"Hot gas" case against Chevron lives to fight another day in Klein v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc.

Hot gas.  This is not a term of art describing oral argument.  It literally refers to gasoline, and its propensity to expand as it gets warmer.  In Klein v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. (January 25, 2012), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) dispensed wisdom, a drop at a time, about the viability of claims related to hot gas.  Before I pump up this case any more, allow me to fuel your appetite with some background.  After that we'll motor on to the significant holdings.

How does hot gas work again?  The Court explained:

Motor fuel expands in volume as it is heated. As a result of this thermal expansion, a gallon of motor fuel at a warmer temperature has less mass and less energy content than a gallon of motor fuel at a cooler temperature. A temperature increase of 15 degrees causes motor fuel to expand in volume by approximately one percent, with a corresponding one percent decrease in energy output. For example, when 231 cubic inches of motor fuel, which equals one volumetric gallon, is heated from 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the motor fuel will expand to occupy a volume of approximately 233 cubic inches.

Slip op., at 4.  Ahh.  Anyhow, after a lot of discussion about regulations, and how fuel must be temperature adjusted if sold in amounts about 5,000 gallons, the Court turned to the theories impacted by the trial court's rulings on a demmurer and motion for judgment on the pleadings.

First, the Court held that the trial court erred when it dismissed the plaintiffs' claims arising under the CLRA and UCL:

Chevron's arguments are predicated on the assumption that the only possible form of relief in this case is a court order mandating that Chevron offer its retail consumers temperature-adjusted motor fuel through the implementation of ATC technology or other similar technologies. The plaintiffs' complaint, however, seeks other relief, including a disclosure requirement that, if granted, might not require substantial changes to the way Chevron currently sells motor fuel at the retail level.

Slip op., at 26.  That "other relief" mentioned by the Court includes injunctive relief compelling disclosure to consumers.  The Court next concluded that no alternative means exist for addressing the plaintiffs' issues.  On that basis, the Court concluded that judicial abstention was improper.

The Court then turned to specific claims, beginning with a half-hearted standing challenge.  The Court wasn't impressed: "Chevron concedes that, at the pleading stage, a plaintiff asserting a UCL or CLRA claim 'satisfies its burden of demonstrating standing by alleging an economic injury.' (Boschma v. Home Loan Center, Inc. (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 230, 254.)"  Slip op., at 35.  (Had to get that Boschma cite in there - my colleague, J. Mark Moore, argued that appeal.)

Next, the Court tackled the prongs of the UCL, beginning with the "unfair" prong:

At the pleading stage, we cannot presume that these alleged harms are not “substantial” or are otherwise outweighed by benefits that consumers derive from Chevron's practice of selling non-temperature adjusted motor fuel at the retail level. (Camacho, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th at p. 1403.) Although the evidence in this case may show that consumers do not suffer any substantial injury from the sale of nontemperature adjusted fuel or that the costs associated with remedying such injuries outweigh any benefit to consumers, we agree with the trial court‟s conclusion that such issues must “be determined on a developed factual basis.”

Slip op., at 37.  Chevron argued that it was not obligated to pass along or disclose its profit margins.  The Court distinguished Chevron's authority:

There are, however, important distinctions between this case and McCann. First, the holding in McCann has no relevance to plaintiffs' claim that, by selling non-temperature adjusted fuel at retail, Chevron is able to charge consumers more in purported motor fuel tax than it is required to pay to the government. Plaintiffs' tax-based claim has nothing to do with Chevron's failure to disclose its profit margins or the price at which it procures motor fuel at wholesale.

Second, unlike in McCann, the “gist” of plaintiffs‟ unfairness claim is not that Chevron was required to “disclose their own costs or profit margins” to consumers. (McCann, supra, 129 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1387, 1395 [“gist” of plaintiff's claim was that defendant “fails to disclose . . . that it gets a more advantageous rate of exchange on the wholesale market than it gives the customer”].) Instead, plaintiffs argue that, by failing to compensate for temperature variations in retail motor fuel, Chevron is engaging in a practice that misleads consumers as to the actual amount of motor fuel they are purchasing and the actual price that they are paying for that fuel. By contrast, the plaintiffs in McCann were informed of the specific exchange rate they would receive in their retail transactions (id. at p. 1382), but argued that the money transmitter had a duty to disclose the more favorable wholesale rate at which it was able to purchase foreign currency and pass those benefits on to consumers.

