Castillo v. Glenair, Inc. examines a novel joint employer question

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The term "joint employer" is used to identify the wide variety of situations where one worker is controlled in frequently different ways by two employers.  Staffing agency relationships with client companies are a commonly cited example.  In Castillo v. Glenair, Inc., the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Two), tackled a novel question:

In a joint employer arrangement, can a class of workers bring a lawsuit against a staffing company, settle that lawsuit, and then bring identical claims against the company where they had been placed to work.

Slip op, at 2.  The Court's answer was succinct: "We answer no."  (Slip op., at 2.)

Before you get the wrong idea, this is not the situation you might have first imagined.  One firm did not sue a staffing agency, settle, and then bring the identical set of claims against the client company of the staffing agency.  Rather, the staffing company class action was running in parallel before another trial court and made it to the settlement finish line first.  (Slip op., at 2.)  There are many procedural niceties to this that don't matter.  What matters is that the first suit (known as the "Gomez" action), settled on a classwide basis, with a broad release of claims against the staffing company and its agents.  The Court in this matter concluded that Glenair was an agent of CGA with respect to CGA's payment of wages to its employees who performed work at Glenair.

While the reasoning of the Court is guided, in part, by a number of factual stipulations of the parties regarding the relationship between Glenair and the staffing company GCA, the core issue for purposes of res judicata application of the Gomez settlement hinged on whether Glenair was either a party in the Gomez settlement or in privity with a party.  The Court found that Glenair was both in privity with CGA as to the Gomez settlement and a released party in the Gomez settlement.

After reviewing developments in the law of privity, the Court said:

With this in mind, it is clear Glenair and GCA are in privity for present purposes. The subject matter of this litigation is the same as the subject matter of the Gomez litigation—namely, both cases involve the same wage and hour causes of action arising from the same work performed by the same GCA employees (the Castillos) at GCA’s client company Glenair. Based on the undisputed facts, it is apparent Glenair and GCA share the same relationship to the Castillos’ claims here. Both Glenair and GCA were involved in and responsible for payment of the Castillos’ wages. Glenair was authorized by GCA and responsible for recording, reviewing and transmitting the Castillos’ time records to GCA. GCA paid the Castillos based on those time records. And, by virtue of the Gomez settlement, the Castillos were compensated for any errors made in the payment of their wages. Thus, with respect to the Castillos’ wage and hour causes of action, the interests of Glenair and GCA are so intertwined as to put Glenair and GCA in the same relationship to the litigation here. Accordingly, we conclude they are in privity for purposes of the instant litigation.

(Slip op., at 23.)  The Court emphasized that this should not be construed as a finding that Glenair and GCA are in privity for all purposes (e.g., a tort claim for an on-premises injury).  The Court also found that Glenair was an agent of CGA based on facts that could not be reasonably construed any other way:

Glenair was an agent of GCA for the purpose of collecting, reviewing, and providing GCA’s employee time records to GCA so that GCA could properly pay its employees. The evidence is undisputed that GCA authorized Glenair to collect, review, and transmit GCA employee time records to GCA. Thus, Glenair was authorized to represent, and did represent, GCA in its dealings with third parties, specifically GCA’s payment of wages to its employees placed at Glenair. (Civ. Code, § 2295; Borders Online, supra, at p. 1189; see also Garcia v. Pexco, LLC (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 782, 788 [in concluding the plaintiff employee’s claims must be arbitrated, court considered “alleged joint employers” staffing company and its client company “agents of each other in their dealings with” the plaintiff].)

(Slip op., at 26.) The Court rebuffed the plaintiffs' argument that there was no evidence of the requisite control necessary to support the agency conclusion:

Here, GCA authorized Glenair to perform certain timekeeping-related tasks on behalf of GCA and the only reasonable inference is that GCA required Glenair to perform those tasks. Had Glenair failed to perform those timekeeping tasks, GCA would not have been able to pay its employees.

(Slip op., at 27.)  This raises a question in my mind.  Many large staffing companies install their own timekeeping systems in the workplaces of large clients.  If the staffing company collects its own time records, or its employees report time themselves, does this vitiate the agency analysis in this decision?

The decision also includes an extended discussion of procedural rules governing summary judgment, if that floats your boat.

Respondent was successfully represented by Jesse A. Cripps, Sarah Zenewicz and Elizabeth A. Dooley of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, 

The California Rules of Court require revision or clarification regarding Motions for Preliminary/Final Approval of class action settlements

The California Rules of Court are just bursting with procedural rules designed to operate in conjunction with the Code of Civil Procedure.  However, while much effort clearly went into ensuring that the Rules work with each other in a smooth fashion, every now and then the Rules conflict with each other.  One area where I find this to be so arises in the context of motion page length when filing motions for preliminary (or final) approval of class action settlements. 

As most civil litigation practitioners in California would know off of the of their head, California Rules of Court, rule 3.1113(d) specifies that motions other than summary judgment or summary adjudication motions can be no longer than 15 pages, with 20 pages permitted for the summary adjudication and judgment motions.  There are no other listed exceptions in that rule. But California Rules of Court, rule 3.764(c) specifies that any motion seeking certification (or decertification) of a class action can be up to 20 pages in length.  Rule 7.764 then says that the remaining provisions of rule 3.1113 apply, apparently meaning that the page limit is intended as an exception to 3.1113.  The confusion arises in what is expected by Court ruling on motions for preliminary (or final) approval of class action settlements.  Those motions are required to discuss the key settlement terms, the settlement process, why the settlement if fair and adequate, and (and here's the rub), why certification of a settlement class is appropriate.  Now, that certification discussion is certainly more streamlined than on contested motion, but Courts still expect at least some discussion of certification requisites.  So, which page limit applies?  Is it 15 pages, or 20 pages, given that motions for preliminary (or final) approval of class action settlements discuss certification of a settlement class?

