Two Consumer Fraud Class Actions Offer Contrast

Two recent consumer fraud class actions offer contrasting lessons.  First, the federal court declined to certify a class of Ford Motor Co. truck owners who alleged the vehicles are prone to a shimmying problem. Lewis v. Ford Motor Co., 2009 WL 2750352 (W.D. Pa. 8/25/09).

According to Plaintiffs, their vehicles were subject to front-end suspension defects which caused severe oscillation under ordinary driving conditions and allegedly created a safety hazard for the drivers of the vehicles as well as other motorists. Pennsylvania residents Timothy Lewis and Timothy Trapuzzano sued Ford on behalf of a statewide class of owners of 2005–2007 model year F-250 and F-350 trucks.  Plaintiffs moved seeking class certification as to Count III of their Complaint, the alleged violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.  The court noted that the 3rd Circuit has recently re-evaluated the standard of review to be applied by a district court in considering a motion for class certification. First, the district court must consider carefully all relevant evidence and make a definitive determination that the requirements of Rule 23 have been met before certifying a class;  that is, it is no longer sufficient for a party to assure the court that it intends or plans to meet the requirements. Second, the decision to certify a class requires rigorous consideration of all the evidence and argu-ments offered by the parties.  This may require the court to resolve all factual or legal disputes relevant to class certification, even if they overlap with the merits -- including disputes touching on elements of the cause of action.  Finally, weighing conflicting expert testimony at the certification stage is not only permissible; it may be integral to the rigorous analysis Rule 23 demands. In other words, to certify a class the district court must find that the evidence more likely than not establishes each fact necessary to meet the requirements of Rule 23. In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305, 310 (3d Cir.2008.)

Originally, plaintiffs alleged the defendant failed to comply with the terms of a written guarantee or warranty given to the buyer at, prior to or after a contract for the purchase of goods or services.  But at the motion stage, instead, plaintiffs relied on the so-called “catch-all” provision, which broadl includes “unfair methods of competition” or “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” to include “engaging in any other fraudulent or deceptive conduct."   This switch may have been done to avoid the argument that plaintiffs need to prove relaince -- an indivdualized inquiry that can impede certification.  The court consluded, based on the almost universal agreement of the district courts of the 3rd Circuit, that a plaintiff must allege and show justifiable reliance even for claims brought under the catch-all provision of the state's Consumer Protection Act.

The reliance element was individual, and interestingly, the court noted that this affected the 23(a) issue of commonality as well as the 23(b) issue of predominance. Next, plaintiffs argued that while there may be some individual differences in the amount of damages, such discrepancies were not sufficient to defeat class certification. However, the court noted, they failed to recognize that the threshold questions do not concern the amount of the individual damages but whether or not the individual injury occurred. Proof of injury or fact of injury (whether or not an injury occurred at all) must be distinguished from calculation of damages (which determines the actual value of the injury. 

If proof of the essential elements of the cause of action requires individual treatment, then class certification is unsuitable. Here, each class member would have to show not only justifiable reliance but also loss as a result of that reliance, aspects subject to individual, rather than common questions of law or fact. This lack of commonality rendered this case unsuitable for class treatment.  And it logically followed that if plaintiffs failed to satisfy the criteria for showing commonality, they cannot satisfy the more strenuous demands of the predominance analysis.

Shortly thereafter, the 9th Circuit handed down a decision announcing a standard of review for legal issues related to certification orders, and overruled a district court's denial of class certification in a consumer fraud class action.  Yokoyama v. Midland Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 2009 WL 2634770
(9th Cir.  8/28/09).

Three consumer senior citizens, all residents of Hawaii, alleged that they had purchased Midland's annuities from an independent broker. Plaintiffs alleged that the the annuities were marketed through deceptive practices, in violation of Hawaii's Deceptive Practices Act. The district court held that the plaintiffs could not satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23's requirements that common issues predominate over individual issues and that a class action is a superior method of adjudication.

The dispositive issue on appeal was whether the Hawaii Act requires a showing of individualized reliance.  But there was a debate over the standard of review.  WHile certification decisions generally were reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard, the 9th Circuit panel agreed with the Seventh Circuit's explanation of the appropriate standard of review. Andrews v. Chevy Chase Bank, 545 F.3d 570, 573 (7th Cir.2008).  That is, the underlying rulings on issues of law must be reviewed de novo even when they are made in the course of determining whether or not to certify a class. We generally review a grant of class certification for abuse of discretion, but purely legal determinations made in support of that decision are reviewed de novo. (Note that Judge Smith argued in his concurrence that Ninth Circuit precedent cannot be overturned by two judges, only en banc).

Hawaii courts have interpreted the word “deceptive” to include those acts that mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances, observed the panel.   And a deceptive act or practice is  a representation, omission, or practice that is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances.  The representation, omission, or practice is material if it is likely to affect a consumer's choice. Whether information is likely to affect a consumer's choice is an objective inquiry, turning on whether the act or omission is likely to mislead consumers as to information important to consumers in making a decision regarding the product or service.  Therefore, said the court, since Hawaii's consumer protection laws look to a reasonable consumer, not the particular consumer, inidivudal relaince is not an element. The fact-finder will focus on the standardized written materials given to all plaintiffs and determine whether those materials are likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances.

 

 


 

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