Supreme Court Finds Unexpected Difference between Corporations and Limited Liability Companies

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In Marx v. Morris, 2019 WI 34, the Wisconsin Supreme Court interpreted the Wisconsin LLC Act in an unexpected way. Specifically, Marx held that LLC members may bring suit in their capacity as members, instead of on behalf of the LLC, against other members, even when the harm alleged is primarily to the LLC. This deviates from corporate law principles, which require that, if the primary harm is to the corporation, shareholders must bring a derivative action on behalf of the corporation and cannot sue in their own capacities.

Background

Marx arose out of the operations of North Star Sand, LLC. North Star was a Wisconsin LLC with six members. Each member was itself an LLC, and each of the member LLCs was controlled by a different individual. Among other assets, North Star had a wholly owned subsidiary, Westar Proppants, LLC. Dispute arose when one of North Star’s members sought to purchase Westar.

During a meeting to conduct North Star’s business, Morris (who controlled R.L. Co., LLC, a member of North Star) offered to purchase Westar for $70,000. (He made this offer on behalf of DSJ Holdings, LLC, another entity in which he had a partial ownership interest.) A majority of North Star’s members voted not to accept the offer. 2019 WI 34, ¶13.

After the vote, Morris became “very aggressive.” Id., ¶14. He then made a new motion to sell Westar to DSJ. Murray (who controlled R&R Management Funds, LLC, another member of North Star) objected on the bases that a vote had already occurred, that there was insufficient notice of this motion, and that Morris had a conflict of interests. Nonetheless, when the members voted on Morris’s motion, it passed. Id. DSJ subsequently sold Westar to another entity for a “substantial sum.” Id., ¶15.

Two members of North Star—Fracsand, LLC (whose sole member is Marx) and R&R Management Funds, LLC (whose sole member is Murray)—filed suit, alleging that R.L. Co., LLC (who sole member is Morris), “willfully failed to deal fairly with them while having a material conflict of interest … in violation of Wis. Stat. § 183.0402(1).” Id., ¶2. In addition to the various LLC parties, Marx and Murray participated as plaintiffs in their individual capacities, and Morris was named as a defendant in his individual capacity.

Marx, Murray, and their LLCs alleged several claims against Morris and his LLC, including violation of § 183.0402 (“Duties of Managers and Members”). Morris moved for summary judgment on all claims, asserting that Marx and Murray’s claims properly belonged to North Star (which was not a plaintiff) and that the Wisconsin LLC Act displaced any common-law duties of LLC members (as well as claims arising from alleged breaches of such duties).

The circuit court denied Morris’s summary judgment motion. The court of appeals certified the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which affirmed the circuit court’s ruling.

The Court’s Decision

In a majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Roggensack, the Supreme Court rejected Morris’s argument that members of an LLC lack standing to sue in their own capacity and that the only permissible plaintiff here was North Star. The Supreme Court reviewed general principles of LLCs and how they differ from corporations, specifically noting that LLCs may elect to be taxed as partnerships, such that income, gain, loss, and deductions pass through to the individual members. See 2019 WI 34, ¶¶22-34. Based on that review, the Court concluded that an injury to an LLC is not the same as an injury to a corporation where the LLC has adopted partnership-like treatment in its Operating Agreement. Accordingly, the corporate standing principle that individual shareholders cannot directly sue a corporation’s director or officers when the primary injury is to the corporation is inapplicable. “injuries to [an LLC] and to its members are not mutually exclusive because financial injury to [the LLC] flows through to its members just as injury would if [the LLC] were a partnership rather than an LLC.” Id., ¶43. The court further explained that nothing in ch. 183 (the portion of the Wisconsin Statutes governing LLCs) requires claims against LLC members to be brought in the LLC’s name. Id., ¶¶45-46.

The Court also held that ch. 183 did not preclude the plaintiffs’ common-law claims. Wis. Stat. § 183.1302(2) states “unless displaced by particular provisions of this chapter, the principles of law and equity supplement this chapter.” The Court held that a statutory displacement under ch. 183 must be specific and that the LLC Act does not “constitute[] the entirety of an LLC member’s or manager’s obligations to other members and to the LLC.” 2019 WI 34, ¶53. Because Morris did not develop arguments for displacement of each claim, the common-law claims survived summary judgment. Id.

Separate Opinion

Justice Kelly wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. See id., ¶¶69-110. Both Justice Abrahamson and Justice Grassl Bradley joined that opinion.

The separate opinion argued that Marx and Murray should not have been able to bring any claims in their individual capacities because they are not members of the LLC. Id., ¶¶71-80. Furthermore, it contended the LLCs they control (which are members of North Star) lacked standing in this instance because Wis. Stat. § 183.0305 provides that members may bring suit by or against the LLC only if:

  1. The object of the proceeding is to enforce a member’s right against or liability to the limited liability company, or
  2. The action is brought by the member under Wis. Stat. § 183.1101, which requires a majority vote of disinterested members. 

Justice Kelly would have held that the first point is not at issue in this case, and the second point does not permit the members to bring suit because there was no majority vote by disinterested members.

The separate opinion further concluded that the majority’s reliance on “differential treatment of LLCs and corporations in matters of taxation and distribution of profits” is misplaced.  Id., ¶¶80-89.  Any differences are “largely a matter of choice,” and should not serve as a basis for members to be able to sue an LLC in their personal capacities and not on behalf of the LLC.  Id., ¶84.

Analysis

This case breaks new ground in Wisconsin law by holding that members of an LLC may pursue claims directly against other members of the LLC, even when the alleged harm is primarily to the LLC. This is noteworthy not only because it deviates from corporate-law principles, but also because it provides an avenue around Wis. Stat. §183.1101’s requirement that an action on behalf of a LLC must be authorized by a majority vote of disinterested members. The separate opinion warns that “immediate, real-life problems” will result from this sea change in Wisconsin LLC law.  2019 WI 34, ¶86 (Kelly, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Only time, and further actions in the circuit courts, will tell. 

Noncompliance with Notice-of-Claim Statute Is Affirmative Defense, Must Be Pleaded

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Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1d) requires a potential claimant to provide notice, including “an itemized statement of the relief sought,” to a government entity within 120 days of the event giving rise to a potential suit. In Maple Grove Country Club Inc. v. Maple Grove Estates Sanitary District, 2019 WI 43, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently held that a government entity waives a defense of noncompliance with this statute if it fails to affirmatively raise the issue in a responsive pleading.

This matter began in 1990, when a country club constructed a sewer treatment plant to serve the club and a nearby subdivision. In 1998, the local sanitary district adopted an ordinance that required the district to lease or purchase the plant from the club. In 1999, the club and the district agreed to a five-year lease, which was renewed for another five years in 2004. In 2009, the parties did not renew the lease, but the district continued to occupy and use the facility.

In July 2011, the club filed a notice of claim with the district, but without itemizing damages as required by Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1d). The club filed suit in 2014. The district raised six affirmative defenses in its answer, but none mentioned the insufficiency of the notice under section 893.80(1d).

Both sides moved for summary judgment. Only then did the district allege, for the first time, that the club failed to comply with the notice-of-claim statute. The club responded that, because noncompliance was an affirmative defense, the sanitary district waived the issue by failing to raise it in its answer. The district insisted that noncompliance was not an affirmative defense, but a jurisdictional prerequisite that could not be waived and was available to be raised at any point during litigation.

The circuit court dismissed the club’s case on the basis of the “untimely and incomplete” notice of claim. The court of appeals affirmed, relying upon Lentz v. Young, 195 Wis. 2d 457, 536 N.W.2d 451 (Ct. App. 1995). In so doing, however, the court of appeals expressed reservations about Lentz, especially its claim that “a defendant may raise an affirmative defense by motion.” Those reservations proved well-founded.

Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed in a 6-0 decision.

First, the court found that noncompliance with Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1d) is an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional defect. While Mannino v. Davenport, 99 Wis. 2d 602, 29 N.W.2d 823 (1981), deemed noncompliance with Wis. Stat. § 893.82(3) jurisdictional, the Supreme Court distinguished the two statutory provisions. Section 893.82(3) requires strict compliance, whereas 893.80(1d) includes a carve-out for when the government has actual notice and suffered no prejudice from a defective claim document. The Court bolstered its conclusion with cases describing compliance with Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1d) as a condition for governmental liability (not for stating a cause of action), and characterizing noncompliance as a defense. See Rabe v. Outagamie Cty., 72 Wis. 2d 492, 241 N.W.2d 428 (1976); Weiss v. City of Milwaukee, 79 Wis. 2d 213, 255 N.W.2d 496 (1977).

Second, the Court determined that an affirmative defense based on section 893.80(1d) must be raised in a responsive pleading, not in a separate motion. The plain language of Wis. Stat. § 802.02(3) requires all affirmative defenses to be raised in a responsive pleading. By comparison to section 802.06(2)(a), which contains an exhaustive list of ten defenses (not including noncompliance with the notice of claim statute) that can be raised by motion, the Court reasoned that the government must raise noncompliance in a responsive pleading, rather than a motion. In light of its conclusion, the Court also overruled Lentz.

Moving forward, government entities must consider all possible affirmative defenses upon receipt of a notice of claim. Especially if Wis. Stat. § 893.80(1d) applies, the “kitchen-sink” defense may be the safest option.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Weighs in on Defense Costs Dispute Between Liability Insurers

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Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court confronted several insurance coverage issues that can arise when allegations against an insured trigger the defense obligations of multiple liability insurers.  See Steadfast Ins. Co. v. Greenwich Ins. Co., 2019 WI 6.

