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.
Reorienting the Process Due: Using Jurisdiction to Forge Post-Settlement Relationships Among Litigants, Courts, and the Public in Class and Other Aggregate Litigation
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.