Court of Appeal reverses trial court order sustaining demurrer to class allegations for lack of commonality

The Seventh Division of the Second Appellate District has been lucky (or unlucky - I don't know what they think about it) to draw a number of major class-related appeals in the past several year.  Today, they add another to their growing list.  In Arce v. Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. (January 27, 2010) the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) reviewed a trial court order sustaining a demurrer without leave to amend to a claim arising under the UCL.  The plaintiff alleged that Kaiser breached its health plan contract and violated the Mental Health Parity Act (Health & Saf. Code,1 § 1374.72) by categorically denying coverage for behavioral therapy and speech therapy to plan members with autism spectrum disorders.  The trial court's ruling sustaining the demurrer was based on the doctrine of judicial abstention and the lack of commonality among class members.

In this instance, rather than clip elements from the opinion, I am going to quote one section, discussing the community of interest standard, in its entirety:

A. Community of Interest among Class Members

Section 382 of the Code of Civil Procedure authorizes class action suits “when the question is one of a common or general interest, of many persons, or when the parties are numerous, and it is impracticable to bring them all before the court . . . .” (Code Civ. Proc., § 382.) The party seeking certification of a class must establish the existence of both an ascertainable class and a well-defined community of interest among the class members. (Sav-On Drug Stores, Inc. v. Superior Court (2004) 34 Cal.4th 319, 326.) “The 'community of interest' requirement embodies three factors: (1) predominant common questions of law or fact; (2) class representatives with claims or defenses typical of the class; and (3) class representatives who can adequately represent the class. [Citation.]” (Ibid.) “'[T]his means “each member must not be required to individually litigate numerous and substantial questions to determine his [or her] right to recover following the class judgment; and the issues which may be jointly tried, when compared with those requiring separate adjudication, must be sufficiently numerous and substantial to make the class action advantageous to the judicial process and to the litigants.” ' [Citation.]” (Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Superior Court (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1096, 1108.) “Other relevant considerations include the probability that each class member will come forward ultimately to prove his or her separate claim to a portion of the total recovery and whether the class approach would actually serve to deter and redress alleged wrongdoing. [Citation.]” (Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 435.)

It is often premature for a trial court to make determinations pertaining to class suitability on demurrer. Rather, “all that is normally required for a complaint to survive demurrers to the propriety of class litigation is that the complaint allege facts that tend to show: (1) an ascertainable class of plaintiffs, and (2) questions of law and fact which are common to the class.” (Beckstead v. Superior Court (1971) 21 Cal.App.3d 780, 784.) As our Supreme Court has recognized, for purposes of determining whether a demurrer should have been overruled, “it is sufficient that there is a reasonable possibility plaintiffs can establish a prima facie community of interest among the class members . . . .” (Vasquez v. Superior Court (1971) 4 Cal.3d 800, 813; see also Beckstead v. Superior Court, supra, at p. 783 [“[T]he California Supreme Court has mandated that a candidate complaint for class action consideration, if at all possible, be allowed to survive the pleading stages of litigation.”].) Accordingly, “[w]here there is a 'reasonable possibility' that the plaintiff in a class action can establish a community of interest among class members, 'the preferred course is to defer decision on the propriety of the class action until an evidentiary hearing has been held on the appropriateness of class litigation. ' [Citation.]” (Canon U.S.A. v. Superior Court (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1, 5; see also Prince v. CLS Transportation, Inc. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 1320, 1329 [demurrer to class action complaint improper where the plaintiff “alleges institutional practices . . . that affected all of the members of the potential class in the same manner, and it appears from the complaint that all liability issues can be determined on a class-wide basis”].)

“The wisdom of allowing survival is elementary. Class action litigation is proper whenever it may be determined that it is more beneficial to the litigants and to the judicial process to try a suit in one action rather than in several actions . . . . It is clear that the more intimate the judge becomes with the character of the action, the more intelligently he [or she] may make the determination. If the judicial machinery encourages the decision to be made at the pleading stages and the judge decides against class litigation, he [or she] divests the court of the power to later alter that decision . . . . Therefore, because the sustaining of demurrers without leave to amend represents the earliest possible determination of the propriety of class action litigation, it should be looked upon with disfavor.” (Beckstead v. Superior Court, supra, 21 Cal.App.3d at p. 783.)

In sustaining Kaiser's demurrer to the UCL claim, the trial court concluded that Arce could not establish a predominance of common issues because resolution of the claim would require the court to make individualized determinations as to whether the therapies at issue were “medically necessary” for each member of the putative class. However, based on the allegations in the second amended complaint, the UCL claim presents two central legal issues that are common to all putative class members. First, does Kaiser's health plan contract exclude from coverage Applied Behavior Analysis therapy or speech therapy for autism spectrum disorders on the grounds that such therapies are “non-health care services,” “academic or educational interventions,” or “custodial care”? Second, assuming that the therapies are excluded from coverage by the health plan contract, does the Mental Health Parity Act allow Kaiser to categorically apply such exclusions on the basis that the therapies are not health care services, or are provided by persons not licensed or certified by the state? While these issues clearly raise questions of contractual and statutory interpretation, neither would require the court to make individualized determinations of medical necessity for class members.

Slip op., at 13-15.  The Court's discussion of the Doctrine of Judicial Abstention is even more detailed, but I confess that my Diet Coke supply is insufficient to keep me conscious through that discussion.

Impressive work by Scott C. Glovsky.