Seyfarth Synopsis: In a toxic tort class action stemming from automotive and dry cleaning facilities’ alleged contamination of groundwater near Dayton, Ohio, the Sixth Circuit affirmed an Ohio federal district court’s grant to certify seven common issues for classwide treatment under Rule 23(c)(4). Shortly thereafter, the four Defendant companies filed a petition for a rehearing en banc, arguing that the Sixth Circuit misapplied Rules 23(b)(3) and 23(c)(4).

This ruling is important for businesses to have on their radar since it represents another federal appellate court relaxing the barriers to issue-class certification.

Case Background

In Martin et al. v. Behr Dayton Thermal Products LLC, et al, No. 17-3663 (6th Cir. 2018), the Plaintiff residents alleged that the company Defendants released volatile organic compounds and other hazardous substances into the groundwater beneath their properties. The complaint alleged eleven causes of action: (1) trespass; (2) private nuisance; (3) unjust enrichment; (4) strict liability; (5) negligence; (6) negligence per se; (7) battery; (8) intentional fraudulent concealment; (9) constructive fraud; (10) negligent misrepresentation; and (11) civil conspiracy. Id. at *4. Plaintiffs sought Rule 23(b)(3) class certification as to liability for five of their eleven causes of action—private nuisance, negligence, negligence per se, strict liability, and unjust enrichment. In the alternative, they requested Rule 23(c)(4) certification of seven common issues.

The District Court held although Plaintiffs’ proposed classes satisfied Rule 23(a)’s prerequisites, Ohio law regarding injury-in-fact and causation meant that Plaintiffs could not meet Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement. Id. Accordingly, the District Court denied certification of the two proposed liability-only classes. The District Court then addressed Plaintiffs’ alternate request for issue-class certification under Rule 23(c)(4), considering whether predominance constituted a threshold requirement that must be satisfied with respect to the entire action before a court may certify certain issues, Id. at 4-5. Noting that this question has resulted in a conflict between several other circuits, the District Court adopted the “broad view,” and rejected treating predominance as a threshold requirement and certified seven issues for class treatment. Id. at 5. The District Court concluded its class certification decision by stating that it would “establish procedures by which the remaining individualized issues concerning fact-of-injury, proximate causation, and extent of damages can be resolved” and noting that any such procedures would comply with the Reexamination Clause of the Seventh Amendment. Id.

Thereafter, Defendants filed a Rule 23(f) petition, arguing that the District Court reached the wrong conclusion on the interaction between Rules 23(b)(3) and 23(c)(4) and that, even under the broad view, the issue classes were insufficient. Defendants also raised Seventh Amendment arguments, citing the District Court’s mention of a potential procedure involving the use of a Special Master to resolve remaining issues. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit’s review was limited to the District Court’s decision to certify issue classes under Rule 23(c)(4). Id. at 6.

The Sixth Circuit’s Decision

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s certification of issue classes under Rule 23(b)(3). As an initial matter, the Sixth Circuit explained that appellate courts across the country have disagreed about how Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirements interact with Rule 23(c)(4). Id. at 7. Under the “broad view,” which has been adopted by the Second, Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits, courts applied the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance and superiority prongs after common issues had been identified for class treatment under Rule 23(c)(4). Id. The broad view permits utilizing Rule 23(c)(4) even where predominance has not been satisfied for the cause of action as a whole. Id. (citations omitted). In contrast, the “narrow view,” adopted by the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, prohibits issue classing if predominance has not been satisfied for the cause of action as a whole. Id. at 8 (citations omitted). Other circuits, including the Third and Eighth Circuits, have adopted a functional, superiority-like analysis instead of either view.

After evaluating the above approaches, the Sixth Circuit elected to adopt the “broad view” approach, holding (1) it does not risk undermining the predominance requirement since it instructs courts to engage in the predominance inquiry after identifying issues suitable for class treatment; (2) it flows naturally from Rule 23’s text, which provides for issue classing “[w]hen appropriate,” and (3) the concomitant application of Rule 23(b)(3)’s superiority requirement ensures that courts will not rely on issue certification where there exist only minor or insignificant common questions, but instead where the common questions render issue certification the superior method of resolution. Id. at 9. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that a requirement that predominance must first be satisfied for the entire cause of action would undercut the purpose of Rule 23(c)(4) and nullify its intended benefits. Id. at 10.

Applying the “broad view” approach, the Sixth Circuit held that because each issue may be resolved with common proof and because individualized inquiries do not outweigh common questions, the seven issue classes that the district court certified satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement. Id. at 12. Further, regarding the superiority requirement, the Sixth Circuit held that the district court correctly noted that issue certification will ensure that property owners in the affected area will have an opportunity to litigate their claims, and that by trying these common questions to a single jury, this procedure also saves time and scarce judicial resources. Id. at 14. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit held that the District Court did not abuse its discretion by certifying issue classes under Rule 23(c)(4) since the predominance and superiority requirements were met.

The Sixth Circuit also rejected the Defendants’ Seventh Amendment arguments, noting that the district court has not formalized any procedures for resolving either the common issues or the remaining individualized inquiries. Id. at 14-15. As such, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s issue-class certification decision.

On July 31, 2018, the Defendant companies filed a petition for rehearing en banc, requesting that the entire appeals court reconsider Sixth Circuit’s affirmation of the District Court’s issue-class certification.

Implications For Businesses

For businesses located in states within the Sixth Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee) that are facing class action lawsuits, these companies must be cognizant that the Sixth Circuit has adopted the “broad view” of Rule 23, meaning it will be easier for plaintiffs to obtain certification of issue classes. This ultimately affords the plaintiffs’ class action bar some leverage in regards to expanding their cases and potentially increasing exposure.

From an environmental law perspective, harm to property or bodily injury, and the amount of compensation due, are almost always highly individualized and will predominate other issues. Under the “narrow view,” class actions for toxic tort actions would be inappropriate. However, under the “broad view,” the toxic tort class can proceed and litigate broad issues establishing the defendant’s release of contaminants and the extent of contamination. After the issues are resolved on a class-wide basis, mini-trials or alternate proceedings are needed to establish the individualized damages incurred by each class member. The broad view, now adopted by the Sixth Circuit, provides a plaintiff group with significant leverage against the allegedly polluting company because the contamination issues can be litigated as a class.