McCleery v. Allstate Ins. Co. affirms the denial of class certification in a complicated, multi-party suit alleging independent contractor misclassification

GreatSealCalNew100.jpg

I think it is not a stretch to opine that independent contractor misclassification is, by far, the easiest misclassification theory to pursue on a classwide basis (as compared to, for example, cases about the administrative exemption for store managers). In McCleery v. Allstate Ins. Co. (July 15, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One), in an opinion issued following a grant of rehearing for the second appeal in the matter, we see why there are limits to what is possible even in the comparatively straightforward arena of independent contractor misclassification. The fact summary suggests that this was too big a bite:

Property inspectors Timothy McCleery, Yvonne Beckner, Terry Quimby and April Boyles Jackson filed this action on behalf of themselves and similarly situated persons, alleging defendants Allstate Insurance Company and Farmers Group, insurers for whom the plaintiffs provided property inspection services, and CIS Group LLC/North American Compass Insurance Services Group (CIS), Advanced Field Services, Inc. (AFS), and Capital Personnel Services, Inc. (PMG), service companies contracting to provide inspection services, concocted a scheme to insulate themselves from labor laws by nominally employing plaintiffs as independent contractors while retaining control over all aspects of their work. Plaintiffs purport to represent a putative class of approximately 1,550 property inspectors in California.

Slip op., at 3-4. At the first go-round, the trial court denied certification, summarily rejected a statistical sampling plan, and concluded that individualized determinations were required for each class members. The Court of Appeal reversed, directing the trial court to consider whether proposed sampling and statistical methods could render some or all of the individualized issues manageable. After additional briefing and an extensive survey, the trial agreed that the survey was carefully crafted to maximize accuracy but still failed to address key individual issues:

However, the court found that plaintiffs’ statistical sampling alone did not render their claims manageable. It found that Dr. Krosnick’s survey results failed to specify for which insurers inspections were performed, or to explain whether the inspectors’ failure to take meal or rest breaks was due to preference or to the exigencies of the job. Also, the survey’s anonymity foreclosed the defendants from cross-examining witnesses to verify responses or test them for accuracy or bias.

Slip op., at 17. The trial court again denied certification and the plaintiffs again appealed.

While several issues were of concern to the Court, the inability of the defendants to examine any survey respondents (who were kept anonymous from the survey expert) was viewed as an impediment to the defendants’ ability to cross-examine the actual class members who participated in the survey:

In fact, plaintiffs expressly admit they intend to answer the ultimate question in this case based solely on expert testimony—testimony founded on multiple hearsay that defendants could never challenge. As Dr. Krosnick declared, “ Respondents are not testifying witnesses. Instead, . . . . [i]t is the expert who will offer opinions . . . , and the expert can be cross-examined.” But “[a]lthough an expert ‘may rely on inadmissible hearsay in forming his or her opinion [citation], and may state on direct examination the matters on which he or she relied, the expert may not testify as to the details of those matters if they are otherwise inadmissible.’ ” (Korsak v. Atlas Hotels, Inc. (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1516, 1525.)

Slip op., at 24-25. The plan to rely, almost exclusively according to the Court, on an anonymous, double-blind survey to prove liability was viewed as a bridge too far, no matter how scientifically the survey was crafted. The Court, citing Duran and Brinker, concluded that the trial court acted within its discretion when denying certification.

I admit to having some sympathy, as it is my experience that the similar insurance, lender, and real estate property inspection industries are carefully constructed in an attempt to support the notion that the end companies requesting the inspections and setting very detailed parameters for how those inspections are to occur are not employers of the people out performing those inspections for them. What this opinion will have the tendency to do is insulate the biggest companies because of the complex hairball of crossing middle-tier vendors they have created, while directing attention to the smaller middle-tier vendors that act as the go-betweens for the insurance, lender, and real estate companies.

District Court denies certification in consumer case involving appliance repair insurance

United States Magistrate Judge Jan M. Adler (Southern District of California) denied a motion for class certification in a suit alleging improper practices and representations about a home warranty insurance product.  Campion v. Old Republic Home Protection Co., Inc., 2011 WL 42759 (S.D.Cal. Jan. 06, 2011).  The Court found that individual issues would predominate because each denial of warranty coverage would reuqire an inquiry into the basis for the denial.  The Court also relied heavily on the construction of Tobacco II that was advanced in Cohen v. DirectTV, 178 Cal. App. 4th 966 (2009) when it refused to presume reliance on the part of absent class members.

