A federal court in New Jersey last week rejected a class certification effort by plaintiffs complaining about the marketing of Skinnygirl Margaritas. See Stewart v. Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Inc., No. 1:11-cv-05149 (D.N.J., 6/27/14).

Plaintiffs essentially allege that despite being marketed and sold as an "all natural" product and a "healthy alternative to other commercial Margarita products" defendants' low-calorie, pre-mixed alcoholic beverage product known as "Skinnygirl Margarita" allegedly did not live up to these claims. Plaintiffs purportedly purchased Skinnygirl Margarita based on these alleged representations by defendants in magazine advertisements and on the product packaging.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, and the issue quickly became ascertainability. In recent years, the Third Circuit, like many courts, has increasingly emphasized the importance of ascertainability of a class with respect to classes certified under Rule 23(b)(3). See, e.g., Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300, 305-08(3d Cir. 2013); Hayes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,725 F.3d 349, 354-56 (3d Cir. 2013); Marcus v. BMW of N. Am., LLC,687 F.3d 583, 592-94 (3d Cir. 2012).  In Marcus, the Third Circuit recognized that "an essential prerequisite of a class action, at least with respect to actions [brought] under Rule 23(b)(3), is that the class must be currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria." Marcus, 687 F.3d at 592-93; see also Hayes, 725 F.3d at 355 ("As 'an essential prerequisite' to class certification, . . . plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the class is ascertainable.") (citations omitted); Carrera, 727 F.3d at 306 ("a plaintiff must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the class is 'currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria,' and a trial court must undertake a rigorous analysis of the evidence to determine if the standard is met.") (citations omitted).

Several important objectives are served by virtue of the ascertainability requirement for Rule 23(b)(3) class actions: (1) the requirement eliminates serious administrative burdens that are incongruous with the efficiencies expected in a class action by insisting on the easy identification of class members; (2) the requirement protects absent class members by facilitating the best notice practicable' under Rule 23(c)(2); and (3) the requirement protects defendants by ensuring that those persons who will be bound by the final judgment are clearly identifiable. Marcus, 687 F.3d at 593; see also Hayes,725 F.3d at 355. 

Ascertainability thus consists of at least two important elements -- the class must be defined with reference to objective criteria, and there must be a reliable and administratively feasible mechanism for determining whether putative class members fall within the class definition.  See Hayes, 725 F.3d at 355. Ascertainability necessitates an inquiry into whether the defendants' records can ascertain class members, and if not, whether there is a reliable, administratively feasible alternative.  The Third Circuit has made clear that where class members are impossible to identify without extensive and individualized fact-finding or mini-trials, then a class action is inappropriate. Marcus, 687 F.3d at 593.

When considering a plaintiff's proposed mechanism for ascertaining the class, the courts have cautioned against approving a method that would amount to no more than ascertaining by potential class members' "say so" -- by, for example, having potential class members submit affidavits that promise they meet the class definition. Without further indicia of reliability, permitting such a method would essentially force defendants to accept as true absent persons' declarations that they are members of the class, raising serious due process implications.   

Defendants argued that the proposed class members cannot be identified from sales records; they pointed out that the named plaintiffs themselves had no objective evidence, or even consistent testimony, regarding their own alleged purchases. Some defendants were several steps removed from the actual retail purchases, and as a result, never had any record of which consumers bought the product. Absent proper records, it would be impossible to determine class membership without significant inquiry, resulting in a mini-hearing on the merits of each case.  

Plaintiffs proposed a mechanism for ascertaining the Classes which required that putative class members submit affidavits or attestations regarding their membership in the Classes. And defendants responded that they cannot be required to simply accept the self-serving say so of proposed class members; they must be permitted to exercise its due-process right individually to probe each putative class member's statements regarding their claimed purchase. Defendants had a due process right to challenge not only the named plaintiffs' claims that they purchased Skinnygirl Margarita, but also the claims of absent class members. That means individualized fact-finding and mini-trials as to every single absent class member's claim, which in turn means that class treatment is per se inappropriate.

So, plaintiffs' only suggested method for ascertaining the putative class members rested entirely on the submission of affidavits by individuals who claim that they purchased Skinnygirl Margarita; those affidavits would actually  need to include: (1) dates of purchases of Skinnygirl Margarita; (2) locations and retail establishments where purchases were made; (3) frequency of purchases; (4) quantity of purchases; (5) cost of purchases, etc. These types of information would be vital to determining whether each putative member fits within the class definitions in this case.

Moreover, even assuming that the affidavits sought all that information, obtaining this information by way of affidavits did not appear to be an effective method for ascertaining the Classes. Without any independently verifiable proof of purchase through receipts, retail records, or otherwise, putative class members would likely not accurately remember every Skinnygirl Margarita purchase they made during the class period, let alone where these purchases were made and the prices they paid each time. The submission of affidavits supplying such information would be very likely to invite speculation, or worse, not to mention that this process would result in an extremely burdensome task for the Court or a claims administrator even attempting to verify class members' claims. See Weiner v. Snapple Beverage Corp., 2010 WL 3119452, at *13 (S.D. N.Y. Aug. 5, 2010). Such a method cannot fairly be construed as an administratively feasible one which utilizes objective criteria.

Defendants have a right to cross-examine the plaintiffs on their alleged purchases, and cannot be forced to accept as true absent persons' declarations that they are members of the class, without further indicia of reliability.  Despite plaintiffs' attempt to argue otherwise, the rulings in cases like Marcus, Hayes, and Carrera make clear that relying on affidavits of putative class members as the primary method of ascertaining the members of the class is not a prudent course of action for a district court and is generally insufficient to meet the requirements of Rule 23. Such affidavits essentially amount to nothing more than reliance on the subjective "say so" of the putative members that they meet the class definition and are entitled to relief, and practically ignores the need for a class definition based on objective criteria. 

Class certification denied.