Thursday, April 06, 2006

D.C. Circuit Upholds Denial of Class Certification in Hispanic Farmer Discrimination Suit for Lack of Commonality

Per Garcia v. Johanns, --- F.3d ----, 2006 WL 825015 (D.C. Mar. 31, 2006):

First, the appellants contend that the district court erred in denying class certification of their discriminatory treatment claim based on the geographic spread of the local decisionmakers, labeling it a "pattern and practice" claim, see Appellants' Br. at 40. But see Garcia I, 211 F.R.D. at 22 ("Commonality is defeated ... by the large numbers and geographic dispersion of the decision-makers ...."). As with a Title VII claim, to establish a charge of pattern and practice discrimination under ECOA [Equal Credit Opportunity Act], a putative class must prove that "discrimination was the company's standard operating procedure--the regular rather than the unusual practice." Bazemore v. Friday, 478 U.S. 385, 398, 106 S.Ct. 3000, 92 L.Ed.2d 315 (1986) (quoting Teamsters v. United States, 431 U.S. 324, 336, 97 S.Ct. 1843, 52 L.Ed.2d 396 (1977)). Similarly, to show commonality under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a)(2), the plaintiff must "make a significant showing to permit the court to infer that members of the class suffered from a common policy of discrimination that pervaded all of the [defendant's] challenged ... decisions." Hartman, 19 F.3d at 1472.

"As is now well recognized, the class action commonality criteria are, in general, more easily met when a disparate impact rather than a disparate treatment theory underlies a class claim." Stastny v. S. Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 628 F.2d 267, 274 n. 10 (4th Cir.1980). Establishing commonality for a disparate treatment class is particularly difficult where, as here, multiple decisionmakers with significant local autonomy exist. Id. at 278-80 (reversing class certification because of geographic separation of workforce and autonomy of local decisionmakers); see also Cooper, 390 F.3d at 715. The appellants failed to identify any centralized, uniform policy or practice of discrimination by the USDA that formed the basis for discrimination against Hispanic loan applicants with varied eligibility criteria in over 2,700 counties nationwide over a 20-year period. Rather, despite the appellants' allegation that the USDA's actions are those of a "single actor," their claims arise from multiple individual decisions made by multiple individual committees. Moreover, they do not cite a single reversal of a district court's denial of class certification based on no commonality resulting from the geographic spread of the decisionmakers. Cf. Stastny, 628 F.2d at 278-79 (district court abused discretion in certifying class of employees spread through "great number of geographically dispersed facilities" with "almost complete local autonomy"). Our standard of review is deferential and the appellants have failed to convince us that the district court abused its discretion in denying class certification to the appellants' alleged disparate treatment class.


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