California Supreme Court Finally Decides How a UCL Claim and First Party Bad Faith Claim Can Co-Exist

On August 1, 2013, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Zhang v. Superior Court, holding that an insured may assert a claim against an insurer based on California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the “UCL”) for conduct that allegedly constitutes common law bad faith, even if the alleged conduct also happens to violate the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA).   

The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a simmering conflict among lower court decisions. A number of courts held that the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Companies, 46 Cal.3d 287 (1988), which abolished any private right of action to enforce the UIPA, precluded UCL claims based on specific unfair practices prohibited by Insurance Code section 790.03(h), which is part of the UIPA. Other courts found that Moradi-Shalal did not bar UCL claims when the basis for the UCL claim was common law bad faith, as opposed to the UIPA – even though the asserted “bad faith” practices are also prohibited under the UIPA.  The Supreme Court adopted the latter position, concluding:

We hold that Moradi-Shalal does not preclude first party UCL actions based on grounds independent from section 790.03, even when the insurer’s conduct also violates section 790.03.

While the Court’s opinion does not dwell on the facts of the case, the claim involved an insured’s purchase of a liability policy to cover her commercial property. The insured disputed the insurer’s handling of her fire damage claim and sued the insurer for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (i.e., bad faith), and a violation of the UCL. 

The UCL claim alleged “unfair, deceptive, untrue, and/or misleading advertising” in that the insurer made promises as to coverage “when it had no intention of paying the true value of its insureds’ covered claims.”  The Court observed that the insured alleged “causes of action for false advertising and bad faith, both of which provide grounds for a UCL claim independent from the UIPA.”

The Zhang case was decided on demurrer. Thus, the Court considered only the allegations of the complaint, and it had to assume the truth of those factual allegations.

After presenting a thorough history of prior decisions over the last quarter century that have considered Moradi-Shalal’s effect on UCL lawsuits against insurers (and other defendants), the Supreme Court allowed the insured to pursue her UCL claim and observed,

Because Moradi-Shalal barred only claims brought under section 790.03, and expressly allowed first party [common law] bad faith actions, it preserved the gist of first party UCL claims based on allegations of [common law] bad faith. Moradi-Shalal imposed a formidable barrier, but not an insurmountable one.

As a result, the insured’s alleged claim of false advertising and “litany of bad faith practices” were “sufficient to support a claim of unlawful business practices.”

In summarizing its holding, the Court stated:

Private UIPA actions are absolutely barred, a litigant may not rely on the proscriptions of section 790.03 as the basis for a UCL claim. . . . However, when insurers engage in conduct that violates both the UIPA and obligations imposed by other statutes or the common law, a UCL action may lie.  The Legislature did not intend the UIPA to operate as a shield against any civil liability.

A concurring opinion written by Justice Werdegar and joined in by Justice Liu agreed with the majority conclusion that the insured should be allowed to pursue her UCL lawsuit against the insurer, but disagreed with the conclusion that no UCL claim could ever be based on violations of the UIPA unless the Legislature affirmatively intended to preclude such indirect enforcement.

While the Zhang decision is likely to generate much attention and be cited extensively in the future, the Court’s holding is nevertheless quite limited and the following points should be noted:

  • The decision is restricted to UCL claims brought by first parties; that is, by insureds.  The Court specifically advised two times that whether third parties may pursue UCL claims “is a matter beyond the scope of this case.”
  • The decision reiterated that while the scope of a UCL claim is broad (“any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising”), the remedies are very narrow – restitution and injunctions. Damages in any form are not recoverable.
  • The UCL does not allow for attorney’s fees (except in those cases where the plaintiff could qualify as a private attorney general under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5).
  • Since the UCL is solely an equitable claim, the trial court possesses “broad discretion” in issuing orders or judgments with respect to any restitution or injunctive relief, and defendants are allowed to advance not only various defenses to the UCL claim but also “equitable considerations” that could minimize or even eliminate a finding of a UCL violation.
  • The restrictions to a UCL claim added by Proposition 64 (standing to assert a UCL cause of action and complying with the class action requirements in any UCL action brought on behalf of others) still apply.
  • The Court referenced another lingering issue in UCL claims – what is the standard for determining what business acts or practices are “unfair” mean in the consumer context under the UCL. This issue, however, remains unsettled and for the Court to decide another day.

Finally, the most likely consequence of the Zhang decision is that insureds may, as a matter of course, add UCL claims to bad faith cases as one more cause of action, incorporating by reference the prior alleged bad faith allegations. Since any UCL claim does not allow a damage remedy, and the only monetary remedy is restitution, the ultimate impact of adding a UCL claim may be minimal.

California Supreme Court Hears Argument on Whether Insurance Code Limits UCL Lawsuits Against Insurers

By Samuel Sorich and Larry Golub

On May 8, 2013, the California Supreme Court convened to hear oral argument in Zhang v. Superior Court. The case presents the issue of whether conduct of an insurer, which is related to conduct that would violate California’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act, Insurance Code, §790.03(h) et seq. (UIPA), can be the basis for a private civil cause of action against the insurer under California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code, §17200 et seq. (UCL).

The Court of Appeal in Zhang had ruled in October 2009 that an insurer may be sued by a private citizen for conduct prohibited by the UCL even though the conduct is within the scope of the UIPA. The Supreme Court accepted review of the matter in February 2010.

At the oral argument session, counsel for the insurer relied on the California Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Insurance Companies, which held that violations of the UIPA may be prosecuted only by administrative action taken by the Insurance Commissioner, not by civil action by private citizens. Counsel argued that the holding in Moradi-Shalal bars a UCL action against an insurer when the action is based on insurer conduct that is governed by the UIPA.

Counsel for the plaintiff insured responded that Moradi-Shalal does not preclude the insured’s UCL action against the insurer, pointing to language in the Moradi-Shalal decision which noted that “the courts retain jurisdiction to impose civil damages or other remedies against insurers in appropriate common law actions, based on such traditional theories as fraud, infliction of emotional distress, and (as to the insured) either breach of contract or breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”

We have monitored the Zhang case and other appellate court decisions on the interplay between the UIPA and the UCL in prior blogs. Please see here, here, here and here.

The Supreme Court is required to issue a written opinion in the Zhang case within 90 days of the date of the oral argument, or by August 6, 2013.

The Supreme Court focused on the UCL this week. On May 7, 2013, the Court heard oral argument in Rose v. Bank of America which presents an issue analogous to the issue in Zhang. The question in Rose is whether a cause of action under the UCL can be predicated on an alleged violation of the Truth in Savings Act (12 U.S.C. $4301 et seq.) despite Congress’s repeal of the private right of action initially provided for under that Act.

 

Liability Insurers May Have Duty to Defend Against Federal Prosecutions, California Court of Appeal Holds

By James Hazlehurst

The Second Appellate District of California held on May 1 in Mt. Hawley Ins. Co. v. Lopez that California Insurance Code section 533.5(b) does not eliminate a liability insurer’s duty to defend against a federal prosecution where the policy provides for a defense against criminal proceedings. 

Section 533.5(b) precludes an insurer from defending against “any claim in any criminal action or proceeding or in any action or proceeding brought pursuant to” California’s unfair competition law under Business and Profession Code section 17200 et seq. “in which the recovery of a fine, penalty, or restitution is sought by the Attorney General, any district attorney, any city prosecutor or any county counsel.” 

Mt. Hawley involved Dr. Richard Lopez’s federal criminal prosecution for his role in a liver transplant. Dr. Lopez was a medical director of St. Vincent’s Medical Center. He allegedly diverted a liver designated for one patient to another patient who was much farther down the transplant wait list in violation of regulations promulgated under the National Organ Transplant Act. Dr. Lopez then allegedly covered up his actions by conspiring with others, making false statements and falsifying records. 

