Title insurers have been hit with a wave of putative class action lawsuits alleging that they improperly failed to provide discounts on premiums for title policies issued in connection with a refinancing.  (For more on this, see the Title Insurance page of this blog.)  Although some classes have been certified on this issue, the federal courts have been trending strongly against class certification, as now demonstrated by a Maine federal judge’s decertification of a class. 

In Loef v. First American Title Ins. Co., No. 2:08-cv-311-GZS, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 174313 (D. Me. Dec. 10, 2012), the court had previously certified, prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart, a class consisting of certain property owners in Maine who had refinanced their properties, purchased title insurance from First American, and paid more than the statutory refinance rate for their policy.  In connection with summary judgment briefing in this case, it became clear to the court that there were numerous factual disputes over whether particular class members (including the named plaintiff himself) were entitled to the refinance rate, for a variety of reasons.  Id. at *7-8.  In reevaluating its class certification ruling under Wal-Mart, and based on the more extensive record it now had, the district court followed the weight of authority in other courts (including two circuit-level rulings in similar cases), and found that neither commonality nor predominance was satisfied.  On commonality, the court concluded that:

What is now clear is that each class member presents unique facts as to what was presented in connection with their purchase of title insurance and what steps were taken to ascertain whether they qualified for First American’s published refinance rate. As a result, even assuming that the Class has a common injury (i.e., each was overcharged for title insurance by Defendant), merits discovery has not uncovered any common cause for that injury that can be traced to Defendant. Additionally, it is now clear that First American has different defenses as to why individual class members were not charged the refinance rate at the time of closing. See Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2561 (noting that defendant retains a right to litigate defenses to individual claims under Rule 23). Thus, there are not common answers to these common questions. In the absence of a common answer, neither liability nor damages can be established on a class wide basis.

Id. at *15.  On predominance, the court similarly concluded that: 

Even if the Court assumes that the Plaintiff could establish as a matter of law that First American had an absolute duty to charge the refinance rate in some circumstances, it is clear on the developed record that determining whether First American failed to fulfill that absolute duty will require individual review of each class member’s transaction. Despite access to merits discovery, Plaintiff has not presented sufficient evidence to create a trialworthy issue that there was a classwide failure on the part of First American title agents to charge the refinance rate.

Id. at *21-22.

This case is a good example of where the Wal-Mart decision, particularly the unanimous portion of the Wal-Mart opinion that stresses a defendant’s right to put on its individualized defenses, is making a difference in the lower courts.  From a defense strategy perspective, this case also illustrates the importance, as I’ve noted before, of digging into the details of the individual claims of class members and developing individualized defenses.  It is hard work, but the defendant’s position can be presented more persuasively with specific examples of individual class members’ transactions rather than the hypotheticals that are still often used. 

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Photo of Wystan Ackerman Wystan Ackerman

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you…

I am a partner at the law firm of Robinson+Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.  My contact information is on the contact page of my blog.  I really enjoy receiving questions, comments, suggestions and even criticism from readers.  So please e-mail me if you have something to say.  For those looking for my detailed law firm bio, click here.  If you want a more light-hearted and hopefully more interesting summary, read on:

People often ask about my unusual first name, Wystan.  It’s pronounced WISS-ten.  It’s not Winston.  There is no “n” in the middle.  It comes from my father’s favorite poet, W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden.  I’ve grown to like the fact that because my name is unusual people tend to remember it better, even if they don’t pronounce it right (and there is no need for anyone to use my last name because I’m always the only Wystan).

I grew up in Deep River, Connecticut, a small town on the west side of the Connecticut River in the south central part of the state.  I’ve always had strong interests in history, politics and baseball.  My heroes growing up were Abraham Lincoln and Wade Boggs (at that time the third baseman for the Boston Red Sox).  I think it was my early fascination with Lincoln that drove me to practice law.  I went to high school at The Williams School in New London, Connecticut, where I edited the school newspaper, played baseball, and was primarily responsible for the installation of a flag pole near the school entrance (it seemed like every other school had one but until my class raised the money and bought one at my urging, Williams had no flag pole).  As a high school senior, my interest in history and politics led me to score high enough on a test of those subjects to be chosen as one of Connecticut’s two delegates to the U.S. Senate Youth Program, which further solidified my interest in law and government.  One of my mentors at Williams was of the view that there were far too many lawyers and I should find something more useful to do, but if I really had to be a lawyer there was always room for one more.  I eventually decided to be that “one more.”  I went on to Bowdoin College, where I wrote for the Bowdoin Orient and majored in government, but took a lot of math classes because I found college math interesting and challenging.  I then went to Columbia Law School, where I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the minions who spent their time fastidiously cite-checking and Blue booking hundred-plus-page articles in the Columbia Law Review.  I also interned in the chambers of then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor when she was a relatively new judge on the Second Circuit, my only connection to someone who now has one-ninth of the last word on what constitutes the law of our land.  I graduated from Columbia in 2001, then worked at Skadden Arps in Boston before returning to Connecticut and joining Robinson+Cole, one of the largest Connecticut-based law firms.  At the end of 2008, I was elected a partner at Robinson+Cole.

I’ve worked on class actions since the start of my career at Skadden.  Being in the insurance capital of Hartford, we have a national insurance litigation practice and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on some prominent class actions arising from the 2004 hurricanes in Florida and later Hurricane Katrina, including cases involving the applicability of the flood exclusion, statutes known as valued policy laws, and various other issues.  My interest and experience in class actions gradually led me to focus on that area.

In Connecticut courts I’ve defended various kinds of class actions that go beyond insurance, including cases involving products liability, securities, financial services and consumer contracts.

My insurance class action practice usually takes me outside of Connecticut.  I’ve had the pleasure of working on cases in various federal and state courts and collaborating with great lawyers across the country.  While class actions are an increasingly large part of my practice, I don’t do exclusively class action work.  The rest of my practice involves litigating insurance coverage cases, often at the appellate level.  That also frequently takes me outside of Connecticut.  A highlight of my career thus far was working on Standard Fire Ins. Co. v. Knowles, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Class Action Fairness Act case.  I was Counsel of Record for Standard Fire on the cert petition, and had the pleasure of working with Ted Boutrous on the merits briefing and oral argument.

I started this blog because writing is one of my favorite things to do and I enjoy following developments in class action law, writing about them and engaging in discussion with others who have an in interest in this area.  It’s a welcome break from day-to-day practice, keeps me current, broadens my network and results in some new business.

When I’m not at my desk or flying around the country trying to save insurance companies from the plaintiffs’ bar, or attending a conference on class actions or insurance litigation (for more on those, see the Seminars/Programs page of this blog), I often can be found playing or reading with my young daughter, helping my wife with her real estate and mortgage businesses, reading a book about history or politics, or watching the Boston Red Sox (I managed to find bleacher seats for Game 2 of the 2004 World Series when Curt Schilling pitched with the bloody sock).  When the weather is good I also love to take the ferry to Block Island, Rhode Island and ride a bike or walk the trails there. If you go, I highly recommend the Clay Head Trail.