Seventh Circuit Rejects Consumer Fraud Act Class Action

The Seventh Circuit has rejected a national consumer fraud class action. Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 2008 WL 4709500 (7th Cir. October 28, 2008).

As explained in the opinion of Judge Posner, plaintiff bought a Kenmore-brand clothes dryer from Sears Roebuck (Kenmore is a Sears brand name). The words “stainless steel” were imprinted on the dryer, and point of sale advertising explained that this meant that the drum in which the clothes are dried inside the dryer was made of stainless steel. The plaintiff says he thought it meant that the drum was made entirely of stainless steel. The plaintiff alleged that part of the drum rusted and stained the clothes that he dried in his dryer.

He filed a class action suit on behalf of himself and the other purchasers, scattered across 28 states plus the District of Columbia, of the half million or so Kenmore dryers advertised as containing stainless steel drums. He claims that the sale of a dryer so advertised is deceptive unless the drum is made entirely of stainless steel, since if it is not it may rust and cause rust stains on the clothes in the dryer. His individual claim is that the representation violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. Although some members of the huge class are citizens of the states of which Sears is a corporate citizen (New York and Illinois), so that diversity of citizenship is not complete, the suit properly invoked federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act, since the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million. The district court certified the class, but the 7th Circuit reversed.

After noting the potential benefits of a class action, especially where individual damages are small, the court noted that the class action device has its downsides. There is first of all a much greater conflict of interest between the members of the class and the class lawyers than there is between an individual client and his lawyer. The class members are interested in relief for the class, but the lawyers are interested in their fees, and the class members' stakes in the litigation may be too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to make sure that the lawyers will act in their best interests.

A further problem with the class action is the enhanced risk of costly error. When enormous consequences turn on the correct resolution of a complex factual question, the risk of error in having it decided once and for all by one trier of fact rather than letting a consensus emerge from several trials may be undue. Mejdrech v. Met-Coil Systems Corp., 319 F.3d 910, 912 (7th Cir.2003); see also Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 746 (5th Cir.1996); McMillian, “The Nuisance Settlement  Problem,“ 31 Am. J. Trial Advoc. 221, 252-53 (2007); Stempel, “Class Actions and Limited Vision,” 83 Wash. U. L.Q. 1127, 1213-14 (2005). If a company is sued in a number of different cases for selling a defective product, and then it ins some of the cases and loses some, the aggregate outcome may be a fair reflection of the uncertainty of the plaintiffs' claims. But when the central issue in a case is given class treatment and so resolved by a single trier of fact, a trial becomes a roll of the dice; a single throw will determine the outcome of a large number of separate claims-there is no averaging of divergent responses from a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases.

The risk is asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy, for then the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits of the case are slight. In re Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc., 51 F.3d 1293, 1298-99 (7th Cir.1995).

There is still another downside to the class action, and it is the tendency, when the claims in a federal class action are based on state law, to undermine federalism. In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 288 F.3d 1012, 1020-21 (7th Cir.2002); Elizabeth M. v. Montenez, 458 F.3d 779, 788 (8th Cir.2006). Here, the instructions to the jury on the law it is to apply would have to be an amalgam of the consumer protection laws of the 29 jurisdictions, and procedural rules by which particular jurisdictions expand or contract relief will be ignored. The Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, for example, does not authorize class actions.

Judge Posner felt that this case turns out to be a notably weak candidate for class treatment. “Apart from the usual negatives, there are no positives.” Common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchase and purchaser of a “stainless steel” Kenmore dryer. The plaintiff claims to believe that when a dryer is labeled or advertised as having a stainless steel drum, this implies, without more, that the drum is 100 percent stainless steel because otherwise it might rust and cause rust stains in the clothes dried in the dryer. Do the other 500,000 members of the class believe this, asked the court? Does anyone believe this besides Mr. Thorogood? It is not as if Sears advertised the dryers as eliminating a problem of rust stains by having a stainless steel drum. There is no suggestion of that. It is not as if rust stains were a common concern of owners of clothes dryers. There is no suggestion of that either, and it certainly is not common knowledge.

Accordingly, the evaluation of the class members' claims will require individual hearings. Each class member who wants to pursue relief against Sears will have to testify to what he understands to be the meaning of a label or advertisement that identifies a clothes dryer as containing a stainless steel drum. Does he think it means that the drum is 100 percent stainless steel because otherwise his clothes might have rust stains, or does he choose such a dryer because he likes stainless steel for reasons unrelated to rust stains and is indifferent to whether a part of the drum not easily seen is made of a different material? In granting class certification, the district judge said that because “Sears marketed its dryers on a class wide basis ... reliance can be presumed.” Reliance on what? On stainless steel preventing rust stains on clothes? Since rust stains on clothes do not appear to be one of the hazards of clothes dryers, and since Sears did not advertise its stainless steel dryers as preventing such stains, the proposition that the other half million buyers, apart from Thorogood, all shared this understanding of Sears's representations and paid a premium to avoid rust stains is, to put it mildly, implausible, and so would require individual hearings to verify.
 

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