Breaking News: New appellate court decision in Steroid Hormone Product Cases at odds with Cohen panel's rebuke of Tobacco II

The initial appellate decisions in which In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298, 311 (Tobacco II) was ignored or criticized are beginning to see an equalizing counterbalance from appellate decisions that approvingly apply Tobacco II.  Today, in Steroid Hormone Product Cases (January 21, 2010), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) reversed an order denying class certification.  While the Court didn't directly address Cohen, it did include this footnote with a very interesting choice of language that was ostensibly directed at the trial court's order:

GNC tries to avoid the required reversal by arguing in its respondent's brief that the trial court's ruling does not conflict with Tobacco II because Tobacco II addressed standing, while the trial court specifically stated that standing was irrelevant to the certification analysis.  Although the court did state that standing was irrelevant, it nevertheless found that Proposition 64 added actual injury as an element of a cause of action for restitution under the UCL, and therefore injury must be established for each class member. Tobacco II made clear, however, that Proposition 64 only affected the named plaintiff's standing in a UCL class action seeking restitution; it did not add an additional element to be satisfied by all class members. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 321.)

Slip op., at 11, n. 8 (bold emphasis added).  This is a direct repudiation of Cohen's analysis.  The question this decision raises is whether it will encourage the California Supreme Court to depublish Cohen and send a signal that the analysis of Steroid Hormone Product Cases is the correct construction, take up Cohen to explicitly resolve this split, or let more Courts of Appeal weigh in on the issue.

I may write a longer summary and analysis of this decision at a later time, but, for now, the quote above is where most of the action can be found.

More on the Vioxx decision

In December, I promised more detailed comments about In re Vioxx Class Cases (December 15, 2009), decided by the Second Appellate District, Division Three.  As promised, I provide more pithy commentary (or blather, as you see fit to classify it).  The Court's discussion began with a reminder that is worth repeating.  The standard of review on a appeal challenging a trial court's decision to grant or deny certification is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, absent certain specific errors:

“ ‘Because trial courts are ideally situated to evaluate the efficiencies and practicalities of permitting group action, they are afforded great discretion in granting or denying certification. . . . "[I]n the absence of other error, a trial court ruling supprted by substantial evidence generally will not be disturbed “unless (1) improper criteria were used [citation]; or (2) erroneous legal assumptions were made [citation].” ’ ”

Slip op., at 14, citing Tobacco II.  Next, the Court stated the requisites for class certification.  The discussion was the usual stuff, but for one statement regarding predominance of common issues of law or fact:  "To determine whether the questions of fact and law at issue in the litigation are common or individual, it is necessary to consider the individual causes of action pleaded, and the issues raised thereby."  Slip op., at 15.  It is difficult to find any guidance about how to assess predominance.  Here, the Court indicates that the analysis proceeds on a cause-of-action by cause-of-action basis.

Turning to the various casues of action, the Court first addressed the claim arising under the CLRA.  The Court followed decisions that permit an inference of reliance when a misrepresentation is material:

The language of the CLRA allows recovery when a consumer “suffers damage as a result of” the unlawful practice. This provision “requires that plaintiffs in a CLRA action show not only that a defendant’s conduct was deceptive but that the deception caused them harm.” (Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1292.) Causation, on a class-wide basis, may be established by materiality. If the trial court finds that material misrepresentations have been made to the entire class, an inference of reliance arises as to the class. (Id. at p. 1292.) This is so because a representation is considered material if it induced the consumer to alter his position to his detriment. (Caro v. Proctor & Gamble Co., supra, 18 Cal.App.4th at p. 668.) That the defendant can establish a lack of causation as to a handful of class members does not necessarily render the issue of causation an individual, rather than a common, one. “ ‘[P]laintiffs [may] satisfy their burden of showing causation as to each by showing materiality as to all.’ ” (Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1292.) In contrast, however, if the issue of materiality or reliance is a matter that would vary from consumer to consumer, the issue is not subject to common proof, and the action is properly not certified as a class action. (Caro v. Proctor & Gamble Co., supra, 18 Cal.App.4th at p. 668.)

Slip op., at 16.

The Court then discussed claims arising under the UCL. The authority cited by the Court was described in a manner that was fairly favorable to consumers.  For example, the Court said, "Consumer class actions under the UCL serve an important role in the enforcement of consumers’ rights."  And, as to remedies, the Court observed, "The UCL balances relaxed liability standards with limits on liability."  Slip op., at 18.  The fraudulent prong of the UCL received a similarly broad construction through the authority noted by the Court:

In order to obtain a remedy for deceptive advertising, a UCL plaintiff need only establish that members of the public were likely to be deceived by the advertising.  (Bank of the West v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1254, 1267; Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1290.) The question has arisen as to which members of the public need be likely to be deceived. The law focusses on a reasonable consumer who is a member of the target population. (Lavie v. Proctor & Gamble Co. (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 496, 508.) “Where the advertising or practice is targeted to a particular group or type of consumers, either more sophisticated or less sophisticated than the ordinary consumer, the question whether it is misleading to the public will be viewed from the vantage point of members of the targeted group, not others to whom it is not primarily directed.”

