While I was on my self-imposed editing hiatus (shameless plug: The Class Action Playbook  comes out in September), the Ninth Circuit handed down its en banc opinion in Dukes v. Wal-Mart. The court worked overtime to tie its opinion to the specific facts and arguments in front of it, which may prevent some generalizing about the opinion. (Not that that has ever stopped legal pundits.)  

First, some background: Dukes is a Title VII sex-discrimination case. The plaintiffs alleged that, as women, they received less money for comparable work, and that they were passed over for promotions within the company. Their complaint sought injunctive relief, “back pay” (technically monetary relief, although some courts have held that, as restitution, it does not fall under Rule 23(b)(3)) and punitive damages. The trial court certified a class under Rule 23(b)(2). Wal-Mart appealed, challenging the trial court’s finding of commonality and its reliance on plaintiffs’ statistical expert. A 3-judge panel upheld the certification. Wal-Mart asked for en banc reconsideration, leading to this opinion.

The Ninth Circuit’s slip opinion is 137 pages, 95 of which constitute the majority opinion. Given the procedural history of the case, as well as the presence of concurrences and an impassioned dissent, the opinion is not a model of clarity. Nonetheless, the trial court reached a few basic conclusions that will likely occupy class-action lawyers.

  • First, it reaffirmed the need for a “rigorous analysis” of Rule 23’s requirements, one that may overlap with the merits of a given case.
  • Second, it upheld certification of class claims – including for “back pay” – under Rule 23(b)(2).
  • Third, it held that a court may rely on a plaintiff’s statistical evidence to find commonality, even if that evidence is contested by the defendant.
  • The Ninth Circuit did not rule on whether the proposed trial plan violated Wal-Mart’s due process rights. But it did speak approvingly of the trial in Hilao v. Estate of Marcos – a class action from the 1990s brought by a class of Filipino torture victims that relied heavily on statistical evidence – as one way to bring a class trial.

What does this opinion mean for class-action strategy?

  • Plaintiffs are likely to continue to seek certification under Rule 23(b)(2) when possible, which means that defendants should become well-versed in the “cohesiveness” requirement.
  • Specific Daubert-based challenges to questionable statistics are more important than ever.
  • And defendants (particularly in the Ninth Circuit) would do well to review opinions on how courts have conducted classwide trials in the past.

While I have no inside knowledge on whether Wal-Mart intends to appeal this decision, the fact that it comes from the Ninth Circuit means there is a stronger-than-usual chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari to address the issues.