Debra Lynn Bassett recently published a discussion of the preclusive effect of class actions in the Brigham Young University Law Review. Her thesis is aimed at the theoretical justifications for allowing class actions to have preclusive effect, most of which she finds severely wanting. In general, her discussion does not have much practical use; it’s aimed instead at reforming class-action policy.
However, Lynn Bassett does highlight one important issuefor practitioners.
Despite the Court’s insistence on "adequate representation" as a prerequisite, the actual meaning and scope of the term remains surprisingly elusive. Although it is clear that adequate representation may be challenged at any stage of a class action, and that adequate representation is a prerequisite both for class certification and for a binding judgment, the meaning of the term itself is unclear. Perhaps necessarily, most of the Supreme Court’s guidance on adequate representation addresses failure-what is insufficient to constitute adequate representation. The Court has found adequate representation lacking in situations involving intraclass conflicts of interest, as illustrated in Hansberry, Amchem, and Ortiz. And the Court has found adequate representation lacking when courts have not rigorously scrutinized class actions to ensure that the protections of Rule 23 have been satisfied.
(Internal footnotes omitted.)
When a defendant first challenges a class action, there is a strong temptation to challenge adequacy of the named plaintiff. However, a class action can only have preclusive effect (either on the merits or in denying certification) if the class was adequately represented. Given Ms. Lynn Bassett’s analysis and recent opinions, it is clear that the defendant should be careful about challenging adequacy if it hopes to enjoy the preclusive effect of any later decisions in the case. In particular, should the defendant defeat certification in federal court, that decision is binding unless it depends on the plaintiffs’ lack of adequacy.
There are still strong reasons to challenge the adequacy of a named plaintiff in a particular case. (The strongest is that the named plaintiff would not serve as an adequate class representative, a particularly important problem if the defendant is considering settling.) However, it is important for the defendant to think through whether it plans on settling or fighting a class action as early as possible – doing so may dictate the specific responses the defendant makes in responding to a motion for certification.