In a recent decision, the California Supreme Court held that plaintiffs do not need to demonstrate a plan for identifying and notifying class members in order to certify a class, as long as they can point to “objective characteristics and common transaction facts” that will allow the court to ascertain the class in the future. This decision could have a significant impact on the standard California courts apply when assessing the ascertainability of purported class actions. 

In Noel v. Thrifty Payless, Inc., plaintiff James A. Noel claims that he purchased a pool from Rite Aid that was smaller than advertised on the package. He sought to represent a class of all consumers in California who bought the same pool within four years of his motion for class certification. The trial court originally denied certification because no records existed to prove who purchased the pools, and Noel provided no alternative solution for identifying such individuals. The appellate court agreed and found that “[w]hile Noel was not required to actually identify the 20,000-plus individuals who bought pools, his failure to come up with any means of identifying them was a legitimate basis for denying class certification.”  

In a unanimous opinion, the California Supreme Court overturned this decision. In doing so, the Court conducted an extensive review of its previous decisions on the issue of ascertainability and concluded that requiring a plaintiff to identify all class members prior to certification “threatens to demand too much, too soon.” Instead, the Court explained that ascertainability should be decided “in terms of objective characteristics and common transaction facts.” Under this standard, Noel satisfied the ascertainability standard by showing how class members could identify themselves by reviewing their own bank records. 

Federal circuit courts are split on the issue of whether plaintiffs must demonstrate a “reliable and administratively feasible” way to identify putative class members to certify a class. This decision brings California state courts more in line with the Ninth, Sixth, and Eighth circuits who have refused to impose this higher standard for proving ascertainability. Given the recent proliferation of purported class actions in California state courts, the impact of this decision bears watching in the coming months and years.