Filing a lawsuit can be a complex process. There are multiple legal procedures that govern how lawsuits may be brought, litigated, and resolved. These procedures can change depending on the nature of the litigation and the types of claims the plaintiff is raising. This article is the first in a series called “Procedures” that will examine the ins and outs of various legal processes that are involved in bringing a lawsuit.
When multiple plaintiffs have similar legal issues arising out of the same, shared injury, or against the same defendant, they may ultimately choose to work together to bring litigation. They may do so by coming together as part of one joint lawsuit known as a class action, or by consolidating their individual lawsuits together before one shared judged in an action known as a multi-district litigation (“MDL”). Because both class actions and MDLs make appearances in the world of agricultural law litigation, it is important to know the requirements for filing such a case, and what the differences are between the two.
The following is a description of what the parties to an agricultural lawsuit must establish in order to bring a class action lawsuit or an MDL.
Elements of a Class Action Lawsuit
A class action lawsuit allows hundreds, or potentially even thousands of individuals to come together and bring legal action against the party allegedly responsible for causing harm to the plaintiffs. Anyone can file a class action lawsuit, and there is no requirement that all members of the class join together to file the lawsuit all together. A class action lawsuit may be initiated by a few, or even one, member of the proposed class. While anyone may start a class action lawsuit, there are certain requirements that must be met. The plaintiff (or plaintiffs) who initially files the class action lawsuit will be referred to as the lead plaintiff, and will be required to show that they meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 23. A judge will only certify the class and allow the case to proceed if all the requirements are met.
According to FRCP 23(a), a class action may be brought only if the following requirements are met: numerosity; commonality; typicality; and adequacy. When a plaintiff files a class action lawsuit, they must prove that these claims are met in the initial filing complaint. To prove numerosity, a plaintiff must show that so many people have been harmed by the actions of the defendant that it would be impracticable for them to all join as individual plaintiffs in the same lawsuit or for them to all file individual lawsuits. While there is no legal minimum requirement of people needed to form a class action, courts will generally find that the numerosity requirement will be satisfied if there are over 40 plaintiffs, but are typically less likely to find numerosity has been satisfied if there are fewer than 20 plaintiffs.
To satisfy the commonality requirement, the lead plaintiff must show that the lawsuit involves factual and legal issues that are common to all class members. In Walmart Stores, Inc. v. Duke, 603 F. 3d 571 (2011), the United States Supreme Court elaborated that along with demonstrating common questions of law and fact, a plaintiff must also show that their claims “depend upon a common contention of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution[.]” In other words, a court must be able to resolve the issues of the case in such a way that the answers satisfy each class member’s questions.
Under the typicality requirement, the lead plaintiff or plaintiffs are required to show that their claims and injuries identified in the complaint are typical of all potential class members. This requirement allows courts to consider whether the lawsuit will advance the interests of all class members, or only those of the lead plaintiff. Generally, the typicality requirement will be met if the lead plaintiffs’ claim both arises from the same event or conduct that also gives rise to the claims of the other class members, and if their claims are based on the same legal theory.
Finally, in order to satisfy the adequacy requirement, the lead plaintiff must show that they are capable of adequately and fairly representing all of the class members. This is generally interpreted to mean both that the lead plaintiff must not have any major conflicts of interest with other class members, and that the attorneys representing the class must have the necessary experience to do so.
Once the lead plaintiff has adequately satisfied all four requirements of FRCP 23(a), there is one final hurdle left to clear before the court will certify the class and allow the case to proceed as a class action. In order to be officially certified, the lead plaintiff must also satisfy at least one of the requirements of FRCP 23(b).
The first FRCP 23(b) requirement allows a class to be certified if not doing so would risk inconsistent rulings that would establish different or opposing standards of conduct for the defendant as the result of individual class members filing lawsuits. The second requirement specifically applies when class members are seeking either declaratory or injunctive relief as opposed to damages. Under that requirement, a class may be certified if the requested injunctive or declaratory relief would be an appropriate remedy for the class as a whole. The third and final requirement of FRCP 23(b) applies when the class is seeking damages. Under the third requirement, the lead plaintiff must show that “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members” and that a class action is the best method to resolve the case. Matters that are relevant to making these findings include: the interest of the class members in individually controlling the litigation of separate actions; whether any litigation concerning the issues in the proposed class action lawsuit have already been begun by other class members; whether the jurisdiction where the proposed class action lawsuit has been filed is a desirable forum to hear the case; and the overall difficulties in manage a class action lawsuit.
If the lead plaintiff is able to prove all four requirements of FRCP 23(a) and at least one requirement of FRCP 23(b), then a judge will likely certify the class and allow the lawsuit to proceed as a class action.
Common Ag Law Issues in Class Action Lawsuits
The field of agricultural law is broad and encompasses many other areas of the law. Because of this, agricultural law litigation can span a wide legal spectrum and include cases related to everything from finance law to environmental law. An agricultural class action lawsuit could potentially arise under any of the areas of the law that affect agriculture and food production. Some examples of recent agricultural class actions include cases concerning environmental torts, food labeling, and GMO crops. The following is a brief description of these types of lawsuits. A later blog post will explore each of these in greater depth.
