Interesting meal and rest break questions certified by Ninth Circuit to the California Supreme Court

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This is interesting. On August 1, 2019, the Ninth Circuit certified a pair of questions to the California Supreme Court in Cole v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc. (No. 17-55606) (9th Cir. Aug. 1, 2019). Before we get ahead of ourselves, the California Supreme Court still needs to agree to take up the certified questions. They do so at an exceedingly high rate, but it isn’t a done deal…yet. So, what about those questions? The questions posed are as follows:

1.Does the absence of a formal policy regarding meal and rest breaks violate California law?

2.Does an employer’s failure to keep records for meal and rest breaks taken by its employees create a rebuttable presumption that the meal and rest breaks were not provided?

Slip op., at 4. The case arises in the context of the operation of truck drivers working for a shipping company. The discussion of the reason for the certification clarifies where the Ninth Circuit seeks guidance:

The California Supreme Court did not directly address in Brinker whether the absence of a policy providing for meal and rest breaks constitutes a violation of California labor law. However, in Duran v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, 325 P.3d 916,933 n.28 (Cal. 2014), the California Supreme Court observed that “[i]n regard to other wage and hour claims, some courts have held that the absence of a uniform policy supports [class] certification if such a policy is required by law. We express no opinion on this question.” (emphasis in the original).

Slip op., at 11. After noting Benton and Bradley, the Court also observed the concurring comment in Brinker:

In Brinker, Justice Werdegar noted that “[i]f an employer’s records show no meal period for a given shift over five hours, a rebuttable presumption arises that the employee was not relieved of duty and no meal period was provided.” 273 P.3d at 545 (Werdegar, J., concurring).

Slip op. at 12.

If the California Supreme Court takes up the questions, I will be happy to handle action on the outcome for a 5% vig. Kidding. 10%. Still kidding.

Watching how they make the sausage...Eastern District set to try Taco Bell wage & hour class actions

Class actions don't make it to trial all that often.  But when they get close, things can get pretty ugly.  In Medlock, et al. v. Taco Bell Corp., et al., the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California (Magistrate Stanley A. Boone presiding) issued an Order on nine motions in limine filed by the Plaintiffs. See 2016 WL 430438 (February 4, 2016).

In Medlock, the Court certified three classes, on claims for meal period violations, rest period violations, and improper time record adjustments.  With trial approaching on February 22, 2016, the Plaintiffs filed nine motions in limine to exclude expert testimony (motions 1 and 2), rates of meal and rest period violation (motion 3), challenges to the authenticity of raw time clock data (motion 4), evidence of job performance or discipline (motion 5), evidence related to elements of class certification (motion 6), evidence of explicit instructions to class members to skip meal or rest periods (motion 7), evidence of the likeability of working at Taco Bell (motion 8), and alterations to the testimony of Taco Bell's Rule 30(b)(6) designee.  The court denied all motions other than motion 6, and that motion was limited to ordering that the defendants could not discuss the Rule 23 elements before the jury.

Considering the evidence the Court described as potentially probative, it appears that the jury will get to hear the kitchen sink of Defendants' reasons why meal and rest periods were missed. 

And yes, I am not dead.

IWC (or any agency) is limited by its statutory mandate

Agencies love their power.  They grow like a cancer, absorbing more and more of it from the body politic.  But every now and then a court reminds an agency that its power is limited by the terms of its statutory authority.  For instance, in Gerard v. Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center (Feb. 10, 2015), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) did just that with regard to a provision of an IWC Wage Order.

Health care workers sued their hospital employer in a putative class and private attorney general enforcement action for alleged Labor Code violations and related claims.  Plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that the hospital illegally let health care employees waive their second meal periods on shifts longer than 12 hours.  Under the Labor Code, employers are required to provide two meal periods for shifts longer than 12 hours. But an order of the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) authorizes employees in the health care industry to waive one of those two required meal periods on shifts longer than 8 hours.  The trial court, finding the IWC Wage Order valid, and granted summary judgment and denied class certification on that basis.

The Court examined Labor Code section 512 and Wage Order 5 to determine whether the Wage Order exemption was authorized.  The Court first observed that section 512 says: “An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.” (Italics added.)  And section 516 says: “Except as provided in Section 512, the [IWC] may adopt or amend working condition orders with respect to break periods, meal periods, and days of rest for any workers in California consistent with the health and welfare of those workers.” (Italics added.)

