The value of precedent depends on perspective: Bell v. Superior Court (H.F. Cox, Inc.)

Greatsealcal100In a post from earlier today, The UCL Practitioner reported that "[o]n Wednesday, the Supreme Court denied review and depublication in Bell v. Superior Court (H.F. Cox, Inc.), no. S160423."  (Kralowec, "Supreme Court denies review and depublication in class certification case: Bell v. Superior Court (H.F. Cox, Inc.)," The UCL Practioner,   In an earlier post on that same blog, The UCL Practitioner, noting that the Bell decision contained "some interesting language on the 'superiority' element of class certification," quoted from the opinion:

The opinion contains some interesting language on the "superiority" element of class certification: The party seeking class certification has the burden to establish that class action will be a superior means of resolving the dispute. (Aguiar v. Cintas Corp. No. 2, supra, 144 Cal.App.4th at pp. 132-133.) Our Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of the superiority of a class action in a wage and hour case. In Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443, the Supreme Court concluded that both factors on which the trial court relied in this case – the size of some claims suggesting individual enforcement and the possibility of administrative proceedings before the Labor Commissioner – were insufficient to deny class certification. The court noted that there are many other factors in favor of class resolution in such cases, including that current employees might not bring individual claims out of a fear of retaliation, that current employees might not know of their rights (especially where, as here, the employer has affirmatively told them they are not eligible for overtime), and the necessity of class actions to give teeth to wage and hour laws even when some employees may have claims large enough for individual enforcement. (Id. at p. 459-462.) The court specifically held that an administrative action before the Labor Commissioner was an inadequate substitute for a class action. (Id. at p. 465.) As such, the trial court’s conclusion that a class action is not superior cannot stand.

(Kralowec, "New class certification decision: Bell v. Superior Court (H.F. Cox, Inc.)," The UCL Practioner,, quoting Bell.) My reaction to Bell at the time was that it seemed substantially more useful to plaintiffs than defendants.  As an aside, this is almost always true when a Court of Appeal reversed any part of a denial of certification.  Reversing a certification denial order, in any part, is a big deal.  Certification decisions are reviewed for abuse of discretion, and trial courts get the benefit of the doubt on appeal.

Today, I argued (successfully) against a defendant that sought to decertify a class.  Relying heavily on Bell, the defendant attacked a garden-variety class definition used in overtime/off the clock cases as lacking ascertainability.  Bell included some language that made defendant's argument more than trivial to overcome.

The defendant's use of Bell, an apparently plaintiff-friendly case, was sobering.  I was reminded of the danger inherrent in evaluating new precedent through the bias of one's primary practice area, in my case, predominantly plaintiff-side class actions.  While it is usually the case that a defendant, seeking decertification, would shy away from any certification opinion where any portion of a denial of certification was reversed, there are no guarantees that you won't have to deal with "surprise" citations.  In Bell, as in most cases, there are bits and pieces that are as useful to defendants as to plaintiffs, depending upon what issues are in play.

My unsolicited advice to erstwhile class action practitioners is to set aside some time to read each and every new class action decision, front to back, at least once while it is still hot off the presses.  Your early read of new authority may be enough to help you avoid surprises down the line.

UPDATE:  Aside from also reporting on the depublication of Bell earlier today, Wage Law notes that while Bell "had seemed to favor the plaintiff (who was the petitioner seeking Supreme Court review) the Court of Appeal's endorsement of the denial of certification in the off-the-clock and meal period causes of action had been embraced by the employers' bar, who will lament the depublication of the case."  ("Supreme Court Depublishes Bell v Superior Court (HF Cox, Inc.)," Wage Law,