Court of Appeals Rejects Washer Class Action

The 11th Circuit recently ruled that class certification had been improperly granted to owners of front-loading washing machines that allegedly were susceptible to mold build-up. See Brown v. Electrolux Home Prods. Inc., No. 15-11455, 2016 WL 1085517 (11th Cir. 3/21/16).

Across the country, consumers have filed class actions against the manufacturers of front-loading washing machines. Front-loaders are considered an improvement over traditional top-loading machines because they use less water and energy. But the initial models allegedly had a problem: the rubber seal on the front door of the machine retains water, which allows mildew to grow.  In this case, consumers from California and Texas filed a class action against Electrolux Home Products, the manufacturer of Frigidaire front-loading washing machines. After the district court certified two statewide classes, see Terrill v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 295 F.R.D. 671 (S.D. Ga. 2013), Electrolux filed this interlocutory appeal. The 11th Circuit vacated the certification as the district court abused its discretion in determining the predominance requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).

The district court certified two statewide classes: California Class: All persons and entities who purchased, other than for resale, after March 5, 2004, and while in the State of California, a Frigidaire front-loading washing machine with a convoluted bellow. And Texas Class: All persons and entities who purchased, other than for resale, after March 5, 2004, and while in the State of Texas, a Frigidaire front-loading washing machine with a convoluted bellow.  

The district court recognized that it must conduct a "rigorous analysis" to determine whether a class action satisfies Rule 23 . See Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256 , 1266 (11th Cir. 2009). And it correctly explained that "[a] party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule."  Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011).  The district court concluded that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). With respect to the consumer claims, the district court somehow concluded that every element was susceptible to class-wide proof. For example, the district court concluded that each class member presumably relied on the fact that defendant provided Washing Machines suited for cleaning and freshening clothing.  The district court then explained that the class members could show their reliance on defendant's alleged failure to disclose the Washing Machines' alleged design defect and the inevitable consequences of that defect through the same class-wide proof that they purchased machines to clean and freshen their clothes rather than to soil and odorize them.  As for the warranty claims, the district court rejected Electrolux's argument that the questions whether the class members gave Electrolux pre-suit notice of the defect, whether the class members gave Electrolux an opportunity to cure the defect, and whether the defect manifested during the warranty period would require individual proof. Instead, it concluded that the questions whether pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect are required under California and Texas law are "common questions" that weigh in favor of class certification.

The court of appeals noted first that the district court misstated the law when it said that it "resolves doubts related to class certification in favor of certifying the class."  Indeed, the party seeking class certification has the burden of proof. Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharms., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181 , 1187 (11th Cir. 2003). And the entire point of a burden of proof is that, if doubts remain about whether the standard is satisfied, "the party with the burden of proof loses." Simmons v. Blodgett, 110 F.3d 39 , 42 (9th Cir. 1997). All else being equal, the presumption is against class certification because class actions are an exception to our constitutional tradition of individual litigation. See Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 , 1432 (2013); Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 , 40-41 (1940). A district court that has doubts about whether "the requirements of Rule 23 have been met should refuse certification until they have been met." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 advisory committee's note to 2003 amendment; accord In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305 , 321 (3d Cir. 2008); Wallace B. Roderick Revocable Living Trust v. XTO Energy, Inc., 725 F.3d 1213, 1218 (10th Cir. 2013).

The district court also misstated the law when it said that it "accepts the allegations in the complaint as true." and "draws all inferences and presents all evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs." The party seeking class certification has a burden of proof, not a burden of pleading. See Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 , 2412 (2014). He "'must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance' with Rule 23 " by proving that the requirements are "in fact" satisfied. Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1432 (quoting Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551 ). And the district court must conduct a "rigorous analysis" to determine whether the movant carried his burden, which "will frequently entail 'overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim.'" Id . (quoting Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551 ). Of course, the district court can consider the merits to the extent "they are relevant to determining whether the Rule 23 prerequisites for class certification are satisfied." Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184 , 1195  (2013). And if a question of fact or law is relevant to that determination, then the district court has a duty to actually decide it and not accept it as true or construe it in anyone's favor. See Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1432-33 ; Szabo v. Bridgeport Machs., Inc., 249 F.3d 672 , 675-76 (7th Cir. 2001); Gariety v. Grant Thornton, LLP, 368 F.3d 356, 365-66 (4th Cir. 2004). The district court erred when it stated the opposite.
 

Ultimately, the district court abused its discretion when it decided that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). To determine whether the requirement of predominance is satisfied, a district court must first identify the parties' claims and defenses and their elements. The district court should then classify these issues as common questions or individual questions by predicting how the parties will prove them at trial. Common questions are ones where "the same evidence will suffice for each member," and individual questions are ones where the evidence will "vary] from member to member." Blades v. Monsanto Co., 400 F.3d 562 , 566 (8th Cir. 2005).  After identifying the common and individual questions, the district court should determine whether the common questions predominate over the individual ones. Many courts  have adopted the following rule of thumb: if common issues truly predominate over individualized issues in a lawsuit, then the addition or subtraction of any of the plaintiffs to or from the class should not have a substantial effect on the substance or quantity of evidence offered. If, on the other hand, the addition of more plaintiffs leaves the quantum of evidence introduced by the plaintiffs as a whole undisturbed, then common issues are likely to predominate.

But predominance requires a qualitative assessment too; it is not bean counting, and the relative importance of the common versus individual questions also matters. Predominance can only be determined after considering what value the resolution of the class-wide issue will have in each class member's underlying cause of action.  District courts should assess predominance with its overarching purpose in mind—namely, ensuring that "a class action would achieve economies of time, effort, and expense, and promote . . . uniformity of decision as to persons similarly situated, without sacrificing procedural fairness or bringing about other undesirable results." Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 , 615 (1997).

Electrolux argued that the district court misapplied California and Texas law when it concluded that the plaintiffs could prove causation on a class-wide basis. Electrolux argued that causation requires individual proof. Under California law, one who was not exposed to the alleged misrepresentations and therefore could not possibly have lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition is not entitled to restitution. Pfizer Inc. v. Superior Court, 182 Cal. App. 4th 622 , 105 Cal. Rptr. 3d 795 , 803 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010); accord Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Superior Court, 199 Cal. App. 4th 1367 , 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 91 , 101 (Cal. Ct. App. 2011); Kaldenbach v. Mut. of Omaha Life Ins. Co., 178 Cal. App. 4th 830 , 100 Cal. Rptr. 3d 637 , 652 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009). The district court rejected Electrolux's argument because it concluded that the class members were exposed to uniform business practices.
The district court misunderstood the plaintiffs' complaint. Brown alleged that Electrolux engaged in unfair competition by omitting essential information in its advertisements. The only advertisements that Brown identified were on Frigidaire's website, but he made no effort to prove that any member of the California Class visited the website before purchasing a washing machine. Brown in fact admitted that he never saw any advertisements from Frigidaire. Because the class members were not exposed to a uniform misrepresentation, the claim under the California Unfair Competition Law is unsuitable for class treatment. See Simon v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 482 F.2d 880 , 883 (5th Cir. 1973); Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 666 F.3d 581 , 595 (9th Cir. 2012).

The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices—Consumer Protection Act prohibits "[f]alse, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce." Tex. Bus. & Com. Code Ann. § 17.46(a) . To recover under the Act, a plaintiff must prove that he "relied on" the defendant's conduct to his detriment. Id.§ 17.50(a)(1) (B). This reliance element requires that the plaintiff "actually did rely" on the defendant's statement or omission, not that the defendant "wanted purchasers to rely on its advertisements and other representations." Henry Schein, Inc. v. Stromboe, 102 S.W.3d 675 , 694 (Tex. 2002).  It appears that no Texas court has ever certified a class action under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices—Consumer Protection Act, see Tex. S. Rentals, Inc. v. Gomez, 267 S.W.3d 228 , 237 (Tex. App. 2008). That a plaintiff could prove reliance on a class-wide basis is "a near-impossibility," according to the Texas Court of Appeals. Id . (quoting Fid. & Guar. Life Ins. Co. v. Pina, 165 S.W.3d 416 , 423 (Tex. App. 2005)).  The district court certified a class anyway, and it erred.  The court cannot presume that the class members relied on any uniform misrepresentation. The court could have no inkling whether the class members saw any advertisements from Frigidaire, much less uniform advertisements, before they purchased their washing machines. This means that their claim under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act cannot proceed as a class action. See Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2552 n.6; Sandwich Chef of Tex, Inc. v. Reliance Nat. Indem. Ins. Co., 319 F.3d 205, 219 (5th Cir. 2003); In re Clorox Consumer Litig., 301 F.R.D. 436, 446 (N.D. Cal. 2014).

Electrolux next argued that the district court prematurely certified the warranty claims because it did not first resolve several questions of state law that were relevant to predominance. That is, the district court could not determine predominance without first deciding whether California and Texas law require pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect. The court of appeals agreed. A district court must decide all questions of fact and law that bear on the propriety of class certification. For example, a question of state law bears on predominance if, answered one way, an element or defense will require individual proof but, answered another way, the element or defense can be proved on a class-wide basis. Because each requirement of Rule 23 must be met, a district court errs as a matter of law when it fails to resolve a genuine legal or factual dispute relevant to determining the requirements.  

The questions of state law that Electrolux asked the district court to resolve—whether the plaintiffs must prove pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect—bear on predominance. If California and Texas law do not excuse pre-suit notice and an opportunity to cure when the defendant had prior knowledge of the design defect, as the district court speculated, then each class member will need to prove that he gave Electrolux pre-suit notice and an opportunity to cure. This showing could require individual proof.  And if California and Texas law require the defect to manifest, then each class member will need to prove that his washing machine actually grew mildew during the warranty period. This showing could also require individual proof. See Gen. Motors Corp. v. Garza, 179 S.W.3d 76 , 82-84 (Tex. App. 2005). Because the answers to these preliminary questions of California and Texas law could affect whether Rule 23(b)(3) is satisfied, the district court had a duty to resolve them.What matters to class certification is not the raising of common 'questions'—even in droves—but, rather the capacity of a class-wide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation. Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551.  Answering the questions whether California and Texas law require pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect would not resolve issues that are "central to the validity" of the plaintiffs' warranty claims. Because the district court punted these questions instead of answering them, it abused its discretion.

Finally, on damages, even if individual issues regarding damages do not always defeat predominance in and of themselves, individual damages defeat predominance if computing them will be so complex, fact-specific, and difficult that the burden on the court system would be simply intolerable. Klay, 382 F.3d at 1260.  Furthermore, individual damages defeat predominance when they are accompanied by "significant individualized questions going to liability." Id. (citing Sikes v. Teleline, Inc., 281 F.3d 1350 , 1366 (11th Cir. 2002). The court of appeals left it to the district court on remand to decide whether the latter rule was satisfied here.
 

Court Hangs Up On Cell Phone Class Action

A Texas federal court recently denied class certification to a group of cell phone customers who alleged they were sold defective models. See Shane Galitsky et al. v. Samsung Telecommunications America LLC, No. 3:12-cv-04782 (N.D. Tex. 9/11/15).

Plaintiffs brought a putative class action against Samsung on behalf of hundreds of thousands of California consumers who purchased allegedly defective Galaxy S mobile phones. Plaintiffs alleged that four models suffered from a common hardware defect that could cause them to randomly freeze, shut down, reboot, and power off while in standby or sleep mode, rendering the phones unfit for their intended use and purpose.  The suit included claims under federal and California law for breach of express warranty; breach of implied warranty; violations of the Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act (“Song-Beverly Act”), Cal. Civ. Code § 1792 (West 2009); violations of the MagnusonMoss Warranty—Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act (“Magnuson-Moss Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 2301 et seq.; violations of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ.
Code § 1750 et seq. (West 2009); violations of the California Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq. (West 2008); and common law claims for assumpsit and quasi-contract. Several of those claims were kicked out on motions to dismiss.

Plaintiffs then filed for class certification on the remaining warranty and consumer fraud claims. The court's analysis focused on the  Rule 23(b) requirements of “predominance” and “superiority,” which require that common questions “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members,” and that class resolution be “superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.” Rule 23(b)(3).  The court noted that the class action is an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only. To come within the exception, a party seeking to maintain a class action must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with Rule 23. The Rule does not set forth a mere pleading standard. Rather, a party must not only be prepared to prove that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, typicality of claims or defenses, and adequacy of representation, as required by Rule 23(a). The party must also satisfy through evidentiary proof at least one of the provisions of Rule 23(b).