Dr. Lopez was indicted by a grand jury and tendered his defense to Mt. Hawley, which declined to defend him on the basis that Section 533.5(b) precludes an insurer from providing a defense to a criminal prosecution. Mt. Hawley filed a declaratory relief action against Dr. Lopez and prevailed on summary judgment. 

In reversing the trial court, the appellate court examined in great detail the legislative history of section 533.5, as well as several maxims of construction of statutes, ultimately reasoning that the legislative purpose behind Section 533.5(b) was to preclude insurers from providing a defense only to civil and criminal actions brought under California’s unfair competition laws and false advertising laws, which could only be brought by state and local – not federal – agencies. The court therefore concluded that Section 533.5(b) did not apply to federal prosecutions. The court also relied on the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Bodell v. Walbrook Ins. Co. which reached the same conclusion regarding the applicability of Section 533.5(b) to federal prosecutions.

The court of appeal stated that its interpretation “allows insurers to contract to provide a defense to certain kind of criminal charges, as the Legislature has said insurers can do in the cases of corporate agents and government employees charged with crimes.” The court further noted that its interpretation was consistent with the goal of encouraging individuals to serve on the boards of directors of corporations or as trustees of charitable trusts, observing that “unless directors can rely on the protections given by D & O policies, good and competent men and women will be reluctant to serve on corporate boards.”

 

California Supreme Court Allows "Continuous Accrual" Doctrine to Avoid Statute of Limitations for "Unfair" UCL Claim

Seeking to clarify the extent to which the four-year statute of limitations applies to claims under the Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the “UCL”), a unanimous California Supreme Court today issued its decision in Aryeh v. Canon Business Solutions, Inc., allowing at least a portion of the plaintiff’s UCL claim to proceed beyond demurrer.

Relying on the continuous accrual doctrine, the Court explained that this equitable exception to the usual rules governing limitations periods would permit the plaintiff to pursue:

at least some [alleged unfair] acts within the four years preceding suit, [and thus] the suit is not entirely time-barred.”

Background

The plaintiff ran a copying business and entered into two agreements with Canon (one in November 2001 and one in February 2002) to lease copiers. The agreements required the plaintiff to pay monthly rent for each copier, subject to a maximum copy allowance. If plaintiff exceeded the monthly allowance, he had to pay an additional per copy charge. The agreements also provided that Canon would service the copiers. 

Beginning in 2002, plaintiff noticed discrepancies between meter readings taken by Canon employees and the actual number of copies made on each copier, and he began compiling independent records. Plaintiff alleged that Canon employees had run thousands of test copies during 17 service visits between February 2002 and November 2004, which he claimed resulted in him exceeding his monthly allowances and having to pay excess copy charges and fees to Canon.

Plaintiff delayed until January 2008 before he filed a single-claim complaint for violation of the UCL. In that complaint, plaintiff alleged that Canon’s practice of charging for test copies implicated both the unfair and fraudulent prong of the UCL.

Canon demurred to the complaint, contending that plaintiff’s claim was barred by the four-year statute of limitations for UCL claims. After permitting plaintiff leave to amend the complaint two times, the trial court dismissed the action. The Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed the dismissal and held that neither the “delayed discovery” rule nor the “continuing violation doctrine” applied to avoid the statute of limitations. The dissenting opinion would have allowed plaintiff to proceed with a portion of his claim under the “continuous accrual” theory for those parts of the claim that were not time-barred.

Supreme Court Decision

Continue Reading...

Action Based on 7-Eleven's Payroll System Fails, Court of Appeal Rules

In Aleksick v. 7-Eleven, Plaintiff Aleksick represented a class claiming that 7-Eleven's payroll system violated California Business and Professional Code 17200. The complaint alleged that 7-Eleven's method of converting partial hour worked from minutes to hundredths of an hour sometimes docked employees of few seconds of time, and therefore shorted them commensurate pay. The trial court had granted 7-Eleven's summary judgment motion. The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, affirmed.

First, the Court held, raising a 17200 claim based on "unlawful" conduct required Aleksick to point to a particular statute that 7-Eleven had violated, since "section 17200 'borrows' violations of other laws and treats them as unlawful practices." Although Aleksick cited to various Labor Code sections in her appellate papers, she had not cited to any in her complaint. The Court ruled that Aleksick should have sought leave to amend to allege such violation, but did not do so, and therefore she had forfeited her argument under the Labor Code wage statutes.

Second, even if her complaint had alleged violation of the Labor Code wage statutes, the Court still would have found against her because the Labor Code governs "the employer-employee relationship, and undisputed evidence shows 7-Eleven was not the class members' employer." Aleksick's employer was the franchisee who operated a 7-Eleven franchise. 7-Eleven was the franchisor. Aleksick conceded that 7-Eleven was not her employer. The Court held that 7-Eleven's provision of payroll services to its franchisees did not change this relationship or render 7-Eleven liable under the Labor Code.

Third, Aleksick failed to establish "unfair" conduct on the part of 7-Eleven under section 17200. Where an "unfair" act is predicated on public policy, the Court explained, "the public policy which is a predicate to the action must be 'tethered' to specific constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provisions." Aleksick argued that 7-Eleven's payroll practices are "tethered" to the public policy in favor of full payment to employees of all hours worked, as codified in the Labor Code. However, because 7-Eleven was not the employer, these statutes did not apply to it.

Comment:
The narrow basis of this ruling is simply that 7-Eleven was not the employer, and therefore a 17200 claim based on violation of Labor Code statutes could not apply to it. It is important to note that the Court of Appeal explicitly did not rule on the issue of whether an employer could be liable under the Labor Code wage statutes and section 17200 for using the payroll practices that 7-Eleven uses. (See Opinion, at 22, fn. 6.) Thus, this ruling provides no guidance to employers as to whether the practice of converting partial hours worked from minutes to hundredths of an hour is permissible. As the Court recounts, the trial court had determined that the amounts docked were too minimal to be a sufficient basis for a 17200 claim -- however, the Court of Appeal did not affirm this part of the trial court's ruling.

Originally posted at Barger & Wolen's Employment Law Observer blog.

California Courts Continue to Rein in Class Certification in the Marketing and Sale of Insurance

By Larry Golub and Marina Karvelas

In Fairbanks v. Farmers New World Life Ins. Co., decided July 13, 2011, California's Second Appellate District, Division Three, upheld the trial court’s denial of class certification for a proposed nationwide class of universal life insurance policyholders. Plaintiffs sued Farmers New World Life Insurance Company and Farmers Group, Inc. (collectively, “Farmers”) alleging violations of the Unfair Competition Law (Bus. & Prof. Code, 17200, “UCL”) in the marketing and sale of universal life insurance policies.  

The decision, authored by Justice Walter Croskey, contains in its opening pages an extensive discussion of universal life insurance policies. Justice Croskey’s discussion is well worth the read as it presents in simple and understandable terms many of the intricacies of universal life insurance.

Plaintiffs alleged in their complaint numerous theories of wrongdoing against Farmers; however, their motion for class certification was narrowly tailored and based only on one of the three prongs of the UCL, that of a fraudulent business practices. 

Relying on a series of recent decisions (Knapp v. AT&T Wireless Services, Inc., 195 Cal. App. 4th 932 (2011); Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Ins. Co., 178 Cal. App. 4th 830 (2009), and Pfizer Inc. v. Superior Court, 182 Cal. App. 4th 622 (2010)), the Fairbanks opinion reiterates the requirements for class certification under the fraudulent prong of the UCL:

“[W]hen the class action is based on alleged misrepresentations, a class certification denial will be upheld when individual evidence will be required to determine whether the representations at issue were actually made to each member of the class.”

Finding the case “virtually identical” to Kaldenbach, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that the alleged misrepresentations were not commonly made to members of the class and thus class certification was properly denied.  (For a discussion of the Kaldenbach case, see our firm’s prior blog.)

