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 This viewwas applied in Bartold v. Glendale Federal Bank (2000) 81Cal.App.4th 816 (Bartold), superseded by statute on another point as stated in Markowitz v. Fidelity Nat.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.

Perfunctory certification order reversed and sent back to the trial court in Myers v. Raley's

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The standard of review governing certification orders is effectively unique to class actions. As the Supreme Court explained in Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc. 59 Cal.4th 522 (2014): “We review the trial court’s actual reasons for granting or denying certification; if they are erroneous, we must reverse, whether or not other reasons not relied upon might have supported the ruling.” Id., at 530. In other words, only the stated reasons are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. And if a stated reason includes a legally erroneous provision, that, by definition, constitutes and abuse of discretion. The record is not searched for an alternative basis to affirm.

In Myers v. Rayey’s (March 12, 2019), the Court of appeal (Third Appellate District) [Yolo!] concluded that one paragraph of substance was insufficient to permit review, since, without a statement of reasoning and analysis, there is no way to meaningfully review what is simply an ultimate conclusion:

To turn to the record to concoct some basis for the trial court’s denial of certification is to abolish the relevant standard of review, ignore the trial court’s reasoning, and apply ordinary appellate review contrary to the legion of cases that prohibit appellate revisionism. This we cannot do.

Slip op., at 15. As part of its discussion of the insufficiency of a “perfunctory” order, the Court explicitly disagreed with Dailey v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 214 Cal. App. 4th 974 (2013), which had affirmed an exceedingly terse certification denial order.

This hits close to home, as I was unsuccessful on an appeal of a certification order with about as much (or little) in the way of analysis. If I had been in front of this panel…. And if it weren’t for those meddling kids!

I also get the feeling when reading the statement of facts that the Court had a strong opinion about how things should turn out after round two but couldn’t actually say how things should turn out.

Lubin v. The Wackenhut Corporation tackles Wal-mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, Brinker, and decertification

This opinion is like Christmas and Hanukkah, sitting in an Easter Basket filled with Valentine's Day treats.  And I overlooked it for two weeks!  In Lubin v. The Wackenhut Corporation, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) gets deep into the wage and hour weeds in 50-page opinion that is overflowing with interesting bits.  Here's the summary of how the matter ended up before the Court of Appeal:

Appellants Nivida Lubin, Sylvia M. Maresca, and Kevin Denton (together plaintiffs) filed this action on behalf of themselves and similarly situated persons, alleging defendant and respondent The Wackenhut Corporation (Wackenhut) violated California labor laws by failing to provide employees with off-duty meal and rest breaks and by providing inadequate wage statements. The trial court initially granted plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. However, as the case approached trial, the United States Supreme Court reversed a grant of class certification in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes (2011) 564 U.S. 338 (Wal-Mart). Relying on Wal-Mart, Wackenhut moved for decertification. The trial court granted the motion. 

Slip op., at 2.

I don't have time to try and summarize this monster opinion at the moment, but it is a must read.  The Court spends a lot of time explaining why Wal-Mart is not applicable to wage and hour certification questions, notes that the Supreme Court, which decided Wal-Mart, held this year in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 136 S.Ct. 1036, 1048 (2016) that statistical evidence is appropriately used in class actions, spends a substantial amount of time applying Brinker and the cases that followed to explain that variations in rates of missed meal and rest breaks, when certified based on an unlawful policy or procedure, is a damages issue, not a predominance question, and lots, lots, more!

Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, Emily P. Rich, Theodore Franklin, Manuel A. Boigues; Posner & Rosen, Howard Z. Rosen, Jason C. Marsili, Brianna M. Primozic; James R. Hawkings, James R. Hawkings, and Gregory E. Mauro, represented the successful Plaintiffs and Appellants on appeal.

Ninth Circuit begins to define scope of Mazza in Ruiz Torres v. Mercer Canyons Inc.

In Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 666 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 2012), the Ninth Circuit Rule 23 predominance was defeated where many (or even most) class members “were never exposed to the allegedly misleading advertisements” (666 F.3d at 597) because the defendant subjected only a small segment of an expansive class of car buyers to misleading material as part of a “very limited” advertising campaign (id. at 595).  This decision raised questions about how federal courts in the Ninth Circuit would actually evaluate UCL claims when faced with reconciling In re Tobacco II and Mazza.  In Ruiz Torres v. Mercer Canyons Inc. (9th Cir. Aug. 31, 2016), a wage & hour suit in which the District Court certified a class, the Ninth Circuit analyzed Mazza in a manner demonstrating that it may be constrained in its application moving forward.

