Dora Surowitz, a seamstress and a widow, was a Polish immigrant with very little English. In 1957, she bought about $2,000 of Hilton stock, on the advice of her son-in-law, Mr. Brilliant. (Yes, his real name. Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia, Harvard Law School. But really, with that name, could he have done anything else?) In fact, Hilton bought the stock for her, using her money, and bought some for himself and his family using his own money.

Five years later, Mrs. Surowitz got a notice from Hilton that it was buying back its own stock. Because she wanted to understand the notice, she took it to Mr. Brilliant. Something in the notice disturbed him, and he began investigating. He was joined by Mr. Rockler, who had been his colleague at the Nuremburg war crimes trials. (Did we mention Mr. Brilliant worked at Nuremburg?) Their investigation–which included a meeting with Hilton’s lawyers–uncovered a complicated fraud at the corporation. Mr. Brilliant went home, explained the fraud to his mother-in-law, and asked her to sign a letter to Hilton protesting the conduct, which she did.

Later that year, Hilton refused to send out a dividend. Mrs. Surowitz went to her son-in-law for an explanation, and he told her more about the fraud, and asked if she would be willing to sue Hilton. She was. Mr. Rockler served as her lawyer.

Hilton’s lawyers–like any good class-action defense team–took Mrs. Surowitz’s deposition. At that point, it became clear that she spoke next to no English, understood very little about the fraud itself, and really had just relied on Mr. Brilliant for her understanding of the case. Hilton moved to dismiss, claiming the complaint was a sham because Mrs. Surowitz’s verification of the complaint (in compliance with then-Rule 23) was false. Mrs. Surowitz appealed, and the appellate court affirmed. She appealed again, and the Surpreme Court granted certiorari and then reversed the dismissal. As Justice Black’s opinion put it:

Rule 23 (b) was not written in order to bar derivative suits. Unquestionably it was originally adopted and has served since in part as a means to discourage "strike suits" by people who might be interested in getting quick dollars by making charges without regard to their truth so as to coerce corporate managers to settle worthless claims in order to get rid of them. On the other hand, however, derivative suits have played a rather important role in protecting shareholders of corporations from the designing schemes and wiles of insiders who are willing to betray their company’s interests in order to enrich themselves. And it is not easy to conceive of anyone more in need of protection against such schemes than little investors like Mrs. Surowitz.

So why call this case a classic? Particularly in a blog called Class Acton Countermeasures? Two reasons.

First, Surowitz v. Hilton Hotels Corp. is the original source of the oft-cited proposition that a named plaintiff’s ignorance of the case does not make her inadequate. And there is no denying the influence of the line of cases that held so since. After all, many courts have reasoned, if a Polish seamstress with little English and little understanding of a complex fraud can bring a derivative suit, who are we to say that this named plaintiff cannot be an adequate class representative?

But second, and more important, the actual case shows just how far afield courts have taken the original holding. Here are some things to consider about the Supreme Court’s holding in Surowitz:

  • Surowitz was not a holding about adequacy. Leaving aside the fact that this case predated the 1966 Amendments that made Rule 23 what it is today, Hilton’s lawyers did not challenge Mrs. Surowitz’s adequacy to represent a class as we understand that today. They challenged her right to bring a lawsuit at all. The Supreme Court was reviewing a motion to dismiss, not a motion for class certification.
  • Mrs. Surowitz was not recruited by plaintiffs’ counsel. One of the primary concerns in Surowitz was whether the case was a strike suit. And the question there was whether Mrs. Surowitz was just a stand-in for her attorney. The Court found that, on the facts, she wasn’t. And those facts were not related to her knowledge of the suit. Instead, they were related to the fact that she had held the stock for years, had approached her son-in-law, who had then found her an attorney. Those facts today would raise eyebrows only because they tend to be so rare. These days, it is well-acknowledged that class-action attorneys recruit plaintiffs. (And that is why, today, ignorance is a greater concern.)
  • There was no concern that the attorneys would sell out the shareholders. In fact, Hilton conceded that the attorneys were working in good faith, and that they were not simply holding the company up for a quick settlement. It argued that those facts were irrelevant. But, in the intervening forty-five years, those have become the relevant facts. Today, we ask whether a named plaintiff is adequate to represent a class because we know that there will be times in the litigation (such as settlement) when the attorneys will face overwhelming temptation to act in their own interests rather than those of the class.  And we want the named plaintiff to be able to stand up to the attorney when that happens. On the record in Surowitz, there was little concern that Mrs. Surowitz would not do so. If she relied on anyone, it was her son-in-law, who was not her attorney. And she had discovered the problem and taken the first steps to investigate it. Do we have the same confidence in a named plaintiff who has been recruited by an attorney and knows only what her attorney has told her?

So yes, Surowitz is a classic case, but it’s a misunderstood classic. While plaintiffs and courts often cite it as holding that an ignorant plaintiff can be an adequate class representative, what it really held was that an ignorant plaintiff, relying on lawyers who had demonstrably acted in good faith, was entitled to bring a complaint under Rule 23. In the intervening forty-five years, however, the facts about class-action litigation have changed. And it is worth pointing out those changes to courts when plaintiffs’ counsel argue that their hand-picked, pliable named plaintiffs are adequate class representatives.