“To decide whether there is a class-wide basis for deciding the predominant issues, [the court] must first ascertain which are the predominant issues that must be decided on a class basis.” Gene and Gene LLC v. BioPay LLC, 541 F.3d 318, 326 (5th Cir. 2008). The court must identify the substantive issues that will control the outcome of the case, assess which of these issues will predominate, and determine whether these issues are common throughout the proposed class. Id. A class plaintiff cannot merely point to a so-called “common course of conduct” without also demonstrating whether the common course of conduct provides a class-wide basis for deciding the predominant class issues of fact and law. And in order to predominate, common issues must constitute a significant part of the individual cases.

In analyzing whether a class certification motion satisfies the predominance requirement, the court also “must consider how a trial on the merits would be conducted if a class were certified.” See  Sandwich Chef of Tex., Inc. v. Reliance Nat’l Indem. Ins. Co., 319 F.3d 205, 218 (5th Cir. 2003). “This, in turn, entails identifying the substantive issues that will control the outcome, assessing which issues will predominate, and then determining whether the issues are common to the class, a process that ultimately prevents the class from degenerating into a series of individual trials.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. AT&T Corp., 339 F.3d 294, 302 (5th Cir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “Considering whether ‘questions of law or fact common to class members predominate’ begins, of course, with the elements of the underlying cause of action.” Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., 563 U.S. 804, 131 S.Ct. 2179, 2184 (2011) (quoting Rule 23(b)(3)).  The failure to satisfy the predominance requirement is sufficient of itself to warrant denying class certification.

Plaintiffs argued that their legal claims focused on defendants' conduct; that all plaintiffs got the same warranty; that the alleged defect was common to all phones. But the facts revealed that certain class members who experienced uninitiated power off or freezing of the phone may not be covered by the Warranty; for each class member whose phone exhibited the alleged power-off issue, Samsung was entitled to introduce evidence that, as to that class member’s phone, there was another, more likely cause of the power-off issue (including a cause not covered by the Warranty). Thus the determinative question of whether the alleged breach can be established via class-wide proof must, given the particular facts of this case, be answered in the negative, said the court.

While plaintiffs alleged a common design issue, the court noted that plaintiffs will not be able to prevail on their breach of express warranty claims merely by presenting class-wide proof that all Galaxy S phones contained the same alleged defect. Rather, under California law, it would be necessary for plaintiffs to prove that each individual class member’s Galaxy S phone experienced the power-off issue as a result of the allegedly defect, and that this occurred during the one-year Warranty period. This showing could not be made through proof of a common design defect that, for any given class member’s phone, may or may not have caused that phone to malfunction at all,
or to have malfunctioned during the one-year Warranty period. Instead, it would be be necessary
for plaintiffs to introduce individual evidence for each member of the proposed class establishing that the alleged defect caused that particular class member’s phone to experience the power-off
defect within Warranty period.

Individual issues also predominated with respect to the Warranty precondition that a phone purchaser return the phone to an “authorized phone service facility” during the applicable warranty period.  Accordingly, no class member could recover for breach of the Samsung Warranty unless the member first established that he or she returned the phone to an authorized phone service facility during the warranty period. Any trial of plaintiffs’ express warranty claims would require the jury to determine, for each individual class member, whether and when that class member returned the phone to an authorized phone service facility.

Although the presence of individualized issues will not necessarily prevent certification, there must be some underlying common question whose resolution would constitute a significant part of the individual cases. Only mini-trials can determine the issues, so the court held that the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) was not satisfied regarding the warranty claims.

On the UCL claims, the court held that plaintiffs could not establish through class-wide proof the amount that Samsung should disgorge from profits earned from sales of the Galaxy S phones, because Samsung would be entitled to present at trial that most class members received some benefit from their phones—indeed, that many class members received the full benefit from their phones. Plaintiffs could not establish that awarding class members the full amount by which Samsung profited from its sale of the phones correlated, in any way, to the amount necessary to restore to each class member that which Samsung obtained by its allegedly unfair practices. Awarding class members the full amount that Samsung profited could possibly be achieved on a class-wide basis, but this method would result in the award of non-restitutionary disgorgement for many of plaintiffs’ proposed class members, which California law does not permit. 

The court also concluded that plaintiffs had not met their burden of establishing that the award of restitution damages presented a common issue that can be determined on a class-wide basis. The methods that plaintiffs proposed for awarding restitution damages to individual class members actually would require the jury to decide, inter alia, for each individual class member, whether he or she received any value from his or her Galaxy S phone.

Certification motion denied.

 

Federal Court Denies Certification in Groundwater Class Case

A federal judge in Oklahoma earlier this week denied class certification to homeowners living near a research facility, holding that individual issues outweighed allegedly common issues among the class claiming injury from contamination from the site. See Mitchell McCormick, et al. v. Halliburton Co. et al., No. 5:11-cv-01272 (W.D. Ok. 3/3/15).

For several decades, Halliburton performed a variety of important tasks on the Site at issue, including work for the United States Department of Defense cleaning out missile motor casings. This work involved removing solid rocket propellant, consisting primarily of ammonium perchlorate, from the missile casings using a high pressure water jet. As the missile motor casings were  cleaned, water from the hydrojet and the dislodged propellant was run through screens to separate the solid materials from the cleaning water. The solid propellant was collected and periodically burned in pits on the Site, and the cleaning water was ultimately discharged into evaporation ponds. Over time, plaintiffs alleged, perchlorate from these operations reached the groundwater under the Site and migrated off-site.

So in 2011, plaintiffs filed the instant action, asserting causes of action for private nuisance, public nuisance, negligence, trespass, strict liability, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs then moved the Court to certify a class with respect to Halliburton’s alleged liability to the class for damages to their properties.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the class action is an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only.  Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2550 (2011). “To come within the exception, a party seeking to maintain a class action must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with Rule 23.” Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426, 1432 (2013). Further, plaintiff ultimately bears the burden of showing that the Rule 23 requirements are met, and the district court must engage in its own “rigorous analysis” to ensure that certification is appropriate. See Shook v. El Paso Cnty., 386 F.3d 963, 968 (10th Cir. 2004).

Here, that analysis revealed that plaintiffs had not shown that questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.
“Considering whether ‘questions of law or fact common to class members predominate’
begins, of course, with the elements of the underlying cause of action.” Erica P. John Fund, Inc.
v. Halliburton Co., 131 S. Ct. 2179, 2184 (2011). Halliburton’s liability as to any of plaintiffs’ causes of action could not  be determined on a class wide basis because certain elements of plaintiffs’ causes of action require significant individualized evidence.

Regarding plaintiffs’ nuisance causes of action, observed the court, “[a] nuisance consists in unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty which act or omission either . . . annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others; or . . . in any way renders the other persons insecure in life, or in the use of property. . . .” Okla. Stat. tit. 50, § 1. Further, “[i]n order to maintain a cause of action for nuisance, the plaintiff must prove an unlawful act or omission of duty which either injured or endangered his use of his property.” N.C. Corff P’ship, Ltd. v. OXY USA, Inc., 929 P.2d 288, 294 (Okla. Civ. App. 1996).  Thus, in order to establish Halliburton’s liability for nuisance, plaintiffs had to prove an injury to the use and/or the enjoyment of the property or that the use and/or the enjoyment of the property was endangered. This clearly required an individual plaintiff by plaintiff factual determination, i.e., did that particular plaintiff have a well on his property; did that particular plaintiff use the well for drinking water; was that particular plaintiff already on public water; what was the actual use of that particular property, etc. Additionally, regarding a cause of action for public nuisance, “before an individual can abate a public nuisance, it must be shown that the activity is specifically injurious to the person’s rights.” Smicklas v. Spitz, 846 P.2d 362, 369 (Okla. 1992). Further, in order to make this showing, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he sustained injuries “different in kind from that suffered by the public at large.” Schlirf v. Loosen, 232 P.2d 928, 930 (Okla. 1951). Thus, no class member could recover under a public nuisance theory without introducing individualized evidence of special harm different from other members of the public, which would necessarily include other members of the class.

Similarly, regarding plaintiffs’ negligence cause of action, while it is possible plaintiffs could establish duty on a class-wide basis in theory, plaintiffs could not show injury: establishing that defendant proximately caused an injury to a plaintiff is necessarily a highly individualized determination requiring each plaintiff to show that his property contains perchlorate and that the perchlorate came from the Site and not from some other source. Individual issues permeated the other causes of action as well.

The court concluded that "the vast number of important individualized issues" relating to defendant's alleged ultimate liability as to all of plaintiffs’ causes of action overwhelmed any common questions. The Court also found that a trial on whether defendant  released perchlorate into the groundwater, as well as the current and future scope and extent of that groundwater contamination, was unlikely to substantially aid resolution of the ultimate determination of liability. Proof of these allegedly class wide facts would neither establish liability to any class member nor fix the level of damages awarded to any plaintiff; the common facts would not establish a single plaintiff’s entitlement to recover on any theory of liability, or even show that a single plaintiff was injured. Simply put, the individual issues would dwarf whatever common issues there may be, such that a vast array of mini-trials would be required for each class member if certification were granted.

Accordingly, a class action in relation to Halliburton’s liability was not superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy. Even if the Court were to certify the allegedly common issues, the subsequent separate proceedings necessary for each plaintiff
would undo whatever efficiencies such a class proceeding would have been intended to promote.

 

 

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.

 

Class Certification Reversed in Unfair Trade Practices Case

A Florida appeals court recently decertified a class action with an unusual theory: a car maker who allegedly used headlights that can be too easily stolen in its luxury vehicles. See Porsche Cars v. Peter Diamond, et al., No. 3D12-2829 3d DCA Fla. 6/12/14).  One wonders why and how theft of auto parts is not the responsibility of the thief, but perhaps we digress. 

This case focuses on Porsche’s High Intensity Discharge Headlights. The Headlights are an upscale amenity in the luxury car market.  The intense blue-white light given by the Headlights is closer to natural daylight than the yellowish light of regular headlights. The Headlights provide better nighttime visibility than older types of headlights. Since model year 2000, the Headlights have been offered as standard or optional equipment across the Porsche vehicle line. The Headlights were mounted on modules that were slid into a plastic tray in the fender and clamped in place. This mounting made the Headlights less expensive to install and repair. Plaintiffs alleged it made them "easier" to steal. 

In this proposed class action, the class representatives asserted unfair trade practices and unjust enrichment claims. They alleged the defendant distributed a product highly susceptible to theft without taking any remedial steps. Specifically, the defendant allegedly failed to “notify owners of the flaw and potential risk of theft so they could take their own precautions,” to “offer replacement lights at reduced costs,” and to “work with law enforcement agencies to assist in the prevention of the theft of their headlights.”  This, the representatives members allege, violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (“FDUTPA”).  There was an unjust enrichment claim, and the plaintiffs also alleged that the defendant distributor could have redesigned the vehicles in
various ways, even though a car distributor does not design or manufacture vehicles.

The opinion did not reach the issue of whether such a factual theory of damages is viable (it would have been nice to see a blow struck for common sense). But the decision focused on the legal issues raised by the class action. The trial court certified the case as a rule 1.220(b)(3) class action. In a (b)(3) class action, common issues must predominate over individual issues. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.220(b)(3). Common issues predominate when, considering both the rights and duties of the class members, the proof offered by the class representatives will necessarily prove or disprove the cases of the absent class members.  The class representative’s case must not merely raise a common question, but that proof of the class representative’s case must also answer the question.

FDUTPA declares unlawful unfair methods of competition, unconscionable acts or practices, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.  The term “unfair” is
not defined in FDUTPA. Here, the trial judge defined unfair trade practice as one that “offends established policy” and “is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous or substantially injurious to customers.” This definition derives from a 1964 Federal Trade Commission policy statement. In 1980, however, the Federal Trade Commission updated its definition of unfair trade practice. The new definition established a three-pronged test for “unfairness,” which requires that the injury to the consumer:
(1) must be substantial;
(2) must not be outweighed by any countervailing benefits to consumers or competition that the practice produces; and
(3) must be an injury that consumers themselves could not reasonably have avoided.

