Careful allegations can avoid collateral estoppel issues

United States District Court Judge Claudia Wilken (Northern District of California) denied a motion to strike class allegations when the Court concluded that allegations concerning Kenmore Dryers were sufficiently different from allegations in a prior suit that collateral estoppel could not bar the present suit.  Murray v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 2010 WL 3490214 (Sept. 3, 2010).  The Court described the basics of the collateral estoppel doctrine as follows:  

Collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, bars re-litigation of issues when:

(1) the issue necessarily decided at the previous proceeding is identical to the one which is sought to be relitigated; (2) the first proceeding ended with a final judgment on the merits; and (3) the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted was a party or in privity with a party at the first proceeding.

Reyn's Pasta Bella, LLC v. Visa USA, Inc., 442 F.3d 741, 746 (9th Cir.2006). However, “it is inappropriate to apply collateral estoppel when its effect would be unfair.” Eureka Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Am. Cas. Co. of Reading, Pa., 873 F.2d 229, 234 (9th Cir.1989).

Only the first element of collateral estoppel is at issue in this motion. Plaintiff disputes that the class certification issues necessarily decided in the previous proceeding are identical to those presently before the Court. The Court looks to four factors to aid in “[d]etermining whether two issues are identical for purposes of collateral estoppel: (1) is there a substantial overlap between the evidence or argument to be advanced in the second proceeding and that advanced in the first? (2) does the new evidence or argument involve the application of the same rule of law as that involved in the prior proceeding? (3) could pretrial preparation and discovery related to the matter presented in the first action reasonably be expected to have embraced the matter sought to be presented in the second? and (4) how closely related are the claims involved in the two proceedings?” Resolution Trust Corp. v. Keating, 186 F.3d 1110, 1116 (9th Cir.1999) (citations omitted).

Slip op., at 2-3.  The Court then compared the allegations from a prior case to those in the current one, concluding that the allegations in the current case were sufficient at the pleading stage to resolve the issue raised in the prior class action in the Seventh Circuit:

In granting class certification, the district judge said that because “Sears marketed its dryers on a class wide basis ... reliance can be presumed.” Reliance on what? On stainless steel preventing rust stains on clothes? Since rust stains on clothes do not appear to be one of the hazards of clothes dryers, and since Sears did not advertise its stainless steel dryers as preventing such stains, the proposition that the other half million buyers, apart from Thorogood, shared his understanding of Sears's representations and paid a premium to avoid rust stains is, to put it mildly, implausible, and so would require individual hearings to verify.

Id. at 748. In sum, the “deal breaker” against Thorogood's class allegations was “the absence of any reason to believe that there is a single understanding of the significance of labeling or advertising clothes dryers as containing a ‘stainless steel drum.’ ” Id.

Plaintiff has sufficiently amended his complaint so as to differentiate it from the complaint in Thorogood to avoid the application of collateral estoppel. Unlike the complaint in Thorogood, the amended complaint includes allegations that Defendants expressly advertised the significance of the fact that their dryers contain stainless steel drums. For instance, Sears' website describes the “Stainless Steel Drum” as “Durable Drum eliminates rusting and chipping for long lasting performance.” First Amended Complaint (1AC) ¶ 50 (emphasis added). Sears' website and in-store brochures state that Kenmore Dryers will “KEEP YOU CLOTHES LOOKING GREAT: An exclusive, all stainless steel drum provides lasting durability.” Id. ¶ 52 (upper case in original; emphasis added). These allegations are of the precise type that the Seventh Circuit said would distinguish Thorogood from a claim in which common issues might predominate.

Slip op., at 3-4.

Artful pleading saves the day.