That's right -- common fund attorney fee awards can be calculated as a percentage of the fund

I take this opportunity to say I told you so.  "We clarify today that when an attorney fee is awarded out of a common fund preserved or recovered by means of litigation (see Serrano III, supra, at p. 35), the award is not per se unreasonable merely because it is calculated as a percentage of the common fund."  Laffitte, et al. v. Robert Half International, Inc., et al., at p. 2 (August 11, 2016).  See the rest if you have the time, but this should put an end to the spreading nonsense that lodestar is the method for calculating fees in common fund class action settlements.

Percentage of the fund is still an approved method of awarding fees in California class actions

Funny timing on this one.  In Episode 14 of the Class Re-Action podcast, our discussion turned at one point to fee awards in class actions.  We briefly mentioned Laffitte v. Robert Half International, Inc. (November 21, 2014), but didn't dive under the hood.  But now that I've had a chance to read it, I see that a postscript to the podcast is in order.  In Laffitte, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) considered an appeal by an objector to a class action settlement.  One issue the Court touched on was the propriety of using a percentage of the fund to award fees (with a lodestar crosscheck), rather than the currently trendy approach of using lodestar with a percentage crosscheck.  Here's a rundown of the Court's opinion.

The plaintiff settled a class action lawsuit against a group of defendants related to Robert Half International Inc. for $19 million.  The trial court granted the parties’ ex parte application for an order amending the settlement agreement, class notice, and claim form. Among other things, the amended settlement agreement said that Robert Half would pay a gross settlement amount of $19,000,000. Subject to court approval, the settlement agreement listed the following payments would be made from the gross settlement amount: class counsel attorneys’ fees of not more than $6,333,333.33 (one third of the gross settlement amount) and costs not to exceed counsel’s actual costs, class representative payments not to exceed $80,000, settlement administrator fees not to exceed $79,000, civil penalties owed to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and applicable payroll taxes on the employees’ recovery.

In support of their motion for attorneys’ fees, class counsel submitted declarations from the attorneys in each of the three law firms serving as class counsel. The attorneys did not submit detailed time records. The declarations stated that class counsel worked a total of 4,263.5 hours on the case (and anticipated working 200 hours on the appeal) and, using the hourly rate for each attorney, calculated that the total lodestar amount was $2,968,620 ($3,118,620 including the appeal). Class counsel requested a lodestar multiplier of between 2.03 to 2.13 for a total requested attorneys’ fee award of $6,333,333.33.

David Brennan, a member of the class, objected to the settlement and the amount awarded in attorney’s fees. The trial court overruled his objections and approved the settlement, which included an award of attorneys’ fees to class counsel of one-third of the settlement, or approximately $6.3 million. Brennan appealed from the order approving the settlement and entering final judgment, challenging both the class action settlement notice regarding the award of attorneys’ fees and the amount of attorneys’ fees awarded. Laffitte asked that the Court affirm the trial court’s order. The Robert Half defendants had no strong position on the appropriate amount of fees, but asked that the Court affirm the order “in order to bring this lawsuit to closure.”

The Court began its discussion of the challenge to attorney’s fees by observing that the Notice stated the maximum amount of fees that would be sought by class counsel:

The class notice describing the preliminarily-approved settlement included the proposed attorneys’ fees award for class counsel, a schedule for final approval, and the procedure for making objections. The notice stated: “Class Counsel, consisting of Law Offices of Kevin T. Barnes, Law Office of Joseph Antonelli, and Appell | Hilaire | Benardo LLP, will seek approval from the Court for the payment in an amount not more than $6,333,333.33 for their attorneys’ fees in connection with their work in the Actions, and an amount not more than $200,000 in reimbursement of their actual litigation expenses that were advanced in connection with the Actions. Class Counsel’s attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses as approved by the Court will be paid out of the Gross Settlement Amount.”

Slip op., at 10.  The Court then considered and rejected the argument that the motion for an award of fees should be available to the class members before the deadline to object expires, as Fed. R. Civ. P. 23 requires, as interpreted by the Ninth Circuit decision, In re Mercury Interactive Corp. Securities Litigation, 618 F.3d 988 (9th Cir. 2010):  “Rule 23 does not control in California. ‘As a general rule, California courts are not bound by the federal rules of procedure but may look to them and to the federal cases interpreting them for guidance or where California precedent is lacking. [Citations.] California courts have never adopted Rule 23 as “a procedural strait jacket. To the contrary, trial courts [are] urged to exercise pragmatism and flexibility in dealing with class actions.” [Citations.]’ ”  Slip op., at 11-12.  Instead, the Court said that California had adequate rules for notice:

California precedent and authority governing court approval of class action settlements and attorneys’ fees applications, however, are not lacking. Rule 3.769 of the California Rules of Court states the procedure for including an attorneys’ fees provision in a class action settlement agreement and for giving notice of the final approval hearing on the proposed settlement. Under rule 3.769(b) of the California Rules of Court, “[a]ny agreement, express or implied, that has been entered into with respect to the payment of attorney’s fees or the submission of an application for the approval of attorney’s fees must be set forth in full in any application for approval of the dismissal or settlement of an action that has been certified as a class action.”

