By Christopher M. Cascino And Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a major end-of-the-year ruling, employers scored a significant victory in terms of the denial of class certification in a major gender discrimination case that has been closely watched by the media and the bar alike. It underscores the power of U.S. Supreme Court rulings as a bulwark for defending class action litigation.

Introduction

On November 30, 2018, Judge Lorna Schofield of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District Of New York denied certification of a proposed nationwide Title VII class action alleging discrimination on the basis of sex by KPMG. In the decision, Kassman v. KMPG LLP, No. 11 Civ. 3743 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 2018), the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that KPMG established a framework for managers to exercise their discretion in making compensation and promotion decisions that led to discrimination on the basis of sex. This case represents a significant win for employers as the Court rebuffed a novel attempt to create commonality out of discretionary decision-making after the Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011). It also provides further guidance to employers about how to make pay and promotion decisions in a manner that avoids potential class action lawsuits.

Case Background

On June 2, 2011, Plaintiffs filed suit against KMPG, alleging that it discriminates against women in making pay and promotion decisions. Id. at 1. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Wal-Mart, which the Court characterized as “provid[ing] a roadmap to avoid class certification of a nationwide class asserting gender discrimination.” Id

After the Supreme Court decided Wal-Mart, KPMG utilized a decentralized system for determining pay and promotions. Id. at 2.  However, that decentralized system still had a structure. Id. Among other things, compensation decisions were made under the direction of a National Director of Compensation Strategies within a framework designed to pay KPMG employees at the appropriate market rate. Id. at 2, 5-6. Additionally, KPMG also conducted performance reviews within a framework containing standards for, among other things, years of experience necessary for particular promotions. Id. at 7-9.

Plaintiffs argued that the framework within which KPMG made decentralized compensation and promotion decisions led to discrimination against women on both a disparate impact and disparate treatment basis. They moved for certification of a nationwide class, a New York State class, and a collective action.

The Court’s Decision

The Court first analyzed Plaintiffs’ disparate impact claim.  Unsurprisingly, it began with an analysis of Wal-Mart.  It observed that, under Wal-Mart, discretionary pay and promotion procedures can only satisfy the commonality requirement of Rule 23 if decision-makers operate under “a common mode of exercising discretion that pervades the entire company, such that individual discretionary decisions nonetheless produce a common answer to the question ‘why was I disfavored.’”  Id. at 35 (quotation marks omitted).  The Court found that the appropriate way to analyze if such a common mode of exercising discretion was present is to analyze four factors, including: “(1) the nature of the purported class; (2) the process through which discretion is exercised; (3) the criteria governing the discretion and (4) the involvement of upper management.”  Id. at 36.

Applying the first factor, the Court opined that the large size of the putative class – at least 10,000 women – and the fact it was located across the country weighed against a finding of a common mode of exercising discretion. Id. at 36-37. The Court observed that it is much more difficult for a common mode of exercising discretion to exist when decisions are being made by large numbers of decision-makers across the country. Id. at 37.

Turning to the second factor, the Court considered whether the framework within which pay and promotion decisions were made weighed in favor of finding that a common mode of exercising discretion existed. The Court found that “KPMG’s pay and promotion procedures act more as a framework that dictates who will make discretionary decisions rather than how they will exercise their discretion.” Id. at 38. While finding that pay ranges were set at a company-wide level, the Court reasoned that the fact that compensation decisions were made within that range weighed against a finding that a common mode of exercising discretion existed. Id.

The Court next analyzed whether the criteria governing the discretion weighed in favor of finding that a common mode of exercising discretion existed.  Id. at 41.  It observed that “whether a set of criteria creates a common mode of exercising discretion depends on the rigidity of the criteria. Subjective criteria, prone to different interpretations, generally do not provide common direction.”  Id.  Finding that the criteria applied by KPMG, such as “‘professionalism,’ ‘integrity,’ ‘reputation’ and potential to be a ‘partner candidate’” were “amorphous” and thus weighed against a finding that a common mode of exercising discretion existed.  Id. at 42.

Finally, the Court analyzed the fourth factor of “the involvement of top management in the discretionary decision-making.” Id. The Court determined that Plaintiffs’ argument that all pay and promotion decisions must ultimately be approved by two individuals unpersuasive because there was no evidence that these two individuals were doing anything other than approving aggregate promotion and pay numbers rather than at an individual level. Id. at 43. Accordingly, the Court noted that the fourth factor also weighed against a finding that a common mode of discretion existed. Id

With all four factors weighing against such a finding, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs had not established commonality and denied class certification of Plaintiffs’ disparate impact claim. Id. at 43-44. 

Turning to Plaintiffs’ disparate treatment claim, the Court held that Plaintiffs did not show that their statistical evidence demonstrated disparate treatment because Plaintiffs had not shown that promotion policies and practices were uniform across KPMG as required to make statistical evidence relevant under Wal-MartId. at 46-47.  The Court further found that Plaintiffs’ argument that KPMG ignored evidence of gender discrimination did not comport with the record, and that their anecdotal evidence was insufficient to show intentional discrimination.  Id. at 48-50.  Accordingly, the Court denied certification of Plaintiffs’ disparate treatment claim. Id.

Finally, the Court denied certification of a New York state class because Plaintiffs did not provide any evidence of New York state-specific practices, and it denied certification of an Equal Pay Act collective action because Plaintiffs failed to prove the members of the putative collective action worked in a single establishment and that they were similarly-situated. Id. at 51-60.

Conclusion

This case represents a significant win for employers. After Wal-Mart, plaintiffs’ lawyers have tried to develop new theories to secure certification of classes even where decisions are made in a decentralized manner. In Kassman, the Court not only rebuffed the latest such attempt, but also provided employers with additional ways to structure their pay and promotion policies to avoid potential class actions.

