One of the peculiar frustrations of class-action defense is that one occasionally encounters a case that, while it might survive a motion to dismiss, could never be certified as a class. Other times, the defendant discovers evidence early in a case that supports the same conclusion. In those cases, what can the lawyer do but grit her teeth and start in on (or keep pushing through) the long expensive process of discovery?
Well, she could file a motion to deny certification. In an appellate opinion handed down in July, the Ninth Circuit expressly held that a defendant can start the class certification briefing process instead of the plaintiff.
The case, Vinole v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., involved a wage-and-hour class action filed against Countrywide. The plaintiffs sought to represent a class of "External Home Loan Consultants" (semi-independent salespeople paid by commission), alleging they had been wrongfully denied the opportunity to earn overtime.
However, declarations from a number of Consultants showed that the time they spent working — both in and out of the office — varied greatly. Armed with this strong evidence against certification, Countrywide decided to take the offensive. Three months before discovery closed, it filed a motion to deny certification.
The plaintiffs responded with an argument that has strong intuitive appeal. The question wasn’t ripe yet; in fact, the motion was procedurally improper because they hadn’t moved to certify a class. Turning the certification process on its head, plaintiffs argued, would lead litigants into "troubling new territory." (The plaintiffs weren’t reckless. They also presented some evidence they would have used in their certification motion, although the court noted that they made a "strategic choice" to limit that evidence.)
While the plaintiffs’ argument may have had strong intuitive appeal it ran up against the text of Rule 23. The trial court held — and the Ninth Circuit affirmed — that:
Nothing in the plain language of Rule 23(c)(1)(A) either vests plaintiffs with the exclusive right to put the class certification issue before the district court or prohibits a defendant from seeking early resolution of the class certification question. The only requirement is that the certification question be resolved ‘[a]t an early practicable time.’ The plain language of Rule 23(c)(1)(A) alone defeats Plaintiffs’ argument that there is some sort of ‘per se rule’ that precludes defense motions to deny certification[.]
The Ninth Circuit also pointed out that while a motion to deny was unusual it was hardly new; cases stretching back to 1972 showed defendants moving either to strike class allegations, or deny certification. Having established the propriety of the motion to deny, the Ninth Circuit went on to affirm the denial of certification, based largely on those declarations.
What’s the lesson we can learn from this case? In class actions, like in boxing, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.