At issue was defense coverage for lawsuits filed against the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (“MMSD”) following the historic June 2008 rainfall that resulted in raw sewage backing up into thousands of Milwaukee-area residences.  The main theory of liability against MMSD was that the sewerage system had been negligently repaired, maintained, and/or operated prior to and during the rainfall.  MMSD had outsourced those responsibilities to United Water Services Milwaukee, LLC (“United Water”) from 1998 through February 2008 and subsequently to Veolia Water Milwaukee, LLC (“Veolia”) from March 2008 leading up to the June 2008 heavy rainfalls.

MMSD’s operating agreements with United Water and Veolia required each entity to maintain liability insurance that named MMSD as an additional insured.  United Water had a $20 million policy from Greenwich Insurance Company (“Greenwich”) and Veolia had a $30 million policy from Steadfast Insurance Company (“Steadfast”).

MMSD faced a myriad of lawsuits seeking to recover for property damages related to the rainfall. The lawsuits alleged MMSD negligence during the respective time periods when United Water and Veolia operated the sewerage system. MMSD tendered defense of the lawsuits to both insurers and also opted to retain its own counsel.  While Steadfast agreed to pay for MMSD’s defense, Greenwich denied its defense obligations on the grounds that an “other insurance” provision rendered the Greenwich policy excess to the Steadfast policy.

MMSD ultimately resolved the lawsuits without agreeing to any liability payments to the underlying claimants.  In the process of settling for no liability, however, it incurred $1.55 million in defense fees.  Steadfast reimbursed MMSD the full $1.55 million and then exercised its contractual subrogation rights, which allowed it to “stand in the shoes” of MMSD and sue Greenwich for breaching the insurer’s defense obligations under its policy with MMSD.

The circuit court found that Greenwich had breached its defense obligations to MMSD and consequently granted Steadfast judgment against Greenwich for recovery of the full $1.55 million paid in defense fees and an additional $325,000 in attorney’s fees incurred bringing the lawsuit. The court of appeals affirmed.  The Supreme Court granted Greenwich’s petition for review and issued a decision addressing the following interesting coverage issues.

Interpretation of “Other Insurance” Policy Provisions

Greenwich ultimamely denied its obligation to defend MMSD by invoking what is commonly referred to as an “other insurance” provision in its policy.  Such provisions exist to resolve disputes among insurance companies regarding which insurer must pay first when multiple policies are triggered.  In a nutshell, Greenwich believed that its “other insurance” provision rendered its coverage excess over the Steadfast policy; on that basis, Greenwich argued it was obligated to provide MMSD a defense only after MMSD exhausted the full limits of its coverage from Steadfast.

In rejecting this position, the Supreme Court held that “other insurance” provisions apply only when multiple policies are concurrent—that is, they insure the same risk, and the same interest, for the benefit of the same insured, during the same period.  Slip Op. at ¶ 26 (citing Plastics Eng’g Co. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 2009 WI 13).  The Court concluded that the Steadfast and Greenwich policies were successive, not concurrent.  Id. ¶ 27.  Because the policies insured different risks at different points in time, both insurers’ defense obligations were triggered by the lawsuits against MMSD notwithstanding any particular “other insurance” policy language.  The Court therefore affirmed the lower courts’ decision that Greenwich had breached its defense obligations to MMSD.

Justice Rebecca Grassl Bradley was the only dissenter on this point, noting that the majority erred by issuing a blanket conclusion regarding “other insurance” provisions rather than examining the particular policy language at issue in the Steadfast and Greenwich policies.  Slip Op. at ¶ 89 (R.G. Bradley, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).  Upon examining the respective provisions, Justice Bradley concluded that they operated to designate the Greenwich policy as excess of the Steadfast policy, thus relieving Greenwich of its defense obligations.  Id. at ¶¶ 90-105.

Allocation of Defense Costs

Having concluded that Steadfast’s claim against Greenwich was pursuant to the subrogation rights it acquired from MMSD under its policy rather than a traditional contribution claim (see Slip. Op. at ¶¶ 32-38), the Court then addressed whether Greenwich was entitled to an allocation of defense costs between itself and Steadfast.  The Court found that allowing Steadfast to recover from Greenwich 100% of the defense costs incurred would amount to an unjustified windfall because Steadfast indisputably was also an insurer with a contractual duty to defend MMSD.  Id. at ¶¶ 39-41.  Rather, in the Court’s eyes, an allocation was necessary to prevent Steadfast, as the subrogee, from being placed in a better position than MMSD would have been as the subrogor.  Id.

Noting that allocation of defense costs among multiple insurers was an open question under Wisconsin law, the Court examined various methodologies used in other jurisdictions and concluded that a pro rata allocation based on the insurers’ respective policy limits was the most equitable method.  Id. at ¶¶ 42-45.  The Court therefore held that Steadfast was entitled to reimbursement of 40% of the defense costs from Greenwich (amounting to $620,000), as the Greenwich policy had insured 40% of the $50 million worth of coverage in place (with Steadfast insuring the remaining 60%).  Id.

In a concurring separate opinion, Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Rebecca Frank Dallet issued a strong argument against granting Greenwich any allocation under the circumstances.  The two Justices noted that, under settled Wisconsin law, insurers that breach their defense obligations face severe financial consequences (often times greater than what they would have paid had they defended).  Slip. Op. at ¶¶ 66-67 (A.W. Bradley, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).  The two Justices further reasoned that allowing breaching insurers to offset these consequences at the expense of non-breaching insurers contravenes those principles, incentivizing a “proliferation of a game of chicken between insurers” in which the loser faces minimal adverse financial consequences.  Id. at ¶¶ 68-71.  The two Justices argued that the only logical way to deter insurers from breaching their defense obligations under these circumstances would be to allow the non-breaching insurer to recover 100% of the costs incurred in defending the insured.  Id. at ¶¶ 73-75.

Recovery of Attorney’s Fees

The final issue addressed by the Court was whether Steadfast was entitled to recover its legal costs in pursuing its subrogated breach of contract claim against Greenwich.  Interestingly, after allocating MMSD’s defense costs to prevent Steadfast from receiving a windfall, the Court held that Steadfast was entitled to recover its attorney’s fees from Greenwich.  The Court noted that MMSD undoubtedly would have been entitled to recover its legal fees from Greenwich as a breaching insurer under settled Wisconsin law, and that Steadfast had acquired all of MMSD’s “rights of recovery” through the Steadfast policy’s subrogation provision.  Slip. Op. at ¶¶ 51-52.  The Court ultimately “decline[d] to create an exception to this longstanding rule by excluding attorney fees from the bundle of contractual subrogation rights.”  Id. at ¶ 51.

Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Frank Dallet, and Rebecca Grassl Bradley all dissented from the majority’s holding as inconsistent with previous Wisconsin decisions holding that exceptions to the “American Rule” (under which each party pays its own attorney) should be limited and narrow.  The justices asserted that Elliott, the precedent entitling an insured to its attorney’s fees when an insurer breaches its defense coverage obligations, has appropriately been limited to its particular factual circumstances by subsequent cases refusing to allow one insurer to recover legal fees from another.  Slip Op. at ¶¶ 77-85 (A.W. Bradley, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).  According to the dissenters, there was no legitimate reason to deviate from the American Rule under these circumstances.

Conclusions

Taken in full, both the majority and the partial concurrences likely leave most readers puzzled by their inconsistencies.  Steadfast brought a contractual subrogation claim against Greenwich, asserting the rights of MMSD as Greenwich’s insured. The most logical approach would seem to be treating the dispute no differently than if MMSD itself had brought the breach of coverage claim against Greenwich.

Instead, both the majority and concurrence pick and choose when to view Steadfast as “standing in the shoes” of MMSD and when to ignore that context.  The majority recognizes this principle with respect to the recovery of attorney’s fees, but finds that a different result is warranted on how much of MMSD’s defense costs are recoverable.  The concurrence is similarly inconsistent in the opposite way; it argues that the insurer should be allowed to stand in the insured’s shoes to recover 100% of the defense costs but cannot recover any of its own attorney’s fees from the coverage suit because of its status as a subrogated insurer.  This leaves insurers with little guidance as to what precise “rights to recovery” they acquire from an insured via contractual subrogation.

The most settled takeaway appears to be that Wisconsin law limits the circumstances under which “other insurance” provisions may be invoked by insurers.  Six of the seven justices agree that such provisions apply only when policies are truly “concurrent,” insuring the same risk and interest, for the benefit of the same entity, during the same coverage period.  Going forward, insurers should be especially cautious when seeking to rely on such provisions to avoid any coverage responsibilities, regardless of how straightforward and unambiguous they deem the particular policy language.

A potentially more complicated issue in the wake of this decision is an insured’s ability to recover its defense costs where allegations of liability trigger coverage under multiple successive policies issued by more than one insurer.  The Supreme Court previously had decided that Wisconsin was an “all sums” jurisdiction, meaning that an insurer must provide a full defense and indemnify its insured for all sums up to the policy limits, even if the time periods implicated by the relevant allegations exceed the coverage period.  See Plenco, 2009 WI 13, ¶¶ 60-61.  Applying this standard to the multiple insurer context, an insured would be entitled to choose which insurer to provide it a full defense and that insurer would be obligated to do so regardless of the presence of other potentially applicable coverage.

In Plenco, however, there were not multiple insurers.  Because the Court here adopted a pro rata allocation of defense costs in the context of contractual subrogation claim (where the insurer stood in the shoes of the insured rather than in a traditional insurer v. insurer contribution claim), one could envision insurers interpreting this decision to abrogate the “all sums” Plenco decision under circumstances involving policies issued by multiple insurers.  That interpretation would oblige insureds to pursue each and every liability insurer to receive a fully funded defense under such circumstances.  Given that none of the justices cited Plenco with regard to the allocation issue, they likely intended to limit application of the pro rata defense cost allocation only to disputes between insurers (either through subrogation or contribution) after an insured has received a complete defense. Nonetheless, insurers and insureds will want to follow how this issue plays out in the lower courts.

