GEORGIA PACIFIC CONSUMER PRODUCTS LP v. RATNER

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Supreme Court of Georgia.

GEORGIA–PACIFIC CONSUMER PRODUCTS, LP v. RATNER et al.

No. S13G1723.

Decided: July 11, 2014

David E. Hudson, William James Keogh, III, Hull Barrett, P.C., Augusta, Ryburn Clay Ratterree, Tracy Ann O'Connell, Ellis Painter Ratterree & Adams, LLP, Savannah, for Appellant. John C. Bell Jr., Bell & Brigham, Augusta, Timothy David Roberts, Benjamin Mason Perkins, Oliver, Maner LLP, Savannah, for Appellee.

The named plaintiffs in this class action own real property in Mallard Pointe, a residential neighborhood in Effingham County. Nearby, since 1986, Georgia–Pacific Consumer Products, LP has operated the Savannah River Mill, a facility that includes more than a hundred acres of sludge fields, into which Georgia–Pacific puts the solid waste generated at the Mill. As this solid waste decomposes, the plaintiffs say, hydrogen sulfide gas is released from the sludge fields. Alleging that their real property has been contaminated by this gas—and that, as a result, they have been exposed to noxious odors, their use and enjoyment of their property has been impaired, and the value of their property has diminished—the plaintiffs sued Georgia–Pacific for nuisance, trespass, and negligence. The plaintiffs sought not only to recover monetary damages for themselves, but they proposed to seek relief for a class of other nearby property owners.

The trial court permitted them to do so, certifying a class that consists of the owners of 67 parcels of real property in and around Mallard Pointe.1 Georgia–Pacific appealed the certification of the class,2 and the Court of Appeals affirmed, Georgia–Pacific Consumer Products, LP v. Ratner, 323 Ga.App. 203, 203–212, 746 S.E.2d 829 (2013), although three of its judges dissented. See id. at 213–221, 746 S.E.2d 829 (Branch, J., dissenting). Upon the petition of Georgia–Pacific, we issued a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals. We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion when it certified the class, and we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

1. “The class action is an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only,” Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, ––– U.S. ––––, ––––(II), 133 S.Ct. 1426, 185 L.Ed.2d 515 ((2013) (citation and punctuation omitted), and consistent with its exceptional nature, a class action is permitted only in the limited circumstances described in OCGA § 9–11–23.3 The party seeking to represent a class “bear[s] the burden of proving that class certification is appropriate.” Carnett's, Inc. v. Hammond, 279 Ga. 125, 127(3), 610 S.E.2d 529 (2005) (citation omitted). See also McGarry v. Cingular Wireless, LLC, 267 Ga.App. 23, 25(1), 599 S.E.2d 34 (2004). In this case, to permit the certification of a class of plaintiffs, the named plaintiffs had to satisfy each of the four requirements described in OCGA § 9–11–23(a)—numerosity,4 commonality,5 typicality,6 and adequacy of representation7 —as well as the predominance requirement of OCGA § 9–11–23(b)(3).8 See American Debt Foundation v. Hodzic, 312 Ga.App. 806, 808, 720 S.E.2d 283 (2011). To satisfy these requirements, it was not enough for the plaintiffs simply to have alleged that they were satisfied. Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, –––U.S. ––––, ––––(II)(A), 131 S.Ct. 2541, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011). See also Fortis Ins. Co. v. Kahn, 299 Ga.App. 319, 321–322(1), 683 S.E.2d 4 (2009). Rather, the plaintiffs had to come forward with evidence to prove their satisfaction of the statutory requirements. See Dukes, ––– U.S. at ––––(II)(A). See also Jones v. Douglas County, 262 Ga. 317, 324(2), 418 S.E.2d 19 (1992); Rite Aid of Ga. v. Peacock, 315 Ga.App. 573, 574–575(1), 726 S.E.2d 577 (2012).

