Class actions are a common and popular legal tool for cases involving a large group of people who share the same grievance against a defendant. Specifically, the plaintiffs have to have a real and actual interest in order to join a class action. An issue may arise however, if a plaintiff’s interest is called into question. In particular, whether the plaintiff belongs to the class of persons to whom the law grants the cause of action asserted against a defendant. Essentially, the plaintiff’s have to share the same type of complaint and injury in order to form a proper class action. Many times, defendants will allege that the class action was improperly certified (allowed) in order to invalidate any complaints against them.
In a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeal Case in Louisiana, the court explored the certification of a class action in order to determine whether or not it was proper. The facts of the case include the plaintiff, representing a class of individuals, who all share a grievance against a funeral home, owners of the funeral home, and numerous banks. The gist of their complaint is that the funeral home sold prepaid funeral expenses to the plaintiffs and other putative class members. The owner of the funeral home then deposited their payments into certificates of deposit (COD) with one or more of the banks named as defendants. The bulk of COD’s were under names which included the Funeral Home, followed by either “payable on death,” or “for the benefit of” followed by the name of the individual whose prepaid funeral funds were being held on deposit. The issue became that without presentation of a death certificate as required by Louisiana statute, the law governing prepaid funeral services, and in breach of the banks’ contracts, namely, the certificates of deposit, the funeral home was allowed by the banks to withdraw the funds which they converted and appropriated for their own use. The plaintiffs argue that by accepting the deposits, the defendant banks became commonly liable with the funeral home. Yet, the appellate court is charged with the responsibility to determine whether the class action should be certified, despite the fact the trial court denied the class’s certification.
A class action must have certain definite characteristics. First, the class must be so large as to make individual suits impractical. Second, there must be a legal or factual claim in common between all the plaintiffs involved. Third, the claims or defenses must be typical of the plaintiffs or defendants. Fourth, the representative parties must adequately protect the interest of the class. Further, in many cases, the party seeking certification of a class must also show that common issues between the class and the defendants will predominate the proceedings, as opposed to individual fact-specific conflicts between class members and the defendants and that the class action, instead of individual litigation, is a superior vehicle for resolution of the disputes at hand. Here, the class certification, the plaintiffs sought to certify a class defined as “all individuals from whom the funeral home appropriated and converted funds collected by them for prepayment of funeral expenses.” Additionally, the motion asserted common questions of law and fact including:
1. whether the funeral home appropriated and converted funds of the class members in violation of La. R.S. 37:861;
2. whether the defendant banks released the class members’ funds in violation of La. R.S. 37:861 and the banks’ contracts; and
3. whether the defendant banks released funds belonging to the class members without obtaining death certificates.
The trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion for certification of a class action as a result of a weighing and balancing determination. The trial court found that the plaintiff’s did not satisfy the class action requirements, stating that the evidence was insufficient to show that the class was so numerous and geographically dispersed that joinder would be impracticable, that the class representatives would adequately represent the putative class members, or that their claims are typical of those of the putative class members. Essentially, the trial court felt that each claim was too individual, and that it would be difficult to consolidate the claims and form one basic legal grievance against the defendant funeral home. The appellate court analyzed each of the trial court findings in order to determine whether or not the plaintiffs actually had a class action, concluding that they indeed did not have a proper class action.
The appellate court concluded after exploring all of the factors that the plaintiffs failed to fulfill all of the requirements to have a proper class action. Specifically, the plaintiffs never alleged a relationship with the banks involved with the funeral home. Absent any connection of dealings with the banks, the plaintiffs do not have a real and actual interest in a suit against the banks. Only those persons whose prepaid funeral funds had been deposited by the funeral home with a specific bank would have a real and actual interest in a suit against such bank. Further, the appellate court denies class certification based on the plaintiffs argument that a plaintiff may have standing to sue a defendant with whom he has had no business contact or dealing, if the defendant’s conduct is part of a conspiracy. Yet, no conspiracy was alleged among the defendants named in the action. In conclusion, the appellate court, as did the trial court, found that the plaintiffs did not belong to the class of persons to whom the law grants the cause of action asserted against the banks in the suit. Thus, the class action was denied. Class actions are a great tool for many cases, however, they must be properly formed and fulfill all of the legal requirements in order to move forward.