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At issue before the Supreme Court was whether the common pleas court appropriately decertified a class based on its conclusion that a necessary element of the plaintiffs' proof (the presence
of a confidential relationship) was not amenable to class treatment. In 1993, Sandra J. Basile commenced a civil action against H&R Block, Inc., H&R Block Eastern Tax Services, Inc. and Mellon Bank. She alleged, among other things, that the Block companies maintained maintained and breached fiduciary duties in connection with their "Rapid Refund" program. Basile sought to assert claims on behalf of herself and others who were similarly situated. However, summary judgment subsequently was awarded in Block's favor on the ground that it had no fiduciary relationship with the plaintiffs. The common pleas court's conclusion, in this respect, was based on the premises that Block was not the plaintiffs' agent and that no confidential relationship otherwise existed between the parties. In the ensuing appellate litigation, the court's decision on the agency score ultimately was conclusively sustained. In 2001, the Superior Court overturned the common pleas court's summary-judgment award, finding that Ms. Basile had proffered sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of a confidential relationship. In 2003, upon consideration of the appellate rulings, the common pleas court determined that class treatment was no longer appropriate. The common pleas court found that the need for individualized inquiries on the dispositive question of trust precluded a finding that common issues predominated. Upon review of the matter, the Supreme Court held that that the common pleas court did not err in decertifying the class based on its conclusion that the presence of a confidential relationship was not amenable to class treatment. The order of the Superior Court was reversed, the common pleas court's decertification order was reinstated, and the matter was remanded for further proceedings.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA
CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.
SANDRA BASILE, ON BEHALF OF
HERSELF AND ALL OTHERS
H & R BLOCK, INC. AND H & R BLOCK
EASTERN TAX SERVICES, INC.,
No. 37 EAP 2011
Appeal from the Judgment of Superior
Court entered on 10/7/10 at No. 318 EDA
2004 reversing and remanding the order
entered on 1/21/04 in the Court of
Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, Civil
Division at No. 9304-3246
ARGUED: May 8, 2012
MR. JUSTICE SAYLOR
This appeal concerns a class action premised upon alleged breaches of fiduciary
duties. At issue is whether the common pleas court appropriately decertified the class
based on its conclusion that a necessary element of the plaintiffs’ proof -- the presence
of a confidential relationship -- was not amenable to class treatment.
The case has a lengthy, circuitous history. Pertinent aspects of the background
are as follows.
In 1993, Sandra J. Basile commenced a civil action against H&R Block, Inc.,
H&R Block Eastern Tax Services, Inc. (collectively, the “Block companies” or “Block”),
and Mellon Bank. Ms. Basile alleged, among other things, that the Block companies
maintained and breached fiduciary duties in connection with their “Rapid Refund”
program.1 This program allowed customers to receive the amount of their income tax
refund within days after electronically filing their income tax return via a short-term bank
loan, termed “refund anticipation loans.”
Although the program was apparently a
profitable one, it raised concerns on the part of various regulators and spawned a
number of civil actions nationwide. See, e.g., Reynolds v. Beneficial Nat’l Bank, 288
F.3d 277, 280 (7th Cir. 2002) (observing that, beginning in 1990, more than twenty class
actions were brought against Block and others, charging violations of state and federal
consumer-finance laws and breaches of fiduciary duty under state law). In the present
one, Ms. Basile asserted that the program was deceptive, because, while customers
may have understood that payment of a fee was required, they did not apprehend that
they actually received a loan, and they did not know the high rate of interest imposed.
See id. (explaining that the annual interest rate on a refund anticipation loan “will often
exceed 100 percent -- easily a quarter of the refund, even though the loan may be
outstanding for only a few days”). Ms. Basile sought to assert claims on behalf of
herself and others who were similarly situated.
In 1997, on Ms. Basile’s motion, the common pleas court certified a class
consisting of some 600,000 of the Block companies’ customers who participated in the
refund anticipation loan program between 1990 and 1993 (“Appellees”), relative to the
In federal court, Ms. Basile and a putative class also alleged violations of the Truth-inLending Act, 15 U.S.C. §§1601, et seq., the Delaware usury laws, Del. Code tit. 6
§2301(a) (1975), and the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer
Protection Act, 73 Pa.C.S. §201-2(4). See Basile v. H&R Block, Inc., 897 F. Supp. 194
(E.D. Pa. 1995). The plaintiffs suffered an adverse judgment there, however, and did
not appeal this ruling. See Basile v. H&R Block, Inc., No. 3246 Apr. Term 1993, slip
op., 1997 WL 1433757, at *11 (C.P. Phila., May 30, 1997) (summarizing the path of the
present litigation through the federal and state court systems through 1997).
