California Supreme Court rejects strict class-certification “ascertainability” requirement

The California Supreme Court today issued its unanimous decision in Noel v. Thrifty Payless Inc., which rejected a strict class-certification "ascertainability" requirement sometimes associated with decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. This paragraph sums up the issue and the court's conclusion:

This case is a putative class action brought on behalf of retail purchasers of an inflatable outdoor pool sold in packaging that allegedly misled buyers about the pool’s size. We must decide whether the trial court abused its discretion when it denied the representative plaintiff’s motion for class certification on the basis that he had not supplied evidence showing how class members might be individually identified when the time came to do so. The Court of Appeal upheld this ruling. It reasoned that this evidence was necessary to ensure that proper notice would be given to the class, and that without it, the trial court could appropriately conclude that plaintiff had not satisfied the ascertainability requirement for class certification. We conclude that the trial court erred in demanding that plaintiff offer such evidence to satisfy the ascertainability requirement.

The Noel decision — which interprets California's class action rule, not federal Rule 23 — is a victory for consumers. Imposing a strict ascertainability requirement is part of the corporate effort to weaken consumer class actions by pushing various attributes or needs of class litigation — such as identifying and notifying the class members — to the beginning of the case as a prerequisite for certification. The California Supreme Court properly rejected that effort here.

UPDATE: As legal reporter Perry Cooper noted in her piece on Noel, "the Third Circuit appears to have backed off its strict interpretation of the [ascertainability] requirement."

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