Finally, it is worth noting that only four of the seven current justices concluded that an insurer should be able to recover its attorney’s fees when bringing a contractual subrogation claim against a fellow insurer for reimbursement of defense costs.  This holding certainly seems vulnerable to be narrowed or even overturned as the composition of the Supreme Court changes.

 

 

 

 

 

Stafford Helps Municipalities Preserve “Discretionary” Immunity in Wisconsin Supreme Court

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Last month, in a decision with far-ranging consequences, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a call to abrogate the existing “discretionary” immunity standard applied to tort claims made against municipal actors.  Representing the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Towns Association, and the Wisconsin Counties Association as amici curiae (friends of the court), we filed a brief and participated in oral argument.

In Engelhardt v. City of New Berlin, 2019 WI 2, 385 Wis. 2d 86, 921 N.W.2d 714, the Court held that the City of New Berlin was not protected by governmental immunity because the known-and-present-danger exception applied.  However, as urged by Stafford, the Court preserved the discretionary immunity standard for tort claims against municipal actors.  As explained below, because only a narrow, 4-3 majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court favored preserving the “discretionary” immunity standard, further challenges to that long-established standard are foreseeable.

Background on Governmental Immunity

Stafford Rosenbaum frequently defends municipal parties against tort claims. Immunity is often a key issue in such cases. Wis. Stat. § 893.80 provides immunity to a municipal actor “for acts done in the exercise of its legislative, quasi-legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial functions.”  Recognizing the separation of powers pitfalls implicated by permitting individual parties to use the courts to intrude and review the policy decisions of elected bodies (e.g., Town and Village boards, City councils, etc.), the Court has long interpreted Wis. Stat. § 893.80 to provide immunity for the “discretionary” decisions of municipal actors. 

However, there are two main exceptions to immunity – one for ministerial duties and another for known and present dangers.  Duties are ministerial for the purposes of governmental immunity when a duty is “absolute, certain and imperative, involving merely the performance of a specific task” imposed by law.  This exception to immunity applies when statutes, ordinances, or policies obligate the municipality to take a specific action.  Where there is no discretion, there is no immunity.  For example, the Court held that where regulations require railings on a stadium’s camera stand, there is no discretion to place the railings, and therefore no immunity from claims to recover damages caused by the failure to install such railings.

The second exception, the known-and-present-danger exception, applies only “where the danger is so severe and so immediate” that a response is demanded.  Once again, because there is no discretion, there is no immunity.  However, application of this judicially created exception is narrow and very fact-specific.  For example, the seminal case involves a fall, arguably caused by a park ranger’s failure to give warning that a path passed within inches of a partially concealed 90-foot drop. 

Case Background for the Engelhardt decision

The Engelhardt case arose when Lily Engelhardt, age eight, drowned during a summer camp field trip to a swimming pool.  Lily’s mother had informed the camp supervisor that Lily could not swim; however, no other camp staff were informed of this fact.  Lily’s mother granted permission for Lily to attend the field trip after assurances that Lily would be given a swim test upon arrival at the pool.  If Lily did not pass the swim test, the camp supervisor promised to keep her in the shallow, splash pad area. 

However, when the nearly 80 campers arrived at the pool, Lily was not tested before she entered the water.  Although campers like Lily were instructed to see a camp staff member for a swim test, no one was directly supervising Lily. As camp staff completed ushering campers through the locker rooms, Lily was discovered drowned in the pool by lifeguards who were unable to revive her.

Lily’s parents brought suit against the City (which ran the summer camp program) for wrongful death.  The City moved for summary judgment, arguing that the suit was barred by governmental immunity.  After the circuit court denied the City’s motion, the Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court held that the City had not breached any alleged “ministerial duty” and that the facts of the case did not constitute a known and present danger. 

Majority Opinion

The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed. It denied the City’s invocation of immunity because the “obvious dangers” under the circumstances met the standard for the “narrow” known-and-present danger exception. 

The portion of the decision with broader impact is the majority’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ request that the Court eliminate the “discretionary” immunity standard.  The majority, written by Justice Shirley Abrahamson, highlighted the seminal 1976 decision in Lister v. Board of Regents. There, the Court applied the discretionary standard based on the “public policy considerations” of protecting the public purse and a preference for “political rather than judicial redress for the actions of public officers.” 

The Engelhardt majority also highlighted the fact that the Legislature has acquiesced for decades in the discretionary-immunity standard; this acquiescence includes, but is not limited to, the 1977 repeal and recreation of the immunity statute.  Because this revision was after the Lister decision applying the discretionary standard, the Engelhardt majority found that the Legislature’s inaction expressed implicit approval of that standard.  In other words, the majority reasoned that if the Legislature thought the Court was wrong to interpret the statute as applying to “discretionary” decisions in 1976, then the Legislature would have addressed that issue when it repealed and recreated the immunity statute in 1977. 

Finally, the majority noted that just two years ago, in Melchert v. Pro Elec. Contractors, the Court rejected the interpretation proposed by the Engelhardts (which was reflected in the dissent written by Justice Rebecca Bradley and joined by Justice Daniel Kelly). 

Concurrence

The three Justices (Rebecca Dallet, Rebecca Bradley, and Daniel Kelly) who did not join the majority filed a separate opinion. That opinion, while technically a concurrence, agreed with nothing in the majority except the end-result that the City was not entitled to immunity.  In her first opinion on the Court, Justice Dallet argued that the majority “expanded” the “narrow” exception for known and present dangers to accommodate the facts of this case. She explained that the exception typically applied only where the potential danger was high and imminent and the act required to prevent the danger was clear. By comparison, Justice Dallet reasoned that, if camp staff had seen Lily walking along the edge of the deep end of the pool, then the exception may have applied.  Because Lily’s presence at the pool facility did not on its own create a compelling danger, she concluded that the exception should not apply.

Instead of invoking the known-and-present-danger exception, the concurrence would have rejected immunity outright. To reach that outcome, the concurring Justices recommended eliminating the existing “discretionary” immunity standard.  In proposing abrogation of this standard, Justice Dallet referred to the “plain language” of statute and harkened back to the Court’s 1962 seminal decision in Holytz v. City of Milwaukee, which abrogated common-law immunity.  One year later in 1963, the Legislature enacted the predecessor to today’s Wis. Stat. § 893.80 which re-instated immunity based upon language in the Holytz decision.  In light of the relationship between Holytz and the re-instated statutory immunity, the concurrence emphasized Holytz’s assertion that, “so far as governmental responsibility for torts is concerned, the rule is liability – the exception is immunity.”

Justice Dallet went on to catalogue what she called the judicial chaos created by the discretionary standard, which, she asserted, seemed “almost random at times.”  The three-justice concurrence declared there was “no time like the present” to eliminate the existing “discretionary” immunity standard.  In its place, Justice Dallet proposed an interpretation that provides immunity “only for agents or employees of a governmental entity who are engaged in an act that, in some sense or degree, resembles making laws or exercising judgments related to government business.” 

Applying this proposed standard, the concurrence reasons that the “promulgation” of the City’s camp guidelines would receive immunity for the content of the guidelines, but the City would not be immune “from suit for its camp staff negligently failing to supervise Lily in accordance with the guidelines.”  Justice Dallet’s opinion highlighted that the camp guidelines provided clear instructions to “know where the kids in your care are at all times” and “under no circumstances should kids be left alone.”  Because the City allegedly failed to meet these guidelines, she concluded that no immunity should apply.

Analysis

The weakness of the majority’s opinion is that (as charged by the concurrence) it arguably expands the “narrow” known-and-present-danger exception.  In other words, Lily’s mere presence at the pool cannot create a known and compelling danger, at least as that exception had been applied previously.  Nonetheless, the facts of Lily’s drowning are tragic.  Perhaps, as footnoted by the concurrence, a modest expansion of the “known danger” exception would serve former Justice Crooks’ wish to strike a better “balance between too much immunity . . . and too much liability.”  Such a re-balancing could help to address the constant refrain to Holytz declaring that “liability is the rule, immunity the exception” and the repeated calls to eliminate the existing “discretionary” immunity standard.    

By comparison, the concurrence fails to mention any of the legislature’s acquiescence to the “discretionary” standard or its acting in reliance upon it – an argument emphasized by the majority.  After all, the governmental immunity applicable today is statutory, while the immunity abrogated by Holytz was judicially created.  Even in Holytz, which abrogated immunity and is relied upon by the concurrence, the court painstakingly distinguished its ability to abrogate immunity in 1962 because the doctrine was judicially created – which is entirely different from the present-day review of statutory immunity enacted by the Legislature.  The concurrence offers no explanation on how to rectify this distinction in order to alter now the longstanding application of statutory immunity.  Instead, the concurrence would simply overrule the Court’s precedent on the “discretionary” immunity standard.

It is also hard to see how the proposed alternative standard offers any more clarity than the standard the concurrence wants to abandon.  The proposed standard applies only where the municipal actor is “engaged in an act that, in some sense or degree, resembles making laws or exercising judgment related to government business.”  How this standard differs from the existing discretionary standard is entirely unclear.  To be fair, the proposed standard would apply to the promulgation of policies, but, if it did not extend to “acts done in the exercise of” such policies, it would directly contradict the statutory language (which the concurrence claims to be reliant upon).  Even more to the point, it would create a legal fiction to grant immunity to the decision to enact a policy yet deny immunity from the results of those policies being acted upon. 

