The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide an issue of huge importance to everyone who cares about access to justice. The question, in Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, is whether corporate defendants in class actions are entitled to bribe class representatives to abandon the rest of the potential class members.
Yes, you read that right. According to the corporation who was sued, it should be allowed to cancel out a class action against it simply by offering to settle the named plaintiff’s individual claims. Under the defendant’s view of the law, corporations accused of ripping off millions of people could avoid accountability by repeatedly picking off the few named plaintiffs who are willing to step forward. Campbell-Ewald has even gone so far as to argue that class representatives are bound by such offers, accepted or not, even if it effectively denies all other class members the ability to obtain any relief at all.
The craziest part about the theory they’ve put forth is that it turns the whole notion of adequacy of representation 180 degrees. As we explained in an amici brief we just filed with the Court (along with the AARP), one of the most basic rules of class actions is that class representatives are supposed to represent the others impacted by the wrongdoing. Not only is this required by Rule 23 (the federal class action rule), it’s also required by the U.S. Constitution (due process, anyone?). This means not just that the class representatives are supposed to be competent, they are also supposed to be loyal to the rest of the class members. And that means the class representatives are not supposed to file potential class actions just to make money for themselves, they are supposed to be standing up for everyone in the class.
But if Campbell-Ewald’s lawyers are to be believed, the basic ethical and constitutional premises of class actions were just flipped. They say that corporate defendants in class actions have the right to bribe class representatives to abandon everyone else. And in their view, even if a class representative wants to do the right thing and reject an individual payday so they can stand for the entire class, Rule 68 strips away that possibility, and the court must dismiss the whole case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
If the Supreme Court agrees with Campbell-Ewald, it could spell disaster for the ability of injury victims to obtain any compensation whatsoever via class action suits. Class actions make it economically possible for injured consumers, civil rights plaintiffs, and low-wage workers to pursue claims for relatively small damage amounts for wrongs that would otherwise go unremedied. A Supreme Court ruling that would allow defendants to shut down class actions simply by “picking off” named plaintiffs could wipe countless cases – and countless consumers and others who would benefit from those cases – off the litigation map.
Hopefully, the Court will see this tactic for what it is: a form of bribery that turns the very idea of class representation on its head.
This blog was originally posted on Public Justice on September 02, 2015. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: The author’s name is Leslie Brueckner. In 2011, Leslie became the director of Public Justice’s new Food Safety & Health Project. In addition to her litigation work, Ms. Brueckner has taught appellate advocacy at American University Law School and Georgetown University School of Law. She is a senior attorney at Public Justice.