonable period of time – say, thirty days. Any party against whom a preliminary judgment is issued, however, would have the right to object prior to the expiration of the period (with or without explanation), in which case the judgment would be vacated and the case would proceed according to ordinary rules of procedure. Like other threshold rulings, the preliminary judgment would then have no preclusive effect in the continuing litigation.
(Internal footnote omitted.) According to Miller, this "preliminary judgment" would offer more information to the parties than a ruling on other preliminary motions–presumably because it would apply the same decision rule that applies at trial. He also believes it would reduce litigation costs.
In reality, while the motion for preliminary judgment would likely prove another useful tool, there is no reason to believe that it would be immune from the strategic behavior prompted by other versions of preliminary motions. Preparing a motion for preliminary judgment would not be costless. Defendants would have strong incentives to file early preliminary judgment motions, much as they already do with other preliminary motions. (This analysis would hold true whether one believes that defense counsel file early motions to rid themselves of frivolous cases, to frame the remainder of the litigation, or simply to run up their hourly bills.)
The lesson Miller’s analysis suggests is a simple one, and one that this blog has advocated for some time now: Challenge both certification and merits as early as possible. While this isn’t quite the same as getting a "preliminary judgment," the same advantages Miller touts operate. Each side gets an early look at the merits of the case. If the case lacks merit, the court should recognize the strength of the defendant’s arguments and dismiss it (or at least strike the class allegations). If the case has some merit, better the defendant learn that as early as possible.