New Year, Same Old Sketchy Legal Analysis From The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal editorial board is continuing its long tradition of suspect legal analysis, this time denouncing federal judges for “defying” Supreme Court precedent by allowing class action lawsuits to proceed, despite its previous disregard for well-established law in other areas.

This is an odd posture from the WSJ, especially since they weren't particularly concerned with Supreme Court precedent when they supported overturning portions of the Voting Rights Act, getting rid of affirmative action in college admissions, and fetal “personhood” amendments that would result in a blanket ban of abortion. But perhaps it's not all that surprising that the WSJ editorial board would now hypocritically cling to precedent when it comes to protecting corporate wealth.

In a January 8 editorial, the WSJ complained that appellate court judges -- including conservative Judge Richard Posner -- were “defying precedent” by allowing class action lawsuits against Sears and Whirlpool to proceed. The class members in these lawsuits are seeking damages after Whirlpool washing machines, sold by Sears, developed untreatable mold problems. The federal courts' decision to certify this class of plaintiffs, according to the WSJ, is tantamount to the lower courts telling the Supreme Court to “take a hike”:

Must judges follow Supreme Court precedent? Any high school student would say yes -- at least where they still teach civics -- but the High Court now has a chance to reinforce the point.

As early as Friday the Justices will decide whether to hear Whirlpool v. Glazer and Sears v. Butler, which concern whether class-action lawsuits can be certified even if many class members suffered no harm. It's the second time in less than nine months that the cases are seeking a hearing at the Supreme Court, highlighting a growing trend of lower courts defying precedent.

In both cases the classes are structured around consumers who complained of moldy odors in their front-loading, high-efficiency washing machines. Last spring, the Supreme Court vacated decisions by the Sixth Circuit (Whirlpool) and Seventh Circuit (Sears) Courts of Appeals to certify the classes and remanded the cases for reconsideration in light of the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Comcast v. Behrend, which narrowed the standards for certifying class actions.

Under Section 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, class actions can be certified only when “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” In Comcast, as in 2011's Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Justices drew specific parameters for the commonality of the class. If plaintiffs are unable to demonstrate common injury or damages on a classwide basis, the Court said, no class should be certified.

Rather than adjusting their opinions, the Sixth and Seventh Circuits blew past the Court's new guidance and reinstated their previous decisions. The Sixth Circuit panel said Comcast had “limited application” while Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner shrugged that Comcast didn't change his reasoning because class actions are the most efficient way to handle the mold complaints.

Even if the washing machine companies were right that most members of the class had no exposure to mold, Judge Posner wrote, so what? If true, “that was an argument not for refusing to certify the class but for certifying it and then entering a judgment that would largely exonerate Sears -- a course it should welcome, as all class members who did not opt out of the class action would be bound by the judgment.” Message to Supremes: Take a hike.

What the WSJ doesn't mention is that at least 1.3 million consumers called to complain about the mold and smell emanating from their Whirlpool washing machines. In response to complaints, Whirlpool developed and sold a cleaning product called “Affresh” to eliminate the mold problem. According to Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, Whirlpool earned about $195 million in revenue from that cleaning product, despite the fact that Affresh didn't actually work. Later redesigns to the washers also failed to solve the mold problem. Nevertheless, Sears continued to sell the washers and consumers sued.

More importantly, the WSJ poorly misrepresents Judge Posner's analysis. The Seventh Circuit's decision was hardly cavalier -- in fact, Posner explicitly pointed out that "[e]very class member who claims an odor problem will have to prove odor to obtain damages" in the opinion. There's no real fear of damages being recovered by “class members who have suffered no harm.” But that didn't stop the WSJ from characterizing these cases as appellate judges gone wild.

Only two weeks into 2014 and the WSJ is already recommitting itself to advancing right-wing arguments based on misleading legal analysis. It's going to be a long year.

Photo via Flickr.