The 11th Circuit recently ruled that class certification had been improperly granted to owners of front-loading washing machines that allegedly were susceptible to mold build-up. See Brown v. Electrolux Home Prods. Inc., No. 15-11455 (11th Cir. 3/21/16).
Across the country, consumers have filed class actions against the manufacturers of front-loading washing machines. Front-loaders are considered an improvement over traditional top-loading machines because they use less water and energy. But the initial models allegedly had a problem: the rubber seal on the front door of the machine retains water, which allows mildew to grow. In this case, consumers from California and Texas filed a class action against Electrolux Home Products, the manufacturer of Frigidaire front-loading washing machines. After the district court certified two statewide classes, see Terrill v. Electrolux Home Prods., Inc., 295 F.R.D. 671 (S.D. Ga. 2013), Electrolux filed this interlocutory appeal. The 11th Circuit vacated the certification as the district court abused its discretion in determining the predominance requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).
The district court certified two statewide classes: California Class: All persons and entities who purchased, other than for resale, after March 5, 2004, and while in the State of California, a Frigidaire front-loading washing machine with a convoluted bellow. And Texas Class: All persons and entities who purchased, other than for resale, after March 5, 2004, and while in the State of Texas, a Frigidaire front-loading washing machine with a convoluted bellow.
The district court recognized that it must conduct a "rigorous analysis" to determine whether a class action satisfies Rule 23 . See Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256 , 1266 (11th Cir. 2009). And it correctly explained that "[a] party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule." Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011). The district court concluded that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). With respect to the consumer claims, the district court somehow concluded that every element was susceptible to class-wide proof. For example, the district court concluded that each class member presumably relied on the fact that defendant provided Washing Machines suited for cleaning and freshening clothing. The district court then explained that the class members could show their reliance on defendant's alleged failure to disclose the Washing Machines' alleged design defect and the inevitable consequences of that defect through the same class-wide proof that they purchased machines to clean and freshen their clothes rather than to soil and odorize them. As for the warranty claims, the district court rejected Electrolux's argument that the questions whether the class members gave Electrolux pre-suit notice of the defect, whether the class members gave Electrolux an opportunity to cure the defect, and whether the defect manifested during the warranty period would require individual proof. Instead, it concluded that the questions whether pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect are required under California and Texas law are "common questions" that weigh in favor of class certification.
The court of appeals noted first that the district court misstated the law when it said that it "resolves doubts related to class certification in favor of certifying the class." Indeed, the party seeking class certification has the burden of proof. Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharms., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181 , 1187 (11th Cir. 2003). And the entire point of a burden of proof is that, if doubts remain about whether the standard is satisfied, "the party with the burden of proof loses." Simmons v. Blodgett, 110 F.3d 39 , 42 (9th Cir. 1997). All else being equal, the presumption is against class certification because class actions are an exception to our constitutional tradition of individual litigation. See Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 , 1432 (2013); Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 , 40-41 (1940). A district court that has doubts about whether "the requirements of Rule 23 have been met should refuse certification until they have been met." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 advisory committee's note to 2003 amendment; accord In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305 , 321 (3d Cir. 2008); Wallace B. Roderick Revocable Living Trust v. XTO Energy, Inc., 725 F.3d 1213, 1218 (10th Cir. 2013).
The district court also misstated the law when it said that it "accepts the allegations in the complaint as true." and "draws all inferences and presents all evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs." The party seeking class certification has a burden of proof, not a burden of pleading. See Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 , 2412 (2014). He "'must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance' with Rule 23 " by proving that the requirements are "in fact" satisfied. Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1432 (quoting Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551 ). And the district court must conduct a "rigorous analysis" to determine whether the movant carried his burden, which "will frequently entail 'overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim.'" Id . (quoting Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551 ). Of course, the district court can consider the merits to the extent "they are relevant to determining whether the Rule 23 prerequisites for class certification are satisfied." Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184 , 1195 (2013). And if a question of fact or law is relevant to that determination, then the district court has a duty to actually decide it and not accept it as true or construe it in anyone's favor. See Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1432-33 ; Szabo v. Bridgeport Machs., Inc., 249 F.3d 672 , 675-76 (7th Cir. 2001); Gariety v. Grant Thornton, LLP, 368 F.3d 356, 365-66 (4th Cir. 2004). The district court erred when it stated the opposite.
Ultimately, the district court abused its discretion when it decided that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3). To determine whether the requirement of predominance is satisfied, a district court must first identify the parties' claims and defenses and their elements. The district court should then classify these issues as common questions or individual questions by predicting how the parties will prove them at trial. Common questions are ones where "the same evidence will suffice for each member," and individual questions are ones where the evidence will "vary] from member to member." Blades v. Monsanto Co., 400 F.3d 562 , 566 (8th Cir. 2005). After identifying the common and individual questions, the district court should determine whether the common questions predominate over the individual ones. Many courts have adopted the following rule of thumb: if common issues truly predominate over individualized issues in a lawsuit, then the addition or subtraction of any of the plaintiffs to or from the class should not have a substantial effect on the substance or quantity of evidence offered. If, on the other hand, the addition of more plaintiffs leaves the quantum of evidence introduced by the plaintiffs as a whole undisturbed, then common issues are likely to predominate.
But predominance requires a qualitative assessment too; it is not bean counting, and the relative importance of the common versus individual questions also matters. Predominance can only be determined after considering what value the resolution of the class-wide issue will have in each class member's underlying cause of action. District courts should assess predominance with its overarching purpose in mind—namely, ensuring that "a class action would achieve economies of time, effort, and expense, and promote . . . uniformity of decision as to persons similarly situated, without sacrificing procedural fairness or bringing about other undesirable results." Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591 , 615 (1997).
