Frazier v. Castle Ford, Ltd.

Citation430 Md. 144,59 A.3d 1016
Decision Date24 January 2013
Docket NumberNo. 93,Sept. Term, 2011.,93
PartiesAnthony M. FRAZIER v. CASTLE FORD, LTD., f/k/a Crystal Ford Isuzu, Ltd.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

430 Md. 144
59 A.3d 1016

Anthony M. FRAZIER
v.
CASTLE FORD, LTD., f/k/a Crystal Ford Isuzu, Ltd.

No. 93, Sept. Term, 2011.

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

Jan. 24, 2013.


[59 A.3d 1018]


Leslie L. Gladstone (Leslie L. Gladstone, P.A., Baltimore, MD), on brief, for petitioner/cross-respondent.

Douglas W. Biser (Mudd, Harrison & Burch, LLP, Towson, MD), on brief, for respondent/cross-petitioner.


Argued before BELL, C.J., HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, GREENE, ADKINS, BARBERA and McDONALD, JJ.

McDONALD, J.

[430 Md. 148]Maryland Rule 2–231 allows a plaintiff to prosecute a civil action on behalf of a class of similarly situated persons. In order to do so, the prospective “class representative” must demonstrate that the class members and the claims asserted on their behalf satisfy certain criteria set forth in the rule and that the prospective class representative will “fairly and adequately” represent the class. The circuit court in which the complaint is filed is to determine whether those criteria are met and whether to “certify” the case as a class action “as soon as practicable after commencement of the action.”

In this case, we are asked to decide the consequences when a plaintiff seeks to prosecute a case as a class action and the defendant tenders individual compensatory relief to the plaintiff—prior to any determination whether the case may appropriately be brought as a class action. In particular, the following three questions are before us:

1—Does the tender require the court to deny class certification?

2—Is an award of punitive damages foreclosed by the tender of individual compensatory damages?

3—Is an award of attorney's fees to the plaintiff under a fee-shifting provision of the Consumer Protection Act limited to fees incurred before the tender?

For the reasons that follow, we answer each of these questions “no.”


Background
Class Action Complaint

Petitioner Anthony Frazier commenced this action by filing a complaint in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on July 27, 2007, naming Respondent Crystal Ford Isuzu, Ltd. [430 Md. 149](“Crystal Ford”) as defendant.1 The complaint alleged that Crystal Ford sold Mr. Frazier an extended

[59 A.3d 1019]

warranty for his 2003 Ford Explorer on or about December 23, 2004. According to the complaint, the salesperson told Mr. Frazier that the extended warranty would last for 48 months from the date of purchase or 100,000 miles, whichever occurred first. In fact, the duration of the type of extended warranty sold to Mr. Frazier was calculated from the “build date” of the automobile.2 As a result, the extended warranty actually expired on October 30, 2006, more than 2 years earlier than Mr. Frazier had been led to believe.

The complaint alleged that, because the warranty expired earlier than promised, Mr. Frazier incurred unanticipated repair expenses when he had his car serviced within the four-year period following purchase of the warranty. According to the complaint, when Mr. Frazier complained to Crystal Ford, the salesperson advised that there was nothing she could do, as the actual terms of the warranty contract measured the four years from the “build date” of the car even though the application for the warranty stated a longer duration. According to the complaint, the salesperson told Mr. Frazier she had sold other extended warranties with the same discrepancy.

Following the discussion with the salesperson, Mr. Frazier retained counsel, who wrote a letter to Crystal Ford seeking compensation for the unexpected repair expenses as well as other repairs anticipated within the four-year period. No response was received from Crystal Ford, and Mr. Frazier filed his complaint two weeks later.

[430 Md. 150]The complaint asserted two causes of action—one for unfair and deceptive trade practices, in violation of the Consumer Protection Act, 3 and the other for common law fraud. The complaint sought compensatory damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.4 Mr. Frazier purported to bring his action “on behalf of the entire class of persons similarly situated”—described in the complaint as residents of Maryland who had purchased Ford extended warranties from Crystal Ford during the previous four years. The complaint requested, among other things, that the court certify the action as a class action.

Mr. Frazier did not immediately file a motion for class certification, but sought discovery from Crystal Ford concerning warranties Crystal Ford had sold to other customers.

