"Trivial harm" class actions and the de minimus doctrine

While the future of no-harm class actions is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court as it considers its decision in First American Financial Corp. v. Edwards, at least one federal district court in Illinois appears to be taking a hard line against what might be described as "trivial harm" class actions.  In a February 23, 2012 decision in Old Town Pizza of Lombard, Inc. v. Corfu-Tasty Gyro's, Inc., 1:11-cv-6959 (N.D. Illinois), the court invoked the de minimus doctrine to dismiss putative class claims where only insignificant damages had been alleged, and rejected the suggestion that an otherwise insignificant injury could be aggregated via class allegations in order to meet the harm threshold for a viable individual claim. 

Judge John W. Darrah rendered a decision dismissing two of the plaintiff's claims, for conversion and violation of an Illinois consumer protection statute — which were based on the defendant's alleged sending of a single unsolicited fax — because the plaintiff did not allege "substantial injury to itself."  The court dismissed the claims despite the plaintiff's citation to cases within the district that had previously held that putative class claims cannot be defeated by the de minimus doctrine, "so long as those [small individual] losses can plausibly be inferred to be substantial in the aggregate."  Centerline Equip. Corp. v. Banner Pers. Serv., Inc., 545 F.Supp.2d 768 (N.D. Ill. 2008).  According to Judge Darrah, "the loss of a piece of paper and toner…is trivial and insufficient to support a conversion claim," and "[p]ursuing a class action does not save an otherwise insufficient claim from dismissal…." 

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