Christopher et al. v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., dba Glaxosmithkline holds, 5-4, that pharma sales reps are exempt as "outside salespersons"

The United States Supreme Court, in Christopher et al. v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., dba Glaxosmithkline (June 18, 2012), examined the question of whether pharmaceutical sales representatives, whose primary duty was to obtain nonbinding commitments from physicians to prescribe their employer’s prescription drugs, were correctly classified as exempt from overtime pay requirements set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In the courts below, defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs were “employed in the capacity of outside salesman,” §213(a)(1), and therefore were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime compensation requirement. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment to defendant. Plaintiffs filed a motion to alter or amend the judgment, contending that the District Court had erred in failing to accord controlling deference to the DOL’s interpretation of the pertinent regulations, which the DOL had announced in an amicus brief filed in a similar action. The District Court rejected this argument and denied the motion. The Ninth Circuit, agreeing that the DOL’s interpretation was not entitled to controlling deference, affirmed.

The opinion was decided on sharply divided 5-4 lines, with one majority opinion and one minority opinion. The opinion considered three of the DOL’s regulations: §§541.500, 541.501, and 541.503. The Court referred to the three regulations as the “general regulation,” the “sales regulation,” and the “promotion-work regulation,” respectively.

First, the majority observed that the DOL’s own interpretation of its regulations was not consistent over time. In briefs filed before the Second and Ninth Circuits, “the DOL took the view that ‘a “sale” for the purposes of the outside sales exemption requires a con- summated transaction directly involving the employee for whom the exemption is sought.’” Slip op., at 9. After certiorari was granted in this matter, the DOL took the position that “ ‘[a]n employee does not make a “sale” for purposes of the “outside salesman” exemption unless he actually transfers title to the property at issue.’ ” Slip op., at 9.

Next, the majority observed that Auer deference to the DOL’s ambiguous regulations was not justified because to do so would allow for imposition of “potentially massive liability on respondent for conduct that occurred well before that interpretation was announced.” Slip op., at 10. Continuing, the Court said:

Until 2009, the pharmaceutical industry had little reason to suspect that its longstanding practice of treating detailers as exempt outside salesmen transgressed the FLSA. The statute and regulations certainly do not provide clear notice of this. The general regulation adopts the broad statutory definition of “sale,” and that definition, in turn, employs the broad catchall phrase “other disposition.” See 29 CFR §541.500(a)(1). This catchall phrase could reasonably be construed to encompass a nonbinding commitment from a physician to prescribe a particular drug, and nothing in the statutory or regulatory text or the DOL’s prior guidance plainly requires a contrary reading. See Preamble 22162 (explaining that an employee must “in some sense” make a sale); 1940 Report 46 (same).

Slip op., at 12. Then the majority noted that, despite the industry’s decades of applying an exempt classification, the DOL never initiated any enforcement action.

The majority then discussed the DOL’s interpretations and found them unpersuasive, particularly with respect to the definition of “sale.” The Court held:

This new interpretation is flatly inconsistent with the FLSA, which defines “sale” to mean, inter alia, a “consignment for sale.” A “consignment for sale” does not involve the transfer of title. See, e.g., Sturm v. Boker, 150 U. S. 312, 330 (1893) (“The agency to sell and return the proceeds, or the specific goods if not sold . . . does not involve a change of title”); Hawkland, Consignment Selling Under the Uniform Commercial Code, 67 Com. L. J. 146, 147 (1962) (explaining that “‘[a] consignment of goods for sale does not pass the title at any time, nor does it contemplate that it should be passed’” (quoting Rio Grande Oil Co. v. Miller Rubber Co. of N. Y., 31 Ariz. 84, 87, 250 P. 564, 565 (1926))).

Slip op., at 15. The majority then spends some time construing the regulation itself, concluding that the language of the statute was intended to broadly include all manner of transactions that, in certain industries, were tantamount to a sale in the most conventional sense. In the regulated industry of pharmaceutical sales, the majority observed that the representatives did all that was allowed:

Obtaining a nonbinding commitment from a physician to prescribe one of respondent’s drugs is the most that petitioners were able to do to ensure the eventual disposition of the products that respondent sells. This kind of arrangement, in the unique regulatory environment within which pharmaceutical companies must operate, comfortably falls within the catch- all category of “other disposition.”

Slip op., at 20-21.

