Co-authored by Kyle A. Petersen and Molly C. Mooney

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Second Circuit recently upheld a district court order denying a bid for class certification by personal bankers claiming their managers refused to approve timesheets with overtime hours, shaved reported overtime hours, and pressured them to work off the clock. Because the company’s policy governing (and limiting) overtime work was lawful on its face, the bankers’ claims hinged on the exercise of managerial discretion in applying those policies. The district court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate sufficient uniformity in the exercise of managerial discretion, and the Second Circuit affirmed.

As noted earlier, the trial court’s decision reflects reluctance by some trial courts to certify nationwide class actions based on local or even regionalized evidence of rogue managers deviating from company policy. The Court of Appeals has now given its seal of approval to that approach.

In Ruiz v. Citibank, N.A., personal bankers from several states alleged that Citibank had a strict policy limiting overtime hours while also setting rigorous sales goals and quotas for the bankers that could not be achieved in a forty-hour workweek. The bankers also alleged that branch managers refused to approve timesheets with overtime hours, or shaved overtime hours off of the bankers’ timesheets.

The bankers sought certification of a class consisting of bankers with claims under New York, Illinois, and District of Columbia law. Their attempt to establish commonality — primarily through anecdotal evidence of pressure to work off the clock and a not uncommon and entirely legal goal of reducing overtime work — fell short and was rebutted by putative class member testimony of variations across branches. For example, putative class members testified that individual branch managers had differing management styles for incentivizing and motivating employees to meet their sales goals — some plaintiffs were rewarded for positive sales performance, with no reference to overtime hours they worked in doing so, while others failed to achieve sales goals with no admonition. This, said the court, showed that the pressure to work off the clock was not uniformly felt and precluded the case from proceeding as a class. On appeal, the Second Circuit wholeheartedly agreed with the district court’s “lucid and accurate analysis” and affirmed denial of class certification.

While not a game changer, this decision reaffirms the need for plaintiffs to come up with more than anecdotal evidence of allegedly systemic problems, and highlights how employers can use class member depositions to defeat class certification.

Co-authored by Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.Tiffany Tran, and Julie Yap

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seyfarth Shaw submitted comments and oral testimony to the Federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules regarding needed reform and guidance to Rule 23, the rule that governs class action litigation in federal courts. While the proposed amendments address important issues, our workplace class action group proposed four additional areas for consideration that are not currently addressed by the pending proposed rule amendments.

Rule 23 Changes

As some employers may be aware, changes are coming to Rule 23 class action requirements. What exactly those changes will be, and when those changes will go into effect, however, are still to be determined.

The Advisory Committee on Civil Rules (the “Committee”) for the Federal Courts, which is responsible for recommending amendments to Rule 23, has been contemplating possible changes for years now — we previously blogged about the potential changes here. The Committee recently proposed specific rule changes that address important issues such as settlement class procedures and electronic notice to class members.

Various parties and groups submitted written comments to the Committee, including academics, worker and consumer advocacy groups, and corporate groups.

Seyfarth’s written submission is here. Seyfarth’s comments were prepared by the team of Thomas Ahlering, Kate Birenbaum, Matthew Gagnon, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Hilary Massey, Jennifer Riley, Tiffany Tran, Julie Yap, and Kevin Young.

Seyfarth’s submission identified four additional areas that remain in need of reform and guidance to address the practical difficulties regularly encountered in class action litigation

Testimony To The Committee

The Committee also selected 11 individuals to testify before the Committee.

The Committee selected Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. (“Jerry”) co-chair of our class action defense group, to testify. Jerry gave testimony to the Committee on February 16. Seyfath was the only law firm representing employers to be selected to testify.

Other individuals who testified included Theodore Frank of the Competitive Enterprise Institute; Eric Issacson, of the Issacson Law Office; Peter Martin of State Farm Mutual Insurance Co.; Patrick Paul of Snell & Wilmer; Timothy Pratt of Boston Scientific Corp.; Michael Pennington of Bradley, Arant, Boult & Cummings; Professor Judith Resnik of Yale Law School; Richard Simmons of Analytics LLC; Ariana Tadler of Milberg LLP; and Steven Weisbrot of Angeion Group.

