In what might be a significant decision, Noel v. Thrifty Payless, Inc. was argued to the California Supreme Court on May 8, 2019. The issue presented for review is as follows: “Must a plaintiff seeking class certification under Code of Civil Procedure section 382 or the Consumer Legal Remedies Act demonstrate that records exist permitting the identification of class members?” While California appeared to have settled this question decisively many decades ago, the question arose when the First Appellate District (Division Four) opined that such identification was required. A decision may issue any time in the next couple of weeks. This is not likely to be an issue for wage and hour cases — where employer records are basically always available as a source of identification information — but is may be an issue in consumer class actions, where specific class members identification may not be possible.
When it comes to certification, you can fix almost any problem other than commonality (community of interest). Inadequate representative? Get a new one. Problem with inexperienced class counsel? Co-counsel. Numerosity is not really amenable to correction, but most of the time firms just pass on the tiny classes. But commonality, there's where the rubber meets the road. In Hendelman
v. Los Altos Apartments, L.P. (Jul. 22, 2013; pub. ord.
Aug. 20, 2013), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) affirmed a trial court order denying plaintiffs' motion for class certificaiton for lack of ascertainability, community of interest, and superiority. The bulk of the Court of Appeal opinion addresses the commonality-related failings.
The Court first held that the warranty of habitability claim was not suitable for resolution through common proof:
[T]he mere “existence of a prohibited (uninhabitable) condition or other noncompliance with applicable code standards does not necessarily constitute a breach of the warranty of habitability.” (Friedman et al., Cal. Practice Guide: Landlord-Tenant (The Rutter Group 2012) § 3:39, p. 3-13, citing Green v. Superior Court, supra, 10 Cal.3d at pp. 637-638.) “Whether the defect or code noncompliance is ‘substantial’ (and thus a cognizable breach) or ‘de minimis’ (no actionable breach) is determined on a case-by-case basis.” (Friedman et al., supra, § 3:40, p. 3-13.) “In considering the materiality of an alleged breach, both the seriousness of the claimed defect and the length of time for which it persists are relevant factors. Minor housing code violations standing alone which do not affect habitability must be considered de minimis and will not entitle the tenant to reduction in rent; and likewise, the violation must be relevant and affect the . . . common areas which [the tenant] uses.” (Hinson v. Delis (1972) 26 Cal.App.3d 62, 70, disapproved on other grounds by Knight v. Hallsthammar (1981) 29 Cal.3d 46, 55, fn. 7.) Stated otherwise, whether a particular defect or violation of a housing code constitutes a breach of the implied warranty of habitability depends on the severity and duration of the defect or violation. Breach is a rebuttable presumption affecting the burden of producing evidence. (Friedman et al., supra, §§ 3:46 to 3:47, pp. 3-14 to 3-15.)
Slip op., at 11. The
trial court concluded that even the code violations impacting all tenants did
so differently and to different degrees, and the Court of Appeal, giving
deference to the trial court, agreed.
One question raised by this decision is whether variation in entitlement
to damage tainted the analysis as to whether liability could be shown through
common proof, especially where strict liability is imposed on the landlord. At times the Court seems to conflate proof of liability with nominal damages.
The Court then found that the claim for increased rent injected the same individualized questions about whether services to each tenant were reduced in any substantial manner that amounted to an implied increase in rent.
As to the retaliation claim, the Court found that no representative could state that claim, either due to statute of limitations problems or a failure to have been a tenant during the relevant time period. And as with the habitability claim, the Court agreed that a nuisance action depended heavily on facts unique to each tenant, defeating commonality.
The Court declined to consider the many proposed adjustments or amendments to claims or the class definition on Appeal, finding that such arguments are, in the first instance, matters for the trial court.
Still playing catch-up. Today's edition of blog from the past concerns the Automobile Club of Southern California, an organization that inspires mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, they do provide what I consider to be excellent insurance services. But I can't help but feel that there is a dark underbelly at AAA of SoCal. Some of that underbelly was challenged but escaped unscathed in Thompson
v. Automobile Club of Southern California (pub. Ord. June 27, 2013), in which the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) affirmed the trial court's denial of class certification in a case alleging claims based on the backdating of the membership renewals when the renewal is late.
The plaintiff specifically challenged the practice of “backdating” late renewals to the member’s original expiration date if the renewal occurs within 95 days. The plaintiff contended that this practice resulted in late-renewing members receiving less than a full year of services. The Auto Club argued that the 95-day period is a “grace period” and that members are generally permitted to continue receiving services, particularly during the first 31 days, and saves members the $20 fee to start a new membership. The plaintiff moved for class certification. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the class members could not be ascertained and that individual questions predominated.
With respect to the factual issues surrounding class certification, we afford the trial court “ ‘great discretion in granting or denying certification.’ ” (In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298, 311.) The trial court’s ruling will be reversed only if a “ ‘manifest abuse of discretion’ ” is present. (Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, 1022.) “ ‘A certification order generally will not be disturbed unless (1) it is unsupported by substantial evidence, (2) it rests on improper criteria, or (3) it rests on erroneous legal assumptions. [Citations.]’ [Citations.]” (Ibid.)
