supreme-court-546279_960_720By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Tiffany Tran, and Julie Yap

Seyfarth Synopsis: Seyfarth Shaw submitted comments and oral testimony to the Federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules regarding needed reform and guidance to Rule 23, the rule that governs class action litigation in federal courts. While the proposed amendments address important issues, our workplace class action group proposed four additional areas for consideration that are not currently addressed by the pending proposed rule amendments.

Rule 23 Changes

As some employers may be aware, changes are coming to Rule 23 class action requirements. What exactly those changes will be, and when those changes will go into effect, however, are still to be determined.

The Advisory Committee on Civil Rules (the “Committee”) for the Federal Courts, which is responsible for recommending amendments to Rule 23, has been contemplating possible changes for years now — we previously blogged about the potential changes here.  The Committee recently proposed specific rule changes that address important issues such as settlement class procedures and electronic notice to class members.

Various parties and groups submitted written comments to the Committee, including academics, worker and consumer advocacy groups, and corporate groups.

Seyfarth’s written submission is here.  Seyfarth’s comments were prepared by the team of Thomas Ahlering, Kate Birenbaum, Matthew Gagnon, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Hilary Massey, Jennifer Riley, Tiffany Tran, Julie Yap, and Kevin Young.

Seyfarth’s submission identified four additional areas that remain in need of reform and guidance to address the practical difficulties regularly encountered in class action litigation

Testimony To The Committee

The Committee also selected 11 individuals to testify before the Committee.

The Committee selected Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. (“Jerry”) co-chair of our class action defense group, to testify. Jerry gave testimony to the Committee on February 16. Seyfath was the only law firm representing employers to be selected to testify.

Other individuals who testified included Theodore Frank of the Competitive Enterprise Institute; Eric Issacson, of the Issacson Law Office; Peter Martin of State Farm Mutual Insurance Co.; Patrick Paul of Snell & Wilmer; Timothy Pratt of Boston Scientific Corp.; Michael Pennington of Bradley, Arant, Boult & Cummings; Professor Judith Resnik of Yale Law School; Richard Simmons of Analytics LLC; Ariana Tadler of Milberg LLP; and Steven Weisbrot of Angeion Group.

Consistent with Seyfarth’s written submission, Jerry testified that class action litigation would be aided by an express requirement that a party seeking class certification must submit a viable trial plan. This change makes sense from both a legal and practical perspective as it would help prevent unmanageable class actions from proceeding past the class certification stage to trial. Indeed, this amendment conforms to the California Supreme Court’s decision in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association, 59 Cal.4th 1 (2014), which requires adequately developed trial plans at the class certification stage.

Jerry also advocated for a revision to Rule 23(f) to allow for an immediate right to appeal orders to certify, modify, or decertify a class. Jerry testified that an amendment to the current approach would ensure meaningful review of and guidance regarding class certification.

In addition, Jerry suggested that the Committee revisit the standards relating to class certification in the context of a settlement.  This would amend Rule 23 to acknowledge and address the unique and practical considerations and impacts of certification in the two very different contexts of actual litigation versus settlement.

Finally, Jerry recommended that the Committee provide additional, specific guidance regarding Rule 26’s “proportionality” requirement and its application to pre-certification class discovery.  Jerry shared Seyfarth’s collective experience in representing employers who face requests for discovery on class lists, contact information, and other information about potential class members.  Rule 26 requires that discovery be “proportional to the needs of the case,” which directly affects pre-certification class discovery. Nonetheless, federal courts have taken varying approaches to resolving these discovery disputes.  Jerry advocated the position that the Committee’s further guidance is needed to ensure a standard approach that fully considers the burden class discovery places on employers.

Implications For Employers

The Rule 23 amendments will have a significant impact on class action litigation and far-reaching consequences for employers.

Stay tuned for more updates regarding the proposed Rule 23 amendments as we continue to monitor developments on this important issue.

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On February 9, 2017, Seyfarth Shaw hosted a signal event regarding workplace class action litigation in 2016 and the implications for employers looking to anticipate and prepare for workplace trends in 2017.

