By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: At 852 pages, Seyfarth’s 15th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report analyzes 1,453 rulings and is our most comprehensive Report ever.

Click here to access the microsite featuring all the Report highlights. You can read about the five major trends of the past year, order your copy of the eBook, and download Chapters 1 and 2 on the 2019 Executive Summary and key class action settlements.

The Report was featured today in an exclusive article in MarketWatch. Click here to read the coverage!

The Report is the sole compendium in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to workplace class action litigation, and has become the “go to” research and resource guide for businesses and their corporate counsel facing complex litigation. We were again honored this year with a review of our Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”). Here is what EPLiC said: “The Report is a must-have resource for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation. Anyone who practices in this area, whether as a corporate counsel, a private attorney, a business execu­tive, a risk manager, an underwriter, a consul­tant, or a broker, cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publica­tion of its kind in the United States. It is the sole compendium that analyzes workplace class actions from ‘A to Z.’” Furthermore, EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art word” on workplace class action litigation.

The 2019 Report analyzes rulings from all state and federal courts – including private plaintiff class actions and collective actions, and government enforcement actions –  in the substantive areas of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. It also features chapters on EEOC pattern or practice rulings, state law class certification decisions, and non-workplace class action rulings that impact employers. The Report also analyzes the leading class action settlements for 2018 for employment discrimination, wage & hour, ERISA class actions, and statutory workplace laws, as well as settlements of government enforcement actions, both with respect to monetary values and injunctive relief provisions.

We hope our loyal blog readers will enjoy it!

Executive Summary

The prosecution of workplace class action litigation by the plaintiffs’ bar has continued to escalate over the past decade. Class actions often pose unique “bet-the-company” risks for employers. As has become readily apparent in the #MeToo era, an adverse judgment in a class action has the potential to bankrupt a business and adverse publicity can eviscerate its market share. Likewise, the on-going defense of a class action can drain corporate resources long before the case even reaches a decision point. Companies that do business in multiple states are also susceptible to “copy-cat” class actions, whereby plaintiffs’ lawyers create a domino effect of litigation filings that challenge corporate policies and practices in numerous jurisdictions at the same time. Hence, workplace class actions can impair a corporation’s business operations, jeopardize or cut short the careers of senior management, and cost millions of dollars to defend. For these reasons, workplace class actions remain at the top of the list of challenges that keep business leaders up late at night with worries about compliance and litigation. Skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers and governmental enforcement litigators are not making this challenge any easier for companies. They are continuing to develop new theories and approaches to the successful prosecution of complex employment litigation and government-backed lawsuits.

New rulings by federal and state courts have added to this patchwork quilt of compliance problems and risk management issues. In turn, the events of the past year in the workplace class action world demonstrate that the array of litigation issues facing businesses are continuing to accelerate at a rapid pace while also undergoing significant change. Notwithstanding the transition to new leadership in the White House with the Trump Administration, governmental enforcement litigation pursued by the U.S. Equal Employment Commission (“EEOC”) and other federal agencies continued to manifest an aggressive agenda, with regulatory oversight of workplace issues continuing as a high priority. Conversely, litigation issues stemming from the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) reflected a slight pull-back from previous efforts to push a pronounced pro-worker/anti-business agenda. The combination of these factors are challenging businesses to integrate their litigation and risk mitigation strategies to navigate these exposures. These challenges are especially acute for businesses in the context of complex workplace litigation. Adding to this mosaic of challenges in 2019 is the continuing evolution in federal policies emanating from the Trump White House, the recent appointments of new Supreme Court Justices, and mid-term elections placing the Senate in control of Republicans and the House in control of Democrats. Furthermore, while changes to government priorities started on the previous Inauguration Day and are on-going, others are being carried out by new leadership at the agency level who were appointed over this past year. As expected, many changes represent stark reversals in policy that are sure to have a cascading impact on private class action litigation.

While predictions about the future of workplace class action litigation may cover a wide array of potential outcomes, the one sure bet is that change is inevitable and corporate America will continue to face new litigation challenges.

Key Trends Of 2018

An overview of workplace class action litigation developments in 2018 reveals five key trends. First, class action litigation has been shaped and influenced to a large degree by recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. Over the past several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted more cases for review than in previous years – and as a result, has issued more rulings that have impacted the prosecution and defense of class actions and government enforcement litigation. The past year continued that trend, with several key decisions on complex employment litigation and class action issues that were arguably more pro-business than decisions in past terms. Among those rulings, Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (2018) – which upheld the legality of class action waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements – is a transformative decision that is one of the most important workplace class action rulings in the last two decades. It is already having a profound impact on the prosecution and defense of workplace class action litigation, and in the long run, Epic Systems may well shift class action litigation dynamics in critical ways. Coupled with the appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018, litigation may well be reshaped in ways that change the playbook for prosecuting and defending class actions.