Slip op., at 6. The Court said, “ ‘We may not reverse, however, simply because some of the court’s reasoning was faulty, so long as any of the stated reasons are sufficient to justify the order. [Citation.]’ (Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Ins. Co. (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 830, 843-844.)” Slip op., at 6-7.
The Court then examined the bases of the trial court’s decision. Looking first at the trial court’s ascertainability finding, the Court concluded that the class definition was significantly overbroad, and thus not ascertainable from the available records:
If putative class members either received benefits during the delinquency period, were not damaged as a result of the renewal policy, or renewed after the Auto Club’s membership policy was disclosed, their ability to recover is called into serious question. If class members received benefits during the delinquency period or they were told about the Auto Club’s renewal practices, they cannot maintain a cause of action under the UCL. If they were not economically damaged, they cannot recover on a breach of contract, under the CLRA, or through an unjust enrichment claim. (See Civ. Code., § 1780, subd. (a); Careau & Co. v. Security Pacific Business Credit, Inc. (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 1371, 1388; Lectrodryer v. SeoulBank (2000) 77 Cal.App.4th 723, 726.)
Slip op., at 11. As it so happens, I disagree that the ability to identify the class from available records is the touchstone of ascertainability. Certainly that is one very useful way, but the purpose of a class definition is to allow a potential class member to determine when reading the definition whether they are a member of the class. Consider consumer class actions involving retail transactions. Often, there is no way to know the identity of purchasers of a product; but the purchasers know. The notion that the class can only be ascertained if they are identified in available records is simply an invitation to maintain shoddy records and a strangely narrow view of what it means to have an ascertainable class. This portion of the opinion is horse hockey.
Anyhow, the Court of Appeal then agreed that the same issues impacting the ability to identify the class (under the Court's narrow view of ascertainability) presented individualized issues that predominated over common questions:
The trial court found that individual issues predominate: “(A) Individual issues predominate regarding whether a putative class member is entitled to recover on any of Plaintiff’s causes of action. This is because, as stated above, there were members who suffered no injury because they (i) received services during their delinquency, (ii) had the Auto Club’s renewal policy explicitly disclosed to them, and/or (iii) were economically better off under the Auto Club’s system of renewal than they would have been if they had begun new memberships on the date of payment and paid the $20 new enrollment fee. Determining whether a member falls into any of these categories and would therefore not be entitled to recover from the Auto Club on any of Plaintiff's theories of liability, can only be done on a case-by-case basis.” The court went on to explain that essentially the same reasons applied to each cause of action.
Slip op., at 13-14. The Court concluded by finding that the arguments concerning typicality and superiority were not significant because of the substantial problems with ascertainability and commonality. The decision presents an example of the potential for a serious entanglement of merits questions with certification issues when the Court considered the viability of the plaintiff’s theory.
Pineda v. Williams-Sonoma Stores, Inc., 51 Cal. 4th 524 (2011) added some clarity to the types of personal identification information protected from collection by merchants. As it turns out, section 1747.08 of the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971 (SBCCA) (Civ. Code, § 1747 et seq.) even precludes collection of zipcodes. But Pineda didn't answer every unresolved question related to SBCCA-based claims. In Archer v. United Rentals, Inc. (May 19, 2011), the Court of Appeal considered several issues surrounding the SBCCA, described as follows:
This appeal presents these significant issues: (1) Have plaintiffs established standing to pursue a UCL claim by demonstrating they "suffered injury in fact and . . . lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition" (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17204); (2) does the privacy protection of Civil Code section 1747.08 cover the use of a business credit card; (3) does such protection extend to a cardholder who uses a personal credit card regardless of whether such use is "primarily" or "occasionally" for business purposes; and (4) is class certification foreclosed by the unreasonableness of ascertaining class membership?
Slip op., at 2. The Court of Appeal answered "no" to the first two questions, but reversed the trial court on the third when the Court concluded that a personal credit card was protected under the SBCCA, regardless of how often it was used for business purposes. Having ruled as it did on the third issue, the Court then remanded for reconsideration of the ascertainability question, since the trial court's orginal ruling turned on the need to evaluate the frequency with which a credit card was used for business purposes.
The Court relied upon Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, 51 Cal. 4th 310 (2011) when it concluded that violation of SBCCA, alone, was insufficient to establish the requisite injury under the UCL.
Today, June 13, 2011, the Court issued a modification to its Order. The modification adds a paragraph on the issue of standing to appeal:
Defendants contend plaintiffs lack standing to appeal the order denying class certification because they are not aggrieved by the trial court’s rulings in that they each were awarded $250 and “they should have moved for the substitution of new class representatives who do, in fact, have standing to appeal.” We disagree because plaintiffs were denied certification of their class claims. Issues regarding proper class representatives are for the trial court to address on remand. (Troyk v. Farmers Group, Inc. (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 1305, 1351, fn. 35.)
June 13, 2011 slip op., at 1.
United States District Court Judge Susan Illston (Northern District of California) certified in part a class action alleging the failure to reimburse work-related mileage expenses. Wilson v. Kiewit Pacific Co. (N.D. Cal. December 6, 2010). As an initial matter, the Court refused to certify a class of "all" employees, noting that it was overbroad:
As an initial matter, plaintiff cannot seek to certify a class of “all current and former” California employees of defendant from July 6, 2006 to present. Motion at 3; Reply at 3-4. On its face, that definition is impermissibly overbroad as it includes employees who never incurred unreimbursed business mileage expenses under California law.
