In Denying Class Action Certification Motion, Trial Court Erred in Examining Commonality from Perspective of Individual Class Member Claims rather than Overarching Conduct of Defendants Applicable to Entire Class California Court Holds
A wide array of plaintiffs filed a putative class action for injunctive and declaratory relief against various State of California defendants for failure to provide community living arrangements under California’s Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act and alleging a “systemic failure of the state agencies and regional centers to provide proper oversight and enforce constitutional, statutory and regulatory mandates to place individuals in less restrictive community settings when appropriate.” Capitol People First v. Dep’t of Developmental Services, 155 Cal.App.4th 676, 66 Cal.Rptr.3d 300, 304-05 (Cal.App. 2007). Plaintiffs sought class action certification; defense attorneys opposed class action treatment on the ground that commonality did not exist, that plaintiffs were not adequate class representatives, and that a class action was not the superior means of resolving the issues in dispute. Id., at 305. The trial court agreed with defense counsel and denied class action certification; the Court of Appeal reversed and affirmatively instructed the trial court to grant plaintiffs’ motion for class action treatment.
California’s Lanterman Act, enacted in 1977, “establishes a comprehensive scheme for providing services to people with developmental disabilities” and provides that “[t]o the maximum extent feasible, services and supports should be available throughout the state to prevent the dislocation of persons with developmental disabilities from their home communities.” Capitol People, at 305 (citation omitted). The theme underlying the class action was that individuals were being institutionalized in violation of the Lanterman Act, and sought to enforce the right of developmentally disabled individuals “to live, with appropriate supports, in [their local] neighborhoods.” Id., at 308. The class action complaint challenged the State’s pattern and practice of “under-funding” of community services so as to require institutionalization, id., at 308-09. Importantly, ten institutionalized individuals and two organizations sought leave to intervene on the ground that the named plaintiffs’ interests were “hostile” to their own, and that “the relief they sought would impair the rights of those persons whose needs are best met in a developmental center.” Id., at 310. The trial court granted limited intervention, id.
In response to plaintiffs’ motion for class action certification, the trial court held that (1) commonality did not exist, (2) plaintiffs were not adequate class representatives, and (3) class action treatment was not the superior means of redress; rather, the fair hearing procedure provided under the Lanterman Act adequately redresses individual grievances. Capitol People, at 310. With respect to commonality, the appellate court held that the trial court failed to appreciate the difference between the “system relief” sought by the class action complaint and the “individual solutions to individual problems” that were at the heart of the interveners’ objections. Id., at 311-12. The trial court focused in “discrete wrongs,” and concluded that “common issues of fact would not predominate because the deficiencies, variables and pertinent lines of inquiry would be individualized.” Id., at 312. The Court of Appeal recognized that legal authority existed in support of the trial court’s holding, see id., at 312-13 and J.B. ex rel. Hart v. Valdez, 186 F.3d 1280 (10th Cir. 1999), but held that under California law “courts can take an aggregate approach to plaintiffs’ claims,” id., at 313. Thus viewed, the question was not whether differences existed among the various claims of putative class members but rather whether the defendants utilized “common policies and practices generally applicable to all putative class members.” Id. The Court of Appeal held that commonality did exist, explaining at page 315: “The overarching theme is that there is a pattern and practice of failure to meet constitutional, statutory and regulatory mandates to provide services and place class members in less restrictive settings, and the systemic effect of this failure is to impinge plaintiffs’ rights under state and federal law.” Such “systemic relief” could not be sought or obtained on a case-by-case basis. Id.
With respect to the adequacy of representation issue, after summarizing the law, see Capitol People, at 317-18, and the trial court’s ruling that the differences among disabled persons would likely result in the failure of either plaintiffs or intervenors to adequately protect the interests of all absent class members, see id., at 318, the Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court erred in denying class action treatment on this ground. According to the appellate court, “the liability question posed by this lawsuit is whether defendants’ policies and practices comply with the law with respect to assessments,” and while it was true that intervenors opposed plaintiffs’ argument that certain policies and practices are unlawful, “this concern goes to the merits of [the class action] claim, not to the issue of certification.” Id., at 319. In the appellate court’s view, the fact that plaintiffs and intervenors have “philosophical differences” was insufficient to create “legally cognizable antagonism,” id., at 319-20. In particular, the Court of Appeal rejected interveners’ claim that the class action seeks to “end all institutional are in California, and advocate placement of all persons with developmental disabilities in small, community-based programs.” Id., at 320. The class action complaint alleges that thousands of class members are “unnecessarily institutionalized,” not that all institutional care should end. Id. At bottom, the appellate court held that no conflict existed between the relief sought by the class action complaint on behalf of the class, and the interests of individual class members. Id., at 320-21.
Finally, the Court of Appeal addressed whether a class action was the superior means of resolving the dispute. Based on it “misunderstanding” that commonality did not exist, “the trial court ruled that the alleged wrongs could not readily be cured on a classwide basis.” Capitol People, at 321. The appellate court agreed with plaintiffs that “[b]efore the outcome of improved individualized assessment, services and community supports tailored to the unique needs of each person with a developmental disability can be realized, the policies that undergird decisionmaking and allocation of resources must be changed,” and that this can be accomplished only through the use of a class action. Id. The court explained why the fair hearing procedures under the Lanterman Act would be inadequate in this case, see id., at 321-22.
In sum, the appellate court reversed the order denying class action treatment “because it was based on improper criteria and incorrect legal assumptions”; properly examined, the trial court would have found commonality and would have found that the adequacy of representation test had been met. Capitol People, at 322. It therefore remanded the action to the trial court with instructions to grant class action certification, id.
NOTE: The author believes that the opinion should be read narrowly because as a general rule the appearance and intervention of class members who oppose the relief sought goes a long way towards demonstrating that commonality does not exist, that the class representatives will not adequately represent the interests of the class due to inherent conflicts of interest, and that class action treatment will not be superior to other means of redress. In this case, however, the appellate court took pains to stress that the interveners were misrepresenting the gravamen of the class action complaint and the relief sought, and were essentially creating conflicts that did not really exist. In the Court of Appeal’s view, the class action did not seek to affect the rights of individuals from seeking or accepting institutionalization; rather, the issue was whether the State, in compliance with the Lanterman Act, was providing developmentally disabled individuals with the right to be treated elsewhere.