The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Oxford Health Plan LLC's appeal of an order requiring it to consent to class arbitration

Here we have yet another opportunity for the United States Supreme Court to clarify whether class arbitrations are appropriate without express consent to participate in a class arbitration.  The issue is described as follows:

Whether an arbitrator acts within his powers under the Federal Arbitration Act (as the Second and Third Circuits have held) or exceeds those powers (as the Fifth Circuit has held) by determining that parties affirmatively “agreed to authorize class arbitration,” Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. Animalfeeds Int'l Corp., based solely on their use of broad contractual language precluding litigation and requiring arbitration of any dispute arising under their contract.

This case concerns reimbursements to doctors.  And yet, the question that will likely remain unanswered is whether, in the employment context, the National Labor Relations Act preserves a right to concerted activity, including class litigation, even if in the arbitration context.  The case is entitled Oxford Health Plan LLC v. Sutter, and the docket is here.

Christopher et al. v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., dba Glaxosmithkline holds, 5-4, that pharma sales reps are exempt as "outside salespersons"

The United States Supreme Court, in Christopher et al. v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., dba Glaxosmithkline (June 18, 2012), examined the question of whether pharmaceutical sales representatives, whose primary duty was to obtain nonbinding commitments from physicians to prescribe their employer’s prescription drugs, were correctly classified as exempt from overtime pay requirements set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In the courts below, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs were “employed in the capacity of outside salesman,” §213(a)(1), and therefore were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime compensation requirement. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment to defendant. Plaintiffs filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment, contending that the District Court had erred in failing to accord controlling deference to the DOL’s interpretation of the pertinent regulations, which the DOL had announced in an amicus brief filed in a similar action. The District Court rejected this argument and denied the motion. The Ninth Circuit, agreeing that the DOL’s interpretation was not entitled to controlling deference, affirmed.

The opinion was decided on sharply divided 5-4 lines, with one majority opinion and one minority opinion. The opinion considered three of the DOL’s regulations: §§541.500, 541.501, and 541.503. The Court referred to the three regulations as the “general regulation,” the “sales regulation,” and the “promotion-work regulation,” respectively.

First, the majority observed that the DOL’s own interpretation of its regulations was not consistent over time. In briefs filed before the Second and Ninth Circuits, “the DOL took the view that ‘a “sale” for the purposes of the outside sales exemption requires a con- summated transaction directly involving the employee for whom the exemption is sought.’” Slip op., at 9. After certiorari was granted in this matter, the DOL took the position that “ ‘[a]n employee does not make a “sale” for purposes of the “outside salesman” exemption unless he actually transfers title to the property at issue.’ ” Slip op., at 9.

Next, the majority observed that Auer deference to the DOL’s ambiguous regulations was not justified because to do so would allow for imposition of “potentially massive liability on respondent for conduct that occurred well before that interpretation was announced.” Slip op., at 10. Continuing, the Court said:

Until 2009, the pharmaceutical industry had little reason to suspect that its longstanding practice of treating detailers as exempt outside salesmen transgressed the FLSA. The statute and regulations certainly do not provide clear notice of this. The general regulation adopts the broad statutory definition of “sale,” and that definition, in turn, employs the broad catchall phrase “other disposition.” See 29 CFR §541.500(a)(1). This catchall phrase could reasonably be construed to encompass a nonbinding commitment from a physician to prescribe a particular drug, and nothing in the statutory or regulatory text or the DOL’s prior guidance plainly requires a contrary reading. See Preamble 22162 (explaining that an employee must “in some sense” make a sale); 1940 Report 46 (same).

Slip op., at 12. Then the majority noted that, despite the industry’s decades of applying an exempt classification, the DOL never initiated any enforcement action.

The majority then discussed the DOL’s interpretations and found them unpersuasive, particularly with respect to the definition of “sale.” The Court held:

This new interpretation is flatly inconsistent with the FLSA, which defines “sale” to mean, inter alia, a “consignment for sale.” A “consignment for sale” does not involve the transfer of title. See, e.g., Sturm v. Boker, 150 U. S. 312, 330 (1893) (“The agency to sell and return the proceeds, or the specific goods if not sold . . . does not involve a change of title”); Hawkland, Consignment Selling Under the Uniform Commercial Code, 67 Com. L. J. 146, 147 (1962) (explaining that “‘[a] consignment of goods for sale does not pass the title at any time, nor does it contemplate that it should be passed’” (quoting Rio Grande Oil Co. v. Miller Rubber Co. of N. Y., 31 Ariz. 84, 87, 250 P. 564, 565 (1926))).

