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Archive for the ‘Employment Class Actions’ Category

One of my law partners, Todd Lebowitz, resident in BakerHostetler’s Cleveland office, has put together a fantastic new legal blog focusing on the hot topic of employee misclassification.  The blog, launched this week, already has some fantastic content to help employers and practitioners navigate the tricky landscape of who is an employee and who is an independent contractor.  Make sure to check it out!

https://whoismyemployee.com

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The Supreme Court issued its decision today in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, a case that many commentators predicted would provide an opportunity for the Court to limit or bar the use of statistical evidence as a substitute for common proof in class actions.  The majority opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, rejected the invitation to create a “broad rule” limiting the use of statistical evidence, however.  Instead, the Court offered practical guidance on the situations in which statistical evidence may or may not be appropriate.  The relevant portion of the opinion is short and succinct, so I have quoted it in its entirety below:

[P]etitioner and various of its amici maintain that the Court should announce a broad rule against the use in class actions of what the parties call representative evidence. A categorical exclusion of that sort, however, would make little sense. A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability. Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes—be it a class or individual action—but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action. See Fed. Rules Evid. 401, 403, and 702.

It follows that the Court would reach too far were it to establish general rules governing the use of statistical evidence, or so-called representative evidence, in all class-action cases. Evidence of this type is used in various substantive realms of the law. Brief for Complex Litigation Law Professors as Amici Curiae 5–9; Brief for Economists et al. as Amici Curiae 8–10. Whether and when statistical evidence can be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the evidence is being introduced and on “the elements of the underlying cause of action,” Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., 563 U. S. 804, 809 (2011).

In many cases, a representative sample is “the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data” establishing a defendant’s liability. Manual of Complex Litigation §11.493, p. 102 (4th ed. 2004). In a case where representative evidence is relevant in proving a plaintiff’s individual claim, that evidence cannot be deemed improper merely because the claim is brought on behalf of a class. To so hold would ignore the Rules Enabling Act’s pellucid instruction that use of the class device cannot “abridge . . . any substantive right.” 28 U.S.C. § 2072(b).

Those who were hoping for a rule barring statistical evidence as a proxy for common evidence in class actions will no doubt be disappointed, but Justice Kennedy’s opinion does go much further than it had to in beginning to develop standards that will govern resolution of the issue in future cases.  To summarize:

  1. There is no general rule barring the use of statistics to prove class-wide liability in a class action.
  2. The extent to which statistical evidence is allowable in a class action depends on whether the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of a relevant cause of action.
  3. Statistical evidence is admissible in a class action if it would be admissible in an individual action to prove or disprove elements of a plaintiffs’ claim.
  4. Whether statistical evidence can be used to establish class-wide liability depends on the purpose for which the evidence is being introduced and on “the elements of the underlying cause of action.”

As a final side-note, the decision in Tyson Foods does not appear to have been impacted at all by the recent death of Justice Scalia.  Only two of the eight remaining Justices, Justices Thomas and Alito, dissented.

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A key trend in employment-related class actions these days is a surge in lawsuits alleging that employers have violated wage and hour or employee benefits laws by misclassifying employees as independent contractors.  BakerHostetler Partner Todd Lebowitz has authored an excellent white paper on the subject, titled Independent Contractor Misclassification, 2016 Legal Analysis.  The paper details the analytical framework by which a particular worker is properly classified as employee or independent contractor and discusses the potential legal and regulatory implications arising from an employer’s misclassification of workers.  To download the paper, CLICK HERE.

 

 

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Editor’s Note: This is a joint post for ClassActionBlawg and the newly-launched Baker Hostetler Class Action Lawsuit Defense Blog.  Be sure to bookmark the Baker Hostetler blog at www.classactionlawsuitdefense.com for the latest in class action trends and decisions.

A common temptation in class action litigation is to fashion procedures based on “rough justice” to avoid overburdening the courts or attempting to redress alleged mass harm.  Over the past decade, as storage and computing power have increased exponentially, it has become increasingly tempting to use statistical sampling as a proxy for the actual adjudication of facts in class or mass actions.  The idea is that if the facts regarding a statistically significant subset of a class can be evaluated for a particular issue or set of issues, then the results of the evaluation of the sample can be extrapolated across the rest of the class.

