20 June 2011

SCOTUS Dislikes Class Actions

Today, a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, held that a sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart on behalf of its 1.5 million female employees could not be certified as a class action lawsuit. (There was wide agreement that the backpay due in the case could not be handled on a class basis, but there was deep dispute over whether the existence of gender discrimination at the company could be litigated in that manner.)

This is the latest of a string of cases that have disfavored class actions, such another this term that held that the right to conduct a class action arbitration could not be implied from a simple arbitration clause and that the fact that an arbitration clause expressly prohibits class actions could never be sufficient to render it unconscionable under a provision of the federal arbitration act that allows arbitration clauses to be invalidated if they would be unconscionable under state law.   The rulings have largely been statutory or based on court rules, thus they are more easily overriden than rulings based on constitutional grounds, but the rulings are colored by a deep distrust of the class action generally.

Concerns about class actions have also been a central to the tort reform movement, and have been an area where the movement has achieved more than one significant victory, by imposing major procedural limitations on securities law class actions, and by giving the federal courts jurisdiction over many class actions arising under state law that would not qualify for diversity jurisdiction.  Today's ruling, interpreting the class action rule in the federal rules of civil procedure, thus, has wider implications for class actions generally, than it would have a couple of decades ago, because more kinds of class action lawsuits are confined to the federal courts.

To some extent, the distate of big businesses for class actions, and plaintiff friendly group's support for them is simply a matter of mathematics.  In a situation where there are many people with small claims against a single business or small group of businesses, large numbers of people with claims will never choose to bring valid lawsuits because the litigation cost economics don't make sense, and except in the very clearest cases, the verdicts will be a mixed bag.  In contrast, a win in a class action will afford a remedy to everyone with a claim (or a proxy for them) and a win on behalf of all claimants is possible even when a win on the liability issue isn't a sure thing in any given isolated case.

There is also considerable controversy over the fact that "coupon settlements" and contributions to non-profit caues often replace money awards as typical class action remedies, that class actions are expensive to litigate and rarely result in a resolution on the merits by a judge, that there are often multiple competing class actions that must be consolidated arising from single incidents, that forum shopping can be especially problematic in these cases, and that the cases can seem to be attorney driven rather than focused on providing a remedy for a client.  The high cost and long litigation times involve in class action litigation don't speak well for a process which was invented to reduce litigation costs and handle numerous related small claims more efficiently than traditional litigation efforts.

On the other hand, class actions can put pressure on big businesses to comply with the law even when the state regulators of an industry are asleep at the switch, underfunded, run by a political appointee hostile to the agency's purpose, or are the victim of capture by the regulated industry.  Class actions can close the gap between the laws on the books regulating an industry or practice,  and the law as actually enforced.  It can function as a remedy to corrupt administration of regulatory laws.  Class actions are also an arguable preferrable way to regulate industries through decisions by private individuals rather than actions by state officials whom many people who are inclined towards libertarian political ideologies may distrust.

In employment cases, the key attraction of a class action is the question of proof.  It may be much easier to establish discrimination on a statistical basis than it is to prove that it was present in an individual case, and it may be easier to fashion an affirmative action remedy in response to statistically proven discrimination than it is to wade through the details of a money damage remedy on a case by case basis.

But, class action cases can appear to grant legislative or regulatory type authority to courts whose procedures are primarily geared towards resolving disputes that involve only narrow disputes between small numbers of people.  This tendency is particularly apparent in false advertising claims where very large numbers of people are exposed to advertising claims and considerably numbers of people may buy products that are falsely advertised, but the individualized consumer harm may be modest.  Negotiations between alleged wrongdoers and alleged victim's representatives may also lead to court sanctioned remedies, such as certain forms of affirmative action, that could never be approved as legislation in the absence of a violation of the law that is never provided on the merits in court.

The trend seems contrary to the trends in our economy, in which big corporations whose mistakes routinely impact large numbers of people in incidents with a common source, rather than isolated incidents of wrongdoing, are increasingly the norm.  If a big money center bank calculated interest rates on loans, or forecloses on houses improperly, it will usually be because some system has gone wrong or some computer program had an incorrect rule, with the error affecting hundreds of thousands of people nationwide, rather than because there was some isolated defect in one customer's particular case.  Serious misrepresentations to consumers in commerce not infrequently involve massive advertising campaigns rather than an isolated vendor and purchasers in an open air marketplace.  Serious discrimination in employment practices frequently flows from bad leadership at the top of an organization that guides subordinate managers, rather than individualized misconduct by low level managers.  In our modern era of quality control systems in manufacturing, systemic defeats in mass manufactured products are more likely to cause harm than isolated duds that aren't successfully removed from the assembly line: most defective products are the result of a design defect, either in the product itself or the manufacturing process.  An inability to remedy systemic wrongdoing by a big business in a collective way is out of step with an economic reality in which a large share of all wrongdoing has a systemic source.  In the long run, it may be more important to the functioning of our economic to solve systemic problems than to remedy the one off screw ups that can never be completely eliminated.

For what it is worth, big government agencies, like the I.R.S., have many of the same weaknesses in offering remedies to systemic errors that put individuals in low stakes cases in bind, that big businesses do.

Some problems in the way that big businesses and big government operate, may be flaws in how they do justice between third parties who deal with them, rather than actually benefitting these entities themselves.  For example, most securities fraud involves cases where a misrepresentation by a business causes a stock price to fail to reflect the truth for some period of time, which benefits some secondary market stockholders to the deteriment of other secondary market stockholders, while having little or no direct economic impact on the company itself and where only a tiny part of the benefit or harm accrues to company insiders.  Often the beneficiaries and victims of the misrepresentation have no knowledge that they are acting in the basis of a misrepresentation until after the harm has been done. 

Yet, if misrepresentations with immense economic consequences for stock traders routinely lead to no repurcussions for the parties who make them, the soundness of our financial system is seriously undermined.  Some of the parties most responsible in fact for the financial crisis, the major credit rating companies, had very little other than their pitiful compared to the amount at stake in the economy fees, in their decisions, and will bear no consequences for their mistakes, and there is a movement in the securities law world to treat accountants the same way.  Yet, if the people whose observations drive the market have little stake in being accurate, the financial markets are certain to repeat its world economy shaking mistakes.  Millions of people are out of work and have been for many, many months, in substantial part because the tiny number of people on Wall Street who determined how creditworthy bond issuers were had an insufficiently compelling incentive to get their decisions right.

Part of the barrier to the problem is that power dynamics and self-interest driven policy stances are often so transparent in the tort reform area and in the area of class action litigation in particular, that it is hard to separate and address sincere and legitimate concerns from merely self-serving ones in the policy arena.  Also complicating the effort to find a fair way to deal with the cases that drive class action litigation is that extremely loose class action standards and substantive law claims that can be brought as class actions in a handful of states like California create extremes of the process that suggest solutions that aren't necessarily appropriate for the more strictly regulated federal courts or courts in states like Colorado where class action litigation isn't nearly so common.

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