Electrolux argued that the district court misapplied California and Texas law when it concluded that the plaintiffs could prove causation on a class-wide basis. Electrolux argued that causation requires individual proof. Under California law, one who was not exposed to the alleged misrepresentations and therefore could not possibly have lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition is not entitled to restitution. Pfizer Inc. v. Superior Court, 182 Cal. App. 4th 622 , 105 Cal. Rptr. 3d 795 , 803 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010); accord Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Superior Court, 199 Cal. App. 4th 1367 , 132 Cal. Rptr. 3d 91 , 101 (Cal. Ct. App. 2011); Kaldenbach v. Mut. of Omaha Life Ins. Co., 178 Cal. App. 4th 830 , 100 Cal. Rptr. 3d 637 , 652 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009). The district court rejected Electrolux's argument because it concluded that the class members were exposed to uniform business practices. The district court misunderstood the plaintiffs' complaint. Brown alleged that Electrolux engaged in unfair competition by omitting essential information in its advertisements. The only advertisements that Brown identified were on Frigidaire's website, but he made no effort to prove that any member of the California Class visited the website before purchasing a washing machine. Brown in fact admitted that he never saw any advertisements from Frigidaire. Because the class members were not exposed to a uniform misrepresentation, the claim under the California Unfair Competition Law is unsuitable for class treatment. See Simon v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 482 F.2d 880 , 883 (5th Cir. 1973); Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 666 F.3d 581 , 595 (9th Cir. 2012).
The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices—Consumer Protection Act prohibits "[f]alse, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce." Tex. Bus. & Com. Code Ann. § 17.46(a) . To recover under the Act, a plaintiff must prove that he "relied on" the defendant's conduct to his detriment. Id.§ 17.50(a)(1) (B). This reliance element requires that the plaintiff "actually did rely" on the defendant's statement or omission, not that the defendant "wanted purchasers to rely on its advertisements and other representations." Henry Schein, Inc. v. Stromboe, 102 S.W.3d 675 , 694 (Tex. 2002). It appears that no Texas court has ever certified a class action under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices—Consumer Protection Act, see Tex. S. Rentals, Inc. v. Gomez, 267 S.W.3d 228 , 237 (Tex. App. 2008). That a plaintiff could prove reliance on a class-wide basis is "a near-impossibility," according to the Texas Court of Appeals. Id . (quoting Fid. & Guar. Life Ins. Co. v. Pina, 165 S.W.3d 416 , 423 (Tex. App. 2005)). The district court certified a class anyway, and it erred. The court cannot presume that the class members relied on any uniform misrepresentation. The court could have no inkling whether the class members saw any advertisements from Frigidaire, much less uniform advertisements, before they purchased their washing machines. This means that their claim under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act cannot proceed as a class action. See Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2552 n.6; Sandwich Chef of Tex, Inc. v. Reliance Nat. Indem. Ins. Co., 319 F.3d 205, 219 (5th Cir. 2003); In re Clorox Consumer Litig., 301 F.R.D. 436, 446 (N.D. Cal. 2014).
Electrolux next argued that the district court prematurely certified the warranty claims because it did not first resolve several questions of state law that were relevant to predominance. That is, the district court could not determine predominance without first deciding whether California and Texas law require pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect. The court of appeals agreed. A district court must decide all questions of fact and law that bear on the propriety of class certification. For example, a question of state law bears on predominance if, answered one way, an element or defense will require individual proof but, answered another way, the element or defense can be proved on a class-wide basis. Because each requirement of Rule 23 must be met, a district court errs as a matter of law when it fails to resolve a genuine legal or factual dispute relevant to determining the requirements.
The questions of state law that Electrolux asked the district court to resolve—whether the plaintiffs must prove pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect—bear on predominance. If California and Texas law do not excuse pre-suit notice and an opportunity to cure when the defendant had prior knowledge of the design defect, as the district court speculated, then each class member will need to prove that he gave Electrolux pre-suit notice and an opportunity to cure. This showing could require individual proof. And if California and Texas law require the defect to manifest, then each class member will need to prove that his washing machine actually grew mildew during the warranty period. This showing could also require individual proof. See Gen. Motors Corp. v. Garza, 179 S.W.3d 76 , 82-84 (Tex. App. 2005). Because the answers to these preliminary questions of California and Texas law could affect whether Rule 23(b)(3) is satisfied, the district court had a duty to resolve them.What matters to class certification is not the raising of common 'questions'—even in droves—but, rather the capacity of a class-wide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation. Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551. Answering the questions whether California and Texas law require pre-suit notice, an opportunity to cure, and manifestation of the defect would not resolve issues that are "central to the validity" of the plaintiffs' warranty claims. Because the district court punted these questions instead of answering them, it abused its discretion.
Finally, on damages, even if individual issues regarding damages do not always defeat predominance in and of themselves, individual damages defeat predominance if computing them will be so complex, fact-specific, and difficult that the burden on the court system would be simply intolerable. Klay, 382 F.3d at 1260. Furthermore, individual damages defeat predominance when they are accompanied by "significant individualized questions going to liability." Id. (citing Sikes v. Teleline, Inc., 281 F.3d 1350 , 1366 (11th Cir. 2002). The court of appeals left it to the district court on remand to decide whether the latter rule was satisfied here.