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.
We’ve previously blogged about Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court (“BMS”), in which the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review a decision of the California Supreme Court that adopted an unusual—and extraordinarily expansive—view of California courts’ power to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant.
We filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the California Chamber of Commerce, the American Tort Reform Association, and the Civil Justice Association of California, arguing that the California court’s holding conflicted with numerous Supreme Court decisions making clear that in order to invoke specific jurisdiction, a plaintiff’s claims must arise out of the defendant’s in-state conduct. (The views in this post are ours, and not those of our clients.)
The case was argued in April, and the Court announced its decision today. The result is an 8-1 opinion rejecting the California Supreme Court’s approach and, in our view, recognizing important limits imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause on the ability of courts to adjudicate cases that aggregate the claims of plaintiffs from many jurisdictions.
The immediate impact of the decision is to limit the forums where nationwide mass actions in state court can proceed to those states in which the defendant is subject to general jurisdiction (usually the state of incorporation and principal place of business). In addition, as we discuss below, the decision raises substantial questions about whether nationwide class actions can proceed in jurisdictions where a defendant is not subject to general jurisdiction. Continue Reading Supreme Court’s Decision In Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court Rejects Expansive View Of Specific Jurisdiction
Every first-year law student learns that one of the first questions a defendant must ask is whether the court in which a lawsuit is filed has personal jurisdiction—that is, whether the state or federal court can exercise power over the defendant. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the reach of that power, preventing a court from exercising jurisdiction over a defendant that has no ties to the State in which the court sits.
Applying this limitation, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized two kinds of personal jurisdiction: general and specific. General jurisdiction permits courts to adjudicate claims against a defendant arising out of actions occurring anywhere in the world (subject, of course, to any limits specific to a particular cause of action). It requires that the defendant be considered “at home” in the forum.
Specific jurisdiction, by contrast, empowers a court to adjudicate particular claims relating to a defendant’s conduct within the forum. To be subject to specific jurisdiction, the defendant must have established contacts with the forum, and the lawsuit must arise out of those contacts.
Both of these forms of personal jurisdiction have been examined by the Supreme Court in recent years, but the lower courts remain in disarray over how to apply the Court’s precedents. Likely for that reason, the Court has recently agreed to review two cases addressing both facets of personal jurisdiction.
First, the Court granted certiorari in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, in which (in our view) the Montana courts failed to honor Supreme Court precedent establishing limits on general jurisdiction. Second, the Court granted review in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, in which the California courts similarly flouted the limits on specific jurisdiction by allowing out-of-state plaintiffs to sue in California for claims that have nothing to do with the state. Defendants who face class and mass actions should follow both cases closely, and both will be important barometers for whether the Court is committed to maintaining strict limits on the scope of personal jurisdiction. (We filed an amicus brief (pdf) for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Bristol-Myers Squibb explaining the disarray in the lower courts and why that case in particular warranted Supreme Court review.)
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.
Rule 23 may be in for some major changes. The Advisory Committee has commissioned a Rule 23 subcommittee to investigate possible revisions to the class action rules. That subcommittee issued a report (pdf) discussing its progress, and recently has been conducting a “listening tour” of sorts regarding potential rule changes.
Our initial view is that the business community should have serious concerns about the approach that at least some members of the subcommittee appear to be taking, as several proposals are aimed at rolling back judicial decisions—including Supreme Court decisions—that are critical to ensuring that class actions satisfy the requirements of due process.
Here are ten things you need to know from the subcommittee’s report.
The first bill signed by Oregon Governor Kate Brown—H.B. 2700 (pdf)—changes the rules for handling payment of damages awards in class actions in Oregon state courts. Effective immediately, including for pending actions, the new law attempts to redirect unclaimed damages under class-action settlements or judgments to the state bar’s legal aid program and to charities picked by the judge presiding over each case. In other words, Oregon has effectively mandated cy pres in every class action. (We’ve repeatedly covered—and criticized—the use of cy pres awards in class actions.)
Among other things, the new law amends Oregon Rule of Civil Procedure 32, which governs class actions in state court, to add a new subsection addressing the payment of damages in accordance with “the settlement or judgment in a class action.” The court is authorized to approve a “process” for making payments that “may include the use of claim forms.” But “any amount awarded as damages” that the court finds either hasn’t been timely claimed by class members or simply “is not practicable” to pay to class members must be distributed in the following fashion:
- “At least 50 percent of the amount not paid to class members” must be given “to the Oregon State Bar for the funding of legal services provided through the Legal Services Program.”
- “The remainder of the amount not paid to class members” must be given to “any entity” chosen by the court “for purposes” that are “directly related to the class action or directly beneficial to the interests of class members.”
Before enactment of this law, damages in class actions that could not be paid to class members either reverted to the defendant or—in the context of some class-action settlements—were given to a charity picked by the parties and approved by the court.
Proponents of cy pres awards often contend that class members who can’t be paid their damages are better served by a donation to a charity whose mission is related in some fashion to the goals of the class-action lawsuit. Proponents also contend that forcing defendants to pay the full amount of damages they theoretically would owe if liability were established as to all class members—and then all class members actually claimed payments—would better deter future wrongdoing.
More cynical observers of class actions note that cy pres awards are often used by class counsel to puff up the amount of money purportedly recovered in the case in order to justify a higher fee award. Sometimes the recipient of cy pres largesse is picked simply to curry favor with a judge being asked to approve the settlement—for example, a donation to the law school clinic at the judge’s alma mater. And in every case, the use of cy pres eliminates the incentive for class counsel to ensure that class members—the ostensibly injured parties—get the individualized compensation they have been awarded. And while some federal courts have begun to pay closer attention to whether class members actually recover under class settlements, this law encourages Oregon state court judges to ignore that question.
Even worse, the potential of a cy pres award sometimes is used to justify the certification of particularly dubious class actions. For example, take a putative class whose members can’t be identified. Class certification should be denied because the class isn’t ascertainable. But if cy pres were mandatory, the would-be class counsel can always say “so what—let’s just figure out the defendant’s aggregate liability, pay the handful of class members we can identify, and then give the rest away in cy pres in order to punish the defendant.” And never mind, of course, that this procedure would deprive the defendant of the right to cross-examine absent class members or assert individualized defenses. Indeed, there are strong arguments that the use of cy pres—particularly in a litigated case where the defendant has not agreed to it—is unconstitutional (pdf).
Chief Justice Roberts has said that the U.S. Supreme Court might be interested in hearing a case that presents appropriate questions about the use of cy pres awards in class-action settlements in federal court. Of course, if the case arises in federal court, those questions might be framed in terms of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e), which tasks federal judges with assessing the fairness of class settlements. If the case arises from the Oregon courts—which may be a possibility thanks to H.B. 2700—more fundamental questions of due process would be raised, with potentially much larger ramifications for class-action litigation.
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!
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.
In Duran v. U.S. Bank N.A. (pdf), the California Supreme Court recently addressed an important question in the context of state-court class actions: Can plaintiffs invoke statistical sampling in an attempt to prove class-wide liability and overcome the presence of individual questions that ordinarily would defeat class certification?
The court’s answer to that question is a mixed bag for business. The court firmly rejected the haphazard approach to sampling used by the trial court in the lawsuit against U.S. Bank. But the court left open the troubling possibility that sampling might be used in support of class certification in the future. Continue Reading California Supreme Court Rejects Exceptionally Poor Sampling Method, But Leaves Open Many Questions About Sampling And Class Certification
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.)
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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.