A quick note on Gonzalez v. San Gabriel Transit, Inc.

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In Gonzalez v. San Gabriel Transit, Inc. (October 10, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) reversed and remanded on an appeal from the denial of class certification. Most of the opinion is about the impact of Dynamex, which adopted the “ABC test” after the trial court denied certification. There is some important analysis about what claims are encompassed by the “ABC test,” and the retroactive application. But I’m posting now just to draw attention to a sliver of discussion at the end of the opinion regarding typicality:

Also, SGT maintains that Gonzales’ claims are atypical because, “unlike other class members, [he] never leased a taxi during the class period.” But the class allegations are not premised on having “leased” a vehicle. Rather, Gonzales seeks more generally to certify a class of plaintiffs who “were engaged by [SGT] to drive passengers for hire,” and who “drove” for SGT during the class period, i.e., all “drivers employed by, or formerly employed by [SGT] . . . [during the class period], who were or are classified as independent contractors.” The common allegations of harm suffered by Gonzales and other drivers is that all were misclassified as independent contractors. As such, they were required at their own expense to install equipment and provide tools to access SGT’s dispatch system, and to obtain insurance and perform maintenance, all expenses Gonzales contends should properly be borne by their employer and were denied the benefits of wage order protections.

On remand, SGT must show that the variations in class members’ factual situations are sufficiently wide to defeat class certification. For instance, regardless of a driver’s status as lessee or owner/operator, drivers were charged weekly “lease” fees to perform services under the SGT umbrella. If and to the extent it is important that a driver owned rather than leased a vehicle—which may cause a variation in weekly “lease” rates, insurance, equipment installation fees, or some other business expense—such a difference would likely be a function of the damages to which an individual driver was entitled. That a calculation of individual damages will, at some point, be required does not foreclose the possibility of taking common evidence on the issue of misclassification questions. (Collins v. Rocha (1972) 7 Cal.3d 232, 238.) The overarching inquiry is whether class members were misclassified during the class period. If so, as discussed in the overlapping analysis of commonality above, the class members are entitled to a determination as to whether SGT misclassified them as independent contractors. The fact that individual members of the class have different damages does not preclude class certification. (Sav–On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at pp. 329–330.)

The trial court also alluded to the fact that Gonzales could not demonstrate typicality for the entire class because he never drove LAX or school runs. However, as we have noted, typicality does not require that a class representative have suffered injuries identical to those of other class members. (Martinez v. Joe’s Crab Shack Holdings, supra, 231 Cal.App.4th at p. 375.) Accordingly, the trial court must reevaluate whether the requirements for typicality are satisfied, and whether, given time limitations, the complaint may be amended to add an additional representative plaintiff.

Slip op., at 37-38. This discussion pushes back against a common argument used to try and “thin” a class action down to a subset of the members alleged to be a part of the class. The argument is frequently along the lines of “the plaintiff didn’t work in all of the job positions,” or “the plaintiff didn’t work at all of the locations.” This discussion doesn’t entirely reject such arguments, but it certainly undermines them substantially with a fact pattern that is not particularly unique in wage and hour class actions.

In Voris v. Lampert, the California Supreme Court finally provides the definitive answer to the question of whether wages can be recovered via a conversion tort claim

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I recall that in the early 2000’s it was common to see a conversion claim for relief included in a wage & hour complaint, on the theory that the wages owed and unpaid were property of the employee. When this was challenged by demurrer, I observed that the demurrer was successful well over half the time, but there wasn’t a definitive appellate ruling on point. The demurrers that worked would usually focus on the argument that a conversion tort for money had to specifically identify the precise amount in question (essentially, identify the specific cash in question).

Today, in Boris v. Lampert (August 15, 2019) the California Supreme Court answers a question I long ago quit wondering about: whether a conversion claim is cognizable for unpaid wages. In a split 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court said it was not.

