Kullar v. Foot Locker generating more precedent, this time on a disqualification issue

So, I'm back after a vacation, and just in time.  Luckily, nothing at all happened while I was gone.  Today, however, we receive a new nugget of precedent from one of those cases that keeps on giving.  In Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc. (January 18, 2011), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Three) reviewed a denial of a motion to disqualify counsel representing the objectors to a proposed class action settlement in Kullar.  If this doesn't ring a bell for you, let me recap.  Kullar (the 2008 opinion: Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc., 168 Cal. App. 4th 116 (2008)) reversed an order granting approval to a proposed class action settlement after concluding that the information provided to the trial court was insufficient to permit the court to conclude that the settlement was fair, adequate and reasonable.

How does this lead to a motion to disqualify?  Glad you asked.  The Court sums up as well as I could the procedural maneuvering leading to the motion to disqualify:

Prior to the trial court's approval of the settlement in the Kullar action (Kullar v. Footlocker, No. CGC-05-447044 (Kullar)), Echeverria, represented by the same attorneys, had filed a partially overlapping putative class action against Foot Locker and others in the Alameda County Superior Court (Echeverria v. Footlocker, No. RG07317036 (Echeverria I)). Because of the pendency of the settlement in the Kullar action, the Alameda court entered an order staying Echeverria I, which remained in effect through the pendency of the Kullar appeal. On April 15, 2009, one month after issuance of the remittitur in Kullar, Echeverria and the two other objectors represented by Q&W filed an action in the San Francisco Superior Court, where Kullar was pending, asserting the same claims as were alleged in the stayed Alameda action (Echeverria v. Footlocker, No. CGC-09-487345 (Echeverria II)). Based on the pendency of identical claims in Echeverria I, the San Francisco court on July 29, 2009, stayed proceedings in Echeverria II. In subsequent proceedings in Kullar, the court considered the additional showing made to establish the fairness of the proposed settlement, the three objectors' renewed objections to settlement approval, and on October 22, 2009, the court again granted final approval of the class settlement. Echeverria dismissed the Alameda action and on November 17, 2009, the San Francisco court lifted the stay in Echeverria II.

Slip op., at 2-3.  The Court then describes the motion to disqualify filed by Foot Locker, which argued that representation of objectors on the one hand and potential class members on the other created a conflict.  The trial court rejected that argument as did the Court of Appeal.  I don't find the outcome surprising.  But the opinion does offer some interesting comments, where the Court briefly discusses the obligations of counsel to putative class members prior to certification:

Initially, since no class has yet been certified in Echeverria II (and no class was ever certified in Echeverria I), no attorney-client relationship has yet arisen between Q&W and the members of the putative class. (Atari, Inc. v. Superior Court (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 867, 873 [“We cannot accept the suggestion that a potential (but as yet unapproached) class member should be deemed 'a party . . . represented by counsel' even before the class is certified; we respectfully disagree to this extent with the federal courts which apparently would accept it.”]; Sharp v. Next Entertainment, Inc. (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 410, 433, citing comment 25 to rule 1.7 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct [“When a lawyer represents or seeks to represent a class of plaintiffs or defendants in a class-action lawsuit, unnamed members of the class are ordinarily not considered to be clients of the lawyer for purposes of applying paragraph (a)(1) of this Rule [that restricts representation when there are concurrent conflicts of interest] . . .”]; In re McKesson HBOC, Inc. Securities Litigation (N.D.Cal. 2000) 126 F.Supp.2d 1239, 1245; Cal. Compendium on Prof. Responsibility, L.A. County Bar Assn. Formal Opn. No. 481 (March 20, 1995).)  