Breaking News: Ninth Circuit issue two class action opinions addressing novel issues in the Ninth Circuit

After a bit of a lull on the class action front, the Ninth Circuit had a busy morning.  Two major opinions on class action issues were just issued by Ninth Circuit panels, and both opinions are sure to generate a good deal of discussion.  Both address areas of unsettled law among various federal courts.  The first is of interest to wage & hour practitioners and the second addresses the argument that large statutory damage awards defeat "superiority" of the class action procedure:

  • Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 27, 2010) is something of a kitchen sink of class action issues.  Among other things, the Ninth Circuit affirmed (1) the concurrent prosecution of a FLSA opt-in collective action and a Rule 23 opt-out class action, (2) the invalidation of Rule 23 opt-outs due to coercion, (3) the decision to conduct a corrective opt-out process after the trial, and (4) certification under Rule 23(b)(2).  The Court also held that the UCL was not preempted by the FLSA.
  • Bateman v. American Multi-Cinema, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 27, 2010) concerned the singular issue of a class certification denial on superiority grounds.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that none of the three grounds relied upon by the district court — the disproportionality between the potential statutory liability and the actual harm suffered, the enormity of the potential damages, or AMC’s good faith compliance — justified the denial of class certification on superiority grounds.

Both opinions are substantial, and I will try to give both an extended treatment this evening.  Full disclosure: Greg Karasik of Spiro Moss represents Plaintiff Bateman.

Widespread manifestation of a defect is not essential to class certification

The Ninth Circuit giveth and it taketh away.  On the one hand, the Fourth Amendment is better described as the Fourth Suggestion around these parts.  But consumer class actions received a booster shot last week.  In Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover (9th Cir. Aug. 17, 2010), the Ninth Circuit reversed a denial of class certification in a consumer class action alleging a defective design in an automobile.  Plaintiffs Gable and Wolin each brought a class action lawsuit against Jaguar Land Rover North America, LLC (“Land Rover”) alleging that Land Rover’s LR3 vehicles suffer from an alignment geometry defect that causes tires to wear prematurely. The district court declined to certify a class because Gable and Wolin were unable to prove that a majority of potential class members suffered from the consequences of the alleged alignment defect.  The Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Court first examined commonality:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a)(2) provides that “questions of law or fact common to the class” are a prerequisite to class certification. Commonality exists where class members’ “situations share a common issue of law or fact, and are sufficiently parallel to insure a vigorous and full presentation of all claims for relief.” Cal. Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. v. Legal Servs. Corp., 917 F.2d 1171, 1175 (9th Cir. 1990) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “The existence of shared legal issues with divergent factual predicates is sufficient, as is a common core of salient facts coupled with disparate legal remedies within the class.” Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1019 (9th Cir. 1998). [2]

Appellants easily satisfy the commonality requirement. The claims of all prospective class members involve the same alleged defect, covered by the same warranty, and found in vehicles of the same make and model. Appellants’ complaints set forth more than one issue that is common to the class, including: 1) whether the LR3’s alignment geometry was defective; 2) whether Land Rover was aware of this defect; 3) whether Land Rover concealed the nature of the defect; 4) whether Land Rover’s conduct violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Act or the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act; and 5) whether Land Rover was obligated to pay for or repair the alleged defect pursuant to the express or implied terms of its warranties. These common core questions are sufficient to satisfy the commonality test. See Hanlon, 150 F.3d at 1019-20.

Slip op., at 11991.  The Court then rejected the argument that individualized factors would affect tire wear:  "What Land Rover argues is whether class members can win on the merits. For appellants’ claims regarding the existence of the defect and the defendant’s alleged violation of consumer protection laws, this inquiry does not overlap with the predominance test."  Slip op., at 11993.

Then, discussing typicality, the Court made what is probably the most striking pronouncement of the opinion:

Whether they experienced premature tire wear at six months, nine months, or later goes to the extent of their damages and not whether named appellants “possess the same interest and suffer[ed] the same injury as the class members.” E. Tex. Motor Freight Sys. Inc. v. Rodriguez, 431 U.S. 395, 403 (1977) (internal quotation marks omitted). Typicality can be satisfied despite different factual circumstances surrounding the manifestation of the defect. See Daffin, 458 F.3d at 553. Gable and Wolin, like the rest of the class, may have a viable claim regardless of the manifestation of the defect. The fact that Gable and Wolin already received discounts and some free services also does not defeat typicality. See Lymburner v. U.S. Fin. Funds, Inc., 263 F.R.D. 534, 540 (N.D. Cal. 2010) (finding named plaintiff typical of class despite availability of plaintiff-specific remedy and finding “no authority for the argument that typicality is defeated because the remedies may be different for class members or that the availability of rescission as a remedy will monopolize this case”). Gable’s and Wolin’s claims are typical of the class.

Slip op., at 11996.  Finally, the Court concluded that superiority is closely connected to commonality:

Appellants aver that no other prospective class members have filed other related actions, and Land Rover does not dispute this point. The amount of damages suffered by each class member is not large. Forcing individual vehicle owners to litigate their cases, particularly where common issues predominate for the proposed class, is an inferior method of adjudication.

Slip op., at 11997.

Fun fact:  This same panel also heard the Mazza, et al. v. American Honda Motor Company case.