Ascertainability: Prose, Policy, and Process
73 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2018 Last revised: 9 Jan 2019
Date Written: January 8, 2018
One of the most hotly contested issues in class action practice today is ascertainability – when and how the identities of individual class members must be ascertained. The courts of appeals are split on the issue, with courts in different circuits imposing dramatically different burdens on putative class representatives. Courts adopting a strict approach require the class representative to prove that there is an administratively feasible means of determining whether class members are part of the class. This burden may be insurmountable in consumer class actions because people tend not to save receipts for purchases of low-cost consumer goods, like soft drinks and snacks and have no other objective proof of their membership in the class. Thus, in circuits adopting the strict approach, class certification may be denied, whereas in other circuits, the same class may be certified. Notwithstanding the circuit split on this critical issue, the Supreme Court has denied several petitions for writs of certiorari raising the issue; the Senate has failed to act on a bill passed by the House to address it; and the Advisory Committee has placed the issue on hold. Given the current state of disuniformity and the resultant inequitable administration of the laws, the time is ripe to address the issue.
Ascertainability is not only of great practical importance, but it is interesting on three different levels. First, there is a question of prose – whether the text of the Rule supports the implication of the strict ascertainability requirement. Second, there is a question of policy – whether concern for the class action defendant, the absent class members, or the trial court overseeing the action justifies imposition of the strict requirement, notwithstanding its harsh impact on consumer class actions. Third, there is a process question: which governmental actor – the lower courts, the Supreme Court, the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules, or Congress – has the greatest institutional competency to resolve the policy issue and establish a uniform approach to ascertainability. This Article addresses each of these questions in turn.
Keywords: class actions, aggregate litigation, ascertainability, institutional competency, Supreme Court, certiorari, en banc review, class certification, Federal Rule 23
JEL Classification: K40, K41, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation