Today, in Moody v. Sears Roebuck & Co., the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed a decision of the Business Court which had refused to approve the dismissal with prejudice of a North Carolina class action. The Business Court had found that the settlement of the case, even though it had been approved by an Illinois court, was inadequate for the North Carolina class members.
This is an interesting case (and a long post), but the Reader’s Digest version is that: (a) Rule 23 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure doesn’t require court approval before a class action which has not yet been certified is dismissed, but (b) a court nevertheless has the authority to conduct a review of a pre-certification dismissal and should exercise it, and (c) a court’s review of a foreign court’s approval of a class action settlement is limited to a consideration of whether the foreign court addressed issues of jurisdiction and due process.
The core of Judge Tennille’s May 2007 opinion in the Business Court (summarized here) was that there was a "shocking incongruity between the class benefit [of about $2400 to the entire nationwide class] and the fees afforded counsel and the representative [of more than $1 million]." He held that this "leave[s] the appearance of collusion and cannot help but tarnish the public perception of the legal profession."
The class notice and claims process agreed to by Moody and Sears also came under Judge Tennille’s fire. He held that the class notice was poorly distributed and uninformative, did not provide sufficient time for class members to opt out, and made no mention of the million dollar fee for the lawyers. He held that "it is hard to imagine a more inadequate notice plan and claims process."
The effect of the ruling was that Judge Tennille refused to allow the class plaintiff to dismiss its North Carolina class claims with prejudice, even though Sears had joined in the motion. Judge Tennille allowed the dismissal of the class claims without prejudice.
The class plaintiff and his adversary then both appealed Judge Tennille’s decision. So, the Court of Appeals was faced with the curious situation of Appellant and Appellee both arguing that the lower court was wrong.
Each side filed its own brief, and each side filed a response to the other’s brief. There was an Appellant’s Brief from Plaintiff which said that Judge Tennille’s order was "bizarre and unbelievable" (on p. 17), an Appellant’s Brief from Sears saying that the Order was "astonishing" (on p. 12); and an Appellee’s Brief from Plaintiff and an Appellee’s Brief from Sears also urging reversal. So, in the end, the Court had four briefs saying how very wrong the Business Court had been.
A pivotal issue was whether Judge Tennille’s approval was even required for the dismissal to be taken. The Business Court had held in a number of cases, including Moody, that when a claim is made on behalf of a class, court approval is required before any dismissal, even if the class hasn’t yet been certified. Moody presented the first opportunity for the Court of Appeals to deal with that issue, and it rejected the argument that the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure require approval before a pre-certification dismissal.
The Court further held, however, that "our holding does not imply that a trial court wholly lacks authority to review a motion for pre-certification dismissal of a class-action complaint." The Court observed that "[w]ithout some level of pre-certification court supervision, there is an unacceptable risk that parties may abuse the class-action mechanism in myriad ways." It set out the following standard:
We therefore hold that when a plaintiff seeks voluntary dismissal of a pre-certification class-action complaint, the trial court should engage in a limited inquiry to determine (a) whether the parties have abused the class-action mechanism for personal gain, and (b) whether dismissal will prejudice absent putative class members. If the trial court finds that neither of these concerns are present, the plaintiff is entitled to a voluntary dismissal. However, if the trial court finds that one or both of these concerns are present, it retains discretion to address the issues.
The inquiry is narrower, however, when a foreign court, like the Illinois court which had approved the settlement questioned by Judge Tennille, has already addressed these issues. The issue, then, the Court determined, is one of full faith and credit. The Court of Appeals observed that the due process and jurisdictional issues considered by the Business Court had been "heard and answered" in the Illinois Court. [The Illinois Judge had received a letter from Judge Tennille raising his concerns about the settlement and had inquired into those matters at a fairness hearing.]
The Court of Appeals held that any review of the approval of a class action by the courts of another state was "limited" to a consideration of whether jurisdictional and due process issues had been addressed by the foregin court. It stated:
limited review serves important judicial interests in the efficiency and finality of class-action litigation, and ensures that no "waste of judicial resources" occurs by reason of "reviewing courts . . . conduct[ing] an extensive substantive review when one has already been undertaken in a sister state." Further, "second-guessing the fully[-]litigated decisions of our sister courts would violate the spirit of full faith and credit," and could make North Carolina the jurisdiction of choice for plaintiffs wishing to launch collateral challenges to other states’ judicial proceedings. While North Carolina courts surely have an important interest in not enforcing constitutionally infirm foreign judgments, the appropriate manner of correcting foreign trial court errors is "by appeal within the [foreign] state system and by direct review in the United States Supreme Court."
The Court of Appeals concluded that "the jurisdictional and due process conclusions contained in the trial court’s 7 May 2007 order were ‘fully and fairly litigated and finally decided’ in Illinois Circuit Court," and that "[t]his finding concludes our review and forecloses any reconsideration of the merits of the legal issues decided by the Illinois Circuit Court. . . .While we share the trial court’s serious concerns regarding the final accounting in the . . . settlement, we are constrained to hold that the trial court erred by refusing to accord full faith and credit to the . . . settlement. We therefore reverse the trial court’s 7 May 2007 order and remand this case to the trial court with instructions to dismiss the class-action allegations with prejudice."
The Business Court’s opinion had gotten a lot of attention. The Rand Institute for Civil Justice had called it "fascinating," and a Harvard Law School Professor who writes frequently about class actions had applauded it.
Despite the reversal, the Business Court opinion in Moody remains significant for other reasons. It is a primer from Judge Tennille’s perspective on what are acceptable class action settlements and notice procedures and certainly worth reading before presenting a settlement for approval in his court.