Fourth Circuit.bmpCo-authored by Richard Alfred and Kevin Young

Since the Supreme Court decided Dukes v. Wal-Mart in June 2011, litigants have wrestled over its impact on wage-hour class and collective actions.  Plaintiffs typically argue that Dukes should be limited to its context—a mega Title VII discrimination case brought as a Rule 23(b)(2) class action.  Defendant-employers respond—correctly in our view—that the principles that guided the Court’s decisions, both on Rule 23’s commonality requirement and Due Process concerns over individualized proof of monetary damages, apply equally to wage and hour class and collective actions.  The Fourth Circuit (which encompasses federal courts in Maryland, the Carolinas, and the Virginias) weighed in on the debate last week, refusing to narrowly cabin the Court’s landmark decision and endorsing Dukes’ as a mandate for a “more rigorous” analysis in deciding whether to certify a state law wage-hour class action.

Ealy v. Pinkerton Government Services involved overtime claims under the FLSA and post-shift work and meal break claims under Maryland law.  The plaintiffs, security personnel at Andrews Air Force Base, reported to the base armory at the start of each shift to obtain weapons and equipment to be used while on shift, and returned the weapons and equipment at shift-end.  Returning the weapons and equipment took about 15 minutes which, the plaintiffs alleged, was uncompensated.  They also alleged that their time was deducted for a daily meal break that they actually spent on duty.  The district court conditionally certified an FLSA collective and, in a later ruling, granted class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) of the state-law claims.

The Fourth Circuit forcefully reversed the district court’s class certification decision, explaining that the court abused its discretion by failing to undertake the “more rigorous” class certification analysis required by Dukes and focusing heavily on Rule 23(a)’s commonality requirement.  Rejecting the conclusion that proposed class members were sufficiently united by the question of whether they were compensated for meal breaks, the Court of Appeals ruled, expressly relying on Dukes, that the alleged common question must be “dependent upon a ‘common contention,’ the resolution of which will resolve ‘each one of the claims in one stroke…’”  Moreover, the Court of Appeals relied on Dukes in cautioning the district court not to blend this commonality inquiry with the separate Rule 23 inquiry as to whether common questions of law or fact predominate over those affecting only individual class members.

Because the district court failed to conduct the rigorous class certification analysis that Dukes requires, the Fourth Circuit vacated the class certification decision.  On remand, the court must now apply the rigorous analysis required by Dukes in determining whether plaintiffs have met their burden of proving that Rule 23’s requirements are satisfied and that a class may be certified.  The broader importance of the Fourth Circuit’s decision is that another appellate court has joined the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits in ruling that Dukes raises the bar for bringing state law wage-hour class claims in federal court.