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Column: Practical and legal differences of class and mass actions

May 23, 2012
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Indiana Lawyer Focus

By Scott Starr and Mario Massillamany

Massillamany Masssillamany
Starr Starr

Before filing a case on behalf of multiple people who have been injured, either physically or monetarily, an initial decision must be made of whether to bring each person’s claims individually or as a group. If you believe bringing the claims as a group would be more beneficial for purposes of economy of scale, greater bargaining power collectively and efficiency, the next issue is whether to pursue the case as a class action or a mass action. These types of procedural mechanisms for bringing a group of claims together are appropriate under different circumstances, and each has its own pros and cons.

Sometimes the decision of which type of action to pursue is easy, while other times there is some strategy and weighing of options involved, as well as legal considerations of whether the proposed class meets the criteria for certification. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when making this decision with your clients.

How many plaintiffs can be practically joined, and can they represent others or just themselves?

One of the most obvious differences between a class and mass action are the number of plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. Class actions have only one or a few named plaintiffs, who act as representatives of the entire class, because, as Trial Rule 23 says, the class is so large joinder of all the members would be impracticable. That means technically there are only a few named parties to the lawsuit, and those class members not listed as class representatives have very limited input and responsibilities with regard to the lawsuit.

Those absent class members normally don’t have to answer discovery, go to depositions or court hearings, and don’t have to prove their claims individually (at least not their liability claims). Instead, although there are some chances along the way for them to opt out or contest any settlement, for example, even class counsel only has to communicate with class members during certain limited times during the lawsuit. The other side of the coin of this representation, however, is that if the class is certified, the results of the lawsuit are res judicata for all class members – whether named or not. That is why to get certified as a class the court must determine that the class is adequately represented by both the class representatives and the attorneys for the class.

On the other hand, mass actions typically have many allegedly injured parties, too, but instead of choosing one or two people to represent everyone, each person is individually listed as a plaintiff. Since the Class Action Fairness Act was signed into law in 2005, whenever such a mass action lists more than 100 plaintiffs, it is typically deemed to be a class action removable to federal court by defendants. 28 U.S.C. 1332(d)(11). Further, when many lawsuits, even across districts, deal with the same issues, they often are brought together with federal multidistrict litigation governed by the procedural rules found at 28 U.S.C. 1407 and 2112.

Unlike with class actions, each plaintiff in a mass action has responsibilities for doing all the activities that any regular plaintiff must do, like discovery, etc. Further, although there are some procedural mechanisms that can be put in place to try to prove some elements of the case across the board for all claimants, at the end of the day each person’s case ultimately is decided individually.

How similar are the plaintiffs’ claims in regard to both commonality and typicality?

The other major difference between a class action and mass action is whether the claims are similar enough, either factually and/or legally, to be able to prosecute them as a whole. Class actions only can be brought if they meet all the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 (or a similar state rule, such as Indiana Rule of Trial Procedure 23), whereas mass actions are a default when all such requirements cannot be met.

There are many procedural rules set in place for determining when a class action is appropriate, but ultimately the idea behind each of them is to make sure that the person who is the class representative can adequately represent the interests of his or her fellow class members. This was touched upon above, but it also is important for the other two major requirements for a class to be certified – commonality and typicality. The idea is that a class representative could not adequately represent another absent person if they do not pose questions of law and fact common to the class, and if the named parties’ claims or defenses are not typical of the class.

Mass torts sometimes are not the right fit for class actions.

A common example of claims that are sometimes not appropriate as class actions are mass torts, where multiple people are injured in a large accident. Mass torts can include such things as injuries from pharmaceutical drugs, large-scale accidents and even product liability claims. In fact, the comment to FRCP 23(b)(3) explicitly cautions against the use of the class-action device in mass tort cases. The reasons for this include that these cases involve personal injuries and sometimes even death, meaning that each claim is not easily described as “typical” because there is a need for individual evidence of exposure, injury and damages for each plaintiff, not just class representatives.

