A recent decision by a Washington federal district court caught my eye because it involved a circumstance I often see—a new development in the law results in a class action lawsuit being filed before the defendant has an opportunity to change its practices in response to the change (or clarification) in the law. This decision highlights several arguments that defendants can make in defending against class certification in this type of case.

Morrison v. Esurance Ins. Co., 2020 WL 583824 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 6, 2020), arises from a Washington Supreme Court decision concluding that an insurer was not permitted to deny a claim for personal injury protection benefits under an automobile insurance policy solely based on a finding of maximum medical improvement. The court’s denial of class certification focused on two issues: the injunctive relief claim, and superiority under Rule 23(b)(3). First, the court found that a Rule 23(b)(2) class seeking injunctive relief was inappropriate for two reasons: (1) the claim for monetary relief was not incidental to the claim for injunctive or declaratory relief; and (2) the defendant had brought its procedures into compliance with the new decision, and thus “[a]ny request for injunctive relief is therefore moot” because “Plaintiff has failed to show any likelihood of the harm reoccurring.” Id. at *5. This is a key argument that defendants can make when a putative class action attempts to capitalize on a recent development in the law and the defendant has brought its procedures into compliance.

Second, the court found that certification of a damages class under Rule 23(b)(3) was not appropriate because superiority was not satisfied. The court first concluded that because individual suits could seek between $10,000 and $35,000 plus the possibility of treble damages and attorney’s fees, this “will provide substantial incentive for class members and their attorneys to prosecute claims individually.” Id. at *6. This can be a strong argument, particularly where the defendant can show that plaintiffs’ attorneys frequently file individual suits making claims similar to those alleged in the putative class action.

The court also concluded that the superiority requirement was not satisfied because determining who was in the class (which ultimately would have to be done in order to determine who is bound by any final judgment) would require mini-trials. This was because the insurer’s claim denial letters were not a sufficient basis to determine whether benefits were denied, or whether the denial was based on maximum medical improvement. The Ninth Circuit does not have a separate ascertainability requirement, but this is a good example of how a defendant can effectively make an argument about the class definition under the superiority criterion for class certification.

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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.