Local Fracking Ban Struck Down

We typically focus on state court class actions when they reach the appellate level, but wanted to note an interesting decision at the trial court level.  An Ohio court has rejected a proposed class action by a group seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing in their community.  See Mothers Against Drilling in Our Neighborhood v. Ohio, No. CV-14-836899 (Ohio Ct. Com. Pl., 7/1/15).

Last December, community activists filed the class action against the state, the governor, and some fracking defendants, with the far-reaching argument that the portion of state law (Ohio Rev. Code § 1509) that gives the state Department of Natural Resources exclusive authority to permit, locate, space and regulate oil and gas wells, somehow violates plaintiffs' state constitutional right to local self-governance.  Plaintiffs' community had voted in favor of a city ordinance that bans fracking within the boundaries of their city.

The court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, relying in large measure on a recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling in State v. Beck Energy Corp., Ohio, No. 2013-465, 2015 WL 687475 (Ohio, 2/17/15).  The ban on fracking was an invalid exercise of the city's home rule authority as it was preempted by Ohio Rev.C. 1509 as a matter of law.  In Beck, the state supreme court had noted that Chapter 1509 regulates oil and gas wells and production operations in Ohio. While it preserves certain limited powers for local governments, it gives the state government “sole and exclusive authority” to regulate the permitting, location, and spacing of oil and gas wells and production operations within the state.The supreme court held that the Home Rule Amendment to the Ohio Constitution did not grant to a city the power to enforce its own permitting scheme atop the state system. 

More background on this local regulation debate can be found at Knight & Gullman, The Power Of State Interest: Preemption Of Local Fracking Ordinances In Home-Rule Cities, 28 Tul. Envtl. L.J. 297 (Summer, 2015).

MDL Defendant Moves for Coordination with State Court Proceedings

General Motors recently moved in Pennsylvania state court to to have discovery in an ignition defect lawsuit coordinated with the discovery in the 150+ cases in a federal multi-district litigation. In re General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation, MDL No. 2543 (JPML June 9, 2014).

In many mass torts, plaintiffs have tactical options about choice of forum, including state vs. federal court.  Defendants have limited ability to impact these choices, including through removal to federal court of appropriate cases, and enforcement of venue rules and the forum non conveniens doctrine. It is not unusual for a federal MDL to be operating in parallel to a number of suits progressing in state courts, raising the same essential issues.

Such a posture raises a number of challenges regarding judicial administration, economy of judicial resources, efficiency for the parties, cost, and consistency (such as on protective orders).  While there is no mechanism for mandatory coordination of state and federal cases in this context, voluntary coordination is often utilized to reduce costs, delay, and the duplication of efforts. E.g., Dunlavey v. Takeda Pharm. Am., Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. Lexis 120897 (W.D. La. Aug. 23, 2012). Many commentators encourage such coordination and cooperation.  E.g., Manual for Complex Litigation §§20.31, 22.4 (4th ed. 2004); The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation & The Federal Judicial Center, Ten Steps to Better Case Management: A Guide for Multidistrict Litigation Transferee Judges (2009); See the Multi-jurisdiction Litigation Guide.  

The defense motion here does a nice job of explaining why such coordination is essential and wise in the context of a product liability dispute. The MDL court had entered a Joint Coordination Order to prevent duplication of discovery, avoid undue burden on the courts and parties, save costs, and conserve judicial resources.  Some 13 state courts already adopted a similar order to govern the overlapping issues. 

Such coordination does not prevent a plaintiff from seeking necessary case-specific discovery, either through consent or through a motion. But more than 4 million pages of documents have already been produced in this MDL and it makes no sense to ignore that fact and have state court plaintiffs start discovery afresh. And it is impractical and unfair to expect a defendant to produce key company witnesses for deposition hundreds of time for every individual case, as opposed to allowing state court plaintiffs, through the coordination Orders, to meaningfully participate in the master MDL deposition of the key witnesses. 

Plaintiffs oppose the motion.

 

 

State Passes Mandatory Cy Pres Law

Oregon has enacted controversial legislation affecting damages in class actions in the state.  House Bill 2700 was recently signed into law by Gov. Brown, following passage on largely party lines.

The law addresses the not uncommon situation of leftover class action funds.  Sometimes unclaimed funds will revert to the defendant, which makes sense given the purpose of compensatory damages is to compensate persons injured by wrongful conduct. Sometimes the unclaimed funds are allocated in a form of "cy pres," which we have posted about before.

Oregon's new plan is for half of unclaimed or unpaid damages in Oregon class actions to be paid to the state bar's Legal Services Program and the other half to a court-determined entity that benefits the "interests" of class members -- so partly a tax, and partly a cy pres distribution.

