9th Cir. Rejects ‘Administrative Feasibility’ or ‘Ascertainability’ Class Cert. Requirement

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently held that class action plaintiffs are not required to demonstrate that there is an administratively feasible way to determine who is in a class in order for the class to be certified.

In so ruling, the Ninth Circuit noted that the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits have similarly ruled. See Sandusky Wellness Ctr., LLC v. Medtox Sci., Inc., 821 F.3d 992, 995–96 (8th Cir. 2016); Rikos v. Procter & Gamble Co., 799 F.3d 497, 525 (6th Cir. 2015); Mullins v. Direct Digital, LLC, 795 F.3d 654, 658 (7th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 1161, 194 L.Ed.2d 175 (2016).

Although the Court focused on the Third Circuit’s contrary ruling, the First, Second, Fourth, and Eleventh Circuits have also held to the contrary.  See, e.g., In re Nexium Antitrust Litig., 777 F.3d 9 (1st Cir. 2015); Brecher v. Republic of Argentina, 806 F.3d 22 (2d Cir. 2015), EQT Prod. Co. v. Adair, 764 F.3d 347 (4th Cir. 2014); Byrd v. Aaron’s Inc., 784 F.3d 154 (3d Cir. 2015); Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F. 3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013); Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Case No. 14-11648 (11th Cir 2015) (unreported).

The Ninth Circuit held that a separate “administrative feasibility” or “ascertainability” prerequisite to class certification was not compatible with the language of Rule 23.  In addition, the Court opined that Rule 23’s enumerated criteria already address the policy concerns that had motivated some courts to adopt a separate administrative feasibility or ascertainability requirement, and Rule 23 did so without undermining the balance of interests inherent in certifying a class.

A copy of the opinion in Briseno v. ConAgra Foods is available at:  Link to Opinion.

Consumers who purchased cooking oil products labeled “100% Natural” filed putative class actions asserting state-law claims against the manufacturer in 11 states. The cases were consolidated in this action.

The consumers moved to certify 11 classes defined to include all persons who resided in the States of California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, or Texas who had purchased the manufacturer’s products within the applicable statute of limitations periods established by the laws of their state of residence (the “Class Period”) through the final disposition of this and any and all related actions.

The manufacturer opposed class certification on the grounds that there would be no administratively feasible way to identify members of the proposed classes because consumers would not be able to reliably identify themselves as class members.  Thus, the manufacturer argued that the class was not eligible for certification.

Although the trial court acknowledged that the Third Circuit and some district courts had refused certification in similar circumstances, it declined to join in their reasoning. Instead, the trial court held that, at the certification stage, it was sufficient that the class was defined by an objective criterion — here, whether class members purchased manufacturer’s oil during the class period.

The trial court ultimately granted the consumers’ motion for class certification in part, and certified 11 statewide classes to pursue certain claims for damages under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  The manufacturer then appealed to the Ninth Circuit pursuant to Rule 23(f).

As you may recall, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 governs class action procedure in federal court.  Parties seeking class certification must satisfy each of the four requirements of Rule 23(a) — numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy — and at least one of the requirements of Rule 23(b). See Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 657 F.3d 970, 979–80 (9th Cir. 2011).

Rule 23(a), which is titled “prerequisites,” provides that one or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all members only if: (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable; (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.  Rule 23(a) does not mention “administrative feasibility.”

The manufacturer argued that the Court should reverse the class certification because the district court did not require the consumers to proffer a reliable way to identify members of the certified classes here, which included consumers in 11 states who purchased the cooking oils labeled “100% Natural” during the relevant period.

The manufacturer argued that, in addition to satisfying these enumerated criteria, class proponents must also demonstrate that there is an administratively feasible way to determine who is in the class. The manufacturer claimed that the consumers did not propose any way to identify class members and could not prove that an administratively feasible method existed because consumers do not generally save grocery receipts and are unlikely to remember details about individual purchases of a low-cost product like cooking oil.

The Ninth Circuit rejected the manufacturer’s argument, holding that Rule 23(a)’s omission of “administrative feasibility” was meaningful. Relying on Silvers v. Sony Pictures Entm’t, Inc., 402 F.3d 881, 885 (9th Cir. 2005), the Court concluded that because the drafters specifically enumerated “prerequisites,” Rule 23(a) constituted an exhaustive list.

