For fourteen years, from 1970 to 1984, more than 150,000 people bought stock in Petro-Lewis and its limited partnerships. Late in that period, the price of gas declined, and Petro-Lewis had to borrow money to to pay out distributions. In 1984, it announced that it was in severe financial straits, and cut its distributions by half, a move that resulted in a number of lawsuits, including Kirkpatrick v. JC Bradford & Co.
In that class action, the plaintiffs alleged that JC Bradford had violated the securities laws by misleading investors in Petro-Lewis about its financial condition. At the class certification hearing, JC Bradford argued (1) that individualized issues predominated because the plaintiffs would have to prove reliance, and (2) that the named plaintiffs were not adequate. The trial court denied certification, relying on both of these grounds. The plaintiffs appealed.
The Eleventh Circuit held that denying certification based on predominance was error (mainly because of the same logic that motivated Basic Inc v Levinson).
And then the court turned to adequacy. It conceded that
As the district court aptly noted, a potential class is entitled to more than "blind reliance upon even competent counsel by uninterested and inexperienced representatives."
(Emphasis added.) And it observed that
Several district courts thus have properly denied class certification where the class representatives had so little knowledge of and involvement in the class action that they would be unable or unwilling to protect the interests of the class against the possibly competing interests of the attorneys.
(Emphases added.) But it also argued that that the named plaintiffs did not have to demonstrate "to any particular degree" their vigor in pursuing class claims. Obviously, the court reasoned, a class would "be better served if the named plaintiffs fully participate in the litigation," but realistically class counsel is usually far more motivated to pursue claims than class members are. While it conceded that this created a "potential for abuse," it concluded, that
in securities cases such as these, where the class is represented by competent and zealous counsel, class certification should not be denied simply because of a perceived lack of subjective interest on the part of the named plaintiffs unless their participation is so minimal that they virtually have abdicated to their attorneys the conduct of the case.
Because the adequacy of the named plaintiffs was a mixed question of law and fact, the court did not reverse the trial court’s adequacy finding. Instead it just remanded the case so that the trial court could make a finding according to the appropriate standard.
(Incidentally, there is one other feature of Kirkpatrick that is likely to become important. In footnote 6, the court also held that
The presence of arbitration agreements is relevant for another factor in determining the suitability of class treatment on the 10b-5 claims. … Those purchasers whose 10b-5 claims are subject to arbitration thus could not be considered members of the class. In ruling on the motion for class certification, the district court did not determine whether the potential class members not subject to arbitration would be sufficient to satisfy the numerosity requirement of Rule 23(a)(2). The court should make this determination on remand.
Given the newfound emphasis on arbitration agreements, it is likely that, in a number of cases, classes where many members would be subject to arbitration clauses may lack numerosity.)
Kirkpatrick has a mixed legacy as a case. Defendants quite rightly cite it to demonstrate that one cannot completely abdicate a case to plaintiffs’ counsel. And they also cite it to point out that one key feature to adequacy is the ability of the class representative to stand up to her lawyers when their interests diverge. The court did hold that one can largely look to the zeal and vigor of plaintiffs’ counsel, instead of the plaintiff, but it specifically limited that holding to securities cases like the one before it. And, as we know, particularly since the PSLRA was enacted, securities cases involve a much more searching inquiry into the adequacy of plaintiffs’ counsel than other class actions.