Seyfarth Synopsis: Last week, we posted the first video in a series of clips from Seyfarth Shaw’s “Top Trends In Workplace Class Action Litigation” book launch event.  Specifically, this set of exclusive videos allows our readers to see and hear Workplace Class Action Litigation Report author Jerry Maatman’s perspective on each major class action trend from 2018.  Today’s clip focuses on class certification rulings, and identifies the areas of litigation in which the Plaintiffs’ bar experienced noticeable success in 2018.  Watch and hear Jerry’s analysis in the link below!

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Christina M. Janice

Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 4, 2019, in Woods-Early v. Corning Corp., Case No. 18-CV-6162, a race discrimination class action, Judge Frank P. Geraci, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York refused to strike class allegations of discrimination in promotions on the basis of race and color in violation of Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law.  Although Plaintiff’s amended complaint failed to identify a single promotion she was denied on the basis of race and color, the Court found that allegations of discriminatory decision-making by a small group of upper-level management exercising unfettered discretion over an employer’s performance review process was sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss the class claims under Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011).  

Background

In 2018 an employee of Corning, a multinational technology company specializing in designing and manufacturing materials for industrial and scientific applications, brought a class action alleging that the employer discriminated against her on the basis of her color and race (Black, African-American) in violation of Title VII and the New York State Human Rights Law. Plaintiff asserted that by utilizing a performance evaluation tool and process that disadvantaged Black, African-American employees in obtaining access to promotion opportunities, the employer violated the law.  Plaintiff alleged that the Company used an evaluation tool that allowed supervisors, without sufficient training, to exercise unfettered discretion in evaluating employee performance on the basis of ill-defined “Corning Values,” and that these ratings then were advanced to a group of high-level executives called the “brain trust,” who themselves had unfettered discretion to change the ratings.

The discriminatory result alleged by Plaintiff was that African-American employees routinely received lower ratings than their non-minority counterparts, and because of this they were unable to achieve the “Emerging Talent” internal designation and higher salary bands required by Corning to access training and other executive networking opportunities necessary to obtain promotional opportunities.  Plaintiff did not, however, identify any single promotional opportunity she was denied.

Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the class allegations as well as any allegations of discrimination against Plaintiff in promotions.  Relying on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), the Company argued that discrimination claims based on the exercise of managerial discretion in the performance evaluation process lack sufficient commonality to proceed in litigation.  Moreover, Defendant argued that allegations that its executive “brain trust” controlled the performance evaluation process, and had the unfettered discretion to change performance ratings and determine who is designated “Emerging Talent,” were merely “conclusory and implausible.”  It further argued that Plaintiff’s claims should fail because she could not link any discriminatory, low performance ratings to an adverse action against her.

The Court’s Ruling

Observing that parties often mistake the import of Wal-Mart as requiring that sustainable class allegations present common questions, the Court opined that the proper inquiry in scrutinizing class allegations is whether the class mechanism is appropriate to find common answers to the allegations.  Noting that the Supreme Court in Wal-Mart emphasized that in Title VII claims implicating many employment decisions there must be a “glue” holding the alleged reasons for the decisions together, the Court stated that this “glue” can come in different forms, such as a biased testing procedure or general policy of discrimination manifested in promotions practices.

The Court followed the lead of the Fourth and Seventh Circuits respectively in Scott v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 733 F.3d 105 (4th Cir. 2013), and Chicago Teachers Union, Local No. 1 v. Bd. Of Educ. Of Chicago, 797 F.3d  426 (7th Cit. 2015), each of which found that the commonality required to sustain class treatment is satisfied when discretion is exercised uniformly by higher-level management.  As a result, the Court ruled that allegations of the unfettered discretion of the Company’s “brain trust” — to determine employee performance ratings, the incentive of this singular and cohesive group to manipulate performance ratings to impact the individuals designated as “Emerging Talent,” and the effect of the exercise of that discretion to bar African-American employees from advancing to higher pay bands and the access to executives and training needed for promotions — were sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss.