Consistent with Seyfarth’s written submission, Jerry testified that class action litigation would be aided by an express requirement that a party seeking class certification must submit a viable trial plan. This change makes sense from both a legal and practical perspective as it would help prevent unmanageable class actions from proceeding past the class certification stage to trial. Indeed, this amendment conforms to the California Supreme Court’s decision in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association, 59 Cal. 4th 1 (2014), which requires adequately developed trial plans at the class certification stage.

Jerry also advocated for a revision to Rule 23(f) to allow for an immediate right to appeal orders to certify, modify, or decertify a class. Jerry testified that an amendment to the current approach would ensure meaningful review of and guidance regarding class certification.

In addition, Jerry suggested that the Committee revisit the standards relating to class certification in the context of a settlement. This would amend Rule 23 to acknowledge and address the unique and practical considerations and impacts of certification in the two very different contexts of actual litigation versus settlement.

Finally, Jerry recommended that the Committee provide additional, specific guidance regarding Rule 26’s “proportionality” requirement and its application to pre-certification class discovery. Jerry shared Seyfarth’s collective experience in representing employers who face requests for discovery on class lists, contact information, and other information about potential class members. Rule 26 requires that discovery be “proportional to the needs of the case,” which directly affects pre-certification class discovery. Nonetheless, federal courts have taken varying approaches to resolving these discovery disputes. Jerry advocated the position that the Committee’s further guidance is needed to ensure a standard approach that fully considers the burden class discovery places on employers.

Implications For Employers

The Rule 23 amendments will have a significant impact on class action litigation and far-reaching consequences for employers.

Stay tuned for more updates regarding the proposed Rule 23 amendments as we continue to monitor developments on this important issue.

Authored by Rachel M. Hoffer

It’s a common business model in the fast-food industry: a massive restaurant company provides the menu, the marketing—including catchy slogans and a universally recognized logo—and the basic operational standards for the restaurant,
and a franchisee provides the rest—including hiring, training, and firing restaurant employees. Unfortunately for the fast-food giants (the notorious FFGs, if you will), it’s also common for disgruntled employees to name them in lawsuits—particularly super-sized class-action lawsuits—against the franchisee.

In March 2014, three fast-food workers from Oakland did just that—they sued the family-owned company that operates 8 franchise restaurants in Northern California, and they brought the FFG along for the ride under a joint employment theory, serving up a complaint chock full of California Labor Code, Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), and negligence claims. Last August, a federal judge in California dismissed the negligence claim on summary judgment and rejected the workers’ theory that the franchisee acted as the FFG’s actual agent. But the judge didn’t toss out the workers’ claims completely, finding the plaintiffs had presented enough evidence of ostensible agency to have their day in court with the FFG.

Determined to have it their way, right away, the plaintiffs settled their claims against the franchisee but moved to certify a class of more than 1,200 hourly workers who had worked at the franchisee’s eight restaurants. Unwilling to pick up the franchisee’s remaining tab, the FFG moved to deny class certification and to strike the representative PAGA claim. And the FFG did what Giants tend to do in San Francisco—it won. Last week, the judge found that the workers’ ostensible agency theory required too many individualized inquiries to be decided on a class basis.

Under an ostensible agency theory, the FFG is on the hook for the franchisee’s actions if the worker can prove: (1) in dealing with the franchisee, the worker reasonably believed the franchisee had the authority to act on the FFG’s behalf; (2) the worker’s belief was caused by something the FFG did or failed to do; and (3) the worker wasn’t negligent in relying on the franchisee’s apparent authority.

The workers argued that the questions of law or fact common to potential class members outweighed the questions that affected only individual members, and that a class action was the best way to fairly and efficiently decide their claims. In support of this argument, the workers asserted that the “belief” prong of the first requirement—that the potential class members believed the franchisee had the authority to act for the FFG—could be inferred from the circumstances. The judge wasn’t convinced that the law allows such an inference, nor was he convinced that the evidence supported such an inference. Instead, the evidence showed that class members received different information about the franchisee’s authority, and some actually understood that the FFG was not their employer. So, the question of belief had to be decided on an individual basis.

The judge also found that there was no way to determine, on a class basis, whether such a belief was reasonable and not negligent. Rather, what each worker knew (or should have known) varied depending on the circumstances. Some workers, for example, were told during orientation that the franchisee was their employer and the FFG was not. Some workers received and read documents informing them that the franchisee, not the FFG, was their employer; others either did not receive or did not read that paperwork. In other words, whether a belief was reasonable and not negligent depended on the information available to each worker.

