Court of Appeal declines to extend Lebrilla "crash parts" holding to all non-OEM parts installed under insurance policy

Lebrilla v. Farmers Group, Inc., 119 Cal. App. 4th 1070 (2004) reversed a trial court's denial of certification in a suit against an automobile insurer.  The suit alleged that sheet metal parts known as "crash parts" were used to effectuate accident repairs, but the "crash parts" were not manufactured by original equipment manufacturers.  The use of "crash parts" allegedly resulted in substandard repairs that did not restore damaged vehicles to pre-loss condition.  In Ortega v. Topa Insurance Company (May 24, 2012), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three) examined a similar, but not identical situation, in which non-OEM parts were used to complete repairs to vehicles.  The trial court concluded that common issues could not predominate when evaluation of a breach of contract claim would require a comparison of each installed non-OEM part to the OEM equivalent to determine whether the repair part was inferior to the OEM part.

The Court of Appeal agreed:

We do not read Lebrilla v. Farmers Group, Inc., supra, 119 Cal.App.4th 1070, to suggest, for example, that all non-OEM replacement parts are uniformly inferior. That case addressed crash parts. (Id. at p. 1073 & fn. 1.) In this case, to recover damages each member of the putative Steered Claimant Class (Class B) must identify the non-OEM part, which includes radiators and heat and cooling systems, among others, and prove the particular manufacturer's part is inferior. Thus, unlike Lebrilla, the court would have to determine whether the installed repair part is inferior. As alleged, common issues do not predominate.

Slip op., at 18.  Pretty straightforward analysis.  When the issue was the adequacy of "crash parts," the question of their adequacy could be resolved on a classwide basis.  Here, the the issue of adequacy could vary wildly, depending upon what part was replaced and what manufacturer supplied the replacement part.  This particular case provides an example of the relatively narrow category of class complaints that reveal predominance issues on the face of the complaint itself.

Brinker Analysis: California still protects employees

The California Supreme Court has been consistent in its recognition that California law protects employees as part of a fundamental policy of the state of California. For instance, in Sav-On, the California Supreme Court observed that “California’s overtime laws are remedial and are to be construed so as to promote employee protection.” More recently, in an easily overlooked opinion in the matter of Brinker Restaurant Corporation, et al. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) (April 12, 2012), the California Supreme Court began its opinion by observing, “For the better part of a century, California law has guaranteed to employees wage and hour protection, including meal and rest periods intended to ameliorate the consequences of long hours.” At this point, it should be clear that, at least to some degree, Brinker will be consistent with the Court’s employee-protective view of California law. Brinker is long and complex. The unanimous opinion is 54 pages long, and Justice Werdegar offered an additional concurring opinion about four pages long to offer further guidance on the certification issue remanded for further consideration.
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$15 million misclassification class judgment reversed in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association

Exemption-based misclassification cases are hard to certify.  But when you certify an overtime exemption misclassification case, try it, and win a $15 million verdict, you'd think that the hard times are behind you.  Not so fast.  In Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association (February 6, 2012), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One) reversed that verdict, decertified the class, and sent the whole thing back down to the trial court for further consideration of how to resolve the individual break claims in light of Brinker.

The plaintiffs in the case were 260 current and former business banking officers (BBO's) who claimed they were misclassified by USB as outside sales personnel exempt from California‘s overtime laws.  The procedural history was messy.  Exemption defenses were summarily adjudicated.  The defendant moved unsuccessfully to decertify.  The trial included motions about evidentiary exclusions.  It appears from the summary that a substantial amount of evidence the defendant sought to introduce was excluded from the trial.  Significantly, a small survey was conducted and then relied upon by a statistics expert to determine class-wide liability.

The Court issued a number of significant holdings, which all revolve around the propriety of proving liability in a misclassification class action with statistical evidence, as opposed to proving damages once liability is established.  For example, the Court held that use of statistical evidence to prove liability is inconsistent with cases examining such evidence at certification:

USB claims California law precludes class-wide liability determinations based on evidence obtained from a representative sample in employment cases alleging misclassification. USB relies on several state and federal wage and hour class action cases for the proposition that surveying, sampling, and statistics are not valid methods of determining liability because representative findings can never be reasonably extrapolated to absent class members in misclassification claims given that time spent performing exempt tasks may differ between employees. While all the cases cited by USB involve rulings on motions to certify or decertify class actions, they support the conclusion that improper procedures were followed in this case.

