Carrera v. Bayer Corp.

We have repeatedly discussed in this space the ongoing debate among the federal courts about ascertainability—a red-hot topic in class action litigation these days. (For a more detailed look at our views on the ascertainability doctrine, see the amicus brief (pdf) that we filed on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers in support of a pending cert petition.) That topic—and the debate among the lower courts—shows no sign of slowing down, as evidenced by new decisions issued by the Second, Sixth, and Third Circuits over the past two months. The central takeaway from these decisions is that while ascertainability is not a panacea for defendants facing consumer class actions, the doctrine (or variations on the ascertainability theme) should help defeat class actions in many circuits when class members cannot be identified without individualized inquiries.

Continue Reading Making sense of the cascade of appellate decisions on ascertainability

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.

Continue Reading Ninth Circuit rejects meaningful ascertainability requirement for class certification, cementing deep circuit split

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!

Can you have a class action if you can’t figure out who’s in the proposed class? According to many in the plaintiffs’ bar, the answer is “yes.” But as we have discussed in prior blog posts, there is an emerging consensus to the contrary. Most courts agree that plaintiffs in consumer class actions have the burden of proving that members of the putative class can be identified (i.e., that the class is ascertainable). And most of those courts have held that it is not sufficient for plaintiffs to rely upon affidavits by would-be class members who attest that they fall within the class definition.

The Third Circuit adopted both of those principles last fall in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013). As we have reported, that court recently denied en banc review over objections by plaintiffs’ lawyers that taking ascertainability seriously would render many class actions unsustainable.

As it turns out, a growing number of other courts are following Carrera’s lead in holding that classes whose membership cannot be determined flunk the ascertainability requirement and therefore cannot be certified.

For example, in Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (pdf) (S.D. Fla. Mar. 3, 2014), the court refused to certify a putative class of purchasers of weight-loss supplements. The court explained that the plaintiffs had failed to show any objective, administratively feasible method of ascertaining the identities of class members. Class members could not be identified from the defendants’ records because the products were sold to retailers, and defendants therefore had no database of end-user consumers. The plaintiffs could not show that the purchasers could be identified from the records of third-party retailers. And, of course, few if any purchasers would have retained receipts from such purchases years after the fact.

The plaintiffs argued that class members could simply submit affidavits confirming that they bought the supplements at issue during the relevant time period. But the court recognized that this process would be extremely unwieldy, and would inevitably devolve into “a series of mini-trials” over the circumstances of particular purchases that would “defeat the purpose of class action treatment.” And the court added—citing Carrera—that simply exempting the affidavits from individualized challenges would lead to fraudulent claims, which “could dilute the recovery of genuine class members.”

Similarly, a federal court recently decertified a California class action—in part on ascertainability grounds— in In re Pom Wonderful LLC Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation (pdf) (C.D. Cal. Mar. 25, 2014). The plaintiffs alleged that Pom Wonderful had misled a class of California customers with purportedly false or misleading statements in advertising about the “various health benefits” of “certain Pom juice products.” But the court held that class members could not be identified, and therefore that no “ascertainable class exists.” In reaching that conclusion, the court provided some useful guidance on how ascertainability works:

  • “Class actions, and consumer class actions in particular, each fall on a continuum of ascertainability dependent upon the facts of the particular case or product.”
  • “While no single factor is dispositive, relevant considerations include the price of the product, the range of potential or intended uses of a product, and the availability of purchase records.”
  • “In situations where purported class members purchase an inexpensive product for a variety of reasons, and are unlikely to retain receipts or other transaction records, class actions may present such daunting administrative challenges that class treatment is not feasible.”

Applying these principles, the court readily concluded that the proposed class in Pom Wonderful “falls well towards the unascertainable end of the spectrum.” That was so for multiple reasons, including that (i) “millions of consumers paid only a few dollars per bottle”; (ii) “[f]ew, if any consumers, are likely to have retained receipts”; (iii) “[n]o bottle, label, or package included any of the alleged misrepresentations” (as they were all contained in advertising); and (iv) “consumer motivations” for purchasing Pom juice “likely vary greatly, and could include a wide array of sentiments such as ‘I was thirsty,’ ‘I wanted to try something new,’ ‘I like the color,’ ‘It mixes well with other beverages,’ or even, ‘I like the taste,’ or, as Plaintiffs contend, ‘It prevents prostate cancer.’” As a result, “there is no way to reliably determine who purchased [the challenged] products or when they did so.”

(The decision also contains an extensive discussion of why the plaintiffs’ proposed damages models failed to satisfy the predominance requirement under Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.)

