Mass Tort Defense
Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Comcast
We alerted readers before about the Supreme Court consideration of the role of Daubert at the class certification stage. See Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, U.S., No. 11-864 (cert. granted 6/25/12). The Court had indicated it was interested in the question "whether a district court may certify a class action without resolving whether the plaintiff class has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that the case is susceptible to awarding damages on a classwide basis." Readers will recall that in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011) the Supreme Court in dicta referenced the question. Justice Scalia observed that the district court had "concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class-action proceedings," but the majority replied that "we doubt that is so." 131 S. Ct. at 2554. Thus, Dukes strongly suggested that it was appropriate for defendants to make the expert challenge at the class certification stage, and important for the court to resolve the issue then.
The justices heard arguments from both sides November 5th. The district court in Comcast originally certified a class; following the court of appeals' decision in Hydrogen Peroxide, 552 F.3d 305, the district court granted in part Comcast‘s motion to reconsider its certification decision. After further briefing, plaintiffs got the case re-certified after convincing the district court that they could show that they had an expert methodology to prove damages on a classwide basis. On the current appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that the lower court had applied the "rigorous analysis," adding that at the class certification stage, "we are precluded from addressing any merits inquiry unnecessary to making a Rule 23 determination.” The Petitioners argued that the Third Circuit affirmed the certification order after expressly declining to consider several “merits” issues necessary to determine whether, as required by Rule 23(b)(3), common questions predominate over individual ones. The focus on damages, which some have viewed as narrowing the issue presented, still is a question that arises not just in antitrust cases, but also in mass torts, which are front and center for our readers.
Plaintiffs seemed to get more questions from the bench than did defendant, especially about any problem with allowing potentially inadmissible evidence to form the basis for the crucial class certification decision.
Comcast emphasized flaws in the expert's damages model, including that the damage model was not linked to the class theory certified by the lower court, that the alleged monopolization of the Philadelphia area through clustering deterred competitors, or “overbuilders,” from competing. The district court should not have relied on it to certify the class. Plaintiffs argued waiver, that the company failed to bring up Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., 509 U.S. 469 (1993), until it was too late. That focus led Justice Kagan to note, “I am still in search of a legal question that anybody disagrees about here.” Justice Elena Kagan observed it seemed the parties apparently agreed that if the Daubert question was not waived, the lower court should have held a hearing on the admissibility of the expert opinions. Comcast emphasized it had argued to the trial court that this model did not work, ought to be precluded, and was not a valid methodology.
Plaintiffs argued that allowing district courts to defer admissibility determinations under Daubert until after the class certification stage is consistent with the broad discretion given judges on evidentiary issues. But that failed to address the pressure that class certification puts on defendants to settle, a point that was not a focus of the arguments. Plaintiffs also seemed to be arguing for a standard in which the district court has to decide simply that it is more likely than not that the damages model/expert opinion will be admissible at trial, and will meet the standard that’s required to get to a verdict. But Justice Sotomayor asked "can a district court ever say that it’s persuaded by unreliable or not probative evidence.” Justice Alito similarly asked how could this expert "report be probative if it did not satisfy Daubert?”
Comcast argued that the trial court needed to conduct more than a limited Daubert hearing, agreeing with what defendant called the holding of the Seventh Circuit in American Honda that the question at the class cert hearing is not solely one of whether the evidence would be admissible, but also -- keeping in mind that the focus of the class certification hearing is to decide whether the case should be tried as a class -- whether it is a methodology that sufficiently fits the facts and is reliably based on a scientific method so that plaintiffs will be capable of proving, class-wide, this issue at trial.
Justice Scalia asked about a hybrid approach where the court would focus at the class stage on reliability, and leave other Daubert inquiries (like fit) for trial. But a focus of Justice Ginsburg's questions right out of the box was whether any finding of reliability was necessary on damages. She noted that in discrimination law contexts, courts may, if the liability questions can be adjudicated on a class basis, have the damages question adjudicated individually. Of course, that view of class actions seems to slight the manageability requirement in a (b)(3) context, and invites truncated procedures that violate a defendant's due process rights.
One to watch for sure.