Applying this newly proposed standard, Justice Dallet concludes that, because the camp staff negligently failed to supervise Lily according to camp guidelines, there would be no immunity.  There is a view of the facts that support such a conclusion in this case.  However, how this conclusion differs from the existing ministerial-duty standard is once again unclear.  If the three-justice concurrence concluded that the camp staff failed to comply with guidelines imposed upon them, then this constitutes a breach of a ‘ministerial duty’ and there is no “discretion” under the existing immunity standard.  In other words, the concurrence need not create a whole new standard just to reach the same result.  The concurrence could have simply applied the “ministerial-duty” exception under the existing discretionary immunity standard.  The concurrence does not explain why it did not.

Conclusion

For municipal clients, setting aside the fact-specific application of the known-and-present-danger exception in Engelhardt, the main takeaway from the decision is that Justice Dallet joined Justices Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly in seeking to eliminate the existing discretionary-immunity standard.  Justice Abrahamson wrote the majority opinion preserving the standard; however, with an April judicial election to replace her on the bench (and Justice Kelly’s seat being up for election in April 2020), her following words appear likely prescient:

It is unwise for a court to frequently call into question existing and long-standing law.  Doing so gives the impression that the decision to overturn prior cases is ‘undertaken merely because the composition of the court has changed.’

            In light of the sharp disagreements on the court regarding the interpretation and application of Wis. Stat. § 893.80, the existing discretionary immunity standard for municipal actors is likely to remain a flashpoint for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the coming years.

Stafford Rosenbaum attorneys (left to right) Ted Waskowski and Kyle Engelke in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Hearing Room in the East Wing of the State Capitol building in Madison, WI.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Confirms Limited Liability Exposure For Banks Upon Embezzlement By Employees

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UPDATE: On January 29, 2019, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed in a 5-2 decision the dismissal of a Wisconsin Uniform Fiduciaries Act (“UFA”) claim against the Park Bank located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  See Koss Corp. v. Park Bank, Case No. 2016AP636, 2019 WI 7.  The Justices did not agree, however, on the applicable standard for proving bad faith under the UFA statute as enacted in Wisconsin.  Chief Justice Roggensack and Justice Ziegler citing in general to N.J. Title Ins. Co. v. Caputo, 748 A.2d 507, 514 (N.J. 2000), concluded that bad faith requires proof of “some evidence of bank dishonesty such as a bank willfully failing to further investigate compelling and obvious known facts that suggest fiduciary misconduct because of a deliberate desire to evade knowledge of fiduciary misconduct.”  Id. ¶ 55.

Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Abrahamson, and Dallet held they would expressly adopt the Caputo standard that: “bad faith denotes a reckless disregard or purposeful obliviousness of the known facts suggesting impropriety by the fiduciary.  It is not established by negligent or careless conduct or by vague suspicion.  Likewise, actual knowledge of and complicity in the fiduciary’s misdeeds is not required.  However, where facts suggesting fiduciary misconduct are compelling and obvious, it is bad faith to remain passive and not inquire further because such inaction amounts to a deliberate desire to evade knowledge.”  Id. ¶ 86.

The Court ultimately found the facts at issue in this dispute did not meet either bad faith standard.  So, while the precise bad faith standard applicable to a UFA claim in Wisconsin remains unsettled, the clear takeaway from this holding is businesses must continue to vigilantly monitor their financial activities internally, as they will not be able to recover from financial institutions for losses stemming from fraudulent transactions except where there has been egregious conduct by the financial institution.

On December 12, 2017, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals addressed a civil dispute arising from the high-profile criminal embezzlement scheme committed by Koss Corporation Vice President of Finance, Sujata (“Sue”) Sachdeva.  At issue were allegations Koss made against its bank seeking recovery on the theory that the bank committed bad faith in not detecting the embezzlement scheme. See Koss Corp. v. Park Bank, No. 2016AP636 (Wis. Ct. App. Dec. 12, 2017).

Koss’s complaint alleged that Park Bank of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, violated Wisconsin’s Uniform Fiduciaries Act (“UFA”) by allowing Ms. Sachdeva to embezzle about $34 million from Koss accounts for personal use. Ms. Sachdeva used a variety of ways to embezzle the $34 million, including requesting cashier’s checks and cashing checks made out to “petty cash,” as well executing wire transfers to pay personal credit card bills.  Koss alleged the bank’s failure to discern Ms. Sachdeva’s embezzlement scheme amounted to a violation of Wis. Stat. § 112.01(9), which exposes a bank to liability if it permits transactions “with knowledge of such facts that [the Bank’s] action in paying the check amounts to bad faith.”

The bank moved for summary judgment, asserting that no material facts established it had intentionally or deliberately allowed the transactions to occur in bad faith.  At the circuit court, the court held that Koss had failed to cite any evidence that the bank “intentionally ignored Sachdeva’s embezzlement,” without which there was no way to show the bank acted in bad faith.  The court further noted that the circumstances established only the bank may have been negligent in failing to uncover the fraudulent conduct, but that one of the purposes in adopting the UFA was to eliminate negligence claims against banks arising from transactions where employees or other persons acting as an agent of a depositor commit an act causing a loss to the depositor. 

On appeal, Koss took the position that, although the bank lacked actual knowledge of Ms. Sachdeva’s embezzlement scheme, the circumstances raised enough red flags that a factfinder could conclude that the bank’s failure to detect the fraudulent transactions amounted to bad faith under the UFA.  In support of its position, Koss cited to (1) the large volume of improper checks—adding up to millions of dollars—Sachdeva requested, (2) the bank allowing unauthorized Koss representatives to request, endorse, and pick up checks, (3) the bank’s acceptance of checks payable to companies with cryptic initials (e.g., “N.M., Inc.” for Neiman Marcus and “S.F.A., Inc.” for Saks Fifth Avenue), (4) after-the-fact deposition testimony from a bank employee that the large number of cashier’s checks requested were “strange,” (5) Ms. Sachdeva’s testimony that she chose the bank at issue because of the ease in which she could conduct her fraudulent transactions, and (6) the bank’s failure to implement and/or enforce proper fraud-detection policies and procedures.

Despite this evidence, the Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court by dismissing Koss’ claim of bad-faith.  Consistent with cases from other jurisdictions interpreting the UFA, our Court of Appeals concluded that to effectively bring a claim of bad faith under the UFA a depositor needs “proof of two elements: (1) circumstances that are suspicious enough to place a bank on notice of improper conduct by the [employee embezzling the depositor’s money on deposit]; and (2) a deliberate failure [by the bank] to investigate the suspicious circumstances because of a belief or fear that such inquiry would disclose a defect in the transaction at issue.”  Id., ¶ 27.

While the Appeals Court acknowledged that Koss cited ample evidence to establish the bank’s negligent failure to investigate and discover Ms. Sachdeva’s embezzlement scheme, it concluded that Koss failed to adduce facts sufficient to allow a factfinder to determine that the elements of proof for bad faith under the UFA were satisfied:

 

Although the transactions Sachdeva engaged in may appear suspicious or odd in hindsight, Koss has not cited any evidence to indicate that, in the larger context of Koss’s banking practices and the banking practices of Park Bank’s other corporate clients, the transactions were suspicious enough to put Park Bank on notice of Sachdeva’s misconduct.  Koss also fails to cite any evidence indicating that Park Bank deliberately declined to investigate Sachdeva’s transactions due to a fear that further inquiry would disclose defects in them.

 

Id., ¶ 51.  The Appeals Court then concluded that allowing Koss’ claim to proceed would be contrary to the UFA’s purpose of insulating banks from the misconduct of a depositor’s employees.  Id., ¶ 52.

This decision highlights how important it is for businesses to adopt and enforce internal monitoring protocols for financial activities by their employees and agents.  By adopting the UFA, Wisconsin has allocated the risk of loss stemming from fraudulent financial transactions to businesses rather than banks in all but the most egregious circumstances.  Businesses failing to take notice of suspicious financial activities (1) not only expose themselves to the risk of severe financial losses, but also (2) if the business has publicly traded securities then they may expose themselves to possible violations of federal securities law for failing to properly ensure the accuracy of their financial reporting.  See id., ¶ 12 n.4 (noting an adverse judgment entered against Koss pursuant to SEC lawsuit).

Please feel free to contact Greg Jacobs or Rich Latta if you would like to discuss any of the matters discussed above.

While a law firm with which Mr. Latta was previously affiliated may have provided legal representation of a party mentioned in Koss Corporation v. Park Bank, Mr. Latta did not represent any party involved and the thoughts expressed herein are strictly his own.

Has the Wisconsin Court of Appeals Shown A Path to Change Successor Liability Law?

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Ordinarily, an appellate court’s per curiam opinion—an unsigned ruling issued “by the court” rather than in the name of the authoring judge—does not merit close examination. In Wisconsin, per curiam opinions are unpublished and may not be cited in future cases, even for persuasive value.

Thus, it would be easy to overlook the court of appeals’ recent per curiam opinion in Veritas Steel, LLC v. Lunda Construction Company. At first blush, the decision appears to be a straightforward affirmance of the circuit court’s order dismissing two claims: successor liability and fraudulent transfer. However, the analysis is illuminating, and it seems to telegraph—pretty clearly—that the Wisconsin Supreme Court should reconsider long-standing precedent that narrows the exceptions to the general law of non-liability for corporate successors.

Facts:

PDM was a steel fabricating entity. It had a credit agreement with multiple lenders, who in turn had first-priority liens on PDM’s assets. When PDM defaulted, the lenders granted forbearance in exchange for PDM’s agreement to sell itself with the help of an investment bank. None of the bids to acquire PDM were sufficient to cover PDM’s outstanding debt to secured creditors (much less to unsecured creditors like Lunda, which had obtained a $16 million judgment against PDM).