The Court of Appeals also took guidance from language used in other provisions of the Rule, noting, for example, in contrast to Rule 23(a), that Rule 23(b)(3) provides, “The matters pertinent to these findings include,” followed by four listed considerations. FED. R. CIV. P. 23(b)(3).

Relying on Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 23, 104 S.Ct. 296, 78 L.Ed.2d 17 (1983), the Ninth Circuit reasoned that if the Rules Advisory Committee had intended to create a non-exhaustive list in Rule 23(a), it would have used similar language. The Court noted that where Congress includes particular language in one section of a statute but omits it in another section of the same act, it is generally presumed that Congress acts intentionally and purposely in the disparate inclusion or exclusion. See Russello v. United States, 464 U.S. 16, 23, 104 S. Ct. 296, 78 L.Ed.2d 17 (1983).

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit noted that Rule 23(b)(3) requires a court certifying a class under that section to consider the likely difficulties in managing a class action, and held that imposing a separate administrative feasibility requirement would render that manageability criterion largely superfluous, a result that contravenes the familiar precept that a rule should be interpreted to give effect to every clause.

The Ninth Circuit also relied on the Supreme Court precedent of Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 117 S.Ct. 2231, 138 L.Ed.2d 689 (1997). In Amchem, the Supreme Court considered whether a settlement-only class could be certified without satisfying the requirements of Rule 23.  In holding that it could not, the Supreme Court underscored that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure result from “an extensive deliberative process involving a Rules Advisory Committee, public commenters, the Judicial Conference, the Supreme Court, and Congress.” Id. at 620, 117 S.Ct. 2231.

Noting that in Amchem, the Supreme Court warned that the “text of a rule thus proposed and reviewed limits judicial inventiveness” and admonished that “courts are not free to amend a rule outside the process Congress ordered,” the Ninth Circuit concluded that the lesson of Amchem Products was plain: “Federal courts … lack authority to substitute for Rule 23’s certification criteria a standard never adopted.” Id. at 622, 117 S.Ct. 2231.

In sum, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the language of Rule 23 does not impose a freestanding administrative feasibility prerequisite to class certification, and, mindful of the Supreme Court’s guidance, the Court of Appeals declined to interpose an additional hurdle into the class certification process delineated in the enacted Rule.

The Ninth Circuit recognized that the Third Circuit requires putative class representatives to demonstrate “administrative feasibility” as a prerequisite to class certification. See Byrd v. Aaron’s Inc., 784 F.3d 154, 162–63 (3d Cir. 2015); Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300, 306–08 (3d Cir. 2013). The Court noted that the rationale that the Third Circuit has given for imposing an administrative feasibility requirement is the need to mitigate the administrative burdens of trying a Rule 23(b)(3) class action.

Courts adjudicating such actions must provide notice that a class has been certified and an opportunity for absent class members to withdraw from the class. See Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338, 362, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011); accord FED. R. CIV. P. 23(c)(2)(B). The Third Circuit largely justifies its administrative feasibility prerequisite as necessary to ensure that compliance with this procedural requirement does not compromise the efficiencies Rule 23(b)(3) was designed to achieve.  See Shelton v. Bledsoe, 775 F.3d 554, 562 (3d Cir. 2015); Carrera, 727 F.3d at 307.

However, the Ninth Circuit noted that Rule 23(b)(3) already contains a specific, enumerated mechanism to achieve that goal: the manageability criterion of the superiority requirement. Rule 23(b)(3) requires that a class action be “superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy,” and it specifically mandates that courts consider “the likely difficulties in managing a class action.” FED. R. CIV. P. 23(b)(3)(D).

The Court also observed that the Seventh Circuit had rejected the Third Circuit’s justifications in Mullins v. Direct Digital, LLC, 795 F.3d 654 (7th Cir. 2015), and the Sixth Circuit followed suit in Rikos v. Procter & Gamble Co., 799 F.3d 497, 525 (6th Cir. 2015). Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Rule 23’s enumerated criteria already addressed the interests that motivated the Third Circuit and, therefore, an independent administrative feasibility requirement was unnecessary.

Moreover, relying on the Seventh Circuit case of Mullins, which observed that requiring class proponents to satisfy an administrative feasibility prerequisite “conflicts with the well-settled presumption that courts should not refuse to certify a class merely on the basis of manageability concerns,” the Ninth Circuit concluded that this presumption makes ample sense given the variety of procedural tools courts can use to manage the administrative burdens of class litigation. See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 663.

