Is Congress Trying to Outlaw Class Action Lawsuits?

(Above: Rep. Bob Goodlatte; photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

According to more than 120 civil rights groups, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

On February 9, 2017, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R – VA) proposed the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, “To amend the procedures used in Federal court class actions and multidistrict litigation proceedings to assure fairer, more efficient outcomes for claimants and defendants.”

On February 15, the House Judiciary Committee passed the bill, H.R. 985, by a vote of 19 to 12. Next it will move to the House of Representatives for a vote.

If passed, this bill could eliminate cases that have already been filed and pending in an MDL for years. attorney Laura Yaeger says that the bill “seeks to essentially eliminate the rights of all Americans to seek redress in our court system through class actions or multidistrict litigation efforts, which are often the only viable options for injured patients and consumers to level the playing field and seek compensation when they have been harmed by large corporations.”

Ms. Yaeger adds, “This bill seeks to have retroactive application, which means that, if passed, it could eliminate cases that have already been filed and pending in an MDL for years.”

She encourages every consumer to visit to contact his or her representative and urge them to stand up for the rights of all Americans to hold corporations accountable, and to vote no on H.R. 985.

H.R. 985 in a Nutshell

The Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act would make sweeping changes in the way class action lawsuits are formed, tried, and awarded. Here are some of the many provisions put forth in H.R. 985:

  • Classes will only be certified if every member of the class has “suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative.” Though the terminology is vague (more on this later), in short the bill wants to prohibit class action lawsuits in which class members have suffered varying degrees of losses—or no losses at all.
  • The bill aims to rein in attorneys’ fees, which it says must be “limited to a reasonable percentage of any payments directly distributed to and received by class members.” Moreover, H.R. 985 says that attorneys’ fees must never “exceed the total amount… received by all class members.”
  • The bill also seeks more transparency and accountability in terms of attorneys’ fees. Prior to the payout of attorneys’ fees, the bill demands reporting of all funds paid to counsel by the defendant, as well as every payment made to class members, the number of class members, average amount paid, etc.
  • Attorneys may not represent relatives or any client they have previously represented in a class action. They also may not have any business ties to their clients outside of the class action lawsuit. (This provision seeks to cut down on conflicts of interest, especially attorneys’ friends and family serving as class representatives.)
  • Plaintiff lawyers must supply a “reliable and administratively feasible mechanism” with which they can identify and distribute money to their clients. The question of who exactly is a member of a class is called ascertainability, and this measure aims to clarify and tighten ascertainability.
  • The bill would also reform the procedures for multi-district litigation (MDL), requiring plaintiffs to provide evidence of injury prior to acceptance into the MDL. Cases that don’t meet this requirement will be dismissed within a month.
  • It also requires 80 percent of MDL settlement money to go to clients (versus attorneys).

Critics Say Bill Will “Obliterate” Class Action Lawsuits

“If this bill were enacted into law, it would obliterate class actions in America.”

H.R. 985 prompted swift outrage from civil rights, labor, and environmental groups, 70 of which signed a letter condemning the bill. Among the dozens of organizations that signed are the AFL-CIO, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Farmworker Association of Florida, the National Disability Rights Network, the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), Public Citizen, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and the Workers’ Rights Center.

The letter states, “If this bill were enacted into law, it would obliterate class actions in America… The fact that the Committee would even consider such a sweeping, reckless legislation without holding a single hearing is an outrage.”

It goes on to say that requiring every member of a class action to have an injury of the same type and scope

…would sound the death knell for most class actions. Classes inherently include a range of affected individuals, and virtually never does every member of the class suffer the same “scope” of injury from the same wrongdoing. Certainly, many civil rights, discrimination and employment class actions, including cases involving refusals by companies to properly pay workers, would not satisfy these criteria.

A second letter, signed by 121 civil rights groups—including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Equal Justice Center, Farmworker Justice, NELA, and SPLC—highlighted “the most egregious of [the bill’s] many harms.”

The letter emphasizes that “class actions are critical for the enforcement of laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, education, and access to public areas and services.” For this reason, these groups feel strongly that H.R. 985 presents a grave threat to American civil rights.

Subtler Aspects of Bill Could Be More Troubling

Defendants of H.R. 985 say that the sky-is-falling rhetoric of critics is overblown and misleading. Daniel Fisher of Forbes writes, “It wouldn’t close the courthouse door to consumers, as critics are sure to say… What it would do is discourage lawyer-driven litigation, where plaintiff attorneys target a company… knowing full well the bulk of their clients will never learn of the lawsuit or seek to claim their piece of the settlement.”

H.R. 985 “will create a lot of unnecessary litigation over what the bill really means.”

Transparency and accountability are good things, proponents argue. They say that cutting down on frivolous lawsuits that endeavor only to fatten the pockets of attorneys is a step in the right direction.

Jay Edelson, a prominent plaintiffs attorney in Chicago, considers the bill problematic—but not for the reasons people think. He doesn’t feel it will “obliterate” class actions, and he is in favor of transparency, accountability, and making sure attorneys’ fees don’t soar out of control (especially if their clients only take home a few bucks apiece).

