In a class action, the named plaintiff is supposed to be an adequate representative of the proposed class. While a number of courts have pointed out that the idea that the named plaintiff drives the litigation is largely a legal fiction, it remains a fiction integral to Rule 23. So, given what does it take to disqualify the named plaintiff from serving as an adequate class representative?
One answer is lack of credibility. In Davidson v. Citizens Gas & Coke Utility, 238 F.R.D. 229 (S.D. Ind. 2006), the named plaintiffs alleged that the defendant required all candidates for promotion to take a test known as the Work Competency Assessment, and that the test was biased against African Americans. Plaintiffs’ counsel made a last-minute addition of two plaintiffs to represent a proposed subclass of job applicants (as opposed to just promotion applicants).
When plaintiffs moved for class certification, the defendants challenged their adequacy because, in deposition testimony, each of the two newly-added named plaintiffs admitted to having felony records that included convictions for theft or burglary (both crimes related to honesty). In addition, one of the two new plaintiffs had lied about his felony record on his application. The defendant argued that the named plaintiffs’ lack of credibility made them inadequate class representatives. The court agreed, stating
personal characteristics, such as the credibility and integrity of a putative class representative, have a direct bearing on their ability to adequately represent absent members of the class. Problems of credibility, when sufficiently serious, can prevent a named plaintiff from being certified as a class representative. While we acknowledge that functionally the plaintiffs’ attorney is most often the true driving force behind the representation of the class, the named representatives are still required to be more than window dressing or puppets for class counsel. A putative class representative’s lack of credibility should not be allowed to significantly detract from the case. A representative must, at the very least, be trustworthy enough to protect the interests of the class by working to pursue a remedy which benefits the class as much as it does counsel.
(Internal quotations, citations, and footnotes omitted, emphasis added.)
Many defense counsel, when taking depositions of the named plaintiffs, treat the questions about personal background as perfunctory. It is worth remembering that the named plaintiff’s character may actually have a bearing on whether he can adequately represent the proposed class.