Slip op., at 12.  The Court concluded that the notice given complied with Rule 3.769:

The notice given to the class members complied with California Rules of Court rule 3.769 by apprising them of the agreement concerning attorneys’ fees. The notice told the class members that class counsel could receive up to $6.3 million in attorneys’ fees. The notice also advised the class members of the procedures for objecting to the proposed settlement and appearing at the settlement hearing, where they could present their objections to any aspect of the settlement, including the amount of attorneys’ fees to be awarded to class counsel.

Slip op., at 13.  Positive number one from this opinion: no need to copy the approach of In re Mercury Interactive.

Next, the Court looked at the reasonableness of the fee award, noting discussion first the lodestar method of calculation:

In Lealao v. Beneficial California, Inc., supra, 82 Cal.App.4th 19 the court stated that “[t]he primacy of the lodestar method in California was established in 1977 in Serrano [v. Priest (1977)] 20 Cal.3d 25. . . . [O]ur Supreme Court declared: ‘“The starting point of every fee award . . . must be a calculation of the attorney’s services in terms of the time he has expended on the case.”’” (Id. at p. 26.) The court added that “[i]n so-called fee shifting cases, in which the responsibility to pay attorney fees is statutorily or otherwise transferred from the prevailing plaintiff or class to the defendant, the primary method for establishing the amount of ‘reasonable’ attorney fees is the lodestar method. The lodestar (or touchstone) is produced by multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended by counsel by a reasonable hourly rate. Once the court has fixed the lodestar, it may increase or decrease that amount by applying a positive or negative ‘multiplier’ to take into account a variety of other factors, including the quality of the representation, the novelty and complexity of the issues, the results obtained, and the contingent risk presented. [Citation.]”

Slip op., at 16-17.   The Court then noted that percentage of the fund remains a viable method of awarding fees in common fund cases:

Subsequent judicial opinions have made it clear that a percentage fee award in a common fund case “may still be done.” For example, in Chavez v. Netflix, Inc. (2008) 162 Cal.App.4th 43 the court stated that “the Lealao court did not purport to mandate the use of one particular formula in class action cases. The method the trial court used here and that [was] discussed in Lealao are merely different ways of using the same data—the amount of the proposed award and the monetized value of the class benefits—to accomplish the same purpose: to cross-check the fee award against an estimate of what the market would pay for comparable litigation services rendered pursuant to a fee agreement. [Citation.]” (Id. at p. 65.) Therefore, “fees based on a percentage of the benefits are in fact appropriate in large class actions when the benefit per class member is relatively low . . . .” (Id. at p. 63.)

Slip op., at 18.  In this matter, the Court held proper the trial court’s use of a percentage of the fund method with a lodestar crosscheck:

The trial court did not use the percentage of fund method exclusively to determine whether the amount of attorneys’ fees requested was reasonable and appropriate. The trial court also performed a lodestar calculation to cross-check the reasonableness of the percentage of fund award. This was entirely proper. “[A]lthough attorney fees awarded under the common fund doctrine are based on a ‘percentage-of-the-benefit’ analysis, while those under a fee-shifting statute are determined using the lodestar method, ‘[t]he ultimate goal . . . is the award of a “reasonable” fee to compensate counsel for their efforts, irrespective of the method of calculation.’ [Citations.]” (Apple Computer, Inc. v. Superior Court (2005) 126 Cal.App.4th 1253, 1270.) It therefore is appropriate for the trial court to cross-check an award of attorneys’ fees calculated by one method against an award calculated by the other method in order to confirm whether the award is reasonable.

Slip op., at 19-20.  Positive number two from this opinion: focusing on the percentage of the fund is still appropriate (courts claiming otherwise are misrepresenting the authority out there, though it probably doesn't matter, since what this really points out is that any rational method for evaluating the fee against the benefit conferred).  The Court added to the beneficial discussion by holding that detailed time records are not required:

Brennan argues that, in connection with the court’s lodestar calculations, class counsel did not submit detailed attorney time records. Such detailed time records, however, are not required. “It is well established that ‘California courts do not require detailed time records, and trial courts have discretion to award fees based on declarations of counsel describing the work they have done and the court’s own view of the number of hours reasonably spent.

Slip op., at 20.  That's right - more confirmation that there is no requirement to maintain detailed time records.  Positive number three.  The Court then soundly rejected the objector’s challenge to the application of a multiplier to compare the percentage of the fund award to the lodestar.  Finally, the Court concluded that the “clear sailing” provision in the settlement agreement was not improper in general:

“While it is true that the propriety of ‘clear sailing’ attorney fee agreements has been debated in scholarly circles [citations], commentators have also noted that class action ‘settlement agreement[s] typically include[] a “clear sailing” clause . . . .’ [Citation.] In fact, commentators have agreed that such an agreement is proper. ‘[A]n agreement by the defendant to pay such sum of reasonable fees as may be awarded by the court, and agreeing also not to object to a fee award up to a certain sum, is probably still a proper and ethical practice. This practice serves to facilitate settlements and avoids a conflict, and yet it gives the defendant a predictable measure of exposure of total monetary liability for the judgment and fees in a case. To the extent it facilitates completion of settlements, this practice should not be discouraged.’ [Citation.]” (Consumer Privacy Cases, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 553, fn. omitted; see Cellphone Termination Fee Cases (2009) 180 Cal.App.4th 1110, 1120 [“[c]lass action settlements frequently contain a ‘clear sailing’ agreement, whereby the defendant agrees not to object to an attorney fee award up to a certain amount”].)

