In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark June 20, 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, numerous commentators have asserted that the case could have a significant impact on future class actions. For example, one law firm's memo about the case stated that the decision "should limit the number of class actions that are certified." Which inevitably leads to the question of what the impact of the Wal-Mart decision will be with respect to class certification in securities class action lawsuits. This question seems all the more acute given the unanimous opinion the Court issued in the Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton case just days before it issued its opinion in the Wal-Mart case.
First, some background. The Wal-Mart case involves an employment discrimination lawsuit brought by three female Wal-Mart employees on behalf of all female Wal-Mart employees. The plaintiffs did not allege that Wal-Mart had an express discriminatory policy against the advancement of women. (Wal-Mart in fact had a nondiscrimination policy.) Rather, the claimed that local managers' discretion over pay and promotions had an unlawful disparate impact on women, and that the company's refusal to constrain its managers' discretion amounted to disparate treatment.
In order to satisfy Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 23(a)(2)'s class certification prerequisite that "there are common questions of law or fact common to the class," the plaintiffs argued that the discrimination to which they have been subjected is common to all female Wal-Mart employees. But the commonality of the 1.5 million class members' claims derived from the local manager's discretion. In effect, the plaintiffs were arging that the non-policy (allowing local manager discretion) was a policy.
In his majority opinion in the Wal-Mart case, Justice Scalia said (rejecting the statistical evidence and expert testimony on which plaintiffs sought to rely) that the plaintiffs "have not identified a common mode of exercising discretion that pervades the entire company." He added that "other than the bare existence of delegated discretion, respondents have identified no 'specific employment practice,' much less one that ties all their 1.5 million claims together." The majority concludes that because the plaintiffs "provide no convincing proof of a companywide discriminatory pay and promotion policy, we have concluded that they have not established the existence of any common question."
In reaching this conclusion, the majority commented that Rule 23 "does not set forth a mere pleading standard"; rather a party seeking class certification "must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule - that is, he must be prepared to prove that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, etc." The majority opinion goes on to state that the required "rigorous analysis" will "entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim. That cannot be helped."
So, it seems, courts determining whether or not to certify a class should not rely on plaintiff's mere allegations alone, but must examine the merits in order to determine whether or not the plaintiff has met the certification requirements. The "rigorous analysis" requirement apparently applies whenever a claimant seeks to proceed in the form of a class action, regardless of the nature of the underlying claim - including even when the alleged injury is asserted under the securities laws.
So courts determining whether or not to certify a class in a securities lawsuit must examine the merits? As University of Illinois Law Professor Christine Hurt asked in the recent post on the Conglomerate blog (here), isn't that basically what the Supreme Court just rejected a few days ago in the Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co. case? As Professor Hurt put it, referring to the Halliburton case "we've already had this fight in securities law, and the plaintiffs won in a unanimous ruling."
Just to review, in the Halliburton case, the Court held that a securities plaintiff relying on the "fraud-on-the-market" theory to establish reliance did not have to separately establish loss causation in order to obtain class certification.
As it happens, the majority opinion in Wal-Mart expressly discussed the Halliburton case, in footnote 6, which footnote accompanies the opinion text in which the majority discussed the need for courts to review the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim in determining whether or not to certify a class.
The footnote states, in pertinent part, that "perhaps the most common example of considering a merits question at Rule 23 stage arises in class-action suits for securities fraud." The commonality requirement "would often be an insuperable barrier to class certification, since each of the individual investors would have to prove reliance on the alleged misrepresentation." But the "problem dissipates" if the plaintiff relies on the fraud-on-the-market presumption, by which all traders in an efficient market are presumed to rely on the accuracy of the company's statements. Citing Halliburton, the footnote states that "to invoke this presumption, the plaintiffs seeking 23(b)(3) certification must prove that their shares were traded in an efficient market," adding after the citation that this is "an issue they will surely have to prove again at trial in order to make out their case on their merits."
In light of this footnote, it seems in that in order to establish commonality and obtain class certification, a securities plaintiff must establish that their shares traded in an efficient market. Halliburton held that if a plaintiff has established the right to rely on the fraud on the market presumption, the plaintiff does not have to separately establish loss causation in order to obtain class certification. Footnote 6 in the Wal-Mart opinion seems to suggest that the entitlement to the fraud on the market presumption to establish reliance is sufficient to satisfy the commonality requirement, and no further merits determinations are required at that stage.
The answer to Professor Hurt's question seems to be that the Court in Halliburton did not say that the merits were not to be considered at the class certification stage in a securities suit; rather, at least as interpreted in footnote 6 in the Wal-Mart decision, the merits determination at the class certification stage is limited to the requirement that securities plaintiffs establish entitlement to rely on the fraud on the market theory, as that is sufficient to establish commonality.
So my answer to Professor Hurt's question is that Wal-Mart is (or at least can be read to be) consistent with Halliburton. My further view is that Wal-Mart didn't change much at least when it comes to class certification in securities cases. To be sure, there undoubtedly will be defense attorneys who will attempt to use the Wal-Mart decision in opposition to class certification motions in securities cases. We must await another day to see if these likely efforts produce an impact. For now, my own view is that the impact of Wal-Mart is likely to be limited in the securities class action litigation class certification context.
I am interested in readers' thoughts on whether Wal-Mart changes anything at the class certification stage for securities plaintiffs.
The one final observation about Wal-Mart relates to the final clause in footnote 6. The clause states that even if a securities plaintiff has established at the class certification stage their entitlement to rely on the fraud on the market presumption, that is "an issue they will surely have to prove again at trial on order to make out their case on the merits."
In other words, establishing an efficient market at the class certification stage is not ultimately determinative of the issue. This obviously leaves open the door for a contrary determination at trial, with the attendant possibility that the basis for the certification of the class could be eliminated as well. That would seem like a pretty daunting prospect for many securities plaintiffs, at least where there is a real possibility of a trial determination that that the defendant company's shares did not trade in an efficient market. Something I would think securities class action plaintiffs' attorneys would have to think pretty hard about before pushing a case to trial.
Special thanks to a loyal reader with whom I exchanged emails about footnote 6.
Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.
For more information about LexisNexis products and solutions connect with us through our corporate site.