Supreme Court Offers Some Guidance on Standing

The Supreme Court has decided a case involving injury-in-fact and standing issues that may have significant impacts on class actions.  See Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339 (U.S. 5/16/16).

Spokeo, Inc. operated a “people search engine,” which searches a wide spectrum of databases to gather and provide personal information about individuals to a variety of users, including employers wanting to evaluate prospective employees. After respondent/plaintiff Robins discovered that his Spokeo-generated profile allegedly contained inaccurate information, he filed a federal class action complaint against Spokeo, alleging that the company willfully failed to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act’s requirements.

The District Court dismissed Robins’ complaint, holding that he had not properly pleaded injury in fact as required by Article III. The Ninth Circuit reversed. Based on Robins’ allegation that “Spokeo violated
his statutory rights” and the fact that Robins’ “personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized,” the appeals court ruled that Robins had adequately alleged an injury in fact.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Ninth Circuit failed to consider both aspects of the injury-in-fact requirement, so its Article III standing analysis was incomplete. A plaintiff invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing the “irreducible constitutional minimum” of standing by demonstrating (1) an injury in fact, (2) fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U. S. 555, 560–561. Particularly relevant here, the injury-in-fact requirement requires a plaintiff to show that he or she suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Id. at 560. 

The Ninth Circuit’s injury-in-fact analysis neglected the independent “concreteness” requirement. Both observations it had made about the statutory claim concerned only “particularization,” i.e., the requirement that an injury “affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way,” Id.at 560, n. 1.  But an injury in fact must be both concrete and particularized. Concreteness is quite different from particularization and requires an injury to be “de facto,” that is, to actually exist.  

The Ninth Circuit also failed to address whether the alleged procedural violations entail a degree of risk sufficient to meet the concreteness requirement. A “concrete” injury need not always be a physical or “tangible” injury. See, e.g., Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460. To determine whether an intangible harm constitutes injury in fact, both history and the judgment of Congress are instructive. Congress is well positioned to identify intangible harms that meet minimum Article III requirements, but a plaintiff does not automatically satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a right and purports to authorize a suit to vindicate it. Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation.  So, the violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury in fact; in such a case, a plaintiff need not allege any additional harm beyond the one identified by Congress, see Federal Election Comm’n v. Akins,
524 U. S. 11, 20–25. But in some circumstances a mere alleged violation of a federal statute will not be sufficient. Plaintiffs cannot automatically satisfy the demands of Article III by alleging a bare procedural violation. In addition, not all substantive inaccuracies cause harm or present any material risk of harm.

The Court remanded for consideration of these issues (which means the case may come back up).

The ruling that a mere allegation of a statutory violation by itself and mere procedural violations of a statute do not necessarily create standing will likely impact numerous class actions.  Lead plaintiffs will not be able to assert mere statutory violations as a means to show standing with respect to each absent putative class member.  Often, there will need to be an individualized inquiry as to each class member on issues surrounding the concreteness of each injury, the degree of risk posed by each violation to each class member, such as the nature and level of information the defendant allegedly got wrong. Many plaintiff lawyers, in order to maximize damages, seek to draw their class so broadly as to almost certainly include many individuals who have only a technical claim. The need for individual inquiry will loom large in the predominance analysis. Absent a proper standing analysis, the economy will continue to see huge payouts in no-injury lawsuits, a wealth transfer that overcompensates for non-existent injuries and over-deters insubstantial or technical regulatory violations.  

Lack of Standing Dooms Beef Class Action

Article III's requirement that a plaintiff have standing to bring the claim applies to proposed class actions, and doomed class plaintiffs who were alleging that certain beef products were not kosher as marketed. See Wallace v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. 13-1485 (8th Cir. 4/4/14).

Melvin Wallace and several other consumers claimed that some Hebrew National beef products were not “100% kosher.” Defendant removed to federal court, invoking the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA), 28 U.S.C. § 1453, then moved to dismiss contending the consumers lacked Article III standing and that the district court lacked jurisdiction to address religious questions
underlying the consumers’ claims. The district court decided the First Amendment prohibited the courts from adjudicating the consumers’ legal claims and, they appealed.