Slip op. at 24-25.  The Court then concluded that there was no reason to find the “clear sailing” provision suspect in this matter.  The trial court was affirmed and costs were awarded to the plaintiff and defendants, indicating the Court’s view of the lack of merit in the appeal.

Luckey v. Superior Court says no to temporary judges for class settlement approval

In Luckey v. Superior Court (July 22, 2014), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three), the Court considered a writ following the denial of a stipulation to utilize a temporary judge to handle a class settlement approval.  Plaintiff filed a putative class action alleging violation of FACTA arising from printing “more than the last 5 digits of the card number or the expiration date” on an electronically printed receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of the transaction. (15 U.S.C. § 1681c(g).) The operative complaint alleged causes of action for violation of FACTA, negligence, and declaratory relief.  Plaintiff defined the putative class as “All individuals who purchased merchandise using a personal credit card or personal debit card at any retail store operated by Defendant within the United States during the Class Period2 who: [¶] Subclass A: Were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected more than the last five digits of the card; and/or [¶] Subclass B: Were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected the card's expiration date....” Plaintiff sought, on behalf of the class, damages of between $100 and $1000 for each receipt which violated FACTA (with separate damages for each violation), punitive damages, and reasonable attorney fees. Plaintiff also sought an order declaring that Cotton On's credit and debit card receipt practices violate FACTA and an order enjoining Cotton On from continuing to do so.  No responsive pleading was filed. The only other documents filed in this case consisted of stipulations for continuance of the initial status conference, and the stipulation for appointment of a temporary judge which is at issue in this writ proceeding. Plaintiff represented that, from the time the complaint was filed, the parties engaged in “informal discovery and exchanged information” in preparation for a mediation.

The mediation was held before a retired superior court judge. A class action settlement was reached at the mediation, and memorialized in a written settlement agreement. It is a class settlement, defining the settlement class as “all individuals who purchased merchandise using a personal credit card or personal debit card at any retail store operated by Cotton On within the United States since May 9, 2008, who were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected more than the last five digits of the card and/or were issued an electronically printed receipt that reflected the card's expiration date.” It excludes persons who validly opt out of the class.

Under the terms of the settlement, the class was to receive compensation in the form of “Merchandise Credits,” which was really a $5 credit on any transaction at or exceeding $25 at one of Cotton On's retail stores, during one pre-selected week. Notice was to be provided to the class by means of e-mail notice to be provided “to all [Cotton On]'s customers in the United States for whom [Cotton On] possesses a valid e-mail address.” Notice would also be given on Cotton On's website and near each of its retail stores' cash registers.

Cotton On agreed to fund the settlement in the amount of $1,000,000. Of that amount, the parties agreed that Luckey's counsel could seek an award of attorney's fees and costs in an amount of $302,000. The parties also agreed that Luckey himself could receive a payment of $5,000 as class representative, and that $135,000 would be allocated to the administrative costs of the settlement.

In sum the settlement provided as for: (1) $5,000 paid to Luckey (whereas each class member would receive, at most, a merchandise credit for one one-thousandth of that amount); (2) $302,000 paid to Luckey's counsel (for work which, to that point, consisted of filing a complaint and amended complaint, and preparing for and attending a one-day mediation); and (3) a one-week $5 off $25 sale, of which Cotton On would send notice to its e-mail customer list.

Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the parties stipulated for appointment of a temporary judge to hear the matter “until final determination thereof.” Specifically, the parties intended to submit to the temporary judge the issues related to preliminary and final approval of the class action settlement. The same retired judge who had served as the mediator in this matter was identified by the parties as the proposed temporary judge. The temporary judge would be privately compensated by the parties.

The stipulation was presented to the Supervising Judge of the Civil Division, as required by the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Local Rules, rule 2.24(a)(1). On June 2, 2014, the court issued a minute order declining to approve the stipulation. The court's analysis explained that, although plaintiff’s counsel could stipulate to the appointment of the temporary judge on behalf of the plaintiff, the “submitted papers do not demonstrate that the named plaintiffs or the attorneys are authorized to speak for all class members.” Without the stipulation of all putative class members, the case could not be transferred to a temporary judge.  The plaintiff filed a petition for a writ to compel appointment of the temporary judge. The Court of Appeal issued an Order to Show cause.

In responding to the Court of Appeal, the plaintiff challenged the Superior Court’s standing to oppose the writ petition:

In this case, Luckey suggests that the Superior Court lacked standing to oppose his writ petition because the Superior Court “has presented no evidence that the issues presented impact the operations or procedures of the Court or that the decision will impose any financial obligations on the court's operations.” The argument is puzzling given the arguments Luckey makes in support of his petition. First, Luckey argues that he is, in fact, challenging a procedure of the court, not merely an isolated ruling. Luckey represents that the Superior Court previously “routinely issued orders appointing temporary judges to preside over class action matters,” but, “in or around November 2013,” the court “stopped” approving those stipulations and began denying them. Second, Luckey argues at length, although without evidentiary basis, that the court's financial obligations are, in fact, at issue. Luckey argues that lengthy delays are now the reality in class action litigation, and that parties should be permitted to avoid these delays by the use of temporary judges—a procedure which, according to Luckey, would “alleviate[ ] space for other litigants” at Superior Court. Indeed, Luckey represents that the Superior Court previously appointed temporary judges to serve in class action matters “in part[ ] due to congested and backlogged dockets.” As the Superior Court's procedures and financial obligations are at issue, the Superior Court has a right to appear.

