In Mora, et al., v. Big Lots Stores, Court affirms denial of certification in manager misclassification case

I've comment previously that misclassification cases (especially in the retail and restaurant sectors) appear to be an increasingly difficult sell.  See post regarding Arenas v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc., 183 Cal. App. 4th 723 (2010).  Since then, I haven't seen anything to change my opinion that the tide has shifted from the Sav-on high water mark.  Yesterday, in Mora, et al. v. Big Lots Stores (April 18, 2011), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) affirmed a trial court order denying certification of a class of Big Lots store managers alleged to have been misclassified as exempt from overtime pay and other labor code obligations.

The Court summarized the two ends of the legal spectrum defining the legal criteria applied to certification:

As the Supreme Court held in Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at page 326, the central issue in a class certification motion is whether the questions that will arise in the action are common or individual, not the plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits of their claims. (Accord, Ghazaryan v. Diva Limousine, Ltd. (2008) 169 Cal.App.4th 1524, 1531 ["trial court must evaluate whether the theory of recovery advanced by the plaintiff is likely to prove amenable to class treatment"].) The putative class representatives contend the trial court disregarded this standard, improperly focusing on the potential conflicting issues of fact that may arise on an individual basis rather than the common questions presented by their theory of recovery. To the contrary, the court employed the correct analysis and concluded the theory of recovery advanced—operational standardization imposed by Big Lots—was not supported by substantial evidence and thus not amenable to class treatment. No legal error was committed: "[A] class action will not be permitted if each member is required to 'litigate substantial and numerous factually unique questions' before a recovery may be allowed. . . . '[I]f a class action "will splinter into individual trials," common questions do not predominate and litigation of the action in the class format is inappropriate.'" (Arenas v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc. (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 723, 732 [affirming order denying certification on misclassification allegations where trial court found tasks performed by restaurant managers and time devoted to each task varied widely from restaurant to restaurant].)

Slip op., at 12.  The Court noted that the outcome was much like Arenas and Dunbar v. Albertson’s, Inc., 141 Cal. App. 4th 1422 (2006).

The outcome was driven by the standard of review.  The Court emphasized on several occasions that it couldn't second guess the trial court's decision to credit Big Lots' evidence over the plaintiffs' evidence:

In essentially rejecting the putative class representatives' evidentiary submission, the court observed that for more than half of the declarants the percentage of time estimated to have been spent on non-managerial, non-exempt duties was different from the estimates given in deposition testimony or statements to third party prospective employers.

Slip op., at 14, n. 10.  The trial court also credited the very individualized manager declarations submitted by Big Lots over the declarations from the plaintiffs.  The Court of Appeal found that that trial court did not abuse its discretion because substantial evidence supported the trial court's conclusion.  This is the anti-Sav-on.