Meal Break Class Certification Denied

A California appeals court refused last week to revive a putative class action that alleged the defendant employer had not given employees adequate meal breaks. See In re: Walgreen Company Overtime Cases, No. B230191 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist.,10/23/14).  What is interesting is that significant part of the reasoning related to the fact that multiple putative class members recanted at deposition declarations that had been prepared and submitted by class counsel. 

This class action was about meal breaks at work, and  while the company's stated policy was adequate, in practice the company allegedly departed from the policy. (California employers must give workers time off to eat meals at work.) The trial court denied plaintiffs'  motion for class certification. Plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals noted the burden on the moving party is to “demonstrate the existence of an ascertainable and sufficiently numerous class, a well-defined community of interest, and substantial benefits from certification that render proceeding as a class superior to the alternatives.” Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, 1021.  California courts generally afford trial courts great latitude in granting or denying class certification, and normally review a ruling on certification for an abuse of discretion. While a class certification motion is not a license for a free-floating inquiry into the validity of the complaint’s allegations, issues affecting the merits
of a case may be enmeshed with class action requirements.  Thus, analysis of a class certification’s propriety frequently will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. That cannot be helped, said the court.

A legal issue is (1) whether an employer must merely make meal breaks available, or (2) whether the employer must actually ensure employees take the breaks. Walgreens employees apparently sometimes did decide to skip or delay breaks. One employee explained, for instance, that “I generally take my lunch breaks, but about once a week I will skip lunch because I want to be able to leave work early.” Another testified that, “[e]ven though it has always been Walgreens’ policy to provide a 30-minute meal period, I preferred to skip mine and instead leave early. If I am not hungry, which is typically the case, I do not need a meal period, especially since it is unpaid time.” There
was other similar evidence about skipping or delaying breaks.  

California has adopted the make available standard. To meet this test, attorneys for the class plaintiff submitted 44 form declarations from other workers, all saying that Walgreen forced them to work through some meal breaks because their store was understaffed.  The trial court gave the declarations no weight because they were deemed unreliable. That is, most witnesses recanted their declarations to some degree or entirely at their deposition. The court of appeals stated that the prevalence of apparent falsity in the declarations raised questions about how the lawyers had created these declarations in the first place.

The trial court was “especially troubled” that, once deposed, so many witnesses recanted their declarations. The court of appeals agreed, "Form declarations present a problem. When witnesses speak exactly the same words, one wonders who put those words there, and how accurate and reliable those words are."  There is nothing attractive, said the court, about submitting form declarations contrary to the witnesses’ actual testimony. Thus, it was not error for the trial court to give these unreliable declarations no weight.

Denial of certification affirmed.

 

Federal Court Grants Defense Motion to Deny Class Certification

A federal court earlier this month denied class certification in a case involving allegedly defective Sonicare Diamond Clean and Healthy White powered toothbrushes.  Coe v. Philips Oral Healthcare, Inc., No. C13-518MJP (W.D. Wash., 10/10/14).  Readers should note this was another example of a putative class defendant taking the initiative and moving preemptively to strike class allegations.

Plaintiffs sought a certification of a nationwide class of toothbrush purchasers under the Washington Consumer Protection Act-- something having to do with the attachment of the metal shaft of the device affecting the brush strokes per minute.  Defendant moved to deny class certification. We have posted about this tactic before.  Fed.R.Civ. P. 23 does not preclude affirmative motions to deny class certification. In Vinole v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc.,571 F.3d 935 (9th Cir. 2009), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the right of defendants to bring preemptive motions, provided that plaintiffs are not procedurally prejudiced by the timing of the motion. Id. at 994.

Resolution of the class certification issue, said the court, turned primarily on the choice-of-law analysis, which determines whether Washington law or the laws of putative class members' home states should apply. If Washington law applied, common questions were more likely to predominate for a nationwide class, and a class action may seem more efficient and desirable. On the other hand, if the consumer protection laws of the consumers' home states apply, variations in the laws will overwhelm common questions, precluding certification. The next inquiry then was whether sufficient discovery had taken place to allow for the choice-of-law analysis. The court concluded it had.

Defendant showed that an actual conflict exists between the Washington Consumer Protection Act ("WCPA") and the consumer protection laws of other states.  Because a conflict exists, the court applied Washington's most significant relationship test in order to determine which law to apply. In adopting the approach of the Second Restatement of Law on Conflict of Laws (1971), Washington has rejected the rule of lex loci delicti (the law of the place where the wrong took place).  Instead, Washington's test requires courts to determine which state has the "most significant relationship" to the cause of action.  If the relevant contacts to the cause of action are balanced, the court considers the interests and public policies of potentially concerned states and the manner and extent of such policies as they relate to the transaction. 


Washington, observed the court, has a significant relationship to alleged deceptive trade practices by a Washington corporation. Washington has a strong interest in promoting a fair and honest business environment in the state, and in preventing its corporations from engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices in Washington or elsewhere. Conversely, said the court, the putative class members' home states have significant relationships to allegedly deceptive trade practices resulting in injuries to their citizens within their borders. The Toothbrushes were sold and purchased, and representations of their quality made and relied on, entirely outside of Washington. No Plaintiff resides in Washington. While Plaintiffs contend Philips Oral Healthcare spent considerable time and resources analyzing the problem and attempting to fix it at their Washington facilities, thus increasing Washington's relationship to the action, the crux of Plaintiffs' action involves the marketing and sale of the Toothbrushes, which took place in other states.

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit recently recognized the strong interest of each state in determining the optimum level of consumer protection balanced against a more favorable business environment, and to calibrate its consumer protection laws to reflect their chosen balance. Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 666 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 2012). Washington has formally adopted § 148 of the Restatement in the fraud and misrepresentation context. FutureSelect Portfolio Mgmt., Inc. v. Tremont Grp. Holdings, Inc., 180 Wn.2d 954, 331 P.3d 29, 36 (2014). Section 148 of the Restatement and its comments make clear that the alleged misrepresentation to consumers and the consumers' pecuniary injuries, both of which occurred in consumers' home states and not in Washington, should be considered the most significant contacts in this particular case. Restatement (Second) of Law on Conflict of Laws § 148 cmts. i, j (1971).


