Second Interim Report on class actions in California sheds new light on certification


Earlier this month, the Administrative Office of the Courts released its Second Interim Report from the Study of California Class Action Litigation.  The Second Interim Report specifically analyzed class certifications in cases initially filed with a class action designation.  The findings were surprising.

First, over the period of 2000 to 2005, certification rates plummeted: "The rate of class certification (by any means) decreased by more than 50 percent over the study years."  Report, at 6.  This sharp decline mirrored findings in federal courts.

Second, a meager 13% of cases initially filed as a class action ever had a motion for class certification filed before final disposition, and only 46% of those motions were granted.  Report, at 8-9.  However, three times more cases were certified as part of a settlement.  Report, at 11.  The Report speculated that the rate of certification by settlement could be attributable to the State's complex litigation programs:  "In California, the frequency of classes certified as part of a settlement agreement may be another product of the Complex Civil Litigation Program."  Report, at 11.  Sadly, the apparent success of this program hasn't ensured that class actions filed in Los Angeles County receive the careful attention of the Complex Civil Litigation Program.  Due to limited resources, the Los Angeles County Complex Courts are rejecting most class actions to focus on construction defect cases, mass torts, and other multi-party suits.

The Second Interim Report also examined data to test the hypothesis that class certification pressures settlements from defendants.  The data did not support that hypothesis.  For example, the lack of interlocutory review of orders granting certification did not reveal a settlement pressure when compared to federal courts:

Given the absence of an interlocutory appeal option in California, one may conclude that settlement pressure would exert more effect and more cases would be compelled to settle after the granting of a motion for class certification as compared to federal court. However, the disposition composition for certified cases that reached a final outcome in California does not support this hypothesis. Table 16 shows that the rate of settlement after certification through a court-granted motion for certification is 69%. This is actually slightly lower than the rate of 72% in the federal court. California‘s lack of intermediate recourse in response to the granting of class certification does not result in a higher rate of settlement in that situation when compared to data from federal court.

Report, at 26.  Summing up the data analysis related to the theorized pressure to settle, the Report concluded:

In sum, California data show that very few cases could be included in a category in which the commonly discussed parameters that define settlement pressure from class certification may have been a factor in the decision to settle. Many cases circumvented the issue altogether by including class certification as an element of the settlement itself. In cases with a class certified through a court-granted motion for certification, neither the overall disposition composition nor the time-to-settlement analyses seem to suggest an automatic or immediate progression from certification through motion to settlement which would allow the determination that pressure results in inevitable settlement. The conclusion here is not that the idea of settlement pressure is fabricated, or even altogether negligible, but rather that the pervasive effect of settlement pressure in California does not appear to be supported by the data.

Report, at 28.  It is at least fair to say that the only comprehensive study of California class action data available does not provide support for the recent, repeated claims by CJAC, Governor Schwarzenegger, and others that class actions are out of control, forcing settlements or in need of reforms such as the right to immediately appeal any order certifying a class.  Such a reform would likely lower the number of contested settlements from meager to negligible.  Certainly, that is a desirable result for businesses that underpay employees, sell defective products, or falsely advertise goods and services.  It is not, however, necessary to save our bankrupt state.