Slip op., at 3. Next, the Court observed that the plaintiff did not submit evidence demonstrating that the Northern California district was operated under the same policies as the Southern California District. The Court found the plaintiff inadequate to represent the Northern California District employees on the basis of thin evidence of any uniform policy that was actionable.
With respect to the Southern California District, the Court agreed with the defendant that the plaintiff's proposed class definition was problematic, but not for the reason argued:
The Court agrees that there is a problem with the way plaintiff has proposed to define this particular subclass, but not the ascertainability problem defendant asserts. Instead, plaintiff's proposed definition-all Southern California district employees who drove their non-company owned vehicles “over” 25/35 miles-would seem to include only those who received some reimbursement under defendant's policy and not those employees who drove under 25/35 miles but were nonetheless owed reimbursement for non-commute time under plaintiff's theories. The Court doubts plaintiff intended to exclude those employees from the proposed class.
Slip op., at 7. The Court then revised the class definition, declaring it ascertainable and better defined:
All of defendant's past and present non-union employees working in the Southern California district at any time from July 6, 2005 to present who were not reimbursed for non-commute mileage expenses incurred in using personal vehicles to travel to off-site meetings or trainings.
Slip op., at 7. This, in particular is very helpful to litigants. It demonstrates an engaged Court that has provided a concrete example of how to refine and improve a class definition.
The Court found unpersuasive the defendant's argument that some class members had individual deals in place to get company cars. The Court finished by offering some comments about the obligation to supplement witness lists provided with initial disclosures, finding that those concerns were not at issue due to the rapidly shifting nature of the plaintiff's claims.
The purpose of the ascertainability requirement in class actions is to ensure that it is possible to give adequate notice to class members and to determine after the litigation has concluded who is barred from relitigating the resolved issues. The ascertainability requirement can be satisfied either by defining a class in objective terms such that a review of the defendant's records or if the class definition would "allow a member of that group to identify himself or herself as having a right to recover based on the description." Bartold v. Glendale Federal Bank, 81 Cal. App. 4th 816, 828 (2000); and see Ghazaryan v. Diva Limousine, Ltd., 169 Cal. App. 4th 1524, 1533 (2008). In Sevidal v. Target Corporation (October 29, 2010), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) affirmed a trial court order denying certification on the ground that the class was hopelessly unascertainable.
Sevidal sued Target after he purchased through Target's website some clothing items misidentified as made in the United States. Sevidal specifically argued that, under the California Supreme Court's recent opinion, In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009) (Tobacco II), "the class could be certified on his unfair competition claim even if most of the proposed class members never relied on the 'Made in USA' designation in deciding to make their online purchases." Slip op., at 2. The trial court did not take issue with this contention. Instead, the trial court found the class definition to be significantly overbroad and the class itself to be unascertainable.
Sevidal's difficulties in defining the class arose because a website coding error caused the Target website to misidentify the county of origin on some clothes on some occasions, but not on others. This computer bug made it impossible to ascertain class membership:
In the proceedings below, Sevidal made clear that only those who purchased an item when the country of origin was misidentified are part of the proposed class. But he also defined the proposed class to include consumers who purchased an item from Target.com without selecting the " 'Additional Info' " icon, and thus who were never exposed to the country-of-origin information. These consumers would, by definition, have no way of knowing whether he or she purchased an item when it was misidentified, and thus would have no way of knowing whether he or she is a member of the class. And these individuals (those who would have no way of knowing he or she was a class member) represent a significant portion of the overall proposed class. Target's statistical evidence shows that approximately 80 percent of the proposed class falls within this category — individuals who purchased an item without viewing the country-of-origin information.
Slip op., at 19-20. The Court found this degree of overbreadth sufficient to support the trial court's ruling:
Although class certification should not be denied on overbreadth grounds when the class definition is only slightly overinclusive (ibid.; see Aguiar, supra, 144 Cal.App.4th at p. 136), in this case the overbreadth is significant. The unrefuted evidence showed that approximately 80 percent of the online purchasers did not select the " 'Additional Info' " icon and were never exposed to the alleged misrepresentation.
Slip op., at 20. A useful observation for both plaintiffs and defendants; slight overbreadth will not defeat certification, but overbreadth of this magnitude will support a denial of certification.
The Court went on to reject Sevidal's attempt to extend by analogy the evidentiary presumptions that can be imposed for failure to follow Labor Code record-keeping requirements. The Court observed that Target had no statutory or contractual obligations to maintain records about who selected which links on its site.
Finally, the Court discussed the overbreadth issue under the UCL, separate from the ascertainability problem created by the class definition and the lack of records to identify class membership. Treading gingerly into the minefield of Tobacco II, the Court said:
But the Tobacco II court did not state or suggest there are no substantive limits on absent class members seeking restitution when a defendant has engaged in an alleged unlawful or unfair business practice. Instead, the court recognized that under the UCL's statutory language, a person is entitled to restitution for money or property "which may have been acquired" by means of the unfair or unlawful practice. (§ 17203, italics added; see Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 320.) Although this standard focuses on the defendant's conduct and is substantially less stringent than a reliance or "but for" causation test, it is not meaningless. To conclude otherwise would violate the statutory interpretation principle that every word in a statute must be given operative effect. Even after the Tobacco II decision, the UCL and FAL still require some connection between the defendant's alleged improper conduct and the unnamed class members who seek restitutionary relief.