Were plaintiffs in this case simply alleging that Chevron had a duty to disclose the price at which it procured motor fuel at wholesale, McCann might foreclose such a claim. However, nothing in McCann suggests that the UCL does not, as a matter of law, apply to conduct that allows a retailer to charge more in taxes than it is required to pay to the government or to obscure the true cost of goods at retail.

Slip op., at 39.  The Court then dismantled a "safe harbor" argument, explaining that the "safe harbor" statute must "explictly" prohibit liability for the conduct.  Chevron's attempt to fashion a "safe harbor" by implication was rejected.

The Court then concluded that plaintiffs stated a claim under the "fraudulent" prong:

At the pleadings stage, we cannot say, as a matter of law, that consumers are not likely to be deceived in the manner alleged by plaintiffs. As the trial court observed, plaintiffs have alleged “facts which, if true, may reveal that members of the public . . . [assumed] that . . . they were receiving standardized units of motor fuel when, in fact, the energy content of each gallon depended on the temperature of the motor fuel at the time of purchase.” Plaintiffs have also alleged facts that, if true, may reveal that consumers were deceived as to the true price of motor fuel, which may vary depending on the temperature at which it is sold.

Slip op., at 43.  The Court distinguished Bardin v. Daimlerchrysler Corp. (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 1255 on the ground that the plaintiffs alleged a specific expectation in the public about what they receive at a gasoline pump.  Following that discussion, the Court immediately turned to the CLRA, noting that conduct which is "fraudulent" under the UCL also violates the CLRA.  And, stay with me here, since the plaintiffs stated a claim under the CLRA, based on the same deceptive conduct that satisfied a UCL "fraudulent" claim, they, by definition, stated a UCL claim under the "unlawful" prong, since it borrows the CLRA violation.  Presto.

The breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims didn't do so well.  Saved you eight pages of reading right there.

And to think that I was not impressed with the "hot gas" theory when I heard it years ago.  What was I thinking?

I was right: Bridgeford v. Pacific Health stabs Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co. in the heart, stuffs garlic in its mouth

I hate Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co., 143 Cal. App. 4th 1223 (2006).  My supplemental briefing in that case was uncannily prescient of parts of Taylor v. Sturgell, 128 S.Ct. 2161 (2008).  But did the Court of Appeal rule in my favor.  Nooooo.  Did the U.S. Supreme Court take my case to correct that gross misinterpretation of collateral estoppel rules in uncertified class actions?  Nooooo.  But along comes Bridgeford v. Pacific Health (January 18, 2012), in which the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) did what I so wanted to do.  They stabbed Alvarez dead, dead, dead.

Here are the money quotes:

California courts have held or suggested that the denial of class certification can establish collateral estoppel against absent putative class members on issues that were actually decided in connection with the denial. (Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1223, 1236; Bufil v. Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1193, 1202-1203 (Bufil); see also Johnson v. GlaxoSmithKline, Inc. (2008) 166 Cal.App.4th 1497, 1510-1513 & fn. 8 (Johnson) [assuming the point while expressing reservations].) Alvarez stated that the principles of collateral estoppel ensure that the absent putative class members' interests were adequately represented in the prior proceeding. (Alvarez, supra, at p. 1236.) We conclude to the contrary that if no class was certified by the court in the prior proceeding, the interests of absent putative class members were not represented in the prior proceeding and the requirements for collateral estoppel cannot be established, as we shall explain.

Slip op., at 11.  The Court then explained:

The United States Supreme Court, however, in Smith v. Bayer Corporation, supra, 131 S.Ct. 2368, recently resolved the issue. Applying common law principles of issue preclusion, the high court held that unnamed putative class members cannot be bound by issue preclusion if the class was never certified in the prior proceeding. (Id. at pp. 2380-2381.) Smith v. Bayer Corporation stated, “[n]either a proposed class action nor a rejected class action may bind nonparties” (id. at p. 2380), and, “[t]he great weight of scholarly authority . . . agrees that an uncertified class action cannot bind proposed class members.” (Id. at p. 2381, fn. 11.) The high court explained that unnamed putative class members as nonparties can be bound by issue preclusion only if there was a properly certified class because only in those circumstances can the court in the later proceeding conclude that their interests were adequately represented in the prior proceeding. (Id. at pp. 2379-2381 & fn. 11.)