Slip op., at 18.  The Court then discussed the countours of the restitution remedy under the UCL.  Here, Tobacco was cited, but the Court's summary of the extent of restitution foreshadowed the Court's determination that a means for proving a restitutionary value were lacking:

As to restitution, the UCL provides that “[t]he court may make such orders or judgments . . . as may be necessary to restore to any person in interest any money or property, real or personal, which may have been acquired by means of such unfair competition.”15 (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203.) This language, providing restitution of funds which “may have been acquired,” has been interpreted to allow recovery without proof that the funds were lost as a result of actual reliance on defendant’s deceptive conduct. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 320; Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 450-451; Prata v. Superior Court (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1128, 1144.) While the “may have been acquired” language of Business and Professions Code section 17203 is so broad as to allow restitution without individual proof of injury, it is not so broad as to allow recovery without any evidentiary support. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc. (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 663, 697.) The difference between what the plaintiff paid and the value of what the plaintiff received is a proper measure of restitution. (Cortez v. Purolator Air Filtration Products Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 163, 174.) In order to recover under this measure, there must be evidence of the actual value of what the plaintiff received. When the plaintiff seeks to value the product received by means of the market price of another, comparable product, that measure cannot be awarded without evidence that the proposed comparator is actually a product of comparable value to what was received. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 675.)

Slip op., at 19.

Having discussed what must be established for CLRA and UCL claims, the Court then analyzed predominance as to each cause of action.  For the CLRA, the Court agreed that reliance/materiality issues could not be resolved on a classwide basis:

The trial court found that the decision to prescribe Vioxx is an individual decision made by a physician in reliance on many different factors, which vary from patient to patient. The trial court quoted from Dr. Silver’s declaration, indicating eight individual factors which a physician must assess in determining whether and what to prescribe for pain.

Slip op., at 22.  In reality, this decision is an example of why tort-type issues frequently undermine attempts to certify classes.  The Court noted some of the complicated reliance variables:

On appeal, plaintiffs draw this court’s attention to Merck’s alleged common campaign of hiding the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx, arguing that such common misrepresentations support a common inference of reliance. Plaintiffs suggest that Merck hid “an increased risk of death,” associated with Vioxx, and argue, “there can be nothing more material than an increased risk of death.” Plaintiffs’ argument is a vast oversimplification of the matter, and one which overlooks all of the evidence to the contrary on which the trial court relied.

First, evidence indicated that Vioxx did not present “an increased risk of death” compared to traditional NSAIDs for all patients. Traditional NSAIDs killed 16,500 people per year due to gastrointestinal bleeds. For patients with stomach ulcers or other gastrointestinal risk factors, traditional NSAIDs presented a higher risk of death than the risk of cardiovascular death posed by Vioxx. Second, evidence indicated that the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx were not material for all patients. Some patients would still take Vioxx today if it were on the market; some physicians would still prescribe it regardless of risks. Indeed, it cannot be disputed that other drugs pose similar, or even greater, risks of death than Vioxx, but are still in use – because, for some patients, the benefits outweigh the risks. Third, Merck introduced substantial evidence that all physicians are different and obtain their information about prescriptions from myriad sources. For those physicians with a distrust of statements made by the pharmaceutical industry, Merck’s statements could not have been material. For those patients whose TPPs required pre-approval of Vioxx (or would only pay for Vioxx under certain circumstances), the TPP’s decision likely would override any patient or physician reliance on Merck’s statements. Fourth, physicians consider many patient-specific factors in determining which drug to prescribe, including the patient’s history and drug allergies, the condition being treated, and the potential for adverse reactions with the patient’s other medications – in addition to the risks and benefits associated with the drug. When all of these patient-specific factors are a part of the prescribing decision, the materiality of any statements made by Merck to any particular prescribing decision cannot be presumed. All of this evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that whether Merck’s misrepresentations were material, and therefore induced reliance, is a matter on which individual issues prevailed over common issues, justifying denial of class certification with respect to the CLRA claim.

Slip op., at 23-24.

Similar problems with the UCL were then discussed by the Court:

[T]he court specifically found that class damages are not subject to common proof. The court concluded that the monetary value plaintiffs wish to assign to their claim – the difference in price between Vioxx and a generic, non-specific NSAID, implicates a patient-specific inquiry and therefore fails the community of interest test. In short, the trial court rejected the entire premise of plaintiffs’ class action. While the trial court allowed the possibility that plaintiffs could recover for having been exposed to misrepresentations, the trial court concluded that the theory that the entire class was harmed because Vioxx was no more effective, and less safe, than naproxen implicated individual issues of proof.

On appeal, plaintiffs mount a two-pronged challenge to the trial court’s conclusions. First, they argue that they offered sufficient factual evidence that naproxen is a valid comparator to Vioxx. Specifically, they rely on the declaration of their medical expert to the effect that, based on the VIGOR study, Vioxx was, overall, no more effective, and less safe, than generic naproxen. The trial court did not err in rejecting naproxen as a valid class-wide comparator. Defendants introduced substantial evidence that, after Vioxx was withdrawn from the market, most Vioxx patients switched to another COX-2 inhibitor, not a generic NSAID such as naproxen. As this evidence indicates that Vioxx was worth more than naproxen to a majority of class members, it is more than sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that naproxen is not a valid comparator on a class-wide basis.

Plaintiffs’ second argument is that the validity of naproxen as a comparator goes to the merits of the action, and should not be addressed on a motion for class certification. Plaintiffs argue that since the UCL and FAL allow an award of restitution without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury, the trial court should not have been considering the validity of naproxen as a comparator. We do not disagree that a trial court has discretion to order restitution even in the absence of individualized proof of injury. (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 452.) However, in order to obtain class wide restitution under the UCL, plaintiffs need establish not only a misrepresentation that was likely to deceive (Corbett v. Superior Court, supra, 101 Cal.App.4th 649, 670) but the existence of a “measurable amount” of restitution, supported by the evidence. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 698.) The failure of naproxen as a viable class-wide comparator thus defeats the claim for class-wide restitution.