The court held that Florida law adopted the definition of unfairness contained in the 1980 Policy Statement. The state legislature provided that violations of FDUTPA include violations of the standards of unfairness and deception set forth and interpreted by the Federal Trade Commission or the federal courts. The Florida Legislature amended FDUTPA in 1983, 2001, 2006, and 2013, for the specific purpose of adding to Florida Law the latest interpretations by the Federal Trade Commission or federal courts that occurred since the last statutory amendment.  In light of this history, the 1980 Policy Statement is clearly one of the “standards of unfairness” interpreted by the Federal Trade Commission and federal courts. 

The trial court erroneously adopted the premise that the distributor’s actions could be found to be an unfair trade practice regardless of whether class members knew and could have avoided the risk of the Headlight thefts. From this premise, it reasoned “an individual class member’s pre-purchase knowledge of the potential risk of theft was not relevant to the Plaintiff’s FDUTPA claim.” Since the premise was wrong, so was the conclusion.  The individual class member’s knowledge of the risk of Headlight theft bears on whether the practice was unfair because it impacts whether the consumer could reasonably avoid the risk. Given the nature of the claim in this case—that the Headlights functioned great as headlights but were too susceptible to theft—an individual class members knowledge of the risk of  theft goes to the heart of his or her claim.


To prove an unfair trade practice, the class must prove that the injury caused by the allegedly unfair trade practice could not have been reasonably avoided by the consumers.  The idea behind the reasonably avoidable inquiry is that free and informed consumer choice is the first and best
regulator of the marketplace: consumers may act to avoid injury before it occurs if they have reason to anticipate the impending harm and the means to avoid it, or they may seek to mitigate the damage afterward if they are aware of potential avenues toward that end.  A jury might well find that a consumer who knew the Headlights were targeted by thieves had avenues available to reasonably avoid the risk. This is particularly true where, as here, the alleged problem of theft was greater in some geographic locations than others. How about consumers park in only safe areas, install alarm systems extending to the mounting module, or, if these options were not acceptable, decline to purchase or lease a Porsche with the Headlights? Given the theory of this case, the knowledge of some class members that the Headlights were prone to theft could not be ignored.

Similarly, the determination of unjust enrichment would turn on individual facts. A court would be hard pressed to conclude that a distributor was unjustly enriched when class members with the sophistication and knowledge of the product continued to seek out the Headlights even when they knew of the thefts.

The court concluded that when the individual knowledge and experience of the consumer is an
important element of the cause of action and its defense, there can be no class-wide proof that injury was not reasonably avoidable.

Class certification reversed and remanded. 

Seventh Circuit Affirms Ruling Despite Comcast

The Seventh Circuit reaffirmed class certification yesterday in a case involving front loading washers, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's remand of the matter in light of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend. See Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 11-8029 (7th Cir. 8/22/13). 

Readers will recall that earlier this year, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 702 F.3d 359 (7th Cir. 2012) for further consideration in light of Comcast  Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). The Seventh Circuit had certified two class actions of washer consumers despite multiple significant differences among class members, including admitted variations in laundry habits; differences in remedial efforts; variation in service performed on the machines. And despite the fact that a reported 97% of the class had never complained of a problem or suffered the alleged defect..

On remand, the court of appeals affirmed its earlier ruling that the predominance requirement was satisfied; the court reasoned it supposedly "would drive a stake through the heart of the class action device, in cases in which damages were sought rather than an injunction or a declaratory judgment, to require that every member of the class have identical damages.”  If the issues of liability are genuinely common issues, and the damages of individual class members can be readily determined in individual hearings, in settlement negotiations, or by creation of subclasses, the fact that damages are not identical across all class members should not preclude class certification, the court concluded.

The Seventh Circuit in essence found that Rule 23(c)(4) permits a class action limited to determining liability on a class-wide basis, with separate hearings to determine the damages of individual class members or groups of class members.

Of course, the Supreme Court did not require that all class members' damages be identical -- a straw man from the court of appeals -- but clearly disapproved of the traditional approach that damages were not part of the predominance requirement.  And the court of appeals' explicit reference to settlement as an equally valid and available mechanism for resolving individual damages issues fundamentally illustrates the error of its opinion.  A class action cannot be certified under Rule 23, under the Rules Enabling Act, or basic notions of due process, on the basis that settlement may resolve predominating individual issues.  That is the essence of blackmail class action settlements. A class has to be certified on the premise that it will not settle, that it will go trial, and that handling all of the individual issues can properly and efficiently take place in a trial.  The Seventh Circuit's approach to the Rule 23(c)(4) issue certification is also a dangerous “end-run” around Rule 23(b)(3) and the predominance requirement. Nor can this approach be reconciled with Comcast or Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011).

This case, along with Glazer v. Whirlpool Corp., 2013 WL 3746205 (6th Cir. July 18, 2013), are likely headed back to the Supreme Court.  In the meantime, defendants will need to focus the courts on issues of manageability and trial plan, and make clear they intend to try each and every mini-trial, exercising their full due process rights, if the courts actually certify these types of cases.

Class Certification Denied in Minivan Case

A federal court last week denied class certification in a case alleging that vehicle axles were allegedly prone to cracking.   See Martin v. Ford Motor Co., No. 2:10-cv-02203 (E.D. Pa., 7/2/13).

Plaintiff filed suit against Ford on behalf of himself and others similarly situated claiming breach of express and implied warranties, unjust enrichment, and violations of state consumer protection laws. The claim related to alleged issues with the rear axle installed on 1998½ -2003 Ford Windstars.  Plaintiff moved to certify four classes of Windstar owners: an express warranty class, an implied warranty class, a consumer protection act class, and an unjust enrichment class.  Each included owners from several different states. Plaintiff moved to certify these four classes pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and (b)(3), seeking injunctive relief and monetary damages on behalf of class members.

The court denied class certification in a lengthy and comprehensive opinion.  For our post, let's focus on the b(3) claim and the predominance element. Failure to satisfy the predominance requirement has doomed many an automotive defect cases. Federal courts have recognized that suits alleging defects involving motor vehicles often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect.

When a proposed class includes members from different states, there may be a choice of law problem that relates to predominance (as well as superiority and manageability). Several of the states in the express warranty class contain material differences in their legal definition of a breach of express warranty claim. Some of the group, but not all, required that a buyer show reliance on a statement or representation made by the seller as condition for recovery on a breach of express warranty claim. These differences undermine any finding of predominance. 

The court also found that a breach could not be proven without also inquiring into each individual class member’s Windstar experience, since the vast majority of Class members —approximately 83.2% — had not experienced any problems with their rear axles seven to twelve years after their vehicles were manufactured. In deciding whether Ford breached the express warranty that Windstars were “free from defects in material and workmanship,” a trier-of-fact could not solely look at evidence of Ford’s knowledge of the rear axle issues from 1997 through 2003, but must also consider how each axle performed through 2010. For example, a class member might own a 1998 Ford Windstar with 160,000 miles, which has been driven daily for twelve years without a problem. A second class member may have used his 2000 Windstar to travel constantly for business, putting 200,000 miles on the vehicle. A third class member may have only 50,000 miles on a 2003 Windstar because the class member drives the vehicle only on weekends. A fourth class member may have been forced to replace his original axle after only three months of use -- but because of a serious rear-end collision. None of these class members suffered an axle fracture. Were not these vehicles of different ages, with different mileage, in different conditions, which have been driven without a problem “free from defects”? These matters cannot be addressed by a trier-of-fact without consideration of the individual factual scenarios, said the court.

Even assuming breach could be proven on a class-wide basis, the calculation of damages for express warranty class members would be impossible without individualized inquiries into each claim.  The court cited to the Supreme Court's recent decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend that a model purporting to serve as evidence of damages in a class action must measure only those damages attributable to the theory of the case. If the model does not even attempt to do that, it cannot possibly establish that damages are susceptible of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3). 133 S. Ct. 1426, 1433 (2013). Here, plaintiffs' damages model was based on injury to the resale price of a used Windstar; but that price would be based on a multitude of factors, of which the allegedly defective rear axle is but one. See, e.g., Carpenter v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 1999 WL 415390, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 21, 1999) (value of a vehicle is dependent on a "whole host of individualized factors including age, mileage, repair and maintenance history and accidents or damage.’”); see also Chin v. Chrysler Corp., 182 F.R.D. 448, 463 (D.N.J. 1998)). The need to take into account this multitude of factors creates a proximate cause issue, and required individual proof. Good to see the lower courts applying this important Supreme Court guidance.

Similarly, proving breach of implied warranty, that the Ford Windstars were not “fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used,” was a question of fact with multiple relevant factors raising individual issues. Facts relevant to this inquiry would include not only the allegedly common testing and
monitoring of the axle but, as stated above in discussing the express warranty class, the experience of each individual Class member with the Ford Windstar.  And even if breach could be proven by using only common facts, the calculation of damages for the implied warranty class would face the exact same obstacle; again, approximately 83.2% of Windstar owners have not experienced any problems with
their rear axles. Plaintiff claimed that these Class members suffered damages through a reduction
in the resale value of their vehicles after a safety recall was initiated. Even assuming the recall did affect the market price for used Windstars, plaintiff had not provided a method to calculate the decrease in value on a class-wide basis.

Next the consumer protection claim required plaintiffs to prove each class member suffered a cognizable injury. To determine whether a class member suffered an “ascertainable loss,” and whether that loss was “as a result of” Ford’s alleged concealment or omission of information regarding the Windstar’s rear axle, would require the trier-of-fact to consider facts unique to each individual class member.  That is, plaintiff would encounter the same insurmountable obstacles in his attempt to prove a class-wide “ascertainable loss” suffered “as a result of” Ford’s conduct as he would encounter attempting to prove class-wide damages for the express and implied warranty classes.  Simply put, for a class member whose rear axle has not fractured — which was the vast majority of class members — proving a used Windstar suffered a loss in value because of Ford’s safety recall requires an inquiry into the age, mileage, and overall condition of the vehicle. This individual fact-gathering process would be essential to a consumer protection claim, and therefore fatal to the predominance requirement for class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).

Finally, the first element of an unjust enrichment claim — whether a class member conferred a benefit on Ford — again required an inquiry into each class member’s experience with the Windstar. Moreover, another element — whether it would be unjust for Ford to retain money provided by class members in view of the allegedly defective rear axle — was also incapable of proof without reference to individual facts. Ford’s actions could only be considered unjust if money was retained after selling a defective product. To prove a defect required the trier-of-fact to consider Ford’s conduct alongside each class member’s experience with the Windstar. The vast majority of class members have had no problems with their rear axles. The trier-of-fact would therefore have to consider whether Ford’s retention of the full purchase price of a 1998 Windstar, for example, was "unjust" in a situation where the Windstar has been driven by a class member for twelve years without incident.

Certification denied.

Federal Court Rejects Truck Class Action Because Defendant Actually Has Right To Defend

A federal court recently rejected plaintiffs' class certification bid in a suit against Ford Motor Co. relating to diesel engines in some vehicles. Corder v. Ford Motor Co., No. 3:05-CV-00016 (W.D. Ky., 7/25/12).

Corder brought an action against Ford for allegedly violating the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act (“KCPA”). Corder alleged that the diesel engines installed in model year 2003 F-Series Super Duty Trucks and Excursions were "highly problematic."  Plaintiff then allegedly purchased a model year 2004 Ford F-250 Super Duty Truck with what he claimed was a “2003 engine” that did not have the improvements that were in the “2004 engine” According to plaintiff, non-disclosure of installation of the “2003 engine” in his model year 2004 truck was an unfair, false, misleading, or deceptive act within the meaning of the KCPA.

Ford noted that it makes running changes to its vehicles, including the engines, throughout the year. Purchasers of 2004 model year trucks built prior to October of 2003 received multiple slightly different engines, and all of those engines were improved over engines installed on most 2003 vehicles.

Following initial discovery, Ford moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, finding that Corder had not shown that Ford’s actions were false, misleading, or deceptive within the meaning of the KCPA, nor had Corder shown that he suffered an “ascertainable loss,” as is required to maintain a private action under the KCPA. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. Corder v. Ford Motor Co., 285 F. App’x 226 (6th Cir. 2008).  Upon remand, Corder filed a motion to certify a national class, but the district court found that a national class was not viable because the laws of each of the states in which the putative class members purchased their vehicles would have to be applied, which would lead to significant problems of individualized proof and manageability.

