Today the Eleventh Circuit vacated a class certification order after finding "numerous flaws, both procedural and substantive" in the district court's analysis. Vega v. T-Mobile USA Inc., No. 07-13864 (11th Cir. Apr. 7, 2009).
Blawgletter sees nothing remarkable in the basic decision. The plaintiff, Henry Vega, made quite the hash of his basic claim, which seems to relate somehow to T-Mobile's shortchanging of sales employees on commissions for peddling wireless telephone service plans. Vega at first didn't allege breach of contract, didn't identify any contract that T-Mobile might have breached, cited an inapplicable state statute, changed his mind about the breach of contract thing, asked for leave to amend his complaint (without success) to assert a breach of contract, argued he really had a breach of contract claim after all, and at last specified a document that by its terms plainly negated the existence of any contract. That left him with unjust enrichment, an equitable-type claim that (per the Eleventh Circuit) almost never deserves class treatment (because it requires individual balancing of equities for each class member).
No, the interesting part concerned something else — the Eleventh Circuit's vexation at the confusion of merits issues with class certification questions. "By putting off these [certification] issues until trial, or blinking them entirely, both Vega and the district court ran an unnecessarily high risk of introducing needless and avoidable complexity into an already complex case." Id., slip op. at 45. Further:
By delaying the class certification decision until shortly before trial, and also by combining the class certification order with its disposition of T-Mobile’s motion for summary judgment, the district court also made it more likely that the discrete issues involved in class certification would become needlessly intertwined with the merits of the case dispositive motion. The record suggests that this is indeed what happened in this case, as the parties’ arguments surrounding the class certification issues tend to bleed into a deeper discussion of the merits than is necessary to resolve the Rule 23 question. The district court could have prevented, or at least reduced, this confusion by keeping the class certification determination both conceptually and temporally distinct from its merits ruling on summary judgment.
Id. at 46 n.21.
The court's distress runs counter to the now-common view among class action defendants that Rule 23 now allows — even requires — examination of just about any "merits" issue. Vega offers a welcome reminder that certification isn't the time to resolve questions going to the merits. The principal issue remains whether the plaintiffs have shown they can prove their claims with class-wide proof. Resolving whether the claims survive summary judgment or prevail at trial is for another day.