Will the Supreme Court rein in class action abuse?
Article III of the Constitution allows federal courts to judge only those lawsuits brought by plaintiffs who have actually suffered some injury at the hands of a defendant, a concept called “standing.” How does this work with a class action, where a named plaintiff may represent thousands of other “similarly situated” unnamed plaintiffs? We know that a named “representative” plaintiff cannot bootstrap her own standing from the injuries of unnamed plaintiffs — that is, even if the plaintiff alleges that unnamed plaintiffs were injured, her case will be dismissed if she herself did not suffer the same injury as the purported class members.
Is the reverse true? Can an injured named plaintiff bootstrap the standing of thousands of unnamed plaintiffs who have suffered no injury? This is the question raised in Whirlpool Corp. v. Glazer, a class action case out of Ohio. Two named plaintiffs in that case complain of moldy odors in their front-loading washing machines and purport to represent 200,000 other consumers in their lawsuit against Whirlpool. Even under the facts alleged by a plaintiff, at most one-third of those consumers ever suffered an injury. Whirlpool places the number at 3%.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the class, even knowing that the vast majority of the class members suffered no injury. The results will not be contained within Ohio’s borders, however. This case is the bellwether of many identical class action lawsuits that purport to represent more than 10 million washing machine owners across the nation. Whirlpool is asking the Supreme Court to review the case, and PLF filed an amicus brief supporting the petition. PLF argues that class actions are an appropriate device to combine lots of similar claims, but when legitimate claims are joined with tens of thousands of uninjured plaintiffs, this opens the door wide for gross misuse of the justice system.
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One of the most fundamental rights of American citizens is the right to seek redress from illegal government action in a court of law. But the federal government has an arsenal of weapons it wields to deny or curtail this right. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the government’s attempts to stifle landowner suits challenging federal agency action under the Clean Water Act.