We find the reasoning in Smith v. Bayer Corporation, supra, 131 S.Ct. 2368, persuasive and conclude, under California law, that the denial of class certification cannot establish collateral estoppel against unnamed putative class members on any issue because unnamed putative class members were neither parties to the prior proceeding nor represented by a party to the prior proceeding so as to be considered in privity with such a party for purposes of collateral estoppel.

Slip op., at 12-13.

Back to your crypt for all eternity, foul spawn of darkness.

Consumer Attorneys of San Diego present the 4th Annual Class Action Symposium

A combination of being buried at work and precious few appellate decisions filled with class action gold have made things a little slow around here.  But now I've got something for you.   The Consumer Attorneys of San Diego are presenting their 4th Annual Class Action Symposium on Friday, October 14, 2011 and Saturday, October 15, 2011, at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, 1 Park Blvd.

The Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel is the newest waterfront hotel located directly adjacent to the Padre Stadium and a short walk from downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and East Village.

Good for 10.0 General Credits and 1.0 Ethics MCLE Credit, the Symposium will include an impressive lineup of speakers.  The panel speakers will address topics such as: Class Arbitration, Dukes, Ticketmaster, and Damages and Equitable Relief, just to name a few.  Featured speakers include: Arthur Bryant of Public Justice, the nation's leading lawyer on the issue of class wide arbitration, Judge Vaughn Walker (Ret.), whose creative legal mind will help navigate emerging complex cases and activist Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, to put it all in perspective.  I will be speaking there too, but you should sign up anyhow.

In the "Pitts" of despair, a "Terrible" attempt to pick off a class representative fails

I remember when what was probably the first Terrible Herbst gas station opened a mere block from my home in Las Vegas.  Refilled a lot of bike tires there.  But enough about my childhood.  Terrible Herbst isn't the friendly local gas station of my youth.  Now it's just another corporate slave to the whisperings of defense counsel skilled in the dark arts.  In Pitts v. Terrible Herbst, Inc. (August 9, 2011), the Ninth Circuit considered whether a rejected offer of judgment for the full amount of a putative class representative's individual claim moots a class action complaint where the offer precedes the filing of a motion for class certification.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that it did not.

Pitts filed a hybrid FLSA and Nevada labor law class action.  The defendant removed it to federal court.  With a discovery motion pending, Terrible made a Rule 68 offer of judgment in the amount of $900.  Pitts claimed $88.00 in damages but rejected the offer.  Terrible then sought to have the matter dismissed.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this attempt to impede consideration of the class certification question:

An inherently transitory claim will certainly repeat as to the class, either because “[t]he individual could nonetheless suffer repeated [harm]” or because “it is certain that other persons similarly situated” will have the same complaint. Gerstein, 420 U.S. at 110 n.11. In such cases, the named plaintiff’s claim is “capable of repetition, yet evading review,” id., and “the ‘relation back’ doctrine is properly invoked to preserve the merits of the case for judicial resolution,” McLaughlin, 500 U.S. at 52; see also Geraghty, 445 U.S. at 398; Sosna, 419 U.S. at 402 n.11.

Slip op., at 10453.  The Court then discussed the argument that the claims in this matter were not "inherrently" transitory:

We recognize that the canonical relation-back case—such as Gerstein or McLaughlin—involves an “inherently transitory” claim and, correspondingly, “a constantly changing putative class.” Wade v. Kirkland, 118 F.3d 667, 670 (9th Cir. 1997). But we see no reason to restrict application of the relation-back doctrine only to cases involving inherently transitory claims. Where, as here, a defendant seeks to “buy off” the small individual claims of the named plaintiffs, the analogous claims of the class—though not inherently transitory—become no less transitory than inherently transitory claims. Thus, although Pitts’s claims “are not ‘inherently transitory’ as a result of being time sensitive, they are ‘acutely susceptible to mootness’ in light of [the defendant’s] tactic of ‘picking off’ lead plaintiffs with a Rule 68 offer to avoid a class action.”

Slip op., at 10454.  Interestingly, the Court essentially found that the right to certify a class was an additional right not satisfied by the Rule 68 offer, and that right could not be extinguished unless certification were denied and all appellate efforts were exhausted.

Next, the Court ruled that it was error to find that Pitts failed to timely file a motion for class certification when the trial court refused to rule on a pending discovery motion to obtain evidence necessary for certification.

Other issues raised in the appeal were not addressed by the Court once it concluded that the trial court erred in its ruling regarding the timing of certification.