 

By Christopher M. Cascino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Sali v. Corona Regional Medical Center, No. 15-5640, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 11497 (9th Cir. May 3, 2018), a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to deny class certification to a group of nurses.  The Ninth Circuit did so based on its holding that the district court should have considered evidence that would be inadmissible at trial under the Federal Rules of Evidence when it decided class certification.  This decision, which is at odds with precedent from the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, will make it more difficult for employers in the Ninth Circuit to resist class certification on evidentiary grounds. As a result, employers in the Ninth Circuit will need to emphasize other arguments in resisting class certification. Further, the plaintiffs’ class action bar is apt to press similar arguments in other circuits based on the holding in Sali.

Case Background

Plaintiffs Marlyn Sali and Deborah Spriggs (“Plaintiffs”) brought suit against their employer, Corona Regional Medical Center (“Corona”), alleging that Corona underpaid them and other nurses employed by Corona in violation of California law.  Most significant to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Plaintiffs claimed that Corona improperly rounded the time of nurses employed by Corona, thereby resulting in lost wages.  Plaintiffs sought to certify seven classes, most of them derivative of Plaintiffs’ improper rounding claim.

In support of class certification, Plaintiffs submitted a declaration from a paralegal at the firm of Plaintiffs’ attorneys that attempted to show that Plaintiffs were injured by Corona’s rounding policy.  The paralegal “used Excel spreadsheets to compare [Plaintiffs’] rounded times with their actual clock-in and clock-out times using a random sampling of timesheets” and declared that, based on this comparison, Plaintiffs lost an average of between six and eight minutes per shift as a result of the rounding. Id. at *4.

The district court denied certification on multiple grounds.  The district court held that the typicality requirement of Rule 23(a) was not satisfied for any of the proposed classes because Plaintiffs failed to submit admissible evidence of their alleged injuries.  Specifically, the district court held that the declaration from the paralegal was inadmissible because: (i) the paralegal could not authenticate the documents he used to perform this analysis; (ii) the declaration was an inadmissible lay opinion; and (iii) the manipulation of the data done by the paralegal required an expert.

The district court also held that Spriggs was not an adequate class representative because she was not a member of any of the proposed classes.  It also held that Plaintiffs’ attorneys had not demonstrated that they could adequately serve as class counsel.  Finally, it concluded that Plaintiffs failed to meet the predominance requirement of Rule 26(b)(3) for four of their proposed classes.

Plaintiffs appealed the denial of class certification.

Ninth Circuit’s Decision

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of class certification.  The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by pointing out that, while class certification requires a “rigorous analysis,” it does not require “a mini-trial.”  Id. at *13-14.  It observed that “applying the formal strictures of trial to such an early stage of litigation makes little common sense” because “a class certification decision is far from a conclusive judgment on the merits of the case.”  Id. at *14.

The Ninth Circuit proceeded to hold that the district court abused its discretion when it concluded it could not consider inadmissible evidence at the class certification stage.  It came to this conclusion on two grounds.  First, the Ninth Circuit found that not allowing inadmissible evidence at the class certification stage would put plaintiffs at an unfair disadvantage because “the evidence needed to prove a class’s case often lies in a defendant’s possession and may be obtained only through discovery” and so “[l]imiting class-certification-stage proof to admissible evidence risks terminating actions before a putative class may gather crucial admissible evidence.”  Id. at *14-15.  Second, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “a court’s inquiry on a motion for class certification is tentative, preliminary, and limited” and thus that “there is bound to be some evidentiary uncertainty.”  Id. at *17.

The Ninth Circuit admitted that its decision conflicted with the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Unger v. Amedisys Inc., 401 F.3d 316, 319 (5th Cir. 2005), in which the Fifth Circuit held that a court’s “findings must be made based on adequate admissible evidence to justify class certification.”  Sali, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 11497, at *16.  The Ninth Circuit observed that its decision also may conflict with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Messner v. Northshore Univ. Health Sys., 669 F.3d 802, 812 (7th Cir. 2012), and of the Third Circuit’s ruling of In Re Blood Reagents Antitrust Litig., 783 F.3d 183, 187 (3d Cir. 2015), both of which suggest that class certification evidence must be admissible.  Sali, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 11497, at *16.  The Ninth Circuit pointed out that the Eighth Circuit, in contrast, agreed that district courts should consider inadmissible evidence in deciding class certification in In Re Zurn Pex Plumbing Prod. Liab. Litig., 644 F.3d 604, 613 (8th Cir. 2011).

While holding that district courts should not automatically exclude inadmissible evidence in deciding class certification, the Ninth Circuit stated that it was not “dispens[ing] with the standards of admissibility entirely” at the certification stage.  Id. at *19.  Rather, the Ninth Circuit stated that courts “may consider whether the plaintiff’s proof is, or will likely lead to, admissible evidence” in deciding “the weight that evidence is given at the class certification stage.”  Id. at *20.

The Ninth Circuit also reversed the district court’s other justifications for declining certification.  The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that Plaintiff Spriggs was not a part of the class and thus not an adequate class representative, but held that Plaintiff Sali was part of the class and was an adequate class representative.  Id. at *20-21.  It held that the district court erred in finding class counsel inadequate because Plaintiffs’ counsel had “incurred thousands of dollars in costs and invested significant time in th[e] matter.”  Id. at *23.  Finally, the Ninth Circuit determined that Plaintiffs had met the predominance requirement because they raised common questions capable of class-wide resolution.

