Opiate Crisis Faces Two Tracks, Settlement and Litigation

By Ginsey Varghese

The potentially vast opioid litigation has received a big push for an alternative dispute resolution intervention.

In December, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) consolidated and transferred more than 400 opiate-related cases to Ohio’s Northern U.S. District Court under the oversight of Judge Dan Aaron Polster.

And Polster immediately said he will push for a solution to get a handle on the cases filed against manufacturers by cities and counties and bring on special masters to handle the negotiations. Jan Hoffman, Can This Judge Solve the Opioid Crisis? N.Y. Times (Mar. 5) (available at http://nyti.ms/2Fhx7sK).

The plaintiffs in the MDL are cities, counties and states, though some states participating in the MDL settlement discussions have filed separate suits.

The consolidated case under Judge Polster is called In re Nat’l Prescription Opiate Litigation. In re Nat’l Prescription Opiate Lit., No. MDL 2804, 2017 WL 6031547,*1 (J.P.M.L. Dec. 5, 2017)(available at https://bit.ly/2G3EELQ). The court’s case page is available at https://bit.ly/2qDbbmg.

Opioid makers and distributers, including individual doctors, are accused of creating a public-health crisis with their mishandling of the potent drugs, estimated to kill 180 people in the U.S. daily from misuse. Opioids are painkillers, and they range from prescription drugs to illegal heroin.

Judge Polster said in the first hearing on Jan. 9 that he will drive the case toward settlement. He explained the importance of meaningful resolution. He said, “I don’t think anyone in the country is interested in a whole lot of finger pointing . . . depositions, and discovery, and trials.  . . . [W]ith all these smart people here and their clients, I’m confident we can do something to . . . make sure that the pills manufactured and distributed go to the right people and no one else, and that there can be an effective system to monitor delivery and distribution.  . . .” Transcript of Proceedings (Doc 58) at 411-12, In re Nat’l Prescription Opiate Litig., No. MDL 2804 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 9, 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2DPT1BA).

The parties suggested three names to serve as Special Masters–David Cohen, a Cleveland-based special master with experience in mass torts and antitrust (see www.specialmaster.law); Cathy Yanni, a JAMS Inc. neutral in San Francisco who has worked as a special master on pharmaceutical cases (see www.jamsadr.com/yanni/), and Duke University Prof. Francis McGovern, of Durham, N.C., who also has worked as a special master in pharmaceutical cases (see https://law.duke.edu/fac/mcgovern/). Id. at 414.

Polster had said that there been substantial progress made in settlement discussions since January, but several barriers “to a global resolution” identified prompted the establishment of “limited litigation track, including discovery, motion practice, and bellwether trials.” Minutes of 3/6/2018 Conference and Order, In re Nat’l Prescription Opiate Litig., No. MDL 2804 (N.D. Ohio Mar. 7, 2018) (available at https://bit.ly/2HZmdZy); see also, Amanda Bronstad, Opioid Judge Allows Some Discovery, Motions to Go Forward in MDL, Nat’l L. J. (Mar. 7, 2018)(available at https://bit.ly/2HYeriy).

This was followed by an April 11 discovery order by Polster (available at https://bit.ly/2KiSSen). The National Law Journal termed the case management order—the first in the MDL–“aggressive,” noting it targets the litigation track to a first-quarter 2019 trial date. Amanda Bronstead, Polster Sets Aggressive Discovery Schedule, Slating Opioid Trial for March 2019, Nat’l L. J. (Apr. 12)(available at https://bit.ly/2FhYdPy).

Polster identified some of the cases that would proceed on the litigation track in the order. The Bloomberg article above notes that allowing local governments and opioid makers’ attorneys to prepare for trial may be the quickest way to overcome some of the barriers to settlement, which include causation issues.

A settlement conference is scheduled for May 10, announced earlier this year and confirmed in an order by Polster earlier this week (available at https://bit.ly/2HTzc2g).

If no deal can be reached, Polster noted in the first hearing that he is prepared to try Ohio’s claims against opioid makers in 2019. Transcript of Proceedings (Doc 58) at 412-13, above.

* * *

More details will appear in an expanded article later this spring in Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation.

The author was a CPR Institute 2018 intern. She is a law student at Pepperdine University’s School of Law in Malibu, Calif.  

