In Lambert v. Nutraceutical Corp., the Ninth Circuit examines Rule 23(f) petitions

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I won't diminish the expectant quality of your Friday by providing a blow-by-blow of the decision, but Lambert v. Nutraceutical Corp. (9th Cir. Sept. 15, 2017) takes a thorough look at the timing requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f) petitions, concluding that the 14-day filing deadline of Rule 23(f) is not jurisdictional and can be extended or tolled for a variety of reasons.  The opinion also reversed the District Court's decertification order in the consumer class action, concluding that it erred in its treatment of the plaintiff's damage model.

Appellant was successfully represented by Gregory Weston (argued) and David Elliott, The Weston Firm, San Diego, California; and, Ronald A. Marron, The Law Offices of Ronald A. Marron APLC, San Diego, California.

Overreach results in rare class action dismissal via demurrer in Schermer v. Tatum

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While getting a class certified is often a serious fight, defeating class allegations at the demurrer stage is generally rare.  But never say never.  In Schermer v. Tatum (March 18, 2016), the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, affirmed a trial court ruling sustaining a demurrer to class allegations in the plaintiffs' second amended complaint (SAC).  The plaintiffs brought a class action on behalf of residents who live in the 18 mobilehome parks.  The plaintiffs alleged they were subjected to uniform unconscionable lease agreements and leasing practices by a collection of related defendants.  The SAC involved 18 mobilehome parks allegedly owned and/or operated by two defendants (Tatums and Kaplan), and were managed through defendant Mobile Community Management Company (MCM).  The plaintiffs also named as defendants the 18 "single-purpose" business entities that are each described as the owners of one of the mobilehome park in California.

The Court of Appeal began by summarizing the first amended complaint, the demurrer hearing related to it, and the SAC. And that summary is all you need to read to know where things are headed.  The Court described the "highlights" of the FAC as follows:

In the FAC, plaintiffs again alleged defendants Tatum and Kaplan, through MCM, engaged in unlawful conduct at each of the 18 mobilehome parks.  Specifically, they alleged defendants "charg[ed] excessive rent, pursu[ed] arbitrary evictions, and implement[ed] unreasonable polices."  Plaintiffs further alleged in their FAC that defendants Tatum and Kaplan took "advantage of vulnerable prospective and current residents" including "non-[E]nglish speaking and elderly residents" who, plaintiffs claimed, were "especially susceptible" to defendants' unlawful business practices.  Plaintiffs alleged defendants "most egregious practice" was the use of a "one-sided, standardized lease" agreement.  Plaintiffs provided 32 examples of lease clauses that allegedly violated California's Mobilehome Residency Law (Civ. Code, § 798 et seq.; MRL).
 Plaintiffs' FAC also set forth about 11 "factors" that plaintiffs alleged showed procedural unconscionability between plaintiffs and the putative class, on the one hand, and defendants, on the other.  Such factors included among others "residents' poor socio-economic background" and defendants' "knowledge of residents' vulnerability to oppression."  Plaintiffs also listed about 17 examples of substantive unconscionability in their FAC in connection with defendants' use of the standardized lease agreement in the 18 mobilehome parks.  As before, plaintiffs' class action allegations included any person who had an ownership interest in a mobilehome in any of the 18 parks, and a senior citizen and non-English-speaking subclass. 

Slip op., at 3-4.  Then, discussing the hearing on the demurrer to the FAC, the Court said, "At the demurrer hearing, plaintiffs' counsel agreed with the court that plaintiffs' FAC was 'a mess' and counsel admitted they 'did a horrible job in succinctly and systematically putting forth facts that show what the [FAC] -- what the case is about and how it shows a pattern of conduct that is deserving of being treated in a class action.' "  Slip op., at 4.  Not looking good.

Describing the subsequently issued Order on the demurrer to the FAC, the Court set forth key parts of the trial court's ruling:

"Plaintiffs allege multiple causes of action, all of which related in some way to the Lease Agreements utilized at the Defendants['] parks.  Based upon the allegations in the [FAC], it appears that some of the claims involved the alleged unconscionability of the contracts themselves, while others involve each Defendant's alleged actions in executing or enforcing the individual contracts as to individual Plaintiffs.  [¶]  The Court finds that multiple factual allegations predominate.  Plaintiffs['] measure of damages will be unique to each park.  The proposed class does not all reside at the same location or under the same circumstances.  Each putative class member is/was a resident at one of the eighteen separate mobilehome parks located throughout the State of California, giving rise to individualized factual questions related to causation, liability, and damages.
"Example of the individualized issues include the remedy (determining excess rents paid at each space requires a factual showing of fair market values for rents in a particular area [at] a particular time and park-by[-]park appraisal).  Further, there appear to be multiple lease agreements.  Although Plaintiffs allege Defendants used a 'standardized' Lease Agreement, they attach at least five different variations of the Lease Agreement and/or Amendments to the Lease Agreement.  (See Exhibits 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' 'D,' and 'E,' attached to the [FAC].)

Slip op., at 5. The trial court went on to identify additional issues, including the fact that many class members would not be able to state certain claims if they had not attempted to sell their homes, and there were no putative class representative plaintiffs for many of the mobilehome parks.

The SAC filed by the plaintiffs attempted to address many of the trial court's concerns, but a number of its allegations were found by the trial court to be conclusory assertions about defendants, and not allegations of fact.  The SAC did not address damage issues that would arise, which included the fact that several of the mobilehome parks were in cities with their own rent control ordinances.  The trial court was particularly concerned by the fact that each agreement at each park with each potential class member was individually negotiated and by the fact that a unique damage calculation would be required for each park and each person at each park. Moreover, the trial court took notice of the fact that many individuals were involved in their own litigation with their own park.

