Ninth Circuit Panel Eviscerates 2014 ‘En Banc’ Decision That Protects CAFA Removal Rights

9thCirCongress adopted the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) in 2005 in response to concerns that plaintiffs’ lawyers were gaming the system to prevent removal of class actions and “mass actions” (lawsuits with more than 100 named plaintiffs) from state court to federal court. CAFA provided state-court defendants the option of removing a case to federal court when the suit is both substantial and involves numerous plaintiffs, even when complete diversity of citizenship is lacking.

Immediately thereafter, the plaintiffs’ bar began to undermine CAFA by coming up with new ways to keep their mass lawsuits in state courts. Among other schemes, plaintiffs’ lawyers divided their clients (often numbering in the thousands) among multiple lawsuits in the same state court, thereby ensuring that CAFA’s 100-plaintiff threshold would not be surpassed in any one lawsuit. An excellent 2014 en banc decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit imposed strict limits on use of this removal-defeating tactic. The court held in Corber v. Xanodyne Pharmaceuticals, Inc. that if, after filing their separate lawsuits, the plaintiffs ask the state court to coordinate the cases for all purposes, the cases should be deemed unified and thus removable under CAFA’s mass-action provision. But a Ninth Circuit panel decision this month, Briggs v. Merck Sharp & Dohme, creates a roadmap that allows plaintiffs to coordinate their lawsuits yet avoid removal—thereby eviscerating Corber. The decision suggests that the panel (Judges Fletcher, Berzon, and Paez) feels free to thumb their collective nose at Ninth Circuit en banc decisions; it ought to be reversed. Continue reading

Fifth Circuit Requires Labor Department to Pay Attorneys’ Fees in Bad Faith Independent Contractor Suit

DOLGuest Commentary

By Rachael Stein, a summer law clerk at Washington Legal Foundation who is entering her third year at the University of Georgia School of Law this fall.

In recent years, federal and state workplace regulators have put intense pressure on employers to move away from the use of independent contractors. This pressure was thrown into sharp relief in a recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision, Gate Guard Services L. P. v. Perez, involving a highly-questionable investigation and lawsuit by the Department of Labor (DOL).

Gate Guard Services is a company that provides gate attendants to oil companies at remote drilling sites. Gate Guard classifies its attendants as independent contractors because the attendants find their own relief workers, are not evaluated based on performance, are not restricted from working for competitors, and are not supervised by Gate Guard. The federal investigation arose from a conversation DOL investigator David Rapstine had with a friend, who complained about the wages he received when formerly working at Gate Guard. Rapstine believed Gate Guard attendants were employees and not independent contractors, and therefore believed Gate Guard may have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not paying overtime or keeping accurate records of attendants’ working hours. Continue reading

Court Cuts Class-Action Firm’s Fees to $0 after Unveiling Concealed Settlement Scheme

Guest Commentary

by Chelsie Kidd, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

A California Superior Court judge recently turned a class-action law firm’s worst nightmare into reality when she denied the firm over $5 million in attorneys’ fees. In Lofton v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Judge Mary Wiss found that Initiative Legal Group (“ILG”) “attempted to arrogate to itself more than $5 million in class action attorneys’ fees without court approval.”

Source: WikiMedia Commons

Source: WikiMedia Commons

The events leading up to Judge Wiss’ denial of attorneys’ fees began in 2005 when ILG filed a wage-and-hour class action on behalf of home mortgage consultants against Wells Fargo in Mevorah v. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. Plaintiffs asserted claims for unpaid overtime, meal- and rest-break violations, and waiting-time penalties. Ultimately, ILG failed to obtain class certification in Mevorah. Undeterred, ILG filed numerous additional class-action suits against Wells Fargo, but each action asserted claims that overlapped with those alleged in Mevorah. ILG was “on the verge of filing a new motion for class certification when Wells Fargo agreed to attend mediation.” In early 2011, only after ILG and Wells Fargo reached a claims-made, non-reversionary class settlement,the Lofton action was filed solely for the purpose of seeking court approval of the settlement. ILG encouraged and directed its clients to make claims from the Lofton settlement (even telling some of its clients to send form directly to ILG and not the claims administrator). Continue reading

Federal Judge, Referencing FDA Order on Trans Fat, Permits State-Law Class Action to Proceed

food-courtThe Food Court strikes again.