[J-18-2012] - 2
breach of fiduciary duty claim.2
However, summary judgment subsequently was
awarded in Block’s favor on the ground that it had no fiduciary relationship with the
plaintiffs. The common pleas court’s conclusion, in this respect, was based on the
premises that Block was not the plaintiffs’ agent and that no confidential relationship
otherwise existed between the parties. In the ensuing appellate litigation, the court’s
decision on the agency score ultimately was conclusively sustained. See Basile v. H&R
Block, Inc., 563 Pa. 359, 370, 761 A.2d 1115, 1121 (2000) (“[W]e hold that, as a matter
of law, Block was not acting as appellees’ agent in the [refund anticipation loan]
transactions, such that they were subject to a heightened, fiduciary duty.”).
The question whether Appellees could proceed as a class on the general theory
of a confidential relationship, however, remained in continuing controversy. In 2001, the
Superior Court overturned the common pleas court’s summary-judgment award, finding
that Ms. Basile had proffered sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of a
See Basile v. H&R Block, Inc., 777 A.2d 95, 106-07 (Pa.
Super. 2001), appeal denied, 569 Pa. 714, 806 A.2d 857 (2002) (per curiam). In laying
the foundation for its decision, the intermediate court reviewed a number of prior
decisions concerning confidential relationships to discern several guiding principles.
First, the court observed, the conception is not amenable to a precise definition. See id.
at 101 (explaining that “a confidential relationship cannot be reduced to a catalogue of
specific circumstances, invariably falling to the left or right of a definitional line” (quoting
In re Estate of Scott, 455 Pa. 429, 432, 316 A.2d 883, 885 (1974))). Nevertheless, the
court continued, “[t]he essence of such a relationship is trust and reliance on one side,
and a corresponding opportunity to abuse that trust for personal gain on the other.” Id.
Certification was refused relative to other claims asserted in the state court action,
including common law fraud and negligent misrepresentation. See Basile, No. 3246
Apr. Term 1993, slip op., 1997 WL 1433757, at *77.
[J-18-2012] - 3
The Superior Court then quoted the following description deriving from Leedom
v. Palmer, 274 Pa. 22, 117 A. 410 (1922):
[A confidential relationship] appears when the circumstances
make it certain the parties do not deal on equal terms, but,
on the one side there is an overmastering influence, or, on
the other, weakness, dependence or trust, justifiably
reposed; in both an unfair advantage is possible.
Id. at 25, 117 A. at 411 (emphasis added). The court stressed that this passage is
phrased in the disjunctive and criticized the common pleas court for treating proof of
weakness, dependence, or trust on Appellees’ part as an essential prerequisite. See
Basile, 777 A.2d at 101, 103.
In support of its decision, the intermediate court catalogued evidence proffered
by Appellees -- particularly documents obtained from the Block companies in discovery
-- indicating that: the Block companies actively cultivated customer trust through an
extensive media ad campaign; Block appreciated that many of its customers “entered
their relationships with Block in a position of pronounced economic and intellectual
weakness”; and, despite reports of customer confusion, the Block companies
intentionally provided only minimal information concerning the character of refund
anticipation loans. See Basile, 777 A.2d at 103-06. Although the Superior Court at
times discussed Ms. Basile’s individual circumstances, a portion of its reasoning
concerned the class as a whole. For instance, the court stated:
Though Block, per force, could not establish a personal
relationship with any member of the class, it sought
nonetheless to achieve a false intimacy through carefully
orchestrated advertising images. . . . Were we to apply our
caselaw in the manner Block suggests, requiring some level
of personal intimacy for the formation of a confidential
relationship, we would effectively elevate the economic
concerns of the mass market above the mandate of the law.
Such a decision would allow vast numbers of our more
[J-18-2012] - 4
credulous citizens to suffer harm that we would repudiate if
inflicted on an isolated basis by an individual.
Id. at 107.
