State Supreme Court Rejects Nationwide Consumer Fraud Class

A recurring theme at MassTortDefense has been the risks associated with the plaintiffs' bar growing creativity in the use of state consumer fraud acts to substitute for traditional product liability claims.  In particular, plaintiffs assert that class actions pursuant to state unfair or deceptive trade practices acts ought to be more easily certifiable than traditional personal injury class actions. A recent case in this area is notable not only for its actual holding rejecting a nationwide class, but also for the philosophy expressed by the court on these kinds of proposed class actions. Schnall v. AT&T Wireless Inc., 2010 WL 185943 (Wash. Jan. 21, 2009).

Customers of AT&T Wireless Services filed a nationwide class action alleging the company misled consumers when it billed them for a charge that was not included in advertised monthly rates and was allegedly not described clearly in billing statements. An immediate issue loomed concerning choice of law, which can have a dramatic impact on several aspects of the certification process, including the elements of commonality, predominance, and manageability.  The parties initially disputed whether the choice of law clauses in the customers' contracts were enforceable. The choice of law clauses in this case required customers to litigate asserted violations of their contract in the respective jurisdiction where they signed the contract. (Such jurisdiction is often based on the customer's area code.)  The court concluded that AT&T should not  be forced to face the "enormous cost and complexity presented by a nationwide class action" when they conscionably included choice of law provisions in their customers' contracts and the choice of forum is, in any event, dictated by the consumer.

The choice of law clauses, along with the interpretation of the contract terms, the differences in the materials and information each potential class member received, and the availability of differing affirmative defenses created a predominance of individual issues over common ones.  But even where courts find that a nationwide, state law governed class otherwise meets Rule 23(a) and 23(b)(3) criteria, the court opined that “the choice-of-law inquiry will ordinarily make or break certification.”  This is because if the laws of 50 jurisdictions apply to plaintiffs' claims, the variations in the laws of the states may swamp any common issues and defeat predominance. (citing Castano, Georgine, and In re American Medical System.)

Of particular interest, the court found that the state of Washington has no interest in seeing contracts executed by AT&T representatives in other states with citizens of those states examined and adjudicated in Washington courts. Certified as a nationwide class action, this case would have presented an unwarranted and unnecessary burden on the state judicial system, all at a large cost to state taxpayers. See R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Engle, 672 So.2d 39, 41 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1996) (“No doubt a tremendous number of retired judges, special masters, and general masters would have to be appointed by the court in order to complete this herculean task within a reasonable period of time--all at a staggering cost to the taxpayers.”)(of course, even the state-wide Engle class was a disastrous mistake by the Florida courts). The court concluded that there is no sound reason to force Washington trial courts to entertain the contract claims of citizens from around the nation. Their state courts are equally as prepared, if not better situated to apply the contract laws of their own states.

That conclusion was bolstered by the observation that nothing in Washington law indicates that Consumer Protection Act claims by nonresidents for acts occurring outside of Washington can even be entertained under the statute. Because the laws of each state are designed to regulate and protect the interest of that state's own residents and citizens, each state has a measurable, and usually predominant, interest in having its own substantive laws apply.  While it is true that Washington has a strong interest in regulating any behavior by Washington businesses which contravenes the CPA, the CPA indicates the legislature's intent to limit its application to deceptive acts that affect the citizens and residents of Washington. To state a CPA claim, a person must show that the unfair or deceptive act affected the people of the state of Washington. This geographic and jurisdictional limitation originates in the CPA's history as a tool used by the State attorney general to protect the citizens of Washington. (as is the situation with many such state statutes.)

The court remanded the case for consideration of a state-wide class claim, but note the better view that where, as here, the plaintiffs allege that their damages were caused by deceptive, misleading, or fraudulent statements or conduct, as a practical matter it is not possible that the damages could be caused by a violation of the Act without proof of reliance on the statements or conduct alleged to violate the statutes. Cf. Group Health Plan, Inc. v. Philip Morris, Inc., 621 N.W.2d 2, 13 (Minn.2001); Hageman v. Twin City Chrysler-Plymouth Inc., 681 F.Supp. 303, 308 (M.D.N.C.1988) (“To prove actual causation, a plaintiff must prove that he or she detrimentally relied on the defendant's deceptive statement or misrepresentation.”); Feitler v. Animation Celection, Inc., 170 Or.App. 702, 13 P.3d 1044, 1047 (2000) (holding causal element of misrepresentation claim requires reliance by the consumer); cf. Siemer v. Assocs. First Capital Corp., 2001 WL 35948712, at *4 (D.Ariz. Mar.30, 2001) (“The injury element of the [state consumer protection statute] claim occurs when the consumer relies on the misrepresentations.”); see generally S. Scheuerman, The Consumer Fraud Class Action: Reining in Abuse by Requiring Plaintiffs to Allege Reliance as an Essential Element, 43 Harv. J. on Leg. 1 (2006).
 

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