Ninth Circuit makes overtime misclassification cases a little bit tougher with opinions in Vinole v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. and In re: Wells Fargo Home Mortgage

Overtime misclassification cases were first out of the blocks when wage & hour employment class actions surged in the last decade or so.  Misclassification cases, when successful, usually generate larger per-class member recoveries than other wage & hour class actions.  But their early success was eventually met with more sophisticated defense tactics in the perpetual chess match of move and counter-move.  For those misclassification cases unfortunate enough to end up in federal court, the Ninth Circuit has just made them a bit harder than they were a few days ago.

The first of this duo, In re: Wells Fargo Home Mortgage (July 7, 2009), considered whether the trial " court abused its discretion in finding that the predominance requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) was satisfied, based — in large part — on an employer’s internal policy of treating its employees as exempt from overtime laws."  Slip op., at 8328.  The Trial Court though that Wells Fargo was unfairly trying to have its cake and eat it too:

Wells Fargo’s uniform policies regarding HMCs weigh heavily in favor of class certification. As numerous courts have recognized, it is manifestly disingenuous for a company to treat a class of employees as a homogenous group for the purposes of internal policies and compensation, and then assert that the same group is too diverse for class treatment in overtime litigation.

Slip op., at 8330.  The Ninth Circuit focused its review on whether the Trial Court's treatment of that classification policy was correct:

District courts within this circuit have split on the relevance of exemption policies. The district court relied primarily on Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc., 231 F.R.D. 602, 612-13 (C.D. Cal. 2005), which found predominance of common issues based on an employer’s policy of treating all employees in a certain position as uniformly exempt from overtime compensation requirements. In contrast, another district court has expressed doubt about Wang, and found that uniform exemption policies are merely a minor factor in the predominance analysis. See Campbell v. PricewaterhouseCoopers,, 253 F.R.D. 586, 603-04 (E.D. Cal. LLP 2008) (rejecting “estoppel” position of Wang).

Slip op., at 8333.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the approach in Wang went too far, but then emphasized that employer policies remain very important in the majority of certification analyses in this area of law:

Of course, uniform corporate policies will often bear heavily on questions of predominance and superiority. Indeed, courts have long found that comprehensive uniform policies detailing the job duties and responsibilities of employees carry great weight for certification purposes. Damassia v. Duane Reade, Inc., 250 F.R.D. 152, 160 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) (“Where . . . there is evidence that the duties of the job are largely defined by comprehensive corporate procedures and policies, district courts have routinely certified classes of employees challenging their classification as exempt, despite arguments about ‘individualized’ differences in job responsibilities.”).  Such centralized rules, to the extent they reflect the realities of the workplace, suggest a uniformity among employees that is susceptible to common proof.

Slip op., at 8334-35.  So too much Wang is no good, but some Wang is okay.  Got it.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that exemption policies, in particular, are less likely to have a "transformative" power that turns an otherwise individual issue into a common one.

In Vinole v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. (July 7, 2009), the Ninth Circuit considered two primary issues, one of which matters.  Countrywide filed a motion to deny class certification before the plaintiffs could file their motion for class certification.  The defendant's motion was granted.  As an issue of first impression, the Ninth Circuit was asked to determine whether it was per se improper for the trial court to hear defendant's motion.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that it was not per se improper:

Rule 23(c)(1)(A) addresses the timing of a district court’s class certification determination, and states: “Time to Issue: At an early practicable time after a person sues or is sued as a class representative, the court must determine by order whether to certify the action as a class action.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(1)(A). Nothing in the plain language of Rule 23(c)(1)(A) either vests plaintiffs with the exclusive right to put the class certification issue before the district court or prohibits a defendant from seeking early resolution of the class certification question. The only requirement is that the certification question be resolved “[a]t an early practicable time.”  The plain language of Rule 23(c)(1)(A) alone defeats Plaintiffs’ argument that there is some sort of “per se rule” that precludes defense motions to deny certification, and Plaintiffs have produced no authority to the contrary.

Slip op., at 8307-8.  That seems simple enough.  But these things rarely are.  The Ninth Circuit was particularly interested in the fact that the plaintiffs had (1) failed to bring their motion in almost a year, (2) admitted during a hearing that they didn't need additional discovery to file their motion, and (3) didn't request any sort of continuance of the hearing of defendant's motion:

First, at the time of the hearing Plaintiffs had conducted significant discovery and did not intend to propound any additional discovery seeking information from Countrywide regarding the propriety of class certification. Second, it is evident that Plaintiffs had made a strategic choice to limit the amount of evidence it presented to the district court in opposition to Countrywide’s motion; they proffered their class certification arguments through their “preview” declarations. Third, Plaintiffs’ real complaint is not that they were deprived of adequate time in which to complete discovery, but that they “didn’t want to be on defendants’ schedule.” But, again, this is just a variation on Plaintiffs argument in favor of a per se rule.

Slip op., at 8314.  I can only assume that Defendants will now race to be the first to file a motion related to certification.  Plaintiffs will need to be diligent in their litigation and discovery efforts to fend off this counter-assault.  One thing is certain - different trial courts will deal with this complication in a wide variety of ways.