The Supreme Court recently decided a case involving an Xbox 360, although the issue before them had nothing in particular to do with the video game system itself. It got me wondering, however, how many justices would you guess have played a video game on an Xbox 360? The answer might be zero. But the Chief Justice and newly-minted Justice Gorsuch have teenagers at home. And I could envision Justice Sotomayor or Justice Kagan playing with a young relative. A majority of the Court? Justice Kennedy vs. Justice Breyer playing against each other in chambers? I doubt it.

Microsoft Corp. v. Baker involved whether a plaintiff can appeal a decision denying class certification (or, in this case, striking the class allegations) by voluntarily dismissing the case while purporting to reserve a right of appeal. This case was a putative class action alleging that the Xbox system scratched game discs thereby damaging them during normal game-playing conditions. The district court granted a motion to strike the class allegations based on an earlier decision in a similar case denying certification. The plaintiffs petitioned the Ninth Circuit for permission to appeal under Rule 23(f), which was denied. They then stipulated to a dismissal with prejudice, purporting to reserve a right of appeal, and thereby trying to force the Ninth Circuit to take their appeal. On this second try, the Ninth Circuit concluded they did have a right of appeal because there was a final judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. But the Supreme Court reversed, finding that there was no appellate jurisdiction under § 1291.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion (joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan). Her opinion made essentially two points. First, the tactic that plaintiffs’ counsel attempted to use here was contrary to the rationale behind the Court’s opinion in Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463 (1978), which held that a decision denying class certification was not appealable under a “death-knell” doctrine  on the theory that such a ruling effectively ended the litigation. The Court concluded that such a “death-knell” doctrine was an improper end-run around §§ 1291 and 1292. Second, allowing this type of appeal would be contrary to the purpose and intent of Rule 23(f) and its enabling statutes, under which appeals from class certification orders may be heard only in the discretion of the court of appeals. If permitted, the voluntary dismissal route would allow a plaintiff to force a court of appeals to hear an appeal where not permitted under Rule 23(f).

Justice Thomas (joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito) reached the same result but for an entirely different reason. They concluded that Rule 23(f) was not relevant to determining whether an appeal was “final” under § 1291, and that in this case the district court’s order was final because it ended the litigation. They would have held, however, that the court of appeals lacked jurisdiction under Article III of the Constitution because there was no longer a “case or controversy” that was adversarial. Justice Thomas explained that, after the individual claim was resolved, “[c]lass allegations, without an underlying individual claim, do not give rise to a ‘case’ or ‘controversy’” because a class action is simply a procedural mechanism.

So what can a plaintiff do if he or she wants appellate review of a denial of class certification and the court of appeals denies a Rule 23(f) petition? Justice Ginsburg suggested three options. First, she suggested that a plaintiff could ask the district court to certify its order for interlocutory review under § 1292(b). But some lower courts have found that to be an improper avenue for seeking appellate review of a class certification decision. And if the court of appeals is not interested in a Rule 23(f) petition, it would probably take a strong request from a district court to get the court of appeals to reach a different result. Second, Justice Ginsburg suggests that the plaintiff could simply proceed with the case in the hopes of perhaps changing the district court’s mind on class certification later. But that is usually a longshot, and at some point it’s too late for that because class members must have notice before they would be bound, and the one-way intervention rule may preclude a late certification. Third, Justice Ginsburg suggests that the plaintiff litigate the individual case to a final judgment and then seek review of the denial of class certification (if the plaintiff wins). We may see more cases where that happens, depending on the circumstances. The costs of taking the named plaintiff’s individual case to trial may be low in some contexts and high in others (such as those requiring extensive discovery and expert testimony to prove the claims on the merits). From the defendant’s perspective, such a  trial might demonstrate why class certification was properly denied because individual issues mattered. But in some contexts defendants may not welcome such an individual trial because of concerns about collateral estoppel.