The minority opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, accepted the majority’s description of the job in question and agreed that deference to the DOL interpretation was not justified given the recent change in that interpretation. Instead, the minority opnion simply disagrees with the construction of the language at issue:

Unless we give the words of the statute and regulations some special meaning, a detailer’s primary duty is not that of “making sales” or the equivalent. A detailer might convince a doctor to prescribe a drug for a particular kind of patient. If the doctor encounters such a patient, he might prescribe the drug. The doctor’s client, the patient, might take the prescription to a pharmacist and ask the pharmacist to fill the prescription. If so, the pharmacist might sell the manufacturer’s drug to the patient, or might substitute a generic version. But it is the pharmacist, not the detailer, who will have sold the drug.

Minority slip op., at 3. The minority opinion concludes that the representatives stimulate sales eventually made by others:

The detailer’s work, in my view, is more naturally characterized as involving “[p]romotional activities designed to stimulate sales . . . made by someone else,” §541.503, e.g., the pharmacist or the wholesaler, than as involving “[p]romotional activities designed to stimulate” the detailer’s “own sales.”

Minority slip op., at 5. The minority emphasized the fact that doctors determine what to prescribe, based on medical need:

To the contrary, the document makes clear that the pharmaceutical industry itself understands that it cannot be a detailer’s “primary duty” to obtain a nonbinding commitment, for, in respect to many doctors, such a commitment taken alone is unlikely to make a significant difference to their doctor’s use of a particular drug. When a particular drug, say Drug D, constitutes the best treatment for a particular patient, a knowledgeable doctor should (hence likely will) prescribe it irrespective of any nonbinding commitment to do so. Where some other drug, however, is likely to prove more beneficial for a particular patient, that doctor should not (hence likely will not) prescribe Drug D irrespective of any nonbinding commitment to the contrary.

Minority slip op., at 6. The minority concluded by dismissing the majority’s fears that a salesman who takes an order would suddenly become non-exempt by transferring the order to jobber’s employee to be filled. The minority noted that the example created no basis for fear, given that the salesman had obtained a firm commitment to buy the product. Regardless of the quality of the counter-arguments, the minority opinion by Justice Breyer is just that, a minority opinion, and "sales" are evidently in the eye of the beholder.

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.

District Court (E.D. Cal.) certifies a collective action of grape farm workers

United States District Court Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill (Eastern District of California) granted a motion to certify a collective action of grape farm workers pursuant to he Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 210 et seq.  Gomez v. H & R Gunlund Ranches, Inc., 2010 WL 5232973 (E.D.Cal. Dec 16, 2010).  The Court applied the more common two-stage certification approach used in FLSA actions.  The Court rejected the defendant's argument that the plaintiffs were obligated to provide evidence that other would opt-in if given the opportunity to do so.  The Court then issued instructions on required revisions to the proposed notice, including removal of all references to state law claims.  The Court refused to grant the defendant's request to limit the plaintiffs' ability to communicate with opt-in Plaintiffs.  The Court also refused to preclude additional notice through Spanish language media, noting that maximizing notice was beneficial and rejecting the argument that such media, often used in class actions, would somehow constitute a violation of professional responsibility rules.

Chinese Wang decision is big news

Wrong, but necessary somehow.  A little later than promised, but Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 27, 2010) has too much going on not to receive some additional attention.  At the outset, Wang was a basic wage & hour case.  The plaintiffs alleged that employees were made to work in excess of eight hours per day and/or forty hours per week. They alleged that they were wrongfully denied overtime compensation, meal and rest breaks, accurate and itemized wage statements, and penalties for wages due but not promptly paid at termination.  The subsequent procedural twists and turns were anything but standard.  But despite the many moving parts in the decision, the Ninth Circuit summarized the case in a few sentences:

The district court certified the FLSA claim as a collective action. It certified the state-law claims as a class action under Rule 23(b)(2) and, alternatively, under Rule 23(b)(3). In the state-law class action, it provided for notice and opt out, but subsequently invalidated the opt outs. It granted partial summary judgment to plaintiffs; held jury and bench trials; entered judgment for plaintiffs; awarded attorney’s fees to plaintiffs; and conducted a new opt-out process. CDN appeals, challenging aspects of each of these rulings, as well as the jury’s verdict.

