King Architectural Metals manufactured metal building components, which it needed to sell. It made the mistake of faxing an advertisement to CE Design. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. CE Design was a small, Chicago-area civil engineering firm, and it had checked a box in the Blue Book of Building and Construction (a directory of building-industry firms) that indicated it was OK to contact it with advertisements. But it also had a sideline in Telephone Consumer Protection Act class actions. It filed at least 150 of them, and its president had testified in at least 20 of those.
In the course of his deposition in the case, the company president (John Pezl) testified that he had not authorized King to contact CE Design; hard to believe given the Blue Book listing. So King opposed class certification on the grounds that CE Design was not typical of class members who had not consented, and that the discrepancy in Pezl’s testimony made him an inadequate class member.
The district court certified the class anyway, so King appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which reversed. Judge Posner wrote the opinion. In doing so, he focused in on one requirement that does not get much attention–typicality–and one that does–adequacy. And he explained the importance of enforcing the typicality requirement:
A class is disserved if its representative’s claim is not typical of the claims of the class members, for then if his claim fails, though claims of other class members may be valid, the suit will at the least be delayed by the scramble to find a new class representative. Alternatively, a class representative’s atypical claim may prevail on grounds unavailable to the other class members, leaving them in the lurch.
He also explained why credibility is important to a named plaintiff’s adequacy.
A named plaintiff who has serious credibility problems or who is likely to devote too much attention to rebutting an individual defense may not be an adequate class representative.
CE Design’s Blue Book listing made it atypical of class members who had not consented to communication by fax. And Pezl’s inconsistent testimony compounded the problem, ensuring that any classwide trial would focus on his credibility rather than the claims of the class.
While the opinion is helpful for challenging adequacy and typicality, Judge Posner did end the opinion with a warning note for defendants.
We don’t want to be misunderstood, however, as extending an invitation to defendants to try to derail legitimate class actions by conjuring up trivial credibility problems or insubstantial defenses unique to the class representative. Serious challenges to typicality and adequacy must be distinguished from petty issues manufactured by defendants to distract the judge from his or her proper focus under Rules 23(a)(3) and (4) on the interests of the class, as emphasized in Dubin v. Miller, 132 F.R.D. 269, 272 (D. Colo. 1990), where the judge, while decertifying the class, remarked that "few plaintiffs come to court with halos above their heads; fewer still escape with those halos untarnished. For an assault on the class representative’s credibility to succeed, the party mounting the assault must demonstrate that there exists admissible evidence so severely undermining plaintiff’s credibility that a fact finder might reasonably focus on plaintiff’s credibility, to the detriment of the absent class members’ claims."
Warning aside, the opinion is still useful for defendants. It provides clear explanations of the typicality requirement and the "unique defense" aspect of both typicality and adequacy. This is why the deposition of the named plaintiff is so important: it allows the defendant to determine whether it’s worth taking the risk to challenge the named plaintiff’s credibility.