Vickie Lipnic, the newly appointed Acting Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, joined Jerry Maatman in launching Seyfarth’s 2017 Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. Vickie has been a Commissioner with the EEOC since 2010 and her knowledge of the focal points of the government agency tasked with enforcing employee civil rights offered guests a great deal of insight. The EEOC has been increasingly committed to systemic litigation and, while these types of cases are intended to have a broad impact, Vickie stressed the importance of single plaintiff litigation and the impact that single plaintiff lawsuits can have on an industry, company, or geographic area. Vickie also opined on the importance of bi-partisanship as a Commissioner. She is the one remaining Republican-appointee on the Commission with Democratic-appointee Jenny Yang, her successor as Chair of the EEOC, whose term is ending July 1, 2017. Vickie noted that there are currently 2 seats open on the Commission, and President Trump will be tasked with appointing two new Commissioners as well as filling the currently vacant General Counsel position. With regard to these shifting positions and the new Presidential administration, Vickie confirmed that the EEOC is steadfast in its mission to protect and enforce the civil rights of all employees and to ensure that employers are readily prepared to adhere to the laws protecting their employees from discriminatory practices.

Additionally, Jerry discussed the six key trends in workplace class action litigation for 2016 and how those trends will impact employers in 2017. First is the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, et al., and Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, et al., and how they will influence complex employment-related litigation in the coming years.  Equally important for the coming year, the Supreme Court has accepted five cases that are likely to be decided in 2017 that also will impact and shape class action litigation and government enforcement lawsuits faced by employers; chief among them is the issue of the legality of class action waivers in arbitration agreements. In terms of settlements in 2016, after reaching all-time highs in 2014 and 2015, the monetary value of aggregate top-ten employment class action settlement declined significantly overall, but wage & hour class action settlements sky-rocketed.  Another trend for 2016 was that federal and state courts issued more favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar than in past years. Plaintiffs, for instance, secured certification in 76% of the time in wage & hour class and collective actions. However, for the first time in over a decade, case filing statistics for 2016 reflected that wage & hour litigation decreased over the past year. Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings. Also in 2016, Plaintiffs’ attorneys were extremely successful in certifying first stage conditional certification motions, which can mean filings are likely to go up in 2017.  Finally, the government enforcement lawsuits brought by the DOL and EEOC continued the aggressive litigation programs of both agencies, but by sheer number, lawsuit filings and recoveries were lower when compared to previous years.

WCAR event pic 2

Thank you to Victoria for visiting us in Chicago for this hugely successful event. We hosted over 150 guests at our Seyfarth Shaw Chicago office and over 1,800 guests via our live Webcast.

Thank you to everyone who joined us either here in Chicago or via our live webcast. For those interested in viewing a video of the presentation, stay tuned. We will be posting a complete video of the event next week.

Readers can find more information about the event on Seyfarth’s Pay Equity Issues & Insights Blog here.

Additionally, if you have not yet registered for the upcoming WCAR webinar, you can do so by clicking here.

 

#16-3881 2016 WCAR Infographics - FLSA Filings In Federal Court R3As profiled in our Workplace Class Action Report for 2017, overall complex employment-related litigation filings increased in 2016 insofar as employment discrimination cases were concerned, but decreased in the areas of ERISA class actions, governmental enforcement litigation, and wage & hour collective actions and class actions. For the past decade, wage & hour class actions and collective actions have been the leading type of “high stakes” lawsuits being pursued by the plaintiffs’ bar. Each year the number of such case filings increased. However, for the first time in over a decade, case filing statistics for 2016 reflected that wage & hour litigation decreased over the past year. Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings.

Workplace class action filing trends can inform and shape employers’ efforts towards the most effective ways to avoid lawsuits from being filed in the first place. Employers looking to ward off workplace class action lawsuits can garner a great deal of information from studying the number of lawsuits filed annually and the types of lawsuits employees are most likely to file.

In our fourth installment video detailing the six key findings of the Workplace Class Action Report, we look at the numbers behind the workplace class action filings of 2016 and offer insights on the areas in which employers might focus their efforts to avoid workplace class action lawsuits in 2017.

 

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#16-3836 2017 WCAR Front Cover for WordSeyfarth Shaw is pleased to present an exclusive discussion tomorrow, February 9th, between Victoria Lipnic, newly Trump-Appointed U.S. EEOC Acting Chair, and Gerald Maatman, the Editor of Seyfarth’s 13th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. There is still time to sign up to attend the discussion via live webcast. Click here to join now!

