Using the Third Circuit’s comparatively robust ascertainability standard, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently denied certification of a class of tenants allegedly charged an improper lease-termination fee and subjected to collections calls in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq.
In its order, the district court explained that under the Third Circuit’s ascertainability precedent, it is the representative plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate that: “(1) the class is defined with reference to objective criteria; and (2) there is a reliable and administratively feasible mechanism for determining whether putative class members fall within the class definition.” If the court and parties must engage in “extensive and individualized fact-finding or ‘mini-trials’” to ascertain the class’s members, “then a class action is inappropriate.”
Applied to the certification-related facts at issue in this case, the court determined that the proposed class failed Rule 23’s implied, threshold ascertainability requirement. In particular, while the representative plaintiff contended that the defendant property-management and collections companies’ records identified 3,274 tenants in Pennsylvania alone who were charged the subject notice fees with a balance tasked to the debt-collector defendant for collection, this contention was inaccurate. The inaccuracy stemmed from the fact that the defendants’ records and discovery responses showed that those 3,274 tenants were charged some lease-termination fee – but not, necessarily, the specific 30-day lease-termination fee at issue in this lawsuit. Moreover, defendants’ documentation and systems did not show that calls and associated voicemails were made to any or all of these tenants in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
The plaintiff thus failed to propose any reliable, administratively feasible methodology to ascertain the potential class members. The district court also determined that because of this failure, ascertainability would devolve into inefficient, detailed mini-trials to determine class membership, which “the Third Circuit has expressly prohibited.”
Because the representative plaintiff was unable to satisfy even the threshold ascertainability requirement, the court concluded that it was unnecessary to analyze any of Rule 23’s other class requirements.