Implications For Employers

This decision is important for employers in the Ninth Circuit, not only because it will make it easier for plaintiffs to achieve class certification, but also because employers faced with class certification will need to adjust their defenses to account for the decision.  While employers should still raise admissibility concerns in opposing class certification to attack the weight of a plaintiff’s evidence, they must not hang their entire opposition on the inadmissibility of evidence because, in light of this decision, courts cannot simply ignore inadmissible evidence at the class certification stage.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an Equal Pay Act collective action lawsuit brought by female school crossing guards against the City of New York, who alleged they were paid less than male traffic enforcement agents, a federal district court in New York recently granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment, finding that significant differences between the two positions warranted the pay differential.

For employers facing Equal Pay Act claims relative to compensation differences for two similar but unique positions, this ruling provides a blueprint for attacking such claims.

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Case Background

In Miller v. City of New York, No. 15 Civ. 7563, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73238 (S.D.N.Y. May 1, 2018), female New York City school crossing guards alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), and New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), arguing they were paid less than traffic enforcement agents, even though they claimed to do substantially the same work. Id. at *1-3. Approximately 96% of the school crossing guards are female, while 56% of the traffic enforcement agents are male.

At the time that the case was filed, school crossing guards were paid at an hourly rate ranging between $11.79 and $14.40 per hour, while traffic enforcement agents received an annual salary ranging from $33,751 to $40,930 per year, or approximately $16.16 to $19.60 per hour. Id. at *4. School crossing guards do not sit for a civil service examination or undergo psychological testing, do not have an educational requirement or need to possess a driver’s license, do not enforce traffic regulations, do not issue tickets or carry radios, and undergo one week of training. Traffic enforcement agents direct traffic, prepare and issue paper and electronic summonses, testify at administrative hearings and in court, and operate radios and other electronic equipment.

In October 2016, the Court conditionally certified a collective action on Plaintiffs’ EPA claim and also certified class claims under Rule 23  on Plaintiffs’ NYSHRL and NYCHRL claims. Id. at *1. Both classes were defined as female employees who are or were employed as school crossing guards from September 2012 through December 2016. Approximately 1,600 school crossing guards opted-in to the EPA collective action, and the NYSHRL and NYCHRL classes consisted of over 2,000 individuals. Thereafter, the City for New York moved for summary judgment on all claims.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment on all of the claims. First, regarding the EPA claim, the Court held that the stark differences in training, job requirements, and job responsibilities between traffic enforcement agents school crossing guards warranted summary judgment. Id. at *8. In support of its finding, the Court noted that traffic enforcement agents receive nearly ten times more training than school crossing guards, strongly suggesting the two positions require divergent skill levels. Further, traffic enforcement agents are full-time employees that can be required to work nights, weekends, and overtime, while school crossing guards are part-time employees who work no more than five hours per day, primarily during school hours. Plaintiffs argued that that both school crossing guards and traffic enforcement agents direct the flow of pedestrians and traffic, but the Court rejected this assertion as overly broad and not indicative of the actual job content. Accordingly, the Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment on the EPA claim.

Turning to the New York State Law Human Rights claim, the Court explained that discrimination claims under the NYSHRL are analyzed identically to claims brought under Title VII. Id. at *12. To establish a case of disparate pay under Title VII, a plaintiff must show: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was paid less than similarly situated non-members of her protected class; and (3) evidence of discriminatory animus. Id. (citation omitted). The Court found that Plaintiffs failed to meet the second element since female school crossing guards and male traffic enforcement agents were not similarly situated due to a myriad of factors, such as education, training, job requirements, job responsibilities, hours worked, and working conditions. Id. at *13. Accordingly, since no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiffs established a prima facie case under the NYSHRL, the Court granted summary judgment for the employer.

Finally, the Court analyzed Plaintiffs’ New York City Human Rights claim, noting that under New York City law, an employer may not discriminate in terms of compensation based on an employee’s gender. The Court explained that in order to succeed on their claim, Plaintiffs must identify appropriate comparators and present a sufficiently developed record from which a jury could conclude that the comparators received preferential treatment. Id. at *15 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to offer any proof of discriminatory animus, and there was no evidence in the record of a discriminatory motive underlying the disparate pay rates. Plaintiffs also argued there was a discriminatory impact, but the Court noted that Plaintiffs failed to allege this theory in their First Amended Complaint. Accordingly, the Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

Equal Pay Act collective actions and state law class claims relative to gender pay are on the rise, and employers absolutely need to take notice. For employers who are confronted with gender pay class actions involving wage comparisons for similar but unique positions, this ruling provides an excellent framework on how to defeat such claims by highlighting differences in areas such as job duties, education and training requirements. Nonetheless, the best way to avoid gender pay claims is to implement non-discriminatory pay practices, and make efforts to ensure that women and other members of protected classes are fairly and equally compensated.

 

 

By Ashley K. Laken and Timothy F. Haley

Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 1, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina entered an order granting in part, and denying in part, the plaintiff’s motion for class certification in a no-hire antitrust case entitled Seaman v. Duke University, 1:15-CV-462, at 1-2 (M.D.N.C. Feb. 1, 2018) (A copy of the decision can be found here.)  The case was brought against Duke University, Duke University Health System (collectively “Duke”), and various University of North Carolina entities and one of its executives (collectively “UNC”).  The complaint alleged that the defendants had entered into an agreement not to hire each other’s medical faculty employees in violation of federal antitrust laws.  With some notable exceptions it has been difficult for plaintiffs to achieve class certification in wage suppression cases such as Seaman.  The ruling is a “must read” for employers, as the Court’s reasoning and conclusions make it difficult to predict whether this case will be helpful or hurtful to the plaintiffs’ bar in other cases.

