Class Action Litigation

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Anthony S. Califano

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Smith v. City of Boston, Plaintiffs brought suit against their employer, the City of Boston (the “City”), challenging the City’s police promotional exam from sergeant to lieutenant.  Plaintiffs alleged that the exam had a disparate impact on racial minorities and was invalid under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).  For the second time, in the same case, District Court Judge William G. Young ruled in favor of Plaintiffs and imposed liability on the City.

The Court’s decision, Smith v. City of Boston, No. 12-CV-10291-WGY (D. Mass. July 26, 2017) (“Smith II”), serves as a cautionary tale about the discretion that trial courts have to distinguish between similar cases and reach conclusions that might appear to be inconsistent with appellate authority.

Case Background

In 2012, a group of African-American police sergeants filed a lawsuit claiming that the City’s exam for promotion from sergeant to lieutenant discriminated against minority candidates in violation of Title VII.  In a 2015 decision, the Court agreed with Plaintiffs after a bench trial, holding that the “lieutenants’ exam had a racially disparate impact and was insufficiently job-related to survive the Plaintiffs’ challenge.” Smith v. City of Boston, 144 F. Supp. 3d 177, 180-81 (D. Mass. 2015) (“Smith I”).

In a different case, Lopez v. City of Lawrence, No. 07-11694, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124139 (D. Mass. Sept. 5, 2014) (“Lopez I”), a different judge in the District of Massachusetts addressed similar claims.  In that case, a group of African-American and Hispanic patrolmen challenged the civil service exam for promotion from patrolman to sergeant, claiming disparate impact discrimination.  The presiding judge in Lopez, Judge George A. O’Toole, rejected the plaintiffs’ claim after a bench trial.  The trial court reasoned that, although the sergeants’ exam “imposed a significantly disparate impact on minority applicants,” the defendants established that the exam was nevertheless justified by business necessity.  Id. at *48, 60-61.  The Lopez plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Before Judge Young undertook to determine a proper remedy consistent with its ruling in Smith I, the First Circuit issued a ruling affirming the trial court’s decision in Lopez ILopez v. City of Lawrence, 823 F.3d 102 (1st Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1088 (2017) (“Lopez II”).  The First Circuit concluded, as did Judge O’Toole, that the sergeants’ exam had a significantly disparate impact on racial minorities, and that Judge O’Toole did not clearly err in concluding that business necessity nevertheless justified the exam.  Id. at 107-111.

In light of the First Circuit’s order in Lopez II, Judge Young revisited his earlier ruling in Smith I.  The City argued that Lopez II compelled the Court to reach a different conclusion on the issue of business necessity, and to consider whether there existed an equal or better exam that identified the best candidates for the lieutenant position, which had a less disparate impact on racial minorities.  The Court disagreed.

The Decision

Job Related & Consistent With Business Necessity

The City advanced several arguments in reliance on Lopez II.  First, the City argued that the Court used the wrong legal standard to evaluate the exam’s validity.  It argued that Lopez II requires the Court to determine the exam’s validity by utilizing a “better than random selection” standard, not the “representative sample test” established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (“Guidelines”).  Smith II, at *15.  In its earlier analysis, the Court reasoned that the Guidelines “provide a sensible way of evaluating whether a given test . . . measures an important work characteristic, and whether the outcomes of that test are actually correlated with the characteristic measured.”  Id. at *11.  Using the Guidelines, and relying on expert testimony, the Court determined that the exam results were not predictive of or correlated with the important work behaviors of police lieutenants.  IdLopez II, according to the Court, does not require a different conclusion.  Indeed, the Court stated that the “First Circuit certainly did not ban the use of the Uniform Guidelines’ representative sample test.”  Id. at *15-16.  Such a ban, the Court observed, would be “surprising” because they come from the EEOC and “are due an appropriate degree of deference.”  Id. at *16.

Second, the City argued that the Court should reconsider its rejection of the Education and Experience (“E&E”) component of the lieutenants’ exam.  Because the First Circuit found in Lopez II that the E&E component of the sergeants’ exam was useful to assess qualities important to a sergeant’s daily work, the City argued that the Court should not have excluded the E&E component from its validity analysis of the lieutenants’ exam.  The Court was unpersuaded, noting that it did consider the E&E in its ruling, but held that the “E&E did not rescue an otherwise invalid written exam.”  Id. at *21.  The holding in Lopez II did not change the Court’s opinion given the variations between the two cases.  The Court: “(1) relied on expert testimony that the E&E component failed to differentiate among candidates or demonstrate the [knowledge, skills, and abilities] necessary in a lieutenant; (2) had no evidence that incumbent lieutenants performed better on the written exam; and (3) had no evidence to show that the E&E component was valid on its own.”  Id. at *21-22 (internal citations omitted).  Accordingly, unlike the evidence at issue in Lopez II regarding the sergeants’ exam, the evidence before the Court did “not establish that the E&E measured qualities important to a lieutenant’s daily responsibilities.”  Id. at *22.

Third, the City asserted that, in light of Lopez II, the Court “inappropriately applied a heightened validity requirement for rank ordering” and that “rank ordering furthers [the City’s] interest in eliminating patronage and intentional racism.”  Id.  The Court disagreed.  The Court reasoned that “[w]here a selection procedure not only has a disparate impact on a pass-fail basis, but also compounds that effect through use of rank ordering, each hiring decision carries an increased risk of a discriminatory result.”  Id. at *24.  In that case, the Court held that it “did not err in applying a heightened validity requirement for rank ordering,” and the First Circuit’s decision in Lopez II does not compel a contrary conclusion.  Id.  Even if the City faced a lower burden, it still failed according to the Court.  That is because the evidence before the Court did not support an inference that candidates who performed better on the lieutenants’ exam would be better performers on the job.  Id. at *25.

Equally Valid, Less Discriminatory Alternative Test

The City also challenged the Court’s finding of liability without first addressing whether an equally valid, less discriminatory alternative test existed to identify successful candidates for the lieutenant position.  Specifically, the City argued that the Court could not reject the City’s justification for the lieutenants’ exam absent “some showing that there exists an available alternative with less disparate impact that serves [the City’s] legitimate needs.”  Id. at *26.  Once again, the Court disagreed.  The Court held that the First Circuit’s ruling in Lopez II did not change the burden shifting framework that applies to the analysis of disparate impact cases.  Id.  If the plaintiff proves that a test has a significant disparate impact, and the defendant then fails to prove that the test is job related and consistent with business necessity, “then the defendant loses, regardless of the plaintiffs’ showing of an alternative.”  Id.  The City did not convince the Court that the lieutenants’ exam was sufficiently job related and consistent with business necessity.  Accordingly, the Court did not change its previous ruling in favor of Plaintiffs.