Carrera, Karhu, and Pom Wonderful should be helpful for defendants who oppose class certification when the proposed class consists of purchasers of consumer products for which there are no customer lists. In these cases, plaintiffs often have no real plan for satisfying the ascertainability requirement other than by inviting a show of hands—via barebones affidavits—from the (relatively few) individuals who might want a small payout from a potential class fund.

In response, defendants routinely (and appropriately) argue that affidavits are not good enough, because due process entitles them to challenge an individual’s claim that he or she purchased a given product, such as by cross examination at a trial. Recognizing that the right to individualized cross-examination would render a trial unmanageable—making class certification inappropriate—plaintiffs sometimes argue that fraudulent claims can be winnowed out through the use of a claims administrator.

That approach strikes us as improper. To be sure, in class action settlements, the parties often agree that a claims administrator may make judgments to determine whether a claimant truly is a class member who qualifies for benefits and to assess whether any submitted claims are fraudulent. But that agreement reflects one of the compromises of settling a case, in which defendants trade away the right to cross-examine each putative class member in exchange for certainty, finality, and—most significantly—a substantial discount on the potential liability claimed by the plaintiff and his or her counsel.

By contrast, in a litigated case, defendants’ due process rights cannot be so easily jettisoned. In the absence of party agreement, how can it be that the administrative determinations of an outside third party serve as an adequate substitute for a defendant’s right to cross-examine its accusers and for judicial resolution of factual disputes? (We leave to one side whether assessments by claims administrators would be accurate, but commend to our readers an article by Alison Frankel discussing an interesting amicus brief on the subject that was filed in Carrera.)

* * *

In short, when it comes to ascertainability, the list of questions goes on and on. Defendants targeted by consumer class actions where customer lists are not readily available may wish to insist upon answers.

We previously wrote about the Third Circuit’s decision in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., which reversed a district court’s class-certification order because there was no reliable way to ascertain class membership—indeed, no way to identify who was a member of the class aside from a class member’s own say-so. Last week, the full Third Circuit denied (pdf) the plaintiff’s request to rehear the case en banc over the dissent of four judges. The clear message of Carrera is that when plaintiffs file class actions that have no hope of compensating class members for alleged wrongs because the class members can’t be found, courts should refuse to let these actions proceed.

As we discuss below, the denial of rehearing is significant in itself, given the concerted efforts by Carrera and his amici to draw attention to the case. But what might be most significant about this latest set of opinions is what even the dissenting judges did not say.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Rejects Effort At End Run Around The Ascertainability Requirement

While the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts of appeals have in recent years demanded rigorous scrutiny before authorizing certification of class actions, the Supreme Court of Canada has charted a different course. In a trio of recent decisions in antitrust class actions, Canada’s high court rejected key U.S. precedents on the scope and nature of class actions, forcing companies to defend against the same types of allegations under distinctly different legal regimes on each side of the border.

The three cases decided by the Canadian court, which all involved allegations of price-fixing, are:

In each case, plaintiffs had filed a class action in Canada on the heels of a similar class action filed in the United States. The Supreme Court of Canada addressed four issues that have been critical to antitrust class actions on both sides of the border, and deviated in several places from the path charted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Indirect Purchasers May Sue Under Canada’s Antitrust Law

In Pro-Sys, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a defendant is generally precluded from asserting a passing-on defense in an antitrust class proceeding (i.e., the Court largely adopted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Hanover Shoe). But Canada’s court rejected the U.S. Supreme Court’s Illinois Brick rule that bars indirect-purchaser suits under federal antitrust law, and held instead that an indirect purchaser may assert a cause of action under Canada’s Competition Act. In concluding that an indirect-purchaser class action may be certified in the common-law provinces in Canada—i.e., those other than Quebec—the Court echoed Justice Brennan’s dissent in Illinois Brick, concluding that “the same policies of insuring the continued effectiveness of the [antitrust] action and preventing wrongdoers from retaining the spoils of their misdeeds favor allowing indirect purchasers to prove that overcharges were passed on to them.”

The Pro-Sys Court acknowledged the potential risk of double recovery when parallel claims are brought by direct and indirect purchasers, either as part of the same action or in multiple jurisdictions. But the Court noted that “legislation restricts individual recovery for damages for violations to just two years,” making it impractical for potential Canadian indirect plaintiffs to sit on their claims until resolution of an earlier direct purchaser suit. Where multiple suits are brought, a defendant may present evidence of the potential for overlapping recovery to the trial judge, who may modify any damage award accordingly.

