Regular blog readers may recall that, every year, we eagerly await a Monday and Tuesday right around February 14th.  This has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day (though we like a dozen roses and a box of chocolates as much as the next person.)  No, at this time every year (for the past eighteen or so) we cross our fingers that there is no blizzard, beg everyone in our work life to cover any emergencies, and head to New York for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  This year was the 141st annual show, and, as always, it was a mecca for all things dog.  As we ate breakfast in our hotel, we were visited by Mobius, a red Doberman so tall he had to lean down to attempt to taste our complimentary make-it-ourselves waffle.  To board the shuttle from the Hotel Pennsylvania (worthy of its own post) to Piers 92 and 94 for the daytime breed judging, we had to step over “Sky,” a 140-pound Greater Swiss Mountain Dog sprawled in the aisle of the bus, calmly oblivious to accidental bumps and kicks and happily kissing anyone who asked.  We live for this stuff, even if our chosen favorite almost never wins.

For the atmosphere is rarified. A few years ago, the show stopped being “champions only” and admitted “class dogs” – dogs still working their way through point-earning breed classes to achieve their championships – for the first time.  But, save for the infrequent upset, the group competition (the televised portion, in which the single winner of each breed competes against the winners from the other breeds in its “group” – sporting, herding, toy, etc.) is dominated by the very top-winning show dogs in the country.  Last year, we fell in love with a gorgeous German Shepherd Dog named Rumor.  She was a heavy favorite to win it all (“Best in Show”), but was upset by C.J. the German Shorthaired Pointer and settled for Reserve Best – second place.  And she retired, to raise beautiful puppies and live the life of a cherished house pet.

But, alas, said puppies did not get made on the first attempt. And, come January, Rumor’s owner/handler decided to give her one more shot at the big one.  So she “came back out,” showed at ten shows in January, and took one more run at the Garden.  And, this time, after upsetting the favorite, Preston the Puli, to take the Herding Group, she won it all.  It was very, very cool to witness.  And we already can’t wait ‘til next year.

And there was a blog-worthy lesson to be gleaned from it all (at least if you stretch a little): if you haven’t achieved everything you want, think about taking another shot.  And H.R. 985, a bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee this week, would pick up where CAFA left off (and then some) to correct still-rampant abuse of the system by class action and MDL plaintiff lawyers, to the detriment of our clients, the judicial system as a whole, and all too often, to the plaintiffs the lawyers ostensibly represent.

Under “Purposes,” the bill states: “The purposes of this act are to – (1) assure fair and prompt recoveries for class members and multidistrict litigation plaintiffs with legitimate claims; (2) diminish abuses in class action and mass tort litigation that are undermining the integrity of the U.S. legal system; and (3) restore the intent of the framers of the United States Constitution by ensuring Federal court consideration of interstate controversies of national importance consistent with diversity jurisdiction principles.”  Worthy goals all, if a trifle ambitious. The bill’s key points read like a set of nesting boxes – just when you think you’ve opened the last, there is another present inside.  Here are some highlights:

Class Actions

  • Injury allegations: this provision requires a court to deny certification unless “the party seeking to maintain such a class action affirmatively demonstrates that each proposed class member suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative.” This is ascertainability something for which we’ve advocated, and also something that our side tried unsuccessfully to get fixed through the Federal Rules Committee. Thus, the judiciary had its chance to fix this. Nothing happened, so now Congress is poised to step in. About time.
  • Conflicts of interest: this provision requires class counsel to state, in the body of the complaint, “whether any proposed class representative or named plaintiff in the complaint is a relative of, is a present or former employee of, is a present or former client of (other than with respect to the class action) or has any contractual relationship with . . . class counsel” and shall “describe the circumstances under which each class representative or named plaintiff agreed to be included in the complaint and shall identify any other class action in which any proposed class representative or named plaintiff has a similar role.”
  • Attorneys’ fees: “[N]o attorneys’ fees may be . . . paid . . . until the distribution of any monetary recovery to class members has been completed,” and “[u]nless otherwise specified by Federal statute, . . . the portion of any attorneys’ fee award to class counsel . . . shall be limited to a reasonable percentage of any payments directly distributed to and received by class members [and in] no event shall the attorneys’ fee award exceed the total amount of money distributed to and received by all class members.” We particularly like this because it would effectively put an end to cy pres, against which we’ve railed for years. By limiting the denominator for fee awards to “payments directly distributed to and received by class members” it prevents cy pres sums from being used to inflate fee awards.

There are other provisions, requiring stringent accounting provisions for settlement funds forbidding certification of issue classes unless all relevant Rule 23 prerequisites are satisfied (another thing our side tried first to fix through a change to Rule 23), and most significantly providing for severance of misjoined plaintiffs for purposes of jurisdictional determinations. This legislative elimination of fraudulent misjoinder is a key point, since it addresses the multi-plaintiff complaints we love to hate.

We note that since the “effective date” of this act provides for its application to all “pending” civil actions, cases currently in state court can be removed (or removed again) under the provision negating misjoinder as a means of preventing diversity-based removal to federal court.

