Pomerantz LLP

A New Way to Curtail Class Actions?

The Pomerantz Monitor, September/October 2013 

A recent decision by the Third Circuit has the potential to further restrain consumer and other types of class actions. Last August, in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., the Third Circuit reversed and remanded the certification of a class of Florida consumers who purchased Bayer's One–A–Day WeightSmart diet supplements. 

This was a potential class action by consumers claiming that Bayer falsely and deceptively advertised its supplement. When the District Court certified the class, Bayer appealed, arguing that class certification was improper because the class members were not “ascertainable”. This requirement means that “the class definition must be sufficiently definite so that it is administratively feasible to determine whether a particular person is a class member.” This is important because all class members have to be notified if a class has been certified or if a settlement has been reached, and because, if there is a recovery for the class, the court can determine who is entitled to share in it, and who isn’t. 

Here the class was to consist of everyone who purchased the supplement in Florida. Figuring out who these people are is no easy matter. In securities cases, for example, there are brokerage and other records identifying everyone who bought or owned a particular security at a particular time. Similarly, records are kept of everyone who purchases prescription drugs. But no one keeps a comprehensive list of everyone who buys consumer products like over the counter diet supplements. If such a list must exist in order to certify a class action, it will be a major roadblock in many cases. 

Plaintiffs here proposed that class members could be identified through retailers’ records of online sales and of sales made through store loyalty or reward cards. They also suggested that when class members file their individual proofs of claim to share in any recovery, they could submit affidavits attesting that they purchased WeightSmart and stating the amount they paid and the quantity purchased. 

The Third Circuit rejected those arguments, concluding that it could not know for certain whether retailers’ records would identify all or most of the class members. It also held that affidavits from people who claimed, without documentary proof, that they bought the product could be unreliable. 

It is too soon to know whether other Circuits will follow suit and adopt this standard for ascertainability. If they do that would be a problem. There are many products sold for which there is no comprehensive and authoritative source identifying all purchasers. In such cases, purchasers may have no feasible method for seeking recourse if defendants engage in deceptive or illegal conduct.