As we move into a shifting policy landscape, employers are seeking insight to prepare for the challenges of the future workplace.  At this important presentation, Acting Chair Lipnic will provide insights into the EEOC initiatives in 2016 and a look ahead to the agenda for 2017. Jerry will discuss the top class action rulings in 2016 and hot topics for 2017, including key trends in workplace class action and government enforcement litigation.      

Thursday, February 9th
12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Eastern
11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Central
10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Mountain
9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Pacific


There will be a question and answer portion at the end of the program; we encourage you to submit an advance question when you register for the program.

estSeyfarth Synopsis: Workplace class action filings were flat overall and even decreased as compared to levels in 2015. However, that is apt to change in 2017. In the 4th in a series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017.

Introduction

Overall complex employment-related litigation filings increased in 2016 insofar as employment discrimination cases were concerned, but decreased in the areas of ERISA class actions, governmental enforcement litigation, and wage & hour collective actions and class actions. For the past decade, wage & hour class actions and collective actions have been the leading type of “high stakes” lawsuits being pursued by the plaintiffs’ bar. Each year the number of such case filings increased. However, for the first time in over a decade, case filing statistics for 2016 reflected that wage & hour litigation decreased over the past year.

Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings.

Complex Employment-Related Litigation Filing Trends In 2016

While shareholder and securities class action filings witnessed an increase in 2016, employment-related class action filings remained relatively flat.

By the numbers, filings for employment discrimination and ERISA claims were basically flat over the past year, while the volume of wage & hour cases decreased for the first time in over a decade.

By the close of the year, ERISA lawsuits totaled 6,530 filings (down slightly as compared to 6,925 in 2015 and 7,163 in 2014), FLSA lawsuits totaled 8,308 filings (down as compared to 8,954 in 2015 and up from 8,066 in 2014), and employment discrimination lawsuits totaled 11,593 filings (an increase from 11,550 in 2015 and a decrease from 11,867 in 2014).

In terms of employment discrimination cases, however, the potential exists for a significant jump in case filings in the coming year, as the charge number totals at the EEOC in 2015 and 2016 reached record levels in the 52-year history of the Commission; due to the time-lag in the period from the filing of a charge to the filing of a subsequent lawsuit, the charges in the EEOC’s inventory will become ripe for the initiation of lawsuits in 2017.

The Wave Of FLSA Case Filings Finally Crested

By the numbers, FLSA collective action litigation filings in 2016 far outpaced other types of employment-related class action filings; virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed and litigated as collective actions.  Up until 2015, lawsuit filings reflected year-after-year increases in the volume of wage & hour litigation pursued in federal courts since 2000; statistically, wage & hour filings have increased by over 450% in the last 15 years.

The fact of the first decrease in FLSA lawsuit filings in 15 years is noteworthy in and of itself. However, a peek behind these numbers confirms that with 8,308 lawsuit filings, 2016 was the second highest year ever in the filing of such cases (only eclipsed by 2015, when 8,954 lawsuits were commenced).

Given this trend, employers may well see record-breaking numbers of FLSA filings in 2017.  Various factors are contributing to the fueling of these lawsuits, including: (i) new FLSA regulations on overtime exemptions in 2016, which have been delayed in terms of their implementation due to legal challenges by 13 states; (ii) minimum wage hikes in 21 states and 22 major cities set to take effect in 2017; and (iii) the intense focus on independent contractor classification and joint employer status, especially in the franchisor-franchisee context. Layered on top of those issues is the difficulty of applying a New Deal piece of legislation to the realities of the digital workplace that no lawmakers could have contemplated in 1938. The compromises that led to the passage of the legislation in the New Deal meant that ambiguities, omitted terms, and unanswered questions abound under the FLSA (something as basic as the definition of the word “work” does not exist in the statute), and the plaintiffs’ bar is suing over those issues at a record pace.

Virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed as collective actions; therefore, these filings represent the most significant exposure to employers in terms of any workplace laws.  By industry, retail and hospitality companies experienced a deluge of wage & hour class actions in 2016.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

 FLSA filings

The Dynamics Of Wage & Hour Litigation – Low Investment / High Return

The story behind these numbers is indicative of how the plaintiffs’ class action bar chooses cases to litigate. It has a diminished appetite to invest in long-term cases that are fought for years, and where the chance of a plaintiffs’ victory is fraught with challenges either as to certification or on the merits. Hence, this reflects the various differences in success factors in bringing employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, as compared to FLSA collective actions.

Obtaining a “first stage” conditional certification order is possible without a “front end” investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed unlike the situation when certification is sought in an ERISA or employment discrimination class action) and without conducting significant discovery due to the certification standards under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).  Certification can be achieved in a shorter period of time (in 2 to 6 months after the filing of the lawsuit) and with little expenditure of attorneys’ efforts on time-consuming discovery or with the costs of an expert. As a result, to the extent that litigation of class actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers are viewed as an investment, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment without significant barriers to entry relative to other types of workplace class action litigation. As compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time. The certification statistics for 2016 confirm these factors.

What Is In Store For 2017

Has the wage & hour litigation crested for good, or will 2017 see more case filing? My bet is that employers will see more case filings.

An increasing phenomenon in the growth of wage & hour litigation is worker awareness. Wage & hour laws are usually the domain of specialists, but in 2016 wage & hour issues made front-page news.  The widespread public attention to how employees are paid almost certainly contributed to the sheer number of suits.  Big verdicts and record settlements also played a part, as success typically begets copy-cats and litigation is no exception. Yet, the pervasive influence of technology is also helping to fuel this litigation trend. Technology has opened the doors for unprecedented levels of marketing and advertising by the plaintiffs’ bar – either through direct soliciting of putative class members or in advancing the overall cause of lawsuits. Technology allows for the virtual commercialization of wage & hour cases through the Internet and social media. These factors all suggest that 2017 will see an increase in wage & hour lawsuit filings.

And state court cases are not to be forgotten. In 2016, wage & hour class actions filed in state court also represented an increasingly important part of this trend.  Most pronounced in this respect were filings in the state courts of California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In particular, California continued its status in 2016 as a breeding ground for wage & hour class action litigation due to laxer class certification standards under state law, exceedingly generous damages remedies for workers, and more plaintiff-friendly approaches to class certification as well as wage & hour issues under the California Labor Code.  For the fourth year out of the last five, the American Tort Reform Association (“ATRA”) selected California as one of the nation’s worst “judicial hellholes” as measured by the systematic application of laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner. Calling California one of the worst of the worst jurisdictions, the ATRA described the Golden State as indeed that for plaintiffs’ lawyers “seeking riches and the expense of employers …” and where “lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges have long aided and abetted this massive redistribution of wealth.”

 

 

#16-3881 2016 Certification Motions For Employment Discrimination, FLSA, And ERISA R5Surveys of corporate counsel confirm that complex workplace litigation – and especially class actions and multi-plaintiff lawsuits – are one of the chief exposures driving corporate legal budgetary expenditures, as well as the type of legal dispute that causes the most concern for their companies.

As profiled in our Workplace Class Action Report for 2017, federal and state courts issued more favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2016 than in past years. The prime concern in that array of risks is now indisputably wage & hour class action and collective action litigation.

In this video, the third in our continuing series outlining the key findings of the Workplace Class Action Report, we examine the story behind the class certification statistics and what that means for employers.

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supreme-court-546279_960_720On Tuesday, February 1, 2017, President Trump announced the selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch sits on the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 10th Circuit. If confirmed by the Senate, Judge Gorsuch would fill the vacancy to replace Justice Scalia.

We’ve analyzed Judge Gorsuch’s rulings and his approach to workplace issues, and what this may mean for employers.

In this Supreme Court video update, Jerry Maatman discusses Judge Gorsuch’s background and legal philosophy, his prior rulings, and the ways in which he is similar to Justice Scalia.

Order the Workplace Class Action Report here.

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#16-3836 2017 WCAR Front Cover for Word In the third post of our series on workplace class action issues, this blog posting focuses on the statistical study of class certification rulings throughout the Unites States in 2016. Not unlike real estate, location – in terms of venue, the assigned judge, and applicable circuit case law – is an all-important factor in class certification dynamics.

