Chinese Wang decision is big news

Wrong, but necessary somehow.  A little later than promised, but Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 27, 2010) has too much going on not to receive some additional attention.  At the outset, Wang was a basic wage & hour case.  The plaintiffs alleged that employees were made to work in excess of eight hours per day and/or forty hours per week. They alleged that they were wrongfully denied overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, accurate and itemized wage statements, and penalties for wages due but not promptly paid at termination.  The subsequent procedural twists and turns were anything but standard.  But despite the many moving parts in the decision, the Ninth Circuit summarized the case in a few sentences:

The district court certified the FLSA claim as a collective action. It certified the state-law claims as a class action under Rule 23(b)(2) and, alternatively, under Rule 23(b)(3). In the state-law class action, it provided for notice and opt out, but subsequently invalidated the opt outs. It granted partial summary judgment to plaintiffs; held jury and bench trials; entered judgment for plaintiffs; awarded attorney’s fees to plaintiffs; and conducted a new opt-out process. CDN appeals, challenging aspects of each of these rulings, as well as the jury’s verdict.

Slip op., at 16393.  After the trial court certified a narrowed class under Rule 23(b)(2) (finding that injunctive relief was on "equal footing" with monetary relief), the trial court approved a notice that authorized class members to opt into the FLSA action and out of the state law-based class action.  The notice precipitated the first major upheaval in the case:

Forms were mailed to 187 individuals, and notice was posted and forms made available at CDN’s Monterey Park facility. Plaintiffs received back about 155 opt-out forms, including 18 from individuals not on the original list of class members.  Plaintiffs filed a motion to invalidate the opt outs, for curative notice, and to restrict CDN’s communication with class members. On June 7, 2006, the court granted the motion, finding that “the opt out period was rife with instances of coercive conduct, including threats to employees’ jobs, termination of an employee supporting the litigation, the posting of signs urging individuals not to tear the company apart, and the abnormally high rate of opt outs.” Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc., 236 F.R.D. 485, 491 (C.D. Cal. 2006). The district court deferred any future opt-out procedure until after the trial on the merits.

Slip op., at 16395.  Facing cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court then ruled that news reporters were not exempt professionals.  Next, the matter proceeded to a trial.  The defendant contended that only the FLSA claims should be tried and that UCL claims were pre-empted by the FLSA, but the trial court elected to retain supplemental jurisdiction, rejected the pre-emption argument and tried the state law claims as well.

The Court of Appeal first tacked the exemption analysis.  After examining decisions from other Circuits, the Court concluded that the reporters did not satisfy the creative professionals exemption.

Although the evidence submitted revealed disputes over how to characterize CDN’s journalists, we agree with the district court that, even when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to CDN, the reporters do not satisfy the criteria for the creative professional exemption.

Slip op., at 16400.  Next, the Court examined whether the trial court had applied the correct criteria for determining whether certification under Rule 23(b)(2) was appropriate.  The Court concluded that, although the matter was decided prior to Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 603 F.3d 571 (9th Cir. 2010) (en banc), the trial court applied essentially identical standards and correctly decided the issue.

The Court then turned to the invalidation of opt-outs.  The Court first held that a trial court's authority to regulate class communications and the notice process implicitly confers that power to take corrective action when that process has been tainted.  The Court then considered whether the evidence submitted was sufficient to support the trial court's decision.  The Court noted in particular the evidence submitted by a class action notice company regarding normal opt-out rates:

Finally, plaintiffs submitted a declaration from the president of a class action notice company explaining that ordinarily opt-out rates do not exceed one percent. In this case, the district court found that current employees opted out at a 90 percent rate, whereas former employees opted out at a 25 percent rate.

Slip op., at 16407.  After concluding that the decision to invalidate the opt-outs was supported, the Court examined whether deferring a new opt-out period until after the trial was appropriate.  Again the Court noted the trial court's broad discretion to regulate the notice process: "The ordinary procedure is to give notice at the time of class certification. But the rule does not mandate notice at any particular time. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(2)."  Slip op., at 16408.  The Court then affirmed the trial court's conclusion that it was necessary to delay a new notice and opt-out process in order to avoid the taint imposed during the initial process.

Finally, after observing that the evidence supported the jury verdict regarding meal periods under either the "provide" or "ensure" standards currently up for review by the California Supreme Court, the Court ended its Opinion by explicitly holding what most courts in the Ninth Circuit had already concluded: the FLSA does not preempt state law claims like the UCL.