Recognizing privacy harms, Congress has created a patchwork of statutes that provide private rights of action with statutory damages. These statutes allow individuals to vindicate procedural and substantive violations without having to show actual damages. At the same time, however, through the rise of the Internet, some companies interact with millions of users a day. If the claims are aggregated, these companies rightly fear that an inadvertent violation of one of these statutes will lead them into bankruptcy. And they rightly fear that users with weak claims will seek class certification to coerce them into settlements for the benefit of class counsel alone. However, refusing to certify these classes practically eliminates the substantive rights Congress attempted to protect.
By raising due process concerns at the certification stage, courts can signal to litigants that the liability faced will not be as astronomical as rote multiplication would imply. This could, somewhat, level the playing field in settlement negotiations while maintaining the deterrence effect Congress intended to create. And it allows large, Internet-based companies to decide to go to trial against weak claims without the fear of crippling liability.
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.
“Ad hoc procedure” seems like an oxymoron. A traditional model of the civil justice system depicts courts deciding cases using impartial procedures that are defined in advance of specific disputes. This model reflects a process-based account of the rule of law in which the process through which laws are made helps to ensure that lawmakers act in the public interest. Judgments produced using procedures promulgated in advance of specific disputes are legitimate because they are the product of fair rules of play designed in a manner that is the opposite of ad hoc.
Actual litigation frequently reveals the inadequacy of procedures created according to this traditional model. To fix the procedural problems that arise in such cases, litigants, judges, lawyers, and legislatures can design procedure on the fly, changing the “rules of the road” as the case proceeds. Ad hoc procedure-making allows the civil justice system to function when ordinary procedure fails, but it challenges the rule-of-law values reflected in the traditional model of procedural design. Instead of being created by lawmakers who operate behind a veil of ignorance, ad hoc procedure is made by actors seeking specific outcomes in pending cases. The circumstances in which ad hoc procedure is created raise concerns about lawmakers’ motivations, the transaction costs of one-off procedural interventions, the wisdom and fairness of those interventions, and the separation of powers.
This Article introduces the phenomenon of ad hoc procedure and considers its place in a world where much procedure continues to be made through the traditional model. Focusing on ad hoc procedural statutes, the Article contends that such statutes’ legitimacy—or lack thereof—depends on different factors than ordinary civil procedure. Unable to claim legitimacy from the circumstances in which it is crafted, ad hoc procedural legislation must instead derive legitimacy from the need to address a procedural problem and the effort to produce substantively just outcomes.