Slip op., at 47-48.  The Court also held that statistical sampling for proof of liability is inconsistent with its Bell III decision:

The procedures we approved in Bell III are only superficially similar to the procedures utilized in the present case.  Again, in Bell III we did not have occasion to consider the use of a representative sample to determine class-wide liability, since liability was not an issue on appeal. Accordingly, the only issue we addressed was the damages calculation itself, and not whether the plaintiff employees had a right to recover damages in the first place. And our assessment was based on a record evidencing cooperation and agreement among the parties and their counsel.

Slip op., at 45.  With respect to Bell III, the Court explained that the present case suffered a number of flaws (sample too small, no test studies to set sample size, lack of randomness, and no cooperation between the parties) not found in Bell III.  The Court then said:

Fifth, the restitution award here was affected by a 43.3 percent margin of error, more than 10 percentage points above the margin of error for the double-overtime award we invalidated in Bell III. In absolute terms, the average weekly overtime hour figure could conceivably be as low as 6.72 hours per week, as opposed to the 11.86 hour figure arrived at here. While we again will not set a bright line for when a margin of error becomes so excessive as to be deemed unconstitutional, we are troubled by this result.

Slip op., at 46.

Next, the Court concluded that the exclusion of 78 sworn statements that, if admitted, would have reduced the class size by about one-third, was a prejudicial error that violated the defendant's due process right to present relevant evidence in its defense: "The evidence USB sought to introduce, if deemed persuasive, would have established that at least one-third of the class was properly classified. Thus, this evidence USB sought to introduce is unquestionably relevant and therefore admissible."  Slip op., at 55.

The Court then explained that the fatal flaw in the trial management plan was the exclusion of virtually all means by which the defendant could have defended against class-wide liability:

Fundamentally, the issue here is not just that USB was prevented from defending each individual claim but also that USB was unfairly restricted in presenting its defense to class-wide liability. With that in mind, the cases relied on by plaintiffs are inapposite. Both Long v. Trans World Airlines, Inc. (N.D.Ill. 1991) 761 F.Supp. 1320 [protective order limited discovery of information from plaintiff flight attendants to a representative sample of class members], and In re Antibiotic Antitrust Actions (S.D.N.Y. 1971) 333 F.Supp. 278 [states sought recovery for alleged overcharges in the sale of certain antibiotics], concerned the damages phase of a trial, not the liability phase.

Slip op., at 58.  So, when a defendant asserts that this case stands for the proposition that it gets to defend agasint each individual class member's claim, be sure to remind the defendant and Court that the holding actually criticized the absence of any means to mount a defense, rather than specifying the specific forms that a reasonable opportunity to defend must take:

In sum, the court erred when, in the interest of expediency, it constructed a set of ground rules that unfairly prevented USB from defending itself. These ground rules were the product of the trial court. We do not suggest that the implementation of any particular additional procedural tool would have satisfied due process. We simply hold that the court, having agreed to try this matter as a class action, denied USB the opportunity to defend itself by flatly foreclosing the admission of potentially relevant evidence.

Slip op., at 60.

The Court spent some additional time commenting on the margin of error near 44 percent, which it found to be unacceptably large to form the basis of any reasonable result.  The Court concluded its opus by finding that, under the second motion to decertify, the trial court erred by failing to decertify the class.

I think I can sum all this up by observing that (1) misclassification cases in the exemption context are difficult cases and getting tougher all the time, and (2) defendants will incorrectly claim that this decision stands for a mythical due process right that the defendant gets to challenge each class member's claim.  Can't help with one, and can't stop two, but as to two, you can point out that there are many ways to provide a defendant with a reasonable opportunity to defend against class liability.