Foot Locker cites cases that clearly are inapposite to establish that an attorney may incur fiduciary obligations to an individual even though an attorney-client relationship has not arisen. Most involve situations where there were preliminary consultations between the individual and the attorney looking to the retention of the attorney but the potential client did not hire the attorney. (People ex rel. Dept. of Corporations v. Speedee Oil Change Systems, Inc. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 1135; Beery v. State Bar (1987) 43 Cal.3d 802.) Closer to the mark is the court's statement in In re GMC Pick-up Truck Fuel Tank Prod. Liab. Litig. (3rd Cir. 1995) 55 F.3d 768, 801: “Beyond their ethical obligations to their clients, class attorneys, purporting to represent a class, also owe the entire class a fiduciary duty once the class complaint is filed.” This statement—which, it should be noted, recognizes that putative class members are not clients of the attorney—was made in the context of considering the propriety of certifying a settlement class, with little application to the present situation. Moreover, assuming that Q&W assumed some fiduciary obligations to members of the putative class they seek to represent, no authority has been cited suggesting that those obligations preclude the attorneys from urging that a proposed settlement in related litigation is not in the best interests of the class. (Compare Schick v. Berg (2004) U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6842, *19 (S.D.N.Y. 2004, affd. (2d Cir. 2005) 430 F.3d 112 [attorney owed putative class member a duty not to prejudice putative class member's rights in the action in which class certification was sought, but duty did not extend to refraining from advising a third party to sue putative class member].)

Slip op., at 5-6.  After reading these remarks, I now believe that it is unclear in California whether the majority approach follows or diverges from the federal cases suggesting a fiduciary obligation extends to putative class members prior to certification.  It seems likely, however, that regardless of the answer as to where California is on the issue, the obligations to the unknown putative class members do not rise to the same level as that of the obligations to a represented client.  The ability to harmonize this question is complicated by authority indicating that class counsel can replace a proposed class representative for the good of the class, which, in one way of looking at it, suggests that the interests of the putative class can rise high enough to squeeze the initial client to the sidelines.

District Court declines to decertify class because of alleged conflict-based inadequacy of counsel

United States District Court Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill (Eastern District of California) denied a renewed motion to decertify a class of former members of Calcot that marketed their cotton in a Seasonal Pool.  Andrews Farms v. Calcot, LTD., 2010 WL 3341963 (E.D.Cal. Aug. 23, 2010).  Defendants argued that counsel was inadequate because of an irreconcilable conflict between the interests of a former named plaintiff represented by counsel and the interests of the certified class.  The Court found class counsel to be adequate and declined to apply a mechanical disqualification rule:

Because class actions are unique, “the traditional rules that have developed in the course of attorneys' representation of the interests of clients outside of the class action context should not be mechanically applied to the problems that arise in the settlement of class action litigation.” In re Agent Orange Prod. Liab. Liti., 800 F.2d 14, 19 (2nd Cir.1986). Class actions provide a particular problem with respect to the rules on conflict because “the potential for conflicts in the course of representing numerous class members is greatly enhanced.” In re Joint Eastern and Southern Dist. Asbestos Litig., 133 F.R.D. 425, 431 (S.D.N.Y.1990). Thus, “although automatic disqualification might promote the salutary ends of confidentiality and loyalty,” the courts do not apply such rules automatically in a class action context, because automatic disqualification “would have a serious adverse effect on class actions.” In re Agent Orange, 800 F.2d at 18. Accordingly, to determine whether class counsel will represent the interests of the class vigorously, the Court must employ “a balancing of the interests of the various groups of class members and of the interest of the public and the court in achieving a just and expeditious resolution of the dispute.” In re Joint Eastern and Southern Dist. Absestos Litig., 133 F.R.D. at 431 (quoting In re Agent Orange, 800 F.2d at 19).

Slip op., at 8.

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.

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.

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.

Class action counsel must be as diligent reviewing potential conflicts as their defense counterparts

Defense counsel are well acquainted with the concept of conflicts checks at the outset of a matter.  Most defense firms with more than a handful of attorneys have electronic systems in place that track all past representations for the purposes of assessing potential conflicts when a matter is first offered to a firm.  Plaintiff-side practitioners, at least in my observations, are less rigorous about conflict checks, due, in part, to the infrequency with which conflicts arise in a predominantly plaintiff-side practice.  While the infrequency of conflicts allows for laxity without consequence in most cases, when conflicts do surface, the results can be painful.

For example, in Baas, et al. v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., (N.D. Cal. Case No. 07-03108 JSW), plaintiffs' counsel undertook to represent two hourly employees in a putative class actions against Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. (“Dollar Tree”), contending that Dollar Tree altered the time records of its employees and, thus, failed to compensate employees for all of the time that they actually worked.  Plaintiffs moved for class certification.  The Court denied the motion on the sole ground that a conflict of interest by counsel prevented them from adequately representing the class.