The law says it is effective immediately, including for pending actions.  Any amount awarded as damages or to be paid in settlement that the court finds either hasn’t been timely claimed by class members, or when it is simply “not practicable” to pay the full amount to class members, must be distributed in the following fashion:  “At least 50 percent of the amount not paid to class members" must be paid “to the Oregon State Bar for the funding of legal services provided through the Legal Services Program.”  The "remainder of the amount not paid to class members” must be handed over to an entity chosen by the court for purposes that are “directly related to the class action or directly beneficial to the interests of class members.”

Class action observers have noted that cy pres awards are often used by class counsel to enhance the appearance of benefit recovered in the case in order to justify a higher fee award. Another huge problem is that use of cy pres can eliminate the incentive for class counsel to ensure that all absent class members, the allegedly injured parties,  get the compensation they have been awarded or earned in settlement.  Trying to enhance funding for Legal Services programs seems like a great goal, but this does not seem like a wise way to do it. 

Challenge to Federal-State Court Coordination Overture Prompts Response

One of the challenges of our system of federalism, and dual jurisdiction between state and federal courts, is the coordination of related cases pending in the two systems.  Perhaps nowhere does this happen more regularly than in the realm of mass torts.  Federal cases may be coordinated in an MDL, and several states, such as New Jersey, have a procedure to centralize mass tort filings in their state court system. See Hermann, et al. Statewide Coordinated Proceedings (2d ed. West 2004). But coordination between the state and federal level has been more difficult, more informal, more experimental. That is, state and federal judges, faced with the lack of a comprehensive statutory scheme, have undertaken innovative efforts to coordinate parallel or related litigation so as to try to reduce the costs, delays, and duplication of effort that can stem from such dispersed litigation. State judges, for example, can bring additional resources that might enable an MDL transferee court to implement a nationwide discovery plan or a coordinated national calendar

Recently, plaintiffs in state court cases in the Actos litigation sent the Actos federal MDL court a letter complaining that the judge improperly "intervened" by discussing the litigation "ex parte" with the state court judge.  The plaintiffs asserted that the federal court persuaded the state court judge to rule in a certain fashion on scheduling issues, including the time for discovery and trial dates. Plaintiffs complained that such "intervention" would prevent them from properly litigating their cases; violated the important policy of comity (citing the Anti-Injunction Act); and raised "objectivity" concerns.  Plaintiffs requested the federal court refrain from such communications in the future with any state court judges handling Actos cases, citing the Canons of Judicial Ethics.  Finally, the letter asked that plaintiffs further be heard on this issue at an upcoming MDL hearing.

At first blush, this seemed like an over-reaction by plaintiffs, and perhaps an attempt to intimidate the court into not doing what seems like a perfectly acceptable thing, informally coordinating litigation which raises similar issues, involves many of the same counsel, and likely will implicate many of the same discovery requests, fact and expert witnesses. We leave it to the loyal readers of MassTortDefense to decide for themselves about the tone of this letter.

So how did the federal court react? Judge Doherty is overseeing the federal multidistrict litigation, In re: Actos (Pioglitazone) Products Liability Litigation (MDL-2299). Her reaction came in the form of a "Memorandum Response." The court read the original letter as possibly alleging improper and unethical conduct by both the federal and state court judges, and doing so by making "completely specious" arguments. On the merits, the court began by noting that the Manual for Complex Litigation recommends cooperation and coordination among federal and state court judges in these mass tort contexts.  So does the state court-focused manual, Managing Mass Tort Cases: A Resource for State Court Judges, published by the Conference of Chief Justices. The important notion of comity was respected because the communication from the MDL court was merely an invitation asking whether state courts might see any benefit in talking about the litigation posture. An invitation to chat is not an "intervention." And any communications were in that same spirit.

The court's memorandum turned to the MDL schedule, its internal logic and consistency, and the ample opportunity all parties had to comment on and object to any of its provisions. The court then points out, logically, that an improper ex parte conversation involves a communication between the court and one , but not all parties -- not a conversation between two independent judges.

The court than labeled a "cautionary tale" those cases that warn attorneys against unsubstantiated allegations that bring the judiciary into disrepute. Finally, the court noted that the letter inaccurately cites the Code of Judicial Conduct. The canons clearly do not prohibit a judge from consulting with other judges to aid the judge in carrying out his or her responsibilities.

The court gave the authors the benefit of the doubt, deciding ultimately to view the letter as over-zealous, ill-advised, poorly thought out, regrettable hyperbole, and empty rhetoric, as opposed to something more troubling.   An interesting read for all our readers, especially those with MDL practices.