Implications For Employers

The Court concluded its decision by observing that Lopez and Smith are “significantly different” and “fact intensive cases.”  Id. at *29.  They involved different evidentiary records and different exams for different positions.  Id.  The Court held that it did not commit legal error by applying the same law to a different case and reaching a different conclusion.  Id. at *29-30.

The Smith II decision should therefore remind employers of the broad authority that trial court judges have when it comes to applying the law to the facts and evidence in order to reach a conclusion.  As Judge Young noted in Smith II: “Fact finding is the province of the district courts.”  Id. at *29-30.  Judge Young applied his understanding of disparate impact law to the evidence before him and determined that the City failed to meet its burden of proof.  Would a different judge have reached a different conclusion?  Will the First Circuit affirm the Court’s order if the City appeals?  These are fair questions, the answers to which are unclear.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and John S. Marrese

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In Harrington v. Sessions, No. 15-8009, No. 16-5285 & No. 16-5286 (D.C. Cir. July 21, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that absent class members may intervene in an appellate court proceeding to pursue a Rule 23(f) petition abandoned by a settling class representative, even if the intervention motion is filed after the dismissal of the settling representative’s claims.  The D.C. Circuit’s ruling illustrates that even the denial of class certification and final settlement of a class representative’s claims may not put an end to class action litigation.

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In Harrington v. Sessions, No. 15-8009, No. 16-5285 & No. 16-5286, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13111 (D.C. Cir. July 21, 2017), the D.C. Circuit addressed whether it had jurisdiction to rule upon absent class members’ motion to intervene in an appellate court proceeding to pursue a Rule 23(f) petition abandoned by a settling named plaintiff-appellant.  The absent class members filed their motion to intervene after the settling plaintiff-appellant had already filed a stipulated dismissal of his settled claims.

The D.C. Circuit found that it indeed had jurisdiction to entertain the absent class members’ motion to intervene in the Rule 23(f) petition.  It explained that the elimination of an Article III case or controversy does not preclude a district court or appellate court from entertaining a subsequent motion to intervene for purposes of filing an appeal, as long as the intervenor has a sufficient Article III stake in the appeal.  The D.C. Circuit further opined that absent class members may have a sufficient stake to appeal the denial of class certification even if the named plaintiff does not appeal.  As such, the D.C. Circuit found that it had jurisdiction under Rule 23(f) to hear the absent class members’ motion to intervene for purposes of appealing the denial of class certification.

On the merits, the D.C. Circuit found that the absent class members satisfied the prerequisites for intervention as a matter of right and, thus, it addressed their Rule 23(f) petition.  However, the D.C. Circuit declined to review the denial of class certification under Rule 23(f) as the absent class members presented no special circumstances justifying such review.

Case Background

In 2008, U.S. Marshal David Grogan filed a putative class action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Marshals Service (the “Marshals”) alleging racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13111, at *2-3 (D.C. Cir. July 21, 2017).  The complaint sought both injunctive and monetary relief, but alleged that “injunctive and declaratory relief [we]re the predominant forms of relief sought.”  Id. at *3.

By 2013, after pleading and motion practice, the named plaintiff Herman Brewer (“Plaintiff”) was the sole plaintiff representing the putative class.  Id. at *4.  Plaintiff retired from the Marshals a few months before discovery closed.  Id.  After discovery closed, Plaintiff filed: (i) a motion to amend the complaint to substitute four additional plaintiffs as class representatives; and (ii) a Rule 23 motion for class certification.  Id. at *5.

The district court denied Plaintiff’s motion to substitute new plaintiffs, finding that Plaintiff had not diligently pursued such substitution.  Id.

The district court also denied Plaintiff’s motion for class certification.  Id. at *5-6.  The district court found that, because Plaintiff had retired and was no longer an employee of the Marshals, Plaintiff could not adequately represent a class predominantly seeking injunctive relief.  Id. at *6.  The district court also found that Plaintiff’s individual claims for monetary relief were not typical of the class-wide claims for injunctive relief and, as such, did not provide a basis to certify a class either.  Id.  Finally, the district court refused to certify a narrower class, seeking damages only, because doing so constituted “claim splitting” and jeopardized class members’ ability to subsequently pursue other claims in the face of potential res judicata arguments. Id.

Plaintiff timely petitioned the D.C. Circuit under Rule 23(f) for interlocutory review of the denial of class certification.  Id.  However, during the pendency of the petition, Plaintiff settled his individual claims and filed a stipulation of dismissal under Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii).  Id. at *7.

On the same day Plaintiff filed the stipulated dismissal, three current and one former African-American employee of the Marshals (the “Intervenors”) moved to intervene in the district court to appeal the district court’s denial of class certification and moved to intervene in the appellate court to pursue the Rule 23(f) petition filed by Plaintiff.  Id.

While their motion to intervene in the district court was still pending, the Intervenors filed a notice of appeal from: (i) Plaintiff’s stipulated dismissal; (ii) the order denying class certification; and (iii) the “effective” denial of their motion to intervene insofar as the district court had not decided their motion to intervene within the time Intervenors believed they had to file a notice of appeal (i.e., within 60 days of Plaintiff’s stipulated dismissal).  Id. at *7-8.  Thereafter, the district court dismissed the Intervenors’ motion to intervene based on the rationale that the Intervenors’ notice of appeal stripped the district court of jurisdiction to rule on the motion.  Id. at *8.

On the Intervenors’ motion, Plaintiff’s Rule 23(f) petition and the Intervenors’ appeal were consolidated before the D.C. Circuit.  Id.

The Decision

The D.C. Circuit first addressed whether it had jurisdiction.  Id. at *9.  The stipulated dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims, which removed any live Article III case or controversy from the district court and appellate court, presented a quandary.  Although intervention could cure that quandary by substituting Intervenors for Plaintiff, the D.C. Circuit had to have jurisdiction in the first place to rule on the intervention motion.  See id. (“Thus, the situation may appear to present a Catch-22: Intervention can overcome the apparent jurisdictional problem created by the stipulated dismissal, but a court may grant intervention only if it has jurisdiction to do so.”).  The D.C. Circuit resolved the quandary by finding that it had jurisdiction over the Intervenors’ motion to intervene in the Rule 23(f) petition.  Id.

In so finding, the D.C. Circuit rejected the decisions of other courts that have held that a stipulated dismissal precludes a court from taking further action on motions filed after, or even before, such a dismissal.  Id. at *11-12.  The D.C. Circuit explained that a stipulated dismissal and a court-ordered dismissal are no different in their jurisdictional effect – both eliminate a live case or controversy.  Id. at *12-14.   As such, the D.C. Circuit found that it had jurisdiction to entertain any motion after a stipulated dismissal that it could entertain after a court-ordered dismissal.