Likewise, the judge found that reliance can’t be determined on a class-wide basis. The workers—pointing to out-of-context case law—argued that courts often presume reliance when there is no evidence that the plaintiff knew or should have known that the purported agent was not an agent of the principal. But even if that case law applies in the franchise context, the workers’ argument begged the question; the presumption couldn’t apply on a class-wide basis because, as the judge had already explained, the knew-or-should-have-known question couldn’t be answered on a class-wide basis. The order: individualized inquiries, all the way.

The workers also argued that the court should certify a class because they were seeking injunctive relief on a class-wide basis. But the judge didn’t see how an injunction against the FFG could help the franchisee’s employees, when he had found in his summary-judgment opinion that the FFG didn’t control the aspects of their employment at issue in the case. Simply put, where’s the beef?

The workers’ PAGA claim fared no better; the judge found that a representative PAGA action wouldn’t be manageable because it relied on the ostensible agency theory, which could only be established through individualized inquiries. So, while the three plaintiffs can still pursue their individual claims against the FFG on an ostensible agency theory, those are small fries compared to the representative claims they had hoped to bring on behalf of more than 1,200 other workers.

The take-home for the notorious FFGs who franchise independent restaurant owners, of course, is to stay out of the kitchen when it comes to the relationship between the franchisee and its employees. And, for the FFGs’ sake, franchisees should make sure employees know where their bread is buttered.

Co-authored by Sherry Skibbe and Andrew Paley

Allstate Insurance Company “insured” a major victory last week in an off the clock class action pending in Los Angeles Superior Court, vindicating employers’ argument that plaintiffs cannot simply intone the magical incantation of “statistical sampling” as a means of collective proof in a class action. Rather, plaintiffs must proffer a detailed and manageable trial plan that relies on sound statistical science. Likening Plaintiff’s trial plan to a house built on a poor foundation, Judge John Shepard Wiley rejected the statistically unsound trial plan because it would be “an enduring source of grief.”

After almost nine years of litigation, Judge Wiley granted Allstate’s motion to decertify both an off-the-clock and wage statement class because none of the multiple trial plans suggested by Plaintiff complied with the requirements in the California Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association or last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo.

Over the past two years, Plaintiff offered several trial plans based on statistical sampling and extrapolation suggested by two different experts. The court, however, found that each of the plans failed to comply with sound statistical methodology and were “premised on invalid logic.” Recognizing that a 95% confidence interval and a 5% margin of error is the common convention, the court roundly criticized Plaintiff’s expert who proposed an 84% confidence interval and anywhere from a 10-20% margin of error. The court also rejected Plaintiff’s plea to let him proceed with trial and enter a directed verdict if he could not prove his claims because such a plan was “doomed to be an expensive waste of time.” Under proper sampling methodologies, the case would be unmanageable at trial as the sample size would require testimony from at least 495 class members.

Significantly, the court’s decision implicitly rejects the Plaintiff’s argument that not all members of his proposed survey need to testify at trial. The decision is therefore powerful ammunition to counter plaintiffs’ oft repeated argument that a “sample of a sample” is sufficient to testify at trial. If sound statistical methodology requires a sample of 495 class members in order to extrapolate the results to the larger class consistent with the proper confidence interval and margin of error, then all 495 class members need to testify at trial so that the jury can determine their credibility and assess their testimony. Plaintiffs cannot simply propose that their expert will testify at trial as to the results of a survey of the sample. If this means that the trial will be unmanageable, then the case should be decertified.

Although Plaintiff argued that Tyson Foods was a “game changer,” the court found Tyson Foods to be entirely consistent with Duran. The court recognized that Tyson Foods and Duran prohibit the use of statistically inadequate evidence such as that presented by Plaintiff. Although representative proof sometimes can be used in a certified class action, statistical evidence only can be used if the proof is reliable.

This case provides employers with several important “take-aways.” Defense counsel should aggressively challenge a plaintiff’s proposed trial plan to ensure that the trial plan is statistically reliable. Additionally, neither Tyson Foods nor Duran stands for the proposition that statistical sampling and surveys can be used to prove liability in every case. Whatever the supposed benefits of a class action may be, they cannot defeat a defendant’s right to due process. Trial plans must be tailored to the specific facts of the claims alleged and an unmanageable trial plan that is not scientifically sound should be rejected.

