Meet-and-Confer Rules Expand to Motions to Strike and for Judgment on the Pleadings

Candice Shih 
Candice Shih
February 9, 2018

Two years ago, a new rule was put into place requiring any party planning to demur to a pleading to meet and confer with the party that filed the pleading.  (Code Civ. Proc. Section 430.41.)

Hopefully, you have received some practice at this because now it is mandatory to meet and confer before moving to strike a pleading or moving for judgment on pleadings.

As of January 1, 2018, a party moving to strike a pleading under Code Civ. Proc. Section 435 is required to meet and confer with the party that filed the pleading under Section 435.5.  Also as of January 1, 2018, a party moving for judgment on the pleadings under Code Civ. Proc. Section 438 is required to meet and confer with the party that filed the pleading under Section 439.

If you are familiar with the meet-and-confer rules for demurrers, then you will know the rules for motions to strike and for judgment on the pleadings.  Aside from changing the name and nature of the procedure and stylistic changes, the three sets of rules on meet and confer are mostly the same.

As with the rules for demurrers, both new meet-and-confer rules require that the moving party meet and confer in person or by telephone with the party who filed the pleading and identify with legal support the basis of the perceived deficiencies. The non-moving party then must respond with legal support as to why its pleading is legally sufficient.  If a live-time conference does not take place by the deadline, the moving party can file a declaration saying it made a good faith effort to meet and confer and why it did not happen, and it will receive an automatic 30-day extension to file its motion.

A couple differences between (1) the rules for demurrers and (2) the rules for motions to strike and for judgment on the pleadings are:

  • Both the meet-and-confer rules on moving to strike and moving for judgment on the pleading do not apply to a special motion brought pursuant to Section 425.16 (anti-SLAPP) or to a motion brought less than 30 days before trial.  (Sections 435.5(d), 439(d).)
  • The deadline to meet and confer for moving for judgment on the pleading is five days before the motion is filed, rather than five days before it is due.  (Section 439(a)(2).)  Notably, this section does not state that the deadline to meet and confer is related to when the motion is due or when it must be filed, likely because there is no statutory deadline to move for judgment on the pleadings.

Note that if you are planning to demur and move to strike simultaneously that you will be subject to both sets of meet-and-confer rules.  You may want to determine if that is your strategy first before picking up the telephone to meet and confer so that you can address both subjects and comply with both sets of rules.

Disqualification: A Painful Reminder of the Pitfalls of Using Inadvertently Disclosed Attorney-Client Privileged Information

Neil Bardack 
Neil Bardack
August 21, 2017

In California, State Compensation Insurance Fund v. WPS, Inc. 70 Cal.App.4th 644 (1999), has served as the rule book for attorneys who obtain inadvertently disclosed and obvious attorney-client information on how to avoid certain disqualification from representation.  Under State Fund, regardless of how the attorney came into possession of the information, once it is concluded that the document appears to be attorney-client privileged, the attorney must notify the holder of the privilege and refrain from using it until the parties or court has sorted out the disclosure or finds a waiver of the privilege.  The receiving attorney’s reasonable belief that there has been a waiver is not a defense to disqualification that may result if the attorney uses the document in advance of resolving the waiver issue.

A recent example of how courts apply the rule in State Fund is found in McDermott Will & Emery v. Superior Court, 10 Cal.App.4th 1083 (2017).  The document involved was clearly attorney-client privileged on its face as it contained an opinion of counsel, but the manner in which came into possession of counsel raised a strong argument of waiver.

There, McDermott had been sued for malpractice by a former client who alleged the firm had represented him and other family members, creating a conflict of interest.  McDermott was represented by Gibson Dunn.  The document in question had been drafted by the client’s attorney and clearly contained legal advice pertinent to the malpractice claim.  However, the client had sent the document to other non-lawyer family members and it ended up with McDermott pre-suit because the firm had been counsel to family members and a family-owned company.  This relationship had given rise to the conflict of interest claim being made.

