The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected, once again, the inclusion of class-actions in the state court system, continuing Mississippi’s track record as one of the only states without class action lawsuits.
The Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, a conservative organization, backed the high court’s decision, arguing that the federal court system already offers a platform for class action cases. A state-based system, the ILR argued, would only encourage plaintiff attorneys to further milk the system.
The Chamber’s argument echoes an age-old contention held by those on the right: that class-actions (and civil actions more broadly) benefit attorneys, while doing very little for plaintiffs, and that people tend to take advantage of civil actions, killing businesses in the process. However, it seems there’s very little evidence to support this assertion and civil lawsuits are specifically contemplated by the Seventh Amendment.
Attorney Speaks Out
Richard T. Phillips, the attorney who filed the initial claim leading to the state Supreme Court’s decision, criticized the ruling: “The absence of a class-action procedure in Mississippi denies, as a practical matter, the Mississippi courts, including this Mississippi Supreme Court, the ability to address the rapidly increasing number of disputes and issues involving state law which arises from contracts and other transactions.”
Justice Michael Randolph wrote the opinion for the majority in the 7-2 ruling, while justices Jim Kitchens and Leslie King argued in favor of the class-action system. Randolph noted that the court received comments from a number of businesses, individuals and law firms between May and October of last year.
According to one poll conducted last year, the lawsuit climate in Mississippi rates 44th out of 50 in the country. Nonetheless, as Phillips has argued, the state is in dire need of a class action system, so that Mississippi can catch up with the rest of the country. Every other state in the US has some sort of system for dealing with contractual issues affecting multiple plaintiffs.
The Joinder Rule
The high court in Mississippi has continually rejected class-actions, reading the state’s joinder rule narrowly. According to that rule: “All persons may join in one action as plaintiffs if they assert any right to relief jointly, severally, or in the alternative in respect of or arising out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences, and if any question of law or fact common to all these persons will arise in the action.” The Supreme Court has denied numerous joinder claims in the past.
The ILR’s Argument
In comments submitted to the Mississippi Supreme Court, the ILR made a few contentious points. For one, they argued that a federal law (the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005) already requires interstate class action suits valued over $5 million to be funneled into federal courts. However, the Chamber failed to empirically support the claim that, since most class actions would end up in federal courts anyway, a state-based system is unnecessary. Even if this were true, why not offer a forum for cases that don’t involve multiple states and that aren’t valued over $5 million?
The ILR claimed that the implementation of a state-based system would only benefit rich attorneys and do very little for consumers. However, their analysis relied solely on monetary valuations and said little about the possibility of court-ordered injunctions requiring companies to change their behavior in the future. These changes, which often result from class actions, would greatly benefit consumers.
Tort reform advocates like the ILR have relied on a series of myths that aim to weaken the civil justice system in the name of greater competition and economic growth. But a report by the Justice Department found that most of these myths are easily debunked. The Chamber, for instance, has claimed that state-sanctioned class-actions would deter competition in Mississippi, but the DOJ found that 42 percent of tort claims are brought by individuals against other individuals – by contrast, 39 percent of civil suits are filed against businesses. Thus, most tort claims have nothing to do with businesses.
As attorney Don Barrett told Bloomberg: “Mississippi has a hostile climate toward plaintiffs in civil litigation.” He continued, “This latest decision evinces this sad fact.”