United States: Ninth Circuit Upholds Denial Of Alaska Genetic Privacy Class Certification

Last Updated: September 4 2018
Article by Stephen J. McConnell

It's vacation time for many of our colleagues.  Bexis shrewdly commenced a hiking holiday in Kauai, just in time to greet a hurricane.  We were less adventurous.  For us, it was enough to knock back poutine and ice wine and walk the old city walls in Quebec.  There was one excursion to watch the Drug and Device Law Heirs zip-line over a 272 foot high waterfall. We did not participate.  Our courage is weak, our girth is large, and our parenting skills are sub-par.  Meanwhile, a leading Philly litigator shared photos from his African safari, proving he got within a paw's swipe of a leopard.  Yikes.  And then there was our cherished friend, an esteemed in-house lawyer, whose family cruise along Alaska included close encounters with whales, wilderness, andm eerie blue ice bergs.  It all looked marvelous. 

We've been to Alaska once ourselves, but it was only a business trip.  A couple of oil companies, one of which was our client, had a slight disagreement as to who owned how much of certain tracts.  A few inches here or there meant billions of dollars.  The stakes were high but the issues were dull.  We visited  Prudhoe Bay (mile marker zero of the Trans-Alaska pipeline) and the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, where an enormous stuffed Kodiak bear stands guard.  A popular t-shirt said, "Split Alaska in Two and Make Texas the Third Largest State."  Alaska is full of wild, wonderful things, but not so much litigation.  Our fossil fuel battle was in arbitration, not the court system.  What sane Fortune 100 executive would entrust complex geological issues to twelve jurors?   

Maybe there are some riveting cases from Alaska, but we are hard-pressed to think of many.  In any event, when we think of Alaska, we think of its stunning beauty and the rugged individualism of its residents.  (That last sentence is a bit of ham-handed foreshadowing.) 

Quick: name the greatest Alaska television show.  (Answer below.)

Today's case, Cole v. Gene by Gene, Ltd., 2918 WL 3980308 (9th Cir. Aug. 21, 2018), originated in Alaska.  It's pretty interesting, as it involves the intersection of two increasingly important issues: genetic testing and disclosure of private information.  It's also pretty good, as it resulted in rejection of class certification.  But the issues must have seemed pretty obvious to the Ninth Circuit, as the panel members felt no need for oral argument and determined that the opinion was unworthy of publication in the West Reporter.  The plaintiff, suing on behalf of a putative class of 900 Alaskans, alleged that a company had disclosed DNA results without informed consent and in violation of the Alaska Genetic Privacy Act.  From the very short opinion, we cannot tell much about the nature of the genetic testing that occurred.  We don't know whether it was of the broadly available spit-in-a-test-tube, mail-it-in, then learn-with-surprise-that-your-family-actually-hails-from-Transylvania sort, or whether it was of a higher order of complexity and significance.  No matter, because genetic testing is going to become more and more prevalent and more and more crucial.  Selection of future drug and device therapies are likely to become more targeted with the help of genetic testing.  Genetic information is valuable information.   But, like all information, it can fall into the wrong hands and be misused. 

Back to the case at hand.  In Cole, because there were too many differences among the class members on important issues, the district court declined to certify the class.  Common issues did not predominate over individual issues, and individual litigation looked to be the superior mechanism for resolving the claims.  The plaintiff appealed.   The plaintiff lost.

The Ninth Circuit, applying an abuse of discretion standard or review, affirmed the district court.  It held that individualized determinations predominated with respect to the key issues of disclosure, consent, and damages.  For instance, whether a particular customer had private information disclosed varied depending on the terms of release signed by the customer, which of the thousands of genetic "projects" the customer may have joined, the terms of the specific project a customer joined, and what privacy settings the customer chose.  The district court was right that individual issues outnumbered the broad-brush general issue.  Moreover, the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying class certification on superiority grounds. The plaintiff had failed to carry his burden to show that "a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy."  In particular, the damages available to aggrieved customers under Alaska law would be plaintiff-specific.  Couple that intractable fact with the "difficulties inherent in managing a class action featuring such distinct and individualized issues, the limited resources to be saved by certifying a class, and the absence of other pending or duplicative lawsuits in the Alaskan courts, " and it becomes clear that "individual litigation is a superior mechanism for resolving" the case. 

(It is equally clear that Northern Exposurewas the best tv show ever set in Alaska.  It was filled with original, sharply drawn characters.  Individuality certainly predominated.  The main character was a doctor from New York who made it through medical school on a loan funded by the state of Alaska.  To repay the loan, he had to practice medicine for a couple of years in a remote Alaska town.  Other characters included an ex-con who was the ultra-philosophical disc jockey in the town's only radio station, a bush pilot whose former beaus all died gruesome deaths, a cantankerous ex-astronaut, and the owner of the town tavern who was at least 40 years older than his wife, but worried he would outlive her because the men in his family invariably lived past 100 and invariably spent a decade or so as lonely widowers.   The show ran on CBS from 1990 to 1995 and won many awards.  Among those were Emmy and Golden Globe awards for best drama.  The producers were grateful for the awards, but felt obligated to mention that they thought the show was actually a comedy.  In fact, Northern Exposurewas one of the first "dramedies," containing both comedic and dramatic tones.  After the first couple of seasons, a new producer-writer named David Chase joined the staff of Northern Exposure.  Perhaps you have heard of Chase.  Earlier in his career he had worked on The Rockford Files.  Later, he created another show with quirky characters.  It was called The Sopranos.)       

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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