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Overreach results in rare class action dismissal via demurrer in Schermer v. Tatum

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While getting a class certified is often a serious fight, defeating class allegations at the demurrer stage is generally rare.  But never say never.  In Schermer v. Tatum (March 18, 2016), the Fourth Appellate District, Division One, affirmed a trial court ruling sustaining a demurrer to class allegations in the plaintiffs' second amended complaint (SAC).  The plaintiffs brought a class action on behalf of residents who live in the 18 mobilehome parks.  The plaintiffs alleged they were subjected to uniform unconscionable lease agreements and leasing practices by a collection of related defendants.  The SAC involved 18 mobilehome parks allegedly owned and/or operated by two defendants (Tatums and Kaplan), and were managed through defendant Mobile Community Management Company (MCM).  The plaintiffs also named as defendants the 18 "single-purpose" business entities that are each described as the owners of one of the mobilehome park in California.

The Court of Appeal began by summarizing the first amended complaint, the demurrer hearing related to it, and the SAC. And that summary is all you need to read to know where things are headed.  The Court described the "highlights" of the FAC as follows:

In the FAC, plaintiffs again alleged defendants Tatum and Kaplan, through MCM, engaged in unlawful conduct at each of the 18 mobilehome parks.  Specifically, they alleged defendants "charg[ed] excessive rent, pursu[ed] arbitrary evictions, and implement[ed] unreasonable polices."  Plaintiffs further alleged in their FAC that defendants Tatum and Kaplan took "advantage of vulnerable prospective and current residents" including "non-[E]nglish speaking and elderly residents" who, plaintiffs claimed, were "especially susceptible" to defendants' unlawful business practices.  Plaintiffs alleged defendants "most egregious practice" was the use of a "one-sided, standardized lease" agreement.  Plaintiffs provided 32 examples of lease clauses that allegedly violated California's Mobilehome Residency Law (Civ. Code, § 798 et seq.; MRL).
 Plaintiffs' FAC also set forth about 11 "factors" that plaintiffs alleged showed procedural unconscionability between plaintiffs and the putative class, on the one hand, and defendants, on the other.  Such factors included among others "residents' poor socio-economic background" and defendants' "knowledge of residents' vulnerability to oppression."  Plaintiffs also listed about 17 examples of substantive unconscionability in their FAC in connection with defendants' use of the standardized lease agreement in the 18 mobilehome parks.  As before, plaintiffs' class action allegations included any person who had an ownership interest in a mobilehome in any of the 18 parks, and a senior citizen and non-English-speaking subclass. 

Slip op., at 3-4.  Then, discussing the hearing on the demurrer to the FAC, the Court said, "At the demurrer hearing, plaintiffs' counsel agreed with the court that plaintiffs' FAC was 'a mess' and counsel admitted they 'did a horrible job in succinctly and systematically putting forth facts that show what the [FAC] -- what the case is about and how it shows a pattern of conduct that is deserving of being treated in a class action.' "  Slip op., at 4.  Not looking good.

Describing the subsequently issued Order on the demurrer to the FAC, the Court set forth key parts of the trial court's ruling:

"Plaintiffs allege multiple causes of action, all of which related in some way to the Lease Agreements utilized at the Defendants['] parks.  Based upon the allegations in the [FAC], it appears that some of the claims involved the alleged unconscionability of the contracts themselves, while others involve each Defendant's alleged actions in executing or enforcing the individual contracts as to individual Plaintiffs.  [¶]  The Court finds that multiple factual allegations predominate.  Plaintiffs['] measure of damages will be unique to each park.  The proposed class does not all reside at the same location or under the same circumstances.  Each putative class member is/was a resident at one of the eighteen separate mobilehome parks located throughout the State of California, giving rise to individualized factual questions related to causation, liability, and damages.
"Example of the individualized issues include the remedy (determining excess rents paid at each space requires a factual showing of fair market values for rents in a particular area [at] a particular time and park-by[-]park appraisal).  Further, there appear to be multiple lease agreements.  Although Plaintiffs allege Defendants used a 'standardized' Lease Agreement, they attach at least five different variations of the Lease Agreement and/or Amendments to the Lease Agreement.  (See Exhibits 'A,' 'B,' 'C,' 'D,' and 'E,' attached to the [FAC].)

Slip op., at 5. The trial court went on to identify additional issues, including the fact that many class members would not be able to state certain claims if they had not attempted to sell their homes, and there were no putative class representative plaintiffs for many of the mobilehome parks.

