Johnson v. Glaxosmithkline, Inc. analyzes parts of Alvarez-type class action preclusion

Greatsealcal100It's a bit dicey commenting on an appellate decision that isn't truly final.  By "comment," I mean something more than the soundbites one hears in the media when a high-profile decision is redered ("We're very pleased with this outcome and feel that justice was served...").  And while I'm not going to offer any detailed analysis of this new opinion, Johnson v. Glaxosmithkline, Inc. (September 19, 2008) is news that merits coverage, despite the fact that I contributed in a small way to that appeal.

Readers may know that I was counsel in Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1223.  I expressed some of my disappointment with the Alvarez decision in this post.  Since Alvarez, I have watched for signs that would indicate whether the opinion would receive further reinforcement or be limited into irrelevance.  Early signs suggested the later.  Last Friday, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) had an opportunity to take a second look at Alvarez.  In doing so, the Court of Appeal noted the shadow cast over Alvarez by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision:

. . . Taylor v. Sturgell, supra, __ U.S. __ [128 S.Ct. 2161] would appear to preclude the use of collateral estoppel to bar absent putative class members from seeking class certification following the denial of a certification motion in an earlier lawsuit at least to the extent Taylor is understood as resting on due process considerations, and not simply federal common law. Because we reverse the trial court’s application of collateral estoppel on different grounds, however, we leave resolution of these important issues to another day.

(Slip op., at p. 15, n. 8.)  The Court noted the possibility that Taylor overruled Alvarez, but didn't go through that door because it found an alternative basis for reversing the trial court.  What the Court did conclude was something akin to, but more detailed in its analysis, than Bufil v. Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 1193.  Specifically, the Court held that, because a prior attempt to certify a nationwide class action was not identical to the class at issue, collateral estoppel did not apply and the Alvarez approach of using a primary rights analysis for assessing the preclusive effect of the denial of class certification was not supportable:

Moreover, the procedural right to prosecute a claim as a class action, “a means to enforce substantive law” by collectively litigating substantive claims (Washington Mutual Bank v. Superior Court (2001) 24 Cal.4th 906, 918; see Alch v. Superior Court (2004) 122 Cal.App.4th 339, 388), shares none of the characteristics of a “cause of action” as defined by the primary rights theory. (See Crowley v. Katleman, supra, 8 Cal.4th at p. 681 [primary rights theory “provides that a ‘cause of action’ is comprised of a ‘primary right’ of the plaintiff, a corresponding ‘primary duty’ of the defendant, and a wrongful act by the defendant constituting a breach of that duty”].) A primary right in its simplest form is the plaintiff’s right to be free from the particular injury suffered. (Slater v. Blackwood, supra, 15 Cal.3d at p. 795.) The procedural means for protecting that right cannot be confused with the right itself.

(Slip op., at p. 22; see also, p. 16.)  Aside from noting these two points in the opinion, I will leave further analysis and commentary to others . . . at least for now.