Plaintiff Cannot Broaden Class After Certification Hearing

A not uncommon tactic in class actions is for plaintiffs to propose one class definition to obtain certification (one minimizing individual issues) and then to morph the definition after certification to try to make the case easier for plaintiffs to prevails at trial.  Another evolution is to broaden the class to increase its size, and thus maximize possible damages. The Alabama Supreme Court recently rejected a class action in which the trial court had accepted a new class definition after the certification hearing. See Baldwin Mut. Ins. Co. v. McCain, No. 1131058 (Ala., 2/20/15).

On September 29, 2010, McCain filed a class complaint against her insurance company.  The genesis of the claims was that Baldwin Mutual allegedly had wrongfully been reducing the amount paid on claims made on actual-cash-value polices inasmuch as its practice was to deduct some amount for depreciation not only of the damaged materials and the labor costs of initially installing those damaged materials (based on their condition prior to the covered damage and their expected life span), but also of the labor costs associated with the removal of the damaged materials. It is improper and impossible to depreciate those labor costs, McCain argued, because they had not previously been incurred at some defined time in the past; rather, they are being incurred at the time of the current repair.

Plaintiff originally sought certification of a class of all Baldwin Mutual policyholders with insured properties in Alabama who suffered a loss in the past six years for which Baldwin Mutual had reduced the actual cash value of the same by reduction for the loss of value of un-depreciable loss elements.  But after the certification hearing, plaintiff filed a brief in further support of class certification in which she proposed a new class definition: the new definition would also include insurance customers with replacement-cost policies in addition to those with actual-cash-value policies.

After the hearing, and after the supplemental briefing, over objections from Baldwin Mutual, the lower court certified the class and adopted McCain's later, broader class definition.  Baldwin Mutual had also argued that it was improper for McCain to seek to expand the proposed class after the
class-certification hearing.

Defendant appealed, and the supreme court reversed.  The class definition proposed by McCain in her brief submitted after the class-certification hearing was materially different from the class definition offered by McCain in her original complaint – the class definition proposed following the class certification hearing, which was accepted by the trial court, also included those Baldwin Mutual customers who held replacement-cost policies. The trial court exceeded its discretion in certifying the class in accordance with a definition proposed by McCain without giving Baldwin Mutual a full and fair opportunity to oppose the certification of the proposed class at a hearing conducted for that purpose pursuant to the Alabama rules.

The class-certification order must therefore be reversed, said the state Supreme Court.
 

 

Fail Safe Class Rejected in TCPA Case

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the taut Cold War thriller "Fail-Safe", starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. (If I recall, there is no music in the entire B&W film.) In honor of the film, we post about a modern day fail-safe issue, less dramatic of course.

A crucial implicit requirement for class certification is that the plaintiff propose a workable, ascertainable class definition. One sub-set of this issue is the highly improper "fail-safe" class in which absent class members can use an imprecise class definition to affirm their membership when the class wins, but assert they were never members of the class when the defendant wins. A recent federal case sees the court striking class allegations that fall under this impermissible “fail safe” class rubric. See Sauter v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., No. 2:13-cv-846 (S.D. Ohio, 5/7/14).

The Plaintiff brought a putative class action against the Defendant for alleged violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227. Plaintiff alleged that the class received phone calls from CVS, which utilized an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to call, without the Plaintiffs' consent.  The call allegedly provided general information about a prescription refill and the location of his local CVS pharmacy.  (actually sounds kind of useful, but we digress)

Defendant made a Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Class Allegations. Most courts recognize that a motion to strike class action allegations may properly be filed before plaintiffs have filed a motion for class certification. See, e.g., Pilgrim v. Universal Health Card, LLC, 660 F.3d 943, 945 (6th Cir. 2011); Bearden v. Honeywell Intern., Inc., No. 3:09-01035, [2010 BL 63279], 2010 WL 1223936, at *9 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 24, 2010).  A court may strike class action allegations before a motion for class certification where the complaint itself demonstrates that the requirements for maintaining a class action cannot be met. See Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 160 (1982) ("Sometimes the issues are plain enough from the pleadings"). 

The big issue here was whether the complaint proposed a fail-safe class.   A class definition is impermissible where it is a class that cannot be defined until the case is resolved on its merits. See Randleman v. Fidelity Nat'l Title Ins. Co., 646 F.3d 347, 352 (6th Cir. 2011). A fail-safe class is defined to in essence include only those who are entitled to relief.  Such a class is prohibited because it would allow putative class members to seek a remedy but not be bound by an adverse judgment — either those class members win or, by virtue of losing, they are not in the class and are not bound.

