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.


Class Certification Denied Under Ascertainability Analysis

We typically focus on appellate decisions regarding class certification, but wanted to note for you a recent lower court federal decision in case involving a proposed class of patients who claim they were implanted with a medical device for treating acid reflux . See Haggart v. Endogastric Solutions Inc., No. 2:10-cv-00346 (W.D.Pa. 6/28/12).

Readers will want to note the discussion of ascertainability. The implicit requirement of ascertainability is an important but sometimes overlooked prerequisite to class certification. A plaintiff must offer a definition of a class that is precise, objective and presently ascertainable. A threshold requirement to a Rule 23 action is the actual existence of a class which is sufficiently definite and identifiable. See, e.g., Kline v. Sec. Guards, Inc., 196 F.R.D. 261, 266 (E.D. Pa. 2000); Reilly v. Gould, Inc., 965 F. Supp. 588, 596 (M.D. Pa. 1997); Clay v. Am. Tobacco Co., 188 F.R.D. 483 (S.D. Ill. 1999). The initial inquiry on class definition is distinct from the analysis required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. See, e.g., Sanneman v. Chrysler Corp., 191 F.R.D. 441, 446 n. 8 (E.D. Pa. 2000). This notion means, in part, that the court can see sufficient administrative feasibility in determining whether a particular person belongs to a class -- that the court can identify class members in a practical and non-burdensome manner. A “proposed class must be sufficiently identifiable,” and it must be “administratively feasible to determine whether a given individual is a member of the class.”Mueller v. CBS, Inc., 200 F.R.D. 227, 233 (W.D. Pa. 2001). A class may not be ascertainable if it will require individual inquiry into each class member’s particular situation to determine whether that plaintiff suffered the injury alleged. Similarly, a class is not ascertainable if membership depends on a particular subjective state of mind. And even when plaintiffs offer ostensibly objective criteria for membership, the court must be able to apply that objective criteria to determine who is in the class without addressing numerous fact-intensive questions. Certification is denied when determining membership in the class essentially requires a mini-hearing as to each prospective class member. E.g., Agostino v. Quest Diagnostics Inc., 256 F.R.D. 437, 478 (D.N.J. 2009); Solo v. Bausch & Lomb Inc., 2009 WL 4287706, (D. S.C. Sept. 25, 2009) (class not appropriate for certification where determining class membership would require “fact-intensive mini-trials”).

Here, plaintiff claimed that defendant had misrepresented implantation of a medical device for treatment of acid reflux — describing it as “reversible” rather than “revisable.”  Plaintiff offered one class definition as “all individuals who have undergone the [procedure] . . . and who have relied upon representations” related to its reversibility and/or revisability,  This, the court said, was "simply a non-starter."  The determination of class membership under this definition would require the court to adjudicate on a person-by-person basis whether each proposed class member relied on defendant’s representations. That is, class membership would not be ascertainable without the imposition of serious administrative burdens incongruous with the efficiencies expected in a class action.

Plaintiff then went to an alternate class defined as “all individuals who have undergone the EsophyX procedure in the United States since September 24, 2007.” But this very broad proposed class failed the typicality requirement owing to marked differences as to information received and relied upon, the legal theory underlying plaintiff’s claims, and other factors.  Specifically, there would be numerous, inevitable questions regarding the information received by individual patients - from their physicians or other sources - and their reliance on particular representations. While named plaintiff was unhappy, plaintiff conceded that most patients undergoing an EsophyX procedure have had a successful result.  Putative class members received information regarding the procedure primarily from their physicians, which information likely varied for reasons related to both the physicians themselves and the individual patient’s medical circumstances; the amount and content of information received by a patient directly from defendant’s marketing or other materials likely differed from plaintiff’s and as between putative class members as well; and individual decisions to undergo the procedure were likely influenced by and premised on varying individual considerations -- all of which also undercut predominance.

Motion for class certification denied.