Articles Posted in Class Action Articles

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Class Action Treatment of Sex Discrimination in Promotion Claim Against Wal-Mart not Proper because Commonality Requirement not Met and because Rule 23(b)(2) Class Inappropriate given Monetary Relief Sought Supreme Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative labor law class action against Wal-Mart Stores, alleging systematic discrimination against women in pay and promotion in violation of Title VII. Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 564 U.S. ___ (June 20, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 1]. The class action sought injunctive and declaratory relief, but also sought monetary damages in the form of backpay. Id. The theory underlying the class action against Wal-Mart was not that the company had “any express corporate policy against the advancement of women” but, rather, that Wal-Mart’s local managers “[exercised] discretion over pay and promotion…disproportionately in favor of men, leading to an unlawful disparate impact on female employees.” Id., at 4. As the Supreme Court explained, “The basic theory of the[] case is that a strong and uniform ‘corporate culture’ permits bias against women to infect, perhaps subconsciously, the discretionary decisionmaking of each one of Wal-Mart’s thousands of managers – thereby making every woman at the company the victim of one common discriminatory practice.” Id. The district court certified a nationwide class action against Wal-Mart consisting of approximately 1.5 million current and former female employees, id., at 1. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the class action certification order, id. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.

By way of background, the Supreme Court noted that Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States, operating 4 types of retail stores (Discount Stores, Neighborhood Markets, Sam’s Clubs and Superstores) that are “divided into seven nationwide divisions, which in turn comprise 41 regions of 80 to 85 stores apiece,” each with 40-53 separate departments and anywhere 80-500 employees. Wal-Mart, at 1-2. Decisions regarding pay and promotion “are generally committed to local managers’ broad discretion, which is exercised ‘ in a largely subjective manner.’” Id., at 2, quoting 222 F.R.D. 137, 145 (N.D. Cal. 2004). With respect to the individual named plaintiffs, Betty Dukes began working for Wal-Mart in 1994 and was eventually promoted to customer service manager before being demoted all the way down to greeter due to “a series of disciplinary violations.” Id., at 3. Dukes admitted that she violated company policy, but claimed that her demotions were “retaliation for invoking internal complaint procedures and that male employees have not been disciplined for similar infractions.” Id. Christine Kwapnoski worked at Sam’s Club “for most of her adult life” and held various positions, “including a supervisory position,” but she claimed that her male manager yelled at her and other female employees (but not at men) and told her to dress better, wear makeup and “doll up.” Id. Edith Arana worked at Wal-Mart from 1995-2001, and in 2000 repeatedly asked her store manager about management training “but was brushed off.” Id. She followed internal complaint procedures and was advised to bypass her store manager and apply directly to the district manager for management training, but she elected not to do so. Id. Arana was fired in 2001 for failing to comply with the company’s timekeeping policy. Id.

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Trial Court Order Requiring Starbucks to Identify and Disclose Job Applicants with Marijuana Convictions Violates the Privacy Rights Sought to be Redressed by Putative Class Action California Appellate Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Starbucks for allegedly violating California marijuana laws by asking prospective employees to disclose, on a preprinted form, whether they had suffered any marijuana convictions. Starbucks Corp. v. Superior Court, ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (Cal.App. April 25, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 2]. The class action complaint was premised on the fact that “[I]n the mid-1970s, the California Legislature reformed the state’s marijuana laws to require the ‘destruction’ by ‘permanent obliteration’ of all records of minor marijuana convictions that were more than two years old. Employers were prohibited from even asking about such convictions on their job applications, with statutory penalties of the greater of actual damages, or $200 per aggrieved applicant.” Id. The class action sought $26 million on behalf of 135,000 job applicants, alleging that Starbucks “failed to adequately advise job applicants not to disclose minor marijuana convictions more than two years old.” Id., at 2-3. During the litigation, the Court of Appeal held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to prosecute the class action “because none had any marijuana convictions to reveal.” Id., at 2 (citing Starbucks Corp. v. Superior Court (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 1436). Accordingly, the trial court subsequently granted Starbuck’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the named plaintiffs as class representatives. Id. However, rather than dismissing the lawsuit, the trial court ruled that plaintiffs could “file a first amended complaint to include only job applicants with marijuana convictions” as class members, and could “conduct further discovery to find a ‘suitable’ class representative.” Id. Toward that end, Starbucks was ordered “to randomly review job applications until it identifies job applicants with prior marijuana convictions” and to then disclose those names to plaintiffs’ counsel “unless they affirmatively opt out to a neutral administrator.” Id. Starbucks again sought writ review and the Court of Appeal reversed.

