By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex S. Oxyer, and Paul M. Waldera

Seyfarth Synopsis: In McKenzie Law Firm, P.A., et al. v. Ruby Receptionists, Inc., 18-CV-1921, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94299 (D. Or. May 29, 2020), the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon lessened the standard for plaintiffs to obtain an order limiting the ability of defense counsel to communicate with absent class members, even when there is an existing business relationship between the defendant and the class members. This case is a must-read for employers facing class action litigation.

Case Background

In McKenzie, the plaintiffs brought class claims for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and other contractual claims based on the defendant’s allegedly misleading billing practices in providing virtual reception services.  Three days after the Court certified a class of defendant’s customers, the class counsel advised defense counsel that they may not contact absent class members either directly or through third parties.  Class counsel argued that they fully represented all absent class members and asked defense counsel to agree not to contact any of them.

Defense counsel disagreed and argued class counsel only had a limited representation of the absent class members, and, accordingly, defense counsel could still contact them.  Defense counsel also disagreed that the defendant itself could not have communications with class members regarding the claims, defenses, or subject matter of this litigation.  As the defendant had a contractual relationship with many of the class members, defense counsel argued that the defendant had the legal right to communicate with absent class members.

Class counsel thereafter filed a motion requesting that the Court limit defense counsel’s ex parte contact with class members without prior approval of the Court.

The Court’s Decision

After beginning with an analysis of the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibiting attorneys from communicating with represented parties and the standards under Rule 23 of limiting contact between parties in class litigation, the Court focused on whether the evidence in the case revealed that “a threatened communication” between defense counsel or the defendant and a class member was more than just “a theoretical possibility,” such that the Court should exercise its ability to limit communication with class members.  The Court found defense counsel’s representation to the plaintiff’s counsel that they disagreed that they needed to cease and desist from contacting class members constituted circumstantial evidence of a threatened communication.  In reaching its conclusion, the Court analogized the situation to a property dispute:  “[I]f a property owner asks a person not to enter the owner’s property and the person responds by saying that the person has the legal right to enter the owner’s property without permission, that reasonably may be interpreted as a threat to trespass.”  McKenzie, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94299 at *11. Thus, in the Court’s view, defense counsel’s actions could reasonably be interpreted as a threat to communicate with absent class members.

The Court also examined the defendant’s own actions to ascertain whether there was threatened communication with absent class members.  The Court acknowledged that the defendant had the legal right to contact class members, even about the pending litigation.  However, the Court cautioned that the defendant could normally communicate with class members “provided that there is no participation, advice, or assistance of any kind by Defense Counsel.” Id. at *12.  Further, the Court held that defense counsel’s argument that its client should be able to communicate with the class members about the litigation, taken in the context of the lawsuit, was further evidence of a threat to communicate with the class members.  Notably, during class certification briefing, the defendant sought and filed a dozen declarations opposing class certification from putative class members, showing a history of communicating with absent class members with the assistance of its counsel.

After concluding that there was more than a theoretical possibility that defense counsel and the defendant threatened to communicate with class members, the Court analyzed whether the defendant’s communications (with or without any assistance from counsel) to absent class members created a risk of abuse such that they should be limited, even if they normally would have been allowed.  The Court highlighted how unilateral communications with absent class members, without the opportunity for class counsel to respond, could irreparably damage the case.  This was especially a concern where the defendant and the class were “involved in an ongoing business relationship.”  Id.  While many absent class members were lawyers with a basic legal knowledge, many of those lawyers did not have expertise in the relevant area of law.  Other absent class members had no legal training and were particularly susceptible to undue influence from the defendant.  Based on the defendant’s previous attempts to communicate with absent class members to oppose class certification, the Court held there was a realistic risk of abuse that could warrant an order prohibiting class member contact.

Against this record, the Court balanced the risks of “unsupervised, unilateral communications” to the class members with the legitimate need for the defendant to communicate with its customers.  Ultimately, the Court issued a specifically tailored order that prohibited defense counsel from communicating with any class member and prohibited the defendant from initiating any communication with any class member regarding or referring to the lawsuit without prior approval from the Court or class counsel. However, the Court held that if a client class member contacted the defendant, it could only respond by stating that it may not discuss this lawsuit or anything about it.

