In re Tobacco II Cases receives more attention in Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha

In re Tobacco II Cases hasn't been out long, but its significance is already hard to deny.   Morgan, et al. v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (September 23, 2009) was the first published opinion by a California Court of Appeal to apply In re Tobacco II Cases.  See blog post.  In Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance Company, et al. (October 26, 2009), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) had occasion to discuss In re Tobacco II Cases in the context of an appeal of the denial of class certification in a "vanishing premiums" action.

Before discussing the opinion, a definition is in order.  “Generally speaking, so called ‘[v]anishing premium policies are paid dividends which in some instances can be sufficient to cause the premium to “offset” whereby dividend values are used to pay the premium. In such an instance, the cash premium “vanishes” and is no longer due from the insured.’”  Keyes v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of America, 194 F.R.D. 253, 254, n. 1 (S.D. Miss. 2000), quoting Phillips v. New England Mut. Life Ins. Co., 36 F.Supp.2d 345, 347 (S.D. Miss. 1998).)  In other words, the theory is that a larger sum is paid into a policy for a few years, and then the investment of those funds should generate a dividend that is sufficient to pay the premium thereafter.

Returning to the opinion, the Court of Appeal spent significant time discussing the facts of the case and the nature of "vanishing premium" policies before summarizing the Trial Court's Order denying class certifiation:

The trial court denied the motion for class certification. It concluded Kaldenbach had not demonstrated numerosity other than his assertion that over 4,000 policies were sold.  Kaldenbach had not shown ascertainability as there was no evidence as to how it could be shown which of the policyholders had received illustrations during the sales presentation.

The court concluded Kaldenbach had not shown typicality because Meyerson testified in his deposition that the sale to Kaldenbach was not typical as he had a clearly defined dominant need, Kaldenbach testified he never received any explanation from Meyerson about how the policy worked, how interest rates or costs of insurance were determined, what the extent of his obligation to pay annual premiums was, and what might happen if he stopped paying premiums. By contrast, Meyerson testified he fully explained the policy to Kaldenbach. “If [Kaldenbach] and Meyerson cannot even agree as to what was stated during the [sales] presentation to [Kaldenbach], how can [Kaldenbach's] claim be typical [and] be used to prove 4,000 claims? . . . It will take . . . individual evaluation of each claim to determine liability.”

The court also found Kaldenbach had not established commonality. Kaldenbach primarily relied upon uniformity in Mutual‟s sales materials, training, and illustrations, but there was no evidence linking those common tools to what was actually said or demonstrated in any individual sales transaction. The training materials and methods were not uniform throughout the class period. None of the allegedly scripted or memorized sales materials covered the alleged misrepresentations. And there was no evidence that uniform training or sales materials were used with each putative class member. There was no evidence all independent agents were required to take the offered training, took the offered training, had the same training, or used the same training or materials in their sales presentations. In fact “[t]here was evidence that the agents were free to ignore the training and written manuals.” Mutual‟s agents were independent contractors over whom Mutual had little or no control. Meyerson testified he did not follow his training or manuals in making the presentation to Kaldenbach. Kaldenbach had argued commonality could be found based solely on the use of illustrations, but Kaldenbach testified he never looked at the entire illustration, he only looked at the part of the illustration that showed the premium could vanish in four years because that was what Kaldenbach wanted.

The court also believed varying applicability of the statute of limitations and the delayed discovery rule to each putative class member‟s claim precluded class certification. The court noted the 70 percent lapse rate Kaldenbach alleged occurred with the policy at issue did not establish class-wide liability. There was no evidence it was an unusual lapse rate and no evidence as to why the policies had lapsed. For example, individual policyholders may have taken loans out against the cash accumulation, they may have decided to purchase a different product, or no longer needed the coverage. “[A]nalysis of why a policy lapsed is just one more issue that would need to be addressed on an individual and not class wide basis.”

