Tarkington v. California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (Albertson’s, Inc.) strictly limits instances where class actions can be decided on the pleadings

Greatsealcal100On April 13, 2009, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One) ordered the publication of its March 12, 2009 opinion in Tarkington v. California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (Albertson’s, Inc.). The appeal followed a somewhat complex effort to obtain unemployment insurance benefits by locked-out employees of Albertsons, Inc. If you are curious about such things as writ petitions following adverse administrative ruling and the disdainful lack of honor by defendants that demand procedural compliance only to throw that compliance in the plaintiffs’ face when they satisfy those demands, then I urge you to read the opinion since I won’t be discussing those niceties here.

The very basic procedural summary of the case is as follows:

This is an appeal from the denial of a writ petition, styled as a class action, filed by employees of Albertson’s Inc. (Albertson’s) seeking to reverse an administrative decision denying them unemployment insurance benefits during an 18-week lockout by Albertson’s. On demurrer, the trial court ruled that the employees failed to allege sufficient facts supporting equitable tolling. The trial court also struck the class allegations as overly broad. The employees elected not to amend their petition in order to pursue the present appeal. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

(Slip op., at p. 2.) The aspect of the opinion of interest in the context of class action litigation is the near-adamant holding that class actions should be decided at the pleading stage only in mass tort and similar actions not well-suited to class treatment. That section is quoted here in full:

“California’s judicial policy [is to allow] potential class action plaintiffs to have their action measured on its merits to determine whether trying their suits as a class action would bestow the requisite benefits upon the litigants and the judicial process to justify class action litigation.” (Beckstead v. Superior Court (1971) 21 Cal.App.3d 780, 783.) “In order to effect this judicial policy, the California Supreme Court has mandated that a candidate complaint for class action consideration, if at all possible, be allowed to survive the pleading stages of litigation.” (Id. citing La Sala v. American Sav. & Loan Assn. (1971) 5 Cal.3d 864, 868-869 [reversing trial court’s sustaining of demurrer against class action suit]; Vasquez v. Superior Court (1971) 4 Cal.3d 800, 816 [same]; Daar v. Yellow Cab Co. (1967) 67 Cal.2d 695, 716-717 [same]; Jones v. H. F. Ahmanson & Co. (1969) 1 Cal.3d 93, 121 [affirming trial court’s overruling of demurrer attacking class allegations].)

“The wisdom of allowing survival is elementary. Class action litigation is proper whenever it may be determined that it is more beneficial to the litigants and to the judicial process to try a suit in one action rather than in several actions . . . . It is clear that the more intimate the judge becomes with the character of the action, the more intelligently he may make the determination. If the judicial machinery encourages the decision to be made at the pleading stages and the judge decides against class litigation, he divests the court of the power to later alter that decision . . . Therefore, because the sustaining of demurrers without leave to amend represents the earliest possible determination of the propriety of class action litigation, it should be looked upon with disfavor.” (Beckstead, supra, 21 Cal.App.3d at p. 783.) Despite the policy disfavoring the determination of class suitability issues at the pleading stage, several cases, including those cited by Albertson’s, have done exactly that. (See, e.g, Silva v. Block (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 345, 348 [trial court properly determined class issues on demurrer, since it was apparent from the face of the pleading that issues requiring separate adjudication—both of liability and damages—predominated over common questions]; Clausing v. San Francisco Unified School Dist. (1990) 221 Cal.App.3d 1224, 1234 [in this mass-tort action, “it would be a waste of time and judicial resources to require a full evidentiary hearing [on class suitability] when the matter can properly be disposed of by demurrer”; Brown v. Regents of University of California (1984) 151 Cal.App.3d 982, 990-991 [determination of class status by demurrer proper in mass-tort action].)

In Prince v. CLS Transportation, Inc. (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 1320, after an exhaustive review of the relevant case law, this division determined that the apparent conflict was in fact not a conflict at all: “[I]t is only in mass tort actions (or other actions equally unsuited to class action treatment) that class suitability can and should be determined at the pleading stage. In other cases, particularly those involving wage and hour claims, class suitability should not be determined by demurrer.” (Id. at p. 1325.) We reasoned that in mass tort actions individual questions of liability and damages frequently predominate over common questions and resolving class suitability at the pleading stage is therefore proper. (Id. at pp. 1327-1328.) In contrast, we explained, “wage and hour disputes (and others in the same class) routinely proceed as class actions” because they usually involve “’a single set of facts applicable to all members’,” and “’one question of law common to all class members.’” (Ibid.) As long as a plaintiff “alleges institutional practices . . . that affected all of the members of the potential class in the same manner, and it appears from the complaint that all liability issues can be determined on a class-wide basis,” we held that “no more is required” at the pleading stage. (Id. at p. 1329.)

In our view, the petition in this case is more like a wage and hour case than a mass-tort action. It involves a single set of facts (i.e., those allegations pertaining to Albertson’s selective lockout and illegal hiring of locked out employees), one question of law common to all class members (i.e., whether employees who could not work because of Albertson’s lockout fall under the ambit of section 1262), and one institutional practice (i.e., the denial of benefits to locked out employees by the EDD and CUIAB Board). While there may be individual questions of the amount of benefits, if any, to which each claimant is entitled, we do not see these questions as predominant over the common factual allegations and legal questions cited above. (Accord Vasquez v. Superior Court (1971) 4 Cal.3d 800, 809 [“the fact that each member of the class must prove his separate claim to a portion of any recovery by the class is only one factor to be considered in determining whether a class action is proper”]; Reyes v. Board of Supervisors (1987) 196 Cal.App.3d 1263, 1272, 1279 [rejecting county’s argument that denial of governmental benefits was not suitable for class treatment because “each recipient’s right to recover depends on the facts peculiar to his/her case” and noting that “it is especially appropriate to proceed with a class action to provide effective relief when, as here, a large number of [class members] have been allegedly, improperly denied governmental benefits on the basis of an invalid administrative practice”].)

In line with our decision in Prince, we conclude that it was premature for the trial court to make determinations pertaining to class suitability on demurrer. We reverse the court’s order granting Albertson’s motion to strike and the court’s accompanying legal ruling that the class definition was “too broad.” The putative class definition alleged in the petition, which we cite here, is sufficient to move forward past the pleading stage:

“Petitioners . . . bring this petition for writ of administrative mandamus on behalf of the entire class of individuals who were employed by Albertson’s at any time during the period October 11, 2003 through February 26, 2004, and who filed timely claims with the EDD for unemployment insurance benefits for all or some of this period, and were denied such benefits on the basis of the trade dispute exception, California Unemployment Insurance Code § 1262 . . . .”

(Slip op., at pp. 17-20.) This holding is likely to see immediate use in every class action challenged by way of demurrer or motion to strike, and it may deter these procedural wastes of time.  At least I hope so.  Nothing ruins a perfectly good day like receiving the obligatory demurrer to class allegations.