In re Vertrue Inc.: Sixth Circuit Holds American Pipe Tolling Properly Applied to Later-Filed Class Actions

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The Sixth Circuit has issued a counterweight to the recent spate of anti-class-action decisions coming from federal courts. In In re: Vertrue Inc., a three-judge panel held that the statute of limitations for the claims of putative class members may be tolled in a subsequent class action when there was no ruling on class certification in a prior class action. See In re: Vertrue Inc. Marketing and Sales Practices Litig., No. 10-3928 (6th Cir. Apr. 16, 2013) (slip opinion available here).

This case and numerous related cases had a long, meandering decade-plus procedural history before arriving in the Sixth Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over federal trial-level courts in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. The plaintiff first filed the action in the Southern District of California in 2002, seeking to represent a national class who bought membership programs purporting to provide discounts on purchases, but that in fact functioned to lure consumers with “bait” products. Slip op. at 2-4. The plaintiff alleged that when customers called the company to buy the bait product, they were deceived into believing that free materials would be sent to them in the mail. Id. Vertrue would then mail a membership card and place a recurring annual charge of $60-$170 on the customer’s credit card, which would only be removed if the customer navigated hard-to-follow procedures for cancellation. Id.

The California district court dismissed the action without having ruled on class certification. Slip op. at 3-4. In response, plaintiffs filed 13 state court actions across multiple jurisdictions, which were consolidated in the Northern District of Ohio. Slip op. at 4-5. The Ohio federal court held that the claims were tolled as a result of the Southern District of California proceeding and that the state court claims therefore were timely filed, which occasioned the appeal to the Sixth Circuit. Slip op. at 5. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the tolling, relying on Supreme Court authority allowing for unnamed plaintiffs to preserve their individual claims while class action lawsuits are pending. The court explained that refusing to recognize the claims of unnamed class members would lead to inefficiency because the class members would then be forced to file individual actions to preserve any state law claims whose statutes of limitations might otherwise expire while a federal class action is pending. See slip op. at 11-12.

The unanimous three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s holding that both the plaintiffs’ federal and state law claims were timely asserted, and that the plaintiffs’ claims were tolled under American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538, (1974). Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons reasoned that “Vertrue has failed to explain how the efficiencies sought by American Pipe tolling would be advanced if putative class members were forced to file individual state law actions to preserve any state law claims whose statutes of limitations might run during the course of class proceedings.” Slip op. at 11.

In sensibly preserving the rights of consumers whose claims have never been adjudicated or denied class certification, the decision marks a clear victory for consumers, and, in contrast to some recent decisions affecting class actions, one grounded in Supreme Court precedent.