Saturday, March 23, 2013

Court of Appeal Affirms Denial of Class Certification

The court of appeal decided in a retail exemption case that the trial court ruled within its discretion to de-certify or preclude class action status.  The  case involved Sears automotive center managers and a dispute over whether they were correctly classified as exempt. The trial court issued a brief order denying certification, which the plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court's analysis focused on a few issues of interest. First, the trial court has discretion to credit one party's evidence over the other party's conflicting evidence. Second, the appellate court defers to the trial court's discretion by inquiring only whether there is substantial evidence supporting the trial court's ruling.  It does not matter if the other side also offered enough evidence to support a contrary ruling. 

Third, the court emphasized that an employer's uniform policy or classification of a group of employees as exempt is not going to suffice as a "predominating" common issue to warrant class action treatment. Rather, the trial court is supposed to determine whether the actual work performed by the potential class members is susceptible to common questions and answers.

And that brings us to the important part of the opinion. The court rejected the plaintiff's attempt to offer a statistician's opinion that one could "sample" a small group of managers to predict whether all class members were exempt or non-exempt.

To obtain class certification, Dailey was required to demonstrate the predominance of common questions of law or fact. . . . We have found no case, and Dailey has cited none, where a court has deemed a mere proposal for statistical sampling to be an adequate evidentiary substitute or demonstrating the requisite commonality, or suggested that statistical sampling may be used to manufacture predominate common issues where the factual record indicates none exist. If the commonality requirement could be satisfied merely on the basis of a sampling methodology proposal such as the one before us, it is hard to imagine that any proposed class action would not be certified.
[C]ourts have held that when the class action proponent fails to satisfy the threshold requirement of commonality, as occurred here, the trial court does not err in rejecting the use of statistical sampling or other methodologies to establish liability as to the whole proposed class. (See, e.g., Mora, supra, 194 Cal.App.4th at pp. 501, 509-510 [rejecting argument that trial court erred in failing to consider survey methodology proposed by plaintiffs' expert to measure the amount of time employees spent on exempt versus nonexempt tasks, in light of that court's reasonable conclusion that common questions of fact or law did not predominate over individual ones]; Dunbar v. Albertson's Inc. (2006) 141 Cal.App.4th 1422, 1432 (Dunbar) [no error in court's conclusion — and in its implicit rejection of the use of surveys and exemplar evidence — that the "findings as to one grocery manager could not reasonably be extrapolated to others given the variation in their work"].)

 The court of appeal also rejected the notion that the absence of a formal policy regarding meals and breaks for exempt employees supports class certification:

Dailey also is not helped by evidence that Sears does not have formal written policies regarding rest breaks and meal periods for salaried managers, does not ensure that breaks are taken, and does not keep records of breaks these employees take. First, such evidence is consistent with Sears's contention that Managers and Assistant Managers are exempt employees. Second, to the extent this evidence relates to whether Managers and Assistant Managers actually take uninterrupted breaks, or to whether Sears enforces meal and rest periods, that evidence is not directly relevant after Brinker. (Brinker, supra, 53 Cal.4th at pp. 1034, 1040-1041.) Finally, the absence of a formal written policy explaining salaried managers' rights to meal and rest periods does not necessarily imply the existence of a uniform policy or widespread practice of either depriving these employees of meal and rest periods or requiring them to work during those periods. Sears presented substantial evidence that no one prevents Managers and Assistant Managers from taking meal and rest breaks, and they are free to do so as they deem appropriate. As explained previously, the trial court was entitled to credit this testimony over contrary inferences suggested by Dailey's evidence. (See, e.g., Sav-On, supra, 34 Cal.4th at p. 331.)

The case is Dailey v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. and the opinion is here.