Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), a court may certify a suit for damages as a class action when “there are questions of law or fact common to the class” that “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” Similar certification standards apply when a plaintiff seeks to certify a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Yesterday, in its highly anticipated decision in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo (pdf), the Supreme Court affirmed the certification of an FLSA collective action where the evidence tying class members together was a study of a representative sample of similarly situated workers.
The Eighth Circuit recently issued a decision reversing class certification for lack of commonality.
In Smith v. ConocoPhillips Pipe Line Co., the Eighth Circuit considered a class action proceeding on a nuisance theory against the owner of a pipeline. The plaintiffs, who owned property near the pipeline and were suing on behalf of a class of landowners, contended that the pipeline was a nuisance because they feared environmental contamination. After the district court certified the class, the Eighth Circuit granted a petition for review and reversed.
The Eighth Circuit explained that without evidence of contamination, “the putative class fear of contamination … is not a sufficient injury to support a claim for common law nuisance….” And the plaintiff landowners could not bridge the gap by pointing to evidence that other landowners allegedly had experienced actual contamination. The putative class, the court explained, had not experienced the requisite common interest.
Today, the Supreme Court granted review in what may be a major decision on the standards for class certification, Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146.
There seem to be two prevailing conceptions of class actions. In one view, a class action is a way of determining many similar claims at once by evaluating common evidence that reliably establishes liability (and lays a ground work for efficiently calculating damages) for each class member. That is, the class device produces the same results as individual actions would, but more efficiently. In the other view—one we consider misguided—a “class” of plaintiffs complaining about similar conduct can have their claims determined through statistical sampling even if no common evidence will provide a common answer to common factual or legal questions. Instead, this theory holds, the results of mini-trials can simply be extrapolated to the entire class, even if individual results would vary widely.
Last week, the Ninth Circuit took a step deeper into the second camp in Jimenez v. Allstate Insurance Co. (pdf), delivering a ringing endorsement of statistical sampling as a way to establish liability as well as damages.
Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s in a class without substantial individualized inquiries. Can a court certify a class of persons with allegedly similar injuries by pigeonholing the question of class membership as a question of damages to be determined later? Not so fast, the Fourth Circuit held in EQT Production Co. v. Adair (pdf). A class that is not ascertainable ex ante is not a class at all.
And the Fourth Circuit also decided another question that has led to different answers from different courts. When the rule of law proposed by plaintiffs would permit a controlling question to be answered in common for the class, but the competing rule proposed by defendants would require individualized inquiries, can the trial court treat the dispute of law as itself a common question supporting class certification? On this point, the Fourth Circuit held that the court must first determine the correct rule and then decide whether it is susceptible to a common answer. In a recent post, we described a California Court of Appeal decision taking the contrary view; the California Supreme Court has since denied review. (We submitted an amicus letter (pdf) on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supporting the petition.)
Finally, the Fourth Circuit outlined a qualitative rather than a quantitative, issue-counting approach to predominance. Under this approach, it is not how many circumstances are common among class members, but whether the common circumstances or other, individualized ones will be more significant in determining class members’ entitlement to relief.
EQT arises from a series of disputes about who was entitled to royalties for coal-based methane, a coal byproduct that is an energy source in its own right; wells are drilled to extract methane gas. The owners of surface rights to real property often sever coal mining rights (the “coal estate”) from subsurface gas rights (the “gas estate”). The disputes in EQT focus on who owns the rights to coal-based methane when the owner of the gas estate and the owner of the coal estate for a particular tract differ. The plaintiffs are gas estate owners who assert that they are entitled to royalties for coal-based methane.
The district court certified five classes. Four consist of current and former gas estate owners who were never paid coal-based methane royalties; the members of the fifth class assert that they were underpaid. The Fourth Circuit reversed all five certifications.
First, the court of appeals held that you can’t certify a class if you can’t tell who is in it. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court had not properly considered whether identifying class members “would render class proceedings too onerous” in light of a variety of “heirship, intestacy, and title-defect issues” affecting many potential class members’ claims. The Fourth Circuit understood ascertainability to require a way to “readily identify the class members in reference to objective criteria”—which means something less individualized than tract-by-tract ownership analyses.
