Ninth Circuit concludes that the Dynamex "ABC test" applies retroactively

I missed this little nugget when it came out last month, but it’s worth noting regardless because it may move the needle in existing cases. In Vazquez, et al. v. Jan-Pro Franchising International, Inc. (9th Cir. May 2, 2009), the Ninth Circuit considered whether Dynamex Ops. W. Inc. v. Superior Court, 416 P.3d 1 (Cal. 2018) applied to a District Court decision that pre-dated Dynamex.

On that point, the Court agreed that the default rule of retroactive application of judicial decisions should apply after a thorough analysis of the limited bases for an exception to that default rule:

Given the strong presumption of retroactivity, the emphasis in Dynamex on its holding as a clarification rather than as a departure from established law, and the lack of any indication that California courts are likely to hold that Dynamex applies only prospectively, we see no basis to do so either.

Slip op., at 26. The Court then considered whether due process considerations could preclude retroactive application and held that such considerations did not:

Applying Dynamex retroactively is neither arbitrary nor irrational. The Dynamex court explained that “wage orders are the type of remedial legislation that must be liberally construed in a manner that services its remedial purpose.” 416 P.3d at 32. Moreover, Dynamex made clear that California wage orders serve multiple purposes. One is to compensate workers and ensure they can provide for themselves and their families. Id. But second, wage orders accord benefits to entire industries by “ensuring that . . . responsible companies are not hurt by unfair competition from competitor businesses that utilize substandard employment practices.” Id. And finally, wage orders benefit society at large. Without them, “the public will often be left to assume responsibility for the ill effects to workers and their families resulting from substandard wages or unhealthy and unsafe working conditions.” Id. It is with these purposes in mind that the California Supreme Court embraced the ABC test and found it to be “faithful” to the history of California’s employment classification law “and to the fundamental purpose of the wage orders.” Id. at 40.

Slip op., at 27-28.

The balance of the Opinion examined the merits of the case, providing significant guidance to the District Court on remand.

Separate from the content of the Opinion, I am impressed by the formatting of the Opinion. The Opinion contains a hyper-linked table of contents that improves navigation through the long decision. Because I was curious about the formatting, I did a quick spot check of recent opinions and could not find a similarly formatted document. This makes me wonder why this is not standard. I note that Judge Block, of the Eastern District of New York (sitting by designation) authored the opinion. If you happen to know why the formatting of this Opinion is so good, leave a comment.

The prevailing plaintiffs were represented by Shannon Liss-Riordan of Lichten & Liss-Riordan P.C., Boston, Massachusetts.

Ninth Circuit considers claim preclusion where WARN Act settlement deficiency was sought from non-settling defendant

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Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008) was written specifically to torment me. But, since it was issued, I haven’t seen its analysis of res judicata in class cases arise too often. Here, claim preclusion meets a bankruptcy court’s approval of a class settlement against other parties in Wojciechowski v. Kohlberg Ventures (9th Cir. May 9, 2019). The quick summary of the two cases sums it up well.

Wojciechowski filed an adversary class action against the ClearEdge entities in the bankruptcy court. He alleged that the two ClearEdge entities were a “single employer” under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2101–2109, and that the entities violated that act when they fired him and other employees without 60 days’ advance notice. Wojciechowski settled that action. Per the settlement agreement, the class released all claims it had against “(i) Defendants ClearEdge, Power, Inc. and ClearEdge Power, LLC and their respective estates,” and “(ii) each of the Defendants’ current and former shareholders, officers, directors, employees, accountants, attorneys, representatives and other agents, and all of their respective predecessors, successors and assigns, excluding any third parties which may or may not be affiliated with Defendants ClearEdge Power, Inc. and ClearEdge Power LLC, including, but not limited to Kohlberg Ventures LLC.” Kohlberg was not involved in the bankruptcy proceedings or in settlement negotiations. The bankruptcy court approved the settlement agreement and closed the case soon after. The ClearEdge estates paid a portion of the class members’ WARN Act wages and benefits.

Wojciechowski then filed this putative class action. He alleges that Kohlberg, as a “single employer” with the ClearEdge entities, violated the WARN Act when it fired him without advance notice. Wojciechowski seeks “an award for the balance of the Class’[s] WARN Act wages and benefits.” That is, he seeks what the class is owed under the Act less the amount received from the ClearEdge estates.

Slip op., at 4-5. In this instance, the Court had little difficulty concluding that the scope of preclusion was clearly specified in the settlement approved in the first suit before the bankruptcy court. Kohberg argued that it was not a party to the initial settlement and could not be limited by it. The Ninth Circuit quickly rejected that argument, observing that two parties can contract to settle a claim on just about any terms they want, particularly when it is then approved by a court.