Authored by Hillary J. Massey

Employers have a new tool for opposing conditional and class certification of overtime claims by financial advisors and other exempt employees—last week, a judge in the District of New Jersey denied conditional and class certification of such claims because the plaintiffs failed to show that common issues predominated. The court, pointing to other decisions denying class status to financial advisors in recent years, concluded that the advisors’ duties varied significantly and required individual treatment. While recent headlines have announced large settlements of class claims by financial advisors, this decision bolsters employers’ opposition to those and other purported wage and hour class and collective claims.

The four named plaintiffs brought suit under the FLSA and the laws of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, claiming that they and the purported class members were entitled to overtime pay and business expenses, and proposing three classes and an opt-in federal collective. Plaintiffs contended the bank’s uniform categorization of financial advisors as exempt was improper because the advisors regularly made sales “cold calls,” regularly attended networking events to attract new clients, were paid based on their ability to generate sales, were heavily supervised, and had no role in managerial decisions affecting the bank’s business.

Denying plaintiffs’ motions, the judge first concluded that plaintiffs failed to establish their claims were typical and they were adequate representatives of the class because, unlike the plaintiffs, many proposed class members had signed releases of all claims.  The court explained it was unclear how the class representatives would challenge releases they did not sign.

On predominance, the judge concluded that the bank’s policies, plaintiffs’ depositions, and the declarations submitted with the bank’s opposition demonstrated that financial advisors varied in:

  • how often they sold financial products;
  • how they were supervised;
  • how they were paid;
  • what types of clients they served; and
  • how much autonomy they enjoyed.

For example, one plaintiff testified that some advisors did cold calling while others did not, and plaintiffs testified that as their business became more established, they spent less time generating sales.  The record also showed that some managers were involved in the day-to-day work of their financial advisors, but others were more hands off.  Thus the court concluded that common questions did not predominate.

As in another case we recently discussed, where the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a proposed collective action of bank loan underwriters, the court here also rejected plaintiffs’ heavy reliance on the DOL’s 2010 Administrative Interpretation concerning mortgage loan officers’ non-exempt status, noting that that the Interpretation did not apply to financial advisors.

Finally, despite a “lenient standard,” the judge denied plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification under the FLSA.  Plaintiffs could not meet their burden by merely showing that the bank had a uniform policy of treating financial advisors as exempt, and the significant class discovery record revealed that financial advisors’ duties varied greatly.

The case will now proceed on the merits of the claims of the four individual plaintiffs only.

EDNY-SealCo-authored by Robert S. Whitman and Howard M. Wexler

Plaintiffs’ counsel frequently speak of the “low” burden necessary at first stage for conditional certification under the FLSA.  However, a recent decision from the Eastern District of New York highlights that plaintiffs may win the battle over conditional certification but still lose the war for final certification at second stage.

In Mendez v. U.S. Nonwovens Corp., the plaintiffs succeeded in obtaining conditional certification based on their claim that the defendants enforced several “policies” that adversely affected employees’ wages, including failure to timely pay, failure to pay employees based on timecard punches, and requiring pre-shift work without additional compensation.  At the close of discovery, they moved for class certification under Rule 23, which the court denied except as to a subclass of employees who claimed they were entitled to spread of hours pay under the New York Labor Law.

The defendants concurrently moved for decertification of the FLSA collective action.  Magistrate Judge Steve I. Locke granted the motion.  He  noted the “heightened scrutiny” that must be applied at second stage certification, in contrast to the “modest factual showing” of similarity at the first stage.  While the Second Circuit has not yet set forth a particular method for deciding second stage certification, Judge Locke noted that district courts generally look at the following factors:  (1) disparate factual and employment settings of individual plaintiffs; (2) defenses available to defendants which appear to be individual to each plaintiff; and (3) fairness and procedural considerations.

Because Judge Locke found that the defendants’ policies were not facially unlawful, he required the plaintiffs to provide sufficient evidence that the defendants’ implementation of these policies violate the FLSA.  Based on a review of the evidence, he found “no generalized or representative proof of such a policy that would establish liability on a collective-wide basis.”

While the court said that each plaintiff may have a claim to unpaid overtime, “those claims may only be established through individualized evidence” given their varied experiences.  He also noted that “anecdotal evidence of individual failures” in paying certain employees does not constitute “proof of a company-wide policy or practice.”  And given the disparate factual claims of liability, the defenses would “necessarily vary” on a plaintiff-by-plaintiff basis as well.