This case is surprisingly simple. As the Court of Appeal summarized its opinion, “By providing for the disclosure of job applicants with minor marijuana convictions, the discovery order ironically violates the very marijuana reform legislation the class action purports to enforce. We fail to understand how destroying applicants’ statutory privacy rights can serve to protect them.” Starbucks, at 2-3.

By way of background, the trial court believed plaintiffs had standing to prosecute this putative class action: “None of the plaintiffs had been convicted of a marijuana-related crime. But they contended that California law allowed any job applicant to receive a minimum statutory penalty of $200 per applicant if they filled out an improper job application.” Starbucks, at 3. The trial court agreed with plaintiffs, and found that every job applicant was entitled to receive the $200 statutory penalty “even those who never had sustained a marijuana conviction,” id. The appellate court disagreed, holding that “neither plaintiffs nor the tens of thousands of job applicants they purported to represent were entitled to recover statutory penalties where they did not have any marijuana convictions to disclose.” Id. Rather, “Only an individual with a marijuana-related conviction falls within the class of people the Legislature sought to protect.” (168 Cal.App.4th at 1449.)

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Trial Court did not Abuse Discretion in Denying Class Action Certification of Store Manager Misclassification Claim because Individual Questions Predominate California Appellate Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against their former employer, Big Lots Stores, alleging violations of California’s Labor Code for failure to pay them overtime or to compensate them for missed meal and rest periods. Mora v. Big Lots Stores, Inc., ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (Cal.App. April 18, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 2]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, defendant “uniformly misclassifies its store manager as exempt employees based on their job description alone rather than on consideration of actual work performed, which involves a significant amount of time on nonexempt tasks.” Id. Specifically, plaintiff’s class action complaint alleged that Big Lots operates “closeout retail stores in California, [and] has intentionally and improperly designated certain employees as ‘exempt’ store managers in order to avoid payment of overtime wages and other benefits required by [California law].” Id. Plaintiffs’ counsel moved to certify the litigation as a class action; the trial court denied the motion finding “the company does not operate its stores in a standardized manner and has no systematic practice of misclassification of managers.” Id. Plaintiffs appealed. The California Court of Appeal affirmed.

The evidence presented by both sides was substantial. Plaintiffs cited defendant’s deposition testimony to establish that Big Lots “classified all its store managers in California as falling within the ‘executive exemption’” as its basis for failing to pay them overtime or provide meal and rest breaks. Mora, at 4, Plaintiffs also submitted declarations from 44 putative class members to “demonstrate[] that the basic job duties of store managers in California are the same regardless of location and that Big Lots runs all its stores in the state in a uniform and standardized manner.” Id. These declarations also stated that “Strict compliance with corporate manuals and actions plans, which set forth state-wide policies and procedures, is required; and such compliance is ensured by district managers, who supervise all store managers.” Moreover, “training of store managers is standardized, and their job performance is evaluated on the same basis and on the same form regardless of purported store-to-store differences.” Id. The declarations “averred that store managers are primarily engaged in nonexempt activities and routinely work more than 40 hours per week,” and that they “typically spend more than 75% of their time performing the same physical labor and routine clerical tasks” as nonexempt employees. Id., at 4-5. Finally, plaintiffs submitted an expert declaration in support of their motion for class action treatment. Id., at 5-6.

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District Court Failed to Consider the Manner in which a Class Action Trial would Proceed Prior to Granting Class Action Treatment, Requiring Reversal of Class Action Certification for Abuse of Discretion Fifth Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Chalmette Refining following the release of petroleum coke dust from the Chalmette Refinery. Madison v. Chalmette Refining, L.L.C., ___ F.3d ___ (5th Cir. April 24, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 2]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiffs (a group of school children and their parent and teachers) were exposed to the petroleum coke dust while reenacting a battle at the Chalmette National Battlefield, located adjacent to the refinery. Id. The class action complaint sought damages for “personal injury, fear, anguish, discomfort, inconvenience, pain and suffering, emotional distress, psychiatric and psychological damages, evacuation, economic damages, and property damages.” Id. Consistent with Fifth Circuit authority, the district court allowed the parties to conduct pre-certification discovery relevant to the propriety of class action treatment. Id. Defense attorneys deposed the five named plaintiffs, but plaintiffs’ counsel elected not to conduct discovery. Id. Plaintiffs then sought class action certification of a Rule 23(b)(3) class, which defendant opposed. Id., at 2-3. “Over two years later, the district court held a hearing on the motion to certify the class. At the conclusion of that hearing, and without any evidence being introduced, the district court orally granted Plaintiffs’ motion.” Id., at 3. Defendant petitioned the Fifth Circuit for leave to take an interlocutory appeal, which the Fifth Circuit granted. Id. Two months later (and after the Fifth Circuit had granted defendant’s petition for interlocutory appeal), the district court issued a written order granting class certification. Id. The Circuit Court reversed.