Despite such broad-scale commentary, however, the Superior Court couched its
actual holding narrowly, explaining:
We do not conclude that the relationship of a tax consultant
to his client is confidential per se, nor do we conclude that
the parties here were engaged in such a relationship as a
matter of law. We conclude only that the evidence before
the trial court on summary judgment was sufficient to
establish, prima facie, the elements of a confidential
relationship between the parties in this case. If, upon
remand, the factfinder accepts, as truthful, evidence
adduced tending to demonstrate a confidential relationship,
Block will be bound by a corresponding fiduciary duty as a
matter of law.
In 2003, upon consideration of the appellate rulings, the common pleas court
determined that class treatment was no longer appropriate. In support of this decision,
the court explained that “it will be necessary to consider the evidence of the unique
qualities of each class member since the fact finder must determine whether each
place[d] his or her complete trust in the defendant’s expertise.” Basile v. H&R Block,
Inc., No. 3246 April Term 1993, slip op. at 8 (C.P. Phila., Mar. 26, 2004). The common
pleas court found that the need for individualized inquiries on the dispositive question of
trust precluded a finding that common issues predominated. Id. at 11-12. Given that
such predominance is a prerequisite to class treatment, see Samuel-Bassett v. Kia
Motors Am., Inc., ___ Pa. ___, ___, 34 A.3d 1, 22-23 (2011) (“The critical inquiry for the
[J-18-2012] - 5
certifying court is whether the material facts and issues of law are substantially the
same for all class members.”),3 the court entered a decertification order.
The Superior Court reversed, however. See Basile v. H&R Block, Inc., 11 A.3d
992 (Pa. Super. 2010).4
In doing so, the intermediate court emphasized its 2001
holding that proof of complete trust on the part of each class member was not essential
to establish a confidential relationship, and that Appellees had proffered sufficient
evidence to create a jury question. See id. at 995 (citing Basile, 777 A.2d at 95).
According to the court:
If the finder of fact [at trial] decides that [this evidence is]
truthful and persuasive, then it will not be necessary for the
finder of fact to “consider the unique qualities of each class
member” in order to establish a confidential relationship with
Block – as [this evidence] reflect[s] that Block knew that the
Plaintiff Class “sought Block’s assistance from a position of
pronounced intellectual and economic weakness.”
See generally Liss & Marion P.C. v. Recordex Acquisition Corp., 603 Pa. 198, 217-18,
983 A.2d 652, 663 (2009) (indicating that the requirement of class certification that there
exist a common question of fact means that the facts must be substantially the same so
that proof as to one claimant would be proof as to all); Sharkus v. Blue Cross of Greater
Phila., 494 Pa. 336, 343, 431 A.2d 883, 886 (1981) (explaining that “an essential
requirement for maintaining a class action is the existence and predominance of
common issues shared by all class members which can be justly resolved in a single
proceeding.” (emphasis added)).
The interlocutory appellate review proceeded under the collateral order doctrine. See
Basile v. H&R Block, Inc., 894 A.2d 786, 789 n.1 (Pa. Super. 2006), rev’d on other
grounds, 601 Pa. 392, 973 A.2d 417 (2009). The Superior Court maintains that orders
denying certification, or decertifying a class action, are immediately appealable as
collateral orders. See, e.g., Clark v. Pfizer Inc., 990 A.2d 17, 23 n.3 (Pa. Super. 2010).
As recognized in Rae v. Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, 602 Pa. 65, 977
A.2d 1121 (2009), however, the United States Supreme Court has taken a different
view. See id. at 72, 977 A.2d at 1125-26 (citing Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437
U.S. 463, 98 S. Ct. 2454 (1978)). The limited grant of allocatur in this case does not
encompass the question of whether the decertification order qualifies for as-of-right
interlocutory appellate review.
[J-18-2012] - 6
Moreover, these same Block documents, if believed,
similarly establish that Block not only encouraged the
members of the Plaintiff Class to trust in their expertise, but
also that those efforts were in fact successful.
As is now clear, Basile intends to attempt to meet her burden
of proof in this regard on a class-wide basis through
common proof as to all class members, namely the
presentation of a significant quantum of evidence, in the
form of Block’s own internal documents, establishing the
relative positions of the parties and the repose of complete
trust in Block by members of the class.
Basile, 11 A.3d at 999-1000 (quoting Basile, 777 A.2d at 106) (emphasis in original).
