We have posted before about the ongoing Thorogood v. Sears Roebuck & Co. litigation, when the 7th Circuit rejected the proposed class action; when the court held that a “copycat” class action suit could not go forward in federal court in California; and when the court reaffirmed its decision in an unusual opinion on the petition for rehearing.
The district court had certified a multi-state class of Kenmore-brand clothes dryer purchasers. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit called the case “a notably weak candidate for class treatment.” Not only did common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchaser of a stainless steel Kenmore dryer, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, there were, the court said, “no common issues of law or fact.” 547 F.3d at 746-47.
The same plaintiffs’ lawyer then brought Murray v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 4:09-cv-5744-CW (N.D. Cal.). Murray was a member of Thorogood’s class, and he brought essentially the identical claim in California. Sears Roebuck sought an injunction halting the new class action in front of Judge Leinenweber, who had presided over and eventually dismissed Thorogood’s original class suit, but he ruled that Sears could obtain adequate relief against being harassed by repetitive litigation by pleading collateral estoppel in Murray’s suit in California. Sears appealed, asking the court to to reverse the district court’s denial of Sears’s motion to enjoin the virtually identical class action suit.
Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner for the panel, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own. The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. “Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in the dryer litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.
In the most recent iteration, the district court — nothing the “tortured path” the case has taken through the judicial system — has followed the direction of the 7th Circuit. Needless to say, the parties disagreed as to the terms of the injunction that should be issued. The primary areas of dispute were whether the injunction should be broad enough to encompass class action claims against co-defendant Electrolux and whether former members of the class should be allowed to pursue class-wide discovery against Sears as a non-party. Sears argued that its advertising would still be at issue, and that Electrolux was obligated to indemnify Sears for any damages related to the marketing of the dryers. That is, the only basis for Murray’s claims against Electrolux was the same advertising and marketing by Sears at issue in this case. As such, allowing Murray and his lawyers to continue to burden Sears with class-wide discovery concerning that issue would defeat the purpose of the injunction and circumvent the ruling in Thorogood.
The court concluded that any injunction should not allow class-wide discovery from Sears related to its advertising or representations regarding the composition of the dryer drums. Based on the representations of Murray’s counsel to the California court, it was clear that if his class action suit against Electrolux were allowed to continue, his attorneys plan to seek the same discovery from Sears as they would have if Sears itself were the defendant. No matter what it is called — third–party discovery, non–party discovery — by any name the Seventh Circuit has held that this amounts to irreparable harm.
Regarding whether the focus of the injunction should be on the issues that were litigated and decided in the previous Thorogood rulings, or on the identity of the parties, the court decided that the injunction precedents were couched in terms of the issues decided in the prior case, not the specific parties involved. There was no indication in any of the Seventh Circuit’s rulings that this conclusion depends on the party sued over these representations. Moreover, an injunction is not invalid merely because it may benefit non-parties. See Easyriders Freedom F.I.G.H.T. v. Hannigan, 92 F.3d 1486, 1501–02 (9th Cir. 1996).
Thus, the Court found that Sears would invariably be drawn into the defense of any class-action lawsuit regarding its marketing of the dryers as containing stainless steel drums, regardless of what party is named as a defendant. This would defeat the purpose of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Thorogood and prevent Sears from receiving the full measure of relief ordered by the Seventh Circuit. Murray and the other members of the class were free to pursue on a class basis claims against Electrolux not related to Sears’ marketing of the dryers, but they may not use a suit against Electrolux as a back-door method of evading the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Thorogood.