Background To The Case

Seaman, an Assistant Professor of Radiology at Duke, contended that she applied for a position at UNC in 2015.  She alleged that she was denied consideration due to an agreement among the Duke and UNC defendants that they would not hire each another’s medical faculty employees unless the hire involved a promotion.  Seaman alleged that this agreement not only suppressed the compensation of defendants’ medical faculty members, but also their other skilled medical employees.  Thus, Seaman sought to certify a class consisting not only of defendants’ medical faculty members, but also their physicians, nurses, and skilled medical staff.  Id. at 1-2.

Antitrust Impact And Damages – Faculty

The primary certification challenge for the plaintiff  in Seaman was to demonstrate predominance under Rule 23(b)(3), as there was little dispute that the other Rule 23 requirements were satisfied.  As is typical with wage suppression antitrust cases, the battleground centered on whether antitrust impact and damages could be shown with common proof.  The Court defined antitrust impact as injury that reflects the anti-competitive effect, either of the violation or of anti-competitive acts made possible by the violation.  Id. at 8.  Seaman contended that the no-hire agreement had an antitrust impact on faculty compensation in two ways, including: (1) the defendants did not have to provide preemptive compensation increases for faculty that otherwise would have been needed to ensure employee retention; and (2) the defendants’ internal equity structures – policies and practices that are alleged to have insured relatively constant compensation relationships between employees – spread the individual harm of decreased lateral offers and corresponding lack of retention offers to all faculty, thus suppressing compensation faculty-wide.  The Court agreed that the evidence offered by Seaman to prove these facts was common to the class.  Id. at 8-9.

Regarding damages, Seaman’s expert testified that his analysis of the data demonstrated that compensation increases were associated with increases in experience – i.e., individual faculty members were typically paid more as they obtained experience.  Id. at 13.  The expert conducted a regression analysis and applied the results “to the faculty compensation data to develop an aggregate damages estimate for faculty.”  Id. at 14.  Based on this evidence, the Court concluded that Seaman’s proposed method for calculating damages was based upon evidence that would be common to the faculty.

Antitrust Impact And Damages – Non-Faculty

Seaman’s expert also attempted to demonstrate that antitrust impact and damages could be shown with common proof as to non-faculty members based on the same analysis applied to faculty members.  As to impact, the Court noted that unlike the faculty, there was no evidence that non-faculty received retention offers or peremptory compensation increases that would then be spread to other non-faculty through Seaman’s internal equity theory.  Thus, the Court concluded that Seaman’s method of proving impact involved individual rather than common proof for all non-faculty.  Id. at 15-16.

Accordingly, the Court granted the motion for class certification as to faculty members, but not as to non-faculty members.  Id. at 21-25.

Implications For Employers

It is unclear what precedential impact Seaman may have on future class action wage suppression cases.  Plaintiffs have had mixed results achieving class certification in compensation suppression cases.  This is true in wage information exchange cases as well as cases involving no-hire agreements such as Seaman.  For example, in Weisfeld v. Sun Chem. Corp., 84 Fed. Appx. 257, 258 (3rd Cir. 2004), the Third Circuit upheld the district court’s decision denying certification in an antitrust case involving an alleged series of no-hire agreements among employers in the ink printing industry, agreeing with the district court that the plaintiff did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3).  Among other things, the Third Circuit noted that the “decreased salary and deprivation of opportunities inquiries would require considering numerous individual factors” including “whether a covenant not to compete was included in a particular employee’s contract; employee salary history, educational and other qualifications; employer’s place of business; employee’s willingness to relocate to a distant competitor; and [employees’] ability to seek employment in other industries in which their skills could be utilized….” Id. at 264.  There was no mention in Seaman whether factors like this were present, and if so, how they could be addressed with common evidence.  It would certainly be unusual if the only factor affecting compensation was experience.

Furthermore, the expert’s damage model in Seaman was designed to show only an “aggregate class-wide damages estimate for faculty.”  It is not entirely clear what the Court meant by that phrase, but if the Court was referring to an average wage suppression, such reliance has been pointedly rejected as a “fundamental flaw” by at least one other court.  In rejecting the plaintiff’s expert’s analysis in Reed v. Advocate Health Care, 268 F.R.D. 573, 590-92 (N.D. Ill. 2009), the court stated: “Measuring average base wage suppression does not indicate whether each putative class member suffered harm from the alleged conspiracy.  In other words, it is not a methodology common to the class that can determine impact with respect to each class member.”  Id. at 591.

Given these issues, it remains to be seen what effect Seaman will have on future cases.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Julie G. Yap, and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a class action lawsuit alleging that Tinder discriminated on the basis of age in violation of California state laws by charging consumers age 30 and over a higher price for Tinder Plus subscriptions, the California Court of Appeal recently reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of Tinder, holding there was no strong public policy that justified the allegedly discriminatory pricing model. 

Businesses, especially those in the social media and technology sectors, should keep this ruling in mind when implementing marketing and pricing policies to avoid claims they are discriminating against potential classes of users based on protected demographics.

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Background

In Candelore v. Tinder, Inc., No. B270172, 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 71 (Cal. App. Jan. 29, 2018), Plaintiff brought an action on behalf of himself and a putative class of California consumers who were over 30 years old when they subscribed to Tinder Plus, asserting age discrimination in violation of two state laws, including the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”).  Specifically, Plaintiff alleged that Tinder charged consumers over the age of 30 $19.99 per month for Tinder Plus, while it charged consumers under the age of 30 only $9.99 or $14.99 per month for the Tinder Plus features. 

The Trial Court’s Decision

Tinder moved to dismiss the action in the trial court on the basis that Plaintiff failed to state a claim because: (1) age-based pricing does not “implicate the irrational, invidious stereotypes” that the Unruh Act was intended to proscribe; (2) a public statement by Tinder’s executive, as quoted in the complaint, “refute[d] any notion that the alleged discrimination in pricing [was] arbitrary”; and (3) age-based pricing was neither “unlawful” nor “unfair” under the UCL.  Id. at *4.