Plaintiff then amended, seeking to represent a class of only Kentucky residents. The court concluded that Rule 23(b)(3) was still not met. In order to meet the demand of Rule 23(b)(3) that common issues predominate, a plaintiff must show 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. Beattie v. CenturyTel, Inc., 511 F.3d 554, 564 (6th Cir. 2007). The predominance requirement in Rule 23(b)(3) guards against certifying class actions that could overwhelm or confuse a jury or compromise a party’s defense. Thus,  certification is not appropriate unless it is determinable from the outset that the individual issues can be considered in a manageable, time-efficient, and fair manner.

For Ford to be liable for damages under the KCPA, plaintiff had to establish that: (1) the person purchased or leased a Ford vehicle in question primarily for personal, family, or household purposes; (2) the person suffered an ascertainable loss; and (3) the loss was a result of an unfair, false, misleading or deceptive act or practice.

In this case, the need to determine the primary purpose for each customer’s purchase required an individualized inquiry that would overwhelm any alleged common issues. The trucks
at issue were not the type of product about which it may be inferred that all, or even the vast majority, were purchased primarily for a personal, family, or household purpose.  Indeed there was evidence suggesting that a large number of the purchasers of the trucks at issue bought them primarily for commercial use. And the Ford Design Analysis Engineer stated that it was “designed for heavy-duty use, including commercial use, and was too large to fit in many home garages."  The court noted that the burden on a class certification motion belongs to the plaintiff, In re Whirlpool Corp. Front-Loading Washer Prods. Liab. Litig., 678 F.3d 409, 416 (6th Cir. 2012), but Corder offered no evidence controverting the suggestion that numerous customers purchased their trucks either partially or wholly for commercial purposes. Litigation of that issue would  require individualized inquiries into numerous class members. Clearly, the question of why any particular customer purchased the pickup truck was not something that can be resolved on a classwide basis.

Moreover, this element was a subjective one by its terms, focusing on the reasons underlying a
particular person’s reasons for purchasing a truck. Indeed, the statute did not restrict claims
to those purchasers whose only purpose was personal, family, or household related, but required
only that such a purpose be the primary one. That a purchaser can have a commercial purpose for the purchase of a truck, so long as that is only a secondary purpose, made the individualized inquiries and their resolution by a jury all the more detailed and complicated.

So far, a solid but not particularly uncommon analysis.  What is especially worthwhile for readers of MassTortDefense is that  plaintiff, as is growing more common, suggested that the court could simply use questionnaires, claim forms, or “judicial notice” to resolve the primary use inquiry. But none of those suggestions allowed for Ford to do what Ford was entitled to do: litigate the issue before a jury with respect to each customer for whom the relevant facts and inferences to be drawn therefrom are disputed. The requirement that a person have purchased a product primarily for personal, family, or household use prior to a finding of liability under KRS § 367.220 is an explicit element of the statute. Ford, of course, had every right to demand a full litigation of that element of the cause of action, and for each putative class member no less. The Rules Enabling Act forbids interpreting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, including Rule 23, to “abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2072(b). Accordingly, a court could not certify a class action under the premise that Ford would not be entitled to fully litigate that statutory element in front of a jury, at least for those class members where the facts and inferences to be drawn therefrom are disputed. See Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2561 (“Because the Rules Enabling Act forbids interpreting Rule 23 to ‘abridge, enlarge or modify any substantive right,’ a class cannot be certified on the premise that Wal-Mart will not be entitled to litigate its statutory defenses to individual claims”).

While plaintiff also argued that an “appropriate trial plan” would allow for resolution of the necessary individualized inquiries, he did not provide any detailed suggestion as to what sort of appropriate trial plan would allow for the resolution of the potentially numerous individualized inquiries without overwhelming the trial and the jury. Simply put, plaintiff could not meet his burden of showing that class certification was appropriate by making conclusory statements about questionnaires, judicial notice, or an appropriate trial plan.

 

 

Federal Court Denies Class Certification in Licensing Case

A New York federal court rejected a class certification motion recently in a suit over Scholastic Corp.'s alleged use of photographs in publications for one of its reading skills programs. See Palmer Kane LLC v. Scholastic Corp., No.1:11-cv-07456 (S.D.N.Y. 7/16/12).

It's a copyright case, which is not one of our typical areas of focus, but the class issues are illustrative more broadly.  As an aside, your humble blogger recalls fondly when, as a wee lad, the monthly Scholastic flyer was distributed in grade school, and there was an opportunity to pick out a new book to read. Defendant Scholastic has, since its founding in 1920, been a designer and developer of educational publications and services.

Plaintiff brought this purported class action alleging that Scholastic committed copyright infringement on images it allegedly used in certain of its books by printing more copies of the books than was allowed under the licenses it held, or by publishing the books prior to obtaining a license. The "READ 180" program at issue had multiple components geared toward students, teachers and school administrators: printed workbooks, instructional software, electronic books, paperback books and videos. The printed components of the materials that made up the READ 180 program contained thousands of illustrations and photographs. 

Plaintiffs sought certification of a class allegedly impacted by excessive or unauthorized uses of the images. In response, defendant offered evidence of Scholastic's complex process for obtaining licenses for images used in READ 180.

In evaluating a motion for class certification, the district court is required to make a definitive assessment of Rule 23 requirements, notwithstanding their overlap with merits issues, and must resolve material factual disputes relevant to each Rule 23 requirement.  What matters to class certification is not the raising of common questions--even in droves--but, rather the capacity of a class-wide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation. Dissimilarities within the proposed class are what have the real potential to impede the generation of common answers. E.g., Salon FAD v. L'Oreal USA, Inc., No. 10 Civ. 5063, 2011 WL 4089902, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 14, 2011). 

Here, plaintiff could not show that a class can be certified under the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b) (3). The court determined that the core of plaintiff's allegations was that Scholastic exceeded the scope of licenses that it negotiated with agents of rights holders or rights holders themselves. Because in order to answer whether Scholastic in fact held a license to use those images would necessarily involve, and depend upon, inquiries into a multitude of individual  relationships and interactions (between Scholastic and the rights owner; between Scholastic and the licensing agent; between the rights owner and the licensing agent), common questions of law or fact did not predominate over individual questions and a class action would not fairly and efficiently adjudicate these issues.

For example, as to some images, defendant entered into what Scholastic called "Preferred Vendor Agreements" that set out terms of the two parties' licensing arrangement with respect to future images.  But these agreements were far from uniform, differing as to usage rights, print run limitations, invoicing practices and the reuse of images --  all key issues.  Moreover, the Preferred Vendor Agreements were a product of negotiations between different personnel at Scholastic and the photo houses. Any inquiry into their terms would a review of representations that were individualized and could vary case by case.

Other agreements, not covered by a PVA, also raised individual issues. Each license obtained by Scholastic may have had different limitations placed on it by its rights holder and/or licensing agent--making an inquiry into the nature of the alleged infringements difficult (and maybe impossible) to resolve on a class-wide basis. The individualized inquiries necessary to determine the breadth of the licenses granted by each individual rights holder, often as a product of individual negotiation processes, was yet another factor militating against granting class certification.
 

Thus, plaintiff failed to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it could prove its claims on a class-wide scale, by referring to generalized proof. Accordingly, its motion to certify a class was denied.

The key here for our readers is when the facts involving plaintiffs' interactions with defendant appear complicated, use that complexity to full advantage on the issues of commonality and predominance.

 

Consumer Fraud Class Action Decertified in Drug Case

A state appeals court last week de-certified a class action by consumers over alleged misrepresentations in marketing a drug.  See Merck & Co. v. Ratliff, No. 2011-000234 (Ky. Ct. App.,  2/10/12).

The case involved the drug Vioxx, which was a highly effective medication formerly in widespread use for patients with arthritis and other conditions causing chronic or acute pain.  Plaintiff was a former user of Vioxx for his chronic osteoarthritis.  Although Ratliff’s insurance paid for most of the cost of the drug, which was at the time approximately $66 per month, Ratliff contributed about $5 each month out of pocket.  Ratliff discontinued using Vioxx in early 2004.

Plaintiff brought a putative class action on behalf of product users who had not suffered cardio-vascular side effects, alleging that the defendant deceived the members of the proposed class in violation of the state Consumer Protection Act by promoting and/or allowing the sale of Vioxx with the use of unfair, false, misleading or deceptive acts or practices.  As a result, the class purchased the drug when it wouldn't have otherwise.

The case followed a twisting path, to federal court, to the MDL, back to state court, up to the state supreme court on mandamus, and back.  Long story short, the class was certified by the trial court, and that decision eventually became ripe for review by the court of appeals.

The Kentucky rules are similar to the federal class action rules. The trial court certified the class under the prong (like b3) requiring that the questions of law or fact common to members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action
is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy. The trial court found that common questions of law and fact did predominate, stating that there was a common nucleus of facts from which the potential plaintiffs’ claims arose. All of the potential
plaintiffs were prescribed Vioxx by doctors who supposedly relied on Merck’s assertions that it was safe and effective.

On appeal, Merck contended that plaintiff’s claims would require individualized proof such that common questions would not predominate. Merck argued that individual proof would be necessary to show that Merck made fraudulent or negligent misrepresentations toward each putative class member or his or her physician through the marketing and sale of Vioxx, that the alleged
misrepresentations were received by each putative member’s physician, that each putative member’s physician relied on such representations in his or her decision to prescribe Vioxx over another drug, and the amount of any damages suffered by each putative member.

The court of appeals noted that the common law misrepresentation claims would require proof of causation in the nature of reliance, and while "there are fewer obstacles to a class claim proceeding under the" state consumer protection act, that law still requires loss as a result of the wrongful act. Plaintiffs alleged that there was supposedly a consistent pattern of deception lasting essentially the entire time that Vioxx was on the market, and thus that generalized proof could be used to show the elements of fraud and misrepresentation in this case. This theory concerning generalized proof regarding Merck’s alleged conduct was similar to the rebuttable presumption of reliance and causation known in securities litigation as "fraud-on-the-market." The court of appeals noted that the “fraud-on-the-market” approach had never been recognized in the state for a fraud or misrepresentation case. Indeed, pretty much every other jurisdiction which has been confronted with the theory has rejected it outside of the securities litigation context. See, e.g., Kaufman v. i-Stat Corp, 754 A.2d 1188, 1191 (N.J. 2000); International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 68 Welfare Fund v. Merck & Co., Inc, 929 A.2d 1076, 1088 (N.J. 2007); Mirkin v. Wasserman, 858 P.2d 568, 584-95 (CA. 1993); Southeast Laborers Health and Welfare Fund v. Bayer Corp., 2011 WL 5061645 (11th Cir. 2011); Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).

Accordingly, causation, reliance, and damages must be shown on an individual basis. Thus, if the action were tried as a class, even after the alleged common questions of Merck’s representations were decided, the case would essentially fragment into a series of amalgamated “mini-trials” on each of these individualized questions. Because these individualized questions would substantially overtake the litigation, and would override any common questions of law or fact concerning defendant’s alleged conduct, the court found that a class action was not the superior mechanism by which to try these cases. See, e.g., Zinser v. Accufix Research Institute, Inc., 253 F.3d 1180, 1192 (9th Cir. 2001).

 

 

Class Certification Denied in Baby Formula Case

A federal court last week denied class certification in a lawsuit over insect parts allegedly found in baby formula, recognizing that the claims raised multiple individual issues. Brandner v. Abbott Laboratories, et al., No. 2:10-cv-03242 (E.D. La. 1/23/12).

Plaintiff filed this suit in connection with Abbott’s September, 2010 recall of Similac brand infant formula because of the concern that insect parts may have been observed in a batch of finished product.  Brandner asserted that she purchased, and her child consumed, Similac that was
part of the product recall.  Plaintiff contended that during this period her child suffered alleged gastrointestinal problems, which symptoms required numerous visits to a physician, and that she allegedly experienced severe emotional distress upon learning she had fed her child infant formula containing beetles and beetle larvae.

