By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth SynopsisAfter a federal district court dismissed the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim against a private college that had sued a former employee for allegedly breaching a settlement agreement by filing an EEOC charge, the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim, citing the employer’s introduction of a new case theory relative to the EEOC’s still-pending retaliation claim.

This ruling serves a cautionary tale for employers regarding the timing of their assertion of new case theories in EEOC litigation involving multiple claims.

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After CollegeAmerica resolved a dispute with a former employee by entering into a settlement agreement, upon belief that the employee breached the settlement agreement, CollegeAmerica sued the employee in state court.  Id. at *1-2.  Thereafter, the EEOC sued CollegeAmerica in federal court alleging that CollegeAmerica’s interpretation and enforcement of the settlement agreement was unlawfully interfering with statutory rights of the former employee and the EEOC.  Following the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado’s dismissal of the EEOC’s claim for unlawful-interference with statutory rights, on appeal in EEOC v. CollegeAmerica Denver Inc., No. 16-1340, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 17094 (10th Cir. Sept. 5, 2017), the Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal, holding that the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim should not have been dismissed as moot in light of a new theory asserted by CollegeAmerica prior to its trial regarding the EEOC’s pending retaliation claim.

Employers should keep this ruling in mind when preparing trial theories that may have implications on claims that had previously been dismissed as moot.

Case Background

The EEOC brought a claim for unlawful-interference with statutory rights, which the District Court ultimately dismissed as moot.  Regarding the EEOC’s retaliation claim, which remained for trial, CollegeAmerica presented a new theory against the employee: that she had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica.  In response, the EEOC argued that by presenting this new theory, CollegeAmerica was continuing to interfere with the statutory rights of the former employee and the EEOC.  As such, the EEOC appealed the dismissal of its unlawful-interference claim, arguing that the claim was no longer moot in light of CollegeAmerica’s new theory.

The Tenth Circuit’s Decision

The Tenth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim.  First, the Court instructed that in determining whether a claim is moot, a special rule applies when the defendant voluntarily stops the challenged conduct.  Id. at *4-5.  When the conduct stops, the claim will be deemed moot only if two conditions exist: (1) it is absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur, and (2) interim relief or events have completely and irrevocably eradicated the effects of the alleged violation.  In arguing that the case was moot, CollegeAmerica submitted two declarations from its general counsel assuring that CollegeAmerica would not take the “positions known to trouble the EEOC.”  Id. at *6.  In response, the EEOC argued that the declarations should not be relied upon since CollegeAmerica presented a new theory after the filing of the declarations–that the employee had breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica–an argument that continued CollegeAmerica’s unlawful interference with statutory rights.  The Tenth Circuit held that because CollegeAmerica planned to present its new theory in its state court suit, the potential for CollegeAmerica to repeat its allegedly wrongful behavior remained, and CollegeAmerica thus did not satisfy its burden of demonstrating the absence of a potential for reoccurrence.  Id.

Next, the Tenth Circuit rejected CollegeAmerica’s argument that the case was moot because the outcome “would not affect anything in the real world.”   Id. at *7.  The Tenth Circuit noted that in its state court suit, CollegeAmerica planned to argue that the employee breached the settlement agreement by reporting adverse information to the EEOC without notifying CollegeAmerica. The EEOC alleged that this argument would constitute unlawful-interference with the employee’s rights, and thus sought a permanent injunction prohibiting CollegeAmerica from unlawfully interfering with the statutory rights of the employee and the EEOC.  The Tenth Circuit accepted the EEOC’s argument, holding that if the EEOC prevailed on the merits and obtained an injunction, CollegeAmerica could not present its new theory in the state court suit against the employee, which “would constitute an effect in the real world.”  Id.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit declined to consider CollegeAmerica’s argument that the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim brought under 29 U.S.C § 626(f)(4) failed as a matter of law since it could not be used as an affirmative cause of action, noting the District Court had not yet ruled on the issue and therefore it was to consider that issue on remand.  Id. at *7-8.  The Tenth Circuit also refused to consider CollegeAmerica’s argument that the EEOC sought overly broad, unauthorized injunctive and declaratory relief, explaining it would not consider this issue since it was raised on appeal for the first time.  Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s dismissal of the EEOC’s unlawful-interference claim.

Implications For Employers

For employers facing litigation, this ruling provides an important lesson: when considering the defense of one claim, it is imperative to be cognizant of how that argument can impact the defense of another claim, even if the other claim has been dismissed.  Further, this decision illustrates the EEOC’s willingness to combat employers who bring causes of action against former employees who may have breached settlement agreements by asserting discrimination claims.  As such, employers should be cautious when suing former employees who later file EEOC charges, and must exercise further caution when considering how their strategies to defend one claim may affect another.

Readers can also find this blog post on our EEOC Countdown Blog here.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The plaintiffs’ bar has recently brought a flurry of class action lawsuits against businesses under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, commonly known as “BIPA.”  In this Vlog, Seyfarth Shaw Associate Alex Karasik sits down with esteemed class action litigator, Partner Jerry Maatman, to discuss this emerging legal trend, and to provide employers guidance on how to prevent and defend against BIPA class actions.

Background

Unique to the state of Illinois, the Biometric Information Privacy Act was the first of its kind enacted by a state legislature.  In light of the technological advancements of the past decade, the Illinois legislature enacted this law to protect the “biometric data” of individuals, including their fingerprints, retinal scans, and facial recognition.  Since BIPA’s passage in 2008, a number of states have followed suit and added “biometric data” to their privacy laws. 

Implications For Employers

Recently, there has been a major uptick in ligation across the country involving biometric technology, and there are no signs of this trend slowing down.  In terms of preventive measures, business should establish sound protocols for the handling and dissemination of biometrics.  This is important because, in this day and age, biometric data can be used to access sensitive personal information.  Businesses should thus be cognizant of the biometric data laws in the states where they operate and closely examine whether their own policies and procedures are compliant.

