Class certification denied to El Torito managers in misclassification suit

In other news, early reports now indicate that the Pope is Catholic.  Another day, another order denying certification in a misclassification suit is upheld.  More specifically, in Arenas, et al. v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc. (ord. pub. April 6, 2010), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Five) affirmed a trial court order denying certification to three subclasses of managerial employees at El Torrito restaurants.  At this point, misclassification suits have the feeling of an arms race where the defendant companies hold a significant technological lead.  Six years after all the excitement occasioned by Sav-On Drug Stores, Inc. v. Superior Court, 34 Cal. 4th 319 (2004), the upshot appears to be that, once a trial court picks a side, a Court of Appeal is unlikely to get involved.

In this particular decision, the Court relied heavily on a mix of California Supreme Court decisions and, somewhat disturbingly, a number of federal decisions.  For example, citing Marlo v. United Parcel Service, 251 F.R.D. 476 (C.D. Cal 2008), the Court said: 

The Marlo court identified the exact problem that this Court faces. Individual declarations submitted by the parties have anecdotal value but cannot be considered representative or common evidence. Specifically, the Marlo court stated the following:[¶] ‘Plaintiffs evidence is essentially individual testimony and an exemption policy. Under the circumstances in this case, where Plaintiff alleges that 1200 [class members] have been misclassified as exempt employees, Plaintiff had to provide common evidence to support extrapolation from individual experiences to a class-wide judgment that is not merely speculative. Plaintiff has not come forward with common proof sufficient to allow a fact-finder to make a class-wide judgment as to the class members. . . . Because Plaintiff lacks common experience, the Court has no confidence that the jury will be able to do anything but speculate as to a class-wide determination.’

Slip op., at 7.  The Court emphasized that it was not permitted to substitute its view of the evidence for the trial court's view:  "As the Supreme Court made clear in Sav-On Drug Stores, Inc., this court cannot now substitute its own judgment."  Slip op., at 12.

Plaintiffs appear to have argued that it is unfair to accept a uniform classification by defendant but require individualized proof of misclassification, an argument that has not been well received at the appellate level as of late.  The argument fared no better here: 

Plaintiffs argue defendants cannot on one hand assert they have determined, based on job activities, that all managers are exempt but on the other hand argue a court must examine each individual’s tasks to determine whether that person is exempt. This argument was answered in Campbell v. PricewaterhouseCoopers, LLP (E.D.Cal. 2008) 253 F.R.D. 586, 603-604, as follows: “Some courts . . . have determined that it is unfair for an employer to ‘on the one hand, argue that all [class members] are exempt from overtime wages and, on the other hand, argue that the Court must inquire into the job duties of each [class member] in order to determine whether that individual is “exempt.”’ [Citation.] But, under Walsh [v. IKON Office Solutions, Inc. (2007) 148 Cal.App.4th 1440, 1461,] there is no estoppel effect given to an employer’s decision to classify a particular class of employees as exempt—whether right or wrong, or even issued in bad faith; instead, the only legally relevant issue to alleged misclassification is whether the exemption in fact applies. 

Slip op., at 13.  Continuing with the extensive quotations from Campbell, the Court of Appeal wrote: 

“It may be intuitively unfair to permit an employer, who has historically classified a particular group of employees as exempt based on a uniform rule, to argue in the context of litigation that the exemption inquiry will require an individualized analysis. But the assumption behind such an intuitively appealing argument is that an employer should somehow be bound by its prior position—which is foreclosed by Walsh. ‘[I]n resolving questions of California law, this court is bound by the pronouncement of the California Supreme Court . . . and the opinions of the California Courts of Appeal are merely data for determining how the highest California court would rule . . . [but] the opinion of the Court of Appeals on questions of California law cannot simply be ignored.’ [Citation.]” 

Slip op., at 14.  After Ramirez in particular, misclassification suits were in no small supply.  But the arms race was equalizing by the time Sav-On was decided, and it looks like the defense bar has pulled ahead in this area.  To make misclassification suits a legitimate mechanism for correcting classification errors on a class-wide basis, plaintiffs will need to find news ways to show trial courts that systemic misclassification errors are really correctable on a class-wide basis.