Introduction

Federal and state courts issued more favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2016 than in past years. Plaintiffs’ lawyers continued to craft refined and more successful class certification theories to counter the more stringent Rule 23 certification requirements established in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), and Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). In the areas of employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored exceedingly well in securing class certification rulings in 2016. In sum, class actions continue to be certified in significant numbers and certain “magnet” jurisdictions continue to issue decisions that encourage or, in effect, force the resolution of large numbers of claims through class action mechanisms.

Anecdotally, surveys of corporate counsel confirm that complex workplace litigation – and especially class action and multi-plaintiff lawsuits – remains one of the chief exposures driving corporate legal budgetary expenditures, as well as the type of legal dispute that causes the most concern for their companies.

The prime concern in that array of risks is now indisputably wage & hour litigation.

Overall Certification Statistics

A circuit-by-circuit analysis of the 244 class certification decisions in all varieties of workplace class action litigation is detailed in the following map.

circuit courts graphic

Wage & Hour Certification Trends

While plaintiffs continued to achieve initial conditional certification of wage & hour collective actions in 2016, employers also secured significant victories in defeating conditional certification motions and obtaining decertification of § 216(b) collective actions.  The percentage of successful motions for decertification brought by employers rose by nearly 10% in 2016.

Most significantly, for the first time in over a decade, wage & hour lawsuit filings in federal courts decreased.

An increase in FLSA filings over the past several years, however, caused the issuance of more FLSA certification rulings than in any other substantive area of complex employment litigation, i.e., 224 certification rulings in 2016, as compared to the 175 certification rulings in 2015.

The analysis of these rulings shows that more cases are brought against employers in more “plaintiff-friendly” jurisdictions such as the judicial districts within the Second and Ninth Circuits. This trend is shown in the following map:

flsa

The map of FLSA certification rulings is telling.

First, it substantiates that the district courts within the Ninth Circuit and the Second Circuit are the epicenters of wage & hour class actions and collective actions.

More cases were prosecuted and conditionally certified – 33 certification orders in the Ninth Circuit and 29 certification orders in the Second Circuit – in the district courts in those circuits than in any other areas of the country. The district courts in the Fifth, Eleventh, and Sixth Circuits were not far behind, with 22, 12, and 11 certification orders respectively in those jurisdictions.

Second, as the burdens of proof reflect under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), plaintiffs won the overwhelming majority of “first stage” conditional certification motions (147 of 195 rulings, or approximately 76%); in terms of “second stage” decertification motions, plaintiffs also prevailed in a slight majority of those cases (16 of 29 rulings, or approximately 55% of the time).

The “first stage” conditional certification statistics for 2016 are aligned to the numbers in 2015, when plaintiffs won 75% of “first stage” conditional certification motions. However, employers fared much better in 2016 on “second stage” decertification motions. Employers won decertification at a rate of 45%, which was up from 36% in 2015.

The following chart illustrates this trend for 2016:

 FLSA certification motionsThird, this reflects that there has been an on-going migration of skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers into the wage & hour litigation space. Securing initial “first stage” conditional certification – and foisting settlement pressure on an employer – can be done quickly (almost right after the case is filed), with a minimal monetary investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed, unlike the situation when certification is sought in an employment discrimination class action or ERISA class action), and without having to conduct significant discovery (per the case law that has developed under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b)).

As a result, to the extent litigation of class actions and collective actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers is viewed as an investment, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment, without significant barriers to entry, and with the prospect of immediate returns as compared to other types of workplace class action litigation. Finally, as success in litigation often begets copy-cat filings, the increase in top wage & hour settlements in 2016 to $695.5 million as compared to $463.6 million in 2015 is likely to prompt more litigation too.

Employment Discrimination & ERISA Certification Trends

At the same time, the rulings in Wal-Mart and Comcast also fueled more critical thinking and crafting of case theories in employment discrimination and ERISA class action filings in 2016.  The Supreme Court’s two Rule 23 decisions have had the effect of forcing the plaintiffs’ bar to “re-boot” the architecture of their class action theories. At least one result was the decision this past year in Tyson Foods, in which the Supreme Court accepted plaintiffs’ arguments that, in effect, appeared to soften the requirements previously imposed in Wal-Mart and Comcast for maintaining and proving class claims.

