Fordham law professor Howard M. Erichson has a new paper up at SSRN on "The Problem of Settlement Class Actions."  Based on dicta in the Supreme Court's opinion in Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, courts have taken to certifying classes for settlement purposes only without worrying about "manageability," that is, whether the case could actually be tried as a class action.

As a result, settlement class actions have long posed strategic dilemmas for plaintiffs and defendants alike. Among them:

  • How much can the defendant concede without compromising its ability to defend the case if the settlement falls through? (Not as much as you think.)
  • Can a settlement-only class be too cheap? (Yes.)
  • How wide can the parties cast their net in releasing claims? (Not too wide.)

Professor Erichson shares many of these concerns, which is why he advocates abolishing the settlement-only class, and only allowing settlements to proceed if the class has been certified for litigation. As evidence of the need for this shift, he cites two recent--and highly controversial--settlements: In re AIG and Sullivan v. DB Investments. As he puts it

AIG and DeBeers show what happens when courts follow the Supreme Court’s dicta [in Amchem] to its logical conclusion, rather than following the concerns that animated the Court’s decision. Armed with the Supreme Court’s modest permission to treat settlement classes slightly differently than litigation classes, these courts approved settlement class actions notwithstanding issues that go to the heart of class certification – in one case, the fraud-on-the-market doctrine, and in the other, significant variations in state law.

(Emphasis added.) Erichson draws the wrong lesson, though. He thinks questionable settlements like these occur because the plaintiffs lack leverage in negotiations:

By permitting settlement class actions without plenary class certification, the Court invited defendants to use the settlement class tool to resolve widespread liability through negotiation with deleveraged would-be class counsel. Moreover, by modifying the approach endorsed by the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court opened up the possibility of class resolutions negotiated without even the leverage of future litigation class certification.

(Emphases added.)  That conclusion seems to ignore the facts of each case. In each of these cases, a class that could not have gotten certified for trial was certified for settlement. Think hard about that for a moment. In In re AIG, the plaintiffs brought a class that could not be certified because of individualized reliance issues. It settled for $72 million. In Sullivan, the plaintiffs settled a case on behalf of a class that included many unharmed class members for $295 million. Is the problem in either case that the plaintiffs lacked leverage?

GIven his misdiagnosis of the problem, Professor Erichson's solution misses the mark. Abolishing the settlement class action will not lead to better settlements. It may, in fact, lead to worse ones. The plaintiffs' leverage in settlement negotiations comes not so much from their promise of peace as from their threat of war. Litigating class actions has grown enormously expensive, and defendants will often settle claims that are less than meritorious because the settlement is cheaper than the costs of litigation. DB Investments did not pay $295 million for the preclusion of other cases--it did so because it was facing a default judgment. And AIG likely settled its case--in which it had a very strong argument against certification--because the costs of reaching that victory were simply too high.

The problem with these settlements was not that the plaintiffs lacked the leverage to cut a good deal; indeed, the indirect purchasers in Sullivan and the investors in In re AIG did just fine. The problem is that absent class members--who are not present for the negotiation--are too often sacrificed for these deals.

There is a solution to this particular problem, but it is one that plaintiffs, judges, and academics tend not to advocate. To protect absent class members, courts just need to vigorously enforce the adequacy requirement, and intervene in poor settlements sooner. Some courts are willing to do this. But for too many, this would interfere with many plaintiffs' current business model.  That's a shame. Defendants will manage just fine, but absent class members may not.