Thus, the court agreed with defendant that consumers' home states had the most significant relationship to their causes of action. Therefore, the consumer protection laws of those states, and not WCPA, would apply. Material differences between the various consumer protection laws prevent Plaintiffs from demonstrating Rule 23(b)(3) predominance and manageability for a nationwide class. Accordingly, the Court granted defendant's motion to deny certification of a nationwide class under WCPA.

 

Federal Court Denies Class Certification in "Smart Meter" Case

A Florida federal court recently denied class certification in a case alleging negligence against Honeywell  over its installation of smart electric meters at the homes of Florida Power & Light customers. See Cortes, et al. v. Honeywell Building Solutions SES Corporation, et al., No. 1:14-cv-20429 (S.D. Fla., Sept. 25. 2014). 

Plaintiffs alleged the meters were defective, damaging the connections and allegedly causing electrical arcing, which resulted in more extensive damage to items like pools and air conditioners. 
They sought certification of a class defined as “All Florida Power & Light customers in Florida who had a Smart Meter installed at their property after September, 2009 and who have suffered or will suffer unreimbursed economic loss arising from the defendant’s improper installation of the Smart Meter."

The court noted that, although the trial court should not determine the merits of the plaintiffs’ claim at the class certification stage, the trial court can and should consider the merits of the case to the degree necessary to determine whether the requirements of Rule 23 will be satisfied. Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharms., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1188 n.15 (11th Cir. 2003).  Indeed, sometimes it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question; certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the
prerequisites of Rule 23 have been satisfied. Frequently that rigorous analysis will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. That cannot be helped.

Before analyzing the Rule 23(a) requirements, a court must determine whether the class definition is adequate. O’Neill v. The Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 243 F.R.D. 469, 477 (S.D. Fla. 2006); see also Bussey v. Macon Cnty. Greyhound Park, Inc., 562 F. App’x 782, 787 (11th Cir. 2014).  A vague
class definition portends significant manageability problems for the court.  O’Neill, 243 F.R.D.
at 477. “An identifiable class exists if its members can be ascertained by reference to objective criteria."   The analysis of the objective criteria also should be administratively feasible, said the court. Administrative feasibility means that identifying class members is a manageable process that does not require much, if any, individual inquiry.  Bussey, 562 F. App’x at 787.

Defendants argued that membership in the proposed class required a determination whether the
Smart Meter was improperly installed; whether the customer had unreimbursed economic loss;
and whether the loss was caused by the improper installation. The court agreed that the proposed class definition impermissibly required a finding of liability and causation at the class certification stage. For the court to determine membership, it would also need to determine the validity of putative class members’ claims and defenses to those claims. The focus on individuals’ experiences — merely to determine membership in the class — would typically require the putative class members to self-report electrical problems started occurring after the Smart Meters were installed. As such, “the only evidence likely to be offered in many instances will be the putative class member’s uncorroborated claim that he or she” observed electrical problems after the Smart Meter installation. Perez v. Metabolife Int’l, Inc., 218 F.R.D. 262, 269 (S.D. Fla. 2003). This self-interested reporting, often unverifiable but for the Plaintiffs’ own testimony, implicates defendants’ due process rights, and “individualized mini-trials would be required even on the limited issue of class membership.” Id.  The repeated use of these procedures would result in inefficient resolution of the claims, defeating one of the central purposes of the class action tool. See McGuire v. Int’l Paper Co.,
1994 WL 261360, at *5 (S.D. Miss. Feb. 18, 1994).

The court also found the definition of the class impermissibly vague in its inclusion of “customers . . . who have suffered or will suffer unreimbursed economic loss . . . .”  Plaintiffs were requesting a class to be certified of individuals who, at any point in the future, may suffer economic losses as a result of the Smart Meter installations. Apart from the considerations of causation, this proposed subset of class membership was presently impossible to determine.

The court also questioned the showing of numerosity ( a somewhat rare gem for the class action defense reader). Plaintiffs made reference to 603 FPL customer inquiries involving alleged property damage related to Smart Meter installation, but they failed to indicate whether any of these 603 inquiries involve “unreimbursed economic loss,” a requirement contained in the proposed class definition. Plaintiffs then tried to point to evidence of a subset of customers who sought repairs following installation. But nothing in plaintiffs’ factual showing indicated these customers’ problems were caused by the Smart Meter installation — as opposed to any number of other factors — or, again, involved unreimbursed economic loss, two prerequisites to membership in the proposed class. Thus, said the court, these assertions did not come close to showing the number of plaintiffs is large enough to satisfy the numerosity requirement. See Hugh’s Concrete & Masonry Co. v. Southeast Pers. Leasing, Inc., No. 8:12-CV-2631-T-17AEP, 2014 WL 794317, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 26, 2014) (“[T]he Court cannot find Plaintiff’s bases for numerosity go beyond mere speculation, bare allegations, or unsupported conclusions. Thus, Plaintiff fails the numerosity requirement.”).