Hence, it is clear that the playbook on Rule 23 strategies is undergoing a continuous process of evolution. Filings of “smaller” employment discrimination class actions have increased due to a strategy whereby state or regional-type classes are asserted rather than nationwide mega-cases that Wal-Mart discouraged. In essence, at least in the employment discrimination area, the plaintiffs’ litigation playbook is more akin to a strategy of “aim small, miss small.”

In turn, employment-related class certification motions outside of the wage & hour area were a mixed bag or tantamount to a “jump ball” in 2016, as 4 of the 8 were granted and 4 were denied.

The following map demonstrates this array of certification rulings in Title VII and ADEA discrimination cases:

discrimination map

In terms of the ERISA class action litigation scene in 2016, the focus continued to rest on precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court as it shaped and refined the scope of potential liability and defenses in ERISA class actions.

The Wal-Mart decision also has changed the ERISA certification playing field by giving employers more grounds to oppose class certification.

The decisions in 2016 show that class certification motions have the best chance of denial in the context of ERISA welfare plans, and ERISA defined contribution pension plans, where individualized notions of liability and damages are prevalent.

Nonetheless, plaintiffs were more successful than defendants in ERISA class actions, as plaintiffs won 8 of 12 certification rulings in 2016.

A map illustrating these trends is shown below:

ERISA map

Overall Trends

So what conclusions overall can be drawn on class certification trends in 2016?

In the areas of employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA, the plaintiffs’ bar is converting their case filings into certification of classes at a high rate.

Whereas class certification was a coin toss for employment discrimination cases (4 granted and 4 denied in 2016), class certification is relatively easier in ERISA cases (8 granted and 4 denied in 2016), but most prevalent in wage & hour litigation (with 147 conditional certification orders granted and 48 denied, as well as 13 decertification motions granted and 16 denied).

The following bar graph details the win/loss percentages in each of these substantive areas:

– a 50% success rate for certification of employment discrimination class actions (both Title VII and age discrimination cases);

– a 66% success rate for certification of ERISA class actions; and,

– a 76% success rate for conditional certification of wage & hour collective actions.

all cert graphic

Obviously, the most certification activity in workplace class action litigation is in the wage & hour space.

The trend over the last three years reflects a steady success rate of 70% to 76% for the plaintiffs’ bar that is tilted toward plaintiff-friendly “magnet” jurisdictions were the case law favors workers and presents challenges to employers seeking to block certification.

Yet, in 2016, employers increased their odds of decertifying wage & hour cases to 45% as compared to 36% in 2015.

Comparatively, the trend over the past three years for certification orders is illustrated in the following chart:

FLSA 3 year graphic

While each case is different and no two class actions or collective actions are identical, these statistics paint the all-too familiar picture that employers have experienced over the last several years. The new wrinkle to influence these factors in 2017 is the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Tyson Foods. To the extent it assists plaintiffs in their certification theories, future certification decisions may well trend further upward for workers.

Lessons For Employers From 2016

There are multiple lessons to be drawn from these trends in 2016.

First, while Wal-Mart undoubtedly heightened commonality standards under Rule 23(a)(2) starting in 2011, and Comcast tightened the predominance factors at least for damages under Rule 23(b) in 2013, the plaintiffs’ bar has crafted theories and “work arounds” to maintain or increase their chances of successfully securing certification orders.  In 2016, their certification numbers were up to the highest levels in the last three years.

Second, the defense-minded decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast have not taken hold in any significant respect in the context of FLSA certification decisions for wage & hour cases. Efforts by the defense bar to use the commonality standards from Wal-Mart and the predominance analysis from Comcast have not impacted the ability of the plaintiffs’ bar to secure certification orders under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

Third, there are “cracks in the defense wall” appearing in the case law relative to efforts by employers to create sustained barriers to class certification. The Supreme Court’s decision in 2016 in Tyson Foods is the most prominent example of how “work arounds” are taking place to enable plaintiffs’ lawyers to achieve class certification.

