11 February 2016


Original Story: nytimes.com

WASHINGTON — In a victory for class-action plaintiffs, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled by a 6-to-3 vote that courts may not dismiss lawsuits simply because a defendant has offered to give the lead plaintiff everything he sought. A contrary decision would have allowed companies accused of minor but mass wrongdoing to pick off plaintiffs one by one, frustrating their ability to band together to sue over their claims. A Charleston class action lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.

“Once unaccepted, the offer is off the table,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in summarizing her majority opinion from the bench.

In dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that approach gave 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,” he wrote.

The case, Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, No. 14-857, arose from a text message on behalf of the Navy sent to Jose Gomez in 2006. “Get a career,” the text said. “An education. And a chance to serve a greater cause.” Mr. Gomez was 40 at the time, well above the age range for Navy recruits. A Minneapolis class action attorney is following this story closely.

Mr. Gomez sued under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which allows people who receive unwanted text messages to recover up to $1,500, and he sought to represent a class of people who had received the message.

A Navy contractor, the Campbell Ewald Company, offered to settle the case for $1,503 for each unsolicited text, court costs and a promise to stop sending such messages. Mr. Gomez did not respond to the offer.

The company argued that the case should have been dismissed as moot because it had capitulated and offered Mr. 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.”

“While a class lacks independent status until certified,” she wrote, “a would-be class representative with a live claim of her own must be accorded a fair opportunity to show that certification is warranted.” A South Jersey class action attorney provides professional representation to clients involved in class action lawsuits.

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Justice Ginsburg’s opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority but did not adopt its rationale.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the majority had run afoul of the constitutional requirement that federal courts may hear only live cases and controversies. “The problem for Gomez is that the federal courts exist to resolve real disputes,” the chief justice wrote, “not to rule on a plaintiff’s entitlement to relief already there for the taking.”

The majority left the door open to 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.

Chief Justice Roberts welcomed that aspect of the majority opinion, calling it “good news” on the assumption that “there are other plaintiffs out there who, like Gomez, won’t take ‘yes’ for an answer.” A Cleveland class action lawyer is following this story closely.

In a separate dissent, Justice Alito said he had not joined the majority only because there was no question that the company could and would pay. He urged courts to be wary of dismissing cases where there was a risk that “the defendant’s failure to follow through on its promise to pay would leave the plaintiff forever empty-handed.”

He suggested two acceptable procedures.

“The most straightforward way is simply to pay over the money,” Justice Alito 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.”

The decision was the first in the three class-action cases the court has heard this term. A second, Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, concerns an attempt by thousands of workers at an Iowa pork processing plant to band together in a single lawsuit seeking overtime pay. The third, Spokeo v. Robins, No. 13-1339, asks whether Congress may authorize lawsuits by plaintiffs who cannot prove they suffered a concrete injury.