Over objections, the client’s attorney Gibson Dunn had used the document in the litigation arguing that not only had it come from its client’s files and not by inadvertent disclosure in discovery, but it also had passed through the hands of several non-lawyers and any privilege had been waived.  Gibson Dunn made the wrong call, and that caused its disqualification from representing McDermott by the trial court.

On appeal, a divided Court of Appeal upheld the disqualification by finding there was no evidence of any intention to waive the privilege by the holder even in the face of several intermediate disclosures that had been made before McDermott had obtained the document from a family member who did not hold the privilege. Disqualification was proper because Gibson Dunn did not follow the guidelines set in State Fund but instead used the document, knowing it was presumptively privileged and that the document should have been either returned or that Gibson Dunn should have sought a court order obtained permitting its use.  Disqualification was necessary to prevent future harm and to protect the integrity of the judicial system.

The circumstances causing disqualification in McDermott show how important it is that an attorney refrain from using a document that at least could be argued as attorney-client privileged, no matter how strong the arguments may be that the privilege was waived. Only the holder of the privilege or a court can make that determination. It is a no-win situation and no matter how tempting the document may be, its use outside of State Fund’s ethical pathway will almost certainly result in an expensive and embarrassing disqualification of a client’s choice of counsel.

Commercial Defamation Update: California Imposes New Hurdle on Ability to Ascertain Identity of Anonymous Internet Posters

Michael Donner 
Michael Donner
August 4, 2017

California defamation law continues to evolve as the courts synthesize well-settled legal principles with ever-changing technological realities. On July 21, 2017, California’s First District Court of Appeal issued a published opinion in ZL Technologies v. Does 1-7 (July 21, 2017) 2017 DJ DAR 6999. In its opinion, the Court amplified existing defamation law as it relates to Internet postings and imposed new hurdles on the ability of parties to ascertain the identities of people who post defamatory statements on the Internet.

It is unlawful for an individual to damage a company by saying or writing something about it that is materially false. However, the courts typically bend over backwards to protect First Amendment rights. Accordingly, they created an exception to defamation for what they call “nonactionable opinion,” that is, statements for which no defamation claim may lie because the statements constitute mere expressions of opinion rather than assertions of fact.

It often can be frustratingly difficult, even for lawyers, to distinguish actionable defamation from nonactionable opinion. In part, this is because people tend to pepper their opinions with facts to support or emphasize them. The advent of the Internet has made this analysis even more complex, because now everyone with a cell phone has the ability to immediately share their views, and entire companies and Internet communities have been formed for the singular purpose of facilitating such discourse. In recent years, the California courts have tried to create some ground rules for distinguishing actionable defamation from nonactionable opinion on the Internet. Under those rules, judges are required to assess not only the specific language the internet poster used (the “what”), but also the online forum in which the poster used that language (the “where”). If the poster’s language is exaggerated or appears on websites that lend themselves to “rants and raves,” rather than considered thought, the California courts tend to view the postings as nonactionable opinion, notwithstanding the fact that it might contain some false facts.

Frequently, even if a company believes it can establish a claim for defamation, its battle to obtain relief has only just begun. One common characteristic of Internet posting is its anonymity. Posters sometimes use online monikers and the websites on which they publish their statements actively shield the posters’ identities. Hence, while a company might want to sue, it cannot readily do so because the identity of the person to be sued remains unknown. To address this issue, some businesses file lawsuits against “Doe” defendants and then take discovery to ascertain the posters’ identities. Discovery like that can be expensive and is not always successful.

In ZL Technologies, several anonymous individuals posted allegedly false statements about a company on Glassdoor.com, an employee review website. The company subpoenaed Glassdoor to obtain the posters’ e-mail addresses and other identifying information so the company could sue the posters for defamation. Although Glassdoor was insulated from defamation liability under federal law (as a mere forum for postings), it fought the subpoena on behalf of the posters.

