Why Commonality is Relatively Easy to Prove in ERISA Class Actions

One should never underestimate the fundamental role that procedural and related tactical issues play in a case, and how they impact the very question of whether a plaintiff will ever be able to have a judge or jury rule on the merits of a case. Procedural barriers to prosecuting particular claims can be the end of a case, without anyone ever hearing the merits of the dispute, unless a plaintiff can hurdle them. In a sense, this phenomenon means that a plaintiff often has to prove two parts, broadly speaking, of a case to win: first the procedural and tactical niceties needed to even get the case in front of a fact finder, and then the actual merits. In what is sort of a mirror image, a defendant can prevail in a case simply by winning either one of those parts of the case.

This phenomenon means that there are procedural opportunities for a defendant to prevail without ever proving the merits of the defendant’s case, but, interestingly enough, this does not exist in reverse: there really is no such thing as a procedural advantage that might allow a plaintiff to prevail without ever proving the merits of the case (other than an outright default by a defendant, but that really doesn’t happen unless the defendant is judgment proof which, for a plaintiff, is the same thing as losing).

Nowhere is this phenomenon clearer than in class action litigation, in which lawyers and courts have taken to focusing on the procedural requirements for forming a class, in ways that to some extent tend to devalue, by comparison, the merits (or lack thereof, as the case may be) of what the putative class representatives and the class itself may have to say. This approach to class action litigation essentially gives pride of place to the propriety of forming a class, over the merits of the case. If the plaintiffs cannot get past this procedural hurdle, they will never get the merits of their case heard; simultaneously, if defendants can ensure that plaintiffs don’t get past that hurdle, then they effectively win without anyone ever getting to the merits of the claims.

Commonality – which is the requirement that the class members have some central part of their claims against the defendant in common – is the central focus of this aspect of class action litigation, but it has a less than great track record in precluding certification of classes in ERISA cases. There is a clear and interesting reason for this, but it is best approached by the back door, by first explaining how defendants faced with ERISA class actions attack commonality, and seek to use the requirement of commonality to preclude certification of a class and thereby end class action litigation before the merits of the action are reached.

As explained in this excellent blog post, there are a number of ways to attack commonality in an ERISA class action, by focusing on what may be different among the members of the proposed class. I like the article a great deal as a handy checklist for where to start with regard to investigating and challenging the existence of commonality – and by extension the propriety of forming a class – in ERISA litigation.

However, in the ERISA context, one should not be fooled into overconfidence by these types of lists or, as well, by the fact that this procedural tactic has been very effective in various types of class action cases. Commonality is simply not that difficult to prove in ERISA litigation, in comparison to other types of proposed class actions, such as wage cases. This is because, in general, breaches of fiduciary duty related to an ERISA plan affect all participants and beneficiaries in the same manner, which renders the ERISA violation at issue common to all members of a proposed class. The only real trick in this regard is for the plaintiffs to make sure they account for any aspects of the breach in question that might render only some participants (for instance, those in the plan during a certain time period) and not others subject to the violation, and to then draw appropriate lines around the makeup of the class so as to laser out any plan participants who were not affected and harmed by the particular conduct in question. Do this, and commonality exists.