The Legal and Ethical Issues of the Class Action “Pick Off”

The Legal and Ethical Issues of the Class Action “Pick Off”

 Have you heard that the new owner of the Cleveland Browns has gotten himself into a bit of legal trouble? It's alleged that Jimmy Haslem's other business, Pilot Flying J, defrauded trucking companies of fuel rebates. In an effort to head-off a stream of civil lawsuits, Mr. Haslam has been meeting with customers to settle the alleged missing rebates. One such customer sought a temporary restraining order to stop such meetings because, according to the Wall Street Journal, Pilot was "obtaining releases, and settling claims before the potential class members even know the full extent of their claims." Yesterday, the court denied the restraining order, permitting Haslem's company to continue attempting to settle these claims.

Recall that just two weeks ago, the Supreme Court decided a case involving the pick-off named plaintiffs in wage and hour collective actions. In the Genesis Healthcare case, however, the employer communicated the offer to the plaintiff through her attorney. What happens, however, if the employer communicates directly with un-represented and un-named members of a yet-to-be-certified class? Is there anything prohibiting an employer from contacting them directly in an effort to obtain settlements of their potential claims? It depends.

There is nothing inherently unethical in defense counsel contacting putative class members at the pre-certification stage. According to ABA Comm. on Ethics and Prof'l Responsibility, Formal Op. 07-445 (2007) [pdf], communications between defense counsel and putative class members does not violate the Models Rules of Professional Responsibility because there is no attorney-client relationship between plaintiffs' counsel and members of an un-certified, putative class.

Yet, a court still might limit such communications if they are designed to confuse or coerce.

In Gulf Oil v. Bernard (1981) [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to subscribers], the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument that defense counsel are per se prohibited from contacting putative class members before a class is certified. Instead, a court can only limit pre-certification communications to address communications that misrepresent the status or effect of the case or that have an obvious potential for confusion, and must be based on "a specific record showing by the moving party of the particular abuses by which it is threatened."

In accordance with the Supreme Court's Bernard decision, federal district courts have routinely refused to exercise their supervisory authority over communications with putative class members in situations where the complaining party cannot demonstrate actual abuses. Such abuses that would justify a gag order include communications that coerce putative members into excluding themselves from the class, undermine cooperation with or confidence in plaintiffs' counsel, or suggest retaliation for participating in or assisting the class.

For example, in Parks v. Eastwood Ins. Servs. (C.D. Cal. 2002) [enhanced version], the named plaintiffs brought a collective action against their employer for unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standard Act. Prior to sending a court-approved notice to putative class members, the employer sent a memorandum to its employees asking them to contact the company's general counsel if they had any questions regarding the case. The court concluded that a curative communication was unnecessary because the at-issue memorandum was not coercive and did not suggest that any employee would be retaliated against for joining the class.

There are significant strategic decision that companies and their attorneys must make when defending class action lawsuits. Pre-certification communications with potential class members carries a big upside, albeit with the potential of significant risk.

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