Tag: class action

Standard Fire: SCOTUS Foils an Artful Class Action Dodge

With Justice Breyer writing, a unanimous Supreme Court in Standard Fire Insurance Co. v. Knowles (opinion PDF, background SCOTUSBlog) has struck down as invalid a dodge used by some plaintiff’s lawyers to evade the provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA). As we wrote in October when Cato filed its amicus brief: 

In relevant part, CAFA provides defendants with the right to move class actions to federal court where the claim for damages against them exceeds $5 million. But can clever lawyers keep these cases out of federal court by simply “stipulating” that potential damages are less than $5 million — and before the named plaintiff is even authorized to represent the alleged class? In this case, Greg Knowles is the named plaintiff in a putative insurance-recovery class action against Standard Fire Insurance in Arkansas state court. Before the court certified the class, Knowles tried to avoid that removal to federal court by stipulating that his class would not seek more than $5 million in damages at trial. Notably, the stipulation is worded in such a way that it will not apply if the class definition is later altered. … CAFA was enacted specifically to discourage attorneys from “forum shopping” (seeking friendlier courts) and attempting to keep cases out of federal court. Lawyers who game the system by agreeing to cap damages in an effort to keep cases in more favorable state courts violate the federal due process rights of absent would-be class members, thereby flouting CAFA. 

In his opinion for the unanimous Court, Justice Breyer found that the named class representative lacked a right to limit absent class members’ claims in such a way. Individual litigants remain free to avoid federal jurisdiction through the use of damage stipulations, but that is a decision they are entitled to make only for themselves. That’s very much consistent with the principles Cato urged, and with the importance of individual rights as the fundamental basis for legal action, rather than as mere ingredients to be aggregated by lawyers seeking settlement advantage. Thanks again to the ever-brilliant David B. Rivkin, Jr., Andrew M. Grossman and colleagues at Baker & Hostetler for their work on the Cato brief.

Prop 19, Employment at Will, and Social Peace

Writing at CNN, my colleague Jeffrey Miron puts his finger on one reason for the disappointing defeat of California’s Prop 19:

Prop 19 failed also because it overreached. One feature attempted to protect the “rights” of employees who get fired or disciplined for using marijuana, including a provision that employers could only discipline marijuana use that “actually impairs job performance.” That is a much higher bar than required by current policy.

Like so many other developments in employment law in recent years, this would have chipped away at the basic principle of employment at will, which holds that in the absence of a contract specifying otherwise, either party to an employment relation may end that relation at any time for any reason or for no reason at all.

It was no doubt inevitable that the proposition would fare poorly among self-identified conservatives and older voters. But the “users’ rights” provisions were enough to raise doubts even among liberty-minded thinkers like David Henderson, who predicted that by signaling hostility toward freedom of association, such provisions would “make the drug-legalization hill even steeper.”

Marijuana of course remains illegal under federal law, which means that its consumption would at one and the same time have been 1) protected under employment-discrimination rules, and 2) illegal and subject to prison sentences. If this paradox seems vaguely familiar, maybe it’s because not that many years ago – before the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas – there were localities where consenting homosexual conduct was simultaneously protected under one set of laws, and unlawful under another. Indeed, there were more than a few advocacy groups that worked to promote the new controls over employer decisionmaking and yet never troubled themselves to work for repeal of the still-on-the-books anti-gay prohibitions. If the goal is to achieve social peace, however, rather than wage constant culture war on each other, you’d think the “leave people alone” message would hold more appeal than the “fall in line or you’ll hear from our lawyers” message.

Jeffrey Miron surmises, no doubt rightly, that the problem of undislodgeable tenured stoners in the workplace would be more the exception than the rule. Yet it’s worth noting that the issue has already arisen in various lawsuits in which workers with a doctor’s note recommending marijuana use have contested firings. Lawyers have also eagerly cobbled together suits over related issues, as with this class action noted less than two years ago at my other website, Overlawyered:

Starbucks’s job application asked prospective baristas if they’d been convicted of a crime in the past seven years and added for “CALIFORNIA APPLICANTS ONLY”, at the end, that minor marijuana possession convictions more than two years old didn’t have to be disclosed, in accord with a state law along those lines. Entrepreneurial lawyers then tried to steam-press $26 million or so out of the coffee chain on the following theory: that the clarification was placed too far down the application after the original question; that Starbucks had therefore violated the California Labor Code; and that each and every Starbucks job applicant in California since June 2004, perhaps 135,000 persons, was owed $200 in statutory damages regardless of whether they had suffered any harm. Per John Sullivan of the Civil Justice Association of California, the lawyers also took the position that “it didn’t matter that two of the three job applicants who signed on as named plaintiffs testified in court that they read the entire application and knew they didn’t have to mention a marijuana conviction (which neither had anyway!)” The court refused to certify the class and made the following observations (courtesy CJAC blog):

* “There are better ways to filter out impermissible questions on job applications than allowing ‘lawyer bounty hunter’ lawsuits brought on behalf of tens of thousands of unaffected job applicants. Plaintiffs’ strained efforts to use the marijuana reform legislation to recover millions of dollars from Starbucks gives a bizarre new dimension to the every day expressions ‘coffee joint’ and ‘coffee pot.’”… “The civil justice system is not well-served by turning Starbucks into a Daddy Warbucks.”

Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy notes that “the case against the War on Drugs and other ‘morals’ regulations is very similar to the standard conservative critique of economic regulation.” But if a much-needed rollback of morals regulation is made the excuse for an expansion of economic regulation, there may be grounds to wonder whether the goal is truly freedom at all.

The Libertarian Case against the Google Book Search Deal

Five years ago, Google began scanning millions of books for inclusion in what eventually became Google Book Search. Google carefully designed the service to stay within the boundaries of copyright’s fair use provisions, at least as Google interpreted them. Still, some authors and publishers objected, and in 2005 they filed a lawsuit accusing Google of copyright infringement. The lawsuit dragged on for more than three years. Finally, in 2008, the parties announced a settlement of the lawsuit. Its text runs for 140 pages, not counting a secret termination clause available only to Google and its adversaries. The deadline for comments on the settlement was earlier this month, and on October 7 a federal judge must decide whether to approve or reject the settlement.

I was (and still am) firmly on Google’s side on the copyright claims at issue in the lawsuit. But the proposed settlement is another matter. The parties like to describe the agreement as a private agreement settling a legal dispute. But I agree with Librarian of Congress Marybeth Peters, who surprised almost everyone on Thursday when, testifying before Congress, she came out swinging against the agreement:

We realized that the settlement was not really a settlement at all, in as much as settlements resolve acts that have happened in the past and were at issue in the underlying infringement suits. Instead, the so-called settlement would create mechanisms by which Google could continue to scan with impunity, well into the future, and to our great surprise, create yet additional commercial products without the prior consent of rights holders. For example, the settlement allows Google to reproduce, display and distribute the books of copyright owners without prior consent, provided Google and the plaintiffs deem the works to be “out-of-print” through a definition negotiated by them for purposes of the settlement documents. Although Google is a commercial entity, acting for a primary purpose of commercial gain, the settlement absolves Google of the need to search for the rights holders or obtain their prior consent and provides a complete release from liability. In contrast to the scanning and snippets originally at issue, none of these new acts could be reasonably alleged to be fair use.

In the view of the Copyright Office, the settlement proposed by the parties would encroach on responsibility for copyright policy that traditionally has been the domain of Congress. The settlement is not merely a compromise of existing claims, or an agreement to compensate past copying and snippet display. Rather, it could affect the exclusive rights of millions of copyright owners, in the United States and abroad, with respect to their abilities to control new products and new markets, for years and years to come. We are greatly concerned by the parties’ end run around legislative process and prerogatives, and we submit that this Committee should be equally concerned.

The fundamental problem with the settlement is its audacious use of class action law. As my former colleague Mark Moller has argued, the aggressive use of class action law raises fundamental issues of fairness, due process, and the separation of powers. Rather than dozens of judges hearing individual cases and reaching judgments based on individual circumstances, class action law often asks a single judge to render justice on behalf of thousands of plaintiffs in a single decision. This arrangement opens the door to a whole host of potential problems. A single judge unlikely to have the knowledge required to render justice in thousands of individual cases simultaneously. And there’s a real danger that a nominally judicial proceeding will take on a fundamentally legislative character, reshaping the rights of thousands of people whose interests are not adequately represented by any of the parties before the judge.

This danger is especially acute in the Google Book Search case because of the incredibly broad scope of the class the plaintiffs purport to represent: all authors of books still under copyright in the United States. The settlement class doesn’t just include authors and publishers of still-in-print works, who are relatively easy to contact and can opt out of the settlement if they don’t like its terms. It also includes the copyright holders for millions of “orphan works” – works that are in copyright and whose authors cannot be located. These copyright holders are, by definition, difficult to find. The settlement effectively expropriates these absent parties for the benefit of Google and the large publishers leading the lawsuit.

The usurpation of the legislative function is especially clear in the case of orphan works because Congress has been actively considering legislation to deal with the orphan works problem. I have written in favor of an “orphan works” defense to copyright infringement. The leading orphan works proposals have two key features: they require prospective users of orphan works to make a good-faith effort to find rights-holders before using the works. And they are competitively neutral – everyone would have equal opportunity to use orphan works under the conditions set forth in the legislation.

The Book Search deal has neither characteristic. Using the legal fiction that the plaintiffs represent the interests of millions of absent copyright holders, the settlement would give Google carte blanch to use these orphan works without making a serious effort to contact their owners. This deprives some copyright holders of royalties to which they might otherwise be entitled. And it gives Google a permanent competitive advantage by giving Google an immunity to litigation that would not be available to competitors if they entered the same market. Not surprisingly, Google’s leading competitors, including Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon.com, have all urged the judge to reject the agreement.

Our system of government is based on the principle of the separation of powers. Congress, not the judicial branch, is responsible for making broad changes to rules of copyright. The Google Book Search settlement, if approved, would use the legal fiction of the class action lawsuit to re-write copyright law as it applies to the online book market. While the settlement includes some laudable provisions, it’s more important that the judge respect the separation of powers and reject the settlement.