Atlas, the common parent company of the lenders, was the highest bidder. Through a series of transactions, Atlas and the lenders acquired PDM’s assets and shed any obligations to pay additional debts. They did this in several steps. First, a “transition support agreement” between PDM and the lenders expressed “a mutual desire” to transition PDM’s business to the lenders. In the wake of that agreement, Atlas and its affiliates purchased all of PDM’s outstanding debt directly from the lenders at a steep discount. Then Atlas created a new entity, Veritas Steel, which was assigned a first-priority lien on PDM’s assets. Finally, PDM conveyed its assets to Veritas in exchange for the discharge of the secured debts. “Under Veritas’s ownership,” PDM continued operating as it had before these transactions, employing the same workforce and pursuing the same type of work.  See slip op. ¶13.

Meanwhile, Lunda took steps to execute its judgment against PDM. Eventually, Veritas responded by seeking a judicial declaration that Lunda had no claim against Veritas for payment of the judgment against PDM. Lunda counterclaimed against Veritas and brought a third-party complaint against Atlas and others. Lunda alleged that the defendants schemed to control PDM and continue to operate it, “albeit under a different name.” Id. ¶ 15. Applying Wisconsin precedent, the circuit court dismissed Lunda’s successor liability and fraudulent transfer claims.

Court of Appeals decision:

In its discussion of the successor liability claim, the court of appeals began with the general rule that when an acquiring corporation purchases assets of a target corporation it does not also succeed to the liabilities of the target corporation. There are well-recognized exceptions to this general rule, two of which Lunda invoked: (1) the “de facto merger exception,” which applies when the transaction amounts to a consolidation or merger of the two corporations, and (2) the “mere continuation exception,” which applies when the acquiring corporation is essentially a continuation of the target corporation.

The court of appeals recognized that earlier precedent supported Lunda’s argument. In Tift v. Forage King Industries, the Wisconsin Supreme Court expanded these exceptions and allowed piercing the corporate veil so that a court could “look to the substance and effect of business transformations or reorganizations to determine whether the original organization continues to have life or identity” in a subsequent organization. Id. ¶24 (quoting Tift, 108 Wis. 2d 72, 78–79, 322 N.W.2d 14 (1982)).

However, the court of appeals concluded that later Supreme Court precedent cut the other way. This newer precedent, Fish v. Amsted Industries, Inc., rejected “relaxation of the traditional test of successor liability and instead requires attention to concrete evidence of identity of ownership.” Id. ¶27 (citing Fish, 126 Wis. 2d 293, 300–02, 376 N.W.2d 820 (1985)). As the court of appeals noted, this focus on the “identity of ownership” appears to require a transfer of stock to trigger the de facto merger exception, and the common identity of officers, directors, and stockholders for the mere continuation exception. As neither key element was present here, neither exception applied and Lunda’s successor liability claim failed.

The court of appeals cited federal case law that similarly understood Fish to foreclose claim, even where the results may be “‘unsettling’ because an asset transfer has occurred under what appear to have been ‘quite cozy’ circumstances.” Id. ¶28 (quoting Gallenberg Equip., Inc. v. Agromac Int’l, Inc., No. 98-3288, slip op. at 5 (7th Cir. Aug. 4, 1999)). The court of appeals also observed that Lunda’s argument would have “traction” in other jurisdictions, but not in Wisconsin “at this time.” Id. (emphasis added). And the court of appeals cautioned that it may be “impossible to square our reading of Fish with statutory merger language under ch. 180” of the Wisconsin Statutes. Id. ¶32, n.11. Finally, the court of appeals noted that Fish was a closely decided case, from which three justices dissented, “urging more flexible approaches to the exceptions.” Id. ¶33. But the court of appeals ultimately acknowledged its hands were tied, as only the Supreme Court can overrule its prior decisions.

Conclusion:

It may very well be that the court of appeals deemed this an open-and-shut case, meriting no more than an unsigned ruling. It may also be true that the court of appeals felt aggrieved by an unsecured judgment creditor getting the short end of the stick and went out of its way to explain why it could not offer relief. However, given the tone, the length, and the word choice of this opinion, the court of appeals may indeed have been urging litigants to ponder, and perhaps even providing rhetorical ammunition to use in, pursuing a change in the controlling precedent by seeking further review at the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

What Will Follow from Wholesale Changes to Wisconsin’s Class-Action Statute?

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On July 1, 2018, for the first time in more than a century, major changes to Wisconsin’s class-action statute took effect. See Supreme Court Order No. 17-03, 2017 WI 108. As a result, Wis. Stat. § 803.08 now mirrors, nearly identically, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which governs class-action suits in federal courts. The harmonization of § 803.08 with Rule 23 expands the breadth of guidance and precedent available in Wisconsin class actions, as lawyers and judges can now refer to extensive federal case law interpreting and applying Rule 23. While the effect this change will have on the volume, variety, and outcome of class actions in Wisconsin remains to be seen, several questions are foreseeable.

Will this change increase the number of class-action lawsuits in Wisconsin courts?

State-court class actions have been relatively rare in Wisconsin. So few occur annually that the Wisconsin Court system does not track class actions as a category in its yearly “Civil Disposition Summary.” Among the reasons for this scarcity may be the fact that, prior to July 1, Wisconsin’s previous class-action statute provided very little guidance (and therefore very little predictability) for potential litigants, making federal court or other jurisdictions preferable venues. Now that Wisconsin class-action law parallels federal law, Wisconsin state courts may become a more appealing venue. (Note, however, that Congress relaxed removal rules for class actions, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d) & 1446, so that, even if more class-action plaintiffs choose to file in Wisconsin state courts, defendants will often have the option to move those cases to federal court.)

There are also some unique features of Wisconsin law that may make litigating class actions here more attractive to plaintiffs and defendants alike. For example, consider the opportunity for appellate review early in the class-action process. The crucial moment in many class-action suits is the trial court’s decision whether to certify a class. Where certification is granted, the defendant often faces enormous potential liability, which is why a certification order sometimes constitute a “death knell” for defendants, forcing them to settle rather than risk an adverse judgment after a full trial on the merits. See Balser et al., Interlocutory Appeal of Class Certification Decisions under Rule 23(f): An Untapped Resource, Bloomberg BNA (Mar. 16, 2017). And where certification is denied, the named plaintiff must decide whether to settle or proceed alone, which often means continuing in extensive, expensive litigation though the potential damages for their individual injury do not justify the costs of the process.

In federal court, litigants do not have an appeal as of right from the trial court’s critical decision of whether to certify a class. Instead, the party aggrieved by that decision must convince a federal appeals court to accept a discretionary appeal under Rule 23(f). By contrast, Wis. Stat. § 803.08(11) now grants litigants an appeal as of right from a class certification order. The chance to appeal class certification before proceeding to final judgment could be a substantial boon for whichever party loses on that issue in the trial court. It may be enough to encourage class-action plaintiffs to file in Wisconsin state court and to make class-action defendants sued in Wisconsin state court think twice before opting for removal to federal court.

Another feature of Wisconsin law that could attract more class-action suits is Wisconsin’s comparatively lenient standing requirements. In federal courts, standing is a constitutionally mandated jurisdictional prerequisite. But Wisconsin state courts view standing more leniently. In Wisconsin, standing is a prudential doctrine, “aimed at ensuring that issues and arguments presented will be carefully developed and zealously argued.” McConkey v. Van Hollen, 2010 WI 57, ¶¶15-16, 326 Wis. 2d 1, 783 N.W.2d 855. The greater flexibility Wisconsin law affords state courts to allow suits to proceed may be particularly advantageous for class-action plaintiffs, who frequently face arguments that the named plaintiff has not suffered a concrete and particularized injury sufficient to trigger federal jurisdiction. Additionally, it remains an unresolved question whether federal standing doctrine requires that all absent class members have standing or if the named plaintiff’s proof of standing is sufficient. Wisconsin’s more pragmatic approach to standing allows state-court plaintiffs to sidestep this thorny question.

How will Wisconsin courts address some of the open questions under federal class-action law?

While functionally adopting Rule 23 will likely bring improved clarity to Wisconsin’s class-action law in many respects, Wisconsin may be adopting some of Rule 23’s unresolved questions as well. To the extent that the language now incorporated into § 803.08 has led to disagreements among federal courts, Wisconsin courts will now face those same bedeviling questions.

One such question, which has divided federal appellate courts, concerns whether Rule 23 has an ‘implicit’ requirement that the members of a proposed class be “ascertainable.” See, e.g., In re Petrobas Securities, 862 F.3d 250, 264 (2d Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed (No. 17-664). Traditionally, “a class is ascertainable if it is clearly defined by ‘objective criteria.’” Andrew J. Ennis and Catherine A. Zollicker, The Heightened Standard of Ascertainability in Class Actions, ABA Section of Litigation (Mar. 13, 2018). Most circuits, including the Seventh Circuit, adhere to this traditional rule. Id. However, the Third Circuit has held that “a class action plaintiff must also ‘demonstrate his purposed method for ascertaining class members is reliable and administratively feasible.’” Id. (quoting Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300, 308 (3d Cir. 2013)). The U.S. Supreme Court has thus far declined several requests to address this issue.

Another involves the propriety of side-deals with individual objectors to a class-action settlement. Because the outcome of a class-action suit is binding upon all members of the class, when the named plaintiff and the defendant negotiate a settlement, the terms are submitted for the court’s review and all absent (that is, unnamed) class members have the opportunity to lodge objections to the settlement. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(e)(5). Sometimes an absent class member files such an objection for the sole purpose of gaining an individual benefit in the form of a separate settlement payment in exchange for dismissing their objection. At least one litigant has characterized this practice as “objector blackmail.” See Pearson v. Target Corp., 893 F.3d 980, 982 (7th Cir. 2018).

