One Major Positive, But Still Many Negatives, for Asbestos Defendants in 2014

NewportWhen assessing liability risk, businesses, insurers, and others impacted by America’s free-wheeling civil justice system often ask, “What’s the next asbestos?” Regrettably for defendants still wrapped up in what the Supreme Court once called “the elephantine mass” of asbestos litigation, asbestos is still the next asbestos. In 2014, asbestos defendants continued to struggle against the tide of unfavorable judicial rulings, though one positive development this year did offer a great deal of hope to besieged businesses.

A January 9 ruling by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge George Hodges found a “startling pattern of misrepresentation” and withholding of exposure evidence in a ten-case sampling from asbestos actions consolidated in his court as In re Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC, et al. Judge Hodges ordered full discovery in those cases to determine whether allegedly injured plaintiffs had exaggerated the value of their claims and failed to disclose claims they had made to asbestos bankruptcy trusts. A Fall 2014 WLF Conversations With paper, featuring former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Delaware state court judge Peggy Abelman, addressed the larger concerns with such withholding of bankruptcy claims information. A January 21 Featured Expert Column on the WLF Legal Pulse also discussed In re Garlock in detail. Continue reading

Supreme Court Observations: “Dart Cherokee” Eliminates the Presumption against Removal of Class Actions

supreme court*Joining WLF’s Richard Samp as a guest commentator on this post is M.C. Sungaila, a partner with Snell & Wilmer LLP. Ms. Sungaila acted as counsel to the International Association of Defense Counsel and the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel, both of which joined WLF in its amicus brief in Dart Cherokee.

The Supreme Court’s ruling Monday, December 15 in Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, overturning a Tenth Circuit removal jurisdiction decision, was hardly surprising. After all, the Tenth Circuit’s restrictive interpretation of the federal removal statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a)—that a defendant forfeits its removal rights unless the removal petition attaches documentary evidence supporting the jurisdictional allegations—conflicted with decisions from every other federal courts of appeal that has addressed the issue and elicited no supporting comments from the justices during October’s oral argument. Of far more lasting significance was Dart Cherokee’s rejection of a presumption against removal, in class-action cases and perhaps in other removal cases as well. That presumption had been adopted by 10 of the 11 regional courts of appeals and has been cited by countless district courts as the basis for remanding cases to state court. Organizations with which we are affiliated—the Washington Legal Foundation, the International Association of Defense Counsel, and the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel—are justly proud of having filed a brief that focused attention on the presumption-against-removal issue, an issue largely ignored by the parties.

Background. Dart Cherokee involved a class-action claim that an oil company breached a contract by underpaying royalties allegedly owed to lessors from production of oil wells located in Kansas. The oil company removed the case to federal district court, asserting jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). CAFA permits removal of class actions even in the absence of complete diversity of citizenship, so long as the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million. The plaintiffs filed a motion to remand, asserting that the removal petition inadequately demonstrated the amount in controversy.

The district court agreed and ordered a remand. It did so despite acknowledging that the oil company’s response to the motion adequately demonstrated that the amount in controversy exceeded $5,000,000 and that the plaintiffs conceded as much. The court concluded that under Tenth Circuit case law, evidence supporting federal removal jurisdiction must be included within the removal petition itself and not added later. The court explained that its decision to remand was “guided by the strong presumption against removal.” It noted that the Tenth Circuit “narrowly construes removal statutes, and all doubts must be resolved in favor of remand.” Continue reading

FTC Commissioner Looks Back, and Ahead, on Patent Litigation Reform Efforts

FTC_Man_Controlling_TradeCommissioner Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offered some interesting year-end thoughts on abusive litigation by patent-assertion entities (“PAE”, or to some, “patent trolls”) in a speech last week. Most notable in Commissioner Brill’s comments was her call for legislative change even as FTC and the federal courts are addressing some of the legal and economic incentives for abusive patent litigation.

Brill discussed the Commission’s ongoing study of patent-assertion entities (the so-called 6(b) study), for which a final report is anticipated by the end of 2015. She emphasized that one of the issues FTC is assessing is the practice of “privateering,” where an operating company sells or licenses a patent to an assertion entity, which in turn enforces the patent against the operating entity’s market rivals. A May 2014 Washington Legal Foundation Web Seminar, Patent Assertion and “Privateering”: When Do Antitrust Law Concerns Arise When the Patent Is the Product?, focused on this practice.