Businesses must also be prepared to defend against a potential lawsuit under a biometric privacy statute.  Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), the concept of “standing” has become highly relevant in employment law.  As such, when confronted with a BIPA suit, businesses should focus on whether the plaintiffs suffered a traceable harm stemming from the actions taken on their biometric data.

 

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and John S. Marrese

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In In Re Subway Footlong Sandwich Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., No. 16-1652 (7th Cir. Aug. 25, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned a district court’s approval of a class action settlement involving Subway sandwich purchasers who sued for alleged consumer fraud.  The Seventh Circuit called the settlement “worthless” in terms of alleged relief to the class. The decision illustrates that companies defending class action litigation cannot exit such lawsuits by simply “buying peace” by paying-off plaintiffs’ lawyers without providing any value to the class. In this respect, it is one of those unique rulings that is well worth a read by corporate counsel and business executive alike.

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In In Re Subway Footlong Sandwich Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., No. 16-1652, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 16260 (7th Cir. Aug. 25, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed the propriety of an injunctive relief settlement for a class of Subway “Footlong” sandwich purchasers.

A number of state-law consumer protection class actions were filed against Subway based on Subway’s alleged failure to ensure that its Footlong sandwiches were actually 12 inches long.  Id. at *3-5.  Limited discovery showed that the claims had little merit. Subway had always taken steps to ensure that its sandwiches were proper length, but bread length nonetheless varies due to natural and unpreventable variation in the bread-baking process.  Id. at *5.

Rather than pursue resolution on the merits, the parties reached a class-wide settlement for injunctive relief whereby Subway agreed to implement redundant and futile measures in an attempt to ensure Footlongs lived up to their name.  Id. at *7.  Plaintiffs’ attorneys received $520,000 in return for attorneys’ fees.  Id. at *8.  The district court approved of the settlement over objections by certain class members.  Id.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that the settlement was “worthless” to the class.  Id. at *14.

Case Background

In 2013, after an online photo went viral showing one customer’s Footlong Subway sandwich was in fact only 11 inches, a slew of plaintiffs’ attorneys filed putative class actions against Subway for damages and injunctive relief.  Id. at *3-4.   The class actions were consolidated in a multidistrict litigation in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.  Id. at *4-5.

Limited discovery revealed that the claims had little merit as: (i) Subway had taken steps to ensure that its Footlongs were in fact 12 inches long; (ii) the minor variability in bread length revealed was due to natural and unpreventable variability in the baking process; and (iii) irrespective of bread length, customers received the same amount of meat, cheese, and other toppings on a sandwich.  Id. Such facts eliminated any hope of certification of a damages class under Rule 23(b)(3), so class counsel focused on certification of a Rule 23(b)(2) injunctive relief class instead.  Id. at *5-6.

The parties subsequently reached a settlement for injunctive relief whereby Subway agreed to implement measures aimed at ensuring Subway Footlongs were in fact 12 inches long, including: (i) requiring franchisees to use a measuring tool for sandwiches; (ii) requiring corporate quality-control inspectors to measure baked bread and check oven operation during regularly scheduled visits; and (iii) posting a notice on its website and in restaurants notifying customers of the variability in baked bread.  Id. at *7.

In return, the plaintiffs agreed to cap their requests for attorneys’ fees at $525,000 and incentive awards at $1,000.  Id. The district court preliminarily approved the settlement, and class counsel filed a motion seeking $520,000 in fees for class counsel and $500 incentive awards for each named plaintiff.  Id. at *8.

A professional objector who was also a member of the class objected to the settlement.  However, the district court overruled the objection, approved the settlement, and certified a class of persons nationwide who had purchased six-inch and Footlong Subway sandwiches between 2003 and 2015.  Id.

The objector appealed.

The Decision

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s approval of the class action settlement.  Id. at *14.

The Seventh Circuit found that the settlement was “worthless” and that “[n]o class action settlement that yields zero benefits for the class should be approved[.]”  Id. at *11.  The Seventh Circuit explained that irrespective of the measures Subway promised to take under the settlement, “there’s still the same small chance that Subway will sell a class member a sandwich that is slightly shorter than advertised.”  Id. at *13 (emphasis in original).

Moreover, the Seventh Circuit found that class members’ right under the settlement to hold Subway in contempt for violating the injunction did not add any value.  Id. at *14.  “Contempt as a remedy to enforce a worthless settlement is itself worthless.  Zero plus zero equals zero.”  Id.

Finally, though not part of its holding, the Seventh Circuit expressed its disdain for the Footlong lawsuits by proclaiming that, because the consolidated class actions sought worthless relief, they “should have been dismissed out of hand.” Id. at *14 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

Implication For Employers

As shown by the Seventh Circuit’s decision, paying-off class action plaintiffs’ counsel can be a poor strategy for efficient resolution of class litigation.  If an employer wishes to realize the cost-savings of early settlement, it must ensure that settlement provides actual value to the class and fees to class counsel commensurate with that value.  Otherwise, expected cost-savings are squandered on opposing objectors (or the trial judge), with the possibility that the trial or an appellate court rejects the settlement and returns the litigation to where settlement talks began.

As an alternative approach, employers should consider efficient and realistic paths to summary judgment.  That approach can make good sense in the face of attorney-driven class litigation with no emotional appeal like the Subway case.  The Seventh Circuit’s emphatic command that meritless class actions should be “dismissed out of hand” should give employers and counsel more confidence in that regard.

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After an employer circulated a letter to 146 employees discussing an employee’s EEOC Charge that alleged discrimination on the basis of his disability in violation of the ADA, a federal district court in Connecticut denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

This ruling provides valuable lessons for employers on the risks of widespread internal communication regarding pending EEOC charges.

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In EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc., Case No. 15-CV-1416, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133918 (D. Conn Aug. 22, 2017), a Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc. (“DZNPS”) employee filed a charge with the EEOC alleging that DZNPS violated the ADA by denying him a reasonable accommodation.  As part of its investigation of the Charge, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS, including the names and contact information of other DZNPS employees.  Prior to providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 employees that identified the Charging Party by name, and noted that he had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.  The EEOC alleged that by sending the letter, DZNPS retaliated against the employee for filing a charge with the EEOC in violation of the ADA and interfered with the Charging Party and letter recipient employees’ exercise and enjoyment of rights protected by the ADA.