The conversion of specific sums of money guided the majority’s analysis:

The employee’s claim is not that the employer has wrongfully exercised dominion over a specifically identifiable pot of money that already belongs to the employee—in other words, the sort of wrong that conversion is designed to remedy. Rather, the employee’s claim is that the employer failed to reach into its own funds to satisfy its debt. Indeed, in some cases of wage nonpayment, the monies out of which employees would be paid may never have existed in the first place. Take, for example,a failed start-up that generates no income and thus finds itself unable to pay its employees. Because the business accounts are empty, there would not be any identifiable monies for the employer to convert. No one would dispute that the start-up is indebted to its employees. But only in the realm of fiction could a court conclude that the business, by failing to earn the money needed to pay wages, has somehow converted that nonexistent money to its own use.

Slip op., at 15. The majority expressed some concern about the consequences of layering tort liability over what has traditionally been a species of contract recovery:

But a conversion claim is an awfully blunt tool for deterring intentional misconduct of this variety.As noted,conversion is a strict liability tort. It does not require bad faith, knowledge, or even negligence; it requires only that the defendant have intentionally done the act depriving the plaintiff of his or her rightful possession. (Moore, supra, 51 Cal.3d at p. 144, fn. 38; Poggi, supra, 167 Cal. at p.375.) For that reason, conversion liability for unpaid wages would not only reach those who act in bad faith, but also those who make good-faith mistakes—for example, an employer who fails to pay the correct amount in wages because of a glitch in the payroll system or a clerical error. We see no sufficient justification for layering tort liability on top of the extensive existing remedies demanding that this sort of error promptly be fixed.

Slip op., at 25.

I won’t go into great detail on the dissent, but it is pointed, and is well-encapsulated by this passage, which rejects the notion that wage payment recovery is best handled under contract theories:

In California, unpaid wages are not merely contractual obligations to pay a sum. This is because, as we long ago observed, “wages are not ordinary debts.” (In re Trombley (1948) 31 Cal.2d 801, 809, italics added.)

Slip op., Dissent of Cuellar, at 3. This comment is also interesting: “For some time, plaintiffs in wage cases have routinely included a claim for conversion.” Slip op., Dissent of Cuellar, at 7. It is a somewhat feisty dissent. I like it for the conviction. In closing, the dissent observes that it seems illusory to treat theft of stocks as a conversion but deny similar treatment to wages owed.

I’m not 100% settled on where I come down on these competing arguments, but, for purposes of California law, the majority defines where things stand.

Another Court of Appeal holds that PAGA claims cannot be split and sent partially to arbitration

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Right now, Lawson v. ZB, N.A., review granted Mar. 21, 2018, S246711, is making its way through the California Supreme Court. The case asks whether a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.) (‘PAGA”) seeking recovery of individualized lost wages as civil penalties under Labor Code § 558 fall within the preemptive scope of the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.). Lawson was argued on June 5, 2019. Supplemental briefing was requested and received, and the matter was deemed submitted on June 27, 2019. That means a decision is imminent.

Today, in Mejia v. Merchants Building Maintenance, LLC (August 13, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) another Court of Appeal came down on the side of the Courts of Appeal that have concluded that PAGA claims cannot be split so as to direct a portion to arbitration:

We agree with the conclusion of the Lawson and Zakaryan courts on this question, and conclude that a single PAGA claim seeking to recover section 558 civil penalties may not be "split" between that portion of the claim seeking an "amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages" and that portion of the claim seeking the $50 or $100 per-violation, per-pay-period assessment imposed for each wage violation. The result is that an employee bringing a PAGA claim to recover the civil penalties identified in section 558 may not be compelled to arbitrate that portion of her PAGA claim that seeks an amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages pursuant to that statute, while the rest of the claim that seeks the $50 or $100 per-pay-period per violation portion of the penalty remains in a judicial forum. We therefore affirm the trial court's order denying the MDM defendants' motion to compel arbitration in this case

Slip op., at 6.

