CALIFORNIA CLASS ACTION LAW

Category: 23(b)(3) Class

Ninth Circuit Issues 3-0 Opinion Reversing Denial of Class Certification in Tire Wear Case

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In a 3-0 opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday reversed a denial of class certification in Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC, Nos. 09-55104, 09-55105, — F.3d —-, 2010 WL 3222091 (9th Cir. Aug. 17, 2010).  Tire defect cases are normally difficult to certify.  Plaintiffs took the correct approach and positioned their class not as one for tire defect, but for vehicle alignment defect.

Kenneth Gable and Brian Wolin each brought a class action lawsuit against Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC (“Land Rover”) alleging that Land Rover’s LR3 vehicles suffer from an alignment geometry defect that causes tires to wear prematurely.  Id. *1.  The trial court denied their respective motions for class certification, holding that Gable and Wolin were unable to prove that a majority of potential class members suffered from the consequences of the alleged alignment defect. Read the rest of this entry »

Northern District Approves 28.9% Fee Award in Wage and Hour Class Action Settlement

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Judge Jeffrey S. White approved a wage and hour class action settlement of a non-reversionary $1.8 million, inclusive of $520,000 in attorneys fees, in Ozga v. U.S. Remodelers, Inc., No. C 09-05112 JSW, 2010 WL 3186971 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2010).

Plaintiff filed a class action in the Alameda Superior Court on February 17, 2009, alleging that Defendant U.S. Remodelers Inc. violated the California Labor Code and violated California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders by: (1) requiring its Installer employees to work substantial amounts of time without compensation; (2) regularly failing to provide Installers with meal and rest periods; and (3) refusing to reimburse expenses that Installers incurred in the performance of their work duties, including travel expenses and equipment costs.

Defendant removed the action to this Court, and Plaintiff subsequently moved to remand.  But before the hearing on the motion to remand, the parties reached a settlement, which was facilitated, in part, by a mediation that occurred on October 1, 2009, before Michael Loeb.  The parties also engaged in some discovery, and Class Counsel interviewed a number of Settlement Class members.

The Court finds that the terms of the Settlement are fair, adequate and reasonable. As noted, the settlement was reached after the parties engaged in discovery, conducted a meditation, and continued to engage in arms-length negotiations. The parties agreed to a Settlement payment of $1,800,000.00, none of which will revert to the Defendant. The overall reaction to the settlement has been positive. The Claims Administrator has received 156 claim forms from the 270 Class Members. (Id., ¶¶ 20-21.) Neither the Claims Administrator nor the Court received any objections to the Settlement. No Class Member appeared at the final approval hearing to object. According to the Claims Administrator, assuming the Court were to grant in full Plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs and service awards, approximately $1,108,917.72 would be available to distribute Class Members who submitted timely claim forms, for an average award of just over $7,000. (Id. ¶¶ 16-18.)

The Court approved costs to be paid to the Claims Administrator of $10,000.00 from the Settlement Fund.

Attorneys Fees, Costs, and Service Awards

Plaintiff brought an unopposed fee application, seeking $600,000.00 in attorneys’ fees, $11,274.89 in costs, and $10,000.00 in service awards to him and to class member Boris Moskovich.

Plaintiff’s counsel sought an award of attorneys’ fees based on the percentage method, asking for 33 1/3% of the Settlement Fund.  The court agreed to depart from the 25% benchmark.  See Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp., 290 F.3d 1043, 1047 (9th Cir. 2002) (noting that 25% is benchmark and “usual” range of awards is 20-30%); Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1029 (9th Cir. 1998) (stating that 25% is benchmark).  But the court would not vary from the benchmark to the degree requested by counsel.

The Court concludes that counsel did achieve an excellent result for the class, that the reaction to the settlement has been overwhelmingly positive, and that Plaintiff faced significant risk in prosecuting this case given the uncertain state of California law in similar wage and hour cases. The Court also recognizes that other courts have awarded settlement fees of up to 33 1/3% in such cases. However, the parties reached this settlement quickly and did not engage in any motion practice. See, e.g., Navarro v. Servisair, 2010 WL 1729538 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 27, 2010) (finding that proposed award of 30% of settlement fund unjustifiably departed from benchmark based in part on speed with which parties reached a settlement). Moreover, the requested percentage would amount to award that is more than double the fees actually incurred by counsel. Compare Vasquez v. Coast Valley Roofing, Inc., 266 F.R.D. 482, 491 (E.D. Cal. 2010) (awarding 33 1/3% of settlement fund which was “significantly less” than asserted lodestar).

Thus the court found that an award of  $520,000.00 was reasonable.

The court found counsels’ requests for costs in the amount of $11,274.89 reasonable.

The court also approved service awards in the amount of $10,000.00 for the lead plaintiff and for a class member.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Central District Denies Class Certification in Ink Jet Toner Class Action

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In Shein v. Canon U.S.A., Inc., No. CV 08-7323 CAS (Ex), 2010 WL 3170788 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 10, 2010), Judge Christina Snyder considered and denied a motion for class certification based on a lack of predominance under 23(b)(3).  The court held that “plaintiff fails to demonstrate how he will establish on a class-wide basis that a material amount of ink remained in each class members’ cartridges when the ‘ink out’ messages appeared.”