Turning to predominance under Rule 23(b)(3), under the law of the Eleventh Circuit, the combination of significant individualized questions going to liability and the need for individualized assessments of damages precludes Rule 23(b)(3) certification. In re Conagra Peanut Butter Products Liab. Litig., 251 F.R.D. 689, 698 (N.D. Ga. 2008).  As is typical, plaintiffs pointed to alleged common issues of defendant's conduct, such as training of employees on installation. While defendants may well have employed similar methods of training employees to install the Smart Meters, those actions were but one component of the tort inquiry. Plaintiffs also would need to prove a breach of duty, if any, was the proximate cause of the damages. The proximate cause determinations would predominate over the determination of the common issue of defendants’ alleged conduct, due to the numerous potential causes of meter can damage. The mere fact that installers were negligent in installations does not mean that negligence caused any damages. Even assuming negligence could be proven, plaintiffs “would still have the bulk of
their cases to prove,” namely injury in fact and causation. Neenan v. Carnival Corp., 199 F.R.D.
372, 376 (S.D. Fla. 2001); see also In re Agent Orange’ Prod. Liab. Litig. MDL No. 381, 818 F.2d 145, 165 (2d Cir. 1987) (“The relevant question, therefore, is not whether Agent Orange has the capacity to cause harm, . . . but whether it did cause harm and to whom. That determination is highly individualistic [] and depends upon the characteristics of individual plaintiffs (e.g. state of health, lifestyle) and the nature of their exposure . . . .”).  The fact-finder would still need to make specific determinations of proximate causation for additional plaintiffs, which would predominate over a class-wide determination of negligence.

Certification denied.

 

Seventh Circuit Rejects Coupon Settlement Terms

The Seventh Circuit has rejected the award of attorneys' fees award for a settlement that would provide the class coupons as a remedy for allegedly printing credit card expiration dates on sales receipts. See Redman v. Radioshack Corp., No. 14-1470 (7th Cir., 9/19/14).

Judge Posner wrote for the panel.  The court had consolidated appeals in two class actions brought under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (“FACTA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681c(g). The Act prohibits putting "the expiration date upon any receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of the sale or transaction.”  The goal is security: a thief can of course guess at the expiration date—the date is unlikely to be more than a few years in the future and there are only 12 months in a year; so if he guesses 60 times he’s very likely to hit the jackpot. But if he guesses wrong the first few times that he places a bogus order, the card issuer typically will get suspicious and refuse to authorize his next order.  Additional reasons for requiring deletion of the expiration date include that expiration dates combined with the last four or five digits of an account number can be used to bolster the credibility of a criminal who is making pretext calls to a card holder in order to learn other personal confidential financial information.

If a violation of the statute is willful, a consumer whose receipt contains as a result of the violation data that should have been deleted, but who sustains no harm because no one stole his identity as a result of the violation, is nevertheless entitled to “statutory damages,” as distinct from compensatory or punitive damages, of between $100 and $1000. 15 U.S.C. § 1681n(a)(1)(A). (Statutory damages are in effect bounties—means of inducing private persons to enforce a
regulatory law.)  Let's put aside the court's discussion of willfulness, and focus on the class issues.

The named plaintiffs (realistically, class counsel) agreed with RadioShack on terms of settlement. The essential term was that each class member who responded positively to the notice of the proposed settlement would receive a $10 coupon that it could use at any RadioShack store. The class member could use it to buy an item costing $10 or less (but he would receive no change if the item cost less than $10), or as part payment for an item costing more. He could stack up to three coupons (if he had them) and thus obtain a $30 item, or a $30 credit against a more expensive item. He could also sell his coupon or coupons, but the coupons had to be used within six months of receipt because they would expire at the end of that period. With regard to three‐coupon stacking, the only way a member of the class could obtain more than a single coupon would be to buy one or more coupons from another class member, because the settlement allows only one coupon per
customer no matter how many of his or her RadioShack purchases involved the alleged erroneous receipts. Although the class was assumed to contain 16 million members, notice of the proposed settlement was sent to fewer than 5 million. Of those potential class members who received notice of the proposed settlement, some 83,000 —a little more than one half of one percent of the entire class, assuming the entire class really did consist of 16 million different consumers— submitted claims for the coupon in response.

The court of appeals had lots of problems with the trial court's handling of the proposed settlement, and offered a number of important observations on coupon settlements in particular.

The magistrate judge’s statement that “the fact that the vast majority of class members—over 99.99%—have not objected to the proposed settlement or opted out suggests that the class generally approves of its terms and structure” was "naive, as was her basing confidence in the fairness of the settlement on its having been based on “arms‐length negotiations by experienced counsel.” The fact that the vast majority of the recipients of notice did not submit claims hardly shows “acceptance” of the proposed settlement: rather, said Judge Posner,  it may show oversight, indifference, rejection, or transaction costs. The bother of submitting a claim, receiving and safeguarding the coupon, and remembering to have it with you when shopping may exceed the value of a $10 coupon to many class members. And “arm’s‐length negotiations” are inconsistent with the existence of a conflict of interest on the part of one of the negotiators— class counsel—that may warp the outcome of the negotiations. The magistrate judge’s further reference to “the considerable portion of class members who have filed claims” questionably treated one‐half of one percent as being a “considerable portion.”

Another controversial term of the proposed settlement was that RadioShack would pay class counsel $1 million  in attorneys’ fees, plus pay various administrative costs including the cost of notice. The agreed upon attorneys’ fees, plus the $830,000 worth of coupons at face value, plus the administrative costs, added up to about $4.1 million. Class counsel argued that since the attorneys’
fees were only about 25 percent of the total amount of the settlement, they were reasonable. The district court, agreeing, approved the settlement, precipitating this appeal by two groups of class members who objected to the settlement in the district court.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit noted that he law quite rightly requires more than a judicial rubber stamp when the lawsuit that the parties have agreed to settle is a class action. The reason is the "built‐in conflict of interest" in class action suits. The defendant typically is interested only in the bottom line: how much the settlement will cost it. And class counsel, as rational “economic man,” presumably is interested primarily in the size of the attorneys’ fees provided for in the settlement, for those are the only money that class counsel, as distinct from the members of the class, get to keep. The optimal settlement from the joint standpoint of class counsel and defendant, assuming they are self‐interested, is therefore a sum of money moderate in amount but weighted in favor of attorneys’ fees
for class counsel. The named plaintiff often is the nominee of class counsel, and in any event he is dependent on class counsel’s good will to receive the modest extra compensation ($5,000 in this case) that named plaintiffs typically receive. 