Accordingly, the Superior Court overturned the class decertification order and remanded
the case to the common pleas court for further proceedings. On the petition of the
Block companies, this Court allowed appeal to consider the correctness of the
intermediate court’s ruling.
Presently, Block’s primary argument is that the determination whether a
confidential relationship is present (in the absence of a legal relationship which
presumes one) requires a uniquely individualized, factual assessment. Accord Wisniski
v. Brown & Brown Ins. Co. of Pa., 906 A.2d 571, 578 (Pa. Super. 2006) (“The question
of whether or not a confidential relationship exists between the parties is intensely factspecific.”). Since the presence of a confidential relationship is a core element of the
extant claims asserted on behalf of each of the 600,000 individual class members,
Block contends that the common pleas court simply could not have been wrong in
determining that class treatment of those claims is inappropriate. Whatever the Block
companies’ marketing and customer relations strategies,5 Block asserts that -- given the
Block does not concede that the evidence of those practices referenced by the
Superior Court, or the attendant inferences it drew, are accurate. Block highlights that
[J-18-2012] - 7
myriad intellectual and personality differences among the 600,000 class members -- the
impact of those practices upon discrete individuals inevitably will have been disparate.
Block elaborates as follows:
[T]he [Superior Court’s] finding of “overmastering” influence
is inconsistent with its observation that [courts must
consider] the “relative positions of the parties,” Basile, 11
A.3d at 1000, which, in turn, necessitates an individualized
inquiry. While in this case, the Panel presumed all class
members were “overmastered” based solely on their
predominant socio-economic level, such demographic
information obviously does not directly correlate to the
capacity of individual members to be overmastered, or,
conversely, the strength of their independent judgment.
Here, Plaintiffs did not establish what percentage of the
class was comprised of inhabitants of urban centers and
rural areas, persons who did not complete high school, as
well as high school and college graduates, those who are
impoverished fortuitously and those who are of modest
means by choice or avocation, or persons with some
financial acumen versus those without any. Because each
of these characteristics, and a multitude of others, will weigh
in on whether each class member is more or less
susceptible to solicitations or advertisements, [the common
pleas court] correctly recognized that “. . . it will be
necessary to consider the evidence of the unique qualities of
each class member since the fact finder must determine
whether each placed his or her complete trust in the
Brief for Appellants at 29-30 (emphasis in original); see also id. at 30 (“The possibility
that a class of 600,000 people were potentially reached by Block’s advertisements does
[not] justify the conclusion that the entire class was reached[,] reacted identically,
the evidence was in the form of a proffer by the plaintiffs at the summary judgment
stage and was never reviewed or credited by the common pleas court in connection
with the class certification decision.
[J-18-2012] - 8
suspended independent judgment, and collectively placed its complete trust in Block.”
(emphasis in original)).
According to Block, the Superior Court’s opinion glaringly
disregards the plainly individualized nature of the central inquiry.
Block views the Superior Court’s reliance on its 2001 decision overturning the
award of summary judgment as another compelling manifestation of the weakness of
that court’s 2010 opinion disapproving decertification. In this regard, Block observes
that summary judgment rulings are made and reviewed based on proffered facts viewed
in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See, e.g., Wilson v. El-Daief, 600
Pa. 161, 170-71, 964 A.2d 354, 359 (2009). Class certification rulings, on the other
hand, are premised upon actual factual determinations (where material factual matters
are in dispute). See Pa.R.Civ.P. No. 1710.6 In the Block companies’ view, it was wholly
inappropriate for the intermediate court to require ongoing class treatment -- over and
against the common pleas court’s determination that such treatment was unwarranted -based upon mere factual assertions and proffers. See, e.g., Brief for Appellants at 25
(“The Panel neither recognized that its own standard of review was entirely different
than the standard applied in [the 2001 review of the summary judgment order], nor
acknowledged that the ‘evidence’ cited in [such review] did not have the same currency
in the class certification context, where it had to be evaluated for its actual probative
value classwide and not merely considered in the light most favorable to the named
The material facts, at the class certification stage, of course, concern the criteria
necessary to class treatment and not the merits of the underlying controversy, see
Pa.R.Civ.P. No. 1707, Explanatory Comment -- 1977, albeit we recognize that there
may be some degree of overlap, see Livesay, 437 U.S. at 469, 98 S. Ct. at 2458 (citing
Mercantile Nat’l Bank v. Langdeau, 371 U.S. 555, 558, 83 S. Ct. 520, 522 (1963)).