The SAC filed by the plaintiffs attempted to address many of the trial court's concerns, but a number of its allegations were found by the trial court to be conclusory assertions about defendants, and not allegations of fact.  The SAC did not address damage issues that would arise, which included the fact that several of the mobilehome parks were in cities with their own rent control ordinances.  The trial court was particularly concerned by the fact that each agreement at each park with each potential class member was individually negotiated and by the fact that a unique damage calculation would be required for each park and each person at each park. Moreover, the trial court took notice of the fact that many individuals were involved in their own litigation with their own park.

After discussing the procedural background, the Court made sure to note that it is undisputed that class allegations can be decided on demurrer:

It is beyond dispute that trial courts are permitted to decide the issue of class certification on demurrer.  (Tucker, supra, 208 Cal.App.4th at p. 212; see Linder v. Thrifty Oil Co. (2000) 23 Cal.4th 429, 440 [noting the issue is "settled" that courts are authorized to "weed[] out" legally meritless class action suits prior to certification by demurrer or pretrial motion].)  A trial court may sustain a demurrer to class action allegations where " 'it concludes as a matter of law that, assuming the truth of the factual allegations in the complaint, there is no reasonable possibility that the requirements for class certification will be satisfied.  [Citations.]'  [Citations.]"  (Tucker, at p. 211, italics added; see Canon U.S.A., Inc. v. Superior Court (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1, 5 [noting that when the "invalidity of the class allegations is revealed on the face of the complaint, and/or by matters subject to judicial notice, the class issue may be properly disposed of by demurrer or motion to strike," and noting that "[i]n such circumstances, there is no need to incur the expense of an evidentiary hearing or class-related discovery"].)

Slip op., at 14. Much of the discussion that follows is unsurprising, given the discussion of the trial court's analysis.  The Court did wade into the murky waters of attempting to categorize an allegation as either an "ultimate fact" or a "conclusion":

We conclude plaintiffs' allegations in their SAC—which were noticeably absent from their original complaint—that defendants implemented a uniform policy and procedure in each and every lease transaction with plaintiffs and the putative class members over a four-year period (i.e., the proposed class period), in each of the 18 mobilehome parks owned and/or operated by Tatum and Kaplan, are not properly admitted for purposes of demurrer because such allegations are not ultimate facts but rather merely contentions and/or improper factual conclusions.

Slip op., at 17-18. In my experience, this is very much an eye-of-the-beholder call that deserves a clarifying opinion with more objective guidance as to how to distinguish between the two.

In any event, the Court agreed with the trial court's assessments, finding, in particular, that the individual nature of the transactions was such that each course of dealing is unique, and damages, because of different circumstances, park locations, and local ordinances, are also unique to each potential class member.  The Court declined to grant leave to amend to the plaintiffs, agreeing with the trial court that the problems were insurmountable.  The lesson here is that overreach can be fatal.  It might have been more workable to describe uniform leasing practices at one mobilehome park and seek class relief for the aspects of the transaction that were common to all of the residents, while, at the same time, addressing how damages will be calculated and distributed.

The "separate location" argument seems better suited to this sort of consumer circumstance than it is in the wage & hour context, where defendants nevertheless try the "each of our stores is unique and different" argument, as if they have no uniform policies regulating employees and allow each store to run their own affairs like the wild West. Hey, at least this Court cited Brinker (but it felt like an ironic cite to me).

Misclassifcation of independent contractors gets a boost in Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers

As I fill the backlog, we have yet another big decision from the California Supreme Court. In Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, 59 Cal. 4th 522 (June 30, 2014), the Supreme Court examined how the question of certification should be answered in the context of misclassification of independent contractors.  Newspaper carriers, classified as independent contractors, filed suit to obtain remedies available to employees under California’s wage & hour laws.  Plaintiffs moved for class certification.  The trial court concluded the case could not proceed as a class action, holding that on the critical question whether plaintiffs and the class were employees, plaintiffs had not shown common questions predominate.  The trial court held that to determine employee status for the class would necessitate numerous unmanageable individual inquiries into the extent to which each carrier was afforded discretion in his or her work.  The Court of Appeal disagreed in part, holding that the trial court had misunderstood the nature of the inquiries called for, and remanded for reconsideration of the class certification motion as to five of the complaint’s claims.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal.  Beginning with the test for employee status as the key issue for evaluating the commonality issue, the Court said:

We begin by identifying the principal legal issues and examining the substantive law that will govern. In doing so, we do not seek to resolve those issues. Rather, the question at this stage is whether the operative legal principles, as applied to the facts of the case, render the claims susceptible to resolution on a common basis. (Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at pp. 1023–1025, 139 Cal.Rptr.3d 315, 273 P.3d 513; Sav–On Drug Stores, Inc. v. Superior Court (2004) 34 Cal.4th 319, 327, 17 Cal.Rptr.3d 906, 96 P.3d 194 [the focus “is on what type of questions—common or individual—are likely to arise in the action, rather than on the merits of the case”].)

