The Officers and Trustees of the National Civil Justice Institute have given the Institute’s 2020 Appellate Advocacy Award jointly to the lawyers for the successful plaintiffs in two recent U. S. Supreme Court cases. The decisions repre-sent outstanding results with far-reaching implications for consumers and retirees.
Victory on crucial removal issue by the team of Bland, Gilbride, Nicholls, Noble, and Bennett. In Home Depot USA v. Jackson, 139 S.Ct. 1743 (2019), an unusual coalition of justices were persuaded that a third-party counterclaim defendant may not remove a case to federal court, either under the general federal removal provisions or under the Class Action Fairness Act’s removal provision, 28 U.S.C. § 1453. In an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg, the court noted that, in the context of the removal provisions, the term “defendant” refers only to the party sued by the original plaintiff, and not to a party brought into the litigation later. The decision is significant in that it allows more consumers to sue in state courts, and avoid removal to federal court—a common tactic employed by defendants in such cases, often compelling consumers to satisfy numerous procedural requirements they might not face in state court. On its face, the opinion focuses only on class actions, but had the Court ruled differently, many state-based cases of all types, even personal injury cases involving in-state defendants, might have become removable to federal court. The plaintiff’s brief in the U.S. Supreme Court was authored by Public Justice attorneys Paul Bland, Karla Gilbride, Leah M. Nicholls, Ellen Noble, and Jennifer Bennett (now of Gupta Wessler). The case was argued orally by Paul Bland.
Victory for ERISA litigants secured by Matthew Wessler. In Intel Corp. Inv. Policy Comm. v. Sulyma, 140 S. Ct. 768 (2020), a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that retirees complaining of a breach of fiduciary duty, leading to imprudent investments, were allowed additional time to file their actions (within six years of learning of the breach, instead of three years). This decision made it easier for workers and their families to seek redress from employers for taking excessive risks with their retirement savings, rejecting the view that the timing of such suits is triggered by mere receipt of dense financial disclosures. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) requires plaintiffs with “actual knowledge” of an alleged fiduciary breach to file suit within three years of gaining that knowledge, but it allows plaintiffs to file within six years if they do not have such actual knowledge. In this case, the plaintiff (a physicist who had worked for Intel) testified that he was aware of disclosures about investments, but had not read them, and was unaware of the imprudent investments. The Court held that a plaintiff does not necessarily have “actual knowledge,” under ERISA, of the information contained in disclosures that he receives but does not read or cannot recall reading. The Court’s decision is essential to allowing workers whose employers have mismanaged their retirement investments to get into court. If companies could shorten the time limit workers have to bring lawsuits simply by “disclosing” investment decisions in lengthy fine-print documents, many workers whose retirement savings have been mismanaged would be prevented from bringing their cases to court. The Sulyma decision thus keeps the court-house doors open for workers and makes it easier to hold retirement fund managers accountable. Matthew Wessler, of Gupta Wessler, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, argued the case orally, and authored the brief with Jonathan E. Taylor.
These lawyers’ dedication to the civil justice system, and their persuasive advocacy in the Jackson and Sulyma cases, have had a significant impact on access to justice in future civil cases in the United States.