NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 84, Number 1

April 2009

Class Certification in the Age of Aggregate Proof

Richard A. Nagareda

Few pretrial motions in our civil justice system elicit as much controversy as those for the certification of class actions. This Article offers the first account of the challenges courts face today in light of an important series of federal appellate decisions that direct the district courts to resolve competing expert submissions on the class certification question during the pretrial stage, even when the dispute overlaps with the merits of the litigation.

Across broad swaths of class action litigation today, plaintiffs rely on aggregate proof—evidence, typically of an economic or statistical nature, that presupposes the cohesiveness of the aggregate unit for litigation and, from that perspective, seeks to reveal quantitatively a common wrong attributable to the defendant. Debates over the proper role of aggregate proof arise in what otherwise might seem disparate disputes over class certification across securities, antitrust, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and employment discrimination litigation. Too often, however, courts have taken at face value the evidentiary form that aggregate proof assumes in motions for class certification.

This Article urges a new conceptualization of the challenges in class certification facing courts today. The real question about aggregate proof in class certification is not one that speaks to the relationship between the court and the factfinder in the (usually hypothetical) event of a class-wide trial. Rather, the institutional relationship that really matters is the one between the court and the legislature as expositors of governing law. Properly understood, aggregate proof frequently offers not so much a contested view of the facts but, more fundamentally, a contested account of governing law—one eminently suited for judicial resolution and appellate correction de novo, without concern about possible intrusion into the role of the factfinder.

This Article exposes how renewed attention to the judicial duty to “say what the law is” can lend coherence to the law of class certification, offering the first extended assessment of such controversial recent litigation as the civil RICO class action against the tobacco industry in connection with its marketing of light cigarettes and the employment discrimination class action—the largest certified class in history— against Wal-Mart concerning the pay and promotion of its hourly female employees. The Article concludes by relating the analysis of class certification tolarger changes in the civil justice system that seek in various ways to address the reality of settlement, rather than trial, as the endgame of litigation.