On March 31, 2008, the United States Supreme Court denied a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari in the Petition encaptioned Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Gentry, Supreme Court Case No. 07-998. The actual question posed in Gentry was whether lower courts had incorrectly enforced an arbitration clause barring class actions. While the California Supreme Court didn’t determine the enforceability of the provision, it did remand the matter for further unconscionability analysis. In doing so, the Gentry decision offered one of the strongest statements (certainly in recent years) in favor of California’s class action device, especially in wage & hour cases:
“ ‘Frequently numerous consumers are exposed to the same dubious practice by the same seller so that proof of the prevalence of the practice as to one consumer would provide proof for all. Individual actions by each of the defrauded consumers is often impracticable because the amount of individual recovery would be insufficient to justify bringing a separate action; thus an unscrupulous seller retains the benefits of its wrongful conduct. A class action by consumers produces several salutary by-products, including a therapeutic effect upon those sellers who indulge in fraudulent practices, aid to legitimate business enterprises by curtailing illegitimate competition, and avoidance to the judicial process of the burden of multiple litigation involving identical claims. The benefit to the parties and the courts would, in many circumstances, be substantial.’ ” ( Discover Bank, supra, 36 Cal.4th at p. 156, 30 Cal.Rptr.3d 76, 113 P.3d 1100.)
(Gentry, at pp. 453.)
First, individual awards in wage and hour cases tend to be modest. In addition to the fact that litigation over minimum wage by definition involves the lowest-wage workers, overtime litigation also usually involves workers at the lower end of the pay scale, since professional, executive, and administrative employees are generally exempt from overtime statutes and regulations.
(Gentry, at pp. 457-458.)
A second factor in favor of class actions for these cases, as noted in Bell, is that a current employee who individually sues his or her employer is at greater risk of retaliation. We have recognized that retaining one’s employment while bringing formal legal action against one's employer is not “a viable option for many employees.”
(Gentry, at p. 459.)
Third, some individual employees may not sue because they are unaware that their legal rights have been violated. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently emphasized the notification function of class actions in striking down a class arbitration waiver in a consumer contract: “[W]ithout the availability of a class-action mechanism, many consumer-fraud victims may never realize that they may have been wronged. As commentators have noted, ‘often consumers do not know that a potential defendant’s conduct is illegal. When they are being charged an excessive interest rate or a penalty for check bouncing, for example, few know or even sense that their rights are being violated.’ ” ( Muhammad v. County Bank of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (2006) 189 N.J. 1, 912 A.2d 88, 100.)
(Gentry, at p. 461.)
We also agree with the Bell court that “class actions may be needed to assure the effective enforcement of statutory policies even though some claims are large enough to provide an incentive for individual action. While employees may succeed under favorable circumstances in recovering unpaid overtime through a lawsuit or a wage claim filed with the Labor Commissioner, a class action may still be justified if these alternatives offer no more than the prospect of ‘random and fragmentary enforcement’ of the employer’s legal obligation to pay overtime.”
(Gentry, at p. 462.)
Circuit City makes a number of arguments that we have already concluded lack merit. As in Discover Bank, we again reject the “unsupported assertions [of some courts] that, in the case of small individual recovery, attorney fees are an adequate substitute for the class action or arbitration mechanism. Nor do we agree ... that small claims litigation, government prosecution, or informal resolution are adequate substitutes.”
(Gentry, at p. 464.) Gentry’s strong policy statements concerning at least wage & hour class actions all but declared the use of the class action device superior to any other means of enforcing California’s wage & hour laws. The Gentry decision is available for free through FindLaw, so long as you create a free account first. Thanks to The UCL Practitioner for noting the denial of the Petition.
UPDATE: The significance of Gentry is confirmed by the press coverage a simple certiorari denial is receiving. (See, e.g., Wage Law discussing Gentry.)