Whether to certify a class is a matter committed to the discretion of the trial court, State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Mabry, 274 Ga. 498, 499–500(1), 556 S.E.2d 114 (2001), but any exercise of that discretion must comport with the statutory requirements. Moreover, the certification of a class is appropriate only to the extent that “the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that [the statutory requirements] have been satisfied.” Gen. Tel. Co. of the Southwest v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 161(III), 102 S.Ct. 2364, 72 L.Ed.2d 740 (1982). See also Rite Aid, 315 Ga.App. at 574–575(1), 726 S.E.2d 577; Kahn, 299 Ga.App. at 321(1), 683 S.E.2d 4. As a part of this rigorous analysis, “sometimes it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question.” Falcon, 457 U.S. at 160(II). Indeed, as the United States Supreme Court has explained,

Frequently that rigorous analysis will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff's underlying claim. That cannot be helped. The class determination generally involves considerations that are enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff's cause of action.

Dukes, ––– U.S. at ––––(II)(A) (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Rite Aid, 315 Ga.App. at 575(1), 726 S.E.2d 577; McGarry, 267 Ga.App. at 25(1), 599 S.E.2d 34.

Upon our review of the record, we conclude that the plaintiffs failed to come forward with evidence sufficient to show the commonality of the particular class that was certified. Georgia–Pacific raises some fair questions about typicality and predominance as well,9 but we do not have to reach those questions today. Because commonality is lacking, the trial court abused its discretion when it certified the class, and the Court of Appeals should have reversed the certification.

2. To show commonality, the plaintiffs had to demonstrate that “[t]here are questions of law or fact common to the class,” OCGA § 9–11–23(a)(2), but as the United States Supreme Court recently explained in Dukes, “[t]hat language is easy to misread, since any competently crafted class complaint literally raises common questions.” ––– U.S. at ––––(II)(A) (citation and punctuation omitted). Every putative class action presents questions that are, in a sense, “common” to the class. But for commonality under OCGA § 9–11–23(a)(2), not just any “common” questions will do. Commonality depends on the presence of a particular sort of “common” question, and simply reciting a list of questions that are “common” in another sense contributes nothing to the commonality inquiry.10 Dukes, ––– U.S. at ––––(II)(A).

To establish the sort of commonality that OCGA § 9–11–23(a)(2) requires, the plaintiffs were required to show “that the class members have suffered the same injury.”11 Dukes, ––– U.S. at ––––(II)(A) (citation and punctuation omitted). See also Rite Aid, 315 Ga.App. at 575(1), 726 S.E.2d 577(a). To do so, the plaintiffs had to point to a “common contention” that each member of the class had suffered the same instance or course of wrongful conduct, see Dukes, ––– U.S. at ––––(II)(A), and the plaintiffs also had to show that this “common contention” “is capable of classwide resolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.”12 Id. “What matters to class certification is not the raising of common questions—even in droves—but, rather the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation.” Id. (citation and punctuation omitted; emphasis in original). Although Dukes makes these points more clearly than our own precedents, it is entirely consistent with those precedents. See Carnett's, 279 Ga. at 129(4), 610 S.E.2d 529 (“A common question is not enough when the answer may vary with each class member and is determinative of whether the member is properly part of the class.” (Citation omitted; emphasis in original.)).

The plaintiffs in this case pointed to a “common contention” that might properly form the basis for a finding of commonality, namely, that their properties were contaminated with hydrogen sulfide gas released from the sludge fields at the Mill. But pointing to a “common contention” is only the first step. The plaintiffs also had to show that this “common contention” is “capable of classwide resolution” with respect to the particular class that the trial court certified. And that is where they came up short.

We do not find in the record evidence by which the plaintiffs might be able to prove on a classwide basis that the entire area by which the class was defined, in fact, was contaminated with hydrogen sulfide gas from the sludge fields. There is, for instance, no scientific evidence of the amounts of gas released from the sludge fields, no evidence of the rate of release, no evidence of the extent to which the amounts released and rates of release varied over time, and no evidence of exactly how the gas would be expected to move through the air upon its release. As for the direction in which gas would be expected to move, the only evidence of local wind patterns is that the prevailing winds over the sludge fields blow away from the class area, and the winds blow from the sludge fields towards any specific location within the class area only about four percent of the time. There is no evidence of the rate at which the gas would be expected to dissipate following its release, and there is no evidence of air quality sampling across the class area at any time.13

