Ohio's Eighth Appellate District affirms denial of class certification in Maestle v. Best Buy due to lack of unambiguous, identifiable class

Determining whether a complaint properly identifies and defines a class is a critical step in determining whether class certification is appropriate.   If a class definition is overbroad, unambiguous, unidentifiable or failsafe, certification should generally be denied.  Federal case law is developed on this point.  Ohio cases, on the other hand, are not quite as clear.
But a recent case out of Ohio’s Eighth Appellate District sheds some light on this critical class definition issue.  Maestle v. Best Buy Co., 2011-Ohio-5833 (8th Dist. Nov. 10, 2011) concerns claims of breach of contract, fraud and violations of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act in connection with several store credit card offers by Best Buy.  Plaintiff Shawn Maestle filed a putative class action in 2000 based upon a Best Buy credit card program that offered two plans, “no pay/deferred interest” and “same as cash.”  The “no pay/deferred interest” plan had a promotional period in which no payment was required.  The “same as cash” plan also had a promotional period, but minimum monthly payments were required during that time.
Maestle cited three complaints with the Best Buy card program.  According to him, it:

   (1) denied the benefit of “same as cash” promotions by having their credit card account payments allocated (when they had multiple promotional balances outstanding) to the balance with the latest expiring promotional period;

   (2) assessed “a minimum monthly finance charge” on promotional purchases in the amount of 50 cents, or any other amount, when the agreement made no provision for such charges; or

   (3) assessed, on a promotional credit card balance, interest accruing retroactively from the transaction date rather than from the first day following the expiration of the promotional period.

In June 2006, Maestle moved for class certification on behalf of a putative class of over 10,000, whom he claimed were subject to improper charges.  He defined the class as “[a]ll persons who at any time after September 12, 1985 were Best Buy customers, each with a Best Buy credit card, who were: assessed interest or finance charges; a minimum monthly finance charge of 50 cents (or any other amount); finance charges on any promotional purchases earlier than the first day after expiration of the promotional period; or assessed interest or finance charges upon payments demanded prior to the expiration of 90 days.”

In May 2007, the trial court indicated it would rule on class certification within 30 days, but actually issued its decision in December 2010.  The trial court denied class certification, stating Maestle failed to meet any other required element besides numerosity.

Specifically, the trial court found the class definition overbroad because it was not limited to cardholders actually subjected to the penalties or those whose accounts were serviced by Defendants.  Among other shortcomings, Maestle failed to meet the requirements under Rule 23(A)(1) to show an unambiguous, identifiable class.

The Eighth District affirmed and found the elements of Rule 23(A)(1) not met.  It rejected Maestle’s claim that the class was unambiguous and identifiable because Defendants had records that would allow identification of the class members.  The presence of the records alone did not make class members “readily identifiable.”  In other words, the court would need to conduct an individualized inquiry to determine whether people were injured, obviating the purpose of proceeding as a class action.

Judge Kilbane dissented from the majority, however, finding that determining the class was “administratively feasible” from Defendants’ records and that the circumstances merited class treatment due to the small individual amounts at issue.

Stay tuned as we continue to monitor the development of Ohio case law on this and other critical pre-certification issues.

Class Definitions