Slip op., 26-27.  With accepted reasons for denying certification as to each cause of action, the trial court was affirmed.  I skipped one other basis for the Court's decision that a denial of certification was appropriate.  The Court found that a typicality problem was created by the interaction with third-party payors.  Some TPPs would only pay for Vioxx when other NSAIDs did not work for the patient.  Some co-pay situations with flat rate copays rendered the economic comparison argument moot.  Generally, the Court noted that the defined class was overbroad, creating a number of problems for itself that could not be reconciled.  See, Slip op, at 20-22.  Here is yet another example why tort-type issues routinely sink class actions.

Breaking News: Denial of class certification affirmed in Vioxx Class Cases

With the holidays upon us, the topical and interesting news stories have been few and far between.  But the drought cannot last forever.  Today, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) issued an Opinion in which it affirmed the trial court's denial of class certification in the matter of In re Vioxx Class Cases (December 15, 2009).  I will need to read this Opinion with some deliberation before writing an extended post about it.  However, a few things jumped out immediately and are worth noting now.  Tobacco II is mentioned early in the Opinion, and I assumed that the Opinion would join the few recent Opinions that appear to conflict with Tobacco II.  That does not appear to be the case here:  "Nonetheless, it is clear from Supreme Court authority that recovery in a UCL action is available in the absence of individual proof of deception, reliance, and injury. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 320.)"  (Slip op., at 25 n. 19.)  Instead, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's denial of class certification on the basis of damage-related issues: "The trial court’s findings with respect to the measure of damages are sufficient to support its denial of class certification with respect to the UCL and FAL causes of action."  (Slip op., at 25, emphasis added.)  This damages discussion, and some remarks about typicality, will require more reading and a longer post.

California Supreme Court activity for the week of November 16, 2009

The California Supreme Court held its (usually) weekly conference on November 18, 2009.  The only notable event was:

  • A Petition for Review was granted in Yabsley v. Cingular Wireless.  The matter was held pending the outcome of Loeffler v. Target Corp., S173972.  I briefly discussed Yabsley here.

Cohen panel tackles Tobacco II again in Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd. v. Superior Court

The Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight) generated a good bit of commentary with their construction of In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th 298 (2009).  Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc. (October 28, 2009) was discussed in detail on this blog, and The UCL Practitioner had an extensive post as well.  In Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd. v. Superior Court (November 10, 2009), the Second Appellate District, Division Eight tackles reliance and Tobacco II for the second time.  But, in an interesting twist, Cohen receives no mention in this Opinion.

Princess Cruise Lines is, ostensibly, a summary judgment opinion.  Although it is not discussed in any detail, it appears that the summary judgment motion was brought pre-certification.  The Court described the causes of action asserted and the basics of the trial court's ruling:

The plaintiffs, real parties in interest in the proceedings before us, H. Roger Wang and Vivine Wang (from time to time collectively referred to as the Wangs), sued petitioner Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd., over charges added to the price of shore excursions taken during a cruise conducted by petitioner.  The Wangs asserted five causes of action.  The first three were based on Business and Professions Code sections 17200 (first cause of action) and 17500 (second) and on Civil Code section 1750 et seq. (third).  Respectively, these statutes are California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), False Advertising Law (FAL) and Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA).  The fourth and fifth causes of action were based respectively on common law fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

Petitioner moved for summary judgment and summary adjudication.  The trial court granted summary adjudication on the fourth and fifth causes of action because the Wangs could not show they relied on petitioner’s alleged misrepresentations.  The trial court, however, denied the motion for summary judgment because it concluded that on the UCL, FAL and CLRA causes of action the Wangs did not have to show that they relied on petitioner’s alleged misrepresentations.

Slip op., at 2.  After summarizing the discovery in the action and the trial court's rulings, the Court of Appeal discussed the issue of reliance in UCL and CLRA actions:

The court in Tobacco II first concluded that only the class representatives must meet the standing requirement under California’s UCL.  The court then proceeded to the next topic, which was “the causation requirement for purposes of establishing standing under the UCL, and in particular what is the meaning of the phrase ‘as a result of’ in [Business and Professions Code] section 17204?  We conclude that a class representative proceeding on a claim of misrepresentation as the basis of his or her UCL action must demonstrate actual reliance on the allegedly deceptive or misleading statements, in accordance with well-settled principles regarding the element of reliance in ordinary fraud actions.”  (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th 298, 306.)

There are two aspects to this holding.  First, it is very clear that reliance is required in a UCL action.  Second, it is also clear that this is true of UCL actions involving some form of fraud, but not all UCL actions.  As the court put it:  “We emphasize that our discussion of causation in this case is limited to such cases where, as here, a UCL action is based on a fraud theory involving false advertising and misrepresentations to consumers.  The UCL defines ‘unfair competition’ as ‘includ[ing] any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice . . . .’  ([Bus. & Prof. Code,] § 17200.)  There are doubtless many types of unfair business practices in which the concept of reliance, as discussed here, has no application.”  (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th 298, 325, fn. 17.)

Slip op., at 6-7.  Unlike Cohen, this Opinion presents as an effort to identify specific circumstances where it is valid to consider reliance in a UCL claim, using Tobacco II.  In fact, its almost as if the Court was sensitive to potential fallout from describing Tobacco II as irrelevant.  

