Tuesday, September 15, 2020

escalated materiality requirement precludes class certification

Oddo v. Arocaire Air Conditioning & Heating, 2020 WL 5267917, Nos. 15-cv-01985-CAS Ex, 18-cv-07030-CAS(Ex) (C.D. Cal. May 18, 2020)

These are consolidated putative class actions alleging that defendants’ HVAC systems have faulty thermal expansion valves (TXVs). A TXV is “a precision valve that controls the expansion of refrigerant central to the cooling process[.]” Because it’s a bottleneck in the system, “[a]ny contaminants or impurities that may be flowing through the system are likely to collect around the TXV pin,” which can harm its function. “Ryconox,” a chemical rust inhibitor, allegedly “reacts with the refrigerant and/or oil and causes a tar or sludge to form when the systems are put into service.” As such, “within just weeks or months of installation of a brand-new HVAC system, the tar can cause the TXV to become stuck, rendering the system inoperable.” Also, “even a partial clog can impact system performance and efficiency, … such that the defective HVAC systems are not capable of performing to the efficiency standards advertised ….”

Defendant Carrier allegedly took various unsuccessful steps to remediate the problem.

Previously, the court dismissed warranty-based claims and claims based on affirmative misrepresentations. Not previously dismissed: California unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, UCL, CLRA, and FAL claims; Missouri fraudulent concealment, negligent misrepresentation, and Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA) claims to proceed; and Massachusetts unjust enrichment and Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act (MCPA) claims. The court also previously denied a motion for class certification without prejudice. Because the gravamen of the fraudulent omission claims is failure to disclose, those plaintiffs failed to show that people who bought a home with a Carrier HVAC suffered the same injury as people who just bought a Carrier HVAC. Homebuyers “may have never been exposed to any Carrier materials during the homebuying process, much less attached the same level of importance, if any, to a disclosure of the alleged defect as would a purchaser of an HVAC unit.” The court rejected plaintiffs’ contention “that virtually any class can be certified in an omissions-based case as long as the defendant could have, in theory, ensured that a disclosure would reach its consumers.”

Carrier moved to exclude the opinions of plaintiffs’ survey expert, Dr. Maronick. Previously, the court had reasoned that “[p]laintiffs do not explain how homebuyers could have suffered an injury in the form of paying a premium price for their HVAC units when they purchased a home that already had the Carrier HVAC system installed” and “it appears that homebuyers, if they suffered any injury at all, suffered an injury of a different nature than purchasers of new HVAC units.” Based on his consumer survey, Dr. Maronick opines that: (1) “most consumers who purchased a new air conditioner saw the air conditioner itself prior to payment ... regardless of whether the air conditioner was acquired in connection with [buying a home or just a unit]”; (2) “the vast majority of consumers who purchased a new air conditioner obtained information about the air condition from the seller prior to purchase ... regardless [etc.]”; (3) “aside from the brand name, the efficiency rating of their air condition was the most common piece of information purchasers learned from their seller or homebuilder prior to purchase”; (4) “most consumers would have considered a disclosure about the alleged defect in this case to be an important, if not decisive, factor in their purchasing decision, regardless of whether they were purchasing an air conditioner alone or a new home”; and (5) “if the alleged defect had been disclosed prior to sale, the vast majority of consumers would have demanded a unit that did not contain the rust inhibitor, or a price discount equal to the cost of removing the rust inhibitor.”

This was relevant to the issues of classwide exposure, materiality, and injury, and addressed deficiencies that the court previously identified. Carrier challenged the survey because it: (1) failed to survey “the relevant target universe”; (2) asked the wrong questions “because the survey did not ask whether purchasers reviewed any labels on the product itself prior to deciding the unit”; (3) failed to approximate market conditions and asked ambiguous, leading questions; and (4) “failed to provide a control to isolate the effect of the disclosure of the alleged defect.” These criticisms didn’t require exclusion; they all went to weight rather than admissibility. Maronick used a nationwide universe of sample individuals who had purchased a central air conditioning system for their residence in the previous three years (including respondents who bought a new construction home with a new AC). Questions about “the relevant target universe” generally go to weight, not admissibility, as do attacks on the framing of questions and the absence of a control.  Even though the court had its doubts, it denied the motion to exclude. (So too with plaintiffs’ damages expert.)

Carrier offered its own expert testimony, based on a consumer survey, which Carrier believes “confirms that individual inquiry would be necessary to determine both whether consumers would have reviewed information from Carrier prior to purchase and the materiality of that information.” Dr. Dhar’s contrary opinions that “exposure to and consideration of product information from an HVAC manufacturer is highly variable across consumers,” were relevant, proper rebuttal and plaintiffs’ criticism of his survey went to weight, not admissibility.  (So too with the other experts.)

On to certification: “Resolution of plaintiffs’ fraudulent concealment claims and plaintiffs’ related consumer protection claims … turn, in part, on factual questions such as, inter alia: (1) whether the presence of Ryconox in Carrier’s HVAC systems caused a defect; (2) whether Carrier knew of the defect; (3) and whether Carrier concealed the defect.” Thus, commonality was satisfied.

Typicality: the California and Missouri named plaintiffs had bought new HVAC units, not new houses with HVACs installed, and their claims were thus only typical of the former subset. The Massachusetts named plaintiff bought a new house, but testified during deposition that he “was not exposed to any of Carrier’s materials until after he had already negotiated and agreed to the purchase price of his new home” and that “he would have not tried to renegotiate the price of his home based on anything he learned during the course of this inspection.” Even if that was just a snippet of his testimony—and he also testified that if there’d been a defect disclosed, everything would have changed—his vulnerability to a unique defense made him nontypical.