The trial court and Court of Appeal correctly recognized as the central legal issue whether putative class members are employees for purposes of the provisions under which they sue. If they are employees, Antelope Valley owes them various duties that it may not have fulfilled; if they are not, no liability can attach. In turn, whether putative class members' employee status can be commonly resolved hinges on the governing test for employment.

Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc., 59 Cal. 4th 522, 530 (2014).  The Court observed that the test relied upon in the Courts below was the Borello common law test. After considering the need to examine other employment tests, the Court concluded that the case could be resolved by focusing on the common law test exclusively.  The Court then restated the essentials of the common law test for employment:

Under the common law, “ ‘[t]he principal test of an employment relationship is whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.’ ” (Borello, supra, 48 Cal.3d at p. 350, 256 Cal.Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d 399, quoting Tieberg v. Unemployment Ins. App. Bd. (1970) 2 Cal.3d 943, 946, 88 Cal.Rptr. 175, 471 P.2d 975; accord, Empire Star Mines Co. v. Cal. Emp. Com. (1946) 28 Cal.2d 33, 43, 168 P.2d 686.) What matters is whether the hirer “retains all necessary control” over its operations. (Borello, at p. 357, 256 Cal.Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d 399.) “ ‘[T]he fact that a certain amount of freedom of action is inherent in the nature of the work does not change the character of the employment where the employer has general supervision and control over it.’ ” (Burlingham v. Gray (1943) 22 Cal.2d 87, 100, 137 P.2d 9; see Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. v. Superior Court (1990) 220 Cal.App.3d 864, 876, 269 Cal.Rptr. 647; Grant v. Woods (1977) 71 Cal.App.3d 647, 653, 139 Cal.Rptr. 533.) Perhaps the strongest evidence of the right to control is whether the hirer can discharge the worker without cause, because “[t]he power of the principal to terminate the services of the agent gives him the means of controlling the agent's activities.” (Malloy v. Fong (1951) 37 Cal.2d 356, 370, 232 P.2d 241; see Borello, at p. 350, 256 Cal.Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d 399; Kowalski v. Shell Oil Co. (1979) 23 Cal.3d 168, 177, 151 Cal.Rptr. 671, 588 P.2d 811; Isenberg v. California Emp. Stab. Com. (1947) 30 Cal.2d 34, 39, 180 P.2d 11; Burlingham, at pp. 99–100, 137 P.2d 9.)

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 531.  The Court added an additional, significant observation to this formulation, observing, “The worker's corresponding right to leave is similarly relevant: “ ‘An employee may quit, but an independent contractor is legally obligated to complete his contract.’ ” (Perguica v. Ind. Acc. Com. (1947) 29 Cal.2d 857, 860, 179 P.2d 812.)”  Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 531 n. 2.  The Court then listed the secondary factors that a court may consider, including: (a) whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; (b) the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision; (c) the skill required in the particular occupation; (d) whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work; (e) the length of time for which the services are to be performed; (f) the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job; (g) whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; and (h) whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee.

Next the Court turned to the question of whether certification should have been granted in this matter. Before doing so, however, the Court framed the core question, right to control, at issue in the case:

Significantly, what matters under the common law is not how much control a hirer exercises, but how much control the hirer retains the right to exercise. (Perguica v. Ind. Acc. Com., supra, 29 Cal.2d at pp. 859–860, 179 P.2d 812 [“The existence of such right of control, and not the extent of its exercise, gives rise to the employer-employee relationship.”]; Empire Star Mines Co. v. Cal. Emp. Com., supra, 28 Cal.2d at p. 43, 168 P.2d 686 [“If the employer has the authority to exercise complete control, whether or not that right is exercised with respect to all details, an employer-employee relationship exists.”]; Industrial Ind. Exch. v. Ind. Acc. Com. (1945) 26 Cal.2d 130, 135, 156 P.2d 926 [“The right to control and direct the activities of the alleged employee or the manner and method in which the work is performed, whether exercised or not, gives rise to the employment relationship.”]; S.A. Gerrard Co. v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1941) 17 Cal.2d 411, 414, 110 P.2d 377 [“the right to control, rather than the amount of control which was exercised, is the determinative factor”]; Hillen v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1926) 199 Cal. 577, 581–582, 250 P. 570 [“It is not a question of interference, or non-interference, not a question of whether there have been suggestions, or even orders, as to the conduct of the work; but a question of the right to act, as distinguished from the act itself or the failure to act.”].) Whether a right of control exists may be measured by asking “ ‘ “whether or not, if instructions were given, they would have to be obeyed” ’ ” on pain of at-will “ ‘ “discharge[ ] for disobedience.” ’ ” (Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. v. Superior Court, supra, 220 Cal.App.3d at p. 875, 269 Cal.Rptr. 647.)