Second, the plaintiffs’ bar was successful in prosecuting class certification motions at the highest rates ever as compared to previous years in the areas of ERISA and wage & hour litigation, while suffering significant defeats in employment discrimination litigation. While evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in good outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests, federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2018. Plaintiffs’ lawyers continued to craft refined 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). As a result, in the areas of wage & hour and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored exceedingly well in securing class certification rulings in federal courts in 2018 (over comparative figures for 2017). Class actions were certified in significantly higher numbers in “magnet” jurisdictions that continued to issue decisions that encourage or, in effect, force the resolution of large numbers of claims through class-wide mechanisms. Furthermore, the sheer volume of wage & hour certification decisions in 2018 increased as compared to last year, and plaintiffs fared better in litigating those class certification motions in federal court than in the prior year. Of the 273 wage & hour certification decisions in 2018, plaintiffs won 196 of 248 conditional certification rulings (approximately 79%), and lost only 13 of 25 decertification rulings (approximately 52%). By comparison, there were 257 wage & hour certification decisions in 2017, where plaintiffs won 170 of 233 conditional certification rulings (approximately 73%) and lost 15 of 24 decertification rulings (approximately 63%). In sum, employers lost more first stage conditional certification motions in 2018, and saw a reduction of their odds – a decrease of 11% – of fracturing cases with successful decertification motions.

Third, filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2018 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration. Instead, as compared to 2016 (the last year of the Obama Administration), government enforcement litigation actually increased in 2018. As an example, the EEOC alone brought 199 lawsuits in 2018 as compared to 184 lawsuits in 2017 and 86 lawsuits in 2016. However, the settlement value of the top ten settlements in government enforcement cases decreased dramatically – from $485.25 million in 2017 to $126.7 million in 2018. The explanations for this phenomenon are varied, and include the time-lag between Obama-appointed enforcement personnel vacating their offices and Trump-appointed personnel taking charge of agency decision-making power; the number of lawsuits “in the pipeline” that were filed during the Obama Administration that came to conclusion in the past year; and the “hold-over” effect whereby Obama-appointed policy-makers remained in their positions long enough to continue their enforcement efforts before being replaced in the last half of 2018. This is especially true at the EEOC, where the Trump nominations for the Commission’s Chair, two Commissioners, and its general counsel were stalled in the Senate waiting for votes of approval (or rejection), and one of the two nominees withdrew at year-end due to the delay. These factors are critical to employers, as both the DOL and the EEOC have had a focus on “big impact” lawsuits against companies and “lead by example” in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs’ bar aims to pursue. As 2019 opens, it appears that the content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration will continue to tilt away from the pro-employee/anti-big business mindset of the previous Administration. Trump appointees at the EEOC and the DOL are slowly but surely “peeling back” on positions previously advocated under the Obama Administration. As a result, it appears inevitable that the volume of government enforcement litigation and value of settlement numbers from those cases will decrease in 2019.

Fourth, the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements decreased dramatically in 2018. These settlement numbers had been increasing on an annual basis over the past decade, and reached all-time highs in 2017. While the plaintiffs’ employment class action bar and governmental enforcement litigators were exceedingly successful in monetizing their case filings into large class-wide settlements this past year, they did so at decidedly lower values in 2018 than in previous years. The top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $1.32 billion in 2018, a decrease of over $1.4 billion from $2.72 billion in 2017 and a decrease of $430 million from $1.75 billion in 2016. Furthermore, settlements of wage & hour class actions experienced over a 50% decrease in value (from $525 million in 2017 down to $253 million in 2018); ERISA class actions saw nearly a three-fold decrease (from $927 million in 2017 down to $313.4 million in 2018); and government enforcement litigation registered nearly a fourfold decrease (from $485.2 million in 2017 down to $126.7 million in 2018). Whether this is the beginning of a long-range trend or a short-term aberration remains to be seen as 2019 unfolds.

Fifth, as it continues to gain momentum on a worldwide basis, the #MeToo movement is fueling employment litigation issues in general and workplace class action litigation in particular. On account of new reports and social media, it has raised the level of awareness of workplace rights and emboldened many to utilize the judicial system to vindicate those rights. Several large sex harassment class-based settlements were effectuated in 2018 that stemmed at least in part from #MeToo initiatives. Likewise, the EEOC’s enforcement litigation activity in 2018 focused on the filing of #MeToo lawsuits while riding the wave of social media attention to such workplace issues; in fact, fully 74% of the EEOC’s Title VII filings this past year targeted sex-based discrimination (compared to 2017, where sex based-discrimination claims accounted for 65% of Title VII filings). Of the EEOC’s 2018 sex discrimination lawsuit filings, 41 filings included claims of sexual harassment. The total number of sexual harassment filings increased notably as compared to 2017, where sexual harassment claims accounted for 33 filings. Employers can expect more of the same in the coming year.

Implications For Employers

The one constant in workplace class action litigation is change. More than any other year in recent memory, 2018 was a year of great change in the landscape of Rule 23. As these issues play out in 2019, additional chapters in the class action playbook will be written.

The lesson to draw from 2018 is that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2019 in bringing class action and collective action litigation against employers.

These novel challenges demand a shift of thinking in the way companies formulate their strategies. As class actions and collective actions are a pervasive aspect of litigation in Corporate America, defending and defeating this type of litigation is a top priority for corporate counsel. Identifying, addressing, and remediating class action vulnerabilities, therefore, deserves a place at the top of corporate counsel’s priorities list for 2019.