As we previously blogged about here, the Court previously denied DZNPS’s motion to dismiss.  After the EEOC filed a motion for partial summary judgment on its interference claim under the ADA, and DZNPS filed a motion for summary judgment as to the Complaint in its entirety, Judge Victor A. Bolden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

For employers considering whether to communicate internally about the pending EEOC charges, this ruling illustrates they should be careful to avoid creating the perception that they are retaliating against employees who bring charges or interfering with other employees’ rights to file future charges.

Case Background

In or around the fall of 2012, DZNPS hired 147 temporary electricians, including the Charging Party, who was a member of Local 35 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (“Local 35”).  Id. at *4.  After the Charging Party began training for the position, he provided a doctor’s note to a DZNPS representative indicating that he could not work around radiation.  The note requested a reasonable accommodation.  After receiving the doctor’s note and the request for a reasonable accommodation, DZNPS terminated the Charging Party’s employment.

In October 2012, the Charging Party filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that DZNPS failed to accommodate his disability reasonably and unlawfully terminated his employment.  Id. at *5.  In March 2014, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS as part of its investigation of the employee’s charge, including the names and contact information of other electricians who had worked for DZNPS at the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut in the fall of 2012.

In June 2014, before providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 individuals, all of whom were members of Local 35 and all of whom had worked or continued to work for DZNPS.  Id. at *6-7.  In the June 2014 letter, DZNPS identified the allegedly aggrieved employee by name and indicated that he had filed a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability.  The letter identified his union local, the medical restrictions on his ability to work, and the accommodation he had requested.  It further informed the recipients of their right to refuse to speak to the EEOC investigator, and offered them the option to have DZNPS counsel present if they chose to speak to the EEOC.

The EEOC moved for partial summary judgment on its interference claim under the ADA.  DZNPS moved for summary judgment as to the Complaint in its entirety, arguing that: (1) the EEOC’s legal theories would violate DZNPS’s free speech rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution; (2) that the June 2014 letter is protected by the litigation privilege under Connecticut law; (3) that the EEOC cannot, as a matter of law, make out a claim for retaliation under the ADA; (4) that the EEOC cannot, as a matter of law, make out a claim for interference under the ADA; and (5) that the EEOC lacks standing to bring this case under Article III of the United States Constitution.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.  First, the Court rejected DZNPS’s claim that the EEOC lacked Article III standing to bring the case because no punitive or compensatory damages were available to the EEOC.  Id. at *13-14.  The Court noted that DZNPS cited to no legal authority supporting that proposition.  DZNPS also argued that if the Court found that its sending of the letter was either retaliation or interference in violation of the ADA, then the Court would be establishing a content and speaker-based restriction on speech that violated the First Amendment.  The Court rejected this argument on the basis that DZNPS identified no authority supporting its argument that the First Amendment protects speech from a defendant if that speech gives rise to liability under the ADA or other employment discrimination statutes.  Id. at *16-19.  Further, after analyzing Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89 (1981), and subsequent cases interpreting Gulf Oil, the Court held that the Gulf Oil line of cases did not prevent courts from imposing restrictions on employer communications in situations where those communications could amount to “coercion” or prevent employees from exercising their rights.  Id. at *20-22.

Turning to the ADA retaliation claim, DZNPS argued that there was no genuine dispute of material fact that the EEOC would not be able to establish the third and fourth prongs of the prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, either an adverse employment action or a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  Id. at *26-28.  DZNPS also argued that, even if the EEOC showed a genuine dispute of material fact as to the prima facie case for retaliation, the EEOC did not rebut DZNPS’s legitimate non-retaliatory reasons for sending the letter.  The Court found that when an employer disseminates an employee’s administrative charge of discrimination to the employee’s colleagues, a reasonable factfinder could determine that such conduct constitutes an adverse employment action.  In regards to DZNPS’s proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for sending the letter, to “minimize business disruption” and notify the recipients that DZNPS had disclosed their “home telephone numbers and addresses . . . to the EEOC,” the Court found that a reasonable jury could also conclude that DZNPS’s explanation was pretextual because the letter did not need to explain that recipients need not speak to the EEOC investigator and that counsel for DZNPS could be present if the recipient chose to speak to the EEOC.  Id. at *34.

Finally, the Court addressed both parties’ motion for summary judgment on the ADA interference claim.  Id. at *35-39.  The EEOC argued that DZNPS interfered with the rights under the ADA of all the letter recipients because a reasonable jury would need to conclude that the letter had a tendency to chill recipients from exercising their rights under the ADA.  Citing its previous order denying DZNPS’s motion to dismiss, where the Court held that the disclosure of sensitive personal information about an individual could well dissuade that individual from making or supporting a charge of discrimination under the ADA, the Court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the letter could have the effect of interfering with or intimidating the letter’s recipients with respect to communicating with the EEOC about possible disability discrimination by DZNPS.  Accordingly, explaining that because this question should be reserved for the jury, the Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

For employers considering whether to internally disclose information on a widespread basis regarding charges of discrimination filed by employees, this ruling should serve as a cautionary tale.  Further, it illustrates how widespread internal communication regarding such charges could potentially be viewed as retaliation or interference under the ADA in the context of motions for summary judgment.  As such, employers should exercise caution when considering when and to whom it should internally disclose information about pending administrative charges.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and John S. Marrese

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In Love v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 15-15260 (11th Cir. Aug. 3, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the deadline for putative class members to appeal the dismissal of class claims was triggered by the filing of a stipulation of dismissal by named plaintiffs and defendant.  The decision adds to the growing body of jurisprudence concerning the limits on the ability of absent class members to continue class litigation after named representatives abandon it.

