Supreme Court

Supreme Court Skips on Ascertainability

** High Court Won’t Weigh in on Whether “All Natural” Class Requires Ascertainability **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

In federal court, Civil Procedure Rule 23 governs the question of whether a class may be certified.  The rule specifically identifies four primary requirements for certification: numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy.  But many courts have added a further requirement – whether the putative class is “ascertainable.”  While the question posed by this requirement is phrased differently from court to court, it can be distilled to this:  Is there a reasonable and reliable way to identify the members of the proposed class?  The Ninth Circuit recently rejected the application of this standard.  And, on  request for certiorari, the Supreme Court has refused to weigh in on this important issue.

Many federal courts were quick to adopt the ascertainability standard after it found its way into case law, particularly some of the district courts of California, which bear the brunt of the dramatic rise in consumer class actions.  See, e.g., Lukovsky v. San Francisco, No. C 05–00389 WHA, 2006 WL 140574, *2 (N.D.Cal. Jan. 17, 2006) (“‘Although there is no explicit requirement concerning the class definition in FRCP 23, courts have held that the class must be adequately defined and clearly ascertainable before a class action may proceed”) (quoting Schwartz v. Upper Deck Co., 183 F.R.D. 672, 679–80 (S.D.Cal.1999)); Thomas & Thomas Rodmakers, Inc. v. Newport Adhesives & Composites, Inc., 209 F.R.D. 159, 163 (C.D.Cal.2002) (“Prior to class certification, plaintiffs must first define an ascertainable and identifiable class. Once an ascertainable and identifiable class has been defined, plaintiffs must show that they meet the four requirements of Rule 23(a), and the two requirements of Rule 23(b)(3)” (citation and footnote omitted)).  Generally speaking, a class is sufficiently defined and ascertainable if it is “administratively feasible for the court to determine whether a particular individual is a member.” O’Connor, 184 F.R.D. at 319.

The ascertainability rule appeals to common sense – particularly in consumer class actions.  Courts don’t want to certify classes without some reasonable assurance that aggrieved class members will be compensated for the wrong they suffered.  Equally important, courts don’t want to create vehicles for petty fraud.  As the court observed in Sethavanish v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., No. 12–2907–SC, 2014 WL 580696, *56 (N.D.Cal. Feb. 13, 2014), “Plaintiff has yet to present any method for determining class membership, let alone an administratively feasible method.  It is unclear how Plaintiff intends to determine who purchased ZonePerfect bars during the proposed class period, or how many ZonePerfect bars each of these putative class members purchased.  It is also unclear how Plaintiff intends to weed out inaccurate or fraudulent claims. Without more, the Court cannot find that the proposed class is ascertainable.”

In In re ConAgra Foods, Inc., 90 F. Supp. 3d 919, 969 (C.D. Cal. 2015), consumers brought a putative class action against Con Agra, alleging that the manufacturer deceptively and misleadingly marketed its cooking oils, made from genetically-modified organisms (GMO), as “100% Natural.”  A class was certified , inter alia, on the basis that the proposed class was ascertainable.  The District Court held that:  (i) ascertainability was the law of the Circuit; and (ii) ascertainability was satisfied because membership was governed by a single, objective, criteria – whether an individual purchased the cooking oil during the class period.  Id. at 969.

ConAgra, understandably unhappy with the result, appealed the factual basis for the district court’s ascertainability determination.  It argued before the Ninth Circuit that plaintiffs did not propose any way to identify class members and could not prove that an administratively feasible method existed for doing so – because, for example, consumers do not generally save grocery receipts and are unlikely to remember details about individual purchases of cooking oil.  Briseno v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 844 F.3d 1121, 1125 (9th Cir. 2017).  The Ninth Circuit, however — rather than analyzing whether the plaintiffs satisfied the ascertainability standard — ruled that it has no place in certification proceedings at all.  “A separate administrative feasibility prerequisite to class certification is not compatible with the language of Rule 23 . . . Rule 23’s enumerated criteria already address the policy concerns that have motivated some courts to adopt a separate administrative feasibility requirement, and do so without undermining the balance of interests struck by the Supreme Court, Congress, and the other contributors to the Rule.”  In short, according to the Ninth Circuit, Rule 23 does not mandate that proposed classes be ascertainable and the lower courts are bound to apply Rule 23 as written.