Plaintiffs argued that the class action should proceed on the theory that the language in the policies was misleading. However, the class certification motion was not based on the theory that the policy language standing alone was misleading. Even if it were, “it is still impossible to consider the language of the policies without considering the information conveyed by the Farmers agents in the process of selling them.” 

In addition, the Fairbanks Court determined that the materiality of the alleged misrepresentation was likewise not subject to common proof. Relying on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, 51 Cal. 4th 310, 332 (2011), the standard for materiality is whether “a reasonable man would attach importance to its existence or nonexistence in determining his choice of action in the transaction in question.” While noting that the standard is objective, the Court of Appeal nonetheless agreed with the trial court that the materiality of the representations at issue in the case was a matter of individual proof for any given policyholder. 

In concluding, the Court of Appeal refused to address whether commonality existed with respect to any other purported classes. None of the alternative theories were presented to the trial court in the class certification motion. “[W]e leave it to the trial court’s discretion, on remand, to determine whether it should consider any subsequent motion for class certification, should plaintiffs choose to proceed on an alternative basis.”

As is often the case in the class certification context, plaintiffs will seek to define as narrow a class as possible to present a “common issue” for certification purposes, which attempt sometimes undercuts not only the ability to obtain certification (as in the Fairbanks situation) but, even if it does survive certification, sets up a defense motion for summary judgment.

Another Toehold in Using the UCL to Scale the Barriers of Moradi-Shalal

In 1988, the California Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Cos., 46 Cal. 3d 287, disallowing private rights of action based on violations of the Unfair Insurance Practice Act (“UIPA”), otherwise known as third-party bad faith claims. Shortly thereafter, the prohibition was extended to first-party bad faith claims.

Most significantly, a series of Court of Appeal decisions disallowed violations of the UIPA to be brought as claims under the California’s “Unfair Competition Law” (Business and Professions Code Section 17200, et seq., or the “UCL”). 

As one court concluded:

we have no difficulty in [holding] the Business and Professions Code provides no toehold for scaling the barriers of Moradi-Shalal.” Safeco Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, 216 Cal. App. 3d 1491, 1494 (1990). 

More recently, another court held that “parties cannot plead around Moradi-Shalal’s holding by merely relabeling their cause of action as one for unfair competition.” Textron Financial Corp. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 118 Cal. App. 4th 1061, 1070 (2004).

In November 2009, we reported on Zhang v. Superior Court, a case that rejected Textron, and held that because the UCL allows a plaintiff to allege unfair, unlawful, and misleading conduct against businesses generally (including insurers), the fact an insured asserts what appear to be violations of the UIPA is not necessarily an end run around Moradi-Shalal so long as the insured also alleges the insurer acted unfairly by engaging in false and deceptive advertising, suggesting it would provide coverage in the event of a loss, when it had no intent to do so. 

The case was short-lived, as the Supreme Court accepted review in February 2010 and the decision became depublished. While the Zhang case is fully briefed, the Supreme Court has not yet set oral argument.

On June 15, however, another Court of Appeal decision issued again sought to undercut the prohibition on using the UCL to pursue UIPA-like claims. 

In Hughes v. Progressive Direct Ins. Co., the plaintiff sued his insurer in a purported class action based on the automobile insurer’s alleged company-wide practice of steering its insureds to repair shops that were part of Progressive’s Direct Repair Program (DRP) and misrepresenting their ability to take their vehicle to a non-DRP repair shop. 

The sole claim alleged was under the UCL, but the predicate statute relied on to support the UCL claim was Insurance Code section 758.5.

That statute, which prohibits insurers from requiring an insured’s vehicle to be repaired at a specific repair shop, or suggesting a specific shop be used, unless the insured is informed in writing of his or her rights to select another repair shop, does not, just like the UIPA, permit a private right of action but only enforcement by the Insurance Commissioner pursuant to the UIPA. 

Accordingly, the trial court sustained the insurer’s demurrer to the complaint, concluding that just as the UCL could not be used to circumvent UIPA claims under Moradi-Shalal, neither could a UCL claim proceed based upon Section 758.5.    

The Court of Appeal reversed, and concluded that Moradi-Shalal does not bar a claim by an insured against an insurer under the UCL based solely on the allegations the insurer violated Section 758.5. 

After discussing in detail the decisions issued since the time of Moradi-Shalal vis-à-vis the UCL, as well as the legislative history of Section 758.5, and then relying on a parsed reading of the language of the UCL in which its remedies are “cumulative” to other laws unless otherwise “expressly” provided, the court found that an alleged violation of a statute like Section 758.5, so long as it does not involve conduct violating the UIPA, “may serve as the predicate for a UCL claim absent an express legislative direction to the contrary.”  

The decision, however, was not one of clear unanimity. One of the three Justices on the appellate panel issued his own concurring opinion, in which he expressed his “considerable misgivings” as to the majority opinion. After noting that the opinion “hangs precipitously on one word, namely ‘express,” Justice Fred Woods lamented that the social problems sought to be addressed by the Moradi-Shalal decision and various legislative remedies might now be undone, and that he saw “storm warnings on the horizon.”

Perhaps, just as the Supreme Court accepted review of the Zhang case last year to address that appellate decision seeking to create a chink in the armor of Moradi-Shalal, it will similarly accept review of Hughes to address this latest attack on the scope of Moradi-Shalal and bring some certainty to whether the reach of the UCL is as broad as these two lower appellate courts have held

California Court Dismisses UCL Claim Over Fiji Water

 

Sometimes a green drop is just a green drop.

Last week, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, dismissed a purported class action against the owners of Fiji Water, finding as a matter of law that the company’s use of a green drop on its bottle, along with a slogan “Every Drop is green,” would not mislead a reasonable consumer. The case, Hill v. Roll International Corporation, is the most recent decision to disallow the use of California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (“UCL”), to restrict the marketing of a product that fails to contain any misleading symbol, slogan or message.

At issue in the case was Fiji Water’s labeling for its bottled water and specifically the use of a green drop on the front of the product, which the plaintiff contended “looks similar to environmental ‘seals of approval’ . . . by several independent, third–party organizations.” The plaintiff asserted that the use of the green drop connotes approval by such third-party organizations and that the green drop is “deceptive because it conveys that the products is environmentally sound and superior to other bottled waters that do not contain the Green Drop.” 

In addition to the UCL claim, the plaintiff sued under the False Advertising Law, Business & Professions Code section 17500 et seq.; the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Civil Code section 1750 et seq.; and common law claims for fraud and unjust enrichment. The trial court dismissed the complaint on demurrer, without further leave to amend.

On appeal, the court first observed that, in resolving an appeal based on the reasonable consumer standard following a judge trial, some courts have evaluated whether an advertisement is deceptive as a pure question of law, while other courts have generally – though not invariably – found it to raise a question of fact such that it cannot be decided on demurrer. 

Here, however, the court found that accepting all the facts in the complaint as true, “no reasonable consumer would be mislead to think that the green drop on Fiji water represents a third party organization’s endorsement or that Fiji water is environmentally superior to that of the competition.” (Emphasis by Court.)

The plaintiff specifically relied on the California Environmental Marketing Claims Act, Business & Professions Code section 17580 et seq., along with Guidelines for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, issued by the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) to support her claims. Despite accepting for purposes of demurrer that all of plaintiff’s claims as to being misled were true, her claims still did not satisfy the reasonable consumer standard as expressed in the FTC guidelines and California’s consumer laws, which require her to “show potential deception of consumers acting reasonably in the circumstances – not just any consumers.”   This is not a “least sophisticated consumer,” an “unwary consumer,” or an “overly suspicious consumer” standard, but “a reasonable consumer in the circumstances.” And, the court emphasized that “the context of the symbol is important.”

