Interview with Stacey Slaughter, Partner at Robins Kaplan LLP

Ms. Slaughter describes for us COVID-19’s effect on class action litigation and how her practice is navigating these changing and uncharted times.

Summer 2020

REAL TALK: The Robins Kaplan Business Law Update by the Women of Business Litigation.

One of our attorneys sits down with Stacey Slaughter, a partner at Robins Kaplan. Ms. Slaughter shares with us insight into her career as a class action litigator and the noteworthy case against Fiat Chrysler that secured her Minnesota Lawyer’s 2019 Attorney of the Year award and the National Law Journal’s “Elite Women of the Plaintiff’s Bar” award. As Robins Kaplan’s COVID-19 Class Action Litigation Task Force practice lead, Ms. Slaughter describes for us COVID-19’s effect on class action litigation and how her practice is navigating these changing and uncharted times.

A little about Stacey’s background: Stacey has 20 years of experience in complex antitrust, commercial, and financial litigation cases. The cases Ms. Slaughter has litigated have recovered more than $1 billion for victims of anticompetitive conduct, fraud, and negligence. Members of the firm describe Ms. Slaughter as “unflappable,” “committed,” and “nimble”.

I recently sat down with Stacey and we discussed her career:

What drew you to class action litigation?

My first two cases at Robins Kaplan were actually class action defense cases, and the first half of my career in private practice involved litigation defense. I had just finished my federal clerkship with two judges in the District of Minnesota and joined Robins Kaplan. From there, my practice has spanned all types of cases imaginable, from commercial contract disputes between businesses, financial litigation of all kinds, and any cases dealing with fraudulent, unfair, or anticompetitive conduct. In business-to-business disputes, it is sometimes blurry who the plaintiff really is. Rather, it can be a matter of who gets to the courthouse first when the parties fail to resolve their issues. I recall that in several of my cases in representing companies who had been sued, we asserted counterclaims to raise those grievances. Today, I represent parties on both sides of the “v,” including class plaintiffs who have been harmed by negligence, fraud, and unfair conduct.  

How, if at all, has your practice shaped the way you view our world?

I trained under one of the best trial lawyers at Robins Kaplan. Although he was famously known for his plaintiff-side work, companies often hired him for their bet-the-company defense litigation. There is an advantage for inviting a perspective that is not from the standard, defense-side playbook. One of the best pieces of wisdom he gave me about representing companies in defense-side work is this: unfortunate things do happen within companies and organizations, but how the company responds and handles the situation makes all the difference.  

Earlier this year, you received the National Law Journal’s “Elite Women of the Plaintiff’s Bar” award, one of just 11 recipients nationwide. Additionally, Minnesota Lawyer named you as one of their 2019 Attorneys of the Year. Among your many high-profile cases, I imagine the multidistrict litigation against Fiat Chrysler caught the attention of the selection committees for these awards. What aspects, if any, made this litigation unique?

The Fiat Chrysler “dirty diesel” litigation was remarkable in that the attorneys who led the case for the class plaintiffs were able to coordinate with the EPA, the California Air Resource Board, and State AGs to obtain a resolution in the case for the class and those parties involved, all within two years of the MDL assignment to Judge Chen in the Northern District of California. The time sensitivity was all the more important given the nature of the emissions polluting the environment. I also note that Judge Chen was praised for appointing such a diverse leadership group that was comprised of a majority of accomplished women law firm partners leading the litigation.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Robins Kaplan assembled a Task Force and named you as the Class Action Litigation practice lead. As we have seen, this pandemic affects nearly every industry from retail to health care. In your opinion, what industries will see an uptick in class action litigation in the near future, and why?

For the most part, I believe we are all trying to address what is happening the best we can, and we will not be perfect. Reasonable people, including lawyers, recognize that. But I think what we are most concerned about are the bad actors who are going to try to take advantage of the situation, or untenable situations that existed for which this crisis will now shine a light on. The immediate trends I have seen include price gouging cases, which is not industry specific, as well as subscription-based services that continue to charge for goods and services they are not delivering. Other potential cases include false and deceptive claims about the health benefits of products for sale, and data, privacy, and cybersecurity litigation.

The Robins Kaplan COVID-19 Task Force provides the public with legal and business considerations. Of those considerations, consumer class action liability receives special attention from your group. What statements or actions should companies be careful about putting forth regarding COVID-19 so as to avoid consumer class action liability?

Transparency is key. Companies must be clear about what they know and do not know, what they can and cannot do, and what they can and cannot claim. Business units should heed the advice of their inside and outside counsel on these issues, and actually follow that advice. Counsel must give their best advice, even if it will be unpopular.

Courts across the country are closing their doors and restricting operations. Litigators and clients must grapple with these changes as they affect pleadings, motion practice, in-person hearings, and trials. What effect, if any, has this had on your practice thus far, and how do you think this pandemic will affect the legal industry when things return to the status quo?

In the short term, we may see more decisions on the papers without oral argument. Historically, courts have conducted some arguments by telephone, and I think we will see that happen as well. However, my hope is that this will encourage courts and lawyers to consider other potential solutions for audio-visual oral argument by using interactive technology available in the marketplace, especially for non-dispositive motions. In fact, I had an audio-visual court hearing a couple of weeks ago, and have another one at the end of the month.

What steps have you taken to ensure that your clients’ interests continue to be protected and that their cases continue to move toward resolution in light of these impacts on the courts?

Communication is key: communication with clients, with the court, and with other counsel on the case. However, attorneys have always been subject to court scheduling orders, and we will continue to be at the mercy of the schedule that our judges set in cases.

To close on a slightly more personal note, what do you enjoy most about working from home and what tips do you have for our readers for adjusting to this new routine that so many of us are grappling with?

It has been easier to get back into an exercise routine, and work that around getting into the “home” office. I think many of us had worked from home, at least on some occasions, before now. But because we are only working from home now, it’s more important to carve out a space and office hours so that you can physically and mentally separate your work life and personal life. It doesn’t mean that work emergencies won’t arise and you have to work more – just like we did before. It just helps to have a physical space, even if it’s in a corner of the room, that is designated for work.

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