Fourth, while monetary relief in a Rule 23(b)(2) context is severely limited, certification is the “holy grail” in class actions, and certification of any type of class – even a non-monetary injunctive relief class claim – often drives settlement decisions. This is especially true for employment discrimination, ERISA, and wage & hour class actions, as plaintiffs’ lawyers can recover awards of attorneys’ fees under fee-shifting statutes in an employment litigation context. In this respect, the plaintiffs’ bar is nothing if not ingenuous, and targeted, strategic certification theories (e.g., issue certification on a limited discrete aspect of a case) are the new norm in federal and state courthouses.

Fifth, during the certification stage, courts are more willing than ever before to assess facts that overlap both certification and merits issues, and to apply a more practical assessment of the Rule 23(b) requirement of predominance, which focuses on the utility and superiority of a preclusive class-wide trial of common issues. Courts are also more willing to apply a heightened degree of scrutiny to expert opinions offered to establish proof of the Rule 23 requirements.

In sum, notwithstanding these shifts in proof standards and the contours of judicial decision-making, the likelihood of class certification rulings favoring plaintiffs are not only “alive and well” in the post-Wal-Mart and Comcast era, but also thriving.

seventh circuitBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Mark W. Wallin, and John S. Marrese

Seyfarth Synopsis: After an employee lost his employer-funded health insurance because he failed to complete a medical examination required by his employer, the EEOC sued the employer under the ADA’s ban on involuntary medical examinations. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit, not on the merits, but because the relief sought was “unavailable or moot.”

In EEOC v. Flambeau, Inc., No. 16-1402 (7th Cir. Jan. 25, 2017), the EEOC filed suit against Flambeau, Inc. (“Flambeau”) in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on behalf of a former Flambeau employee.  Flambeau had terminated the employee’s health insurance because he failed to complete a “health risk assessment” and biometric testing, which Flambeau required of employees to participate in its employer-subsidized health plan.

The parties cross-moved for summary judgment.  The district court granted summary judgment for Flambeau and denied summary judgment for the EEOC. The district court found that Flambeau’s program was exempted from liability for involuntary medical examinations under the ADA’s safe harbor provision for the administration of a bona fide benefits plan.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit declined to decide the case on the merits, but nonetheless affirmed on the grounds that the relief sought by the EEOC was unavailable or moot.

The Seventh Circuit’s opinion provides useful guidance on the issues of punitive damages and mootness in the employment context.  In particular, courts are hesitant to award punitive damages against an employer where plaintiff pursues an unsettled theory of liability, which is the case even if the EEOC has issued guidance that the employer has not followed.  With respect to mootness, an employer’s pre-suit cessation of an allegedly illegal activity may moot a claim where the employer can show it did so for reasons other than impending litigation.

Case Background

In 2012 and 2013, Flambeau required its employees to participate in a wellness program, which included a “health risk assessment” and biometric testing, in order to obtain Flambeau’s employer-subsidized health insurance.  Id. at 3.  Dale Arnold (“Arnold”), a Flambeau employee, failed to complete the assessment and testing prior to the 2012 benefit year deadline, so Flambeau terminated his insurance coverage. Id. Arnold filed complaints with the U.S. Department Of Labor (“DOL”) and the EEOC alleging a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Family & Medical Leave Act. Id. at 3-4. After discussions with the DOL, Flambeau agreed to reinstate Arnold’s insurance retroactively once he completed the testing and paid his share of premiums. Id. at 4.  Arnold did both, and Flambeau restored his insurance.  Id.

Before the 2014 benefit year began, Flambeau ended the mandatory assessment and testing, finding that it was not cost-effective. Id. In March 2014, Arnold resigned from Flambeau.  Id.  Nonetheless, six months later, the EEOC sued Flambeau.  The EEOC alleged that Flambeau’s mandatory testing violated the ADA’s prohibition of involuntary medical examinations Id. (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)).  EEOC enforcement guidance at the time further provided: “A wellness program is ‘voluntary’ as long as an employer neither requires participation nor penalizes employees who do not participate.”  Id. at 10 (citations omitted).  The EEOC sought compensatory and punitive damages on behalf of Arnold as well as an injunction preventing Flambeau from operating such a program.

Flambeau and the EEOC filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Id. at 4.  Flambeau argued that its wellness plan was covered by the ADA’s insurance safe harbor, which exempts the administration of a bona fide benefits plan from liability for involuntary medical examinations. Id. at 4 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 12201(c)(2) & (c)(3)). The EEOC, meanwhile, argued that the safe harbor provision was inapplicable to Flambeau’s program.  Id. at 4. The district court sided with Flambeau, finding that the safe harbor provision “could cover at least some wellness programs,” and Flambeau’s was one such program. Id. at 5.

