I’ve written before about the uses to which defense counsel can put a well-taken named plaintiff deposition. And, once again, an opinion has come along that showcases just how important the named plaintiff deposition is as a weapon to defeat class certification.
The case, Burns v. Bayer Corp., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33183 (S.D. Ill. Mar. 13, 2012), is part of the Yaz multi-district litigation (which previously yielded an extremely useful motion to strike opinion). Yaz is an oral contraceptive, and the FDA has also approved it for use in treating acne and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. It has not yet approved the use of Yaz for alleviating less severe premenstrual symptoms (e.g., "that time of the month"), although some doctors have prescribed it for that purpose. The majority of the Yaz MDL cases have alleged that Yaz has some nasty side effects.
Unlike those cases, the Burns case–which was brought only under California law–attacked Yaz’s advertising. Ms. Burns sought to represent a class of
All consumers residing in the State of California who were exposed to Defendant’s Ads and purchased their prescription for YAZ for the first time, during the period of time between August 20, 2007 and January 26, 2009.
(Emphasis in original.) And her allegations–which included a claim under California’s False Advertising Law–accused Bayer of selling Yaz at an unfair premium by marketing it as a PMS palliative for women using contraceptives. Given California’s pro-plaintiff consumer laws, I’d guess that plaintiffs thought they had a strong case for class certification. The false advertising law, for example, does not require evidence of reliance, which would significantly reduce the number of individualized issues plaintiffs might face in proving their claims.
Despite these natural advantages to the case as plaintiffs’ counsel pled it, the court denied certification. And its reasons relied heavily on the deposition of the named plaintiff.
First, the court decided that the class was not ascertainable, even though plaintiffs offered an "objective" method of determining membership by asking each class member whether she had seen one of the advertisements, and whether she had bought Yaz.
[T]here is no objective way to determine who saw the complained of television advertisements. Instead, class membership would depend on the subjective and often unreliable vagaries of human memory. The record in the instant case exemplifies the problems that would arise in assessing actual exposure. The putative class representative, Frances Burns, initially claimed that prior to obtaining a prescription for YAZ in January 2008, she viewed the "Balloons" and "Not Gonna Take It" television advertisements. However, during her deposition, Ms. Burns testified that she couldn’t "recall specifically" which television advertisements she viewed or exactly when she viewed them. Further, Ms. Burns’ description of the advertisements she viewed prior to January 2008, indicates that she never saw the "Balloons" advertisement.
(Citations omitted, emphasis added.)
Second, the court found that the named plaintiff’s deposition testimony indicated that she was not typical of the class as her counsel had defined it.
Plaintiff’s UCL and FAL claims do not require a showing of reliance. Rather, plaintiff must show that the fraudulent conduct was "likely to deceive" a reasonable consumer. This standard is subject to common proof if the actionable conduct was both uniform and material. Thus, materiality is a relevant factor in the Court’s class certification analysis. In the instant case, plaintiff claims that she suffered from and sought treatment for premenstrual symptoms. The putative class, however, includes women who did not suffer from PMS or premenstrual symptoms, who did not require treatment for PMS or premenstrual symptoms, and/or who took oral contraceptives for the sole purpose of birth control. For these plaintiffs, the subject of the allegedly fraudulent advertisement campaign would not have been material. Plaintiff’s claims are not typical of these putative class members.
(Citations omitted, emphases added.)
And finally, the court looked closely at the Ms. Burns’s deposition testimony about how she became involved in the case.
The plaintiff and proposed class representative, Frances Burns, is a citizen of California. Ms. Burns is a "good friend" of and works with Aimee Lambert, the wife of Richard Lambert, one of the class attorneys. Ms. Burns became involved in this litigation after having a conversation with Ms. Lambert. During that conversation, Ms. Lambert told Ms. Burns about this litigation and informed her that her husband was having difficulty locating a suitable class representative.
(Citations omitted, emphasis added.) The court found that this "good" friendship with counsel’s wife meant Ms. Burns could not serve as an independent representative of the proposed class.
In the instant case, the disputed relationship does not rise to the level of a familial relationship and Ms. Burns and class counsel are not direct business associates. Nonetheless, the close relationship between Ms. Burns and counsel’s wife raises serious concerns as to Ms. Burns’s adequacy to represent the instant class. Given that the potential recovery for plaintiffs is minimal compared to the potentially high amount of attorneys’ fees that may be awarded, Ms. Burns may be more concerned with helping to maximize the monetary return of her "good friend" and co-worker (counsel’s wife) than with her duty to zealously advocate on behalf of the class’ interests. This is the type of situation that creates a conflict of interest. Considering this, the Court finds that Ms. Burns is not sufficiently independent of class counsel and does not satisfy the adequacy of representation prong.
(Citations omitted, emphasis added.)
The court also engaged in a lengthy and thorough analysis of the elements of each California claim to show that individual issues predominated over common ones. However, since it had found that the class was not properly defined, and that the named plaintiff was neither typical nor adequate, these findings were not strictly necessary to its denial. (On the other hand, they do strengthen its opinion, and ensure compliance with Rule 23(c)(1)(B).)
The lesson for defense counsel here is a simple, but very compelling one. Pay close attention to the deposition of the named plaintiff, in particular, what she heard, what she thought, and how she knows class counsel. In this case, the deposition of Ms. Burns was the best evidence Bayer had to defeat certification.