Slip op., at 15-16.  The Court then examined whether the trial court erred when it denied the stipulation of the parties to use a “temporary judge” to decide the fairness of the class settlement.  The Court began by examining the complex question of whether absent putative class members are “parties” for purposes of the stipulation at issue.  The Court concluded they were not:

[W]hile Luckey and Cotton On were the only “parties litigant” at the time of the stipulation to the temporary judge, they were also the only parties who could be bound by such a stipulation.  As the conceded purpose of the stipulation was to bind all putative class members to the stipulation, and they could not be bound until they had been given notice and an opportunity to appear, the stipulation was ineffective.  The state Constitution provides that, for a stipulation to a temporary judge to be effective, that stipulation must be made by the parties litigant.  In a pre-certification class action, the parties litigant have not yet been identified; thus, no such stipulation can be effectively made.

Slip op., at 22-23.  Next, the Court concluded that the Rules of Court directed the same conclusion, because of the right of objectors to intervene:

Our consideration of the applicable rules of court leads us to the same conclusion. California Rules of Court, rule 2.835(b) governs requests to intervene in matters pending before temporary judges. It states, in pertinent part, “A motion for leave to file a complaint for intervention in a case pending before a temporary judge requested by the parties must be filed with the court and served on all parties and the temporary judge. The motion must be heard by the trial court judge to whom the case is assigned or, if the case has not been assigned, by the presiding judge or his or her designee. If intervention is allowed, the case must be returned to the trial court docket unless all parties stipulate ... to proceed before the temporary judge.” In other words, when a party seeks to intervene in a matter pending before a temporary judge, that party's right to intervene must be determined by the trial court, not the temporary judge. Furthermore, if intervention is permitted, the case must be returned to trial court unless the intervenor also agrees to the temporary judge.

Slip op., at 23-24.  Finally, the Court observed that public policy concerns weighed against the procedure advocated by the petitioner, having earlier observed: “A class member objecting to the settlement as unfair will certainly believe he or she is facing an uphill battle in convincing the temporary judge of the merits of the objection; the temporary judge clearly believed in the propriety of the settlement when acting as a mediator.  This could well raise a question of an appearance of impropriety.”

In the "Pitts" of despair, a "Terrible" attempt to pick off a class representative fails

I remember when what was probably the first Terrible Herbst gas station opened a mere block from my home in Las Vegas.  Refilled a lot of bike tires there.  But enough about my childhood.  Terrible Herbst isn't the friendly local gas station of my youth.  Now it's just another corporate slave to the whisperings of defense counsel skilled in the dark arts.  In Pitts v. Terrible Herbst, Inc. (August 9, 2011), the Ninth Circuit considered whether a rejected offer of judgment for the full amount of a putative class representative's individual claim moots a class action complaint where the offer precedes the filing of a motion for class certification.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that it did not.

Pitts filed a hybrid FLSA and Nevada labor law class action.  The defendant removed it to federal court.  With a discovery motion pending, Terrible made a Rule 68 offer of judgment in the amount of $900.  Pitts claimed $88.00 in damages but rejected the offer.  Terrible then sought to have the matter dismissed.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this attempt to impede consideration of the class certification question:

An inherently transitory claim will certainly repeat as to the class, either because “[t]he individual could nonetheless suffer repeated [harm]” or because “it is certain that other persons similarly situated” will have the same complaint. Gerstein, 420 U.S. at 110 n.11. In such cases, the named plaintiff’s claim is “capable of repetition, yet evading review,” id., and “the ‘relation back’ doctrine is properly invoked to preserve the merits of the case for judicial resolution,” McLaughlin, 500 U.S. at 52; see also Geraghty, 445 U.S. at 398; Sosna, 419 U.S. at 402 n.11.

Slip op., at 10453.  The Court then discussed the argument that the claims in this matter were not "inherrently" transitory:

We recognize that the canonical relation-back case—such as Gerstein or McLaughlin—involves an “inherently transitory” claim and, correspondingly, “a constantly changing putative class.” Wade v. Kirkland, 118 F.3d 667, 670 (9th Cir. 1997). But we see no reason to restrict application of the relation-back doctrine only to cases involving inherently transitory claims. Where, as here, a defendant seeks to “buy off” the small individual claims of the named plaintiffs, the analogous claims of the class—though not inherently transitory—become no less transitory than inherently transitory claims. Thus, although Pitts’s claims “are not ‘inherently transitory’ as a result of being time sensitive, they are ‘acutely susceptible to mootness’ in light of [the defendant’s] tactic of ‘picking off’ lead plaintiffs with a Rule 68 offer to avoid a class action.”

Slip op., at 10454.  Interestingly, the Court essentially found that the right to certify a class was an additional right not satisfied by the Rule 68 offer, and that right could not be extinguished unless certification were denied and all appellate efforts were exhausted.

Next, the Court ruled that it was error to find that Pitts failed to timely file a motion for class certification when the trial court refused to rule on a pending discovery motion to obtain evidence necessary for certification.

Other issues raised in the appeal were not addressed by the Court once it concluded that the trial court erred in its ruling regarding the timing of certification.

Order from In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage and Hour Litigation highlights need to support incentive award requests with detailed facts when the requested award is substantial

Untited States District Court Judge Saundra B. Armstrong (Northern District of California) granted in part and denied in part the unopposed motion of plaintiffs for an award of incentive payments and attorney's fees.  In re Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Wage and Hour Litigation, 2011 WL 31266 (N.D.Cal. Jan. 05, 2011).  Counsel requested 33.3% of the maximum settlement amount of $86 million.  The Court agreed that a departure from the 25% benchmark in the Ninth Circuit was appropriate but not to that degree.  The Court awarded a fee equal to 27% of the maximum settlement amount.