Central District certifies false advertising class of consumers that purchased YoPlus yogurt

United States District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney (Central District of California) certified a class of California consumers that purchased YoPlus yogurt.   Johnson v. General Mills, Inc., --- F.R.D. ----, 2011 WL 1514702 (C.D.Cal. Apr 20, 2011).  The Court followed Tobacco II when analyzing whether reliance affected commonality:

Mr. Johnson may bring these UCL and CLRA claims on behalf of a class. Although Proposition 64 requires that Mr. Johnson actually relied on General Mills' alleged misrepresentations to bring his UCL claim, that requirement does not apply to absent class members. See In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th 298, 321, 326 (2009) (finding that Proposition 64 “was not intended to have any effect at all on unnamed members of UCL class actions”). Indeed, “relief under the UCL is available without individualized proof of deception, reliance and injury.” Id. at 320; see also In re Steroid Hormone Prod. Cases, 181 Cal.App. 4th 145, 154 (2010) (explaining that once the named plaintiff meets standing requirements “no further individualized proof of injury or causation is required to impose restitution liability [under the UCL] against the defendant in favor of absent class members”).

As the Supreme Court of California has explained in the UCL context, " ‘a presumption, or at least an inference, of reliance arises whenever there is a showing that a misrepresentation was material.’ " In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th at 327 (quoting Engalla v. Permanente Med. Grp., Inc., 15 Cal.4th 951, 977 (1997)). Similarly, a CLRA claim can be litigated on a classwide basis when the “record permits an ‘inference of common reliance’ to the class.” McAdams v. Monier, Inc., 182 Cal.App. 4th 174, 183 (2010) (quoting Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, 97 Cal.App. 4th 1282, 1293 (2002)). A representation is material “if a reasonable man would attach importance to its existence or nonexistence in determining his choice of action in the transaction in question.” In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th at 327 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Clemens v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 534 F.3d 1017, 1025 (9th Cir.2008) (explaining that a concealed fact is “material” under the UCL if reasonable consumers are likely to be deceived). This “objective standard ... is susceptible to common proof.” Wolph v. Acer Am. Corp., ––– F.R.D. ––––, No. C 09–01314 JSW, 2011 WL 1110754, at *9 (N.D.Cal. Mar. 25, 2011). And materiality is generally a question of fact for the jury. In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th at 327.

Accordingly, Mr. Johnson's UCL and CLRA claims present core issues of law and fact that are common and suitable for adjudication on a classwide basis. These issues include: (1) whether General Mills communicated a representation—through YoPlus packaging and other marketing, including television and print advertisements—that YoPlus promoted digestive health; (2) if so, whether that representation was material to individuals purchasing YoPlus; (3) if the representation was material, whether it was truthful; in other words, whether YoPlus does confer a digestive health benefit that ordinary yogurt does not; and (4) if reasonable California consumers who purchased YoPlus were deceived by a material misrepresentation as to YoPlus' digestive health benefit, what is the proper method for calculating their damages. The commonality requirement is also met here.

Slip op., at 2-3.  Seems like products claiming digestive health benefits inevitably cause indigestion for the companies making those claims.

Northern District Court certifies under 23(b)(2) a class of shift workers alleging meal period violations at a Shell refinery

United States District Court Judge Claudia Wilken (Northern District of California) granted a motion for class certification in a suit alleging failure to comply with California's meal period requirements and pay an additional hour of pay for each instance of a violation.  Gardner v. Shell Oil Co., 2011 WL 1522377 (N.D.Cal. Apr 21, 2011).  The particularly interesting aspect of this case is the Court's decision to permit certification under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2):

"Claims for money relief may be certified as part of a Rule 23(b)(2) class, but the rule ‘does not extend to cases in which the appropriate final relief relates exclusively or predominantly to money damages.’ "  Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc., 623 F.3d 743, 753 (9th Cir.2010) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Dukes, 603 F.3d at 615 n. 38).