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 533.  Applying this test to the case before it, the Court observed that:

at the certification stage, the relevant inquiry is not what degree of control Antelope Valley retained over the manner and means of its papers' delivery. It is, instead, a question one step further removed: Is Antelope Valley's right of control over its carriers, whether great or small, sufficiently uniform to permit classwide assessment? That is, is there a common way to show Antelope Valley possessed essentially the same legal right of control with respect to each of its carriers? Alternatively, did its rights vary substantially, such that it might subject some carriers to extensive control as to how they delivered, subject to firing at will, while as to others it had few rights and could not have directed their manner of delivery even had it wanted, with no common proof able to capture these differences?

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 533-34.  The Court concluded that the trial court lost sight of these questions in its analysis:

The trial court lost sight of this question. Its order reveals the denial of certification ultimately rested on two related determinations: (1) the record reflected considerable variation in the degree to which Antelope Valley exercised control over its carriers; and (2) the putative class as a whole was not subject to pervasive control as to the manner and means of delivering papers. Neither of these considerations resolves the relevant inquiry. Whether Antelope Valley varied in how it exercised control does not answer whether there were variations in its underlying right to exercise that control that could not be managed by the trial court. Likewise, the scope of Antelope Valley's right to control the work does not in itself determine whether that right is amenable to common proof.

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 534.  The Court discussed briefly the evidence available to the Court, focusing heavily on the contract between the newspaper carriers and the defendant.  The Court found that even variations in the actual degree of control over different carriers was likely irrelevant if the right to control them all was effectively identical:

[T]he existence of variations in the extent to which a hirer exercises control does not necessarily show variation in the extent to which the hirer possesses a right of control, or that the trial court would find any such variation unmanageable. That a hirer may monitor one hiree closely and another less so, or enforce unevenly a contractual right to dictate the containers in which its product is delivered, does not necessarily demonstrate that the hirer could not, if it chose, monitor or control the work of all its hirees equally. (See Estrada v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc. (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 1, 13–14, 64 Cal.Rptr.3d 327 [recognizing that how a hirer exercised control over a particular hiree might show, not the hirer's differential control of that hiree, but the extent of its common right to control all its hirees].) For class certification under the common law test, the key question is whether there is evidence a hirer possessed different rights to control with regard to its various hirees, such that individual mini-trials would be required. Did Antelope Valley, notwithstanding the form contract it entered with all carriers, actually have different rights with respect to each that would necessitate mini-trials?

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 535-36.  The Court then explained the frequent error made in the certification analysis of claims based on independent contractor misclassification:

Certification of class claims based on the misclassification of common law employees as independent contractors generally does not depend upon deciding the actual scope of a hirer's right of control over its hirees. The relevant question is whether the scope of the right of control, whatever it might be, is susceptible to classwide proof. Bypassing that question, the trial court instead proceeded to the merits. In so doing, the court made the same mistake others have when deciding whether to certify claims predicated on common law employee status, “focus[ing] too much on the substantive issue of the defendant's right to control its newspaper deliverers, instead of whether that question could be decided using common proof.” (Dalton v. Lee Publications, supra, 270 F.R.D. at p. 564.) Moreover, by purporting to resolve on a classwide basis the scope of Antelope Valley's right to control its carriers, the trial court contradicted its own conclusion, that classwide assessment of Antelope Valley's right to control is infeasible.

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 537.  The Court concluded by noting that many of the secondary factors must also be evaluated correctly to determine if common proof will adequately determine the secondary factor in question:

Preliminarily, we caution that courts assessing these secondary factors should take care to correctly identify the relevant considerations. Here, for example, the trial court noted variation in the “place of work.” The inquiry that sheds light on a hiree's common law employee status, however, is into who provides the place of work, the hirer or hiree (Borello, supra, 48 Cal.3d at p. 351, 256 Cal.Rptr. 543, 769 P.2d 399; Rest.3d Agency, § 7.07, com. f, p. 211; Rest.2d Agency, § 220, subd. (2)(e)), and thus the relevant inquiry is whether there is variation in who provides facilities. That carriers could pick up papers at any of several Antelope Valley warehouses or drop locations, as Antelope Valley argued, does not show variation in the underlying secondary factor.