In that regard, the D.C. Circuit explained that it is well-established that, even in the absence of a live controversy, courts retain jurisdiction to hear motions to intervene for purposes of appealing dismissed claims, as long as the intervenor has an Article III interest sufficient to pursue the appeal.  Id. at *14 (citations omitted).  Moreover, the D.C. Circuit asserted that it is similarly well-established that absent class members may have a sufficient Article III interest to appeal the denial of class certification even if the named plaintiff does not appeal.  Id. at *14-15 (citing Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia, 117 F.3d 571, 575 (D.C. Cir. 1997)).  Indeed, “[w]hen an absent plaintiff intervenes to appeal a denial of class certification, he has the same Article III stake on appeal as he would have had in the action had the class been certified.”  Id. at *15 (citing Twelve John Does, 117 F.3d 571, 575).  The D.C. Circuit reasoned that, because the absence of an Article III controversy does not preclude a court from hearing a motion to intervene for purposes of appealing and because an appellate court has jurisdiction to hear an absent plaintiff’s appeal from the denial of class certification, it had jurisdiction under Rule 23(f) to hear the Intervenors’ motion to intervene.  Id. at *15-16.

In finding such jurisdiction, the D.C. Circuit distinguished the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, 137 S. Ct. 1702, 1712-1713 (2017), wherein the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff’s voluntary dismissal of his claims, subsequent to an appellate court’s denial of his Rule 23(f) petition, did not create a final, appealable order.  Harrington, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13111, *16.  The D.C. Circuit explained that, unlike Baker, the issue here involved only a petition for review under Rule 23(f), not an appeal from a final order.  Id. at *17.  Furthermore, equitable considerations present in Baker, where the plaintiff had orchestrated guaranteed appellate review of his Rule 23 claims through voluntary dismissal, were not present here.  Id.  (For further discussion of Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, see here).

Next, the D.C. Circuit turned to the motion to intervene.  It stated that it could address the motion to intervene in the first instance on appeal primarily for purposes of judicial economy.  Harrington, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 13111, *18-19 .  The D.C. Circuit then found that the Intervenors easily met the criteria for intervention as a matter of right under Rule 24(a)(2).  Id. at *19-23.

Nonetheless, the D.C. Circuit rejected the Intervenors’ Rule 23(f) request and declined to review the district court’s denial of class certification.  Id. at *24-31.  It found that the Intervenors failed to show that any special circumstances warranted such review.  Id.

Finally, the D.C. Circuit dismissed the Intervenors’ appeal from final judgment in the case below, restoring the district court’s jurisdiction over the case.  Id. at *31.  It ordered that, on remand, the district court should allow reasonable time for the Intervenors to file both a motion to substitute a new class representative and a renewed motion for class certification.  Id.

Implication for Employers

Defeating the class representative does not necessarily end class litigation.  Absent class members may be able to pursue such litigation after the class representative exits.  Accordingly, employers should litigate with an eye toward defeating the class even where they anticipate that a named representative is inadequate or that the claims of a named representative may be defeated.

supreme-court-546279_960_720By: Michael L. DeMarino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court of California, et al., No. 16-466 (U.S. June 19, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court articulated the narrow circumstances under which specific jurisdiction will lie when it rejected the California Supreme Court’s “sliding scale” approach to evaluating specific jurisdiction. The decision is decidedly employer-friendly. As a new weapon against forum shopping, this case is a must read for any employer facing class action litigation in a jurisdiction where the company is not incorporated or does not have its principal place of business.

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Case Background

In Bristol-Myers Squibb Company v. Superior Court of California, et al., No. 16-466 (U.S. June 19, 2017), 86 California residents and 592 non-residents from 33 other states sued Bristol-Myers in California  state court, asserting California state law claims for product liability, negligent representation, and misleading advertising. Id. at 2. Plaintiffs specifically alleged that the company’s drug, Plavix, damaged their health.  Id. In contrast to the California residents, the non-resident plaintiffs did not allege that they obtained Plavix in California, nor did they claim that they were injured by Plavix or treated for their injuries in California. Id.

After Bristol-Myers challenged personal jurisdiction with respect to the non-residents’ claims in the trial Court and the California Court of Appeal, the California Supreme Court held that specific jurisdiction existed. Id.

Although the California Supreme Court determined that general jurisdiction was lacking, it nonetheless found that specific jurisdiction existed under its “sliding scale” approach. Under this approach, the more wide-ranging the defendants’ forum contacts, the greater the connection between the forum contacts and the claim. Id. at 3. Because of Bristol-Myers’ extensive contacts with California, the California Supreme Court required less direct connection between the company’s forum activities and the non-residents’ claims than otherwise might be required. Id. Particularly important to the California Supreme Court’s determination that specific jurisdiction existed was that the claims of the California residents and the claims of the non-residents were similar. Id.

The Company thereafter successfully secured review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Decision

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the California Supreme Court failed to identify an adequate link between the State of California and the 592 non-resident plaintiffs to support specific jurisdiction.  After explaining that specific jurisdiction requires an “affiliation between the forum and the underlying controversy” the Supreme Court noted that the “sliding scale” approach relaxes this requirement and “resembles a loose and spurious form of general jurisdiction.”  Id. at 7.

The Supreme Court further explained that “[t]he mere fact that other plaintiffs were prescribed, obtained, and ingested Plavix in California — and allegedly sustained the same injuries as did the non-residents — does not allow the State to assert specific jurisdiction over the non-residents’ claims.” Id. at 8. Importantly, the Supreme Court emphasized “[w]hat is needed —  and what is missing here — is a connection between the forum and the specific claims [i.e., the non-residents’ claims] at issue.” Id.

Implication For Employers

Although the Supreme Court’s decision does little to alter the requirements of specific jurisdiction, it is nonetheless important in its practical effect of impeding forum shopping in the class action context. Plaintiffs, for instance, will have a much more difficult time suing in a jurisdiction where the company is not “at home” for general jurisdiction purposes and where the company’s conduct in the forum state is not sufficiently connected to the claims of nonresident plaintiffs.

This decision is particularly important to employers with a national presence or satellite offices. The lesson here is employers should not take personal jurisdiction for granted, particularly when defending claims brought by residents and nonresidents of a forum state where there is no general jurisdiction.

supreme-court-546279_960_720By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Michael L. DeMarino, and John S. Marrese

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, No. 15-457 (U.S. June 12, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a procedural issue that is of importance in any class action in terms of when and in what circumstances a plaintiff may appeal orders that terminate their rights in a case. In that respect, the decision is required reading for any employer involved in class action litigation.

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In Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, No. 15-457, 582 U.S. ___ (2017), the Supreme Court was confronted with the question of whether courts of appeal have jurisdiction to review an order denying class certification after the named plaintiffs  have voluntary dismissed their claims with prejudice.