Implications For Employers

One of the trickiest issues for employers to handle when facing employment litigation is how to communicate with their employees, without risking further claims.  Employers must always be aware of what they are communicating to their employees, especially when those employees are or may be class members in threatened or ongoing litigation.  Courts have been wary of communications sent to represented parties by the opposing side, particularly when there is an ongoing relationship between class members and the defendant.  The ruling in the McKenzie case shows that even threatened communications, without any follow up, are enough to warrant an order limiting all communications by employers themselves, hampering an employer’s ability to later fight the case with declarations and other support from would-be class members.  When faced with class or collective employment litigation, employers should put together a comprehensive response plan with their counsel so that they do not run afoul of the limitations on communications with represented parties or create a risk of abuse.  Armed with a proactive plan, employers can avoid many of the pitfalls presented in this case and prevent a communication order from the Court limiting their ability to speak to their own employees.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher DeGroff, Matthew J. Gagnon, and Alex S. Oxyer

Seyfarth Synopsis:  On June 5, 2020, the EEOC rolled out a new webpage specifically addressing its procedures for instituting Commissioner charges and directed investigations. The webpage provides much-needed insight into these important tools in the EEOC’s arsenal and is a must-read for any employer engaged in litigation with the Commission.

Commissioner Charges

In addition to charges filed by individuals, the EEOC can investigate possible discrimination under Title VII, the ADA, and GINA using “Commissioner charges.” Traditionally, such charges are high-impact litigation situations with the potential to involve large numbers of claimants and seven figure settlement demands. According to the EEOC’s new webpage, Commissioner charges generally are brought about one of three ways: (1) an EEOC field office learns about possible discrimination in a workplace where no individual has filed a charge; (2) a field office learns about one or more new allegations of discrimination while investigating an existing charge; or (3) a Commissioner learns about discrimination in a workplace and asks a field office to investigate the allegations. The new webpage includes significant background information regarding the EEOC’s procedures in investigating and conciliating Commissioner charges, as well as FAQs for employers and employees alike. Notably, the EEOC also includes statistics regarding the number of Commissioner charges filed over the past five years, which reveal that the number of Commissioner charges has dropped from a high of 17 charges in 2017 to 9 charges filed in 2019.

Directed Investigations

The EEOC also has the authority to investigate, on its own initiative, possible age discrimination under the ADEA and pay discrimination based on sex under the Equal Pay Act, even where no charge has been filed. These “directed investigations” can be initiated by District Directors without approval from an EEOC Commissioner. The Commission’s new guidance includes helpful background on the EEOC’s available tools and powers during such an investigation, as well as additional FAQs and statistics on investigations commenced over the past five years. According to the website, the number of directed investigations initiated by the Commission has dropped from 230 investigations in 2016 to 55 investigations in 2019.

Implications For Employers

The goal of the new webpage is to make the EEOC’s processes “fully transparent and useful to the public.” The information provided on the new webpage is a much-needed insight into additional tools at the EEOC’s disposal and will be a helpful guide for employers responding to a Commissioner charge or directed investigation.

This new guidance is the latest in a number of changes at the EEOC and is consistent with the EEOC’s push for greater transparency. We have been tracking the latest changes at the EEOC here.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Michael L. DeMarino, and Andrew Welker

Seyfarth Synopsis: On April 30, 2020, the California Superior Court granted class certification against Oracle America Inc., allowing former employees to represent a class of over 4,100 women for claims of alleged discrimination in violation of California’s Equal Pay Act.  Following the Superior Court’s class certification decision, Oracle filed a writ of mandate with the California Court of Appel for review of the lower court’s ruling.  However, on June 2, 2020, the Court of Appeal denied Oracle’s petition, allowing the case to move forward as a class action.

This case is reminder for employers that even in the wake of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), there is still a potential that employment discrimination claims will be certified, particularly in California. Employers should not underestimate the uphill battle of overturning such a ruling through a writ of mandate, which is highly discretionary and sparingly granted on appellate review.

Background And Analysis

In Jewett, et al. v. Oracle America Inc., No. 17-02669 (Cal. Super. Ct., San Mateo Cty.), former Oracle employees filed a class action suit in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Mateo, alleging that the company underpaid women for doing the same work as their male peers in violation of the California Equal Pay Act. That statute requires workers to be paid the same for “substantially similar work.”

In support of their bid for class certification, Plaintiffs relied on expert reports by an economist and statistician that used a regression analysis to show that women made roughly $13,000 less annually than men with the same job code.  Plaintiffs contended that that this pay disparity arose from Oracle’s use of prior salary at jobs before Oracle to set starting salaries for its workers, a practice the California legislature has found perpetuates historical pay discrimination.  Plaintiffs also relied on an industrial organizational psychologist’s report, which concluded that at Oracle women with the same job codes as men perform the same or substantially similar work.

Ultimately, the Superior Court granted class certification and rejected Oracle’s contention that the skills, effort, and responsibilities vary within each of Oracle’s job codes to such an extent that individualized inquiries are necessary to determine the nature of each person’s work.  The Superior Court explained that the question was not whether Oracle’s job codes categorize jobs on the basis of substantially similar or equal skills, effort, and responsibility, but whether Plaintiffs offered substantial common evidence that they do so.  The Superior Court concluded that Plaintiffs’ expert evidence did just that.