Plaintiff's Rule 23 (b)(2) class allegations were dismissed, but plaintiff then sought monetary damages and moved to certify a class on her products liability and redhibition claims under
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3). Defendant opposed this certification motion on the grounds that she failed to satisfy the commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation requirements of Rule 23(a), as well as the predominance and superiority requirements of Rule 23(b)(3). The court's focus was on the predominance and superiority issues, and found no need to reach all the other questions.

Predominance of individual issues under the product liability claim-

Louisiana law requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that the product was unreasonably dangerous when it left the manufacturer’s control. Whether each class member actually purchased contaminated Similac was subject to individualized, not collective proof. Second, each putative class member would need to establish that Abbott’s actions were a proximate cause of his or her injury. Jefferson v. Lead Indus. Ass’n, Inc., 106 F.3d 1245, 1247 (5th Cir. 1997).  The plaintiff's cause of action here would require proof of medical causation, which has two components, general causation, which establishes that a substance has the capability of causing the injury or disorder in humans, and specific causation, which focuses upon whether the substance caused a particular injury to a particular individual. E.g., Ridgeway v. Pfizer, Inc.,, 2010 WL 1729187, at *2 (E.D. La. Apr. 27, 2010).  Even assuming general causation, proving specific causation would require a determination of an individual’s family and medical history; age; gender; diet; the timing of ingestion of the product; whether that individual suffered an injury, when the injury occurred, the type of injury suffered, and the number of occurrences of injury; and more. See In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., 239 F.R.D. 450, 459 (E.D. La. 2006)(citing In re Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) Prods. Liab. Litig., 208 F.R.D. 625, 631-32 (W.D. Wash. 2002)).

This highly individualized inquiry led the court to conclude that issues common to the class did
not predominate.   Interestingly, the court went on to note that all plaintiffs who claimed emotional distress (an issue that plaintiff contended was common to the class) would have to establish not only the distress but also the attendant damages. The damages issue required a determination  whether plaintiffs sought medical treatment, psychiatric treatment, the degree to which plaintiffs manifested generalized fear, and the severity of plaintiffs’ emotional distress. See Howard v. Union Carbide Corp., 897 So.2d 768, 774 (La. App. 2005). Because the determination of whether each member suffered emotional distress turned on a highly individualized assessment, questions of fact regarding individual members predominated over common issues of fact.  While the individual nature of damages alone does not necessarily preclude class certification, class treatment may not be suitable where the calculation of damages is not susceptible to a mathematical or formulaic calculation. Establishing emotional damages would entail the exact type of “mini-trials” the courts have cautioned against. Indeed, the very nature of these damages, compensating plaintiffs for emotional and other intangible injuries, necessarily implicated the subjective differences of each plaintiff’s circumstances; they were an individual, not class-wide, remedy.  See Allison v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 151 F.3d 402, 417 (5th Cir. 1998). See also In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 401 Fed. Appx. 884, 887 (5th Cir. 2010) (class certification not appropriate when individualized issues, such as the nature and extent of a class member’s damages, will predominate).

Superiority- 

The court also found that plaintiff made no showing of how she would try these claims on a class-wide basis. She thus failed to demonstrate how she would overcome the manageability problems posed by claims that require such disparate proof. Accordingly, she had not satisfied the requirement that a class action be superior to other available methods of adjudicating the controversy.

Other claims-

Plaintiff's redhibition claims also could not be certified as a class because common issues did not predominate, and a class action was not a superior mechanism for trying these claims. Plaintiff argued, in essence, that defendant admitted defect in recalling lots of the product.  But the court found that the recall notice was far from an admission that every unit contained a
redhibitory defect. Indeed, the press release actually stated that there was only a “remote possibility” of contamination in the products subject to recall. Plaintiff could not show through common proof that each class member purchased a defective product.  Plaintiff's expert did not convince the court otherwise. The overall rate of contamination in tested samples was only 0.16%.  The expert admitted there was no scientific way to evaluate contamination in units that were recalled but not tested.  And even if the product was considered “adulterated” per the FDCA, a food product is adulterated, inter alia, if it has been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary
conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health. So a product can be “adulterated” under the FDCA without being contaminated or defective.

Class certification denied under (b)(3).

Ninth Circuit Applies Dukes

The Ninth Circuit issued an interesting class action decision applying several of the key aspects of the recent Supreme Court decision in Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.  See Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 2011 WL 4336668  (9th Cir. 2011).

The case was a gender discrimination claim; while we don't focus on labor law here at MassTortDefense, the Rule 23 guidance is instructive generally for many of our class action cases.

The district court certified the class, which alleged gender discrimination, and Costco appealed. Let's focus on three instructive aspects of the Ninth Circuit's analysis.

The trial court had found the commonality prerequisite, but the court of appeals noted that it is insufficient for plaintiffs to merely allege a common question. See Wal–Mart, 131 S.Ct. at 2551–52. Instead, they must pose a question that “will produce a common answer to the crucial question.” Id. at 2552; see also id. at 2551 (“What matters to class certification is not the raising of common ‘questions' ... but, rather the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation.”). In other words, plaintiffs must have a common question that will connect many individual promotional decisions to their claim for class relief.

In thinking about common issues, some courts have remained reluctant to delve into the merits of the claims. The Ninth Circuit reminds us that it is not correct to say a district court may consider the merits to the extent that they overlap with class certification issues; rather, a district court must consider the merits if they overlap with the Rule 23(a) requirements. Here, the defendant challenged the admissibility of the plaintiffs' experts' opinions, and the district court seemed to have confused the Daubert standard with the distinct “rigorous analysis” standard to be applied when analyzing commonality. Instead of judging the persuasiveness of the evidence presented about commonality, the district court seemed to end its analysis of the plaintiffs' evidence after determining such evidence was merely admissible. To the extent the district court limited its analysis of whether there was commonality to a determination of whether plaintiffs' evidence on that point was admissible, it did so in error.

(Specifically, while plaintiffs alleged nationwide discrimination, their proof seemed to show great variation in defendant alleged conduct by region. Plaintiffs would face an exceedingly difficult challenge in proving that there were questions of fact and law common to the proposed nationwide class, but the district court failed to engage in a “rigorous analysis” on this point.)

Next is typicality. Costco argued that plaintiffs could not satisfy the typicality requirement because each of the named plaintiffs' respective discrimination claims were subject to unique defenses. The district court rejected this argument and held that, as a general matter, individualized defenses do not defeat typicality. This was also error. A named plaintiff's motion for class certification should not be granted if there is a danger that absent class members will suffer if their representative is preoccupied with defenses unique to him or her. A unique background or factual situation may require a named plaintiff to prepare to meet defenses that are not typical of the defenses which may be raised against other members of the proposed class. 

Third, the court examined the effort of plaintiffs to get damages in a 23(b)(2) class. The prior thinking was that in Rule 23(b)(2) cases, monetary damage requests might be allowable if they were merely incidental to the litigation, but "this standard has been called into doubt by the Supreme Court" in Wal–Mart, 131 S.Ct. at 2560. The Supreme Court rejected the “predominance” test for determining whether monetary damages may be included in a 23(b)(2) class certification. Id. at 2559. Instead of considering the amount of the damages sought or the subjective intent of the class members seeking relief to determine if injunctive relief “predominates,” the first relevant inquiry, said the Ninth Circuit, is what procedural safeguards are required by the Due Process Clause for the type of relief sought. Id. at 2557–58.

While rule 23(b)(3) arguably expanded the breadth of possible class actions, it also expanded the procedural protections afforded the class. Unlike classes certified under Rule 23(b)(1) or (b)(2), a(b)(3) class is not mandatory. Instead, putative class members are afforded the right to be notified of the action and to opt out of the class. The absence of these protections in a class action predominantly for monetary damages violates due process. And the Wal–Mart court opined: “We fail to see why the Rule should be read to nullify these protections whenever a plaintiff class, at its option, combines its monetary claims with a request—even a ‘predominating request’—for an injunction.” 131 S.Ct. at 2559.

Even beyond the due process issue, the Supreme Court also stated that claims for individualized relief (like the backpay at issue here) do not satisfy Rule 23(b)(2), because the “key to the (b)(2) class is the indivisible nature of the injunctive or declaratory remedy warranted."  Id. at 2557.  Rule 23(b)(2) does not authorize class certification when each class member would be entitled to an individualized award of monetary damages. Here, the district court erred, therefore, by focusing on evidence of plaintiffs' subjective intent, instead of on whether the monetary relief could be granted absent individualized determinations of each class member's eligibility.

The court of appeals vacated the district court's order finding that Plaintiffs had satisfied Rule 23(b)(2) and remand for the district court to apply the legal standard confirmed in Wal–Mart.  

Class Certification Denied in Printer Litigation

A federal court recently denied class certification in a case brought on behalf of consumers accusing Epson America Inc. of misrepresenting how its NX series of printers functioned with ink cartridges. Christopher O’Shea et al. v. Epson America Inc. et al., No. 09-cv-08063 C.D. Cal.). Readers may recall our post that the court earlier dismissed many of the plaintiffs' claims on the basis that a manufacturer is not required under consumer protection laws to denigrate its own product and broadcast that its product may not perform as well as its competition.

In May 2009, plaintiff Rogers purchased a “Stylus NX 200” inkjet printer manufactured by defendants. Her decision to purchase this printer was allegedly based, in part, on a statement on the printer box that read: “Replace only the color you need with individual ink cartridges.”  Plaintiff allegedly understood this statement to mean that the printer would only require a black cartridge to print black text. In actuality, plaintiff alleged, the Epson NX 200 printer requires all cartridges to function. She subsequently filed suit against Epson claiming that Epson failed to disclose and affirmatively misrepresented the features of the printer.

Plaintiff  moved for class certification.  The interesting part of the court's analysis relates to the predominance issue under Rule 23(b)(3). Even though individualized questions of reliance and materiality were diminished under some of the plaintiff's theories because the consumer fraud claims are governed by the “reasonable consumer” test, which requires plaintiff to show that members of the public are likely to be deceived, Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 523 F.3d 934, 938 (9th Cir. 2008), the notions of reliance and injury still impacted class certification. Specifically, the court was not convinced that members of the putative class had standing to pursue their claims in federal court. To have standing under Article III, a plaintiff must present an injury that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action; and redressable by a favorable ruling.

In the context of Rule 23(b)(3), questions of Article III standing amount to an inquiry as to whether individual issues of injury-in-fact and causation predominate over common issues. While case law suggested that absent class members need not establish standing under the requirements of California’s consumer laws, there is a distinct requirement of Article III standing in federal court.  Statutory interpretations cannot permit a federal class action to proceed where class members lack Article III standing.  The requirement that all members of the class have Article III standing makes sense. If that were not the rule, a class could include members who could not themselves bring suit to recover, thus permitting a windfall to those class members and allowing Rule 23 to enlarge substantive rights.  The court therefore held that absent class members must satisfy the requirements of Article III.

Satisfaction of Article III’s requirements in turn raised individualized issues that defeated certification under Rule 23(b)(3) in this case. Article III requires some showing of injury and causation for a plaintiff to recover. Even if the alleged failure to disseminate truthful information about the product  would be subject to common proof, whether each class member was entitled to recover was not susceptible to proof on a class-wide basis because, to establish standing under Article III, each class member was required to show that they suffered some injury as a result of using or buying the product. Plaintiff therefore must show that all persons in the United States who purchased an Epson NX series printer during the class period suffered an injury which was caused by Epson’s alleged misrepresentation, and which was likely to be redressed by a decision in plaintiff’s favor. The record contained evidence indicating that the injury purportedly suffered by some members of the putative class could not fairly be traced to Epson’s allegedly deceptive representation.  Those individuals who purchased printers from certain third-party on-line sources, such as Amazon.com, were not exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation before they purchased their printers. Not all consumers who purchased an NX200 printer bought it at a retail store. Nor could standing be established by plaintiff’s (unsupported) assertion that the misrepresentation was on every box of the subclass, since some individuals purchased class printers without ever having been exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation. The fact that these individuals may have subsequently seen the misrepresentation when the package arrived in the mail was beside the point. There cannot be a causal connection between the consumer’s injury (the money spent on the printer) and Epson’s alleged misconduct (the purportedly deceptive advertising) because these consumers purchased the printers without ever seeing the purported misrepresentation.