Litigants have an immediate right to appellate review only of “final decisions of the district courts,” as set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The denial of class certification is not a final order and, therefore, not necessarily entitled to such immediate review.  Nonetheless, Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f) provides litigants the opportunity to appeal an adverse class certification decision, which the appellate court has unfettered discretion to review or not.

If the appellate court decides not to exercise discretion over such an appeal, plaintiffs still have options to ultimately obtain appellate review, including petitioning the district court to certify the interlocutory order for appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C.  § 1292 or pursuing the litigation to a final judgment at which point the class certification denial becomes final and appealable.  However, as the Supreme Court’s decision in Baker makes clear, what plaintiffs may not do is circumvent that process by dismissing a case with prejudice after the denial of class certification in order to manufacture the appellate court’s jurisdiction over such an appeal. According to the Supreme Court, such a tactic impermissibly stretches Section 1291, circumvents the rules governing interlocutory appeals, including 23(f), and leads to protracted and piecemeal litigation.

Case Background

Plaintiffs, purchasers of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, filed a class action alleging design defect of the console.  (Slip Op. 8.)  The district court struck Plaintiffs’ class allegations based on the denial of class certification in a previously-filed case of the same nature, finding that comity mandated its decision.  (Id. at 8-9.)

Plaintiffs petitioned the Ninth Circuit for appellate review of the interlocutory order under Rule 23(f), but the Ninth Circuit declined to exercise jurisdiction.  Id. at 9.  Rather than pursue their individual claims further, Plaintiffs moved to voluntarily dismiss their claims with prejudice and represented to the district court that they would appeal the order striking their class allegations thereafter. (Id. at 10.)  Microsoft stipulated to the voluntary dismissal with prejudice, but argued that Plaintiff would have no right to appeal.  The district court granted the stipulated motion to dismiss.  Id.

As promised, Plaintiffs only appealed the district court’s decision to strike their class allegations.  Id.  The Ninth Circuit held that it had jurisdiction to entertain the appeal under the 28 U.S.C. § 1291, rejecting Microsoft’s argument that Plaintiffs had impermissibly circumvented Rule 23(f).  Id.  Then the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision to strike Plaintiffs’ class allegations. Id. at 11.  The Ninth Circuit expressed no opinion as to the merits of class certification, but merely found that comity did not require denial on the pleadings; such a decision would more properly be made on Plaintiffs’ eventual motion for class certification.  Id.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to address a Circuit split over the question: “Do federal courts of appeals have jurisdiction under [28 U.S.C.] § 1291 and Article III of the Constitution to review an order denying class certification (or . . . an order striking class allegations) after the named plaintiffs have voluntarily dismissed their claims with prejudice?”  Id.

The Decision

The Supreme Court, sitting with eight justices, unanimously found that the Ninth Circuit had improperly exercised discretion over Plaintiffs’ appeal.

Justice Ginsburg, authoring the opinion of the Court in which Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joined, ruled that Plaintiffs’ voluntary dismissal with prejudice did not transform the district court’s denial of class certification into a final order.  Such a tactic, the Supreme Court concluded, impermissibly attempts to subvert the final judgment rule in § 1291 as well as the process Congress implemented for refining that rule and providing for appeals of interlocutory orders.  Id. at 12.

The Supreme Court explained that Plaintiffs’ tactic encouraged “protracted litigation and piecemeal appeals” as well as indiscriminate review of interlocutory orders.  Id.  Indeed, as the Supreme Court pointed out, under Plaintiffs’ theory, “the decision whether an immediate appeal will lie resides exclusively with the plaintiff” because plaintiff “need only dismiss her claims with prejudice whereupon she may appeal the district court’s order denying class certification.” Id. at 12-13. Thus, if Plaintiffs here had subsequently been denied class certification on remand from the Ninth Circuit, they could have again voluntarily dismissed and forced an appeal of that decision, thereby circumventing the purpose of Rule 23(f) and, in conjunction, the rulemaking process Congress bestowed upon the Supreme Court.  Id. at 13-16.

Justice Thomas, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito issued a concurring opinion, concurring only in the judgment.  Justice Thomas agreed that Plaintiffs could not appeal under the circumstances of this case, but under a different rationale.  Specifically, Justice Thomas concluded that Plaintiffs’ voluntary dismissal with prejudice had indeed resulted in a final appealable order.  However, such dismissal destroyed any live case or controversy.  Accordingly, Plaintiffs had no standing under Article III of the Constitution to bring the appeal.

Implication for Employers

A decision on class certification is often the most significant event in the life of class litigation.  As such, plaintiffs who are denied certification craft inventive strategies to circumvent rules limiting their appellate rights.  With the Baker decision, one such strategy is no longer available to plaintiffs.  Employers should pay careful attention to alternative tactics similarly contravening the purpose and structure of the federal statutes and rules governing appellate review.

law and money 2Seyfarth Synopsis: American and international courts have been debating the tentative legality of disclosing third-party litigation funding. In this vlog video, Seyfarth Shaw Associate Alex Karasik sits down with class action litigator Jerry Maatman to discuss what third-party litigation is, what it means for businesses, and the tactics that businesses can use to get in front of this phenomenon.

Background

A recent trend has emerged in the class action landscape whereby a third-party funder pays the owner of a civil claim an up-front monetary payment in return for the claim owner’s promise to convey a portion of the potential recovery. Class action plaintiffs’ attorneys and third-party funders are incentivized under this approach through tax advantages, whereby the attorneys can defer tax liability on the monetary advancement until the claim pays off while the funders can deduct their expenses and pay tax on any profit at the lower capital-gains rate. Predictably, many of the third-party funders enter into such agreements with plaintiffs’ attorneys confidentially for varying business or personal reasons.

In a novel decision that will profoundly impact the practice of third-party funding of class actions, Judge Illston of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently granted defendant’s (“Chevron”) motion to compel plaintiff to reveal the identity of who was funding its proposed class action regarding a gas explosion off the coast of Nigeria in Gbarabe v. Chevron Corp., No. 14-CV-173 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 5, 2016). This ruling provides businesses facing class actions, including employers facing workplace class actions, a blueprint as to how to compel plaintiffs to identify stakeholders in class action lawsuits against their companies.

Implications For Employers

A business confronted with class action litigation absolutely would want to know if someone other than the plaintiffs themselves have a financial interest in a “bet-the-company” case. The ruling in Gbarabe arms employers with a potential strategy to unmask third-party funders that may have an interest in seeing their financial demise as a class action defendant. Given that this ruling stemmed from internationally-based class action litigation involving solo practitioners, businesses should be cautioned that courts may not always find litigation funding agreements to be relevant in determining the adequacy of plaintiffs’ counsel. Nonetheless, the arguments presented by Chevron are instructive in showing class action defendants how they can attempt to figure out who is bankrolling litigation battles against them. Finally, this ruling should serve as a cautionary tale to those third-party funders who desire anonymity, and ideally result in a chilling effect of this practice that amounts to tax-incentivized gambling on class action litigation. Workplace class actions can expect to see similar challenges to the adequacy of class counsel with motions to compel the production of litigation funding agreements in the very near future.