Citing Allison v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., 151 F.3d 402, 412–16 (5th Cir.1998), Defendants contend that monetary relief in this case predominates because Plaintiffs seek damages for alleged unpaid wages and waiting-time penalties. However, the Ninth Circuit has expressly rejected the Allison approach to determining whether monetary relief in a given case disqualifies the class from certification under Rule 23(b)(2). In Wang, the Ninth Circuit explained, “In Dukes, we rejected as ‘deficient’ ... the Allison ‘incidental damages standard’ that permits certification of claims for monetary relief under Rule 23(b)(2) only when they are ‘incidental to requested injunctive or declaratory relief,’ because it is unduly restrictive.” 623 F.3d at 753–54. In this circuit, Rule 23(b)(2) is interpreted to require “only that claims for monetary relief not predominate over claims for injunctive relief” and certification is acceptable when the claims are on “equal footing.” Id. at 754.

Plaintiffs in the present case, like those in Wang, have a substantial claim for injunctive relief because they seek to end long-standing employment policies. Id. The claims for injunctive and monetary relief are closely related because back wages are sought for those who were deprived of lawful meal periods due to the policies Plaintiffs seek to enjoin. As a result of this close relationship, the request for monetary relief does not introduce “new and significant legal and factual issues,” nor raise particular due process or case management concerns. Id. Furthermore, courts have held that back wages are a form of relief that may be permitted in a Rule 23(b)(2) action. Dukes, 603 F.3d at 618–19 (holding that back pay in a Title VII case is fully consistent with certification of a Rule 23(b)(2) class action and noting that “every circuit to have addressed the issue has acknowledged that Rule 23(b)(2) does allow for some claims for monetary relief.”). In Dukes, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that back pay in the Title VII context generally involves relatively uncomplicated factual determinations and few individualized issues, and is an integral component of Title VII's “make whole” remedial scheme. Id. at 619. Nor are waiting-time penalties so significant or complex that they render Plaintiffs' monetary claim predominant over their request for injunctive relief. Accordingly, class certification under Rule 23(b)(2) is warranted.

Slip op., at 6.  The balance of the opinion discusses predominance, and the Court concluded that common issues predominate and certified a Rule 23(b)(3) class as well.

The slip opinion on Westlaw does not identify the counsel involved in this uncommon attempt at 23(b)(2) certification in the wage & hour context, and I don't have time to track that down.  Thus, I don't know who to applaud.  If you do, given them a pat on the back.

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.

District Court (N.D. Cal.) denies motion for class certification in wage & hour suit against Crab Addison, Inc.

United States District Court Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton (Northern District of California) denied plaintiff's motion to certify a class action against the famous defendant, Crab Addison, Inc. (which was responsible for the state appellate decision regarding class member contact information).  Washington v. Joe's Crab Shack, 2010 WL 5396041 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 23, 2010).  The order suggests that the defendant opposed every aspect of certification, even challenging the adequacy of class counsel, which isn't a major issue in most certification motions:

Crab Addison also asserts that plaintiff's counsel are not adequate, claiming that they “neglected” the case and repeatedly missed critical deadlines. The court finds, however, that plaintiff's counsel are experienced in class actions, including employment-related class actions. The record submitted by Crab Addison does not support a finding that plaintiff's counsel do not satisfy the requirements of Rule 23(a)(4).

Slip op, at 8.  Instead, the Court focused on the predominance requisite, finding that individualized issues predominated.

Despite pending Brinker case, Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. declares that standard for rest break applies to meal periods

In case you hadn't heard, Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) is pending before the California Supreme Court.  Jaimez v. DAIOHS USA, Inc., 181 Cal. App. 4th 1286 (2010), rev. denied (2010) held that certification of meal period claims was appropriate because, among other reasons, that unsettled meal period standard was also a classwide issue.  But in an unexpected twist, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight), in Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., decided that, rather than recommending to the trial court that it certify the meal period claim and await Brinker, it would just tell us what that standard is right now.  And, according to the Hernandez Court, the meal period standard is the same standard that applies to rest breaks:

Hernandez admits employers must provide, i.e., authorize and permit, employees to take rest breaks, but contends a different standard applies to meal breaks and thus, the trial court‟s legal analysis was faulty. This contention is not persuasive. “The California Supreme Court has described the interest protected by meal break provisions, stating that „[a]n employee forced to forgo his or her meal period . . . has been deprived of the right to be free of the employer‟s control during the meal period.‟ Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Prods., Inc., 40 Cal.4th 1094, 1104 (2007). It is an employer's obligation to ensure that its employees are free from its control for thirty minutes, not to ensure that the employees do any particular thing during that time. Indeed, in characterizing violations of California meal period obligations in Murphy, the California Supreme Court repeatedly described it as an obligation not to force employees to work through breaks. [Citation.]” (Brown v. Federal Express Corp. (C.D.Cal. 2008) 249 F.R.D. 580, 585, fn. omitted.)