Based on the foregoing, the court found that individualized issues of injury and causation permeated the class claims.The proposed class failed to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common issues predominate.

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Court of Appeals Rejects Medical Monitoring Class Action

The Third Circuit last week affirmed a lower court decision denying class certification in a medical monitoring case alleging vinyl chloride exposures. Gates v. Rohm & Haas Co., No. 10-2108 (3d Cir.,  8/25/11).

Readers may recall we posted on this case at the trial court level last year.  Plaintiffs alleged that vinyl chloride released from Rohm & Haas’s specialty chemicals manufacturing facility in Ringwood, Illinois contaminated the groundwater in and around McCollum Lake Village, as well as the air in the Village. Plaintiffs alleged that between 1968 and 2002, the vinyl chloride evaporating from the shallow plume blew over the Village, contaminating the air in the Village and causing some Village residents to breathe varying amounts of it. Plaintiffs claimed that the levels of vinyl chloride in the Village air were higher than the background level.

Plaintiffs sought certification of two classes: (1) a class seeking medical monitoring for Village residents exposed to the airborne vinyl chloride between 1968 and 2002, and (2) a liability-only issue class seeking compensation for property damage from the exposure. (We will focus on medical monitoring.)

The district court denied certification; it found the medical monitoring class lacked the cohesiveness needed to maintain a class under Rule 23(b)(2), and that common issues of law and fact did not predominate as required under Rule 23(b)(3). Both failed for the same reason—the “common” evidence proposed for trial did not adequately typify the specific individuals that composed the two classes. In particular, the court found plaintiffs failed to present common proof of three issues critical to recovering on the medical monitoring claim—(1) that plaintiffs suffered from exposure greater than normal background levels, (2) the proximate result of which is significantly increased risk of developing a serious disease, and (3) whether the proposed medical monitoring regime is reasonably medically necessary.  The court also found the remaining individual issues would require individual trial proceedings, undoing any efficiencies of class treatment and possibly leading a second jury to reconsider evidence presented to the jury in the class proceeding.

Plaintiffs took an interlocutory appeal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f) from the denial of class certification. The court of appeals affirmed.

The Third Circuit offered a number of important points for readers that may be confronting putative medical monitoring class actions:

1) what is a medical monitoring class?

A medical monitoring cause of action allows those exposed to toxic substances to recover the costs of periodic medical appointments and the costs of tests to detect the early signs of diseases associated with exposure. The few states that recognize medical monitoring as a remedy recognize it as a cause of action, like Pennsylvania, Redland Soccer Club, Inc. v. Dep’t of the Army, 696 A.2d 137, 142 (Pa. 1997), or treat it as a type of relief granted in connection with a traditional tort cause of action, see, e.g., Bourgeois v. A.P. Green Indus., Inc., 716 So.2d 355, 359 (La. 1998).

The remedy of medical monitoring has divided courts on whether plaintiffs should proceed under Rule 23(b)(2) or Rule 23(b)(3), said the court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has talked about awarding medical monitoring damages as a trust fund which “compensates the plaintiff for only the monitoring costs actually incurred.” Redland Soccer Club, 696 A.2d at 142 n.6. But it has not yet clearly decided whether or when medical monitoring awards can be in the form of a lump-sum verdict.

The appeals court noted, however, that some guidance may have come from the fact that the Supreme Court recently clarified that Rule 23(b)(2) applies only when a single injunction or declaratory judgment would provide relief to each member of the class. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2557 (2011). In light of the Supreme Court's recent decision, the Third Circuit would "question whether the kind of medical monitoring sought here can be certified under Rule 23(b)(2)."  If the plaintiffs here prevailed, class members' regimes of medical screenings and the corresponding cost would vary individual by individual. A single injunction or declaratory judgment would seem to not be able to provide relief to each member of the class proposed here. Rule 23(b)(2) “does not authorize class certification when each class member would be entitled to an individualized award of monetary damages.” Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2557. But it did not need to reach the issue, because certification was improper under either category of Rule 23 for reasons apart from the monetary nature of plaintiffs' claims.

2) Cohesion and (b)(2) Certification

Although Rule 23(b)(2) classes need not meet the predominance and superiority requirements of Rule 23(b)(3), it is well established that the class claims must be cohesive. A key to the (b)(2) class is the indivisible nature of the injunctive or declaratory remedy warranted—the notion that the conduct is such that it can be enjoined or declared unlawful only as to all of the class members or as to none of them. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, 131 S. Ct. at 2557 (quoting Richard A. Nagareda, Class Certification in the Age of Aggregate Proof, 84 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 97, 132 (2009)). Indeed, a (b)(2) class may require more cohesiveness than a (b)(3) class. As all class members will be bound by a single judgment, members of a proposed Rule 23(b)(2) injunctive or declaratory class must have strong commonality of interests. The Supreme Court in Wal-Mart recently highlighted the importance of cohesiveness in light of the limited protections for absent class members under subsections (b)(1) and (b)(2) of the class rule. 

3) Individual Issues in Medical Monitoring Class

Because causation and medical necessity often require individual proof, medical monitoring classes may founder for lack of cohesion. See In re St. Jude Med. Inc., 425 F.3d 1116, 1122 (8th Cir. 2005); Ball v. Union Carbide Corp., 385 F.3d 713, 727-28 (6th Cir. 2004); Zinser v. Accufix Research Inst., Inc., 253 F.3d 1180, 1195-96, amended, 273 F.3d 1266 (9th Cir. 2001); Barnes, 161 F.3d at 143-46; Boughton v. Cotter Corp., 65 F.3d 823, 827 (10th Cir. 1995). Frequently the rigorous analysis of common and individual issues  will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff‟s underlying claim.  Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, 131 S. Ct. at 2551.  The trial court may consider the substantive elements of the plaintiffs' case in order to envision the form that a trial on those issues would take.  The District Court here did so and found individual issues were significant to certain elements of the medical monitoring claims here.

Readers will recall that to prevail on a medical monitoring claim under Pennsylvania law, plaintiffs must prove:
(a) exposure greater than normal background levels;
(b) to a proven hazardous substance;
(c) caused by the defendant‟s negligence;
(d) as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;
(e) a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;
(f) the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and
(g) the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.
Redland Soccer Club, 696 A.2d at 145-46.  “Expert testimony is required to prove these elements.” Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp., 609 F.3d 239, 251 (3d Cir. 2010).

Here, the District Court identified individual issues that would eclipse common issues in at least three of the required elements, noting several potential variations in proving exposure above background, a significantly increased risk of a serious latent disease, and the reasonable necessity of the monitoring regime.

4) Exposure

Plaintiffs proposed to show the exposure of class members through expert opinions on air dispersion modeling that mapped concentrations of vinyl chloride exposure (isopleths) that allegedly could provide average exposure per person. But in fact those isopleths only showed average daily exposure, not minimum exposure, used average exposure over very long periods of time when exposure likely varied, and thus could not show that every class member was exposed above background.  Instead of showing the exposure of the class member with the least amount of exposure, plaintiffs proof would show only the amount that hypothetical residents of the village would have been exposed to under a uniform set of assumptions without accounting for differences in exposure year-by-year or based upon an individual's characteristics. At most, the isopleths showed the exposure only of persons who lived in the village for the entire period the isopleth represents and who behaved according to all assumptions that the experts made in creating the isopleth.

5) Composite Proof
Plaintiffs cannot, said the court,  substitute for evidence of exposure of actual class members evidence of hypothetical, composite persons in order to gain class certification. The evidence here was not  truly common because it was not shared by all (possibly even most) individuals in the class. Averages or community-wide estimations would not be probative of any individual's claim because any one class member may have an exposure level well above or below the average.
Attempts to meet the burden of proof using modeling and assumptions that do not reflect the individual characteristics of class members have been met with skepticism, noted the court of appeals. See In re Fibreboard Corp., 893 F.2d 706, 712 (5th Cir. 1990); In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig. MDL No. 381, 818 F.2d 145, 165 (2d Cir. 1987); see also 2 Joseph M. McLaughlin, McLaughlin on Class Actions: Law and Practice § 8:9, at 8-55 to -57 (3d ed. 2006).

Plaintiffs have traditionally loved medical monitoring in part because they think that class certification may come more readily given their alleged ability to use epidemiological or group or aggregate proof to establish some the elements of the medical monitoring claim.  That is why it is significant that the Third Circuit recognized that plaintiffs' aggregate proof in the form of exposure isopleths did not reflect that different persons may have different levels of exposure based on biological factors or individual activities over the class period. Factors which affect a person's exposure to toxins can include activity level, age, sex, and genetic make-up. See Federal Judicial Center, Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence 430 (2d ed. 2000).  For example, some people will have higher breathing rates per body weight which would create a disparity between the concentrations of vinyl chloride (based on estimated exposure as opposed to actual exposure).
Each person's work, travel, and recreational habits may have affected their level of exposure to vinyl chloride. Differences in the amount of time spent outside the village would create different average concentrations to which the class members were exposed. A person who worked outside the village would have been exposed less than a stay-at-home parent, or retiree. The isopleths approach simply assumed exposure to the same concentration for class members who may have spent very different amounts of time in the village.

6) Significant Increased Risk

Plaintiffs were unable to prove a concentration of vinyl chloride that would create a significant risk of contracting a serious latent disease for all class members. Nor was there common proof that could establish the danger point for all class members. The court rejected plaintiffs' attempted use of a regulatory threshold by the EPA -- for mixed populations of adults and children—as a proper standard for determining liability under tort law. Even if the regulatory standard were a correct measurement of the aggregate threshold, it would not be the threshold for each class member who may be more or less susceptible to diseases from exposure to vinyl chloride.  Although the positions of regulatory policymakers are relevant in litigation, their risk assessments are not necessarily conclusive in determining what risk an exposure presents to specified individuals. See Federal Judicial Center, Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence 413 (2d ed. 2000) (“While risk assessment information about a chemical can be somewhat useful in a toxic tort case, at least in terms of setting reasonable boundaries as to the likelihood of causation, the impetus for the development of risk assessment has been the regulatory process, which has different goals.”); id. at 423 (“Particularly problematic are generalizations made in personal injury litigation from regulatory positions. . . . [I]f regulatory standards are discussed in toxic tort cases to provide a reference point for assessing exposure levels, it must be recognized that there is a great deal of variability in the extent of evidence required to support different regulations.”).  Plaintiffs proposed a single concentration without accounting for the age of the class member being exposed, the length of exposure, other individual factors such as medical history, or showing the exposure was so toxic that such individual factors are irrelevant. The Third Circuit concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding individual issues on this point make trial as a class unfeasible, defeating cohesion.

7) Necessity of Monitoring

Nor did the lower court abuse its discretion in determining individual issues defeat cohesion with respect to whether the proposed monitoring regime is reasonably medically necessary. Many courts have been skeptical that the necessity for individuals' medical monitoring regimes can be proven on a class basis. See Barnes, 161 F.3d at 146; see Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation § 2.04 reporter‟s notes cmt. b, at 126 (2010). Plaintiffs' experts had no compelling answer to the point that the negative health effects of screening may outweigh any potential benefits. For example, the proposed regime of serial MRIs would be contraindicated and potentially risky because the contrast agent used for MRIs poses dangers to those with kidney disease.

8) Certification under (b)(3)

Courts have generally denied certification of medical monitoring classes when individual questions involving causation and damages predominate over (and are more complex than) common issues such as whether defendants released the offending chemical into the environment. See In re St. Jude Med., Inc., 522 F.3d 836, 840 (8th Cir. 2008).  Here, the same the inquiries into whether class members were exposed above background levels, whether class members faced a significantly increased risk of developing a serious latent disease, and whether a medical monitoring regime was reasonably medically necessary all required considering individual proof of class members' specific circumstances.  Common issues did not predominate.

 

 
 

Plaintiffs' Class Allegations Flattened in Tire Case

A federal court in New York last week denied plaintiffs' motion for class certification in a case alleging that the run-flat tires on defendant BMW's MINI Cooper S were defective. See Oscar v. BMW of North America LLC, No. 1:09-cv-00011-RJH (S.D.N.Y. 6/7/11).