 

fireworks-227383_960_720By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent review of Seyfarth’s 2017 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, EPLiC called it the “must have” resource that corporate counsel “cannot afford to be without it…”

We are humbled and honored by the recent review of our 2017 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”) – the review is here.

EPLiC said: “The Report is a definitive ‘must-have’ for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation.  Anyone who practices in this area, whether as an attorney, a business executive, a risk manager, an underwriter, a consultant, or a broker cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publication of its kind in the United States. It is the sole compendium that analyzes workplace class actions from ‘A to Z.’”

We are often asked – “How does it happen – how do you produce your Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report”?

The answer is pretty simple – we live, eat, and breathe workplace class action law 24/7.

Each and every morning we check the previous day’s filings of EEOC lawsuits and workplace class actions relative to employment discrimination, ERISA, and wage & hour claims. We do so on a national basis, both in federal courts and all 50 states. Then we check, log, and analyze every ruling on Rule 23 certification motions and subsidiary issues throughout federal and state trial and appellate courts. This is also done on a national basis.  We put this information in our customized database; we analyze and compare the rulings on class action issues and Rule 23 topics, and then we prepare an analysis of each and every decision.

Our class action practitioners – a group of over 175 Seyfarth lawyers – contribute to the process of building the database and analyzing decisional law on a daily basis.

We have being doing this on a 24/7 basis for over 13 years, and publishing the Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report in the first week of January of each calendar year.

The result is a compendium of workplace class action law that is unique in its analysis, scope, and comprehensiveness.

We are particularly proud that EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art report” on workplace class action litigation.

Thanks EPLiC. We sincerely appreciate the kudos.

Now, even less than half way through the year, we have tracked and analyzed more class action decisions to this point in 2017 than at the halfway point in past years. On this pace, our 2018 Report will cover more decisions than ever before.

250px-US-CourtOfAppeals-8thCircuit-SealBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Michael L. DeMarino

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After thirty-three former employees who signed release agreements requiring individual arbitration of ADEA claims collectively sued their employer for age discrimination, the employer moved to compel individual arbitration. The District Court denied the company’s motion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed because it found that the ADEA did not contain a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements.

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Case Background

In McLeod, et. al. v. General Mills, Inc., No. 15-3540, 2017 WL 1363797 (8th Cir. Apr. 14, 2017), thirty-three former employees of General Mills (the “Company”) were offered severance packages and signed release agreements in which they agreed to individually arbitrate claims relating to their termination—including, specifically,  ADEA claims. Id. at *1. Despite agreeing to individual arbitration, the employees collectively sued the Company in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, alleging various ADEA violations. The Company moved to compel arbitration, and the District Court denied that motion.  Id.

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of the Company’s motion to compel arbitration. The Eighth Circuit held that Section 626(f) of the ADEA does not contain a contrary congressional command to override the Federal Arbitration Act’s (“FAA”) mandate to enforce arbitration agreements. Id. at *2-3. At the core of this holding was the Eighth Circuit’s decision that the “right” to a jury trial and the “right” to proceed in a collective action, are not substantive ADEA rights. Id

This decision is important because it addresses the fundamental question of whether employment agreements that require individual arbitration run afoul of the ADEA and its provisions authorizing plaintiffs to sue collectively.

Unlike other decisions involving the clash of arbitration agreements and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), the Eighth Circuit’s decision in McLeod resolves the tension between, on the one hand the FAA’s mandate to enforce arbitration agreements, and on the other hand, the ADEA’s requirement in  § 626(f) that a party must prove in a “court of competent jurisdiction” that the waiver of ADEA rights was “knowing and voluntary.”

Because the Eighth Circuit determined that the “waiver” of rights in Section 626(f) refers only to the waiver of substantive ADEA rights and because the “right” to a jury trial and the “right” to proceed in a collective action are not “rights” under § 626(f), it held that there was no “waiver” for purposes of  § 626(f).

Case Background

In 2012, the Company terminated 850 of its employees. These employees were offered severance packages in exchange for signing release agreements. Id at *1. The release agreements required the employees to release the Company from all claims related to their termination, including claims under the ADEA. Id.

The release agreements also contained a dispute resolution provision that required the employees to submit any claim covered by the release agreement to arbitration on an individual basis. Id.

Thirty-three of the employees who were terminated in 2012 sued the Company in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Specifically, the employees sought a declaratory judgment that the releases were not “knowing and voluntary,” as required by 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). The employees also asserted collective and individual claims for alleged ADEA violations. Id.

The Company moved to compel arbitration of the employees’ claims, and the District Court denied that motion. Id. The Company subsequently appealed to the Eighth Circuit.

The Eighth Circuit’s Decision

On appeal, the employees argued that ADEA §  626(f) contains the necessary “contrary congressional command” to render their release agreements invalid. Id. at *2. Specifically, the employees relied on two related sections of the ADEA to argue that compelling arbitration results is an effective waiver of their substantive rights under the ADEA. Id. These two sections are § 626(f)(1) and § 626(f)(3).

Section 626(f)(1) of the ADEA prohibits the waiver of any ADEA right or claim — unless the waiver is “knowing and voluntary.” 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). Whereas, § 626(f)(3) describes how to prove a “waiver,” requiring that the “the party asserting the validity of a waiver shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction that a waiver was knowing and voluntary . . . .”  Id (citing 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(3)). (emphasis added). 

The employees argued that, by moving to compel arbitration of their claims, the Company was asserting the validity of a waiver — by forcing them to forego their “right” to a jury trial and their “right” to proceed by class action. Id.

The Eighth Circuit rejected this argument. “In § 626(f),” it explained, ‘“waiver’ refers narrowly to waiver of substantive ADEA rights or claims — not, as the former employees argued, the ‘right’ to a jury trial or the ‘right’ to proceed in a class action.” Id. (emphasis in original).

In reaching that decision, the Eighth Circuit cited 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett, 556 U.S. 247 (2009). In that case, the Supreme Court interpreted § 626(f)(1)’s references to “‘right[s] or claim[s]’ to mean substantive rights to be free from age discrimination, not procedural ‘rights’ to pursue age discrimination claims in court.” Id. Noting that Penn Plaza controls, the Eighth Circuit explained that the “specific ‘rights’ the former employees cite are not ‘rights’ under § 626(f)(1).” Id. The Eighth Circuit therefor decided that no “rights or claims” are “waived” by agreeing to bring claims in arbitration. Id.

