The Seventh Circuit, per Judge Richard Posner, has put the kibosh on an effort to kill a pair of class actions over moldy Kenmore washing machines. Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 11-8029 (7th Cir. Aug. 22, 2013). In doing so, the court gave the back of its hand to those who claim that Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013), wrought a Sea Change in class action Law.

The Supreme Court had vacated the Seventh Circuit's affirmance of class certification in the case against Sears and remanded to the court of appeals for Further Thought in light of Comcast. Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, 133 S. Ct. 2768 (2013).

Sears urged on remand that Comcast "rejects the dissenting view that 'economies of time and expense' override rigorous compliance with the predominance requirement". Sears' Circuit Rule 54 Statement, Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 11-8029, Doc. No. 30, at 5 (7th Cir. July 29, 2013). The panel responded thus:

Sears argues that Comcast rejects the notion that efficiency is a proper basis for class certification, and thus rejects our statement that "predominance" of issues comon to the entire class, a requirement of a damages class action under Rule 23(b)(3), "is a question of efficiency." 702 F.3d at 362. But in support of its argument Sears cites only the statement in the dissenting opinion in Comcast that "economies of time and expense" favor class certification, 133 S. Ct. at 1436 — a statement that the majority opinion does not contradict. Sears is wrong to think that anything a dissenting opinion approves of the majority must disapprove of.

Butler, slip op. at 6-7. The enemy-of-my-enemy idea – a "triadic interaction" rule that never did have much logic behind it — did not sway their honors.

The court went on to reject two broad readings, common in defense circles, of Comcast. The first dealt with Sears's claim that "permutations" in what caused the washers to stink and in the amount of class members' stink-damages meant common issues couldn't predominate under Rule 23(b)(3). Sears' Circuit Rule 54 Statement at 6. The panel replied that "it was not the existence of multiple theories in [the Comcast] case that precluded class certification; it was the plaintiffs' failure to base all the damages they sought on the antitrust impact — the injury — of which the plaintiffs were complaining."* Butler at 7. Complexity in the theory of harm thus does not doom class treatment so long as the class ties the harm to class damages.

The panel also held that a total absence of class-wide damages doesn't prevent certification of a class under Rule 23(b)(3). The thinking went like this:

Sears thinks that predominance is determined simply by counting noses: that is, determining whether there are more common issues or more individual issues, regardless of relative importance. That’s incorrect. An issue “central to the validity of each one of the claims” in a class action, if it can be resolved “in one stroke,” can justify class treatment. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. at 2551. That was said in the context of Rule 23(a)(2), the rule that provides that class actions are permissible only when there are issues common to the members of the class (as of course there are in this case). But predominance requires a qualitative assessment too; it is not bean counting. In Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. at 1196, the Court said that the requirement of predominance is not satisfied if “individual questions…overwhelm questions common to the class,” and in Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 623 (1997), it said that the “predominance inquiry tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation.” And in In re Inter-Op Hip Prosthesis Liability Litigation, 204 F.R.D. 330, 345 (N.D. Ohio 2001), we read that “common issues need only predominate, not outnumber individual issues.” Or as we put it in Messner v. Northshore University Health System, 669 F.3d 802, 819 (7th Cir. 2012), “Under the district court’s approach [which our decision in Messner rejected], Rule 23(b)(3) would require not only common evidence and methodology, but also common results for members of the class. That approach would come very close to requiring common proof of damages for class members, which is not required. To put it another way, the district court asked not for a showing of common questions, but for a showing of common answers to those questions. Rule 23(b)(3) does not impose such a heavy burden."

It would drive a stake through the heart of the class action device, in cases in which damages were sought rather than an injunction or a declaratory judgment, to require that every member of the class have identical damages. If the issues of liability are genuinely common issues, and the damages in individual hearings, in settlement negotiations, or by creation of subclasses, the fact that damages are not identical across all class members should not preclude class certification. Otherwise defendants would be able to escape liability for tortious harms of enormous aggregate magnitude but so widely distributed as not to be remediable in individual suits. As we noted in Carnegie v. Household Int'l, Inc., 376 F.3d 656, 661 (7th Cir. 2004), “the more claimants there are, the more likely a class action is to yield substantial economies in litigation. It would hardly be an improvement to have in lieu of this single class 17 million suits each seeking damages of $15 to $30…. The realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30” (emphasis in original).
The present case is less extreme: tens of thousands of class members, each seeking damages of a few hundred dollars. But few members of such a class, considering the costs and distraction of litigation, would think so meager a prospect made suing worthwhile.

