Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Class Action Preclusion Case

This week, we are going to explore some of the more interesting cases pending before the Supreme Court. In Smith v. Bayer Corp., No. 09-1205 (U.S., oral argument 1/18/11), the Court took up a case involving the preclusive impact of a decision denying class certification. We recently posted on a case involving the significant problem of plaintiffs hopping from court to court, state to state, shopping for a court that will certify their class after it has already been denied.

The Smith case involves the issue whether a federal court can enjoin class members from bringing a product liability class suit in state court after the federal court declined to certify a similar class.  Specifically, the Baycol MDL court in Minnesota had denied class certification, and the court of appeals upheld the injunction barring plaintiffs from bringing the same suit in state court. The court of appeals in fact unanimously affirmed, holding that the injunction was authorized by the All Writs Act and the re-litigation exception to the Anti-Injunction Act, and that petitioners did not have a due-process right to re-litigate class certification.

Plaintiffs have argued that they should not be enjoined, nor barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, because the state's (West Virginia's) rule for class certification is not identical to the federal rule:  while a putative class may not meet one test, it may meet the other. As plaintiffs told Justice Ginsburg, a state has the right to apply and interpret that rule of civil procedure "as it sees fit to manage its own docket and administrate its own docket as it sees fit."

The defendants argue that class members were adequately represented in the first class action, and whatever the technical differences may be, the heart of the West Virginia rule is substantively identical to the federal rule. Petitioners have not been foreclosed from seeking relief on their individual claims, but only from seeking to represent other people through a class action. Whether a class should be certified has been fully and fairly litigated in proceedings that are binding on petitioners and in which petitioners’ interests were adequately represented by an identically situated named plaintiff.  The plaintiffs' position is that class certification is a “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” proposition. Under this theory, every unnamed plaintiff could re-litigate class certification, no matter how large the putative class, no matter how many times certification had already been denied, and no matter how adequately the class members’ interests were represented in the prior proceedings.

Part of the issue facing the Court is the application of preclusion to a non-party (as the class was not certified, absent class members were not "parties" for some purposes), and this was explored at oral argument. In response to questioning from the Court, plaintiffs argued that the re-litigation exception to the Anti-Injunction Act did not apply here. Because the plaintiffs are not the same "parties" that litigated the federal class action, and because the same issues were not litigated in the prior case -- that is, West Virginia's own class certification rule vs. Federal Rule 23.  Counsel argued that the state court has said "we do not want our legal analysis to be nothing more than a mere Pavlovian response to Federal decisional rules."

A number of Justices wondered what were the supposed differences, and part of the response to Justice Sotomayor was that the federal "court's not only trying to bind us on the procedural ruling, but is also trying to bind us in a substantive ruling as to what the elements of the claims in West Virginia are and as to what's needed to prove those claims." The state court was free to disagree with that federal ruling, counsel argued. In response to Justice Kagan, Bayer noted that the predominance requirement under the West Virginia version of Rule 23 is essentially identical to the Federal version, and there is no evidence of any content that's different from the Federal version on this point. But Justice Ginsburg pressed defendant on the issue that "sometimes Federal judges, they try their best, they're not the last word on what the State law is."

Several Justices raised the issue of forum shopping in their questions for petitioners' counsel. Justice Alito asked petitioners, whether after a class certification denial is entered in one federal court, a plaintiff's attorney could simply substitute the name of a new named plaintiff and file the same complaint in another federal court. Plaintiffs agreed that an attorney could do that.

Justice Alito asked about some of the possible implications of the plaintiffs' argument. If part of the issue is notice, would that compel federal courts to engage in a lengthy and expensive class notice period even in cases in which the class is denied? Plaintiff responded that notice would be required to bind the absent class members. Bayer argued in response to similar questions from Justice Sotomayor that the preclusion test focuses on whether the parties' interests are aligned, and the class members' interests were identical,  the first named plaintiffs understood that they was acting in a representative capacity, and the federal court took normal steps to protect the interests of non-parties, i.e., absent class members.  All that was met here. But Justice Scalia asked whether the counsel had ever been found adequate since the class was denied certification on other grounds.

Justice Kagan asked about CAFA, and Congressional intent to prevent forum shopping with classes and keep state courts from too freely certifying these kinds of class actions, which plaintiff had to concede.

Plaintiff had a hard time with the Court's questions about due process and how it affects procedural rights as opposed to substantive or property rights, particularly, as Justice Sotomayor asked, where the Federal litigation has applied essentially the same standard that the State has, and there has been adequate representation on the procedural question, and where no substantive right of a plaintiff has been extinguished. Chief Justice Roberts similarly asked about line-drawing, with a hypo about the second court limiting discovery because of what happened in the first court: "So now it's not only that you're entitled to your day in court substantively; you're entitled to your day in court procedurally as to some procedural aspects but not others?"

Justice Ginsburg asked counsel for Bayer whether there was a difference between preclusion being applied by the state court and the federal court issuing the injunction based on preclusion, calling the latter a "heavy gun.”  Meaning we're "not going to trust the West Virginia court to apply issue preclusion. We're going to stop that court from proceeding altogether."  Bayer replied that the injunction was very important because trial courts in West Virginia need not follow other trial courts, and there is no intermediate appeals court.  Thus plaintiff could go from county to county until they found a court that refused to apply preclusion.  

 

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