The Court of Appeal allowed the company to proceed both with the case and its efforts to ascertain the identities of the anonymous posters. However, it tried to strike a balance between the company’s interest in obtaining relief and the posters’ interest in remaining anonymous. It held that litigants seeking to subpoena websites to determine the identities of anonymous posters must first (1) give notice of the subpoena to the posters (through the website) so the posters can fight the subpoena; and (2) establish a prima facie case of defamation on par with that necessary to defeat an anti-SLAPP motion. California never applied these two tests before in connection with this type of discovery.

In the aftermath of ZL Technologies, companies may still subpoena websites to ascertain the identities of anonymous posters who write defamatory things about them. However, before doing so, they must now give the posters a chance to challenge the legal propriety of their subpoenas. They also must marshal their evidence and prepare a nearly dispositive motion on their defamation claim, establishing that the posted statements were factual, actionable, material, false, and damaging. These hurdles will require considerably more time and resources to satisfy.

Los Angeles Judge Elects Generalized “Common Issue” to Justify Class Certification

Shannon Nessier 
Shannon Nessier
July 18, 2017

Walt Disney (“Disney”) suffered a loss last week in an adverse employment action based on its use of information in consumer reports as part of its employment screening process.  The plaintiffs have alleged that they were injured when inaccurate credit reporting information, which they had no opportunity to challenge or correct, became a factor in Disney’s denial of employment.  On July 13, 2017, the Court entered an order granting class certification over objections by Disney to, among other issues, the existence of predominant common questions of fact.  In reaching its decision, the Court elected to define the commons issues as framed by the more generalized issues advanced by plaintiffs than the specific factual issues Disney identified would be necessary to assess the class members and their alleged damages.

Continue reading Los Angeles Judge Elects Generalized “Common Issue” to Justify Class Certification

China Enacts Data Privacy Law Under Guise of Cybersecurity

William Kellermann 
William Kellermann
May 11, 2017

On November 11, 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress promulgated the “Internet Security Law of the People ‘s Republic of China” commonly referred to as the “Cybersecurity Law of China.”  Unlike the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which gave businesses two years to prepare, the new law becomes implemented June 1, 2017.

The law affects almost every business in China, and anyone else doing business in China.  The law targets “critical infrastructure,” which is broadly defined and includes transportation, travel, network software and equipment suppliers, telecommunications, finance (banking, insurance, mutual funds), health care, online shopping platforms, information technology services (Internet Data Center, electronic information delivery and distribution, Internet Service Provider, Internet Content Provider), education, energy, marketing and advertising, social media, gaming, applications and public service.  The new law applies to any entity that 1) maintains a computer network and 2) attaches that network to the internet.

Continue reading China Enacts Data Privacy Law Under Guise of Cybersecurity

Court: Arbitration Agreements That Waive Injunctive Relief Under CA Consumer Statutes Are Unenforceable

Neil Bardack 
Neil Bardack
April 25, 2017

In McGill v. Citibank, N.A., No., S224086  (Cal. Apr. 6, 1017), the California Supreme Court recently held that pre-dispute arbitration agreements that purport to waive the remedy of injunctive relief under California consumer statutes that have the primary purpose and effect of prohibiting unlawful acts that threaten future injury to the public in any forum, are contrary to California public policy and are thus unenforceable under California law.  The court further held that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) does not preempt California law nor require enforcement of such contractual waiver provision.

The dispute in McGill arose out of an account agreement for a “credit protector” plan to a Citibank credit card that contained a broadly worded agreement to arbitrate that sought to require arbitration of all claims related to the account no matter the theory or relief sought.  Specifically, claims brought as a class action, private attorney general, or other representative action, could only be brought on an individual basis and relief awarded only to the individual and not to anyone not a party to the agreement.  The provision also stated that such claims would be governed by the FAA.

McGill brought claims under the California consumer remedy statues (Unfair Competition Law, California Legal Remedies Act and False Advertising Law) seeking damages and injunctive relief prohibiting Citibank from continuing to engage in allegedly illegal and deceptive practices.  The trial court severed and kept the injunctive relief cause of action but ordered arbitration of all other claims; the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded concluding that AT &T Mobility v. Concepcion preempted application of the Broughton-Cruz rule, which established that agreements to arbitrate claims for public injunctive relief under these or any other statutes, was unenforceable.