The trial court agreed with Tinder and entered judgment in its favor, holding that Tinder’s age-based pricing practice did not constitute arbitrary or invidious discrimination because it was reasonably based on market testing showing “younger users” are “more budget constrained” than older users “and need a lower price to pull the trigger.”  Id. at *2-3.  The trial court reasoned that there was “no basis in the published decisions for applying the Unruh Act to age-based pricing differentials” and that Tinder’s pricing structure furthered the public policies of increasing access to services for the general public and maximizing profit by the vendor, a legitimate goal in our capitalistic economy.”  Id. at *4-5.  Based on these rulings, the trial court concluded that Plaintiff could note state a claim for discrimination under the Unruh Act.  Because the discrimination claim formed the basis for the Plaintiff’s UCL claims, the trial court similarly dismissed those claims.  Id

Plaintiff appealed to the California Court of Appeal..

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling in favor of Tinder, holding that “[a] blanket, class-based pricing model like this, when based upon a personal characteristic such as age, constitutes prohibited arbitrary discrimination under the Unruh Act.”  Id. at *12.  In doing so, the Court of Appeal departed from guidance in (and other authority embracing) the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Koire v. Metro Car Wash, 40 Cal. 3d 24, 29 (1985), which held that age can serve as a reasonable proxy for income.  Id. at *12-13.  The Court of Appeal characterized the Supreme Court’s statements in Koire as dicta and declined to adopt the reasoning, holding that that “discrimination based on generalized assumptions about an individual’s personal characteristics are ‘arbitrary’ under the Act.”

The Court of Appeal also rejected the trial court’s conclusion that Tinder’s alleged age-based pricing model was justified by public policies.  Id. at *19-20.  Also relying on Koire, the Court of Appeal held that “a merchant’s interest in profit maximization” cannot justify discriminatory pricing “based on an individual’s personal characteristics.”  Id. at *22-23 (emphasis in original).  Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal opined that a business like Tinder could employ “rational economic distinctions to broaden its user base and increase profitability,” so long as those distinctions are “drawn in such a way that they could conceivably be met by any customer, regardless of the customer’s age or other personal characteristics.”  Id. at *23 (emphasis in original; citations omitted).  Offering its own solution, the Court of Appeal suggested that Tinder “could establish different membership levels for its Tinder Plus service that would allow more budget constrained customers, regardless of age, to access certain premium features at a lower price, while offering additional features to those less budget conscious users who are willing to pay more.”  Id. 

Accordingly, the Court of Appeal concluded that the Complaint’s allegations were sufficient to state a claim for age discrimination in violation of the Unruh Act.  Id. at *24.  Based on this finding and because the standard for finding an “unfair” practice in a consumer action is intentionally broad, the Court of Appeal also held that Plaintiff sufficiently alleged a claim for violation of the UCL.  Id. at *24-25.

Implications For Employers

While most businesses contemplate age discrimination claims in the hiring context, this ruling illustrates that companies can be vulnerable to class action litigation if their products or services can be perceived as giving preferential or detrimental treatment to certain consumers based on an individual’s personal, protected characteristics.  Companies should be cautious if their business decisions — whether it be in the context of hiring, pricing, or any other strategic considerations — could potentially have (or be perceived to have) an adverse impact on a class of people based on their demographics.

 

By Christopher M. Cascino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Ellis v. Google, Inc., No. CGC-17-561299 (Cal Sup. Ct. Dec. 4, 2017), Judge Mary Wiss of the Superior Court of California granted a motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit brought by Google employees who claimed that all female Google employees are paid less than their counterparts.  Specifically, Judge Wiss found that the plaintiffs failed to plead sufficient facts to conclude that Google paid all female employees less than their male counterparts, even though the complaint alleged that a statistical analysis “found systematic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.”  Id.  at 4. This case represents a win for employers, who too often are forced to defend large class actions based on conclusory allegations.

Case Background

Three former female Google employees filed a putative class action in the Superior Court of California, alleging that Google “maintained throughout California a ‘centrally determined and uniformly applied policy and/or practice of paying its female employees less than male employees for substantially similar work.’”  Id. at 2.  To support this allegation, the plaintiffs also alleged that the U.S. Department of Labor found that, with respect to Google’s Mountain View office in 2015, “‘systematic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.’”  Id.  The plaintiffs asserted four causes of action against Google based on the alleged disparity, including a California Equal Pay Act claim, a California Labor Code claim, a Business and Professions Code claim, and a claim for declaratory judgment.  The plaintiffs purported to bring these claims on behalf of all female Google employees in California.

Decision

The Court observed that a class action complaint should be dismissed where, “assuming the truth of the factual allegations in the complaint, there is no reasonable possibility that the requirements for class certification will be satisfied.”  Id. at 3.  The Court then discussed the requirements for class certification under California law, including: “(a) an ascertainable and sufficiently numerous class; (b) a well-defined community of interest; and (c) substantial benefits from certification that render proceeding as a class superior to the alternatives.”  Id. at 4.  With respect to the second factor, the Court observed that it has three factors, including(a) predominant common questions of law or fact; (b) class representatives with claims or defenses typical of the class; and (c) class representatives who can adequately represent the class.”  Id.

The Court found that the plaintiffs did not allege sufficient facts to conclude that there was an ascertainable class.  Even though the plaintiffs defined the class as “all women employed by Google in California,” which on its face was ascertainable, the Court found the definition overbroad because the plaintiffs offered “no means  by which only those class members who have claims can be identified from those who should not be included in the class.”  Id.  Significantly, the Court found that the plaintiffs’ allegation that the U.S. Department of Labor “‘found systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce’” at a Google office in 2015 was insufficient to support the conclusion that “Google implemented a uniform policy of paying all female employees less than male employees for substantially equal or similar work.”  Id.  The Court observed that the complaint did not “specify, for example, the specific job classifications it pertains to, or whether the comparison was made against men who perform substantially similar work under similar working conditions.”  Id.