Critically the judge must assess the value of the settlement to the class and the reasonableness of the agreed‐upon attorneys’ fees for class counsel, bearing in mind that the higher the fees the less compensation will be received by the class members. When there are objecting class members, the judge’s task is eased because he or she has the benefit of an adversary process: objectors versus settlors (that is, versus class counsel and the defendant).

Here, the trial judge accepted the settlors’ contention that the defendant’s entire expenditures should be aggregated in determining the size of the settlement; it was this aggregation that reduced the award of attorneys’ fees to class counsel to a "respectable‐seeming" 25 percent. But the roughly $2.2 million in administrative costs should not have been included in calculating the division of the spoils between class counsel and class members. Those costs, said the panel, are part of the settlement but not part of the value received from the settlement by the members of the class. The costs therefore shed no light on the fairness of the division of the settlement pie between class counsel and class members. Of course, without administration and therefore administrative costs, notably the costs of notice to the class, the class would get nothing. But also without those costs class counsel would get nothing, because the class, not having learned of the proposed settlement (or in all likelihood of the existence of a class action), would have derived no benefit from class counsel’s activity.

Therefore, said the court, the ratio that is relevant to assessing the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee that the parties agreed to is the ratio of (1) the fee to (2) the fee plus what the class members received. At most they received $830,000. That translates into a ratio of attorneys’ fees to the sum of those fees plus the face value of the coupons of 1 to 1.83, which equates to a contingent fee of 55% ($1,000,000 ÷ ($1,000,000 + $830,000)). Computed in "a responsible fashion by substituting actual for face value," the ratio would have been even higher because 83,000 $10 coupons are not worth $830,000 to the recipients. Anyone who buys an item at RadioShack that costs less than $10 will lose part of the value of the coupon because he won’t be entitled to change. Anyone who stacks three coupons to buy an item that costs $25 will lose $5. Anyone who fails to use the coupon within six months of receiving it will lose its entire value. (Six‐month coupons are not unusual, but redemption periods usually are longer. See, e.g., In re Mexico Money Transfer Litigation (Western Union & Valuta), 164 F. Supp. 2d 1002, 1010–11 (N.D. Ill. 2000) (35 months); Henry v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 1999 WL 33496080, at *10 (N.D. Ill. 1999) (nearly three years).) 

The court found it significant that no attempt was made by the magistrate judge or the parties to the proposed settlement to estimate the actual value of the nominal $830,000 worth of coupons. Couponing is an important retail marketing method, and Judge Posner postulated that it would have been possible to obtain expert testimony (including neutral expert testimony by the court’s appointing an expert, as authorized by Fed. R. Evid. 706), or responsible published materials, on consumer response to coupons. And likewise it should have been possible to estimate the value of
couponing to sellers—a marketing device that in some circumstances must be more valuable than cutting price, as otherwise no retailer would go to the expense of buying and distributing coupons.

The court re-emphasized that in determining the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee agreed to in a proposed settlement, the central consideration is what class counsel achieved for the members of the class rather than how much effort class counsel invested in the litigation. The court noted that in so doing it was not  taking sides in a controversy over the interpretation of the coupon provisions
of the Class Action Fairness Act, which states in part that If a proposed settlement in a class action provides for a recovery of coupons to a class member, the portion of any attorney’s fee award to class counsel that is attributable to the award of the coupons shall be based on the value
to class members of the coupons that are redeemed. Judge Posner thinks "this is a badly drafted statute." To begin with, read literally, the statutory phrase “value to class members of the coupons
that are redeemed” would prevent class counsel from being paid in full until the settlement had been fully implemented. For until then one wouldn’t know how many coupons had been redeemed. An alternative interpretation of “value … of the coupons that are redeemed” would be the face value of the coupons received by class members who responded positively to notice of the class action. In this case that would be 83,000 of the millions of class members who received notice, though not all 83,000 will actually use the coupon.

Perhaps there is no need for a rigid rule—a final choice, for all cases, among the possibilities suggested. In some cases the optimal solution may be part payment to class members and
class counsel up front with final payment when the settlement is wound up. That might be appropriate in a case such as this, said the court. What was inappropriate, however, was an attempt to determine the ultimate value of the settlement before the redemption period ended without even an estimate by a qualified expert of what that ultimate value was likely to prove to be.

Some had called this  an “all‐coupon” case (only benefit was a coupon), but class counsel call it a “zero‐coupon” case. They argued that a coupon that can be used to buy an entire product, and not just to provide a discount, is a voucher, not a coupon. “Voucher” was indeed the term used in the settlement agreement, because the parties didn’t want to subject themselves to the coupon  provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act. But the idea that a coupon is not a coupon if it can ever be used to buy an entire product didn't make any sense to Judge Posner, certainly in terms of the
Act. Why would it make a difference, so far as the suspicion of coupon settlements that animates the Act’s coupon provisions is concerned, that the proposed $10 coupon could be used either to reduce by $10 the cash price of an item priced at more than $10, or to buy the entire item if its price were
$10 or less? Coupons usually are discounts, but if the face value of a coupon exceeds the price of an item sold by the issuer of the coupon, the customer often is permitted to use the coupon to buy the item—and sometimes he’ll be refunded the difference between that face value and the price of the item.

This case illustrated, said the panel, why Congress was concerned that class members can be shortchanged in coupon settlements whether a coupon is used to obtain a discount off the full
price of an item or to obtain the entire item; class counsel’s proposed distinction between discount coupons and vouchers also would impose a heavy administrative burden in distinguishing
coupons used for discounts on more expensive items (“coupons” in class counsel’s narrow sense of coupon) and the identical coupons used to pay the full prices of cheaper items (“vouchers” in class counsel’s lexicon and not “coupons” at all).  Assessing the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees based on a coupon’s nominal face value instead of its true economic value was no less troublesome when the coupon may be exchanged for a full product.