Litigation vs ADR – Different Strokes for Different Folks

steven_125By Judge Steven Platt

My last column described the cultural, economic and structural changes in the legal and business communities that have transposed “Alternative Dispute Resolution” (ADR) from a “cross-practice” which litigators engage in when they are contractually required or court-ordered to do so to a fully-integrated but increasingly separate and distinct set of dispute resolution services to be offered by law firms or other private “Dispute Resolution Firms”, “Groups”, and “Individual Professionals”. As I pointed out in that column the Judiciary has also, albeit belatedly, in the last 25 years recognized this primarily economic, but also legal and political reality and begun to provide or at least encourage individual and corporate litigants to seek cost effective and time sensitive alternatives to full-blown litigation.

That trend is now firmly in place and developing to the point where even some courts, specifically the Chancery Court in Delaware, have begun to formally offer other dispute resolution services as alternatives to their traditional inventory of services. Until recently courts restricted the services they offered to litigation and “settlement conferencing.” The Delaware Chancery Court has expanded this to institutionalize arbitration, evaluative mediation and neutral case evaluation services by the “Sitting Chancellors.”

This has produced a further change to the structure, operations, and culture of mid-size to large law firms albeit slowly because of entrenched resistance based on law office economics and egos. Until recently for example under the prevailing law firm business models and processes, transactions belonged to the “Corporate Department”, wills and trusts to “Trusts & Estates (T&E)” and Bankruptcy to their own discrete practice areas or Boutique Law Firms. Within these typical structures “disputes” have been the exclusive domain of the litigators.

It should not therefore be surprising to encounter resistance to this change by litigators who have historically settled most of their cases (98%) without help from a third-party neutral either privately retained or court-imposed. Many litigators on their own have adapted to the changing client expectations for a faster and less expensive resolution of their disputes by engaging in more extensive and intense settlement negotiations as a part of the litigation process or as Robert Marguilies, a business litigator in New Jersey calls it – “Litigoatiation.”

This resistance and the reason for it however are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and processes of Alternative Dispute Resolution. What those who resist the expansion of the techniques utilized to resolve disputes beyond the traditional litigation process even when it includes a large element of “litigotiation” do not comprehend is that the use of these alternative dispute resolution techniques is not just to settle the specific dispute before them but to resolve latent client goals and concerns which have led to their dispute. These other concerns almost always include addressing the underlying causes of the dispute as a means of preventing future conflict between the parties or even with third parties.

This is not always the case as for example where the dispute is purely over money such as in negligence cases resulting from automobile accidents, etc. But even in cases where professional liability issues are to be resolved, there are clearly other issues and interests to be addressed besides purely dollars and the merits and value of the claims and defenses. These can include reaching a resolution that does not engender future litigation or conflict between the policy holder and the carrier, as well as future underwriting issues between the policy-holder and the carrier. There can also be issues and interests related to professional discipline and registration involved.

The resolution of these issues are not easily achieved by the standard “position-based” settlement negotiations by lawyers that typically occur at various stages of a case which is being litigated. Furthermore it is clear to anyone who has engaged in both that settlement discussions between litigators with multiple and alternating agendas are of a different nature and quality than those led by a qualified neutral ADR professional committed to only finding an amicable comprehensive resolution to the dispute and the underlying cause of it. The former is most often intermittent, limited, unconcentrated (mixed in with litigation issues) and unfocused on a comprehensive resolution. The later is structured, concentrated and focused solely on a comprehensive settlement of all issues including those which caused the dispute to occur in the first place.

Litigators who are not trained as Mediators are also likely to confine their position-based negotiations to remedies available through the court in which the litigation is filed. This arbitrarily restricts the ability of the parties to satisfactorily and comprehensively resolve their dispute in a way that addresses the underlying issues which produces the conflict as well as eliminate the conditions which might create future controversies.

Finally, particularly in Maryland, position- based negotiations directly between lawyers acting as advocates for their clients are of necessity constrained by case law from The Court of Appeals. This case law in effect makes the issue of whether an attorney for a party who recommended a settlement based on what an “expert” now says was “insufficient information” as a result of inadequate or incomplete discovery a “jury question.” This exposes lawyers to professional liability if there is not universal acceptance that he/she complied with the standard of care within the “Expert Witness Community” whose ads can be found in many legal magazines. This exposure as a practical matter can be limited if not eliminated by skillful drafting of retainer agreements and/or settlement agreements. But if it is not, then the attorney in order to insulate himself or herself from a future adverse finding by a jury (not made up of other lawyers) will instinctively refuse or at least delay engaging in settlement discussions which may also be limited for these same reasons. This will have the effect of adding both unnecessary time and expense to the conduct of the case before even discussing settlement.

