Cameras in the Supreme Court?

While we at MassTortDefense usually focus on the results of appellate advocacy, earlier this  week saw an interesting debate about a process issue: whether the  U.S. Supreme Court  should be required to televise oral arguments.

Attorneys and judges with strong views on putting cameras in the high court  testified at a hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.  Speakers included The Honorable Mark Cady, Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, and The Honorable Anthony Scirica, Chief Judge
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Judge Scirica is not in favor of the Cameras in the Courtroom Act, which was introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.  He addressed three concepts that merit consideration in this discussion—transparency, accessibility, and the respect among the branches that allows each to govern its own deliberations.  He argued that the Court is sufficiently transparent: it explains its decisions in detail. Traditionally this was done through the printed word; now it is done through the electronic word as well, with opinions available on-line as soon as the decision is announced. These opinions constitute are binding precedent on questions of federal law.  Dissenting and concurring opinions by other Justices highlight for the public precisely, and at times quite forcefully, where the members of the Court disagree. Even before a final disposition, where certiorari has been granted, its website links to the lawyers’ briefs so the public may read and download them. Of course, all Court sessions have always been open to the public. But the Court now provides same-day transcripts of oral arguments on its website.

Judge Scirica noted how some lower court judges feel that televisions in the court disrupt courtroom proceedings at least to some extent, while others believe it makes lawyers more theatrical (is that possible?).  Others suggested it may cause judges to alter their questioning during arguments. Many district court judges have also expressed concern over cameras’ effect on witnesses and jurors.

Bottom line, he suggested that the complexities of this issue underscore the considerable latitude that should be afforded the Supreme Court in determining its own internal procedures. Determining whether to televise proceedings goes to the heart of how the Court deliberates and conducts its proceedings.

Senator Leahy, however, stated that the time has come for the Supreme Court to voluntarily open their proceedings to the American people. The high court's upcoming review of the Affordable Care Act, is a significant moment in our nation's history and our understanding of our fundamental charter. This decision will affect every one of us in this country. "The American people deserve to know what is being said as it is being said," he urged.  

The publisher of the outstanding SCOTUSblog wryly noted that the Justices are among the few people in Washington not trying to get on television.  He suggested that televising proceedings would ultimately be good for the Supreme Court, but favored the approach of the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2011, a bill he said demonstrates critical respect for the separation of powers by respecting the judiciary’s autonomy in choosing whether to implement cameras for use.

Proposed TV Class Action Dismissed Again

A California federal  court has again dismissed a proposed class action brought against Sony Corp. of America regarding allegedly defective televisions. Marchante, et al. v. Sony Corp. of America Inc., et al., No. 3:10-cv-00795 (S.D. Calif.).

Plaintiffs alleged that overheating caused the chassis and internal parts of nine different Sony rear-projection televisions to melt or burn during normal use. Plaintiffs, on behalf of  a proposed class of purchasers, claimed that Sony violated several consumer protection statutes (such as, typically the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act) and breached express and implied warranties by selling them the defective televisions. Earlier this year, the court dismissed without prejudice all of the claims, and plaintiffs filed an amended pleading.  Defendants again moved to dismiss.

The court reviewed the Twombly/Iqbal standards, and ruled that the plaintiffs had not fixed the pleading problems. Plaintiffs again alleged that Sony engaged in unfair business acts or practices by selling, promoting, and recalling the television models at issue. The court had previously dismissed plaintiffs’ unfair business act claim because plaintiffs failed to allege a substantial consumer injury; in the new complaint plaintiffs again failed to allege that the televisions exhibited any problems during the one-year limited warranty period. Every alleged problem surfaced several years after purchase. Any alleged failure to disclose thus related to a defect that arose years after the express warranty expired. And any failure to disclose therefore could not constitute substantial injury.  Although plaintiffs did amend their complaint to include allegations that the televisions failed to operate properly from the outset, plaintiffs’ amendments did not cure the deficiencies of the prior complaint.  The fact remained that the defects did not become apparent to the plaintiff-consumers until after the warranty expired. Thus, the complaint still fell short of alleging that the defects caused the televisions to malfunction within the warranty period, as is required to allege a substantial consumer injury under California's consumer statutes. 