Appeal Prospects

Following the trial court’s decision, Oracle filed a petition for a writ of mandate or a writ of prohibition seeking to reverse the class certification decision with the Court of Appeal.  Such writs are rarely granted remedies by which appeals courts can set aside trial court rulings before the proceedings at the lower court have concluded.

Upon review, the Court of Appeal denied Oracle’s petition, finding that it did “not persuasively demonstrate that petitioner lacks other adequate remedies at law and that petitioner will suffer irreparable harm absent writ review.”  See Oracle America Inc. v. Superior Court of San Mateo County, No. A160205 (Cal. App. 1st Dist. June 2, 2020).  This outcome is not surprising given the Court of Appeal’s traditional reluctance to grant such writs.

The denial of Oracle’s petition moves the case one step closer to trial.

Implication For Employers

This ruling in the Oracle case is a reminder of the high hurdles that employers face when appealing a decision granting class certification in California state court.  Before litigating class certification issues, employers are well served to explore any potential basis to remove the litigation to federal court.  This case is also a reminder of the fundamental role that statistical analysis and expert testimony play at the class certification stage in terms of providing plaintiffs with common evidence.  Employers defending against discrimination class action claims would be wise to retain and consult with experts early to develop a plan to defeat class certification and gather the appropriate evidence to do so.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Christopher DeGroff, Matthew J. Gagnon, and Alex S. Oxyer

Seyfarth Synopsis:  As reported here, on May 29, 2020, EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon advised agency officials of a new, six-month pilot program changing the Commission’s practices in settling workplace bias claims before pursuing litigation. The program is designed to “provide greater structure and transparency” in pre-suit conciliation processes and is “aimed at ensuring that unlawful employment practices are resolved more quickly.” This new program is the latest in the EEOC’s ongoing efforts to engage in more robust conciliation efforts prior to filing litigation on behalf of employees.

Pilot Program Procedures

While the full details of the six-month pilot program have not yet been released by the EEOC, the new procedures appear focused on enhancing oversight over the litigation selection decisions made by EEOC personnel in the field and will change how the agency conciliates discrimination and harassment allegations in an effort to “provide greater structure and transparency.” In effect, this process would lessen the discretion of filed personnel to initiate lawsuits and reject settlement offers in workplace enforcement litigation.

The new program is reportedly “aimed at ensuring that unlawful employment practices are resolved more quickly, thus conserving the agency’s and the parties’ resources, improving workplace policies and preventing discrimination from occurring.” There is also a requirement that conciliation offers be approved by a higher level of management before they are sent to employers. No more detail on these changes has yet been released.

Implications For Employers

While the full details of the program have yet to be disclosed, the changes described by the EEOC thus far appear to be positive developments for employers. The program requirements suggesting that personnel in the field must get approval from a higher level of management before making conciliation demands – or rejection of settlement proposals – will provide more clarity and assurance that a conciliation demand offered to an employer has the approval of the EEOC from the district level and will prevent last-minute changes during the negotiation process.

These new measures are the latest in a number of changes at the EEOC made by Commission Chair Dhillon (details on a recent requirement that certain cases must be approved by a Commissioner vote can be found here) and is consistent with the EEOC’s strategic priorities to emphasize pre-suit conciliation. This new program is a must-watch for employers, as it could substantially impact the conciliation process with the Commission for at least the next six months.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After a defendant in a biometric privacy class action lawsuit unilaterally implemented an arbitration clause, a federal court in Illinois granted the company’s motion to compel arbitration, holding that the plaintiff previously agreed to allow unilateral modifications of the agreement without notice, and that she agreed to arbitrate by continuing to use the defendant’s website. In this respect, the ruling in Miracle-Pond, et al. v. Shutterfly, Inc., No. 19-CV-4722, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86083 (N.D. Ill. May 15, 2020), is important for workplace arbitration agreements in general and defense of workplace class actions in particular.

For companies defending class action lawsuits, this ruling provides a new angle of attack for these bet the company cases, by taking them into a single-plaintiff arbitration forum.

Case Background

Plaintiff was a Shutterfly user that registered for an account in August 2014 via mobile app.  The terms of use for the account, which she accepted, included a class action waiver.  Id. at *3.  In May 2015, Shutterfly added an arbitration provision to its terms of use.  Every version of Shutterfly’s terms of use since May 2015, including the most recent version from September 2019, has included an arbitration provision.

In June 2019, Plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit in Illinois state court alleging that Shutterfly violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”) by using facial-recognition technology to extract biometric identifiers for “tagging” individuals and by “selling, leasing, trading, or otherwise profiting from Plaintiffs’ and Class Members’ biometric identifiers and/or biometric information.”  Id. at *5.  In July 2019, Shutterfly removed the lawsuit to federal court.

