Drug Maker Defeats AG Motion to Dismiss Action Challenging Private Contingency Counsel

We have warned readers before about the dangerous and growing practice of governmental agencies delegating state police powers to private (plaintiff) attorneys on a contingency fee basis.  The latest round in this nationwide battle comes from Kentucky, where the court recently ruled that Merck can continue its suit alleging violation of its due process rights after the state hired such outside counsel.  See Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Conway, No. 3:11-cv-51 (E.D. Ky., 12/19/12).

The matter underlying this action arose from Merck’s marketing and distribution of the prescription medication Vioxx. The AG filed suit against Merck in the Franklin County Circuit Court in 2009, alleging a violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act (“KCPA”). Merck removed the case to federal court, and the action was then transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana on April 15, 2010, as part of the multidistrict litigation, In re Vioxx Product Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1657.  But on January 3, 2012, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted the AG’s motion to remand, concluding that the case was improperly removed from state court. In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1657, 2012 WL 10552, at *14 (E.D. La. Jan. 3, 2012).

Now, approximately one year into the proceeding, the AG had retained outside counsel to take over the Vioxx KCPA litigation.  Under the contract executed, private counsel agreed to be compensated by a contingency fee “to be withheld from any settlement award resulting from the litigation.” Merck filed suit against the AG in federal court in August, 2011, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In its complaint,  Merck alleged that the AG had “delegated his coercive powers to private lawyers having a clear, direct and substantial financial stake in the outcome...."  The case was "a punitive enforcement action that must be prosecuted in the public interest or not at all.”  As a result, Merck asserted, its “right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment had been infringed.” 

The AG moved to dismiss, and the issue in this decision focused on the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); it provides that when a state proceeding is pending, principles of federalism dictate that any federal constitutional claims should be raised and decided in state court without interference by the federal courts. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 17 (1987).  If a federal district court concludes that its resolution of the case before it would directly interfere with ongoing state proceedings, then it must determine whether to abstain from hearing the case altogether, under the following: (1) there must be an ongoing state
judicial proceeding; (2) the proceeding must implicate important state interests; and (3) there
must be an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding to raise constitutional challenges.

Merck argued that the AG’s active litigation in federal court — through the filing of answers, motions to dismiss, and motions for summary judgment — was sufficient to establish that proceedings of substance had taken place before the remand, i.e., before an action had been pending in state court.  The court agreed that the abstention doctrine did not require a strict view of the federal action timeline nor a formalistic approach to the abstention analysis. Using a "common sense approach," several factors weighed in favor of a conclusion that proceedings of substance had taken place: (1) the federal action had been pending for over seven months when the state court proceeding was remanded on March 20, 2012; (2) on the date of the remand, there were two important motions that were fully briefed and ripe for adjudication; and (3) the court had held a scheduling conference during which the parties advised the court about their positions on those two motions. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the federal action was well beyond an “embryonic stage.” Because the state proceeding was not “ongoing” in a meaningful sense, abstention was not appropriate under the principles of Younger.

Your humble blogger notes that the legal policy of many states strongly favors open, competitive bidding for contracts involving state funds. Such requirements, included in some state Constitutions and various statutes, are designed to prevent fraud, eliminate bias and favoritism, and thus protect vital public interests. Those same goals of open and good government reside in the requirement that state officials give their undivided loyalty to the people of a state. Many of the contingent fee contracts used by state officials to bring mass tort actions violate the core principle that attorneys pursuing actions on behalf of the state represent a sovereign whose obligation to govern impartially is essential to its right to govern. Government attorneys must exercise independent judgment as a ministers of justice and not act simply as advocates. The impartiality required of government lawyers cannot be met where the private pecuniary interest inherent in the contingent fee is the primary motive force behind the bringing of the action. By turning over sovereign prosecutorial-like power to contingency counsel, a state effectively creates a new branch of government – motivated by the prospect of private gain rather than the pursuit of justice or the public welfare. This subversion of neutrality does more than implicate the due process rights of those confronting such tainted prosecutions. Direction of state prosecutions by financially interested surrogates also damages the very public interest that such litigation is supposed to advance. 
 

Competing Model of Plaintiff Class Action Bar Forthcoming

Readers of MassTortDefense are mostly from the defense bar, and are always thinking about what the other side is thinking about.

Visiting Professor Ratner of Harvard Law School is trying to give us a new view of plaintiff class action attorneys.  Since he practiced with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, readers can soon decide for themselves whether his view is descriptive or wishful thinking. See Ratner, Morris, A New Model of Plaintiffs' Class Action Attorneys (2011). Review of Litigation, Forthcoming.

According to the author, this article offers a new model for conceptualizing plaintiffs’ class action attorneys, and thus for understanding principal-agent problems in class action litigation. It responds to the work of Professor John C. Coffee, Jr., who, in a series of influential articles, demonstrated that principal-agent problems may be acute in class action litigation because class members lack the information or financial incentive to monitor class counsel; class counsel is thus free to pursue his own interests at the expense of the class members. But what are those interests, and how do they diverge from the class members’ interests? Professor Coffee provided one answer to this sub-set of questions, presenting an account of class counsel and the precise parameters of his disloyalty corresponding with three descriptive assertions: that class counsel is either a solo practitioner or in a small firm; that he is predominantly interested in maximizing his law firm profit; and he capably pursues his fee-maximizing goal by investing his time in cases based on confident predictions about expected fees.

