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The Mysterious Market for Post-Settlement Litigant Finance

Ronen Avraham, Lynn A. Baker, Anthony J. Sebok

Litigant finance is a growing and increasingly controversial industry in which financial firms advance a plaintiff money in exchange for ownership rights in the proceeds of the legal claim on a nonrecourse basis: A plaintiff must repay the advance only if compensation is ultimately received for the legal claim. The nonrecourse nature of this funding exempts it from most states’ consumer credit laws, enabling funders to charge higher interest and fees than would otherwise be permitted. When this funding involves ordinary consumers, critics of the industry contend that the uncapped interest rates exploit vulnerable litigants, while its defenders argue that the availability of these cash advances improves the welfare of consumers, especially those who have no other credit options. This funding made headlines during the recent NFL Concussion litigation, with more than one thousand players reported to have received such cash advances and with class counsel raising concerns of “predatory lending.” Because the industry has not been forthcoming with facts, the larger policy debate thus far has largely relied on anecdotes and speculation. In addition, the debate has ignored the important differences between pre- and post-settlement litigant funding.

This Article is the first to present systematic, large-scale data on consumer post- settlement litigant funding—the type of funding most NFL players reportedly received. We were given unrestricted access to the complete archive of sixteen years of funding applications and funding contracts from one of the largest consumer litigant funding companies in the United States. These data, which are robust and representative, enable us to make transparent the terms and true price to consumers of this formerly mysterious funding. We find that the Funder offers not only clearer contract terms but also better financial terms to post-settlement clients relative to pre-settlement clients. Yet these better terms do not come close to reflecting the virtually nonexistent litigation risk to the Funder. We therefore recommend that consumer post-settlement litigant funding be subject to the same regulations as conventional consumer credit and that a standardized, simple disclosure be required.

The False Promise of MDL Bellwether Reform: How Mandatory Bellwether Trial Consent Would Further Mire Multidistrict Litigation

Jonathan Steinberg

Over one third of all pending cases in the federal court system are part of a Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) proceeding. Previous and ongoing MDLs include claims stemming from the opioid epidemic, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the National Football League concussion cases, and a myriad of pharmaceutical and medical products liability suits. Both the percentage and sheer number of cases utilizing this form of aggregate litigation have dramatically increased in recent years. Bellwether trials, designed to test the facts and legal theories underpinning many of the consolidated cases, are a key feature of MDLs in facilitating resolution. This Note examines the role of MDL bellwether trials and the potential impact of proposed reforms. Part I surveys the functions of bellwether trials as well as current judicial limitations imposed on the practice. Part II examines proposals that would further restrict the use of MDL bellwether trials: first, a bill from the 115th Congress and second, proposed amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These proposals would require the consent of all parties for an MDL bellwether to ensue. Finally, Part III explores the potential effects of these proposed reforms as well as the discrepancies between their purported aims and the likely impact of their enactment. These proposals would exacerbate the MDL “black hole,” result in less informed settlements, and create more opacity in the MDL process. Principally, they are an attempt to wrest power over procedure to cement defendants’ structural advantage over the MDL.

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.

The Value of a New Judgments Convention for U.S. Litigants

Sarah E. Coco

A new Judgments Convention creates common, binding rules for the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments among countries that are party to the Convention. This Note considers what such a Convention would have to offer U.S. litigants. It starts by examining a common scholarly view—that U.S. judgments are unreasonably difficult to enforce abroad, in comparison to the relative ease of recognizing and enforcing foreign judgments in the United States. It argues that this view is out of date, due to improvements in three areas that have traditionally prevented the recognition of U.S. judgments—jurisdiction, public policy concerns about punitive damages, and reciprocity. It then considers the Convention in light of the knowledge that U.S. judgments have become easier to enforce abroad and argues that the Convention would still offer important benefits to U.S. litigants, both by making the rules for recognition and enforcement more predictable and transparent, and by “locking in” existing improvements in foreign law. It concludes by arguing that U.S. litigants would benefit if the United States joined the Convention. 

Rejecting the Class Action Tolling Forfeiture Rule

James J. Mayer

This Note analyzes a circuit split over the application of the Forfeiture Rule, which holds that plaintiffs forfeit American Pipe tolling when they file individual actions before class certification has been resolved in the underlying putative class action. This Note rejects the Forfeiture Rule and argues that it misunderstands the purpose and rationale of American Pipe and class action tolling. Given the increased uncertainty facing class action plaintiffs, the policy and equity interests that motivated courts to adopt the Forfeiture Rule now require courts to abandon it. This is the first article to analyze the Forfeiture Rule’s history and evolution, to explore the impact of changes in class action jurisprudence on statutes of limitations on the Forfeiture Rule, and to argue against the continued viability of the Forfeiture Rule across the federal judicial system.

