Judge Gorsuch’s Class Action Opinions After Shook
Today we continue our analysis of Judge Gorsuch’s class action opinions from the Tenth Circuit in an effort to better understand how he may rule if confirmed for the Supreme Court. Last week, we examined Judge Gorsuch’s decision in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners, and we will take up his remaining class action opinions below.
McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, 630 F.3d 1288 (10th Cir. 2011)
In McClendon v. City of Albuquerque, decided three years after Shook, Judge Gorsuch again demonstrates judicial restraint. In McClendon, prisoners brought a class action against the City of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, and various individuals involved in operating the Bernalillo County Detention Center. The parties entered into a pair of settlement agreements in 2005, but four years later the district court issued an order withdrawing its approval of the settlement and giving the plaintiffs permission to rescind those agreements after it found that the County misrepresented certain facts during settlement negotiations. The Tenth Circuit held that the order was not a “final decision,” subject to appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. A final decision, Judge Gorsuch reasoned, dissociates the court from the case and ends the litigation on the merits, while the order withdrawing a settlement approval does “[j]ust the opposite: the order ensures litigation on the merits will continue in the district court.”
Judge Gorsuch empathized with the defendants’ desire for an appeal that might avoid further litigation in a previously settled case that was already fifteen years old: “the delays and costs associated with civil litigation in modern America are substantial and worrisome, and even the most hard-boiled litigator may raise an eyebrow at a case lasting as long as this one.” But neither the utility of the appeal nor the advanced age of the case swayed Judge Gorsuch to take an appeal beyond the bounds of the express authority in § 1291: “Congress’s direction demands our respect, not our rewriting.” Judge Gorsuch concluded his opinion by emphasizing the importance of judicial restraint:
[O]ne thing we may never do is disregard the bounds of our legal authority and assert § 1291 jurisdiction over an appeal where it doesn’t exist. To do so in this case would compound any error the defendants imagine with an impropriety of our own, making matters worse not better. It is, after all, a “central principle of a free society that courts,” no less than the other branches of government, “have finite bounds of authority.” . . . We must respect that principle and those bounds no less when it is hard to do so than when it is easy.
Hammond v. Stamps.com, Inc., 844 F.3d 909 (10th Cir. 2016)
The Tenth Circuit’s holding in Hammond v. Stamps.com, Inc.—that the minimum amount in controversy under the Class Action Fairness Act need only be legally possible and not factually probable—is hardly noteworthy, as it falls squarely in line with the law from other Courts of Appeals. But in Judge Gorsuch’s opinion, his most recent in the class action arena, we see the hallmarks of conservative jurisprudence: interpreting statutory text (here, “in controversy”) with its “traditional meaning”; citation to the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789; and a nod toward the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s textualist approach with a citation to his book, Reading Law. Indeed, it is only after a three-page textual and historical deep dive that Judge Gorsuch cites in the final paragraph of the opinion the “several courts [that] have held as we do today.”
For those of you who yearn to know the facts of the case, Elizabeth Hammond brought a putative class action in New Mexico state court, alleging that Stamps.com engaged in misleading and unlawful trade practices by insufficiently disclosing its subscription fees to customers. She alleged that “hundreds or thousands of persons” called to cancel their Stamps.com subscriptions as a result of Stamps.com alleged wrongdoing, and each class member would “likely” receive $31.98 in damages (the cost of subscribing for two months) or $300 in statutory damages. Stamps.com presented uncontested evidence that 312,680 customers had cancelled their subscriptions during the likely class period, and the company removed the case to federal court because the amount in controversy well exceeded the $5 million threshold for the Class Action Fairness Act. The trial court granted Ms. Hammond’s motion to remand, ruling that the company had not met its burden of establishing the minimum amount in controversy because it failed to exclude from its calculations those customers who cancelled their subscriptions for reasons unrelated to the allegations in the complaint, or as Judge Gorsuch put it, “without proof from Stamps.com establishing how many of its customers were actually deceived, the district court thought the company couldn’t satisfy the $5 million ‘in controversy’ requirement.” The Tenth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s remand order, ruling that federal jurisdiction was proper under CAFA: the proponent of jurisdiction should not have to “argue against himself, task[ed] with the job of proving his own likely liability in a sufficient number of individual cases simply to get a foot in the door of the federal courthouse.”
BP America, Inc. v. Oklahoma ex rel. Edmondson, 613 F.3d 1029 (10th Cir. 2010)
In an earlier CAFA jurisdictional decision, the Tenth Circuit in BP America granted discretionary leave for the propane gas distributor to appeal an order remanding the case to Oklahoma state court. The merits of the jurisdictional question—whether the Attorney General’s lawsuit, brought on behalf of the state and not any individual consumers, constitutes a “mass action” involving monetary relief to 100 or more people under CAFA—were not at issue at this preliminary stage of the appeal.
Judge Gorsuch’s opinion adopts multiple factors to consider in deciding whether to grant discretionary leave to appeal under CAFA § 1453, including whether the appeal presents an important, unsettled, or at least “fairly debatable” CAFA-related question and a weighing of the relative harms to the parties should an appeal be refused or entertained.
Heller v. Quovadx, Inc., 245 F. App’x 839 (10th Cir. 2007)
Although it actually predates Shook, the unpublished decision of Heller v. Quovadx, Inc., is worth noting, if only to highlight the wry humor employed by Judge Gorsuch in dismissing a non-class member’s argument that denying him standing to object to a settlement would violate his Fifth Amendment rights. In addition to the fact that the non-class member presented “no evidence or relevant legal argument to support his contentions,” he also “spen[t] the bulk of his brief noting the inefficiencies and burdens of paper-based litigation.” Perhaps a sentiment with which class action lawyers and judges can relate all too well.
Substantively, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that the non-class member lacked standing to object to the proposed settlement. Non-class members opposed to a proposed settlement cannot object directly and instead must seek to intervene under Rule 24.