Sometimes, a case will come along that illustrates clearly a number of the different strategic choices that lawyers have to make when defending class actions. In Lightfoot v. District of Columbia, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1983 (D.D.C. Jan. 10, 2011), a group of former District employees sued the District of Columbia, "challenging the policies and procedures that the District applied to terminate, suspend, and modify disability compensation benefits." (It appears they were largely represented by students at George Washington University, as well as lawyers from a prominent DC firm working pro bono.) Over the course of a decade of litigation (involving a number of dispositive motions, a certification hearing, and at least one trip to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals), the District of Columbia was able to whittle the case down to a single issue: whether the District had terminated disability benefits without proper notice.
Seven years before the current opinion, the trial court had certified a class of former District employees. It then ordered the parties to compile a list of the class members. The composition of the list (which at times included as many as 5,000 and as few as 500 members) became a large source of disagreement over the intervening five years, sparking discovery fights and at least one change in the class definition to exclude members who would be precluded from recovering by a recently-passed statute.
In 2007, the defendants moved to decertify the class. While the court denied the motion, it did order the parties to come up with a final class list, a process it admitted later "was a tortured one and consumed substantial time and resources of the parties and this Court." Once the list was completed, the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment, which finally provided a clear picture of how they intended to prove their case. At that point, the defendants moved again to decertify the class, arguing that it was not bound together by common issues.
This time, the court agreed with the defendants. While it conceded that commonality was supposed to be a simple inquiry, it said that, in this case the inquiry had been complicated by plaintiffs’ "amorphous" common issues. As the court put it:
Plaintiffs … seek to conflate a wide variety of practices and impute them to the class as a whole by collecting them under a single, unilluminating umbrella of "systemic" failures. That is, lurking behind the rather vague and conclusory statement that Defendants had a "policy and practice of failing to provide members of the Plaintiff class Due Process" lies a wide variety of more discrete and particularized practices that could conceivably serve as the foundation for municipal liability.
This is because Plaintiffs have [the commonality inquiry] backwards. The question is not whether a constellation of disparate but equally suspect practices may be distilled from the varying experiences of the class; rather, Plaintiffs must first identify the "policy or custom" they contend violates the dictates of procedural due process and then establish that the "policy or custom" is common to the class.
(Emphasis added, internal citations omitted) There’s certainly room to ask whether the district court could have reached some of these conclusions earlier. (And, at least for purposes of commonality, the Supreme Court’s Dukes opinion might guide it going forward.) But the more important lesson here is that, if a defendant believes a class was wrongly certified, it makes sense to continue to challenge the certification ruling. Facts become clearer, laws and understandings of facts change.
So what can defendants learn from this case? There are actually three:
First, time is often on the side of the defense. The longer a class action takes, the longer a court has to acclimate itself to the various issues that make the case unworkable; also the more likely that external events (like the passage of a statute) will interfere with plaintiffs’ original plan. But playing for time can come with heavy costs. It can involve complying with costly discovery, and engaging in extensive (and expensive) motions practice. Most defendants, particularly in the past few years, would prefer to resolve cases quickly than to wait around for something to happen that might help their case.
Second, motions practice is extremely helpful for class-action defendants. While plaintiffs will often argue that continued motions are designed to stall and harass, Lightfoot shows the real reason they’re valuable to defendants: they continually expose the manageability problems in a class proposal that plaintiffs would prefer to gloss over until they’ve achieved a classwide settlement.
Finally, especially in the wake of Dukes, it is always worth challenging commonality. In the past, few class actions had progressed far enough for courts to see why commonality was an important requirement. But in the past few years, cases like this, Brown v. RJ Reynolds Co., and Dukes have painted vivid examples of the problems that occur when courts do not pay attention to commonality early in.