Today, Mayer Brown filed a pair of certiorari petitions that challenge efforts by two federal appellate courts to narrow the Supreme Court’s recent class-action decisions in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes to tickets good for a single ride only. The Supreme Court previously remanded both cases for reconsideration after Comcast, but both courts of appeals reinstated their decisions. The certiorari petitions explain why those decisions are wrong: both putative class actions are beset by individual liability and damages questions and are filled with uninjured class members.
In one case, Sears, Roebuck and Co. v. Butler (pdf), Sears challenges a Seventh Circuit decision allowing class actions to proceed based upon an allegation that Kenmore-brand front-loading clothes washers have a design defect that causes musty odors and a manufacturing defect that produces false error codes. In an opinion by Judge Posner, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the supposed efficiency of a class trial on the supposedly common “defect” issue justified class certification, even though only a small minority of class members experienced musty odors or false error codes, the suit raises numerous individual questions, claims are brought under the laws of six different states, and the supposedly common question would not yield common answers.
In the other case, Whirlpool Corporation v. Glazer (pdf), Whirlpool challenges a Sixth Circuit decision allowing a class action on behalf of Ohio residents based on allegations that Whirlpool front-loading clothes washers have a design defect that can cause moldy odors and that Whirlpool did not adequately warn buyers about the defect. The Sixth Circuit swept aside the many individual liability questions—including whether a class member was among the small percentage who experienced any moldy odors—by using a “premium price theory” never recognized by Ohio law that assumes that every purchaser paid a uniform overcharge regardless of the purchaser’s actual experience with the washer. One point is especially worthy of note: Even though the Supreme Court had vacated and remanded the original Sixth Circuit decision in light of Comcast, the Sixth Circuit’s opinion on remand focused far more heavily on a different Supreme Court precedent, Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, from the securities class action context.
These cases are of obvious importance to the growing number of suits seeking to litigate supposed product defects on behalf of all purchasers when the alleged defects have only manifested in a relative handful of products owned by a small fraction of putative class members. More broadly, the cases present the Supreme Court with an opportunity to clarify the confusion wrought by the Sixth and Seventh Circuit’s decisions over how to properly apply Comcast, Wal-Mart, and the Court’s other class-action decisions.