The Supreme Court’s decision in China Agritech Inc. v. Resh means that class action plaintiffs can no longer rely on serial class actions to toll their statute of limitations indefinitely. Instead, the Supreme Court held that the judicially created rule which tolls the statute of limitations for putative class members—called American Pipe tolling—applies to individual claims only, and it only lasts until class certification is denied. This ruling is great news for class action defendants.
We blogged about the importance of this case last year, but here is a refresher on the background. American Pipe tolling allows individuals who fall within the definition of a proposed class action to wait until a court decides whether to certify the class before filing individual claims. This judge-made doctrine serves judicial economy: Class actions exist to litigate a multitude of claims in one action. If absent class members’ limitations periods were not tolled, those absent class members would face a dilemma: Either get in the game and file a lawsuit, or sit on the sidelines and bet that the class will be certified. The first choice encourages needless, duplicative lawsuits, which is wasteful and burdensome for defendants. (Defending a class action is a heavy load. Defending a class action and a slew of individual cases is worse.) The second choice could cause potentially meritorious claims to expire while the class member waits on the result of a class certification decision the class member does not control, which is unfair. American Pipe tolling avoids the dilemma by tolling the class members’ limitations period until class certification is denied. It is a clumsy judge-made solution with no basis in the text of the rule, but it addresses a practical problem.
As often happens with clumsy solutions, however, fixing one problem created more problems. If, as some circuits held, American Pipe tolling applied to class claims in addition to individual claims, the balance struck by the rule collapses: As soon as class certification is denied, another class representative could file suit elsewhere proposing to certify a new class (or the same class), which would keep the tolling rolling. This process potentially could continue forever, until the plaintiffs found a receptive judge to certify the class.
Most circuits—including the Second, Fifth, and Eleventh—limited American Pipe tolling to individual claims. But other circuits—such as the Ninth, where China Agritech arose—allowed continuous, indefinite tolling from piggybacked class actions. The Supreme Court took the case to resolve the split, and did so decisively with a welcome, bright-line rule.
China Agritech holds that American Pipe tolling applies to individual claims only, full stop. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion focuses on efficiency: Plaintiffs who intend to file a class action must file within the original limitations period, and courts should rule on class certification quickly. This rule encourages early filings, and Justice Ginsburg seemed to contemplate an almost Darwinian process where the better class representatives with better counsel and better-pleaded complaints (or perhaps the more strategic choice of forum) would be the ones whose claims would have the best chance to be certified. The majority rejected Justice Sotomayor’s suggestion in her concurrence that American Pipe tolling should apply to class claims if class certification were denied because of some problem with the class representative (such as poorly trained class counsel or an indifferent, lazy or otherwise inadequate class representative). No matter the reason for the denial of class certification, there is no statute of limitations tolling for subsequent class claims.
What does this mean? Four things stand out to us:
Many companies’ exposure just went down. Defendants in California or those facing stale claims or claims with relatively short statutes of limitations will face fewer claims going forward. The retroactive effect of this decision could perhaps still be litigated, but China Agritech immediately helps extinguish stale claims.
Get ready for competing class actions. We expect plaintiffs will heed the Supreme Court’s admonition and file their class claims sooner. While the ultimate number of class filings may not increase, those filings will become more front-loaded, and companies may face more of them at the same time. Again, the Supreme Court was aware of this incentive, and it expressed faith in lower courts’ abilities to use available procedures to consolidate, stay, or otherwise manage these cases. If we had to pick out two likely trends to watch here, look for a yet-further uptick in the use of multidistrict litigation and for more robust application of the first-to-file rule. For a more in-depth look, we dedicated a three-part series to handling competing class actions last year; you can find them here: part one, part two, and part three.
Where there are no competing class actions, the value of individual settlements just went up. When faced with a lone class action on a given claim, the expiration of the statute of limitations becomes a very important date. As it approaches (and especially after it passes), defendants have an incentive to pay a premium for an individual settlement with the named plaintiff because doing so extinguishes class risk on the claim.
Disaster avoided. Lastly, China Agritech is not a landmark case because most circuits already applied American Pipe tolling to individual claims only. But had the case come out the other way, making piggybacked class actions the law of the land, then a multitude of expired class claims could have been revived and companies would be scrambling today. Even though this case came out the right way, we recognize again that the Supreme Court probably plays an outsized role in making class action doctrine, and that role creates uncertainty. Creating and defining a tolling doctrine should be legislative work.