In September 2019, about three months after the lawsuit was filed, Shutterfly sent an email to all of its users nationwide. The email notified Shutterfly users that the terms of use had been updated. After listing various updates, in relevant part, the email indicated that, “We also updated our Terms of Use to clarify your legal rights in the event of a dispute and how disputes will be resolved in arbitration.”  Id.  Finally, the email advised users: “If you do not contact us to close your account by October 1, 2019, or otherwise continue to use our websites and/or mobile applications, you accept these updated terms.”  Id.

Shutterfly’s records indicated that the plaintiff opened that email on September 8, 2019, and that as of October 2, 2019, her account remained open. Shutterfly moved to compel arbitration. In opposition, Plaintiffs argued the September 2019 email “was an improper ex parte communication with Plaintiff and putative class members because it failed to advise them of the pending litigation while seeking to deprive them of their rights as plaintiffs or class members.”  Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted Shutterfly’s motion to compel arbitration.  After finding that the plaintiff agreed to be bound by Shutterfly’s terms of use, the Court addressed the plaintiff’s arguments that even if a contract formed between the parties, there was no valid agreement to arbitrate because: (i) arbitration clauses subject to unilateral modification are illusory; (ii) she could not have assented to the arbitration provision because Shutterfly failed to provide notice of the 2015 modification; and (iii) arbitration clauses that apply retroactively are unenforceable.  Plaintiff further argued that even if the arbitration clause was valid, the plaintiff could not waive the right to class arbitration of the claim for an injunction.

First, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that arbitration clauses subject to unilateral modification are illusory. It cited several Illinois decisions that allowed parties to agree to authorize one party to modify a contract unilaterally.  Id. at *11-12.  Second, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that she could not assent to an arbitration provision of which she had no notice. The Court reasoned that when she entered into a service contract with Shutterfly in 2014, she explicitly gave Shutterfly the right to unilaterally modify the agreement at any time and without notice.  Third, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that arbitration clauses that apply retroactively are unenforceable. It found that the plaintiff agreed to her arbitrate her claims in the 2015 modification, thus mooting the retroactive arbitration argument.

Finally, the Court addressed the plaintiff’s argument that under McGill v. Citibank, 393 P.3d 85 (Cal. 2017), the plaintiff could not waive the right to class arbitration of the claim for an injunction prohibiting Shutterfly from continuing to collect face scans of Illinois residents notwithstanding the class waiver provision in the terms of use.  Id. at *17. Shutterfly argued that the McGill rule only applied to claims arising under California’s consumer protection laws, and that the plaintiff in this case was not seeking a public injunction, but a private one.  The Court agreed with Shutterfly’s position, holding that the plaintiffs’ substantive claim arose under an Illinois statute, the BIPA, and did not arise under the consumer protection laws of California, and therefore the McGill rule did not apply to the arbitration agreement in this case.  Accordingly, the Court granted Shutterfly’s motion to compel arbitration.

Implications For Employers

Over the last several years, many businesses have been implementing arbitration clauses in both employment and consumer agreements.  Accordingly, it is possible that upon entering into agreements, many employees and consumers may not have initially agreed to arbitrate disputes and waive their rights to initiate class action litigation.  When businesses are thus confronted with large scale class action claims, the ruling in Miracle-Pond, et al. v. Shutterfly, Inc. demonstrates that it would be worth their while to closely examine modifications of dispute resolution provisions to determine if there is a potential avenue to attack class action claims.  In addition, businesses without arbitration provisions may consider implementing this mechanism to deter potential litigants from filing class action lawsuits.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Alex S. Oxyer, and Paul M. Waldera

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Toomey v. Arizona, No. 19-CV-0035, 2020 WL 2465707 (D. Ariz. May 12, 2020), a Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona recommended the certification of class claims brought under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause regarding health care coverage of gender transition-related surgical care. The plaintiff’s support for the numerosity requirement for the certification of the claims was based primarily on approximates of the class size supported by demographic studies and not based on any direct evidence of other putative class members.  The case is a must-read for employers and provides insight into the certification standards applied by courts that are leading to the growing trend of certification of class claims.

Case Background

In Toomey, the plaintiff was an associate professor at the University of Arizona and received health insurance benefits under a self-funded health plan provided by the State of Arizona. The health plan provided coverage for medically-necessary care but had exclusions for gender reassignment surgery. The plaintiff was transgendered person, and his treating physicians recommended that he receive a hysterectomy as a medically-necessary treatment for his gender dysphoria. The plaintiff was denied coverage for the surgery under the health plan.

After being denied coverage, the plaintiff filed a class action against the State of Arizona and the University of Arizona alleging sex discrimination claims under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiff then filed a motion to certify classes of University of Arizona employees and other individuals who are or will be enrolled in the Arizona health care plan and who have or will have medical claims for transition-related surgical care.

