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.