Predominance: all the theories require that Carrier had a duty to disclose the alleged defect. Plaintiffs had three arguments for such a duty: (1) Carrier had exclusive knowledge of material facts not known or reasonably accessible to them; (2) Carrier actively concealed material facts; and (3) Carrier made partial representations (i.e., the energy efficiency labels) that were misleading because other material facts had not been disclosed.

California: “Even assuming arguendo that California law recognizes a duty to disclose where an alleged defect does not present a safety hazard but instead relates to a product’s central function, plaintiffs fail to establish the existence of such a duty to disclose in this case is capable of class-wide proof.” [That seems weird. The central function of an HVAC unit seems invariant across purchasers; why wouldn’t its centrality be capable of classwide proof? The court cites Ahern v. Apple Inc., 411 F. Supp. 3d 541 (N.D. Cal. 2019), in which Apple’s failure to install “fans and vents” in its computers allegedly allowed the fans to “suck in dirt and debris” which resulted in the dirt and debris “getting stuck behind the screen, causing permanent dark smudging to appear in the comers of the screens.” But smudging at the corners (and another case about security flaws in microprocessors) is pretty different from “the HVAC system may choke and die.”] Since plaintiffs’ expert did not opine that all, or virtually all, of the affected HVAC units would suffer acute failure as a result of the problem, or be rendered incapable of use, the alleged defect didn’t go to their central function. The expert also opined that “the evidence shows that consumers have experienced performance loss and do not know it.” If many victims didn’t know that they were suffering, then the units hadn’t been rendered “incapable of use” such as to trigger a duty to disclose under California law.

And again with redactions on facts that determine the outcome! Carrier’s internal documents disclosed a redacted failure rate on certain smaller units. Assuming that was a rate sufficient to impose a duty to disclose [sure would be nice to know what that was!], plaintiffs’ expert also argued that the evidence showed problems with larger units, though he acknowledged that [redacted]. Given that the failure rate may differ among the range of units making up the proposed classes, there might be a duty to disclose as to some, but not all, of the proposed class members’ HVAC systems. Plaintiffs offered no method to determine which class members’ HVAC systems will suffer acute failure. Thus, individualized inquiries would be necessary.

The court then doesn’t discuss plaintiffs’ theory (3), which I think is a misreading of the governing law. If you make an affirmative representation that is misleading because of failure to disclose important related information, the statement as a whole is misleading and there’s no “central function” requirement for that basis for a duty to disclose, predicated as it is on the specific affirmative statements that were made and thus on the message that affirmatively reached consumers.

In Missouri, a “duty to disclose arises from a classical fiduciary relationship, from a partial disclosure of information, or from particular circumstances such as where one party to a contract has superior knowledge and is relied upon to disclose this knowledge.” “Unlike California law, then, Missouri law does not appear to necessarily limit a manufacturer’s duty to disclose to circumstances where a defect presents a safety hazard or where the defect fatally compromises a product’s central functionality.” [Again, this appears to be an overly constrained reading of California law, which has never been known for its plaintiff-unfriendliness.] The court assumed without deciding that whether a duty to disclose existed, given evidence that Carrier was aware of the problem, was susceptible to common proof.

Reliance/materiality: In California, “[a]n essential element for a fraudulent omission claim is actual reliance.” “A plaintiff need not prove that the omission was the only cause or even the predominant cause, only that it was a substantial factor in his decision,” and this can be inferred if the omission is material. “Missouri law follows a similar approach with respect to MMPA claims,” since it too uses the reasonable consumer standard. “If a statute uses a reasonable person standard, it is more likely to be subject to common proof because the inquiry into materiality is objective.”

Thus, the relevant claims allowed for class-wide inferences of reliance and causation. What about the specific omissions here? The court previously rejected as insufficient (1) Carrier’s surveys showing that, generally, ‘reliability’ and ‘quality’ are the two most important factors considered by purchasers” and (2) Carrier’s own purported belief that the defect was material. Plaintiffs added the Maronick survey, which asked, inter alia, how consumers would have reacted to learning about a defect that would  “cause the air condition to fail in some cases within either a few weeks or a few years, and, even if the unit doesn’t fail, the chemical can cause loss of performance and efficiency of the system” and which cost $1000 to fix at the time of installation. Results: “It would have been a decisive factor in my decision to purchase or not purchase that central air conditioner”: 72.2%. “It would have been important information to know but not a decisive factor …”: 13.9%.  “It would not have been an important factor …”: 8.3%. “Don’t know/Not sure …”: 5.6%.

Similarly, in response to a question regarding what, if any, respondents likely would have done had they learned about the defect prior to completing a purchase, “41.0% of the respondents would have ‘demanded a replacement that didn’t have the chemical in it,” and 22.2% would have ‘demanded the chemical be removed before accepting the unit.’ Another 12.5% would have demanded a price reduction of $1,000, which is described as ‘the cost of removing the chemical.’ ”

Carrier argued that the survey didn’t actually test materiality or causation, criticizing the questions and format, especially how it focused on and described the alleged defect. The court agreed: the survey didn’t “question respondents about which, if any, of these attributes [about which respondents received or sought information] respondents found important when making a purchasing decision.” To the extent that the questions above don't address that (which they seem to do), I think the court conflates materiality and deceptiveness—materiality is about the kinds of claims or omissions that matter. The court found the survey insufficient to establish, on a class-wide basis, “how the challenged statements, together or alone, were a factor in any consumer’s purchasing decisions.”

Because the survey didn’t indicate how consumers “valued” Carrier’s alleged omissions “compared to other attributes of the product and the relevant market generally,” “the Court is not convinced that the question of materiality”—whether reasonable consumers would view Carrier’s failure to disclose the alleged defect in this case as material to the consumers’ purchasing decision—“is susceptible of classwide proof.”

Thus, no certification.

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