The record does contain some anecdotal evidence of hydrogen sulfide gas in some areas around the Mill, but this anecdotal evidence is not enough to satisfy a rigorous analysis with respect to the commonality of the particular class that the trial court certified. First, there is evidence of multiple complaints to Georgia–Pacific about the corrosion of air-conditioning units in the vicinity of the Mill. But as best we can tell from the record, a number of these complaints did not even originate within the area by which the class was defined, and those that did appear to have originated in a geographically compact and relatively small portion of the class area, all in Mallard Pointe itself or otherwise along the far eastern edge of the class area, just across Fort Howard Road from the Mill.14 The class area stretches substantially to the west of the small and compact area from which these complaints came, and the complaints do not, therefore, tend to show that the class area as a whole was contaminated by hydrogen sulfide gas.

There also is the testimony of two air-conditioning technicians, both of whom testified that they have observed corrosion in a number of air-conditioning units in the vicinity of the Mill, which was, they surmised, a result of excessive hydrogen sulfide exposure. But according to the record, to determine whether any particular corrosion actually was a result of hydrogen sulfide exposure, it would be necessary to test the corroded components, and neither of the technicians has submitted any parts for such testing. Consequently, their opinion that the corrosion is due to hydrogen sulfide exposure seems to amount to nothing more than conjecture. And in any event, one of the technicians testified that the corrosion he observed was near the Mill, but not within the class area. The other technician said that he saw corrosion in a few air-conditioning units within the class area and outside Mallard Pointe, but the locations at which he saw corrosion still were close in proximity—relative to the class area as a whole—to Mallard Pointe. Without more, evidence of corrosion at these locations does not tend to show any likelihood that the class area as a whole was contaminated.

There also was evidence from the named plaintiffs themselves, who noted that they had been exposed to noxious odors at their homes, which they attributed to hydrogen sulfide gas. But again, the named plaintiffs live in Mallard Pointe, which sits just across the road from the Mill itself. The idea that their testimony tends to show that the class area as a whole—which stretches for some distance to the west of Mallard Pointe—has been exposed to harmful hydrogen sulfide gas is a dubious one.

From the evidence of record, one fairly could conclude that a number of people in the vicinity of the Mill—especially those living in Mallard Pointe—have experienced problems that might be attributable to the alleged release of hydrogen sulfide gas from the sludge fields at the Mill. But the locations at which these people have experienced such problems (as evidenced by the record) do not seem to coincide with the full extent of the class area. Whether the “common contention” of harmful exposure can be proved on a classwide basis is in doubt, at least as to the class as the trial court defined it. As Judge Branch aptly said in her dissent:

[T]he class appears to have been defined not by any logical determination of the actual effects of the Mill's numerous and intermittent releases of hydrogen sulfide on persons and property over a period of years, but rather by means of arbitrarily drawn lines on a map.

Ratner, 323 Ga.App. at 218, 746 S.E.2d 829 (Branch, J., dissenting) (citation and punctuation omitted).15

No one should misunderstand us to say that commonality never can be shown in the context of environmental mass torts, that it cannot be shown in this case, or even that it cannot be shown in this case as to the class as the trial court defined it. It certainly is conceivable that the plaintiffs might show the requisite commonality of that class or another. Cf. Brenntag Mid South, Inc. v. Smart, 308 Ga.App. 899, 902, n. 2 (2), 903–904(2)(a)(ii), 710 S.E.2d 569 (2011) (plaintiffs in class action asserting claims of environmental torts satisfied commonality requirement with proof that each class member actually was evacuated as a result of accidental release of acidic gas, and class was defined in terms of the locations covered by “evacuation orders as well as expert consultation as to ‘the actual geographical extent of the chemical plume as it spread’ ”). But if the plaintiffs are to satisfy the commonality requirement, they have some more work to do. The certification of the class was an abuse of discretion, and the Court of Appeals should have reversed it. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Judgment reversed.