Finally, the court listed the individualized issues that predominated and which could not be proven on a class-wide basis including: (1) did the agent take Mutual‟s training and read Mutual‟s manuals; (2) did the agent always use the training and materials; (3) what materials, disclosures, representations, and explanations were given to any given purchaser; (4) was an illustration used; (5) what information was input into the illustration; (6) did the purchaser rely on representations made in the sales presentation; (7) what were the customer‟s individual needs; (8) when did each class member‟s cause of action accrue; and (9) did the individual class member‟s policy lapse, and if so, why?

Slip op., at 11-13.   After describing the valuable benefits of class actions, and noting that the reasoning of the Trial Court is scrutinized when reviewing an order denying certification, the Court of Appeal observed:  "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. (Caro v. Procter & Gamble Co. (1993) 18 Cal.App.4th 644, 655-656 (Caro).)"  Slip op., at 14-15.

As the Court of Appeal turned to the merits, it began its discussion by cataloging a number of federal court decisions where class certification was denied on the same theory.  Parenthetically, the placement of this discussion suggests that the conclusions of those federal cases persuaded the Court of Appeal to affirm the Trial Court.

Eventually, the Court of Appeal turned to the promised discussion of In re Tobacco II Cases as it analyzed the denial of class certification for the UCL Cause of Action.  The language selected by the Court of Appeal for italicization clearly suggests the outcome:

A private person “may pursue representative claims or relief on behalf of others only if the claimant meets the standing requirements . . . and complies with [s]ection 382 of the Code of Civil Procedure.” (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203.) Recently, in In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298, 3245, the Supreme Court held in the UCL class action context, the “injury in fact” standing requirement imposed by Proposition 64 applies only to the class representative and not to “absent class members in a UCL class action where class requirements have otherwise been found to exist.” (Italics added.) UCL relief is available on a class basis “without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury. [Citations.]” (Id. at p. 320.)

Slip op., at 20.  The Plaintiff argued that the Trial Court incorrectly "premised its order denying class certification on the complexities of establishing each absent class members' reliance on the representations made and their injury."  Slip op., at 20.  The Court of Appeal wasn't concerned with this error:

There were myriad other individualized issues the court found to predominate including whether any given agent took Mutual's training, read its manuals, and routinely followed the training and materials; and what materials, disclosures, representations, and explanations were given to any given purchaser. These individualized issues go not to the injury suffered by a purchaser, but to whether there was in fact an unfair business practice by Mutual. Neither In re Tobacco II Cases, supra, 46 Cal.4th 298, nor Massachusetts Mutual, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th 1282, compel a different result.

Slip op., at 21.  The Court of Appeal went on to distinguish Kaldenbach's case from In re Tobacco II Cases and Massachusetts Mutual:

[B]oth In re Tobacco II Cases and Massachusetts Mutual involved identical misrepresentations and/or nondisclosures by the defendants made to the entire class. In re Tobacco II Cases targeted the tobacco industries' deceptive advertisements and statements disseminated to the public about the health effects of tobacco use. Massachusetts Mutual concerned the insurer's failure to disclose to policy purchasers and its agents its plan to decrease its discretionary dividend. In other words, there was no issue about defendants' uniform business practices giving rise to the UCL claim.

But here there is no such uniformity. Although Kaldenbach claimed Mutual's presentations relating to ALPs were uniform, it utilized standardized training methods, materials, and scripts to which agents were required to adhere, the evidence showed the opposite. Mutual's policies were sold by independent agents, and during the class period, they were not required to attend training or utilize any given sales materials. Agents were not required to adhere to a scripted sales presentation. Indeed Meyerson, who sold Kaldenbach his policy, testified at his deposition he did not use a scripted sales presentation or any training materials in making the sale to Kaldenbach.

Slip op., at 22.  If nothing else, analyses like this will encourage sales policies that state vague guidelines and some variation in sales approaches to eliminate uniformity of representations to consumers.  In any event, Kaldenbach's argument that he was entitled to an "inference of injury" for his fraud claim met with a similar fate, as the Court of Appeal noted that the inference is only available where the misrepresentations are uniform.

The Court of Appeal ignored the balance of the Trial Court's Order, concluding that the predominance of individualized issues was a sufficient ground for denying class certification.  A complicated set of facts coupled with a seemingly conservative Court of Appeal made this outcome all but a formality.