Earlier this week I spoke at a CLE seminar on the topic of class actions, and part of my focus was the recent Supreme Court decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). Since that decision, the Court has granted cert, vacated, and remanded for reconsideration two class action cases involving allegations of defects in washing machines: Whirlpool Corp. v. Glazer, No. 12-322 (U.S. 4/1/13); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, No. 12-1067 (U.S. June 3, 2013).
In Glazer, the lower court had certified a class of purchasers of washing machines despite 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. 678 F.3d 409 (6th Cir. 2012).
In Butler, the lower court had granted certification of two classes of more than 100,000 members in six states who purchased 20 different models of machines; again many never had the problem alleged.
So where does Comcast, ostensibly an antitrust case, fit here? The Court reaffirmed that a class action is an exception to the rule of individual adjudication. And to get there, Rule 23 is not merely a pleading standard. Just as Dukes made clear that a rigorous analysis of the Rule 23(a) prerequisites, such as commonality, is required, the same principles apply to Rule 23(b) elements, such as predominance. And a court cannot refuse to consider class certification arguments just because those arguments also might be relevant to the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.
In Glazer the district court made noises about some of the defense arguments on certification going to the merits, and the Sixth Circuit had about two sentences on predominance — suggesting the absence of the rigorous analysis required.
In Butler, 702 F.3d 359 (7th Cir. 2012), the Seventh Circuit suggested predominance was met because it would be more efficient to resolve the question whether the machines were defective in a single class trial; predominance is a question of efficiency. That would seem to run afoul of Rule 23, which incorporates efficiency in the notion of superiority, but not as a definition of or synonym for predominance. Indeed the Advisory Committee notes suggest that efficiencies flow only when predominance is present. Prior Court opinions instruct that predominance implies a notion of cohesion. And the Butler court’s treatment of the need for individual damages trials seems flatly inconsistent with the Comcast Court’s statements on the need for proof on a class-wide basis.
Two to keep an eye on.