In any event, the Court then, as one would expect in a summary judgment analysis, focused on the evidence presented by the plaintiffs:

The problem, from a pragmatic perspective, with the Wangs’ contentions about reliance is that it made no difference to them how much the excursions cost.  As Vivine Wang put it in her deposition, she told her travel agent that she wanted to go on the same excursions that her traveling group had booked and that “I want to go on the shore excursion . . . whatever it cost [sic].  It’s fine.”  At the threshold, therefore, it must be said that there was no reliance, i.e., the Wangs would have gone on the excursions whatever the price was and without reference to anything petitioner said or did in connection with the excursions.  It therefore follows that it is immaterial how the Wangs heard about the excursions and what, if anything, petitioner said or wrote about the excursions.

It must also be said that we are not inclined to ignore the Wangs’ repeated admissions that they had no contact with petitioner and received nothing from the petitioner.

Slip op., at 8.  The Court does its best to circumvent the reliance questions it raised in Cohen by citing Tobacco II for the contention that there is a limited area under the UCL where reliance can be an element of the claim, followed by a finding that the record contains admissions of absolutely no reliance.

Next, the Court issued an interesting holding that the Tobacco II discussion about reliance in certain limited situations in UCL cases applies to CLRA actions as well:

Civil Code section 1780, subdivision (a) provides:  “Any consumer who suffers any damage as a result of the use or employment by any person of a method, act, or practice declared to be unlawful by Section 1770 may bring an action against that person to recover or obtain any of the following:  [listing generic types of recoveries].”  (Italics added.)

It appears that the analysis of the phrase “as a result” found in Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th 298, 324-326, applies to this phrase in Civil Code section 1780, subdivision (a), which means that reliance is required for CLRA actions, with the limitations noted in Tobacco II.

Slip op., at 11-12.

So, if Cohen is enough of a lightning rod to elicit review, this one may escape that same fate.

Battle Royale: Latest round of lower court versus Supreme Court found in Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc.

The more time I spend reviewing decisions in the complex litigation/class action arena, the more I am convinced that the lower Courts of California are, in many instances, at odds with the California Supreme Court.  The most recent decision to suggest this schism is Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc. (October 28, 2009) from the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight).   Cohen is the most recent California appellate court Opinion to comment on the treatment of UCL claims by In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th 298 (2009), the prior two decisions being Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance Company, et al. (October 26, 2009) (discussed on this blog here) and Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009) (discussed on this blog here).  Cohen affirmed a trial court's denial of class certification of CLRA and UCL claims, but its analysis runs head first into Tobacco II and other Supreme Court decisions.  The UCL Practitioner has an extensive post analyzing Cohen against Tobacco II.  I will comment on the Cohen holding, but I also want to offer some thoughts as to why this divergence between California's highest court and the other courts throughout the state might be happening.

Since some of my comments depend upon the subject matter of Cohen, I begin by providing some background about the claims in that matter.  Cohen concerns an allegation that DIRECTV advertised that the channels in its HD Package were broadcast in the 1080i HD standard (an interlaced resolution of 1920x1080 pixels), at  19.4 Mbps, but later compressed each HD channel down to 6.6 Mbps.  The 19.4 and 6.6 figures refer to the volume of data being transmitted each second, expressed as Megabits per second.   So, expressed another way, the Cohen action complained that the quality of the video broadcast on HD channels was degraded by an increase in the amount of data compression.  By way of background, the raw data rate for uncompressed HD video in the 1080i format can be well in excess of 100 Mbps, depending on frame rate and color information.  This "raw" video is then compressed.  In fact, it must be compressed - there is no practical system in place to deliver 100 Mbps to your television right now.  The older mpeg-2 compression codec, or newer codecs, like H.264, compress the "raw" HD video into something smaller, using complex formulas that reduce the data used to transmit the images.  The goal of compression is to obtain the best video-quality-to-size compromise.  In the DIRECTV case, 19.4 Mbps is compressed video that would look very good, but "degradation" artifacts would still be visible on a good HD television (some "smearing" on fast action or a blocky, pixelated appearance in areas of solid color, blacks in particular).  6.6 Mbps is very compressed 1080i HD content; it is compressed to one third the size of the already compressed 19.4 Mbps feed.  You would see more compression artifacts on a good/larger HD television.

There are a number of certification issues in Cohen.  Ascertainability receives some significant discussion.  But the portion that is likely of greatest interest is the discussion of reliance under the UCL; it is the area in which Cohen diverges from Tobacco II.  Regarding reliance in UCL actions, the Trial Court in Cohen said: "Even pre-Prop. 64 cases only allow inferred reliance where the misrepresentations were common to all class members. An inference of classwide reliance cannot be made where there is no showing that representations were made uniformly to all members of the class."  Slip op., at 7.  The Cohen Court started its discussion about the UCL with this observation that presages the outcome:

Although the rules under the UCL may or may not be different following our Supreme Court's recent decision in In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298 (Tobacco II), an issue which we address below, we do not understand the UCL to authorize an award for injunctive relief and/or restitution on behalf of a consumer who was never exposed in any way to an allegedly wrongful business practice.

Slip op., at 14.  The Cohen Court then stated its view of the holding from Tobacco II in two separate ways.  First, it offered a brief summary of the decision:

On review, the Supreme Court specifically addressed two questions: “First, who in a UCL class action must comply with Proposition 64's standing requirements, the class representatives or all unnamed class members, in order for the class action to proceed? . . . Second, what is the causation requirement for purposes of establishing standing under the UCL . . . ?” (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 306, italics added.) This past spring, the Supreme Court answered these two questions by ruling (1) only the class representatives must meet Proposition 64's standing requirements of actual injury and causation; (2) only the class representatives must establish reliance in accordance with fraudulent inducement principles in order for the class action to proceed; and (3) the class representatives do not have to show reliance on particular advertisements or marketing materials with “unrealistic” specificity. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at pp. 321-329.)