The Court further noted that Rule 23(c) already enables district courts to divide classes into subclasses or certify a class as to only particular issues. FED. R. CIV. P. 23(c)(4), (5).  The Ninth Circuit also reasoned that adopting a freestanding administrative feasibility requirement instead of assessing manageability as one component of the superiority inquiry would have practical consequences inconsistent with the policies embodied in Rule 23, noting that Rule 23(b)(3) calls for a comparative assessment of the costs and benefits of class adjudication, including the availability of “other methods” for resolving the controversy, FED. R. CIV. P. 23(b)(3).

In addition, following the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit’s Mullins, the Ninth Circuit held that a standalone administrative feasibility requirement would invite courts to consider the administrative burdens of class litigation “in a vacuum.” See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 663. The Court reasoned that the difference in approach would often be outcome determinative for cases like this one, in which administrative feasibility would be difficult to demonstrate but in which there might be no realistic alternative to class treatment. See id. at 663–64.

The Ninth Circuit therefore concluded that class actions involving inexpensive consumer goods would likely fail at the outset if administrative feasibility were a freestanding prerequisite to certification.

Again citing to the Supreme Court case, Amchem, the Court reasoned that the authors of Rule 23 opted not to make the potential administrative burdens of a class action dispositive and instead directed courts to balance the benefits of class adjudication against its costs. The Ninth Circuit held that it lacked authority to substitute its judgment for the authors of Rule 23. See Amchem Prods., 521 U.S. at 620, 117 S.Ct. 2231.

The Ninth Circuit noted that Third Circuit justified its administrative feasibility requirement as necessary to protect absent class members and to shield bona fide claimants from fraudulent claims. With respect to absent class members, the Third Circuit had expressed concern about whether courts would be able to ensure individual notice without a method for reliably identifying class members. See Byrd, 784 F.3d at 165; Carrera, 727 F.3d at 307.

The Ninth Circuit, however, believed that concern was unfounded, because neither Rule 23 nor the Due Process Clause requires actual notice to each individual class member.

As you may recall, Rule 23 requires only the “best notice that is practicable under the circumstances, including individual notice to all members who can be identified through reasonable effort.” FED. R. CIV. P. 23(c)(2)(B).  “Rule 23 rule does not insist on actual notice to all class members in all cases and recognizes it might be impossible to identify some class members for purposes of actual notice.” See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 665.

Similarly, the Ninth Circuit held, the Due Process Clause does not require actual, individual notice in all cases. See Silber v. Mabon, 18 F.3d 1449, 1453–54 (9th Cir. 1994). Courts have routinely held that notice by publication in a periodical, on a website, or even at an appropriate physical location is sufficient to satisfy due process. See, e.g., Hughes v. Kore of Ind. Enter., Inc., 731 F.3d 672, 676–77 (7th Cir. 2013).

Moreover, the Court observed that the Third Circuit’s lack-of-notice concern presumes that some harm will inure to absent class members who do not receive actual notice.

Although in theory, inadequate notice might deny an absent class member the opportunity to opt out and pursue individual litigation, the Ninth Circuit held that in reality, that risk was virtually nonexistent in low-value consumer class actions.  Such cases typically involve low-cost products and, as a result, recoveries were too small to incentivize individual litigation. The Court explained that an administrative feasibility requirement like that imposed by the Third Circuit would likely bar such actions because consumers generally do not keep receipts or other records of low-cost purchases.

The Ninth Circuit further explained that, practically speaking, a separate administrative feasibility requirement would only protect a purely theoretical interest of absent class members at the expense of any possible recovery for all class members in those cases that depend most on the class action mechanism.

The Court concluded that justifying an administrative feasibility requirement as a means of ensuring perfect recovery at the expense of any recovery would undermine the very purpose of Rule 23(b)(3), which was the “vindication of ‘the rights of groups of people who individually would be without effective strength to bring their opponents into court at all.’ ” Amchem Prods., 521 U.S. at 617, 117 S.Ct. 2231.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the Third Circuit had expressed concern that without an administrative feasibility requirement, individuals would submit illegitimate claims and thereby dilute the recovery of legitimate claimants. See Carrera, 727 F.3d at 310.

The Ninth Circuit agreed that the fraud concern of the Third Circuit might be valid in theory, but, relying again on Mullins, it concluded that, in practice, the risk of dilution based on fraudulent or mistaken claims was low. See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 667. The Court pointed to class actions involving low-cost consumer goods, noting that consumers were unlikely to risk perjury charges and spend the time and effort to submit a false claim for a de minimis monetary recovery.

