THOROGOOD v. SEARS, ROEBUCK AND CO. (November 2, 2010)

For the third time in two years, the Seventh Circuit has an occasion to decide an appeal in this failed attempt at a class action. Steve Thorogood filed a class action on behalf of residents of 28 states and the District of Columbia. He alleged that Sears' advertising and representations regarding the stainless steel content of a dryer drum constituted a violation of consumer protection laws. The Court reversed the district court's class certification order (the opinion and intheiropinion). It concluded that there were no common issues of fact and that the case was a particularly poor case for class certification. On remand, Sears made a $20,000 offer of judgment on Thorogood's individual claim. Because that amount exceeded Thorogood's maximum recovery, the district court dismissed the case as moot. The Court affirmed, rejecting Thorogood's argument that he was entitled to substantial attorneys' fees (the opinion and intheiropinion). Undaunted, Thorogood's counsel continued his "quixotic . . . quest" and filed an almost identical class-action suit in California. The California district court ruled that the case was barred by collateral estoppel. After plaintiffs alleged additional facts in an amended complaint, however, the court reversed its ruling and allowed the case to proceed with discovery. Sears returned to the Illinois district court and sought to enjoin the continued prosecution of the California case. Judge Leinenweber (N.D. Ill.) denied the motion, concluding that the availability of a collateral estoppel defense was adequate relief. Sears appeals.

In their opinion, Judges Posner, Kanne, and Evans reversed and remanded. The Court first noted that the district court had jurisdiction notwithstanding the fact that the original case was no longer pending. Sears' motion was brought pursuant to the All Writs Act, which authorizes a federal court to issue commands that are necessary to effectuate prior decisions of the court. The Court turned its attention to the merits, which required it to determine whether the district court abused its discretion. Ordinarily, a collateral estoppel defense would amount to an adequate remedy at law and preclude injunctive relief under the All Writs Act. The Court concluded, however, that several factors in the case militated otherwise: the near frivolous nature of the complaint itself, its poor fit as a class action, the difficulty in structuring proper relief, counsel's stated intention to circumvent the district court's order, counsel's position that California consumer protection law is different when his earlier position in the Illinois case was that all class members were governed by the same law, the potential for abuse in class proceedings, the cost of pretrial discovery, and California counsel's "threat to turn the screws" if the case did not settle. The district court apparently did not take these considerations into account and may have believed that the mere availability of the collateral estoppel defense precluded relief. Although conceding that the California court's order deserved respect, the Court mentioned that the California court misunderstood the case and was not going to revisit certification until after discovery. In addition, its orders were not appealable. Sears is therefore without an adequate remedy at law and the district court abused its discretion in denying the injunction. The Court left the details of the injunction to the district court but made several comments nonetheless: the lawyers and all of the original class members should be subject to the injunction, the injunction should not prohibit individual claims, the additional named defendant in the California suit is entitled to no relief, no unnamed class member should be punished with contempt until served with a copy of the injunction, and the injunction should not prohibit class actions with materially different allegations. Finally, the Court noted that the Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in a case regarding a federal court's power to enjoin a state court proceeding. In consideration of that fact, the Court directed that the injunction should encompass state court proceedings but should specifically allow for a modification in consideration of the ultimate decision in the case.