Plaintiffs often like to recharacterize the deficiencies in a class definition as pertaining only to damages calculations—and that’s what the EQT plaintiffs did to get around their inability to determine who was in the class and who was out. Plaintiffs contended that it would not be necessary to resolve the individualized ownership issues until the damages phase, but the court of appeals disagreed: “The fact that verifying ownership will be necessary for the class members to receive royalties does not mean it is not also a prerequisite to identifying the class.”
Second, the court held that a dispute over the dispositive rule of law is not automatically a common issue if one competing rule could be resolved only upon individualized inquiries. In certifying the four classes who had never been paid royalties, the district court found that the overriding common issue was a dispute over whether Virginia law entitled the owners of the gas estate to coal-bed methane royalties. One legal rule would entitle all gas-estate owners to those royalties; the other would make the answer hinge on particular deed language. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court should have resolved the question, and went ahead to hold that deed language was paramount. The court of appeals left open the possibility of subclasses organized around deeds for which the relevant language was materially similar.
Finally, the Fourth Circuit rejected the finding of predominance for the class of owners claiming underpayment. On that issue, the district court had pointed to a large number of uniform practices by the defendants that were relevant to the royalty calculation. The Fourth Circuit rejected this quantitative approach because the dispositive questions again hinged on the specific contract language, again recognizing that subclasses perhaps could be constructed around materially similar terms.
EQT provides some welcome structure and discipline to class certification analysis. Let’s hope that other courts of appeals will provide similar guidance.
Suppose that you’re a trial court considering a motion for class certification. And suppose that the parties present you with two competing statutory interpretations. One legal standard permits the case to be adjudicated with common evidence. And the other standard would require individualized inquiries. What should you do? Should you decide what the law is and then see whether the putative class claims can be tried in a single trial?
The surprising answer of the California Court of Appeal is in Hall v. Rite Aid Corp. (pdf) is “No.” Hall appears to conclude that commonality and predominance need not be established under the correct substantive legal standards. Rather, if the plaintiffs propose a legal standard dispensing with individualized inquiries, the very question whether that standard applies is a common issue supporting class certification.
Hall is another decision in a growing series of “suitable seating” cases addressing a California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order that requires employers to provide employees with “suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” The plaintiffs in Hall—cashier-clerks who divided their time between check-out counters, stockrooms, and sales floors—construed the Order to require seats to be provided to every employee for every task where providing seats would be reasonable. In particular, the plaintiffs contended that Rite Aid had a duty to provide a seat to any employee who worked at a check-out counter for any period of time, even if for much of that time the employee would not be able to perform the job while sitting. Rite Aid, in contrast, contended that the duty to provide a seat depended on the employee’s duties as a whole, so that the Order would not require providing a seat to an employee working at a check-out counter if the employee worked mostly at tasks where seating was inappropriate, or if check-out duties would not allow the employee to sit most of the time. Thus, under plaintiffs’ legal theory, any failure to have a seat at a check-out counter was a violation requiring no further inquiry, while under Rite Aid’s theory such a failure would violate an employee’s rights only under certain, largely individualized circumstances.
Agreeing with Rite Aid’s view of the substantive law, the trial court decertified a class. The San Diego-based Court of Appeal reversed. In its view, the disputed legal elements of the plaintiffs’ claim were themselves common legal issues supporting class certification. According to that court, deciding exactly what the law required the plaintiff had to prove in common was an impermissible predetermination of the action’s merits, and thus fell afoul of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court.
True, Brinker had disapproved a “free-floating inquiry into the validity of the complaint’s allegations” at the class certification stage. Yet the California Supreme Court also recognized that when “legal issues germane to the certification inquiry bear as well on aspects of the merits, a court may properly evaluate them”; indeed, [t]o the extent the propriety of certification depends on disputed threshold factual or legal questions, a court may, and indeed must, resolve them.”
It seems to me that, when one interpretation of a Wage Order would require resolution of myriad individualized issues, and the other interpretation would permit the same issues to be resolved in common, the “propriety of certification” under Brinker would depend on the correct legal standard. Not so, according to the Hall court, which viewed the very dispute over the legal standard as a common issue supporting class certification.
