Ascertaining Ascertainability in the Third Circuit

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A recent opinion issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is a must-read for any class action practitioner who has been flummoxed by the Court’s approach to ascertainability under Rule 23. Byrd, et al. v. Aaron’s Inc., et al., No. 14-3050 (3d Cir. April 16, 2015) (slip op. available here). The Third Circuit sought to “dispel any confusion” regarding the ascertainability requirement. Slip op. at 20. This confusion was self-inflicted by a quartet of Third Circuit opinions that courts interpreted to mean that retail records and class member affidavits are not sufficient to establish that a class is ascertainable. As one court noted, in commenting on a key Third Circuit case, “[i]t appears that pursuant to [Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300, 306 (3d Cir. 2013)] in any case where the consumer does not have a verifiable record of its purchase, such as a receipt, and the manufacturer or seller does not keep a record of buyers, Carerra [sic] prohibits certification of the class.” McCrary v. Elations Co., LLC, No. 13-cv-242, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8443, at * 24 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2014).

In Byrd, the Third Circuit attempted to clarify the ascertainability standard, which the court acknowledged had been invoked by defendants in class actions “with increasing frequency in order to defeat class certification.” Slip op. at 20. The court stated that ascertainability “only requires the plaintiff to show that class members can be identified. Accordingly, there is no records requirement.” Id. at 25. However, a plaintiff still has to propose a method of ascertaining a class that has some evidentiary support that the method will be successful. Id. The court cautioned against conflating ascertainability with other class action requirements, such as numerosity and predominance, stressing that certain inquiries regarding certification are more properly analyzed under those specific Rule 23 requirements and not under the ascertainability inquiry.

The refreshingly candid concurring opinion by Judge Rendell calls out the Third Circuit for further muddling the issue and is much more interesting from a plaintiff/consumer perspective. Judge Rendell begins by noting that “[the Third Circuit’s] heightened ascertainability requirement defies clarification,” and “the lengths to which the majority goes in its attempt to clarify what our requirement of ascertainability means, and to explain how this implicit requirement fits in the class certification calculus, indicate that the time has come to do away with this newly created aspect of Rule 23 in the Third Circuit.” Slip op., Rendell concurring op. at 1.

In Judge Rendell’s view, the Third Circuit still has “precluded class certification unless there can be objective proof—beyond mere affidavits—that someone is actually a class member.” Id. at 4. That approach is wrong, according to Judge Rendell, and for compelling reasons:

In most low-value consumer class actions, prospective class members are unlikely to have documentary proof of purchase, because very few people keep receipts from drug stores or grocery stores. This should not be the reason to deny certification of a class. . . . We have effectively thwarted small-value consumer class actions by defining ascertainability in such a way that consumers will necessarily fail to satisfy for lack of adequate substantiation. Consumers now need to keep a receipt or can, bottle, tube, or wrapper of the offending consumer items in order to succeed in bringing a class action.

Id. at 5-7.  He notes that in other Circuits, such as the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, some courts have certified small-value consumer cases and have not imposed the Third Circuit’s heightened proof requirement for ascertainability. Id.

The concurrence also rejects the notion that defendants’ due process rights will be abrogated by a standard that seeks to compensate at least some of the injured class members, stating that the odds that someone would sign a false affidavit, under penalty of perjury, that he or she purchased aspirin for the sake of receiving a “windfall” of $1.59 are “far-fetched at best.” Id. at 10. Further, Judge Rendell opines that the Third Circuit emphasized the wrong policy goal with this “clarified” standard, noting that “by focusing on making absolutely certain that compensation is distributed only to those individuals who were actually harmed, [the ascertainability doctrine] has ignored an equally important policy objective of class actions: deterring and punishing corporate wrongdoing. . . . In small-claims class actions like Carrera, the real choice for courts is between compensating a few of the injured, on the one hand, versus compensating none while allowing corporate malfeasance to go unchecked, on the other.” Id. at 10-12. Judge Rendell is adamant that rigorously applying the ascertainability requirement “translates into impunity for corporate defendants who have harmed large numbers of consumers in relatively modest increments. Without the class action mechanism, corporations selling small-value items for which it is unlikely that consumers would keep receipts are free to engage in false advertising, overcharging, and a variety of other wrongs without consequence.” Id. at 10-11.

He concludes that the Third Circuit’s approach to ascertainability “disserves the public,” writing,“[w]hile a rigorous insistence on a proof-of-purchase requirement . . . keeps damages from the uninjured, it does an equally effective job of keeping damages from the truly injured as well, and ‘it does so with brutal efficiency.’. . . [I]t is time to retreat from our heightened ascertainability requirement . . . .” Id. at 12-13. Judge Rendell’s conclusion is worth contemplating and should inform every court that is inclined to invoke ascertainability in order to deny class certification.

Authored by: 
Jordan Lurie, Of Counsel