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In Love v. Wal-Mart, No. 15-15260, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 14261 (11th Cir. Aug. 3, 2017), the Eleventh Circuit addressed the timeliness of putative class members’ appeal of the dismissal of class claims filed more than 30 days after the named class representatives and defendant filed a stipulation of dismissal.  Id. at *5.

Putative class members had moved to intervene in the district court not long after the stipulated dismissal was filed.  Id. at *4. On the same day their motion to intervene was denied, but 34 days after the filing of the stipulated dismissal, putative class members appealed the denial of the motion as well as the district court’s prior dismissal of the class claims.  Id. at *4.

The Eleventh Circuit held that the putative class members’ appeal was untimely pursuant to the 30-day deadline set forth in Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure (“FRAP”).  Id. at *9.  The Eleventh Circuit reasoned that a stipulated dismissal under Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) is effective immediately upon filing, unless its effectiveness is conditioned on a subsequent occurrence. Id. at *6-7.  No such condition existed in the stipulated dismissal at hand and, as such, the putative class members’ appeal 34 days after the filing of the stipulated dismissal ran afoul of FRAP 4.

Case Background

After the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the certification of a nationwide gender discrimination class in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), some members of the putative class in that case filed new, regional class actions against Wal-Mart, including Love v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Id. at *1-2.  Putative class members were able to do so because Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes tolled the statute of limitations with respect to their filing claims with the EEOC, which is a prerequisite to filing a federal discrimination suit.  Id. at *3.  However, in the Eleventh Circuit, such tolling is limited to individual, not class, claims.  Id.

Accordingly, the district court in Love allowed the individual claims of named plaintiffs to proceed, but dismissed the class claims as untimely.  Id. The named plaintiffs subsequently settled their individual claims with Wal-Mart.  Id.

On October 16, 2015, the named plaintiffs and Wal-Mart filed a stipulation of voluntary dismissal under Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii).  Id. On October 23, 2015, the district court entered an order acknowledging the stipulated dismissal and dismissing pending motions as moot. Id.

On November 6, 2015, a group of putative class members moved to intervene in the district court solely to appeal the district court’s dismissal of the class claims.  Id. at *4.  On November 19, 2015, the district court denied the motion to intervene on the grounds that the stipulated dismissal stripped the district court of jurisdiction to hear the motion. Id.  That same day, 34 days after the filing of the stipulated dismissal, the putative class members appealed both the denial of their motion to intervene and the dismissal of the class claims.  Id.

The Decision

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over the putative class members’ appeal of the dismissal of the class claims because it was filed more than 30 days after the filing of the parties’ stipulated dismissal.  Id. 

In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the putative class members’ argument that only the named plaintiffs’ appeal deadline was triggered by the stipulated dismissal and that the putative class members’ deadline was not triggered until the district court’s subsequent order on October 23, 2015.  Id. at *4-6.  The Eleventh Circuit explained that “the plain language of Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) requires that a stipulation filed pursuant to that subsection is self-executing and dismisses the case upon its becoming effective, i.e., upon filing unless it explicitly conditions its effectiveness on a subsequent occurrence.”  Id. at *6-7 (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Without any condition in the stipulation here, the Eleventh Circuit found that the stipulated dismissal was effective upon filing and triggered the putative class members’ 30-day deadline under FRAP 4 to appeal dismissal of the class claims.  Id. at *7.  The putative class members’ appeal, filed 34 days after the filing of the stipulated dismissal, was therefore untimely.  Id. at *8-9.

In turn, although the putative class members’ appeal of the denial of their motion to intervene was timely filed, such an appeal was moot as the putative members had intervened solely for the purpose of appealing the dismissal of the class claims.  Id. at *9.

Implication For Employers

This decision is a great victory for the employer. It also offers insight into how an employer can protect itself from continued class litigation after settling individually with named plaintiffs.

In particular, an employer should endeavor to file a stipulation of dismissal in short order because, in certain jurisdictions, the district court may find that the filing of such a stipulation precludes absent class members’ from intervening and pursing class litigation further.  Employers should also try to prevent the inclusion of conditions in stipulations of dismissal which delay the effectiveness of such stipulations.

Furthermore, given the application of FRAP 4 here, employers should anticipate receiving notices of appeal from absent class member-intervenors with, or soon after, the filing of their motion to intervene.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Pamela Q. Devata, & Robert T. Szyba

Seyfarth Synopsis: Following remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiff suing Spokeo, Inc. under the Fair Credit Reporting Act alleged sufficient injury to establish standing to proceed in federal court and to proceed with his class action.

On August 15, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued the latest opinion in the Robins v. Spokeo, Inc. litigation that gave us last year’s U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Article III standing (which we discussed here).  After the Supreme Court found that the Ninth Circuit, in its prior February 2014 opinion (found here), had analyzed only whether the alleged injury was particular to Plaintiff, it remanded the case back for the second part of the analysis to determine whether Plaintiff alleged a concrete injury-in-fact, as required by Article III.

This new ruling is a “must read” for employers, as it has the potential to allow plaintiffs to launch more workplace class actions.

Case Background

The case was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in 2010 against Spokeo, Inc., which operates an online search engine by the same name that compiles publicly available information on individuals into a searchable database on the internet.  The plaintiff alleged that Spokeo’s database showed inaccurate information about him, such as that he had a greater level of education and more professional experience than he in fact had, that he was financially better off than he actually was, and that he was married (he was not) with children (he did not have any).  Instead of any actual damages, the plaintiff alleged that Spokeo, as a consumer reporting agency, failed to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning” Plaintiff, and that its violation of section 1681e(b) of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) was “willful” in order to seek statutory damages of between $100 and $1,000 for himself, as well as for each member of a putative nationwide class.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision

The issue of whether the plaintiff had standing to sue for the alleged statutory violation made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2016 (in a 6 to 2 opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.) explained that “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is both “concrete and particularized” is required to establish standing to proceed in federal court.  To be concrete, the alleged injury must “actually exist” and must be “real” and not “abstract.”  The Court further discussed that plaintiffs do not “automatically” meet the injury-in-fact requirement where the violation of a statutory right provides a private right of action.   The plaintiff here, therefore, “could not, for example, allege a bare procedural violation divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.”  Because the Ninth Circuit had not completed both parts of the standing analysis, however, the case was remanded for further review.