Plaintiffs argued that their purchase and consumption of the Hebrew National brand products was not motivated by faith, but rather on the belief that kosher is the “New Organic,” a promise of food purity amid other products full of artificial ingredients. They claimed this led them to pay an unjustified premium for Hebrew National’s ostensibly kosher beef.

The court of appeals concluded that the consumers lacked traditional Article III standing to pursue this case, and instructed the district court to remand the case to state court.

Defendant argued that even if the consumers would have overpaid if the Hebrew National products they bought were not actually kosher, the consumers did not adequately allege that the products they each purchased were defective.   Here, the consumers’ allegations did not establish that all or even most Hebrew National products were not kosher, which means the particular packages of
processed beef they purchased may have been—and indeed more than likely were—prepared in accordance with minimum kosher standards.

The court noted that Article III requires “an injury [to] be concrete, particularized, and actual or  imminent.” Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms, 130 S. Ct. 2743, 2752 (2010). An alleged injury cannot be “too speculative for Article III purposes.” Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 564 n.2 (1992). If there is no “actual” harm, then there must at least be an “imminent” harm. Id. As the Supreme Court emphasized just last year, “mere speculation” that injury did or might occur “cannot satisfy the requirement that any injury in fact must be fairly traceable to” the alleged source. Clapper v. Amnesty Int’l USA, 133 S. Ct. 1138, 1148 (2013).

 Here, the consumers’ allegations failed to show that any of the particular packages of Hebrew National beef they personally purchased contained non-kosher beef. The consumers frankly admitted that it was impossible for any reasonable consumer to detect whether purportedly kosher meat is non-kosher. The Supreme Court has made it clear that standing must be particularized, meaning the alleged injury must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way. In the context of defective products, it is not enough for a plaintiff to allege that a product line contains a defect or that a product is at risk for manifesting this defect; rather, the plaintiffs must allege that their product actually exhibited the alleged defect. See In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Prods. Liab. Litig., 644 F.3d
604, 616 (8th Cir. 2011).

Without any particularized reason to think the consumers’ own packages of Hebrew National beef actually exhibited the alleged non-kosher defect, the consumers lacked Article III standing to sue.  Even supposing some beef was improperly certified as kosher, the consumers gave the court no reason to think all the beef marked as kosher under the quota did not meet kosher standards. Which means, it was pure speculation to say the particular packages sold to the consumers were tainted by non-kosher beef.  Speculation and conjecture are not injuries cognizable under Article III. See, e.g., Clapper, 133 S. Ct. at 1148.  Because the consumers suffered no particularized and actual injury, Monsanto, 130 S. Ct. at 2752, the court of appeals was bound to conclude the consumers lacked traditional Article III standing.  CAFA did not extend federal jurisdiction to this case.

 

Federal Circuit to Rehear Judges' Pay Raise Issue

While our usual focus is mass torts, product liability, class actions, and complex commercial litigation, readers know we always keep an eye on issues affecting the judiciary.

Now comes word that the Federal Circuit has agreed to rehear en banc a panel decision to deny cost-of-living pay raises to a class of federal judges. Peter H. Beer,et al. v. U.S., No. 10-5012 (Fed. Cir. May 18, 2012).

Federal judges had filed a class action challenging the government's conduct in blocking duly passed and scheduled pay raises for judges, arguing this violated the Constitution's Compensation Clause, which holds that judges' pay “shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.” The judges argued that denying the planned salary increases in essence amounted to an unconstitutional decrease.

Earlier this year, a panel of the appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the proposed class action, relying in part on a prior case in which the court said Congress hadn't violated the Constitution's bar on judicial pay decreases by stopping automatic raises required by the Ethics Reform Act of 1989.

Plaintiffs sought rehearing, and a number of amici weighed in; for example the brief filed by the ABA noted that while partners at law firms have had average salaries rise 75% in real terms from 1969 to 2006, federal judges' pay actually fell in real terms. They are underpaid and overworked.

The court requested the parties to file new briefs addressing whether the Compensation Clause of Article III of the Constitution prohibit Congress from withholding the periodic salary adjustments for Article III judges provided for in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, and whether the 2001 amendment to the act makes a difference.

