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.
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.