Rule 23(a)(4) requires that "the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class."  (Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(4).)  Adequacy of representation is a two-part analysis, which asks "(1) Do the representative plaintiffs and their counsel have any conflicts of interest with other class members, and (2) will the representative plaintiffs and their counsel prosecute the action vigorously on behalf of the class?"  (Staton v. Boeing Co. (9th Cir. 2003) 327 F.3d 938, 957.)  In Baas v. Dollar Tree, the first question was answered "yes," leading the Court to conclude in its April 1, 2008 Order that counsel could not adequately represent their clients.  The Court explained the source of the conflict:

Dollar Tree argues that Plaintiffs’ counsel’s representation of John Hansen (“Hansen”), the manager of the store in which named Plaintiffs Baas and Lofquist used to work, in another lawsuit against Dollar Tree creates a conflict of interest. “The responsibility of class counsel to absent class members whose control over their attorneys is limited does not permit even the appearance of divided loyalties of counsel.” Kayes v. Pacific Lumber Co., 51 F.3d 1449, 1465 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Sullivan v. Chase Inv. Serv. of Boston, Inc., 79 F.R.D. 246, 258 (N.D. Cal. 1978)). As the court explained in Kayes, “[t]he ‘appearance’ of divided loyalties refers to differing and potentially conflicting interests and is not limited to instances manifesting such conflict.” Id.

(Opinion, at p. 3.)  After setting forth various rules of professional conduct, the Court explained where the conflicts could materialize in the dual representations:

Here, Plaintiffs’ counsel’s client Hansen is a witness in this matter. Lofquist testified in her deposition that Hansen was aware that she worked off the clock in his presence and that Hansen encouraged her to do so. (Declaration of Beth Hirsch (“Hirsch Decl.”), Ex. F at 247:4-248:17. Hansen testified that Lofquist was paid for the time she worked and that he never asked anyone to come in and work off the clock. (Hirsch Decl., Ex. D at 547:23-548:16). He further testified that he knew it was against Dollar Tree’s policy to misrepresent the time employees worked or took breaks. (Id. at 648:13-17). To reconcile the testimony of Hansen and Lofquist, Plaintiffs’ counsel will either need to portray Hansen as a liar or as a manager who knowingly violated his company’s policies. Plaintiffs counter that Plaintiffs’ and Hansen’s claims and class actions are distinct and do not conflict with one another. Plaintiffs further argue that because Hansen is merely involved as a witness in this matter, he is not placed in any jeopardy of being liable. Plaintiffs thus focus on the existence or absence of any conflicts between the two cases and fail to address the duty of loyalty Plaintiffs’ counsel owe to all their clients.

From the testimony in the record, it appears as Plaintiffs’ counsel will either have to cross-examine Hansen and impeach his credibility, or “soft-pedal” their examination of Hansen to the detriment of their representation of the class members in this action. Even if this conflict of interest could be waived, Plaintiffs’ counsel would need to obtain waivers from every class member, which, as a practical matter, they cannot do from the absent class members. Therefore, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have not demonstrated their counsel would adequately represent the class as required by Rule 23(a)(4). Failure to satisfy any one of Rule 23’s requirement precludes class certification. Rutledge v. Electric Hose & Rubber, Co., 511 F.2d 668, 673 (9th Cir. 1975); see also Sipper v. Capital One Bank, 2002 WL 398769, *4 (C.D.Cal. Feb. 28, 2002) (denying motion for class certification based on plaintiffs’ counsel’s conflict of interest). Accordingly, the Court denies Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

(Opinion, at p. 5.)  In a nutshell, plaintiffs' counsel reached one rung too far and were cut off at the knees for it.  Had they fully explored the potential for conflict at the outset of the second case, they may have concluded that a referral of the case to another firm was the better course of action.

The full opinion is included below:

Read this document on Scribd: 2008-04-01 Order Dollar Tree

Here is a link to the Order for visitors without flash:  April 1, 2008 Order Denying Certification.

UPDATE:  A reader informs me that the Acrobat.com widget is not functioning correctly.  I've had some problems with it myself in getting this post up.  It is possible that the pdf file contains some sort of error.  If I can't get it fixed, I may have to see if iPaper works any better with this file.

UPDATE 2:  It appears that Acrobat.com is experiencing some problem today.  I am presenting the Order through Scribd.

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