Believe it or not, the Supreme Court of the United States just decided whether “to have ‘actual knowledge’ of a piece of information, one must in fact be aware of it.” The Court said “yes,” and it was unanimous. Most non-lawyers (and even some lawyers) would probably be surprised that this issue was even being debated. But it was a question that had divided the lower courts, with the Sixth Circuit ruling that “actual knowledge” did not require actually seeing or reading a document that was provided. The Supreme Court agreed with the six other circuits that had concluded that “actual knowledge” means what it says. The Court’s opinion potentially holds a silver lining for defendants though when it comes to class certification.

In Intel Corp. Investment Policy Committee v. Sulyma, No. 18-1116, the Court was asked to construe a statute of limitations for breach of fiduciary duty claims under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act  (ERISA), which requires that suit must be filed within three years of “the earliest date on which the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the breach or violation.” The plaintiff in this putative class action was a former Intel employee who claimed that retirement plans that he participated in had poor investment options with high fees and high risks. Various disclosures were made available to him on a website that he had access to, and in fact visited, but he did not remember reviewing the relevant disclosures, and claimed he was unaware that his money was being invested in hedge funds or private equity. He brought suit more than three years after receiving the disclosures.

Justice Alito wrote the opinion for a unanimous Court holding that “actual knowledge” under this statute means that you have to actually be aware of something. The opinion cited various dictionary definitions of “actual” and “knowledge” (even noting that the meaning of those words has not changed since ERISA was enacted in 1974), and explained how Congress in other parts of ERISA used a “should have known” type of standard instead of an “actual knowledge” standard, thereby choosing its words carefully.

What I found most interesting from a class certification perspective though is Part III. In that section, the Court explained how defendants could go about proving that plaintiffs had “actual knowledge”:

Nothing in this opinion forecloses any of the “usual ways” to prove actual knowledge at any stage in the litigation. [Citation omitted.] Plaintiffs who recall reading particular disclosures will of course be bound by oath to say so in their depositions. On top of that, actual knowledge can be proved through “inference from circumstantial evidence.” . . . Evidence of disclosure would no doubt be relevant, as would electronic records showing that a plaintiff viewed the relevant disclosures and evidence suggesting that the plaintiff took action in response to the information contained in them. . . . Today’s opinion also does not preclude defendants from contending that evidence of “willful blindness” supports a finding of “actual knowledge.”

In the context of a putative class action like this one, defendants will no doubt argue that they must be entitled to depose every putative class member regarding which disclosures or other relevant information he or she read, and to present at trial electronic records of every time a class member viewed the disclosures or other relevant information on a website or called to inquire about his or her account. Unless the proposed class is limited to the shortest possible three-year period, this would seem to be a potentially strong defense to class certification.

Print:
EmailTweetLikeLinkedIn
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.