After summarizing the requirements for class action treatment under Rule 23, see Madison, at 3-4, the Circuit Court opened its analysis at page 4 with the following observation: “Recognizing the important due process concerns of both plaintiffs and defendants inherent in the certification decision, the Supreme Court requires district courts to conduct a rigorous analysis of Rule 23 prerequisites.” The Fifth Circuit stressed that the moving party bears the burden of satisfying the requirements of Rule 23, and that the district court must take “‘a close look at the case before it is accepted as a class action.’” Id., at 4 (quoting Amchem Prods. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 613 (1997)). The lower court, however, failed to perform such an analysis. Rather, the district court found it sufficient that “there is one set of operative facts that [will] determine liability” because “Plaintiffs were either on the battlefield and exposed to the coke dust or they were not.” Id., at 6.

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District Court did not Abuse its Discretion in Decertifying Class Action Alleging Misclassification of Employees based on its Determination that Common Question of Law and Fact did not Exist Ninth Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a putative class action against his employer, United Parcel Service (UPS), alleging violations of California’s Labor Code for failure to pay him overtime or to compensate him for missed meal and rest periods. Marlo v. United Parcel Service, Inc., ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. April 28, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 5544]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiff worked as a full-time supervisor (FTS) for UPS from 1999 to 2008, and “worked more than forty hours per week on a regular basis without taking meal or rest-period breaks, or receiving overtime compensation.” Id. Because he was an FTS, UPS classified plaintiff as exempt from California’s overtime law under the executive and administrative exemptions. Id. Plaintiff alleged that he had been misclassified, and sought and obtained an order certifying the litigation as a class action. Id. The district court subsequently granted summary judgment in favor of UPS, but the Ninth Circuit reversed finding that plaintiff “ha[d] raised material issues of fact related to whether the FTS ‘customarily and regularly exercise[] discretion and independent judgment.’” Id., at 5545 (quoting Marlo v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 254 Fed. App’x. 568, 568 (9th Cir. 2007)). On remand, however, the district court decertified the class, finding that plaintiff “had failed to establish that common issues of law or fact predominated over individual ones” as required by Rule 23(b)(3). Id., at 5544. A juy returned a partial verdict in favor of plaintiff, finding that the executive and administrative exemptions did not apply to certain supervisorial positions plaintiff held. Id., at 5546. Both sides appealed. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the decertification order, id., at 5544.

The decertification order was based on “doubt regarding the continuing efficacy of a class action in this case.” Marlo, at 5545 (quoting Marlo v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 251 F.R.D. 476, 480 (C.D. Cal. 2008)). In part, the district court reasoned that “the existence of a uniform policy classifying FTS as exempt is insufficient absent evidence of misclassification,” and that plaintiff “had relied heavily on a survey that was neither reliable nor representative of the class.” Id. (citations omitted). The court explained at 251 F.R.D. at 486,

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Class Action Waivers in Arbitration Agreements are Valid under Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and California’s Discover Bank Rule, Which Found Such Waivers Unenforceable as Unconscionable Under State Law, is Preempted by the FAA Supreme Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action in California federal court against AT&T Mobility, with whom they had cellular telephone service, alleging “false advertising and fraud by charging sales tax on phones it advertised as free.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, ___ U.S. ___ (April 27, 2011) [Slip Opn., at 2-3]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiffs purchased cellular telephone service from AT&T based on an advertisement for “free phones” because, even though they were not charged for the telephones, “they were charged $30.22 in sales tax based on the phones’ retail value.” Id. Defense attorneys moved to compel arbitration, id., at 3. The cellular telephone service contract required arbitration of disputes between the parties and included a class action waiver, providing that claims must be brought in a “individual capacity, and not as a plaintiff or class member in any purported class or representative proceeding.” Id., at 1. Plaintiffs opposed arbitration on the grounds that the class action waiver was unconscionable under California law. Id., at 3. Despite viewing the arbitration agreement “favorably,” the district court denied AT&T’s motion to compel arbitration because the class action waiver rendered the arbitration clause unconscionable under California law based on Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal.4th 148 (Cal. 2005). Id. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that “the Discover Bank rule was not preempted by the FAA because that rule was simply a ‘refinement of the unconscionability analysis applicable to contracts generally in California.’” Id., at 3-4 (citing Laster v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 584 F.3d 849, 857 (9th Cir. 2009). The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed.