Which dispute resolution technique should the parties utilize in the Multi-Door Courthouse or Conference Room of the future? Stay tuned to this same newspaper and column for the answers to that question next month.

This post is reprinted with permission from “A Pursuit of Justice,” a blog by Judge Steven I. Platt (Ret.) that focuses on the intersection of law, economics, politics and the development of public policy.  Judge Platt currently owns and operates his own private Alternative Dispute Resolution Company, The Platt Group, Inc. through which several retired judges and experienced practitioners offer mediation, arbitration and neutral case evaluation services to business, governmental agencies and their lawyers mostly in complex litigation and disputes.  Judge Platt’s experience and vocation make him an expert in conflict resolution particularly in complex disputes whether they are political, economic, legal, or as most often the case all of the above. Judge Platt can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com or via his website at www.theplattgroup.com.

Litigation Financiers: Explain Yourselves!

Litigation Financiers: Explain Yourselves!

By Russ Bleemer

Replies are due from litigation financing companies to a request by prominent U.S. senators on how the firms run their operations and earn their profits.

In a sweeping inquiry, the senators asked three financing firms about how they fund lawsuits and arbitrations, usually against big companies, in exchange for a share of the recovery.

Two of the firms are based in the United Kingdom, and a third in Australia.  All are affiliated with hedge funds.  The litigation financing firms, whose parents are publicly traded overseas, get most of their revenue from investing in U.S. litigation and arbitration cases.

The field has grown immensely in recent years, and U.S. regulation is a patchwork of court decisions, legal ethics rules, and state laws.

But this is the first time lawmakers in the nation’s capital have taken notice, and they are not happy with what they are seeing in the wake of the industry’s growth.

In a late August release, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R., Iowa, and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R., Texas, issued three letters they had sent to the companies.  The letters were a deep dive into the companies’ operations, asking 12 expansive questions about the kinds of cases that the companies invest in, how much money the firms have advanced, and the names of the law firms they are backing.

Grassley and Cornyn—generally business-friendly conservatives—are clearly suspicious, and the questions may be precursors to regulating litigation financing.  In giving the firms until the middle of last month to produce the extensive replies the questions require, Grassley noted in a press release statement that:

Litigation speculation is expanding at an alarming rate. And yet, because the existence and terms of these agreements lack transparency, the impact they are having on our civil justice system is not fully known.  . . . It’s vitally important to our civil justice system that litigation decisions aren’t unduly influenced by third parties.

The senators’ concern is that the litigation financing firms are perpetuating courtroom fights and adding frivolous litigation to court dockets–even though at least one firm says it is backing fewer individual plaintiffs and leaning significantly toward financing business-to-business litigation conducted by big law firms.

The senators’ questions asked for the financing firms’ revenues for supporting arbitration matters, too, as well as whether the financing agreements include arbitration clauses.  The letters asked if the arbitration clauses cover disputes between the financing firms and the plaintiffs they back over whether the plaintiffs should settle their cases.

The Grassley/Cornyn inquiry picks up on long-running objections by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose tort-reform arm has blasted litigation financing since its U.S. emergence over the past decade.  But the letters are information requests, and not subpoenas; Grassley, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, has not announced that he is considering hearing.

The senators asked for a reply by Sept. 18.  At this writing, neither Grassley nor Cornyn have released further information.  And only one of the three firms, Burford Capital, a U.K. firm incorporated in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, has issued a full public response. Noting that “[w]hat may be new about Burford is its introduction of professionalism and institutional specialization to the field,” the firm posted its lengthy Sept. 25 defense of litigation financing in response to the senators’ inquiries on its blog, here.

But for the litigation financing firms’ initial reactions, and more facts and figures as well the background that led to the Grassley/Cornyn letters, see the ADR Briefs feature, “Senators Want Explanations from Top Litigation Funding Firms,” in the October Alternatives (to be cited at 33 Alternatives 140 (October 2015)), which will be available on Oct. 6 HERE for free for CPR members and HERE for subscribers.  CPR membership information is available HERE, and Alternatives subscription information is available at www.altnewsletter.com.

Russ Bleemer is a CPR Consultant and the Editor of CPR’s award-winning publication, Alternatives

ADR Around the World: Taiwan

This article is the third in a four-part CPR summer series that examines ADR in a number of rapidly changing locales around the world. If you missed it, you can find the first post, about Colombia, here, and the second about Mexico here.

