[Editors’ note: Today we’re featuring a guest post by Tim Fielden, who is in-house counsel at Microsoft.  His post spotlights an emerging—and important—issue in class-action litigation.]

In two recent decisions, the Ninth Circuit has carved out a new path for plaintiffs seeking immediate review of the denial of class certification: voluntarily dismiss the complaint under Rule 41(a), appeal from the final judgment, and challenge the class certification denial on appeal. If this tactic gains currency, plaintiffs (but not defendants) will have the right to an immediate appeal from any adverse class certification ruling. But at least four circuits have rejected this tactic, and the maneuver contravenes a unanimous Supreme Court decision limiting review of class decisions. As a result, defendants have reason to hope that these Ninth Circuit decisions will have limited and short-lived impact.

Background

Plaintiffs have long sought early review of class certification denials without the bother of pursuing their individual claims to judgment on the merits. But in Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463 (1978), the Supreme Court rejected arguments that an order denying class certification should be immediately appealable, either as a final “collateral order” or because the denial of certification signals the “death knell” for the case when plaintiffs decide not to proceed to an appealable final judgment. The Court explained that because only Congress may expand the grounds for appellate review, “the fact that an interlocutory order may induce a party to abandon his claim before final judgment is not a sufficient reason for considering it a ‘final decision’ within the meaning of § 1291.” Id. at 477. And the Court added that the death knell doctrine unfairly “operates only in favor of plaintiffs [by giving them an immediate right to appeal] even though the class issue … will often be of critical importance to defendants as well.” Id. at 476.

As a result, plaintiffs for years had only limited routes to immediate review after a denial of class certification. Absent the district court’s certification of the decision for review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) or the court of appeals’ acceptance of mandamus review, a plaintiff could obtain review of a class certification denial only by taking her individual case to trial and then appealing from the judgment on the merits. In 1998, Congress created a new avenue to review, amending Rule 23 to allow parties to file a petition seeking permission for an immediate appeal of adverse class decisions, which the courts of appeals could grant or deny at their discretion.

The Ninth Circuit’s End Run Around Rule 23(f)

In Berger v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 741 F.3d 1061 (9th Cir. 2014), the Ninth Circuit opened a new route for plaintiffs seeking interlocutory review of the denial of class certification. In Berger, the plaintiff chose not to seek Rule 23(f) review, which the Ninth Circuit could have exercised its discretion to deny. Instead, he voluntarily dismissed his case and appealed from the final judgment. In essence, he made good on the “death knell” threat from Coopers & Lybrand: he ended his case in response to the class certification order. Ignoring Coopers & Lybrand, the Berger panel held that the Rule 41 dismissal was sufficiently adverse to the plaintiff’s interests to create appellate jurisdiction, because Berger dismissed his individual claims with prejudice without settling. Id. at 1066.

Unlike in Berger, the plaintiffs in Baker v. Microsoft Corp., 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 4317 (9th Cir. Mar. 18, 2015), sought Rule 23(f) review of the district court’s order striking class allegations, but the Ninth Circuit denied review. Months later, plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed, declaring their intent to seek review of the order striking class allegations. Before the decision in Berger, Microsoft asked the Ninth Circuit to dismiss, relying on Coopers & Lybrand and a Ninth Circuit opinion dismissing an appeal from a Rule 41(b) dismissal after the denial of class certification. In the meantime, Berger was decided. And the Baker panel, following Berger, decided that it had jurisdiction over the appeal. Neither the Baker nor Berger panels mentioned the previous (and conflicting) Ninth Circuit decision.

The Conflicts

There is a strong possibility that the panel decisions in Baker and Berger are not the end of the story.

In Baker, Microsoft has filed a petition for en banc review (pdf), arguing that, among other things, Berger and Baker conflict with Coopers & Lybrand and at least one prior Ninth Circuit opinion.

The petition also notes the existence of a long-standing circuit split on this issue. A 25-year-old Second Circuit decision reached the same result as Berger and Baker. See Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 903 F.2d 176, 179 (2d Cir. 1990). But at least four other circuits have rejected this approach to seeking appellate review of the denial of class certification. Most recently, in Camesi v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, 729 F.3d 239 (3d Cir. 2013), the Third Circuit held that it lacked appellate jurisdiction when workers dismissed their individual complaints with prejudice in an attempt to appeal the district court’s ruling decertifying their collective actions. The Third Circuit rejected their “procedural sleight of hand to bring about finality,” and held that “voluntary dismissals … constitute impermissible attempts to manufacture finality[.]” Id. at 245. The Fourth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits agree that they lack jurisdiction over such an appeal. See Rhodes v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 636 F.3d 88, 100 (4th Cir. 2011); Telco Grp., Inc. v. AmeriTrade, Inc., 552 F.3d 893, 893-94 (8th Cir. 2009) (per curiam); Bowe v. First of Denver Mortg. Investors, 613 F.2d 798, 800-02 (10th Cir. 1980).

This conflict provides reason to believe that the Ninth Circuit should grant rehearing en banc. Businesses should watch further proceedings in Baker closely.