The Court’s Decision

In a Report and Recommendation issued by the Magistrate Judge, the Court assessed the Rule 23(a) numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy requirements relative to the plaintiff’s proposed classes.  The Court chiefly focused on the numerosity element, as the State of Arizona challenged whether the plaintiff could satisfy such requirement. To support that the putative classes could meet the numerosity requirement, the plaintiff relied primarily on demographic studies. The plaintiff asserted that “[a]s of 2017, the Board of Regents employed 35,614 individuals at Arizona’s public universities” and that “[a]s of 2018, approximately 137,700 individuals receive healthcare through the State’s self-funded plan.” Toomey, 2020 WL 2465707 at *2. He then pointed to studies that concluded that approximately 0.62% of Arizonans identify as transgender, that 25% to 35% of transgender individuals have undergone some form of gender reassignment surgery, and that an additional 61% of transgender men and 54% of transgender women have reported wanting some kind of gender reassignment surgery in the future.

Based on the studies cited by the plaintiff, he estimated that approximately 82% of transgender individuals either have had or will have a form of gender reassignment surgery and, therefore, he approximated that 181 of such transgender individuals worked for the University of Arizona and 700 of such transgender individuals were covered by the State’s health plan.

The Court found that the plaintiff’s efforts at approximating the class size were reasonable, even though the plaintiff did not assess how many of the transgender individuals have had or will have surgery while covered by the State’s plan. Though the State challenged the plaintiff’s survey evidence, arguing that the surveys did not actually address the incidence of transsexualism in Arizona, that other reports outlined the difficulties of approximating the incidence of transsexualism, and that different studies included lower population estimates than the plaintiff’s estimate, the Court dismissed these arguments, finding that the data related to Arizona could be extrapolated from data collected from other states and that studies describing a lower population of transgender individuals were older than the one cited by the plaintiff.

The Court found that the plaintiff’s putative classes also satisfied Rule 23(a)’s commonality, typicality, and adequacy requirements before turning to the State’s argument that, even if the putative classes satisfied the Rule 23 requirements, the Court should use its discretion to deny the plaintiff’s motion anyway. The State argued that the motion should be denied because the relief sought by the plaintiff would achieve the same result as the class action. The Court rejected this argument as well, determining that class actions allow unidentified class members to enforce court orders and that certifying the class prevents the case from becoming moot if there are any changes to the plaintiff’s medical or employment circumstances. As a result of these findings, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the plaintiff’s motion for certification be granted.

Implications For Employers

The ruling in Toomey is the latest example of a rising national trend of courts granting class certification to plaintiffs. This ruling demonstrates the latitude given to plaintiffs to establish the requirements of Rule 23(a), as the plaintiff here relied only on studies and approximate calculations to satisfy the numerosity requirement and not evidence of specific individuals who might have been included in the putative class. Though the defendant challenged the sufficiency of the studies relied on by the plaintiff and the Court pointed out flaws in the plaintiff’s estimates, the Court still found that the plaintiff satisfied the requirements for certification. This decision serves as a reminder that employers should be armed with strong defenses when preparing to challenge motions for certification.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: Plaintiffs’ lawyers reached a landmark $550 million settlement in January 2020 in a lawsuit against Facebook by consumers in a class action brought under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (the “BIPA”) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. On May 8, 2020, the plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion for preliminary settlement approval of the class action settlement.  See In Re Facebook Biometric Information Privacy Litigation, No. 3:15-CV-3747 (N.D. Cal. May 8, 2020).

The motion provides a first look into the details of the settlement’s structure, as the matter pends before the Court to decide whether the settlement is fair and reasonable. The motion – and the genesis of the case and the settlement – are essential reading for all corporate counsel.

Case Background

As we previously blogged about here, the plaintiffs alleged that Facebook violated the BIPA when it unlawfully collected and stored biometric data of Facebook users without prior notice or consent. The claims concerned Facebook’s “Tag Suggestions” function, which identifies other Facebook users by scanning uploaded photographs. Plaintiffs alleged that Facebook created and stored digital representations of users’ faces based on the geometric relationship of facial features unique to each individual.

Facebook moved to dismiss, asserting that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit under Article III because the collection of biometric information without notice or consent did not result in any harm to the plaintiffs.  The District Court denied Facebook’s motion to dismiss and certified a class of Facebook users located in Illinois for whom Facebook created and stored a face template after June 7, 2011.  Following Facebook’s appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to dismiss and affirmed the grant of plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.  On January 22, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.

On January 29, 2020, the parties announced a settlement whereby Facebook agreed to pay $550 million to eligible class members (and fees for the plaintiffs’ attorneys), but offered no additional details about the settlement.

