A key premise of a class action is that a court can, in essence, review the merits of the class representative’s claims and apply the result of that review across the class as a whole. This concept is most readily found in Rule 23(a)(2) (commonality), (a)(3)(typicality) and (a)(4)(adequacy of representation), but it also finds its way into Rule 23(b)(3) in the form of predominance and superiority. Most challenges to class status focus on issues such as commonality and predominance, but challenges based on Rule 23(a)(4) adequacy of representation are less common.
A recent case from the Northern District of Illinois, however, discusses a number of issues relating to the adequacy of the putative class representatives. In Pruitt v. Personnel Staffing Group, LLC d/b/a MVP, Case No. 16-cv-5079 (N.D. Ill. June 8, 2020), the two plaintiffs brought a putative class action against a staffing company and several of its clients, contending that they and the proposed class members were denied job assignments on the basis of race. Following a tortuous procedural history, the defendants moved the court to deny certification, relying heavily on the adequacy of representation of the named plaintiffs under Rule 23(a)(4).
The court reviewed in detail the arguments made by both sides, which were considerable in number, among them being the defendant’s argument that because the lead plaintiffs had significant criminal records, at a minimum their credibility was in doubt and they were therefore inadequate representatives. The court noted the sparse authority on this point, but largely rejected the argument because of the age of the convictions and the lack of any connection to the merits of the case.
The court also rejected various technical defenses such as the effect of the plaintiffs’ bankruptcies, the timing of their efforts to obtain job assignments and their participation in other class actions against the employer.
The court did, however, find three issues problematic. First, neither of the two named plaintiffs knew much about the case or participated meaningfully in its prosecution. Second, one in particular appeared to have given incorrect answers in discovery and was evasive in his deposition. In one deposition exchange, he was asked to explain why he had not produced a relevant document and responded, “I’m actually not interested in elaboration.” Third, the court found that the other putative class representative was at least arguably subject to a statute of limitations defense that did not apply to the class as a whole.
Based on these reasons, the court denied class certification, leaving the two remaining plaintiffs to decide whether they wished to pursue their claims individually.
The Pruitt decision is worthwhile reading due to its analysis of multiple challenges to the adequacy of the putative class representatives.
The bottom line: Proposed class representatives who fail to cooperate in the litigation process may jeopardize certification.