Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ohio Supreme Court strikes blow to class action lawsuits

In recent terms, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown some hostility to class action lawsuits. 
  • In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the Court concluded that a district court must examine the underlying merits of a claim to determine if class certification is appropriate, and that a class must have some glue binding disparate decisions to justify certifying all of those decisions for consideration in one class. 
  • In Comcast v. Behrend, the Court expanded upon Dukes by concluding that a class that requires individualized proof to establish damages for each class member cannot survive as a class action.
The impact of these two decisions might to send class litigants, if possible, to state court. Dukes and Comcast are federal decisions under Federal Civil Rule 23. If a state’s class-action-certification rules are more lenient, then the class’s attorney will do whatever it takes to keep the class in state court. 

Yesterday, however, the Ohio Supreme Court made this strategy much more difficult. Stamcco, LLC v. United Telephone Co. of Ohio [pdf], is not an employment case. It involves allegations of cramming — claims that the defendant added unauthorized charges the class members’ telephone bills. Yet, this case has huge implications for how all class actions are litigated under Ohio law, including classes alleging, for example, violations of Ohio’s employment discrimination or wage and hour laws.

With extensive citations to, and discussion of, Dukes, the Court held:
At the certification stage in a class-action lawsuit, a trial court must undertake a rigorous analysis, which may include probing the underlying merits of the plaintiff’s claim, but only for the purpose of determining whether the plaintiff has satisfied the prerequisites of Civ.R. 23.
Implicitly adopting the logic of Comcast, the Court also held:
We now recognize that the need for individualized determinations is dispositive in concluding that the class does not comport with Civ.R. 23.
Rejecting the plaintiff’s claim that a court could apply a simple formula to data provided by the defendant to determine each member’s claim, the Court concluded that this case cried out for individualized determinations:
Unauthorized third-party charges are better resolved on an individual basis with the third party or UTO. UTO’s phone bills identify third-party charges, the entity responsible for the charge, and a toll-free number for billing inquiries. Moreover, UTO claims that it has a policy of removing third-party charges for the purpose of maintaining good will with its clients. Finally, for larger charges or where the charge cannot be resolved over the phone, small-claims court is also an option. Accordingly, because ascertaining whether third-party charges are authorized will require individualized determinations, common issues do not predominate.
One could apply the same logic to wage and hour claims. If an employer has, for example an open-door policy, and will consider providing redress to employees on a case-by-case basis for complaints about missing wages, one cannot apply a simple formula to calculate class-wide damages. Moreover, while the plaintiffs’ bar will lose their minds over the idea of small-claims court, it remains a viable option for employees to inexpensively litigate their right to missing wages. The $3,000 limit for small claims will cover the vast majority of individual wage and hour claims.

Stamcco is a huge victory for Ohio businesses. It is now that much harder to establish a class action, confirming that Ohio’s class-action rules fall in line with their federal counterparts.