Motion For Preliminary Approval Of Class Action Settlement

On May 8, 2020, the plaintiffs filed an unopposed motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement.  As expected, the motion contained a $550 million benefit to the class, which was notably non-revisionary.  Id. at 10.  The motion indicates that, “the parties have reached a settlement that is the largest consumer class action settlement ever in a privacy case.”  Id.  It further advocates that “the Settlement is historic. It dwarfs every previous settlement in a BIPA class action, but it also stands out on a per-class-member basis. The Settlement provides cash relief that far outstrips what class members typically receive in privacy settlements, even in cases in which substantial statutory damages are involved.”  Id.  In their pleading, Plaintiffs’ counsel estimates that class members who submit claims will receive between $150 and $300 each, which they argue compares favorably to per-class member recoveries in similar BIPA actions.  Id. at 26.

Other notable financial terms include an attorneys’ fee award of 25% of the settlement fund, and costs and expenses totaling approximately $981,000.  Id. at 18.  Additionally, the named plaintiffs intend to seek an incentive award of no more than $7,500 each, in recognition of the time, effort, and expense they incurred pursuing claims that benefited the entire class.  Finally, any settlement checks not cashed within 90 days will either be redistributed to claiming class members, or if the amount is nominal, donated to a Court-approved cy pres recipient.

In terms of non-monetary relief, the motion indicates that Facebook will turn its Face Recognition feature “off” for all class members and will delete existing face templates for class members unless they provide express consent to turn Face Recognition “on” within 180 days of the settlement’s effective date.  Id. at 16.  Further, the settlement notes that Facebook will be precluded not only by statute, but also by a separately enforceable agreement, from collecting or storing the class members’ biometric data through facial recognition technology or any other means in Illinois, unless it has specific class member consent.  Id. at 27.  In support of these provisions, the plaintiffs noted that these, “[t]hese non-monetary components of relief, in combination with recent additional changes to Facebook’s facial recognition practices, provide a structural framework of compliance and protection of the privacy rights of Class Members and the residents of Illinois.”  Id.  The motion concludes with the parties asking the Court to grant preliminary approval of the settlement.

Implications For Employers

This filing provides the first glimpse into the details of how this complex privacy class action settlement is structured.  Of course, the Court will need to grant preliminary approval and final settlement approval before effectuating the settlement.  Nonetheless, given the magnitude of this litigation and its impact on privacy rights and class action litigation, employers and business should continue to monitor this case as it progresses toward the settlement approval process.  Future privacy class action settlements will undoubtedly be shaped by this precedent-setting result.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent review of Seyfarth’s 2020 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, EPLiC called it the “must have” resource that corporate counsel “cannot afford to be without it…”

We are humbled and honored by the recent review of our 2020 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”) – the review is here.

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.’ In short it is ‘the bible’ for class action legal practitioners, corporate counsel, employment practices liability insurers, and anyone who works in related areas.”

We are often asked – “How does it happen – how do you produce your Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report”?

The answer is pretty simple – we live, eat, and breathe workplace class action law 24/7.

Each and every morning we check the previous day’s filings of EEOC lawsuits and workplace class actions relative to employment discrimination, ERISA, and wage & hour claims. We do so on a national basis, both in federal courts and all 50 states. Then we check, log, and analyze every ruling on Rule 23 certification motions and subsidiary issues throughout federal and state trial and appellate courts. This is also done on a national basis.  We put this information in our customized database; we analyze and compare the rulings on class action issues and Rule 23 topics, and then we prepare an analysis of each and every decision.

Our class action practitioners – a group of over 180 Seyfarth lawyers – contribute to the process of building the database and analyzing decisional law on a daily basis.

We have being doing this on a 24/7 basis for over 16 years, and publishing the Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report in the first week of January of each calendar year.

The result is a compendium of workplace class action law that is unique in its analysis, scope, and comprehensiveness.

We are particularly proud that EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art report” on workplace class action litigation.

Thanks EPLiC. We sincerely appreciate the kudos.

Now, even less than half way through the year, we have tracked and analyzed more class action decisions to this point in 2020 than at the halfway point in past years. On this pace, our 2021 Report will cover more decisions than ever before.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Alex S. Oxyer

Seyfarth Synopsis: Although federal courts are certifying class actions at a record rate, a recent opinion by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio demonstrates that the requirements of Rule 23 are not mere formalities.  In Littler v. Ohio Association of Public School Employees, No. 2:18-CV-1745, 2020 WL 1861646 (S.D. Ohio April 14, 2020), the Court denied a plaintiff’s attempt to certify a class action because it found that conflicts of interest among putative class members based on the alleged harm stemming from putative class members’ “feelings” and the lack of any viable way to ascertain class membership.  The case is a must-read for employers and is a helpful tool in the arsenal of companies battling against the certification of class claims.

