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Campbell-Ewald Company v. Gomez (U.S. Sup. Ct.)

In Campbell-Ewald Company v. Gomez, the Supreme Court considered, among other things, whether a defendant’s offer of judgment for “complete relief” to the lead plaintiff in a class action that has not yet been certified moots the plaintiff’s class claims even if the plaintiff has rejected the defendant’s offer.

In 2005, the Navy entered into a contract with Campbell-Ewald, under which Campbell-Ewald would provide recruitment-related advertising services.  Pursuant to this contract, Campbell-Ewald caused more than 100,000 Navy-branded text messages to be delivered to individuals’ cell phones, many of which were received by individuals who had not opted-in to receive such messages. One of those individuals, Jose Gomez, filed a class action lawsuit against Campbell-Ewald, alleging that the company had violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 by sending text messages to nonconsenting recipients. Before Mr. Gomez moved for class certification, Campbell-Ewald made an offer of judgment and tendered a separate settlement offer to Mr. Gomez, which Mr. Gomez refused. Campbell-Ewald later claimed that this offer of “complete relief” to Mr. Gomez rendered his individual and class claims moot. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California held that Mr. Gomez’s claims were not moot, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Campbell-Ewald subsequently petitioned the Supreme Court for review, which was granted on May 18, 2015.

On August 27, 2015, Constitutional Accountability Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Mr. Gomez arguing that an unaccepted offer of judgment cannot moot class claims even when the class has not yet been certified. We argued that Campbell-Ewald’s arguments to the contrary fundamentally misunderstood the role of the federal courts in our constitutional system and the critical part class actions play in facilitating that role. When the Framers drafted our enduring Constitution, they created the judiciary as an independent, co-equal branch of government, vesting the newly-created federal courts with the “judicial power” to resolve nine categories of cases and controversies. By vesting this broad power in the judicial branch, the Framers sought to ensure that the federal courts would have the power to protect individual rights secured by federal law. The provision of this power to the federal courts reflected the Framers’ firmly held belief that where there is a legal right, there is also a legal remedy, a belief steeped in English common law traditions.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which permits a representative party to sue on behalf of a class of similarly situated claimants, was designed, in part, to help effectuate the Framers’ vision of the role Article III courts play in the constitutional system. As amended in 1966, Rule 23 ensures that similarly situated parties can seek legal relief in the federal courts even when their injuries are too small to make individual lawsuits feasible. As we argued, it would fundamentally undermine both Rule 23 and Article III to hold that class claims are mooted simply because the defendant has made an unaccepted offer of judgment to resolve the plaintiff’s individual claims.

The Court heard oral argument on October 14, 2015. On January 20, 2016, the Court held – by a 6-3 vote – that an unaccepted offer of judgment does not moot a plaintiff’s case. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion for the Court affirmed that the Constitution’s guarantee of access to courts allows individuals to sue to vindicate their federal rights and does not “place the defendant in the driver’s seat.”  As she further explained, a “would-be class representative with a live claim . . . must be accorded a fair opportunity to show that certification is warranted.”