We recently noted that the Ninth Circuit had granted a Rule 23(f) petition in Chen v. Allstate Insurance Co.—on the issue whether a named plaintiff can refuse an offer of judgment for full relief and persist in litigating a class action—and was expected to issue a briefing schedule soon. Leaving aside the substance of the case, there is nothing unusual about the practice the Ninth Circuit followed in Chen. That is standard operating procedure virtually everywhere, although in a few rare instances courts of appeals have ordered briefing and argument on both the Rule 23(f) petition and the merits of the class certification ruling. E.g., In re Rail Freight Fuel Surcharge Antitrust Litig. (pdf), 725 F.3d 244 (D.C. Cir. 2013); Tilley v. TJX Cos., 345 F.3d 34, 36 (1st Cir. 2003). See also Lienhart v. Dryvit Sys., Inc., 255 F.3d 138, 141 (4th Cir. 2001) (after hearing argument on the Rule 23(f) papers, the court granted the petition and vacated the class certification order).

The Seventh Circuit is different. Sometimes it will follow grant a Rule 23(f) petition and order briefing on the merits. See, e.g., Abbott v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (pdf), 725 F.3d 803 (7th Cir. 2013); McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, 672 F.3d 482 (7th Cir. 2012); Ross v. RBS Citizens, N.A., 667 F.3d 900 (7th Cir. 2012).

But in many cases it skips the second step: it grants the petition and rules on the merits at the same time, based on only the parties’ Rule 23(f) papers and without oral argument. See, e.g., Hughes v. Kore of Ind. Enters. (pdf), 2013 WL 4805600, at *1 (7th Cir. Sept. 10, 2013); Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 702 F.3d 359 (7th Cir. 2012); Creative Montessori Learning Ctrs. v. Ashford Gear LLC (pdf), 662 F.3d 913, 915 (7th Cir. 2011); CE Design Ltd. v. King Architectural Metals, 637 F.3d 721, 722–23 (7th Cir. 2011); Pella Corp. v. Saltzman, 606 F.3d 391, 393 (7th Cir. 2010); Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 600 F.3d 813 (7th Cir. 2010).

The parties have no way of knowing which procedure the Seventh Circuit will use in any given case—it depends entirely on the discretion of the judges who happen to be on the motions panel when the court considers the Rule 23(f) petition. The parties do not learn which approach the court will follow in a particular case until it issues its decision on the petition.

The Seventh Circuit’s unique approach to handling Rule 23(f) petitions has significant implications for parties filing and responding to Rule 23(f) petitions in that court. Most importantly, the parties should endeavor to make all of their merits arguments in their Rule 23(f) papers, because they may not get another chance. This is often difficult; the petition and response are limited to 20 pages each, and the petitioner will not have a right to file a reply brief (although petitioners occasionally are given leave to file a reply). Moreover, respondents should be wary of following a strategy of not responding to a Rule 23(f) petition, on the theory that the decision below is obviously correct or that responding may make the case seem more worthy of immediate review. In at least two cases where there was no response to a Rule 23(f) petition, the Seventh Circuit has granted the petition and overturned the district court’s ruling, reversing decertification of a class in Hughes—a controversial recent decision by Judge Posner that the plaintiffs’ bar has been citing with regularity—and vacating class certification in Creative Montessori Learning Centers.

At this point, some 15 years after the adoption of Rule 23(f), it seems unlikely that other circuits will opt to embrace the Seventh Circuit’s approach. But in the Seventh Circuit, the practice of granting a Rule 23(f) petition and ruling on the merits simultaneously shows no sign of abating.

One final practitioners’ note: The Seventh Circuit follows a similar practice when it comes to appeals under the Class Action Fairness Act of orders granting or denying remand, so the same caveats apply equally in that context. Examples include Knudsen v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 435 F.3d 755, 758 (7th Cir.2006), and In re Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. (pdf), 585 F.3d 326, 327 (7th Cir. 2009).

 

6SDCD5ARNUKS

The requirement that the named plaintiff must be an adequate class representative is not often the basis for denying class certification. But a recent decision from the Northern District of Illinois in a false-advertising class action illustrates the importance of taking discovery on facts that are relevant to the adequacy standard.

In Lipton v. Chattem, Inc., the district court denied class certification in a case alleging that purchasers of a weight-loss product, Dexatrim, had been deceived because the label did not disclose that its ingredients included hexavalent chromium, which allegedly can cause serious health problems. The court held that the named plaintiff, Tracy Lipton, was not an adequate class representative because her deposition testimony made her subject to a potential defense not applicable to the class as a whole: she admitted that she had not heard of hexavalent chromium at the time of her purchase and that, even if the label had listed hexavalent chromium as an ingredient, she would have bought Dexatrim anyway. These admissions, the court explained, posed a “serious problem” for Lipton’s claims because a jury could easily find that she had not proved materiality and causation (elements of the fraud and statutory consumer-protection claims), reliance (an element of the fraud claim), or a connection between the alleged detriment to her and the alleged benefit to the defendant (a requirement for the unjust-enrichment claim). Those obstacles to proving a claim presumably would not exist for putative class members who knew what hexavalent chromium was or who would not have bought Dexatrim if it had been listed as an ingredient. The court stressed that it did not need to find that a jury would find against Lipton; it held that Rule 23(a)(4)’s adequacy requirement is not satisfied if a jury might find against the plaintiff on grounds not applicable to the class as a whole—the defense need only be “arguable” to defeat class certification on adequacy grounds. The court went on to note that the same potential defenses meant that common issues did not predominate over individual issues and that a class action was not superior to other methods of adjudicating the controversy. In particular, Lipton had not offered “any practicable way” for the court to efficiently resolve key liability issues “without conducting hundreds or thousands of mini-trials”—the same point the Seventh Circuit made with respect to individual damages issues in the Espenscheid case we recently discussed.

Lipton demonstrates why it is essential to question proposed class representatives carefully in depositions; the facts elicited may well reveal that they are subject to individualized defenses that may not apply to some members of the putative class. And sometimes the allegations of the complaint alone will indicate the same thing. In that instance, a defendant can use one of our favorite devices for defeating class certification without discovery—a motion to strike the class allegations. Finally, Lipton and Espenscheid both highlight that defendants faced with potential individualized issues in the case should emphasize the practical difficulties of resolving those issues in a single proceeding; if even one issue cannot be decided without hundreds of mini-trials for each class member, the case should not be certified in the first place.