Finally, the Court of Appeal took the occasion to distinguish this case from the recent Supreme Court decision in Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, 51 Cal. 4th 310 (2011), which involved misleading product labeling on the defendant’s locksets which were not wholly “Made in the U.S.A.”  (Our blog on Kwikset is found here.)   Unlike the Kwikset case, which concerned the issue of standing under the UCL, this case did not raise any issue of standing. Moreover, agreeing “wholeheartedly” with the Supreme Court’s statement that “labels matter,” in this case the court only held, once again, that “no reasonable consumer would be mislead to think that the green drop represents a third party organization’s endorsement of that Fiji water is environmentally superior to that of the competition.”

California Supreme Court Announces Expansive Standing Rule Under the UCL

Since the passage of Proposition 64 in November 2004 by the California electorate, which sought to limit the scope of frivolous or “shakedown” lawsuits under the Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the “UCL”), courts in California have waited for the California Supreme Court to clarify the scope of standing for a plaintiff to pursue a UCL claim. In 2009, the Court issued its decision in In Re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009), which held that only the named plaintiffs bringing a UCL claim had to demonstrate standing, not each class member that the named plaintiffs sought to represent. 

Now, in Kwikset Corporation, Inc. v. Superior Court, decided January 27, 2011, the Court finally analyzed the scope of the Prop 64 language that limited UCL standing to “a person who has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition.” In a 5-2 opinion, the Court cut back Prop 64’s limitation on standing, which will allow more UCL cases to at least proceed beyond the demurrer stage.

Kwikset involved named plaintiffs who purchased a lockset that said on the packaging “Made in U.S.A,” but it was substantially made in Taiwan and Mexico. While there were no claims that the lockset was defective or worth less than ones actually made in the United States, the sole contention made in an amended complaint was that the persons would not have purchased the lockset had it not been important to them that it was made in the United States: “When purchasing the locksets each plaintiff ‘saw and read Defendants’ misrepresentations . . . and relied on such misrepresentations in deciding to purchase . . . them. [Each plaintiff] was induced to purchase and did purchase Defendants’ locksets due to the false representation that they were “Made in U.S.A.” and would not have purchased them if they had not been so misrepresented.’”

The Court of Appeal had found that the complaint should be dismissed based on the UCL standing requirements imposed by Prop 64, explaining that although the plaintiffs “had adequately alleged injury in fact, they had not alleged any loss of money or property,” and that while their “patriotic desire to buy fully American-made products was frustrated,” such an injury “was insufficient to satisfy the standing requirements” of the UCL.

The Supreme Court, in a lengthy decision, reversed and found that

“plaintiffs who can truthfully allege they were deceived by a product’s label into spending money to purchase the product, and would not have purchased it otherwise, have ‘lost money or property’ within the meaning of Proposition 64 and have standing to sue.” 

The Kwikset case sets forth a standing test broader than just for product mislabeling cases, as the Court later stated as follows:

“As we shall explain, a party who has lost money or property generally has suffered injury in fact. Consequently, the plain language of these clauses suggests a simple test: To satisfy the narrower standing requirements imposed by Proposition 64, a party must now (1) establish a loss or deprivation of money or property sufficient to qualify as injury in fact, i.e., economic injury, and (2) show that that economic injury was the result of, i.e., caused by, the unfair business practice or false advertising that is the gravamen of the claim.” (Emphasis by Court.) 

And, to provide further guidance for future cases, the Court observed:

“There are innumerable ways in which economic injury from unfair competition may be shown. A plaintiff may (1) surrender in a transaction more, or acquire in a transaction less, than he or she otherwise would have; (2) have a present or future property interest diminished; (3) be deprived of money or property to which he or she has a cognizable claim; or (4) be required to enter into a transaction, costing money or property, that would otherwise have been unnecessary.” 

The majority opinion in Kwikset also reaffirmed that, apart from demonstrating economic injury in the form of loss of money or property, the named plaintiff must still allege the causal element of reliance (“that the misrepresentation was an immediate cause of the injury-producing conduct”), as earlier set forth in the Court’s Tobacco II decision. The Court also held that there is no need to show for standing purposes that the lost money or property would otherwise qualify as restitution, the only monetary remedy permitted under the UCL. This was a point noted by the Court in its rent decision in Clayworth v. Pfizer, Inc., 49 Cal.4th 758 (2010), which found that parties may seek an injunction under the UCL whether or not restitution is also available.

Despite the breadth of the Kwikset opinion and the position by Prop 64 proponents that this decision will undercut the protections against frivolous lawsuit intended by the proposition, in two reassuring footnotes, the Court also confirmed that it was only considering matters at the demurrer stage, where a court “must take the allegations as true,” and that “[o]nce this threshold pleading requirement has been satisfied, it will remain the plaintiff’s burden thereafter to prove the elements of standing and of each alleged act of unfair competition, and the trial court’s role to exercise its considerable discretion to determine which, if any, of the various equitable and injunctive remedies provided for by sections 17203 and 17535 may actually be warranted in a given case.”

Finally, in a powerful dissent, two of the Supreme Court justices explained how they would have affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision and dismissed the lawsuit since the majority’s opinion disregards Prop 64’s actual statutory language and the intent of the electorate to limit standing under the UCL. Indeed, the dissent even references the fact that proponents of Prop 64 included the Kwikset case on their website as an example of a “shakedown lawsuit” that the proposition sought to curb. Ending its minority opinion, the dissent concluded that the majority opinion had relieved plaintiffs of the burden to show standing imposed by Prop 64:  

“All plaintiffs now have to allege is that they would not have bought the mislabeled product. . . . This cannot be what the electorate intended when it sought ‘unequivocally to narrow the category of persons who could sue businesses under the UCL.’”

Continue Reading...

Decision Stands: Proposition 103 Approved Insurance Rates Cannot be Attacked in a Civil Action

California Supreme Court Rejects Requests to Depublish MacKay

by Kent R. Keller

On October 6, 2010, Division Three of the Second Appellate District issued a landmark decision in MacKay v. Superior Court, 188 Cal. App. 4th 1427 (2010), declaring that approved insurance rates subject to Proposition 103 cannot thereafter be collaterally attacked in a civil action.

In brief, MacKay was a certified Unfair Competition Law (UCL) class action involving more than 500,000 class members who contended that 21st Century Insurance Company had used two illegal “rating factors” in developing automobile insurance premiums. The two factors had been included in rate and class plan filings approved on multiple occasions by the Insurance Commissioner. 

The issue, as the Court explained, was:

whether the approval of a rating factor by the DOI [Department of Insurance] precludes a civil action against the insurer challenging the use of that rating factor.” MacKay, supra at 1434. 

In a detailed opinion, authored by Justice H. Walter Croskey, the Court concluded that approval did preclude a collateral attack in a civil action. 

This decision is of critical importance to insurers and consumers subject to rate approval pursuant to Proposition 103. 

Prior to MacKay, it was not clear whether approval precluded civil actions. As a result, many insurers were sued, virtually always in class actions, by parties challenging approved rates on one basis or another. 

The result was that, while insurers were required to obtain rate approval before putting a rate into effect and once approval was obtained could had to use the approved rate, they did so at the peril of a class action lawsuit. 

Whether such lawsuits benefited insureds or simply increased premiums in the future is a continuing debate. What, however, was clear was that such actions often produced large attorneys’ fees awards.

Given the value of these class actions to the plaintiffs’ bar, it was not surprising that requests to depublish MacKay were numerous. 

In addition to a request from counsel for the plaintiffs in MacKay, requests were filed by Consumer Watchdog, the City and County of San Francisco, the Consumer Attorneys of California, Public Advocates, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, United Policyholders, the California State Insurance Commissioner, and others. 

Indeed, by a letter dated January 10, 2011, new Commissioner Dave Jones advised the California Supreme Court that he, like his predecessor, supported depublication.

Despite this tsunami of support for depublication, on January 12, 2011 the Supreme Court denied all requests and declared the case closed

While the reasons for denying or granting depublication are never certain, we have to believe that the Supreme Court recognized the correctness of Justice Crokey’s decision. As a result of the Supreme Court’s action, MacKay remains valid and precedential authority.