Finally, in an issue close to our hearts as we daily encounter plaintiffs unwittingly victimized by so-called “litigation funders,” the bill provides, “In any class action, class counsel shall promptly disclose in writing to the court and all other parties the identity of any person or entity, other than a class member or class counsel of record, who has a contingent right to receive compensation from any settlement, judgment, or other relief obtained in the action.” A sunshine law for third-party funding is something else for which we’ve advocated.

Multidistrict Litigation:

  • Proof of exposure and injury: We were thrilled to see a “Lone Pine”-esque provision build into the MDL portion of the bill. It provides, in pertinent part, “In any coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings . . . , counsel for a plaintiff asserting a claim seeking redress for personal injury [in the MDL] shall make a submission sufficient to demonstrate that there is evidentiary support (including but not limited to medical records) for the factual contentions in the plaintiff’s complaint regarding the alleged injury, the exposure to the risk that allegedly caused the injury, and the alleged cause of the injury . . . within 45 days after the civil action is transferred to or directly filed in the proceedings. That deadline shall not be extended. Within 30 days after the submission deadline, the judge . . . shall [determine] whether the submission is sufficient and shall dismiss the action without prejudice if the submission is found to be insufficient.” Thirty days later, in the continued absence of a satisfactory submission, the action is to be dismissed with prejudice. Not long ago, we advocated for amending the MDL statute to require early factual disclosure, with dismissal as the sanction for not disclosing enough to satisfy Rule 8. This is the functional equivalent.
  • Trial Prohibition (“waiving Lexecon”): MDL judges “may not conduct any trial in any civil action transferred to or directly filed in the proceedings unless all parties to the civil action consent to trail of the specific case sought to be tried.” This provision would remove the threat of MDL trials as a tool to force defendants to settle. It is something else for which we have advocated.
  • Ensuring Proper Recovery for Plaintiffs: MDL plaintiffs “shall receive not less than 80 percent of any monetary recovery obtained in that action by settlement, judgment or otherwise.”

While most of the press coverage seems to focus on class actions, to us the removal and MDL provisions are at least as important. The vast bulk of our professional life is spent in the mass tort space – mostly MDLs these days, with the occasional class action thrown in. We have become accustomed (but never inured) to plaintiffs without injuries herded by counsel who are their friends or bosses into mass actions in which they don’t belong. On the other end of the spectrum, we encounter severely injured plaintiffs who will recover next to nothing because lawyers and litigation funders own most or all of the plaintiffs’ stakes in the inevitable settlements. And, at every turn, we sit across the table from tanned and affluent plaintiff attorneys who are the only ones apparently immune to the vagaries of the system and who are the sole beneficiaries of its inequities. H.R. 985, as drafted, attempts to address many of these issues. We do have questions. Who defines “the same type and scope of injury,” for example? And we have doubts: can a bill possibly survive the powerful plaintiff attorney lobby when it attempts to resurrect the integrity of mass litigation by hitting those attorneys squarely in their pocketbooks? But we heartily and excitedly support this bill, and we know that some of its provisions are way, way better than none. We will keep you posted.

This post does not involve a drug/device case – or even a tort case − but counsel worried about potentially abusive litigation funding should take a look at WFIC, LLC v. Labarre, ___ A.3d ___, 2016 WL 4769436 (Pa. Super. Sept. 13, 2016), in which a statewide appellate court, in a precedential decision, invalidated a litigation funding agreement as “champertous.”

WFIC involved commercial litigation. The underlying litigation is not important, except for its being extensive and expensive, and that the result was a significant verdict (low eight figures) – but not the nine-figure whopper that the plaintiffs had been hoping for.  2016 WL 4769436, at *1.

After entry of judgment, to keep the litigation going during the appeal, the plaintiff’s lawyer rejiggered his own fee arrangement so that various litigation funders, who had previously advanced funds, would be paid out the lawyer’s contingent fee.  Id.  The funds from the eventual satisfaction of the affirmed judgment were insufficient to satisfy obligations to the various litigation funders, the expectations of the original plaintiff (WFIC was an assignee of the original plaintiff, id. at *3 n.10), and also provide counsel with a fee.  Id. at *2.  As a result, various parties sued various parties.  Id. at *3.  The appeal in question pitted plaintiffs’ counsel against the world over whose priorities (if any) in the remaining funds were superior to his under the litigation funding agreement.  Id.

The Superior Court didn’t decide the priority question.  Instead the three-judge panel unanimously declared the litigation funding agreement itself “champertous,” and therefore void and unenforceable by anyone.  WFIC, 2016 WL 4769436, at *5 (“we conclude that the 2008 Fee Agreement is champertous and, therefore, invalid”).  In Pennsylvania, “champerty” is defined as:

[T]he unlawful maintenance of a suit in consideration of some bargain to have a part of the thing in dispute or some profit out of the litigation. . . . An agreement by a stranger to defray the expenses of a suit in which he has no interest or to give substantial support and aid thereto in consideration of a share of the recovery or the proceeds thereof is condemned by the courts as champertous[.]

Id. (emphasis added) (discussion of “maintenance” – essentially the same thing without a written agreement – omitted).  “[T]he common law doctrine of champerty remains a viable defense in Pennsylvania.”  Id.

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