The Court also rejected Defendant’s challenge that although Plaintiff alleged that she suffered discriminatorily low performance ratings, her claim for discrimination in promotions should be dismissed for failing to allege any promotional opportunity for which she applied and was qualified, and that she had been denied.  The Court rejected the contention that Plaintiff must allege the adverse action of a specific promotion sought and denied in order to survive a motion to dismiss a claim of discrimination in promotions.  Rather, the Court determined that Plaintiff’s allegations of a discriminatory performance evaluation and rating process, and a link between the alleged discriminatory actions of the Company’s “brain trust” and tangible adverse impacts to African-Americans, including herself, was sufficient for her promotions claims to proceed.

Implications For Employers

This decision is one of a growing body of case law authority interpreting and expanding the contours of class actions maintainable in the aftermath of Wal-Mart.  Over time, employers may expect the plaintiffs’ class action bar to test and refine theories to obtain class certification in “managerial discretion” cases.  To get ahead of this curve, employers should periodically review their performance evaluation processes for disparate impact and other vulnerabilities.  Evaluating performance management programs for well-communicated expectations, detailed and sufficiently objective metrics, disciplined scoring, and standardized supervisor training, also is a proactive step for savvy employers to take to enhance the workplace while reducing risk.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Julie G. Yap, and Phillip J. Ebsworth

Seyfarth Synopsis: On January 18, 2019, in Porath v. Logitech, Case No. 18-CV-3091 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 18, 2019), Judge William Alsup of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected, for the second time, Defendant’s attempts to allow pre-certification discussions relating to a class-wide settlement. Specifically, the Court upheld its prior order, prohibiting such discussions and denying the appointment of interim counsel to represent the class.  The end result for the parties is that they must spend more time and money litigating this case despite readiness to engage in settlement negotiations. The ruling is an important read for all corporate counsel involved in class action litigation.

Case Background

In May 2018, Plaintiff filed a putative class action alleging that the Defendant falsely and deceptively advertised its Z200 speakers as containing four speakers when two of the speakers did not independently produce sound. On June 13, 2018, Judge Alsup issued an order entitled “Notice and Order Re Putative Class Actions and Factors To Be Evaluated For Any Proposed Class Settlement”— an order Judge Alsup typically issues at the outset of any proposed class action pending before him. That order prohibits any settlement discussions of any class claims prior to class certification. Alternatively, the order provides that if counsel believe settlement discussion should precede class certification, interim class counsel must first be appointed.

In August 2018, counsel for Plaintiff and Defendant moved to appoint interim class counsel and enumerated four reasons why they believed pre-class certification settlement discussions were appropriate, including: (i) Defendant agreed not to seek a discount based on the risk a class would not be certified, (ii) Defendant had already begun revising the advertising at issue, (iii) Defendant was prepared to make purchasers of the product whole, and (iv) the parties were prepared to engage in reasonable and appropriate discovery necessary to resolve the case.

The Court denied the motion. Judge Alsup took issue not only with the limited discovery conducted to ascertain the viability of class claims at that point, but also with what he termed “the clever wording” of the motion, which “offered little of substance” in regards to remedies that would be on the table for the absent class members in any pre-certification settlement discussions. Id. at 5.

After the Ninth Circuit denied Defendant’s request for review, Defendant moved for reconsideration of the order prohibiting discussion of class-wide settlement issues, as well as the order denying appointment of interim class counsel. Specifically, Defendant asserted that Judge Alsup’s order prohibiting pre-certification class-wide settlement violated the parties’ First Amendment rights.

The Decision

Judge Alsup denied Defendant’s motion.  Specifically, Judge Alsup explained that his prohibition on any class-wide settlement discussions protects absent class members because (i) it prevents the imposition of overbroad releases on claims that cannot meet Rule 23 class certification standards; and (ii) it guards against settlements inappropriately discounted based on the risk that a claim will not be certified for class treatment. Citing scholarly commentaries, Judge Alsup opined that procedural hurdles should not require absent class members to accept a “lowball offer to salvage a class recovery.” Id. at 3.