21st Century Insurance Company was represented in this case by Kent R. Keller, Steven H. Weinstein, Marina M. Karvelas and Peter Sindhuphak of Barger & Wolen.

California Supreme Court Again Confirms a Penalty is Not Restitution Under the UCL

Recently, we reported on the California Supreme Court’s decision in Clark v. Superior Court (National Western Life Insurance Company), wherein the Court confirmed that the only monetary remedy available under the Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 (the “UCL”) is restitution, and that a claim for treble damages is not restitution, nor is the nature of restitution comparable to a penalty.  

The Court echoed that holding in a new decision issued November 18, 2010, Pineda v. Bank of America, N.A. As with Clark, Pineda was a unanimous opinion by the Court.

At issue in Pineda were penalties provided for under California Labor Code section 203 when an employer fails to timely pay final wages to an employee. The first issue addressed by the Court was whether a one-year or three-year statute of limitations applied to a claim for such penalties when an employee sues only to recover the penalties and not the final wages themselves (which had already been paid). On that issue, the Court held that the longer, three-year statute applied.

Turning to the second issue, whether Section 203 penalties can be recovered as restitution under the UCL, the Court explained once again that a penalty is not restitution because it does not function to restore to a plaintiff the status quo or something in which the plaintiff had a vested interest. Relying on its earlier decision in Cortez v. Purolator Air Filtration Products Co., 23 Cal. 4th 163 (2000), which held that unpaid overtime wages were able to recovered as restitution under the UCL, the Court contrasted such unpaid wages to a penalty for not paying wages. The former are consider to be the earned property of the employee and thus restitutionary in nature whereas the latter are not compensation for work performed or restoring to the employee funds in which the employee has a vested ownership interest, but rather a payment to encourage employers to timely pay their employees and to punish them if they do not do so.

One would hope that, with the holdings of the Clark and Pineda cases, the issue of what is restitution and the limited monetary remedies available for a private action under the UCL can now be laid to rest.

Insurer Has No Duty to Disclose Means of Obtaining Lower Premiums

by Sandra Weishart

In Levine v. Blue Shield of California, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, unanimously held that a health insurer has no duty to advise an applicant concerning how coverage could be structured to obtain lower monthly insurance premiums. 

The Levines filed the action, both individually and on behalf of a putative class, alleging causes of action for fraudulent concealment, negligent misrepresentation, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, unjust enrichment and unfair competition under Business and Professions Code section 17200

The appellate court affirmed the trial court's order sustaining Blue Shield's demurrer to the entire complaint, holding that Blue Shield had no duty to disclose the information that the Levines alleged was not provided during the application process.

Continue Reading...

Landmark Proposition 103 Decision Reached

On October 6, 2010, the California Court of Appeal issued a landmark decision involving Proposition 103 insurance rate approval in MacKay v. Superior Court, B220469 & B223772. 

The legal issue, as Division Three of the Second Appellate District explained, was

whether the approval of a rating factor by the DOI [Department of Insurance] precludes a civil action against the insurer challenging the use of that rating factor.”  

In MacKay, the plaintiff class sued 21st Century Insurance Company asserting that its use of certain rating factors (persistency and accident verification) was illegal and therefore actionable under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200

In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Croskey, the Court held "that the statutory provisions for an administrative process . . . are the exclusive means of challenging an approved rate,” precluding a UCL action and therefore ordered the trial court to enter judgment for 21st Century.

Prior to this decision, previous decisions had created uncertainty as to whether insurers, having fully complied with the requirements of Proposition 103 rate approval, could charge approved rates free from subsequent civil challenges. 

While Walker v. Allstate Indemnity Co, 77 Cal. App. 4th 750 (2000) held that approved rates could not thereafter be civilly challenged, Donabedian v. Mercury Ins. Co., 116 Cal. App. 4th 968 (2004) created confusion on this issue.

The MacKay decision resolves all prior confusion in declaring that approved rates and rating factors cannot thereafter be civilly challenged.

21st Century Insurance Company was represented in this action by Kent R. Keller, Steven H. Weinstein, Marina M. Karvelas and Peter Sindhuphak of Barger & Wolen.

California Supreme Court Holds Treble Damages Not Permitted under the Unfair Competition Law - Restitution is the Sole Monetary Remedy

Earlier today, the California Supreme Court issued its unanimous opinion concluding that Civil Code section 3345, which allows treble damages to be awarded to seniors when a statute provides for a fine or penalty, is not permitted under the Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 (the “UCL”)

The decision, Clark v. Superior Court (National Western Life Insurance Company), confirms that the only monetary remedy available under the UCL is restitution, and that a claim for treble damages is not restitution, nor is the nature of restitution comparable to a penalty.

The plaintiffs in the case filed a class action lawsuit against National Western Life Insurance Company arising out of the sale of deferred annuities issued to California residents who were senior citizens. The trial court denied certification as to all claims except one under the UCL. In addition to seeking restitution in the UCL claim, the plaintiffs sought treble damages on their restitution claim under section 3345.

As reported in our earlier blog post last September when the Supreme Court accepted review, in the more than two decades since the enactment of section 3345, no case had ever permitted any sort of damages, be they compensatory, treble or punitive, under the UCL. The trial court dismissed the claim for treble damages, but the Court of Appeal reversed, finding that the plain meaning of section 3345 applied to a private action seeking restitution under the UCL.

In reversing the decision issued by the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court focused on two issues. First, the Court considered whether a claim under section 3345 only applies to treble amounts awarded under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), since the first subsection of section 3345 makes reference to and cites language from the CLRA. The Court concluded that a claim under section 3345 is not so limited, observing that, if trebling was to apply only to a claim under the CLRA, there would have been no need for a separate statute (section 3345); the Legislature could have just amended the CLRA. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court did not articulate any other statutes that might be able to be trebled under section 3345.

After this, the Supreme Court specifically addressed whether section 3345 trebling was permitted under the UCL. The Court focused on the salient language of section 3345 where it requires the underlying statute to impose a “fine, or a civil penalty . . . or any other remedy the purpose of which is to punish or deter,” and found that it cannot refer to the UCL. First, citing to a number of its past decisions, the Court reiterated that the only monetary remedy under the UCL is restitution. 

Next, the Court relied on the well-established canon of statutory construction that when there is a general term followed by various specific terms, as is the case in the language of section 3345 just quoted, the general term must be limited to the nature of the specific terms. In other words, “any other remedy” must refer to a remedy in the nature of a penalty, and thus section 3345 trebling is only allowed when a statute permits a remedy that is in the nature of a penalty. The UCL, however, is not such a statute. Confirming that restitution only allows the restoration of something taken, or a return to the status quo, restitution under the UCL is not a penalty, which is a recovery without reference to the actual damage sustained. In sum, the Supreme Court concluded:

Because restitution in a private action brought under the unfair competition law is measured by what was taken from the plaintiff, that remedy is not a penalty and hence does not fall within the trebled recovery provision of Civil Code section 3345, subdivision (b).

Kent Keller and Larry Golub of Barger & Wolen represent National Western Life Insurance Company in the Clark case.

Court Offers Guidance as to Requirements for Alleging Harm to Establish UCL Standing

The California Court of Appeal, in Nelson v. Pearson Ford Co., issued a lengthy 50-page opinion on July 15 addressing numerous issues, including violations of the Automobile Sales Finance Act (“ASFA”), the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), class treatment and the right to recover fees in class actions.

Most poignant for insurers were the portions of the opinion addressing the UCL claim, and more specifically, the named plaintiff’s standing to pursue his UCL claim.

Reginald Nelson (“Plaintiff”) decided to purchase a used vehicle from Pearson Ford (“Pearson”) and executed a sales contract to that effect. Because, at the time of purchase, Plaintiff lacked auto insurance, an insurance broker was summoned to the dealership and sold Plaintiff an auto policy. A premium of $250 was added to the vehicle’s price. 

