Four bills are set to go before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Rules Committee this week in one of the most comprehensive efforts at legal reform in more than a decade.
The bills, targeting everything from class actions to attorney sanctions, are scheduled for amendments on March 6 and March 7. Another three bills are being closely watched. Some have companion bills in the U.S. Senate.
Here’s what you need to know about the bills being considered this week—and those in the pipeline:
· Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 (HR 985). This bill would make several changes designed to reduce class actions and fees paid to plaintiffs’ attorneys. Critics contend the bill could kill class actions, but its overall impact isn’t certain. The core provision attempts to make it harder to bring class actions that have what advocates call “no injuries.” This issue has come up several times in consumer cases. Critics point to the Volkswagen emissions case, in which the carmaker admitted a defect but the complaints involved claims for devalued cars, not physical injuries. The bill also ties fees to a settlement’s value and forces attorneys to disclose third-party financing.
· Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2017 (HR 906). This bill requires that the trusts of bankrupt companies file quarterly reports disclosing payments to victims of mesothelioma and other cancers caused by asbestos. Advocates complain that plaintiffs’ attorneys withhold evidence in lawsuits brought on behalf of people who also have claims against the trusts. Critics contend the alleged fraud is rare and the bill, backed by corporate interests, would make it harder for victims to get compensated.
· Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act of 2017 (HR 720). This bill would mandate that judges impose monetary sanctions against attorneys who file frivolous cases in federal courts. The bill would reverse amendments in 1993 that gave attorneys 21 days to withdraw their case before getting sanctioned. Critics say the bill would eliminate judicial discretion and could encourage more litigation spurred by sanctions motions.
· Innocent Party Protection Act (HR 725). This bill makes it harder for plaintiffs’ attorneys to remand federal cases to more plaintiff-friendly state courts by naming a defendant located in that state. The issue comes up a lot in products liability cases where, for instance, a plaintiff files a suit against a pharmaceutical company that’s based in another state but adds a local pharmacy to avoid federal jurisdiction. Advocates refer to the practice as “fraudulent joinder.” But critics say the bill is really about large corporations that want to remove cases to federal court, which is a friendlier venue for defendants.
Stay tuned for these bills to come down the pipeline:
· Stop Settlement Slush Funds Act of 2017 (HR 732). This bill would prevent the U.S. Department of Justice from allowing funds in settlements to go to third parties. The practice, common during the Obama administration, has been criticized as executive overreach and the bill’s supporters have pointed to mortgage lending settlements with banks as examples. In a $25 billion settlement in 2012, for example, $3.5 billion was directed to fund housing counselors, legal aid and other public programs. Opponents of the bill contend it would handcuff the DOJ’s ability to redress wrongdoing beyond the individuals who are owed restitution.
· Sunshine for Regulations and Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act (HR 469). This anti-regulation bill is aimed at limiting the ability of federal agencies, particularly the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to make rules and other actions as a result of consent decrees. The bill would open such agreements, often obtained in suits brought by environmental groups, to public comment and allow those affected by the rules to intervene. Critics say the bill would make it longer and more expensive to get the EPA to act.
· Protecting Access to Care Act (HR 1215). This bill’s key provision would impose a cap of $250,000 in noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases, limiting awards for pain and suffering. The bill mirrors a similar statute in California. It’s the only legal reform issue that President Donald Trump highlighted in his address to Congress.