Case Background

In Littler, Plaintiff worked for Upper Arlington City Schools as a bus driver.  During her employment, Plaintiff joined the Defendant Ohio Association of Public School Employees (“OAPSE” or “the Union”) and agreed to pay the applicable union dues. Several years later, Plaintiff attempted to withdraw from the Union but was unsuccessful.  Her dues stopped sometime later.  Plaintiff then filed suit against the Union, alleging that the Union required public school employees either to join the Union or to pay agency fees, that the Union continued to deduct dues following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. American Federation, 138 S.Ct. 2448 (2018), that allowed public employees to opt out of paying union fees, and that the Union deducted fees without “freely given consent.” Id. at *2.

Plaintiff then filed a motion to certify a class consisting of “[e]very public employee who was offered membership in OAPSE or its affiliates while working in an agency shop,” or the “OAPSE class.”  Id.  To be “flexible” in her class definition, Plaintiff also alternatively proposed three sub-classes, which consisted of: (i) OAPSE agency fee payers (the “agency fee class”); (ii) members of the bargaining unit who opposed payments to the union but who reluctantly joined because they decided that the difference between the cost of full membership dues and the agency fees would not have been worth the loss of a voice in collective-bargaining matters (the “reluctant voting member class”); and (iii) members of the bargaining unit who opposed payments to the union but who joined because they were never informed of their right to decline union membership and pay reduced agency fees (the “reluctant uninformed member class”).  Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court analyzed the Rule 23(a) commonality, typicality, and adequacy requirements relative to Plaintiff’s proposed classes.  The Court examined all three requirements under the standard outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), and examined whether the “maintenance of a class action is economical and whether the named plaintiff’s claim and the class claims are so interrelated that the interests of the class members will be fairly and adequately protected in their absence.”  Id. at *8.

In analyzing whether the initial, broad OAPSE class proposed by Plaintiff satisfied the commonality, typicality, and adequacy standards, the Court found that a conflict of interest prevented the class from meeting such requirements.  Because the class contained pro-union and anti-union members who might have potentially conflicting interests, the Court determined that Plaintiff could not advance both interests at the same time, and therefore could not represent both groups.  The Court also found that the same intra-class conflict existed in the agency fee class because not every putative member of the sub-class declined to join the union out of opposition to the union.  The Court declined to certify either class on the grounds that the conflicting interests of the putative members prevented the class from meeting the applicable Rule 23 requirements.

For the remaining putative classes, the Court examined whether common questions of law and fact predominated for the class and whether a class action was the superior method to litigate the claims under Rule 23(b)(3).  For the putative class of reluctant voting members, the Court found that the method of determining the potential members of the class necessitated excessive individual inquiries because each putative class member would have to testify as to how he or she felt about the decision whether to join the Union and what he or she was told when presented with the option.  Although Plaintiff argued that individual inquiries did not prevent the Court from certifying the class because other case law authority had certified classes necessitating a single individual inquiry, the Court rejected the argument. It opined that the cases cited by Plaintiff involved inquiries of objectively-verifiable information and did not “rely solely on putative class members’ self-serving statements.”  Id. at *13.  The Court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that it could certify a class based on the putative class members’ individual subjective desires and beliefs, holding that defining a common harm using subjective feelings undermined the entire purpose of a Rule 23(b)(3) class action.

Finally, the Court examined the ascertainability of the members of the putative classes.  Because Plaintiff’s proposed classes relied on determining the putative class members’ states of mind, Plaintiff argued that a survey of all putative class members would satisfy the ascertainability requirement for the class.  The Court rejected Plaintiff’s suggestion. It concluded that the survey would lead to issues related to the class members’ memories regarding their feelings at the time they were asked to join the union, the accuracy of their reporting of their feelings, the threshold of feelings that would satisfy the requirements of being a member of the class, and the candor with which the putative class members reported their feelings.  Because it would be “forced to undertake a burdensome analysis in order to ascertain the composition of the class,” the Court denied certification to the remaining putative classes proposed by Plaintiff.

Implications For Employers

The ruling in Littler is a departure from the growing trend of decisions granting class certification motions (a trend that we addressed in our 16th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, a summary of which is here).  The Court’s ruling is a welcome addition to the tool kits of employers seeking to avoid class certification because class members have varying interests or cannot be identified based on objective criteria.  The opinion provides a nice reminder that plaintiffs must demonstrate that common questions of law and fact predominate over individualized issues and that issues such as conflicts of interest or harm based on subjective opinions can prevent certification.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Jennifer A. Riley

Seyfarth Synopsis: As employers begin laying the groundwork for reopening and returning their businesses to “normal,” a large threat of a different form looms on the horizon.  The Plaintiffs’ bar is poised for – and has been discussing preparation of – class actions over denied wage, discrimination during furloughs and lay-offs, and exposure to unsafe working conditions. As part of the return to normal process, employers should take steps to avoid and position themselves to defend a wave of workplace class action litigation. 

