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One Year After Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez: How Have Lower Courts Answered The “Open Question” Posed by the Supreme Court?

Supreme Court iStock_000017257808LargeBy Kate T. Spelman

It has been a year since the Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated decision in Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez.  As we reported here, the Court held in Gomez that an unaccepted offer of settlement, conveyed either as an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 or otherwise, was insufficient to moot a putative class representative’s claim.  The Supreme Court left open the question, however, of whether a defendant could potentially moot a plaintiff’s claim by actually tendering a reimbursement to the individual plaintiff – e.g., through depositing monies in her bank account or something similar.

How have lower federal courts responded to this open question?  The answer is two-fold. 

On the one hand, no real consensus has emerged with respect to a defendant’s ability to moot a representative plaintiff’s individual claim by tendering full relief.  Some courts have held that such a tender negates the existence of a “live claim,” whereas others have found that a named plaintiff’s individual claim cannot be mooted by an unwelcome reimbursement.  Compare Leyse v. Lifetime Entm’t Servs., LLC, No. 13 CIV. 5794 (AKH), 2016 WL 1253607, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 17, 2016) (“[O]nce the defendant has furnished full relief, there is no basis for the plaintiff to object to the entry of judgment in its favor.”) with Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley v. Graduation Source, LLC, No. 14-cv-3232, 2016 WL 872914, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 7, 2016) (finding that a plaintiff's TCPA claims remained live even after the defendant deposited a check with the court and assented to the requested injunctive relief). 

On the other hand, aside from a few outliers (see, e.g., Franco v. Allied Interstate LLC, No. 13-CV-4053 (KBF), 2015 WL 7758534, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 2015)), courts have been fairly uniform in their rejection of defendants’ attempts to moot putative class actions by providing full relief to representative plaintiffs.  These courts have reasoned that mooting a named plaintiff’s claim does not moot their ability to represent a putative class because certification of the class can relate back to the filing of the complaint, at which point in time the plaintiff presumably had standing to sue.  See, e.g., Chen v. Allstate Insurance Co., 819 F.3d 1136, 1147 (9th Cir. 2016) (“[W]hen a defendant consents to judgment affording complete relief on a named plaintiff's individual claims before certification, but fails to offer complete relief on the plaintiff's class claims, a court should not enter judgment on the individual claims, over the plaintiff’s objection, before the plaintiff has had a fair opportunity to move for class certification.”).

The District of Massachusetts’s decision in South Orange Chiropractic Center, LLC v. Cayan LLC illustrates the broader trend.  No. 15-13069, 2016 WL 1441791 (D. Mass. Apr. 12, 2016).  In Cayan, the court held that the defendant’s offer to deposit a check with the court to satisfy all of the plaintiff’s individual claims, and to have the district court enter judgment in the plaintiff’s favor, mooted the named plaintiff’s individual cause of action.  However, the court noted that “[t]he second question—whether the class action outlives the mooted individual claims—is the harder issue,” and held that “even though Plaintiff's individual claims have become moot, the class action may proceed as a case or controversy under Article III.”  Id. at *7.

The lower courts will undoubtedly continue to refine their response to the Supreme Court’s open question as they grapple with the boundaries of the mootness doctrine.