Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court recently granted a request to depublish a Court of Appeal opinion regarding class actions that was helpful to California employers. The effect of the opinion had been to constrain courts’ ability to certify class actions in certain circumstances. Now that the opinion has been depublished, it can no longer be cited by litigants in California cases.
In Sony Electronics, Inc. v. Superior Court (2006) 145 Cal.App.4th 1086, the purchaser of a Sony laptop sued Sony alleging that the laptop suffered from a manufacturing defect (Sony’s alleged failure to properly solder a memory chip socket). The trial court certified a class of "[a]ll persons in the United States who are original purchasers of Sony Vaio GRX Notebook computers … in which the memory connector pins for either of the two memory slots were inadequately soldered." Sony appealed, arguing that the proposed class was unmanageable because "the court’s definition of the class made class membership dependent on a determination of liability and that such a definition made it impossible to determine who was a member of the class for purposes of sending notice of the action." In other words, recipients of the class notice "would not be able to tell whether they were part of the class without having their computers dismantled and analyzed to determine if the computers suffered from inadequate soldering."
The Court of Appeal for the Fourth District agreed with Sony. The court held that the proposed class was not sufficiently "ascertainable." Proposed class definitions must be "precise, objective, and presently ascertainable," so that the class receives proper notice, and the ultimate decision in the case is binding on the class. The problem with a class definition "that rests on the paramount liability question" is that "the trial court has no way of ascertaining whether a given person is a member of the class until a determination of ultimate liability as to that person is made." A class defined in this manner is only bound by a judgment favorable to the plaintiff, because if the defendant succeeds in establishing no liability, there would be no class members to bind.
Because there was no evidence indicating that all Sony Vaio GRX Series laptops had the soldering problem, the trial court’s class definition required a merits-based determination (i.e., a determination as to whether each particular laptop had the problem) in order to establish which laptops owners were in the class. As a result, "[t]he members of such a class are thus not readily identifiable so as to permit appropriate notice to be given and the definition would not permit persons who receive notice of this action to determine whether they are part of the class."
The Sony Electronics decision was relevant to the labor and employment field because plaintiffs in labor and employment cases sometimes seek to define classes by reference to the ultimate issue of liability (e.g., whether a particular employee was "provided" a meal period or rest break, or whether a particular employee was "discriminated against" on the basis of a protected trait). Such class definitions, employers would argue, improperly require an individualized determination as to legal liability, and thus are not based on "precise, objective, and presently ascertainable" criteria. The Sony Electronics decision was available for employers to cite in support of these arguments.
The immediate impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to depublish Sony Electronics is that the case can no longer be cited by litigants in other cases. However, the Supreme Court’s decision does not necessarily mean that Sony Electronics was wrongly decided. The Sony Electronics court itself relied on prior California decisions, as well as similar out-of-state authority, in reaching its conclusion. In the future, employers can continue to make the same arguments relied upon in Sony Electronics in resisting unmanageable class definitions. They will simply have to make these arguments without reference to Sony Electronics.