Wells Fargo's attempt to decertify a consumer class action bounces

You can't blame them for trying.  Unless you are a judge.  Then you can.  In Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo & Co., 2010 WL 1233810 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 26, 2010, Judge William Alsup was not impressed with defendant's attempt to decertify a consumer class action involving over 1 million class members.  First, some background is in order.

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants Wells Fargo & Company and Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. improperly assessed overdraft charges on their customers' debit card transactions.  Two separate practices were allegedly employed by defendants: (1) the publication, in the “online banking” section of the Wells Fargo Bank website, of inaccurate available-balance information to their customers, and (2) the re-sequencing of debit card transactions from highest to lowest value-rather than in the order in which purchases were completed-prior to being posted against a customer's account. Plaintiffs alleged that the false balance information was employed to increase the likelihood that customers would incur overdraft charges, while the resequencing was employed to maximize the number of overdraft charges defendants could assess against their customers. Defendants denied these allegations. A few months into the dispute, defendant Wells Fargo & Company was voluntarily dismissed from the action, leaving only Wells Fargo Bank.  Both practices were used to certify classes, but the court later decertified claims resting upon the inaccuare balance theory.

Wells Fargo Bank then moved for summary judgment or decertificaiton of the re-sequencing class.  The court denied the request for decertification:

Counsel have been reminded on various occasions that the presence of individualized issues is not fatal to class actions brought under Rule 23 ( see, e.g., Dkt. No. 245 at 9). Rather, the rule tolerates some individualized issues, so long as “questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” FRCP 23(b)(3). Rule 23 also requires a court to be ever cognizant of whether the class action device “is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.”

The legal claims of the “re-sequencing” class target the alleged overcharging of overdraft fees for over a million different Wells Fargo customers (Dkt. No. 285, Exh. A at 37-38). All members of the “re-sequencing” class were charged overdraft fees due to defendant's accused high-to-low posting of transactions. The fees themselves, however, were only around $34 each. Given this backdrop, it cannot be disputed that a denial of class-certification would close the door of justice to a staggering amount of claimants. The deterrent value of class litigation and the desirability of providing recourse for the injured consumer who would otherwise be financially incapable of bringing suit clearly render the class action a viable and important mechanism in challenging an alleged fraud on the public. This is especially important here, where the allegedly unlawful practice disproportionately gouges those who maintain, due to choice or (more likely) financial hardship, a shallow amount of funds in their checking accounts.

On the other hand, this order must give full consideration to whether plaintiffs' revised damages study is sufficient to establish class-wide proof of actual injury and/or damages for each absent class member. Otherwise, Rule 23 would be used to truncate the required substantive elements of proof by each claimant in violation of the Rules Enabling Act, 28 U.S.C.2071-77. Having considered the various limitations inherent in Wells Fargo's transaction data (discussed in detail by this order), and the fact that proving actual injury if suits were brought individually would still require the same types of assumptions made by Olsen in his report, this order finds that plaintiffs have presented sufficient class-wide proof of actual injury to survive defendant's motion for decertification. Given this showing, there is no question that common questions predominate in this action. As such, defendant's motion for class decertification is Denied.

Slip op., at 13 -14.  It is interesting that the weaknesses in defendant's transaction data was used by the court to nullify challenges to the methodology used by plaintiffs' expert to assess damages for the class.  The court found that the same flaws in data would impact an individual's attempt to prove damages.  The opinion contains a detailed discussion, with an example, of the allged practices and the damage extrapolation methodology used by plaintiffs' expert.