As for reading tea leaves, the Lawson matter (perhaps to be known as the ZB matter due to a change in the name of the case), as noted above, requested supplemental briefing on this question:

If this court concludes Labor Code section 558's "amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages" is not a "civil penalty" recoverable under the Private Attorneys General Act (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.), should the trial court be ordered to deny ZB's motion to compel arbitration?

Lawson docket. That question suggests that at least someone on the Supreme Court is thinking about whether an aggrieved employee can recover unpaid wages at all through Labor Code § 558. There’s a curve for you.

How long do "on-duty" meal periods have to be? 30 minutes.

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This really feels like the setup for a bad joke that only employment lawyers in California would get. Question: How long does an “on-duty” meal period have to be? Answer: 30 minutes. Follow-up: But….it’s “on-duty.” Put your hand down. I’m not calling on you. In L’Chaim House, Inc. v. Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (July 31, 2019), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One), the Court was called upon to review a wage and hour citation by the DLSE. The Court summarized, “On appeal, L’Chaim claims that under the applicable Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage order, it may require its employees to work “on-duty” meal periods that, unlike periods when employees are ‘relieved of all duty,’ do not need to be at least 30 minutes long.” (Slip op., at 1.)

The Court’s discussion was more interesting than you might think, since the Court necessarily had to explain the difference between on-duty and off-duty meal periods, and what events can transform one into the other. This led to the Court’s rejection of the appellant’s position:

What L’Chaim misunderstands is that an on-duty meal period is not the functional equivalent of no meal period at all. On-duty meal periods are an intermediate category requiring more of employees than off-duty meal periods but less of employees than their normal work. Recognizing this, the trial court stated that even if L’Chaim’s employees were not entitled to “an uninterrupted meal period,” they “may at least be afforded 30[] minutes of limited duty enabling them to eat their meal in relative peace.” L’Chaim attacks the notion that its “employees may be given ‘limited duty’ while on a meal break” as creating “several absurd consequences.” According to L’Chaim, because employees do not clock out for on-duty meal periods, there is no way to track the length of those periods. In addition, “the creation of a new ‘limited duty’ requirement to [Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(E)] would force employers to delineate which tasks an employee is expected to perform during his or her on-duty meal period,” which L’Chaim claims “would be difficult and even potentially dangerous for the residents.”

But any such practical challenges are inherent in providing “on-duty meal periods” at all, not just periods of a particular length. Moreover, the question presented here is whether an on-duty meal period must be at least 30 minutes long, not how courts might evaluate the adequacy of the period under different factual scenarios. Thus, while we do not address what constitutes an acceptable on-duty meal period in the context of this case, what we can say is that employees of 24-hour residential care facilities for seniors are unambiguously entitled to “on-duty meal periods” under subdivision 11(E). L’Chaim’s interpretation would effectively read that requirement out of Wage Order No. 5.

Slip op., at 5. If this still doesn’t convince you, the Court made one final observation that seems pretty solid:

Finally, even if any doubt remained, we agree with the DLSE that section 512 compels the same conclusion. Under that statute, which L’Chaim does not address in its briefing, an employer is prohibited from “employ[ing] an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes,” unless the employee works no more than six hours in a day and agrees to waive the meal period. (§ 512, subd. (a).) Although section 512 contains exceptions for workers in several industries, none of them apply here. And although the IWC has broad authority to “adopt or amend working condition orders with respect to . . . meal periods . . . for any workers in California consistent with the health and welfare of those workers,” at all relevant times—including when subdivision 11(E) was added to Wage Order No. 5—that authority has been specifically limited “as provided in Section 512.”

Slip op., at 7. The Wage Orders cannot negate Labor Code provisions. The balance of the decision is worth a quick read if you practice in this area.

The California Supreme Court lays down the law on "ascertainability" in Noel v. Thrifty Payless, Inc.