Here in Indiana we are unfortunately too familiar with such a large accident – the stage collapse at the Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair. In that case, the victims have brought a mass action, not a class action, against various defendants alleging fault for the accident. It would not have been appropriate to try to bring a class action because there was no commonality regarding the injuries, and therefore each plaintiff’s case ultimately must be decided on its own. On the other hand, the State Fair stage collapse case is perfect for a mass action as the liability claims (what caused the stage to collapse and who is responsible) will require the same proof for all the injured parties.

There are factual and legal differences between individual claims in mass actions. These differences make it impossible to fulfill the elements of typicality and adequacy which are required for Rule 23(a). Further, these same differences make it difficult to demonstrate that the putative class has the requisite “cohesiveness” which is required in Rule 23(b)(2) and makes it difficult to demonstrate that the putative class has common issues which “predominate,” which is required for Rule 23(b) claims.

Another reason not mentioned in procedural rules themselves, but which often is an important factor in why class actions do not practically work for mass torts, is that when someone suffers a personal injury, they and the courts have major concerns about autonomy and being properly represented as a class member. Each plaintiff has significant interest in individually controlling the prosecution of separate actions and a substantial stake in making individual decisions on whether and when to settle. This came into stark focus in the nationwide asbestos settlement classes proposed in Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 (1997), and Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815 (1999), when the individual absent class members had concerns so great about the proposed class-action settlements that they pursued their objections all the way to the United States Supreme Court on multiple occasions.

While there are many legal and practical differences between class actions and mass actions, they often have the same general goal in mind – get relief for the injured parties as quickly, efficiently and in as cost-effective manner as possible. Certain factual situations lend themselves better than others to one procedural mechanism, so the first step is to examine the facts of the case and decide which has a better chance of achieving the goals of your clients before going forward.•

__________

Scott Starr is a partner at Starr Austen & Miller and Mario Massillamany is an associate at Starr Austen & Miller. Both concentrate their practices in the areas of securities and class-action litigation.  Massillamany and Starr currently are involved in numerous class-action lawsuits throughout the country including the multidistrict litigation against Dupont and the Indiana State Fair mass-action lawsuit.  The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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  1. I have been on this program while on parole from 2011-2013. No person should be forced mentally to share private details of their personal life with total strangers. Also giving permission for a mental therapist to report to your parole agent that your not participating in group therapy because you don't have the financial mean to be in the group therapy. I was personally singled out and sent back three times for not having money and also sent back within the six month when you aren't to be sent according to state law. I will work to het this INSOMM's removed from this state. I also had twelve or thirteen parole agents with a fifteen month period. Thanks for your time.

  2. Our nation produces very few jurists of the caliber of Justice DOUGLAS and his peers these days. Here is that great civil libertarian, who recognized government as both a blessing and, when corrupted by ideological interests, a curse: "Once the investigator has only the conscience of government as a guide, the conscience can become ‘ravenous,’ as Cromwell, bent on destroying Thomas More, said in Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960), p. 120. The First Amendment mirrors many episodes where men, harried and harassed by government, sought refuge in their conscience, as these lines of Thomas More show: ‘MORE: And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, *575 and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship? ‘CRANMER: So those of us whose names are there are damned, Sir Thomas? ‘MORE: I don't know, Your Grace. I have no window to look into another man's conscience. I condemn no one. ‘CRANMER: Then the matter is capable of question? ‘MORE: Certainly. ‘CRANMER: But that you owe obedience to your King is not capable of question. So weigh a doubt against a certainty—and sign. ‘MORE: Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King's command make it round? And if it is round, will the King's command flatten it? No, I will not sign.’ Id., pp. 132—133. DOUGLAS THEN WROTE: Where government is the Big Brother,11 privacy gives way to surveillance. **909 But our commitment is otherwise. *576 By the First Amendment we have staked our security on freedom to promote a multiplicity of ideas, to associate at will with kindred spirits, and to defy governmental intrusion into these precincts" Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Comm., 372 U.S. 539, 574-76, 83 S. Ct. 889, 908-09, 9 L. Ed. 2d 929 (1963) Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring. I write: Happy Memorial Day to all -- God please bless our fallen who lived and died to preserve constitutional governance in our wonderful series of Republics. And God open the eyes of those government officials who denounce the constitutions of these Republics by arbitrary actions arising out capricious motives.

  3. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  4. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  5. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

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