Further, the Court noted that consistently low participation rates in consumer class actions made it very unlikely that non-deserving claimants would diminish the recovery of participating, bona fide class members.

Finally, observing that the Third Circuit has characterized its administrative feasibility requirement as necessary to protect the due process rights of defendants to raise individual challenges and defenses to claims, the Ninth Circuit, relying on Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 666 F.3d 581, 595 (9th Cir. 2012) and Marcus v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, 687 F.3d 583, 594 (3d Cir. 2012), pointed out that at the class certification stage, class representatives bear the burden of demonstrating compliance with Rule 23.

The Court reminded the manufacturer that it would have the opportunity to challenge the claims of absent class members if and when they filed claims for damages. The Court explained that at the claims administration stage, other litigants have relied on claim administrators, various auditing processes, sampling for fraud detection, and follow-up notices to explain the claims process, and other techniques tailored by the parties and the court to validate claims. See Mullins, supra, 795 F.3d at 667. The Court explained that Rule 23 specifically contemplates the need for such individualized claim determinations after a finding of liability.

The manufacturer did not explain why such procedures are insufficient to safeguard its due process rights.

Given the existing opportunities to challenge the consumers’ case, the Ninth Circuit could see no reason why requiring an administratively feasible way to identify all class members at the certification stage would be necessary to protect the manufacturer’s due process rights. See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 670. Although it noted that the manufacturer might prefer to terminate the litigation at class certification rather than later challenging each individual class member’s claim to recovery, the Court concluded that there is no due process right to “a cost-effective procedure for challenging every individual claim to class membership.” Id. at 669.

Even if the concern was that claimants in cases like this would eventually offer only a self-serving affidavit as proof of class membership, the Court did not see any reason why that issue should be resolved at the class certification stage to protect a defendant’s due process rights. The Court explained that if an oil consumer pursued an individual lawsuit instead of a class action, an affidavit describing her purchases would create a genuine issue if the manufacturer disputed the affidavit, and would prevent summary judgment against the consumer. See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 669; accord FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)(1)(A). Given that a consumer’s affidavit could force a liability determination at trial without offending the Due Process Clause, the Ninth Circuit saw no reason to refuse class certification simply because that same consumer presented her affidavit in a claims administration process after a liability determination had already been made.

Moreover, the Court explained that identification of class members would not affect a defendant’s liability in every case. For example, in this case, the consumers proposed to determine the manufacturer’s aggregate liability by (1) calculating the price premium attributable to the allegedly false statement that appeared on every unit sold during the class period, and (2) multiplying that premium by the total number of units sold during the class period.  This would affect the amount paid to each class member, but not the total amount paid by the defendant.

The Ninth Circuit agreed with the Seventh Circuit that, in cases in which aggregate liability can be calculated in such a manner, “the identity of particular class members does not implicate the defendant’s due process interest at all” because “the addition or subtraction of individual class members affects neither the defendant’s liability nor the total amount of damages it owes to the class.” See Mullins, 795 F.3d at 670; see also Six (6) Mexican Workers v. Ariz. Citrus Growers, 904 F.2d at 1307.

For these reasons, the Ninth Circuit held that protecting a defendant’s due process rights did not necessitate an independent administrative feasibility requirement.

In conclusion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling declining to condition class certification on the consumers’ proffer of an administratively feasible way to identify putative class members.

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Patrick R. Tira is based in Maurice Wutscher's San Diego office, where he practices in the firm's Commercial Litigation, Consumer Credit Litigation, Business Formation and Transactions, Intellectual Property Litigation, and Employment Litigation groups. He has extensive litigation experience in matters involving a wide variety of complex real estate and business disputes, ranging from post-foreclosure evictions and real estate fraud to misappropriation of trade secrets claims and shareholder disputes. He is experienced in all stages of litigation and has recovered millions for his clients in judgments and arbitration awards. In addition to his success in the courtroom, Patrick advises internet and other technology companies, real estate investors, medical professionals, and other businesses on an array of transactional matters. For example, he has extensive experience counseling clients on entity formation, licensing and service-level agreements, real estate agreements, internal policies and procedures, and related matters. Patrick employs his litigation experience to appropriately structure internal policies and procedures, licensing and service-level agreements, ownership and other agreements, and also to anticipate where disputes may arise in the future. He strives to enable his clients to achieve their goals and to avoid potential litigation.