The Hall opinion would seem to allow a plaintiff to obtain class certification simply by advancing a theory of liability that omits inherently individualized elements such as causation and injury, on the ground that the validity of the plainly erroneous legal theory could be determined on a class-wide basis. And the Hall approach raises significant unanswered questions. The opinion suggests that defendants—especially employers whose policies are challenged—should want threshold legal questions to be decided after class certification so that the entire class is bound by the result. But if class counsel is wrong about the legal theory, and in fact the legality of the employer’s policy depends on individual circumstances, does the entire class lose because the class plaintiff’s overbroad theory fails, even though some or even many class members would have valid claims under the proper, more individualized standard? That might create adequacy and due process problems, elevating the interests of the class-action lawyers over those of their clients. But if determination of the legal issue on a class basis instead simply results in decertification of the class, allowing new actions under the correct theory, then it makes no sense to defer the decision as to what, exactly, plaintiffs must prove through common evidence.
The issue surfaced indirectly in the California Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in Duran v. US Bank NA (pdf), which we recently discussed. Duran rejected the use of questionable statistical sampling that swept away individualized issues and defenses in a wage-and-hour class action. The Court’s evaluation of the class-certification and trial-management issues hinged on a view of the governing law under which an employee’s exempt status under the overtime laws hinged on whether the employee actually spent more than half-time carrying out duties that were exempt (there, sales outside the employer’s facility). Justice Liu’s concurring opinion suggested a possible legal test—different from the Court’s view—that would turn on the employer’s reasonable expectations about the balance of exempt or nonexempt activity within a particular job classification, not on the employees’ actual work practices. If that test correctly stated the obligation, Justice Liu suggested, the application of the exemption could be determined as a common issue without the need for statistical sampling. Hall raises the troubling possibility that a litigant could seek to avoid individualized issues by restating the governing legal test along the lines of Justice Liu’s concurrence in Duran, and then claim that the choice between Justice Liu’s formulation and the formulation adopted in the Court’s opinion itself was a common issue of law. In my view, such an approach would be inconsistent with Duran and Brinker.
At its conference on January 10, the Supreme Court can get serious about fixing consumer class actions. The Justices should take up that challenge, because it will consider two certiorari petitions that seek review of class certifications—involving alleged “moldy odors” in high-tech front loading washing machines—that are prime examples of what has gone wrong with the lower federal courts’ application of Rule 23. We’re somewhat biased: along with our partner Steve Shapiro and our co-counsel at Wheeler Trigg, we represent the petitioners in Whirlpool Corporation v. Glazer, No. 13-431, and Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, No. 13-430; copies of our cert petitions are available here, and our reply is available here (pdf).
But we and our clients are by no means alone in thinking that these cases present excellent vehicles for the Justices to bring more rigor and fairness to the application of Rule 23(a) and (b)(3). A bevy of amici has filed briefs in support of certiorari, explaining to the Court why the technology industry, appliance and other manufacturers, retailers, and U.S. businesses in general need the Court to intervene. Commentators too have seen in these cases the chance for the Supreme Court to clean up the class action mess. See, for example:
- this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Governor John Engler, President of the Business Roundtable (subscription required);
- this editorial in the Washington Examiner;
- this article in the New York Law Journal by Michael Hoenig (subscription required); and
- this piece by Desmond Hogan and Erica Songer in InsideCounsel.
In Whirlpool, plaintiffs allege that Whirlpool front-loading washing machines have a design defect that makes it possible for the machines to produce moldy odors. In Sears, the plaintiffs allege that Kenmore-brand washers made by Whirlpool have the same design defect and that some also have a manufacturing defect that on occasion may produce a false error code. In both cases, the alleged odor and error-code issues have manifested for only a tiny portion of purchasers—less than five percent according to Whirlpool and Sears service records and independent surveys by Consumer Reports. Yet the Sixth Circuit in Whirlpool approved certification of a class of all Ohio residents who bought 21 differently designed washing machine models. And the Seventh Circuit did the same in Sears for a class of buyers of 27 different models in six different States, the relevant laws of which vary. Over the course of the class period not only did the design of the machines change, but so did the instructions given to consumers to protect against any moldy odors. Individual owners used their machines differently, cared for them differently, and operated them in varied conditions.
As we explain in our briefs, both courts of appeals ignored a raft of individualized issues that make it impossible for plaintiffs to satisfy the class-certification requirement that common issues predominate over individual ones. Only class-member-specific inquiries could determine the crucial questions of whether any particular buyer experienced the alleged issues with moldy odors or error codes at all, whether the alleged defect or other factors caused any such issues, whether the buyer followed care and use instructions, whether problems manifested during the warranty period, whether the buyer requested and received adequate warranty service, and whether any damages resulted from any alleged defect (among other questions). And the fact that the certified classes are filled with uninjured buyers fatally undermines constitutional standing to litigate the class claims and threatens to unfairly dilute the rights of the few class members who may actually have injuries.
