Supreme Court

Class Action Update from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018-2019 Term

Practice area:

The 2018-2019 term of the U.S. Supreme Court opened with a newly configured court in which Justice Kavanaugh joined as an Associate Justice following the retirement of Justice Kennedy. Since October of last year, the Court has heard 69 argued appeals, several of which arose from class action litigation. Over the past nine months, the Court has addressed issues relating to class action practice concerning arbitration provisions, federal removal statutes, consumer antitrust law, FDA preemption, and the equitable tolling of interlocutory appeals. Although presented with class action questions related to cy pres awards, data privacy litigation standing, issue class certification, securities laws, and TCPA claims, the Court declined to resolve these issues. Reflective of the Court’s decisions this term at large, rulings were unanimous or sharply divided along ideological lines, with the Court declining to hear a number of controversies. The below summary provides an overview of class action decisions by the Court this term, including recent remands and certiorari decisions.

Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela: Class Arbitration Must Be Expressly Authorized

Class arbitration came back before the Supreme Court this term in Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela.  Today, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Lamps Plus, holding that, under the Federal Arbitration Act, “courts may not infer from an ambiguous agreement that parties have consented to arbitrate on a classwide basis.”  Rather, class arbitration must be expressly authorized by contract.

The facts of Lamps Plus are straightforward.  An employee had signed an arbitration agreement upon being hired to work for Lamps Plus.  After a data breach, the employee sued Lamps Plus in federal court.  Lamps Plus filed a motion to compel individual arbitration, and the district court granted the motion to compel but authorized arbitration on a class basis.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that the arbitration provision was ambiguous as to class arbitration and must be construed against the employer under California’s contra proferentem rule that ambiguities in a contract must be

Questions Regarding Cy Pres Settlements Remain after Frank v. Gaos

Today, in a case that was being watched closely for its potential ramifications for class settlements, the Supreme Court opted not to address the merits of the cy pres issues that were presented to it.  Frank v. Gaos involved a settlement that would have distributed millions of dollars to cy pres recipients and class counsel, but no money to class members.  Objectors complained that the settlement did not comply with the requirement that class settlements be “fair, reasonable and adequate,” and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve that issue.  It ultimately did not.

Instead, the Supreme Court, in a per curiam decision, vacated and remanded for the lower courts to address whether the named plaintiff had Article III standing in light of Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins.  After the district court rejected the argument the plaintiff lacked injury and thus standing to pursue its claim that Google violated federal law by

Supreme Court Unanimously Rejects Equitable Tolling of Rule 23(f)’s Time Limit to Petition for Interlocutory Appeal

Yesterday, the Supreme Court in Nutraceutical Corp. v. Lambert unanimously held that Rule 23(f) is not subject to equitable tolling. After the District Court for the Central District of California decertified a class of consumers who alleged that Nutraceutical’s marketing of a dietary supplement violated California consumer-protection law, plaintiff Lambert filed a motion for reconsideration, which the court subsequently denied. Fourteen days later, Lambert petitioned the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for permission to appeal the decertification order under Rule 23(f). Nutraceutical opposed Lambert’s petition, arguing that it was untimely because more than four months had passed since the court’s decertification order. The Court of Appeals, however, deemed the petition timely and accepted the appeal, stating that the Rule 23(f) fourteen-day deadline should be equitably tolled under the circumstances as the time limit is “non-jurisdictional, and that equitable remedies softening the deadline are therefore generally available,” and Lambert had acted diligently in moving for reconsideration and subsequently filing his petition within fourteen days after

SCOTUS Resolves Circuit Split Regarding American Pipe Tolling

In an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg and joined by all of the Justices (though with only a concurrence from Justice Sotomayor), the Supreme Court today ruled that its 1974 ruling in American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah does not toll the statute of limitations for successive class actions. Justice Ginsburg summarized the Court’s holding as follows:

American Pipe tolls the statute of limitations during the pendency of a putative class action, allowing unnamed class members to join the action individually or file individual claims if the class fails. But American Pipe does not permit the maintenance of a follow-on class action past expiration of the statute of limitations.