Slip op., at 16393.  After the trial court certified a narrowed class under Rule 23(b)(2) (finding that injunctive relief was on "equal footing" with monetary relief), the trial court approved a notice that authorized class members to opt into the FLSA action and out of the state law-based class action.  The notice precipitated the first major upheaval in the case:

Forms were mailed to 187 individuals, and notice was posted and forms made available at CDN’s Monterey Park facility. Plaintiffs received back about 155 opt-out forms, including 18 from individuals not on the original list of class members.  Plaintiffs filed a motion to invalidate the opt outs, for curative notice, and to restrict CDN’s communication with class members. On June 7, 2006, the court granted the motion, finding that “the opt out period was rife with instances of coercive conduct, including threats to employees’ jobs, termination of an employee supporting the litigation, the posting of signs urging individuals not to tear the company apart, and the abnormally high rate of opt outs.” Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc., 236 F.R.D. 485, 491 (C.D. Cal. 2006). The district court deferred any future opt-out procedure until after the trial on the merits.

Slip op., at 16395.  Facing cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court then ruled that news reporters were not exempt professionals.  Next, the matter proceeded to a trial.  The defendant contended that only the FLSA claims should be tried and that UCL claims were pre-empted by the FLSA, but the trial court elected to retain supplemental jurisdiction, rejected the pre-emption argument and tried the state law claims as well.

The Court of Appeal first tacked the exemption analysis.  After examining decisions from other Circuits, the Court concluded that the reporters did not satisfy the creative professionals exemption.

Although the evidence submitted revealed disputes over how to characterize CDN’s journalists, we agree with the district court that, even when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to CDN, the reporters do not satisfy the criteria for the creative professional exemption.

Slip op., at 16400.  Next, the Court examined whether the trial court had applied the correct criteria for determining whether certification under Rule 23(b)(2) was appropriate.  The Court concluded that, although the matter was decided prior to Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 603 F.3d 571 (9th Cir. 2010) (en banc), the trial court applied essentially identical standards and correctly decided the issue.

The Court then turned to the invalidation of opt-outs.  The Court first held that a trial court's authority to regulate class communications and the notice process implicitly confers that power to take corrective action when that process has been tainted.  The Court then considered whether the evidence submitted was sufficient to support the trial court's decision.  The Court noted in particular the evidence submitted by a class action notice company regarding normal opt-out rates:

Finally, plaintiffs submitted a declaration from the president of a class action notice company explaining that ordinarily opt-out rates do not exceed one percent. In this case, the district court found that current employees opted out at a 90 percent rate, whereas former employees opted out at a 25 percent rate.

Slip op., at 16407.  After concluding that the decision to invalidate the opt-outs was supported, the Court examined whether deferring a new opt-out period until after the trial was appropriate.  Again the Court noted the trial court's broad discretion to regulate the notice process: "The ordinary procedure is to give notice at the time of class certification. But the rule does not mandate notice at any particular time. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(2)."  Slip op., at 16408.  The Court then affirmed the trial court's conclusion that it was necessary to delay a new notice and opt-out process in order to avoid the taint imposed during the initial process.

Finally, after observing that the evidence supported the jury verdict regarding meal periods under either the "provide" or "ensure" standards currently up for review by the California Supreme Court, the Court ended its Opinion by explicitly holding what most courts in the Ninth Circuit had already concluded: the FLSA does not preempt state law claims like the UCL.

While the Ninth Circuit still hasn't defined "similarly situated" under the FLSA, California's federal courts continue to apply the two-stage process

United States Magistrate Judge Edward M. Chen (Northern District of California) granted plaintiff's motion to conditionally certify a collective action of Sales Representatives working for Defendant Vector Marketing Corporation.  Harris v. Vector Marketing Corp., 2010 WL 1998768 (N.D. Cal. May 18, 2010).  In doing so, Magistrate Judge Chen added his name to the long list of federal courts in California that have adopted a two-step approach for determining whether a class is “similarly situated.” Under this approach, a district court first determines, based on the submitted pleadings and, perhaps, a few declarations, whether the proposed class should be notified of the action.  At the first stage, the determination of whether the putative class members will be similarly situated is made using a "fairly lenient" standard, and typically results in "conditional certification" of a representative class. District courts have held that conditional certification requires only that “ ‘plaintiffs make substantial allegations that the putative class members were subject to a single illegal policy, plan or decision.’ ”

The second-step usually occurs after discovery is complete, at which time the defendants may move to decertify the class.  In the second step, the court makes a factual determination about whether the plaintiffs are similarly situated by weighing such factors as (1) the disparate factual and employment settings of the individual plaintiffs, (2) the various defenses available to the defendant which appeared to be individual to each plaintiff, and (3) fairness and procedural considerations. If the court determines that the plaintiffs are not similarly situated, the court may decertify the class and dismiss the opt-in plaintiffs' action without prejudice. Even when the parties settle, the court must make some final class certification finding before approving a collective action settlement.

