Readers of this blog know that I’ve been an early (and ardent) advocate of challenging poorly-conceived class actions as early as possible. And, during the last three to four years, the motion to strike class allegations has (with good reason) become a popular tactic among defense counsel. And, several months ago, we got one of the best examples of how well a good motion to strike can succeed, in Plaisance v. Bayer Corp., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47795 (S.D. Ill. 2011).
In Plaisance, the plaintiff sued Bayer Corp., alleging that various people who had used the birth control Yaz or Yasmin had suffered from various "adverse cardiovascular events" (heart or blood problems). In the complaint, the plaintiff asserted claims for fraud, breach of warranty, and negligence, and sought certification of a nationwide "personal injury" class–a difficult proposal at the best of times, since personal injuries tend to vary widely from person to person, not to mention the fact that teasing out the cause of various personal injuries can also require a series of very detailed individualized inquiries.
Rather than wait until after lengthy (and expensive) discovery and motions practice to raise these points, Bayer moved to strike the class allegations. The plaintiff argued that Bayer’s motion was premature, but she also responded substantively to its arguments.
The court, in a particularly thoughtful opinion, held that the motion to strike in this case was not premature:
In the instant case, defendants have identified numerous facial deficiencies in the class allegations; no amount of time or discovery can cure these deficiencies. Plaintiff’s argument with regard to the filing of additional class actions in other states is unavailing for the same reason. After reviewing the parties’ briefs and the allegations in the first amended complaint, it is obvious from the pleadings that no class action can be maintained. Accordingly, the Court properly proceeds with its ruling on defendants’ motion to strike or dismiss plaintiff’s class allegations. See Rule 23(c)(1)(A) (providing that the court, "[a]t an early practicable time …, must determine by order whether to certify the action as a class action"); Rule 23(d)(1)(D) ("In conducting an action under this rule, the court may issue orders that … require that the pleadings be amended to eliminate allegations about representation of absent persons and that the action proceed accordingly.").
(Emphases added.) The court found two different facial problems with plaintiffs’ proposed class action. First, the plaintiff’s proposed class would require applying the disparate legal rules of fifty different jurisdictions.
In the instant case, under applicable choice of law rules, the merits of the putative class members’ claims would be governed by the substantive law of each class member’s home state. Accordingly, the laws of all fifty states plus the District of Columbia would be applicable to the putative nationwide class members’ claims. Amongst the states, there are differences in the law of product liability as well as in the applicable theories of recovery and their subsidiary concepts. These differences, even if slight, are not insignificant. Indeed, "such differences have led [the Seventh Circuit] to hold that other warranty, fraud, or products-liability suits may not proceed as nationwide classes").
(Internal citations omitted.) As a result, the court held that the plaintiff could not maintain a nationwide class action based on her claims, because there was no way to reconcile the conflicting state laws. (The plaintiff did try to sidestep the problem by subclassing, but faced the additional obstacle that she did not have 49 other class representatives waiting in the wings.) This particular ruling makes a great deal of sense. There is no reason a court has to go beyond the pleadings to determine which states’ laws will apply to plaintiffs’ claims, or whether variations in state laws would preclude a nationwide class. There’s no question a state-law variations analysis takes work, but there’s no reason why that work had to wait until after discovery.
The court also that the complaint indicated a number of individualized factual inquiries would be necessary:
In the instant case, almost every element of the asserted claims will require highly individualized factual inquiries unique not only to each class member but also to each class member’s prescribing physician. For example, as defendants’ brief highlights, establishing causation will require (1) an examination of each class member’s medical history, including pre-existing conditions and use of other medications; (2) an evaluation of potential alternate causes for the alleged injury; and (3) an assessment of individualized issues pertaining to each class member’s prescriber, including how the doctor balances the risks and benefits of the medicine for that particular patient, the particular doctor’s prescribing practices, the doctor’s knowledge about the subject drug, and the doctor’s sources of information with regard to the subject drug.
As the court pointed out, this didn’t even begin to address the individualized reliance issues that come up in many fraud claims. But, given the elements of the plaintiff’s causes of action, there was no way around these particular individualized inquiries.
Given these various problems with plaintiff’s proposed class, the court granted Bayer’s motion to strike. What can defense counsel learn from this? Challenge bad class complaints early. Bayer had some great natural advantages; among other things, there is a long paper trail establishing how difficult it is to bring classwide personal injury claims. But so long as the defects that a motion to strike challenges are purely legal (such as the variations in different states’ laws), there is no reason why a defendant should have to wait until after a lengthy, expensive, and possibly unnecessary discovery period to challenge them.