Slip op., at 15.  Then, the Cohen Court offered its own summary of what it believes that the California Supreme Court actually meant:

Viewed from the other direction, Tobacco II held that, for purposes of standing in context of the class certification issue in a “false advertising” case involving the UCL, the class members need not be assessed for the element of reliance. Or, in other words, class certification may not be defeated on the ground of lack of standing upon a showing that class members did not rely on false advertising. In short, Tobacco II essentially ruled that, for purposes of standing, as long as a single plaintiff is able to establish that he or she relied on a defendant‟s false advertising, a multitude of class members will also have standing, regardless of whether any of those class members have in any way relied upon the defendant's allegedly improper conduct.

Slip op. at 15.  Notice the interesting language used by the Cohen Court: "Tobacco II essentially ruled...."  One can say that the Supreme Court "did" or "did not" rule a certain way.  But saying that it "essentially" ruled a certain way is problematic for everyone.  This suggests an outcome that is implied by Tobacco II, but not stated.  To sort that out, we have to compare Cohen to Tobacco II and determine what Tobacco II does and does not say.

Returning to Cohen, the Court was more direct when it stated its intention to disregard Tobacco II as offering a controlling decision for the case before it:  "In the contextual setting presented by Cohen's present case, we find Tobacco II to be irrelevant because the issue of 'standing' simply is not the same thing as the issue of 'commonality.'"  Slip op., at 15.  The Court continued:  "In short, the trial court's concerns that the UCL and the CLRA claims alleged by Cohen and the other class members would involve factual questions associated with their reliance on DIRECTV's alleged false representations was a proper criterion for the court's consideration when examining 'commonality' in the context of the subscribers'motion for class certification, even after Tobacco II."  Slip op., at 16.  Thus, the Cohen Court devised an analysis that permits circumvention of Tobacco II, holding that a trial court can't use classwide reliance issues for a "standing" challenge, but can use those same issues to bar certification.  I posit that what we have here is most likely either a reverse engineered holding or a generally negative reaction to Tobacco II.  The limited analysis of reliance issues as they pertain to the UCL was devised to support the desired outcome.  The alternative is that the Cohen Court didn't examine Tobacco II carefully, and I find that less likely than the notion that the panel simply does not agree with the Tobacco II analysis or doesn't like the claims in the case.

I turn now to Tobacco II and argue that it directly addresses the contentions made in Cohen.  In Tobacco II, the Supreme Court summarized the trial court's decision in that matter:

The trial court found that the “simple language” of Proposition 64 required that “for standing purposes, a showing of causation is required as to each class member's injury in fact.... [T]he injury in fact that each class member must show for standing purposes in this case would presumably consist of the cost of their cigarette purchases. But significant questions then arise undermining the purported commonality among the class members, such as whether each class member was exposed to Defendants' alleged false statements and whether each member purchased cigarettes ‘as a result’ of the false statements. Clearly ... individual issues predominate, making class treatment unmanageable and inefficient.”

Tobacco II, 46 Cal. 4th at 310-311.  One can almost excuse the Cohen Court's narrow construction of Tobacco II as a "standing" decision.  After all, the paragraph above does talk quite a bit about standing.  But this overlooks the fact that causation is entangled with standing, and, for the named plaintiff, showing reliance is the method by which that plaintiff shows standing under a UCL claim asserting a "fraudulent" prong (likely to deceive) standard.  What Cohen ignores is the fact that, according to Tobacco II, the causation showing (in this instance, a reliance showing) is not an element of a UCL claim, except that, after Proposition 64, the named plaintiff must make that showing.  In fact, the next page of Tobacco II removes any doubt that pre-Proposition 64 decisions construing the UCL remain viable:  "'[T]o state a claim under either the UCL or the false advertising law, based on false advertising or promotional practices, "it is necessary only to show that 'members of the public are likely to be "deceived." ' " ' (Kasky v. Nike, Inc. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 939, 951, 119 Cal.Rptr.2d 296, 45 P.3d 243.)"  Tobacco II, 46 Cal. 4th at 312.

Continuing, the Supreme Court said:

The fraudulent business practice prong of the UCL has been understood to be distinct from common law fraud. “A [common law] fraudulent deception must be actually false, known to be false by the perpetrator and reasonably relied upon by a victim who incurs damages. None of these elements are required to state a claim for injunctive relief” under the UCL. ( Day v. AT & T Corp.(1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 325, 332, 74 Cal.Rptr.2d 55; see State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Superior Court (1996) 45 Cal.App.4th 1093, 1105, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 229.) This distinction reflects the UCL's focus on the defendant's conduct, rather than the plaintiff's damages, in service of the statute's larger purpose of protecting the general public against unscrupulous business practices. (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank (1979) 23 Cal.3d 442, 453, 153 Cal.Rptr. 28, 591 P.2d 51.)

Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 312.  This discussion is at odds with Cohen's treatment of Tobacco II.  Tobacco II said that "the UCL class action is a procedural device that enforces substantive law by aggregating many individual claims into a single claim, in compliance with Code of Civil Procedure section 382, to achieve the remedial goals outlined above. It does not change that substantive law, however."   Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 313.  And Tobacco II unambiguously holds (i.e., not "essentially" holds) that:

[T]he language of section 17203 with respect to those entitled to restitution-“to restore to any person in interest any money or property, real or personal, which may have been acquired ” (italics added) by means of the unfair practice-is patently less stringent than the standing requirement for the class representative-“any person who has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition.” (§ 17204, italics added.) This language, construed in light of the “concern that wrongdoers not retain the benefits of their misconduct” (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d 442, 452, 153 Cal.Rptr. 28, 591 P.2d 51) has led courts repeatedly and consistently to hold that relief under the UCL is available without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury. (E.g., Bank of the West v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1254, 1267, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 538, 833 P.2d 545; Committee on Children's Television, Inc. v. General Foods Corp., supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 211, 197 Cal.Rptr. 783, 673 P.2d 660.)  Accordingly, to hold that the absent class members on whose behalf a private UCL action is prosecuted must show on an individualized basis that they have “lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition” (§ 17204) would conflict with the language in section 17203 authorizing broader relief-the “may have been acquired” language-and implicitly overrule a fundamental holding in our previous decisions, including Fletcher, Bank of the West and Committee on Children's Television.

Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 320.  If "reliance" is not an element of a UCL claim, why is there still the perception that reliance has a role to play in UCL actions (outside of named plaintiff standing)?  The Tobacco II decision may have supplied that answer as well:

Our conclusion with respect to the remedies set forth in section 17203 has nothing to do with the nonrestitutionary disgorgement disallowed in Kraus v. Trinity Management Services, Inc., supra, 23 Cal.4th 116, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 485, 999 P.2d 718. In Kraus, we concluded that section 17203 does not allow a court to order disgorgement into a fluid recovery fund, e.g., to “compel a defendant to surrender all money obtained through an unfair practice even though not all is to be restored to the persons from whom it was obtained or those claiming under those persons.” (Id. at p. 127, 96 Cal.Rptr.2d 485, 999 P.2d 718.) This prohibition against nonrestitutionary disgorgement did not overrule any part of Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d 442, 153 Cal.Rptr. 28, 591 P.2d 51, under which restitution may be ordered “without individualized proof of deception, reliance, and injury if necessary to prevent the use or employment of an unfair practice.” (Bank of the West, supra, 2 Cal.4th at p. 1267, 10 Cal.Rptr.2d 538, 833 P.2d 545.)

Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th at 320, n. 14.  This suggests that, in some circumstances, the quantum of a restitution order might ultimately depend upon a showing of injury by class members.  Since reliance on an unfair practice can act as a surrogate of sorts for injury (under the the right facts and right species of UCL claim), this may explain why the belief persists that reliance is an unstated element of a UCL claim.  It's either that, or a petulant refusal to understand that the UCL's fraudulent prong has nothing to do with common law fraud.

Tobacco II has already been circumvented by two of three California Courts of Appeal to apply it.  The important question is why?  Options include, at least, a desire not to reverse a trial court, a dislike of the holding of Tobacco II, a dislike of the theory of the case, or a general resistance to class actions (or some amalgam of those options).

The first option exists as an element of all appeals.  Courts of Appeal begin their analysis with a presumption that the trial court will be affirmed.  I cannot conclude that this is the primary factor in the Cohen Court's dismissive analysis.

The second option is certainly possible.  The Cohen Court sounded almost disdainful of Tobacco II when it said, "In the contextual setting presented by Cohen's present case, we find Tobacco II to be irrelevant...."  Slip op., at 15.  I find this option to be a plausible explanation.

The third option is also possible.  I do not find it a stretch to imagine the initial judicial reaction being something akin to, "Megawho per second?  You're kidding, right?"  When that happens, I think it is human nature to look for reasons not to facilitate the case or claim.  If my comments offend any judicial sensibilities, I apologize for that.  But we must recognize every participant in the judicial system -- clerk, judge, lawyer -- are human beings, with all of our prejudices and predispositions.  I also find this option to be a plausible explanation.

The fourth option is also possible.  When the various Districts and Divisions are examined over time, I have little doubt that some find panels find great utility in the class action device, while others find them abusive.  Again, this has more to do with the predisposition of the observer than anything else, as it is as easy to find a class action of great social utility as it is to find one of questionable or zero worth.  It's also worth noting that the second of my proposed options can be a subset of this fourth option.  In other words, discomfiture about the Tobacco II opinion can be motivated either by that particular opinion or by an overall judicial fatigue regarding class actions generally.

I do not want to suggest that I know which of my theories, if any, explains Cohen.  I suspect that some combination of class action fatigue and specific resistance to the claims in this particular case are at work here, but that is speculative on my part.  However, I am certain that a growing rift exists between the Supreme Court's view of major legal questions and the views held by trial and intermediate appellate courts.  As I am doubtful that anything can be done about this issue other than to raise awareness and hope for the best from our courts, I do not believe it is an issue that will resolve itself any time soon.

It is my intention to write more about the nature of this judicial divide here or elsewhere.

More coverage of the decision in Morgan v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc.

As the first published California appellate court decision to apply Tobacco II, the Opinion in Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009) (covered on this blog here) is receiving quite a bit of attention. On October 9, 2009, the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. ("BNA") published an article entitled "Court Applies Tobacco II: Prop 64 Changed Standing Requirements, Not Substantive Law" in the Class Action Litigation Report. Kimberly Kralowec, partner at Schubert Jonckheer Kolbe & Kralowec and The UCL Practitioner, and I were both quoted in the article. The article is reproduced below with the gracious permission of BNA.

Reproduced with permission from Class Action Litigation Report, 10 CLASS 906 (Oct. 10, 2009). Copyright 2009 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033)

If flash is not available in your browser, the article can be accessed here.

More on Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc.

