Class Action Alleging Violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) Properly Denied Class Action Treatment because Putative Class Members Lacked Commonality California Appellate Court Holds
Plaintiff filed a putative class action in California state court against DIRECTV on behalf of satellite television service subscribers alleging false advertising; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that DirecTV violated California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) and Unfair Competition Law (UCL). Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc., ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (Cal.App. October 28, 2009) [Slip Opn., at 1, 2]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, defendant used false advertising to induce consumers to “purchase more expensive ‘high definition’ or ‘HD’ services.” Id., at 2. Plaintiff alleges that he had the company’s “basic” service, but switched to HD service, at a higher monthly fee and purchasing the new equipment required, based on advertisements promising “higher quality television images,” id., at 2. However, the class action alleged that DIRECTV “started tinkering with the HDTV channels making up the HD Package in an effort to preserve bandwidth” and eventually “reduced the bandwidth of transmission from ‘19.4 Mbps’ … to ‘an astonishing 6.6 Mbps,’ and also reduced the ‘horizontal and interlaced vertical lines’ on certain channels.” Id. The complaint was premised on the theory that class members had “‘subscribed to DIRECTV’s HD Package based upon DIRECTV’s national advertising and marketing of the HD Package;’ and that DIRECTV ha[d] ‘represented that channels in its HD Package are broadcasted in the . . . 1920x1080i standard and at 19.4 Mbps, which they are not,’ and that DIRECTV has ‘advertised the sale of its HD Package without the intent to provide the customers with broadcasts in the . . . 1920x1080i standard and at 19.4 Mbps.’” Id., at 3. Defense attorneys moved the trial court to compel arbitration of the class action claims, but the court denied the motion and the appellate court affirmed. See Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc., 142 Cal.App.4th 1442 (Cal.App. 2006). Eventually, plaintiff moved the trial court to certify the litigation as a nationwide class action, and supported the motion with “print advertising and promotional materials for its HD Package.” Cohen, at 4. Defense attorneys opposed class action treatment, and submitted to the trial court declarations from a number of subscribers attesting that they upgraded their service without relying on the company’s print advertising or other promotional materials. Id. The trial court denied class action certification, holding that the class was not ascertainable and did not possess a well-defined community of interest because it included subscribers who never saw any DIRECTV ads, or who saw ads that did not reference bandwidth or pixels, or who otherwise were not influenced by the company’s advertising. Id., at 5-6. The class definition was thus overbroad, id., at 6. Additionally, the laws of each state would govern the claims of their respective class members. Id., at 6-7. The trial court therefore denied class action certification, id., at 7. Plaintiffs appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.
After summarizing the standard governing class action certification in California, see Cohen, at 8, the appellate court turned to the question of ascertainability. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in finding that the class was not ascertainable because “The defined class of all HD Package subscribers is precise, with objective characteristics and transactional parameters, and can be determined by DIRECTV’s own account records.” Id., at 10. However, the appellate court agreed that the proposed class lacked commonality. First, the appellate court agreed that “subscribers’ legal rights may vary from one state to another state, and that subscribers outside of California may not be protected by the CLRA and UCL.” Id., at 13. The appellate court concluded that it was not error to deny plaintiff’s request to restrict class membership to a state-wide class because even as so limited commonality would not exist. The Court explained at page 13, “The record supports the trial court’s finding that common issue of fact do not predominate over the proposed class because the class would include subscribers who never saw DIRECTV advertisements or representations of any kind before deciding to purchase the company’s HD services, and subscribers who only saw and/or relied upon advertisements that contained no mention of technical terms regarding bandwidth or pixels, and subscribers who purchased DIRECTV HD primarily based on word of mouth or because they saw DIRECTV’s HD in a store or at a friend’s or family member’s home.”
The Court of Appeal held that “common issues of fact do not predominate over [plaintiff’s] proposed class because the members of the class stand in a myriad of different positions insofar as the essential allegation in the complaint is concerned, namely, that DIRECTV violated the CLRA and the UCL by inducing subscribers to purchase HD services with false advertising.” Cohen, at 14. The Court also explained that the California Supreme Court opinion in In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th 298 (Cal. 2009), did not compel a different result. See Cohen, at 14-16. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court order, id., at 16.