After discussing the procedural background, the Court made sure to note that it is undisputed that class allegations can be decided on demurrer:

It is beyond dispute that trial courts are permitted to decide the issue of class certification on demurrer.  (Tucker, supra, 208 Cal.App.4th at p. 212; see Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 440 [noting the issue is "settled" that courts are authorized to "weed[] out" legally meritless class action suits prior to certification by demurrer or pretrial motion].)  A trial court may sustain a demurrer to class action allegations where " 'it concludes as a matter of law that, assuming the truth of the factual allegations in the complaint, there is no reasonable possibility that the requirements for class certification will be satisfied.  [Citations.]'  [Citations.]"  (Tucker, at p. 211, italics added; see Canon U.S.A., Inc. v. Superior Court (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1, 5 [noting that when the "invalidity of the class allegations is revealed on the face of the complaint, and/or by matters subject to judicial notice, the class issue may be properly disposed of by demurrer or motion to strike," and noting that "[i]n such circumstances, there is no need to incur the expense of an evidentiary hearing or class-related discovery"].)

Slip op., at 14. Much of the discussion that follows is unsurprising, given the discussion of the trial court's analysis.  The Court did wade into the murky waters of attempting to categorize an allegation as either an "ultimate fact" or a "conclusion":

We conclude plaintiffs' allegations in their SAC—which were noticeably absent from their original complaint—that defendants implemented a uniform policy and procedure in each and every lease transaction with plaintiffs and the putative class members over a four-year period (i.e., the proposed class period), in each of the 18 mobilehome parks owned and/or operated by Tatum and Kaplan, are not properly admitted for purposes of demurrer because such allegations are not ultimate facts but rather merely contentions and/or improper factual conclusions.

Slip op., at 17-18. In my experience, this is very much an eye-of-the-beholder call that deserves a clarifying opinion with more objective guidance as to how to distinguish between the two.

In any event, the Court agreed with the trial court's assessments, finding, in particular, that the individual nature of the transactions was such that each course of dealing is unique, and damages, because of different circumstances, park locations, and local ordinances, are also unique to each potential class member.  The Court declined to grant leave to amend to the plaintiffs, agreeing with the trial court that the problems were insurmountable.  The lesson here is that overreach can be fatal.  It might have been more workable to describe uniform leasing practices at one mobilehome park and seek class relief for the aspects of the transaction that were common to all of the residents, while, at the same time, addressing how damages will be calculated and distributed.

The "separate location" argument seems better suited to this sort of consumer circumstance than it is in the wage & hour context, where defendants nevertheless try the "each of our stores is unique and different" argument, as if they have no uniform policies regulating employees and allow each store to run their own affairs like the wild West. Hey, at least this Court cited Brinker (but it felt like an ironic cite to me).

Analysis of Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association

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It is a bit belated, but I'm getting some write-ups of the big cases up for your reading pleasure (or agony).  First up is Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association (May 29, 2014).  Loan officers for U.S. Bank National Association (USB) sued for unpaid overtime, claiming they had been misclassified as exempt employees under the outside salesperson exemption.  Plaintiffs moved to certify the case as a class action.  Plaintiffs provided declarations from 34 current and former putative class members, all stating that they worked overtime hours and spent less than half of their workday engaged in sales-related activities outside their branch office.  USB argued that plaintiffs could not establish a predominance of common issues or that the class action device was superior to other methods of adjudication.  USB filed declarations from 83 putative class members, 75 of whom said they usually spent more than 50 percent of their workday engaged in outside sales.  USB also submitted deposition testimony from the four former class representatives stating that they regularly worked more than half the day outside the office. The Court certified the class of 260 individuals.

The trial court then devised a plan to determine the extent of USB’s liability to all class members by extrapolating from a random sample. After considering competing proposals, the court expressed concern about the potential for biased survey results and proposed an alternative of its own devising.  The court opted to select a random sample of 20 class members to testify at trial. A decertification motion was denied. The court later ruled on a key motion in limine, denying USB the ability to introduce any testimony or declarations from class members or other loan officers not in the random sample group.

Phase one of the bench trial lasted 40 court days.  The two named plaintiffs and 19 of the 20 other RWG members testified.  USB called several corporate witnesses and the direct supervisors of some of the RWG witnesses.

In anticipation of phase two, plaintiffs moved to amend the declaration of their expert, Jon Krosnick, to permit trial testimony about the results of a telephone survey Krosnick had conducted of class members’ work hours.  The court allowed the amendment. USB moved to exclude the survey evidence.  In opposition, plaintiffs filed a declaration from their statistics expert, Richard Drogin, whon opined that phase one findings of liability and average weekly hours of unpaid overtime could be “reliably projected to the whole class” because they were based on a random sample.  Drogin calculated a weighted average of overtime for the RWG at 11.87 hours per week, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.14 hours at a 95 percent confidence interval.  The relative margin of error for the overtime estimate was plus or minus 43.3 percent.  The Court then concluded USB did not carry its burden of proof on the outside salesperson exemption.  Based primarily on testimony from RWG witnesses, the court ruled that the entire class employed by USB was misclassified as exempt, and all class members were owed overtime in amounts to be determined in phase two of the trial.

During the damages phase, USB’s statistician testified that it was statistically possible that 13 percent of the class was properly classified as exempt.  He calculated that up to 14 percent of the class, or 36 members, could have been properly classified as exempt.

Nevertheless, the court calculated the total amount of overtime restitution owed to the class at $8,953,832.   With prejudgment interest, the total award as of May 15, 2009, came to $14,959,565.  The impact of a 14 percent error on the judgment total would have been approximately $2 million.  On appeal, the Court of appeal ordered the class decertified and reversed the judgment. A petition for review was then granted.

