Since I first wrote about fighting fishing expeditions, Google has sent a number of readers to the blog looking for “fishing expeditions discovery” or “deny class certification discovery abuse.” (It also sent one reader looking for “botulism,” which I’m proud to say is not available here.) Clearly, fighting fishing expeditions in class actions is an important topic to defense lawyers. And the good news is, there’s more than one way to do so. For example, in addition to objecting to the relevance of some of plaintiff’s document requests or interrogatories, one can also object that the plaintiff is not entitled to class-related discovery if she cannot make a prima facie showing that her class will meet the requirements of Rule 23.
In Heerwagen v. Clear Channel Communications, an antitrust class action, the plaintiff alleged that Clear Channel’s charging of high prices for live concerts violated Section 2 of the Sherman Act, which prohibits monopolistic practices or attempts to monopolize a relevant market. After a three-day hearing, the trial court declined to certify a class. The plaintiff appealed, arguing among other things that the trial court had impermissibly limited the discovery she could take to demonstrate that classwide proof of her claims existed.
Starting from the premise that the decision to limit discovery is within the sound discretion of the trial court, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that:
Limiting discovery in preparation for the class certification motion in order to reduce expense, the district court allowed plaintiff’s deposition and the deposition of experts. Although Judge Sprizzo made comments suggesting improper bases for limiting discovery — including a categorical statement that he generally does not allow plaintiffs discovery on the issue of class certification and an unsupported claim that plaintiff’s counsel here sought discovery "as some sort of settlement leverage" — we nonetheless cannot conclude that the decision to limit discovery here amounted to an abuse of the district court’s broad discretion.
In addition to the discovery allowed, significant relevant information was apparently available in the public domain, as evidenced by the exhibits submitted in connection with plaintiff’s motion for class certification. Moreover, plaintiff failed to make any showing, however preliminarily, that she could satisfy the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) or that she might be able to do so with additional discovery. See Mantolete v. Bolger, 767 F.2d 1416, 1424 (9th Cir.1985) ("Although in some cases a district court should allow discovery to aid the determination of whether a class action is maintainable, the plaintiff bears the burden of advancing a prima facie showing that the class action requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 are satisfied or that discovery is likely to produce substantiation of the class allegations.").
In other words, the Second Circuit ruled that, because the plaintiff bears the ultimate burden of proving that a class is certifiable under Rule 23, she also bears the burden of making a prima facie showing that her class is certifiable under Rule 23 in order to justify extensive discovery.
For cases where the defendant faces a class complaint that is facially deficient, but where the plaintiff hopes to use discovery to fish for a viable cause of action or leverage a settlement, objecting because the plaintiff cannot make a prima facie case for discovery can be effective. The plaintiff will no doubt fight this objection as hard as she can; but a fight about the propriety of a defective class action? That’s a fight the defense is ready to have.