Barboza v. West Coast Digital GSM, Inc. holds that the obligations of class counsel to a certified class include enforcement of a judgment

After a short quiet spell, class actions return with a splash.  In Barboza v. West Coast Digital GSM, Inc., the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) had the opportunity to discuss the extent of class counsel's obligations to a certified class.  The conundrum arose when class counsel learned that the defendant had ceased operations, sold its assets to a third party, and intended to file for bankruptcy:

What are the obligations of class counsel when he learns that the defendant in the class action he is prosecuting has ceased operations, sold its assets to a third party, and intends to file for bankruptcy? In the case before us, counsel obtained a stipulated default and a default judgment that included more than $4 million in aggregate damages for the class, plus more than $1 million in prejudgment interest. So far, so good. But counsel then asserted that his job would be completed once his motion for attorney fees was heard, i.e., that he had no obligation to enforce the judgment on behalf of the class. The trial court disagreed. It ruled that “by assuming the responsibility of pursuing claims on behalf of the class, class counsel assumed the obligation to pursue it until the end (i.e., enforcement of the judgment) and not just until judgment.” Based upon the principles guiding class actions, we agree that class counsel's obligations to the class do not end with the entry of judgment, and hold that class counsel's obligations continue until all class issues are resolved, which may include enforcement of the judgment.

Slip op., at 2.  In its analysis, the Court of Appeal examined the sources of the obligations owed by class counsel (and the named plaintiff) to the certified class:

First, the representative plaintiffs must establish that they will adequately represent the class before a class may be certified. (Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 326.) Part of that showing involves establishing that the counsel they have chosen can and will adequately represent the interests of the class as a whole. (Cal Pak Delivery, Inc. v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1, 12; McGhee v. Bank of America (1976) 60 Cal.App.3d 442, 450.) Second, both the representative plaintiffs and the counsel they have chosen owe absent class members a fiduciary duty to protect the absentees‟ interests throughout the litigation. (Janik v. Rudy, Exelrod & Zieff, supra, 119 Cal.App.4th at p. 938.) Finally, the trial court, “as the guardian of the rights of the absentees, is vested broad administrative, as well as adjudicative, power.” (Greenfield v. Villager Industries, Inc., supra, 483 F.2d at p. 832.) Thus, unlike situations in which the litigant has retained an attorney to conduct litigation, where the litigant and the attorney agree upon the scope of the engagement, and their rights and duties are governed by their agreement, in class actions, where there is no agreement with absentee class members to define the scope of the engagement, class counsel must represent all of the absent class members' interests throughout the litigation to the extent there are class issues, and it is the duty of the trial court to ensure at every stage of the proceeding that counsel is adequately representing those interests.

Slip op., at 7-8.  Ultimately, the Court of Appeal described a reasonable way out of the quandry faced by class counsel that must collect a judgment from an insolvent debtor:

It may be that, given the specialized knowledge needed to enforce judgments, class counsel is not competent to provide enforcement services without assistance. But nothing prevents class counsel from associating in counsel with that expertise, and the cost of that association can be paid by the class from any recovery achieved. And if, after diligent inquiry, class counsel determines there are no recoverable assets, counsel may present such findings to the trial court, and the trial court, as guardian of the rights of the absent class members, may determine whether counsel should be relieved of any further obligations to the class.

Slip op., at 8-9.

This opinion is a necessary reminder of the extent of the duty assumed by class counsel when that fateful line is crossed and the proposed class is certified.