On the requested enhancement awards, the Court said:

Upon review of the record in this case, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are entitled to a reasonable incentive payment. However, the Court finds the requested award of $25,000 per named Plaintiff to be excessive, in view of the nature of their assistance in this case.  First, the Court notes that the named Plaintiffs have not indicated in their declarations the total number of hours they spent on this litigation. Rather, they generally explain that they were deposed, responded to written discovery, and assisted and met with counsel. Second, in arguing that $25,000 is an appropriate award, Plaintiffs cite to cases that are clearly distinguishable. For instance, in Brotherton v. Cleveland, 141 F.Supp.2d 907 (S.D.Ohio 2001), the court awarded $50,000 to a single named plaintiff, finding that “she has spent approximately 800 hours working on this litigation.” Id. at 914. By contrast, here, there is no evidence that the named Plaintiffs' involvement reached anywhere near this level.

Slip op., at 4.  The Court awarded $5,000 to each plaintiff.

Kullar v. Foot Locker generating more precedent, this time on a disqualification issue

So, I'm back after a vacation, and just in time.  Luckily, nothing at all happened while I was gone.  Today, however, we receive a new nugget of precedent from one of those cases that keeps on giving.  In Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc. (January 18, 2011), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Three) reviewed a denial of a motion to disqualify counsel representing the objectors to a proposed class action settlement in Kullar.  If this doesn't ring a bell for you, let me recap.  Kullar (the 2008 opinion: Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc., 168 Cal. App. 4th 116 (2008)) reversed an order granting approval to a proposed class action settlement after concluding that the information provided to the trial court was insufficient to permit the court to conclude that the settlement was fair, adequate and reasonable.

How does this lead to a motion to disqualify?  Glad you asked.  The Court sums up as well as I could the procedural maneuvering leading to the motion to disqualify:

Prior to the trial court's approval of the settlement in the Kullar action (Kullar v. Footlocker, No. CGC-05-447044 (Kullar)), Echeverria, represented by the same attorneys, had filed a partially overlapping putative class action against Foot Locker and others in the Alameda County Superior Court (Echeverria v. Footlocker, No. RG07317036 (Echeverria I)). Because of the pendency of the settlement in the Kullar action, the Alameda court entered an order staying Echeverria I, which remained in effect through the pendency of the Kullar appeal. On April 15, 2009, one month after issuance of the remittitur in Kullar, Echeverria and the two other objectors represented by Q&W filed an action in the San Francisco Superior Court, where Kullar was pending, asserting the same claims as were alleged in the stayed Alameda action (Echeverria v. Footlocker, No. CGC-09-487345 (Echeverria II)). Based on the pendency of identical claims in Echeverria I, the San Francisco court on July 29, 2009, stayed proceedings in Echeverria II. In subsequent proceedings in Kullar, the court considered the additional showing made to establish the fairness of the proposed settlement, the three objectors' renewed objections to settlement approval, and on October 22, 2009, the court again granted final approval of the class settlement. Echeverria dismissed the Alameda action and on November 17, 2009, the San Francisco court lifted the stay in Echeverria II.

Slip op., at 2-3.  The Court then describes the motion to disqualify filed by Foot Locker, which argued that representation of objectors on the one hand and potential class members on the other created a conflict.  The trial court rejected that argument as did the Court of Appeal.  I don't find the outcome surprising.  But the opinion does offer some interesting comments, where the Court briefly discusses the obligations of counsel to putative class members prior to certification:

Initially, since no class has yet been certified in Echeverria II (and no class was ever certified in Echeverria I), no attorney-client relationship has yet arisen between Q&W and the members of the putative class. (Atari, Inc. v. Superior Court (1985) 166 Cal.App.3d 867, 873 [“We cannot accept the suggestion that a potential (but as yet unapproached) class member should be deemed 'a party . . . represented by counsel' even before the class is certified; we respectfully disagree to this extent with the federal courts which apparently would accept it.”]; Sharp v. Next Entertainment, Inc. (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 410, 433, citing comment 25 to rule 1.7 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct [“When a lawyer represents or seeks to represent a class of plaintiffs or defendants in a class-action lawsuit, unnamed members of the class are ordinarily not considered to be clients of the lawyer for purposes of applying paragraph (a)(1) of this Rule [that restricts representation when there are concurrent conflicts of interest] . . .”]; In re McKesson HBOC, Inc. Securities Litigation (N.D.Cal. 2000) 126 F.Supp.2d 1239, 1245; Cal. Compendium on Prof. Responsibility, L.A. County Bar Assn. Formal Opn. No. 481 (March 20, 1995).)  