The harms caused by the decisions of the Sixth and Seventh Circuits are not limited to the violence those decisions have done to Rule 23’s requirements. Indeed, the adverse social and economic consequences of certification of these sorts of cases cannot be overstated. The introduction of front-loading washers reflected years of innovation to improve water- and electrical-efficiency in response to regulatory mandates. Independent testing shows that front-loading washers perform very well both on those measures and on cleaning capability. Yet every manufacturer of front-loading washers is now the subject of class actions across the Nation.
Massive class action litigation of this sort is immensely costly. Those costs end up being absorbed by consumers. Class suits over products that for the vast majority of owners perform as advertised undermine the generous warranty programs that manufacturers and retailers offer to quickly address problems actually experienced by individual customers. And they deter innovation. Any manufacturer must think twice before creating an innovative product when the reward is an onslaught of class litigation. What technologically advanced new product does not have glitches or sporadic issues? That is what warranty programs are designed for—to keep customers happy and coming back despite the likelihood of teething troubles in advanced, innovative products that make all our lives better.
Of course, the Supreme Court has tried before to bring more rigor to Rule 23 analysis—but many lower federal courts have ignored the message. Take the Sears case, in which the Seventh Circuit thumbed its nose at a litany of Supreme Court precedents. After the Supreme Court GVR’d the Seventh Circuit’s initial certification decision in light of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, Judge Posner seemed perplexed about why his ruling had been vacated. Despite the GVR, he concluded that there was “no possibility” that the holding in Comcast could apply. And although the Supreme Court in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes ruled that “common answers,” not “common questions,” are the key to satisfying the Rule 23(a) commonalty requirement, Judge Posner wrote that asking for “common answers” would place too “heavy” a burden on plaintiffs to justify certification. And why the stretch to certify? Because, in his view, individual claims would be too “meager” to make “suing worthwhile.” But that “ends-justifies-the-means” rationale for class actions runs counter to the Supreme Court’s repeated teachings that substantive law cannot be modified to pave the way for employing the class device.
What explains this flouting of precedent? The Seventh Circuit’s realpolitik approach recognizes that once cases are certified they tend to “quickly settl[e]” without any adjudication of the merits and using some mechanical “schedule of damages”—a result the Seventh Circuit deemed “efficient” (never mind that the Supreme Court repeatedly has identified blackmail settlements as a problem, not a solution). Indeed, the Court has again and again admonished that “[t]he class action is ‘an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only’”—as the Court said in both Dukes and Comcast. For that reason, Court said just last Term in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant that Rule 23’s stringent requirements should “in practice exclude most claims” from class treatment; but federal trial and appeals courts still treat those requirements as authorizing class certification of “most claims.” So long as that departure from precedent continues, class actions will effectively impose a tax on every American, with the only beneficiaries being the plaintiffs’ bar, as a recent empirical study our colleagues conducted documents. Granting certiorari and reversing certification in the washer cases would go a long way indeed to putting the class action device back on track.
Here’s the situation: You’re facing a class action in federal court in which the plaintiffs define the putative class so broadly as to encompass many people who weren’t injured by the alleged wrongdoing. For example, consider a false-advertising class action on behalf of “all purchasers” of a product that the vast majority of purchasers would have used without any problem whatsoever, meaning that the alleged rarely occurring (or entirely hypothetical) defect that the defendant failed to disclose makes no difference to them. What’s the best way to attack this weakness in the complaint?
One option would be to characterize the problem as a lack of Article III standing. Article III allows courts to hear a case only if the plaintiff has suffered an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and that could be redressed by a favorable decision from the court. In our hypo, the defendant could move to strike the class allegations on the ground that virtually all of the alleged class members lack standing.
This approach, however, has potential pitfalls. For example, some courts have held that Article III requires merely that the named plaintiffs have standing, a rule that (as plaintiffs argue with some success) allows a class action to go forward even though the putative class includes people who themselves lack standing and thus could not bring their own individual actions. See, e.g., Stearns v. Ticketmaster Corp., 655 F.3d 1013, 1021 (9th Cir. 2011). But see, e.g., Avritt v. Reliastar Life Ins. Co., 615 F.3d 1023, 1034 (8th Cir. 2010); Denney v. Deutsche Bank AG, 443 F.3d 253, 263-64 (2d Cir. 2006). In the wrong jurisdiction, the court will simply deny the motion to strike as foreclosed by circuit precedent.