The Supreme Court began its discussion by reviewing the outside sales person exemption and how the exemption test interacts with class proof:

We have observed that some common questions about the exemption “are likely to prove susceptible of common proof” in a class action.  (Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 337.)  Job requirements and employer expectations of how duties are to be performed may often be established by evidence relating to a group as a whole.  (Ramirez, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 802.)  But litigation of the outside salesperson exemption has the obvious potential to generate individual issues because the primary considerations are how and where the employee actually spends his or her workday.  (Sav-On, at pp. 336-337; Ramirez, at p. 802.)  Of course, the questions of actual performance and employer expectations can be intertwined.

Slip op., at 21.  The Court noted that, while predominance “requires a determination that group, rather than individual, issues predominate,” that does not “preclude the consideration of individual issues at trial when those issues legitimately touch upon relevant aspects of the case being litigated.” Slip op., at 22.  The Court then scrutinized the unique manageability issues inherent in the affirmative defenses likely to arise in misclassification cases:

In her concurring opinion in Brinker, Justice Werdegar drew an instructive distinction between the types of affirmative defenses that can undermine manageability:  “For purposes of class action manageability, a defense that hinges liability vel non on consideration of numerous intricately detailed factual questions, as is sometimes the case in misclassification suits, is different from a defense that raises only one or a few questions and that operates not to extinguish the defendant’s liability but only to diminish the amount of a given plaintiff’s recovery.”  (Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 1054 (conc. opn. of Werdegar, J.), fn. omitted.)  Defenses that raise individual questions about the calculation of damages generally do not defeat certification.  (Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 334.)  However, a defense in which liability itself is predicated on factual questions specific to individual claimants poses a much greater challenge to manageability.

Slip op., at 25. The Court then observed that many courts have been reluctant to certify misclassification cases unless uniform policies or practices violate wage and hour laws:

Unless an employer’s uniform policy or consistent practice violates wage and hour laws (see, e.g., Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 1033), California courts have been reluctant to certify class actions alleging misclassification.  (E.g., Arenas v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc. (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 723, 734; Dunbar v. Albertson’s, Inc., supra, 141 Cal.App.4th 1422, 1431; see also Soderstedt v. CBIZ Southern California, LLC (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 133, 153-154 [certification denied, despite employer’s uniform policies, due to variations in how the policies were implemented with different employees].)
However, individual issues will not necessarily overwhelm common issues when a case involves exemptions premised on how employees spend the workday.  In Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th 319, for example, we upheld certification of an overtime class action based on a showing that all plaintiffs performed jobs that were highly standardized.  As a result, class members performed essentially the same tasks, most of which were nonexempt as a matter of law.  (Id. at pp. 327-328.)  Further, the defendant’s corporate policy required all class members to work overtime.  (Id. at p. 327.)  Where standardized job duties or other policies result in employees uniformly spending most of their time on nonexempt work, class treatment may be appropriate even if the case involves an exemption that typically entails fact-specific individual inquiries.

Slip op., at 25-26.  In this matter, the Court concluded that the trial court did not adequately manage individual issues when it essentially precluded litigation of individual issues:

The primary consideration in a misclassification case pertains to “the realistic requirements of the job.”  (Ramirez, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 802.)  The trial court ultimately made detailed findings to the effect that the BBO position was essentially a telemarketing job, most easily performed in the office.  However, at the certification stage, it should have been apparent that litigation of the outside salesperson defense would also involve significant inquiry into how each of the class’s 260 members “actually spen[t] his or her time.”  (Ibid.)

Slip op., at 28. Thus, it was the failure to manage individualized issues, rather than the predominance of common issues that the Court found to be a fatal flaw in the management of the case:

USB’s exemption defense raised a host of individual issues.  While common issues among class members may have been sufficient to satisfy the predominance prong for certification, the trial court also had to determine that these individual issues could be effectively managed in the ensuing litigation.  (See Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 1054 (conc. opn. of Werdegar, J.); Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 334.)  Here, the certification order was necessarily provisional in that it was subject to development of a trial plan that would manage the individual issues surrounding the outside salesperson exemption.
In general, when a trial plan incorporates representative testimony and random sampling, a preliminary assessment should be done to determine the level of variability in the class.  (See post, at p. 40.)  If the variability is too great, individual issues are more likely to swamp common ones and render the class action unmanageable.  No such assessment was done here.

Slip op., at 28.  When considering the impact of Duran, it is imperative to emphasize that the Court did not overturn the predominance finding at the time of certification. Rather, the Court found that the subsequent trial plan was an inadequate method of managing individualized issues. Related to that finding, the Court held that the trial management inappropriately abridged the right to assert affirmative defenses:

While class action defendants may not have an unfettered right to present individualized evidence in support of a defense, our precedents make clear that a class action trial management plan may not foreclose the litigation of relevant affirmative defenses, even when these defenses turn on individual questions.

Slip op., at 30.  Here, too, plaintiffs must be alert to overreach in the characterization of Duran by defendants. Duran does not promise an unfettered right to force the trial of every affirmative defense as to every class member. The trial decision in Duran, however, simply cannot be supported with any conviction:

The court’s decision to extrapolate classwide liability from a small sample, and its refusal to permit any inquiries or evidence about the work habits of BBOs outside the sample group, deprived USB of the ability to litigate its exemption defense.  USB repeatedly submitted sworn declarations from 75 class members stating that they worked more than half their time outside the office.  This evidence suggested that work habits among BBOs were not uniform and that nearly one-third of the class may have been properly classified as exempt and lacking any valid claim against USB.