Foot Locker cites cases that clearly are inapposite to establish that an attorney may incur fiduciary obligations to an individual even though an attorney-client relationship has not arisen. Most involve situations where there were preliminary consultations between the individual and the attorney looking to the retention of the attorney but the potential client did not hire the attorney. (People ex rel. Dept. of Corporations v. Speedee Oil Change Systems, Inc. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 1135; Beery v. State Bar (1987) 43 Cal.3d 802.) Closer to the mark is the court's statement in In re GMC Pick-up Truck Fuel Tank Prod. Liab. Litig. (3rd Cir. 1995) 55 F.3d 768, 801: “Beyond their ethical obligations to their clients, class attorneys, purporting to represent a class, also owe the entire class a fiduciary duty once the class complaint is filed.” This statement—which, it should be noted, recognizes that putative class members are not clients of the attorney—was made in the context of considering the propriety of certifying a settlement class, with little application to the present situation. Moreover, assuming that Q&W assumed some fiduciary obligations to members of the putative class they seek to represent, no authority has been cited suggesting that those obligations preclude the attorneys from urging that a proposed settlement in related litigation is not in the best interests of the class. (Compare Schick v. Berg (2004) U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6842, *19 (S.D.N.Y. 2004, affd. (2d Cir. 2005) 430 F.3d 112 [attorney owed putative class member a duty not to prejudice putative class member's rights in the action in which class certification was sought, but duty did not extend to refraining from advising a third party to sue putative class member].)

Slip op., at 5-6.  After reading these remarks, I now believe that it is unclear in California whether the majority approach follows or diverges from the federal cases suggesting a fiduciary obligation extends to putative class members prior to certification.  It seems likely, however, that regardless of the answer as to where California is on the issue, the obligations to the unknown putative class members do not rise to the same level as that of the obligations to a represented client.  The ability to harmonize this question is complicated by authority indicating that class counsel can replace a proposed class representative for the good of the class, which, in one way of looking at it, suggests that the interests of the putative class can rise high enough to squeeze the initial client to the sidelines.

Cellphone Fee Termination Cases affirms class action settlement with several instructive holdings

This initially unpublished opinion in Cellphone Fee Termination Cases (July 27, 2010) follows from a consolidated appeal in one of several coordinated class actions that challenged wireless telephone carriers' practice of charging early termination fees (ETF's) on customers seeking to cancel cellular telephone contracts. The defendant in this particular case is Cellco Partnership (doing business as Verizon Wireless ("Verizon")).  The class action case against Verizon went to a jury trial on June 16, 2008, in the Alameda County Superior Court. On July 8, 2008, after plaintiffs had rested their case and the defense presentation had commenced, the parties announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the terms of a settlement. The settlement also encompassed claims of nationwide certified class claimants (excluding California class members) in a proceeding then pending before the American Arbitration Association (AAA), as well as two actions filed in federal district courts.

Objectors challenged the settlement at final approval, contending that the notice of the settlement was inadequate,  that the settlement terms were not fair, reasonable and adequate, and that incentive payments awarded to four named class representatives were improper.  The trial court overruled the objections and approved the settlement.  The objectors appealed, but the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division Five) affirmed.

In an otherwise standard, but lengthy, discussion of appellate review standards, the Court offered some useful holdings:

  • The appellants argued that the statement in the short-form publication notice was misleading in that it gave the impression that members of the Subscriber Class would share in a portion of the $21 million settlement fund.  The Court disagreed:  "That publication notice, however, (as well as the mail notice) directed potential settlement class members to the settlement Web site to learn more about the settlement, and the publication notice specifically referenced the ― detailed notice and claim form package which subscribers would need to submit to ― qualify for a payment."  Slip op., at 11.  Thus, the short form notice need not contain all information about the settlement, so long as it directs class members to a source of full information about the settlement.
  • The appellants also argued that notice was defective in failing to disclose the enormous size of the class to the EFT Assessed Class, asserting that this interfered with an informed decision about whether to participate, object, or opt out.  The Court quickly disposed of that argument: "[Appellant] cites no authority for her position that information as to the size of the potential class, or the contingencies of recovery in any particular amount, is required. Courts which have considered such objections in the context of class settlement have rejected the claim."  Slip op., at 13.
  • The appellants also contended that $10,000 incentive awards to the representatives constituted a breach of their fiduciary duty to the class. Specifically, appellant alleged that "Schroer and White received amounts grossly disproportionate to the average recovery to the ETF Assessed Class", and asserted that "Nguyen and Brown (members of the Subscriber Class) received 'pay-offs to induce them to sell out the Subscriber Class.'" Slip op., at 20. The Court commented: "While there has been scholarly debate about the propriety of individual awards to named plaintiffs, '[i]ncentive awards are fairly typical in class action cases.'"  Slip op., at 20. The Court went on, observing: "There is a surprising dearth of California authority directly addressing this question. The threshold question of whether a class representative is entitled to a fee in a California class action was recently answered in the affirmative in Clark v. American Residential Services LLC (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 785 (Clark)." Slip op., at 21. After discussing the policies behind incentive awards and the evidence of representatives' efforts in this case, the Court concluded: "In contrast to the more detailed analysis given by the trial court to other aspects of the settlement, the discussion of the incentive awards was sparse. There is no 'presumption of fairness' in review of an incentive fee award. (Clark, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 806.) The court, however, found the awards justified in light of the total settlement on the 'substantial benefit/common fund approach' and the 'material support' provided by the named plaintiffs to the prosecution of the case. Given the familiarity of the trial court with the history of the lengthy litigation and the evidence before the court that the representatives had, over the course of the litigation, assisted with investigation, responded to discovery requests, reviewed documents and pleadings, and testified either in deposition or at trial, we find no abuse of discretion in these awards. Slip op., at 23.

