After “Smelly Washer” Trial Win, Challenges Await Whirlpool in Related Cases

WhirlpoolWhirlpool Corp. had major reason to celebrate last week; a federal jury rejected class-action claims that “Duet” front-load washing machines sold in Ohio between 2001 and 2009 were defective because of their alleged tendency to develop a moldy smell. This “smelly washer” case has drawn significant media attention in recent years after it twice reached the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of whether the case should be certified as a class action. The High Court in 2013 vacated a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision certifying a class of more than 100,000 Ohio consumers; but after the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed its decision on remand, the Supreme Court denied review this past February—thus setting the stage for the three-week trial that just ended last Thursday. But if history is any guide, plaintiffs’ lawyers will not willingly accept that the verdict binds all the absent class members (only two class members actually participated in the trial).

Indeed, the ongoing challenge Whirlpool faces underscores why plaintiff classes should rarely, if ever, be certified in consumer product defect cases. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 states that suits seeking monetary damages are not appropriate for class action treatment unless common issues of fact and law “predominate” over individual issues of fact and law. As the Washington Legal Foundation explained in the brief it filed when this case was before the Supreme Court, individual issues (e.g., whether an individual plaintiff’s product was defective and whether that defect caused injury) will almost always overwhelm common issues of fact in the typical consumer product suit. Moreover, Rule 23 requires that the named plaintiffs demonstrate that they can adequately represent the interests of absent class members; if representation is inadequate (e.g., if their interests diverge from those of absent class members), due process case law dictates that absent class members are not bound by any judgment adverse to the class. Thus, the defendant in a certified consumer-product class action often faces a heads-you-win-tails-I lose dilemma: if a company goes to trial and loses to the class, it faces a massive liability award, but if it prevails at trial, absent class members are likely to resist any res judicata claim. Continue reading

True, not False: SCOTUS “Omnicare” Case Highlights Need for Clarity on Key Securities Class Action Issue

greeneddavisjGuest Commentary

Douglas W. Greene and Claire Loebs Davis, Lane Powell LLP

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Laborers District Counsel Construction Industry Pension Fund v. Omnicare, Inc., which concerns the standard for judging the falsity of an opinion challenged in an action under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933. In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision under review (“2013 Omnicare decision”), the court held that a statement of opinion can be “false” even if the speaker genuinely believed the stated opinion. This holding is contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia Bankshares, Inc. v. Sandberg, which held that a statement of opinion is a factual statement as to what the speaker believes—meaning a statement of opinion is “true” as long as the speaker genuinely believes the opinion expressed, i.e., if it is “subjectively” true.

We authored an amicus brief on a pro bono basis for Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”) in Omnicare that emphasizes the importance of clarifying the standard for challenging “false” statements of opinion under all the federal securities laws, not just Section 11. WLF’s view that such clarification is needed was reinforced by an October 10, 2014 decision in a subsequently filed securities class action against Omnicare under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. In re Omnicare, Inc. Sec. Litig. (“2014 Omnicare decision”). In the 2014 Omnicare decision, the Sixth Circuit appeared to embrace the proposition that a statement of opinion is not actionable if it is subjectively true—at least under Section 10(b)—but then held that the subjective falsity inquiry should be analyzed within the element of scienter. The opinion reflects the continued confusion that pervades analysis of this issue, jumbling subjective falsity with other concepts, and conflating the separate elements of falsity and scienter.

As part of its scienter analysis, the Sixth Circuit also grappled with another important question: whose state of mind counts for purposes of determining a corporation’s scienter? Although the Sixth Circuit believes the standard it enunciated constitutes a “middle ground” between restrictive and liberal tests among the federal circuit courts, its ruling misunderstands the nature of the scienter inquiry and conflicts with the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling in Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, and thus risks expanding corporate liability beyond the proper reach of Section 10(b).

After discussing the proper analysis of statements of opinion, and explaining errors in the 2013 Omnicare decision, we explain and analyze both holdings in the 2014 Omnicare decision. Continue reading

Ebola Vaccine and Treatment Makers Need Liability Protection

670px-ebola_virus_virionU.S. politicians and regulators, many of whom ordinarily trend toward hyper-caution on new drug reviews and approvals, are rushing forward with policies aimed at speeding up development of Ebola vaccines and treatments. These measures include coordinated research among public health officials and drug makers, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pledges of regulatory assistance, and congressional interest in legislation to qualify Ebola-targeted products for an FDA priority-review program. Such cooperation is encouraging, but government also needs to take action on another R&D disincentive which, if left unaddressed, could completely undermine current efforts on Ebola and frustrate future cooperative management of unforeseen pandemics. Ebola vaccine and treatment manufacturers need to have protection from tort liability exposure.

Any medical procedure, pharmaceutical product, or vaccine may have adverse health risks in some instances. Drug manufacturers must consider those risks when deciding whether to invest millions of dollars for product R&D, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must weigh those risks against the benefits when approving a treatment. Such risks, along with the high regulatory barriers and low economic incentives attendant to investing in rare diseases, likely have been factors that explain the dearth of Ebola vaccines and treatments.