Although I concur fully in the majority opinion, I write separately to point out that, for many of the same reasons discussed with regard to commonality, certification of the class in this case would be inappropriate due to a lack of typicality. OCGA § 9–11–23 provides that “(a) One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all only if: ․ (3) The claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class.” The named plaintiffs in this case have not been shown to be typical of the claims or defenses of the proposed class, as its members own different tracts of land subjected to varying uses (some residential, some agricultural, some commercial and/or industrial, some vacant and unused) and located at different distances and directions from the sludge fields in question. Therefore, the purported class in this instance fails for both lack of commonality and typicality.

I must respectfully dissent.

1. The majority's analysis affords insufficient deference to the trial court's determination on class certification in this case. As this Court has noted, “trial judges have broad discretion in deciding whether to certify a class.” Carnett's, Inc. v. Hammond, 279 Ga. 125, 127(3), 610 S.E.2d 529 (2005); see also Jones v. Douglas County, 262 Ga. 317, (2), 418 S.E.2d 19 (1992) (“[o]n appellate review ․ ‘the discretion of the trial judge in certifying or refusing to certify a class action is to be respected in all cases where not abused’ ”). “ ‘Implicit in this deferential standard of review is a recognition of the fact-intensive basis of the certification inquiry and of the trial court's inherent power to manage and control pending litigation.’ “ Brenntag v. Mid South, Inc. v. Smart, 308 Ga.App. 899, 902(2), 710 S.E.2d 569 (2011). The trial court here did conduct the “rigorous analysis” contemplated in Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, ––– U.S. ––––(II)(A), 131 S.Ct. 2541, 180 L.Ed.2d 374 (2011), and concluded that common issues, typical of those faced across the class, would predominate over issues of an individualized nature. See Griffin Indus., Inc. v. Green, 297 Ga.App. 354, 35–356(2), 677 S.E.2d 310 (2009) (affirming trial court's decision to certify class under abuse of discretion standard of review, while noting that under a de novo standard the outcome of the appeal may have been different). This determination did not constitute an abuse of discretion, and it should be affirmed.

First, the trial court was well within its discretion in finding the commonality requirement to have been satisfied. Georgia–Pacific is the sole defendant whose single course of conduct has allegedly affected all class members in a common manner. The plaintiffs have raised a number of common issues with regard to establishing Georgia–Pacific's liability, including Georgia–Pacific's operations at the Savannah River Mill, its waste disposal practices, and its safety program; the type and concentration of chemicals emitted from the Mill and sludge fields; and the properties and toxicity of hydrogen sulfide and its capacity to cause property damage and ill health effects. The resolution of all of these issues will depend on the same evidence, no matter the class member. The answers to all these questions can be generated efficiently, on a classwide basis, “in one stroke.” Dukes, –––U.S. at ––––(II)(A).

For similar reasons, the trial court appropriately found that the typicality requirement has been satisfied. See Liberty Lending Svcs., Inc. v. Canada, 293 Ga.App. 731, 738(1)(b), 668 S.E.2d 3 (2008) (typicality satisfied by showing “that the defendant ‘committed the same unlawful acts in the same method against [the] entire class' ”). Contrary to the view expressed in the concurring opinion, the fact that the class includes properties with different uses does not defeat typicality. Though the particular use to which a parcel is put may affect the measure of damages incurred, the presence of individualized damages issues does not alter the fact that a single course of conduct on the part of Georgia–Pacific is alleged to have caused injury to the entire class. See id; see also Brenntag, 308 Ga.App. at 906–907, 710 S.E.2d 569 (presence of individualized damages issues did not defeat typicality or any of the other requirements for class certification).

Moreover, the plaintiffs did not rely on mere allegations in support of their request for class certification. The plaintiffs presented the deposition testimony of Georgia–Pacific's environmental manager, who acknowledged that hydrogen sulfide was being emitted from the sludge fields and admitted, for example, the company's knowledge regarding the noxious odors from these emissions and the damage caused to air conditioning units on various nearby properties. The plaintiffs also presented testimony from a property appraiser regarding the methodology employed in ascertaining the class boundaries and the process by which one would determine the diminution of a property's value resulting from environmental contaminants. The plaintiffs presented further testimony providing specific evidence of damage to the air conditioning units on certain properties in proximity to the Mill. Accordingly, the plaintiffs satisfied their duty to establish commonality and typicality with evidence, as opposed to mere allegations.

