Class actions don’t work if the class representative has a conflict with the class he or she purportedly represents. As the United States Supreme Court noted over 70 years ago, “a selection of representatives for purposes of litigation, whose substantial interests are not necessarily or even probably the same as those whom they are deemed to represent, does not afford that protection to absent parties which due process requires.” Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32, 45 (1940). A decision this week from Judge Higginson out of the Fifth Circuit provides an interesting commentary on this subject in the context of a consumer class action.
In Slade v. Progressive Insurance Co., No. 15-30010 (5th Cir. May 9, 2017), plaintiffs claimed that Progressive Insurance shorted its insureds when paying for vehicle losses. Progressive used something called “WorkCenter Total Loss” to calculate the base value of total loss vehicles. Plaintiffs said that “lawful sources” – such as the NADA Guidebook or the Kelly Blue Book – had higher values and therefore resulted in plaintiffs “receiving lower payouts on their insurance claims.”
The Fifth Circuit treated with dispatch a couple of aspects of the district court’s class certification decision. First, the Court held that the damages theory was in fact “class wide,” and therefore consistent with Comcast v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). Second, the district court had inexplicably certified a fraud class. As the Court of Appeals observed, “[t]his court has held consistently that a ‘fraud class action cannot be certified when individual reliance will be an issue.’”
But the bulk of Judge Higginson’s opinion discusses a more complicated issue. The insurance company used two basic factors to determine a vehicle’s value. First, it used a “base value” based on the WorkCenter Total Loss calculation. Second, it used a “condition adjustment,” recognizing that the value of the automobile in question might have either a higher or lower value based on its particular condition. The former sounds like a class-wide issue, but the latter looks to be quite individualistic.
Recognizing this dilemma, the named plaintiffs decided not to challenge the “condition adjustment.” As the Court of Appeals observed, “Plaintiffs’ class certification motion may have run into predominance problems because condition adjustments appear to be highly individualized.” But this waiver, the Fifth Circuit noted, comes with a potential cost. Although the plaintiffs’ waiver solved the predominance problems, it raised questions about the adequacy of the class representatives. “When the class representative proposes waiving some of the class’s claims, the decision risks creating an irreconcilable conflict with the class.” As the Court observed, citing a Seventh Circuit opinion, “A representative can’t throw away what would be a major component of the class’s recovery.”
But simply because a class plaintiff decides, as a strategic matter, to waive a claim does not necessarily mean she is inadequate. The court must inquire into, at least, “(1) the risk that unnamed class members will forfeit their right to pursue the waived claim in future litigation”; (2) the value of the waived claim; and (3) the strategic value of the waiver, which can include the value of proceeding as a class (if the waiver is key to certification).” In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit directed the district court to undertaken this analysis on remand. A central aspect of this inquiry is the res judicata effect of the waiver, which the Fifth Circuit said was “uncertain here.” Indeed, the Court observed that “courts have inconsistently applied claim preclusion to class actions.”
The Court of Appeals provided a bit of a road-map to the district court, identifying – as possible options on remand –
- declining to certify the class because of preclusion risks
- certifying the class, but tailoring the notice and opt-out procedure to alert the class to the risk of preclusion
- concluding that the benefits of proceeding as a class outweigh any preclusion risks or
- defining the class in a way to exclude individuals who have a quarrel with the condition adjustment.
Stay tuned, and consider carefully how class representatives and courts resolve the tension between waiving the claims of absent class members and strategically limiting the class to claims that can actually be certified.