Ninth Circuit’s Standing Analysis

In light of the Supreme Court’s directive, the Ninth Circuit opened by affirming the threshold principle that “even when a statute has allegedly been violated, Article III requires such violation to have caused some real—as opposed to purely legal—harm to Plaintiff.”  The Court explained that intangible harms, such as restrictions on First Amendment freedoms and harm to one’s reputation, can be concrete enough for standing, though the Court noted this is a “murky area.” Either way, Plaintiff cannot simply point to a statutory cause of action to establish an injury-in-fact.

Turning to its standing analysis of the plaintiff’s particular allegations, the Ninth Circuit conducted a two-step inquiry:

  1. “whether the statutory provisions at issue were established to protect [the plaintiff’s] concrete interests (as opposed to purely procedural rights)”; and, if so
  2. “whether the specific procedural violations alleged in [the] case actually harm, or present a material risk of harm to, such interests.”

First, the Ninth Circuit cited a long history of protections against dissemination of false information about individuals that underlies the FCRA, including common law protections against defamation and libel, to find that the interests protected by the FCRA are real and concrete.  The harm alleged in the case, the Ninth Circuit concluded, “has a close relationship to a harm that has traditionally been regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit,” even if it is not the exact historical harm itself.

In the second step, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that in many cases, “a plaintiff will not be able to show a concrete injury simply by alleging that a consumer-reporting agency failed to comply with one of the FCRA’s procedures.”  The statute may be violated, but the violation alone is not enough.  Here, however, the plaintiff pointed to multiple examples of information (e.g., his education level, etc.) that might be relevant to a prospective employer.  A court also has to look at the nature of the inaccuracy as part of its analysis.  Even if the inaccuracy has a debatable negative impact (e.g., a greater level of education could make a plaintiff deemed to be overqualified and passed over for a job), the information is nevertheless relevant, and the Court held, its dissemination is not simply a technical statutory violation.  The Ninth Circuit also pointed out that the injury alleged in this case was not speculative because the dissemination of information already occurred, and the dissemination itself was the harm.  The Court commented that further alleged harm, such as being able to point to an actual missed job, was not required.

Outlook

Overall, the Ninth Circuit’s decision adopted an expansive interpretation of the type of harm that will suffice for Article III standing, though indicating that this interpretation will not extend so far as to find standing to sue for bare statutory or procedural violations.  In the present case, however, the Ninth Circuit focused on the specific allegedly inaccurate information to find harm, in line with Justice Ginsburg’s dissent (found here) to the Supreme Court’s majority, which was concerned more with the reporting of allegedly false information that “could affect [the plaintiff’s] fortune in the job market.”  Further allegations of actual injury, according to the Ninth Circuit, were not required to establish standing.  However, the Ninth Circuit stopped from opining on other specific circumstances and noted that the specific facts will need to be considered to determine if the threshold of “concrete harm” is satisfied.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit provides further guidance on standing, affirming that bare statutory violations continue to be insufficient.  The specific factual allegations of such cases, however, may present courts with greater latitude to find standing in civil litigation alleging violations of the FCRA, as well as cases under ERISA, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and a host of other workplace statutes.  As courts address similar inquiries, we are likely to see increased guidance regarding standing.   Additionally, with this decision, there seems to be more evidence of a potential split among the federal Courts of Appeals, which could result in another petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC lawsuit alleging that an employer failed to reasonably accommodate its Muslim employees’ requests for prayer breaks, a federal court in Colorado granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions — as a result of the employer’s failure to preserve and produce various records — and barred the employer from presenting evidence, testimony, or arguments that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  This ruling provides an important lesson for businesses regarding the preservation of documents in ongoing EEOC litigation.

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In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, Case No. 10-CV-02103, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122908 (D. Colo. Aug. 4, 2017), the EEOC alleged that JBS USA, LLC (“JBS”), a meat packing company, discriminated against its Muslim employees on the basis of religion by engaging in a pattern or practice of retaliation, discriminatory discipline and discharge, harassment, and denying its Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations.  After the EEOC moved for sanctions regarding JBS’s failure to produce two types of records relating to delays on JBS’s production line, Judge Phillip A. Brimmer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted in part the EEOC’s motion and barred JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.

For employers involved in government enforcement litigation, this ruling serves as a cautionary tale regarding the importance of preserving and producing relevant records, and that the failure to do so might cost employers the ability to later use such records in their defense.

For more information on this lawsuit (and a similar Nebraska case where JBS successfully obtained summary judgment), see our blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Case Background

JBS operates a beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado.  Id. at *2.  During the first week of Ramadan 2008, a dispute occurred between JBS and its Muslim employees over their opportunities to pray, resulting in hundreds of Muslim employees walking off the job.  On September 10, 2008, JBS fired 96 Muslim employees that refused to return to work.  After the mass termination, numerous former employees filed discrimination charges with the EEOC.  Id.  In response, on February 3, 2009, JBS submitted a position statement where it argued that granting prayer breaks to employees would be an undue burden, in part, due to losses resulting from “each minute of production down-time.”  Id.  JBS continued to assert its undue burden affirmative defense throughout the case, for instance, arguing in its summary judgment motion that production line slowdowns and downtime would have been caused by allowing prayer breaks to Muslim employees.