In so ruling, the Ninth Circuit joined the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits. See Sandusky Wellness Ctr., LLC, v. Medtox Sci., Inc., 821 F.3d 992, 995–96 (8th Cir. 2016); Rikos v. Procter & Gamble Co., 799 F.3d 497, 525 (6th Cir. 2015); Mullins v. Direct Digital, LLC, 795 F.3d 654, 658 (7th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1161, 194 L.Ed.2d 175 (2016).  On the opposite side of the ascertainability issue are the Third, Fourth and Eleventh Circuits.  Marcus v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, 687 F.3d 583, 593 (3d Cir. 2012); EQT Production Co. v. Adair, 764 F.3d 347, 359 (4th Cir. 2014); Karhu v. Vital Pharm., Inc., — F. App’x —, 2015 WL 3560722 at *3 (11th Cir. June 9, 2015).

ConAgra petitioned the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari on May 10, 2017.  It had reason to hope with the Supreme Court recently showing willingness to rule on class action and certification issues.  (See prior posts).  However, on October 10, 2017, the Supreme Court denied the petition without comment.  Conagra Brands, Inc. v. Briseno, No. 16-1221, 2017 WL 1365592 (U.S. Oct. 10, 2017).

With the circuit split still alive, this is not the last we’ll hear on ascertainability.  And no doubt defense counsel in affected jurisdictions will find ways to re-shape the reasoning applied in their ascertainability arguments to other parts of the Rule 23 analysis.  But, no doubt, with this line of defense gone (for now) in the Ninth Circuit – many more consumer class actions will have their day in California courts.

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Latest Salvo in the Arbitration Wars

** U.S. Supreme Court Grants Certiorari and Vacates Supreme Court of Hawaii’s Decision Voiding Pre-Dispute Arbitration Contract Provision ** 

The Supreme Court’s series of close decisions upholding agreements to arbitrate (including waivers of class arbitration) in private contracts in the face of unconscionability-type assertions —  AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011); American Express Co., et al. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S.Ct. 2304 (2013) and DIRECTV, Inc. v. Imburgia, 577 U.S. ___ (2015) — has understandably quickened the pace of consumer companies deploying such provisions in their customer contracts and their on-line terms of use.  As those who have followed these cases would know, the rationale of this line of authority is that the Federal Arbitration Act (which provides for the enforceability of arbitration agreements) preempts state law to the contrary, i.e. that would prohibit contracts providing for mandatory arbitration (and class waivers).  But these important Supreme Court decisions are controversial and have been met with resistance by state courts around the country.  Perhaps the most “in your face” response to the Supreme Court’s arbitration decisions is the 2011 Genesis Healthcare case: where the West Virginia Supreme Court accused the Supreme Court of manufacturing “from whole cloth” its reasoning.  Brown ex. rel. Brown v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., 724 S.E.2d 250 (2011).  The Supreme Court was quick to “correct” the West Virginia Supreme Court. Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown, 565 U.S. __ (2012).  Will this back-and-forth play out again in Hawaii? The Hawaii Supreme Court has entered the fray in Narayan, et al. v. The Ritz-Carlton Dev. Co., 350 P.3d 995 (2015).  The case involves an (undoubtedly tony) condominium complex at Kapalua Bay that went tragically south.  The purchase agreement included a jury trial waiver and other terms that suggested a right to a civil trial, but the agreement also referenced other documents including a condominium declaration recorded with the state that included a mandatory arbitration provision.  The Hawaii Supreme Court found the plethora of documents inconsistent and confusing and decided that no agreement to arbitrate existed.  It also determined that — even if an agreement to arbitrate existed — it was unconscionable because the fact that the purchasers were stuck with arbitration due to the recording of the declaration created an adhesion contract.  Further objectionable provisions (according to the court) were that the agreement precluded discovery, eliminated punitive and consequential damages, required secrecy, and imposed a one year statute of limitations.  On January 11, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court granted writ of certiorari, vacated Hawaii’s decision, and remanded the matters “for further consideration in light of DIRECTTV, Inc. v. Imburgia,” (136 S. Ct. 800) signaling that it had made its decisions on this type of challenge to mandatory arbitration agreements (and perhaps signaling that it is done with the issue).  But with the recent passing of Justice Scalia – the author of Italian Colors and the primary architect of the Supreme Court’s arbitration jurisprudence – all eyes will be focused on 1 First Street NE to see if the minority’s strong dissents began to find their way into majority opinions.


