District Court Order Granting Certification Of ADA Class Action under Rule 23(b)(2) Warranted Reversal because District Court Abused Discretion in Overlooking Individualized Inquiries Inherent in Class Action Claims and because Monetary Relief was not Merely Incidental to Class Action Complaint Third Circuit Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against United Parcel Service “alleging UPS has adopted and implemented companywide employment policies that are unlawfully discriminatory under the [Americans with Disabilities Act] ADA.” Hohider v. United Parcel Service, Inc., ___ F.3d ___ (3d Cir. July 23, 2009) [Slip Opn., at 6]. A separate class action was filed against UPS that was ultimately consolidated for all purposes with the initial action. Id., at 7. In broad terms, “Plaintiffs’ claims of unlawful discrimination focus on UPS’s alleged treatment of employees who attempt to return to work at UPS after having to take leave for medical reasons.” Id. According to the allegations underlying the class action, “UPS, as a matter of companywide policy, refuses to offer any accommodation to employees seeking to return to work with medical restrictions, effectively precluding them from resuming employment at UPS in any capacity because of their impaired condition.” Id., at 8. Plaintiffs moved the district court to certify the litigation as a nationwide class action, id., at 6-7, 10. In analyzing plaintiffs’ motion, the district court concluded that the proper “framework for analyzing a Title VII pattern-or-practice claim” in “a private-party class action brought under the ADA” was that set forth in Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., 424 U.S. 747 (1976), Int’l Brotherhood of Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324 (1977), and Cooper v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 467 U.S. 867 (1984). Id., at 29. The district court concluded that plaintiffs satisfied the requirements for class action certification under Rule 23(b)(2), id., at 11-12. UPS appealed, and in an 86-page opinion the Third Circuit reversed, id.
The Circuit Court noted that the district court recognized the difficulties in allowing the litigation to proceed as a class action. For example, the district court “recognized that, in the present case, some of these ‘individual elements of a reasonable accommodation claim’ are not suitable for class treatment, as their resolution would require inquiries too individualized and divergent with respect to this class to meet the requirements of Rule 23.” Hohider, at 34. The court found, however, that “these individualized inquiries could be delayed until the second, ‘remedial’ stage” and so did not preclude class certification for the “‘liability’ stage,” which required “only proof of the existence of the alleged policies as UPS’s ‘standard operating procedure.’” Id. In the district court’s words, “It is sufficient in order to certify a class pursuant to Rule 23(b)(2) for the court to find that either UPS has acted on grounds generally applicable to the class by engaging in the alleged de facto 100% healed policy or by not engaging in the alleged de facto 100% healed policy; by implementing its formal ADA compliance procedures in violation of the ADA, or by implementing them in compliance with it; or by creating job classifications that are designed without regard to essential job functions to preclude anyone from returning to work who could not lift seventy pounds, or by creating job classifications that are designed with regard to essential job functions.” Id., at 34-35. The Third Circuit found that the district court misconstrued the Teamsters framework, and that “[t]o the extent the District Court relied upon the Teamsters method of proof to reach a certification decision incompatible with the substantive requirements of the ADA, it abused its discretion.” Id., at 42. The Third Circuit held at page 42, “Having reviewed plaintiffs’ claims in light of the substantive requirements of the ADA, we find those claims cannot be adjudicated within the parameters of Rule 23 such that a determination of classwide liability and relief can be reached. Rather, establishing the unlawful discrimination alleged by plaintiffs would require determining whether class members are ‘qualified’ under the ADA, an assessment that encompasses inquiries acknowledged by the District Court to be too individualized and divergent with respect to this class to warrant certification under Rule 23(a) and (b)(2).” Put simply, “the Teamsters framework cannot, by its own force, cure this flaw in the class.” Hohider, at 43. “Accordingly, the court’s grant of class certification was an abuse of discretion.” Id.
UPS also argued that class certification under Rule 23(b)(2) was inappropriate because the class action sought primarily money damages. Hohider, at 74. Defense attorneys argued that the prayer for monetary relief – consisting of back pay, and compensatory and punitive damages – predominated over the injunctive and declaratory relief sought by plaintiffs. Id. The Circuit Court agreed, holding at page 79 that “even if we were to agree with the District Court that a finding of liability and an award of injunctive and declaratory relief could be reached on a classwide basis without addressing these individualized inquiries, such inquiries, under the court’s analysis, would still be necessary to address certain questions of individual relief with respect to each class member.” Accordingly, “plaintiffs’ requested compensatory and punitive damages would be ineligible for class treatment under Rule 23(b)(2),” id., at 79. At bottom, the Circuit Court found the district court abused its discretion in certifying the litigation as a class action and reversed the district court’s order. Id., at 85-86.