Slip op., at 15. The majority then spends some time construing the regulation itself, concluding that the language of the statute was intended to broadly include all manner of transactions that, in certain industries, were tantamount to a sale in the most conventional sense. In the regulated industry of pharmaceutical sales, the majority observed that the representatives did all that was allowed:

Obtaining a nonbinding commitment from a physician to prescribe one of respondent’s drugs is the most that petitioners were able to do to ensure the eventual disposition of the products that respondent sells. This kind of arrangement, in the unique regulatory environment within which pharmaceutical companies must operate, comfortably falls within the catch- all category of “other disposition.”

Slip op., at 20-21.

The minority opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, accepted the majority’s description of the job in question and agreed that deference to the DOL interpretation was not justified given the recent change in that interpretation. Instead, the minority opnion simply disagrees with the construction of the language at issue:

Unless we give the words of the statute and regulations some special meaning, a detailer’s primary duty is not that of “making sales” or the equivalent. A detailer might convince a doctor to prescribe a drug for a particular kind of patient. If the doctor encounters such a patient, he might prescribe the drug. The doctor’s client, the patient, might take the prescription to a pharmacist and ask the pharmacist to fill the prescription. If so, the pharmacist might sell the manufacturer’s drug to the patient, or might substitute a generic version. But it is the pharmacist, not the detailer, who will have sold the drug.

Minority slip op., at 3. The minority opinion concludes that the representatives stimulate sales eventually made by others:

The detailer’s work, in my view, is more naturally characterized as involving “[p]romotional activities designed to stimulate sales . . . made by someone else,” §541.503, e.g., the pharmacist or the wholesaler, than as involving “[p]romotional activities designed to stimulate” the detailer’s “own sales.”

Minority slip op., at 5. The minority emphasized the fact that doctors determine what to prescribe, based on medical need:

To the contrary, the document makes clear that the pharmaceutical industry itself understands that it cannot be a detailer’s “primary duty” to obtain a nonbinding commitment, for, in respect to many doctors, such a commitment taken alone is unlikely to make a significant difference to their doctor’s use of a particular drug. When a particular drug, say Drug D, constitutes the best treatment for a particular patient, a knowledgeable doctor should (hence likely will) prescribe it irrespective of any nonbinding commitment to do so. Where some other drug, however, is likely to prove more beneficial for a particular patient, that doctor should not (hence likely will not) prescribe Drug D irrespective of any nonbinding commitment to the contrary.

Minority slip op., at 6. The minority concluded by dismissing the majority’s fears that a salesman who takes an order would suddenly become non-exempt by transferring the order to jobber’s employee to be filled. The minority noted that the example created no basis for fear, given that the salesman had obtained a firm commitment to buy the product. Regardless of the quality of the counter-arguments, the minority opinion by Justice Breyer is just that, a minority opinion, and "sales" are evidently in the eye of the beholder.

Certiorari denied in Ticketmaster, et al. v. Stearns, et al.

On the consumer litigation front, today the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in Ticketmaster, et al. v. Stearns, et al. (Sup. Ct. Case No. 11-983).  Stearns v. Ticketmaster Corp., 655 F.3d 1013 (9th Cir. 2011) examined a number of consumer law concepts in the class context.  For example, the Ninth Circuit shot down the federal court standing challenge attempted in UCL actions post-Tobacco II.  And, on the issue of reliance in CLRA claims, the Court said:

A CLRA claim warrants an analysis different from a UCL claim because the CLRA requires each class member to have an actual injury caused by the unlawful practice. Steroid Hormone Prod. Cases, 181 Cal.App.4th 145, 155-56, 104 Cal. Rptr.3d 329, 337 (2010). But "[c]ausation, on a classwide basis, may be established by materiality. If the trial court finds that material misrepresentations have been made to the entire class, an inference of reliance arises as to the class." Vioxx, 180 Cal.App.4th at 129, 103 Cal.Rptr.3d at 95; see also Vasquez v. Superior Court, 4 Cal.3d 800, 814, 484 P.2d 964, 973, 94 Cal.Rptr. 796, 805 (1971); Steroid, 181 Cal. App.4th at 156-57, 104 Cal.Rptr.3d at 338. This rule applies to cases regarding omissions or "failures to disclose" as well. See McAdams v. Monier, Inc., 182 Cal.App.4th 174, 184, 105 Cal.Rptr.3d 704, 711 (2010) (holding that because of defendant's failure to disclose information "which would have been material to any reasonable person who purchased" the product, a presumption of reliance was justified); Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, 97 Cal. App. 4th 1282, 1293, 119 Cal.Rptr.2d 190, 198 (2002) ("[H]ere the record permits an inference of common reliance. Plaintiffs contend Mass Mutual failed to disclose its own concerns about the premiums it was paying and that those concerns would have been material to any reasonable person contemplating the purchase...." If proved, that would "be sufficient to give rise to the inference of common reliance on representations which were materially deficient.").

