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.