One week after the parties had completed the agreement, Pearson had additional paperwork for Plaintiff to sign. The new paperwork rescinded the original contract and entered the parties into a new agreement. The parties backdated the second contract to the date they signed the original contract. As a result of changing interest rates between the time the first and second contracts were entered, the backdating resulted in Plaintiff having to pay an additional $27 finance charge. The second contract disclosed the total finance charge, but the additional $27 was not separately itemized. Additionally, the second contract improperly added the $250 insurance premium to the cash price of the vehicle, which caused Plaintiff to pay $30 in additional sales tax and financing charges on the insurance premium.

Plaintiff later filed a class action complaint seeking to establish two distinct classes (both of which would ultimately be certified): (1) a class regarding the backdating of financing agreements (the “backdating class”); and (2) the improper inclusion of the price of insurance into the price of the vehicle (the “insurance class”). 

Following a bench trial, the court found Pearson had violated the UCL with regard to the backdating class, granting injunctive relief and setting restitution in the amount of $50 per class member. 

For the insurance class, the court found that Pearson violated the ASFA and the UCL by failing to disclose the cost of insurance and adding the insurance cost to the cash price of the car. It also enjoined Pearson from adding the price of insurance to the cash price of a vehicle in the future. Following the entry of judgment, Pearson appealed on numerous grounds. 

Continue Reading...

California Supreme Court Precludes Pass-On Defense in Clayton Act Claim and Finds Standing Under the UCL

The Supreme Court of California today issued its decision in Clayworth v. Pfizer, Inc., addressing issues raised under California’s antitrust statute, The Clayton Act, and California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”). Under each statute, the Court rejected defenses raised by the defendants and reversed a summary judgment issued in their favor.

An array of retail pharmacies brought suit against pharmaceutical manufacturers over the defendants’ alleged price-fixing in the sale of brand-name pharmaceuticals in the United States, whereby the cost of such drugs sold in this country were artificially inflated. The manufacturers contended that the pharmacies were not damaged since they were able to pass along the forced overcharges to third party customers or their health insurance plans. In cross-motions for summary judgment, the manufacturers urged that the “pass-on defense” precluded the pharmacies’ claims under both the Clayton Act and the UCL. 

The trial court agreed with the manufacturers and held that the pass-on defense was available under the Clayton Act to show the pharmacies suffered no compensable damages and further demonstrated the lack of standing under the UCL since the pharmacies could not show any “lost money or property.”  After the Court of Appeal affirmed the ruling, the Supreme Court granted review.

The bulk of the Supreme Court’s decision addressed the Cartwright Act claim. After discussing the statutory language of both federal (i.e., the Sherman Act) and state antitrust law, and the development of the pass-on defense under each, the Court found that, unlike federal law, the Cartwright Act provides that indirect purchasers as well as direct purchasers may sue for price fixing. As a consequence, with the exception of a few situations not applicable in the case before it, antitrust violators may not assert as a defense that any illegal overcharges had been passed on by a direct purchaser plaintiff to indirect purchasers, and therefore the full measure of the overcharge is recoverable by the direct purchaser.  

In turning to the UCL claim, the issue was primarily one of standing. The Court concluded that the plaintiff pharmacies possessed standing even under the more restrictive standard established in 2004 by Proposition 64 since the pharmacies had “lost money or property as a result of the defendant’s unfair business practices,” with the lost money being the overcharges they had paid due to the price-fixing scheme. That the pharmacies may have passed along their increased costs to consumers and thus not be able to prove any right to restitution was beside the point, since the Court would not “conflate[] the issue of standing with the issue of the remedies to which a party may be entitled.” The same rule applied as to the defense of mitigation of damages – it is not a basis to extinguish standing. 

As for the issue of “remedies” under the UCL claim, and for which the pharmacies sought only restitution and injunctive relief, the Court avoided the issue of restitution and focused solely on the issue of injunctive relief, finding the asserted lack of monetary loss to be no obstacle to the clam for injunctive relief. Since there was standing, there was the right to pursue injunctive relief, and there was no need for the plaintiffs to have a viable claim for restitution in order to seek injunctive relief. The Court found that there is nothing in the UCL that “conditions a court’s authority to order injunctive relief on the need in a given case to also order restitution” because the “two are wholly independent remedies.” Since a finding that the pharmacies could pursue injunctive relief was sufficient to preclude summary judgment for the manufacturers, the Court expressed “no opinion . . . . [as to] whether the pharmacies may eventually be entitled to restitution.” 

Clayworth is but the first of several UCL cases pending before the California Supreme Court, as discussed in one of our prior blogs.

Unfair Competition Law Cases Still Occupy Numerous Spaces on the California Supreme Court's Docket

 

In November 2004, the voters of California passed Proposition 64, which was intended to rein in certain abuses in and bring some clarity to the Unfair Competition Law, California Business & Professions Code sections 17200 et. seq. (“the UCL”). Five years later, and after a number of decisions issued by the California Supreme Court construing the changes made by Prop 64, that clarity is still elusive.

Take, for example, the Court’s May 18, 2009 decision In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009), which concluded that the new standing requirements for a UCL claim created by Prop 64 only require the named plaintiff/class representative to establish standing and not absent class members. In the months since the issuance of Tobacco II, a number of decisions have considered whether the Court’s conclusion as to “standing” applies to a trial court’s determination when it comes to considering the issue of “commonality” (i.e., whether common issues predominate over individual issues) for purposes of a class certification motion. Our firm’s blogs have reported on two intermediate appellate cases that found “Tobacco II to be irrelevant because the issue of ‘standing’ simply is not the same thing as the issue of ‘commonality.’”  See Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc., 178 Cal. App. 4th 966 (2009); Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance Co., 178 Cal. App. 4th 830 (2009). 

Cohen is now the subject of a Petition for Review pending before the Supreme Court, along with several requests for depublication of the intermediate court’s opinion. The court is expected to decide whether the case is to be accepted for review or depublished by March 1, 2010.

But Cohen is just one case on the Supreme Court’s plate. The following are cases now actual pending before the Supreme Court that address issues relating to the UCL, along with the date the Court accepted review and the issue(s) presented on the Court’s website:

Loeffler v. Target Corporation, Case No. S173972 (June 19, 2009) 

Does article XIII, section 32 of the California Constitution or Revenue and Taxation Code section 6932 bar a consumer from filing a lawsuit against a retailer under the Unfair Competition Law (Bus. & Prof. Code sections 17200 et seq.) or the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (Civ. Code, section 1750 et seq.) alleging that the retailer charged sales tax on transactions that were not taxable?  [The Court also issued a “grant and hold” on November 19, 2009 in Yabsley v. Cingular Wireless, Case No. S173972, pending consideration and disposition of a related issue in Loeffler v. Target Corp.]

Clark v. Superior Court (National Western Life Insurance Co.), Case No. S174229 (September 9, 2009)

Is Civil Code section 3345, which permits an enhanced award of up to three times the amount of a fine, civil penalty, or “any other remedy the purpose or effect of which is to punish or deter” in actions brought by or on behalf of senior citizens or disabled persons seeking to “redress unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition,” applicable in an action brought by senior citizens seeking restitution under the Unfair Competition Law?

Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, Case No. S171845 (June 10, 2009)

Does a plaintiff's allegation that he purchased a product in reliance on the product label's misrepresentation about a characteristic of the product satisfy the requirement for standing under the Unfair Competition Law that the plaintiff allege a loss of money or property, or is such a plaintiff unable to allege the required loss of money or property because he obtained the benefit of his bargain by receiving the product in exchange for the payment?

Pineda v. Bank of America, Case No. S170758 (April 22, 2009)

Can penalties under Labor Code section 203 (late payment of final wages) be recovered as restitution in an Unfair Competition Law action?