Slip op., at 31.  The Court rejected analogies to disparate treatment discrimination cases, where individual treatment is of little relevance and aggregate group treatment is the singular question.

The Court did not foreclose class proof in misclassification cases, saying only that it would be appropriate in instances where common proof of treatment or practices is compelling:

This is not to say that an employer’s liability for misclassification may never be decided on a classwide basis.  A class action trial may determine that an employer is liable to an entire class for misclassification if it is shown that the employer had a consistently applied policy or uniform job requirements and expectations contrary to a Labor Code exemption, or if it knowingly encouraged a uniform de facto practice inconsistent with the exemption.  (See, e.g., Bell, supra, 115 Cal.App.4th at p. 743.)  In such a case, the evidence for uniformity among class members would be strong, and common proof would be sufficient to call for the employer to defend its claimed exemption.

Slip op., at 34-35.  Next, the Court discussed statistical evidence. It began by noting, “Questions about the use of statistical evidence to prove classwide liability and damages are far from settled.” Slip op., at 35. The Court recognized the widely divergent opinions on the use of statistical evidence:

It is an open question, hotly contested among the parties and amici curiae, whether statistical sampling can legitimately be used to prove a defendant’s liability to absent class members.  The question has arisen in numerous contexts, ranging from mass torts (e.g., Cimino v. Raymark Industries, Inc. (5th Cir. 1998) 151 F.3d 297, 319-320) to employment discrimination (e.g., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, supra, 564 U.S. at p. __ [131 S.Ct. at pp. 2560-2561]).  In the wage and hour context, recent decisions from federal district courts have disagreed about whether statistical sampling may be used to prove liability.

Slip op., at 36-37. The Court then discussed Bell, noting that the “statistical evidence in Bell was heard only after classwide liability had been established.” Slip op. at 37.  The Court concluded its general assessment of statistical models for proof of liability by noting that no general rule is necessary:

We need not reach a sweeping conclusion as to whether or when sampling should be available as a tool for proving liability in a class action.  It suffices to note that any class action trial plan, including those involving statistical methods of proof, must allow the defendant to litigate its affirmative defenses.  If a defense depends upon questions individual to each class member, the statistical model must be designed to accommodate these case-specific deviations.

Slip op., at 38.  The Court expressly noted that the Mt. Clemens use of statistical evidence to calculate damages in overtime pay cases, while well accepted by courts, did not provide a sound rationale for accepting too much error in the liability phase of a misclassification case.

The Court then discussed errors in the Court’s statistical methodology, noting that (1) the sample size was too small, (2) the sample was not random, suffering from non-response bias and self-selection bias, (3) the 43 percent margin of error was far too large, (4) the response rate was poor, (5) measurement errors were likely, and (6) the methodology differed significantly from Bell, where two experts worked together to determine a reliable sampling methodology.

Concurring in the opinion, Justice Liu authored a concurrence that agreed with the conclusion that the trial court’s statistical approach was hopelessly flawed but questioned whether enough guidance had been provided for future misclassification class actions.  First, with respect to the outside sales exemption in California, Justice Liu said:

[I]n recognizing that California’s definition of an outside salesperson is quantitative in nature, Ramirez did not say that the test boils down to whether a particular employee actually spends more than 50 percent of his or her working hours on outside sales.  Instead, the ultimate question is:  what are “the realistic requirements of the job”?

Slip op. conc., at 4. Justice Liu then explained how both aggregate evidence and individualized evidence should be considered to address the misclassification question:

[N]either an aggregate method of proof (like sampling or representative witness testimony) nor individualized evidence (like a declaration) is necessarily dispositive when the ultimate issue at trial is to determine “the employer’s realistic expectations” or “the realistic requirements of the job.”  (Ramirez, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 802.)  The two types of evidence must be considered and weighed alongside each other, and more broadly, they must be considered and weighed together with the full range of evidence bearing on the ultimate issue, including the employer’s job description, company policies, industry customs, and testimony of supervisors or managers who monitored, evaluated, or otherwise set expectations for employees in the class.  We entrust our trial courts with the task of weighing such multidimensional evidence, and their judgments will be sustained if supported by substantial evidence.

Slip op. conc., at 10. Justice Liu concluded by observing that the trial court was correct as to how it framed the certification question:

Today’s opinion properly identifies the shortcomings of the representative witness group in this case and the trial court’s failure to give due consideration to the individualized evidence that U.S. Bank National Association (USB) sought to introduce in its defense.  But it is important to note that the trial court focused on the right question on the merits:  What were the realistic requirements of the BBO position?

Slip op. conc., at 11.  There is little doubt that Duran will be oversold as a bar on all forms of aggregate proof in class actions. The only remedy will be to present a thorough analysis of what Duran does and does not stand for in misclassification cases and the greater class certification context.

BREAKING NEWS: Opinion in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association now available

Finally, the news drought comes to an end, and class action practitioners have been waiting for this one for some time.  Today, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association (May 29, 2014). A more extensive analysis will have to wait, but the introduction includes some very telling statements, namely that the Supreme Court is not holding that statistics cannot be used for both liability and damages in class actions:

We encounter here an exceedingly rare beast: a wage and hour class action that proceeded through trial to verdict. Loan officers for U.S. Bank National Association (USB) sued for unpaid overtime, claiming they had been misclassified as exempt employees under the outside salesperson exemption. (Lab. Code, § 1171.) This exemption applies to employees who spend more than 50 percent of the workday engaged in sales activities outside the office. (Ramirez v. Yosemite Water Co. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 785 (Ramirez).)

