One Man’s Trash . . . Whitton v. Defenbaugh, et al.
In an interesting opinion, United States District Judge Carlos Murguia disposed of Defendant Defenbaugh Disposal, Inc.’s Motion for Reconsideration which questioned compatibility of the District Court’s order certifying a class of consumers charged an “environmental/fuel charge” and an “administrative fee,” and a concurrent order denying summary judgment against the sole putative class representative based on the voluntary payment doctrine. Defenbaugh naturally questioned, among other less ripe issues, how the District Court could junk their summary judgment motion against Whitton as being too “heavily fact-dependent” to adjudicate at the summary judgment stage while concurrently certifying a class action. In his order denying reconsideration, Judge Murguia defended his orders as compatible because the summary judgment issue was decided only with respect to the putative class representative, Mr. Whitton, “meaning that only Mr. Whitton’s actions or knowledge were relevant to defendants’ motion for summary judgment,” while “predominance is analyzed in terms of all proposed plaintiffs – not just named-plaintiff Whitton.”
This is certainly true, but the logic smells fishy. The very definition of a class action, as a representative action, means that the actual claims of the absent class members will not be before the court, and that their claims must necessarily be adjudicated only through the prism of the named class representative. If the only class representative proffered is subject to uniquely problematic fact-laden defenses that don’t really apply to the rest of the class so as to create a predominance issue, is that class representative truly typical or even adequate? And how can predominance be assumed when the claims of the one proposed class representative raise such fact-dependent individualized defenses? In the end, the differing standards for granting summary judgment and certifying a class don’t appear to explain how the claims of a proposed class representative can be sufficiently individually fact-specific so as to preclude summary judgment on a dispositive defense, yet allow resolution of the class claims through the trial of that one peculiar individual’s claim. And if the District Court’s analysis is accurate – that only the class representative but not the absent class members may be subject to this individualized defense – is it fair to allow the claims of the absent class members to get trashed because the class representative is such a peculiarly vulnerable standard-bearer?