Local Government Plaintiffs and the Opioid Multi-District Litigation

Morgan A. McCollum

In late 2017, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ordered the consolidation of a few hundred cases pending around the country against opioid manufacturers and distributors into a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) in the Northern District of Ohio. Today, the Opioid MDL consists of over 1900 opioid-related cases brought primarily by states, cities, counties, and other local entities, and that number is growing weekly. Strikingly, these lawsuits are not, in their main, seeking damages for injuries to individuals. Rather, they are seeking compensation for the cost of public services needed to address the consequences of addicted communities, ranging from emergency response capabilities to rehabilitation services. The Opioid MDL is the first mass litigation to involve this number of local government plaintiffs, and although this Note predicts that the Opioid MDL, like most MDLs, will resolve in an aggregate settlement, the presence of local governments poses a unique problem for achieving that outcome. Mass litigation can only result in settlement if the settlement provides some guarantees to the defendants of “global peace”—meaning that the settlement forecloses all, or close to all, current and future litigation against the defendants—and any settlement arising out of the Opioid MDL will have to contend with resolving the claims of around 33,000 city, township, and county governments. Even though only a fraction of these local governments are currently part of the Opioid MDL, their presence leaves open the threat that absent localities will sue later, undermining the likelihood or value of any settlement. This Note discusses the various ways that a settlement could be structured with local governments by looking to prior mass tort litigation and applying the settlement tactics used in those cases to the Opioid MDL. In doing so, this Note proposes that even though the players in this MDL are unique, the solutions are not.

Statutory Interpretation in a Choice of Law Context

Lindsay Traylor Braunig

A court’s method of decisionmaking regarding interstate choice of law affects forum shopping and class action strategy. Rather than read vaguely worded state statutes with the expectation of discovering a legislative intent with respect to extraterritorial application, as the Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws suggests, courts should employ a rebuttable presumption that the legislature has not considered the choice of law issue. When a court is faced with an interstate choice of law question in which one potentially applicable law is a statute of the forum state, in the absence of explicit statutory language regarding how a choice of law analysis should be conducted for the forum statute in question, the court should decide which law to apply not by attempting to divine some nonexistent legislative intent but by resorting to the general choice of law principles utilized in the forum state.

Finality in Class Action Litigation: Lessons from Habeas

William B. Rubenstein

A class action can only bind class members who are “adequately represented,” and thus a class action court necessarily determines representational adequacy. But should class members who were not an active part of that proceeding be able to relitigate adequacy in a collateral forum at a later date so as to evade the binding effect of the class judgment? Courts and scholars have generated a bipolar response to that question, with one side arguing that full relitigation is required by the constitutional nature of the question and the other insisting that no relitigation is permitted because of the issue-preclusive effect of the class court’s holding. Despite the richness of this debate, myriad specific questions about the availability, substance, and procedural details of the relitigation opportunity remain unexamined. In this Article, Professor Rubenstein expands the conversation outward by comparing class action law’s approach to relitigation of adequacy of representation with habeas corpus’s approach to relitigation of ineffective assistance of counsel claims in criminal cases. Using two recent, seemingly unconnected Supreme Court cases—one from each field—as case studies, Professor Rubenstein explains how these cases in fact raise remarkably similar questions. Specifically, the comparison reveals that habeas provides a relatively clear, rule-based system that specifies when—and according to what procedural rules—relitigation is available. Professor Rubenstein concludes by arguing that there are lessons for class action law in habeas’s approach: a method for considering when relitigation is appropriate that avoids the extremes of either “always” or “never”; a rule system that helps identify issues (such as substantive standards, degrees of deference, burdens of proof, and defaults) that have yet to be carefully examined in class action law; and a template for balancing the competing policy concerns at issue. Without defending current habeas doctrine, and without pretending that habeas and class actions are overtly similar, the Article nonetheless demonstrates that class action law’s relitigation problem can learn something through a close look at criminal law’s relitigation solutions.

Valuing the Federal Right: Reevaluating the Outer Limits of Supplemental Jurisdiction

Neel K. Chopra

The federal circuit courts are divided on the question of whether the federal courts’ supplemental jurisdiction power encompasses permissive state law counterclaims that lack an independent basis of federal jurisdiction. By analyzing the arguments set forth in various circuit court decisions, this Note develops a new approach for assessing the availability of supplemental jurisdiction over permissive state law counterclaims. It argues that the federal courts may assert jurisdiction over state law counterclaims only when the federal interest supports hearing those state law claims.

How to Fix the Inconsistent Application of Forum Non Conveniens to Latin American Jurisdiction—and Why Consistency May Not Be Enough

Rajeev Muttreja

Though the jurisdiction of US courts is broad enough to give many foreign plaintiffs the ability to file suit here, the doctrine of forum non conveniens (FNC) enables a court to dismiss a case because another forum—typically the plaintiff’s home forum—would be more convenient for it. FNC dismissal is warranted only if the alternative forum is adequate, available, and more convenient for the case. Often, the alternative forum’s availability is a nonissue. However, many Latin American countries subscribe to a system of preemptive jurisdiction, which extinguishes their courts’ jurisdiction once a case is filed elsewhere. This system would seem to block the use of FNC by making the alternative forum unavailable, but U.S. courts have not treated this issue consistently. Some courts have reached divergent results using the same evidence, and some have avoided the inquiry altogether by making dismissals conditional. This Note analyzes and explains courts’ inconsistent treatment of Latin American rules of preemptive jurisdiction by illustrating certain subtle but crucial doctrinal missteps. The Note argues that FNC doctrine requires courts to analyze a foreign forum’s availability from that forum’s perspective while also paying heed to the movant’s burden of persuasion. Yet this doctrinally honest approach could preclude courts from using FNC to mediate between important policy concerns, as is usually possible. This Note identifies these competing concerns and proposes a possible solution.

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