Slip op., 25. Analyzing the post-Tobacco II cases, the Court concluded that undisputed evidence showed that most of the defined class never viewed the country-of-origin information. Unlike Weinstat v. Dentsply Internat., Inc., 180 Cal. App. 4th 1213 (2010), there were no direct communications to every class member. Unlike In re Steroid Hormone Product Cases, 181 Cal. App. 4th 145 (2010), there was no illegal conduct (inclusion of undisclosed controlled substances) to supply the means for unlawful acquisition of money from the class. In essence, the Court concluded that, as to the majority of the defined class, Target didn't do anything wrong (again, the key issue being that, at many times, the Target website may was displaying the correct information - but most people didn't look at it in either case).
While the Court appears to favor the "conservative" line of post-Tobacco II cases (or, as some might say, the reactionary revolt line), the Court doesn't embroil itself too deeply into the post-Tobacco II cases, attempting as much as possible to harmonize the two lines of cases with each other and the record before it. In this case, the Court's task is much easier as a result of the unique factual record.
After weeks in the doldrums, a California Court of Appeal finally got around to issuing an opinion related to class actions. Unfortunately, it isn't very exciting. In Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc. (June 24, 2010), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) reviewed an order denying class certification of meal period, rest break and overtime (regular rate calculation) claims.
The Court confirmed what is, by now, a fairly well-established set of standards for appellate review of certification rulings:
Trial courts have discretion in granting or denying motions for class certification because they are well situated to evaluate the efficiencies and practicalities of permitting a class action. (Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 326.) Despite this grant of discretion, appellate review of orders denying class certification differs from ordinary appellate review. Under ordinary appellate review, we do not address the trial court's reasoning and consider only whether the result was correct. (Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Ins. Co. (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 830, 843.) But when denying class certification, the trial court must state its reasons, and we must review those reasons for correctness. (Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 435-436 (Linder).) We may only consider the reasons stated by the trial court and must ignore any unexpressed reason that might support the ruling. (Id.; see also Bufil v. Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1193, 1204-1205 (Bufil).)
Slip op., at 7. The majority of the opinion simply confirms that, in the face of evidence apparently in conflict, the determination of which evidence to credit is left to the trial court.
The Court did reverse the trial court as to the overtime claim. The Court found that the issue of whether certain payments should be included in the calculation of the regular rate is an issue well-suited to class-wide determination.
Get back to work.
United States District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel (Northern District of California) granted, with leave to amend, a motion to strike class allegations in a suit alleging a defect in Whirlpool-manufactured top-loading Kenmore Elite Oasis automatic washing machines (“the Machines”) that Sears marketed, advertised, distributed, warranted, and offered to repair. Tietsworth v. Sears Roebuck and Co., et al., 2010 WL 1268093 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 31, 2010). The alleged defect in an electronic control board causes machines to stop mid-cycle.
The Court concluded that the class was not ascertainable as defined:
[T]he putative classes alleged in paragraph 98 cannot be ascertained because they include members who have not experienced any problems with their Machines' Electronic Control Boards-or for that matter with any other part of the Machine. “Such members have no injury and no standing to sue.” Hovsepian v. Apple, Inc., No. 08-5788 JF (PVT), 2009 WL 5069144, at *6 (N.D.Cal.2009); see also Bishop, 1996 WL 33150020, at *5 (“courts have refused to certify class actions based on similar ‘tendency to fail’ theories because the purported class includes members who have suffered no injury and therefore lack standing to sue.”).
Order, at 19.
The opinion also includes an extensive discussion of pleading standards applicable to many different claims for relief predicated on failure to disclose or concealment allegations.
The more time I spend reviewing decisions in the complex litigation/class action arena, the more I am convinced that the lower Courts of California are, in many instances, at odds with the California Supreme Court. The most recent decision to suggest this schism is Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc. (October 28, 2009) from the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight). Cohen is the most recent California appellate court Opinion to comment on the treatment of UCL claims by In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th 298 (2009), the prior two decisions being Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance Company, et al. (October 26, 2009) (discussed on this blog here) and Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009) (discussed on this blog here). Cohen affirmed a trial court's denial of class certification of CLRA and UCL claims, but its analysis runs head first into Tobacco II and other Supreme Court decisions. The UCL Practitioner has an extensive post analyzing Cohen against Tobacco II. I will comment on the Cohen holding, but I also want to offer some thoughts as to why this divergence between California's highest court and the other courts throughout the state might be happening.