Next, the Court noted that the authority of an administrative agency is limited by enabling legislation, holding that the IWC is constrained where the Labor Code expressly sets forth requirements:

“The IWC has long been understood to have the power to adopt requirements beyond those codified in statute. [Citations.] Section 516 creates an exception; it bars the use of this power to diminish section 512’s protections. . . . While the Legislature in section 516 generally preserved the IWC’s authority to regulate break periods, it intended to prohibit the IWC from amending its wage orders in ways that ‘conflict[ ] with [the] 30-minute meal period requirements’ in section 512. [Citations.]” (Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at pp. 1042-1043.)

Slip op., at 8.  In its discussion, the Court cited frequently to Bearden v. U.S. Borax, Inc., 138 Cal. App. 4th 429 (2006), which held that another provision of a Wage Order issued by the IWC was invalid as an act inconsistent with statutory provisions.

The Court then directed the trial court to determine the retroactive application of portions of the Court’s holding, since the issue of invalidity was not evaluated by the trial court, holding that “with the exception of plaintiffs’ premium wage claims based on section 226.7, the retroactive application of our decision must be litigated on remand.”  The Court concluded that “there is no compelling reason of fairness or public policy that warrants an exception to the general rule of retroactivity for our decision partially invalidating section 11(D).”  Slip op., at 17.

The Court then turned to the grant of summary judgment in the matter.  The discussion detoured into evidentiary disputes.  The defendant objected to the introduction of time cards attached to counsel’s declaration, saying that they were merely purported to be authentic.  The Court disagreed:

Evidence Code section 1414 provides: “A writing may be authenticated by evidence that: [¶] (a) The party against whom it is offered has at any time admitted its authenticity; or [¶] (b) The writing has been acted upon as authentic by the party against whom it is offered.” The Coats declaration satisfies both subdivisions.
Further, while Claudio v. Regents of University of California (2005) 134 Cal.App.4th 224, 244 did say the declaration of the plaintiff’s attorney was not proper authentication for the disputed letter, the critical problem was that, “Plaintiff’s [own] declaration did not mention the letter.” The same is not true in this case.
Here, Gerard’s own declaration (an exhibit to the Coats declaration) states: “Attached as Exhibit B are true and correct copies of a portion of my time records from August of 2004 through March of 2008, which were produced by Defendant in this litigation. Also attached as Exhibit B are true and correct copies [of] a portion of my wage records from August of 2004 through March of 2008, which were produced by Defendant in this litigation.” A comparison of the bates numbers in Exhibit B reveals they are the same as the relevant documents in Exhibits 7 and 8.

Slip op., at 18.  The Court concluded its analysis of the summary judgment motion by finding that triable issues of fact were shown by the plaintiffs.

Finally, the Court held that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied class certification, relying on incorrect criteria:

McElroy and Carl argue the court improperly denied class certification for several reasons. Among other things they cite as an abuse of discretion the court’s community interest analysis based on its erroneous “legal assumption that ‘liability is not established by an illegal policy.’” Plaintiffs contend that assumption is contrary to the holding of Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at page 1033, and Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc. (2013) 216 Cal.App.4th 220, 232. We conclude this argument has merit.

Slip op., at 20.  The Court remanded the matter for further consideration of the other aspects of certification that were not fully considered by the trial court.

Class certification in California is still actually a "procedure"

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What to make of this one?  I should have commented on it long ago, I know, but that start-your-own-law-firm thing is fairly time consuming, so I get to writing when I can.   So while I was doing some show prep for this upcoming weekend's podcast, I finally took a look at Benton v. Telecom Network Specialists, Inc. (Oct. 16, 2013) to see for myself what the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) did that has many plaintiff-side practitioners so excited.

In Benton, the plaintiffs, cell-phone tower technicians, filed a wage and hour class action lawsuit against Telecom Network Services (TNS) alleging, among other things, violation of meal and rest break requirements and failure to pay overtime.  Most of the proposed class of technicians were hired and paid by staffing companies that contracted with TNS. The remainder of the technicians were hired and paid by TNS directly.  Plaintiffs alleged that TNS was the employer of both categories of technicians and moved to certify their claims.  The trial court denied certification, holding that TNS’s liability could not be established “through common proof because: (1) the technicians worked under ‘a diversity of workplace conditions’ that enabled some of them to take meal and rest breaks; and (2) the staffing companies that hired and paid many of the TNS technicians had adopted different meal, rest break and overtime policies throughout the class period.”

The Court of Appeal reversed, remanding for further proceedings.  In an extensive opinion tracking development of the certification standards as applied to wage and hour cases beginning primarily with Brinker, the Court also examined decisions in Bradley v. Networkers International, 211 Cal. App. 4th 1129 (2012) and Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, 216 Cal. App. 4th 220 (2013).

