A fair amount of attention has been given in the legal media to the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, H.R. 985, which has passed the House of Representatives and is currently under consideration by the Senate. Corporate groups and the defense bar have sung its praises, and the plaintiffs’ bar has railed against it. Less attention has been given to areas where, if this bill becomes law, courts will need to decide what it means. Here are a few thoughts on that:
- Type and Scope of Injury Requirement: The bill provides that a class action for monetary relief may not be certified unless the plaintiff “affirmatively demonstrates that each proposed class member suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative or representatives.” A court is required to conduct a “rigorous analysis” of this question. Expect extensive disputes over what constitutes the “same type and scope of injury.” This does not appear to mean that every class member has the same amount of damages. What constitutes “type” and “scope” would be left to the courts to figure out.
- Class Representative Conflicts of Interest: The bill requires disclosure in a class action complaint regarding whether any named plaintiff is a relative or present or former employee of class counsel, or present or former client of class counsel with respect to a different matter, or has any other contractual relationship with class counsel. It further requires that “the complaint shall describe the circumstances under which each class representative or named plaintiff agreed to be included in the complaint . . . .” Courts would have to determine what level of detail is required here, and the extent to which, if any, the attorney-client privilege applies. Courts would also need to determine what type of motion could be used to attack a complaint that the defendant claims insufficiently complies with these requirements, perhaps a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.
- Ascertainability: The bill further provides that a class cannot be certified unless the class is “defined with reference to objective criteria and the party seeking to maintain such a class action affirmatively demonstrates that there is a reliable and administratively feasible mechanism (a) for the court to determine whether putative class members fall within the class definition and (b) for distributing directly to a substantial majority of class members any monetary relief secured for the class.” I expect courts would continue to debate, as many of them currently are, what constitutes a “reliable and administratively feasible mechanism.” Could this include self-identification by affidavit, or not? Would compliance with this requirement depend on how many people come forward?
- Attorneys’ Fees: The bill would require that attorneys’ fees in cases involving monetary awards be limited to a “reasonable percentage” of funds actually received by class members, and that attorneys’ fees could not exceed the amounts actually received by class members. In cases involving equitable relief, attorneys’ fees would be limited to a “reasonable percentage of the value of the equitable relief, including any injunctive relief.” The litigation here seems likely to focus on what constitutes a “reasonable percentage,” and how you value the equitable relief. There is some existing precedent on these issues, and the extent to which Congress intends to either adopt or modify that precedent could be an issue.
- Issues Classes: The bill provides that a court may not certify an issues class under Rule 23(c)(4) unless the court determines, after a “rigorous analysis,” that “the entirety of the cause of action from which the particular issues arise satisfies all the class certification prerequisites of Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b)(1), Rule 23(b)(2), or Rule 23(b)(3).” I don’t see a lot of room for debate here, although the application of the other requirements of Rule 23, of course, remain hotly debated by the courts.
- Stays of Discovery: The bill mandates a stay of discovery pending a motion to dismiss, motion to transfer, motion to strike the class allegations or other motion to dispose of the class allegations, unless particularized discovery is necessary to preserve evidence or prevent undue prejudice. Would this mean that a defendant would be entitled to multiple stays of discovery if it files, seriatim, a motion to dismiss and then, if that is denied, a motion to strike the class allegations or to deny certification?
- Appeals: The bill makes appeals of class certification orders mandatory, providing that “[a] court of appeals shall permit an appeal from an order granting or denying class-action certification under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Would this mean that a court of appeals is required to hear multiple interlocutory appeals in a case that involves more than one certification order, or a partial decertification of the class? Would an order granting or denying a motion to strike class allegations be appealable?
- Rulemaking Authority Provision: The bill provides that “Nothing in this title shall restrict in any way the authority of the Judicial Conference and the Supreme Court to propose and prescribe general rules of practice and procedure under chapter 131 of title 28, United States Code.” Would this mean that the Judicial Conference and the Supreme Court, by virtue of their rulemaking power, could directly override any part of this bill (if enacted), at any time?
- Retroactivity: The bill provides that “[t]he amendments made by the title shall apply to any civil action pending on the date of enactment of this title or commenced thereafter.” Would this mean that, if a case is pending where the court has certified a class already, it must revisit certification following the enactment of this law? Would a court have to reevaluate a class settlement or attorneys’ fees that had been approved? Would a court of appeals have to accept an appeal it had previously rejected under Rule 23(f)? There seem to be lots of questions here that courts would need to decide.