The case, China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, was the third in a series of putative class actions brought to address alleged federal securities law violations. Each of the first two lawsuits was filed within the two-year statute of limitations

Supreme Court Affirms Class Action Waivers in Employment Arbitration Agreements

Since the Federal Arbitration Act’s (FAA) enactment in 1925, parties have sparred over the enforceability of arbitration agreements in a number of contexts. In recent years, the battle has focused on the enforceability of class or collective action waivers, pursuant to which parties agree to forgo their right to proceed on a class basis and to pursue claims in arbitration on an individual basis instead. Between 2011 and 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued several opinions enforcing class action waivers in the consumer context, but none dealt with employment arbitration agreements. On Monday, the United States Supreme Court removed any doubt that class or collective action waivers contained in employment arbitration agreements are enforceable, affirming a potential cure for the employment class action epidemic.

The argument that employment class action waivers are different from consumer class action waivers derives from Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which guarantees employees the right to engage in collective activities

Justice Thomas’ Concurring Opinion in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker: A Useful Reminder

On June 12th, the Supreme Court issued its unsurprising decision in Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, addressing a relatively recent twist concerning the appealability of orders denying class certification.  The case resulted in unanimous agreement among the eight Justices who participated in it (Justice Gorsuch did not participate), but a five-three split among them as to whether the case should be decided on statutory grounds (supported by the majority) or constitutional grounds (supported by the minority).  In the course of the debate over the decision’s rationale, Justice Thomas penned a paragraph that serves as a useful reminder concerning the nature of putative class litigation.

Of all the Court’s class certification cases, this must have been one of the easiest to decide.  Put simply, the district court struck plaintiffs’ class allegations from the complaint, based on a class certification denial in an earlier case raising the same claims.  After plaintiffs unsuccessfully petitioned the Ninth Circuit for interlocutory review under Rule 23(f), they were left with

Multi-State Class Actions After the Supreme Court’s Decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court

Practice area:

On June 19th, the Supreme Court issued a decision that could have important consequences for multi-state class actions.  In Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, the Court addressed the question whether a California state court could exercise personal jurisdiction over the claims of nonresident plaintiffs who had joined a group of California plaintiffs in suing Bristol-Myers Squibb (“BMS”) for alleged adverse health effects from its drug, Plavix.  As a matter of 14th Amendment due process, the Court held that the nonresidents’ claims should have been dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction.

Initially, the nonresident plaintiffs succeeded in the state courts in arguing that the courts could exercise general jurisdiction over BMS, but the California Court of Appeal reversed itself after SCOTUS issued its 2014 decision in Daimler Ag v. Bauman (holding that a court could not assert general jurisdiction over a non-resident corporate defendant solely because it engaged “in a substantial, continuous and systematic course of business”

A New Justice: Any Change For Class Actions?

This week, Justice Gorsuch donned his black robes and began hearing arguments alongside his new colleagues on the Supreme Court.  With his elevation to the high court, Justice Gorsuch assumes many new responsibilities.  Some, of the lighter kind, include opening the door during conferences with his colleagues and assuming oversight of the Court’s cafeteria menu.  More serious responsibilities will include weighing in on important class action cases that will undoubtedly be heard by the Court in the future.

Despite his lengthy judicial record from having served a decade on the Tenth Circuit, there are relatively few clues regarding Justice Gorsuch’s approach to class actions.  While on the court of appeals, he participated in only a few class action cases, which is not surprising given that the Tenth Circuit has not been a hotbed of class actions.  His handful of class action opinions, however, evidences not only his gift with the pen but also a restrained, textual approach to Rule 23.  These characteristics are

Supreme Court Will Hear Class Action Waiver Cases

Last week, the Supreme Court consolidated and agreed to hear three appeals of Circuit Court decisions concerning whether class action waivers contained in employment arbitration agreements infringe on employees’ rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.  According to the schedule currently in place, briefing on these cases will commence in late February 2017.  Unless a ninth Supreme Court justice is appointed, confirmed, and seated before oral argument in this consolidated appeal, the possibility of a 4-4 decision—and resulting preservation of the status quo–looms large.