McGill petitioned the California Supreme Court claiming that there was no preemption of the Broughton-Cruz rule and that any arbitration agreement requiring submission of claims for public injunctive relief was unenforceable. McGill also raised an argument that had been ignored by the Court of Appeal but which had traction in the Supreme Court, which is that the clause was unenforceable as it sought to waive McGill’s right to seek public injunctive relief in any forum based upon language in the clause that claims under the consumer statutes could not be pursued “in any litigation in any court.” At the hearing, Citibank agreed with McGill that this clause would prevent McGill from seeking public injunctive relief in any forum 

 In a nutshell, the Court held that it need not decide whether FAA preemption applied because Citibank agreed that public injunctive relief was excluded from the obligation to arbitrate, and the Broughton-Cruz rule “which applies only when the parties have agreed to arbitrate requests for such relief” was not at issue; thus, the continued validity of that rule after Concepcion need not be decided.  The only question before the court was “whether the arbitration provision is valid and enforceable insofar as it purports to waive McGill’s right to seek public injunctive relief in any forum.

By focusing only on the specific language of an arbitration clause that prevented the plaintiff from seeking public injunctive relief in either arbitration or court, the California Supreme Court attempted to thread the needle to avoid taking on the obvious question of FAA preemption under Concepcion and later decisions that have upheld precluding class procedures in consumer arbitrations.  The narrowness of this decision leaves open the question in California courts of the continued validity of the Broughton-Cruz rule and its prohibition against  waiving claims for public injunctive relief by agreeing to individual arbitration

CA Court Vacates Arbitration Decision Awarding Punitive Damages

Michael Donner 
Michael Donner
March 8, 2017

California’s Fourth Appellate District recently issued an interesting, but fact-specific, opinion regarding an arbitrator’s award in Emerald Aero, LLC v. Kaplan (2/28/17) 2017 DJDAR 1819.

In Emerald Aero, the plaintiff investors sued the defendant for breach of fiduciary duty in connection with a self-storage investment gone awry.  Plaintiffs sought compensatory damages and declaratory relief, but did not seek punitive damages. The arbitrator held a telephonic arbitration merits hearing (i.e., trial), after which he awarded plaintiffs $30 million without specifying the grounds for the award. Although the award did not specify the nature of the damages, the parties agreed that a substantial portion consisted of punitive damages.

The Court’s decision is notable for several reasons:

First, it underscores the unusual nature of arbitration and private judging. When parties elect to litigate outside of the court system, they are bound by the rules and procedures of their chosen private alternative dispute resolution forum. Ordinarily, arbitrators follow the law and case administrators follow the forum’s internal procedures and processes. But this is not always the case. If arbitrators or case administrators do make a mistake, opportunities for appellate review are few. (Indeed, this arbitration was governed by the California Arbitration Act, which offers fewer bases to overturn arbitration awards than does the Federal Arbitration Act.) The grounds for reversal must be manifest and severe.

Second, it underscores the importance of correctly and completely pleading all claims, prayers for damages, and defenses in an arbitration. Practitioners tend to think of arbitral forums as being less formal than trial courts, and often, they are correct. Arbitrators sometimes (but not always) exercise a degree of “flexibility,” particularly with respect to evidence and pleading, that otherwise is absent from judicial forums. But as this case demonstrates, it’s best not to rely on the perceived informality of arbitrations. If plaintiffs in Emerald Aero asserted a claim that entitled them to punitive damages, they should have plainly asked for an award of such damages (or, if they did not want such damages, they should have made clear to the arbitrator that such damages were not being sought). Their failure to do so opened an expensive can of worms that ultimately unwound an advantageous award in their favor and forced them to incur fees litigating on appeal.

CA Court Refuses To Enforce NY Choice-Of-Law Clause And Jury Waiver

Candice Shih 
Candice Shih
February 6, 2017

California’s First District Court of Appeal issued an interesting new ruling that will affect contracts calling for another state’s laws to govern.