The Court also concluded that the plaintiffs failed to allege that there were common questions of law and fact that predominated over individual issues because the plaintiffs’ class was “overbroad,” so liability could not be decided for all putative class members in one proceeding.  Id. at 5. The Court further opined that the plaintiffs’ conclusory allegation that they “performed ‘equal work’ as their male counterparts” was insufficient to allege that they, in fact, performed equal work, and dismissed their individual claims.  Id. at 6.

Implications For Employers

The Ellis case has been closely watched as it is a significant workplace class action in a worker-friendly jurisdiction. The ruling of December 4 is a win for employers insofar as companies, especially in California, can use the decision to try to stop class actions at the pleadings stage.  When moving to dismiss such complaints, employers should lay out what conclusions can be drawn from assuming specific factual allegations are true, as they may have far less significance than may appear at first glance.  Employers should also continue reminding courts that class actions are only appropriate when they can create common answers to common questions, which is often not the case in large, overbroad class actions, and that conclusory allegations are insufficient to state claims.

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.

middle-district-of-florida-stampBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: Following an employer’s reduction-in-force that ultimately led to an ADEA collective action after several employees over 50 years old were terminated, a federal district court in Florida recently granted a motion to conditionally certify a collective action of employees who worked at the employer’s Tampa, Florida location, but denied a motion to certify a nationwide collective action.

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When employers decide to undertake a reduction-in-force (“RIF”), one of the major pitfalls from a legal perspective involves mass terminations of employees over 40 years of age, leading to potential exposure under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”).  After multi-discipline design firm RS&H, Inc. (“RS&H”) terminated 23 employees during an RIF, a 53 year old terminated employee brought suit against RS&H under the ADEA, noting that five of the seven employees terminated at the Tampa location where he worked were over 50 years old.  In Jones v. RS&H, Inc. , No. 8:17-CV-54-T-24, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60088 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 20, 2017), after Plaintiff moved for conditional certification of a nationwide collective action of employees over 40 who were terminated in the RIF, Judge Susan C. Bucklew of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted the motion for conditional certification for employees who worked at the Tampa location, but denied conditional certification of a nationwide collective action.

While the Court’s grant of conditional certification should serve as a cautionary tale for employers who are considering mass layoffs that may include a significant proportion of employees over 40, the Court’s denial of conditional certification of a nationwide collective action provides insight as to how employers facing ADEA multi-party actions can attempt to minimize exposure.

Case Background

Plaintiff worked for RS&H from 1991 through 2015.  When RS&H terminated Plaintiff, it stated that his termination was part of an RIF.   Id. at *1-2.  After RS&H terminated 23 employees nationwide, including seven from its Tampa location, Plaintiff filed an EEOC charge alleging age discrimination.  Plaintiff stated that he had more work than the projected staffing requirement, and thus there was no reason for his termination.  He further alleged that RS&H rarely allowed non-officers to work until they retired.  In addition, RS&H was alleged to have hired young employees, and then terminated older employees once the young employees were trained.  According to Plaintiff, one RS&H supervisor commented just prior to the RIF that he had been informed that RS&H was looking to reduce staff, specifically older personnel.  Plaintiff further alleged that RS&H agents often said, “young people are our future.”  Id. at *2.

After being issued a notice of suit rights letter and thereafter bringing suit, Plaintiff sought to conditionally certify a nationwide collective action of former employees who were terminated from October 28, 2014 through August 24, 2015 (i.e., within 300 days prior to Plaintiff’s filing of his EEOC charge) and who were at least 40 years old at the time of their termination.  Two opt-in Plaintiffs who also worked at the Tampa location and were terminated during the 2015 RIF filed affidavits in support of Plaintiff’s allegations of age discrimination.  In opposition to the motion for conditional certification, RS&H argued that: (1) Plaintiff was not a proper representative because his ADEA claim was time-barred; (2) Plaintiff’s EEOC charge did not provide sufficient notice of claims from the proposed collective action; and (3) the scope of the proposed collective action was too large.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification.  First, in support of its argument that conditional certification was not warranted since Plaintiff was not a proper representative, RS&H argued that Plaintiff’s suit was untimely because he filed his suit 95 days after the EEOC issued its notice of suit rights.  Id. at *5-6.  The Court rejected this argument, citing evidence submitted by Plaintiff’s counsel illustrating that it did not receive the notice of suit rights letter until over two weeks after it was stamped.

Next,  RS&H argued that conditional certification was not warranted for the proposed nationwide collective action because Plaintiff’s EEOC charge did not give adequate notice that such claims were being asserted.  Id. at *7.  After examining Plaintiff’s EEOC charge, which indicated that “[o]n the day of my termination 5 of the 7 [Tampa, Florida] employees let go were over 50 and had at least 10 years with the company,” the Court found that Plaintiff’s EEOC charge could not be read to give notice that he was asserting claims on behalf of a nationwide group of employees.  The Court agreed with RS&H that, at best, Plaintiff’s charge put RS&H and the EEOC on notice that Plaintiff may be pursuing age discrimination claims on behalf of himself and the four other employees terminated on the same day at his Tampa work location.  Id. at *9-10.  In addition, the Court found that the decision-maker who terminated Plaintiff and the two opt-ins was never involved in a decision to terminate any employee outside of the Tampa location.  Accordingly, the Court declined to certify a nationwide collective action.