Discussing Bradley, the Court said:

On remand from the Supreme Court, however, the Court of Appeal concluded that, under the analysis set forth in Brinker, the trial court had improperly focused on individual issues related to damages, rather than on the plaintiffs’ theory of liability. (Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 1151.) According to the court, Brinker had clarified that “in ruling on the predominance issue in a certification motion, the court must focus on the plaintiff’s theory of recovery and assess the nature of the legal and factual disputes likely to be presented and determine whether individual or common issues predominate.” (Id. at p. 1150.) The court further explained that “plaintiffs’ theory of recovery [wa]s based on Networkers’ (uniform) lack of a rest and meal break policy and its (uniform) failure to authorize employees to take statutorily required rest and meal breaks. The lack of a meal/rest break policy and the uniform failure to authorize such breaks are matters of common proof. Although an employer could potentially defend these claims by arguing that it did have an informal or unwritten meal or rest break policy, this defense is also a matter of common proof.” (Id. at p. 1150.)

Slip op., at 22-23.  Notice that, at least in the context of these wage particular wage & hour claims, which have a natural tendency to be governed by some set of implementing policies, the certification question endorsed in this case is the question of whether the defendant's policy is legal, not whether any particular employee stumbled into compliant behavior.  Similarly, discussing Faulkinbury, the Court said:

Upon remand from the Supreme Court, the appellate court concluded that Brinker had rejected the mode of analysis set forth in its original opinion. As to plaintiffs’ meal break claim, the appellate court explained that Brinker clarified that the defendant’s liability would attach “upon a determination that [defendant’s] uniform on-duty meal break policy was unlawful . . . . Whether or not the employee was able to take the [off-duty] required break goes to damages, and ‘[t]he fact that individual [employees] may have different damages does not require denial of the class certification motion.’ [Citation.]” (Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at p. 235.)

Slip op., at 24-25.  This line of cases appears to strongly emphasize what was, for a time, an argument receiving less traction: variations in damages does not require denial of certification.

After establishing the framework for its analysis, the Court examined the trial court’s ruling:

The written order (as well as statements made at the motion hearing) make clear that the trial court did not believe TNS would be liable upon a determination that its lack of a meal and rest policy violated applicable wage and hour requirements; rather, it concluded that TNS would become liable only upon a showing that a technician had missed breaks as a result of TNS’s policies.

Slip op., at 27.  The Court then rejected the trial court’s mode of analysis, holding that Brinker, and then Bradley and Faulkinbury clarified the correct approach:

As explained in Bradley and Faulkinbury, however, Brinker “expressly rejected” this mode of analysis. (Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1143, 1151; Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at pp. 235, 237.) As succinctly stated in Faulkinbury: “the employer’s liability arises by adopting a uniform policy that violates the wage and hour laws. Whether or not the employee was able to take the required break goes to damages, and ‘[t]he fact that individual [employees] may have different damages does not require denial of the class certification motion.’ [Citation.]” (Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at p. 235; see also Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 1151 [“under the logic of [Brinker],when an employer has not authorized and not provided legally-required meal and/or rest breaks, the employer has violated the law and the fact that an employee may have actually taken a break or was able to [take a break] during the work day does not show that individual issues will predominate in the litigation”].) Indeed, Bradley and Faulkinbury both specifically concluded that evidence showing that some class members’ working conditions permitted them to take breaks, while others did not, was not a sufficient basis for denying certification. (See Faulkinbury, supra, 216 Cal.App.4th at pp. 236-237 [evidence that some employees were able to “take breaks at [their] posts”, while others “could not leave the assigned post for a rest break” does not “establish individual issues of liability”]; Bradley, supra, 211 Cal.App.4th at p. 1150 [evidence that some employees worked “alone for long periods of time” or “took the authorized rest or meal break” was insufficient to show individual issues predominated.)

Slip op., at 27.  The Court continued in this same vein, thoroughly rejecting both the defendant’s theories and trial court’s method of analysis, repeatedly holding that variations in experiences by class members impacted their damages, not the plaintiffs’ theory of the case, which challenged the absence of lawful policies required by the Wage Order.

You can, at least in this context, certify the question of whether the defendant did the right thing, not the question of whether the plaintiffs always received the right thing.  In other words, luck won't save you; legal policies, implemented as written, will.  Somehow, I think the wage & hour defense bar is celebrating this just as much...