ADR in Taiwan: Strong Foundations and a Chance to Build

By Gideon Hanft, CPR Research Assistant and Ngutjiua Hijarunguru, CPR Student Intern

In 2013, research institute Business Environment Risk Intelligence S.A. (BERI) ranked Taiwan as the fourth-best investment environment globally. Taiwan’s largest trading partners are the world’s three largest economies, Japan, China and the United States, and, as a leader in technology production, Taiwan has a dynamic and expanding role in the global economy. Taiwan’s economic growth has corresponded with a growth in commercial litigation, but Taiwan’s government and cultural legacy has also built a strong ADR foundation and offers opportunities for further expansion.

Confucianism has historically cultivated an “anti-lawsuit” attitude, and this heritage has served as “fertile soil for the development of mediation.” However, Taiwan’s strong history of societally promoted mediation has not prevented a rapid expansion of civil litigation. Professor Yun-Hsien Diana Lin of National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan ascribes this development to the “increase in judicial staff…, the progress of economic development and the growing prevalence of education among Taiwanese people.” Despite this expansion of litigation, Taiwan’s government has continued to promote mediation as an alternative through two main avenues.

First, Taiwan has legislation that creates mandatory mediation through Article 403 of Taiwan’s Code of Civil Practice. As Salvatore Casabona, ‎Associate Professor of Comparative Law & International Trade Law at University of Palermo, describes, “Originally provided only for small value claims, the range of civil dispute subjected to mandatory mediation were gradually broadened, including a variety of cases from neighbourhood and real property controversies to traffic accident and medical treatment ones.” This type of mediation is conducted in the courtroom by mediators appointed by the presiding judge. A settlement is legally enforced by the judge, but if mediation does not result in settlement litigation follows. Casabona’s analysis suggests Taiwanese litigants have been resistant to this mandatory mediation; for example, less than 1% of debt discharge cases that provoked mandatory mediation have seen mediation sustained. Nevertheless, the number of successfully sustained mediations has risen over time and this act’s expansion points to recognition of the value of ADR procedures.

The second type of mediation in Taiwan is not conducted through the court but, rather, similarly to mediations abroad, is conducted by outside institutions under mutually agreed upon procedures. For example, mediation under the Chinese Arbitration Association, Tapei (CAA) is regulated under the institution’s rules, passed October 2008, which parties may choose to use unless they mutually agree to other rules. Article 45 of Taiwan’s arbitration law specifies that an arbitrator can propose and accept a mediated settlement with legal enforceability.

Beyond these two main avenues, Taiwan has an additional type of out of court mediation that is more unique. This is called Town Mediation, and many see it as an outgrowth of the Confucian tradition. Regulated by the Town Mediation Act, Town Mediation was first passed in 1955 and this local process has been amended frequently since. Townships and administrative divisions maintain mediation committees of seven to fifteen to mediate civil disputes and minor criminal cases. This act specifies “Mediators are appointed by the mayor of township and county–administered city ‘from the men of eminent fairness, within the administrative district, who have legal knowledge or other expertise and good reputation.’” Mediators are often local elders and are not always lawyers.  In recent years, amendments to the Town Mediation Act have increased the role of local courts in overseeing the committees and passed rules to reduce the appearance of bias.

Town mediation retains a distinctly local identity, with traditional mores playing a vital role in the local mediators’ attempts to resolve disputes. As Yun-Hsien Diana Lin, Associate Professor at the Institute of Law for Science & Technology, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan, writes, “Fairness must be judged in the context of…social relations instead of according to strict justice under the law.” Unlike court mediation, town mediation can only be entered into at the request of both parties, decisions are non-binding until certified by a local court, and the process is free of charge to both parties. Town mediation’s popularity has grown in recent years, especially in the context of minor criminal cases. The number of approved town mediation cases exceeded the number of sustained in-court mediations in 2010 and 96 percent of town mediation settlements brought before courts were approved in that year.

In addition to mediation, arbitration has become a more common method of dispute resolution in Taiwan. The leading arbitration institution is the CAA, founded in 1955. The CAA’s main services are arbitration and mediation conducted in Chinese and English. The CAA specializes in civil, commercial, international banking, construction, distribution, financial/investment, maritime, securities and transportation disputes. The arbitration act and rules governing CAA proceedings are the Republic of China Arbitration Act of 2002, modeled after the UNCITRAL Model Law of 1985, and the CAA Arbitration Rules.