 

 

 

Class Certification Denied in Printer Litigation

A federal court recently denied class certification in a case brought on behalf of consumers accusing Epson America Inc. of misrepresenting how its NX series of printers functioned with ink cartridges. Christopher O’Shea et al. v. Epson America Inc. et al., No. 09-cv-08063 C.D. Cal.). Readers may recall our post that the court earlier dismissed many of the plaintiffs' claims on the basis that a manufacturer is not required under consumer protection laws to denigrate its own product and broadcast that its product may not perform as well as its competition.

In May 2009, plaintiff Rogers purchased a “Stylus NX 200” inkjet printer manufactured by defendants. Her decision to purchase this printer was allegedly based, in part, on a statement on the printer box that read: “Replace only the color you need with individual ink cartridges.”  Plaintiff allegedly understood this statement to mean that the printer would only require a black cartridge to print black text. In actuality, plaintiff alleged, the Epson NX 200 printer requires all cartridges to function. She subsequently filed suit against Epson claiming that Epson failed to disclose and affirmatively misrepresented the features of the printer.

Plaintiff  moved for class certification.  The interesting part of the court's analysis relates to the predominance issue under Rule 23(b)(3). Even though individualized questions of reliance and materiality were diminished under some of the plaintiff's theories because the consumer fraud claims are governed by the “reasonable consumer” test, which requires plaintiff to show that members of the public are likely to be deceived, Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 523 F.3d 934, 938 (9th Cir. 2008), the notions of reliance and injury still impacted class certification. Specifically, the court was not convinced that members of the putative class had standing to pursue their claims in federal court. To have standing under Article III, a plaintiff must present an injury that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action; and redressable by a favorable ruling.

In the context of Rule 23(b)(3), questions of Article III standing amount to an inquiry as to whether individual issues of injury-in-fact and causation predominate over common issues. While case law suggested that absent class members need not establish standing under the requirements of California’s consumer laws, there is a distinct requirement of Article III standing in federal court.  Statutory interpretations cannot permit a federal class action to proceed where class members lack Article III standing.  The requirement that all members of the class have Article III standing makes sense. If that were not the rule, a class could include members who could not themselves bring suit to recover, thus permitting a windfall to those class members and allowing Rule 23 to enlarge substantive rights.  The court therefore held that absent class members must satisfy the requirements of Article III.

Satisfaction of Article III’s requirements in turn raised individualized issues that defeated certification under Rule 23(b)(3) in this case. Article III requires some showing of injury and causation for a plaintiff to recover. Even if the alleged failure to disseminate truthful information about the product  would be subject to common proof, whether each class member was entitled to recover was not susceptible to proof on a class-wide basis because, to establish standing under Article III, each class member was required to show that they suffered some injury as a result of using or buying the product. Plaintiff therefore must show that all persons in the United States who purchased an Epson NX series printer during the class period suffered an injury which was caused by Epson’s alleged misrepresentation, and which was likely to be redressed by a decision in plaintiff’s favor. The record contained evidence indicating that the injury purportedly suffered by some members of the putative class could not fairly be traced to Epson’s allegedly deceptive representation.  Those individuals who purchased printers from certain third-party on-line sources, such as Amazon.com, were not exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation before they purchased their printers. Not all consumers who purchased an NX200 printer bought it at a retail store. Nor could standing be established by plaintiff’s (unsupported) assertion that the misrepresentation was on every box of the subclass, since some individuals purchased class printers without ever having been exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation. The fact that these individuals may have subsequently seen the misrepresentation when the package arrived in the mail was beside the point. There cannot be a causal connection between the consumer’s injury (the money spent on the printer) and Epson’s alleged misconduct (the purportedly deceptive advertising) because these consumers purchased the printers without ever seeing the purported misrepresentation.

Based on the foregoing, the court found that individualized issues of injury and causation permeated the class claims.The proposed class failed to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common issues predominate.

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Class Rep Who Dismisses Individual Claim Lacks Standing to Appeal Denial of Certification

A proposed class representative who voluntarily dismisses his individual claims lacks standing to appeal the denial of certification of the class claims, according to the Fourth Circuit.  Rhodes v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., No. 10-1166 (4th Cir.,  4/8/11).