The various subclasses here included those who received calls and did not provide prior express written consent, and those who received calls who had expressly revoked their consent for such calls.  Thus, each of the Plaintiff's proposed classes was defined to include only those individuals who did not expressly consent to the receipt of the defendant's phone calls made with the use of an ATDS. Because the TCPA prohibits calls to cellular telephones using ATDSs unless prior express consent has been given, defining the class to include anyone who received such a call without prior express consent meant that only those potential members who would prevail on this liability issue would be members of the class.  In other words, the proposed classes consisted solely of persons who could establish that defendant violated the TCPA. Thus, if the Plaintiff successfully demonstrated that the Defendant made calls using an ATDS without the class members' prior express consent, then the class members would win, said the court. However, if the Plaintiffs were unsuccessful in meeting their burden of proof, the class did not even not exist and the apparent class members (folks who got a call) would not be bound by the judgment in favor of the Defendant. This was the very definition of a prohibited fail-safe class.

So, motion granted; class allegations struck.

 

Class of Coffee Purchasers Rejected

Let's continue on our recent focus on some interesting class action decisions. A federal court recently rejected a proposed class of coffee product purchasers.  See McManus v. Sturm Foods Inc., No. 3:11-cv-00565 (S.D. Ill., 8/26/13).

Plaintiffs claimed that defendants violated the consumer protection statutes and unjust enrichment laws of the eight states with regard to their Grove Square Coffee single serving coffee product.  Per the amended complaint, defendants allegedly misrepresented and omitted the true nature of Grove Square Coffee products by indicating the product contained fresh ground coffee and a filter rather than “instant” or “soluble” coffee.

In considering a motion for class certification, the court looked to the implicit, foundational prerequisites. A court must first ensure that the class is sufficiently “defined.” Jamie S. v. Milwaukee Public Schools, 688 F.3d. 481, 493 (7th Cir. 2012) (“a class must be sufficiently definite"). The class should be “ascertainable,” which it is if the court can  determine membership with objective criteria. A class is, on the other hand, overbroad if it sweeps in a great number of members who “for some reason could not have been harmed by the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct.” Messner, 669 F.3d 802 at 824; Kohen v. Pacific Inv. Management Co. LLC, 571 F.3d 672, 677 ( 7th Cir. 2009) (“a class should not be certified if it is apparent that it contains a great many persons who have suffered no injury at the hands of the defendant.”); Oshana v. Coca-Cola Co., 472 F.3d 506, 514 (7th Cir. 2006) (denying class certification when “[c]ountless members of Oshana’s putative class could not show any damage, let alone damage proximately caused by the alleged deception.”). A class is overbroad if it sweeps in many members who could not have been harmed at all: This distinction is critical for class certification purposes. If a proposed class consists largely (or entirely, for that matter) of members who are ultimately shown to have suffered no harm, that may not mean that the class was improperly certified but only that the class failed to meet its burden of proof on the merits. If, however, a class is defined so broadly as to include a great number of members who for some reason could not have been harmed by the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct, the class is defined too broadly to permit certification.  A class cannot, then, include numerous people who have no claim at all, observed the court.

The court here found that under any of the relevant the state consumer protection laws requiring causation or actual reliance, the plaintiffs’ class definitions were overbroad. The class definition included all individuals who purchased a Grove Square Coffee product. This definition necessarily includes purchasers who knew, or who were indifferent to the product’s alleged insoluble coffee content. For those purchasers, plaintiffs cannot prove causation, reliance, or actual injury from defendants’ alleged misrepresentation. For this reason, plaintiffs’ claims under Alabama, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Illinois, and South Carolina were overbroad and improper for class certification.

Turning to the remaining states, the court engaged in a specific analysis of the state law.  For example, to the extent a state requires plaintiffs to prove an actual loss, but would allow a class-wide presumption of actual loss if the defendant’s alleged misrepresentations were material and made to the entire class, the definition still ran into problems,  In California, said the court, an inference of reliance may be established on a class wide basis with a showing of materiality.  Materiality is objective and exists if a reasonable person would attach importance to the misrepresentation’s existence or nonexistence in determining his choice of action in the transaction in question. However, the inference of reliance is only appropriate if all purported class members were exposed to the alleged misleading advertising. Plaintiffs’ proposed class definition here included individuals who were not exposed to
defendants’ alleged misrepresentation; therefore a court could not presume reliance. In 2011, Sturm Foods allegedly changed its label to include the word “instant.” Class members that were exposed to the packaging after this date (nearly 4 million dollars of gross sales; a vast majority of the overall sales during the class period) were not exposed to what plaintiffs claim was defendants’ primary deception. 

Moreover, the record indicates that extensive sales occurred online, and the class as defined by plaintiffs included these online purchasers. Consumers who purchased the product online without ever seeing the packaging or product placement could not have been exposed to the alleged misrepresentation prior to purchase.