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Safe Harbor From Murky Waters in the Supply Chain


**Nestle Defends Class Action in the Central District of California with Successful Motion to Dismiss and Sets Valuable Precedent With California Transparency in Supply Chains Act Safe Harbor Defense** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, requires retailers doing business in California to make specific disclosures on its website about efforts it makes to “eradicate slavery and human trafficking from its direct supply chain.” (Cal. Civ. Code § 1714.43).  In our prior post on this topic we noted the Transparency Act applies to large retailers (those with $100 million in worldwide sales).  Id.  And that the Transparency Act’s focus is on information – the retailer must disclose what efforts it takes to: verify the risks of human trafficking and slavery in its supply chain; audit its suppliers; certify its suppliers’ compliance with laws regarding slavery and human trafficking; maintain internal policies and procedures on the subject; and train its management on these policies and procedures.  Id.  Important to note, the Act does not require that a retailer actually do any of these things – the mandate is to inform the public what efforts are made.  The point of the Transparency Act is consumer empowerment – to give consumers who are concerned about the topic a point of reference  – and ultimately give the market the ability to reward or punish retailers who are (or are not) doing enough.  Nestle USA was one of the first companies to be tested by the Plaintiffs’ bar on whether the Transparency Act created more than an obligation to inform the public about its efforts to eradicate the problem – and whether there is an implied legal obligation to inform the public about the actual occurrences or risk in its supply chain of human slavery or trafficking.  See Barber v. Nestle USA, Inc., No. SACV1501364CJCAGRX, (C.D. Cal.).  The case involved Nestle USA’s branded pet food which sources seafood from Thai fisheries.  The court took judicial notice that it has been reported widely the Thai fishing industry is notorious for having widespread forced and other inhumane labor practices.  Plaintiffs alleged that they would not have purchased Nestle USA’s products if they knew of that connection and therefore that the defendant had violated California’s CLRA (Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq.); FAL (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500 et seq.; and UCL (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq.).  However, Nestle USA cited to its compliance with the Transparency Act – to the fact that it had informed the public of its efforts – and therefore that it was squarely within a consumer law “safe harbor.”  A “safe harbor” is the concept articulated by the California Supreme Court that a defendant cannot be liable under the UCL for unlawful conduct if it is doing something that “the Legislature has permitted . . .  or considered a situation and concluded no action should lie.” Cel-Tech Comms., Inc. v. L.A. Cellular Tel. Co., 20 Cal. 4th 163, 182 (Cal. 1999.).  The doctrine has been applied widely to California consumer laws.  Alvarez v. Chevron Corp., 656 F.3d 925, 933–34 (9th Cir. 2011) (applying the safe harbor doctrine to CLRA claims); Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca Cola Co., No. CV 08-06237 SJO(FMOx), 2013 WL 543361, at *5 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 16, 2013) (applying the safe harbor doctrine to FAL claims).  Nestle USA argued that Plaintiffs could not make an end run around the legislature by making it liable for disclosures that were fully compliant with the Transparency Act.  The district court agreed holding that Plaintiff may not “simply impose their own notions of the day as to what is fair or unfair” – that the “California Legislature considered the situation of regulating disclosure by companies with possible forced labor in their supply lines and determined that only the limited disclosure mandated by § 1714.43 is required.”  Barber v. Nestle USA, Inc., No. SACV1501364CJCAGRX, 2015 WL 9309553, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 9, 2015).  Accordingly, it granted Nestle USA’s motion to dismiss.  Id.

This dismissal sets an important precedent for the defense bar: Costco has been sued in the Northern District of California under similar circumstances with respect to its sale of seafood sourced from Thailand.  Sud. v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 3:15-cv-03783 (N.D. Cal).  Costco’s Motion to Dismiss is currently pending.  Chocolate manufacturers have faced similar lawsuits with respect to slave and child labor in the cocoa supply chain: Mars has been sued in the Central District of California (Wirth v. Mars, Inc., No. 8:15-cv-1470 (C.D. Cal September 10, 2015) and in the Northern District (Hodson v. Mars, Inc., No. 4:15-cv-04450-DMR (N.D. Cal. September 28, 2015).  Hershey’s has also been sued in the Northern District of California (Dana v. The Hershey Company, No. 3:15-cv-04453 (N.D. Cal. September 28, 2015).  Mars’ Motion to Dismiss has been filed in its cases and a decision is currently pending.



