Supreme Court Hands Down Decision Favorable to Class-Action PlaintiffsJan 21, 2016
On January 20, 2016, The Supreme court handed down a ruling favorable to class-action plaintiffs. The Supreme Court, in a 6-to-3 decision said that courts may not dismiss lawsuits simply because a defendant has offered to give the lead plaintiff everything the plaintiff sought.
A decision going the other way would have allowed companies accused of minor but widespread wrongdoing to deal with plaintiffs one by one, frustrating their ability to band together to sue over their claims, the New York Times explains.
Justice Ruth Bader, writing for the majority, said that once an offer is "unaccepted," it is off the table. In dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that this approach gives plaintiffs too much power. "If the defendant is willing to give the plaintiff everything he asks for, there is no case or controversy to adjudicate, and the lawsuit is moot," Roberts wrote.
The case, Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, involves a text message Campbell Ewald sent to Jose Gomez in 2006 on behalf of the Navy. The message offered Gomez a chance for a career, an education, and "a chance to serve a greater cause." But Gomez, 40, was over the age range for Navy recruits. He sued under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which allows the recipient of an unwanted text message to recover up to $1,500, according to the Times. Gomez sought to represent a class of people who had received the message.
Campbell Ewald Company, a Navy contractor, offered to settle the case for $1,503 for each unsolicited text, court costs and a promise to stop sending such messages. Gomez did not respond and Campbell Ewald argued that the case should have been dismissed as moot because it had offered Gomez everything he had asked for. Justice Ginsburg said the company's true aim was "to avoid a potential adverse decision, one that could expose it to damages a thousandfold larger than the bid Gomez declined to accept."
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas voted with them but did not adopt the rationale for the decision. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito joined Chief Justice Roberts's dissent. The three justices said the majority had run afoul of the constitutional requirement that federal courts may hear only live cases and controversies, the Times reports. Chief Justice Roberts said there was no dispute for the federal courts to resolve because "relief [was] already there for the taking."
The opinion left open the possibility for procedures in which defendants did more than make an offer. "We need not, and do not, now decide whether the result would be different if a defendant deposits the full amount of the plaintiff 's individual claim in an account payable to the plaintiff, and the court then enters judgment for the plaintiff in that amount," Justice Ginsburg wrote.
Justice Alito suggested two procedures he would find acceptable. "The most straightforward way is simply to pay over the money," he wrote. "Alternatively, a defendant might deposit the money with the district court (or another trusted intermediary) on the condition that the money be released to the plaintiff when the court dismisses the case as moot."
This decision is the first in three class-action cases heard this term, according to the Times. The second case concerns an attempt by thousands of workers at a Tyson pork processing plant to band together in a single lawsuit seeking overtime pay. The third case asks whether Congress may authorize lawsuits by plaintiffs who cannot prove they suffered a concrete injury.