Seyfarth_Logo.jpgCo-authored by Fred Sanderson, Brandon McKelvey, and Ferry Lopez

Judge Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California refused to certify a proposed class of assistant managers at WinCo Food’s discount warehouse grocery stores in California.  In Gales v. WinCo Foods, No. C 09-05813 CRB, 2011 WL 3794887 (N.D. Cal 2011), a former assistant manager at one of WinCo’s California stores moved to certify a statewide class of current and former assistant managers, alleging that WinCo had a uniform policy of misclassifying assistant managers as exempt from overtime under California law.  WinCo, represented by Seyfarth, opposed class certification with evidence that the amount of time assistant managers spent on managerial duties varied from store to store and from assistant manager to assistant manager.  The Court agreed with WinCo and held that the individual issues as to how assistant managers actually spent their time predominated over common issues, thereby defeating class certification. 

WinCo operates thirty large discount warehouse grocery stores in California that are each managed by a team of managers, including one store manager and typically two assistant managers.  Plaintiff argued that despite the “manager” title, assistant managers were required to perform mostly non-management tasks, like unloading freight and stocking shelves.  Plaintiff argued that WinCo’s centralized policies and procedures dictated store purchasing, merchandising, staffing, employee discipline, and other management work, leaving assistant managers to perform largely nonmanagerial tasks.

In opposition to class certification, WinCo submitted 36 declarations of current and former assistant managers showing that the amount of time assistant managers spent performing management tasks varied at different stores depending on a variety of factors, such as store management style, community demographics, store volume, employee turnover, etc.  Relying heavily on WinCo’s declarations, the Court concluded that the class certification motion failed on two grounds: (1) WinCo presented “significant evidence of variation” in assistant manager responsibilities across stores, and (2) Plaintiff’s evidence failed to sufficiently demonstrate that assistant managers spend a majority of their time performing nonmanagerial duties.   

The court found Plaintiff’s reliance on centralized policies and procedures unpersuasive. Although this evidence provided a general sense of the assistant manager job, “it [did] not tell the Court with requisite specificity how [assistant managers] actually spend their time.”  Persuaded that the level of responsibility varied significantly within the class, the court determined that “individualized inquiries” predominated over common ones under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b).

In cases challenging the exempt status of assistant managers, evidence of variation in responsibility and time spent on particular tasks comprises the gravamen of defeating class certification. This decision is particularly useful in illustrating the utility of declarations in establishing sufficient variation among employees to defeat class certification. Additionally, the decision demonstrates that mere evidence of common centralized policies alone is not sufficient to satisfy Rule 23(b)’s predominance requirement.