This issue is a particularly interesting example because the U.S. Supreme Court has adopted an amendment to Rule 23 to address this by requiring court approval of any payment provided in connection with dismissing an objection to settlement. Unless Congress takes action to stop it, this proposed amendment will take effect on December 1, 2018. However, Wis. Stat. § 803.08 mirrors Rule 23’s text prior to the proposed amendment. Absent a further change to section 803.08, the settlement issue will remain one for the Wisconsin courts to handle in state-court class actions.

Conclusion

The first wholesale changes to Wisconsin’s class-action statute in a century might have unintended consequences. While changes to harmonize Wisconsin class-action law with federal class-action law mean that Wisconsin lawyers and judges have greater guidance on class-action procedures, they also bring to Wisconsin several thorny questions as yet unresolved by federal courts. And some differences between Wisconsin law and federal law could lead to an increased incidence of class-action litigation in Wisconsin state courts.

Law Clerk Collin Weyers assisted with researching and writing this post.

Supreme Court Ends Great Weight Deference to Agency Legal Interpretations, Splinters on Rationale

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Supreme Court Ends Great Weight Deference to Agency Legal Interpretations, Splinters on Rationale 

For decades, Wisconsin courts deferred to administrative agencies’ interpretation of statutes and regulations under certain conditions. See Harnischfeger Corp. v. LIRC, 196 Wis. 2d 650, 659–60, 539 N.W.2d 98 (1995). The Supreme Court of Wisconsin put an end to this practice in its recent decision, Tetra Tech EC, Inc. v. Wisc. Dep’t of Revenue, 2018 WI 75. The Tetra Tech decision marks a sea change in Wisconsin administrative law. But because the Court fractured in its reasoning and analysis, how the decision will be applied in lower courts and what it will mean in practice remains uncertain.

Factual background

The basic dispute at the heart of the Tetra Tech litigation involved whether a sales tax applied when one company purchased environmental remediation services from another. Following a federal order to remove industrial pollutants from the Fox River, several paper companies created a LLC to carry out the work. Id., ¶4. That LLC hired Tetra Tech EC which, in turn, subcontracted with Stuyvesant Dredging, Inc. Id. Stuyvesant’s job was to dredge sediment from the river bed and then, using various filters, separate water from sand from contaminated sludge. Id. In 2010, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue audited Tetra Tech and assessed a sales tax on the portion of Stuyvesant’s work that yielded relatively clean sand. As authority, the Department of Revenue cited Wis. Stat. § 77.52(2)(a)10.­–11., both of which apply sales tax to services that involve “processing … tangible personal property….” Tetra Tech, 2018 WI 75, ¶5.

Tetra Tech fought the tax bill all the way to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. At every step, the company lost and kept appealing. When the Supreme Court of Wisconsin agreed to hear Tetra Tech’s case, the Justices directed the parties to address an additional question, not raised in the company’s petition for review—whether “the practice of deferring to agency interpretations of statutes comport[s] with Article VII, Section 2 of the Wisconsin Constitution.” Id., ¶2. That question, not the underlying propriety of Tetra Tech’s tax bill, became the primary focus of the Supreme Court proceedings.

Legal background

The Supreme Court’s additional question did not come completely out of the blue. Indeed, it is part of a broader trend of questioning principles of federal and state law that some refer to as “decision avoidance” doctrines. Chief Justice Roggensack flagged this issue more than a decade ago in an article she wrote for the Marquette Law Review. See Patience Drake Roggensack, Elected to Decide: Is the Decision-Avoidance Doctrine of Great Weight Deference Appropriate in This Court of Last Resort?, 89 Marq. L. Rev. 541 (2006). And in a concurring opinion last year, three Justices on the Supreme Court wrote “separately to question whether [the] practice of deferring to agency interpretations of statutes comports with the Wisconsin Constitution, which vests judicial power in this court—not administrative agencies.” Operton v. LIRC, 2017 WI 46, ¶73, 375 Wis. 2d. 1, 894 N.W.2d 542 (R.G. Bradley, J., concurring). On a federal level, the issue gained attention during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Neil Gorsuch, who has expressed concern about the degree to which federal courts defer to executive agencies. See, e.g., Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, 834 F.3d 1142, 1151–52 (10th Cir. 2016) (Gorsuch, J., concurring).

Prior to Tetra Tech, Wisconsin courts developed a multi-tiered deference analysis. In some circumstances, courts applied “great weight deference,” accepting an agency’s reasonable interpretation of the law, even if the court thought that alternative interpretations were more reasonable. The court explained that great weight deference to an agency decision on a question of law was appropriate if: (1) the statute was one the agency was charged by the legislature with administering; (2) the interpretation of the agency was one of long-standing; (3) the agency used its expertise or specialized knowledge in deciding the legal question presented; and (4) the agency’s interpretation provided uniformity in the application of the statute. Harnischfeger Corp., 196 Wis. 2d at 102. Essentially, under the “great weight deference” standard, if the agency could demonstrate a plausible explanation for its position, its interpretation would stand.

“Due weight deference” applied “when the agency ha[d] some experience in an area but ha[d] not developed the expertise that necessarily place[d] it in a better position than a court to make judgments regarding the interpretation of the statute.” Racine Harley-Davidson, Inc. v. State Div. of Hearings and Appeals, 2006 WI 86, ¶18, 292 Wis. 2d 549, 717 N.W.2d 184. Under “due weight deference,” the agency had to yield to better interpretations, but if multiple interpretations were equally plausible, the tie went in the agency’s favor. ABKA Ltd. P’ship v. DNR, 2002 WI 106, ¶116, 255 Wis. 2d 486, 648 N.W.2d 854 (Sykes, J., dissenting) (“[T]he agency’s legal interpretation will be upheld even if there is a different, equally reasonable interpretation—in other words, a tie goes to the agency.”).

Finally, when any of the following conditions was met: (1) the issue is one of first impression; (2) the agency had no experience or expertise in deciding the legal issue presented; or (3) the agency’s position on the issue had been so inconsistent as to provide no real guidance—courts would interpret statutes de novo. Racine Harley-Davidson, 2006 WI 86, ¶19. When a reviewing court accords an agency’s statutory interpretation no deference, “the reviewing court merely benefits from the agency’s determination and may reverse the agency’s interpretation even when an alternative statutory interpretation is equally reasonable to the interpretation of the agency.” Id., ¶20.

In its briefing, Tetra Tech argued that the Wisconsin Constitution charges courts with determining the meaning of the law, such that courts cannot defer at all to agency interpretations of statutes and must instead engage in de novo interpretation in every case. The Department of Revenue, represented by the Wisconsin Attorney General, largely agreed. The State argued that great weight deference is incompatible with the Wisconsin Constitution but that due weight deference should be retained as a proper way to balance, under appropriate circumstances, independent judicial review with the specialized expertise that administrative agencies bring to bear. Only one amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief offered any argument in support of great weight deference.

A Unanimous, Yet Fractured, Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that Tetra Tech was on the hook for the sales tax at issue. But the seven Justices’ agreement did not extend to the deference question. On that topic, the Court produced four separate opinions. Making things more confusing, the lead opinion (by Justice Daniel Kelly) includes 15 separate sections, each attracting support from various combinations of Justices. Some—but significantly less than half—of the lead opinion has support from a majority of the Court and thus carries the force of law. But most of it does not. And three Justices declined to join any portion of the lead opinion’s analysis. (See the table at the bottom of this post.)

Five Justices broadly agree that great-weight deference should no longer be used.[1] Two Justices—Daniel Kelly and Rebecca Bradley—base that conclusion on the Wisconsin Constitution. See Tetra Tech, 2018 WI 75, ¶¶42–84. Three others—Patience Roggensack, Annette Ziegler, and Michael Gableman—avoid any constitutional analysis, invoking instead principles of judicial administration and the Court’s power to overrule its own prior decisions. See id., ¶¶135–142 (Ziegler, J., concurring, with Roggensack, C.J., joining in part); id., ¶¶159–170 (Gableman, J., concurring, with Roggensack, C.J., joining in full). Two Justices—Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson—support the continued use of great weight deference. See id., ¶¶109–134 (A.W. Bradley, J., concurring, joined by Abrahamson, J.).

The result of these fractured opinions is that most of the analysis in the lead opinion lacks enough support to be considered law and to provide clear guidance to agencies, private parties, and lower courts. There are four votes for this key paragraph in the lead opinion’s conclusion (in Section III):

We have also decided to end our practice of deferring to administrative agencies’ conclusions of law. However, pursuant to Wis. Stat. §227.57(10), we will give “due weight” to the experience, technical competence, and specialized knowledge of an administrative agency as we consider its arguments.

Id., ¶108. (The four votes were from Justices Kelly, R. Bradley, and Gableman, as well as Chief Justice Roggensack. Id., ¶3 n.4.) That is, therefore, the new law.

But what it means in practice, and how lower courts are to afford “due weight” remains unclear. The lead opinion heavily criticizes the prior use of “due weight deference” and advocates for a significant change to how courts assess agencies’ legal interpretations. See id., ¶¶71–81. But that portion of the lead opinion (in Section II.A.5) attracted support from only two of the seven Justices. Id., ¶3 n.4. The lead opinion explained: “Henceforth, we will review an administrative agency’s conclusions of law under the same standard we apply to a circuit court’s conclusions of law—de novo. As with judicial opinions, we will benefit from the administrative agency’s analysis, particularly when they are supplemented by the “due weight” considerations discussed above.” Id., ¶84 (internal citations omitted). But that portion of the opinion (in Section II.A.6) also lacks the force of law as it attracted support from only three Justices (still short of a majority). Id., ¶3 n.4 (“Therefore, this opinion announces the opinion of the court with respect to Sections I., II.A.1., II.A.2., II.B., and III.”).