As a general rule, manufacturers cannot be liable under the CLRA for failures to disclose a
defect that manifests itself after the warranty period has expired.  A possible exception exists, however, if the manufacturer fails to disclose information and the omission is contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or the omission pertains to a fact the defendant was otherwise obligated to disclose. Here, all of plaintiffs alleged CLRA violations pertained to Sony’s alleged failures to disclose; the question therefore was whether Sony carried any obligation to disclose the alleged defect. The court noted that under the CLRA, a manufacturer’s duty to disclose information related to a defect that manifests itself after the expiration of an express warranty is limited to issues related to product safety.  Moreover, in order to have a duty to disclose, the manufacturer must be aware of the defect at the time that plaintiffs purchased, since a manufacturer has no duty to disclose facts of which it was unaware. In dismissing the prior complaint, the court held that plaintiffs failed to invoke the safety exception because the complaint was devoid of allegations that anyone or any property —other than the television itself— was damaged by the allegedly defective televisions.  

Even assuming plaintiffs’ allegations that the televisions pose a safety risk were sufficient to invoke the safety exception (fire hazard?), plaintiffs failed to allege that Sony was aware of this safety hazard at the time plaintiffs purchased the televisions.  First, plaintiffs alleged that Sony had known about it since 2008 and "possibly even earlier.”   Plaintiffs bought their televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006. So under plaintiffs’ own allegations, Sony may not have been aware of the alleged defect at the time plaintiffs made their purchases, or even within the respective one-year post-purchase warranty periods.  Second, all of plaintiffs' allegations regarding Sony’s knowledge of the alleged defect pertained to Sony’s knowledge that the defect caused excess heat that resulted in the deterioration of the television display, not that the defect posed any safety hazard. 

 The court thus dismissed the CLRA claims without prejudice. 

The court previously dismissed plaintiffs’ claim for breach of the express (limited warranty) because the alleged defects did not manifest until after the one-year warranty period expired. The general rule is that an express warranty does not cover repairs made after the applicable warranty period—here, one year after purchase—has elapsed.  None of the plaintiffs here sought repair or replacement of their televisions within the warranty period. None of the four named plaintiffs alleged that Sony either refused to repair any covered defects or refused to replace any televisions suffering from covered defects.

Plaintiffs’ implied warranty claims again failed because they were untimely. Subject to a sixty-day minimum and one-year maximum, implied warranties are equal in duration to corresponding express warranties under California law, said the court.  The implied warranty here was deemed to have a one-year duration to match that of the express warranty. And because Plaintiffs purchased the televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the implied warranties would have expired by 2007, at the latest. But the amended complaint did not contain allegations that the televisions failed to function as warranted or that plaintiffs sought warranty coverage during the one-year period following their respective purchases. Thus, these claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiffs continue to try to shoe horn claims into the consumer fraud matrix, thinking they will have an easier road to class certification.  That makes the court's scrutiny of the pleadings even more crucial.

 

Federal Court Dismisses Proposed Television Consumer Fraud Class Action

Here's a case of a venerable rule (puffery) and an important new doctrine (Twiqbal) being applied in the context of a troubling trend -- the spate of consumer fraud class actions challenging everything a defendant says about its products.  A New Jersey federal court recently rejected a putative class action alleging that Panasonic Corp. falsely advertised its Viera plasma televisions made in 2008 and 2009. Shane Robert Hughes et al. v. Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., No. 2:10-cv-00846 (D.N.J. July 21, 2011). A useful and detailed analysis of commonly found flaws in consumer fraud class action complaints.

Plaintiffs putatively represented a class defined as individuals and entities who own or purchased any 2008/2009 model Panasonic Viera Plasma Television. Plaintiffs alleged that the televisions suffered from increased “voltage adjustments” causing a rapid deterioration in picture quality. The  class members allegedly relied on Panasonic’s representations concerning the "industry leading" black levels and contrast ratios, and/or personally observed the televisions’ excellent picture quality on models displayed in retail stores. Plaintiffs sought damages and/or refunds from Panasonic for violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), N.J. STAT. ANN. § 56:8-1 et seq.; other states’ consumer protection acts; and under various express and implied warranty claims.

Defendant moved to dismiss. The adequacy of pleadings is governed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), which requires that a complaint allege “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” but also requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

Although class members were from around the country, the court determined it need not decide whether it was appropriate to engage in a choice of law analysis at the pleadings stage because, as detailed below, each of the plaintiffs’ claims failed as a matter of law under any of the possibly applicable laws.

Claims under the NJCFA and most state consumer fraud acts require a plaintiff to allege (1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.  Panasonic argued, among other things, that even if the allegations are true, plaintiffs’ CFA claim failed because plaintiffs had not pointed to any actionable unlawful conduct by Panasonic. According to Panasonic, plaintiffs did not set forth any specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties, or product guides that plaintiffs viewed; where and from whom at Panasonic did plaintiffs received any such information; or how precisely, plaintiffs were injured by any such representations.

