Class actions are usually won or lost at the class certification phase, when the court determines whether the case can in fact proceed on a class basis. In part guided by legislation that has sought to reign in class action abuse, and in part out of a desire to protect their limited resources from the headache of administering class actions, courts have become more particular about what types of claims will be amenable to class relief. Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal has just entered a ruling that illustrates some of the difficulties with certifying class actions.
The case was brought against a Miami-Dade County cemetery which had a history of poor record-keeping. For example, the cemetery lost track of burial locations on its grounds, as well as other records such as burial rights. Beginning in the 1990s, the cemetery was investigated by the Florida State Comptroller and placed under a series of regulatory orders requiring it to clean up its act. The Final Order was entered in 2002.
The lawsuit was brought after the Final Order, but the allegations were based on essentially the same type of harm that had been addressed by the Comptroller’s investigation. Testimony showed that a number of people had difficulty locating the burial locations of their loved ones at the cemetery. In a couple of instances, graves had to be partially exhumed to identify remains. Some of the testimony recounted in the opinion makes for difficult reading.
The class plaintiffs obtained certification of a class defined as:
[a]ll persons with burial plots or family members at Graceland Memorial Park South who were buried before 1994, that are unable to readily locate family members due to inadequate recordkeeping and identifying markers.
It was agreed by the parties that a survey and study would need to be carried out to identify the class members. The entire undertaking would have cost approximately $6 million.
Identifying Class Members
The problem, the appellate court found, was that this procedure for identifying the class members would require the defendant to carry out the very relief sought in Count IV of the class complaint. In that count, the plaintiffs demanded:
a permanent mandatory injunction that requires Defendants to fund a court supervised program that provides for an Examiner, the establishment of a Blue Ribbon panel of experts to survey, test, monitor and study the cemetery and disturbed remains to ascertain the location of and disposition of the subject remains and to insure their proper identification and perpetual care.
In other words, in order to be able to identify the class members, the defendant would be forced to undergo one of the punishments sought by the plaintiffs before a judgment could be reached. Such an arrangement, the court concluded, was fundamentally contrary to due process.
The court went on to find that the class should not have been certified because it raised claims that had been adjudicated in the administrative proceeding brought by the Comptroller. Those claims, the court found, were barred by the doctrine of res judicata – i.e., the thing has already been adjudicated.
Evidence is Individualized
Finally, the court found that the other claims could not proceed as a class action because the evidence would be too individualized, thus defeating the requirement that matters of proof be “common” to all class members. Claims that normally require proof of individual facts, such as whether a person actually relied on a statement, or whether a person suffered emotional harm, are generally not amenable to class relief.
Not every case involving multiple plaintiffs with the same or similar claims against a common defendant will be amenable to class relief.