Adequately Representing Groups
Elizabeth Chamblee Burch
University of Georgia Law School
April 21, 2013
Fordham Law Review, Forthcoming
UGA Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013-16
Adequate representation and preclusion depend on whether the courts treat a litigant as part of a group experiencing an aggregate harm or as a distinct person suffering individual injuries. And though a vast literature about adequate representation exists in the class-action context, it thins dramatically when contemplating other forms of group litigation, such as parens patriae actions and multidistrict litigation. As class actions have gradually fallen into disfavor and attorneys and commentators seek alternative means for resolving group harms, the relative clarity of Rule 23 wanes. How should courts evaluate adequate representation in parens patriae actions and in multidistrict litigation? The answer to this question matters immensely since adequate representation is critical to precluding relitigation and achieving finality.
This Article suggests that courts should differentiate between inadequate representation claims based on the underlying right at stake. When the underlying right arises from an aggregate harm — a harm that affects a group of people equally and collectively — and demands an indivisible remedy, courts should tolerate greater conflicts among group members when evaluating a subsequent claim of inadequate representation. Because the harm is aggregate and the remedy is indivisible (typically declaratory or injunctive relief), if one group member receives the remedy, then they all receive the remedy. The litigation operates to group members’ benefit or detriment equally, so if one group member is inadequately represented, they are all inadequately represented. Consequently, a subsequent litigant can successfully avoid preclusion only where the lawyers or the named representatives acted contrary to the group’s best interests or attempted to represent an overinclusive, noncohesive group where some members required unique relief that the representative had no selfish reason to pursue.
Conversely, when plaintiffs suffer individual injuries at the same defendant’s hands and unite their claims for economic or efficiency reasons, that aggregation does not convert their individual injuries into an aggregate harm. When counsel fails to fairly represent her client in vindicating that harm, inadequate representation is an individual injury. In multidistrict litigation and Rule 23(b)(3) class actions, which typically include individuals litigating their individual harms together for systematic and litigant efficiency, courts should look for “structural conflicts” between the claimants themselves as well as between the representatives and the claimants. This means that both initially and on a collateral attack, courts should accept fewer conflicts than in cases involving aggregate rights. Accordingly, judges should assess whether there are reasons the lawyers “might skew systematically the conduct of the litigation so as to favor some claimants over others on grounds aside from reasoned evaluation of their respective claims or to disfavor claimants generally vis-à-vis the lawyers themselves.”
Number of Pages in PDF File: 41
Keywords: adequate representation, class actions, multidistrict litigation MDL, parens patriae, aggregate litigation, Rule 23(b)(2)
JEL Classification: K1, K10, K13, K40, K41
Date posted: April 10, 2013 ; Last revised: September 30, 2015