After certifying a class of 260 plaintiffs, the trial court devised a plan to determine the extent of USB‘s liability to all class members by extrapolating from a random sample. In the first phase of trial, the court heard testimony about the work habits of 21 plaintiffs. USB was not permitted to introduce evidence about the work habits of any plaintiff outside this sample. Nevertheless, based on testimony from the small sample group, the trial court found that the entire class had been misclassified. After the second phase of trial, which focused on testimony from statisticians, the court extrapolated the average amount of overtime reported by the sample group to the class as a whole, resulting in a verdict of approximately $15 million and an average recovery of over $57,000 per person.

As even the plaintiffs recognize, this result cannot stand. The judgment must be reversed because the trial court‘s flawed implementation of sampling prevented USB from showing that some class members were exempt and entitled to no recovery. A trial plan that relies on statistical sampling must be developed with expert input and must afford the defendant an opportunity to impeach the model or otherwise show its liability is reduced. Statistical sampling may provide an appropriate means of proving liability and damages in some wage and hour class actions. However, as outlined below, the trial court‘s particular approach to sampling here was profoundly flawed.

Slip op., at 1-2.  Didn't expect that outcome, did you?

Class certification in California is still actually a "procedure"

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What to make of this one?  I should have commented on it long ago, I know, but that start-your-own-law-firm thing is fairly time consuming, so I get to writing when I can.   So while I was doing some show prep for this upcoming weekend's podcast, I finally took a look at Benton v. Telecom Network Specialists, Inc. (Oct. 16, 2013) to see for myself what the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) did that has many plaintiff-side practitioners so excited.

In Benton, the plaintiffs, cell-phone tower technicians, filed a wage and hour class action lawsuit against Telecom Network Services (TNS) alleging, among other things, violation of meal and rest break requirements and failure to pay overtime.  Most of the proposed class of technicians were hired and paid by staffing companies that contracted with TNS. The remainder of the technicians were hired and paid by TNS directly.  Plaintiffs alleged that TNS was the employer of both categories of technicians and moved to certify their claims.  The trial court denied certification, holding that TNS’s liability could not be established “through common proof because: (1) the technicians worked under ‘a diversity of workplace conditions’ that enabled some of them to take meal and rest breaks; and (2) the staffing companies that hired and paid many of the TNS technicians had adopted different meal, rest break and overtime policies throughout the class period.”

The Court of Appeal reversed, remanding for further proceedings.  In an extensive opinion tracking development of the certification standards as applied to wage and hour cases beginning primarily with Brinker, the Court also examined decisions in Bradley v. Networkers International, 211 Cal. App. 4th 1129 (2012) and Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, 216 Cal. App. 4th 220 (2013).

Discussing Bradley, the Court said:

On remand from the Supreme Court, however, the Court of Appeal concluded that, under the analysis set forth in Brinker, the trial court had improperly focused on individual issues related to damages, rather than on the plaintiffs’ theory of liability. (Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 1151.) According to the court, Brinker had clarified that “in ruling on the predominance issue in a certification motion, the court must focus on the plaintiff’s theory of recovery and assess the nature of the legal and factual disputes likely to be presented and determine whether individual or common issues predominate.” (Id. at p. 1150.) The court further explained that “plaintiffs’ theory of recovery [wa]s based on Networkers’ (uniform) lack of a rest and meal break policy and its (uniform) failure to authorize employees to take statutorily required rest and meal breaks. The lack of a meal/rest break policy and the uniform failure to authorize such breaks are matters of common proof. Although an employer could potentially defend these claims by arguing that it did have an informal or unwritten meal or rest break policy, this defense is also a matter of common proof.” (Id. at p. 1150.)

Slip op., at 22-23.  Notice that, at least in the context of these wage particular wage & hour claims, which have a natural tendency to be governed by some set of implementing policies, the certification question endorsed in this case is the question of whether the defendant's policy is legal, not whether any particular employee stumbled into compliant behavior.  Similarly, discussing Faulkinbury, the Court said:

Upon remand from the Supreme Court, the appellate court concluded that Brinker had rejected the mode of analysis set forth in its original opinion. As to plaintiffs’ meal break claim, the appellate court explained that Brinker clarified that the defendant’s liability would attach “upon a determination that [defendant’s] uniform on-duty meal break policy was unlawful . . . . Whether or not the employee was able to take the [off-duty] required break goes to damages, and ‘[t]he fact that individual [employees] may have different damages does not require denial of the class certification motion.’ [Citation.]” (Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at p. 235.)

Slip op., at 24-25.  This line of cases appears to strongly emphasize what was, for a time, an argument receiving less traction: variations in damages does not require denial of certification.

After establishing the framework for its analysis, the Court examined the trial court’s ruling:

The written order (as well as statements made at the motion hearing) make clear that the trial court did not believe TNS would be liable upon a determination that its lack of a meal and rest policy violated applicable wage and hour requirements; rather, it concluded that TNS would become liable only upon a showing that a technician had missed breaks as a result of TNS’s policies.

Slip op., at 27.  The Court then rejected the trial court’s mode of analysis, holding that Brinker, and then Bradley and Faulkinbury clarified the correct approach:

As explained in Bradley and Faulkinbury, however, Brinker “expressly rejected” this mode of analysis. (Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1143, 1151; Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at pp. 235, 237.) As succinctly stated in Faulkinbury: “the employer’s liability arises by adopting a uniform policy that violates the wage and hour laws. Whether or not the employee was able to take the required break goes to damages, and ‘[t]he fact that individual [employees] may have different damages does not require denial of the class certification motion.’ [Citation.]” (Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at p. 235; see also Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 1151 [“under the logic of [Brinker],when an employer has not authorized and not provided legally-required meal and/or rest breaks, the employer has violated the law and the fact that an employee may have actually taken a break or was able to [take a break] during the work day does not show that individual issues will predominate in the litigation”].) Indeed, Bradley and Faulkinbury both specifically concluded that evidence showing that some class members’ working conditions permitted them to take breaks, while others did not, was not a sufficient basis for denying certification. (See Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at pp. 236-237 [evidence that some employees were able to “take breaks at [their] posts”, while others “could not leave the assigned post for a rest break” does not “establish individual issues of liability”]; Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 1150 [evidence that some employees worked “alone for long periods of time” or “took the authorized rest or meal break” was insufficient to show individual issues predominated.)