Oscar purchased a new 2006 MINI Cooper S from BMW-MINI of Manhattan, an authorized MINI dealership, but prior to purchasing the MINI did not do any sort of research. Nor did he take the car for a test drive. The car came with run-flat tires (RFTs), an innovation that allows drivers to drive to the nearest service station even after the tire was flat. As of December 2, 2009, a period of about three years, Oscar had had five flat tires.  Plaintiff alleges that  his troubles stemmed from the fact that his car was equipped with RFTs rather than with standard radial tires. He considered the number of flat tires he experienced to be evidence of a widespread defect.

Plaintiff proposed a nationwide class (or a New York class) of all consumers who purchased or leased new 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 MINI vehicles equipped with Run-Flat Extended Mobility Technology tires manufactured by Goodyear and sold or leased in the United States whose Tires have gone flat and been replaced.

On the first prerequisite of Rule 23(a), the court offered an interesting discussion arising from the fact that most of plaintiff's evidence of numerosity did not correlate directly to his class definition: data that may have included other vehicles, or non-RFT tires, or makers other than Goodyear. But the opinion noted that courts have relied upon "back-of-the-envelope calculations in finding numerosity satisfied."  Conservative assumptions leading to a likelihood of numerosity have at times sufficed. This case fell "right on the border between appropriate inference and inappropriate speculation."  Accordingly, numerosity was satisfied for the proposed national class but not the New York class.

Turning to the Rule 23(b)(3) requirements, the court confronted the choice of law issues inherent in a national class. Although plaintiff conceded that the law of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia would apply to the members of the nationwide class, he argued that the differences between the states’ laws on implied warranty claims were negligible because the implied warranty is a Uniform Commercial Code claim. But numerous courts have recognized that there are significant variances among the interpretation of the elements of an implied warranty of merchantability claim among the states. See Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016 (D.C. Cir. 1986); In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. 484, 489 (D.N.J. 2000).  In particular, several states still require privity; so, plaintiff advanced a theory of privity-by-agency. But this theory has not been accepted in all states. Readers know that choice of law issues impact, among other things, the manageability of the class and the superiority of the use of the class device.

The court also found that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that common questions of fact predominate. Plaintiff was unable to articulate and allegedly common defect, merely hypothesizing that the failure rate could stem from the RFTs’ "stiffness" and stating that further discovery would be necessary to ascertain the precise nature of the defect. Plaintiff did not provide the court with any evidence that Goodyear RFTs are likely to fail because of a particular common defect. The failure to specify an alleged common defect provided a further basis for concluding that plaintiff had not demonstrated predominance. See Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 630 F.3d 813, 819 (7th Cir. 2010) (holding predominance was not satisfied where forty-one plaintiffs owners alleged that their motorcycles wobbled, but failed to provide competent evidence that a common defect underlay their claims).

Even if Oscar had put forth evidence of a common defect, breach of warranty suits like this one often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect. See, e.g., In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 288 F.3d 1012, 1018-19 (7th Cir. 2002) (noting that class treatment of tire defect litigation was unmanageable in part because individual factors could affect the alleged tire failure); Sanneman v. Chrysler Corp., 191 F.R.D. 441, 451-52 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose paint had delaminated allegedly because of faulty painting process in part because the paint could delaminate for reasons other than the alleged defect); In re Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. at 490-91 (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose passenger compartments caught on fire allegedly because of a faulty ignition switch because issues of individual causation would predominate); Feinstein v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., 535 F. Supp. 2d 595, 603 (S.D.N.Y. 1982) (declining to certify a class of tire purchasers because of “myriad [individual] questions,” including “other possible causes of the problem encountered”); see also Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover N. Am., LLC, 617 F.3d 1168, 1172-74 (9th Cir. 2010).

Here, individualized issues of causation would swamp the common inquiry into an as yet to be identified tire design defect.  Even if the plaintiffs were to show that the Goodyear RFTs suffered from a common defect, they would still need to demonstrate that this defect caused each class member’s RFT to puncture. But tires can puncture for any number of reasons, and not all of these reasons will relate to the alleged defect. RFTs can go flat for reasons that would also cause a standard radial tire to go flat -- for example, if the driver ran over a nail, tire shredding device, or large pothole, or if a vandal slashed the tire. In order to demonstrate liability, plaintiff would have to demonstrate in each individual class member's case that the tire punctured for reasons related to the defect, rather than for a reason that would cause any tire to fail.

Similarly, under the state consumer fraud law claim, where the link between the defendant’s alleged deception (about the tires) and the injury suffered by plaintiffs is too attenuated and requires too much individualized analysis, courts will not certify a class. See, e.g., Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 272 F.R.D. 82 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (declining to certify a class allegedly misled by McDonald’s claims that its food was healthy).  Again, determining whether each tire failed as a result of the allegedly concealed defect or as a result of unrelated issues, e.g., potholes or reckless driving habits, would devolve into numerous mini-trials.

Certification denied.

 

 

Class Action Alleging False Food Ads Rejected

Plaintiffs have failed in a proposed class action against McDonald's in which they alleged that the food company's advertising somehow misleads customers into believing that they can eat fast food daily without any potential health consequences.  Pelman v. McDonald's Corp., No. 02-civ-07821 (S.D.N.Y. 10/27/10).  Yes, loyal readers, you read that correctly: the claim is that the people of New York only know about fast food what they read in (or into) ads.

Plaintiffs in this action were New York State consumers claiming, pursuant to Section 349 of New York’s General Business Law, injury from defendant McDonald’s Corporation’s allegedly deceptive marketing scheme.  Plaintiffs claimed that the effect of defendant’s marketing – from 1985 until the filing of this case in 2002 – was to mislead consumers into falsely believing that defendant’s food products can be consumed on a daily basis without incurring any adverse health effects.  They alleged that, as a result of this marketing scheme, class members suffered injury. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that defendant attempted to mislead plaintiffs and putative class members with misleading nutritional claims, in widespread advertising campaigns, that its foods were healthy, nutritious, of a beneficial nutritional nature, and/or were easily part of anyone’s healthy daily diet, each and/or all claims supposedly being in contradiction to medically and nutritionally established acceptable guidelines. Plaintiffs claimed that  they suffered injury in the form of the financial costs of defendant’s  products; “false beliefs and understandings" as to the nutritional content and effects of defendant’s food products, and physical injuries in the nature of obesity, elevated levels of  cholesterol, pediatric diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  The court "begins and ends" its analysis of class certification with consideration of the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3). The court concluded that establishment of the causation and injury elements of plaintiffs’ claims would necessitate extensive individualized inquiries; the questions of law and fact which would be common to putative class members would not predominate over questions affecting only individual members. Accordingly, certification of this action for class litigation under Rule 23(b)(3) was not appropriate. 

The court found that the focus was on whether the elements of plaintiffs’ cause of action under GBL § 349 may be established by common, class-wide proof.  The court had earlier in the case ruled that in accordance with GBL § 349’s requirement that plaintiffs’ injuries be "by reason of" defendant’s conduct, the plaintiffs had be aware of the nutritional scheme they alleged to have been deceptive, and that the injuries that were suffered by each plaintiff  were by reason of defendant’s alleged deceptive marketing.  However, allegations of “false beliefs and understandings” did not state a claim for actual injury under GBL § 349.  Neither did allegations of pecuniary loss for the purchase of defendant’s products. (In some states that kind of "the product worked and didn't harm me but I wouldn't have purchased it" argument does fly.)

Accordingly, the only alleged injuries for which putative class members could claim damages under GBL § 349 were those related to the development of certain medical conditions; and the causal connection, if any, for those kinds of injuries depended heavily on a range of factors
unique to each individual. Defendant’s nutritional expert concluded there are many factors that contribute to obesity and to obesity-related illnesses, and thus it is improper to generalize and make assumptions as to causation in any individual.  Many foods, not just defendant's, are high in fat, salt, and cholesterol, low in fiber and certain vitamins, and contain beef and cheese, and there is no evidence to suggest that all who consume such foods develop the kinds of medical conditions which were at issue in this case. 

Moreover, whether or not plaintiffs’ claims (that they ate McDonald’s food because they believed it to be healthier than it was in fact) are true for any particular person was an inquiry which also required individualized proof. A person’s choice to eat at McDonald’s and what foods (and how much) he eats may depend on taste, past experience, habit, convenience, location, peer
choices, other non-nutritional advertising, and cost, etc.

Plaintiffs also argued for issue classes, asserting that the 1) existence; 2) consumer-orientation; and 3) materially misleading nature of the marketing scheme alleged by plaintiffs were each
questions which could be settled upon a showing of objective evidence and legal  argument. Even if true, the court noted that all elements of the class action rule have to be met even for issue classes. Named plaintiffs did not present any specific evidence about the number of other persons within the relevant age group who were exposed to the nutritional marketing at issue, then regularly ate at McDonald’s, and subsequently developed the same medical injuries as those allegedly suffered by named plaintiffs.  So they hadn't even shown numerosity.


 

Digitek Class Action Denied in MDL

The federal judge in the multidistrict litigation concerning the heart drug Digitek has denied class certification in the MDL's six remaining class actions.  In re: Digitek Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1968 (S.D. W. Va.).

Quick history. Digitek® is a trade-name for a drug called digoxin. Digoxin was approved by the FDA to treat various heart problems. At some point, a handful of non-conforming dose tablets were found in a lot of 4.8 million tablets.  Defendant initiated a voluntary Class I nationwide product recall.  A flood of civil actions were instituted in state and federal courts across the country. The plaintiffs claimed a variety of injuries and losses resulting from the recalled Digitek®. In 2008, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation established an MDL proceeding.

The MDL court addressed several overlapping motions for class certification. The class representatives each sought some kind of economic loss class certified pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. Two of the class complaints sought only a single-state class. Others sought a nationwide class of all persons residing in the United States who purchased Digitek® pursuant to prescription, during the time period when the recalled Digitek® was manufactured, or sold, who suffered economic losses, including, but not limited to, payments for recalled Digitek®, out-of-pocket expenses for diagnostic testing, medical visits, and/or new prescriptions, as a result of having received recalled Digitek®.

Generally, the plaintiffs focused not on the distinct and highly individualized alleged injuries to the class, but -- as is typical -- on defendants’ alleged misconduct that led to the recall.  In doing so, the plaintiffs tried to paint New Jersey as the nerve center for certification purposes. In fact, they said New Jersey law should control all of the potentially hundreds of thousands of class members’ claims and recoveries throughout the United States. They thus downplayed the individual issues that would arise, including choice of law. They stressed instead that the damages  allegedly suffered by each individual class member were modest and, absent a certified class, millions of consumers would be left without remedy.

The court first addressed the choice of law issues in a nationwide class, as the state in which each claimant was injured has an overriding interest in having its laws applied to redress any wrong done to its citizens.  For example, state consumer protection laws vary considerably, and courts must respect these differences rather than just apply one state's law to sales in other states with different rules.  In re St. Jude Medical, Inc., 425 F.3d 1116, 1120 (8th Cir. 2005).  See generally Kanner, Consumer Class Actions After CAFA, 56 Drake L. Rev. 303, 334 (2008).  Unjust enrichment law varies considerably throughout the United States as well.  Tyler v. Alltel Corp., 265 F.R.D. 415, 422 (E.D. Ark. 2010).  The court reached the same conclusion with the express and implied warranty claims.  See, e.g., Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016-17 (D.C. Cir.1986).  The differences impact the class certification factors of typicality, predominance, and manageability.

Putting aside the choice of law issue (that is, assuming a class of New Jersey residents alone and applying only New Jersey law to their claims), the court found that common issues still did not predominate. Violation of the NJ Consumer Fraud Act is subject to proof of a number of
elements, including that plaintiff suffered an ascertainable loss as a result of the unlawful conduct; and a causal relationship between the unlawful practice and the loss sustained.  That is, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act affords a right to monetary relief only if there has been an  ascertainable loss in consequence of the consumer receiving something other than what he bargained for, and losing the benefits of the product which he was led to believe he had purchased.  Plaintiffs' contention here that everyone in the class sustained an ascertainable loss presumes that the drug was worthless. But the drug was enormously beneficial to many patients; most got the right dose. Those patients presumably got their money's worth and suffered no economic injury. And the question whether an individual class member got his or her money's worth is inherently individual. Indeed, it involves very much the same questions as would a claim for money damages for personal injury.