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I’m testing out opening sentences. The first candidate is: “The objective import of Noel v. Thrifty Payless, Inc. (July 29, 2019) is easy to ascertain.” You can see how that’s an option. It includes “objective,” as in the class definition must state the class with objective characteristics. And it drops in “ascertain,” as in this is a decision about the ascertainability requisite for certification. I like it. No second option for you.

Noel is a putative class action brought on behalf of retail purchasers of an inflatable outdoor pool sold in packaging that was allegedly misleading about the pool’s characteristics. The trial court denied the representative plaintiff’s motion for class certification on the basis that the plaintiff did not supply evidence showing how class members might be individually identified when the time came to do so. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court, reasoning that such evidence was necessary to ensure that proper notice would be given to the class. The Supreme Court said, “Nah, brah.”

The Supreme Court reviewed the history of the “ascertainability” requisite. The first view of the requisite focuses on the nature of the definition of the class:

One view of ascertainability concentrates on the proposed class definition itself. This viewwas applied in Bartold v. Glendale Federal Bank (2000) 81Cal.App.4th 816 (Bartold), superseded by statute on another point as stated in Markowitz v. Fidelity Nat. Title Co. (2006) 142Cal.App.4th 508, 524. The Bartold court explained that “[a] class is ascertainable if it identifies a group of unnamed plaintiffs by describing a set of common characteristics sufficient to allow a member of that group to identify himself or herself as having a right to recover based on the description.” (81 Cal.App.4th at p.828.) This basic view of ascertainability has been reiterated by numerous other Courts of Appeal, including the courts in Estrada, supra, 154 Cal.App.4th at page 14 and Aguirre, supra, 234 Cal.App.4th at pages 1299 to 1300. (See also Aguirre, at p. 1300 [listing cases].) A similar formulation regards a class as ascertainable when it is defined “in terms of objective characteristics and common transactional facts” that make “the ultimate identification of class members possible when that identification becomes necessary.” (Hicks, supra, 89Cal.App.4that p.915.)

Slip op., at 21. The second formulation of the requisite was summarized as follows:

The second basic view of ascertainability entails a more exacting inquiry. One such articulationregards the ascertainabilityrequirementas calling for an examination into“(1) the class definition, (2) the size of the class and (3) the means of identifying class members.” (Miller v. Woods (1983) 148 Cal.App.3d 862, 873 (Miller); see also Noel, supra, 17 Cal.App.5th at p. 1324, Sotelo, supra, 207 Cal.App.4th at p. 648; Reyes v. Board of Supervisors (1987) 196 Cal.App.3d 1263, 1274.) Consistent with this view, it has been said that “[c]lass members are ‘ascertainable’ where they may be readily identified without unreasonable expense or time by reference to official records.” (Rose v. City of Hayward (1981) 126 Cal.App.3d 926, 932 (Rose).) On its face, the quoted language from Rose could be understood as specifying a sufficient, as opposed to a necessary, basis for finding an ascertainable class within the Miller framework. But some courts, drawing from Rose’s focus on the mechanics of identifying class members, have gone further and required a class plaintiff to make a specific factual or evidentiary showing in order to show an ascertainable class.

Slip op., at 21-22. The Court then looked at the similar divide in the federal system, focusing extensively on the Seventh Circuit’s analysis of the requisite in Mullins v. Direct Digital, LLC, 795 F.3d 654 (7th Cir. 2015). After that extensive review of competing approaches, the Supreme Court concluded that the process protection provided by an objective and clear class definition was more significant to the ascertainability requirement than the goal of notice to each class member. From that conclusion a clear rule followed:

As a rule, a representative plaintiff in a class action need not introduce evidence establishing how notice of the action will be communicated to individual class members in order to show an ascertainable class.

Slip op., at 38. The Court expressly disapproved of strict reliance upon Rose as stating the requirement for an ascertainability showing. Slip op., at 41, n. 15.