The difficulty of valuing a coupon settlement exposed for the court another defect in the proposed settlement: placing the fee award to class counsel and the compensation to the class members in separate compartments. The $1 million attorneys’ fee is guaranteed, while the benefit of the settlement to the members of the class depends on the value of the coupons, which may well turn out to be much less than $830,000. This guaranty is the equivalent of a contingent‐fee contract that entitles the plaintiff’s lawyer to the first $50,000 of the judgment or settlement plus one‐third of any amount above $50,000—so if the judgment or settlement were for $100,000 the attorneys’ fee would be $66,667, leaving only a third of the combined value (to plaintiff and lawyer) of the
settlement to the plaintiff. Another questionable feature of the settlement for the appeals court was the inclusion of a “clear‐sailing clause”—a clause in which the defendant agreed not to contest class counsel’s request for attorneys’ fees. Because it’s in the defendant’s interest to contest that request in order to reduce the overall cost of the settlement, the defendant won’t agree to a clear‐sailing clause without compensation—namely a reduction in the part of the settlement that goes to the class members, as that is the only reduction class counsel are likely to consider. The existence
of such clauses thus illustrates the danger, said the court, of collusion in class actions between class counsel and the defendant, to the detriment of the class members.

The panel was also bothered by the fact that class counsel did not file the attorneys’ fee motion until after the deadline set by the court for objections to the settlement had expired. That violated Rule 23(h). See In re Mercury Interactive Corp. Securities Litigation, 618 F.3d 988, 993–95 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Committee Notes on the 2003 Amendments to Rule 23. From reading the proposed settlement the objectors knew that class counsel were likely to ask for $1 million in attorneys’ fees, but they were handicapped in objecting because the details of class counsel’s hours and expenses were submitted later, with the fee motion, and so they did not have all the information they needed to justify their objections. 

So, coupon settlement and fee rejected.

Court of Appeals Addresses Class-wide Arbitration Issue

Our loyal readers know that the decision whether a matter gets sent to arbitration, as opposed to being adjudicated through traditional litigation, can have profound impact, including on timing and costs to the litigants. Even more so, when the case is a proposed class action. A few weeks ago, the Third Circuit weighed in on the issue of the availability of class-wide arbitration, holding that it is generally a question for the court, not an arbitrator, to decide.  See Opalinski v. Robert Half Int'l Inc., No. 12-4444 (3d Cir., July 30, 2014). This week, the petition for rehearing was denied by the panel and the en banc court. See Opalinski v. Robert Half Int'l Inc., No. 12-4444 (3d Cir.) (petition for rehearing denied, 8/27/14).

The plaintiffs brought claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The court noted that the issue was whether a district court, rather than an arbitrator, should decide if an agreement to arbitrate disputes
between the parties to that agreement also authorizes class-wide arbitration. Because of the fundamental differences between class-wide and individual arbitration, and the consequences of proceeding with one rather than the other, the court of appeals concluded that the availability of class-wide arbitration is a substantive “question of arbitrability” to be decided by a court, absent clear agreement otherwise. The only other Circuit Court of Appeals to have squarely resolved the “who decides” issue is the Sixth, which has also held that “whether an arbitration agreement permits
class-wide arbitration is a gateway matter” that is presumptively “for judicial determination.” Reed Elsevier, Inc. v. Crockett, 734 F.3d 594, 599 (6th Cir. 2013).

Plaintiffs had signed employment agreements that contained arbitration provisions. They provided that “[a]ny dispute or claim arising out of or relating to Employee’s employment, termination of employment or any provision of this Agreement” shall be submitted to arbitration. Neither agreement mentioned class-wide arbitration.  Defendant moved to compel arbitration of plaintiffs' claims on an individual basis. The District Court granted the motion in part, thus compelling arbitration but holding that the propriety of individual (also known as bilateral) versus class-wide arbitration was for the arbitrator to decide.

The first part of the analysis was whether the availability of class-wide arbitration is a “question of arbitrability.” See Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 83 (2002).  If yes, it is presumed that the issue is “for judicial determination unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise.” Id.  If the availability of class-wide arbitration is not a “question of arbitrability,” it is presumptively for the arbitrator to resolve. See First Options of Chi., Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 944-45 (1994). “Questions of arbitrability” are limited to a narrow range of gateway issues. They may include, for example, whether the parties are bound by a given arbitration clause or whether an arbitration clause in a concededly binding contract applies to a particular type of controversy. On the other hand, questions that the parties would likely expect the arbitrator to decide are not “questions of arbitrability.”  The Third Circuit has explained that questions of arbitrability generally fall into two categories – (1) when the parties dispute whether they have a valid arbitration agreement at all (whose claims the arbitrator may adjudicate); and (2) when the parties are in dispute as to whether a concededly binding arbitration clause applies to a certain type of
controversy (what types of controversies the arbitrator may decide). Puleo v. Chase Bank USA, N.A., 605 F.3d 172, 178 (3d Cir. 2010).

By seeking class-wide arbitration, plaintiffs contended that their arbitration agreements empower the arbitrator to resolve not only their personal claims but the claims of additional individuals not currently parties to this action. The determination whether defendant must include absent individuals in its arbitrations with named plaintiffs affects whose claims may be arbitrated and is thus a question of arbitrability to be decided by the court. Second, while plaintiffs argued that, because class actions in the context of traditional litigation are a procedural construct, the availability of class-wide arbitration is also a procedural question, the Supreme Court, in Stolt-Nielsen, SA v. Animal Feeds Int'l Corp., had expressly disclaimed class-wide arbitration as simply procedural. 559 U.S. at 687 (the differences between class and individual arbitration cannot be characterized as a question of “merely what ‘procedural mode’ [i]s available to present [a party’s] claims”). The Court stated that class action arbitration changes the nature of arbitration to such a degree that it cannot be presumed the parties consented to it by simply agreeing to submit their disputes to an arbitrator.