Stearns, at 1022.

Another arbitration-friendly decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood

Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood (Jan. 10, 2012).  At issue was whether a sentence in that act, at 15 U. S. C. §1679c(a), which says, "You have a right to sue a credit repair organization that violates the [Act]," preserves the right to sue in court.  Because the Credit Repair Organizations Act is silent as to whether claims may be heard in an arbitration forum, the Court held, 8-1, that the arbitration agreement in question should be enforced according to its terms.  Justice Ginsburg dissented strongly, and the short concurring opinion by Justices Sotomayor and Kagan stated that the case was a much closer call than the majority opinion suggests, noting good points raised in the dissenting opinion of Ginsburg.  In particular there seems to be a strong disagreement about whether Congressional intent must be explicitly stated or may be inferred from a consistent set of statements suggesting a specific intent.  Not much more to say about this, other than to note that its essentially a tautology that the majority gets to decide whether they see a clear Congressional intent or not.  If they say there isn't an intent, then they are right by default.

Breaking News: Walmart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes decided by Supreme Court; Reversed

I'll preface this brief post by noting that I have not had a chance to read the entire opinion, but the opnion in Walmart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes (June 20, 2011) was released this morning by the United States Supreme Court.  The Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and the District Court, finding that the matter was not suitable for class certification.  The core majority was authored by Justice SCALIA. ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined in that opinion, and GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined as to Parts I and III.  Justice GINSBURG authored an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.  BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN joined in Justice GINSBURG'S opinion.

Some key aspects of the holding are:

  • Proof of commonality necessarily overlaps with respondents’ merits contention that Wal-Mart engages in a pattern or practice of discrimination. The crux of a Title VII inquiry is “the reason for a particular employment decision,” Cooper v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 467 U. S. 867, 876, and respondents wish to sue for millions of employment decisions at once. Without some glue holding together the alleged reasons for those decisions, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims will produce a common answer to the crucial discrimination question.
  • General Telephone Co. of Southwest v. Falcon, 457 U. S. 147, describes the proper approach to commonality. On the facts of this case, the conceptual gap between an individual’s discrimination claim and “the existence of a class of persons who have suffered the same injury,” id., at 157–158, must be bridged by “[s]ignificant proof that an employer operated under a general policy of discrimination,” id., at 159, n. 15. Such proof was absent here.
  • Claims for monetary relief may not be certified under Rule 23(b)(2), at least where the monetary relief is not incidental to the requested injunctive or declaratory relief.
  • The mere “predominance” of a proper (b)(2) injunctive claim does nothing to justify eliminating Rule 23(b)(3)’s procedural protections, and creates incentives for class representatives to place at risk potentially valid monetary relief claims.

Justice Ginsburg is concerned that the majority imported too much of the "predominance" analysis into the Rule 23(a) requirement that common questions of law or fact must exist:

The Court’s emphasis on differences between class members mimics the Rule 23(b)(3) inquiry into whether common questions “predominate” over individual issues. And by asking whether the individual differences “impede” common adjudication, ante, at 10 (internal quotation marks omitted), the Court duplicates 23(b)(3)’s question whether “a class action is superior” to other modes of adjudication.

Slip op., Ginsburg concurring and dissenting, at 9.  Otherwise, Ginsburg agrees that the class should not have been certified under Rule 23(b)(2) but would  have saved the issue of whether certification was appropriate under Rule 23(b)(3) for the District Court on remand.

The opinion looks as though it will prove to have the greatest impact on cases of this type.  While the Rule 23(a) construction seems to be inconsistent with well-settled standards, the balance of the opinion was predictable, given the massive size of the class.