California Supreme Court Deflates Ascertainability Requirement for Class Certification
Recently, in Noel v. Thrifty Payless, Inc., the California Supreme Court relaxed the ascertainability requirement for class certification in a significant ruling for class action plaintiffs.
In Noel, a consumer filed a putative class action under California unfair competition and false advertising laws alleging that a $59.99 Rite Aid inflatable outdoor pool was much smaller than advertised. (The lawsuit alleged that the kiddie pool’s packaging suggested it could hold four adults—realistically, the pool could barely fit four kids.)
In the trial court, Noel moved to certify the class as “all persons who purchased the Ready Set Pool at a Rite Aid store located in California within the four years preceding the date of filing this action.” Before filing his motion, Noel learned that Rite Aid had sold more than 20,000 inflatable pools. Significantly, however, Noel did not seek discovery as to the identity of these 20,000 customers, or the means by which their identities could be reasonably ascertained from Rite Aid’s records.
Under California Code of Civil Procedure section 382, a motion for class certification may be granted where there is “an ascertainable class and a well-defined community of interest among class members.” Satisfaction of the ascertainability requirement turns on: (1) class definition; (2) class size; and (3) means of identifying class members.
In Noel, the trial court denied class certification, finding that Noel failed to carry his burden of ascertainability. Looking to Section 382, the trial court determined that Noel was required to put on evidence as to the means by which notice could be provided to all affected class members.
Noel appealed to the First Appellate District. Finding no abuse of discretion, the court upheld the trial court’s denial of class certification. The court reasoned that the ascertainability requirement for class certification safeguards due process rights by ensuring that absent class members receive notice of their claims before releasing them. Accordingly, the court held that a showing of a practical means of identifying class members is a prerequisite to certification.
The California Supreme Court granted review to clarify what the ascertainability requirement necessitates. The Court reversed, holding that a proposed class is “ascertainable” when it is defined “in terms of objective characteristics and common transactional facts” that make “the ultimate identification of class members possible when that identification becomes necessary.” In simpler terms, a class action plaintiff need not introduce evidence establishing how notice will be provided to individual class members in order to demonstrate an ascertainable class. Instead, a plaintiff must only provide a class definition that will make the identification of class members possible. Looking to Noel’s class definition, the Court concluded that a class member “could appreciate from this definition whether he or she is included within it, and thus be in a position to take appropriate steps to protect his or her interests.”
Looking forward, the Noel decision’s significant relaxing of the ascertainability requirement may lead to more California decisions granting class certification.