Moreover, it is presumed that courts must decide questions of arbitrability unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise, said the court. The burden of overcoming the presumption is onerous, as it requires express contractual language unambiguously delegating the question of arbitrability to the arbitrator. Here, the plaintiffs' employment agreements provided for arbitration of any dispute or claim arising out of or relating to their employment but are silent as to the availability of class-wide arbitration or whether the question should be submitted to the arbitrator. Nothing else in the agreements or record suggests that the parties agreed to submit questions of arbitrability to the arbitrator.

This case was remanded for the District Court to determine whether appellees’ employment agreements call for class-wide arbitration.

 

 

Long-standing Case Arising from Hurricane Rejected

Readers know we don't have the resources here to update every case we post on, but here is an update on a case we posted about nearly six years ago.    See Henry v. St. Croix Alumina, LLC, No. 12-1844 (3rd Cir. 7/10/14)(unpublished).

The case arose out of the effects of Hurricane Georges, which hit the Virgin Islands in 1998. The plaintiffs filed suit in1999, alleging that during the storm two materials, bauxite and red mud, were distributed around the island. Bauxite is a red colored ore with the consistency of dirt or dust from which alumina is extracted and used to produce aluminum. A by-product of the alumina extraction process is a substance called red mud, which was stored in piles outside the refinery using a method known as dry-stacking.  Appellants allegedly sustained property damage and also mild illnesses/injuries as a result of contact with the red dust during and after the hurricane. Generally, Appellants experienced rashes, irritation of the eyes and skin, and itching. All but one of the seventeen Appellants had their symptoms disappear completely in the weeks and months following the hurricane.

The case had a long procedural history, with class certification, decertification, and partial certifications. Eventually the property damage claims settled, and the personal injury claims were dismissed. The dismissal of Appellants' personal injury claims was founded in large part on the court's rejection of their four proposed experts. The experts did not satisfy the requirements of Fed. R. Evid. 702 and the accompanying test enunciated in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Without any expert testimony as to the cause of Appellants' injuries, the District Court ruled that the personal injury claims could not proceed and granted summary judgment to Appellees on those counts.

Three of the experts had opined on the amount of red mud that escaped the refinery and reached Appellants. Tarr concluded that some 160,000 pounds of particulates escaped from the refinery, and experts Bock and Kleppinger each stated that red mud was a "preponderance" or large component of the red dust that contacted Appellants.  However, as the District Court noted, each of the experts relied upon unique, qualitative methodologies to reach these conclusions. The District Court properly found that none of these methods had any of the hallmarks of reliable expert testimony under Daubert. The experts did not utilize a peer-reviewed methodology, subject to any known rate of error, which is generally accepted in the scientific community, or has otherwise been utilized outside the judicial context.

Much of the remaining opinion submitted by these experts was then excluded by the District Court as it did not "fit" with the case. For instance, Kleppinger and Bock testified as to the pH and toxicity of red mud stored at the refinery. The District Court held that this did not bear on the danger posed by the material that actually came into contact with Appellants. Critically, as the Court pointed out, Appellants offered no reliable testimony as to the amount and toxicity of the red dust which came into contact with Appellants. Finally, the District Court found Dr. Brautbar's testimony inadmissible, as it relied on the excluded expert opinions to establish that Appellants had come into contact with sufficient quantities of red mud to cause their claimed symptoms.

In sum, the District Court performed an exhaustive analysis of the proposed expert testimony, and determined that it was inadmissible. The court of appeals agreed with the reasoning and conclusions of the District Court, and affirmed its evidentiary rulings.
 

FDA Issues Further Nanotechnology Guidance

Late last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued one draft and three final guidance documents related to the use of nanotechnology in regulated products.

One final guidance addresses the agency’s overall approach for all products that it regulates, while the two additional final guidances and the new draft guidance provide specific guidance for the areas of foods, cosmetics and food for animals, respectively.

Readers may know from our earlier posts (and here and here) that nanotechnology is an emerging technology that allows scientists to create, explore and manipulate materials on a scale measured in nanometers—particles so small that they cannot be seen with a regular microscope. The technology has a broad range of potential applications, such as improving the packaging of food and altering the look and feel of cosmetics.

The three final guidance documents reflect the FDA’s current thinking on these issues after taking into account public comment received on the corresponding draft guidance documents previously issued (draft agency guidance in 2011; and draft cosmetics and foods guidances in 2012).

The FDA  continues to favor an approach to consider the specific characteristics of individual products. All four guidance documents encourage manufacturers to consult with the agency before taking their products to market. Consultations with the FDA early in the product development process may help to facilitate a mutual understanding about specific scientific and regulatory issues relevant to the nanotechnology product, and help address questions related to safety, effectiveness, public health impact and/or regulatory status of the product.

The guidance documents are:

Final Guidance for Industry: Considering Whether an FDA-Regulated Product Involves the Application of Nanotechnology

This guidance outlines overarching considerations for all FDA-regulated products, identifying points to consider when determining whether a product involves the use of nanotechnology. It is intended to help industry and others identify when they should consider potential implications for regulatory status, safety, effectiveness or public health impact that may arise with the application of nanotechnology in FDA-regulated products.

Final Guidance for Industry: Safety of Nanomaterials in Cosmetics

This guidance describes the FDA’s current thinking on the safety assessment of nanomaterials when used in cosmetic products and encourages manufacturers to consult with the FDA on test methods and data needed to support the substantiation of a product’s safety.

Final Guidance for Industry: Assessing the Effects of Significant Manufacturing Process Changes, Including Emerging Technologies, on the Safety and Regulatory Status of Food Ingredients and Food Contact Substances, Including Food Ingredients that are Color Additives

This guidance alerts manufacturers to the potential impact of any significant manufacturing process change, including changes involving nanotechnology, on the safety and regulatory status of food substances. This guidance also describes considerations for determining whether a significant manufacturing process change for a food substance already in the market affects the identity, safety, or regulatory status of the food substance, potentially warranting a regulatory submission to the FDA.