One jurisdiction in particular where this approach has gained traction has been California.  There, the use of statistical sampling has been recognized for several years as a means of apportioning damages in some cases.   See Bell v. Farmers Ins. Exchange (2004) 115 Cal.App.4th 715 [9 Cal.Rptr.3d 544] (Bell III).   However, in recent years, plaintiffs have attempted to use statistical sampling as proof of liability, not simply as a means of apportioning damages when liability has been established or (as in Bell III) it is not contested.  This approach was harshly criticized in Part III of Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, (notably, this was the portion of the Dukes opinion with which all nine justices concurred):

The Court of Appeals believed that it was possible to replace such proceedings with Trial by Formula. A sample set of the class members would be selected, as to whom liability for sex discrimination and the backpay owing as a result would be determined in depositions supervised by a master. The percentage of claims determined to be valid would then be applied to the entire remaining class, and the number of (presumptively) valid claims thus derived would be multiplied by the average backpay award in the sample set to arrive at the entire class recovery— without further individualized proceedings. [internal citation omitted].  We disapprove that novel project.

Earlier this year, in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association, No. A125557 & A126827 (Cal. App., Feb.  6, 2012), a division of the California Court of Appeal agreed with the above-quoted dicta in Dukes and rejected an attempt to use statistical sampling to prove liability an a wage and hour class action.  The plaintiff had presented testimony from statistician Richard Drogin, who had also served as an expert for the plaintiffs in Dukes.  Drogin presented a random sampling analysis that purported to estimate the percentage of the defendant’s employees that had been misclassified for purposes of entitlement to overtime pay.  The trial court adopted a sampling approach that was modeled on (but not exactly the same as) Drogin’s proposal.  

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court’s approach was improper and that it violated defendant’s due process rights for a variety of reasons, including that 1) the use of statistics to estimate the total number of employees who had been misclassified deprived the defendant an opportunity to present relevant evidence and individualized defenses as to individual plaintiffs’ alleged misclassification; 2) the court’s statistical methodology was flawed because it arbitrarily used a sample of 20 employees without any basis for concluding that the sample was statistically significant; 3) even the use of sampling as to damages was improper because the methodology used had an unacceptably high margin of error.

The Duran opinion is worthy of careful study for anyone considering the use of statistics in class certification proceedings, both in the employment context and in other types of class actions.  The opinion examines many of the due process problems with allowing proof of liability through statistical sampling, the most significant of which is that it tends to deprive a defendant of presenting evidence in its defense that it would be able to present in an individual case.  It also provides an additional illustration of what the Supreme Court considered an improper “trial by formula” in Dukes.

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For those readers who are interested in additional insights on Judge Posner’s opinion in McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., No. 11-3639 (7th Cir., Feb. 24, 2012), which was the subject of Wednesday’s CAB post, here’s a link to an insightful executive alert on the decision, which was authored by colleagues in Baker Hostler’s New York office, partner Deborah Renner and associate Matthew Moody.

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Last Friday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a significant employment class action decision that may challenge conventional wisdom about the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.   The opinion, authored by respected Judge Richard Posner, is McReynolds v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., No. 11-3639 (7th Cir., Feb. 24, 2012).

The procedural history of McReynolds is interesting, because the plaintiffs had actually moved for reconsideration of an earlier denial of class certification after the decidedly pro-employer decision in Dukes was announced.  Although the trial court judge was unconvinced to change his earlier decision, he did agree that Dukes presented a good basis for reconsideration of the class action issue, and expressly stated in his decision that he believed the case was a good candidate for an interlocutory appeal under Rule 23(f).

The Seventh Circuit accepted the appeal, and reversed the denial of class certification.  The Seventh Circuit panel recognized that individualized issues would prevent certification of any claims for back pay or damages, but held that certification of the issue of whether the defendant’s challenged employment policies had an adverse impact on members of a protected class would still be appropriate under Rule 23(b)(2), which allows a class to be certified for the purpose of awarding injunctive relief, and Rule 23(c)(4), which allows certification of particular issues.  Essentially, the case would be certified for the purpose of deciding whether the defendant’s challenged policies created a disparate impact to members of a protected class and for the purpose of ruling on plaintiffs’ request to enjoin the practices.  Any claims for back pay, compensatory or punitive damages would then have to be brought as separate proceedings. 