Mendez is yet another reminder that all is not lost when FLSA conditional certification is granted. Where there is compelling evidence that a trial would require individualized factual determinations and an assessment of individual defenses, employers can and should return to the judge to highlight those distinctions among the opt-in plaintiffs in an effort to reverse their fortunes without the yoke of the “lenient standard” of stage one.

Authored by Alex Passantino

‘Twas the week before Christmas, 2-0-1-5
When the poetry elves on the blog came alive.
Crafting their rhymes with a purpose so clear:
Presenting the wage-hour gems of the year.

In January, for new regs in this year our breath bated.
Then for six painful months, we speculated and waited.
And just as we geared up to celebrate Independence,
Out came a proposal that will create more defendants.

With a salary level that for 10 years has been flat,
They looked at New York’s and said “higher than that.”
More than double the old; and then they got clever …
The proposed sal’ry level will increase for forever.

Anticipated changes to duties caused quite a fuss
When DOL said “If you’ve got some ideas, just tell us.”
Of the Department’s proposal, employers were understandably wary,
So we wrote down some ideas on how to make it less scary.

Nearly 300 thousand comments they have to review,
It will be late into next year before they are through.

Next up on the list of your wage-hour joy,
Are the efforts to change what it means to employ:
ContractorsJoint employment. Fissured industry.
Interns. The “third way” and gig economy.

Economic realityRight to control.
They’re integral to your business? Now you’re in a deep hole.
So many angles, it can drive you berserk.
As agencies and courts figure out what is “work.”

And if divergent decisions bring you a sense of elation,
Then please focus attention on class certification.
Approvals, denials, and some decerts, too.
No matter the side, there’s a case for you.

But as summer approached, there arose quite a stir,
A case that’d explain what the class cert rules were.
A Supreme explanation, o my-o, o me-o
We’d learn about class via Bouaphakeo.

They’ve argued, but there’s no decision, not yet,
And a limited ruling on records might be all that we get.
But the cases keep coming. Their numbers broke the charts.
Whether giant class actions or cases broken in parts.

And the response to those filings? The employers’ retort?
A wide range of ways to get them out of court.

Some cases get mooted. Some cases do not.
At Genesis’s open question, SCOTUS might take a shot.
Does an offer of judgment that’s not been accepted
Mean the plaintiff cannot proceed with his class as expected?

Increasingly used as a litigation life saver
Arbitration agreements with a class action waiver;
And when asked if state laws could class waivers prevent, yo,
The Supremes laid the smack-down to dear Sacramento.

With all of these options, it comes as a surprise then,
That one resolution keeps on getting the Heisman.
For reasons that many cannot understand,
To settle wage claims courts think they must hold your hand.

That’s our year in review, we whipped you right through it.
Next year? The new regs and a mad dash to review it.
But before 2015 joins the past’s ranks,
You keep on reading our blog, and for that we give thanks!

THANKS TO ALL OF OUR READERS. BEST WISHES FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY, AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR!

Co-authored by Richard Alfred, Patrick Bannon, and Daniel Whang

Companies burdened by an avalanche of wage and hour class and collective actions have been hoping that Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo might be the game-changing decision they have been waiting for.  If the oral argument before the Supreme Court this morning is an accurate indication (and it may not be), they may have to wait a little longer.

In thousands of cases over the last ten years, federal courts have struggled to decide when an employee can convert an ordinary wage dispute into a class action under state law or a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Despite the frequency with which these issues arise, and their importance, Tyson Foods is the Supreme Court’s first opportunity to weigh in on the subject.

As we have described in our earlier posts, [here, here, and here], several named plaintiffs claimed that Tyson Foods failed to pay a class of more than 3,000 employees in a pork processing plant for time spent “donning” and “doffing” various kinds of sanitary and protective gear and for other pre- and post-shift activities.  The trial judge allowed the case to proceed as a class action under Iowa law and allowed several hundred employees to opt in to an FLSA collective action.  At trial, the plaintiffs presented an expert witness who videotaped employees at the beginning and end of their shifts and calculated the average time they spent on various tasks.

The jury reached a $5.9 million lump-sum verdict in favor of the certified class.  Significantly, however, the jury’s verdict was much less than the amount plaintiffs’ experts had calculated by averaging the donning, doffing, and walking time spent by about several hundred of the class members.