Draft Guidance for Industry: Use of Nanomaterials in Food for Animals

This draft guidance addresses issues related to the use of nanotechnology in food ingredients intended for use in food for animals. Public comments on this draft guidance are requested by September 10, 2014.

The FDA said it will continue to pursue ongoing scientific research and regulatory efforts and will consider new studies and data, as they become available, to determine any future actions. 

Texas Supreme Court Offers Causation Guidance in Mesothelioma Cases

The Texas Supreme Court ruled that a defendant will not have to pay a $12 million verdict in an asbestos case because there was inadequate proof the company’s products actually caused the alleged injury. See Bostic, et al. v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., No. 10-0775 (Texas 7/11/14).

In Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores, 232 S.W.3d 765 (Tex. 2007), the court had discussed the standards imposed by Texas law for establishing causation in asbestos-disease cases. Flores had concerned a plaintiff suffering from asbestosis. This case involved mesothelioma, and the court held that the standard of substantial factor causation recognized in Flores also applied to mesothelioma cases.  The court did not impose a strict but-for causation standard, but held that the plaintiffs had failed to offer legally sufficient evidence of causation, and accordingly it affirmed the lower court's judgment.

Under section 431 of the Restatement Second of Torts, the Texas court had held that to establish causation in fact the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s product was a substantial factor in causing the disease, and that mere proof that the plaintiff was exposed to “some” respirable fibers traceable to the defendant was insufficient. The word substantial is used to denote the fact that the defendant’s conduct has such an effect in producing the harm as to lead reasonable persons to regard it as a cause, using that word in the sense of responsibility.  Proof of mere frequency, regularity, and proximity of potential exposure to asbestos (sufficient in some states) is in Texas
necessary but not sufficient, as it provides none of the quantitative information necessary to support causation under Texas law.  While the plaintiff was not required to establish causation with “mathematical precision,” the court clearly required defendant-specific evidence relating to the approximate dose to which the plaintiff was exposed, coupled with evidence that the dose was a substantial factor in causing the asbestos-related disease.

In rejecting a standard that “some” exposure would suffice, the court recognized that most chemically induced adverse health effects clearly demonstrate thresholds; so, there must be reasonable evidence that the exposure was of sufficient magnitude to exceed the threshold before a likelihood of causation can be inferred. Plaintiffs urged that the standards established in Flores were not applicable in a mesothelioma case because relatively smaller quantities of asbestos can result in mesothelioma.  The court concluded that the Flores framework for reviewing the legal sufficiency of causation evidence lent itself to both types of cases. Even in mesothelioma cases proof of “some exposure” or “any exposure” alone will not suffice to establish causation. While the experts in this case testified that smaller amounts of asbestos exposure can result in mesothelioma, that fact alone does not merit a different analysis. With both asbestosis and  mesothelioma, the likelihood of contracting the disease increases with the dose. 

The court noted that If any exposure at all were sufficient to cause mesothelioma, everyone would suffer from it or at least be at serious risk of contracting the disease. Everyone is exposed to asbestos in the ambient air; it is plentiful in the environment, especially if you’re a typical urban dweller.  Plaintiff's expert confirmed that we all have some asbestos in our lungs, but that background levels are sufficiently low that they do not cause disease; instead, multiples of fibers many times over were required to cause mesothelioma.

More fundamentally, if the court were to adopt a less demanding standard for mesothelioma cases
and accept that any exposure to asbestos is sufficient to establish liability, the result essentially
would be not just strict liability but absolute liability against any company whose asbestos-containing product crossed paths with the plaintiff throughout his entire lifetime. However, exposure does not always result in disease. The court said it had never embraced the concept of industry-wide liability on grounds that proof of causation might be difficult. 

If an “any exposure” theory of liability was accepted for mesothelioma cases because science
has so far been unable to establish the precise dose below which the risk of disease disappears, the same theory would arguably apply to all carcinogens. The any exposure theory effectively accepts that a failure of science to determine the maximum safe dose of a toxin necessarily means that every exposure, regardless of amount, is a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s illness. This approach negates the plaintiff’s burden to prove causation by a preponderance of the evidence.

Further, said the court, there are cases where a plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos can be tied to a defendant, but that exposure is minuscule as compared to the exposure resulting from other sources. Proof of any exposure at all from a defendant should not end the inquiry and result in automatic liability. The Restatement Third of Torts provides that when an actor’s negligent conduct constitutes only a trivial contribution to a causal set that is a factual cause of harm, the harm is not within the scope of the actor’s liability.

The any exposure theory is also illogical in mesothelioma cases, where a small exposure can
result in disease, because it posits that any exposure from a defendant above background levels
could impose liability, while the background level of asbestos should be ignored. But the expert
testimony in this case was undisputed that the background level varies considerably from location
to location. The court could not see how the theory can, as a matter of logic, exclude higher than normal background levels as the cause of the plaintiff’s disease, but accept that any exposure from an individual defendant, no matter how small, should be accepted as a cause in fact of the disease. Under plaintiffs'  any exposure theory a background dose of 20 does not cause cancer, but a defendant’s dose of 2 plus a background dose of 5 somehow does.

Expanding on the notion of substantial factor, the court noted that in the Havner decision it had enunciated principles in toxic tort cases that (1) expert testimony of causation must be scientifically reliable, (2) the plaintiff must establish the elements of his claim by a preponderance of the evidence, and (3) where direct evidence of causation is lacking, scientifically reliable evidence in the form of epidemiological studies showing that the defendant’s product more than doubled the plaintiff’s risk of injury appropriately corresponds to the legal standard of proof by a preponderance of the evidence. These principles, said the court, should apply to asbestos cases. As to the
availability of scientific studies, asbestos-related disease has been researched for many decades and the population of potentially affected persons numbers in the millions. A more than doubling of the risk must be shown through reliable expert testimony that is based on epidemiological studies or similarly reliable scientific testimony. 