Consequences on Prior Adjudications

Adding yet another layer of uncertainty is the concern expressed in the concurring opinions that the lead opinion fails to adequately account for the effect its analysis will have on cases decided under the pre-Tetra Tech standard. The lead opinion asserts that the Tetra Tech decision “is incapable of reopening cases that have already been decided. If they were final upon release of this opinion, their finality will go on undisturbed by our decision today.” Id., ¶89. In the next paragraph, the lead opinion cites Schauer v. DeNeveu Homeowner’s Ass’n, Inc., 194 Wis. 2d 62, 75, 533 N.W.2d 470 (1995), to support its conclusion that Wis. Stat. § 806.07 “does not authorize relief from a judgment on the ground that the law applied by the court in making its adjudication has been subsequently overruled in an unrelated proceeding.” Tetra Tech, 2018 WI 75, ¶90.

But there are two reasons to doubt that this resolves the issue. First, like so much of the lead opinion, Section II.A.6 lacks enough support to have the force of law. Id., ¶3 n.4. This means that paragraphs 89 and 90 do not provide a conclusive adjudication on the issue. Second, as the concurring opinions point out, there are colorable arguments that Schauer does not resolve the issue. Wis. Stat. § 806.07(1) authorizes relief from a judgment on eight distinct grounds. Schauer addressed only one of those—subsection (1)(f) (“A prior judgment upon which the judgment is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated”). The lead opinion’s conclusion that great weight deference is unconstitutional leaves open the possibility that a previously decided case could be attacked under several other subsections: (1)(a), on the basis of “mistake”; (1)(d), on the basis that “[t]he judgment is void”; or (1)(h), on the basis of “[a]ny other reasons justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.” Tetra Tech, 2018 WI 75, ¶139 & n.3 (Ziegler, J., concurring); accord id., ¶131 (A.W. Bradley, J., concurring). There also remains the possibility of attack under (1)(f), because Schauer did not address the consequence of a constitutional adjudication (like the one undertaken by the Tetra Tech lead opinion). The Court’s fractured decision seems to create the opportunity to argue that the lead opinion is correct as to the constitutional basis for departing from the great weight deference standard (an issue on which there was no majority) and that, if so, there is room to interpret (1)(f) as a valid basis for relief from a prior judgment based on a deference regime that is now understood to be unconstitutional. Like the precise contours of the post-Tetra Tech deference regime, all of these tangential issues will require further clarification.

Conclusion

In time, lower courts—and perhaps additional opinions from the Supreme Court—will flesh out the extent of deference Wisconsin courts should now afford to administrative agencies’ legal conclusions and whether Tetra Tech’s changes to the standard of review of administrative decisions on issues of law have any effect on cases previously decided under the great-weight deference standard. For now, agencies, litigants, and lower courts have the unenviable task of trying to build a roadmap from the Supreme Court’s fractured opinions in Tetra Tech.

Law Clerk Collin Weyers assisted with researching and writing this post.

Table: How many Justices support which arguments in Tetra Tech opinions

Opinion

Section

Title

¶¶

Supported by

Lead

Introduction

n/a

1-3

3: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley & Gableman

Lead

Section I.

Factual Background & Procedural History

4-7

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Lead

Section II.

Discussion

8-9

3: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley & Gableman

Lead

Section II.A.

Deference to Administrative Agencies

10

3: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley & Gableman

Lead

Section II.A.1.

Current Standard for Reviewing Administrative Agency Decisions

11-16

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Lead

Section II.A.2.

History of the Deference Doctrine

17

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Lead

Section II.A.2.i.

A Brief History of “Great Weight” Deference

18-33

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Lead

Section II.A.2.ii.

A Brief History of “Due Weight” Deference

34-41

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Lead

Section II.A.3.

The Judiciary’s Constitutional Responsibilities

42-54

2: Justices Kelly & R.G. Bradley

Lead

Section II.A.4.

“Great Weight” Deference Considered

55-70

2: Justices Kelly & R.G. Bradley

Lead

Section II.A.5.

“Due Weight” Deference Considered

71-81

2: Justices Kelly & R.G. Bradley

Lead

Section II.A.6.

Standard of Review

82-84

3: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley & Gableman (except for one implication)

Lead

Section II.A.7.

Discontinuing Deference for Administrative Reasons

85-93

2: Justices Kelly & R.G. Bradley

Lead

Section II.B.

“Processing” River Sediment

94-106

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Lead

Section III.

Conclusion

107-108

4: Justices Kelly, R.G. Bradley, Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

A.W. Bradley concurrence

Introduction

n/a

109-113

2: Justices A.W. Bradley & Abrahamson

A.W. Bradley concurrence

Section I

n/a

114-120

2: Justices A.W. Bradley & Abrahamson

A.W. Bradley concurrence

Section II

n/a

121-134

2: Justices A.W. Bradley & Abrahamson

Ziegler concurrence

Introduction

n/a

135-137

1: Justice Ziegler

Ziegler concurrence

Section I.

Interpreting and Applying the Law

138-142

2: Justice Ziegler & C.J. Roggensack

Ziegler concurrence

Section II.

Interpreting and Applying Wis. Stat. 77.52(2)(a)11

143

1: Justice Ziegler

Ziegler concurrence

Section II.A.

Specially-Defined Terms: Pricing and Imprinting

144-146

1: Justice Ziegler

Ziegler concurrence

Section II.B.

Surplusage

147-153

1: Justice Ziegler

Ziegler concurrence

Section IV. [sic]

Conclusion

155-158

1: Justice Ziegler

Gableman concurrence

Introduction

n/a

159-163

2: Justice Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Gableman concurrence

Section I.

The Traditional Five Circumstances for Overturning Precedent

164

2: Justice Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Gableman concurrence

Section I.A.

The Prior Decision is “Unsound in Principle”

165-166

2: Justice Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Gableman concurrence

Section I.B.

The Need to Make a Decision Correspond to Newly Ascertained Facts

167

2: Justice Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Gableman concurrence

Section I.C.

The Other Circumstances

168

2: Justice Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

Gableman concurrence

Section II.

Conclusion

169-170

2: Justice Gableman & C.J. Roggensack

 

 

[1] Because the Tetra Tech case arose from an administrative proceeding under chapter 227 of the Wisconsin Statutes, it is not clear how the decision will affect the use of deference in cases outside of that context. This issue is accentuated by the Court’s express reference to section 227.57(10)—which governs only in proceedings under chapter 227—as the reason that some degree of due weight deference will continue. See id., ¶108.

Wis. Supreme Court Finds TID Findings are Legislative Determinations, Subject to Certiorari Review

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Wis. Supreme Court Finds TID Findings are Legislative Determinations, Subject to Certiorari Review 

In a recent 5-2 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held, inter alia, that findings of blight and a corresponding need for Tax Incremental Districts (TIDs) were “legislative determinations” and therefore not susceptible to full declaratory judgment review. Voters with Facts v. City of Eau Claire, 2018 WI 63. Voter with Facts strongly suggests, but stops short of directly holding, that certiorari review is the sole method for challenging findings in the creation of TIDs.

Municipalities will need to closely watch the next stages of the Voters with Facts litigation and other similar cases to see how courts conduct certiorari review of TID formation. In particular, it is unclear how courts will review the required finding that a TID is necessary because development of a blighted area would not occur “but for” the creation of a TID. See Wis. Stat. § 66.1105(4m)(b)2. Even under the more forgiving certiorari standard, it will be necessary to have a record supporting the blight and “but-for” determinations.

Voters with Facts Litigation

Plaintiffs, various Eau Claire area businesses and taxpayers, sought a declaratory judgment invalidating two TIDs that were part of the City’s “Confluence Project,” a downtown redevelopment effort. In approving the TIDs, the City found, as required by statute, that at least 50% of the area in the TIDs was “blighted.” 2018 WI 63, ¶ 8. The Joint Review Board (JRB) (also as required by statute) subsequently found that development in the area would not occur “but for” the creation of the TIDs. Id. ¶ 9.

The plaintiffs argued the TIDs were invalid because the City and the JRB failed to “articulate the basis for . . . and the evidence of record that support[ed]” these findings. Id. ¶ 11. In essence, the Plaintiffs wanted to engage in discovery and conduct a trial, seeking a judicial determination of whether the blight and “but for” determinations were justified by the facts on the ground. Alternatively, the Plaintiffs argued that if they could not get a full trial, they were entitled to certiorari review of the City and JRB’s actions. Id. ¶ 14.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that, because the blight and “but for” findings were “legislative determinations,” they “do not present justiciable issues of fact or law” and are not appropriate subjects for declaratory judgment relief. Voters with Facts v. City of Eau Claire, 2018 WI 63, ¶ 4. The Court noted that because blight findings involve determinations about areas which are “detrimental to the public health, safety, morals, or welfare,” they are a quintessential exercise of municipalities’ “police power,” a legislative power typically accorded deference by courts. Id. ¶ 37. The Court found that like other “[l]egislative determinations of public policy,” for example zoning decisions, TID determinations “[do] not raise justiciable issues,” Id. ¶ 39. The case was remanded to the circuit court with instructions to address the Plaintiffs’ challenges through certiorari review, which the court described as “the appropriate mechanism for a court to test the validity of a legislative determination.” Id. ¶ 5.

Justices Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly authored a joint dissent, criticizing the court’s decision to dismiss the “Plaintiffs’ richly-detailed and amply supported 25-page Complaint . . . .” Voters, ¶ 77. The dissent opined that “[t]he court’s decision forecloses taxpayers from ever seeking declaratory judgment when municipalities violate the TIF statutes.” Id. ¶ 78. The dissent criticized both the majority opinion and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, arguing (among other things) that: (1) Plaintiffs had standing to bring their declaratory judgment claims; (2) declaratory judgment was appropriate for challenging the TID findings; and (3) the Complaint adequately pleaded facts to support the Plaintiffs’ declaratory judgment challenges to the TID findings. Id.