The speech also referenced the Commission’s first enforcement action against a patent-assertion entity, which resulted in a November 13 consent decree. The action involved notorious “scanner troll” MPHJ, which sent thousands of licensing demand letters that threatened litigation unless the target business paid MPHJ upwards of $1,000 per employee. FTC charged that MPHJ had fraudulently asserted that it had entered into licenses with some of its targets, and falsely claimed that litigation was imminent.

thumbnailTrollCommissioner Brill went on to stress the impact several 2014 Supreme Court decisions had on the larger patent-assertion problem. She focused on the indefinite nature of many PAE-held patents, an issue that the Court addressed in Nautilus Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc.; the tendency of PAEs to “pass off old abstract ideas as inventions merely by implementing them using a computer,” which arose in Alice Corp. Pty. Ltd. v. CLS Bank Int’l; and the difficulty patent defendants had in seeking attorneys’ fees when they prevailed in court against PAEs, which the justices addressed in Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. and Highmark v. Allcare Health Mngt. Systems, Inc.

She then stated that “despite these recent cases, there are still important issues for Congress to address.” We were pleased to see that among the areas Commissioner Brill highlighted as meriting continued congressional attention was that patent “complaints [must] provide specific allegations of what infringes a patent’s claim and how the defendant infringes them.” The current pleading standard, governed by the antiquated form (Form 18) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 84 dictates for patent suits, encourages frivolous litigation, as we’ve argued previously.

It is unclear what lies ahead for patent litigation reform in the 114th Congress. But one can trust that with so much at stake, Senators and Representatives will heed Commissioner Brill’s admonition that Congress not “wait for completion of our 6(b) study” to move the debate forward.

Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page

A Key Ruling for Food Labeling Class Action Defendants Issued on “Reasonable Consumer” Standard

Smith_JamesGuest Commentary

by James D. Smith, Bryan Cave LLP

In what seems likely to become a defining case on appeal, Northern District of California Judge Lucy Koh granted summary judgment this week in a long-running food labeling class action. The plaintiff in Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC, No. 12-CV-01831-LHK (N.D. Cal.), alleges that 10 Dole products are misbranded because their labels say the products contain “All Natural Fruit.” Mr. Brazil contends this is false because the products contain ascorbic acid (commonly known as Vitamin C) and citric acid (found in citrus). Both of those ingredients, of course, are naturally occurring compounds; many food manufacturers add them because of their natural preservative effects. The 10 products include diced apples, pears, oranges, and grapefruit packed in juice. For the past two years, Mr. Brazil and his counsel have pressed this litigation, alleging that the product labels somehow deceived him because neither he nor any other reasonable consumer would believe that fruit packed in juice contains Vitamin C or citric acid.

The procedural history is long, but readers interested in food labeling class actions in the Northern District of California may want to review Judge Koh’s earlier substantive rulings. By the time she granted summary judgment on December 8, Judge Koh had narrowed the case to a single injunction class. As an aside, Judge Koh’s November 6, 2014, order decertifying the damages class nicely shows why a hedonic damages regression analysis—which many food labeling class action plaintiffs try to rely on to show class-wide damages—isn’t feasible in these types of cases. This most recent ruling in Brazil is noteworthy because it explains that a named plaintiff’s subjective interpretation of a label isn’t sufficient to meet the burden of proving that the label is likely to mislead consumers under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”).

Granting summary judgment, Judge Koh concluded “there is insufficient evidence that the ‘All Natural Fruit’ label statement on the challenged Dole products was likely to mislead reasonable consumers and that the label statements were therefore unlawful on that basis.” That plaintiff did not attempt to use consumer surveys to establish that the labeling statements could mislead a significant portion of the public or of targeted consumers. Instead, he relied on informal FDA statements that “natural” means nothing artificial or synthetic “has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food.” (Emphasis added.) As we’ll see, that plaintiff’s failure to establish that consumers would not normally expect ascorbic acid or citric acid to be in the food doomed his claims. Continue reading

Update: Federal Liability Immunity Thankfully Conferred for Some Ebola Vaccines

670px-ebola_virus_virionPer Washington Legal Foundation’s suggestion earlier this fall, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a formal declaration this week that those who manufacture, distribute, and administer certain yet-to-be-approved vaccines for the Ebola virus qualify for federal liability protection under the federal Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act).

In our October 30 post, Ebola Vaccine and Treatment Makers Need Liability Protection, we discussed the PREP Act and explained why its protections would be an especially effective incentive for Ebola vaccine research and development. Under the law, those who have been allegedly injured by a vaccine can only sue in federal court if the FDA or the Justice Department investigates and finds willful misconduct by the drug manufacturer.  The act preempts all state laws that might limit distribution of the declared countermeasure, and it creates compensation funds for injured parties.

