Federal Court Denies Class Certification in "Smart Meter" Case

A Florida federal court recently denied class certification in a case alleging negligence against Honeywell  over its installation of smart electric meters at the homes of Florida Power & Light customers. See Cortes, et al. v. Honeywell Building Solutions SES Corporation, et al., No. 1:14-cv-20429 (S.D. Fla., Sept. 25. 2014). 

Plaintiffs alleged the meters were defective, damaging the connections and allegedly causing electrical arcing, which resulted in more extensive damage to items like pools and air conditioners. 
They sought certification of a class defined as “All Florida Power & Light customers in Florida who had a Smart Meter installed at their property after September, 2009 and who have suffered or will suffer unreimbursed economic loss arising from the defendant’s improper installation of the Smart Meter."

The court noted that, although the trial court should not determine the merits of the plaintiffs’ claim at the class certification stage, the trial court can and should consider the merits of the case to the degree necessary to determine whether the requirements of Rule 23 will be satisfied. Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharms., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1188 n.15 (11th Cir. 2003).  Indeed, sometimes it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question; certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the
prerequisites of Rule 23 have been satisfied. Frequently that rigorous analysis will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. That cannot be helped.

Before analyzing the Rule 23(a) requirements, a court must determine whether the class definition is adequate. O’Neill v. The Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 243 F.R.D. 469, 477 (S.D. Fla. 2006); see also Bussey v. Macon Cnty. Greyhound Park, Inc., 562 F. App’x 782, 787 (11th Cir. 2014).  A vague
class definition portends significant manageability problems for the court.  O’Neill, 243 F.R.D.
at 477. “An identifiable class exists if its members can be ascertained by reference to objective criteria."   The analysis of the objective criteria also should be administratively feasible, said the court. Administrative feasibility means that identifying class members is a manageable process that does not require much, if any, individual inquiry.  Bussey, 562 F. App’x at 787.

Defendants argued that membership in the proposed class required a determination whether the
Smart Meter was improperly installed; whether the customer had unreimbursed economic loss;
and whether the loss was caused by the improper installation. The court agreed that the proposed class definition impermissibly required a finding of liability and causation at the class certification stage. For the court to determine membership, it would also need to determine the validity of putative class members’ claims and defenses to those claims. The focus on individuals’ experiences — merely to determine membership in the class — would typically require the putative class members to self-report electrical problems started occurring after the Smart Meters were installed. As such, “the only evidence likely to be offered in many instances will be the putative class member’s uncorroborated claim that he or she” observed electrical problems after the Smart Meter installation. Perez v. Metabolife Int’l, Inc., 218 F.R.D. 262, 269 (S.D. Fla. 2003). This self-interested reporting, often unverifiable but for the Plaintiffs’ own testimony, implicates defendants’ due process rights, and “individualized mini-trials would be required even on the limited issue of class membership.” Id.  The repeated use of these procedures would result in inefficient resolution of the claims, defeating one of the central purposes of the class action tool. See McGuire v. Int’l Paper Co.,
1994 WL 261360, at *5 (S.D. Miss. Feb. 18, 1994).

The court also found the definition of the class impermissibly vague in its inclusion of “customers . . . who have suffered or will suffer unreimbursed economic loss . . . .”  Plaintiffs were requesting a class to be certified of individuals who, at any point in the future, may suffer economic losses as a result of the Smart Meter installations. Apart from the considerations of causation, this proposed subset of class membership was presently impossible to determine.

The court also questioned the showing of numerosity ( a somewhat rare gem for the class action defense reader). Plaintiffs made reference to 603 FPL customer inquiries involving alleged property damage related to Smart Meter installation, but they failed to indicate whether any of these 603 inquiries involve “unreimbursed economic loss,” a requirement contained in the proposed class definition. Plaintiffs then tried to point to evidence of a subset of customers who sought repairs following installation. But nothing in plaintiffs’ factual showing indicated these customers’ problems were caused by the Smart Meter installation — as opposed to any number of other factors — or, again, involved unreimbursed economic loss, two prerequisites to membership in the proposed class. Thus, said the court, these assertions did not come close to showing the number of plaintiffs is large enough to satisfy the numerosity requirement. See Hugh’s Concrete & Masonry Co. v. Southeast Pers. Leasing, Inc., No. 8:12-CV-2631-T-17AEP, 2014 WL 794317, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 26, 2014) (“[T]he Court cannot find Plaintiff’s bases for numerosity go beyond mere speculation, bare allegations, or unsupported conclusions. Thus, Plaintiff fails the numerosity requirement.”).


Turning to predominance under Rule 23(b)(3), under the law of the Eleventh Circuit, the combination of significant individualized questions going to liability and the need for individualized assessments of damages precludes Rule 23(b)(3) certification. In re Conagra Peanut Butter Products Liab. Litig., 251 F.R.D. 689, 698 (N.D. Ga. 2008).  As is typical, plaintiffs pointed to alleged common issues of defendant's conduct, such as training of employees on installation. While defendants may well have employed similar methods of training employees to install the Smart Meters, those actions were but one component of the tort inquiry. Plaintiffs also would need to prove a breach of duty, if any, was the proximate cause of the damages. The proximate cause determinations would predominate over the determination of the common issue of defendants’ alleged conduct, due to the numerous potential causes of meter can damage. The mere fact that installers were negligent in installations does not mean that negligence caused any damages. Even assuming negligence could be proven, plaintiffs “would still have the bulk of
their cases to prove,” namely injury in fact and causation. Neenan v. Carnival Corp., 199 F.R.D.
372, 376 (S.D. Fla. 2001); see also In re Agent Orange’ Prod. Liab. Litig. MDL No. 381, 818 F.2d 145, 165 (2d Cir. 1987) (“The relevant question, therefore, is not whether Agent Orange has the capacity to cause harm, . . . but whether it did cause harm and to whom. That determination is highly individualistic [] and depends upon the characteristics of individual plaintiffs (e.g. state of health, lifestyle) and the nature of their exposure . . . .”).  The fact-finder would still need to make specific determinations of proximate causation for additional plaintiffs, which would predominate over a class-wide determination of negligence.

Certification denied.

 

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