But Mr. Edelson also says that H.R. 985 “will create a lot of unnecessary litigation over what the bill really means.” He says that the similar-type-and-scope-of-harm wording is “unbelievably unclear,” and will inevitably cause delays as the Courts hash out just what that means.

He also feels that a less notorious aspect of the bill is worrisome and even potentially unconstitutional:

You can’t have a class rep who’s a family member, someone who works with you. That’s fine. But then they go further and say you can’t have them be a class rep if you’ve ever represented them before in any case. And that’s crazy. Congress coming in and telling people, “no, you can’t use your attorney, you have to find someone you don’t know at all,” is really shocking and should be offensive to all attorneys. I think it would face constitutional challenges. People have a right to choose their lawyer.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this bill would make class action lawsuits more difficult. But whether that’s a good thing—and whether or not H.R. 985 will pass—remains to be seen.

House Approves Controversial 21st Century Cures Act

The 21st Century Cures Act—a nearly 1,000-page omnibus healthcare spending bill—has been approved by the House and is now under Senate review.

Supporters say the bipartisan bill will accelerate medicinal and medical device innovation. Detractors claim it makes industry concessions that weaken regulatory oversight and undermine public health.

If Senators approve the legislation as expected, President Obama could sign it into law before the end of the year.

Act Will Streamline FDA Approval Process

A lot is covered in the sprawling, 996-page bill, from foster care to mental health to stem-cell therapies and Medicare.

Changes primarily revolve around the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provides federal funding for healthcare research, and the Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for pharmaceutical and medical device safety and efficacy.

Major provisions include:

  • Increased NIH funding: NIH will receive $4.8 billion in new funding over ten years, including money for brain, cancer, and precision medicine research, as well as $1 billion for the nation’s opioid crisis. A top priority is Vice President Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot,” a plan that aims to accomplish 10 years of cancer research in half the time. Additional support for young emerging scientists would be created through a loan repayment program.
  • Faster action on new drugs and devices: The FDA has been criticized for a slow approval process that prevents faster adoption of healthcare breakthroughs. Proposals in the 21st Century Act aim to streamline the drug and device approval process. Specific initiatives include an accelerated approval pathway for regenerative medicines, using “real world evidence” (such as observational studies and registries) to support new indications for approved drugs, and broader categorization of “breakthrough” devices.

The bill also places new requirements on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (to expand neurological disease surveillance) and the Department of Health and Human Services (to revise health information privacy rules).

“A Grab Bag of Goodies for Big Pharma”?

Critics have voiced concerns about what’s in the legislation, as well as what’s not in it.

“The bill has been sold erroneously as a commonsense, bipartisan compromise that enables scientific breakthroughs for America.”

Public Citizen says the Senate should reject 21st Century Cures, calling it a corporate giveaway disguised as reform.

“The bill has been sold erroneously as a commonsense, bipartisan compromise that enables scientific breakthroughs for America. But in reality, the legislation includes a grab bag of goodies for Big Pharma and medical devices companies that would undermine requirements for ensuring safe and effective drugs and medical devices,” said Public Citizen’s Dr. Michael Carmone in a statement.

Public Citizen further notes the new NIH money must be reauthorized each year, making its programs non-guaranteed.

A letter to Congressional leaders from Public Citizen and a dozen other organizations singles out the legislation’s failure to relieve high prescription drug costs.

“There is no justification for moving forward with legislation that provides substantial benefits to the drug industry without asking for something in return,” the letter states.

Critics blame what they consider already-lax FDA oversight for failed medical devices such as the Essure permanent birth control. Essure received fast-track FDA approval in 2002 and has since been linked to thousands of injuries, several deaths, and an unacceptably high pregnancy rate. As a result, the FDA recently slapped Essure with a black box warning.

1,500 Lobbyists Fought for the Act

The 21st Century Cures Act passed the House last year but died in the Senate. Republican lawmakers unveiled a revised version during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and it passed 392-26 during the lame-duck session.

Now under Senate consideration, the Act enjoys bipartisan support but has drawn disparate comments along partisan lines.

“It really is a David and Goliath issue of where the money is.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the bill “the most important legislation Congress will consider this year.”

Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said, “I cannot vote for this bill,” and described the Act as “a tiny fig leaf” covering “huge giveaways to giant drug companies.”

So who actually benefits from the 21st Century Act? The money trail provides answers.

According to Kaiser Health News, nearly 1,500 lobbyists representing 400 organizations petitioned Congress regarding the Act. That’s the fourth-most lobbying activity for any bill this congressional cycle.

Major lobbying efforts were made by:

  • Pharmaceutical, device, and biotech companies: $192 million
  • Medical schools, hospitals, and doctors: $120 million
  • Chamber of Commerce: $87.1 million
  • Health information technology and software companies: $35 million
  • Patient groups (funded by drug and device companies): $6.4 million
  • Mental health, psychology, and psychiatry groups: $1.8 million

In contrast, opposition generally comes from nonprofit patient advocacy and research groups.

“It really is a David and Goliath issue of where the money is,” said Diana Zuckerman of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research, which is running a campaign against the bill.

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