Court of Appeal delivers stunnig rebuke of misclassification certification opinions based on Brinker


I was pretty confident that you would need to have an unhealthy love of pain to take on a manger misclassification class action after the long line of bad outcomes for those cases (Dunbar, Mora, Arenas, Tuesday Morning, etc.).  But Martinez v. Joe's Crab Shack Holdings, 221 Cal. App. 4th 1148 (pub. ord. Dec. 4, 2013), once again channeling the ghost of Brinker, makes me think that we are back to wait-and-see time.  And, yes, another case that deserved attention a lot sooner than this.  That's what I get for starting my own firm.  Anyhow, on to our story...

In Martinez, employees of different Joe's Crab Shack (JCS) restaurants in California filed suit, seeking to represent a class of salaried managerial employees who worked at JCS restaurants in California.  The parties submitting conflicting groups of declarations.  Presented with this evidence, the trial court denied the motion for class certification on the grounds plaintiffs had failed to establish (1) their claims were typical of the class, (2) they could adequately represent the class, (3) common questions predominated the claims, and (4) a class action is the superior means of resolving the litigation.  The first two findings were based on plaintiffs' inability to estimate the number of hours spent on individual exempt and nonexempt tasks and their admission that the amount of time spent on particular tasks varied from day to day. As to the third and fourth findings, the trial court acknowledged the existence of common questions of law and fact, but concluded there remained significant individual disputed issues of fact relating to the amount of time spent by individual class members on particular tasks. The variability among individual members of the putative class would require adjudication of the affirmative defense of exemption for each class member, “a time- and resource-consuming process.” The trial court rejected as unfair plaintiffs' proffered trial plan, under which their expert proposed to assess the rate at which managerial employees are engaged in nonexempt tasks through statistical sampling methods. Under these circumstances, the court concluded, a class action would not be the superior means of resolving the litigation.

Examining the trial court’s reasoning, the Court began with a discussion of its typicality and adequacy findings, rejecting the narrow analysis supplied by the trial court:

With respect to typicality, this analysis suffers from an overly focused examination of the facts that looked toward individual differences rather than commonality. In essence, the trial court resolved the factual conflict between plaintiffs' declarations, in which they stated nonexempt tasks routinely occupied more than 50 percent of their time, and their deposition testimony that they could not estimate the number of hours they spent on individual tasks because those tasks varied day to day. The inability of the witnesses to specify time spent on particular tasks is hardly surprising, however, and does not create an issue that must be resolved on a motion for class certification. What was common to plaintiffs, in addition to the standard policies implemented by CAI at each of their restaurants, were their assertions their tasks did not change once they became managers; they performed a utility function and routinely filled in for hourly workers in performing nonexempt tasks; and they worked far in excess of 40 hours per week without being paid overtime wages. Their claims—and the defense of executive exemption to those claims—are thus typical of the class.

Martinez, 221 Cal. App. 4th at 1159.  Turning to the conflict between general managers and assistant manager, the Court agreed that antagonism existed but found it non-fatal:  “This apparent conflict, however, is not fatal. In the interest of preserving the claims of subordinate managerial employees, the trial court may on remand exercise its discretion to create a general managers subclass or to exclude general managers entirely from the class definition.” Martinez, 221 Cal. App. 4th at 1160.

Next, the Court found that the trial court’s reasoning regarding commonality shifted the burden of proof improperly onto the plaintiffs:

The trial court's failure here to focus on the impact of JCS policies and practices on its managerial employees essentially shifted the burden of disproving the executive exemption to plaintiffs. Indeed, although the court recognized the evidence established the existence of a finite task list that could aid in the identification of common issues among the putative class members, its analysis effectively omitted any consideration of this potential class-wide proof.

A recent decision from our colleagues in Division Two of this court simplifies this endeavor and illustrates the enormous cost of resolving these claims on an individual, rather than a class-wide basis. (See Heyen v. Safeway Inc. (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 795, 157 Cal.Rptr.3d 280 (Heyen ).)21 After reviewing analogous regulations for mercantile workers, Heyen articulated the appropriate manner of evaluating an employer's duties: “Several general principles emerge from these regulations. First, work of the same kind performed by a supervisor's nonexempt employees generally is ‘nonexempt,’ even when that work is performed by the supervisor. If such work takes up a large part of a supervisor's time, the supervisor likely is a ‘nonexempt’ employee. [Citations.] [¶] Second, the regulations do not recognize ‘hybrid’ activities—i.e., activities that have both ‘exempt’ and ‘nonexempt’ aspects. Rather, the regulations require that each discrete task be separately classified as either ‘exempt’ or ‘nonexempt.’ [Citations.] [¶] Third, identical tasks may be ‘exempt’ or ‘nonexempt’ based on the purpose they serve within the organization or department. Understanding the manager's purpose in engaging in such tasks, or a task's role in the work of the organization, is critical to the task's proper categorization. A task performed because it is ‘helpful in supervising the employees or contribute[s] to the smooth functioning of the department’ is exempt, even though the identical task performed for a different, nonmanagerial reason would be nonexempt. [Citations.] [¶] Finally, in a large retail establishment where the replenishing of stocks of merchandise on the sales floor ‘is customarily assigned to a nonexempt employee, the performance of such work by the manager or buyer of the department is nonexempt.’ [Citation.] Similarly, in such a large retail establishment, a manager's participation in making sales to customers is nonexempt, unless the sales are made for ‘supervisory training or demonstration purposes.’ ” (Id. at pp. 822–823, 157 Cal.Rptr.3d 280.)

Applying these principles to the tasks identified by CAI and Landry's, inventory, restocking, serving, cooking, bussing tables, cleaning and other tasks ordinarily performed by nonexempt employees remain nonexempt when performed by a managerial employee. Likewise, when a managerial employee fills in for a nonexempt employee, the task remains nonexempt. On the other hand, if the managerial employee is performing the task for the purpose of supervisory training or demonstration, the task is exempt. California law does not recognize a hybrid category in which the employee is deemed to be performing an exempt task at the same time he or she is performing a nonexempt task. (Heyen, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at p. 826, 157 Cal.Rptr.3d 280.)

Martinez, 221 Cal. App. 4th at 1163-64.

Finally, in a stunning, but subtle rebuke of prior decisions on misclassification, the Court identified a new mandate from Brinker, saying:

We have not ignored the substantial case authority, including our own, upholding trial court decisions not to certify class actions for claims similar to those raised here (see, e.g., Dailey v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (2013) 214 Cal.App.4th 974, 154 Cal.Rptr.3d 480; Mora v. Big Lots Stores, Inc., supra, 194 Cal.App.4th 496, 124 Cal.Rptr.3d 535; Arenas v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc. (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 723, 108 Cal.Rptr.3d 15); nor do we express any disagreement with the outcome of those cases. However, we understand from Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th 1004, 139 Cal.Rptr.3d 315, 273 P.3d 513, a renewed direction that class-wide relief remains the preferred method of resolving wage and hour claims, even those in which the facts appear to present difficult issues of proof. By refocusing its analysis on the policies and practices of the employer and the effect those policies and practices have on the putative class, as well as narrowing the class if appropriate, the trial court may in fact find class analysis a more efficient and effective means of resolving plaintiffs' overtime claim.

Martinez, 221 Cal. App. 4th at 1165.

At least until Duran is decided, there appears to be a change of direction in the pendulum following Brinker.  I would note that in the last Class Re-Action Podcast, we discussed with our mediator panel whether there was something akin to a market correction to the overly hostile treatment class actions received in recent years.  The panel generally though it was too soon to tell.  It's looking less anecdotal with every decision.