Sullivan v. Oracle Corp., Case No. S170577 (April 22, 2009)

Request that the Supreme Court deicide questions of California law presented in a matter pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  (Sullivan v. Oracle Corp., 547 F.3d 1177 (9th Cir. 2008) (now withdrawn))  The questions presented are: (1) Does the California Labor Code apply to overtime work performed in California for a California-based employer by out-of-state plaintiffs in the circumstances of this case, such that overtime pay is required for work in excess of eight hours per day or in excess of forty hours per week? (2) Does the UCL apply to the overtime work described in question one? (3) Does the UCL apply to overtime work performed outside of California for a California-based employer by out-of-state plaintiffs in the circumstances of this case if the employer failed to comply with the overtime provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (29 U.S.C. section 207 et seq.)?

Clayworth v. Pfizer, Inc., Case No. S166435 (November 19, 2008)

This case presents the following issues: (1) When plaintiffs pay overcharges on goods or services as a result of the anticompetitive conduct of defendant sellers but recover the overcharges through increased prices at which the goods or services are sold to end users, may defendants assert a “pass-on” defense and argue that plaintiffs were not injured because they did not suffer financial loss as a result of the anticompetitive conduct? (2) Is restitution available under the Unfair Competition Law to plaintiffs who recovered from third persons the overcharges paid to defendants? (3) When plaintiffs recover from third persons the overcharges paid to defendants, have they suffered actual injury and lost money or property for purposes of establishing standing under the Unfair Competition Law, as amended by Proposition 64?

Federal Court Denies Class Certification Motion Involving Deferred Annuities

The United States District Court for the Southern District of California denied certification to a purported class of purchasers of deferred annuities. In a decision issued earlier today by United States District Judge Janis Sammartino in In re National Western Life Insurance Deferred Annuities Litigation, Case No. 05-CV-1018-JLS (JSP), the court denied certification as to a nationwide class alleging RICO violations and a California state class alleging multiple statutory violations, including claims under the Unfair Competition Law (California Business & Professions Code sections 17200 et seq.).

Plaintiffs claimed that National Western “orchestrated a nationwide scheme to target senior citizens and lure them into purchasing its high cost and illiquid deferred annuities,” basing their claim on three alleged misrepresentations and/or omissions – the failure to disclose the high commissions paid to agents, the presence of an illusory bonus on premiums paid, and the use of an increasing asset fee, each of which impacted the interest credited on the annuities. Focusing solely on the commonality and typicality requirements to establish a viable class, the court found that such requirements were lacking. For example, the court emphasized that none of the class representatives possessed an annuity with an asset fee that was increased. Moreover, the court found plaintiffs had not met their burden in demonstrating that all of National Western’s more than twenty annuity products contained the alleged same misrepresentations and omitted the same information.  While the court did observe that National Western used standardized forms, they were not identical, and the evidence presented by plaintiffs failed to support their contention that those materials contained the same alleged misrepresentations and omissions.

The court denied the motion for class certification without prejudice and also explained that its ruling did not address any of the numerous other arguments advanced by the parties.

Larry Golub and Kent Keller of Barger & Wolen were co-counsel for National Western Life Insurance Company.

Second District Court of Appeal Confirms That Plaintiff Must Prove Reliance When Bringing Misrepresentation Claim Under UCL, FAL and CLRA

 

In the recently issued decision Princess Cruise Lines, LTD v. Superior Court, plaintiffs sued Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd. (“Princess”) over charges added to the price of shore excursions taken during a cruise. They alleged causes of action for violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), False Advertising Law (FAL), Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) and common law fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

Princess moved for summary judgment and summary adjudication. The trial court granted summary adjudication on the fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims because plaintiffs could not show they relied on Princess’ alleged misrepresentations. It denied summary judgment because it concluded that on the UCL, FAL and CLRA causes of action, plaintiffs did not have to show that they relied on Princess’ alleged misrepresentations.

Princess took a writ of mandate to the Court of Appeal. Citing to the recent California Supreme Court decision in In Re Tobacco II Cases, the Court of Appeal confirmed that

a class representative proceeding on a claim of misrepresentation as the basis of his or her UCL action must demonstrate actual reliance on the allegedly deceptive or misleading statements, in accordance with well-settled principles regarding the element of reliance in ordinary fraud actions.

Relying further on language from Tobacco II, the Court of Appeal specified that reliance must be proven only in situations where a UCL action is based on a fraud theory involving false advertising and misrepresentations to consumers. It further held that the Tobacco II’s analysis of the phrase “as a result” in the UCL was equally applicable to identical language in the CLRA statute.

 

California Appellate Court Clarifies Issues Raised in Tobacco II

A California Court of Appeal decision published on October 28, 2009, analyzes whether UCL “standing” rules announced by the California Supreme Court in In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009), carry over when a trial court considers the requisite elements to certify a class action. The answer, at least from the Eighth Appellate District, is that they do not. 

In Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc., the plaintiff sued the satellite television company under both the Unfair Competition Law or “UCL” (Business & Professions Code sections 17200 et seq.) and the Consumers Legal Remedies Act or “CLRA” (Civil Code sections 1750 et seq.), claiming that the company falsely advertised the quality of the High Definition (“HD”) resolution that it was transmitting to its customers. Cohen sought to certify a nationwide class. In opposition to a motion for class certification, DIRECTV presented a number of declarations from its customers that explained that their individual decisions to purchase the HD upgraded system were not based on seeing any advertising or promotional materials from the company, but rather on word of mouth, lower prices, or just because they bought an HDTV. On those facts, the trial court denied certification, finding that common legal and factual issues did not predominate.

On appeal, the court first found that no common legal issues predominated, agreeing with the trial court that the subscribers’ legal rights would vary from state to state and that subscribers outside of California may not be protected by the UCL or the CLRA. It also rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to redefine the class to include only California residents, reasoning that, even with a California-only class, plaintiff still could not show that common factual issues would predominate over individual factual issues.

As for whether common issues predominated, the court concluded that there were myriad reasons why subscribers had purchased the HD upgrade that were far removed from the alleged misleading advertisements as to resolution of the HD transmission. More particularly, the court found commonality lacking since actual reliance would need to be shown for an award of damages under the CLRA and for restitution/injunctive relief under the UCL. As for the decision in Tobacco II, the court explained that the Supreme Court in that case had been concerned with the issue of standing under the UCL and that, in the context of standing, only the class representative needed to satisfy the requirement and that there was no need for the class members to show actual reliance.

However, at the time of considering class certification, the Cohen court found “Tobacco II to be irrelevant because the issue of ‘standing’ simply is not the same thing as the issue of ‘commonality.’” Rather, at the time of considering class certification, the trial court was concerned that the UCL and CLRA claims alleged by plaintiff and the other class members “would involve factual questions associated with their reliance on DIRECTV’s alleged false representation,” which was a proper criterion to consider for commonality – “even after Tobacco II.”

Cohen is the second case published last week that affirmed the denial of class certification of a UCL claim and addressed the impact, or, more correctly, the lack of impact, of the decision in Tobacco II. The other decision is Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha et al., published October 26, 2009, a decision in which Barger & Wolen represented the defendant, and is discussed in the Life, Health and Disability Insurance Law blog.

Court of Appeal Hands UCL Win to Plaintiffs, Shrinks Impact of Moradi-Shalal

A recent ruling by the California Court of Appeal in a UCL action will likely lead to a showdown in the California Supreme Court over the reach of Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Cos., 46 Cal. 3d 287 (1988), the ruling that barred private actions seeking to enforce California’s Unfair Insurance Practices Act, namely, Insurance Code Section 790.03, et seq. (“Section 790.03”). 