[J-18-2012] - 9
Block also explains that courts of original jurisdiction are vested with broad
discretion in determining whether the criteria for maintaining a class are met.
Samuel-Bassett, ___ Pa. at ___, 34 A.3d at 15.
Further, Block points to the high
threshold an appellant must meet to warrant reversal of such a discretionary ruling. See
id. (“[T]he trial court must have ‘exercised unreasonable judgment, or based its decision
on ill will, bias, or prejudice.’” (quoting In re Community Bank of N. Va., 622 F.3d 275,
290 (3d Cir. 2010)). According to the Block companies, the Superior Court failed to
extend appropriate deference to the common pleas court’s discretionary decertification
decision, but, rather, substituted its own judgment for that of the county court.
Appellees, for their part, regard the cited marketing strategies and customerrelations practices as compelling proof of overmastering influence on the part of the
Block companies. See, e.g., Brief for Appellees at 13 (“[T]he evidence presented by
Plaintiffs as found by the Superior Court made out, prima facie, the existence of a
confidential relationship based upon Block’s overmastering influence.”).
explain their position in terms similar to those employed by the Superior Court:
Here, the evidence against Block established through the
testimony of its employees, manuals, advertising materials,
letters to its clients, its marketing data and its focus group
studies, that Block cultivated its specialized expertise in tax
matters so that its clients would depend on, confide in and
trust Block. It knew the demographics of its clients – that
they had annual incomes of $10,000 - $15,000 were either
unemployed or worked in service occupations and
possessed less than a high school education. Further, . . .
Block explicitly trained (as described in its Tax Preparer
Manual) its tax preparers to avoid explaining the Rapid
Refund program beyond letting the client know when the
check would be ready and that the fee would be deducted so
the client did not have to go out of pocket for the service.
And, Block trained the tax preparer in this manner because it
knew that if the client learned that the Rapid Refund was not
a refund but a high interest loan, many would decline the
[J-18-2012] - 10
program. Block had a conscious plan to target the class to
take advantage of them. The evidence is overwhelming in
favor of certification.
Brief for Appellees at 16.
Appellees also differ with Block’s position that the Superior Court conflated the
summary judgment standard with the class certification analysis.
In their view, the
intermediate court merely referenced the summary judgment opinion in conducting an
independent review and determining that the record did not support the decertification
On considering the background and the arguments, we agree with several
primary lines of the Block companies’ contentions.
First, determining the
appropriateness of class treatment is an inherently fact-laden inquiry. See generally
Samuel-Bassett, ___ Pa. at ___, 34 A.3d at 15 (observing that class certification is
treated as a mixed question of law and fact). As Block amply develops, where material
facts are in dispute, class certification -- and decertification -- rulings are to be premised
on properly determined facts, not assumed ones. See Pa.R.Civ.P. No. 1710; see also
supra note 6.
Hence, the Superior Court plainly should not have relied on factual
assertions which previously were taken as true only when considered for a very different
purpose (i.e., evaluating whether the claims were amenable to summary disposition).
Sanctioning such an intermixing of summary-judgment and class-certification
review principles would have the deleterious consequence of postponing to the time of
trial the determination of whether collectivized treatment is appropriate.
Basile, 11 A.3d at 999 (“If the finder of fact [at trial] decides that [this evidence is] truthful
and persuasive, then it will not be necessary for the finder of fact to ‘consider the unique
qualities of each class member’ . . ..” (quoting Basile, 777 A.2d at 106) (emphasis
added)). Such delay is particularly untenable, given that class certification decisions
serve as critical milestones in the tracking, management, and handling of mass claims.
[J-18-2012] - 11
For this reason, deferring close consideration of class certification to the time when
facts are determined by a jury at trial (namely, in connection with the verdict) is
incompatible with the governing procedural rules.
See, e.g., Pa.R.Civ.P. No. 1710
(reflecting that decisions concerning class treatment are to be based on judicial
determinations of the facts pertinent to class treatment). Furthermore, the approach
would conflate a management decision appropriate to trial judges with merits
determinations relegated to juries.
Despite the Superior Court’s departure from the governing review principles,
there is some visceral force to its conclusions, particularly since much of the evidence
upon which the court relied consisted of the Block companies’ own internal papers.
