The Ninth Circuit recently addressed an issue that tends to arise frequently in class certification motion practice: how trial courts should apply the predominance requirement where appellate decisions have said that the need to calculate individualized damages generally is not sufficient on its own to defeat class certification, but some putative class members likely have no damages. On these types of issues, plaintiffs often try to characterize defendants’ arguments in opposition to class certification as raising mere “damages issues” that can be addressed individually at the end of a class case, and defendants often respond that the issues they raise go to liability, not merely damages, and in any event the damages trials would be too complicated and impractical. The Ninth Circuit recently clarified that if determining liability requires highly individualized inquiries, a class should not be certified, and any individualized damages trials would have to be feasible.

In Bowerman v. Field Asset Services, Inc., Nos. 18-16303, 18-17275, — F.4th –, 2022 WL 2433971 (9th Cir. July 5, 2022), the plaintiffs contracted with the defendant to perform preservation services on properties being foreclosed on. They claimed that they should have been classified as employees rather than independent contractors under California law, and therefore should have been paid overtime and reimbursed for business expenses. The district court certified a class, decided certain issues on partial summary judgment in favor of the class, and left for a later damages trial whether a class member worked overtime (and to what extent) and whether the class member was entitled to reimbursement for business expenses (and the amount thereof).

The Ninth Circuit reversed the class certification order. It explained that “We need not decide whether common evidence can prove that [defendant] has a uniform policy of misclassifying its vendors” because “[defendant’s] liability to any class member for failing to pay them overtime wages or to reimburse their business expenses would require highly individualized inquiries on whether that particular class member ever worked overtime or ever incurred any ‘necessary’ business expenses.” (Emphasis in original.) The plaintiffs had “mischaracterize[d] an issue of individualized liability as an issue of individualized damages.” (Emphasis in original.) The Ninth Circuit explained that if the question involves the existence of damages, that is a liability issue, not a damages issue.

The Ninth Circuit also concluded that, under its interpretation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27 (2013), the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that damages were “capable of measurement on a classwide basis” because they could not “show that the whole class suffered damages traceable to their alleged misclassification as independent contractors,” even if the amounts of those damages would need to be proven individually. In addition, determining damages would require “excessive difficulty” because there was little documentary evidence, and “using the individual testimony of self-interested class members to calculate the overtime hours they worked and the business expenses they incurred isn’t easy.” In a bellwether trial conducted by the district court, eight trial days had been required to determine damages for a sample of only eleven class members.

This decision helpfully clarifies the perennial debate between what constitutes a “damages” issue versus a “liability” issue. As I’ve often written on this blog, it can be helpful to think about the class certification analysis by analyzing how the named plaintiffs’ or putative class members’ claims would be tried in an ordinary individual case, and what evidence the defendant would be entitled to introduce. Here, the bellwether trial helped the Ninth Circuit determine that this case could not be litigated on a class basis.

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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.