Secretary Burwell’s declaration applies to three specific countermeasures that are currently in development. The liability immunity protects manufacturers and distributors regardless of whether a covered vaccine is administered, and applies without geographic limitation. Liability protection related to the administration of a covered vaccine lasts until December 10, 2015, and the declaration extends that protection for manufacturers for an additional year “to allow for the manufacturer(s) to arrange for disposition of the Covered Countermeasure.”

Individuals who sustain a “covered serious physical injury as the direct result” of the use of a covered vaccine can seek compensation through a Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program. The burden of proof for such claims is significant:

The causal connection between the countermeasure and the serious physical injury must be supported by compelling, reliable, valid, medical and scientific evidence in order for the individual to be considered for compensation.

We applaud HHS for mitigating the manufacturers’ liability exposure and cutting avaricious plaintiffs’ lawyers out of the injury compensation process. Now if only similar measures can be adopted throughout our healthcare system, we might actually begin to bend the cost curve substantially.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

“Direct Marketing” Supreme Court Case Points Out Federal Courts’ Obligation to Exercise Jurisdiction

supreme courtYesterday’s oral argument in Direct Marketing Assoc. v. Brohl indicated that the Supreme Court does not think very highly of the Tenth Circuit’s expansive interpretation of the Tax Injunction Act (TIA). The appeals court concluded that the TIA deprived federal courts of jurisdiction to hear a challenge to a Colorado statute that imposes notice and reporting requirements on out-of-state retailers. Questions at yesterday’s argument suggested that most justices interpret the TIA’s limitations on jurisdiction as inapplicable when, as here, the plaintiff is not seeking to enjoin the collection of a state tax. However, Direct Marketing’s greater significance may lie in its illustration of lower federal courts’ continued resistance to hearing matters involving States and their laws. That resistance, largely the byproduct of overcrowded dockets and a sense that state issues are often of insufficient importance to warrant the attention of federal judges, is inconsistent with federal courts’ obligation to hear each case in which jurisdiction has been properly invoked.

The Petitioner in Direct Marketing is a trade group that represents online and mail-order retailers. They object to a statute adopted by the Colorado legislature to assist the State in collecting sales and use taxes from its own citizens who purchase products from out-of-state retailers. The Supreme Court’s 1992 Quill decision held that a State may not require out-of-state retailers to collect sales/use taxes on such purchases, even if the retailer ships its product into the State. Colorado’s response: it adopted a statute imposing onerous notice and reporting requirements on any out-of-state retailer that does not voluntarily collect sales/use taxes on such sales, including requiring submission to tax officials of an annual Customer Information Report that details all purchases made by Colorado residents. The Petitioner asserts that the statute violates numerous provisions of federal and state law. Continue reading

WLF Web Seminar to Assess Whether Third Time is the Charm at SCOTUS on “Injury-in-Law” Standing

PodiumPic1Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. EDT, Washington Legal Foundation is hosting its final Web Seminar program of 2014. The program will address a critically important case currently awaiting cert consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the larger issues the case implicates.

No-Injury Class Actions: The Rise of Statutorily-Created Harm and the Need for High Court Intervention will be an hour-long live event featuring two appellate experts as our panelists: Andy Pincus of Mayer Brown LLP and Meir Feder of Jones Day. If you are interested in viewing the program live online, you can register for free HERE. If you cannot view it live but would like to watch the video from our online archive, please email WLF Legal Studies Division Chief Counsel Glenn Lammi at glammi@wlf.org.

The petition pending before the Supreme Court that offers the context for our discussion arises from a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling, Spokeo v. Robins. The case squarely presents the issue of whether private plaintiffs suing under a federal statute that defines certain action or inaction as an “injury” (injury-at-law) must also demonstrate that they have “case or controversy” standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution (injury-in-fact). The question has been decided differently in a number of federal circuits, and the Supreme Court has twice passed on opportunities to resolve the split. In 2012, after hearing oral arguments, the Court dismissed as improvidently granted another case from the Ninth Circuit, First American Financial v. Edwards. Earlier this year during its October 2013 term, the Court denied review to an Eighth Circuit decision, First National Bank of Wahoo v. Charvat.

The Court has requested that the Solicitor General of the U.S. provide the justices with the federal government’s view of the case and issues. The Solicitor General’s brief has not yet been filed.