The Eleventh Circuit last week upheld a trial court’s refusal to certify a class action accusing the defendant of improperly reactivating lost or stolen cellphones.  See Robinson et al v. T-Mobile USA Inc., No. 12-10170 (11th Cir. 2012).

MassTortDefense has often wondered why the issue of damages seems to get insufficient weight in the class certification decision. Would a class be satisfied with proving its case except damages? Would an award of zero damages to a class be devastating to a defendant? Shouldn't it matter that each plaintiff get a fair an accurate amount of damages to compensate for the alleged conduct of defendant? Doesn't a defendant have a right to dispute claimed damages regarding each class member? Here, the trial court determined that plaintiffs failed to offer a viable method for how proposed damages were to be calculated, and plaintiffs paid too little attention to this issue on appeal as well.

The plaintiffs filed a proposed class action against T-Mobile asserting state-law claims of conversion, trespass to chattels, and unjust enrichment. They alleged that: (1) they had reported to T-Mobile that their cell phones had been lost or stolen; (2) an unknown person brought their lost or stolen phones to T-Mobile; and (3) T-Mobile unlawfully reactivated the phones without the plaintiffs’ permission.

The district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on five grounds. The first ground was that the plaintiffs had not satisfied their preliminary burden of establishing that their proposed class was clearly ascertainable. Before a district court may grant a motion for class certification, a plaintiff seeking to represent a proposed class must establish that the proposed class is “adequately defined and clearly ascertainable.” DeBremaecker v. Short, 433 F.2d 733, 734 (5th Cir. 1970)1; cf. John v. Nat’l Sec. Fire & Cas. Co., 501 F.3d 443, 445 (5th Cir. 2007) (“The existence of an ascertainable class of persons to be represented by the proposed class representative is an implied prerequisite of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.”).  Here, the court reasoned, in part, that the plaintiffs had “made no effort to separate out those putative class members who may very well be barred from pursuing class claims due to the existence of valid arbitration agreements or class action waivers that potentially prohibit such litigation.”

The second ground on which the district court denied class certification was that the plaintiffs had not satisfied the Rule 23(a)(1) numerosity requirement. The court reasoned that the plaintiffs had offered no evidence showing numerosity, nor made any “effort to account for those putative class members who waived their right to pursue relief against T-Mobile on a class-wide basis or who are bound by their agreement to arbitrate disputes with T-Mobile.”

The third ground the district court stated for denying class certification was that the plaintiffs had failed to satisfy the predominance requirement in Rule 23(b)(3) because there were “significant state-wide variations in the law” of conversion and in the law regarding other issues, such as the enforceability of class-action waivers.

The fourth ground the court stated for denying class certification was that  the plaintiffs had failed to establish superiority under Rule 23(b)(3). The court based that determination, in part, on the plaintiffs’ failure “to suggest how to manage the rather thorny issue of putative class members whose rights to litigate their conversion claims as part of a class proceeding in this forum may have been cutoff by either a class action waiver provision, an agreement to arbitrate, or both.”  

The fifth reason was that “damage-related concerns evidence a predomination of individualized inquiries and render the proposed class unfit for certification under Rule [23](b)(3).” The district court explained what those damage-related concerns were. Here, plaintiffs contended that “in this era of Ebay and other public online sites selling used phones by the millions, determining a particular model phone’s value is a relatively simple matter of online research.” However, they certainly offered no concrete proposal or methodology about how to effectively and accurately manage such online research on a nationwide basis. For example, when conducting online research, would 2011 be the year to use for establishing the value for a used phone of a certain model or would the year in which the phone was misplaced or stolen be the more appropriate time frame? Plaintiffs also ignored how individualized issues relating to the age of the phone, what contents or applications were previously on the phone, and whether the original owner was a heavy or light user of the phone, might affect the value of the used phone.  Additionally, plaintiffs did not address whether loss of use of the phone should be compensable and, if so, suggest how it might be reduced to a formula-type calculation.  

The district court’s determination that the plaintiffs had not established the predominance of common issues under Rule 23(b)(3) because of individual damage-related issues was an alternative, independent ruling -- and one that prevailed on appeal. Class certification would have been denied for that reason regardless of the variations instate law relating to conversion and regardless of the enforceability of class-action waivers. Then on appeal, plaintiffs failed to adequately challenge in their opening brief the district court’s  independent, alternative ruling that damage-related concerns evidence a predomination of individualized inquiries and render the proposed class unfit for certification under Rule [23](b)(3). The plaintiffs’ opening brief failed to clearly argue the predominance issue involving variation in damages. They also failed to raise it in their reply brief after T-Mobile had argued in its answer brief that one of the reasons the court of appeals should affirm the denial of class certification was that variation in damages destroyed the predominance of common issues, as the district court had ruled.  By failing to challenge in their brief the district court’s ruling, the plaintiffs had abandoned any contention that the court erred in denying class certification on that ground.

Decision affirmed.