In Rincon EV Realty LLC v. CP III Rincon Towers, Inc. (Cal. Ct. App., Jan. 31, 2017, No. A138463) 2017 WL 429267, the plaintiffs borrowed $110 million to finance the purchase of a San Francisco apartment complex.  After the plaintiffs defaulted on the loan, the lender commenced foreclosure proceedings.  One of the defendants, CP III Rincon Towers, Inc., purchased the property at a nonjudicial foreclosure sale.  In an effort to set aside the sale, the plaintiffs sued the purchaser, the lender, and others involved in the transaction for breach of contract, fraud, unfair competition, slander of title, violation of California’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act, and accounting.

The plaintiffs demanded a jury trial.  However, the contracts at issue had two key provisions:

  1. A New York choice-of-law clause, including a waiver of any claim that any other state’s law would govern, and
  2. A waiver of the right to a jury trial.

After the trial court held that New York law applied and that the jury waiver was enforceable under New York law, the plaintiffs appealed.

In its decision, the appellate court noted that contractual choice-of-law provisions are not always enforceable. Indeed, in Nedlloyd Lines B.V. v. Superior Court (1992) 3 Cal.4th 459, the California Supreme Court ruled that, to be effective, (1) there has to be a rational nexus to the chosen state; (2) the other state’s law cannot deprive California citizens of important rights or impugn significant California public policy; and (3) California cannot have a “materially greater interest” in enforcing its laws over those of another state.

Employing the Nedlloyd test, the Court determined that New York had a substantial relationship to the parties and the transaction. However, it held that the right to a trial by jury was “inviolate” in California and that New York law on the enforceability of jury waivers was contrary to fundamental California public policy.  Finally, the Court held that California had a “materially greater interest than New York” in determining how legal proceedings are conducted in California courtrooms. Hence, it concluded that the contractual jury waiver – enforceable in New York – was unenforceable under California law.

The Rincon decision reminds parties and legal practitioners alike to give considerable thought to choice-of-law provisions in contracts.  If the contract involves California parties and the chosen state’s laws deprive them of important California rights, the choice-of-law provision might not be enforceable.

Ninth Circuit Deepens Circuit Split and Rejects Ascertainability Requirement for Class Certification

Geoff Pittman 
Geoff Pittman
January 17, 2017

In a detailed opinion published last week in Briseno v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. 15-cv-55727 (9th Cir. Jan. 3, 2017), the Ninth Circuit held that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 neither provides nor implies that demonstrating an “administratively feasible” way to identify class members is a prerequisite to class certification.

The Court employed traditional canons of statutory construction to reason that the plain language of Rule 23(a) and Rule 23(b)(3), as well as the U.S. Supreme Court precedent of Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 (1997) dictate that no separate “administrative feasibility” or “ascertainability” requirement need be satisfied in order to obtain class certification. As summarized by the Court, “the language of Rule 23 does not impose a freestanding administrative feasibility prerequisite to class certification. Mindful of the Supreme Court’s guidance, we decline to interpose an additional hurdle into the certification process delineated in the enacted rule.”

In its opinion, the Court also expressly rejected the justifications provided by the Third Circuit – (1) mitigating administrative burdens; (2) safeguarding the interests of justice; and (3) protecting the due process rights of defendants – for an independent ascertainability requirement for class certification. In doing so, the Court concluded that “Rule 23’s enumerated criteria already address the interests that motivated the Third Circuit . . .”

Briseno involved a challenge to the “natural” labeling statements on Conagra’s Wesson Oil products based on the claim that the products allegedly contained unnatural genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. Like many defendants in other food labeling class actions, Conagra argued that none of the 11 proposed classes should have been certified, in part because plaintiffs could not demonstrate an administratively feasible method for identifying class members, and the only evidence of class membership would be unreliable affidavits claiming product purchases unsupported by any receipts or other reliable evidence that the products were actually purchased.