The United States government has the motivation and the means to minimize or eliminate such liability risks. Federal health agencies are already directly involved in vaccine development, and they will no doubt also be the major purchasers of the resulting drugs. Those federal entities could include a provision in the R&D agreements or purchasing contracts that would substitute the government as a defendant in any resulting lawsuits against private businesses, or indemnify companies from tort liability. The former option is certainly superior to indemnification, which could require the vaccine and treatment producers to litigate cases and then seek reimbursement for the losses or settlements. The companies would also have to negotiate with the government over whether the indemnification would cover litigation costs, such as attorneys’ fees.

The federal government indemnified manufacturers in contracts for a smallpox vaccine after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The companies argued that the proposed indemnification was insufficient, and in April 2003, Congress added expanded liability protections to the Homeland Security Act of 2002. For the one-year period of the national smallpox vaccination program (2003-2004), individuals allegedly harmed by a government-purchased smallpox vaccine could only sue the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Congress could consider the passage of a similar law for Ebola vaccines. Continue reading

High Court Should Not “DIG” Dart Cherokee Basin Case

supreme courtDart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, which raises right-of-removal issues under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), is among the more important civil justice cases being heard by the Supreme Court this term. Legal commentators are virtually unanimous in concluding that the trial court adopted an overly restrictive standard governing removal of cases from state to federal court. Yet, as Columbia Law Professor Ronald Mann noted in a recent column for ScotusBlog, questioning during the October 7 oral argument revealed that the Court may be reluctant to decide the case at all. Every question posed to counsel for Petitioner focused on “vehicle” issues, not on the merits of his CAFA arguments. Several justices even suggested that the case might be dismissed as improvidently granted—which would be a terrible mistake.

On closer examination, the procedural posture issues that troubled the Court at oral argument turn out to be insubstantial; they should not dissuade the Court from addressing the Question Presented by the petition. Moreover, as explained in Washington Legal Foundation’s amicus brief, it is critical that the Court retain jurisdiction in this case to unwind the judicially created doctrine that motivated the mistake below in the first place. Dart Cherokee provides the Court an ideal opportunity to end the rule of construction whereby federal courts continue to narrowly construe federal removal statutes against the party seeking removal, contrary to Supreme Court precedent and despite the utter lack of any textual basis for doing so. Continue reading

A Blow to Legal Ethics from an Unlikely Source

scales of justiceMark Chenoweth is General Counsel of Washington Legal Foundation

I cannot recall for sure when I first heard about the American Judicature Society (AJS), but it was probably about 20 years ago when my work-study job in college included re-shelving volumes of Judicature at the campus law library. There was a time when AJS was a pillar of the American legal establishment, led by the likes of the late Chief Justice and former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, but that time has long since passed.

So, I was not surprised to hear that AJS decided to close its doors last month. After 101 years in the business of “promot[ing] fair and impartial courts through research, publications, education, and advocacy for judicial reform,” the AJS board has concluded that it can’t keep going.

There are always multiple reasons for the failure of a non-profit organization, but a primary factor is invariably the lack of revenue. And indeed AJS President Tom Leighton issued a statement suggesting that AJS’s “membership model has become more challenging” in recent years and that “new nonprofit entities with organizational and financial structures more suited to the times have joined AJS in the fight” for a fair and impartial justice system.

I had not seen anything about AJS or even thought about it for years when I heard the news of its demise, but I decided to visit its website to see what the group has been up to lately. I was shocked to discover that one source of revenue AJS has been seeking—I don’t know for how long—is money from judicial cy près awards. When an organization ostensibly devoted to fair and impartial justice, one whose slogan is “Advocating Integrity in American Justice,” resorts to hitting up judges for cy près funds, it has truly outlived its usefulness.

By all appearances, AJS does not seem to be the least bit embarrassed by this fundraising tactic. There is a prominent “Key Link” on the homepage to “Cy Pres.” I actually clicked on it thinking that AJS might have posted an eloquent explanation that I had missed about the ethical minefield represented by cy près awards. Instead, the link takes one to a page that says the following:

If you are a Federal Judge you can donate to AJS by giving Cy Pres damages amounts that were unclaimed in class action lawsuits. Simply fill in the information below to make your donation today!

And then there is a short form to fill out, though how exactly the short form suffices to accomplish a donation is not obvious. Perhaps AJS just views the form as a shorthand way of letting the organization know that cy près award funds are on the way.

In case you are not aware, cy près is highly controversial because it infects the settlement process with perverse incentives having nothing to do with the best interests of class members. An organization like AJS, which spends a significant share of its time and resources advocating for judicial ethics, should really know better than to tout such a discredited practice—let alone encourage judges to engage in it to AJS’s own benefit! At a bare minimum, AJS should counsel judges to consider carefully the ethical ramifications of awarding cy près funds to AJS before doing so. The ethical disconnect here astounds, though I trust that AJS’s hitting hard financial times has nothing to do with the oversight.

Meanwhile, in our own efforts to support fair and impartial justice, Washington Legal Foundation recently published a Working Paper by James Beck and Rachel Weil entitled “Cy Pres” Awards: Is the End Near for a Legal Remedy with No Basis in Law? In it they explain further the problems with cy près (including ethical conflicts of interest) and discuss several recent court opinions casting doubt on the practice. Rather than summarize the article here, I will simply recommend that you click on the link to check it out for yourself.

