Administrative Feasibility Redux: A Reexamination of the Heightened Ascertainability Requirement for Class Certification
Under Rule 23(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a class action must meet four requirements before it can be certified: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. But courts infer an antecedent requirement to these four—that of ascertainability, the idea that the court must be able to define the class as an entity that exists prior to allowing it to litigate on behalf of absent parties. While the idea behind this requirement is uncontroversial (surely, a court should ensure that a class exists prior to certifying one), the Third Circuit has staked out an unusually stringent, atextual position, requiring that a putative class present an “administratively feasible” method for identifying its members prior to certification. That requirement, nowhere present in the text or purpose of Rule 23, presents a near-insurmountable barrier to small-dollar consumer class actions, thus undermining the intent of Rule 23 to ensure that such claims can be pursued. Despite predictions that the Third Circuit would back down from its position, and despite at least five circuits’ explicit rejection of the heightened ascertainability requirement, the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on this glaring rift in class action jurisprudence. After the Eleventh Circuit’s 2021 rejection of the heightened requirement, the time is ripe to once again ask whether this outlier position is defensible.
By examining dozens of cases that apply the ascertainability standard, both within and without circuits that endorse the heightened requirement, this Note affirms that ascertainability in its current form is a scattershot cudgel that undermines small-dollar consumer class actions. Across several factors newly identified by this Note that figure prominently in ascertainability analyses, the requirement adds nothing but inconsistency to the class certification analysis. This Note endorses the position that, absent Supreme Court intervention, an amendment to Rule 23 clarifying that the class must merely be defined objectively would both rectify the circuit split and restore the Rule 23 inquiry to its textual and policy roots: to ensure that small-dollar claims, too little in value to pursue independently but no less meritorious, can be maintained.