Slip op., at 27.  The Court continued in this same vein, thoroughly rejecting both the defendant’s theories and trial court’s method of analysis, repeatedly holding that variations in experiences by class members impacted their damages, not the plaintiffs’ theory of the case, which challenged the absence of lawful policies required by the Wage Order.

You can, at least in this context, certify the question of whether the defendant did the right thing, not the question of whether the plaintiffs always received the right thing.  In other words, luck won't save you; legal policies, implemented as written, will.  Somehow, I think the wage & hour defense bar is celebrating this just as much... 

Certiorari granted by United States Supreme Court in Wal-Mart v. Dukes

On December 6, 2010, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in what will eventually be known as Wal-Mart v. Dukes.  The Supreme Court limited review to two issues, Question I from the Petition, and a second issue included by the Court.  The Court said:

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to Question I presented by the petition. In addition to Question I, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: "Whether the class certification ordered under Rule 23(b)(2) was consistent with Rule 23(a)."

Question I from the Petition is as follows:

Whether claims for monetary relief can be certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2)—which by its terms is limited to injunctive or corresponding declaratory relief—and, if so, under what circumstances.

Petition, at i.  The Court declined to hear Question II, which asked, "Whether the certification order conforms to the requirements of Title VII, the Due Process Clause, the Seventh Amendment, the Rules Enabling Act, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23."

This decision could run the gamut from a highly fact-specific outcome, to a treatise on discrimination class actions, to a wholesale commentary on the Rule 23(a) requisites.  Considering the scope of issues covered in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart en banc decision, it's very difficult to handicap this race.

Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo Bank Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law now available

The Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law After Bench Trial by United Stated District Court Judge William Alsup (Northern District of California) in Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo & Co. is now available for review - all 90 pages of it.

You can view the embedded opinion in the acrobat.com flash viewer below:

If the viewer isn't working for you (say, if you are viewing this on an iPad or iPhone), you can download the opinion here.

Wells Fargo ordered to repay an estimated $203 million in overdraft fees to customers

United Stated District Court Judge William Alsup (Northern District of California) issued a number of Orders, including injunctive relief and an order requiring refunds in the estimated amount of $203 million, after finding defendant Wells Fargo guilty of "gouging and profiteering" when it reordered bank charges from highest to lowest so as to maximize the number of overdrafts that could occur in an account.  Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo & Co.  See this previous post for more on the case.

Wells Fargo's attempt to decertify a consumer class action bounces

You can't blame them for trying.  Unless you are a judge.  Then you can.  In Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo & Co., 2010 WL 1233810 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 26, 2010, Judge William Alsup was not impressed with defendant's attempt to decertify a consumer class action involving over 1 million class members.  First, some background is in order.

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants Wells Fargo & Company and Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. improperly assessed overdraft charges on their customers' debit card transactions.  Two separate practices were allegedly employed by defendants: (1) the publication, in the “online banking” section of the Wells Fargo Bank website, of inaccurate available-balance information to their customers, and (2) the re-sequencing of debit card transactions from highest to lowest value-rather than in the order in which purchases were completed-prior to being posted against a customer's account. Plaintiffs alleged that the false balance information was employed to increase the likelihood that customers would incur overdraft charges, while the resequencing was employed to maximize the number of overdraft charges defendants could assess against their customers. Defendants denied these allegations. A few months into the dispute, defendant Wells Fargo & Company was voluntarily dismissed from the action, leaving only Wells Fargo Bank.  Both practices were used to certify classes, but the court later decertified claims resting upon the inaccuare balance theory.

Wells Fargo Bank then moved for summary judgment or decertificaiton of the re-sequencing class.  The court denied the request for decertification:

Counsel have been reminded on various occasions that the presence of individualized issues is not fatal to class actions brought under Rule 23 ( see, e.g., Dkt. No. 245 at 9). Rather, the rule tolerates some individualized issues, so long as “questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” FRCP 23(b)(3). Rule 23 also requires a court to be ever cognizant of whether the class action device “is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.”

The legal claims of the “re-sequencing” class target the alleged overcharging of overdraft fees for over a million different Wells Fargo customers (Dkt. No. 285, Exh. A at 37-38). All members of the “re-sequencing” class were charged overdraft fees due to defendant's accused high-to-low posting of transactions. The fees themselves, however, were only around $34 each. Given this backdrop, it cannot be disputed that a denial of class-certification would close the door of justice to a staggering amount of claimants. The deterrent value of class litigation and the desirability of providing recourse for the injured consumer who would otherwise be financially incapable of bringing suit clearly render the class action a viable and important mechanism in challenging an alleged fraud on the public. This is especially important here, where the allegedly unlawful practice disproportionately gouges those who maintain, due to choice or (more likely) financial hardship, a shallow amount of funds in their checking accounts.

