On Monday, I reported on the passing of Vanderbilt Professor Richard Nagareda. Given the widespread recognition of his contributions to studying aggregated litigation, it seemed appropriate to revisit one of his better articles: Aggregation and Its Discontents: Class Settlement Pressure, Class-Wide Arbitration, and CAFA, which originally appeared in the Columbia Law Review in 2006.
In this article, Professor Nagareda took three debates over class-action practice — (1) do class actions create undue settlement pressure? (2) can arbitration clauses override the use of the class-action device?; and (3) did the passage of CAFA threaten to abrogate the Supreme Court’s holding in Klaxon v. Stentor Electric Manufacturing Co. (1941) that federal courts must apply state choice-of-law principles — and used them to ask a broader question posed by class-action practice:
When should the law become concerned, as a normative matter, that the affording or withholding of aggregation is not a matter of mere procedural format but amounts instead to an unauthorized, back-door method of reform for substantive rights?
After a careful examination of the (then-) state of the law for each of these issues, Professor Nagareda came to the following conclusion:
The debates over class settlement pressure, waivers of class-wide arbitration, and CAFA each pose questions about the relationship between aggregate procedure and substantive law. In these high-stakes disputes, one side or the other seeks to characterize the availability of aggregation as merely a cosmetic matter, whereas the opposing side seeks to probe its practical effects. Interestingly enough, plaintiffs and defendants make different arguments along these lines in different settings.
The law should cut through the advocacy on both sides by situating all three debates along a common metric of institutional authority. Each is ultimately a debate over when the affording or the withholding of aggregation is not merely a matter of procedural format, but also a way to alter substantive law.
Each of Professor Nagareda’s questions has gradually been answered by the evolution of class-acton doctrine and civil procedure doctrine. While undue settlement pressure is always a concern, defendants have been handed better tools (like the much-used Iqbal ruling) with which to minimize the in terrorem effect of large but meritless cases. The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to hear the Concepcion case, which should provide an answer to whether arbitration clauses can preclude classwide consumer litigation in certain circumstances. And, while the Shady Grove decision did not directly address the clash between CAFA and Klaxon, it does provide guidance for how federal class-action rules should interact with state substantive law.
That said, there’s still a great deal that class-action lawyers can take from this article. First, Professor Nagareda did an outstanding job of picking apart the tactics that underlay each side’s approach to these three issues. There is a reason that this article is generally considered seminal.
Second, Professor Nagareda identifies an important rhetorical technique, which is the sliding scale each side employs in characterizing the effect of class-action rulings. In essence, the bigger the change a side wants, the more likely they are to gloss it as "cosmetic." Class-action defense lawyers have long known that one of the best ways to show a court the problems with a class proposal is to focus on how the case would actually be tried. Professor Nagareda brought both scholarly rigor and intellectual honesty to bear on how that argument plays out under various circumstances.
And finally, Professor Nagareda’s article provides an excellent reminder that there is much to be said for standing back from the nitty-gritty of the rules at times and asking the larger question of what each of your arguments actually means. As he illustrates here, sometimes the answer really will be surprising.