Plaintiff Steven Shein filed the class action case against defendant Canon U.S.A., Inc. (“Canon”) on November 4, 2008.  On January 2, 2009, plaintiff Shein, joined by plaintiff Jason Insalasco, filed a first amended complaint (“FAC”). In Plaintiffs third amended complaint (“TAC”), Plaintiff alleged three claims: (1) violation of CLRA; (2) violation of UCL; and (3) conversion. On September 22, 2009, the Court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s CLRA claim.

On April 12, 2010, plaintiff Insalasco filed the instant motion for class certification. At the hearing, the Court tentatively indicated that it would grant certification as to plaintiff’s UCL claim and deny certification as to plaintiff’s CLRA claim. Upon further review of the record and the positions advanced at oral argument, the Court concluded that plaintiff’s motion for class certification should be denied without prejudice.

Class Definition

Plaintiff sought certification of the following class, with regard to his claims for violation of CLRA and for violation of UCL:

All residents of the State of California who purchased a Canon Pixma series inkjet printer on or after November 4, 2004.

The gravamen of the suit is that these Canon-brand Pixma series inkjet printers uniformly misinform users that “ink has run out” and that they must replace the purportedly empty ink cartridge, when in fact, at the time Canon issues its “ink out” messages, these ink cartridges still contain a significant amount of useable ink.  According to plaintiff, Canon earns a substantial profit from the sale of each cartridge, and thus, employs these deceptive messages in order to increase the sale of replacement ink cartridges.

23(a)

Defendant diputed typicality, but not numerosity, commonality, or, to a substantial degree, adequacy.  With regard to typicality, the court found that “[n]otwithstanding the asserted differences between plaintiff and members of the proposed class, plaintiff’s claims are based on an alleged common course of conduct by Canon whereby defendant’s Pixma inkj et printers prematurely indicate that an ink cartridge is out of ink and needs to be replaced. Therefore, plaintiff’s claims arise from the ‘same event or course of conduct’ as those of the various class members, as required under Rule 23(a)(3), and are typical of the claims of the proposed class.”

23(b)

Plaintiff sought certification under Rule 23(b)(3).  In analyzing predominance and commonality, the court found two “crucial questions”:

(1) whether plaintiff has shown that every printer model in the proposed class displays the same, or substantially the same, “ink out” message; and

(2) the existence of a plausible class-wide method for proving that when these “ink out” messages appear there is in fact a material amount of usable ink remaining in each class members’ printer cartridges, and not only a de minimis amount. Accordingly, the question is whether plaintiff can establish on a class-wide basis the materiality of Canon’s misrepresentations regarding the remaining ink level of the printers in question and that these allegedly deceptive statements caused injury to members of the class.

Despite Canon’s argument that different printer users receive a wide array of messages depending on their printer model and the operating system running on their computer, the Court was unpersuaded that these variations are the type of “material variation” in defendant’s representations regarding the ink level that would render fraud-based claims unsuitable for class treatment.  Citing In re First Alliance Mortgage Co., 471 F.3d 977, 990, 992 (9th Cir.2006) (“The class action mechanism would be impotent if a defendant could escape much of his potential liability for fraud by simply altering the wording or format of his misrepresentations across the class of victims.”). The court concluded that “it appears, that all of the printers plaintiff is seeking to certify issue a substantially similar ‘ink out’ message, combined with the ‘hard stop’ of the printer while receiving that message, and that class members allegedly receive this message before the printer cartridges may in fact be entirely empty.”  Id. *7.

The court then considered whether plaintiff had shown a plausible class-wide method for proving that these “ink out” messages appear when there is in fact a material amount of usable ink remaining in each class members’ printer cartridges, and thus constitute actionable conduct common to the entire Class.

Claim Under the UCL

Plaintiff argued that common issues of law and fact predominate as to his claim under the “fraudulent” prong of the UCL.  The court disagreed, finding that plaintiff failed to demonstrate his basis for establishing that a material amount of ink remained in each class members’ cartridges when the “ink out” messages appeared:

Although “relief under the UCL is available without individualized proof of deception, reliance, and injury,” see Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th at 312, 320, in this case, plaintiff fails to demonstrate how he will establish on a class-wide basis that a material amount of ink remained in each class members’ cartridges when the “ink out” messages appeared. If only a de minimis amount of ink remained at that point, then no misrepresentation or omission was made, and certainly not one that could be deemed material or “likely to deceive” a “reasonable consumer” under the UCL. Plaintiff’s attempt to rely solely on the deposition testimony of Canon’s employee Yamamoto is unavailing. First, the Court is unpersuaded that his testimony can be construed in the way advanced by plaintiff–namely, that Canon concedes that all of its printers are programmed to “compensate” for a 10% margin of tolerance in determining when an “ink out” messages are displayed. Further, the fact that there is a ten percent variance inherent in the printer technology does not address the critical question of whether there is in fact a material amount of useable ink remaining in each class members’ printer cartridges when the “ink out” message appears. Because plaintiff fails to submit any evidence or expert testimony to the contrary, it appears based on the record that whether a printer receives an “ink out” message before, after, or at the same time that the ink in the cartridge has run out is an individual issue of fact that must be determined for each printer. Accordingly, the Court concludes, as to plaintiff’s UCL claim, that common issues of fact do not predominate over individual ones.