Conditionally certified FLSA class of United Auto Credit Corporation Supervisors classified as exempt

United States District Court Judge Ronald M. Whyte (Northern District of California) granted United Auto Credit Corporation's motion to decertify a class of California-based Supervisor (and related) employees after the class was conditionally certified under the FLSA.  Hernandez v. United Auto Credit Corporaiton (N.D. Cal. Apr. 2, 2010) 2010 WL 1337702.  In FLSA actions, many Courts employ a two-phase process for "certification" of FLSA classes, an approach used by the trial court here:

Under the two-step approach, the court first considers whether to certify a collective action and permit notice to be distributed to the putative class members. See Thiessen, 267 F.3d at 1102; Russell v. Wells Fargo & Co., 2008 WL 4104212, at *2-3 (N.D.Cal. Sept.3, 2008). At this first stage, the standard for certification is fairly easy to satisfy. Courts have required only “substantial allegations, supported by declarations or discovery, that the putative class members were together the victims of a single decision, policy, or plan.” Russell, 2008 WL 4104212, at *2.

At the second stage, after discovery has been taken, the court may decertify the class if it concludes that the class members are not similarly situated. Id. at *3. The court can consider a number of factors in deciding whether an action should ultimately proceed collectively, including: (1) the disparate factual and employment settings of the individual plaintiffs; (2) the various defenses available to the defendant and whether they appear to be individual to each plaintiff; (3) fairness and procedural considerations; and (4) whether plaintiffs made the required filings before filing suit. Thiessen, 267 F.3d at 1103. However, a requirement that the class members be identical would be inconsistent with the intent of FLSA's provision that a case can proceed as a collective action. Pendlebury v. Starbucks Coffee Co., 518 F.Supp.2d 1345, 1361 (S.D.Fla.2007).

Slip op., at 2.  The motion filed by the defendant in this case concerned the more rigorous showing required in the second stage.  (Side Note:  The Ninth Circuit has not yet explicitly held that it concurs with the two-stage approach, but District Courts have been employing that approach in the Ninth Circuit for many years without opposition.)

In the course of briefing, the plaintiffs apparently advanced the novel argument that the supervision requirement included in the executive exemption test created a ratio requirement where an employer had to show that there were at least two non-exempt employees for every executive:

Plaintiffs' argument overstates the requirement of the pertinent FSLA regulation. Plaintiffs are correct that in order to qualify for the executive exemption, an employee must “customarily and regularly direct[ ] the work of two or more other employees.” 29 C .F.R. § 541.100(a)(3). The language of the regulation, however, does not require a strict mathematical ratio between an “employee employed in a bona fide executive capacity” and “other employees.” All the regulation requires is that an employee customarily or regularly direct the work of two or more other employees. The other employees whose work the executive directs may or may not themselves be executives. Thus, the FLSA does not create a “ratio requirement.” Whether the present conditional class should be decertified, then, depends on the individualized assessment of whether the class members are “similarly situated.” The court now turns to that inquiry.

Slip op., at 3.  No dice.  Turning to the merits of the motion by defendant, the Court, as did the District Court in Weigele v. Fedex (discussed here), placed little weight on the uniform classification of employees by a central office:  "[T]he recent decision of In re Wells Fargo Homes Mortg. Overtime Litig., 571 F.3d 953 (9th Cir.2009), which involved certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), cautions against placing too much weight on an internal policy of classifying all members of a particular class of employees as exempt."  Slip op., at 5.  More importantly, however, the Court discussed the plaintiffs' inability to rebut substantial evidence showing great disparity in the job duties of different Supervisors.

Are there really that many large businesses out there that let their employees do whatever they want?

In brief: Ninth Circuit issues new opinion in Rutti v. Lojack Corporation, Inc.

After granting a panel petition for rehearing, the Ninth Circuit withdrew the Opinion in Rutti v. Lojack Corporation, Inc., 578 F.3d 1084 (9th Cir. 2009), and issued a new opinion, Rutti v. Lojack Corporation, Inc. (9th Cir. March 2, 2010).  The change is significant on the issue of commute time under California law: "[W]e vacate the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Rutti’s claim for compensation of his commute under California law and on his postliminary activity of required daily portable data transmissions, and remand the matter to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."  Slip op., at 3237.  I may provide a longer post about this change later.  The earlier post on Rutti can be found here.