Multiple-exposure cases raise the issues of how the finder of fact should consider exposure
from sources other than the defendant, what proof might be required as to those other sources, and who has the burden of proof regarding those other sources. These are difficult questions, said the court, but a plaintiff should be required to establish more than a doubling of the risk attributable to the defendant’s product;  the court did not require a plaintiff to track down every possible source of asbestos exposure and disprove that those other exposures caused the disease. In multiple-exposure cases few if any plaintiffs could ever establish which particular fibers from which particular defendant caused the disease.  However, when evidence is introduced of exposure from other defendants or other sources, mere proof of more than a doubling of the risk may not suffice to establish substantial factor causation. Suppose, hypothesized the court, a plaintiff shows that his exposure to a particular defendant’s product more than doubled his chances of contracting a disease, but the evidence at trial also established that another source of the substance increased the chances by a factor of 10,000. In this circumstance, a trier of fact or a court reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence should be allowed to conclude that the defendant’s product was not a substantial factor in causing the disease.

 

Class Complaint Dismissed WITH Prejudice

The Second Circuit recently affirmed a trial court decision dismissing a proposed class action challenging the marketing of certain cosmetic products.  See DiMuro v. Clinique Labs, LLC, No. 13-4551 (2d Cir. 7/10/14) (unpublished).

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action complaint asserting claims under the Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois consumer fraud statutes, along with claims for breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, and unjust enrichment, arising from defendants’ marketing of seven different cosmetic products sold under the “Repairwear” product line. But while plaintiffs’ consolidated class action complaint asserted claims arising out of the marketing of seven different products, the named plaintiffs only alleged to have purchased and used three of the seven products.

Plaintiffs argued that they nevertheless had class standing to bring claims for Repairwear products that they did not buy-- a commonly attempted but seldom successful tactic.  Here, each of the seven different products have different ingredients, and defendant allegedly made different advertising claims for each product. Unique evidence would therefore be required to prove that the 35-some advertising statements for each of the seven different products were false and misleading. As a result, the court could not conclude that claims brought by a purchaser of one product would raise a set of concerns nearly identical to that of a purchaser of another Repairwear product. Accordingly, plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims for the four products that they did not purchase.

The court also affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims because plaintiffs failed to plead them with the requisite particularity under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b).  Rule 9(b) requires that a complaint specify the statements that the plaintiff contends were fraudulent, identify the speaker, state where and when the statements were made, and explain why the statements were fraudulent.  E.g., Mills v. Polar Molecular Corp., 12 F.3d 1170, 1175 (2d Cir. 1993). One of the cardinal purposes of Rule 9(b) is to “provid[e] a defendant fair notice of plaintiff’s claim, to enable preparation of [a] defense.” See DiVittorio v. Equidyne Extractive Indus., Inc., 822 F.2d 1242, 1247 (2d Cir. 1987). Plaintiffs’ consolidated complaint was wholly conclusory and lacked the particularity required to ensure that defendant received fair notice of the claims.

Specifically, plaintiffs’ "group-pleading" as to the products and the advertisements at issue was
inconsistent with Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement in that the complaint failed to specify which
of the alleged statements were fraudulent and with regard to what product.  It simply alleged that the products, collectively, cannot work. Given that the seven different products have different ingredients, different intended uses, and that defendant made different advertising claims for each one, this was wholly insufficient to satisfy Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs failed to address the different product ingredients, different intended uses, and different claims.

The complaint also failed to allege that any of the named plaintiffs even used the product, let alone used the product as directed. Similarly, the named plaintiffs did not allege what results they received from their use of the product. They only alleged that they received “no value,” “did not receive what they bargained for,” or “did not get what they paid for.” Since they did not allege which particular advertising claims each of the named plaintiffs relied on when purchasing the product, the conclusion that they did not receive what they bargained for had no ascertainable meaning. 

Plaintiffs’ claims for breach of express warranty and breach of implied warranty also relied on
allegations that the products did not perform as advertised. These allegations were wholly conclusory, and did not provide a sufficient factual basis to establish a plausible breach of any specifically identified express or implied warranty.

Pretty standard stuff, really, but let's turn to the most useful aspect of the analysis.  The complaint was dismissed with prejudice.  Leave to amend is given when justice so requires.  But what too often happens is that plaintiffs file a conclusory, fishing expedition of a complaint; the defendant expends considerable cost to point out the many deficiencies of the pleading; the court dismisses appropriately dismisses the complaint, and plaintiffs use the opinion as their model to draft an amended pleading-- often repeating the process several times, until they finally get a minimally acceptable pleading that bears little resemblance to their original complaint.  Here, the court recognized that plaintiffs are “not entitled to an advisory opinion from the Court informing them of the deficiencies in the complaint and then an opportunity to cure those deficiencies.” Bellikoff v. Eaton Vance Corp., 481 F.3d 110, 118 (2d Cir. 2007). Moreover, a plaintiff need not be given leave to amend if the plaintiff fails to specify either to the district court or to the court of appeals how amendment would cure the pleading deficiencies in its complaint. The district court’s decision to deny plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint was not an abuse of discretion. First, the plaintiffs failed to provide any detail as to what facts they would or could) plead to cure their pleading deficiencies. Second -- and this is very commonly the case --  much if not all of the information necessary for a properly pled complaint was and had always been in the possession of the plaintiffs. For example, which particular representations they relied upon, if and how they had used the products, what the results were.   Useful discussion of why leave should NOT be granted in these consumer fraud cases.

Who's Who Legal Recognizes SHB

Who’s Who Legal: The International Who’s Who of Business Lawyers has named Shook, Hardy & Bacon its 2014 Product Liability Defense Law Firm of the Year.

The publication notes that "Shook Hardy & Bacon has a first-class product liability practice and is a go-to firm for numerous multinational organizations seeking to defend claims in the organic chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering, pharmacology, toxicology, and computer software and hardware industries."

 
Who’s Who Legal has recognized 24 SHB partners as leading product liability defense attorneys, including your humble blogger.