As promised shortly after Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009) was published, here is a longer post on the first substantial application of In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009) by a California Court of Appeal.  Before commenting on the analysis in Morgan, a brief summary of the facts of the case are in order.  The plaintiffs alleged that they were ripped off when they purchased the premium Sony Ericsson T68i cell phone for use on the AT&T network but weren't told that AT&T was abandoning the 1900 MHz GSM spectrum in favor of the 850 MHz spectrum, rendering the phones useless.  Then AT&T sent the T68i owners an inferior replacement that they called an "upgrade."  After three successive rounds of pleadings, the trial court held that plaintiffs could not state any actionable claims.  In case you were wondering, I just summarized 20 pages of opinion for you.

 First, the Court examined the UCL cause of action by recapitulating the elements of a valid UCL cause of action:

[D]espite the changes to the standing requirements, the Proposition 64 amendments to the UCL "'left entirely unchanged the substantive rules governing business and competitive conduct. Nothing a business might lawfully do before Proposition 64 is unlawful now, and nothing earlier forbidden is now permitted.'" (In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298, 314 (Tobacco II).) Thus, pre-Proposition 64 caselaw that describes the kinds of conduct outlawed under the UCL is applicable to post-Proposition 64 cases such as the present case. The only difference is that, after Proposition 64, plaintiffs (but not absent class members in a class action) must establish that they meet the Proposition 64 standing requirements. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 320.)

Slip op., at 20.  Then the Court cut through the extraneous allegations of the Third Amended Complaint to determine whether any prong of the UCL was sufficiently alleged:

The definitions of unlawful and fraudulent business practices are straightforward and well established. An unlawful business practice under the UCL is "'"'anything that can properly be called a business practice and that at the same time is forbidden by law.'"'" (Cel-Tech Communications, Inc. v. Los Angeles Cellular Telephone Co. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 163, 180 (Cel-Tech).) A fraudulent business practice is one in which "'"'members of the public are likely to be "deceived."'"'" (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 312.)

Slip op., at 21-22.  The Court also noted the unsettled definition of "unfair" in cases not involving commercial competitors, but it did not need to resolve the dispute, concluding that the other two prongs were sufficient to resolve the appeal.  Returning to the fraudulent prong of the UCL, after underscoring that "fraudulent" under the UCL is distinct from common law fraud, the Court provided more detail about the type of conduct that is "fraudulent" under the UCL:

As noted above, a fraudulent business practice is one that is likely to deceive members of the public. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 312.) A UCL claim based on the fraudulent prong can be based on representations that deceive because they are untrue, but "'"also those which may be accurate on some level, but will nonetheless tend to mislead or deceive. . . . A perfectly true statement couched in such a manner that it is likely to mislead or deceive the consumer, such as by failure to disclose other relevant information, is actionable under"' the UCL." (McKell, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th at p. 1471.) For example, in Pastoria v. Nationwide Ins., supra, 112 Cal.App.4th 1490, the plaintiffs alleged: (1) they purchased insurance policies based upon the defendant insurance company's description of the premiums, lack of deductibles, and other policy benefits; (2) less than two months later the insurer notified them of significant changes to their policies, including material increases in premiums and substantial deductibles; and (3) the insurer knew of the impending changes to the policies at the time plaintiffs purchased them, but did not communicate that to the plaintiffs. (Id. at p. 1493.) We held that those allegations were sufficient to state a claim for relief under the fraudulent business practices prong of the UCL. (Id. at p. 1499.)

Slip op., at 23-24.  The Court then identified the allegation from Morgan that were comparable:

In the present case, plaintiffs alleged that (1) AT&T marketed and sold expensive T68i phones (which could be operated only on the AT&T GSM/GPRS network) in conjunction with multi-year service plans, and touted the improvements it was making to its GSM/GPRS network; (2) the improvements AT&T made to the network significantly degraded the portion of the network on which the T68i phones operated; and (3) AT&T knew at the time it sold the T68i phones that the improvements it was going make would soon render the T68i phones essentially useless.

Slip op., at 24.  Having concluded that a UCL fraudulent prong violation was alleged, the Court then determined that the plaintiffs had standing to bring the claim, citing Tobacco II:

In Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th 298, the Supreme Court held that this standing requirement applies only to the named plaintiffs in a class action (id. at pp. 320-321), and that it imposes an actual reliance requirement on named plaintiffs seeking relief under the fraudulent prong of the UCL (id. at p. 326). The court went on to explain what a plaintiff must plead and prove: “while a plaintiff must allege that the defendant's misrepresentations were an immediate cause of the injury-causing conduct, the plaintiff is not required to allege that those misrepresentations were the sole or even the decisive cause of the injury-producing conduct. Furthermore, where, as here, a plaintiff alleges exposure to a long-term advertising campaign, the plaintiff is not required to plead with an unrealistic degree of specificity that the plaintiff relied on particular advertisements or statements.” (Id. at p. 328.)

Slip op., at 27.  The Court found that the allegations of an extensive advertising campaign by AT&T, coupled with the plaintiffs' online research and similar representations made to them in AT&T stores sufficiently alleged the necessary reliance element.

The Court did not reach the same conclusion when it turned to the cause of action under the FAL (False Advertising Law), which was based on the claim that the T68i replacement phone was an "upgrade":

AT&T argues that plaintiffs do not have standing to bring this claim. AT&T is correct. Proposition 64 made identical changes to the standing requirements to bring an action under the FAL as it made to the requirements under the UCL. (Californians for Disability Rights v. Mervyn’s, LLC, supra, 39 Cal.4th at p. 229, fn. 2.) A person bringing an action under the FAL must establish that he or she “has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property as a result of a violation of [the FAL].” (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17535.) Even if it could be said that the return of a phone that plaintiffs alleged was “useless” constituted an injury in fact, plaintiffs alleged that each of them declined to return their T68i phone. Therefore, they cannot truthfully allege that they lost money or property as a result of AT&T's offer. Accordingly, the trial court did not err by sustaining the demurrer to the FAL cause of action.