The Court then explained that to conditionally certify a collective action, (i) there must be other employees who desire to opt-in; and (ii) those employees must be similarly-situated to Plaintiff.  Given that two former employees had already opted-in, and that three of the five individuals that are over 50 and were terminated during the June 2015 RIF wanted to pursue ADEA claims, the Court found that the first element was met.  Regarding the similarly-situated element, the Court noted that while Plaintiff attempted to assert a company-wide pattern or practice of age discrimination claim, he did not show a sufficient factual basis on which a reasonable inference could be made that RS&H had a pattern or practice of discriminating against all employees at all locations based on their age.  Id. at *15-16.  Plaintiff offered no evidence that any employees outside of Tampa were interested in joining the lawsuit, nor did they identify any decision-makers outside of Tampa who allegedly discriminated on the basis of age during the RIF.  The Court further opined that the evidence that Plaintiff submitted could only support his contention of a pattern or practice of age discrimination within the Tampa location.  As such, the Court denied Plaintiff’s motion to conditionally certify a nationwide collective action of former employees over 40 who were terminated during the June 2015 RIF, but conditionally certified a collective action consisting of the five individuals that were terminated from the Tampa location.

Implications For Employers

While the Court’s grant of conditional certification should serve as an eye opener for employers considering RIFs that may include several employees over 40, the Court’s refusal to certify a nationwide collective action provides guidance for employers as to how to minimize potential RIF exposure.  Here, the Court noted that Plaintiff’s EEOC charge did not identify any aggrieved individuals outside of the Tampa location, nor did it identify anyone involved in the termination decision-making process outside of Tampa.  Employers facing motions for nationwide conditional certification in ADEA collective actions following RIFs should closely review the plaintiff’s EEOC charge to assess the sufficiency of nationwide allegations.  Given the potentially substantial consequences of RIFs involving older workers, the best practice for employers would be to contact their employment law counsel before engaging in this process.

FMLA-300x289By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Thomas E. Ahlering

Seyfarth SynopsisA recent decision has added to the chorus of courts recognizing that FMLA class actions must be pursued under Rule 23 and are often appropriate for class certification.  As a practical matter, this means that FMLA class actions can now be pursued as opt-out – rather than opt-in – actions because the statutory language of the FMLA does not incorporate language requiring that plaintiffs affirmatively consent to join the action.  These recent decisions ultimately make FMLA class actions more attractive to the plaintiffs’ bar and increase the likelihood that employers may face similar actions in the future.

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Employers who have paid time off (PTO) or short-term leave policies are now at an increased risk of facing a class action under the Family-Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) due to a recent decision in Carrel v. MedPro Group, Inc., No. 16-130, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62969 (N.D. Ind. April 26, 2017).  The decision, which applied Rule 23 to FMLA class action claims and certified a class under Rule 23, serves as the most recent example of how plaintiffs’ attorneys are achieving success in FMLA class actions and may signal that additional and similar actions may be forthcoming.

Case Background

In Carrel, the Plaintiff brought a class claim under the FMLA alleging that she was docked earned PTO and that Defendant failed to pay her unused PTO upon the termination of her employment.  Specifically, the Plaintiff alleged that Defendant’s short-term leave policy violated the FMLA because each employee was provided PTO at the beginning of the year according to Defendant’s PTO policy and thus, PTO was unlawfully “docked” whenever an employee took FMLA leave.  Id. at *2.

Plaintiff filed a motion for class certification under Rule 23 seeking certification of a class defined as “all current and former [Defendant] employees who took FMLA leave at any point since March 29, 2013[.]”  Id. at *5.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted Plaintiff’s motion for class certification.  First, the Court rejected Defendant’s argument that class certification under Rule 23 was the wrong mechanism for an FMLA class, and that the alleged class-wide  violations of the FMLA must be treated as a collective action instead.  Id. *6.  Although the Seventh Circuit has not weighed in on the applicability of Rule 23 to FMLA actions, the Court noted that other case law authorities in the Seventh Circuit have held that “class violations of the FMLA must be treated as opt-out actions pursuant to Rule 23 because the statutory language of the FMLA § 2617(a)(2) does not incorporate the additional language in the FLSA expressly requiring that plaintiffs affirmatively consent to join the action by opting-in.”  Id. at *7.  Accordingly, the Court held that “Rule 23 is the correct mechanism by which to proceed with the analysis” of the Plaintiff’s class certification motion.  Id. at *8.

Second, the Court proceeded to find that the requirements of Rule 23(a) had been satisfied.  Specifically, the Court found that the “commonality” requirement of Rule 23(a) was satisfied because “Plaintiff and the putative class members were all [Defendant] employees who were subject to the same uniformly applied PTO policy.”  Id. at *12.  Therefore, “[w]hether the Defendant’s PTO policy violated the FMLA presents a common question of law.”  Id.  In so holding, the Court noted that how Defendant’s policy individually impacted each member of the class was an issue relating to the merits and did not defeat commonality.  Id. at *15.

Finally, the Court noted that certification under Rule 23(b)(3) – applicable to classes seeking monetary relief – was appropriate.  In so holding, the Court found that the Rule 23(b)(3) “predominance” factor was satisfied because “causation issues, which here are actually issues concerning what damages, if any, each class member has actually suffered pursuant to the PTO policy applied in his/her own case, will not predominate over common liability issues.  Id. at *22.  Therefore, it did not matter to the Court’s inquiry “how much PTO each employee used or would have used.”  Id. at *23.

Implications For Employers

Employers are at an increased risk of facing similar FMLA class actions in the future in light of the fact that an increasing number of courts have found FMLA class actions to be proper for class certification under Rule 23.  The simple fact that plaintiffs’ attorneys can now pursue FMLA class actions under Rule 23, instead of an opt-in class akin to FLSA claims, may serve to increase the total number of potential class members (and an employer’s total exposure), and likely makes such actions much more attractive to the plaintiffs’ bar.  In addition, the fact that courts have found that individual issues pertaining to employees’ usage of PTO do not predominate over the overarching issue of whether an employer’s PTO policy violates the FMLA also increases the likelihood that more employers may be faced with similar actions in the future.