The Court observed that a trial court could consider how notice will be provided to a class as a separate inquiry into, e.g., manageability. Slip op., at 42. It emphasized, however, that notice was not an aspect of the ascertainability showing. The decision of the Court was unanimous.

Christopher Wimmer and Peter Roldan of Emergent Legal and Leslie Brueckner and Karla Gilbride of Public Justice represented the successful Plaintiff and Appellant.

McCleery v. Allstate Ins. Co. affirms the denial of class certification in a complicated, multi-party suit alleging independent contractor misclassification

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I think it is not a stretch to opine that independent contractor misclassification is, by far, the easiest misclassification theory to pursue on a classwide basis (as compared to, for example, cases about the administrative exemption for store managers). In McCleery v. Allstate Ins. Co. (July 15, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division One), in an opinion issued following a grant of rehearing for the second appeal in the matter, we see why there are limits to what is possible even in the comparatively straightforward arena of independent contractor misclassification. The fact summary suggests that this was too big a bite:

Property inspectors Timothy McCleery, Yvonne Beckner, Terry Quimby and April Boyles Jackson filed this action on behalf of themselves and similarly situated persons, alleging defendants Allstate Insurance Company and Farmers Group, insurers for whom the plaintiffs provided property inspection services, and CIS Group LLC/North American Compass Insurance Services Group (CIS), Advanced Field Services, Inc. (AFS), and Capital Personnel Services, Inc. (PMG), service companies contracting to provide inspection services, concocted a scheme to insulate themselves from labor laws by nominally employing plaintiffs as independent contractors while retaining control over all aspects of their work. Plaintiffs purport to represent a putative class of approximately 1,550 property inspectors in California.

Slip op., at 3-4. At the first go-round, the trial court denied certification, summarily rejected a statistical sampling plan, and concluded that individualized determinations were required for each class members. The Court of Appeal reversed, directing the trial court to consider whether proposed sampling and statistical methods could render some or all of the individualized issues manageable. After additional briefing and an extensive survey, the trial agreed that the survey was carefully crafted to maximize accuracy but still failed to address key individual issues:

However, the court found that plaintiffs’ statistical sampling alone did not render their claims manageable. It found that Dr. Krosnick’s survey results failed to specify for which insurers inspections were performed, or to explain whether the inspectors’ failure to take meal or rest breaks was due to preference or to the exigencies of the job. Also, the survey’s anonymity foreclosed the defendants from cross-examining witnesses to verify responses or test them for accuracy or bias.

Slip op., at 17. The trial court again denied certification and the plaintiffs again appealed.

While several issues were of concern to the Court, the inability of the defendants to examine any survey respondents (who were kept anonymous from the survey expert) was viewed as an impediment to the defendants’ ability to cross-examine the actual class members who participated in the survey:

In fact, plaintiffs expressly admit they intend to answer the ultimate question in this case based solely on expert testimony—testimony founded on multiple hearsay that defendants could never challenge. As Dr. Krosnick declared, “ Respondents are not testifying witnesses. Instead, . . . . [i]t is the expert who will offer opinions . . . , and the expert can be cross-examined.” But “[a]lthough an expert ‘may rely on inadmissible hearsay in forming his or her opinion [citation], and may state on direct examination the matters on which he or she relied, the expert may not testify as to the details of those matters if they are otherwise inadmissible.’ ” (Korsak v. Atlas Hotels, Inc. (1992) 2 Cal.App.4th 1516, 1525.)

Slip op., at 24-25. The plan to rely, almost exclusively according to the Court, on an anonymous, double-blind survey to prove liability was viewed as a bridge too far, no matter how scientifically the survey was crafted. The Court, citing Duran and Brinker, concluded that the trial court acted within its discretion when denying certification.