To avoid this difficulty, the defendant can move to strike the class allegations, using the fact that most class members are uninjured to challenge commonality, typicality, adequacy, and predominance. Of course, because courts are divided over the standing issue, that issue is ripe for eventual Supreme Court review. Defendants therefore should consider raising the standing defect in the alternative in order to preserve the issue (though insofar as standing is jurisdictional, it should be possible to raise it at any time even if it has not been raised before).
But what if the named plaintiffs themselves appear to be uninjured because they didn’t experience the alleged product defect either? The defendant could challenge their standing in a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. But there is a risk to doing so. Some federal courts believe that the proper course when the named plaintiffs lack standing is to remand the case to state court, where laxer concepts of standing, more lenient class-certification standards, and antipathy toward out-of-state businesses may hamstring the defendant’s ability to defend itself. To make matters worse, the Tenth Circuit recently held that a district court decision remanding a class action to state court for lack of “standing” is non-reviewable under 28 U.S.C. § 1447(d). See Hill v. Vanderbilt Capital Advisors LLC (pdf), No. 11-2213 (10th Cir. Dec. 27, 2012). Accordingly, unless there is clear Circuit precedent indicating that the district court should not remand in this situation or the state court to which the case would be remanded is not hostile to business defendants, companies confronted with such a dilemma may be better served challenging the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims rather than their standing to assert them.
We’ve been blogging about the Second Circuit’s decision in NECA-IBEW Health & Welfare Fund v. Goldman Sachs (pdf), which held that a named plaintiff in a securities fraud suit might have standing in some situations to assert class action claims regarding securities that he or she never purchased. Yesterday, the Supreme Court denied (pdf) Goldman’s petition for certiorari (pdf) in that case. We’ll continue reporting on the aftermath of the Second Circuit’s decision.
In the meantime, defendants facing these sorts of claims should remember that the Second Circuit’s novel standing test requires that the claims regarding the unpurchased securities raise the same set of concerns as the claims regarding the securities that the named plaintiff actually bought. That limitation should help trim the sails of expansive securities fraud class actions.
In addition, defendants should emphasize that the fact that a named plaintiff may have standing to sue does not mean that he or she can represent a class of purchasers of securities that the named plaintiff never bought. At class certification, the defendant may be able to mount challenges to commonality, typicality, adequacy, and predominance based on the fact that the named plaintiff never bought some of the securities at issue.
I previously blogged about the Second Circuit’s troubling decision in NECA-IBEW Health & Welfare Fund v. Goldman Sachs & Co. (pdf), 693 F.3d 145 (2d Cir. 2012), which invented a “class standing” doctrine allowing a named plaintiff in a class action to assert Securities Act claims regarding securities that he or she never purchased. In the wake of that decision, plaintiffs have filed a flurry of motions to reconsider district court decisions that had dismissed claims like these for lack of standing.
So far, a few courts have granted those motions and revived some or all of the previously dismissed claims. E.g., New Jersey Carpenters Health Fund v. DLJ Mortg. Capital, Inc. (pdf), 2013 WL 357615 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 23, 2013). But other courts have declined to do so, preferring to wait for a decision on the pending certiorari petition in NECA.
Defendants facing such reconsideration motions should consider asking for a similar delay and preserve the argument that NECA is wrongly decided. There is little point litigating those claims in earnest until we know whether NECA’s novel class-standing rule will be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Alternatively, defendants could oppose reconsideration on the ground that the claims regarding the unpurchased securities don’t truly raise the same set of concerns as the claims regarding the purchased securities, as required by the Second Circuit’s new standing test. Indeed, in the New Jersey Carpenters case, the defendant was able to limit the reinstated claims by pointing to differences among the mortgage originators whose underwriting standards were allegedly misstated in the offering materials at issue.
Finally, if litigation of these revived claims re-commences, defendants should emphasize that NECA announced a mere standing rule—it did not decide that a named plaintiff who has bought security X can represent a class of purchasers of securities Y and Z. There likely will be ample fodder for challenging commonality, typicality, adequacy, and predominance at the class-certification stage.