Likewise, I would find no abuse of discretion in the trial court's conclusion that, on balance, the common issues regarding liability predominate over the individualized issues involving damages. See Brenntag, 308 Ga.App. at 906–907, 710 S.E.2d 569 (affirming class certification in suit involving the accidental release of toxic acid from a chemical storage tank located at the defendant's facility, concluding that “ ‘[c]ommon issues may predominate when liability can be determined on a class-wide basis, even when there are some individualized damages issues' ”); Flournoy v. Honeywell Int'l, Inc., 239 F.R.D. 696 (S.D.Ga.2006) (certifying a Rule 23(b)(3) class of property owners suing for damages allegedly caused by pollutants emanating from defendant's nearby plant).1

2. Though the majority purports to find insufficient commonality among class members (and hints that it might find typicality and predominance lacking for the same reasons), the issue the majority actually pinpoints as problematic is the class definition. Specifically, the majority finds fault with the manner in which the class boundaries were determined and the potential over- or underinclusiveness of the class. However, the issue of whether a proposed class is sufficiently precise and ascertainable is not coextensive with the issue of commonality. See, e.g., Smith v. ConocoPhillips, ––– FRD at ––––(IV) (analyzing class definition independently of commonality requirement); Jackson v. Unocal, 262 P.3d at 887–888 (same). Courts have typically assessed the sufficiency of a proposed class definition “[i]n keeping with the liberal construction to be given [to Rule 23].” Charles Alan Wright et al., 7A Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1760 (3d ed.2014). “All that is required is a ‘reasonable’ relationship between the evidence and the class boundaries as proposed by the plaintiff.” Jackson v. Unocal, 262 P.3d at 887. See also Smith v. ConocoPhillips, ––– FRD at ––––(IV) Smith v. ConocoPhillips, –––FRD at ––––(IV) (at class certification stage, “plaintiffs are not required to adduce definitive evidence about the extent and scope of the contamination․ Plaintiffs need some evidence that contamination was present in the class area.”).

Assessed under this standard, the evidence here was sufficient to sustain the class as defined at this stage of the proceedings. According to the plaintiffs, the farthest point from the class to the sludge fields is approximately .9 miles. Georgia–Pacific's environmental manager acknowledged in deposition testimony that the company has received complaints about the odor from the Mill from four to five miles away and that the odor from the hydrogen sulfide gas would reach every member of the proposed class. Testimony from two air conditioning technicians supports the conclusion that the gases would likely affect all air conditioning units within the class area. Georgia–Pacific has in fact received complaints regarding corrosion of air conditioning units up to 2.4 miles away from the Mill, well beyond the class boundaries, and has assumed responsibility for replacing an air conditioning unit due to corrosion on at least one property lying outside the class boundaries. This fact, highlighted by the majority to support its finding of an absence of commonality, actually establishes just the opposite: in an abundance of caution, the plaintiffs drew their class boundaries conservatively, deliberately excluding some potential plaintiffs to avoid creating an over-inclusive class that would truly lack commonality. See Wright, 7A Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1760 (noting that potential underinclusiveness of a proposed class is not fatal to a class definition). In short, the evidence supported the plaintiffs' proposed class definition, and the majority is wrong to conclude otherwise.

3. Though I disagree with the conclusion that the class as currently defined is not supported by the current record, I note that the majority's opinion expressly contemplates the possibility that the plaintiffs here could still, with additional evidence, establish the existence of a sustainable class. See OCGA § 9–11–23(c)(1), (d) (both subsections giving trial courts the authority, prior to a decision on the merits, to alter or amend orders regarding class certification or case management); see also Fuller v. Heartwood 11, 301 Ga.App. 309, 687 S.E.2d 287 (2009) (noting absence of fixed deadline in statute or court rules by which class must be certified). It thus remains to be seen whether this case will move forward as a class action.

I am authorized to state that Justice Benham concurs in this dissent.

BLACKWELL, Justice.

All the Justices concur, except BENHAM and HUNSTEIN, JJ., who dissent.

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