Ayala, 59 Cal. 4th at 538.

The Court remanded with instructions to consider the certification question in light of the Court’s guidance.

Analysis of Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association

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It is a bit belated, but I'm getting some write-ups of the big cases up for your reading pleasure (or agony).  First up is Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association (May 29, 2014).  Loan officers for U.S. Bank National Association (USB) sued for unpaid overtime, claiming they had been misclassified as exempt employees under the outside salesperson exemption.  Plaintiffs moved to certify the case as a class action.  Plaintiffs provided declarations from 34 current and former putative class members, all stating that they worked overtime hours and spent less than half of their workday engaged in sales-related activities outside their branch office.  USB argued that plaintiffs could not establish a predominance of common issues or that the class action device was superior to other methods of adjudication.  USB filed declarations from 83 putative class members, 75 of whom said they usually spent more than 50 percent of their workday engaged in outside sales.  USB also submitted deposition testimony from the four former class representatives stating that they regularly worked more than half the day outside the office. The Court certified the class of 260 individuals.

The trial court then devised a plan to determine the extent of USB’s liability to all class members by extrapolating from a random sample. After considering competing proposals, the court expressed concern about the potential for biased survey results and proposed an alternative of its own devising.  The court opted to select a random sample of 20 class members to testify at trial. A decertification motion was denied. The court later ruled on a key motion in limine, denying USB the ability to introduce any testimony or declarations from class members or other loan officers not in the random sample group.

Phase one of the bench trial lasted 40 court days.  The two named plaintiffs and 19 of the 20 other RWG members testified.  USB called several corporate witnesses and the direct supervisors of some of the RWG witnesses.

In anticipation of phase two, plaintiffs moved to amend the declaration of their expert, Jon Krosnick, to permit trial testimony about the results of a telephone survey Krosnick had conducted of class members’ work hours.  The court allowed the amendment. USB moved to exclude the survey evidence.  In opposition, plaintiffs filed a declaration from their statistics expert, Richard Drogin, whon opined that phase one findings of liability and average weekly hours of unpaid overtime could be “reliably projected to the whole class” because they were based on a random sample.  Drogin calculated a weighted average of overtime for the RWG at 11.87 hours per week, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.14 hours at a 95 percent confidence interval.  The relative margin of error for the overtime estimate was plus or minus 43.3 percent.  The Court then concluded USB did not carry its burden of proof on the outside salesperson exemption.  Based primarily on testimony from RWG witnesses, the court ruled that the entire class employed by USB was misclassified as exempt, and all class members were owed overtime in amounts to be determined in phase two of the trial.

During the damages phase, USB’s statistician testified that it was statistically possible that 13 percent of the class was properly classified as exempt.  He calculated that up to 14 percent of the class, or 36 members, could have been properly classified as exempt.

Nevertheless, the court calculated the total amount of overtime restitution owed to the class at $8,953,832.   With prejudgment interest, the total award as of May 15, 2009, came to $14,959,565.  The impact of a 14 percent error on the judgment total would have been approximately $2 million.  On appeal, the Court of appeal ordered the class decertified and reversed the judgment. A petition for review was then granted.

The Supreme Court began its discussion by reviewing the outside sales person exemption and how the exemption test interacts with class proof:

We have observed that some common questions about the exemption “are likely to prove susceptible of common proof” in a class action.  (Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 337.)  Job requirements and employer expectations of how duties are to be performed may often be established by evidence relating to a group as a whole.  (Ramirez, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 802.)  But litigation of the outside salesperson exemption has the obvious potential to generate individual issues because the primary considerations are how and where the employee actually spends his or her workday.  (Sav-On, at pp. 336-337; Ramirez, at p. 802.)  Of course, the questions of actual performance and employer expectations can be intertwined.

Slip op., at 21.  The Court noted that, while predominance “requires a determination that group, rather than individual, issues predominate,” that does not “preclude the consideration of individual issues at trial when those issues legitimately touch upon relevant aspects of the case being litigated.” Slip op., at 22.  The Court then scrutinized the unique manageability issues inherent in the affirmative defenses likely to arise in misclassification cases:

In her concurring opinion in Brinker, Justice Werdegar drew an instructive distinction between the types of affirmative defenses that can undermine manageability:  “For purposes of class action manageability, a defense that hinges liability vel non on consideration of numerous intricately detailed factual questions, as is sometimes the case in misclassification suits, is different from a defense that raises only one or a few questions and that operates not to extinguish the defendant’s liability but only to diminish the amount of a given plaintiff’s recovery.”  (Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 1054 (conc. opn. of Werdegar, J.), fn. omitted.)  Defenses that raise individual questions about the calculation of damages generally do not defeat certification.  (Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 334.)  However, a defense in which liability itself is predicated on factual questions specific to individual claimants poses a much greater challenge to manageability.

