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.