Plaintiffs’ amended complaint thus did not contain sufficient evidence of sales such that any presumption of exposure was appropriate. Materiality cannot be presumed and plaintiffs cannot adequately allege actual injury for the California class.

Overall, the class potentially included a great many individuals who bought Grove Square Coffee products because of, or in spite of, knowing that it contained instant coffee;  thus, the class included a great number of individuals who could not prove causation or an ascertainable loss, as required in various states. These individuals suffered no lost value or incurred no out of pocket expenses as a result of the alleged misrepresentation. Since this class definition potentially swept in a great number of individuals that could not show harm resulting from defendant’s conduct, the class definition was fatally overbroad.

Was there any way to cure the deficiency? It must be administratively feasible for the court to determine whether a particular individual is a member of the proposed class. Clay v. American Tobacco Co., 188 F.R.D. 483, 490 (S.D. Ill. 1999). And the administrative burden of using subjective membership criteria obviates the judicial efficiency that is the fundamental motive for class actions. See Milwaukee Public Schools, 668 F.3d 481, 496 (7th Cir. 2012) (denying class certification for indefiniteness when “identifying disabled students who might be eligible for special-education services is a complex, highly individualized task, and cannot be reduced to the application of a set of simple, objective criteria.”); Simer v. Rios, 661 F.2d 655, 669 (7th Cir. 1981) (noting that determining whether potential class members “knew of the existence of the regulation and were
discouraged from applying for [state heating] assistance . . . would be a burden on the court and require a large expenditure of valuable court time.”); Alliance, 565 F.2d at 978 (“In those cases in which class certification has been denied on account of indefiniteness, the primary defect in the class definition has been that membership in the class was contingent on the state of mind of the prospective class members.”).

Here, the only way to avoid over-inclusiveness would have been to impose criteria limiting class
membership to individuals properly captured by the underlying claim. However, any such criteria would necessarily be subjective. Limiting class membership to individuals that were actually exposed to the deceptive packaging or advertisement would be largely subjective and thus improper. See In re Yasmin, 2012 WL 865041, at *16. This court saw no way to limit class membership without an impermissible plaintiff-by-plaintiff subjective inquiry. Plaintiff’s proposed class was inadequate.

Another useful recent decision as courts place proper focus on the implicit requirements of Rule 23 and the no-longer-pro-forma issues of class definition.

Class certification denied.

Snapple The Best Stuff in Court - Consumer Class Action Denied

Earlier this month a trial court in New York denied class certification purchaser of Snapple beverages who complained that drinks labeled “All Natural” are somehow misleading because they contain high fructose corn syrup.  See Weiner v. Snapple Beverage Corp., (S.D.N.Y. 8/3/10).

Off and on, we have commented on the growing and alarming trend for plaintiffs lawyers to concoct consumer fraud class action claims against products, even when consumers were not injured and got basically what they paid for, because of some alleged ambiguity in the label or old-fashioned puffing.

Snapple Beverage Corporation was founded in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1972. Snapple began selling and marketing its teas and juice drinks in the late 1980s. In marketing its beverages, Snapple focused on, among other things, flavor, innovation, and humor. Snapple became known for its quirky personality and funny advertising, as well as its colorful product labels and beverage names. For instance, Snapple’s television advertisements featured, among other things, Snapple bottles dressed in wigs and hats, singing in a Backstreet-esque “boy-band,” running with the bulls (hamsters with cardboard horns) in Spain, and performing synchronized swimming.

When Snapple entered the beverages market in the late 1980s, it avoided putting preservatives, which were then commonly found in some similar beverages, in its teas and juice drinks. Snapple was able to do so by using a “hot-fill” process, which uses high-temperature heat pasteurization to preserve products immediately before bottling. Snapple also used 16-ounce glass bottles instead of aluminum cans or plastic. Hence the term on their label "All Natural."

From their inception, Snapple’s beverages were sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.  HFCS is made from corn ( a natural product last time we checked), and its primary constituents are glucose and fructose, the sugars that comprise table sugar and honey (which also sound pretty natural). It is undisputed that Snapple disclosed the inclusion of HFCS in the ingredient list that appears on the label of every bottle of Snapple that was labeled “All Natural.”

But plaintiffs alleged that they paid a price premium for Snapple beverages as a result of the “All Natural” labeling, and that Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling was misleading because Snapple had HFCS.  They brought a class action on behalf of all people who purchased Snapple in New York.  The FDA is reportedly looking at whether high fructose corn syrup may be considered a natural ingredient, but the court didn't need that guidance to dispose of this bogus class claim.