 

State Supreme Court to Review "Trial by Formula" Short Cuts In Class Action

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to review an important class action issue: the use of "trial by formula" as a vehicle to overcome the un-manageability and predominance of individual issues in a proposed class action. Braun et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. et al., No. 551 EAL 201 (Pa. 7/2/12).

The case involves the appeal of an award for Wal-Mart employees who allegedly worked off the clock by skipping rest and meal breaks.

The state Supreme Court indicated it would review: Whether, in a purported class action tried to verdict, it violates Pennsylvania law (including the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure) to subject Wal-Mart to a “Trial by Formula” that relieves Plaintiffs of their burden to produce class-wide “common” evidence on key elements of their claims.

There is a huge difference between deciding that aspects of an adequate representative's claim are typical of other class members', and extrapolating from representative's claims to the class as a whole on issues that are admittedly not common.  We noted for readers before that this procedural short cut, which can deny defendants due process and a right to adjudicate and defend against each claim, was criticized in the federal class context in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court was clear: "We disapprove that novel project." Because the Rules Enabling Act forbids interpreting federal Rule 23 to abridge,enlarge or modify any substantive right, a class cannot be certified on the premise that the defendant will not be entitled to litigate its defenses to individual claims.

The same issue applies to the trial plans proposed by many mass tort plaintiffs, which try to use the class rule to prevent defendants from ever having an opportunity to litigate individual defenses as to individual class members. Now we may start to see if plaintiffs can evade this by proceeding at a state class level in cases not removable under CAFA.

Tort Reform Advances In Tennessee

Readers know that tort reform is an important issue we have posted on before, at the federal and state level.  Latest update: Tennessee recently enacted reform legislation that will, among other things, limit the amount of non-economic damages that plaintiffs can recover in civil lawsuits.

Specifically, the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month. 

The new law limits venue to the county where the events constituting the cause of action occurred, where the business has its principal office, or where its registered agent of record is located.

Prior law included punitive damages in calculating the bond amount, set a maximum appeal bond at $75 million, and did not address the possibility that obtaining the bond could render an appellant bankrupt or insolvent. The amended law facilitates the appeal of a trial court verdict by lowering the maximum amount of a bond from $75 million to the greater of (i) $25 million or (ii) 125% of the judgment amount. In determining the bond amount, the court will now not consider or include punitive damages, unless there is evidence of the appellee dissipating assets. The law also gives the court discretion to take other actions or set other terms, if obtaining the bond would render the appellant insolvent or bankrupt.

Prior state law had no cap on non-economic damages. The new law places a cap of $750,000 on the non-economic damages incurred by an injured plaintiff, damages like pain and suffering.  A few exceptions are provided, such as no cap in intentional torts, or when the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs and his or her judgment was substantially impaired, or when a defendant intentionally falsified, destroyed or concealed records to avoid liability.

Prior state law did not have caps on punitive damages. Under the new act, punitive damages must be proven by clear and convincing evidence and are capped at 2x compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater. There are limited instances when the defendant's liability is not limited by the caps: (i) if the defendant intended to injure the plaintiff, (ii) if the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs and his or her judgment was substantially impaired, and (iii) if the defendant intentionally falsified, destroyed or concealed records to avoid liability.  Moreover, no punitive damages may be assessed against the manufacturer of a drug or device who was in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, unless the manufacturer withheld material information from regulators or misrepresented that information to the regulators.

The new law provides additional protections for non-manufacturer product sellers. No product liability action may be commenced or maintained against any seller, other than the manufacturer, unless the seller exercised substantial control over that aspect of the design, testing, manufacture, packaging or labeling of the product that caused the alleged harm for which recovery of damages is sought, or the seller altered or modified the product, and the alteration or modification was a substantial factor in causing the harm for which recovery of damages is sought; or the seller gave an express warranty which was breached.

Also, the seller of a product other than the manufacturer would not be liable for punitive damages, unless the seller exercised substantial control over that aspect of the design, testing, manufacture, packaging or labeling of the product that caused the harm for which recovery of damages is sought; the seller altered or modified the product and the alteration or modification was a substantial factor in causing the harm for which recovery of damages is sought; or the seller had actual knowledge of the defective condition of the product at the time he supplied the same.

Under the new Act, the state court of appeals would hear appeals from orders of trial courts granting or denying class action certification if a notice of appeal is filed within 10 days after entry of the order. All proceedings in the trial court would be automatically stayed pending the appeal of the class certification ruling.