While getting a class certified is often a serious fight, defeating class allegations at the demurrer stage is generally rare. But never say never. In Schermer v. Tatum (March 18, 2016), the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, affirmed a trial court ruling sustaining a demurrer to class allegations in the plaintiffs' second amended complaint (SAC). The plaintiffs brought a class action on behalf of residents who live in the 18 mobilehome parks. The plaintiffs alleged they were subjected to uniform unconscionable lease agreements and leasing practices by a collection of related defendants. The SAC involved 18 mobilehome parks allegedly owned and/or operated by two defendants (Tatums and Kaplan), and were managed through defendant Mobile Community Management Company (MCM). The plaintiffs also named as defendants the 18 "single-purpose" business entities that are each described as the owners of one of the mobilehome park in California.
The Court of Appeal began by summarizing the first amended complaint, the demurrer hearing related to it, and the SAC. And that summary is all you need to read to know where things are headed. The Court described the "highlights" of the FAC as follows:
In the FAC, plaintiffs again alleged defendants Tatum and Kaplan, through MCM, engaged in unlawful conduct at each of the 18 mobilehome parks. Specifically, they alleged defendants "charg[ed] excessive rent, pursu[ed] arbitrary evictions, and implement[ed] unreasonable polices." Plaintiffs further alleged in their FAC that defendants Tatum and Kaplan took "advantage of vulnerable prospective and current residents" including "non-[E]nglish speaking and elderly residents" who, plaintiffs claimed, were "especially susceptible" to defendants' unlawful business practices. Plaintiffs alleged defendants "most egregious practice" was the use of a "one-sided, standardized lease" agreement. Plaintiffs provided 32 examples of lease clauses that allegedly violated California's Mobilehome Residency Law (Civ. Code, § 798 et seq.; MRL).
Plaintiffs' FAC also set forth about 11 "factors" that plaintiffs alleged showed procedural unconscionability between plaintiffs and the putative class, on the one hand, and defendants, on the other. Such factors included among others "residents' poor socio-economic background" and defendants' "knowledge of residents' vulnerability to oppression." Plaintiffs also listed about 17 examples of substantive unconscionability in their FAC in connection with defendants' use of the standardized lease agreement in the 18 mobilehome parks. As before, plaintiffs' class action allegations included any person who had an ownership interest in a mobilehome in any of the 18 parks, and a senior citizen and non-English-speaking subclass.
Slip op., at 3-4. Then, discussing the hearing on the demurrer to the FAC, the Court said, "At the demurrer hearing, plaintiffs' counsel agreed with the court that plaintiffs' FAC was 'a mess' and counsel admitted they 'did a horrible job in succinctly and systematically putting forth facts that show what the [FAC] -- what the case is about and how it shows a pattern of conduct that is deserving of being treated in a class action.' " Slip op., at 4. Not looking good.
Describing the subsequently issued Order on the demurrer to the FAC, the Court set forth key parts of the trial court's ruling:
"Plaintiffs allege multiple causes of action, all of which related in some way to the Lease Agreements utilized at the Defendants['] parks. Based upon the allegations in the [FAC], it appears that some of the claims involved the alleged unconscionability of the contracts themselves, while others involve each Defendant's alleged actions in executing or enforcing the individual contracts as to individual Plaintiffs. [¶] The Court finds that multiple factual allegations predominate. Plaintiffs['] measure of damages will be unique to each park. The proposed class does not all reside at the same location or under the same circumstances. Each putative class member is/was a resident at one of the eighteen separate mobilehome parks located throughout the State of California, giving rise to individualized factual questions related to causation, liability, and damages.
"Example of the individualized issues include the remedy (determining excess rents paid at each space requires a factual showing of fair market values for rents in a particular area [at] a particular time and park-by[-]park appraisal). Further, there appear to be multiple lease agreements. Although Plaintiffs allege Defendants used a 'standardized' Lease Agreement, they attach at least five different variations of the Lease Agreement and/or Amendments to the Lease Agreement. (See Exhibits 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' 'D,' and 'E,' attached to the [FAC].)
Slip op., at 5. The trial court went on to identify additional issues, including the fact that many class members would not be able to state certain claims if they had not attempted to sell their homes, and there were no putative class representative plaintiffs for many of the mobilehome parks.
The SAC filed by the plaintiffs attempted to address many of the trial court's concerns, but a number of its allegations were found by the trial court to be conclusory assertions about defendants, and not allegations of fact. The SAC did not address damage issues that would arise, which included the fact that several of the mobilehome parks were in cities with their own rent control ordinances. The trial court was particularly concerned by the fact that each agreement at each park with each potential class member was individually negotiated and by the fact that a unique damage calculation would be required for each park and each person at each park. Moreover, the trial court took notice of the fact that many individuals were involved in their own litigation with their own park.
After discussing the procedural background, the Court made sure to note that it is undisputed that class allegations can be decided on demurrer:
It is beyond dispute that trial courts are permitted to decide the issue of class certification on demurrer. (Tucker, supra, 208 Cal.App.4th at p. 212; see Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 440 [noting the issue is "settled" that courts are authorized to "weed out" legally meritless class action suits prior to certification by demurrer or pretrial motion].) A trial court may sustain a demurrer to class action allegations where " 'it concludes as a matter of law that, assuming the truth of the factual allegations in the complaint, there is no reasonable possibility that the requirements for class certification will be satisfied. [Citations.]' [Citations.]" (Tucker, at p. 211, italics added; see Canon U.S.A., Inc. v. Superior Court (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1, 5 [noting that when the "invalidity of the class allegations is revealed on the face of the complaint, and/or by matters subject to judicial notice, the class issue may be properly disposed of by demurrer or motion to strike," and noting that "[i]n such circumstances, there is no need to incur the expense of an evidentiary hearing or class-related discovery"].)
Slip op., at 14. Much of the discussion that follows is unsurprising, given the discussion of the trial court's analysis. The Court did wade into the murky waters of attempting to categorize an allegation as either an "ultimate fact" or a "conclusion":
We conclude plaintiffs' allegations in their SAC—which were noticeably absent from their original complaint—that defendants implemented a uniform policy and procedure in each and every lease transaction with plaintiffs and the putative class members over a four-year period (i.e., the proposed class period), in each of the 18 mobilehome parks owned and/or operated by Tatum and Kaplan, are not properly admitted for purposes of demurrer because such allegations are not ultimate facts but rather merely contentions and/or improper factual conclusions.
Slip op., at 17-18. In my experience, this is very much an eye-of-the-beholder call that deserves a clarifying opinion with more objective guidance as to how to distinguish between the two.
In any event, the Court agreed with the trial court's assessments, finding, in particular, that the individual nature of the transactions was such that each course of dealing is unique, and damages, because of different circumstances, park locations, and local ordinances, are also unique to each potential class member. The Court declined to grant leave to amend to the plaintiffs, agreeing with the trial court that the problems were insurmountable. The lesson here is that overreach can be fatal. It might have been more workable to describe uniform leasing practices at one mobilehome park and seek class relief for the aspects of the transaction that were common to all of the residents, while, at the same time, addressing how damages will be calculated and distributed.
The "separate location" argument seems better suited to this sort of consumer circumstance than it is in the wage & hour context, where defendants nevertheless try the "each of our stores is unique and different" argument, as if they have no uniform policies regulating employees and allow each store to run their own affairs like the wild West. Hey, at least this Court cited Brinker (but it felt like an ironic cite to me).