The Eighth Circuit also rejected the employees’ argument that § 626(b), by incorporating 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), gives them a “right” to bring a collective action. Id. at 3. Before making short shrift of this argument, the Eighth Circuit noted that the ADEA borrows the procedural collective action mechanism from § 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Section 626(b) incorporates § 216(b), which allows an employee to sue on behalf of himself “and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Thus, the Eighth Circuit explained that § 626(b) expressly allows employees to bring collective actions for age discrimination. McLeod, 2017 WL 1363797 at *3.

Although the Eighth Circuit acknowledged that the ADEA expressly authorizes employees to sue collectively, it held that § 626(b) does not create a non-waivable, substantive right to do so. Citing its decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1052 (8th Cir. 2013), the Eighth Circuit first explained that “[s]tanding alone, § 216(b) does not create a non-waivable substantive right; rather, its class-action authorization can be waived by a valid arbitration agreement.” Id.  The Eighth Circuit then found no convincing reason why § 626(b)’s incorporation of § 216(b) would “elevate the procedural class-action authorization to a substantive § 626(f)(1) ‘right.’” Id.

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the ADEA does not provide a “contrary congressional command” overriding the FAA’s mandate to enforce agreements to arbitrate ADEA claims, and that the District Court should have granted the Company’s motion to compel arbitration. Id.

Next, the employees argued that an arbitration panel could not grant them their declaratory relief — i.e., decide the question of whether their waiver of substantive ADEA rights was “knowing and voluntary.” Id. at 4. Specifically, the employees argued that this question can only be resolved in court because of § 626(f)(1)’s mandatory language “shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction.” Id. (emphasis added).

The Eighth Circuit declined to decide this issue, finding, instead, that the question was not justiciable. Id. Because the Company had not yet asserted that any of the employees had in fact waived their ADEA claims, and because the employees were seeking declaratory relief only “if and to the extent” the Company asserted that defense, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the employees’ declaratory relief was hypothetical. Id. “No Article III case or controversy arises,” it explained, “when plaintiffs seek a ‘declaratory judgment as to the validity of a defense’ that a defendant ‘may or may not, raise.’” Id. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit held that the District Court did not have jurisdiction to decide whether the employees’ waiver was “knowing and voluntary.” Id.

Implication For Employers

This decision is important for employers, but less so for the reasons one might imagine. The reality is that this decision does little to alter the ADEA judicial landscape. More than two decades ago the Supreme Court held in Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp. that ADEA claims could be subjected to compulsory, individual arbitration, even though collective actions are permitted under the ADEA by the identical statutory language as the FLSA. See Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 32 (1991). While Gilmer did not specifically touch on the interplay between § 626(f) and the FAA, it is a bit surprising that a discussion of Gilmer is altogether absent from the Eighth Circuit’s decision.

One take away is that employers can remain confident that provisions requiring individual arbitration of ADEA claims will not result in a prohibited waiver of an employees’ rights under the ADEA.

This decision also sheds light on an important strategy consideration. Employers that assert waiver as a defense may find themselves litigating the validity of that waiver (i.e., whether the waiver was knowing and voluntary) in court — even though the employees agreed to arbitrate their claims. Hence, employers will likely need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of defending an ADEA violation on the merits in arbitration versus adopting a waiver defense in court.

00-money-bagBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Thomas E. Ahlering

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In what is being billed as the “largest and strongest TCPA settlement in history,” Judge Kennelly of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently granted Plaintiffs’ counsel a minimum of $15.26 million in attorneys’ fees.  However, the Court refused to depart from the “sliding-scale structure,” which has become the standard model in the Seventh Circuit for awarding fees in class actions, and declined to award Plaintiffs’ counsel one-third of the common fund (or $24.5 million) as requested.

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Employers who utilize automated calls and text messages as part and parcel of their business continue to be subject to a considerable risk of class actions under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”).  This is in no small part a product of the fact that TCPA class actions continue to be extremely lucrative for the plaintiffs’ class action bar.  The Court’s recent award of at least $15.26 million in attorneys’ fees in Aranda et al. v. Caribbean Cruise Line, Inc. et al., No. 12-04069, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52645 (N.D. Ill., April 6, 2017), serves as the most recent example of the lucrative success that plaintiffs’ attorneys continue to achieve in TCPA class actions.

Case Background

In Aranda, Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants violated the TCPA by placing millions of automated telephone calls to consumers without their consent.  After roughly four years of “hotly contested litigation,” the parties settled on the eve of trial and the settlement provides that defendants will establish a common fund, in an amount no lower than $56 million and no higher than $75 million, from which class members will be paid.  Id. *3.  Following final approval of the class-wide settlement, Plaintiffs’ counsel petitioned for an award of attorneys’ fees in amount equal to one-third of the final common fund total.

The Court’s Decision

Judge Kennelly of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted in part the fee request of Plaintiffs’ counsel, noting that while the circumstances of the case warranted a higher fee award than those granted in other TCPA class actions, the Court disagreed that the award should be as high as requested and declined to depart from the “sliding-scale structure” used by courts in the Seventh Circuit to award attorney’s fees in class actions.  Id.

The main question addressed by the Court was whether the fee request should be granted based on Plaintiffs counsel’s proposed “flat-percentage” approach or the “sliding scale” model that district courts in the Seventh Circuit often use to award attorneys’ fees for class action settlements as outlined in In Re Synthroid Marketing Litigation, 264 F.3d 712, 721 (7th Cir. 2001).  Id. *4.  The “sliding scale” model consists of breaking class action settlement funds into tiers or bands and awards class counsel a decreasing percentage of each band.  The rationale behind this approach is that “awarding class counsel a decreasing percentage of the higher tiers of recovery enables them to recover the principal costs of litigation from the first bands of the award, while allowing the clients to reap more of the benefit at the margin yet still preserving some incentive for lawyers to strive for these higher awards.”  Id. at *11 (quoting Silverman v. Motorola Sols., Inc., 739 F.3d 956, 959 (7th Cir. 2013)).  Plaintiffs’ counsel argued that an award amounting to one-third of the net common fund accurately reflected the result of a hypothetical negotiation between the plaintiffs and their attorneys under a “market based approach,” citing their typical contingency fees in TCPA cases, an expert indicating that the request was less than a standard rate for individual TCPA cases, and argued that they generated better-than-average value for the class and should be paid accordingly.  Id. *6-7.

The Court agreed with Plaintiffs that the circumstances of the case warranted a higher fee than those granted in other TCPA class actions that resulted in settlement.  Id. *14.  However, the Court did not agree that the case was not one in which “declining marginal percentages are [not] always best” and therefore, this concern would not provide a reason for class members to deviate from the sliding-scale structure in an ex ante negotiation.  Id. *12.  Specifically, counsel would have had the same or virtually the same incentive to fight for a high award whether they were receiving a flat rate or a sliding-scale rate because up until the very end, class counsel were fighting to get any recovery for the class.  Id. *16  The Court also disagreed with Plaintiffs that class members would accept a flat rate because of its low inherent value or because of the possibility that counsel could generate a high recovery through aggressive litigation because it was “not clear that the hypothetical class members in this case would be faced with the binary choice between a high-percentage fee with a  large recovery, on the one hand, and a sliding-scale fee for a small recovery, on the other.”  Id. *17.