For years plaintiffs’ lawyers and insurers have grappled over the question of whether causes of action for violation of California’s “Unfair Competition Law” (Business and Professions Code Section 17200, et seq., or “UCL”) may allege conduct that violates Section 790.03. Insurers have generally prevailed in demonstrating that to allow a UCL suit to include thinly-disguised Section 790.03 violations would be an impermissible circumvention or end run around Moradi-Shalal. The California Court of Appeal supported the insurers’ position on this issue in Textron Financial Corp. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co., 118 Cal. App. 4th 1061 (2004).

Now, the Fourth Appellate District, in Zhang v. Superior Court (October 29, 2009), has rejected Textron, and held that because the UCL allows a plaintiff to allege unfair, unlawful, and misleading conduct against businesses generally (including insurers), the fact a plaintiff asserts what appear to be violations of Section 790.03 is not necessarily an end run around Moradi-Shalal.

Continue Reading...

Ninth Circuit Overrules Denial of Class Certification Ruling in Annuity Litigation, Adopting a De Novo Standard of Review

On August 28, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision that found the Hawaii District Court had erred in denying class certification in a case involving the sale of annuities to senior citizens. While expressing no opinion as to the merits of the case, the Court of Appeals concluded that the class in Yokoyama v. Midland National Life Insurance Company should have been certified.

According to the Ninth Circuit, the plaintiffs in Yokoyama limited their claim to one that specifically targeted the misrepresentations made by Midland National in its brochures that promoted the annuities as appropriate for seniors. (No actual brochure language is quoted in the case.) Significantly, the claim was alleged solely under the Hawaii Deceptive Practices Act (“DPA”), which appears to be similar to a claim under the Unfair Competition Law in California. 

The District Court’s opinion issued in 2007 found that each plaintiff would have to show subjective, individualized reliance on deceptive practices related to each plaintiff’s purchase of an annuity, and thus class certification was denied. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit found that the District Court had erred in denying class certification, based on the fact that “this action has been narrowly tailored to rely only on Hawaii law,” that the DPA only requires an objective test to determine reliance, and that the plaintiffs were not basing their claim on the individual solicitations by agents.

The Ninth Circuit concluded: “Accordingly, there is no reason to look at the circumstances of each individual purchase in this case, because the allegations of the complaint are narrowly focused on allegedly deceptive provisions of Midland’s own marketing brochures, and the fact-finder need only determine whether those brochures were capable of misleading a reasonable consumer.” 

In addition, the Ninth Circuit opinion also rejected Midland National’s argument (and the District Court’s holding) that the potential existence of individualized damage assessments made the action unsuitable for class treatment. The Court of Appeals explained that “[in] this circuit, however, damage calculations alone cannot defeat certification.”

Much of the Yokohama decision is focused on the standard of review for a district court’s ruling as to certification, with the Ninth Circuit announcing that the standard of review is de novo, rather than the accepted abuse of discretion standard typically used in reviewing class certification rulings on appeal, at least in situations where the underlying issue is purely one of law.  On this point, however, there was a split among the three-judge panel. 

The third judge on the panel forcefully rejected this de novo standard and observed that it is “an assault on Ninth Circuit precedent.” The Judge concluded his separate opinion by advising that it “is an en banc panel who should make this determination to depart from longstanding Circuit precedent, not two judges who would make the standard of review less deferential.” The third Judge nevertheless concurred in the Court’s ultimate conclusion that the denial of class certification was to be reversed even under the de novo standard. Whether Midland National will seek en banc review in the case is presently unknown.

Ultimately, the Yokoyama opinion sanctions that, if plaintiff’s counsel in a case can craft the claims asserted against the defendant in a narrow manner so as to avoid individual variance among the class members, then even in a situation where class certification would seem not to be appropriate due to the inherent individualized issues, certification may nevertheless be permitted on that narrowed claim.  

California Supreme Court Further Clarifies Scope of UCL Claims Following Proposition 64

On June 29, 2009, the California Supreme Court issued two decisions that restrict the use of California Business & Professions Code section 17200, otherwise known as the Unfair Competition Law (UCL). Both cases addressed aspects of the UCL as it now exists since the passage of Proposition 64, which occurred in November 2004. 

In one case, the Court, relying on the ballot materials that accompanied the proposition, confirmed that a private party may only pursue a representative claim under the UCL if that party complies with class action requirements. In the other case, the Court held that a labor union, which itself has not suffered actual injury, may not bring a UCL claim on behalf of its members, even if such members have assigned their rights to the union or if those rights are based on the doctrine of “associational standing.” These two nearly unanimous decisions come just weeks after the Court, in a divided 4-3 decision, In Re Tobacco II Cases (decided May 18, 2009), found that following Proposition 64 only the class representatives (and not the absent class members) need to meet the “actual injury” standing requirement of the UCL.

The first decision, Arias v. Superior Court (Angelo Dairy) (pdf), involved a dairy employee who sued his former employer and others for a variety of California Labor Code violations and other labor regulatory violations. He also brought claims under the UCL on behalf of himself and other current and former employees of the defendants. The trial court struck the UCL claims on the grounds that plaintiff had failed to satisfy the pleading requirements for a class action.  The Court of Appeal agreed, and the Supreme Court accepted review. In affirming the judgment below, the Court reviewed the Proposition 64 portion of the Voter Information Guide prepared by the Secretary of State issued in connection with the November 2, 2004 election, observing that there is “no doubt” that “one purpose of Proposition 64 was to impose class action requirements on private plaintiffs’ representative actions brought under the” UCL. In California, those class action requirements arise out of California Code of Civil Procedure section 382.

The second decision, Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1756, AFL-CIO v. Superior Court (First Transit, Inc.) (pdf), also addressed another aspect of the UCL modified by the passage of Proposition 64, specifically the standing requirement under Business & Professions Code section 17203 that a private party claim may only be brought by a “person who has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property as a result of the unfair competition.”

 

Continue Reading...

Ninth Circuit Rules Complaint Must Specifically Allege Conduct Amounting To Fraud

In Kearns v. Ford Motor Company, --- F.3d ----, 2009 WL 1578535 (9thCir. June 8, 2009), plaintiff William Kearn sued Ford for alleged violations of California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”) and California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) arising out of Ford’s Certified Pre-Owned (“CPO”) vehicle program. Kearn’s complaint generically alleged that Ford had made false and misleading statements concerning the safety and reliability of its CPO vehicles (without identifying who made the statements, the specific content of the statements, or when and how Kearn was exposed to such statements), and failed to disclose to consumers Ford’s lack of actual oversight in determining whether used vehicles qualify for the CPO program.  Kearn alleged that he was harmed by the foregoing conduct because he had paid a higher price for a CPO vehicle then he would have paid for a non-CPO vehicle, even though there was no difference between the two. While Kearn alleged that Ford’s conduct constitutes an unfair business practice under California law, he did not assert any claims for fraud in the complaint.

In the district court, Ford brought a motion to dismiss Kearn’s complaint for failure to comply with the heightened pleading standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b). The district court granted the motion and Kearn appealed, principally arguing that Rule 9(b) does not apply to California’s consumer protection statutes because California courts have not applied Rule 9(b) to such statutes, and that Rule 9(b) does not apply to his CLRA and UCL claims because they are not grounded in fraud. 

 

In rejecting Kearn’s arguments, the Ninth Circuit held that it is well established that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure – including Rule 9(b) – apply in federal court, “irrespective of the source of the subject matter jurisdiction, and irrespective of whether the substantive law at issue is state or federal.” The Court further noted that while a federal court examines state law to determine whether the elements of fraud have been sufficiently pled to state a cause of action, the Rule 9(b) requirement that fraud be pled with specificity is a federally imposed rule. The Court also held that, while fraud is not a necessary element of a claim under the CLRA or UCL, if the plaintiff nevertheless alleges a unified course of fraudulent conduct and relies entirely on that course of conduct as the basis of the CLRA or UCL claim, the CLRA or UCL claim is considered to be “grounded in fraud” or sounding in fraud such that the complaint as a whole must satisfy the particularity requirement of Rule 9(b).

     

Get a copy of the opinion here.