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All Eyes on the Supreme Court for Consumer Class Action Lawyers


**The Supreme Court’s 2015 Term Opens With a Series of Cases Important for Consumer Class Action Defendants: Campbell-Ewald v Gomez, Spokeo v Robins and Tyson Foods v Bouaphakeo** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

In recent years, the Supreme Court has handed down victories to the class action defense bar.  In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 564 U.S. ___ (2011), the Court reversed a California district court certification of a gender discrimination class – raising the bar on commonality questions for plaintiffs.  In Comcast v. Behrend, 569 U.S. __ (2013), the Court again reversed a district court certification – heightening scrutiny on plaintiffs’ methods for alleging class wide damages.  As the 2015 term opens this week, defense counsel around the country eye further potential victories in three key cases.

The first case up is Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez (No. 14-857) on appeal from the Ninth Circuit where the Court will deal with two frequently litigated questions as yet unresolved by the circuits.  Namely, does a Rule 68 offer of complete relief to a plaintiff moot his or her claim and, if so, does it also moot the resulting class claim under Rule 23?  The underlying case concerns unsolicited text messages prohibited by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) 47 U.S.C. § 227.  The TCPA contains a statutory remedy and defendants argued that, to the extent they had offered Plaintiff  the full amount of the statutory remedy (per Rule 68) as relief,  the plaintiff suffered no cognizable Article III damages.  Thus, defendants argue that because the plaintiff suffered no injury,  he has no right to represent a class of people who may have been damaged.  From a practical perspective, the case addresses the question:  Can a defendant “pick off” would be class representatives through Rule 68 offers of judgment thereby destroying the foundation of the class action claim?  As anyone who has defended corporations receiving required pre-litigation notices under consumer protection statutes has observed, plaintiff law firms have become increasingly reticent to disclose the identity of their clients at the notice stage in order to forestall Rule 68 offers of judgment until the putative class action lawsuit has been filed.

The second case is Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, (No. 13-1339) also on appeal from the Ninth Circuit.  This case involves a related question of Article III standing for class representatives.  Spokeo concerns the  Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 (FCRA), which requires consumer credit agencies to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of their published reports.  Plaintiff in a putative class action argued in the Central District of California that results for his name on the Spokeo website contained inaccurate information about plaintiff’s education and professional experience – and that this inaccuracy harmed his employment prospects.   The District Court dismissed, finding that the alleged damages – based on hypothetical impact on his employment – were too speculative to satisfy Article III standing.  The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the statutory violation implicitly creates a private cause of action to enforce and that this violation of a statutory right was an “injury” sufficient to confer standing.  The Ninth Circuit Spokeo decision was the latest in a circuit split – on one side the Second and Fourth circuits, which have rejected standing arguments from plaintiffs who alleged bare statutory violations that did not result in any actual harm (Kendall v. Emps. Ret. Plan of Avon Prods., 561 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 2009); David v. Alphin, 704 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 2013)); and the Ninth Circuit joining the Sixth and Seventh Circuits, which have come out on the side of recognizing “damages” for private plaintiffs with respect to minor statutory violations.  Beaudry v. TeleCheck Servs, 579 F.3d 702 (6th Cir. 2009); Murray v. GMAC Mortg. Corp., 434 F.3d 948 (7th Cir, 2006).  If the Supreme Court recognizes damages irrespective of actual harm, the impact could be felt more broadly than FCRA – there are numerous similar statutory schemes, including truth-in-lending legislation (15 U.S.C. § 1640(a)); debt collection statutes, (15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)); as well as various privacy laws (18 U.S.C. § 2710(c)(1); 47 U.S.C. § 551(f)(1)-(2)).

The third case is Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo (No. 14-1146) – a challenge to a $5.8 million wage-and-hour judgment in favor of a class of employees at Tyson’s meat packing plant in Iowa.  Tyson’s petition seeks a reversal of the district court and Eight Circuit’s decision to permit liability and damages verdicts to be based – not on an individual analysis of each purported class member – but by extrapolating a statistical average across the board based on the discrepancies observed in a sample class of workers’ hours and pay.  Tyson further appeals on the lack of ascertainability of the class itself – that is, that the certified group (even according to the Plaintiffs’ own expert) included a significant number of people who weren’t underpaid at all.  If successful, the Tyson case will build upon the Court’s disapproval in Wal-Mart of “trial by formula” and provide a significant bulwark against plaintiffs in putative class actions glossing over differences amongst their claimed class in order to achieve certification.

Not surprisingly, this trifecta of cases has generated a significant amount of interest, amicus briefing, and optimistic thinking from the defense bar that momentum is on its side.  The implications are not insubstantial if defendants prevail:  the type of de facto strict liability for statutory compliance created by such class actions will diminish, there will be new avenues to derail cases pre-certification, and the barrier of ascertainable and reliable class wide damages that plaintiff s must hurdle will be reinforced.

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