The EEOC sought discovery from JBS about its undue burden affirmative defense.  Relevant here, on November 21, 2012, the EEOC served a production request regarding the production of all reports or data showing all dates and times the fabrication lines on any and all shifts were stopped, as well as the speed of the lines.  In response, JBS produced documents that included records showing scheduled breaks, but did not provide or reference the Down Time Reports or Clipboards, which show unplanned downtime and slowdowns.  The EEOC thereafter moved for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents directly relevant to JBS’s allegations of undue hardship.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for sanctions.  While JBS had produced Clipboards from 2012-2016 and Down Time Reports from 2016, it claimed that all others had been destroyed.  JBS later testified via Rule 30(b)(6) deposition that the Down Time Reports were shipped to storage each year, but may have been destroyed.  After searching its warehouse for “a day” in 2017,  JBS later located and produced some additional records.  Id. at *6.  The Court thus found that JBS failed to supplement its production with responsive records in a timely manner.  The Court held that because JBS did not show that its failure to supplement was substantially justified or harmless, it would impose sanctions pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1).  Id.

Next, the Court explained that spoliation occurs when a party loses or destroys evidence that it had a duty to preserve because it was relevant to proof of an issue at trial in current or anticipated litigation.  Id. at *7 (citation omitted).  JBS argued that it did not have a duty to preserve these documents because it had no way of knowing or anticipating that the EEOC would be interested in knowing the specific time of every instance of every day that the production line stopped for an unplanned or unexpected reason.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that JBS ignored the fact that it asserted an undue burden defense within a year of the September 2008 incident and after charges of discrimination had been filed against it.  As such, the Court held that JBS had a duty to preserve documents relevant to the burden posed by the proposed accommodations.  Id. at *8 (citation omitted).

Arguing that the lack of production of records did not cause a prejudice to the EEOC, JBS stated that the records did not show whether any slowdown or stoppage was related to a prayer break because the information they contained was “only as specific as the information known to the person filling out the Down Time Report.”  Id. at *10.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that “[r]ecords such as those sought, which potentially show the actual impact of unscheduled employee prayer breaks, are particularly important to understanding the impact such breaks would have on production line slowdowns or stoppages because they would provide contemporaneous records of whether unscheduled breaks led to production downtime.”  Id. at *12.  Accordingly, the Court found that the EEOC was prejudiced by JBS’s spoliation of evidence.  Id.

In fashioning a sanction that “appropriately addresses the prejudice to the EEOC resulting from JBS’s spoliation or failure to produce the records and is proportional to JBS’s culpability,” the Court held that it would bar JBS from presenting evidence, testimony, or argument in its motions, at hearings, or at trial that unscheduled prayer breaks led to production line slowdowns or stoppages.  Id. at *14.  The Court explained that this sanction was “tailored to the evidence lost, destroyed, or withheld by JBS because it alleviates the prejudice which the EEOC would otherwise suffer, namely, that JBS may present evidence of stoppages through witnesses, but the EEOC would not be able to rebut such testimony with records that would likely prove whether stoppages actually occurred and, perhaps, for what reason.”  Id.  Accordingly, the Court granted in part the EEOC’s motion for sanctions for the loss or destruction of documents.

Implications For Employers

An employer’s likelihood of defeating a workplace class action is often dependent on its ability maintain and preserve thorough employment records.  Here, the employer’s failure to preserve records that ultimately could have helped establish an affirmative defense resulted in the Court limiting the employer from using certain types of evidence in its defense of the litigation.  This sanction should serve as a cautionary tale for employers in regards to complying with the written discovery process, as employers are best-positioned to defeat workplace class actions when they have as many defenses as possible in their arsenal.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Julie Yap

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seyfarth Shaw submitted comments to the Federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules regarding needed reform to Rule 30(b)(6), the rule that governs depositions of organizations in federal litigation. Our workplace class action group proposed two important areas for consideration that would encourage cooperation between the parties, including discovery proportional to the litigation, and more transparency and efficiency in an area that too often creates significant costs and burdens.

Proposed Changes To Rule 30(b)(6)

As most employers are aware, Rule 30(b)(6) allows a party to take the deposition of an organization by requiring the designation of an officer, director, managing agent, or other person competent to testify on a potentially wide range of topics requested by the opposing party.  This process often results in the imposition of significant burdens on the organization where the requesting party makes disproportional and overbroad demands for information, seeks to impose sudden deadlines, or refuses to cooperate in negotiations that would appropriately narrow the types of information sought.  In the face of such obstacles and inefficiencies, Seyfarth advocated for the need of procedural reform in this process.

The Advisory Committee on Civil Rules (the “Committee”) for the Federal Courts, which is responsible for recommending amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, is contemplating possible changes to Rule 30(b)(6).  In furtherance of this process, the Committee has created the Rule 30(b)(6) Subcommittee, which invited comment on the need for reform to the rule.

Seyfarth’s written submission is here. Seyfarth’s comments were prepared by the team of Alex Meier, Gina Merrill, Esther Slater McDonald, Ryan Swindall, and Julie Yap.

Seyfarth’s submission identified two major areas of reform to Rule 30(b)(6) that could provide much needed guidance and transparency.  First, Seyfarth proposed that Rule 30(b)(6) should be amended to include presumptive limits on the number of topics that can be covered in deposition, on the scope of those topics, and on the number of deposition hours.  These presumptive limits would not only create efficiencies on the resources required for an organization to be prepared for deposition, it would better ensure that the organization is prepared to respond to all topics identified by the requesting party.

Second, Seyfarth proposed that Rule 30(b)(6) should provide a clear framework for when depositions must be noticed and how a party may object to the notice.  While district courts have created or endorse avenues for a party to protect itself from problematic Rule 30(b)(6) notices, disparities in the preferred approach has created confusion with respect to the proper procedure and the applicable standard of review.  As such, Seyfarth endorsed a 30-day minimum notice requirement that would help organizations properly prepare their witnesses.  Seyfarth also recommended adoption of an objection process similar to that employed to respond to subpoenas that would create a uniform, transparent process for challenging notices.

Implications For Employers

Rule 30(b)(6) can often create significant burden and impose substantial costs on employers facing all types of federal litigation.  Potential amendments to this rule could help address the disproportional impact that this type of discovery has on employers.  Seyfarth is hopeful that the Committee will continue to look at reform and potential amendments to address these issues.

Stay tuned for more updates regarding potential amendments to Rule 30(b)(6) as we continue to monitor developments on this important issue.

