On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard argument in Smith v. Bayer Corp. The argument featured very active participation by the justices. The argument featured several very interesting moments:
Plaintiffs’ argument focused primarily on whether a collateral estoppel ruling on class certification deprives putative class members of due process.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: [Y]ou’re really arguing that due process requires the same treatment, essentially, of notice and an opportunity to be heard that we are giving to a substantive decision that blocks a future member from pursuing his or her claim, correct?
MR. MONAHAN: Yes, very similar, Your Honor. I mean, in this circumstance — I mean, these rights are provided. These procedural rights, once they are created, are being provided, and they can’t be taken away without due process.
Justice Sotomayor exhibited some realism about the stakes of the case.
MR. MONAHAN: Well, this particular procedural right is very closely connected — I mean, one of the main purposes of a class action is to level the economic playing field and to enable people with small individual claims to aggregate them in order to seek justice. Without those —
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Actually not true. The 16 plaintiff here received the same thing. The issue is how much money the lawyers are going to receive, really, because plaintiff gets their attorney’s fees, gets a statutory violation amount, which is going to be the same whether it’s in a class action or an individual action, so it’s really not the plaintiff who stands to win.
The defendant drew a smart distinction between individualized liability and individualized damages.
JUSTICE KAGAN: If you look at Rezulin, if you compare to it some Eighth Circuit cases, there seems to be a difference in at least tone, shall we say, about the extent to which a finding is required that common issues predominate.
MR. BECK: I think that, actually, Judge Davis took into account the difference in tone, and he 8looked very carefully at Rezulin, and he said that what Rezulin was focusing on was individual questions of damages, which defendants often argue is enough so that individual questions predominate, individual questions of reliance, which we also often argue mean that individual questions predominate. But he said this is different, because this is, in order to prove liability, they’ve got to establish individual injury, which means, on a person-by-person basis, either that they were harmed by the drug or that the drug didn’t work to lower their cholesterol as — as it was supposed to, and they have to show that whatever the violation of the Consumer Fraud Act was is causally linked there.
Plaintiffs often try to characterize questions of liability as questions of damages, so that they may invoke precedent that says individualized damages questions don’y necessarily preclude certification. Defense counsel provides a textbook response to this common tactic.
Justice Kagan posed an interesting question about whether the Anti-Injunction Act should apply to class certification decisions.
JUSTICE KAGAN: Mr. Beck, the relitigation exception of the Anti-Injunction Act speaks in terms of judgments. Why is the denial of class certification a judgment?
In Baycol, the order denying class certification also granted summary judgment, so this question was not an issue. But this may be a question in other cases. There are arguments on both sides. An order denying certification does not technically end the case, but it may effectively do so.
As several commentators have already noted, it’s very difficult to predict how the Court will rule in a given case, although the question rule would predict a decision for Bayer. The opinion will be out later this term.