Federal Court Rejects Consumer Class Action

 A California court recently rejected the class certification motion by a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. customer alleging the chain falsely advertised its meat as humanely raised and free of antibiotics and hormones. See Alan Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. et al., No. 2:12-cv-05543 (C.D. Cal. 2013). While the case was initially broader, plaintiff’s allegations came to center on the
representations allegedly made in Chipotle’s in-store menu signboards and Chipotle’s paper menus.

The court concluded that the proposed class action failed to satisfy the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3). Class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) is proper, inter alia, only when common questions present a significant portion of the case and can be resolved for all members of the class in a single adjudication. The predominance inquiry under Rule 23(b) tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. See Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 623 (1997).  Rule 23(b)(3) also requires the court to find that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

Here, the court found that common questions did not predominate over individual issues, and the class action device was not a fair and efficient way to provide a fair opportunity for class members to obtain relief, or for Chipotle to defend itself against claims. Many key issues could only be handled individually. Most fundamentally, the questions of when a class member ate at Chipotle,
the exact location where he or she ate, and which meat (if any) he or she ate are all not subject to class treatment.  Here, the dispute concerned a very low price transaction that neither the class members nor Chipotle maintained any specific record of, or could be expected to recall. 

More importantly, the alleged misconduct took place only with regard to certain products at varying locations within limited time frames. That was critical, because certain stores were allegedly serving certain conventional meats only at certain times because of shortages. Therefore, a class member would need to know with some certainty – and Chipotle should be allowed some mechanism for confirming or contesting that certainty – the date, location, and particular meat purchased. That kind of certainty in a class action that  encompasses purchases more than five years ago and, said the court, was not practical. Credit card records could provide some evidence of class members’ purchases, but credit card records would not provide the critical detail of which meat was purchased in any given transaction. 

Further, the important question of whether a class member saw a point-of-purchase sign when a particular purchase was made cannot be handled on a class-wide basis. For each purchase when naturally raised meat was allegedly not being served, the court observed there were at least four possibilities: (1) the sign was there and the class member saw it, (2) the sign was there and the class member did not see it due to Chipotle’s conduct, (3) the sign was there and the class member did not see it due to the class member’s negligence, and (4) the sign was not there. Many of the individual issues regarding liability were also reasons why the class action mechanism was not fair and efficient in this case.

In a burst of realism, the court was "confident" that very few people in a class would be able to provide the necessary information. People will either (1) lie, (2) attempt to present the facts but be unable to do so accurately, or, most likely, (3) not know.  This would even impact a theoretical future settlement.  Money would be given out basically at random to people who may or may not actually be entitled to restitution. This is unfair both to legitimate class members and to Chipotle.

The decision is the latest instance of an emerging trend in consumer class action cases: a recognition of the often insurmountable task of reliably identifying disparate members of a proposed class where few, if any members, have documentary proof of their purchases.  Here, it is treated as part of the predominance inquiry, and in other cases as part of ascertainability.

 

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