In this article, the author offers a competing conception of the dominant class action attorneys and firms; he argues that the leading firms today are relatively large and internally complex; law firm structural complexity creates diverse incentives other than maximization of law firm profit; and class counsel invest time in cases for complex reasons other than the effect on expected fees, particularly because fees are notoriously difficult to predict. Modeling class counsel to recognize this complexity has three virtues, he claims: it better reflects the actual characteristics of the most significant class action attorneys, and hence is a more accurate descriptive tool; as such, it enables a more precise understanding of the extent and nature of agency or loyalty problems; and thus, finally, it provides a more solid basis for needed reforms. In particular, this new model, the author asserts, sheds insight on the importance of direct versus incentive-based regulation to manage agency costs in class actions. In light of the diverse incentives this new model reveals, direct regulation of outcomes by trial courts using enhanced final approval standards should be a central part of any package of reforms to manage agency costs in class litigation, argues the author.

We are looking forward to seeing the arguments.

Drywall Litigation Update

The Georgia Superior Court has preliminarily approved a $6.5 million settlement between the Lowe's home improvement stores and a nationwide proposed class of drywall purchasers. Vereen v. Lowe's Home Centers Inc., SU10-CV-2267B (Ga. Super. Ct., Muscogee Cty.).

The proposed resolution of this piece of the drywall litigation would provide Lowe's gift certificates ranging from $50 to $2,000 to any consumer who purchased drywall (not just from China), as well as cash awards of up to $2,500, if the claimant can provide documentation of damages and proof of purchase. That is, plaintiffs who provide proof of purchase of drywall from Lowe's but have no proof of actual damages would receive gift cards valued up to $250. Class members unable to provide a proof of purchase would receive $50 gift cards.

Under the settlement, Lowe's also agreed to pay attorneys' fees and expenses up to 30% of the class fund, as well as $1 million to the plaintiff attorneys for administration of claims. The settlement purports to release Lowe's from all drywall claims.The Georgia court conditionally certified a settlement class and set a final fairness hearing for November 19th.

But the proposed settlement has apparently drawn objections from participants in the federal Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation, who are arguing that the settlement fund is too small and that the settlement would interfere with federal jurisdiction.  The plaintiffs' steering committee for the Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation in the Eastern District of Louisiana went so far as to move to enjoin the state court from moving ahead with the settlement, arguing that the benefit to the class is too small, and the attorneys' fees too large. Ironically, these plaintiff attorneys assert that the form of the class benefit, i.e.,  a gift card, is also improper.

The MDL lawyers assert that the parties involved in the MDL have been negotiating towards a global settlement, and allowing the state court, one-defendant settlement to go forward would simply undermine those efforts.  They called on the federal court, pursuant to the Anti-Injunction Act, to enjoin state court proceedings where, as here, it is allegedly necessary in aid of its jurisdiction or to protect or effectuate its judgments.

Readers will recall that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, drywall was imported from China to address a shortage of drywall required for repairs and new construction. After the drywall was installed, homeowners began to complain of smells, gas emanations, corrosion of appliances and electrical fixtures, and other alleged property damage. The lawsuits typically allege that sulfur compound levels in the drywall are too high, causing issues with air conditioning systems, electrical appliances, internal wiring, and other electrical systems in homes. Plaintiffs also allege the drywall produces a rotten egg-like stench and causes a variety of respiratory and other health problems for those who live in the affected homes.

So far, a few bench or jury bellwether trials have been completed, with mixed results.
 
 

Summer Reading for the Rest of Us

Today is the official first day of Summer, and in that spirit, as our readers think about reading something fun (not that MassTortDefense is not fun) at the beach, lake, or pool, here is a suggestion.

New York Times bestselling author James W. Huston's novel, "Marine One" is out in paperback (St. Martin's Press). Huston is a practicing attorney in his spare time.

Finally, some reality to the legal thriller genre, as the hero of the story -- the good guy -- is a product liability defense lawyer!  Mike Nolan is retained to defend WorldCopter in a billion dollar civil lawsuit alleging a product defect caused Marine One (the President's helicopter) to crash on the way to Camp David, killing all aboard.

Was it an accident? pilot error? act of God? terrorists? a design or manufacturing defect? Our plucky defense counsel battles grandstanding Senators, a conspiracy-minded media, voracious plaintiff personal injury attorneys, and a seemingly "fixed" government investigation to try to get to the truth, and justice for his client, the besieged product seller.

For fans of Higgins and Clancy, with a twist on Grisham, a fun summer read.

Informal Discovery Leads to Dismissal in MDL

The court in the welding fume MDL litigation has dismissed the claims of the  plaintiff who had been chosen for the seventh bellwether trial in this national consolidated welding fume products liability litigation. In re: Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation [Ernest Ray, No. 04-18252], MDL 1535, No. 03-17000, N.D. Ohio.

Plaintiff Ray had moved to dismiss his claim, with prejudice, last November. Thousands of claims have been dismissed in this litigation, so why post about this one?  A reminder to readers of MassTortDefense to travel all lanes of the information superhighway in doing fact investigation, including the so-popular social media hubs.

It appears that plaintiffs were forced to move to dismiss the Ray case after plaintiff’s claims of severe disability were refuted by Internet (specifically Facebook) photos discovered by defendants that appeared to show plaintiff competing in strenuous high-speed powerboat races.

In 2006, the MDL Court implemented a new case evaluation process to try to ensure that only “trial-worthy” cases reached the later stages of pre-trial litigation. This process, which required medical records collection and a certification by plaintiffs’ attorneys that cases were trial‐worthy, prompted plaintiffs to dismiss thousands of cases.  Even with that, this is about the sixth trial-ready case plaintiffs have been forced to dismiss due to revelations in discovery.

Appropriate review of public web sites requires no disclosure to opposing counsel, and can be done relatively cheaply. Today's technology, via the Internet, can result in a wealth of information on the opposing party or witness.  Web sites like the popular myspace.com and facebook.com can now provide a profile of a witness or opposing party, or, like here, information on interests and activities. An individual might have posted comments about his condition, as well. Good luck surfing!