Since some of my comments depend upon the subject matter of Cohen, I begin by providing some background about the claims in that matter. Cohen concerns an allegation that DIRECTV advertised that the channels in its HD Package were broadcast in the 1080i HD standard (an interlaced resolution of 1920x1080 pixels), at 19.4 Mbps, but later compressed each HD channel down to 6.6 Mbps. The 19.4 and 6.6 figures refer to the volume of data being transmitted each second, expressed as Megabits per second. So, expressed another way, the Cohen action complained that the quality of the video broadcast on HD channels was degraded by an increase in the amount of data compression. By way of background, the raw data rate for uncompressed HD video in the 1080i format can be well in excess of 100 Mbps, depending on frame rate and color information. This "raw" video is then compressed. In fact, it must be compressed - there is no practical system in place to deliver 100 Mbps to your television right now. The older mpeg-2 compression codec, or newer codecs, like H.264, compress the "raw" HD video into something smaller, using complex formulas that reduce the data used to transmit the images. The goal of compression is to obtain the best video-quality-to-size compromise. In the DIRECTV case, 19.4 Mbps is compressed video that would look very good, but "degradation" artifacts would still be visible on a good HD television (some "smearing" on fast action or a blocky, pixelated appearance in areas of solid color, blacks in particular). 6.6 Mbps is very compressed 1080i HD content; it is compressed to one third the size of the already compressed 19.4 Mbps feed. You would see more compression artifacts on a good/larger HD television.
There are a number of certification issues in Cohen. Ascertainability receives some significant discussion. But the portion that is likely of greatest interest is the discussion of reliance under the UCL; it is the area in which Cohen diverges from Tobacco II. Regarding reliance in UCL actions, the Trial Court in Cohen said: "Even pre-Prop. 64 cases only allow inferred reliance where the misrepresentations were common to all class members. An inference of classwide reliance cannot be made where there is no showing that representations were made uniformly to all members of the class." Slip op., at 7. The Cohen Court started its discussion about the UCL with this observation that presages the outcome:
Although the rules under the UCL may or may not be different following our Supreme Court's recent decision in In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298 (Tobacco II), an issue which we address below, we do not understand the UCL to authorize an award for injunctive relief and/or restitution on behalf of a consumer who was never exposed in any way to an allegedly wrongful business practice.
Slip op., at 14. The Cohen Court then stated its view of the holding from Tobacco II in two separate ways. First, it offered a brief summary of the decision:
On review, the Supreme Court specifically addressed two questions: “First, who in a UCL class action must comply with Proposition 64's standing requirements, the class representatives or all unnamed class members, in order for the class action to proceed? . . . Second, what is the causation requirement for purposes of establishing standing under the UCL . . . ?” (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 306, italics added.) This past spring, the Supreme Court answered these two questions by ruling (1) only the class representatives must meet Proposition 64's standing requirements of actual injury and causation; (2) only the class representatives must establish reliance in accordance with fraudulent inducement principles in order for the class action to proceed; and (3) the class representatives do not have to show reliance on particular advertisements or marketing materials with “unrealistic” specificity. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at pp. 321-329.)
Slip op., at 15. Then, the Cohen Court offered its own summary of what it believes that the California Supreme Court actually meant:
Viewed from the other direction, Tobacco II held that, for purposes of standing in context of the class certification issue in a “false advertising” case involving the UCL, the class members need not be assessed for the element of reliance. Or, in other words, class certification may not be defeated on the ground of lack of standing upon a showing that class members did not rely on false advertising. In short, Tobacco II essentially ruled that, for purposes of standing, as long as a single plaintiff is able to establish that he or she relied on a defendant‟s false advertising, a multitude of class members will also have standing, regardless of whether any of those class members have in any way relied upon the defendant's allegedly improper conduct.
Slip op. at 15. Notice the interesting language used by the Cohen Court: "Tobacco II essentially ruled...." One can say that the Supreme Court "did" or "did not" rule a certain way. But saying that it "essentially" ruled a certain way is problematic for everyone. This suggests an outcome that is implied by Tobacco II, but not stated. To sort that out, we have to compare Cohen to Tobacco II and determine what Tobacco II does and does not say.
Returning to Cohen, the Court was more direct when it stated its intention to disregard Tobacco II as offering a controlling decision for the case before it: "In the contextual setting presented by Cohen's present case, we find Tobacco II to be irrelevant because the issue of 'standing' simply is not the same thing as the issue of 'commonality.'" Slip op., at 15. The Court continued: "In short, the trial court's concerns that the UCL and the CLRA claims alleged by Cohen and the other class members would involve factual questions associated with their reliance on DIRECTV's alleged false representations was a proper criterion for the court's consideration when examining 'commonality' in the context of the subscribers'motion for class certification, even after Tobacco II." Slip op., at 16. Thus, the Cohen Court devised an analysis that permits circumvention of Tobacco II, holding that a trial court can't use classwide reliance issues for a "standing" challenge, but can use those same issues to bar certification. I posit that what we have here is most likely either a reverse engineered holding or a generally negative reaction to Tobacco II. The limited analysis of reliance issues as they pertain to the UCL was devised to support the desired outcome. The alternative is that the Cohen Court didn't examine Tobacco II carefully, and I find that less likely than the notion that the panel simply does not agree with the Tobacco II analysis or doesn't like the claims in the case.