There is a single, central, common issue of liability: whether the Sears washing machine was defective. Two separate defects are alleged, but remember that this class action is really two class actions. In one the defect alleged involves mold, in the other the control unit. Each defect is central to liability. Complications arise from the design changes and from separate state warranty laws, but can be handled by the creation of subclasses. See, e.g., Johnson v. Meriter Health Services Employee Retirement Plan, supra, 702 F.3d at 365 (10 sub-classes). These are matters for the district judge to consider in the first instance, and Sears will be able to present to her he evidence it’s obtained since the district judge ruled on certification almost two years ago.

Butler at 8-11.

To which we say — amen!


*The evidence in Comcast in fact did tie the harm from Comcast's conduct to the class's damages. But the majority said it didn't. The Seventh Circuit implies that it agrees with Blawgletter on that point. See Butler at 8 (stating that "the class in Comcast was (in the view of the majority) seeking damages beyond those flowing from the theory of antitrust injury alleged by the plaintiffs") (emphasis added). Sadly, the ruling by the 5-4 majority in Comcast counts more than the views of Blawgletter, the district court, the majority on the Third Circuit, the four dissenting justices, and the Butler panel.



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Photo of Barry Barnett Barry Barnett

Clients and colleagues call Barry Barnett an “incredibly gifted lawyer” (Chambers and Partners) who is “magic in the courtroom” (Who’s Who Legal), “the top antitrust lawyer in Texas” (Chambers and Partners), and “a person of unquestioned integrity” (David J. Beck, founder of Beck…

Clients and colleagues call Barry Barnett an “incredibly gifted lawyer” (Chambers and Partners) who is “magic in the courtroom” (Who’s Who Legal), “the top antitrust lawyer in Texas” (Chambers and Partners), and “a person of unquestioned integrity” (David J. Beck, founder of Beck Redden).

Barnett is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, and Lawdragon has named him one of the top 500 lawyers in the United States three years in a row. Best Lawyers in America has honored him as “Lawyer of the Year” for Bet-the-Company Litigation (2019 and 2017) and Patent Litigation (2020) in Houston. Based in Texas and New York, Barnett has tried complex business disputes across the United States.

Barnett’s background, training, and experience make him indispensable to his clients. The small-town son of a Texas roughneck and grandson of a Texas sharecropper, Barnett “developed an unusual common sense about people, their motivations, and their dilemmas,” according to former client Michael Lewis.

Barnett has been historically recognized for his effectiveness and judgment. His peers chose him, for example, to the American College of Trial Lawyers and American Law Institute. His decades of trial and appellate work representing both plaintiffs and defendants have made him a master strategist and nimble tactician in complex disputes.

Barnett focuses on enforcement of antitrust laws, the “Magna Carta of free enterprise,” in Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s memorable phrase. “Barry is one of the nation’s outstanding antitrust lawyers,” according to Joseph Goldberg, a member of the Private Antitrust Enforcement Hall of Fame. Named among Texas’s top ten antitrust lawyers of 2023, Business Today calls Barnett a “trailblazer” among the “distinguished legal minds” who “dedicate their skill and expertise to the maintenance of healthy competition in various sectors” of the Lone Star State’s booming economy. Barnett is also adept in energy and intellectual property matters and has battled for clients against a Who’s Who list of corporate behemoths, including Abbott Labs, Alcoa, Apple, AT&T, BlackBerry, Broadcom, Comcast, Dow, JPMorgan Chase, Samsung, and Visa.

Barnett commands a courtroom with calm and credibility and “is the perfect lawyer for bet the company litigation,” said Scott Regan, General Counsel of former client Whiting Petroleum. His performance before the Supreme Court in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend prompted the Court to withdraw the question on which it had granted review. The judge in a trial involving mobile phone technology called Barnett “one of the best” and that his opening statement the finest he had ever seen. Another trial judge told Barnett minutes after a jury returned a favorable verdict against the county’s biggest employer that he was one of the two best trial lawyers he’d ever come across—adding that the other one was dead.

A versatile trial lawyer, Barnett knows how to handle a case all the way from strategic pre-suit planning to affirmance on appeal. He’s tried cases to verdict and then briefed and argued them when they went before appellate courts, including the Second, Third, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits, the Supreme Court of Louisiana, and (in the case of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend) the Supreme Court of the United States.