Despite this, the Court was “persuaded that plaintiffs and their counsel faced materially greater risks in this case than those faced in the other recent TCPA class actions” and therefore, added at least a 6% premium to the first “band” of recovery on the sliding scale.  Id. *25. Ultimately, the Court also concluded that counsel’s efforts justified increasing the size of the settlement and therefore, plaintiffs in a hypothetical negotiation might agree to pay a risk premium at each band, but also insist that the size of the premium decrease at each band, as the risk of non-recovery decreased.  Id. *27-28.   Therefore, the Court awarded class counsel 36% of the first $10 million ($3.5 million), 30% of the second $10 million ($3.5 million), 24% of the band from $20 million to $56 million ($8.64 million), and 18% of the remainder.  If the common fund reaches its $76 million ceiling, the Court will adjust the award up, in which case the award would amount to roughly 25.6% of the common fund which is slightly higher than the mean and median recoveries for TCPA cases of similar value.  Id. *30-31.

Implications For Employers

This ruling illustrates that TCPA class actions are alive and well – and most notably – continue to be extremely lucrative for the plaintiffs bar.  Employers should ensure that they are in compliance with the TCPA or else risk becoming a target of TCPA litigation.

downloadBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Thomas E. Ahlering, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In a first-of-its kind ruling, an employer recently secured the dismissal with prejudice of what is believed to be one of the first Telephone Consumer Protection Act class actions ever brought against a company while acting as an employer – specifically in this instance, the use of robo-calls to contact applicants about employment opportunities. The ruling ought to be required reading for corporate counsel in order to understand this emerging risk and to craft strategies to protect companies against such claims.

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When most people think of class actions brought under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), they envision lawsuits against companies using automated voices to tell them they won a free cruise or are eligible to receive a discount on a product.  But in Dolemba v. Kelly Services, Inc., No. 16-CV-4971, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13508 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 1, 2017), the Plaintiff, who had previously given her contact information to temporary staffing company Kelly Services, Inc. (“Kelly”) to be contacted regarding employment opportunities, brought a class action against Kelly under the TCPA and Illinois Consumer Fraud Act (“ICFA”) alleging that Kelly made an unauthorized robo-call to her cell phone.  Kelly resisted the claim, filed a motion to dismiss, and Judge Sara Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted Kelly’s motion to dismiss both claims with prejudice, finding that the Plaintiff never revoked her consent to be contacted about employment opportunities.

The ruling in Dolemba is believed to be one of the first TCPA class actions ever brought against a company while acting as an employer, thus making this ruling a landmark victory for employers nationwide.  The potential for employers to face similar novel TCPA class actions in the near future is now imminent – and employers can and should add this decision to their arsenal as a powerful tool to help defeat such actions.

Case Background

In March 2007, Plaintiff applied for employment with Kelly, indicating interest in positions using office skills such as accounts payable and accounts receivable.  Id. at *1.  Plaintiff’s employment application included her cellular phone number.  In signing the application, Plaintiff “authorize[d] Kelly to collect, use, store, transfer, and purge the personal information that [she] provided for employment-related purposes.”  Id.  Kelly never offered Plaintiff a job, nor did Plaintiff ever accept employment through Kelly.  She also did not receive any communications from Kelly between the end of 2007 and February 2016.  Id. at *1-2.

On February 27, 2016, Plaintiff received an automated call on her cellular phone from Kelly.  Id. at *1.  Kelly contacted Plaintiff about potential job opportunities.  Because Plaintiff did not answer the call, Kelly left a voicemail message regarding opportunities for employment as a machine operator in the Chicagoland area.  Plaintiff alleged that she had no reason to believe that Kelly still treated her application as active in 2016.  Responding inconsistent with the notion that no good deed goes unrewarded,  Plaintiff brought a class action lawsuit alleging that Kelly violated the TCPA and ICFA by calling her cellular telephone using an automatic telephone dialing system.  As part of its defense strategy, Kelly moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims and strike her class allegations.

The Court’s Decision

The Court dismissed Plaintiff’s TCPA and ICFA claims with prejudice.  First, the Court accepted Kelly’s argument that Plaintiff had essentially “pleaded herself out of court” and further found that Kelly met its burden of consent as an affirmative defense.  Id. at *3-4.  Specifically, the Court held that although Plaintiff need not have anticipated or pleaded revocation of consent, she only maintained that she had no reason to believe her employment application was active and she had no further communications with Kelly after consenting to receive employment-related communications.  Id. at *5-6.  Therefore, the Court found that Plaintiff’s consent remained valid at the time Plaintiff filed the case.  Id. at *6.

The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s attempt to “recast her consent” as only agreeing to accept calls relating to specific employment opportunities, holding that “the call [Plaintiff] received clearly related to an employment opportunity.  Although not specifically tailored to the exact job interests [Plaintiff] indicated in her application, it still fell within the broad consent she gave to use her cellular phone number to contact her generally for employment-related purposes regardless of whether that job matched her job interests.”  Id. at *7.  Accordingly, the Court found that because Plaintiff pleaded herself out of court by attaching her employment application, which indicated she consented to receiving calls from Kelly for employment-related purposes, her TCPA claim must be dismissed.

Plaintiff also brought a claim under the ICFA alleging that Kelly engaged in unfair acts and practices by making the allegedly unauthorized robo-call to her cellular phone in violation of §§ 2 and 2Z of ICFA, 815 Ill. Comp. Stat. 505/2, 2Z.  Id. at *8.  The Court explained that to state an ICFA claim, Plaintiff must allege: (1) a deceptive or unfair act or practice by Kelly, (2) Kelly’s intent that Plaintiff rely on the deceptive or unfair practice, (3) the unfair or deceptive practice occurred in the course of conduct involving trade or commerce, and (4) Kelly’s unfair or deceptive practice caused Plaintiff actual damage.  Id. at *8-9.  In dismissing Plaintiff’s ICFA claim, the Court found  that “receiving one pre-recorded message does not rise to the level of an oppressive practice” and that damages such as “loss of time and loss of battery life” are “so negligible from an economic standpoint as to render any damages unquantifiable.”  Id. at *10.  The Court further rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Kelly violated the Illinois Telephone Act because the message did not solicit the sale of goods and or services and therefore, did not fall under the definition of “recorded message” in the Illinois Telephone Act.  Id. at *10-11.  Accordingly, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s ICFA claims with prejudice.