 

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Anthony S. Califano

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Smith v. City of Boston, Plaintiffs brought suit against their employer, the City of Boston (the “City”), challenging the City’s police promotional exam from sergeant to lieutenant.  Plaintiffs alleged that the exam had a disparate impact on racial minorities and was invalid under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).  For the second time, in the same case, District Court Judge William G. Young ruled in favor of Plaintiffs and imposed liability on the City.

The Court’s decision, Smith v. City of Boston, No. 12-CV-10291-WGY (D. Mass. July 26, 2017) (“Smith II”), serves as a cautionary tale about the discretion that trial courts have to distinguish between similar cases and reach conclusions that might appear to be inconsistent with appellate authority.

Case Background

In 2012, a group of African-American police sergeants filed a lawsuit claiming that the City’s exam for promotion from sergeant to lieutenant discriminated against minority candidates in violation of Title VII.  In a 2015 decision, the Court agreed with Plaintiffs after a bench trial, holding that the “lieutenants’ exam had a racially disparate impact and was insufficiently job-related to survive the Plaintiffs’ challenge.” Smith v. City of Boston, 144 F. Supp. 3d 177, 180-81 (D. Mass. 2015) (“Smith I”).

In a different case, Lopez v. City of Lawrence, No. 07-11694, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124139 (D. Mass. Sept. 5, 2014) (“Lopez I”), a different judge in the District of Massachusetts addressed similar claims.  In that case, a group of African-American and Hispanic patrolmen challenged the civil service exam for promotion from patrolman to sergeant, claiming disparate impact discrimination.  The presiding judge in Lopez, Judge George A. O’Toole, rejected the plaintiffs’ claim after a bench trial.  The trial court reasoned that, although the sergeants’ exam “imposed a significantly disparate impact on minority applicants,” the defendants established that the exam was nevertheless justified by business necessity.  Id. at *48, 60-61.  The Lopez plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Before Judge Young undertook to determine a proper remedy consistent with its ruling in Smith I, the First Circuit issued a ruling affirming the trial court’s decision in Lopez ILopez v. City of Lawrence, 823 F.3d 102 (1st Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 137 S. Ct. 1088 (2017) (“Lopez II”).  The First Circuit concluded, as did Judge O’Toole, that the sergeants’ exam had a significantly disparate impact on racial minorities, and that Judge O’Toole did not clearly err in concluding that business necessity nevertheless justified the exam.  Id. at 107-111.

In light of the First Circuit’s order in Lopez II, Judge Young revisited his earlier ruling in Smith I.  The City argued that Lopez II compelled the Court to reach a different conclusion on the issue of business necessity, and to consider whether there existed an equal or better exam that identified the best candidates for the lieutenant position, which had a less disparate impact on racial minorities.  The Court disagreed.

The Decision

Job Related & Consistent With Business Necessity

The City advanced several arguments in reliance on Lopez II.  First, the City argued that the Court used the wrong legal standard to evaluate the exam’s validity.  It argued that Lopez II requires the Court to determine the exam’s validity by utilizing a “better than random selection” standard, not the “representative sample test” established by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures (“Guidelines”).  Smith II, at *15.  In its earlier analysis, the Court reasoned that the Guidelines “provide a sensible way of evaluating whether a given test . . . measures an important work characteristic, and whether the outcomes of that test are actually correlated with the characteristic measured.”  Id. at *11.  Using the Guidelines, and relying on expert testimony, the Court determined that the exam results were not predictive of or correlated with the important work behaviors of police lieutenants.  IdLopez II, according to the Court, does not require a different conclusion.  Indeed, the Court stated that the “First Circuit certainly did not ban the use of the Uniform Guidelines’ representative sample test.”  Id. at *15-16.  Such a ban, the Court observed, would be “surprising” because they come from the EEOC and “are due an appropriate degree of deference.”  Id. at *16.

Second, the City argued that the Court should reconsider its rejection of the Education and Experience (“E&E”) component of the lieutenants’ exam.  Because the First Circuit found in Lopez II that the E&E component of the sergeants’ exam was useful to assess qualities important to a sergeant’s daily work, the City argued that the Court should not have excluded the E&E component from its validity analysis of the lieutenants’ exam.  The Court was unpersuaded, noting that it did consider the E&E in its ruling, but held that the “E&E did not rescue an otherwise invalid written exam.”  Id. at *21.  The holding in Lopez II did not change the Court’s opinion given the variations between the two cases.  The Court: “(1) relied on expert testimony that the E&E component failed to differentiate among candidates or demonstrate the [knowledge, skills, and abilities] necessary in a lieutenant; (2) had no evidence that incumbent lieutenants performed better on the written exam; and (3) had no evidence to show that the E&E component was valid on its own.”  Id. at *21-22 (internal citations omitted).  Accordingly, unlike the evidence at issue in Lopez II regarding the sergeants’ exam, the evidence before the Court did “not establish that the E&E measured qualities important to a lieutenant’s daily responsibilities.”  Id. at *22.

Third, the City asserted that, in light of Lopez II, the Court “inappropriately applied a heightened validity requirement for rank ordering” and that “rank ordering furthers [the City’s] interest in eliminating patronage and intentional racism.”  Id.  The Court disagreed.  The Court reasoned that “[w]here a selection procedure not only has a disparate impact on a pass-fail basis, but also compounds that effect through use of rank ordering, each hiring decision carries an increased risk of a discriminatory result.”  Id. at *24.  In that case, the Court held that it “did not err in applying a heightened validity requirement for rank ordering,” and the First Circuit’s decision in Lopez II does not compel a contrary conclusion.  Id.  Even if the City faced a lower burden, it still failed according to the Court.  That is because the evidence before the Court did not support an inference that candidates who performed better on the lieutenants’ exam would be better performers on the job.  Id. at *25.

