Under section 704 of the Administrative Procedure Act, courts can only review agency actions when they are “final.” In Bennett v. Spear, the Supreme Court put forth a seemingly simple two-part test for assessing final agency action. However, the second prong of that test—which requires agency actions to “create rights or obligations from which legal consequences flow” to be final—poses several problems. Most importantly, because it overlaps with the legal tests for whether a rule is a legislative rule or a nonbinding guidance document, it seems to effectively bar courts from reviewing nonlegislative rules before agencies have taken enforcement action. Because of this overlap, the Bennett test conflicts with—and thus undercuts—other principles of administrative law that seem to promote a pragmatic, flexible approach for courts to use in determining whether, when, and how to review agency rules. The result is a confusing standard of review that can prevent plaintiffs from challenging agency rules in court, especially when those plaintiffs are beneficiaries of regulation who will never be subject to enforcement action down the road. At the same time, however, courts should not be able to review every single agency rule before it is enforced. Agencies should be able to experiment, but should not be permitted to indefinitely shield potentially dangerous deregulatory programs from judicial review, as Bennett seems to allow. Accordingly, this Note argues that to be faithful to the Court’s commitment to “pragmatic” interpretation of the finality requirement, lower courts should follow a two-pronged approach to analyzing questions of final agency action. When courts can compel an agency to finalize its allegedly temporary action because of “unreasonable delay,” they should interpret Bennett’s second prong formally, holding that only truly legally binding action can be final. If this bars some plaintiffs from suing now, they will be able to challenge the rule later when the agency’s process is finished. But when courts cannot force agencies to finalize their rules, they should construe Bennett functionally, conceptualizing the agency’s allegedly temporary action under a “practically binding” standard. Under this framework, if the agency’s “temporary” action in practice consistently follows certain criteria, it should be viewed as binding and final under Bennett, and thus subject to judicial review, regardless of what the agency or its employees are legally required to do. This two-pronged approach would help to strike the right balance between the private party and the agency in a practical manner that depends upon the context.
Legal injury without harm is a common phenomenon in the law. Historically, legal injury without harm was actionable for at least nominal damages, and sometimes other remedies. The same is true today of many “traditional” private rights, for which standing is uncontroversial. Novel statutory claims, on the other hand, routinely face justiciability challenges: Defendants assert that plaintiffs’ purely legal injuries are not injuries “in fact,” as required to establish an Article III case or controversy. “Injury in fact” emerges from the historical requirement of “special damages” to enforce public rights, adapted to a modern procedural world. The distinction between public and private rights is unstable, however, with the result that many novel statutory harms are treated as “public,” and thus subject to exacting justiciability analysis, when they could easily be treated as “private” rights for which legal injury without harm is sufficient for standing. Public and private act as rough proxies for “novel” and “traditional,” with the former subject to more judicial skepticism. Applying “injury in fact” this way is hard to defend as a constitutional necessity, but might make sense prudentially, depending on the novelty and legal source of value for the harm. Taxonomizing these aspects of “harm” suggests that, even with unfamiliar harms, judicial discretion over value lessens the need for exacting injury analysis.
The 1966 revision of Rule 23 has shaped our political and legal imagination. Building on the 1950 ruling of Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank and Trust Company, which approved the possibility of binding absentees nationwide through representative litigation, Rule 23 expanded the groups eligible for class treatment. Aggregation responded to felt social needs—for banks to pool trusts, school students to enforce school desegregation injunctions, and consumers to pursue monetary claims too small to bring individually.
Key to the legitimacy of doing so for Rule 23’s drafters was “the homogeneous character” of claims, permitting an identity of interests between the representative and absent members of the class. The 1966 Rule 23 put judges in charge twice: first, to determine the shape of the class and the adequacy of the representation and second, if a compromise was proposed, to assess again whether representative plaintiffs had proffered a fair and adequate resolution.
Rule 23 gave a limited role to absentees, many of whom were in mandatory classes from which no exit was possible. Added on late in the drafting was a mandate to provide notice at the outset that class actions were pending. That notice was required only for a subset of cases; individuals with monetary stakes were given formal opportunities to “opt-out”—even if, as a practical matter, individual lawsuits were not likely feasible.
While not producing a mass of opt-outs, notice requirements have pushed the processes of class actions into the public realm. Class actions gained a visibility not only because of the stakes and the judicial decisions on certification and settlement but also through mass mailings that brought the idea of class actions into the homes of millions of potential beneficiaries of lawsuits.
Aspirations and utility thus combined to reframe constitutional understandings of the “process due” by legitimating the authority of courts to deal in the aggregate without individuals affirmatively consenting to participate when cases began. But what fifty years of experience with class actions and related forms of aggregation— including multi-district litigation (MDL) and bankruptcy—have made plain is that an aggregate litigation’s life-span often continues after settlement or trial. New information can emerge about difficulties in effectuating relief, as can conflicts among claimants, whose “homogeneous character” may diminish after resolution. Thus, aggregate litigation in practice has come to have three phases—certification, resolution by settlement or trial, and implementation of remedies.