In reaching its conclusion, the court drew a key factual distinction between the practices being challenged in the case before it and the practices that had been challenged in Dukes.  In McReynolds, the practice being challenged was the company-wide policy of “permitting brokers to form their own teams and prescribing criteria for account distributions that favor the already successfulthose who may owe heir success to having been invited to join a successful or promising team.”  The court distinguished this policy, which it characterized as a firm-wide policy of Merrill Lynch, from the allegations in Dukes, which were that the lack of a uniform corporate policy on discrimination created too much discretion in local managers to create locally discriminatory policies.

I’ll be posting more on this decision within the coming week, so stay tuned…

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Class action news has slowed a bit over the Summer months, at least compared to the non-stop action we witnessed this Spring.  But one area that has seen continued development in the past few months has been the area of class arbitration waivers, where several lower court decisions have been issued in the wake of AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion.  A view of the decisions shows that class actions are far from dead, despite the dire predictions of many experts following the decision.  As my partner, John Lewis, noted in a recent interview with the AmLaw Daily, “While many people thought Concepcion was the end of the line, now we’re seeing the reaction to Conception with district courts distinguishing it on various grounds.”  Here is a quick summary of several key decisions that have interpreted or applied Concepcion:

Chen-Oster v. Goldman Sachs, Inc. (link courtesy of Justia.com) – U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York – July 7, 2011 – applying the federal common law of arbitrability in rejecting the argument that Concepcion required enforcement of class arbitration waiver in a gender discrimination pattern and practice case, holding that enforcement of the arbitration clause at issue would interfere with the enforcement of a federal substantive right.

Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Company (link courtesy of Impact Litigation Journal, which also has a  summary of the decision here) – California Court of Appeal – July 12, 2011 – holding that representative actions for state labor code violations under California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) were not preempted by the FAA because Concepcion did not address preemption in cases involving PAGA’s statutory procedure and because the procedure did not involve many of the attributes of class action procedure that the Supreme Court had held were inconsistent with the purposes of arbitration.

Kanbar v. O’Melveny & Myers (link also courtesy of the AmLaw Daily) – U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California – July 21, 2011 –  holding in an employment discrimination case that notwithstanding Concepcion, an arbitration provision was unconscionable under California state law and that state law was not preempted under the FAA, but nonetheless compelling arbitration on the grounds that the plaintiff had waived her right to object to enforceability of the arbitration clause.

Cruz v. Cingular Wireless LLC – Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals – August 11, 2011 – holding that Concepcion compelled the conclusion that arbitration clause was enforceable in a case involving the same exact arbitration clause that was at issue in Concepcion (the clause in AT&T’s mobile phone contract).

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Many commentators correctly that the decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes would be favorable to business interests.  However, unlike the Court’s earlier decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, the decision does not necessarily threaten to sound a death knell for class actions or even a particular category of class actions.  Instead, the decision merely clarifies the standards on which future class actions are to be evaluated in the federal courts, but it does so in a way that is likely to impact class actions in many areas of the law outside of the employment law context.  Here are some of the key issues on which the opinion will undoubtedly be cited in the future, and some thoughts on the potential impact of the decision on each issue.

1) Standard of review  – The majority’s decision clarifies a long-standing misconception about the ability of a federal court to consider questions relating to the merits of a case in the class certification phase.  For more than 30 years, plaintiffs’ counsel and many courts have cited the Court’s opinion in Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156 (1974) as prohibiting any examination of the plaintiffs’ claims on the merits at the class certification phase.  Consistent with the majority trend in the lower federal courts, the Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. confirms that a court should consider and resolve any issues of fact that are necessary to determine whether one or more elements of Rule 23 are satisfied, regardless of whether those issues may overlap or be identical to one or more issues to be decided in ruling on the merits of the plaintiff’s claims.

2) Evaluation of Expert Testimony – The majority decision makes clear that it is appropriate for a federal court to conduct a Daubert analysis to consider the reliability and helpfulness of expert witness opinions at the class certification phase.  It is no longer sufficient for a plaintiff to present expert testimony and then argue that the Court may find that testimony reliable at some later point in the proceedings.  Again, in keeping with te trend among the federal circuit courts, the Court’s analysis in Wal-mart Stores, Inc. makes clear that the reliability and relevance of expert testimony proposed as “common proof” should be evaluated before granting class certification.

3) Use of Statistical Evidence in Support of Class Certification – The majority’s decision leaves open the possibility that statistical evidence might be used in establishing the existence of common proof in certain cases, but it sets a high standard for when proffered statistical evidence can be considered as adequate proof of the existence of “common issue.”  Significantly, Part III of Justice Scalia’s opinion, which was joined by all 9 justices, disapproves of the “Trial by Formula” approach to class actions, in which a sample of claims is tried on the merits, and the results of that sample are then applied proportionally to the claims of the entire class.

