United States District Court Judge Ronald M. Whyte (Northern District of California) granted United Auto Credit Corporation's motion to decertify a class of California-based Supervisor (and related) employees after the class was conditionally certified under the FLSA. Hernandez v. United Auto Credit Corporaiton (N.D. Cal. Apr. 2, 2010) 2010 WL 1337702. In FLSA actions, many Courts employ a two-phase process for "certification" of FLSA classes, an approach used by the trial court here:
Under the two-step approach, the court first considers whether to certify a collective action and permit notice to be distributed to the putative class members. See Thiessen, 267 F.3d at 1102; Russell v. Wells Fargo & Co., 2008 WL 4104212, at *2-3 (N.D.Cal. Sept.3, 2008). At this first stage, the standard for certification is fairly easy to satisfy. Courts have required only “substantial allegations, supported by declarations or discovery, that the putative class members were together the victims of a single decision, policy, or plan.” Russell, 2008 WL 4104212, at *2.
At the second stage, after discovery has been taken, the court may decertify the class if it concludes that the class members are not similarly situated. Id. at *3. The court can consider a number of factors in deciding whether an action should ultimately proceed collectively, including: (1) the disparate factual and employment settings of the individual plaintiffs; (2) the various defenses available to the defendant and whether they appear to be individual to each plaintiff; (3) fairness and procedural considerations; and (4) whether plaintiffs made the required filings before filing suit. Thiessen, 267 F.3d at 1103. However, a requirement that the class members be identical would be inconsistent with the intent of FLSA's provision that a case can proceed as a collective action. Pendlebury v. Starbucks Coffee Co., 518 F.Supp.2d 1345, 1361 (S.D.Fla.2007).
Slip op., at 2. The motion filed by the defendant in this case concerned the more rigorous showing required in the second stage. (Side Note: The Ninth Circuit has not yet explicitly held that it concurs with the two-stage approach, but District Courts have been employing that approach in the Ninth Circuit for many years without opposition.)
In the course of briefing, the plaintiffs apparently advanced the novel argument that the supervision requirement included in the executive exemption test created a ratio requirement where an employer had to show that there were at least two non-exempt employees for every executive:
Plaintiffs' argument overstates the requirement of the pertinent FSLA regulation. Plaintiffs are correct that in order to qualify for the executive exemption, an employee must “customarily and regularly direct[ ] the work of two or more other employees.” 29 C .F.R. § 541.100(a)(3). The language of the regulation, however, does not require a strict mathematical ratio between an “employee employed in a bona fide executive capacity” and “other employees.” All the regulation requires is that an employee customarily or regularly direct the work of two or more other employees. The other employees whose work the executive directs may or may not themselves be executives. Thus, the FLSA does not create a “ratio requirement.” Whether the present conditional class should be decertified, then, depends on the individualized assessment of whether the class members are “similarly situated.” The court now turns to that inquiry.
Slip op., at 3. No dice. Turning to the merits of the motion by defendant, the Court, as did the District Court in Weigele v. Fedex (discussed here), placed little weight on the uniform classification of employees by a central office: "[T]he recent decision of In re Wells Fargo Homes Mortg. Overtime Litig., 571 F.3d 953 (9th Cir.2009), which involved certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), cautions against placing too much weight on an internal policy of classifying all members of a particular class of employees as exempt." Slip op., at 5. More importantly, however, the Court discussed the plaintiffs' inability to rebut substantial evidence showing great disparity in the job duties of different Supervisors.
Are there really that many large businesses out there that let their employees do whatever they want?