As readers of our blog know, ascertainability is one of the most contentious issues in class action litigation these days. Ascertainability is the main issue presented in Jones v. ConAgra Foods, No. 14-16327, a pending Ninth Circuit case in which the plaintiff and his amici have mounted a full-scale attack on whether the ascertainability requirement even exists. Along with our colleagues Andy Pincus and Dan Jones, we have filed an amicus brief (pdf) on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States arguing that ascertainability is a critical requirement for class certification, and that due process forbids courts from relaxing that requirement in the name of certifying a class.
As we explain in the brief, the plaintiff in Jones proposed a consumer class whose members will be largely impossible to identify. The putative class consists of California residents who purchased certain Hunt’s canned tomato products bearing particular labels. Who are these people? The answer cannot be found through objective documentation: Consumers typically do not keep receipts or packaging from food products (or other similar products) that likely were purchased or consumed years ago. The plaintiff in Jones says that this hurdle can be overcome by allowing absent class members to file affidavits testifying that they purchased a particular product (presumably based on their recollection). But that testimony and recollection (under the plaintiff’s proposal) would be immune from challenge by the defendant (for example, through cross-examination).
The district court properly held (pdf) that this proposal flunked the ascertainability requirement implicit in Rule 23. On appeal, Jones and his amici (Public Citizen and the Center for Science in the Public Interest) argue that the approach to ascertainability adopted by the district court is a recent invention of the Third Circuit in Carrera v. Bayer Corp. (We’ve discussed Carrera extensively.) They contend that the ascertainability requirement should be either eliminated from the class certification analysis altogether or substantially relaxed in order to clear the runway for consumer class actions.
In our brief, we explain why that view is mistaken. Here are some of the key points from our brief:
- The assumption by the plaintiff and his amici that the ability to certify class actions is to be promoted at every turn is deeply misguided. Class actions are a means of dispute resolution, not an end in themselves. As the Supreme Court recently reiterated in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, class actions are an “exception to the usual rule” that cases are litigated individually, and it is therefore critical that courts apply a “rigorous analysis” to the requirements governing class certification before a lawsuit is approved for class treatment.
- Ascertainability is one of those requirements that, like many other class certification requirements, is rooted in well-established principles of due process. It seems hard to dispute that if the named plaintiff were to sue a company over a particular product on his own, he would have to prove at trial that he purchased the challenged product and that he was injured as a result. As a matter of due process, the defendant would have to be given the opportunity to challenge the plaintiff’s evidentiary showing, including through cross-examination, and to have a court or jury resolve any factual disputes.
- The fact that a plaintiff has chosen to bring a class action cannot alter the due process rights of defendants. A Rule 23 class action is the sum of the individual class members’ claims within it—nothing more. The Supreme Court made this clear in Dukes when it held that a class can’t be certified “on the premise that [the defendant] will not be entitled to litigate its * * * defenses to individual claims.” Interpreting Rule 23 otherwise would violate the Rules Enabling Act, which embodies the due process principle that procedural rules cannot “abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2072(b).
- Ascertainability ensures that due process is honored by preserving defendants’ ability to challenge any would-be class member’s claim of eligibility and right to recovery. Without a reliable and administratively feasible method for identifying who is in a class, defendants will have no way to bring such challenges, short of extensive individualized fact-finding and an unmanageable series of mini-trials.
- Virtually all courts to consider the issue have insisted that plaintiffs demonstrate that a proposed class is ascertainable. And the notion that ascertainability should be relaxed or ignored in order to make consumer class actions easier to bring runs headlong into defendants’ due process rights.
- The policy argument advanced by the plaintiff and his amici that unascertainable class actions of this sort are beneficial cannot be squared with the evidence. In a theme we have explored on this blog, the ordinary justification for class actions—that they offer benefits for class members who would not pursue relief on their own—is simply inapplicable to cases involving class members who can’t be identified; when such class actions are certified, only a handful of class members actually receive benefits.
We will be watching Jones v. ConAgra closely to see whether the Ninth Circuit—which oversees the so-called “Food Court”—continues to ensure that ascertainability is satisfied in class actions. But the Ninth Circuit is not the only circuit that will address the question. This Friday (February 6), the Eleventh Circuit will hear oral argument in Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc., No. 14-11648. (We’ve covered the district court’s decision in Karhu.) In Karhu, plaintiffs argue that class members can be identified through claimant affidavits and retailer records. Like the plaintiffs in Jones, the Karhu plaintiffs argue that Carrera was wrongly decided and should not be followed.
Will either circuit create a split with Carrera and other cases? Stay tuned!