Last week, the Third Circuit reversed a trial court's certification of a class of consumer who alleged their vehicles were equipped with allegedly defective run-flat tires. Marcus v. BMW of North America LLC, Nos. 11-1192, 11-1193 (3d Cir.,  8/7/12).

As their name suggests, run-flat tires  can “run” while “flat.” Even if an RFT suffers a total and abrupt loss of air pressure from a puncture or other road damage, the vehicle it is on remains operable.  Plaintiff alleged he experienced four “flat” tires during his three-year lease of a BMW equipped with this tire technology.  In each case, the RFT worked as intended. That is, even though the tire lost air pressure, Marcus was able to drive his car to a BMW dealer to have the tire replaced. He nonetheless sued BMW and the tire maker Bridgestone, asserting consumer fraud, breach of warranty, and breach of contract claims. in part because the tires needed to be replaced rather than repaired.  The District Court certified plaintiff’s suit under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) as an opt-out class action brought on behalf of all purchasers and lessees of certain model-year BMWs equipped with Bridgestone RFTs sold or leased in New Jersey with tires that “have gone flat and been replaced.” Defendants appealed.

The requirements set out in Rule 23 are not mere pleading rules. The party seeking certification bears the burden of establishing each element of Rule 23 by a preponderance of the evidence. The Third Circuit has repeatedly emphasized that actual, not presumed, conformance with Rule 23 requirements is essential. Newton v. Merril Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 259 F.3d 154, 167 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Gen. Tel. Co. of the Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 160 (1982)).  To determine whether there is actual conformance with Rule 23, a district court must conduct a “rigorous analysis” of the evidence and arguments put forth. When doing so, the court cannot be bashful. It must resolve all factual or legal disputes relevant to class certification, even if they overlap with the merits — including disputes touching on elements of the cause of action.

The term "game-changer" is often misused and overused as a buzz word in the business world by those who want sound trendy, but the Third Circuit here correctly recognized that, as a practical matter, the certification decision is "typically a game-changer, often the whole ballgame," for the parties and counsel. That is, denying or granting class certification is often the defining moment in class actions. 

The Third Circuit first addressed the issue of numerosity.  When a plaintiff attempts to certify both a nationwide class and a state-specific subclass, as plaintiff did here, evidence that is sufficient to establish numerosity with respect to the nationwide class is not necessarily sufficient to establish numerosity with respect to the state-specific subclass. See Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1266-68 (11th Cir. 2009) (plaintiff could not simply rely on the nationwide presence of T-Mobile to satisfy the numerosity requirement without Florida-specific evidence).  The District Court found that the New Jersey class met the numerosity requirement because “it is common sense" that there will probably be at least 40 class members in New Jersey. The court of appeals noted that this may be a bet worth making, but it cannot support a finding of numerosity sufficient for Rule 23(a)(1);  a district court must make a factual determination, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that Rule 23’s requirements have been met. Mere speculation is insufficient.

The second major issue was predominance. A plaintiff must demonstrate that the elements of the legal claim capable of proof at trial through evidence that is common to the class predominate over the issues that must be litigated through proof individual to its members. The court’s  obligation to consider all relevant evidence and arguments on a motion for class certification  extends to expert testimony on the common or individual nature of issues and proof, whether offered by a party seeking class certification or by a party opposing it. Expert opinion with respect to class certification, like any matter relevant to a Rule 23 requirement, calls for rigorous analysis. Weighing conflicting expert testimony at the certification stage is not only permissible, it may be integral to the rigorous analysis Rule 23 demands.  

Here, the District Court then found plaintiff could show, without resort to individual proofs, that the alleged common defect (RFTs go "flat" too easily) caused the class members’ damages. But that causation finding was an abuse of discretion.  Central to plaintiff's claim was what caused class members’ tires to go flat and need replacement. Causation was pivotal to each of Marcus’s claims. The District Court failed to analyze an undisputed, fundamental point: any tire can “go flat” for myriad reasons. Even “defective” tires can go flat for reasons completely unrelated to their defects. Critically, to determine why a particular class member’s Bridgestone RFT had “gone flat and been replaced” requires an individual examination of that class member’s tire. But these individual inquiries are incompatible with Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement.

For example, of the two tires plaintiff presented for inspection in his lawsuit, one went “flat” and was replaced because he ran over a jagged chunk of metal, and the other because he ran over a sharp object that tore and gouged the tire and damaged the sidewall. All the experts agreed that the two tires could not have been repaired and that any tire (run-flat or conventional, defective or not) would also have been damaged under the circumstances. Thus, even if Marcus could prove that Bridgestone RFTs suffer from common, class-wide defects, those defects did not cause the damage he suffered for these two tires: the need to replace them. In this sense, Marcus was no different than a class member who, seconds after buying his car, pulled off the dealership lot and ran over a bed of nails -- neither could claim a “defect” caused his tires to go flat and need replacement.

One other key aspect of the opinion for our readers: the court of appeals also raised an issue should plaintiffs attempt to get a different class certified on remand.  Many courts have recognized that an essential prerequisite of a class action, at least with respect to actions under Rule 23(b)(3), is that the class must be currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria. See, e.g., John v. Nat. Sec. Fire & Cas. Co., 501 F.3d 443, 445 (5th Cir. 2007).  If class members are impossible to identify without extensive and individualized fact-finding or “mini-trials,” then a class action is inappropriate. Some courts have held that where nothing in company databases shows or could show whether individuals should be included in the proposed class, the class definition fails. See Clavell v. Midland Funding LLC, No. 10-3593, 2011 WL 2462046, at *4 (E.D. Pa. June 21, 2011); Sadler v. Midland Credit Mgmt, Inc., No.06-C-5045, 2008 WL 2692274, at *5 (N.D. Ill. July 3, 2008); In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage & Hour Litig., No. C 06-2069 SBA, 2008 WL 413749, at *8 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 13, 2008); Deitz v. Comcast Corp., No. C 06-06352 WHA, 2007 WL 2015440, at *8 (N.D. Cal. July 11, 2007).

The ascertainability requirement serves several important objectives. First, it eliminates serious administrative burdens that are incongruous with the efficiencies expected in a class action by insisting on the easy identification of class members.  Second, it protects absent class members by facilitating the “best notice practicable” under Rule 23(c)(2) in a Rule 23(b)(3) action. See Manual for Complex Litigation, § 21.222 (4th ed. 2004). Third, it protects defendants by ensuring that those persons who will be bound by the final judgment are clearly identifiable. See Xavier v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 787 F. Supp. 2d 1075, 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2011). Ascertainability is needed for properly enforcing the preclusive effect of final judgment. The class definition must be clear in its applicability so that it will be clear later whose rights are merged into the judgment; that is, who gets the benefit of any relief and who gets the burden of any loss. If the definition is not clear in its applicability, then satellite litigation will be invited over who was in the class in the first place.

If plaintiff attempts to certify a class on remand, the District Court would have to resolve the critical issue of whether the defendants’ records can ascertain class members and, if not, whether there is a reliable, administratively feasible alternative. The Third Circuit cautioned against approving a method that would amount to no more than ascertaining by potential class members’ say so. For example, simply having potential class members submit affidavits that their Bridgestone RFTs have gone flat and been replaced may not be “proper or just.”  Defendants would be able to cross-examine an individual plaintiff at trial about whether and why his tires “have gone flat and been replaced.” So, forcing defendants to simply accept as true absent persons’ declarations that they are members of the class, without further indicia of reliability, "would have serious due process implications."