On July 15, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge William Alsup rejected Nissin Foods Company’s motion to dismiss a claim alleging that Nissin’s use of trans fat in its instant noodles was an unfair trade practice under California law. The decision comes just a month after the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a Declaratory Order removing the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation from partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the main source of trans fat in Americans’ diets. Judge Alsup’s opinion is the first we know of to reference FDA’s order. Continue reading

Update: New Jury Again Exonerates KC Royals’ Mascot in Hot-Dog Incident

Not a Tortfeasor

Not a Tortfeasor

Almost exactly a year ago in the WLF Legal Pulse,  WLF general counsel Mark Chenoweth (a Kansas native and Royals fan) called foul on the Missouri Supreme Court for ordering a new trial in the case of a fan that alleged a hot dog, tossed by the Kansas City Royals’ mascot Sluggerrr (pictured left), caused an eye injury.

We recently learned that on June 17, a Jackson County jury, after a wasteful second trial, once again found the Royals not responsible for the fan’s injuries. In addition, it found the fan was not responsible for the injury either. In the original trial, the jury found him 100% responsible for his injuries. The second jury reached the correct decision without the benefit of the “Baseball Rule,” which, as pointed out in last year’s commentary, the Missouri high court inexplicably ruled inapplicable.

The plaintiff’s lawyer told the Kansas City Star that he “hoped the trial ‘sent a message’ to Major League Baseball.” The nature of such a message is unclear, however, especially given the fact that the fan lost his suit and the team won even without the protection of the Baseball Rule.

Unfortunately, the result in Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp. won’t put an end to plaintiffs’ lawyers’ persistent efforts to shift responsibility for ballpark injuries from inattentive fans to deep-pocketed sports franchises. For instance, a Seattle plaintiffs’ firm that specializes in bet-the-company lawsuits has filed a class action in the Northern District of California against Major League Baseball alleging common law negligence and California Unfair Competition Act violations for its failure to provide a safe fan experience. The suit amounts to a frontal assault on the Baseball Rule.

One of the arguments the class makes in support of its negligence claim: baseball teams’ allegedly distracting efforts to entertain fans with activities such as food tosses.

Attorneys as Qui Tam Relators?: False Claims Act Doesn’t Preempt Ethics Laws and Canons

ethicsGuest Commentary

by Tara Parker, a 2015 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at the Washington Legal Foundation and a student at Texas Tech School of Law.

A federal district judge in the Southern District of Mississippi recently reaffirmed something that should be intuitively obvious to most attorneys:  the federal False Claims Act (FCA) does not relieve a lawyer who brings a qui tam action under the law of his ethical obligations. The court in United States ex rel. Holmes v. Northrop Grumman Corporation disqualified the attorney from serving as a relator because he had violated his duties of loyalty, candor, and confidentiality, as well as the duty to obey court orders. The case stands as not only a monument to unethical attorney behavior, but it also provides yet another example of how laws that delegate enforcement authority to individuals inspire abuses with the lure of financial profit.

The attorney in question, Donald Holmes, represented Munich Re (Munich), an insurance company, in arbitration proceedings with Northrop Grumman Corporation (Northrop), the insured, in April 2010. Northrop had contracted with the United States Navy to construct ships, some of which were damaged as a result of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Holmes, along with a co-counsel, sought to obtain documents from the Navy professedly for use in the arbitration. Holmes and his co-counsel turned around and used the information to file an FCA suit against Northrop. Continue reading

FDA Trans-Fat Order Sets the Table for More Food Product “Regulation by Litigation”

Partially hydrogenated oil  chemical structure

Partially hydrogenated oil
chemical structure

To no one’s surprise, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed its November 8, 2013 initial determination that the agency no longer considers the main source of trans fat in Americans’ diet, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). In its announcement, FDA emphasizes how the three-year window it has granted food companies to comply with the order would “allow for an orderly [transition] process.” Before anyone applauds FDA for being reasonable or magnanimous, however, consider what else the agency says, and doesn’t say, in its Declaratory Order (“Order”). FDA’s statements and omissions essentially set the table for an explosion of private lawsuits that could require PHO-containing products to be reformulated, or removed from the market, far earlier than June 2018.

What the Order Says. Under federal law, an FDA determination that a substance is no longer GRAS is not the equivalent of it being “unsafe.” It means that because some level of uncertainty has arisen from studies of the substance, food producers must seek approval for its use in specific products through a food additive petition. The Order, however, glosses over this inconvenient nuance, and instead consistently and repeatedly states that FDA has concluded PHOs are unsafe. The media has slavishly echoed FDA’s distorted conclusion to an American public that includes prospective judges and jurors for the lawsuits to come. Continue reading