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Photo of Wystan Ackerman Wystan Ackerman

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you…

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you have something to say.  For those looking for my detailed law firm bio, click here.  If you want a more light-hearted and hopefully more interesting summary, read on:

People often ask about my unusual first name, Wystan.  It’s pronounced WISS-ten.  It’s not Winston.  There is no “n” in the middle.  It comes from my father’s favorite poet, W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.  I’ve grown to like the fact that because my name is unusual people tend to remember it better, even if they don’t pronounce it right (and there is no need for anyone to use my last name because I’m always the only Wystan).

I grew up in Deep River, Connecticut, a small town on the west side of the Connecticut River in the south central part of the state.  I’ve always had strong interests in history, politics and baseball.  My heroes growing up were Abraham Lincoln and Wade Boggs (at that time the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox).  I think it was my early fascination with Lincoln that drove me to practice law.  I went to high school at The Williams School in New London, Connecticut, where I edited the school newspaper, played baseball, and was primarily responsible for the installation of a flag pole near the school entrance (it seemed like every other school had one but until my class raised the money and bought one at my urging, Williams had no flag pole).  As a high school senior, my interest in history and politics led me to score high enough on a test of those subjects to be chosen as one of Connecticut’s two delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program, which further solidified my interest in law and government.  One of my mentors at Williams was of the view that there were far too many lawyers and I should find something more useful to do, but if I really had to be a lawyer there was always room for one more.  I eventually decided to be that “one more.”  I went on to Bowdoin College, where I wrote for the Bowdoin Orient and majored in government, but took a lot of math classes because I found college math interesting and challenging.  I then went to Columbia Law School, where I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the minions who spent their time fastidiously cite-checking and Blue booking hundred-plus-page articles in the Columbia Law Review.  I also interned in the chambers of then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor when she was a relatively new judge on the Second Circuit, my only connection to someone who now has one-ninth of the last word on what constitutes the law of our land.  I graduated from Columbia in 2001, then worked at Skadden Arps in Boston before returning to Connecticut and joining Robinson+Cole, one of the largest Connecticut-based law firms.  At the end of 2008, I was elected a partner at Robinson+Cole.

I’ve worked on class actions since the start of my career at Skadden.  Being in the insurance capital of Hartford, we have a national insurance litigation practice and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on some prominent class actions arising from the 2004 hurricanes in Florida and later Hurricane Katrina, including cases involving the applicability of the flood exclusion, statutes known as valued policy laws, and various other issues.  My interest and experience in class actions gradually led me to focus on that area.

In Connecticut courts I’ve defended various kinds of class actions that go beyond insurance, including cases involving products liability, securities, financial services and consumer contracts.

My insurance class action practice usually takes me outside of Connecticut.  I’ve had the pleasure of working on cases in various federal and state courts and collaborating with great lawyers across the country.  While class actions are an increasingly large part of my practice, I don’t do exclusively class action work.  The rest of my practice involves litigating insurance coverage cases, often at the appellate level.  That also frequently takes me outside of Connecticut.  A highlight of my career thus far was working on Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Class Action Fairness Act case.  I was Counsel of Record for Standard Fire on the cert petition, and had the pleasure of working with Ted Boutrous on the merits briefing and oral argument.

I started this blog because writing is one of my favorite things to do and I enjoy following developments in class action law, writing about them and engaging in discussion with others who have an in interest in this area.  It’s a welcome break from day-to-day practice, keeps me current, broadens my network and results in some new business.

When I’m not at my desk or flying around the country trying to save insurance companies from the plaintiffs’ bar, or attending a conference on class actions or insurance litigation (for more on those, see the Seminars/Programs page of this blog), I often can be found playing or reading with my young daughter, helping my wife with her real estate and mortgage businesses, reading a book about history or politics, or watching the Boston Red Sox (I managed to find bleacher seats for Game 2 of the 2004 World Series when Curt Schilling pitched with the bloody sock).  When the weather is good I also love to take the ferry to Block Island, Rhode Island and ride a bike or walk the trails there. If you go, I highly recommend the Clay Head Trail.