I turn now to Tobacco II and argue that it directly addresses the contentions made in Cohen. In Tobacco II, the Supreme Court summarized the trial court's decision in that matter:
The trial court found that the “simple language” of Proposition 64 required that “for standing purposes, a showing of causation is required as to each class member's injury in fact.... [T]he injury in fact that each class member must show for standing purposes in this case would presumably consist of the cost of their cigarette purchases. But significant questions then arise undermining the purported commonality among the class members, such as whether each class member was exposed to Defendants' alleged false statements and whether each member purchased cigarettes ‘as a result’ of the false statements. Clearly ... individual issues predominate, making class treatment unmanageable and inefficient.”
Tobacco II, 46 Cal. 4th at 310-311. One can almost excuse the Cohen Court's narrow construction of Tobacco II as a "standing" decision. After all, the paragraph above does talk quite a bit about standing. But this overlooks the fact that causation is entangled with standing, and, for the named plaintiff, showing reliance is the method by which that plaintiff shows standing under a UCL claim asserting a "fraudulent" prong (likely to deceive) standard. What Cohen ignores is the fact that, according to Tobacco II, the causation showing (in this instance, a reliance showing) is not an element of a UCL claim, except that, after Proposition 64, the named plaintiff must make that showing. In fact, the next page of Tobacco II removes any doubt that pre-Proposition 64 decisions construing the UCL remain viable: "'[T]o state a claim under either the UCL or the false advertising law, based on false advertising or promotional practices, "it is necessary only to show that 'members of the public are likely to be "deceived." ' " ' (Kasky v. Nike, Inc. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 939, 951, 119 Cal.Rptr.2d 296, 45 P.3d 243.)" Tobacco II, 46 Cal. 4th at 312.
Continuing, the Supreme Court said:
The fraudulent business practice prong of the UCL has been understood to be distinct from common law fraud. “A [common law] fraudulent deception must be actually false, known to be false by the perpetrator and reasonably relied upon by a victim who incurs damages. None of these elements are required to state a claim for injunctive relief” under the UCL. ( Day v. AT & T Corp.(1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 325, 332, 74 Cal.Rptr.2d 55; see State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1093, 1105, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 229.) This distinction reflects the UCL's focus on the defendant's conduct, rather than the plaintiff's damages, in service of the statute's larger purpose of protecting the general public against unscrupulous business practices. (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank (1979) 23 Cal.3d 442, 453, 153 Cal.Rptr. 28, 591 P.2d 51.)
Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 312. This discussion is at odds with Cohen's treatment of Tobacco II. Tobacco II said that "the UCL class action is a procedural device that enforces substantive law by aggregating many individual claims into a single claim, in compliance with Code of Civil Procedure section 382, to achieve the remedial goals outlined above. It does not change that substantive law, however." Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 313. And Tobacco II unambiguously holds (i.e., not "essentially" holds) that:
[T]he language of section 17203 with respect to those entitled to restitution-“to restore to any person in interest any money or property, real or personal, which may have been acquired ” (italics added) by means of the unfair practice-is patently less stringent than the standing requirement for the class representative-“any person who has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition.” (§ 17204, italics added.) This language, construed in light of the “concern that wrongdoers not retain the benefits of their misconduct” (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d 442, 452, 153 Cal.Rptr. 28, 591 P.2d 51) has led courts repeatedly and consistently to hold that relief under the UCL is available without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury. (E.g., Bank of the West v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1254, 1267, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 538, 833 P.2d 545; Committee on Children's Television, Inc. v. General Foods Corp., supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 211, 197 Cal.Rptr. 783, 673 P.2d 660.) Accordingly, to hold that the absent class members on whose behalf a private UCL action is prosecuted must show on an individualized basis that they have “lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition” (§ 17204) would conflict with the language in section 17203 authorizing broader relief-the “may have been acquired” language-and implicitly overrule a fundamental holding in our previous decisions, including Fletcher, Bank of the West and Committee on Children's Television.
Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 320. If "reliance" is not an element of a UCL claim, why is there still the perception that reliance has a role to play in UCL actions (outside of named plaintiff standing)? The Tobacco II decision may have supplied that answer as well:
Our conclusion with respect to the remedies set forth in section 17203 has nothing to do with the nonrestitutionary disgorgement disallowed in Kraus v. Trinity Management Services, Inc., supra, 23 Cal.4th 116, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 485, 999 P.2d 718. In Kraus, we concluded that section 17203 does not allow a court to order disgorgement into a fluid recovery fund, e.g., to “compel a defendant to surrender all money obtained through an unfair practice even though not all is to be restored to the persons from whom it was obtained or those claiming under those persons.” (Id. at p. 127, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 485, 999 P.2d 718.) This prohibition against nonrestitutionary disgorgement did not overrule any part of Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d 442, 153 Cal.Rptr. 28, 591 P.2d 51, under which restitution may be ordered “without individualized proof of deception, reliance, and injury if necessary to prevent the use or employment of an unfair practice.” (Bank of the West, supra, 2 Cal.4th at p. 1267, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 538, 833 P.2d 545.)
Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 320, n. 14. This suggests that, in some circumstances, the quantum of a restitution order might ultimately depend upon a showing of injury by class members. Since reliance on an unfair practice can act as a surrogate of sorts for injury (under the the right facts and right species of UCL claim), this may explain why the belief persists that reliance is an unstated element of a UCL claim. It's either that, or a petulant refusal to understand that the UCL's fraudulent prong has nothing to do with common law fraud.
