Class Action Certification Under FDUTPA

Miami Auto. Retail, Inc. v. Christine F. Baldwin, No. 3D10-2136 (Fla. 3d DCA June 27, 2012)

This case came up on appeal from an order certifying a class of automobile buyers who traded in a vehicle at Miami Auto Retail, also known as Brickell Honda. In the underlying case the plaintiff, Christine Baldwin, purchased a Honda CR-V at Brickell Honda and traded in the Honda Civic she was currently leasing. Pursuant to the agreement between the parties, Brickell Honda agreed to pay off the remaining amount Baldwin owed on the leased Civic. At the time of purchase, the exact amount Baldwin owed on her Civic was not available, and as a result the parties estimated the payoff amount and trade-in value and this amount was listed in the purchase documents. Baldwin alleged that she was told by Brickell Honda that if the actual payoff amount was less than the amount estimated, she would be refunded the difference. When the actual payoff amount in fact turned out to be less than the estimate, however, Brickell Honda did not notify Baldwin or give her a refund for the difference.

Baldwin sued alleging Brickell Honda violated the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA) by failing to refund the difference between the estimated and actual payoff amounts on her trade-in, and sought class certification.  The trial court granted class certification under section 501.976(11), Florida Statutes and appointed Baldwin as class representative. Brickell Honda appealed. 

On appeal, the Third District Court of Appeal held that the trial court abused its discretion by granting the class certification and reversed the order. In its analysis, the court stated that in order to obtain class certification Baldwin was required to submit evidence sufficient to prove the four factors listed in Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.220(a) and at least one of the categories of factors listed in Rule 1.220(b). Under Rule 1.220(a), the court must conclude that:

(1) the members of the class are so numerous that separate joinder of each member is impracticable, (2) the claim or defense of the representative party raises questions of law or fact common to the questions of law or fact raised by the claim or defense of each member of the class, (3) the claim or defense of the representative party is typical of the claim or defense of each member of the class, and (4) the representative party can fairly and adequately protect and represent the interests of each member of the class.  Id. at 6 (emphasis in original).

The court found that Baldwin established the first two of the above factors, numerosity and commonality, since the potential class members were large in number and their claims all arose out of Brickell Honda’s overestimating trade-in values and failure to return the difference. For the remaining two factors, typicality of the claim or defense and adequacy of representation, the court found Baldwin failed to satisfy her burden. With regard to the typicality requirement, the court stated that Brickell Honda's estimate regarding the balance owed on Baldwin's leased vehicle was based on her own representations and that the difference between the estimated amount and the actual amount paid to satisfy the lease was created by Baldwin inadvertently making an additional monthly lease payment after she signed the contract with Brickell Honda. This presents Brickell Honda with unique defenses against Baldwin’s claim that would preoccupy her to the detriment of the unnamed class members and destroy the typicality requirement. The court also found that Baldwin did not establish the requirement that she be an adequate class representative by failing to offer any evidence on her ability, or the ability of the appointed class counsel, to assume the costs to litigate the case on behalf of the class.

The court then examined whether Baldwin meets the requirements of predominance and superiority as stated in Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.220(b)(3), which “requires that common questions of law or fact predominate over any individual questions of the separate members, and that class representation is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy." Kia Motors Am. Corp. v. Butler, 985 So. 2d 1133, 1136 (Fla. 3d DCA 2008).

The Third District Court of Appeal concluded that Baldwin's FDUTPA claims require determination of individual issues regarding representations and negotiations between each class member and Brickell Honda as to the payoff amount of their trade-in vehicle. As a result these determinations of individual issues of fact and law will predominate over common questions of fact and law and render class treatment impractical, and not superior to individual adjudication. Furthermore, the court stated that since FDUPTA does not impose a threshold for claims and provides prevailing party attorney fees the cost of bringing a suit would not deter other potential plaintiffs even if the damages incurred are small. 

To read the entire opinion, click here.