Equally Valid, Less Discriminatory Alternative Test

The City also challenged the Court’s finding of liability without first addressing whether an equally valid, less discriminatory alternative test existed to identify successful candidates for the lieutenant position.  Specifically, the City argued that the Court could not reject the City’s justification for the lieutenants’ exam absent “some showing that there exists an available alternative with less disparate impact that serves [the City’s] legitimate needs.”  Id. at *26.  Once again, the Court disagreed.  The Court held that the First Circuit’s ruling in Lopez II did not change the burden shifting framework that applies to the analysis of disparate impact cases.  Id.  If the plaintiff proves that a test has a significant disparate impact, and the defendant then fails to prove that the test is job related and consistent with business necessity, “then the defendant loses, regardless of the plaintiffs’ showing of an alternative.”  Id.  The City did not convince the Court that the lieutenants’ exam was sufficiently job related and consistent with business necessity.  Accordingly, the Court did not change its previous ruling in favor of Plaintiffs.

Implications For Employers

The Court concluded its decision by observing that Lopez and Smith are “significantly different” and “fact intensive cases.”  Id. at *29.  They involved different evidentiary records and different exams for different positions.  Id.  The Court held that it did not commit legal error by applying the same law to a different case and reaching a different conclusion.  Id. at *29-30.

The Smith II decision should therefore remind employers of the broad authority that trial court judges have when it comes to applying the law to the facts and evidence in order to reach a conclusion.  As Judge Young noted in Smith II: “Fact finding is the province of the district courts.”  Id. at *29-30.  Judge Young applied his understanding of disparate impact law to the evidence before him and determined that the City failed to meet its burden of proof.  Would a different judge have reached a different conclusion?  Will the First Circuit affirm the Court’s order if the City appeals?  These are fair questions, the answers to which are unclear.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: Four African-American teachers alleged that their school district employer discriminated against them on the basis of race by failing to hire them as assistant principals, and filed a motion for class certification. A federal district court in Florida denied the teachers’ motion for class certification, finding the employees failed to satisfy the commonality requirement of Rule 23 based on the exercise of discretion by different hiring principals at different schools. The ruling has important lessons for employers facing Rule 23 motions in workplace class actions.

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In Gittens v. The School Board of Lee County, Florida, No. 2:16-CV-412, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115987 (M.D. Fla. July 7, 2017), Plaintiffs brought suit against their employer, the School Board of Lee County, Florida (“School District”), alleging that the School District discriminated against them on the basis of their race, i.e., African-American.  After Plaintiffs moved for class certification, Judge Mac R. McCoy of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied their motion, finding that Plaintiffs “fail[ed] to provide the necessary glue to hold the putative class claims together under [the] commonality analysis,” that was set forth in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011).  Id. at *34.  The Court also found that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the sufficiency of the proposed class definition, the ascertainability of the putative class, adequacy, typicality, and the Rule 23(b) requirements.

For employers facing workplace class actions where putative class members are subjected to employment decisions by different supervisors at different facilities, this ruling is another post-Wal-Mart employer victory that can be used to oppose class certification.

Case Background

Plaintiffs, four African-Americans, held various teaching and administrative positions at various schools within the School District.  Id. at *6-12.  All four Plaintiffs had advanced degrees, and sought administrative positions at various schools, including the position of assistant principal.  All four had at least one interview for the assistant principal position, and two were interviewed by panels of all-White school administrators.  All four Plaintiffs were rejected for assistant principal positions.

To be considered for an assistant principal position, an applicant must first apply and be accepted into the AP Pool.  Id. at *13.  Once accepted, an individual may then apply and be hired for a specific assistant principal position at a certain school.  Each individual school advertises its open assistant principal positions, screens the applicants, conducts its own interviews and, when selected by the Principal of that specific school, the candidate’s name is submitted to the Superintendent, who then sends it to the School Board for final approval.

Plaintiffs alleged that the School District had a pattern or practice of refusing to hire well-qualified, African-American employees to administrative positions.  After bringing class-wide allegations under Title VII for race discrimination, Plaintiffs moved to certify a class of current and former employees who had applied for various positions with the School Board, including assistant principal positions.

The Decision

The Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.  First, the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ class definition, “[a]ny and all black/African-American employees who applied for an AP Pool position in the four years preceding this action but who were denied such a position by Defendant,” as being improperly vague and ambiguous.  Id. at *18-20.  The Court noted that that the class definition was unclear as to whether “denied”  referred to the AP Pool or the actual assistant principal position.

After the Court found that Plaintiffs satisfied the numerosity requirement of Rule 23, it held that Plaintiffs failed to establish that there were common questions of law or fact sufficient to satisfy the commonality requirement.  The Court opined that “[s]imilar to [Wal-Mart v. Dukes], the Plaintiffs here wish to bring suit calling into question a relatively large number of employment decisions at once. Without some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question why was I disfavored.”  Id. at *28 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  The Court held that the exercise of discretion by schools and principals over time at different schools precluded a finding of commonality.  Id. at *30.

Turning to the typicality requirement of Rule 23, the Court held that the named Plaintiffs failed to meet this requirement because each individual school advertised its opening for an assistant principal position and had its own decision-maker screening applicants and conducting interviews before the school principal selected the top applicant.  Id. at *37.  The Court determined that Plaintiffs did not meet their burden to show that their claims were based on the same event, pattern, or practice as the claims of other putative class members.  Regarding the adequacy of representation requirement, citing Plaintiffs’ counsel’s motion to withdraw as counsel of one of the named Plaintiffs due to “a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship,” the Court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden.  Id. at *39-40.  Finally, Plaintiffs could not meet the Rule 23(b) requirements since not all of the Rule 23(a) requirements were met.  Id. at *40-41.  Accordingly, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

Implications For Employers

One of the most crucial events in employment law class actions is class certification briefing, which can potentially lead to several more commas and zeros in a settlement figure or jury verdict if an employer is not successful.  The Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision has given employers an avenue to attack large class actions where decisions made by different supervisors at different facilities can make it difficult for employees to prove common questions of law and fact.  Although the Court here identified several reasons not to certify this particular putative class, employers are now armed with another post-Wal-Mart ruling that they can use as a blueprint to fight class certification on the basis of commonality.