The court focused on the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance inquiry which tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. The predominance requirement is met only if the plaintiff can establish that the issues in the class action that are subject to generalized proof, and thus applicable to the class as a whole, predominate over those issues that are subject only to individualized proof.  The issues in turn are determined by the causes of action and defenses to them.  Plaintiffs' main claim was for alleged deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce under N.Y. Gen. Bus. L. § 349. Generally, claims under § 349 are available to an individual consumer who falls victim to misrepresentations made by a seller of consumer goods through false or misleading advertising.

New York's § 349 does not require proof of actual reliance. But the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s material deceptive act caused the injury. In addition, a plaintiff must prove actual injury to recover under the statute.  The court noted that proof of actual injury in this case is bound up in proof of damages, or by how much plaintiffs have been harmed. Only by showing that plaintiffs in fact paid more for Snapple beverages as a result of Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling could plaintiffs establish the requisite elements of causation and actual injury under § 349.

The court concluded that plaintiffs had not proposed a suitable methodology for establishing the critical elements of causation and injury on a class-wide basis. Without a reliable methodology, plaintiffs had not shown that they could prove at trial using common evidence that putative class members in fact paid a premium for the beverage. Because individualized inquiries as to causation, injury, and damages for each of the millions of putative class members would  predominate over any issues of law or fact common to the class, plaintiffs’ § 349 claim could not be certified under Rule 23(b)(3).

In support of their contention that causation and injury were susceptible to generalized proof on a class-wide basis, plaintiffs relied on the expert report of Dr. Alan Goedde, an economist.  In his report, Goedde proposed two “approaches” for determining the purported price premium attributable to Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling: (1) a “yardstick” approach, which would use “class-wide economic data and standard economic methodologies” to “compare the price of products labeled ‘All Natural’ to similar products which do not have ‘All Natural’ labeling;” and (2) an “inherent value”  approach, which would analyze unspecified “studies and market research” to gather “data that can be used to determine the increased value, standing alone, that a product realizes due to the perception of that product being natural.”

The court found Goedde’s testimony unreliable. The witness did not demonstrate in adequate detail how his proposed “approaches” would be used to develop an empirical algorithm to determine, on a class-wide basis, whether there was a price premium as a result of Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling and, if so, how such a premium could be quantified. For example, he did not identify the products to which Snapple should be compared. He did not explain how his approach would isolate the impact of the “All Natural” labeling from the other factors that purportedly affect the price of Snapple and its competitors. He failed to take into account that there was no uniform price for Snapple beverages during the class period, and thus did not explain how his approach would account for the various prices that putative class members actually paid in determining injury
on a class-wide basis.

Goedde relied on two internal Snapple marketing strategy documents to support his alternate hypothesis that Snapple’s “All Natural” label allowed it to command a premium in the marketplace. Yet he did not review the deposition transcripts of Snapple’s witnesses or any of the other  documents produced by Snapple, which would have provided critical context for these documents.

The court accurately spotlighted the common plaintiff tactic in these kinds of cases: the failure to
invest sufficient time and effort to develop a reliable methodology to support an expert opinion at the class certification stage.  Although the court thought plaintiffs correct in arguing that Goedde need not “implement” or fully “test” his methodology at the class certification stage, an expert must still provide sufficient detail about the proposed methodology to permit a court to determine whether the methodology is suitable to the task at hand.

Without Goedde’s testimony, plaintiffs offered no evidence that a suitable methodology is available to prove the elements of causation and actual injury on a class-wide basis. Individualized inquiries would therefore be required in order to determine whether class members in fact paid a premium for Snapple beverages, and whether any such premium was attributable to the “All Natural” labeling. This would require, among other things, an examination of each of the millions of class members’ Snapple purchases, which the evidence showed were made in different locations, at different times, and for different prices, over the nearly eight-year class period.

One further issue of note is class definition.  The court found that plaintiffs failed to show how the potentially millions of putative class members could be ascertained using objective criteria that were administratively feasible. Plaintiffs - typically  - suggested that after certification, the court could require simply that class members produce a receipt, offer a product label, or even sign a declaration to confirm that the individual had purchased a Snapple beverage within the class period. The court labeled this suggestion "unrealistic." Plaintiffs offered no basis to assume that putative class members retained a receipt, bottle label, or any other concrete documentation of their purchases of Snapple beverages bearing the “All Natural” description.  Indeed, putative class members were unlikely to remember accurately every Snapple purchase during the class period, much less whether it was an “All Natural” or diet beverage, whether it was purchased as a single bottle or part of a six-pack or case, whether they used a coupon, or what price they paid. Soliciting declarations from putative class members regarding their history of Snapple purchases would invite them "to speculate, or worse."

However beloved Snapple may be, said the court,  there is no evidence to suggest that its consumers treat it like a fine wine and remove and save its labels.