Even if the substance of those documents is taken as true, however, it is not
appropriate to presume that Block’s marketing and customer relations strategies had
the same impact on each and every putative class member. While Block may very well
have desired to assert strong influence in the marketplace, and it may have possessed
information reflecting vulnerability across a wide segment of its clientele, nothing in the
record presented demonstrates an actual, class-wide, homogeneous effect on 600,000
of Block’s customers in the nature of “overmastering influence.” In other words, the
Superior Court’s decision fails to account for the inherently discrete and subjective
aspects of marketing and customer-relations impact.
An analogous point was ably made by a federal district court considering a
putative class action relative to the Block companies’ Rapid Refund program, as follows:
In this class, there are millions of people – any of whom may
or may not have known that this product was a loan. The
class members, having paid the charges before assuming
the loan, knew the costs of the loan and, indeed, the class
representatives found the charge acceptable. Whether the
advertising scheme and use of the term “Rapid Refund”
induced any of these class members to believe that this was
[J-18-2012] - 12
simply a refund fee rather than a high interest loan is, quite
simply, a question which is individual to each class member.
Additionally, the question of whether class members who
were fully informed of the loan arrangement would have still
taken the loan remains an individualized determination.
[T]his Court will not presume this lack of knowledge on the
part of an entire class.
Buford v. H&R Block, Inc., 168 F.R.D. 340, 360 (S.D. Ga. 1996) (citation omitted).
In terms of the Superior Court’s understanding of “overmastering influence” in the
context of a confidential relationship, we also find that the court made too much of the
use of the disjunctive in the Leedom formulation. See Leedom, 274 Pa. at 25, 117 A. at
411 (explaining that a confidential relationship “appears when the circumstances make
it certain the parties do not deal on equal terms, but, on the one side there is an
overmastering influence, or, on the other, weakness, dependence, or trust, justifiably
reposed; in both an unfair advantage is possible” (emphasis added)). Leedom itself
recognized the difficulty in precisely defining a confidential relationship, see id. (“No
precise language can define the limits of the relation[.]”); accordingly, it is unhelpful to
sharply deconstruct the generalized guidance it attempted to provide. Moreover, the
term “overmastering influence” itself implies a relational aspect -- particularly in terms of
social phenomena such as mass advertising, what may be couched as “overmastering”
as to one individual will not have the same impact on others. Finally, the Court has
maintained this relational focus in other of its descriptions of a confidential relationship.
See, e.g., Estate of Scott, 455 Pa. at 432, 316 A.2d at 885 (explaining that “[t]he
essence of such a relationship is trust and reliance on one side, and a corresponding
opportunity to abuse that trust for personal gain on the other”). Simply put, in the
absence of actual coercion, overmastering influence does not exist in the abstract.
[J-18-2012] - 13
There are two primary ways of establishing a confidential relationship. The first
is to demonstrate a legal relation ordinarily known as confidential at law. See Leedom,
274 Pa. at 25, 117 A. at 412 (explaining that a confidential relationship “generally exists
between trustee and cestui que trust, guardian and ward, attorney and client, and
principal and agent”).7
Appellees attempted to do so on an agency theory, but a
majority of this Court rejected such theory. See Basile, 563 Pa. at 370, 761 A.2d at
1121.8 In the absence of some affiliation pursuant to which a confidential relationship is
legally presumed, Appellees were relegated to the alternative, fact-dependent method
of proving such a relationship. See generally Leedom, 274 Pa. at 25, 117 A. at 412 (“In
some cases the confidential relation is a conclusion of law, in others it is a question of
fact to be established by the evidence[.]”). Again, the Superior Court otherwise has
correctly recognized the “intensely fact-specific” nature of this inquiry. See Wisniski,
906 A.2d at 578; accord Estate of Scott, 455 Pa. at 432, 316 A.2d at 885 (explaining
that “each case must be analyzed on its own facts”). The court should have recognized
this in the present case as well in its administration of the deferential appellate review
required of the common pleas court’s discretionary class certification ruling. Accord
Stratton v. Am. Med. Sec., Inc., 266 F.R.D. 340, 352-53 (D. Ariz. 2009) (explaining that
where the existence of a confidential relationship is a question of fact, “in cases
In Pennsylvania, accountant-client relationships have not been deemed to be per se
confidential in the sense of generating attendant fiduciary duties. See, e.g., Drob v.