An environmental tort, also referred to as a toxic tort, is a wrongful act that results in injury to property or persons and ultimately leads to civil liability. These types of torts typically involve harmful substances in the environment, and often involve complex scientific and medical issues. Because these types of torts are related to injuries caused by something in the environment, they can generate multiple plaintiffs which can lead to attempts to bring class action lawsuits. A recent, high profile example of this type of lawsuit in arena of agricultural law is the class action case filed over the pesticide Roundup. That class action consisted of plaintiffs who allegedly developed non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after repeated Roundup exposure. The class reportedly consisted of hundreds of individuals, and was settled earlier this year. For more information about Roundup litigation, see here.
Another area of agricultural law that sees frequent class action litigations is food labeling. These types of cases tend to focus on claims made on food labels, including: whether an ingredient is “all natural” or artificial; the function of a certain ingredient; or claims made about elements of the supply chain. Recent trends in these types of cases include claims based on whether an ingredient is “natural” or “pure,” claims based on the origin of a product, and claims focused on sweeteners. Because food products are sold to multiple people, it makes food labeling claims ideal for class action lawsuits.
A final example of a class action lawsuit in the agricultural law arena arises from litigation over a genetically modified strain of corn that was developed by Syngenta AG (“Syngenta”) and made commercially available to farmers in the U.S. before the strain was approved by China for import. The class certified in the lawsuit consisted of corn farmers who argued that Syngenta had negligently commercialized the seeds before obtaining approval from China which was a major buyer of U.S. corn at the time. The lawsuit ultimately ended in a settlement which was reported to be the largest agricultural class action settlement in U.S. history. Because the case involved multiple plaintiffs who had all suffered a similar injury and had identical claims to bring against the same defendant, it was ideal for a class action lawsuit.
Putting Together a Multi-District Litigation
Another way that multiple plaintiffs can come together to bring similar claims against the same defendant is through an MDL. While MDLs are often mistaken for class actions, they have some key differences which will be discussed below.
To initiate a class action lawsuit, the lead plaintiff files a class action complaint and attempts to get the proposed class certified so that the case can proceed. The intention at the beginning is for the plaintiffs to come together as a class and assert their claims in one lawsuit. This is not the case with an MDL. An MDL is a civil court procedure that involves taking active cases that have been filed in various jurisdictions and transferring them to one court. Because MDLs involve consolidating multiple cases in one court, they can be made up of both individual lawsuits or class actions.
While the requirements for a class action lawsuit are found in the FRCP, the requirements for MDLs have been codified by Congress in 28 U.S.C. § 1407. Congress passed the law concerning MDLs in 1968 in order to clarify how these complex litigations should be managed. In order to be consolidated into an MDL, the civil actions that are proposed for consolidation must involve one or more common questions of fact and be pending in different jurisdictions. The decision on whether to create an MDL will be made by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) which is required to be composed of seven circuit and district judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States. When considering whether to create an MDL, the JPML will consider a variety of factors including the location of discover of materials, the convenience of the witnesses, and the location of the majority of the lawsuits. The JPML will also consider these factors when deciding which jurisdiction to locate the MDL in. Creation of an MDL can be requested by a party to a lawsuit, or it can be initiated by the JPML “upon its own initiative.” 28 U.S.C. § 1407 (c).
Typically, an MDL will be used to conduct pre-trial proceedings such as discovery and global settlements. Discovery is the official process of gathering, and exchanging information between the parties to a lawsuit. This information can include witnesses, and the evidence the parties intend to present at trial. Using an MDL to conduct discovery can increase efficiency in situations where multiple plaintiffs are bringing similar or identical claims against the same defendant and will be seeking the same information during discovery. If the cases were proceeding as individual lawsuits, the defendant would have to go through discovery for each case. By conducing discovery via an MDL, the defendant should only have to go through discovery once, and the plaintiffs will all have access to the information. A global settlement occurs when a defendant reaches a settlement agreement with multiple plaintiffs. Like discovery, it is more efficient to negotiate a global settlement within an MDL that it is to attempt to negotiate the settlement of multiple physical cases.
Once the pre-trial proceedings are complete, each case in the MDL will separately proceed to trial. This is another way that MDLs differ from class actions, where one trial resolves the claims for all class members. Although each case in an MDL will be tried individually, the judge presiding over the MDL may select a number of the individual lawsuits to go to trial first as bellwether trials to see what the result will be. The results of those first initial trials can give both sides information on how juries are likely to rule. From there, the parties to the remaining cases can determine whether to proceed with trying each case, or whether to reach a global settlement.
Like class action lawsuits, MDLs can arise under a variety of different areas of the law. Most recently, agricultural law MDLs have arisen from litigation over pesticides. Many of the lawsuits filed in recent years against the manufacturers of dicamba-based pesticides have been consolidated into MDLs. For more information on those cases, see here.
Both class action lawsuits and MDLs can be useful tools to help courts effectively and efficiently consider legal claims shared by multiple plaintiffs concerning similar injuries and the same defendants. Although often confused for one another, class actions and MDLs are distinct procedures that have different requirements, and are used in different ways. Both class actions and MDL occur within the world of agricultural law litigation. It is therefore important to know what the legal requirements are for these types of lawsuits, and what kind of legal actions tend to get filed as class actions or become MDLs.