On the other hand, this order must give full consideration to whether plaintiffs' revised damages study is sufficient to establish class-wide proof of actual injury and/or damages for each absent class member. Otherwise, Rule 23 would be used to truncate the required substantive elements of proof by each claimant in violation of the Rules Enabling Act, 28 U.S.C.2071-77. Having considered the various limitations inherent in Wells Fargo's transaction data (discussed in detail by this order), and the fact that proving actual injury if suits were brought individually would still require the same types of assumptions made by Olsen in his report, this order finds that plaintiffs have presented sufficient class-wide proof of actual injury to survive defendant's motion for decertification. Given this showing, there is no question that common questions predominate in this action. As such, defendant's motion for class decertification is Denied.

Slip op., at 13 -14.  It is interesting that the weaknesses in defendant's transaction data was used by the court to nullify challenges to the methodology used by plaintiffs' expert to assess damages for the class.  The court found that the same flaws in data would impact an individual's attempt to prove damages.  The opinion contains a detailed discussion, with an example, of the allged practices and the damage extrapolation methodology used by plaintiffs' expert.

More on the Vioxx decision

In December, I promised more detailed comments about In re Vioxx Class Cases (December 15, 2009), decided by the Second Appellate District, Division Three.  As promised, I provide more pithy commentary (or blather, as you see fit to classify it).  The Court's discussion began with a reminder that is worth repeating.  The standard of review on a appeal challenging a trial court's decision to grant or deny certification is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, absent certain specific errors:

“ ‘Because trial courts are ideally situated to evaluate the efficiencies and practicalities of permitting group action, they are afforded great discretion in granting or denying certification. . . . "[I]n the absence of other error, a trial court ruling supprted by substantial evidence generally will not be disturbed “unless (1) improper criteria were used [citation]; or (2) erroneous legal assumptions were made [citation].” ’ ”

Slip op., at 14, citing Tobacco II.  Next, the Court stated the requisites for class certification.  The discussion was the usual stuff, but for one statement regarding predominance of common issues of law or fact:  "To determine whether the questions of fact and law at issue in the litigation are common or individual, it is necessary to consider the individual causes of action pleaded, and the issues raised thereby."  Slip op., at 15.  It is difficult to find any guidance about how to assess predominance.  Here, the Court indicates that the analysis proceeds on a cause-of-action by cause-of-action basis.

Turning to the various casues of action, the Court first addressed the claim arising under the CLRA.  The Court followed decisions that permit an inference of reliance when a misrepresentation is material:

The language of the CLRA allows recovery when a consumer “suffers damage as a result of” the unlawful practice. This provision “requires that plaintiffs in a CLRA action show not only that a defendant’s conduct was deceptive but that the deception caused them harm.” (Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1292.) Causation, on a class-wide basis, may be established by materiality. If the trial court finds that material misrepresentations have been made to the entire class, an inference of reliance arises as to the class. (Id. at p. 1292.) This is so because a representation is considered material if it induced the consumer to alter his position to his detriment. (Caro v. Proctor & Gamble Co., supra, 18 Cal.App.4th at p. 668.) That the defendant can establish a lack of causation as to a handful of class members does not necessarily render the issue of causation an individual, rather than a common, one. “ ‘[P]laintiffs [may] satisfy their burden of showing causation as to each by showing materiality as to all.’ ” (Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1292.) In contrast, however, if the issue of materiality or reliance is a matter that would vary from consumer to consumer, the issue is not subject to common proof, and the action is properly not certified as a class action. (Caro v. Proctor & Gamble Co., supra, 18 Cal.App.4th at p. 668.)

Slip op., at 16.

The Court then discussed claims arising under the UCL. The authority cited by the Court was described in a manner that was fairly favorable to consumers.  For example, the Court said, "Consumer class actions under the UCL serve an important role in the enforcement of consumers’ rights."  And, as to remedies, the Court observed, "The UCL balances relaxed liability standards with limits on liability."  Slip op., at 18.  The fraudulent prong of the UCL received a similarly broad construction through the authority noted by the Court:

In order to obtain a remedy for deceptive advertising, a UCL plaintiff need only establish that members of the public were likely to be deceived by the advertising.  (Bank of the West v. Superior Court (1992) 2 Cal.4th 1254, 1267; Massachusetts Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at p. 1290.) The question has arisen as to which members of the public need be likely to be deceived. The law focusses on a reasonable consumer who is a member of the target population. (Lavie v. Proctor & Gamble Co. (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 496, 508.) “Where the advertising or practice is targeted to a particular group or type of consumers, either more sophisticated or less sophisticated than the ordinary consumer, the question whether it is misleading to the public will be viewed from the vantage point of members of the targeted group, not others to whom it is not primarily directed.”

Slip op., at 18.  The Court then discussed the countours of the restitution remedy under the UCL.  Here, Tobacco was cited, but the Court's summary of the extent of restitution foreshadowed the Court's determination that a means for proving a restitutionary value were lacking:

As to restitution, the UCL provides that “[t]he court may make such orders or judgments . . . as may be necessary to restore to any person in interest any money or property, real or personal, which may have been acquired by means of such unfair competition.”15 (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203.) This language, providing restitution of funds which “may have been acquired,” has been interpreted to allow recovery without proof that the funds were lost as a result of actual reliance on defendant’s deceptive conduct. (Tobacco II, supra, 46 Cal.4th at p. 320; Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 450-451; Prata v. Superior Court (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1128, 1144.) While the “may have been acquired” language of Business and Professions Code section 17203 is so broad as to allow restitution without individual proof of injury, it is not so broad as to allow recovery without any evidentiary support. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc. (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 663, 697.) The difference between what the plaintiff paid and the value of what the plaintiff received is a proper measure of restitution. (Cortez v. Purolator Air Filtration Products Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 163, 174.) In order to recover under this measure, there must be evidence of the actual value of what the plaintiff received. When the plaintiff seeks to value the product received by means of the market price of another, comparable product, that measure cannot be awarded without evidence that the proposed comparator is actually a product of comparable value to what was received. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 675.)