As it happens, at least once in the past year WLF itself was contacted as the designated recipient of cy près funds, but we figured out pretty quickly that the caller was looking for the Legal Foundation of Washington. Just to be clear, WLF does not accept cy près funds. So, if you are judge, please do not award us any leftover class action funds. Do, however, check out the Beck and Weil paper for a thoughtful discussion of the legal, constitutional, and ethical concerns with cy près awards in the class action litigation context.

Also published by Forbes.com at its WLF contributor site

White House Boosts Fictional “Food Addiction” Concept to School Kids

BSFriesAs we’ve discussed numerous times here, some nutrition nanny activists, regulators, and plaintiffs’ lawyers have embraced and promoted the concept that food can be “addictive.” The term grabs people’s attention, conjuring up disturbing mental images of helplessness and withdrawal. It’s no wonder, then, that the notion of “food addiction” is often invoked in the context of greater government regulation, taxes, and advertising restrictions designed to redirect our dietary choices.

On September 26, the concept received its highest profile reference yet, from First Lady Michelle Obama, during an interview broadcast to millions of students on the in-school “Channel One News.” When asked about the criticism the federal government’s new school lunch rules have faced, the First Lady responded:

It’s natural. Change is hard. And the thing about highly processed, sugary, salty foods is that you get addicted to it. I don’t want to just settle because it’s hard. I don’t want to give up because it’s expensive. I don’t want that to be the excuse.

The interview appears to have been very carefully scripted, so her mention of “addiction” was hardly spontaneous or casual, nor was her referencing it in the context of “highly processed, sugary, salty foods.” Federal government regulation is taking direct aim at those demonized products and their ingredients.

For instance, the Department of Agriculture has proposed banning the sale of certain foods in public schools that don’t meet “Smart Snacks” guidelines, as well as banning advertising of those products in schools. Also, as part of its update of the Nutrition Facts label affixed to all packaged foods, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is proposing a new “added sugars” item. FDA is pursuing this mandate even though the agency acknowledges that no chemical difference exists between naturally occurring and added sugars in food. The “added sugars” mandate would also expose federal regulators to constitutional challenges under the First and Fourth Amendments, as leading food regulation attorneys Richard Frank and Bruce Silverglade argue in a September 26 WLF Legal Backgrounder.

The First Lady’s reference to “food addiction” was ill-advised, especially considering the age and maturity level of her captive audience on Channel One News. The concept of addiction has been significantly dumbed down and politicized over the past few decades to the point where it has almost lost any objective meaning. Reputable scientists have questioned not only the methodology behind “food addiction” studies, but also the researchers’ motivation.

The “Let’s Move” effort led by the First Lady advances the indisputably worthy goal of a healthier America, but that goal cannot be met by fomenting faulty food addiction concerns. Such a concept creates a serious moral hazard—people struggling to lose weight may throw up their hands because they believe addiction to (insert high-calorie product) has taken hold. Talk of addiction, and the choice-restrictive public policies it fuels, also diverts attention and resources from actual solutions to obesity in America.

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

Jurisdiction Still on Target for Supreme Court “Dart” Case

supreme courtAlthough the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on October 7 in a case addressing the scope of removal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA)—Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens—Public Citizen has urged the Court to dismiss the case as improvidently granted based on what it views as procedural roadblocks to reaching the merits. Last Friday, Columbia Law Professor Ronald Mann’s column for SCOTUSblog spotlighted Public Citizen’s amicus argument and stated, “[M]y sense is that the jurisdictional question [raised by Public Citizen] will seem a lot more contestable to the Justices than the issue on the merits,” adding that the Court might even consider dismissing the petition. Mann is probably correct that the Court is likely to be unimpressed by the lower courts’ merits decision—that a removal petition is deficient unless accompanied by documentary evidence supporting the petition’s allegations that the prerequisites for removal have been met. But the Court is likely to be equally unimpressed by Public Citizen’s “jurisdictional” argument, which has not been raised by the parties at any stage of these proceedings.

Public Citizen bases its argument on the fact that the Tenth Circuit did not directly address the district court’s decision to remand a case removed from state court by the Petitioners under CAFA. CAFA permits defendants in class actions to appeal remand decisions, but they first must petition the appeals court for an order accepting the appeal. In this case, the Tenth Circuit (by an equally divided 4-4 vote) denied the defendants’ petition for permission to appeal. Public Citizen contends that the only issue properly before the Supreme Court is whether the Tenth Circuit abused its discretion in denying permission for an appeal, not whether the district court erred in remanding the case.

That contention is without merit. First, the issue raised by Public Citizen cannot even remotely be deemed “jurisdictional” in nature. The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over any case that has come before a federal appeals court, whether “before or after rendition of judgment or decree.” 28 U.S.C. § 1254(1). Supreme Court jurisdiction does not depend on whether the appeals court has rendered a judgment on the merits of the trial court’s determination. Because this appeal came before the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review it. Continue reading