4) Certification of Claims Seeking Monetary Relief Under FRCP 23(b)(2) – This is perhaps the most uncontroversial aspect of the opinion in that part of the unanimous holding of the Court.  The Court’s holding is also straightforward, at least conceptually: claims for monetary relief may not be certified under FRCP 23(b)(2) unless they are merely incidental to injunctive or declaratory relief being requested on behalf of the class as a whole.  However, the devil may be in the details, as future courts (especially outside the employment law context) will be left with the task of defining what monetary relief is “incidental” to injunctive or declaratory relief and what is not.

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As was widely expected, the Supreme Court has overturned class certification in what has been called the largest employment discrimination class action in history. The slip opinion in Wal-mart v. Dukes, No. 10-277, (S. Ct. June 20, 2011). is available at the Court’s website.

The justices were unanimous in finding that Rule 23(b)(2) did not allow the class action to go forward for the purpose of seeking monetary relief in the form of back pay. However, the Court split 5-4 on whether the case should have been allowed to go forward for the purpose of pursuing injunctive relief. Justice Scalia wrote for the majority and Justice Ginsburg authoring a partial dissent.

Much more on the decision later…

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Last week, Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner authored an opinion addressing one of the key issues awaiting a ruling by the United States Supreme Court this term, holding that an employment discrimination class action seeking back pay could not be certified under FRCP 23(b)(2).   Here is a relevant excerpt from the opinion, Randall v. Rolls-Royce Corp., No. 10-3446, slip op.  at 12-14 (7th Cir., March 30 2011) (I have removed the internal citations for ease of reading),

[I]magine if the plaintiffs in this case were just seeking an injunction commanding basepay equalization between male and female employees.

But that’s not what they’re seeking, exclusively or even mainly; and indeed this isn’t a proper Rule 23(b)(2) suit.  Class action lawyers like to sue under that provision because it is less demanding, in a variety of ways, than Rule 23(b)(3) suits, which usually are the only available alternative. . . . Of particular significance, “plaintiffs may attempt to shoehorn damages actions into the Rule 23(b)(2) framework, depriving class members of notice and opt-out protections. The incentives to do so are large. Plaintiffs’ counsel effectively gathers clients—often thousands of clients—by a certification under (b)(2). Defendants attempting to purchase res judicata may prefer certification under (b)(2) over (b)(3).” . . . How far Rule 23(b)(2) can be stretched is the issue in the gigantic class action against Wal-Mart, Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. . . . now before the Supreme Court. The present case is not as big a stretch, but it is big enough. 

True, the only monetary relief sought is back pay; true, too—contrary to the common but erroneous notion that courts of equity can’t award monetary relief—they can do so if the award is merely incidental to the grant of an injunction or declaratory relief: “incidental” in the sense of requiring only a mechanical computation. That is the “clean-up” doctrine of equity. . . . In such a case, to make the class representative bring a second suit, for damages, on top of his injunctive action would create pointless redundancy. . . .

The plaintiffs argue that if only equitable relief is sought, a class action suit may be maintained under Rule 23(b)(2) even if the equitable relief is mainly monetary. We disagree. To read “injunctive” in the rule to mean “equitable” is to become mired in sticky questions of differentiating between “legal” and “equitable” actions—and such questions abound. . . .  We can avoid the mire by recognizing that Rule 23(b)(2) class actions are limited to cases in which “final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief” is appropriate, rather than extending to all cases in which any kind of equitable relief is sought. . . . The monetary relief sought in a case, whether denominated legal or equitable, may make the case unsuitable for Rule 23(b)(2) treatment. . . .  As this case illustrates: calculating the amount of back pay to which the members of the class would be entitled if the plaintiffs prevailed would require 500 separate hearings. The monetary tail would be wagging the injunction dog. An injunction thus “would not provide ‘final’ relief as required by Rule 23(b)(2). An injunction is not a final remedy if it would merely lay an evidentiary foundation for subsequent determinations of liability.”

Could it be that the resolution of this issue is as simple as the recognition that “equitable” doesn’t mean “injunctive” and that class actions seeking monetary relief, whether “equitable” or “legal” can only be brought under Rule 23(b)(3), not Rule 23(b)(2)?  The Supreme Court should have an answer within the next two months.

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