Thursday, January 21, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court Rules against Defendants’ Attempts to Shut Down Employment and Consumer Class Action Suits by Paying Off Named Plaintiffs

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court handed a rare 6-3 victory to consumers and employees seeking to bring class claims in Campbell-Edwald Co. v. Gomez. The Court was tasked with deciding whether a defendant can properly dispose of a class case by offering full relief to the named plaintiffs in an effort to render moot their individual claims and thus get rid of the entire case. Such efforts by defendants to dispose of class cases by paying off the named plaintiffs have become commonplace in consumer and employee class actions.

The case involved a consumer class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) against a Navy contractor hired to send recruiting text messages to young people. The TCPA prohibits sending such marketing text messages without the cellular phone user’s prior consent. Jose Gomez, who had not provided consent and nonetheless received the Navy’s recruiting text message, filed suit on behalf of a putative consumer class seeking treble statutory damages for Cambell-Edwald’s knowing and willful violation of the TCPA, as well as an injunction against further unsolicited text messages by Campbell-Edwald.

Before Mr. Gomez’s deadline to file a motion for class certification, Campbell-Edwald filed an offer of judgment to Mr. Gomez under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. Mr. Gomez did not accept that offer. However, Campbell-Edwald contended that by providing Mr. Gomez with an offer of complete relief, his claim became moot. Because his claim was mooted before he moved for class certification, Campbell-Edwald argued, the putative class claims also became moot. The district court rejected those arguments and ruled in favor of Mr. Gomez on that issue. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

At the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsberg wrote for the majority, joined by Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. (Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment but did not sign Justice Ginsberg’s majority opinion.) Ultimately, Justice Ginsberg resolved the mootness question according to fundamental principles of contract law, stating that “an unaccepted settlement offer has no force. Like other unaccepted contract offers, it creates no lasting right or obligation. With the offer off the table, and the defendant’s continuing denial of liability, adversity between the parties persists.”

In reaching that conclusion, Justice Ginsberg addressed a 2013 decision of the Court, Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk, 133 S.Ct. 1523 (2013), a collective action brought by employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In that case, the named plaintiff had conceded in the lower courts that her individual claim was rendered moot when she did not accept her employer’s Rule 68 offer to settle her individual claim. Based on that early concession, a five-justice majority held that without a named plaintiff’s live individual case, a class suit could not be maintained. The four dissenting Justices, led by Justice Kagan, argued that the employee’s unaccepted offer of judgment could not properly moot a case.

Justice Ginsberg thus adopted the reasoning of Justice Kagan’s dissent in Genesis HealthCare and secured a majority with the votes of Justices Kennedy and Thomas. The decision was a rare victory for employees and consumers before a Supreme Court that has often been hostile toward class action lawsuits. See previous blog posts here, here, and here. Justice Kennedy’s decision to join the majority in deciding not to dispense with class actions as a means to vindicate vital statutory rights – including job protections--should delight employee and consumer advocates.

The argument advanced by Chief Justice Roberts and the dissenters is a cynical one in its claim that a lawsuit brought on behalf of a class is rendered moot if the defendant offers to pay off the named plaintiffs, even if those named plaintiffs refuse the payment. The Chief’s contention that no live case or controversy exists because a defendant offers to resolve one of potentially thousands of putative class members’ claims cannot be taken at face value.

Practically speaking, what company would not pay a few thousand dollars to the named plaintiffs to escape the possibility of multi-million dollar exposure? Simply put, a seemingly small point of procedural law could have spelled the end of vigorous enforcement for numerous employee and consumer protections enacted by Congress.

Although Justice Ginsberg confined her majority opinion to a relatively narrow set of facts—suggesting the outcome could be different if Mr. Gomez had in fact accepted full payment—employees, consumers, and those who advocate on their behalf can breathe a collective sigh of relief that class actions will live to fight another day.

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