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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.

Structuring a Legal Claims Market to Optimize Deterrence

Jack L. Millman

Jurisdictions have been liberalizing rules surrounding third-party litigation funding or the buying and selling of legal claims since the early twentieth century. Scholars have generally supported liberalization, seeing it as a way to expand access to courts and allow for the more efficient allocation of risk. Opponents have warned about a surge in frivolous litigation and strategic behavior by funders. But both sides have ignored how interrelated the rules governing third-party investment in litigation and the alienability of legal claims are, and how they interact to affect a legal claims market. The focus on reform should be to adjust these rules to create the optimal legal claims market. Instead, reform has increasingly focused on liberalizing third-party investment while keeping rules around alienability the same, or even barring investors from exercising control over the suit. This risks creating new problems without effectively solving many of the issues reform is meant to solve. This incremental approach comes with real costs, and may actually prevent a well-developed legal claims market from developing.

Certifying Statutory Class Actions in the Shadow of Due Process

Tyler J. Domino

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.

Protected Class Gatekeeping

Jessica A. Clarke

Courts routinely begin their analyses of discrimination claims with the question of whether the plaintiff has proven he or she is a “member of the protected class.” Although this refrain may sometimes be an empty formality, it has taken on real bite in a significant number of cases. For example, one court dismissed a claim by a man who was harassed with anti-Mexican slurs because he was of African American rather than Mexican ancestry. Other courts have dismissed sex discrimination claims by LGBT plaintiffs on the ground that LGBT status is not a protected class. Yet other courts have dismissed claims by white people alleging they were harmed by white supremacist violence and straight people alleging they were harmed by homophobic harassment. This Article terms this phenomenon “protected class gatekeeping.” It argues that protected class gatekeeping is grounded in dubious constructions of antidiscrimination statutes, and that its routine use prevents equality law from achieving its central aim: dismantling sexism, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and other such biases. While past scholarship has identified certain forms of protected class gatekeeping, it has not recognized the scope of the problem or addressed the progressive intuitions that underlie it. Critical examination of protected class gatekeeping is of pressing importance as legislatures, courts, and legal scholars debate new statutory language and doctrinal frameworks for discrimination claims.

Toward a Bankruptcy Model for Nonclass Aggregate Litigation

Troy A. McKenzie

In recent years, aggregate litigation has moved in the direction of multidistrict litigation followed by mass settlement without certification of a class action—a form sometimes referred to as the “quasi-class action.” Driven by increased restrictions on class certification, particularly in mass tort cases, the rise of the quasi-class action has been controversial. In particular, critics object that it overempowers lawyers and devalues the consent of individual claimants in the name of achieving “closure” in litigation. This Article presents two claims.

First, the debate about the proper scope and form of aggregate litigation too frequently relies on the class action as the touchstone for legitimacy. References to the class action, however, are more often misleading than helpful. The basic assumptions behind the class action are different in degree and in kind from the reality of the quasi-class action. Overreliance on the class action as the conceptual framework for aggregation carries the significant risk of unintentionally shackling courts in their attempts to coordinate litigation. The very reason the quasi-class action emerged—the ossification of the class action model of litigation—suggests that courts and commentators should look for another reference model when assessing what is proper or improper in quasi-class actions.

Second, bankruptcy serves as a better model for judging when to use, and how to order, nonclass aggregation of mass tort litigation. The entirety of bankruptcy practice need not be imported to realize that bankruptcy may provide a useful lens for viewing aggregation more generally. That lens helps to clarify some of the most troubling concerns about the quasi-class action, such as the proper role of lawyers and the place of claimant consent. Bankruptcy serves as a superior reference model because it starts with an assumption that collective resolution is necessary but tem- pers the collective with individual and subgroup consent and with institutional structures to counterbalance the risk of excessive empowerment of lawyers or particular claimants.

Ad Hoc Procedure

Pamela K. Bookman, David L. Noll

“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.

The Participatory Class Action

Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Samuel Issacharoff

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.

Class Actions and Executive Power

Zachary D. Clopton

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.