Implications For Employers

This is a landmark victory for employers, especially companies who utilize automated calls and text messages to contact prospective and/or current employees about job-related opportunities or employment matters.  Employers can almost certainly expect similar lawsuits brought against them under the TCPA.  Fortunately for employers, Kelly’s victory provides a roadmap for how to defeat such cutting edge class actions.

supreme court sealBy Christopher M. Cascino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A bankruptcy court overseeing an employer’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding allowed the employer to pay certain unsecured creditors before paying Worker Adjustment And Retraining Notification Act (“WARN”) creditors – workers who had sued the company – monies owed pursuant to a judgment, even though the bulk of the WARN monies owed were for back wages that hold priority over other unsecured claims under the Bankruptcy Code.  The bankruptcy court allowed the employer to pay the other unsecured creditors pursuant to a settlement agreement between the other unsecured creditors, the secured creditors, and the employer because, according to the bankruptcy court, the other unsecured creditors would not receive any monies absent the settlement, while the WARN creditors would not recover any compensation under or absent the settlement.  Both the district court and U.S. Court Of Appeals For The Third Circuit agreed with the bankruptcy court. In Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., No. 15-649, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2024 (U.S. Mar. 22, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, finding that the bankruptcy court’s conclusion that the WARN plaintiffs could not recover was questionable and, more significantly, that the bankruptcy court could not alter the Bankruptcy Code’s distribution scheme at the expense of the WARN creditors absent their consent.

Employers undergoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and WARN litigation should take note that unpaid wage claims will take priority over the claims of other unsecured creditors absent the consent of WARN creditors.

Case Background

Sun Capital Partners (“Sun”), a private equity firm, purchased Jevic Transportation Corp. (“Jevic”), an employer, in a leveraged buyout using monies borrowed from third-party CIT Group (“CIT”).  In the buyout, both Sun and CIT used Jevic’s stock as collateral to finance the purchase.

Two years after the buyout, Jevic declared bankruptcy under Chapter 11.  Immediately prior to filing for bankruptcy, Jevic, without the notice required under WARN, told its employees that it was terminating their employment.  During the bankruptcy, these employees sued, and the bankruptcy court entered a $12.4 million judgment in their favor, making them creditors of Jevic.  The bankruptcy court determined that $8.3 million of this $12.4 million was owed for priority wage claims.  While the WARN creditors argued that Sun was also liable for this judgment as a joint employer with Jevic, the bankruptcy court ultimately ruled against them, finding that Sun was not their employer.

Also during the bankruptcy, other unsecured creditors sued Sun and CIT, arguing that they were the beneficiaries of preferential transfers of Jevic’s assets.  While this lawsuit was pending, Jevic’s assets were depleted to $1.7 million in cash, subject to a lien by Sun, and the preferential transfer lawsuit.

Sun, CIT, Jevic, and the other unsecured creditors decided to settle the fraudulent transfer lawsuit.  At the time the case was settled, the WARN creditors’ joint employer case was still pending, so Sun insisted that any settlement could not include a payment to the WARN creditors or their counsel, as Sun feared the WARN creditors’ counsel would use such payments to fund litigation against Sun.  Under the settlement agreement, CIT agreed to pay $2 million to cover the legal fees and administrative expenses of the other unsecured creditors, while giving Jevic’s remaining $1.7 million to pay taxes, administrative expenses, and pro rata distributions to the other unsecured creditors.  Also pursuant to the settlement, Jevic agreed to dismiss its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

Sun, CIT, Jevic, and the unsecured creditors petitioned the bankruptcy court to approve the settlement and dismiss the Chapter 11 case.  The WARN creditors opposed, arguing that the settlement violated the normal priority rules by giving other unsecured creditors priority over the WARN creditors.

While the bankruptcy court agreed that the settlement violated standard priority rules, it found that, because it was dismissing the Chapter 11 case rather than approving a Chapter 11 plan, it did not have to follow the priority rules contained in Chapter 11.  It found authority to do so in Chapter 11’s dismissal provision, § 349(b)(1), which provides that, with dismissal, parties are restored to the status quo ante unless a bankruptcy judge, “for cause, orders otherwise.”  Further, it found that, regardless of the settlement, the WARN creditors would not receive any distributions, while the settlement left the other unsecured creditors in a better position than they would be absent the settlement.  Both the district court and Third Circuit agreed.  The WARN creditors sought certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted.

The Court’s Decision

In a March 22, 2017 opinion authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court reversed.  The Supreme Court began its analysis by considering Jevic’s argument that the WARN creditors lacked standing because they would not have recovered anything if the settlement was not approved.  The Supreme Court found this argument unpersuasive because it relied on two questionable propositions: first, that without violation of the ordinary priority rules, there would be no settlement and, second, that the fraudulent conveyance lawsuit had no value.  2017 U.S. LEXIS 2024, at *19.  With respect to the  first argument, the Supreme Court found it unpersuasive given that Sun ultimately won on the joint employer issue.  Id. at *19-20.  With respect to the second, the Supreme Court found the assumption that the fraudulent conveyance lawsuit had no value questionable in light of the fact it settled for $3.7 million.  Id. at *20.  The Supreme Court thus concluded that the WARN creditors had something to lose if the settlement was approved, and therefore had standing to challenge it.  Id. at *21.

The Supreme Court then turned to the question of whether a bankruptcy court can dismiss a Chapter 11 plan in a way that does not follow the ordinary priority rules without the affected creditors’ consent.  Id.  It decided that it cannot for several reasons.

First, the Supreme Court observed that the distribution scheme contained in the Bankruptcy Code is “fundamental to the Bankruptcy Code’s operation,” and that one would expect more than “statutory silence” to authorize departures from the scheme.  Id. at *22-23.  Second, the Supreme Court concluded that Chapter 11 § 349(b)(1), in providing that the parties are restored to the status quo ante in a dismissal unless a bankruptcy judge, “for cause, orders otherwise,” only allows a bankruptcy judge to “make appropriate orders to protect rights acquired in reliance on the bankruptcy case,” which approval of the settlement did not do.  Id. at *24-25.  Finally, the court concluded that the consequences of allowing a departure from the normal distribution scheme were “potentially serious,” including “changing the bargaining power of different classes of creditors” and “risks of collusion.”  Id. at *30-31.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the bankruptcy court’s approval of a settlement that, as part of the dismissal of a Chapter 11 case, allowed payment to general unsecured creditors while skipping the higher priority claims of the WARN creditors.

Implications For Employers

Financially distressed employers who are the subject of potential WARN litigation should be aware that, as a result of this decision, they will not be able to pay the claims of general unsecured creditors during bankruptcy absent the consent of WARN creditors.  The case has special implications for employers who own distressed employers, as was the case with Sun in Czyzewski, who want to avoid funding litigation against themselves under a joint employer theory.