Several Circuit Courts of Appeal (the Second, Third, Fourth, and Eleventh Circuits) have held that ascertainability is a prerequisite to class certification, and have denied certification where plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate an administratively feasible and reliable way of identifying class members, most notably in consumer class action cases where absent class members lacked receipts for the products they purchased and where the challenged labeling statements differed on the product packaging.  The leading decision supporting defendants’ ascertainability arguments is the Third Circuit’s decision in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013).  With the Briseno decision, the Ninth Circuit rejected Carrera and its progeny, and joined the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeal in holding that there is no separate ascertainability or “administrative feasibility” requirement for class certification.

The Briseno decision thus further deepens the divide between the Circuit Courts of Appeal on this important class certification issue.  We anticipate that the issue will be heard by the Supreme Court in the appropriate case.

Current Issues In Class Actions

Eric Junginger 
Eric Junginger
September 29, 2016

On September 16, 2016, I attended a conference in San Francisco regarding current class action issues.  Below is a summary of some key takeaways from that event.

  • The United States Supreme Court issued three significant class action rulings during its 2015-2016 term: (1) Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, 135 S.Ct. 2806 (plaintiffs can rely on representative or statistical evidence for issues common to the class); (2) Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 135 S.Ct. 1892 (Article III standing requires a concrete and particularized injury or risk of harm); and (3) Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 135 S.Ct. 2311 (unaccepted settlement offer for full amount of lead plaintiff’s claim does not moot a class action).  Collectively, these decisions keep the door wide open to class action litigation nationally.
  • One of the proposed changes to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) Rule 23 is that no financial payment can be made to counsel for class members objecting to a proposed settlement unless such payment is disclosed and approved by the court after a noticed hearing. Further, no payment can be made to an objector’s counsel in connection with either withdrawing an objection or dismissing an appeal from a judgment approving the settlement.  Collectively, these changes should reduce the likelihood that attorneys will object to a settlement or appeal a final judgment for the purpose of getting additional compensation from the settling parties in exchange for dropping their objection or appeal.
  • Other proposed changes to FRCP Rule 23 include: (1) the court will give notice of a proposed settlement to all class members only after considering whether there has been adequate representation, arm’s length negotiations, adequate relief offered to all class members (side agreements have to be disclosed to the court), and all class members are equitably treated relative to each other; and (2) notice to class members can be given by email or posting notice on the company’s website instead of just U.S. Mail.
  • Courts are more closely scrutinizing class action settlement agreements because: (1) parties want to expand the class and claims being released beyond the scope of the initial complaint following settlement discussions; (2) defendant’s agreement not to object to plaintiff counsel’s fees can be evidence of collusion; (3) if interests are divergent between FRCP Rule 23(b)(2) and FRCP Rule 23(b)(3) classes, both classes would need to have separate counsel or else there would be inadequate representation; (4) courts are rejecting “kicker” provisions, where any money reverts to defendant if the court does not approve plaintiff counsel’s entire fees or if class members do not cash checks; and (5) courts reject settlements when cy pres provision is not pertinent to the issue raised by the class.  As such, counsel should no longer expect the court to rubber-stamp the parties preliminary settlement agreement.
  • Even though the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Clapper v. Amnesty, 133 S.Ct. 1138 (2013) stands for the proposition that no recovery is allowed for injuries that have not in fact occurred, even if they appear likely or probable, more circuit courts are allowing data breach class actions to proceed if there is an increased risk of fraudulent charges or identity theft. However, there has not yet been a single case where plaintiffs certified a class action in a data breach case, except for settlement purposes.
  • Class members must be definite and ascertainable at class certification stage. There are three ways to achieve ascertainability:  (1) easily identifiable class members; (2) objective criteria to define the class; or (3) class does not include people who did not suffer a common injury.  Cases are currently pending in the 9th Circuit to further clarify this ascertainability analysis.
  • Even though class actions are rarely tried to verdict, at trial, defense counsel should focus on any differences between named plaintiff’s claims and other class members to show lack of commonality and that individual interests predominate. Conversely, plaintiff’s counsel will want to have both named class representatives and absent class members testify to generate more sympathy with the jury.

Follow HB Briefly for further developments in class action law.

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