CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has rejected U-Haul’s request for a writ of prohibition to prevent a case from being certified as a class action.
In a May 21 memorandum decision, the court unanimously declined to issue the writ. The underlying case is a 2011 Kanawha Circuit Court case in which three people alleged breach of contract, fraudulent concealment and violations of the state Consumer and Credit Protection Act against U-Haul.
The case was before the Supreme Court previously in 2013 when U-Haul had sought a writ of prohibition to set aside the circuit court’s order denying its motion to compel arbitration. The justices also declined to issue that writ, and the case was remanded to Kanawha County.
After that, the parties began class discovery, and the plaintiffs filed a motion to certify their claims as a class action. A 27-page order granted the motion and certified the class as “U-Haul customers who had declined to make a contribution to the “Conservation Fund’ during the process of renting a truck from U-Haul, but who were nonetheless charged an ‘Environmental Fee.’”
The “Conservation Fund” is a private charitable organization that partnered with U-Haul to promote donations to natural resources and land protection, according to the decision.
The environmental fee was not required by a governmental or regulatory agency. It was a U-Haul company policy as of 2008. Customers were charged a fee of $1 to $5 per day for in-town truck rentals and $5 per day for one-way truck rentals. U-Haul used the money for a long-running sustainability program, according to court documents. From 2008 to 2012, more than $313,000 was generated by the fee from rentals in West Virginia.
A class certification hearing was held, and Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit entered an order Nov. 2, 2017, finding plaintiffs Amanda Ferrell, John Stigall and Misty Evans had met the prerequisites for class certification under Rule 23(a).
“The dispositive question is not whether the plaintiff has stated a cause of action or will prevail on the merits, but rather whether the requirements of Rule 23 have been met,” Tabit wrote.
Rule 23(a) states that the prerequisites for a class action are that “one or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all only if (1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable, (2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, (3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and (4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.”
Tabit also found that Rule 23(b)(3) was met to maintain the action as a class action.
The circuit court “found that the questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominated over any questions affecting only individual members, such that a class action was superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy,” the memorandum decision states.
Tabit defined the putative class as “U-Haul customers for whom U-Haul has a contract reflecting their rental of a truck between March 1, 2008, and the filing of the motion for class certification who rented a truck from U-Haul and declined to make a donation to the ‘Conservation Fund’ (and had not made such a donation in connection with any other prior contract) and were charged and paid the environmental fee. Excluding from the class any officers and agents of U-Haul or subsidiary of the defendant, any attorney for such defendant, any attorney for any plaintiff, and any judicial officer who presides over this matter.”
Tabit appointed and approved Ferrell, Stigall and Evans as putative class representatives and certified the case as a class action. U-Haul asked the Supreme Court to prohibit the enforcement of the circuit court’s class certification order.
In the memorandum decision, the justices say Tabit was correct to certify the case as a class action, noting that there was no abuse of discretion regarding her commonality and predominance rulings.
“We agree that our precedent requires a class certification order to contain a thorough and detailed analysis of the Rule 23 requirements for certification and the factual basis for the court’s legal conclusions,” the decision states. “Our review of the certification order in its entirety … leads us to conclude that the circuit court met those requirements.”
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 17-1052