When the Supreme Court agrees to hear a case, the decision that the Court reaches in that case can have long-standing consequences for future rulings in similar cases made by courts all over the country. In recent years, class action lawsuits have been particularly contentious in the courts. In order to attain class certification, a class of plaintiffs is generally required to fulfill four requirements:
1. The class must be large enough to justify combining all of the claims into one lawsuit, generally, this means at least 100 class members;
2. The class must have questions of law or fact in common;
3. The claims of the representative parties must be sufficiently similar to the claims of the rest of the class; and
4. The representative parties must fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.
Despite these clear requirements, various courts have ruled to certify classes of plaintiffs while other courts have denied certification based on a lack of ability to fulfill the above requirements.
Securities class actions in particular have faced an increasing number of challenges in recent years, leaving shareholders who have been the victims of fraud with little or not outlet for redress.
Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund
In this case, investors filed a lawsuit against the publicly traded energy company by claiming that it misled them about key information, including its liability in a recent asbestos investigation. The investors allege that such misinformation affected the company’s stock prices and ultimately harmed the company’s shareholders.
Halliburton is challenging the Supreme Court’s decision in 1988 in Basic v. Levinson, in which the Court determined the fraud-on-the-market theory, which has been the basis for most securities class actions ever since. The theory states that, when a public company makes a misrepresentation in an efficient market, that misinformation is carried through the market and affects the company’s stock price. An investor purchasing a security is thus presumed to have relied on that misinformation. However, the concept of an efficient market, while largely uncontested in the 1980s, has since come under scrutiny and has recently been questioned by some of the current justices of the Supreme Court. If the Court overturns its decision in Basic v. Levinson, each class member will have to prove that they relied on the misinformation when purchasing or selling company stock.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys fear that such a requirement will render class certification for such cases nearly impossible. Some of them have claimed that it could have consequences beyond just securities class actions. Consumer class actions, for example, might also be affected.
The “Washing Machine” Cases
Two separate consumer class actions alleging defective washing machines have made their way through the court system and are currently being petitioned to be heard by the Supreme Court. The defendants in the lawsuit, Whirlpool Corp, and Sears Roebuck & Co., are asking the Supreme Court to overrule the decisions made by lower courts to certify classes of consumers. The plaintiffs against Whirlpool allege that 21 different models of the company’s high-efficiency, front-loading Duet clothes washers sold since 2001 have a design defect that results in mold.
Both Whirlpool and Sears argue that the classes fail to meet the predominancy requirements of class certification and that most of the class members were not harmed.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case and rules in favor of the defendants, the decision could have serious consequences on all issue-based class actions. It has the potential to severely limit consumers’ ability to bring their grievances against a company.
Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA)
While rulings made by the Supreme Court can sometimes mean drastic changes in the law, it also frequently means simply clarifying older laws. For example, the SLUSA was enacted in 1998 as a way to prevent shareholders from evading the pleading standards of federal litigation by filing suit in state court, whose pleading standards are usually less rigorous. Specifically, SLUSA prohibits state-based suites alleging fraud “in connection with the purchase or sale” of covered securities.
The current lawsuit arose when investors bought securities which were not covered under SLUSA directly, but were certificates of deposits which were backed by SLUSA-covered securities.
When Robert Allen Standford’s $7 billion Ponzi scheme was revealed to the public, the shareholders filed a class action lawsuit alleging fraud. The law firms Proskaur Rose LLP and Chadbourne & Parke LLP were included as defendants in the lawsuit for allegedly aiding the Ponzi scheme.
A Texas federal judge ruled that the investors’ claims were precluded by SLUSA. The decision was appealed and went to the Fifth Circuit Court, which found that the claims were only “tangentially related” to SLUSA-covered securities trades. The attorneys representing the law firms are appealing the decision, arguing that the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision allows plaintiffs to avoid SLUSA.
If the Supreme Court decides to rule in favor of the defendants, the result could have far-reaching implications on shareholders’ ability to file claims.
Mississippi ex rel. Hood v. AU Optronics Corp.
Consumers who have suffered as a result of fraud are not the only ones capable of bringing a lawsuit against a company for violating consumer rights. State attorneys general also have the option of bringing a lawsuit to recover damages on behalf of consumers. These are known as parens patriae cases. At issue in this lawsuit is whether a parens patriae case in which the attorney general is seeking to represent 100 or more consumers should be treated as a class action.
Mississippi’s attorney general, Jim Hood, filed a lawsuit against a group of electronics companies for allegedly fixing the price of liquid crystal display panels.
If the Supreme Court rules that parens patriae lawsuits count as class actions, it could give defendants the option of moving such cases to federal court. If the Court rules that these lawsuits cannot be treated as class actions, then the state attorneys’ general can keep them in their home courts, which are often more disposed to be favorable to the attorney general.
Carrera v. Bayer Corp. et al.
This lawsuit was filed against Bayer by a consumer who alleges that the pharmaceutical company engaged in deceptive practices by claiming that its One-A-Day WeightSmart could enhance metabolism. Since Bayer does not sell its products directly to consumers, the company has no records of who purchased the vitamin. The defendants therefore claim that the class cannot be certified because the plaintiffs have no way of finding every single class member, despite such a limitation never having been a requirement for class action certification.
The district court certified the class, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, saying that the difficulty in determining consumers who belong to the class rendered it ineligible for certification.
If the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case and makes a ruling in line with that of the Third Circuit Court, the decision could affect consumers’ ability to file claims. The plaintiffs in the case also argue that such a decision could encourage companies like Bayer not to keep a record of customer purchases.