Jaffe, 351 Pa. 297, 300, 41 A.2d 407, 408 (1945); accord Basile, 777 A.2d at 107 (“We
do not conclude that the relationship of a tax consultant to his client is confidential per
se, nor do we conclude that the parties here were engaged in such a relationship as a
matter of law.”).
This author and Mr. Justice Nigro, however, would have found agency status and
attendant fiduciary duties present as a matter of law. See Basile, 563 Pa. at 373-76,
761 A.2d at 1123-25 (Nigro, J., dissenting); id. at 376-77, 761 A.2d at 1125 (Saylor, J.,
[J-18-2012] - 14
involving allegations of fiduciary duty that arise out of the facts of a specific relationship,
the claim is not well-suited to a class action”).9
Certainly, high-interest refund anticipation loan programs have engendered
intense criticism from consumer advocates and others who observe a disparate and
deleterious impact on those with limited means. See, e.g., Lynn Drysdale & Kathleen E.
Keest, The Two-Tiered Consumer Financial Services Marketplace: The Fringe Banking
System and its Challenge to Current Thinking About the Role of Usury Laws in Today's
Society, 51 S.C. L. REV. 589, 668-69 (2000). Indeed, there very well may be a need for
enhanced consumer protection laws to regulate the practice to the extent that it persists.
The proper judicial response, however, is not to retroactively alter the procedural class
action device or governing principles of appellate review to achieve such substantive
ends. See generally Pa.R.Civ.P. Class Actions, Explanatory Comment -- 1977 (“Many
desirable approaches to class action problems involve substantive rather than
procedural solutions. . . . These are beyond the power of the Procedural Rules.”).
We are cognizant of the tendency toward sanctioning the use of class actions as
a convenience to address colorably meritorious claims in an aggregate fashion, where
these might not otherwise be capable of being redressed practically on an individualized
basis. Cf. Allan Erbsen, From “Predominance” to “Resolvability”: A New Approach to
Regulating Class Actions, 58 VAND. L. REV. 995, 1009-10 (2005) (“The practical
problems with certifying class actions despite dissimilarity among claims arise from the
natural human instinct to simplify the inherently complex and to create order out of what
We also observe that this Court also has cabined the application of the confidentialrelationship concept by indicating the necessity of a substantial quantum of proof. See
Leedom, 274 Pa. at 26, 117 A. at 412 (“Where undue influence and incompetency do
not appear, and the relation between the parties is not one ordinarily known as
confidential in law, the evidence to sustain a confidential relation must be certain[.]”).
[J-18-2012] - 15
appears chaotic.”). We also do not discount the Superior Court’s concern with the
impact of mass marketing and fringe banking practices on the financially disadvantaged.
The present approach to class action treatment reflected in the Pennsylvania Rules of
Civil Procedure, however, stems from limitations inherent in the judicial rulemaking
process, see Pa.R.Civ.P. Class Actions, Explanatory Comment -- 1977; the impact of
collectivized treatment of individualized claims on defendants’ substantive rights, see
generally Erbsen, From “Predominance” to “Resolvability,” 58 VAND. L. REV. 995, 1010
(explaining that “aggregating distinct individual claims into a class obscures differences
among class members in ways that engender substantive consequences”); and the
limited policymaking role of the courts (as compared with the legislative branch) in terms
of manipulating substantive law, see, e.g., Naylor v. Twp. of Hellam, 565 Pa. 397, 408,
773 A.2d 770, 777 (2001) (recognizing the General Assembly’s superior ability to
examine social policy issues and to establish appropriate substantive legal standards).10
We hold that the common pleas court did not err in decertifying the class based
on its conclusion that a core element of the plaintiffs’ proof -- the presence of a
confidential relationship -- was not amenable to class treatment.
The order of the Superior Court is reversed, the common pleas court’s
decertification order is reinstated, and the matter is remanded for further proceedings
consistent with this opinion.
Madame Justice Orie Melvin did not participate in the decision of this case.
As the common pleas court explained, the judicial opinions regarding Appellees’
entitlement to proceed as a class are “not an acceptance or endorsement of the actions
of H&R Block[;] [t]he question in this case is not one of morality or business ethics, but
rather one of law.” Basile, No. 3246 April Term 1993, slip op. at 1.
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Mr. Chief Justice Castille, Messrs. Justice Eakin and Baer, Madame Justice Todd
and Mr. Justice McCaffery join the opinion.
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