Court of Appeal reverses order decertifying a class in Harper v. 24 Hour Fitness, Inc.

Greatsealcal100This is proving to be a busy day in the world of class actions.  And once again, Division Seven in the Second Appellate District is in the mix.  Division Seven seems to be one of those lucky divisions that attracts interesting class action issue appeals (I don't know if they consider themselves "lucky" to be the beneficiaries of these questions).  Just the last year was a busy one for them.  Division Seven recently took some of the sting out of Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co., 143 Cal.App.4th 1223 (2006) with their decision in Johnson v. Glaxosmithkline, Inc., 166 Cal.App.4th 1497 (September 19, 2008), as modified (October 14, 2008).  In Lee v. Dynamex (2008) 166 Cal.App.4th 1325 (discussed here), Division Seven reversed an Order denying class certification after the trial court refused to allow discovery of class member identity and contact information.  And in Puerto v. Superior Court (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 1242, Division Seven added to the body of post-Pioneer decisions confirming the right to discovery putative class member (witness) identity.  And that's just the published decisions.

Division Seven also decided Belaire-West Landscape, Inc. v. Superior Court (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 554, the first post-Pioneer decision confirming the right to discovery putative class member identity.  Other notable, fairly recent opinions include: Aron v. U-Haul Co. of California (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 796; Aguiar v. Cintas Corp. No. 2 (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 121; Singh v. Superior Court (2006) 140 Cal.App.4th 387; Caliber Bodyworks, Inc. v. Superior Court (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 365; Consumer Cause, Inc. v. Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food Markets, Inc. (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 387; and, Newell v. State Farm General Ins. Co. (2004) 118 Cal. App. 4th 1094.  There are many substantial class action issues implicated in that list, including fee awards, insurance claims arising out of the Northridge earthquake, PAGA interpretation, and wage & hour law issues.  And the list includes decisions both favorable and unfavorable to positions advocated by the respective class action proponents.  But, uniformly, this Division endeavors to correctly state and apply highly nuanced issues arising in class actions.

Division Seven's latest opinion in the class action arena, Harper v. 24 Hour Fitness, Inc. (October 22, 2008), in a 2-1 opinion, reverses a trial court order decertifying a class action.  The bulk of the opinion examines the trial court's reliance on the pre-Proposition 64 formulation of the UCL.  I will leave discussion of that aspect of the opinion to the UCL Practitioner.  However, the opinion also offers some confirming language as to how the "ascertainability" requisite is measured.  The Court explains that "ascertainability" exists when the class members can tell if they are included, irrespective of whether anyone else knows the constituency of the class:

With respect to the difficulty in confirming the identity of all class members prior to a determination on the merits, Division One of this court recently affirmed certification of a class consisting of FedEx drivers over FedEx’s objection “the members of this class shifted ‘in and out, sometimes on a day-to-day basis.’” (Estrada v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 1, 14.) The court explained, “The class is ascertainable if it identifies a group of unnamed plaintiffs by describing a set of common characteristics sufficient to allow a member of that group to identify himself as having a right to recover based on the description. [Citation.] [¶] . . . If FedEx’s claim is that every member of the class had to be identified from the outset, FedEx is simply wrong.” (Ibid.; accord, Lee v. Dynamex, Inc., supra, 166 Cal.App.4th at p. 1335; see also Sav-On Drug Stores, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 333 [“‘a class action is not inappropriate simply because each member of the class may at some point be required to make an individual showing as to his or her eligibility for recovery’”]; Bufil v. Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1193, 1207 [class of employees ascertainable in spite of absence of specific rest period records; “speculation that goes to the merits of ultimate recovery [is] an inappropriate focus for the ascertainability inquiry”]; Bell v. Farmers Ins. Exchange (2004) 115 Cal.App.4th 715, 744 [fact that class may ultimately turn out to be overinclusive not determinative; most class actions contemplate eventual individual proof of damages, including possibility some class members will have none].)

(Slip op., at pp. 11-12.)  This is an important distinction.  Too many trial courts succumb to arguments that the class identity can't be explicitly stated at the time of certification.