In its Supreme Court briefing, Tyson Foods attacked (1) the determination of liability and damages by averaging the experiences of dissimilar class members, and (2) the inclusion in the class of individuals who never suffered any lost pay.  Underlying these issues are important questions regarding whether plaintiffs in a class action may satisfy the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) merely by alleging an unlawful compensation practice or policy, even if the challenged policy affects different proposed class members differently–and some not at all; and whether the “similarly situated” standard of FLSA §216(b) incorporates the requirements of Rule 23.

At oral argument, the Justices, although animated in their questioning of both sides (as well as of the government’s attorney who argued as a friend of the court for the Department of Labor), mostly bypassed these broad questions, focusing instead on more FLSA- and case-specific issues.

Much of the argument focused on whether the case should be decided, not on the application of Rule 23(b)(3) or the “similarly situated” standard for FLSA collective actions, but on the application of a 1947 Supreme Court decision, Andersen v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co.  From nearly the beginning of the argument, first Justice Kagan and later Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Sotomayor, peppered Tyson Foods’ attorney with questions about that case and whether it, rather than Rule 23, should drive the Court’s decision.  Relying on the part of Mt. Clemens Pottery in which the Court decided that evidence of the average time spent on a task could be used to determine FLSA damages if the employer did not keep records of actual time worked, these Justices questioned whether averaging might be proper because Tyson Foods had not kept records of the exact time spent by each class member putting on and taking off each specific article of gear.  In response, Tyson Foods’ attorney argued that Mt. Clemens Pottery only applied to the damages phase and should not be extended to a determination of liability.  Responding to questions from Justices Alito and Kennedy about whether it would be fair to penalize employers for not having records of time spent on activities that they believed in good faith were non-compensable, the Assistant Solicitor General arguing for the government in support of the plaintiffs, contended that Mt. Clemens required that result.

Several of the Justices seemed interested in whether it would be possible for the district court judge on remand to sort out which employees had and had not been injured and how the damages the jury awarded should be allocated.  Justices Kagan and Kennedy seemed to think that task would be easy.  Justices Roberts, Sotomayor and Alito pointed out, however, that the jury must have rejected some aspects of the plaintiffs’ evidence because of the large discrepancy between the verdict and the experts’ calculation of damages.  Would it be possible, these Justices wondered, for the district court judge to determine damages for specific class members when she could not know the reason for the jury’s damages reduction–whether the jury had concluded that the average times for donning and doffing specific items were inflated or whether some averages were accurate and others way off the mark?  And, these Justices worried that, without knowing which tasks were undercompensated, the judge would not know which class members the jury decided had been denied overtime pay.

The Justices also discussed whether Tyson Foods has standing to object to how the district court allocates the judgment among class members.  Even if some class members are overcompensated and others undercompensated, the employees’ counsel argued, the mistakes will not increase Tyson Foods’ liability.  Tyson Foods responded, however, that the legal peace that is created when an employee is paid all the wages he or she is owed gives the company standing to object if the employee’s share of the judgment is reduced because of payments to employees who were not truly injured.

Finally, several of the Justices devoted significant time to a surprisingly detailed discussion of the extent of variation among class members as to the clothing and protective gear they used and how long it took them to put on or take off specific items.  So specific were the Justices’ questions that, at one point, laughter broke out in the courtroom when Justice Ginsberg rehearsed the exact sanitary gear worn by class members (“hard hats, ear plugs or ear muffs, and boots”) and then chided class counsel, along with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, for omitting “boots” from his list.

Forecasting a Supreme Court decision based on oral argument is a hazardous proposition.  Whether it is a game-changer or not, we will report on this case again when the Supreme Court issues its decision–most likely in Spring 2016.

Co-authored by Richard Alfred, Patrick Bannon and Esther Slater McDonald

In a case that could change how wage and hour class and collective actions are litigated, Tyson Foods, Inc. recently filed its opening Supreme Court brief. Tyson seeks reversal of a $5.8 million judgment in favor of meat processing employees who claimed to have worked off the clock.

As we reported in June, the Tyson Foods case is likely to have a profound impact on wage and hour litigation. It could result in the Supreme Court’s first discussion of what it means for employees to be “similarly situated” under FLSA Section 216(b) and of how the standards for certifying a Rule 23(b) class action apply to wage and hour cases.

As expected, Tyson’s opening brief parallels its cert petition. The case should not have been certified as a class action or as an FLSA collective action, Tyson argues, because the plaintiffs relied on “statistical evidence that masks, rather than accounts for, differences among individual class members.” In certifying the class, the court relied on expert testimony as to the average time employees spent donning and doffing equipment, even though the expert acknowledged that the actual times varied widely among class members, depending on their job classifications and their equipment combinations.