Claim under the CLRA

For the same reasons, the court found that plaintiff filed to satisfy the preodminance requirement for his CLRA claim.

In the instant case, the gravamen of plaintiff’s allegations is that Canon’s “ink out” statements and its concealment of the inaccuracy inherent in its ink level detection methods are material enough to compel a reasonable consumer to believe that the ink cartridge is empty and needs to be replaced. However, as noted previously, plaintiff fails to demonstrate how he will establish on a class-wide basis that a material amount of ink remained in each class members’ cartridges when the “ink out” messages appeared. Without such a showing, plaintiff cannot establish that “material misrepresentations were made to the class members [such that] at least an inference of reliance arises as to the entire class.” Mass. Mut., 97 Cal.App. 4th at 1292-93. Thus, the Court concludes that plaintiff fails to satisfy the predominance requirement as to his CLRA claim.

Thus, the court denied certification.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Northern District of Illinois Denies Class Certification to Proposed Class of African American Financial Advisors at Merrill Lynch

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Judge Robert W. Gettleman denied class certification this week in McReynolds et al. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce,  Fenner & Smith Inc., (N.D. Ill. Aug. 9, 2010), No. 05-06583, a case brought by 17 African American financial advisors who accused Bank of America Corp’s Merrill Lynch & Co. unit of racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq. (Count I), and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count II). Plaintiffs moved pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 to certify a class, defined as:

African-American financial advisors (“FAs”) and FA Trainees (“Trainees”) who are or were employed in the retail brokerage unit, referred to as Global Private Client (“GPC”) of defendant Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., from January 2001 to the present.   cannot have their cases tried together.

The Court found a lack of commonality because the “individuals worked in different offices, had different supervisors, and allegedly experienced vastly different forms of discrimination.”  The Court found also found a lack of typicality becuase the claims of the named plaintiffs and the declarations of putative class members showed variations which would “necessitate individual inquires to determine whether the individual suffered racial discrimination.”  Additionally, the Court found that that defendant would be able to present varying defenses to the plaintiffs’ claims.

Plaintiffs sought certification under a hybrid of Rule 23(b)(2) and 23(b)(3), but the Court concluded that the proposed class failed under both Rules.  With respect to 23(b)(2), the Court found that “the individual putative class members’ financial interests are too high to be considered incidental to the requested equitable relief. Consequently, opt out rights must be extended to the members, and certification under Rule 23(b)(2) is inappropriate.”

With respect to certification under Rule 23(b)(3), the court found predominance lacking “[b]ecause plaintiffs’ statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish company-wide discrimination in a manner that affects each class member in the same way, each individual putative class members’ claim for liability and damages will have to be tried to a jury. These inquiries would involve different witnesses and proofs for each member to determine, among other things, the motivation of each supervisor who made the individual allegedly discriminatory decision.”

The Court also found inappropriate a “divided certification, with certification of a 23(b)(2) class for the equitable issues and certification of a 23(b)(3) class for the damages issues . . . .”  “There is no predominance of common issues to certify a 23(b)(3) class for any issue, and even if there were, because of the right to a jury trial the damages cases would all have to be tried first, eliminating any advantage to certifying the instant case as a class action.”

Finally, the Court rejected “certification under Rule 23(b)(2) for all issues, combined with notice and an opportunity to opt out as though certified under Rule 23(b)(3) . . . .”  The Court noted that “certification under this approach is advantageous to plaintiffs, because it avoids Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common issues predominate and that a class action be the superior method of resolving the dispute.”  “This court agrees with Judge Kennelly, however, that the Seventh Circuit’s suggestion of this approach in Lemon and Jefferson was not intended to permit plaintiffs in a case involving significant damage claims to avoid consideration of whether a class action would be a manageable way to resolve the case.”  Citing Adams v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 2001 WL 336830 at *16 (N.D. Ill. 2001).

The court distinguished this case from one where individual issues were limited to damages.  In such a case, “there likely would be a proper way to structure a trial or trials with a minimum of inefficiency without doing violence to the parties’ Seventh Amendment rights.”

Here, however, the court concluded that there were “several separate layers of individual issues, including the variation in personnel practices among the various branch offices, and how various office managers and complex managers handle individualized personnel decisions. These extra layers of individualized issues lead the court to conclude that common issues do not predominate over individual issues, and that trial of the claims as a class action would be unmanageable.”  Accordingly, the court denied plaintiffs’ motion for class certification is denied.

Defendants were represented by Jared R. Friedman of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP,

Jeffrey Scott Piell of Lupel Weininger LLP and Stephen Michael Shapiro and Timothy Simon Bishop of Mayer Brown LLP.

By CHARLES H. JUNG