NewYorkUniversity
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Elizabeth Chamblee Burch

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MDL Revolution

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch, Abbe R. Gluck

Over the past 50 years, multidistrict litigation (MDL) has quietly revolutionized civil procedure. MDLs include the largest tort cases in U.S. history, but without the authority of the class-action rule, MDL judges—who formally have only pretrial jurisdiction over individual cases—have resorted to extraordinary procedural exceptionalism to settle cases on a national scale. Substantive state laws, personal jurisdiction, transparency, impartiality, reviewability, federalism, and adequate representation must all yield if doing so fulfills that one goal.

Somehow, until now, this has remained below the surface to everyone but MDL insiders. Thanks to the sprawling MDL over the opioid crisis—and unprecedented opposition to it—MDL is finally in public view. State attorneys general have resisted the opioid MDL’s intense nationalism, its relentless drive to global settlement, its wild procedural innovation, its blurring of differences across state law, and its dramatic assertions of jurisdictional authority. Opiates is the most extraordinary MDL yet, but most big MDLs share many of its features, and Opiates is already the roadmap for the next mega-cases. Moreover, even as resistance to Opiates has dispersed some of the MDL’s early power, that resistance itself has come in the form of unusual procedural mechanisms.

MDL is designed for individual cases—giving similar suits filed in different districts an efficient pretrial process before sending them home for trial. In reality, that is pure fiction. Few cases ever return. And the MDL’s mode of coordination—from its anti-federalism stance to its insistence that each proceeding is too unique to be confined by the Federal Rules—chafes at almost every aspect of procedure’s traditional rules and values. MDL is not-so-secretly changing the face of civil procedure.

This Article weaves together for the first time these exceptional features of MDL and their disruption of procedure’s core assumptions. Is MDL a revolution? Or simply a symptom of a larger set of modern procedural tensions manifesting in many forms? Either way, it begs the question: What do we expect of litigation on this scale?

We recognize that MDL fills important gaps by providing access to courts but argue for some return to regular order to safeguard due process, federalism, and sovereignty. We suggest specific shifts—from more pretrial motions to new paths for appellate review, attorney selection, and jurisdictional redundancy—where the normative balance seems particularly out of whack; shifts we believe are in line with the spirit of Federal Rule 1’s own inherent paradox—the ideal of “just, speedy and inexpensive procedure.”

We also offer the first comprehensive analysis of the historic suits over the opioid crisis. Opiates is the first MDL that pits localities against their own state attorneys general in a struggle for litigation control. Its judge has publicly stated that solving a national health crisis that Congress dumped in his lap is different from ordinary litigation. Opiates has even invented a new form of class action. It is hyper-dialectical, jurisdictionally competitive, outcome-oriented, repeat-player-rich, fiercely creative procedure.

Financiers as Monitors in Aggregate Litigation

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch

This Article identifies a market-based solution for monitoring large-scale litigation proceeding outside of Rule 23’s safeguards. Although class actions dominate the scholarly discussion of mass litigation, the ever increasing restrictions on certifying a class mean that plaintiffs’ lawyers routinely rely on aggregate, multidistrict litigation to seek redress for group-wide harms. Despite sharing key features with its class action counterpart—such as attenuated attorney-client relationships, attorney- client conflicts of interest, and high agency costs—no monitor exists in aggregate litigation. Informal group litigation not only lacks Rule 23’s judicial protections against attorney overreaching and self-dealing, but plaintiff’s themselves cannot adequately supervise their attorneys’ behavior. Plaintiffs’ attorneys may represent thousands of geographically dispersed clients, which fosters collective-action problems and makes individual, case-specific information hard to obtain.

An answer to this monitoring problem comes from an unlikely and potentially controversial source: alternative litigation financing. Self-dealing and high agency costs arise in aggregate litigation principally because of the contingent-fee attorney’s dual roles as agent and investor. These roles can pull lawyers in divergent directions; because attorneys front massive litigation costs, they may be tempted to coerce clients into settling so that they can recoup and profit from their investment. Third-party litigation financing, which involves hedge funds, private investors, and venture capitalists investing in and profiting from large-scale litigation, can ameliorate this critical conflict of interest by allowing the financier to bear the financial risk. Shorn of financial self-interest, the lawyer is then free to act as a faithful agent. Although alternative litigation financing can be controversial, this Article seeks to marry profit-seeking capitalists and aggregate litigation in a way that benefits society as a whole and plaintiffs in particular.

Judging Multidistrict Litigation

Elizabeth Chamblee Burch

High-stakes multidistrict litigations saddle the transferee judges who manage them with an odd juxtaposition of power and impotence. On one hand, judges appoint and compensate lead lawyers (who effectively replace parties’ chosen counsel) and promote settlement with scant appellate scrutiny or legislative oversight. But on the other, without the arsenal that class certification once afforded, judges are relatively powerless to police the private settlements they encourage. Of course, this power shortage is of little concern since parties consent to settle.

But do they? Contrary to conventional wisdom, this Article introduces new empirical data revealing that judges appoint an overwhelming number of repeat players to leadership positions, which may complicate genuine consent through inadequate representation. Repeat players’ financial, reputational, and reciprocity concerns can govern their interactions with one another and opposing counsel, often trumping fidelity to their clients. Systemic pathologies can result: dictatorial attorney hierarchies that fail to adequately represent the spectrum of claimants’ diverse interests, repeat players that trade in influence to increase their fees, collusive private deals that lack a viable monitor, and malleable procedural norms that undermine predictability.

Current judicial practices feed these pathologies. First, when judges appoint lead lawyers early in the litigation based on cooperative tendencies, experience, and financial resources, they often select repeat players. But most conflicts do not arise until discovery, and repeat players have few self-interested reasons to dissent or derail the lucrative settlements they negotiate. Second, because steering committees are a relatively new phenomenon and transferee judges have no formal powers beyond those in the Federal Rules, judges have pieced together various doctrines to justify compensating lead lawyers. The erratic fee awards that result lack coherent limits. So, judges then permit lead lawyers to circumvent their rulings and the doctrinal inconsistencies by contracting with defendants to embed fee provisions in global settlements—a well-recognized form of self-dealing. Yet, when those settlements ignite concern, judges lack the formal tools to review them.

These pathologies need not persist. Appointing cognitively diverse attorneys who represent heterogeneous clients, permitting third-party financing, encouraging objections and dissent from non-lead counsel, and selecting permanent leadership after conflicts develop can expand the pool of qualified applicants and promote adequate representation. Compensating these lead lawyers on a quantum-meruit basis could then smooth doctrinal inconsistencies, align these fee awards with other attorneys’ fees, and impose dependable outer limits. Finally, because quantum meruit demands that judges assess the benefit lead lawyers conferred on the plaintiffs and the results they achieved, it equips judges with a private-law basis for assessing nonclass settlements and harnesses their review to a very powerful incentive: attorneys’ fees.