The plaintiffs were residents of the City of Parkersburg in Wood County, West Virginia, and  customers of the Parkersburg City Water Department  which supplied water to homes located in Wood County.  DuPont operated a manufacturing facility in Wood County. For an extended period of time, DuPont’s plant  allegedly discharged perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) into the environment
surrounding the plant. Measurable quantities of PFOA were allegedly detected in the water that is pumped by the Water Department into the plaintiffs’ residences.

In 2006, the plaintiffs filed a complaint against DuPont in the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia. Defendant removed. The plaintiffs asserted six common law claims, individually and on behalf of a class of customers of the Water Department, addressing the contamination of their municipal water supply and the alleged resulting presence of PFOA in their blood. The plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief to obtain medical monitoring for latent diseases on behalf of a class of Water Department customers allegedly exposed to PFOA beginning in 2005.

After conducting a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b), the district court concluded that the elements of a medical monitoring claim could not be proved on a class-wide basis using the type of evidence presented by the plaintiffs. The district court therefore denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification of their stand alone medical monitoring claims. The district court further held that the plaintiffs had not met their burden under Rule 23 for certification of a class to pursue medical monitoring relief based on the plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, gross negligence, battery, trespass, and private nuisance, the common law torts. The district court then denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification of the traditional common law tort claims for damages also.

DuPont filed motions seeking summary judgment on all the plaintiffs’ claims. The district court granted in part and denied in part DuPont’s motions. The district court granted DuPont’s
motions with respect to all the plaintiffs’ traditional common law tort claims, Rhodes v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Co., 657 F. Supp. 2d 751, 762-73 (S.D.W. Va. 2009), but denied summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ individual claims of medical monitoring.

Rather than proceed to trial on those remaining individual claims, in order to appeal immediately the adverse summary judgment and certification rulings, the plaintiffs filed a stipulation of voluntary dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1) of their individual claims for medical monitoring.

The court of appeals affirmed the summary judgments, but what will be of more interest to our readers is DuPont’s argument that the 4th Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction to address the merits of plaintiff’s appeal of the denial of class certification of their medical monitoring claims. DuPont asserted that the plaintiffs no longer had standing to advance this argument on appeal because, by voluntarily dismissing their individual claims for medical monitoring, the plaintiffs abandoned their interest in litigating the certification question. As a result, DuPont contended, the plaintiffs had no personal stake in this issue and did not satisfy the requirements for Article
III standing.

In response, the plaintiffs maintained that litigants routinely are permitted to dismiss various claims in order to appeal other claims and, that under federal precedent, this court could review the denial of class certification for a particular claim even though no plaintiff presently was advancing individual claims asserting that cause of action. The plaintiffs further argued that by its plain terms, their stipulated dismissal applied only to their individual medical monitoring claims. Thus, the plaintiffs contended that they did not abandon their stake in the certification question.

As a general matter, circumstances may change while a case is pending, thereby leaving a plaintiff
without the personal stake necessary to maintain Article III standing. For example, claims can expire, or parties can settle or dismiss their claims entirely. In such situations, the district court or appellate court must dismiss the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. On the other hand, generally, a class representative not only has a "personal stake" in the substantive claim he or she asserts, but also a distinct procedural right to represent the interests of similarly situated individuals. This second, representative interest sometimes gives a putative class representative a sufficient "stake" in the class certification question to appeal an adverse certification ruling even after the putative class representative’s claim is mooted by intervening events.

Two conditions must be met, however, to retain Article III jurisdiction, according to the 4th Circuit. The imperatives of a dispute capable of judicial resolution must be sharply present, and there must be self-interested parties vigorously advocating opposing positions.