Tender of Individual Relief

After the filing of the complaint, Crystal Ford paid to extend Mr. Frazier's warranty through December 31, 2008, approximately four years from the date it had sold him the extended warranty. As a result, Ford ESP North America sent Mr. Frazier a check for the amounts he had paid for the repairs (minus a $100 deductible) during the period that his car would have been covered by the warranty that he had intended to purchase. Mr. Frazier did not cash the check.

[59 A.3d 1020]

Dispositive Motions

Crystal Ford filed an answer to the complaint and subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, a motion to deny class certification, and a motion for a protective order seeking to limit discovery. Mr. Frazier filed a motion to compel discovery. As of the date of the hearing on those motions, Mr. Frazier had not filed his own motion to certify the class.

On February 20, 2008, the Circuit Court issued an oral opinion from the bench in which it granted Crystal Ford's [430 Md. 151]motion to deny class certification; and granted in part Crystal Ford's motion for summary judgment, leaving open the issue of attorney's fees for a subsequent hearing.5 In explaining its decision to deny class certification, the court stated:

[Mr. Frazier] clearly is no longer a member of any class because he's been made whole, so really, he has no interest as far as this court can see to put forward, and to indicate that he is acting on behalf of a class.

I also agree with the defendant's position that the, there's not a uniformity in regards to what the individual claimants would have to put forward. I don't think at all, having reviewed Rule 2–231, having reviewed the case law, and having reviewed this individual case, that a class action certification would be appropriate.

I really don't see that Anthony Frazier is a class plaintiff. And as I said earlier, I do think that he has been made whole. So I don't think that he is, has really any interest in common with the other yet to be identified prospective claimants.

As to the motion for summary judgment, the court said:

Now, in regards to the motion for summary judgment, and as an alternative, I believe that the defendants were arguing that the claim was moot. And certainly, I think I would agree with the fact that the claim is somewhat moot, because what was being asked for really pertains to the class motion. And it says, “Demand judgment for the class plaintiffs, members of his class,” and then it goes on, the prayers for relief say “compensatory damages in an amount equal to the cost of all of the Ford extended service plans.” Well that's been worked out already. That has been provided to this individual plaintiff.

[430 Md. 152]“Appropriate injunction to declaratory relief to protect this class.” That's really not appropriate because I've denied the motion—actually, I granted the motion to deny the class certification.

“Punitive damages,” that's clearly not appropriate.

On September 3, 2008, a hearing was held as to the appropriate award for attorney's fees before another judge of the Circuit Court. At this hearing, the court was informed that Crystal Ford had contacted other customers who had purchased warranties to ensure that the warranties conformed to the representations made at the time they were sold. (According to Crystal Ford's counsel, this process was half completed at the time of the February hearing on the motion for summary judgment). The Circuit Court determined that the efforts of counsel for Mr. Frazier to

[59 A.3d 1021]

obtain class certification had helped motivate Crystal Ford to correct the warranties of other members of the putative class. The court decided that, even though class certification had ultimately been denied, those efforts should be given weight in the award of attorney's fees. The court therefore granted Mr. Frazier attorney's fees for all of the work done by his counsel both before and after Crystal Ford had tendered him individual relief.

Appeal

Both parties appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. That court, in a published opinion, affirmed the Circuit Court rulings. Frazier v. Crystal Ford Isuzu, Ltd., 200 Md.App. 285, 27 A.3d 583 (2011). Both parties then sought review by this Court, which we granted.

Discussion
Whether a Tender of Relief to a Prospective Class Representative Prior to Class Certification Requires Denial of Class Certification
Class Actions

The Maryland Rules allow for an action to be litigated as a class action when there are questions of law or fact common to [430 Md. 153]a group of potential litigants who are too numerous to be joined as parties to the action. Maryland Rule 2–231(a).6 One important purpose of this procedural mechanism is to allow a remedy for modest individual claims. “The aggregation of individual claims in the context of a classwide suit is an evolutionary response to the existence of injuries unremedied by the regulatory action of government. Where it is not economically feasible to obtain relief within the traditional framework of a multiplicity of small individual suits for damages, aggrieved persons may be without any effective redress unless they may employ the class-action device.” Deposit Guaranty National Bank v. Roper, 445 U.S. 326, 339, 100 S.Ct. 1166, 63 L.Ed.2d 427 (1980).

Not anyone can prosecute a class action, however. Under the rule, a plaintiff who seeks to prosecute a class action—to act as the “class representative”—must...

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