Co-authored by Benjamin Briggs and Kevin Young

How do you show a judge that the inquiries necessary to resolve the claims of the class in an FLSA collective action are too individualized for a single trial?  In some cases, the best approach is to file two motions—one for summary judgment on the class members’ claims, and the other to decertify the class.  The former requires the court to wade through the same basic inquiries that will have to be answered at trial, and either can result in dismissal of the class claims.  This was a winning approach in a recent case in the Eastern District of Arkansas. 

Filed in November 2011, Watson v. Surf-Frac Wellhead Equipment Company involved the claims of four plaintiffs who alleged they were required to work overtime hours “off the clock,” including during on-call time and auto-deducted meal breaks.  One year ago, the court conditionally certified their case to proceed as a collective action.  The case grew to include ten more individuals in a mix of hourly positions. 

Once discovery was largely complete, Surf-Frac moved for summary judgment on the claims of the class and to decertify the collective action.  Surf-Frac’s motion to decertify, like most, was based on arguments that the claims and defenses before the court were too individualized to determine in a single, classwide trial.  By moving for summary judgment on those claims and defenses, Surf-Frac gave the court an opportunity to witness the individualized nature of the trial inquiries firsthand.  The approach worked.

On Thursday, the court denied Surf-Frac’s motion for summary judgment, finding some of the issues were murky enough to warrant trial, but simultaneously granted its motion to decertify the class.  In weighing the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, the court realized that the inquiries necessary to determine their claims were too individualized for a single trial.  As many courts have done in similar cases, the judge noted that Surf-Frac’s on-call and auto-deduct meal break policies were not unlawful on their face.  Instead, the claims and defenses before the court would turn on whether those policies were unlawfully applied in each plaintiff’s own circumstances.

As a side note, the court was further swayed by the fact that the positions held by the named plaintiffs were dissimilar from those held by the class—for example, one of the plaintiffs supervised several class members, making him an improper representative of the class. 

To be sure, a strategy like Surf-Frac’s can present risks.  For instance, a classwide summary judgment motion can allow a court to issue a classwide, plaintiff-friendly ruling or to use summary judgment arguments to deny decertification.  In some cases, it may be appropriate to move for summary judgment on the claims of only a few plaintiffs.  At any rate, this case shows how careful strategic planning can pay dividends in an FLSA collective action.

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