Slip op., at 25. The Court then observed that many courts have been reluctant to certify misclassification cases unless uniform policies or practices violate wage and hour laws:

Unless an employer’s uniform policy or consistent practice violates wage and hour laws (see, e.g., Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 1033), California courts have been reluctant to certify class actions alleging misclassification.  (E.g., Arenas v. El Torito Restaurants, Inc. (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 723, 734; Dunbar v. Albertson’s, Inc., supra, 141 Cal.App.4th 1422, 1431; see also Soderstedt v. CBIZ Southern California, LLC (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 133, 153-154 [certification denied, despite employer’s uniform policies, due to variations in how the policies were implemented with different employees].)
However, individual issues will not necessarily overwhelm common issues when a case involves exemptions premised on how employees spend the workday.  In Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th 319, for example, we upheld certification of an overtime class action based on a showing that all plaintiffs performed jobs that were highly standardized.  As a result, class members performed essentially the same tasks, most of which were nonexempt as a matter of law.  (Id. at pp. 327-328.)  Further, the defendant’s corporate policy required all class members to work overtime.  (Id. at p. 327.)  Where standardized job duties or other policies result in employees uniformly spending most of their time on nonexempt work, class treatment may be appropriate even if the case involves an exemption that typically entails fact-specific individual inquiries.

Slip op., at 25-26.  In this matter, the Court concluded that the trial court did not adequately manage individual issues when it essentially precluded litigation of individual issues:

The primary consideration in a misclassification case pertains to “the realistic requirements of the job.”  (Ramirez, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 802.)  The trial court ultimately made detailed findings to the effect that the BBO position was essentially a telemarketing job, most easily performed in the office.  However, at the certification stage, it should have been apparent that litigation of the outside salesperson defense would also involve significant inquiry into how each of the class’s 260 members “actually spen[t] his or her time.”  (Ibid.)

Slip op., at 28. Thus, it was the failure to manage individualized issues, rather than the predominance of common issues that the Court found to be a fatal flaw in the management of the case:

USB’s exemption defense raised a host of individual issues.  While common issues among class members may have been sufficient to satisfy the predominance prong for certification, the trial court also had to determine that these individual issues could be effectively managed in the ensuing litigation.  (See Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 1054 (conc. opn. of Werdegar, J.); Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 334.)  Here, the certification order was necessarily provisional in that it was subject to development of a trial plan that would manage the individual issues surrounding the outside salesperson exemption.
In general, when a trial plan incorporates representative testimony and random sampling, a preliminary assessment should be done to determine the level of variability in the class.  (See post, at p. 40.)  If the variability is too great, individual issues are more likely to swamp common ones and render the class action unmanageable.  No such assessment was done here.

Slip op., at 28.  When considering the impact of Duran, it is imperative to emphasize that the Court did not overturn the predominance finding at the time of certification. Rather, the Court found that the subsequent trial plan was an inadequate method of managing individualized issues. Related to that finding, the Court held that the trial management inappropriately abridged the right to assert affirmative defenses:

While class action defendants may not have an unfettered right to present individualized evidence in support of a defense, our precedents make clear that a class action trial management plan may not foreclose the litigation of relevant affirmative defenses, even when these defenses turn on individual questions.

Slip op., at 30.  Here, too, plaintiffs must be alert to overreach in the characterization of Duran by defendants. Duran does not promise an unfettered right to force the trial of every affirmative defense as to every class member. The trial decision in Duran, however, simply cannot be supported with any conviction:

The court’s decision to extrapolate classwide liability from a small sample, and its refusal to permit any inquiries or evidence about the work habits of BBOs outside the sample group, deprived USB of the ability to litigate its exemption defense.  USB repeatedly submitted sworn declarations from 75 class members stating that they worked more than half their time outside the office.  This evidence suggested that work habits among BBOs were not uniform and that nearly one-third of the class may have been properly classified as exempt and lacking any valid claim against USB.

Slip op., at 31.  The Court rejected analogies to disparate treatment discrimination cases, where individual treatment is of little relevance and aggregate group treatment is the singular question.