The Court found that Panasonic’s alleged misrepresentations about the Televisions’
“industry  leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were not “statements of fact,” but rather subjective expressions of opinion. Indeed, such statements of
product superiority are routinely made by companies in advertising to gain a competitive advantage
in the industry. The NJCFA distinguishes between actionable misrepresentations of fact and
"puffery.” Rodio v. Smith, 123 N.J. 345, 352 (1991) (the slogan “You’re in good hands with Allstate” was “nothing more than puffery” and as such was not “a deception, false promise, misrepresentation, or any other unlawful practice within the ambit of the Consumer Fraud Act”); see New Jersey Citizen Action v. Schering-Plough Corp., 367 N.J. Super. 8, 13-14 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (finding that defendant’s advertisements which employed phrases as “you . . . can lead a normal nearly symptom-free life again” were “not statements of fact, but are merely expressions in the nature of puffery and thus were not actionable” under the NJCFA).  The same is true in many states.

The remaining misrepresentations may have been statements of fact rather than mere puffery. However, plaintiffs did not assert sufficient allegations of fact to satisfy the requisite level of adequate pleading under Rule 9(b) or by Twombly/Iqbal.  For example, regarding the alleged misrepresentation about half-brightness, the Amended Complaint did not allege the date, place or time of this misrepresentation or otherwise inject some precision and some measure of substantiation into plaintiffs’ allegations of fraud. While plaintiffs could not be expected to plead facts solely within Panasonic’s knowledge or control, plaintiffs should be able to allege the specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties or product guides that they each reviewed, which included this misrepresentation and when it was so advertised.

Plaintiffs also alleged various omissions, but fraudulent omissions require a showing of intent. Here, even accepting the allegations of omissions in the Amended Complaint as true, the court found that plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts to raise any plausible inference that Panasonic knowingly concealed the alleged defect with the intent that consumers and industry experts would rely upon the concealment. Indeed, throughout the Amended Complaint, it was alleged that Panasonic knew “or should have known” of the defect, but provides no additional facts explaining how or why Panasonic had knowledge of the defect to satisfy Twombly/Iqbal. Such allegations of intentionally failing to disclose the alleged defect were merely conclusory assertions.

Even assuming plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the “unlawful conduct” element under the consumer fraud acts, the court also concluded that the Amended Complaint did not satisfy the pleading requirements of Twombly/Iqbal or Rule 9(b) as to the “ascertainable loss” element.  A plaintiff must suffer a definite, certain and measurable loss, rather than one that is merely theoretical. The certainty implicit in the concept of an ascertainable loss is that it is quantifiable or measurable. The allegations did not sufficiently plead either an out-of pocket loss by plaintiffs or a showing of loss in value. For example. plaintiffs failed to allege how much they paid for their Televisions and how much other comparable Televisions manufactured by Panasonic’s competitors cost at the time.  Plaintiffs failed to allege how much of a premium they claim to have paid for their Panasonic Televisions.  Furthermore, in the Amended Complaint, plaintiffs affirmatively stated that most continue to use the Televisions, thus obscuring any possible measurable loss.  Typically, plaintiffs try not to allege details in this area for fear of undermining their class certification arguments.

Plaintiffs' warranty claim suffered from several defects. While the claim at times was presented as an alleged manufacturing problem, a review of the Amended Complaint revealed that plaintiffs alleged only that the Televisions suffered from an inherent design defect and/or improper programming. Plaintiffs one vague, conclusory allegation that the defect was caused, in part, due to “manufacturing errors” was insufficient to satisfy the requisite pleading standards under Twombly/Iqbal.  Moreover, the express warranty claims were impacted by what the court already concluded in connection with plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims, that Panasonic’s statements about the Televisions’ “industry leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were mere expressions of puffery. As such, these marketing statements were not sufficient enough to create an express warranty. 

On the implied warranty claim, while plaintiffs alleged that the Televisions were defective, plaintiffs did not allege that the Televisions were inoperable or otherwise not in working condition. Indeed, the Amended Complaint did not contain any explicit allegation that plaintiffs could no longer use their Televisions - in other words, that they were no longer generally fit for their ordinary purpose.  Although the Televisions may not have fulfilled plaintiffs’ subjective expectations, plaintiffs did not adequately allege that the Televisions failed to provide a minimum level of quality, which is all that the law of implied warranty requires. See also In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Prods. Liab. Litig., 2001 WL 1266317, at *22 (D.N.J. Sept. 30, 1997) (merchantability “does not entail a promise by the merchant that the goods are exactly as the buyer expected, but rather that the goods satisfy a minimum level of quality”).

Thus, the court concluded, each of plaintiffs’ claims failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), to satisfy Rule 9(b) heightened pleading requirements, and/or pleading standards under
Twombly/Iqbal. The court granted Panasonic’s motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint without prejudice.