Slip op., at 11, emphasis in original.  The Court affirmatively adopts some of the specious arguments from district courts, including the notion that it would be too hard for employees to actually make employees take breaks:

Hernandez's position also is not practical. “Requiring enforcement of meal breaks would place an undue burden on employers whose employees are numerous or who . . . do not appear to remain in contact with the employer during the day. See White v. Starbucks Corp., 497 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1088-89 (N.D.Cal.2007).

Slip op., at 13.  That argument is insulting.  Evidently an employer can control when employees come and go.  That's not too hard.  But they can't decide whether people work during other parts of the day.  Whatever standard is ultimately declared by the California Supreme Court, arguments like this cheapen the discussion.

Elsewhere in the opinion, the Court opines that it is perfectly fine to assess merits during certification.  It's a brave new world here in California.

District Court decertifies class of customer service representative employed by Safety-Kleen Systems, Inc.

United States District Court Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton (Northern District of California) granted Defendant Safety-Kleen Systems, Inc.'s motion to decertify a class of "customer service representatives."  Wamboldt v. Safety-Kleen Systems, Inc., 2010 WL 3743925 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 20, 2010).  The CSRs had duties extending well beyond what one might expect from the job title, including customer sales, client collections, and various telephone responsibilities, as well as on-site servicing of equipment, transportation of hazardous waste, and driving of company vehicles in order to perform customer service calls.  The hazardous waste transportation and the occasional use of large vehicles (in excess of 30,000 lbs. gross vehicle weight) were the primary culprits underlying the motion to decertify.

District Court certifies a class of newspaper carriers classified as independent contractors

United States District Court Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz (Southern District of California) certified a class of newspaper home delivery carriers classified as independent contractors by Lee Publications, Inc. but alleging their status as employees of Lee Publications.  Dalton, et al. v. Lee Publications, Inc., ___ F.R.D. ___, 2010 WL 2985130 (July 27, 2010).  As is usually the case, commonality was the primary area of dispute.  The Court succinctly stated California's approach to identifying the employer-employee relationship:

Under California law, the most important aspect of the employee-employer relationship is the “right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.” Cristler v. Express Messenger Sys., Inc., 171 Cal.App.4th 72, 77, 89 Cal.Rptr.3d 34 (2009) (citing Empire Star Mines Co. v. Cal. Employment Comm'n, 28 Cal.2d 33, 43-44, 168 P.2d 686 (1946), overruled on other grounds by People v. Sims, 32 Cal.3d 468, 479 n. 8, 186 Cal.Rptr. 77, 651 P.2d 321 (1982)).

Although control is the primary factor, California courts also consider several secondary factors. “Strong evidence in support of an employment relationship is the right to discharge at will, without cause.” Empire Star Mines, 28 Cal.2d at 43, 168 P.2d 686. Other secondary factors include (1) whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation; (2) the kind of occupation and whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision; (3) the skill required; (4) whether the principal or the worker supplies the tools and the place of work; (5) the length of time for which the services are to be performed; (6) the method of payment, by time or by job; (7) whether the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; (8) whether the parties believe they are creating an employer-employee relationship; (9) the hiree's degree of investment in his business and whether the hiree holds himself or herself out to be in business with an independent business license; (10) whether the hiree has employees; (11) the hiree's opportunity for profit or loss depending on his or her managerial skill; and (12) whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer's business. JKH Enterprises, Inc. v. Dep't of Indus. Relations, 142 Cal.App.4th 1046, 1064 n. 14, 48 Cal.Rptr.3d 563 (2006) (citing S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dep't of Indus. Relations, 48 Cal.3d 341, 350-55, 256 Cal.Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d 399 (1989)).

Slip op., at 5.