Can you have a class action if class members can’t reliably be found? That question is at the heart of the debate over ascertainability—one that has divided the federal courts. Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit weighed in, holding in Briseno v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. (pdf) that plaintiffs need not demonstrate “an administratively feasible way to identify class members [as] a prerequisite to class certification.”

That conclusion is disappointing.


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iStock_000027020861_DoubleWe’ve often argued that when the principal rationale for approving a low-value class settlement is that the claims are weak, that is a signal that the case should not have been filed as a class action in the first place. The Second Circuit recently reached that exact conclusion when considering a proposed class settlement in a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) case, holding that the putative class couldn’t be certified and that the FDCPA claims should be dismissed.

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The “ascertainability” requirement for class certification is a crucial safeguard for both defendants and absent class members. There is some debate about its origin: some courts have held that it is implicit in Rule 23 that class members must be readily identifiable; others find ascertainability to be rooted in Rule 23(a)(1)’s numerosity mandate or Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that a class action be superior to other methods for resolving the controversy. Either way, courts agree that a class is ascertainable only if the class definition is sufficiently definite to make it administratively feasible for the court to determine by reference to objective criteria whether a particular person is a member of the putative class.

In two recent opinions—Hayes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (pdf), 2013 WL 3957757 (3d Cir. Aug. 2, 2013), and Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 2013 WL 4437225 (3d Cir. Aug. 21, 2013)—the Third Circuit vacated class certification orders because the plaintiffs hadn’t met their burden of proving that class members were ascertainable. These decisions are a goldmine for class action defendants: They provide great examples of the ascertainability requirement in action.


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Congress and state legislatures have enacted many statutes that provide for minimum statutory damages recoveries that are far in excess of the actual damages most individuals will suffer. A prominent example is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which offers $500 per violation of the statute, trebled to $1500 for willful violations. The idea is

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which regulates the conduct of debt collectors, authorizes plaintiffs suing over violations to recover statutory damages of up to $1,000. Because these amounts can rapidly add up to exorbitant numbers in a class action for very minor, technical violations, Congress capped the total amount of statutory damages that

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,

The Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Espenscheid v. DirectSat USA, LLCauthored by Judge Posner—is full of good news for employers and other class-action defendants.

The case is a hybrid collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (pdf) and opt-out Rule 23(b)(3) class action asserting state-law wage-and-hour claims. The plaintiffs—a group of home

The answer is a resounding “no,” says Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California in a recent significant decision in litigation over the third generation Toyota Prius and 2010 Lexus HS250h vehicles (In re Toyota Motor Corp. Hybrid Brake Mktg., Sales Practices & Prods. Liab. Litig. (pdf), No. SAML 10-2172-CJC (C.D. Cal.

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court will hear argument in United States v. Bormes, a case that apparently has not captured the attention of most class action practitioners. That’s understandable: The question presented (pdf) is “whether the Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2), waives the sovereign immunity of the United States with respect to damages actions for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.” But the impetus for the federal government’s request for immunity—the enormous liability generated by aggregating statutory damages in a FCRA class action—is one that routinely affects businesses targeted by similar class actions. Businesses therefore should stay tuned to see what, if anything, the Court might say about the concerns that result from piling up large amounts of potential statutory damages in class actions.
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The Second Circuit’s recent decision in Hecht v. United Collection Bureau, Inc., No. 11-1327 (2d Cir. Aug. 17, 2012), should sound alarm bells for any business that attempts to settle a class action.  The takeaway from the decision is to make sure that  notice of the settlement to absent class members is adequate. Under some circumstances, a single notice in the USA Today won’t cut it. And if it doesn’t, the release in the settlement won’t be worth the paper it’s printed on, and other plaintiffs will be free to bring the exact same class action against you.
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