The Court did not foreclose class proof in misclassification cases, saying only that it would be appropriate in instances where common proof of treatment or practices is compelling:

This is not to say that an employer’s liability for misclassification may never be decided on a classwide basis.  A class action trial may determine that an employer is liable to an entire class for misclassification if it is shown that the employer had a consistently applied policy or uniform job requirements and expectations contrary to a Labor Code exemption, or if it knowingly encouraged a uniform de facto practice inconsistent with the exemption.  (See, e.g., Bell, supra, 115 Cal.App.4th at p. 743.)  In such a case, the evidence for uniformity among class members would be strong, and common proof would be sufficient to call for the employer to defend its claimed exemption.

Slip op., at 34-35.  Next, the Court discussed statistical evidence. It began by noting, “Questions about the use of statistical evidence to prove classwide liability and damages are far from settled.” Slip op., at 35. The Court recognized the widely divergent opinions on the use of statistical evidence:

It is an open question, hotly contested among the parties and amici curiae, whether statistical sampling can legitimately be used to prove a defendant’s liability to absent class members.  The question has arisen in numerous contexts, ranging from mass torts (e.g., Cimino v. Raymark Industries, Inc. (5th Cir. 1998) 151 F.3d 297, 319-320) to employment discrimination (e.g., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, supra, 564 U.S. at p. __ [131 S.Ct. at pp. 2560-2561]).  In the wage and hour context, recent decisions from federal district courts have disagreed about whether statistical sampling may be used to prove liability.

Slip op., at 36-37. The Court then discussed Bell, noting that the “statistical evidence in Bell was heard only after classwide liability had been established.” Slip op. at 37.  The Court concluded its general assessment of statistical models for proof of liability by noting that no general rule is necessary:

We need not reach a sweeping conclusion as to whether or when sampling should be available as a tool for proving liability in a class action.  It suffices to note that any class action trial plan, including those involving statistical methods of proof, must allow the defendant to litigate its affirmative defenses.  If a defense depends upon questions individual to each class member, the statistical model must be designed to accommodate these case-specific deviations.

Slip op., at 38.  The Court expressly noted that the Mt. Clemens use of statistical evidence to calculate damages in overtime pay cases, while well accepted by courts, did not provide a sound rationale for accepting too much error in the liability phase of a misclassification case.

The Court then discussed errors in the Court’s statistical methodology, noting that (1) the sample size was too small, (2) the sample was not random, suffering from non-response bias and self-selection bias, (3) the 43 percent margin of error was far too large, (4) the response rate was poor, (5) measurement errors were likely, and (6) the methodology differed significantly from Bell, where two experts worked together to determine a reliable sampling methodology.

Concurring in the opinion, Justice Liu authored a concurrence that agreed with the conclusion that the trial court’s statistical approach was hopelessly flawed but questioned whether enough guidance had been provided for future misclassification class actions.  First, with respect to the outside sales exemption in California, Justice Liu said:

[I]n recognizing that California’s definition of an outside salesperson is quantitative in nature, Ramirez did not say that the test boils down to whether a particular employee actually spends more than 50 percent of his or her working hours on outside sales.  Instead, the ultimate question is:  what are “the realistic requirements of the job”?

Slip op. conc., at 4. Justice Liu then explained how both aggregate evidence and individualized evidence should be considered to address the misclassification question:

[N]either an aggregate method of proof (like sampling or representative witness testimony) nor individualized evidence (like a declaration) is necessarily dispositive when the ultimate issue at trial is to determine “the employer’s realistic expectations” or “the realistic requirements of the job.”  (Ramirez, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 802.)  The two types of evidence must be considered and weighed alongside each other, and more broadly, they must be considered and weighed together with the full range of evidence bearing on the ultimate issue, including the employer’s job description, company policies, industry customs, and testimony of supervisors or managers who monitored, evaluated, or otherwise set expectations for employees in the class.  We entrust our trial courts with the task of weighing such multidimensional evidence, and their judgments will be sustained if supported by substantial evidence.

Slip op. conc., at 10. Justice Liu concluded by observing that the trial court was correct as to how it framed the certification question:

Today’s opinion properly identifies the shortcomings of the representative witness group in this case and the trial court’s failure to give due consideration to the individualized evidence that U.S. Bank National Association (USB) sought to introduce in its defense.  But it is important to note that the trial court focused on the right question on the merits:  What were the realistic requirements of the BBO position?

Slip op. conc., at 11.  There is little doubt that Duran will be oversold as a bar on all forms of aggregate proof in class actions. The only remedy will be to present a thorough analysis of what Duran does and does not stand for in misclassification cases and the greater class certification context.