This was seen in the differences between the class representatives: one returned Digitek® following the recall. But he received, in return, replacement digoxin at no charge. Another wanted a co-payment for a doctor visit that he had post-recall. He admitted, though, that the appointment was scheduled pre-recall. If certification were granted, this type of fact-intensive investigation and specific explanation would likely be necessary for all claimants to assure that their claims were compensation worthy.

The individual questions also proliferate to the extent the jury is ultimately required to determine which class members received defective Digitek® and which did not. In other words, it may ultimately be inappropriate, said the court, to treat all the recalled Digitek® as a single “defective” product for purposes of making the determination of whether it was unsafe.  Thus product identification would have individual, as opposed to collective, hallmarks.

Another individual issue was the vast array of individualized damages the representatives were seeking. The plaintiffs tried to sweep this concern aside. But even if not controlling,  individualized damage determinations cut against class certification under Rule 23(b)(3).  Ward v.
Dixie Nat. Life Ins. Co.
, 595 F.3d 164, 180 (4th Cir. 2010).

Finally, the court confronted the individualized process of sorting out those potential class members who were already fully compensated by the defendants' refund process. Mitigation was  another highly individualized matter.  Certification appropriately denied. 

Decision to Not Conduct Daubert Inquiry Leads to Class Certification

A federal court recently certified a class of Minnesota building owners in litigation over issues with plumbing systems. See In re: Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 08-1958, 2010 WL 1839278 (D.Minn. 5/6/10).

The issue for our readers is not so much what happened, but what should have happened but did not.  I recently posted about the7th Circuit decision in American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Allen, 2010 WL 1332781 (7th Cir., April 7, 2010), mandating that trial courts rule on the admissibility of expert testimony at the certification stage of litigation when the testimony is critical to certification.  That is the only approach that makes any sense. Otherwise, the court risks certifying a class -- and engaging the parties in  the massive discovery and notice process that accompanies it  -- based on testimony that fails the Daubert test, is unreliable, and eventually inadmissible under the Federal Rules.  Here, the court refused to exclude the testimony of two plaintiff experts at the certification stage.  The court noted that the 8th Circuit had not yet adopted the approach of the 7th Circuit. 

Historically, potable water plumbing systems used copper pipes. In the 1990's, some companies designed plumbing systems using polybutylene plastic. After a wave of litigation involving allegedly failed polybutylene plumbing systems, defendant Zurn designed a cross-linked polyethylene plumbing system, commonly referred to as “pex,” as an alternative to polybutylene systems and copper plumbing systems. Plaintiffs were individuals who owned a home with a Zurn pex plumbing system. in several lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged that defective fittings used in the pex system caused their plumbing systems to leak resulting in damage to their properties. Plaintiffs also alleged that Zurn failed to adequately test the brass crimp fittings in their anticipated environments before marketing its product. In 2008, the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation determined that the pex plumbing cases met the MDL test, and that centralization of the cases in Minnesota was appropriate.

Plaintiffs moved for certification of a class of all persons and entities that own a structure located within the State of Minnesota that contains a Zurn Pex plumbing system with brass crimp fittings.  Defendants, in turn, moved to exclude portions of the testimony of plaintiffs' experts, Dr. Wallace Blischke and Dr. Roger Staehle.  

Dr. Blischke, a statistician, performed an analysis of Zurn's warranty claims data and estimated that millions of Zurn's brass fittings will fail within the twenty-five year warranty period; he concluded that the fittings have a mean time to failure of 40 years.  Defendants offered evidence that the 40 years was based on unsupported assumption, not data.  The court admitted that as merits discovery unfolded and more information becomes available, Dr. Blischke's 40 year estimate for the mean time to failure "may or may not be admissible," but it would consider the expert testimony in support of class certification anyway and "has given such testimony proper weight."

Dr. Staehle then conducted a round of testing known as the U-bend test of brass specimens from Zurn's fittings. Defendants offered evidence that the reliability of Dr. Staehle's U-bend testing was undermined by his use of an artificially inflated level of strain, and they challenged the correctness of Dr. Staehle's calculation of the strain. The court concluded that "at this point" it would not exclude the testimony, which could be the subject of cross examination.

The certification battleground was 23(b)(3) predominance.  Defendants stressed that there were lots of possible causes of the failure of any particular plumbing system, and thus individual issues predominated.  Plaintiffs -- and here we see where the denial of a Daubert inquiry has its pernicious effect -- responded that the brass crimp fittings used in the pex plumbing system suffer from an inherent design and manufacturing defect, and that the parts were substantially certain to fail within the 25 year express warranty provided by Zurn and/or the useful life of the fittings.  And this was a set of predominating common issues, they said.  But they only get there through the testimony of the experts, not only on the merits, but on the presentation that the defects and useful life were demonstrable on a common basis through expert testimony about testing and time-to-failure.  So, for example, in certifying a warranty class for those plaintiffs whose systems had not yet failed, the court readily acknowledged being influenced by the fact that plaintiffs "allege, and intend to prove by expert testimony, that Zurn's brass crimp fittings suffer from a uniform, inherent design and manufacturing defect...."

Similarly, with regard to a class relying on a negligence cause of action, the court concluded that if plaintiffs can prove that the crimp fittings suffer from a uniform, inherent design and manufacturing defect, and that the defect is the only cause of failure in the majority of the cases, then proximate cause will not involve predominately individual determinations, and resolution of that issue would be common the class. For class certification purposes, the court was "convinced that Plaintiffs have adduced sufficient evidence to support their theory of the case."  But, of course, that evidence was arguably inadmissible expert testimony.

Since proof of reliance will likely vary among class members, and since defendants are entitled to present individualized defenses to reliance under Minnesota law, plaintiffs failed to show that the reliance component of their consumer protection claims could be proven by common evidence. Accordingly, class certification as to plaintiffs' consumer protection claims was denied.

But imagine how easy it can be to show "predominance" of common issues when your proof is unreliable, inadmissible, unscientific, expert testimony that just doesn't get screened.  Why should the gatekeeper role not impact entrance to the expensive, protracted world of a class action as much as to trial?

 

 

Class Action Motion Rejected in Human Tissue MDL

We have posted before about the interesting Human Tissue litigation.  The multidistrict litigation consolidated hundreds of cases filed either by plaintiffs who received allografts — transplants from cadavers — harvested by defendants allegedly without obtaining proper consent and following appropriate regulations, or by those plaintiffs who allegedly had allografts improperly taken from deceased relatives. The MDL court last week denied the latter plaintiffs' motion for class certification. In re: Human Tissue Products Liability Litigation, No. 06-135/MDL 1763 (D.N.J.).

According to the named representative plaintiffs, each of the class members had a deceased family member whose body went to one of the defendant funeral homes; plaintiffs claim that the funeral homes, after taking possession of the bodies, allowed another defendant to extract bones and tissue from the decedents. Following this, the harvested tissue then allegedly was given to other defendants, tissue banks. The purported class consisted of “all next of kin relatives of decedents whose bodies were desecrated by [defendants] for the harvesting and sale of human body parts."

Two parts of the opinion will be of the most interest to readers.  First, under the Rule 23(a) prerequisites, the court found that the typicality element was not established because of the highly individualized nature of the claims in this action.  Plaintiffs asserted emotional distress claims against the funeral homes that handled the donor decedents' remains and the tissue processors who allegedly received the harvested tissue. The Third Circuit has stated that class certification is inappropriate in mass tort claims, generally, because they often present questions of individualized issues of liability. In re Life USA Holding Inc., 242 F.3d 136, 145 (3d Cir. 2001). This observation is particularly true where the tort claims alleged are premised on emotional distress. The factual circumstances underlying each of the individual claims – including but not limited to plaintiffs' relationships with the decedents and the injuries allegedly suffered – were sufficiently personal and specific as to prevent any finding of similarity with regard to their claims.  

Also, plaintiffs were bringing contractual claims against the funeral home defendants, which again hinged on different factual circumstances that also might give rise to different defenses. There was no allegation that the individual contracts made with the funeral homes concerning final arrangements for the donor decedents were identical; in fact, since they were drafted and negotiated by different funeral home representatives and family members, they likely contained different representations, again subject to different defenses. For example, the meetings between funeral home personnel and the decedents' family members involved representations regarding the specific services requested and potential tissue donation. "These are all very personalized discussions," said the court.  All in all, the court found sufficient factual differences among the contracts negotiated with the different funeral homes to preclude a finding of typicality. See In re Schering Plough Corp. ERISA Litig., 589 F.3d 585, 598 (3d Cir. 2009)(“Ensuring that absent class members will be fairly protected required the claims and defenses of the representative to be sufficiently similar not just in terms of their legal form, but also in terms of their factual basis and support.”); see also In re Life USA Holding, Inc., 242 F.3d at 144-46 (vacating class certification in part because plaintiffs' claims of deceptive insurance sales practices arose from individual and non-standardized presentations by numerous independent agents).

It is significant that the court put some teeth into the 23(a) element. While the court acknowledged that factual differences will not automatically render a claim atypical if the claim arises from the same event or practice or course of conduct that gives rise to the claims of the class members, and if it is based on the same legal theory, here plaintiffs failed to demonstrate, other than through a bald assertion, that any practice or course of conduct existed among the funeral homes or among the tissue processors.

The same differences undermined a showing of predominance and superiority under Rule 23(b)(3), which provides for certification when the court finds that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

The individual factual circumstances, including contractual arrangements, personal relationships with the decedents, injuries suffered, etc. precluded a 23(b)(3) class.  The superiority inquiry compels a court to balance, in terms of fairness and efficiency, the merits of a class action device against those of alternative available methods of adjudication.  Here, the multitude of individualized issues presented in plaintiffs' claims would entail complicated mini-trials within the class action itself.  The claims presented by plaintiffs and their unique factual underpinnings would require such extensive individual consideration that it would be neither more fair nor more efficient to proceed with this matter as a class action.  Class rejected.


 

State Supreme Court Reverses Class Certification on Predominance Grounds

The Alabama Supreme Court has recently reversed a lower court's certification of a class of third-party payers of health care services who complained about damages allegedly flowing from the recall of a drug from the market.  Wyeth, Inc. v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, 2010 WL 152123 (Ala. Jan. 15, 2010).

Defendant Wyeth voluntarily withdrew Duract from the market, notifying the public of its decision to do so through a press release.  As part of the process of withdrawing Duract from the market, Wyeth voluntarily instituted a customer refund program for customers who still had Duract capsules in their possession. The third-party payers sued Wyeth solely on a theory of unjust enrichment, alleging that their payment for the drug had conferred an inappropriate benefit on Wyeth in light of the withdrawal.

After a hearing on the class certification motion, the trial court entered an order certifying a nationwide class of TPPs who paid for the prescription drug Duract that was not used as of the date of its withdrawal from the market.  On appeal, the defendant argued that predominance of common issues had not been established, a requirement of Alabama Rule 23 analogous to FRCP 23 (b)(3).

As in many states, Alabama recognizes that unjust enrichment claims are particularly unsuitable for class treatment. Funliner of Alabama, L.L.C. v. Pickard, 873 So.2d 198, 211 (Ala.2003) (unjust enrichment claims based on allegations of mistake or fraud require an individualized inquiry into the state of mind of each plaintiff).  The trial court distinguished this body of law, finding that this particular enrichment claim was not based on fraud or mistake, but on the somehow different theory that “equity and good conscience” required the defendant to disgorge money that belongs to the plaintiff.

The court observed that Wyeth probably had the better of the argument on this, meaning that the trial court had fashioned on a distinction without a difference.  But the state high court did not need to resolve the unjust enrichment issue under Alabama law, because the plaintiffs sought a nationwide class. Regardless of what Alabama law was, there had been no adequate showing, either to the trial court or to the Supreme Court, that the laws of all (or even most of) the 49 other states would allow unjust enrichment claims to proceed on such a "good conscience" basis somehow distinct from a traditional claim. 

Even a cursory examination showed that variances exist in state common laws of unjust enrichment. The actual definition of unjust enrichment varies from state to state. Some states do not specify the misconduct necessary to proceed, while others require that the misconduct include dishonesty or fraud. See Clay v. American Tobacco Co., 188 F.R.D. 483, 501 (S.D.Ill.1999).

Accordingly, common issues could not predominate.  Certification was vacated.