Geico's attempt to "pick off" class representative in UCL action is unsuccessful

Oh, the riches that come to those who wait.  After a fairly dry spell, California's Courts of Appeal bestow no fewer than three opinions about issues related to class actions and the Unfair Competition Law ("UCL").  The first up for commentary is Wallace v. Geico General Insurance Company (April 19, 2010).  In Wallace, the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) considered whether GEICO's offer of monetary compensation to Wallace after she filed her lawsuit caused her to lose standing as the representative plaintiff.  Concluding that she did not, the Court reversed the trial court's order striking class allegations.

Wallace filed a proposed class action complaint against GEICO. According to Wallace, her vehicle was damaged in an accident and required body work. She obtained an estimate from a repair shop of her choice and presented the estimate to GEICO. GEICO told her that it would not pay the full amount of the estimate because the hourly rate for labor charged by that business was above what GEICO considered to be the prevailing labor rate.

Meanwhile, following a consent order issued by the California Department of Insurance, GEICO was obligated to calculate reimbursements in an alternative fashion.  Two months after Wallace filed her lawsuit, GEICO sent a check for $387.56 to Wallace to cover the amount that Wallace paid out of pocket for the repair of her vehicle.  Based on the fact of that payment, the trial court ruled that Wallace lacked standing but gave Wallace time to locate an adequate class representative and allowed discovery for that purpose.  Less than two months later, GEICO moved to strike class allegations.  The trial court granted the motion on the ground that the class had no representative.

The Court of Appeal began its review by examining the "pick off" cases:

In the specific situation where a defendant in a class action has forced an involuntary settlement on the representative plaintiff after the lawsuit is filed, case law creates an exception to the requirement that a representative plaintiff continue to be a member of the proposed class. These cases, which are "sometimes referred to as 'pick off ' cases" (Watkins v. Wachovia Corp. (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 1576, 1590), "arise when, prior to class certification, a defendant in a proposed class action gives the named plaintiff the entirety of the relief claimed by that individual. The defendant then attempts to obtain dismissal of the action, on the basis that the named plaintiff can no longer pursue a class action, as the named plaintiff is no longer a member of the class the plaintiff sought to represent. . . . [T]he defendant seeks to avoid exposure to the class action by 'picking off ' the named plaintiff, sometimes by picking off named plaintiffs serially." (Ibid., citing, among others, La Sala, supra, 5 Cal.3d 864.) In this situation, "the involuntary receipt of relief does not, of itself, prevent the class plaintiff from continuing as a class representative." (Watkins, at p. 1590; see also Larner v. Los Angeles Doctors Hospital Associates, LP (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1291, 1299 [case law "prevents a prospective defendant from avoiding a class action by 'picking off' prospective class-action plaintiffs one by one, settling each individual claim in an attempt to disqualify the named plaintiff as a class representative"]; Ticconi v. Blue Shield of California Life & Health Ins. Co. (2008) 160 Cal.App.4th 528, 548 [" '[A] prospective defendant is not allowed to avert a class action by "picking off " prospective plaintiffs one-by-one. Thus, precertification payment of the named plaintiff 's claim does not automatically disqualify the named plaintiff as a class action representative.' "].) 

Slip op., at 11-12.  Having explained that the "pick off" attempt was improper, the Court then explained what the trial court should have done in that situation:

Instead of a reflexive dismissal of the representative plaintiff on the basis that he or she lacks standing as the trial court did here — the proper procedure in a pick off situation is for the trial court to consider whether "the named plaintiffs will continue fairly to represent the class" in light of the individual relief offered by the defendant. (La Sala, supra, 5 Cal.3d at p. 872.) As a practical matter, in most cases, that evaluation may be performed in the context of a ruling on a motion for class certification, where the trial court inquires into the existence of, among other things, "(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." (Sav-On Drug Stores, Inc. v. Superior Court (2004) 34 Cal.4th 319, 326, italics added; see also Weiss, supra, 385 F.3d at p. 348 [allowing class certification motion to be filed after defendant attempted to pick off the representative plaintiff].)

Slip op., at 13.  Next, the Court explicitly held that the "pick off" cases apply to UCL actions, even after Proposition 64:

We agree with the parties that the pick off cases are persuasive here, regardless of the injury-in-fact requirement set forth in section 17204. As required by section 17204, Wallace "suffered injury in fact" and "lost money or property" as a result of the practices at issue in this lawsuit. (§ 17204.) Specifically, Wallace was injured by paying for the repair work to her vehicle that GEICO did not agree to cover. Thus, at the time Wallace filed suit she was a proper plaintiff under section 17204. We see no indication in the history of Proposition 64, as reviewed by our Supreme Court in Californians for Disability Rights, supra, 39 Cal.4th 223, 228, that the voters amended section 17204 with the intent of allowing defendants in class actions brought under section 17200 et seq. to defeat class status by forcing an involuntary settlement.

Slip op., at 15-16.  The Court went on to explain that Proposition 64 focused on "the filing of lawsuits by attorneys who did not have clients impacted by the defendant's conduct."  Slip op., at 16.  Thus, "[b]ecause the doctrine expressed in the pick off cases is an established part of class action procedure, there is no reason to believe that Proposition 64 was intended to alter that doctrine in the context of suits brought under section 17200 et seq."  Slip op., at 17, relying on In re Tobacco II Cases (2009) 46 Cal.4th 298, 318.

I still can't get over the fact that an insurance company wouldn't pay for the full cost of vehicle repair.  Inconceivable.