The service agreement was consumer-friendly: It provided that a customer could initiate a dispute by filling out a one-page form available online, and if not resolved to the customer’s satisfaction within 30 days, the customer could initiate arbitration by filling out another form available online. If a customer commenced arbitration proceedings, the arbitration would be held “in the county in which the customer is billed” and AT&T was required to “pay all costs for nonfrivolous claims.” AT&T Mobility, at 2. (The customer could also elect to proceed in small claims court. Id.) Moreover, if the amount in dispute was less than $10,000, then the customer could elect whether the arbitration should be conducted “in person, by telephone, or based only on submissions.” Id. Additionally, “the arbitrator may award any form of individual relief, including injunctions and presumably punitive damages.” Id. AT&T was prohibited from seeking reimbursement of its attorney fees, and “in the event that a customer receives an arbitration award greater than AT&T’s last written settlement offer,” then the service agreement “requires AT&T to pay a $7,500 minimum recovery and twice the amount of the claimant’s attorney’s fees.” Id. (footnote omitted). Yet despite what appears to have been every effort to craft an arbitration clause favorable to its customer, albeit prohibiting class actions, the lower courts found the arbitration clause unconscionable and unenforceable under the Discover Bank rule. The Supreme Court reversed.

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Trial Court Erred in Dismissing Class Action Complaint because Retailer Request for ZIP Codes Violated Song-Beverly Consumer Protection Statute California Supreme Court Holds

Plaintiff filed a putative class action against retailer Williams-Sonoma alleging that it violated California’s Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971 (one of the State’s consumer protection statutes) by asking her for her ZIP code at the time of her purchase. Pineda v. Williams-Sonoma Stores, Inc., 51 Cal.4th 524 (Cal. 2011) [Slip Opn., at 1]. In relevant part, Song-Beverly “prohibits businesses from requesting that cardholders provide ‘personal identification information’ during credit card transactions, and then recording that information.” Id. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiff provided her ZIP code because she believed it was required in order to complete her credit card purchase. Id., at 1-2. More importantly, the class action alleged that Williams-Sonoma “subsequently used her name and ZIP code to locate her home address.” Id., at 2. Defense attorneys demurred to the class action complaint on the grounds that a ZIP code is not personal identification information within the meaning of Song-Beverly. Id., at 3. The trial court sustained the demurrer, and the Court of Appeal affirmed based, in part, on Party City Corp. v. Superior Court, 169 Cal.App.4th 497 (Cal.App. 2008), which had previously held that “a ZIP code, without more, does not constitute personal identification information.” Id., at 3-4 (citation omitted). The California Supreme Court granted review and reversed.

As noted above, the class action complaint alleged that defendant requested that customers provide ZIP codes at point of sale. Pineda, at 2-3. The thrust of the class action complaint was that “[a]t the end of the transaction, defendant had plaintiff’s credit card number, name, and ZIP code recorded in its database.” Id., at 3. The Supreme Court summarized the critical facts as follows: “Defendant subsequently used customized computer software to perform reverse searches from databases that contain millions of names, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, and street addresses, and that are indexed in a manner resembling a reverse telephone book. The software matched plaintiff’s name and ZIP code with plaintiff’s previously undisclosed address, giving defendant the information, which it now maintains in its own database. Defendant uses its database to market products to customers and may also sell the information it has compiled to other businesses.Id. (italics added). It is undisputed that defendant could not, consistent with Song-Beverly, have asked plaintiff for her home address; the issue presented was whether defendant could, consistent with Song-Beverly, have asked plaintiff for her ZIP code and then use it to obtain her home address.

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An Introduction To Issues That Must Be Addressed By Any Country Considering Enacting Or Modifying Class Action Legislation

Several countries are considering the use of class action lawsuits. This article’s purpose is to identify the important issues one should consider in evaluating the fairness and efficacy of class action litigation.

A class action lawsuit can be devastating. The staggering costs of merely defending against one – let alone the cost of actually losing – have forced many American corporations into bankruptcy or caused their management teams to be replaced. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that class action discovery can be a form of extortion; it can force a company to surrender and settle a lawsuit, because it cannot afford to properly defend itself.

When it devised the class action lawsuit as a procedure to streamline civil litigation, Congress did not anticipate it would be used as a weapon to injure companies which may have technically violated that law, but not caused any harm. In California, alone, up to 100 class action lawsuits are filed every week – thousands every year. Most are not properly class actions in the true sense; they are not legal proceedings in which persons represent interests common to a large group of persons who have been actually injured. Instead, most are premised on the technical violation of some statute, where the supposed violation has not actually harmed anyone. Frequently, an attorney files a class action so he can compel defendants to settle it, and he can demand attorney fees as a direct result. Essentially, most class action lawsuits are “attorney fee motions” disguised as “legitimate” lawsuits.