 

fingerprintBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Thomas E. Ahlering, and Alex W. Karasik 

Seyfarth SynopsisIn a class action alleging that the criminal background policy of Washington D.C.’s local transit authority had a disparate impact on African-Americans, a federal district court recently certified three classes of African-American employees and applicants despite the employer’s workforce being 75% African-American. The ruling – in Little v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, No. 14-1289, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48637 (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 2017), is a “must read” for employers that use hiring screens.

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One of the hottest areas in workplace class actions involves criminal background checks used by employers.  On one end of the spectrum, employers want to be sure they are not subjecting their businesses, employees, and clients to any potential criminal conduct by their own workers.  On the other hand, many prospective employees with criminal backgrounds may have been adequately rehabilitated through the criminal justice system and merely need an opportunity to prove they can be counted on as an employee.  In Little v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, No. 14-1289, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48637 (D.D.C. Mar. 31, 2017), Plaintiffs alleged that a criminal background check policy used by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (“WMATA”) to screen candidates and employees was facially neutral, but had a disparate impact on African-Americans.  After the Plaintiffs moved for class certification , Judge Collyer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted Plaintiffs’ motion in part and certified three classes pursuant to Rule 23(b)(2) and 23(c)(4), finding that Plaintiffs had satisfied Rule 23’s requirements with respect to liability and the availability of injunctive or other declaratory relief, but that the proposed classes failed to meet the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3) because the case involved “more than just the individual determination of damages.”  Id. at *65. 

The Little ruling puts employers on notice that even if their workforce is predominately made up by one protected class, their criminal background policies can still be challenged as having a disparate impact on that class for purposes of class certification.

Case Background

WMATA, the primary public transit agency for the Washington D.C. metropolitan region, adopted its Policy 7.2.3 to govern how and when individuals with criminal convictions can obtain or continue employment with WMATA and its contractors and subcontractors.  Id. at *4-5.  Plaintiffs alleged that although the policy was facially neutral, it had a disparate impact on African-Americans.  WMATA argued that the policy was adopted as a business necessity.  Id. at *6.  Further, WMATA  argued that the make-up of its employee and contractor workforce, which included 12,000 individuals, was 75% African-American, thus demonstrating that no discrimination occurred.

Plaintiffs moved for certification of a hybrid Rule 23(b)(2) and Rule 23(b)(3) class, seeking both injunctive and individual monetary damages for the alleged discriminatory policy.  Id. at *16.  Alternatively, if the Court determined monetary damages were not suitable for class-wide determination, Plaintiffs proposed certification under Rule 23(b)(2) for liability and injunctive relief determinations and the application for Rule 23(c)(4) to allow the question of liability to be answered on a class-wide basis (but with individual hearings on damages owed to each specific class member).

The Court’s Decision

The Court held that certification was proper under Rule 23(b)(2) and Rule 23(c)(4) and certified three classes for a determination of liability and injunctive relief under Rule 23(b)(2), but withheld any individual damages determinations.  Id. at *46.  Beginning with its Rule 23(a) analysis, the Court first noted that as WMATA did not dispute Plaintiffs assertion that the overall class included over 1,000 individuals, and each subclass included at least 200, the Court found that Plaintiffs satisfied the numerosity requirement.  Further, the Court determined that Plaintiffs satisfied the commonality requirement since the policy at issue was mandated for non-discretionary application to all hiring decisions regard the class members, regardless of whether the candidates applied for positions with different contractors, subcontractors, or directly with the WMATA.  Id. at *50.  Regarding typicality, the Court concluded that the class representatives’ claims were typical of the class as they addressed each part of the policy with the exception of one policy appendix, for which Plaintiffs did not present a class representative.  Finally, regarding adequacy, the Court rejected WMATA’s argument that the proposed named Plaintiffs were inadequate because they lacked standing, noting the merits of their allegations were not to be considered as part of the class certification calculus.  Id. at *56-57.

Next, the Court analyzed Plaintiffs’ motion for certification of a hybrid Rule 23(b)(2) and (b)(3) class.  WMATA argued that Plaintiffs failed to identify which parts of Policy 7.2.3 produced a disparate impact, and their failure to identify the particular challenged employment practice prohibited certification.  Noting that each appendix to the policy constituted a separate employment practice, and that Plaintiffs identified three appendices to the policy that allegedly had a disparate impact on African-Americans, the Court found that Plaintiffs satisfied their burden under Rule 23(b)(2).  Id. at *59-60. 

However, the Court held that Plaintiffs failed to meet the predominance requirement under Rule 23(b)(3) and therefore refused to certify the class for monetary damages.  Id. at *65-66.  Specifically, the Court reasoned that the case involved “more than just the individual determination of damages” – namely, the trier of fact must also determine, for each individual class member, whether that class member was not hired or fired due to the Policy 7.2.3., or for some other reason.  Accordingly, the Court granted in part Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification and certified three classes under Rule 23(b)(2) and Rule 23(c)(4) with respect to liability and the availability of injunctive relief.

Implications For Employers

This ruling illustrates that even if a majority of an employer’s workforce is part of a protected class, an employer’s policies potential can still be considered to have a disparate impact on that class for purposes of Rule 23 class certification.  Plaintiffs will likely use this ruling in subsequent motions for class certification in class actions involving the disparate impact of criminal background policies.  As such, employers should be cognizant of the effect of its policies, and continue to ensure they are neutrally applied.