Slip op., at 29.

Regarding the CLRA claim, the Court of Appeal clearly resolved a question with respect to CLRA notices for corrective action.  The question is whether the notice must be sent before the initial complaint is filed to permit an amendment seeking damages, or, alternatively, whether it can issue after the initial complaint is filed so long as at least 30 days pass before an amendment seeking damages is filed.  This question gained some traction when a federal district court ruled that the notice must be sent before the initial complaint is filed.  The Court of Appeal disagreed:

The federal district court cases upon which AT&T relies for its assertion that failure to comply with the notice requirement requires dismissal with prejudice fail to properly take into account the purpose of the notice requirement. That requirement exists in order to allow a defendant to avoid liability for damages if the defendant corrects the alleged wrongs within 30 days after notice, or indicates within that 30-day period that it will correct those wrongs within a reasonable time. (See, e.g., Meyer v. Sprint Spectrum L.P., supra, 45 Cal.4th at p. 642; Kagan v. Gibraltar Sav. & Loan Assn., supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 590.) A dismissal with prejudice of a damages claim filed without the requisite notice is not required to satisfy this purpose. Instead, the claim must simply be dismissed until 30 days or more after the plaintiff complies with the notice requirements. If, before that 30-day period expires the defendant corrects the alleged wrongs or indicates it will correct the wrongs, the defendant cannot be held liable for damages.

Slip op., at 31.  I've been on the short end of this argument, and I'm glad that a California Court of Appeal put an end to what I viewed as an argument disconnected from the purpose of the statutory language.

Regarding the fraud cause of action, the Court of Appeal noted the general rule that fraud must be pled with particularity; however, it then described an important exception:

[T]he Supreme Court has noted, there are “certain exceptions which mitigate the rigor of the rule requiring specific pleading of fraud.” (Children’s Television, supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 217.) For example, where a fraud claim is based upon numerous misrepresentations, such as an advertising campaign that is alleged to be misleading, plaintiffs need not allege the specific advertisements the individual plaintiffs relied upon; it is sufficient for the plaintiff to provide a representative selection of the advertisements or other statements to indicate the language upon which the implied misrepresentations are based. (Id. at p. 218.) But the court also noted that where a claim of fraud is based upon a long-term advertising campaign, which “may seek to persuade by cumulative impact, not by a particular representation on a particular date . . . [p]laintiffs should be able to base their cause of action upon an allegation that they acted in response to an advertising campaign even if they cannot recall the specific advertisements.” (Id. at p. 219.)

Slip op., at 33.

This opinion offers the first evidence that Tobacco II will prove to be yet another instance where the California Supreme Court has substantially redirected an anti-consumer trend in appellate and trial court rulings.

in brief: Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. analyzes the sufficiency of allegations under the UCL, CLRA, FAL and common law fraud in a consumer class action

While a more thorough analysis will follow, reader may be interested in taking a look at Morgan, et al. v. AT& T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009).  In Morgan, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) is called upon to address the sufficiency of allegations in a consumer class action alleging causes of action under the Unfair Competition Law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.), the False Advertising Law (FAL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17500 et seq.), the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) (Civ. Code, § 1750 et seq.), and for fraud and declaratory relief.  You can wade through the decision yourself, or wait for the Executive Summary in the next day or so.

In Cartwright, et al., v. Viking Industries, Inc., District Court certifies consumer class action claims under UCL, CLRA, fraudulent concealment and unjust enrichment theories

On September 11, 2009, the United States District Court, Eastern District of California, issued a substantial class certification opinion in Cartwright, et al. v. Viking Industries, Inc. Cartwright is a consumer class action alleging that certain Viking windows are defective, allowing water and air intrusion into homes. The suit alleged claims for Strict Products Liability, Negligence, Breach of Express Warranty, Breach of Implied Warranty, Violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Fraudulent Concealment, and Restitution.

The District Court ultimately certified a class for the following claims: CLRA, UCL, fraudulent concealment and unjust enrichment. The District Court denied certification of strict liability and negligence claims. In a thorough opinion that emphasizes a number of pro-consumer certification decisions, the Court certified fraudulent concealment claims by allowing a presumption of reliance. The Court's analysis is as interesting for what it does not cite as for what it does cite. Tobacco II is not mentioned. But the Court does cite Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 254 F.R.D. 610 (C.D. Cal. 2008), which is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit following a 23(f) Petition for Permission to Appeal, and Chamberlan v. Ford Motor Corp., 223 F.R.D. 524, 526-27 (N.D. Cal. 2004).

The Opinion also cites to some principles of federal certification that may be surprising to practitioners that rarely venture outside of California's Superior Court. For instance, the Court notes that evidence inadmissible at trial, and, in particular, expert testimony, may be considered as part of a certification decision. "'On a motion for class certification, the court may consider evidence that may not be admissible at trial.'" Order, citing Mazza, 254 F.R.D. at 616 (citing, in turn, Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 178 (1974)). "'[R]obust gatekeeping of expert evidence is not required; rather, the court should ask only if expert evidence is "useful in evaluating whether class certification requirements have been met."' Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 240 F.R.D. 627, 635 (N.D. Cal. 2007)."

Now let's see if the embed object will display here:

If you don't see the flash object above, you can directly download the Order. Thanks to Mark Moore for the tip.