Munoz v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (Greenwell, objector) provides much-needed words of restraint concerning Kullar

Since Kullar v. Foot Locker Retail, Inc., 168 Cal. App. 4th 116 (2008) (Kullar) and Clark v. American Residential Services LLC, 175 Cal. App. 4th 785 (2009) (Clark) were decided, trial courts and settling parties in class actions have been looking over their shoulder at every settlement, concerned about the amount of information necessary to meet the Kullar/Clark standard for adequate settlement review.  For example, the Los Angeles Superior Court appears to be utilizing some form of checklist derived, in part, from Kullar to analyze proposed class action settlements.  Fortunately, in Munoz v. BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (ord. pub. July 2, 2010) (Greenwell, objector), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Eight) explains that much of the angst over Kullar/Clark is overblown because their requirements have been overstated and/or misconstrued.

Plaintiffs in Munoz filed a class action lawsuit against BCI Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Los Angeles (BCI), alleging unpaid overtime wages, missed meal and rest period wages, and other Labor Code violations and unfair business practices. The proposed class consisted of production supervisors and merchandising supervisors who were allegedly misclassified as exempt.  After mediation, the parties agreed to settle the matter for $1.1 million. Notice of the proposed settlement elicited one objection. Two of the 188 class members opted out.  The average net payment to each class member would be about $4,300. The trial court found the settlement fair and reasonable. The objector, Greenwell, appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in approving the settlement, principally because the parties did not provide the court with the information necessary to make a finding that the settlement was reasonable and fair.

The Court of Appeal summarized the obligation of a trial court evaluating a class action settlement:

Some cases state that a presumption of fairness exists “where: (1) the settlement is reached through arm's-length bargaining; (2) investigation and discovery are sufficient to allow counsel and the court to act intelligently; (3) counsel is experienced in similar litigation; and (4) the percentage of objectors is small.” (Dunk, supra, 48 Cal.App.4th at p. 1802.) Kullar emphasizes that this is only an initial presumption; a trial court's approval of a class action settlement will be vacated if the court “is not provided with basic information about the nature and magnitude of the claims in question and the basis for concluding that the consideration being paid for the release of those claims represents a reasonable compromise.” (Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at pp. 130, 133.) In short, the trial court may not determine the adequacy of a class action settlement “without independently satisfying itself that the consideration being received for the release of the class members' claims is reasonable in light of the strengths and weaknesses of the claims and the risks of the particular litigation.” (Id. at p. 129.)

Slip op., at 10.  However, after explaining that the objector complained "that the record before the trial court contained no evidence of 'the potential value of the claims,'" the Court went on to explain that Kullar is misunderstood:

Greenwell misunderstands Kullar, apparently interpreting it to require the record in all cases to contain evidence in the form of an explicit statement of the maximum amount the plaintiff class could recover if it prevailed on all its claims--a number which appears nowhere in the record of this case. But Kullar does not, as Greenwell claims, require any such explicit statement of value; it requires a record which allows “an understanding of the amount that is in controversy and the realistic range of outcomes of the litigation.”

Slip op., at 11.  Continuing, the Court noted, "Indeed, the standard list of factors a trial court should consider in determining whether a settlement is fair and reasonable does not expressly include specification of the maximum amount of recoverable damages (see Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at p. 128), and Kullar is clear that the most important factor '"'is the strength of the case for plaintiffs on the merits, balanced against the amount offered in settlement.'"' (Id. at p. 130.)"  Slip op., at 11, n. 6.

The Court itemized the information available to the trial court in the case before it:

The information before the court included the size of the class (188) and the payroll data on all class members during the class period (including total amounts of salaries paid during the class period). It also included declarations from 30 class members (15 percent of the class) indicating the number of hours worked per week and per day (and the significant differences in those numbers): e.g., 70 hours per week, 48 hours per week, 60 hours per week, 42-44 hours per week, 55 hours per week, “no more than 50 hours per week,” 45 hours per week in winter and 50-60 hours per week at other times of the year, eight to nine hours per day, 45 hours per week, and so on. These declarations also showed significant variations....

Slip op., at 11.  In other words, the trial court had more than enough information to evaluate the "strength of the case" and compare that to the amount offered in settlement.

As an additional measure of assistance, the Court highlighted the facts from Kullar and Clark that undermined those settlements:

As a final observation on this topic, we note that the evidentiary records in Kullar and Clark, upon which Greenwell relies so heavily, are significantly different from this case. In Kullar (which did not involve the misclassification of exempt employees), there was no discovery at all on meal period claims that were added in an amended complaint and were the focal point of the objections to the settlement. (Kullar, supra, 168 Cal.App.4th at pp. 121-122.) While Kullar class counsel argued that the relevant information had been exchanged informally and during mediation (id. at p. 126), nothing was presented to the court--no discovery, no declarations, no time records, no payroll data, nothing (id. at pp. 128-129, 132)--to allow the court to evaluate the claim. And in Clark, the problem was that the trial court was not given sufficient information on a core legal issue affecting the strength of the plaintiffs' case on the merits, and therefore could not assess the reasonableness of the settlement terms. (Clark, supra, 175 Cal.App.4th at p. 798.) The record in this case contains neither of the flaws that doomed the Kullar and Clark settlements.

Slip op, at 13.

Munoz v. BCI clearly holds that there is no obligation on parties seeking approval of a class action settlement to state a specific sum that would represent the maximum possible recovery if the class prevailed on all theories.  Rather, the Court must have information that permits it to evaluate the strength of the claims compared to the amount offered in settlement.  This showing ought to be satisfied by a discussion of the specific risk factors associated with the various theories, along with data about such things as the size of the class.  In other words, if a trial court can roughly approximate the magnitude of the claims and the likelihood of recovery, it can fashion the necessary metric.

In addressing other arguments, the Court rejected a challenge to the $5,000 incentive awards approved by the trial court.