Barnett is a sought-after public speaker, often serving on panels and talking about topics like the trials of antitrust class actions and techniques for streamlining complex litigation. He also comments on trends in commercial litigation and the implications of major rulings for outlets such as NPR, Reuters, Law360, Corporate Counsel, and The Dallas Morning News. He’s even appeared in a Frontline program about underfunding of state pensions, authored chapters on “Fee Arrangements” and “Techniques for Expediting and Streamlining Litigation” (the latter with Steve Susman) in the ABA’s definitive treatise on Business and Commercial Litigation in Federal Courts, 5th, and commented on How Antitrust Enforcers Might Think Like Plaintiffs’ Lawyers.

Clients and other hard graders have praised Barnett for his courtroom skills and legal acumen.

A client in a $100 million oil and gas case, which Barnett’s team won at trial and held on appeal, said Barnett and his team “presented a rare combination of strong legal intellect, common sense about right and wrong, and credibility in the courtroom.” David McCombs at Haynes and Boone said Barnett “has a natural presence that goes over well with juries and judges.”

Even former adversaries give Barnett high marks. Lead opposing counsel in a decade-long antitrust slugfest said “Barry is a highly skilled advocate. He understands what really matters in telling a narrative and does so in a very compelling manner.”

Barnett relishes opportunities to collaborate with all kinds of people. At the Center for American and International Law (CAIL), founded by a former prosecutor at Nuremberg in 1947 and headquartered in the Dallas area, he has served on the Executive Committee, co-chaired the committee that produced CAIL’s first-ever strategic plan, supported CAIL’s Institute for Law Enforcement Administration and other development efforts, and proposed formation of a new Institute for Social Justice Law. CAIL’s former President David Beck said “Barry is extremely bright” and is “very well prepared in every lawsuit or professional task he undertakes.”

Barnett is also a Trustee of the New-York Historical Society, a Sterling Fellow at Yale, a member of the Yale University Art Gallery’s Governing Board, a winner of the Class Award for his work on behalf of his college class, and a proud contributor to the Yellow Ribbon Program at Harvard Law. Barnett’s pro bono work includes leading the trial team representing people who are at greatest risk of severe illness and death as a result of being exposed to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 while being detained in the Dallas County jail—work for which he received the NGAN Legal Advocacy Fund RBG Award.

At Susman Godfrey, Barnett has served on the firm’s Executive Committee, Employment Committee, and ad hoc committees on partner compensation, succession of leadership, and revision of the firm’s partnership agreement. He also twice chaired the Practice Development Committee.

Barnett understands that clients face many pressures. Managing the stress is important, especially in matters that take years to resolve. He encourages clients to call him whenever they have a question or concern and to keep the inevitable ups and downs in perspective. He wants them to know that he will do his level best to help them achieve their goals. He also strives to foster trust and to make working with him a pleasure.

Cyrus “Skip” Marter, the General Counsel of Bonanza Creek in Denver and a former Susman Godfrey partner and client, said Barnett is “excellent about communicating with clients in a full and honest manner” and can “negotiate for his clients from a position of strength, because he is not afraid to take a case through a full trial on the merits.” Stacey Doré, the President of Hunt Utility Services and a former client, said that Barnett is “an excellent trial lawyer and the person you want to hire for your bet-the-company cases. He is client focused, responsive, and uniquely savvy about trial and settlement strategy.” A New York colleague said, “Barry is a joy to work with as co-counsel. He tackles complex procedural and factual hurdles capably, efficiently, and without drama.”

Barnett’s wide-ranging experience and calm, down-to-earth approach enable him to connect with clients, judges, jurors, witnesses, and even opposing counsel. He grew up in Nacogdoches, Texas. He co-captained his high school varsity football team as an All-East Texas middle linebacker while also serving as the Editor of Key Club’s Texas-Oklahoma District, won the Best Typist award, took the History Team to glory, and sang in the East Texas All Region Choir. As Dan Kelly of client Vistra Corp. put it, Barnett is “a great person to be around.”

Barnett is steady and loyal. He has practiced at Susman Godfrey his entire career. He and his wife Nancy live in Dallas and enjoy spending time in Houston and New York. Their daughter works for H-E-B in Houston, and their son is a Haynes and Boone transactions lawyer in Dallas.

As a member of Ivy League championship football teams in his junior and senior years at Yale and a parent of two Yalies, Barnett has no trouble choosing sides for “The Game” in November. And he knows how important fighting all the way to the end is. On his last play from scrimmage, in the waning minutes of The Game on Nov. 22, 1980, he recovered a Crimson fumble.

Yale won, 14-0.