Other federal circuit courts addressing this issue have reached different conclusions on the question whether a plaintiff may voluntarily settle or dismiss his or her individual claims and still
appeal a certification denial. Some courts have held that standing is maintained when a named plaintiff expressly reserves the right to appeal a certification denial. See Richards v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 453 F.3d 525 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (express reservation of class claim preserves standing of class
representative to appeal certification denial); Dugas v. Trans Union Corp., 99 F.3d 724 (5th Cir. 1996) (reservation of right sufficient to give putative class representative who settles individual claims standing to appeal denial of class certification). Cf. Narouz v. Charter Commc’ns, LLC, 591 F.3d 1261 (9th Cir. 2010) (putative representative retains standing to appeal unless releases interest in class claims in settlement agreement). Other courts have held that even an express reservation of right is not sufficient to satisfy Article III standing requirements. See Muro v. Target Corp., 580 F.3d 485 (7th Cir. 2009) (recitation in settlement agreement that plaintiff reserves right to appeal denial of class certification not sufficient to create concrete interest in class certification issue); Anderson v. CNH U.S. Pension Plan, 515 F.3d 823 (8th Cir. 2008) (same).

Although several of these cases held that the language of a plaintiff’s settlement agreement is determinative of that plaintiff’s "stake" in an appeal, the 4th Circuit seemed less concerned about the language of the dismissal than the fact of dismissal. It concluded that when a putative
class plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the individual claims underlying a request for class certification, as happened in this case, there is no longer a "self-interested party advocating" for class treatment in the manner necessary to satisfy Article III standing requirements.

The court held that it thus did lack jurisdiction to decide the issue whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ request for class certification of their medical monitoring
claims.

Class Plaintiffs Lack Standing - Summary Judgment Granted

A federal judge has granted defendant's summary judgment motion in a putative consumer class action over contact lens solution. Degelmann, et al. v. Advanced Medical Optics Inc., No.07-0317 (N.D. Calif. 1/4/10).

Defendant, in 2007, issued a recall notice for their contact lens solution product, following an announcement by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a small number of users of the contact lens solution might have developed a rare, but potentially serious, corneal infection, due to contamination.  The CDC report indicated that the epidemiological evidence showed that the product may be less effective than other solutions in disinfecting against the particular contamination. [Epidemiology, sometimes termed the "science of long division" or the "science of making the obvious obscure" is crucial to most toxic tort claims.]

Plaintiff brought a proposed nationwide class action under California Business & Professions Code § 17200 (Unfair Competition Law) and  § 17500 (False Advertising Law), and alleged that defendant AMO made false statements concerning its contact lens solution, and concealed certain known risks of using the solution. Plaintiffs did not allege that they suffered any physical injury from their use of the product.  Rather, the focus of the complaint was on AMO’s allegedly false representation that the product was a “disinfecting solution” or was a solution that “disinfects.”

AMO argued that the name plaintiffs had suffered no legally cognizable injury, and therefore lack both Article III standing and statutory standing under the UCL/FAL, among other summary judgment theories.  The court found that plaintiffs lack Article III standing, and granted the motion (without reaching the other issues).

The Constitution limits the federal judicial power to designated “cases” and “controversies.” U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2. Standing is an “essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III.”  Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). Article III standing requires a plaintiff to show an “injury in fact,” a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, and a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Id. at 560-61; see also Sprint Communications Co., L.P. v. APCC Services, Inc., 128 S.Ct. 2531, 2535 (2008). In order to establish standing, plaintiffs must show that they have suffered actual loss, damage, or injury, or are threatened with impairment of their own interests. The “injury in fact” requirement must involve an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.  Lujan, 504 U.S. at 559-60

The court found that named plaintiffs could not show injury in fact because they  never contracted the infection at issue, and were never harmed by their use of the product. Because they stopped using the solution long before the recall, they could not allege that the recall caused them to discard unused solution, which is a typical "economic" harm argument plaintiffs try to make.  Moreover, they could not claim to have lost the money they spent purchasing the product in the first place, as they would have bought another, comparably priced, contact lens solution if they had not bought this one.  As plaintiffs sustained no damage and no injury, and made no showing of any sufficient  threatened injury that was likely to occur, they did not have standing under Article III.  Motion granted.

Defendants will want to not overlook the standing argument , especially when confronted with the concocted class claims of plaintiffs who were never really injured, and seek to recover for alleged bad conduct without showing any causal link between the conduct and an injury suffered.