Critics of class actions, aiming to disable their use, rely on problems of implementation to argue against certification at the outset, and they invoke due process rights of both defendants and absent plaintiffs. A new law of due process is also emerging in the arena of personal jurisdiction—as the Supreme Court circumscribes the ability of courts to decide claims involving non-resident defendants. I bring that doctrine into discussions of class actions, first because the Supreme Court expanded the ability to aggregate litigants in 1950 through expanding jurisdiction and second because the Court’s decisions reflect unease with adjudicative authority not founded on relationships among the forum and those whose rights are decided. The concern about ensuring that defendants are “at home” parallels class action notice, as both seek forms of affiliation between litigants and the jurisdictions deciding their rights.
The Supreme Court has used its new personal jurisdiction law to circumscribe the scope of courts’ reach. Here I propose to borrow its concerns for the opposite purpose—to build affiliations so to expand the authority of courts during aggregation’s third phase. Aggregation’s pooling of resources has new importance today, as tens of thousands of civil litigants appear in state and federal courts without lawyers. Revising its practices is one way for democratic polities to help all classes of persons have access to court-based remedies.
In 1950 in Mullane, the Supreme Court approved what has been called “jurisdiction by necessity” to license state courts to determine the rights of all claimants when lawsuits had a nexus with the forum and notice was provided. In this century, the Court should likewise recognize the necessity of giving judges jurisdiction to oversee aggregation post-settlement so as to monitor implementation, respond to conflicts, and assess distributional equities. And, just as the 1966 Rule drafters turned to notice as a means of doing “something” to connect litigants with courts, notice can again be put to work during aggregation’s third phase to provide the “publicity” (to borrow from Jeremy Bentham) that makes connections possible and that forces the practices of courts, lawyers, and auxiliary personnel before the public.
In a 2013 article, I explained that the Supreme Court and federal circuits had cut back significantly on plaintiffs’ ability to bring class actions. As I explain in this article, that trend has subsided. First, the Supreme Court has denied certiorari in several high-profile cases. Second, the Court’s most recent class action rulings have been narrow and fact specific. Third, the federal circuits have generally rejected defendants’ broad interpretations of Supreme Court precedents and arguments for further restrictions on class certification. One explanation for this new trend is that defendants have been overly aggressive in their arguments, losing credibility and causing courts to push back. Another is that courts are retreating from the view that pressure on defendants to settle is itself a reason to curtail class actions. It remains to be seen, however, whether this trend is the new normal, or merely a respite from the decline of class actions.
Decisions about class certification and arbitration have depressed private enforcement class actions, reducing deterrence and enforcement of important substantive rights. Until now, the consequences of these procedural decisions for the separation of powers have not been well explored. An aggressive Supreme Court and an inactive Congress have increased the importance of federal administrative law—for example, administrative attempts to regulate arbitration. Moreover, a reduction in private enforcement compounds the importance of public enforcement. State and federal enforcers may piggyback on (successful or unsuccessful) private suits, and they may employ new tactics to maintain deterrence. While proponents of a robust regulatory state may take solace in these executive rejoinders, they are not without costs. Specifically, executive action may be less transparent, less durable, and more susceptible to political pressures than its alternatives.
The class action has emerged as the settlement instrument of choice in mass harm cases such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal or the Deepwater Horizon aftermath. But the class action has also reemerged in the mass tort context, most notably in the NFL Concussion litigation. After seemingly collapsing following the Amchem and Ortiz Supreme Court decisions of the 1990s, the class action device is getting an important second life in courts today.
This Article argues that the new class action has a feature that should increase its doctrinal acceptability: forms of active class member participation. What we term the “participatory class action” emerges from two developments. The first is the technological transformation in the means of communication with class members, and among the class members themselves. The second is that the current class action almost invariably arises from the initial aggregation and centralization of large numbers of individual suits and putative class actions in the Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) process. As a result, classes are comprised not simply of lawyers and absent class members, but of hundreds or even thousands of individual claims, with individuals capable of monitoring the class and represented by independent counsel.
With over forty percent of the actively litigated civil cases in federal courts now in the MDL dockets, the transformation in mass resolution is well underway. In these new consolidations, the assumptions of older law about absent class member passivity break down. In the popular typology in academic examination of class actions, class action law should insist on the loyalty of agents and the importance of individual ability to exit as guarantors of systemic legitimacy. In the participatory class action, voice emerges as a critical element, with the capacity of the normally silent class members to assert their interests and their views. As with the need for class action law to move from first-class mail to Twitter, so too must the law embrace the implications of real participation by those represented in the assessment of representational propriety.