On Monday June 3, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling on the case of Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, sending the issue of class certification back to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in light of the Court’s recent ruling in Comcast Corp v. Behrend. The Supreme Court granted Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s (“Sears”) petition for review, vacated the appellate court judgment, and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit. The Court’s action closely resembles that taken in another washing machine case, Whirlpool Corp v. Glazer, which the Court remanded to the Sixth Circuit on April 1, 2013.
District Court Ruling
The class action at issue involves alleged defects in Kenmore-brand Sears washing machines which were purchased between 2001 and 2004. See Seventh Circuit Slip Op. at 1. The machines allegedly suffered from two defects: a defect causing mold, and another causing the machine to stop at inopportune times. Id. With respect to the mold claim, Plaintiffs alleged that the low volume of water used in the machine, and the low temperature of the water as compared with a top loading machine, lead to the accumulation of mold. However, the manufacturer had made some modifications to the Kenmore models, resulting in different defects in different machines, and thus, the individuals who made up the class of plaintiffs each suffered from different damages. Id. at 2. The district court found this was insufficient to show predominance, and denied the class certification motion for the class complaining of mold defects. Id. However, the court did grant certification of the class complaining of sudden stoppage. Id.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ Ruling
Following the district court’s ruling, Larry Butler (“Butler”), the Plaintiff, appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which accepted the case to “clarify the concept of ‘predominance’ in class action litigation.” Id. The court found that the basic question in the litigation, whether the machines were defective in permitting mold to accumulate was “common to the entire mold class, although the answer may vary with differences in design.” Id. at 2. The court found that the parties were likely to agree on a schedule of damages based on the cost of fixing or replacing the machines. Furthermore, the court found that the class action procedure would prove a far more efficient method for litigating the case than multiple individual lawsuits. Id. As such, the court found that the machine stoppage was a proper question for certification, as the problem was common to users, and only the damages for each individual user differed, so litigating the claims together would prove far more efficient. Id. Therefore, the court reversed the district court’s denial of class certification on the mold claim, and affirmed the court’s certification on the stoppage claim. Id at 4.
The Supreme Court’s Certification and Implications
The Supreme Court granted Sears’ petition for review and remanded the case to the Seventh Circuit. Sears argued that the Seventh Circuit had failed to clarify the concept of predominance, and instead, created a standard flatly at odds with Supreme Court precedence. Butler, on behalf of the class, argued that the Kenmore washers were sufficiently uniform for class certification, and that review was inappropriate from a procedural perspective, since the district court had yet to certify the mold claim. Sears, however, argued that the case had not been remanded to the district court, however, because the Seventh Circuit opinion never included such an order.
The Supreme Court ultimately granted Sears’ petition for review, vacated the Seventh Circuit’s opinion and remanded the case for further review. In doing so, the Supreme Court implicitly chided the Seventh Circuit for failing to follow the “rigorous analysis” of the predicate factors necessary to obtain class certification, something which the Seventh Circuit will need to undertake upon remand. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Comcast found that a plaintiff needed to propose a method to calculate class-wide damages, which will inevitably lead to additional scrutiny in this case, due to the broad range of damages allegedly suffered by the individuals within the class.