Tobacco II has already been circumvented by two of three California Courts of Appeal to apply it. The important question is why? Options include, at least, a desire not to reverse a trial court, a dislike of the holding of Tobacco II, a dislike of the theory of the case, or a general resistance to class actions (or some amalgam of those options).
The first option exists as an element of all appeals. Courts of Appeal begin their analysis with a presumption that the trial court will be affirmed. I cannot conclude that this is the primary factor in the Cohen Court's dismissive analysis.
The second option is certainly possible. The Cohen Court sounded almost disdainful of Tobacco II when it said, "In the contextual setting presented by Cohen's present case, we find Tobacco II to be irrelevant...." Slip op., at 15. I find this option to be a plausible explanation.
The third option is also possible. I do not find it a stretch to imagine the initial judicial reaction being something akin to, "Megawho per second? You're kidding, right?" When that happens, I think it is human nature to look for reasons not to facilitate the case or claim. If my comments offend any judicial sensibilities, I apologize for that. But we must recognize every participant in the judicial system -- clerk, judge, lawyer -- are human beings, with all of our prejudices and predispositions. I also find this option to be a plausible explanation.
The fourth option is also possible. When the various Districts and Divisions are examined over time, I have little doubt that some find panels find great utility in the class action device, while others find them abusive. Again, this has more to do with the predisposition of the observer than anything else, as it is as easy to find a class action of great social utility as it is to find one of questionable or zero worth. It's also worth noting that the second of my proposed options can be a subset of this fourth option. In other words, discomfiture about the Tobacco II opinion can be motivated either by that particular opinion or by an overall judicial fatigue regarding class actions generally.
I do not want to suggest that I know which of my theories, if any, explains Cohen. I suspect that some combination of class action fatigue and specific resistance to the claims in this particular case are at work here, but that is speculative on my part. However, I am certain that a growing rift exists between the Supreme Court's view of major legal questions and the views held by trial and intermediate appellate courts. As I am doubtful that anything can be done about this issue other than to raise awareness and hope for the best from our courts, I do not believe it is an issue that will resolve itself any time soon.
It is my intention to write more about the nature of this judicial divide here or elsewhere.
In re Tobacco II Cases hasn't been out long, but its significance is already hard to deny. Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009) was the first published opinion by a California Court of Appeal to apply In re Tobacco II Cases. See blog post. In Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance Company, et al. (October 26, 2009), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) had occasion to discuss In re Tobacco II Cases in the context of an appeal of the denial of class certification in a "vanishing premiums" action.
Before discussing the opinion, a definition is in order. “Generally speaking, so called ‘[v]anishing premium policies are paid dividends which in some instances can be sufficient to cause the premium to “offset” whereby dividend values are used to pay the premium. In such an instance, the cash premium “vanishes” and is no longer due from the insured.’” Keyes v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 194 F.R.D. 253, 254, n. 1 (S.D. Miss. 2000), quoting Phillips v. New England Mut. Life Ins. Co., 36 F.Supp.2d 345, 347 (S.D. Miss. 1998).) In other words, the theory is that a larger sum is paid into a policy for a few years, and then the investment of those funds should generate a dividend that is sufficient to pay the premium thereafter.
Returning to the opinion, the Court of Appeal spent significant time discussing the facts of the case and the nature of "vanishing premium" policies before summarizing the Trial Court's Order denying class certifiation:
The trial court denied the motion for class certification. It concluded Kaldenbach had not demonstrated numerosity other than his assertion that over 4,000 policies were sold. Kaldenbach had not shown ascertainability as there was no evidence as to how it could be shown which of the policyholders had received illustrations during the sales presentation.
The court concluded Kaldenbach had not shown typicality because Meyerson testified in his deposition that the sale to Kaldenbach was not typical as he had a clearly defined dominant need, Kaldenbach testified he never received any explanation from Meyerson about how the policy worked, how interest rates or costs of insurance were determined, what the extent of his obligation to pay annual premiums was, and what might happen if he stopped paying premiums. By contrast, Meyerson testified he fully explained the policy to Kaldenbach. “If [Kaldenbach] and Meyerson cannot even agree as to what was stated during the [sales] presentation to [Kaldenbach], how can [Kaldenbach's] claim be typical [and] be used to prove 4,000 claims? . . . It will take . . . individual evaluation of each claim to determine liability.”
The court also found Kaldenbach had not established commonality. Kaldenbach primarily relied upon uniformity in Mutual‟s sales materials, training, and illustrations, but there was no evidence linking those common tools to what was actually said or demonstrated in any individual sales transaction. The training materials and methods were not uniform throughout the class period. None of the allegedly scripted or memorized sales materials covered the alleged misrepresentations. And there was no evidence that uniform training or sales materials were used with each putative class member. There was no evidence all independent agents were required to take the offered training, took the offered training, had the same training, or used the same training or materials in their sales presentations. In fact “[t]here was evidence that the agents were free to ignore the training and written manuals.” Mutual‟s agents were independent contractors over whom Mutual had little or no control. Meyerson testified he did not follow his training or manuals in making the presentation to Kaldenbach. Kaldenbach had argued commonality could be found based solely on the use of illustrations, but Kaldenbach testified he never looked at the entire illustration, he only looked at the part of the illustration that showed the premium could vanish in four years because that was what Kaldenbach wanted.
