The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear two important cases next year involving important issues for class action lawyers and the clients they serve.
In Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, the Supreme Court will decide “whether the Federal Arbitration Act forecloses a state-law interpretation of an arbitration agreement that would authorize class arbitration based solely on general language commonly used in arbitration agreements.” Recall that in Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. Animal Feeds International Corp., SCOTUS held in 2010 that a court could not order class arbitration unless there was a “contractual basis” for concluding that the parties have “agreed to” class arbitration, and that courts may not “presume” such consent from “mere silence on the issue of class arbitration” or “from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate” (Id. at 685, 687). Or as the Supreme Court stated in the 2013 decision in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter, “Class arbitration is a matter of consent: An arbitrator may employ class procedures only if the parties have authorized them.”
Seemingly clear enough, right? Apparently not. In the latest installment in the long series of guerilla warfare over the Federal Arbitration Act holdings of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit inferred consent to arbitration from a clause that did not mention class arbitration at all. To get there, the Ninth Circuit construed phrases like “arbitration shall be in lieu of any and all lawsuits or other civil legal proceedings” and language granting the arbitrator the power to award “any remedy allowed by applicable law” to be contractual consent to class arbitration. And in remarkable contrast to the teachings of Stolt-Nielsen, the Ninth Circuit actually found support for its conclusion from the absence of any reference to class actions in the arbitration agreement. This obfuscation brings to mind the following quote:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
The master here is clearly the Supreme Court, unless and until Congress decides to change the FAA, and we predict the Supreme Court will not allow interpretive creativity to substitute for clear express consent to class arbitration as a prerequisite to compelling it. The high stakes combined with the absence of appellate review, the fact that due process violations in the arbitration may allow the class to avoid a loss through collateral attack while the defendant is bound when it loses without any such recourse, and the summary and informal nature of arbitration all compel that result. Judge Fenrnadez, dissenting from the Ninth Circuit majority opinion, got it exactly right when he said the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning was a “palpable evasion of Stolt-Nielsen.” Courts hostile to arbitration have lost at least five of these arbitration fights with SCOTUS in the last 10 years. This should be the sixth.
In Frank v. Paloma Gaos, the Supreme Court will decide whether a class action settlement can provide a $5 million donation to charity and $2+ million to plaintiffs’ class action lawyers but no relief to class members. The issue, in legal jargon, refers to cy pres class action settlements. Five years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts wondered whether such charitable settlements could ever be fair and consistent with Due Process. This case will answer that question, one on which the federal rules committee responsible for amendments to Rule 23 was unable to reach consensus last year.
The interesting twist in this case involves how the dispute arose. Often corporate defendants are the ones complaining about cy pres relief in contested class actions and public debate, because cy pres distribution forces defendants to hand over money not to class members but only to plaintiffs’ class action lawyers and their favorite charities. Many feel this rewards and incentivizes class litigation that should never have been filed at all. In a cy pres settlement, however, the defendant has agreed to the cy pres nature of the settlement and has waived any right to object to it. So who objected and appealed? None other than professional class action objector Ted Frank. And when he petitioned for certiorari from affirmance of the settlement over his objection, the corporate defendant, Google, actually urged the Supreme Court not to take the case. That effort was not successful. So it will now be up to Mr. Frank—who is both a class member and an experienced class action lawyer—to convince the Supreme Court to stop class action settlements that, in his words, put the interests of class members “dead last.”
The precise issue the Supreme Court will decide is when, if ever, a court can approve a class action settlement that gives money to charity in lieu of providing relief to actual class members. The lower courts in the Google case decided that it was not feasible to divide $5 million among the 129 million members of the class, which was defined as consumers who used the Google search engine between 2006 and 2014, and that cy pres distribution was therefore preferable. The objector, Mr. Frank, is pitted as Daniel against a two-headed adversary representing the interests of corporate America and the plaintiffs’ class action bar. It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court resolves the case and what limits it places on cy pres in such a matchup.
These two cert grants continue a decade long focus by the Supreme Court on important issues in class action practice. We’ll keep you posted on the outcomes.