I admit to having some sympathy, as it is my experience that the similar insurance, lender, and real estate property inspection industries are carefully constructed in an attempt to support the notion that the end companies requesting the inspections and setting very detailed parameters for how those inspections are to occur are not employers of the people out performing those inspections for them. What this opinion will have the tendency to do is insulate the biggest companies because of the complex hairball of crossing middle-tier vendors they have created, while directing attention to the smaller middle-tier vendors that act as the go-betweens for the insurance, lender, and real estate companies.

Majority of California Supreme Court Justices conclude that the California Pay Scale Manual issued by CalHR controls over Wage Orders for public employees

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Some wage and hour decisions have broad implications. Others, no so much. Here, in Stoetzl v. Department of Human Resources (July 1, 2019), the California Supreme Court issued a decision that falls decidedly into the later category. Stoetzl concerns a trial on the issue of unpaid wages for what the Court calls “entry-exit walk time” and “duty-integrated walk time.” Sounds like we are about to get a decision about a California equivalent to preliminary and post-liminary time, right? Not so much. Stoetzl is really about whether the relevant Wage Order (Wage Order 4) or the California Pay Scale Manual issued by CalHR (read about CalHR here) controls pay obligations for “entry-exit walk time” and “duty-integrated walk time” for represented and unrepresented state employees working in prisons.

Don’t get the wrong idea. Stoetzl might impact lots of employees; California has a metric <BLEEP> ton of employees. But that’s really the only group impacted by this decision, since the tension arises as a result of the conflict between the Pay Scale Manual’s express adoption of FLSA provisions and the Wage Order’s use of California’s differing and more protective standards. On top of all that, the represented state employees are bound by a collective bargaining agreement that controls certain pay obligations.

If you want to find something of broader note in Stoetzl, it again demonstrates that less protective FLSA provisions do no displace more protective California laws and regulations unless there is an express statement of an intent to do so. Here, in this 5-2 decision, a majority of the Court concluded that the Legislature properly empowered CalHR to define state employee pay provisions, and CalHR chose to expressly adopt FLSA rules that governed such things as walk time.

The minority opinion, written by Justice Liu, with Justice Cuellar concurring, found particular fault with the majority’s discussion of the minimum wage pay issue for the unrepresented class of employees.

Ninth Circuit concludes that the Dynamex "ABC test" applies retroactively

I missed this little nugget when it came out last month, but it’s worth noting regardless because it may move the needle in existing cases. In Vazquez, et al. v. Jan-Pro Franchising International, Inc. (9th Cir. May 2, 2009), the Ninth Circuit considered whether Dynamex Ops. W. Inc. v. Superior Court, 416 P.3d 1 (Cal. 2018) applied to a District Court decision that pre-dated Dynamex.

On that point, the Court agreed that the default rule of retroactive application of judicial decisions should apply after a thorough analysis of the limited bases for an exception to that default rule:

Given the strong presumption of retroactivity, the emphasis in Dynamex on its holding as a clarification rather than as a departure from established law, and the lack of any indication that California courts are likely to hold that Dynamex applies only prospectively, we see no basis to do so either.

Slip op., at 26. The Court then considered whether due process considerations could preclude retroactive application and held that such considerations did not:

Applying Dynamex retroactively is neither arbitrary nor irrational. The Dynamex court explained that “wage orders are the type of remedial legislation that must be liberally construed in a manner that services its remedial purpose.” 416 P.3d at 32. Moreover, Dynamex made clear that California wage orders serve multiple purposes. One is to compensate workers and ensure they can provide for themselves and their families. Id. But second, wage orders accord benefits to entire industries by “ensuring that . . . responsible companies are not hurt by unfair competition from competitor businesses that utilize substandard employment practices.” Id. And finally, wage orders benefit society at large. Without them, “the public will often be left to assume responsibility for the ill effects to workers and their families resulting from substandard wages or unhealthy and unsafe working conditions.” Id. It is with these purposes in mind that the California Supreme Court embraced the ABC test and found it to be “faithful” to the history of California’s employment classification law “and to the fundamental purpose of the wage orders.” Id. at 40.

