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Class Action Defense Cases-Howard v. Gutierrez: District Of Columbia Federal Court Denies Motion To Reconsider Ruling Striking Class Action Allegations Holding Delay In Seeking Class Action Certification Was Not Excusable

Local Rule Requiring Class Action Certification Motion be Filed Within 90 days of Class Action Complaint runs from Filing of First Class Action Complaint not from any Subsequent Amended Class Action Complaint and District of Columbia Federal Court Holds Contrary Interpretation to be “Untenable” and “Unreasonable”

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against the Department of Commerce (DOC) and its Secretary for violations of Title VII alleging that the performance-review system resulted in systemic racial discrimination. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the individual claims and to strike the class action allegations. The district court granted the motion in part, striking the class action claims. See Howard v. Gutierrez, 474 F.Supp.2d 41 (D.D.C. 2007). Plaintiffs sought reconsideration and certification of an interlocutory appeal. Howard v. Gutierrez, 503 F.Supp.2d 392, 393-94 (D.D.C. 2007). The district court denied the motion for reconsideration and refused to certify an interlocutory appeal.

With respect to the motion for reconsideration, the district court noted that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not expressly authorize such motions and that they are “typically treat[ed]…as motions to alter or amend a judgment” under Rule 59(e). Howard, at 394. Reconsideration motions are addressed to the sound discretion of the court, are not “lightly” granted, and are not to be used to present arguments “that could have been advanced earlier.” Id. (citations omitted). With that background, the district court first rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to “rehash” arguments made previously with respect to their failure to file a motion for class action certification within 90 days of the filing of the class action complaint, and held that any new arguments in support of this old theme could have been raised earlier. Id. The district court concluded at page 394, “There has been no intervening change in controlling law, nor have plaintiffs advanced new evidence not previously available to them. Finding nothing in plaintiffs’ motion that warrants revisiting its prior holding, the Court now reaffirms that the ninety-day period in Local Rule 23.1(b) applies from the date of the filing of the first complaint to assert class claims.”

With respect to the striking of the class action claims based on the failure to timely seek class action certification, the district court reiterated that “application of the local rule leads to a dramatic but warranted result in this case, as has been true in a number of other cases in this Circuit.” Howard, at 394. Plaintiffs utterly failed to comply with the local rule, and even after defense attorneys brought this fact to their attention by way of a motion to dismiss, plaintiffs argued excusable neglect but “provided no explanation whatsoever for their failure to file the class-certification motion” and the district court concluded that the neglect was not excusable. Id., at 395. The declaration submitted in support of the original motion averred “that the initial failure to file a timely motion for class certification or motion for an extension of time within ninety days of the original complaint was indeed the result of attorney error – plaintiffs’ counsel was understaffed and overworked, and the motion slipped through the cracks.” Id. On reconsideration, plaintiffs argued that upon receiving the defense motion to dismiss they “conducted ‘extensive legal research’” and determined that under the local rules the motion for class action certification could follow the filing of an amended class action complaint. Id. The district court found that this, too, did not constitute excusable neglect – particularly as plaintiffs’ reading of the local rule was “untenable and unreasonable” – and denied the motion for reconsideration, id., at 395-96.

Lastly, the federal court rejected plaintiffs’ request to certify its order striking the class action claims for interlocutory appeal. See Howard, at 396-97. Accordingly, the district court denied plaintiffs’ motion to reinstate their class action claims and to certify the litigation as a class action. Id., at 397.

NOTE: The district court reaffirmed its earlier ruling that the fact a plaintiff grants a defendant extensions of time to respond to a class action complaint does not affect the plaintiff’s obligations to file a motion for class action certification within the time period required by local rule of court. Howard, at 395 n.1.

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