The Background & Context

As state and local governments responded to the COVID-19 threat, many employers moved their employees to tele-work or work-from-home arrangements, or laid off or furloughed workers, and many businesses and courts shut down or postponed critical operations.  The pace of court filings, however, did not match this trend as the Plaintiffs’ bar has filed more than 100 COVID-19-related class actions over the past 30 days.

As the pandemic took hold, the plaintiffs’ bar retooled their class action theories to match, and sued companies for laying off workers, as well as for maintaining allegedly inadequate leave or benefit policies.

We anticipate that the tide of workplace class action litigation will continue to rise in several key areas such as discrimination and workplace bias, wage & hour, as well as on the health & safety front.  Employers are apt to see these workplace class actions expand and morph as businesses restart operations in the wake of COVID-19.

Employers are thus well-served to take pro-active steps to avoid and position themselves to defend these suits.

Discrimination And Workplace Bias

Employers should be wary of a growing tide of class actions on the discrimination front.  These actions are likely to take several forms, including class actions for alleged discrimination or bias against Asian-Americans and other protected groups.

On March 27, 2020, the FBI issued a report warning of a potential surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans across the United States due to the spread of COVID-19.  Shortly thereafter, on March 30, 2020, EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon issued a statement warning employers to keep an eye out for mistreatment or harassment against Asian-Americans in the workplace amid the Coronavirus outbreak.  On April 22, 2020, the advocacy group STOP AAPI HATE issued a report noting that it had received almost 1,500 reports of Coronavirus discrimination from Asian-Americans across the country.

These issues are not likely to disappear in the near term.  As employers prepare to reopen, they should take care to position themselves so as to squelch such threats with solid HR fundaments and effective leadership.  Workplace due process and administration of effective complaint procedures are a must.  Employers should look for avenues to roll out and refresh these policies for newly-hired or newly re-hired workers and should take prompt steps to respond to potential issues.

Disparate Impact Theories Of Discrimination & WARN Violations

In addition to harassment theories, mass lay-offs and mass re-hirings are apt to draw scrutiny from the Plaintiffs’ bar.  As businesses scrambled to confront the realities of stay-at-home orders, their actions have drawn claims that, for instance, lay-offs caused an unintended disparate impact on protected groups or failed to comply with WARN Act requirements.

On the other side, mass re-hirings are apt to draw similar scrutiny as employers make decisions regarding which workers to re-hire and which to bring back to work.  For instance, bringing a disproportionate number of younger workers back to work under a theory that older workers might be more susceptible to COVID-19 could walk an employer into an immediate discrimination claim, and efforts to target re-hiring efforts toward a protected group could bring the same result.

As employers bring workers back, they should take care to approach rehire efforts in a thoughtful, reasoned, and neutral manner.

Wage & Hour Issues

It is unlikely that wage & hour claims will lose popularity with the Plaintiffs’ bar, and we anticipate that COVID-19 will provide more fuel for familiar claims such as failure to pay minimum wage and failure to pay overtime.  The pandemic did not bring about a slowdown in wage & hour suits as class and collective action filings continued on the unpaid wage as well as the misclassification front.

Well-intended efforts to keep employees working during the pandemic are also apt to fuel misclassification and off-the-clock claims.  For instance, employers that cut wages or shuffled work to exempt employees could face claims that they failed to comply with notice requirements or impacted exempt status, and employers who moved their workforces to work-from-home arrangements are likely face claims that they failed to appropriately track or compensate all work hours.

These risks are likely to continue as employers move people back into the workplace, including as they impose new requirements relative to borrowing or returning necessary equipment, participating in health screenings, or modifying schedules.

Employers should take care to ensure compliance with wage & hour requirements, particularly when it comes to tracking compensable time, ensuring sign off and acknowledgement of remote work hours, and strictly complying with the technicalities of state and local laws.

Health & Safety Claims

When it comes to maintaining health and safety in the workplace, employers can garner lessons from a slew of lawsuits and protests against cruise ship lines that employers failed to take appropriate actions to address safety concerns and ensure the health of employees and customers. Those claims are likely to be the start of wide-spread class actions against employers in all industries.

Return to work protocols that fail to account for workplace safety or allow for reasonable accommodations are apt to face scrutiny.  Employers should plan ahead, including by considering bringing employees back in phases or allowing workers the option to return as they become comfortable.

To ensure the safety of the workplace, employers should take care to ensure compliance with directives from the CDC and OSHA, as well as state and local authorities.  Employers also should develop a plan for maintaining social distancing or similar mandates, such as by adding screens, staggering shifts, or modifying schedules, and should stand ready with a plan for managing an illness in the workplace.

The Bottom Line For Employers

Class action litigation is not stagnant and will continue to evolve to meet the realities of the workplace. The economic dislocations fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic are also likely to spark a surge of workplace class actions.

Employers should prepare to respond to this exposure as they restart operations in the wake of COVID-19 by taking pro-active steps to avoid those risks and position themselves to protect their businesses.