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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

3rd Circuit: District Court erred in applying ascertainability precedent when denying class action certification

Courts Appellate Third Circuit Class Action FCRA Consumer Reporting Agency Consumer Finance


On August 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated a ruling denying class certification in an action concerning inaccurate consumer reports, holding that the district court misinterpreted Section 1681g(a) of the FCRA and erred in applying the appellate court’s ascertainability precedent. According to the plaintiffs, the defendant, a consumer reporting agency (CRA), provided inaccurate consumer reports as part of a rental application process. The plaintiffs further alleged that the defendant refused to correct the information on the reports unless plaintiffs “obtained proof of the error from [the defendant’s] sources” despite failing to provide the identity of the sources to the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs responded by filed a putative class action alleging the defendant “violated its obligation under the FCRA to disclose on request ‘[a]ll information in the consumer’s file at the time of the request’ and ‘the sources of that information.’” However, the district court denied class certification on the grounds that class members “failed to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance and superiority requirements and that their proposed class and subclass were not, in any event, ascertainable.”

On appeal, the 3rd Circuit closely reviewed when the provisions of § 1681g(a) were applicable. The appellate court first determined the disclosure requirements of § 1681g(a) could only be triggered by a direct request from a consumer, and not a third-party request as the plaintiffs had argued. In so doing, the appellate court found that the district court was “right to distinguish between consumers who made direct requests under § 1681g and consumers who received courtesy copies of the property managers’ Rental Reports,” and affirmed the denial of the “All Requests” class sought by plaintiffs. The appellate court next determined that the district court incorrectly narrowed the disclosure requirements of § 1681g(a) to where a request was specifically made for a consumer’s “file” as opposed to a request for a “report.” The appellate court concluded that “[n]othing in the statute’s text, context, purpose, or history indicates that any magic words are required for a consumer to effect a ‘request’ under § 1681g(a) or that a consumer’s request for ‘my consumer report’ is any less effective at triggering the CRA’s disclosure obligations than a request for ‘my file.’” As a result, the appellate court vacated the district court’s finding as to the predominance requirement of class certification and remanded for the district court “to consider whether Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance and superiority requirements are satisfied with respect to” consumers in a purported subclass who had made a direct request for a report or file.

The appellate court concluded by determining the district court had additionally errored in its analysis of ascertainability of the proposed class by requiring too high a standard for administrative feasibility. The district court had ruled that where identification of putative class members would require a file-by-file review, ascertainability was “not administratively feasible.” The appellate court disagreed, stating that ascertainability does not mean that “no level of inquiry as to the identity of class members can ever be undertaken,” as it “would make Rule 23(b)(3) class certification all but impossible.” The appellate court instead held that “a straightforward ‘yes-or-no’ review of existing records to identify class members is administratively feasible even if it requires review of individual records with cross-referencing of voluminous data from multiple sources.”