The Decision

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the judgment in favor of Flambeau.  Id. at 15. However, its decision was not based on the merits of the case, i.e., whether the district court properly ruled that Flambeau’s wellness program was exempted under the ADA.  Instead, the Seventh Circuit found that the EEOC’s claim was moot. Id. at 5-6.

Article III of the Constitution limits federal courts’ jurisdiction to “live controvers[ies].”  Id. at 5 (citations omitted).  Accordingly, a case is moot if a party “lacks a personal stake” in the outcome.  Id. (citations omitted).  The EEOC argued that: (a) Arnold had a personal stake in the outcome because he had both compensatory and punitive damages; and (b) the EEOC had a stake because voluntary cessation of illegal conduct – here, Flambeau’s wellness program – typically does not moot a case.  The Seventh Circuit rejected both arguments.

First, the Seventh Circuit ruled that Arnold failed to establish compensatory damages because he did not actually pay the $82.02 in medical expenses he incurred while without Flambeau’s insurance. Id. at 6. Arnold also failed to establish any damages for emotional distress. Id. at 6-7.

Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit held that Arnold was not entitled to punitive damages.  Punitive damages are recoverable under the ADA where an employer acts “with malice or reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.”  Id. at 7 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(1)).  The Seventh Circuit explained that Flambeau did not act with reckless indifference to Arnold’s federally protected rights because whether or not the ADA’s safe harbor covered Flambeau’s wellness plan was an unsettled question when Flambeau utilized it (and remains one today).  Id. at 7-8.  Punitive damages are not available under the ADA where plaintiff’s theory of liability is “novel or otherwise poorly recognized.” Id. at 7 (citations omitted).  Importantly, the Seventh Circuit noted that the fact that Flambeau’s program potentially contravened the EEOC’s guideline on wellness programs did not amount to reckless indifference.  Id. at 10-11 (“An employer’s or its attorney’s disagreement with EEOC guidance does not by itself support a punitive damages award, at least where the guidance addresses an area of law as unsettled as this one.”).

Second, the Seventh Circuit found that Flambeau’s voluntary cessation of its wellness program mooted the case because there was no reasonable expectation Flambeau would reinstate the program. Id. at 11. The record showed that Flambeau dropped the program because, based on two years of experience, its economic costs outweighed its benefits. Id. at 12. Moreover, Flambeau’s pre-suit cessation of the program evidenced that it was a genuine business decision and not a mere litigation tactic. Id.  This distinguished it from cases wherein an employer stopped its illegal activity abruptly in relation to litigation and without a sufficient alternative explanation.  Id. at 13.

In closing, the court noted that prudential concerns also weighed against deciding the case on the merits.  Id. at 14.  Given the prevalence of wellness programs among employers, such a decision would have wide-ranging implications.  Id.  Moreover, the EEOC had promulgated further regulations on the issue after this case’s events.  Id. (citing 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14).  As such, the court felt that the “issues should be decided . . . in a case where the answers will matter to the parties.” Id. at 15.

Implication For Employers

This decision illustrates the importance of employer vigilance with respect to company-wide programs, particularly where such a program touches on unsettled areas of the law.  Where an employer can show attempts to consult and comply with the law, it will be in a better position to defend government agency action, which can include requests for punitive damages and impactful injunctive relief.  That is so even where the employer’s action does not necessarily conform with government agency guidance on the topic.

settlement amounts by class action typeAs profiled in our recent publication of the 13th  Annual Workplace Class Action Report, 2016 has been an interesting year for employment-related workplace class action settlements. After reaching all-time highs in 2014 and 2015, the monetary value of aggregate top-ten employment class action settlements declined significantly.

In this video, the second in our continuing series outlining the six key findings of our newest Workplace Class Action Report, Jerry Maatman discusses the top 10 employment-related workplace class action settlements and their implications for employers. The numbers may not be what you expect based on prior years.

To learn more:

Click here to order the 13th Annual Workplace Class Action Report.

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Stay tuned for key trend number 3 next week.