Slip op., at 27-28.

The balance of the Opinion examined the merits of the case, providing significant guidance to the District Court on remand.

Separate from the content of the Opinion, I am impressed by the formatting of the Opinion. The Opinion contains a hyper-linked table of contents that improves navigation through the long decision. Because I was curious about the formatting, I did a quick spot check of recent opinions and could not find a similarly formatted document. This makes me wonder why this is not standard. I note that Judge Block, of the Eastern District of New York (sitting by designation) authored the opinion. If you happen to know why the formatting of this Opinion is so good, leave a comment.

The prevailing plaintiffs were represented by Shannon Liss-Riordan of Lichten & Liss-Riordan P.C., Boston, Massachusetts.

Ninth Circuit considers claim preclusion where WARN Act settlement deficiency was sought from non-settling defendant

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Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008) was written specifically to torment me. But, since it was issued, I haven’t seen its analysis of res judicata in class cases arise too often. Here, claim preclusion meets a bankruptcy court’s approval of a class settlement against other parties in Wojciechowski v. Kohlberg Ventures (9th Cir. May 9, 2019). The quick summary of the two cases sums it up well.

Wojciechowski filed an adversary class action against the ClearEdge entities in the bankruptcy court. He alleged that the two ClearEdge entities were a “single employer” under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2101–2109, and that the entities violated that act when they fired him and other employees without 60 days’ advance notice. Wojciechowski settled that action. Per the settlement agreement, the class released all claims it had against “(i) Defendants ClearEdge, Power, Inc. and ClearEdge Power, LLC and their respective estates,” and “(ii) each of the Defendants’ current and former shareholders, officers, directors, employees, accountants, attorneys, representatives and other agents, and all of their respective predecessors, successors and assigns, excluding any third parties which may or may not be affiliated with Defendants ClearEdge Power, Inc. and ClearEdge Power LLC, including, but not limited to Kohlberg Ventures LLC.” Kohlberg was not involved in the bankruptcy proceedings or in settlement negotiations. The bankruptcy court approved the settlement agreement and closed the case soon after. The ClearEdge estates paid a portion of the class members’ WARN Act wages and benefits.

Wojciechowski then filed this putative class action. He alleges that Kohlberg, as a “single employer” with the ClearEdge entities, violated the WARN Act when it fired him without advance notice. Wojciechowski seeks “an award for the balance of the Class’[s] WARN Act wages and benefits.” That is, he seeks what the class is owed under the Act less the amount received from the ClearEdge estates.

Slip op., at 4-5. In this instance, the Court had little difficulty concluding that the scope of preclusion was clearly specified in the settlement approved in the first suit before the bankruptcy court. Kohberg argued that it was not a party to the initial settlement and could not be limited by it. The Ninth Circuit quickly rejected that argument, observing that two parties can contract to settle a claim on just about any terms they want, particularly when it is then approved by a court.

In Melendez v. S.F. Baseball Associates LLC, the California Supreme Court provides a good review of LMRA premption

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I know. I know. There is no such thing as a “good” review of LMRA preemption. Or any form of preemption come to think of it. You’re right. Don’t read this case. But if you MUST read a case about LMRA preemption, or want a solid backgrounder on it, you could do worse than Melendez v. S.F. Baseball Associates LLC (April 25, 2019), in which the California Supreme Court clearly discusses the two-stage test for determining whether LMRA preemption under Section 301 applies:

  • Does the claim arise solely from independent state law, or is it based on the collective bargaining agreement (CBA)?

  • To resolve the merits of the claim, is it necessary to “interpret” a CBA’s terms, or merely “reference” a CBA?

This really is a straightforward discussion of the issue. If you are dealing with this issue for the first time, it is a good place to start.

The prevailing plaintiffs were represented by Dennis F. Moss, of Moss Bollinger (Dennis F. Moss arguing) and Sahag Majarian II.