A country considering implementing a class action system should learn from our flawed system. The author cannot address all of the factors a country should consider in determining whether to implement a class action procedure, or what limits to impose to prevent lawsuits from being filed for the sake of generating attorney fees rather than helping injured people. But the author hopes it will give legislative bodies pause to consider consequences that follow class action litigation.

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Following Removal of Class Action to Federal Court under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act), Plaintiffs Decision to Amend Complaint to Eliminate Class Action Allegations did not Destroy Federal Court Jurisdiction because Jurisdiction is Determined at Time of Removal and is not Affected by Subsequent Events Seventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action in Wisconsin state court against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation alleging that defendants’ “failure to inspect and maintain a railroad trestle caused the town to flood in July 2007, damaging their property.” In re Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., 606 F.3d 379, 379-80 (7th Cir. 2010). Defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act); plaintiffs then amended the complaint to remove the class action allegations and the district court remanded the matter to state court on the ground that without the class action allegations federal court jurisdiction was lacking under CAFA. Id., at 379. Id. Defense attorneys sought leave to appeal the remand order; the Seventh Circuit granted the petition and reversed.

The Seventh Circuit noted that “the parties battled extensively over jurisdiction” in the district court. In re Burlington, at 380. Defense attorneys argued diversity jurisdiction existed because the joinder of the non-diverse individual employee defendants was fraudulent, but the district court found it to be tactical rather than fraudulent. Id. The district court agreed, however, that jurisdiction existed under CAFA, and denied plaintiffs’ first motion to remand. Id. Plaintiffs thereafter sought and obtained leave of court to amend the complaint to remove the class action allegations. Id. The federal court also considered the motion to amend to be “an implied motion to remand the case, which it granted.” Id. In the district court’s view, because the amended complaint did not contain any class action allegations, jurisdiction under CAFA no longer existed. Id.

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District Court Erred in Granting Class Action Certification because Expert Testimony Establishing Rule 23(b)(3)’s Predominance Prong was Unreliable and District Court’s Daubert Analysis Inadequate Seventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against American Honda and Honda of America (collectively “Honda”) alleging product defect liability concerning Honda’s Gold Wing GL1800 motorcycle; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that a design defect in the steering assembly causes the motorcycle to “wobble.” American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Allen, 600 F.3d 813, 814 (7th Cir. 2010). Plaintiffs moved the district court to certify the litigation as a class action under Rule 23(b)(3), relying heavily on an expert’s opinion that common issues predominate; Honda opposed class action treatment and challenged the expert opinion relied upon by plaintiffs in their motion. Id. Defense attorneys moved under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), to strike plaintiffs’ expert report on the grounds that the expert’s “wobble decay standard was unreliable because it was not supported by empirical testing, was not developed through a recognized standard-setting procedure, was not generally accepted in the relevant scientific, technical, or professional community, and was not the product of independent research.” Id. The district court agreed to rule on the admissibility of the report prior to ruling on class certification because the report was central to the motion, id. But while the court announced “definite reservations about the reliability of [the expert’s] wobble decay standard,” it refused to exclude the report entirely “at this early stage of the proceedings.” Id., at 814-15. The district court granted class action certification, id., at 815, and Honda sought leave to appeal, id., at 814. The Seventh Circuit granted Honda’s request and reversed.

The Circuit Court explained that the issue before it was “whether the district court must conclusively rule on the admissibility of an expert opinion prior to class certification in this case because that opinion is essential to the certification decision.” American Honda, at 814. The Court summarized the expert’s “wobble decay” opinion, which was based on a standard the expert himself had devised and that he himself characterized as “reasonable.” Id. The expert opinion was important because “most of Plaintiffs’ predominance arguments rest upon the theories advanced by [their expert].” Id. (quoting Allen v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 264 F.R.D. 412, 425 (N.D. Ill. 2009)). In response to Honda’s objections and following the Daubert hearing, the district court “noted that it was concerned that, among other things, [the expert’s] wobble decay standard may not be supported by empirical evidence, the standard has not been generally accepted by the engineering community, and [his] test sample of one may be inadequate to conclude that the entire fleet of GL1800s is defective.” Id., at 814-15. Nevertheless, the lower court believed it was too early in the litigation to dismiss the4 expert’s opinion in its entirety, and so it granted class action treatment without prejudice to Honda moving to exclude the expert’s opinion. Id., at 815.

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