“[T]he standards governing certification of a collective action under the FLSA can be no less stringent” than those articulated in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes for certification of a Rule 23(b)(3) class, Tyson argues. e Thus, the company argues, the variations described above mean the litigation would not provide common answers to the questions of (1) whether an employee worked more than 40 hours per week and, (2) if so, whether Tyson properly paid the employee for that overtime. Although the lower courts found that common issues predominated because Tyson’s compensation policy for donning and doffing time applied to all of the employees, Tyson point out that the time variations are “outcome determinative because they control whether or not a particular plaintiff worked any unpaid overtime at all.”

In addition, Tyson states that using statistical averages violated the Rules Enabling Act and the Due Process Clause. “No court would allow an individual employee to meet his ‘burden of proving that he performed work for which he was not properly compensated by submitting evidence of the amount of time worked by other employees who did different activities requiring a different amount of time to perform,” Tyson writes (quotation marks omitted). “Yet that is exactly what happened here.” Tyson explains: plaintiffs obtained classwide damages by applying the expert’s average times to all class members despite evidence that some class members spent less time donning and doffing equipment.

This “trial by formula” deprived Tyson of its right to raise individualized defenses in violation of Due Process and the Rules Enabling Act, Tyson argues. “Rather than challenging whether individual class members suffered any injury or damages, Tyson could only attack plaintiffs’ supposedly ‘representative’ evidence as biased, unreliable, and not actually representative of anyone in the class.” Tyson also notes that using averages to prove liability for the class as a whole conflicted with the Court’s command in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes that class-wide liability cannot be based purely on extrapolation from unproven assumptions about individual class members.

Finally, Tyson argues that class certification was improper because the class includes hundreds of uninjured plaintiffs who, as a result, can collect damages under the jury’s verdict. Under Article III, “federal courts cannot order money to be paid to an uninjured plaintiff,” and the FLSA limits a court’s authority under the Act to providing redress for “unpaid overtime compensation.” Thus, Tyson argues, class or collective actions including uninjured members cannot be certified.

We continue to follow the briefing in this case. The brief of the respondent employees is currently due on September 22, 2015.

Co-authored by Robert S. Whitman and Howard M. Wexler

Expert witness fees are not recoverable under the FLSA. So held the Second Circuit in a decision that highlights a strategy we have previously discussed for employers to fend off class/collective actions.

In Gortat v. Capala Brothers, Inc., the plaintiffs alleged that they were denied wages, including overtime compensation, throughout their employment. After six years of litigation, the case went to trial and the plaintiffs prevailed, winning unpaid wages as well as $514,284.00 in attorney’s fees and $68,294.50 in costs. In support of their claims, the plaintiffs retained an economic expert to aid in establishing their alleged damages.

In their appeal to the Second Circuit of the fee award, the defendants argued that the expert fees (which constituted $10,425 of the attorney’s fee award ) are not recoverable under the FLSA. The court agreed. It relied on the text of the FLSA, which states that where a defendant has violated the Act, “the court … shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the … plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” Based on this language, the court said that the plaintiffs were not entitled to be reimbursed for the expert fees, as the FLSA does not explicitly provide for such reimbursement. The Second Circuit then vacated the award and remanded the case to the District Court to determine if the New York Labor Law authorizes the award of such fees.

In isolation, this decision is hardly a game changer. However, we have previously written about the increasing importance of a trial plan for wage and hour class/collective actions to ensure that cases can effectively be tried on a multi-plaintiff basis rather than wind up as hundreds (or potentially thousands) of mini-trials. In Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, which the Supreme Court will hear next Term, one of the issues before the Court will be whether liability and damages may be determined by statistical techniques that presume all class or collective members are similar.

Plaintiffs often resist coming up with a trial plan during discovery or briefing on certification of the class/collective action, arguing that such details can be left until the eve of trial. Now, to the extent plaintiffs retain an expert to aid in formulating a trial plan earlier in the case, Gortat makes it clear that, at least in the Second Circuit, they will have to pay for the expert out of their own pocket. Having to foot the bill for such costs, with no chance of recouping them later on, may cause plaintiffs’ counsel to rethink the scope of the class/collective action they wish to pursue, or whether to pursue one at all.