A seemingly innocuous recruitment text message from the United States Navy has led to the official unraveling of a tactic long-used and widely-favored by defendants to escape a class action lawsuit before class certification. In a 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court rejected the argument that an unaccepted settlement offer or offer of judgment moots a plaintiff’s claim and thus a class action as well.
Background and Procedural History
In Campbell-Ewald Company v. Gomez, Petitioner, Campbell-Ewald Company, was retained by the United States Navy to conduct a multimedia recruitment campaign aimed at young adults. One branch of this campaign included sending text messages to potential recruits encouraging them to consider the Navy. The Navy approved the text messages as long as they were only sent to those who “opted-in” to receive marketing materials.
Campbell then contracted with another company, Mindmatics LLC, to identify cell-phone users between 18 and 24 years old who had consented to receiving text messages from the Navy. In May of 2006, Mindmatics transmitted the Navy’s recruitment text to over 100,000 recipients.
One of those recipients was the Respondent, Jose Gomez. Gomez was, at the time, a 40-year-old man who had not consented to receiving text messages from the Navy. Gomez alleged that Campbell violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which “prohibits any person, absent the prior express consent of a telephone-call recipient, from “mak[ing] any call . . . using any automatic telephone dialing system . . . to any telephone number assigned to a paging service [or] cellular telephone service.” 47 U.S.C. §227(b)(1)(A)(iii).
Gomez filed a class action complaint in the District Court for the Central District of California seeking treble and statutory damages, costs, and attorney’s fees, as well as an injunction against Campbell’s involvement in unsolicited messaging. Prior to the deadline for filing a motion for class certification, Campbell made a Rule 68 offer of judgment that included paying Gomez his costs excluding attorneys’ fees, $1,503 per message received and an injunction which barred Campbell from sending text messages in violation of the TCPA, but denied any liability. Gomez did not accept the offer. Before Gomez filed his motion for class certification, Campbell filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the matter since no case or controversy remained now that Gomez had been provided with complete relief for his injury, and thus the putative class claims also became moot. The district court denied the motion.
Campbell subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the U.S. Navy enjoys sovereign immunity from the TCPA and that as a contractor for the Navy, Campbell acquired that immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed the case. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court, holding that Campbell was not entitled to sovereign immunity and that an unaccepted Rule 68 offer of judgment does not moot an individual claim or a class action. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to settle a disagreement amongst the courts of appeals as to whether a Rule 68 offer of judgment does or does not moot a plaintiff’s claim.
The Supreme Court Opinion
Adopting Justice Kagan’s reasoning from her dissenting opinion in Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk (in which the Court reserved the issue of whether an offer of judgment moots a claim) the Court found that, “[w]hen a plaintiff rejects such an offer—however good the terms—her interest in the lawsuit remains just what it was before. And so too does the court’s ability to grant her relief. An unaccepted settlement offer—like any unaccepted contract offer—is a legal nullity, with no operative effect.”
The Court further reasoned that once the offer expired, the parties remained adversaries, as both retained the same stake in the litigation they had at the outset. The Court noted that Rule 68 provides that an unaccepted offer is only admissible when determining costs, and for no other reason.
Since Gomez’s individual claim still stood, the Court ruled “a would-be class representative with a live claim of her own must be accorded a fair opportunity to show that certification is warranted.”
Of note, however, is the caveat offered by the Court at the end of its analysis, in which it reserves ruling on a hypothetical situation in which “a defendant deposits the full amount of the plaintiff’s individual claim in an account payable to the plaintiff, and the court then enters judgment for the plaintiff in that amount.”
The Court also rejected Campbell’s sovereign immunity argument, determining that it did not follow the Navy’s implicit instructions to confirm the messages complied with the TCPA.
Conclusion and Implications
The Supreme Court’s ruling settles once and for all the effect of an unaccepted Rule 68 offer of judgment or settlement offer on a plaintiff’s claim. However, the Court appears to have left the door cracked for defendants via its unanswered hypothetical on the possibility of depositing the full amount of plaintiff’s claim into a bank account payable to the plaintiff. While it is unclear how the Court would rule in such a case, it will not likely be long before a defendant tests the waters.