Certiorari Review 

Certiorari review is generally limited to the “record compiled by the municipality,” and “there is a presumption of the correctness and validity to a municipality’s decision.” Ottman v. Town of Primrose, 2011 WI 18, ¶¶ 35, 48. On review, the court reviews whether the municipality: (1) “kept within its jurisdiction;” (2) “proceeded on a correct theory of law;” (3) “was arbitrary, oppressive, or unreasonable . . . ;” and (4) “whether the evidence was such that it might reasonably make the . . . determination in question . . . .” Voters with Facts, ¶ 71 (quoting Ottman, ¶ 35).

A recent example of just how deferential certiorari review is (at least as understood by the current members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court) is AllEnergy Corp. v. Trempealeau Cty. Env. & Land Use Committee, 2017 WI 52. In that case, the plaintiffs challenged the denial of a conditional use permit for non-metallic mining on several grounds, including that there was insufficient evidence to support the committee’s denial. Id. ¶ 3. While no one opinion garnered four votes, the court upheld the committee’s decision on a 4-3 vote under the certiorari standard. See id. ¶¶ 130, 133.

Justice Ziegler’s concurrence demonstrated a view that certiorari review is very deferential to municipal decisions. Her opinion (joined by Justice Roggensack) summed her rationale in one sentence: “This case should be decided narrowly: ours is a certiorari review.” Id. ¶ 133. Rather than delve into a deep review of the Environment & Land Use Committee’s evidence in the record and rationale, Justice Ziegler pointed out that the Committee’s decision “is entitled to a presumption of correctness and validity.” Id. ¶ 135. Given that presumption, Justice Ziegler could not conclude “that the Committee’s decision [was] invalid.” Id. ¶ 136. 

The dissenters in AllEnergy took another view. Three justices dissented, demonstrating a willingness to undertake a closer review of the Committee’s decision.  The dissent argued that the Committee exceeded its jurisdiction and acted arbitrarily. Id. ¶ 146. The dissent also criticized the record compiled by the Committee, saying that “no evidence” of whether the committee properly evaluated the plaintiff’s proposed mining plans “made its way into the record.” Id. ¶ 183.

The fractious nature of the AllEnergy decision, along with the strong views of the dissenters in AllEnergy and Voters with Facts, suggests that even with a “deferential” certiorari standard, municipal bodies would do well to create detailed records supporting legislative determinations, particularly for TIDs.

Law Clerk Collin Weyers assisted with researching and writing this post.

The Final Countdown: Changes to Discovery Rules (and more!) Await Litigants Starting Next Month

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As litigants turn the calendar on June, significant new rules await for cases filed after July 1, 2018. Rather than take its cues from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which traditionally governed procedural rules, the Legislature enacted substantial changes to Wisconsin’s laws on discovery. In 2017 WI Act 235, the Legislature implemented many new rules covered below that will affect civil procedure in Wisconsin.

New Limitations on Interrogatories and Depositions

The changes in Act 235 are highlighted by new limitations on interrogatories and depositions. Unless otherwise stipulated or ordered by the Court, parties are now limited to the following:

  • 25 interrogatory requests, including all subparts. Wis. Stat. § 804.08(1)(am).
  • 10 depositions, none of which may exceed seven hours in duration. Wis. Stat. § 804.045.

As in the Federal Rules, there remains no limit on the number of document requests that can be made. However, unlike the Federal Rules, Act 235 creates new limitations on requests for certain electronically stored information (ESI) as explained below.

In another noticeable departure from the Federal Rules, Act 235 does not require initial disclosures like those mandated by Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 26(a)(1). The initial disclosures under the Federal Rules help alleviate the need for discovery in light of the limits on interrogatories, but Act 235 provides no such requirement for the parties to identify individuals likely to have discoverable information, the categories of documents that support a claim or defense, a computation of damages, or any insurance agreements that may be available to satisfy a judgment. 

These changes will likely increase motion practice (requesting and/or opposing additional discovery) and demand more active court management.

Automatic Stay on Discovery

Act 235 creates a new provision that stays all discovery requests upon the filing of a motion to dismiss, a motion for judgment on the pleadings, or a motion for a more definite statement, “unless the court finds good cause upon the motion of any party that particularized discovery is necessary.” The stay applies for the shorter of 180 days or until the court rules on the motion. Wis. Stat. § 802.06(1)(b). By comparison, the Federal Rules permit discovery once the parties have a scheduling meet and confer conference under Rule 26(f) and otherwise provide no automatic stay.

Proportionality

Act 235 removes the “reasonably calculated” language that previously framed Wisconsin’s scope of discovery. In its place, the Act adds a “proportionality” standard borrowed from the Federal Rules. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(a). Parties may still obtain discovery concerning non-privileged matters relevant to the party’s claims or defenses, but now discovery requests must be proportional to the needs of the case. Courts must consider the following when weighing “proportionality”:

  • The importance of the issues at stake in the action;
  • The amount in controversy;
  • The parties’ relative access to relevant information;
  • The parties’ resources;
  • The importance of the discovery in resolving the issues; and
  • Whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.

Although early in its development under the Federal Rules, the proportionality test appears to have resulted in the federal courts taking a more proactive role in managing or tailoring discovery requests. See, e.g., O’Boyle v. GC Servs. Ltd. P’ship, No. 16-C-1384, 2018WL2271033, at * 5 (E.D. Wis. May 17, 2018) (denying motion to compel because requests are not “proportional to the needs of the case”).

New Limitations on ESI

Act 235 creates new rules related to electronically stored information (“ESI”) by requiring “substantial need” and “good cause” to request the following information:

  • Data that cannot be retrieved without substantial additional programming or without transforming it into another form before search and retrieval can be achieved;
  • Backup data substantially duplicative of more accessible data;
  • Legacy data remaining from obsolete systems; or
  • Data not available to the producing party in the ordinary course of business and not reasonably accessible because of burden or cost.

These new rules depart from the Federal Rules by carving out particular categories of ESI subject to the “substantial need” and “good cause” standard. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(e)1g. In light of the already frequent fights over ESI, this new standard could significantly alter the playing field in discovery disputes—especially when only one party holds significant ESI and there is less incentive to be reciprocally reasonable with respect to discovery responses.

Act 235 also limits requests for any document within five years of the accrual of the cause of action; this limit does not apply to health care, vocational, or educational records. Finally, parties should also be aware of the existing requirement that parties confer before requesting any ESI. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(e)1r.

New Standards for Protective Orders

Act 235 includes provision that the court “shall” limit discovery if either:

  • The discovery sought is cumulative or duplicative, can be obtained from another source that is more convenient, less burdensome, or less expensive; or
  • The burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit or is not proportional to the claims and defenses at issue.

Interestingly, the standard for a protective order—Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(am)2—does not exactly mirror the “proportionality” test found in the new scope of discovery. Wis. Stat. § 804.01(2)(a). Among other differences, the standard for granting a protective order omits the “parties’ relative access to relevant information” as a consideration that is found under the “proportionality” test. Neither Act 235 nor legislative history appears to explain this discrepancy. It will remain to be seen if the courts apply these standards differently as a result.

Finally, like the Federal Rules, the new rules permit the court to allocate discovery expenses among the parties.

Amendments to Class Certification Rules

Act 235 authorizes an appeal as a matter of right from the circuit court’s class certification decision. The Act also requires detailed reasoning for the benefit of the appellate court and automatically stays all proceedings until the appellate decision. These changes come in conjunction with the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent adoption of changes to conform Wisconsin class action law to the requirements of Federal Rule 23.

Revisions to Statute of Limitations / Repose Periods

Act 235 shortens the Statute of Limitations from six years to three for:

  • Statutory claims (unless otherwise specified) (Wis. Stat. § 893.93(1m));
  • Injury to character, or rights of another (Wis. Stat. § 893.53); and
  • Certain claims by franchised motor vehicle dealers (Wis. Stat. § 218.0125).

Perhaps more significantly, Act 235 shortens the repose periods for personal injury claims following construction. Wis. Stat. § 893.89. Here, the Act shortens the period from ten years to seven years. Practitioners should take particular notice because this change took immediate effect on April 5, 2018. This change may result in litigation regarding whether the Act intended this change to have retroactive effect. See Gutter v. Seamandel, 103 Wis. 2d 1, 308 N.W.2d 403 (1981) (declining to apply a new statute of limitations to causes of actions accruing prior to the effective date of the new statute of limitation absent express language in the statute imposing retroactive effect).

Other significant changes

Under state law, unless otherwise provided by law, an insurer must pay insurance claims within 30 days after the insurer is furnished written notice of the fact of a covered loss and loss amount. Under prior law, overdue payments must bear simple interest at the rate of 12% per year. Wis. Stat. § 628.46(1). The Act changes the interest rate applicable to overdue payments to 7.5% per year (by comparison, offers of settlement accrue prime rate plus 1%—currently 4.5% per year. Wis. Stat. § 807.01).

Act 235 creates novel mandatory disclosures for a party to provide any agreement in which any person has a right to receive compensation contingent upon the proceeds of the civil action (this requirement does not apply to attorneys’ contingent fee representations).

Finally, Act 235 also limits the Secretary of Revenue from using third-party contingent agreements to enforce the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act.

Conclusion

Although some of the discovery provisions are already in effect (noticeably, the “proportionality” test that already exists in federal courts), the demarcation for most of Act 235’s changes is for cases filed after July 1, 2018. The Act creates new battlefronts on whether discovery is proportional, ESI is reasonably accessible, and the likely benefit of discovery justifies its costs. Forewarned of these changes, parties can proceed accordingly.

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