Slip op., at 19.

Having discussed what must be established for CLRA and UCL claims, the Court then analyzed predominance as to each cause of action.  For the CLRA, the Court agreed that reliance/materiality issues could not be resolved on a classwide basis:

The trial court found that the decision to prescribe Vioxx is an individual decision made by a physician in reliance on many different factors, which vary from patient to patient. The trial court quoted from Dr. Silver’s declaration, indicating eight individual factors which a physician must assess in determining whether and what to prescribe for pain.

Slip op., at 22.  In reality, this decision is an example of why tort-type issues frequently undermine attempts to certify classes.  The Court noted some of the complicated reliance variables:

On appeal, plaintiffs draw this court’s attention to Merck’s alleged common campaign of hiding the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx, arguing that such common misrepresentations support a common inference of reliance. Plaintiffs suggest that Merck hid “an increased risk of death,” associated with Vioxx, and argue, “there can be nothing more material than an increased risk of death.” Plaintiffs’ argument is a vast oversimplification of the matter, and one which overlooks all of the evidence to the contrary on which the trial court relied.

First, evidence indicated that Vioxx did not present “an increased risk of death” compared to traditional NSAIDs for all patients. Traditional NSAIDs killed 16,500 people per year due to gastrointestinal bleeds. For patients with stomach ulcers or other gastrointestinal risk factors, traditional NSAIDs presented a higher risk of death than the risk of cardiovascular death posed by Vioxx. Second, evidence indicated that the cardiovascular risks of Vioxx were not material for all patients. Some patients would still take Vioxx today if it were on the market; some physicians would still prescribe it regardless of risks. Indeed, it cannot be disputed that other drugs pose similar, or even greater, risks of death than Vioxx, but are still in use – because, for some patients, the benefits outweigh the risks. Third, Merck introduced substantial evidence that all physicians are different and obtain their information about prescriptions from myriad sources. For those physicians with a distrust of statements made by the pharmaceutical industry, Merck’s statements could not have been material. For those patients whose TPPs required pre-approval of Vioxx (or would only pay for Vioxx under certain circumstances), the TPP’s decision likely would override any patient or physician reliance on Merck’s statements. Fourth, physicians consider many patient-specific factors in determining which drug to prescribe, including the patient’s history and drug allergies, the condition being treated, and the potential for adverse reactions with the patient’s other medications – in addition to the risks and benefits associated with the drug. When all of these patient-specific factors are a part of the prescribing decision, the materiality of any statements made by Merck to any particular prescribing decision cannot be presumed. All of this evidence supports the trial court’s conclusion that whether Merck’s misrepresentations were material, and therefore induced reliance, is a matter on which individual issues prevailed over common issues, justifying denial of class certification with respect to the CLRA claim.

Slip op., at 23-24.

Similar problems with the UCL were then discussed by the Court:

[T]he court specifically found that class damages are not subject to common proof. The court concluded that the monetary value plaintiffs wish to assign to their claim – the difference in price between Vioxx and a generic, non-specific NSAID, implicates a patient-specific inquiry and therefore fails the community of interest test. In short, the trial court rejected the entire premise of plaintiffs’ class action. While the trial court allowed the possibility that plaintiffs could recover for having been exposed to misrepresentations, the trial court concluded that the theory that the entire class was harmed because Vioxx was no more effective, and less safe, than naproxen implicated individual issues of proof.

On appeal, plaintiffs mount a two-pronged challenge to the trial court’s conclusions. First, they argue that they offered sufficient factual evidence that naproxen is a valid comparator to Vioxx. Specifically, they rely on the declaration of their medical expert to the effect that, based on the VIGOR study, Vioxx was, overall, no more effective, and less safe, than generic naproxen. The trial court did not err in rejecting naproxen as a valid class-wide comparator. Defendants introduced substantial evidence that, after Vioxx was withdrawn from the market, most Vioxx patients switched to another COX-2 inhibitor, not a generic NSAID such as naproxen. As this evidence indicates that Vioxx was worth more than naproxen to a majority of class members, it is more than sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that naproxen is not a valid comparator on a class-wide basis.

Plaintiffs’ second argument is that the validity of naproxen as a comparator goes to the merits of the action, and should not be addressed on a motion for class certification. Plaintiffs argue that since the UCL and FAL allow an award of restitution without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury, the trial court should not have been considering the validity of naproxen as a comparator. We do not disagree that a trial court has discretion to order restitution even in the absence of individualized proof of injury. (Fletcher v. Security Pacific National Bank, supra, 23 Cal.3d at p. 452.) However, in order to obtain class wide restitution under the UCL, plaintiffs need establish not only a misrepresentation that was likely to deceive (Corbett v. Superior Court, supra, 101 Cal.App.4th 649, 670) but the existence of a “measurable amount” of restitution, supported by the evidence. (Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., supra, 135 Cal.App.4th at p. 698.) The failure of naproxen as a viable class-wide comparator thus defeats the claim for class-wide restitution.

Slip op., 26-27.  With accepted reasons for denying certification as to each cause of action, the trial court was affirmed.  I skipped one other basis for the Court's decision that a denial of certification was appropriate.  The Court found that a typicality problem was created by the interaction with third-party payors.  Some TPPs would only pay for Vioxx when other NSAIDs did not work for the patient.  Some co-pay situations with flat rate copays rendered the economic comparison argument moot.  Generally, the Court noted that the defined class was overbroad, creating a number of problems for itself that could not be reconciled.  See, Slip op, at 20-22.  Here is yet another example why tort-type issues routinely sink class actions.