The court also believed varying applicability of the statute of limitations and the delayed discovery rule to each putative class member‟s claim precluded class certification. The court noted the 70 percent lapse rate Kaldenbach alleged occurred with the policy at issue did not establish class-wide liability. There was no evidence it was an unusual lapse rate and no evidence as to why the policies had lapsed. For example, individual policyholders may have taken loans out against the cash accumulation, they may have decided to purchase a different product, or no longer needed the coverage. “[A]nalysis of why a policy lapsed is just one more issue that would need to be addressed on an individual and not class wide basis.”
Finally, the court listed the individualized issues that predominated and which could not be proven on a class-wide basis including: (1) did the agent take Mutual‟s training and read Mutual‟s manuals; (2) did the agent always use the training and materials; (3) what materials, disclosures, representations, and explanations were given to any given purchaser; (4) was an illustration used; (5) what information was input into the illustration; (6) did the purchaser rely on representations made in the sales presentation; (7) what were the customer‟s individual needs; (8) when did each class member‟s cause of action accrue; and (9) did the individual class member‟s policy lapse, and if so, why?
Slip op., at 11-13. After describing the valuable benefits of class actions, and noting that the reasoning of the Trial Court is scrutinized when reviewing an order denying certification, the Court of Appeal observed: "We may not reverse, however, simply because some of the court's reasoning was faulty, so long as any of the stated reasons are sufficient to justify the order. (Caro v. Procter & Gamble Co. (1993) 18 Cal.App.4th 644, 655-656 (Caro).)" Slip op., at 14-15.
As the Court of Appeal turned to the merits, it began its discussion by cataloging a number of federal court decisions where class certification was denied on the same theory. Parenthetically, the placement of this discussion suggests that the conclusions of those federal cases persuaded the Court of Appeal to affirm the Trial Court.
Eventually, the Court of Appeal turned to the promised discussion of In re Tobacco II Cases as it analyzed the denial of class certification for the UCL Cause of Action. The language selected by the Court of Appeal for italicization clearly suggests the outcome:
A private person “may pursue representative claims or relief on behalf of others only if the claimant meets the standing requirements . . . and complies with [s]ection 382 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203.) Recently, in In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298, 3245, the Supreme Court held in the UCL class action context, the “injury in fact” standing requirement imposed by Proposition 64 applies only to the class representative and not to “absent class members in a UCL class action where class requirements have otherwise been found to exist.” (Italics added.) UCL relief is available on a class basis “without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury. [Citations.]” (Id. at p. 320.)
Slip op., at 20. The Plaintiff argued that the Trial Court incorrectly "premised its order denying class certification on the complexities of establishing each absent class members' reliance on the representations made and their injury." Slip op., at 20. The Court of Appeal wasn't concerned with this error:
There were myriad other individualized issues the court found to predominate including whether any given agent took Mutual's training, read its manuals, and routinely followed the training and materials; and what materials, disclosures, representations, and explanations were given to any given purchaser. These individualized issues go not to the injury suffered by a purchaser, but to whether there was in fact an unfair business practice by Mutual. Neither In re Tobacco II Cases, supra, 46 Cal.4th 298, nor Massachusetts Mutual, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th 1282, compel a different result.
Slip op., at 21. The Court of Appeal went on to distinguish Kaldenbach's case from In re Tobacco II Cases and Massachusetts Mutual:
[B]oth In re Tobacco II Cases and Massachusetts Mutual involved identical misrepresentations and/or nondisclosures by the defendants made to the entire class. In re Tobacco II Cases targeted the tobacco industries' deceptive advertisements and statements disseminated to the public about the health effects of tobacco use. Massachusetts Mutual concerned the insurer's failure to disclose to policy purchasers and its agents its plan to decrease its discretionary dividend. In other words, there was no issue about defendants' uniform business practices giving rise to the UCL claim.
But here there is no such uniformity. Although Kaldenbach claimed Mutual's presentations relating to ALPs were uniform, it utilized standardized training methods, materials, and scripts to which agents were required to adhere, the evidence showed the opposite. Mutual's policies were sold by independent agents, and during the class period, they were not required to attend training or utilize any given sales materials. Agents were not required to adhere to a scripted sales presentation. Indeed Meyerson, who sold Kaldenbach his policy, testified at his deposition he did not use a scripted sales presentation or any training materials in making the sale to Kaldenbach.
Slip op., at 22. If nothing else, analyses like this will encourage sales policies that state vague guidelines and some variation in sales approaches to eliminate uniformity of representations to consumers. In any event, Kaldenbach's argument that he was entitled to an "inference of injury" for his fraud claim met with a similar fate, as the Court of Appeal noted that the inference is only available where the misrepresentations are uniform.
The Court of Appeal ignored the balance of the Trial Court's Order, concluding that the predominance of individualized issues was a sufficient ground for denying class certification. A complicated set of facts coupled with a seemingly conservative Court of Appeal made this outcome all but a formality.