In Infineon, the Supreme Court of Canada held that similar principles apply under Quebec’s civil-law regime. Accordingly, indirect-purchaser class actions also may be filed in that province.

Canada Does Not Require Rigorous Analysis Of Class Certification Requirements Prior To Certifying A Class

In Pro-Sys, the Supreme Court of Canada addressed the “rigorous” approach to class certification that the U.S. Supreme Court has reiterated is necessary under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23—most recently in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and Comcast Corp. v. Behrend. The Canadian court rejected the U.S. approach.

To the contrary, the court held that a plaintiff seeking class certification in Canada’s common-law provinces does not need to prove with evidence at the class-certification stage that the class-certification requirements are met, nor does the court need to resolve “conflicting facts and evidence at the certification stage.” Rather, in Canada a would-be class representative need only adduce a “credible” or “plausible” methodology to prove the issues of loss and liability on a class-wide basis.

More specifically, in an antitrust class action, “the methodology must offer a realistic prospect of establishing loss on a class-wide basis so that, if the overcharge is eventually established at the trial of the common issues, there is a means by which to demonstrate that it is common to the class.” The methodology must be “grounded in the facts” and “there must be some evidence of the availability of the data.”

But the Canadian court did not give a completely free pass to plaintiffs at the class-certification stage. Instead, the court suggested, certification remains “a meaningful screening device” (including the requirement that an expert’s methodology offer a “realistic prospect” of establishing class-wide loss).

In Infineon, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the standard for class certification in Quebec is even lower because the evidentiary burden is “less demanding” under the Civil Code. In a total departure from U.S. precedent, a Quebecois plaintiff must present merely an “arguable case that an injury was suffered”—and need not do so by presenting expert testimony. In fact, “presentation of expert evidence is not the norm at the [class-action] authorization stage in Quebec.” (Defense lawyers in Quebec tell us that class-action trials are far more common than they are here; this comparatively loose approach to class certification may explain why.)

Canadian Courts May Exercise Jurisdiction Over Companies Alleged To Be Part Of Foreign-Based Conspiracies.

Another significant aspect of the Canadian high court’s decision in Infineon was the conclusion that Quebec courts could exercise jurisdiction over companies accused of entering into price-fixing arrangements outside of Canada, so long as there is some indication of injury or “economic damage” to a consumer in Quebec.
Similarly, in Sun-Rype, the Court ruled that if plaintiffs adequately allege that defendants conduct business in Canada, make sales in Canada, and conspire to fix prices on products sold in Canada, Canadian courts could adjudicate the claims regardless of where the challenged conduct had taken place. As the Court put it: “The respondents have not demonstrated that it is plain and obvious that Canadian courts have no jurisdiction over the alleged anti-competitive acts committed in this case.”

Some Good News On Ascertainability In Canada?

The Supreme Court of Canada did refuse to approve certification of a class action in one of the three cases. In rejecting class treatment for the indirect-purchaser class action in Sun-Rype, the court focused on the plaintiffs’ failure to establish “some basis in fact” that an identifiable class existed. In particular, the plaintiffs in Sun-Rype did not offer any evidence to show that two or more persons could prove that they purchased a product actually containing high-fructose corn syrup during the class period.

This holding parallels a recent trend in U.S. courts of taking Rule 23’s ascertainability requirement seriously—with the most prominent examples being the Third Circuit’s recent decisions in Hayes and Carrera—decisions we have previously discussed in some detail. That said, it does not appear that the inquiry is as stringent in Canada as it is in Hayes and Carrera; although those U.S. decisions rejected the use of self-identification alone as a means of demonstrating the existence of an identifiable class in those cases, the Canadian Sun-Rype decision may leave that door open.

Potential Implications

While the full impact of these rulings will become apparent only over time—and future litigation—some implications already are clear. As an initial matter, plaintiffs’ lawyers are likely to be emboldened by these rulings. Indirect-purchaser suits are now expressly permitted in Canada. It will be easier to certify class actions in Canada than the U.S. now that the Canadian high court has expressly rejected the type of “rigorous analysis” mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dukes and Comcast. And foreign defendants with no presence in Canada may be required to defend competition class actions in Quebec, and possibly other provinces, that are filed by plaintiffs alleging that they suffered losses in those jurisdictions that were caused by a price-fixing scheme entered into entirely outside Canada.

More generally, these decisions may lead Canada’s class-action system to see more litigation progress further along towards trial as fights that previously took place at the class-certification stage now get pushed down the road to summary judgment or trial. When it comes to class actions—like the Winter Olympics—our neighbor to the north is one to watch.

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.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Rulings Give Teeth to Ascertainability Requirement for Class Certification