With Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, one question to ask is whether, if he is confirmed, that will move the Court to any degree in class action cases. Unfortunately, we don’t have much to look at. The D.C. Circuit, with its small geographic footprint, is not a hotbed of class action filings. I could not find any opinion written, or even joined by Judge Kavanaugh, that squarely reviewed a class certification decision. But a few insights might be gleaned from the following three cases:
- In re District of Columbia, 792 F.3d 96 (D.C. Cir. 2015): Here, Judge Kavanaugh was the presiding judge on the panel but assigned the opinion to Judge Wilkins. The court denied the District of Columbia’s petition for permission to appeal the district court’s order certifying a class. The plaintiffs alleged that the District failed to provide adequate community-based care for Medicare beneficiaries requiring long-term care. In denying permission to appeal, the court held that the District had failed to satisfy the D.C. Circuit’s criteria for granting Rule 23(f) review where the only argument made by the District was that the district court’s decision was “manifestly erroneous.” The court of appeals made clear that the “manifest error” standard was a “high bar,” the court was not deciding the merits of the class certification issues, and it had serious doubts about the district court’s decision. The central question (not decided) was whether there was “a policy or practice affecting all members of the class in the manner Wal-Mart requires for certification.” at 100. I don’t think this case suggests that Judge Kavanaugh would be reluctant to grant certiorari on class action issues, given the nature of the case and the limited basis on which the District sought review.
- Mills v. Giant of Md., LLC, 508 F.3d 11 (D.C. Cir. 2007): Judge Kavanaugh wrote this opinion about a year after he joined the D.C. Circuit. It was a class action in which the plaintiffs claimed that sellers of milk should be required to put warning labels on containers advising consumers that some people are lactose intolerant. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the case on the grounds that District of Columbia tort law did not protect against such a “widely known” risk. Judge Kavanaugh explained that “[a] bout of gas or indigestion does not justify a race to the courthouse,” “30 to 50 million Americans suffer from some level of lactose intolerance,” “products targeted to lactose-intolerant individuals are now commonplace,” and “the problem of lactose intolerance has received an extraordinary amount of attention in the media and in the medical community.” He wrote a short opinion, noting that “[w]e will not belabor the obvious.” The outcome here is not remarkable. The opinion suggests that Judge Kavanaugh is unlikely to use the more colorful language than Justices Scalia or Kagan might use in deciding such a case.
- Cohen v. United States, 650 F.3d 717 (D.C. Cir. 2011): This is an en banc decision in which Judge Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion. It involved a class action in which the plaintiffs challenged the sufficiency of a refund procedure created by the IRS to refund excessive taxes collected on long-distance telephone calls (remember those days when long-distance calls were more expensive?). The majority opinion focused on jurisdictional issues and the Administrative Procedure Act, concluding that the plaintiffs could pursue their suit without having to file refund claims or individual tax refund suits. Judge Kavanaugh wrote a dissent that focused on how the refund procedure was relatively simple, and the plaintiffs could have filed refund claims or brought individual tax refund suits. He wrote that: “Plaintiffs’ ultimate objectives are class certification and a court order that the U.S. Government pay billions of dollars in additional refunds to millions of as-yet-unnamed individuals who never sought refunds from the IRS or filed tax refund suits. It seems that plaintiffs have deliberately avoided filing individual refund claims with the IRS and filing tax refund suits because they think they have a better chance of obtaining class certification if they don’t take those steps. And class certification is a necessary prerequisite to the class-wide jackpot plaintiffs are seeking here.” at 737 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting). Judge Kavanaugh and the judges who joined his opinion would have held that individual tax refund suits would be an adequate forum for plaintiffs to pursue their claims. This opinion seems to demonstrate that Judge Kavanaugh has a good handle on the reality and practicalities of modern class action litigation and might be persuaded, at least in some circumstances, that under the superiority requirement for certification under Rule 23(b)(3), individual suits and/or a voluntary refund process are a superior means of resolving class claims.
Overall, we have few data points to draw from, but I found no reason to think that a Justice Kavanaugh would consistently vote differently in class action cases as compared with Justice Kennedy.