The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday in Comcast v. Behrend [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that judges can reach the merits of an underlying claim in determining whether to certify a class under Rule 23(b) [Cornell LII backgrounder]. In doing so, the court reversed the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit which refused [opinion, PDF] to decide the plaintiffs' class status based on the underlying merits. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, relied heavily on Wal-Mart v. Dukes [JURIST report] which outlines the court's stance on the standard of certification of a class in a class action lawsuit. Scalia wrote that:
it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question, and that certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the prerequisites of Rule 23(a) have been satisfied. Such an analysis will frequently entail overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim. That is so because the class determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff's cause of action. [internal citations and quotations omitted for clarity]Scalia went on to hold, "By refusing to entertain arguments against respondents' damages model that bore on the propriety of class certification, simply because those arguments would also be pertinent to the merits determination, the Court of Appeals ran afoul of our precedents requiring precisely that inquiry."
The 5-4 ruling fell along traditional ideological lines with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito joining Scalia in the majority. Justices Burth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer jointly authored a dissent which was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The dissent found the writ of certiorari was improvidently granted in this case, further noting that the parties did not effective brief the question posed by the court. The dissent went on to say, "the decision should not be read to require, as a prerequisite to certification, that damages attributable to a classwide injury be measurable 'on a class-wide basis.'"