While most arbitral proceeding in Taiwan are conducted under the auspices of the CAA, specialized bodies performing arbitrations include the Taiwan Construction Arbitration Association, the Labour Dispute Arbitration Association and the Chinese Engineering Arbitration Association.

Despite the expanded use of both town and court mediation, it is hard to say that they have kept up with the expansion of civil litigation. In 2008, the number of civil disputes filed with the Taiwanese District Court increased to 2.81 million from 1.37 million in 1998. While this litigious trend may be a concern, it also means there will likely be a greater market for ADR providers and educators in years to come.

In all, the ADR environment in Taiwan is promising. The growth of civil litigation has been met with governmental expansion of mandatory mediation, suggesting that Taiwan’s leaders are eager for an expansion of ADR.  Town Mediation offers an interesting example of local receptiveness to ADR procedures, and judicial willingness to certify proceedings shows a recognition by judges that outside processes can effectively resolve disputes. With these strong foundations, there is room to build an ever stronger ADR culture. As Taiwan’s growing economy and increasingly strong economic ties have made it one of most important and dynamic markets in the world, expanding ADR there could lead to the more effective resolution of disputes in the rest of Asia and beyond.

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Gideon Hanft, a research assistant at CPR, is entering his first year at Columbia Law School.
Ngutjiua Hijarunguru is a LLM graduate from the Center of the Study of Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

On Norton Rose Fulbright Litigation Survey: In Litigation v. Arbitration Debate, Best Answer is “It Depends”

In mid-May, law firm Norton Rose Fulbright released its 11th annual Litigation Trends Survey—the broadest the firm had ever undertaken, compiling results from more than 800 corporate counsel (primarily general counsel) representing companies across 26 countries on dispute-related issues and challenges. According to the firm survey summary, “While each country or region surveyed is unique, one common theme comes through loud and clear—corporate counsel around the world see the growing litigiousness of the  business environment as an important trend that bears watching.”

Survey results reflected significant corporate spend on litigation, with 34% of US respondents reporting litigation budgets of 1 million to 5 million, as compared to only 26% two years ago. There was also a slight increase in the companies reporting litigation budgets of $10 million or more.

One point of particular interest was the broad utilization of international arbitration, particularly for larger companies (more than $1 billion in revenue). Across all regions and industries, more than two-thirds of companies with $5 to $10 billion in revenue preferred arbitration, and were also much more likely to have been involved in an arbitration in the past 12 months (38%). Specifically, given the choice, for disputes that were international in nature, nearly half of total respondents said they preferred arbitration over litigation, with about a quarter choosing litigation and the remaining quarter answering, “It depends.” Continue reading

Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 (AFA): An Overly Simplistic Approach?

The Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 (AFA), recently introduced by Senator Al Franken and Representative Hank Johnson, would amend the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq. (FAA), to eliminate mandatory, pre-dispute arbitration clauses in employment, antitrust or civil rights matters—as well as all nearly all consumer contracts, for such things as cars, credit cards and cell phones. Allowing parties to agree to arbitration only after a dispute has arisen, the AFA would apply to “any dispute or claim that arises on or after” the date of AFA’s passing. The legislation would also give federal courts—instead of arbitrators—the authority to rule on an agreement’s validity and enforceability.

This is not the first legislative effort to narrow the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements; somewhat similar bills were introduced in 2011 and then again in 2013, but neither made it out of committee. While some are applauding this step towards banning what they refer to as “forced” arbitration, others have expressed concerns that requiring parties to agree to arbitration only after a dispute has already arisen might take away the parties’ critical ability to utilize arbitration preventatively, planning for it in order to avoid disputes in the first place. Others question the wisdom of transferring these responsibilities away from arbitrators and to an already beleaguered court system. Finally, while the AFA does not expressly prohibit businesses from entering into pre-dispute arbitration agreements with other businesses, some question the effect this might have on the enforceability of arbitration in business contexts where there is potential consumer application.

Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR) President & CEO Noah Hanft observed that, “Just as with litigation, there are circumstances where arbitration may be abused. But, if practiced properly and thoughtfully, as it should be, arbitration remains a  more effective, efficient and less costly way to resolve certain disputes—a result from which consumers can clearly benefit as well.”

Hanft concluded, “Care must be taken that any legislation aimed at protecting abuses in the use of arbitration not be overly simplistic or condemn a practice that has brought real benefits in a multitude of circumstances around the world. Even advocates of tort reform that decry litigation abuses don’t propose sweeping bans on certain types of litigation.”