Turning to Defendant’s free speech argument, Judge Alsup noted that his order was viewpoint neutral and simply regulated the time, place and manner of class-wide settlement discussions.  Judge Alsup also emphasized that his order only restrained such discussions until counsel is authorized under Rule 23 to negotiate on behalf of a class; as a result, he explained that no permanent or overly broad ban exists. Additionally, even if a limited restriction existed, Judge Alsup concluded that the interests of the parties are “overwhelmingly outweighed” by the interest of the Court in implementing orderly case management and the interests of absent class members and their rights. Id. at 5-6. As a result, Judge Alsup noted that Defendant had no First Amendment right to obtain a class-wide release from an attorney with no authority to act for the class.

Conclusion

While such limitations on pre-certification settlement discussions are not currently widespread, parties seeking to resolve such disputes without engaging in costly class discovery may find themselves in a difficult situation if other courts adopt Judge Alsup’s approach.  Given that the recent proposed amendments to Rule 23 did not adopt proposals to provide a different standard for settlement classes, parties may see vastly different approaches to class action settlements throughout the federal system.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Timothy F. Haley and Ashley K. Laken

Seyfarth Synopsis: On January 22, 2019, in Maderazo v. VHS San Antonio Partners, L.P., C.A. No. 06-CV-535 (available here), a case alleging that hospitals in San Antonio conspired to suppress nurses’ wages that had been pending for nearly 13 years, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas issued a decision denying Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification  In doing so, the Court expressly disagreed with a class certification decision issued in a nearly identical case by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Cason-Merenda, et al. v. Detroit Medical Center, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131006 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 6, 2013).

Background

In 2006, five nearly identical antitrust class actions were filed in different cities around the country alleging that hospitals in each of those cities unlawfully conspired to fix nurse wages below free market levels and agreed to unlawfully exchange nurse wage information in a way that had the effect of suppressing nurse wages. Class certification was defeated in the cases in Memphis and Chicago. In cases in Detroit and Albany, the courts certified or partially certified the classes, and those cases thereafter reportedly settled for millions of dollars.

Now the court in the San Antonio case has denied class certification also.

The Court’s Class Certification Ruling

Like the other cases, the complaint in Maderazo asserted two claims, including: (1) that the defendants agreed to suppress nurse wages, allegedly a per se violation of §1 of the Sherman Act; and (2) that the defendants agreed to, and did, exchange nurse wage information in violation of §1 of the Sherman Act under the rule of reason.  The class certification decision turned on the question of the whether Plaintiffs could demonstrate, with proof common to the class, that common issues predominated over individual issues, consistent with the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3).

One of the issues in an antitrust case is whether the harm allegedly suffered was caused by the alleged conspiracy, often referred to as “antitrust impact.” Plaintiffs in Maderazo attempted to satisfy this element through the testimony of their expert, Henry Farber. In analyzing Farber’s expert report and deposition testimony, the Court concluded that Farber provided “no factual explanation of how Plaintiffs could show a causal link between the conspiracy and the wages of staff registered nurses.” In fact, the Court quoted the following testimony from Farber: “I don’t know anything about the precise effect of the – of any conspiracy or information exchange on the wages of different nurses.” As a result, the Court excluded Farber’s testimony under Daubert and denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

The Court in Maderazo further noted that the court in the Detroit nurse wage fixing/exchange case had found a similar problem with the testimony of the expert in that case. Nonetheless, the judge in the case in Detroit certified the class while stating that the defendant was free to attempt to persuade the trier of fact that the case lacked a sufficient causal connection between the plaintiffs’ theory of liability and the alleged injury. By contrast, the Court in Maderazo disagreed and ruled that this was an issue that had to be resolved at the class certification stage. (We previously blogged about the Detroit class certification decision here.)

Implications For Employers

This is obviously a helpful decision for employers because it requires plaintiffs to demonstrate at the class certification stage that they can show, with evidence common to the class, that there is a causal connection between the alleged conspiracy and the alleged harm suffered by the class. Sending the issue to the jury when plaintiffs are unable to demonstrate that they can make this showing at the class certification stage unnecessarily adds to the parties’ costs and wastes judicial resources.  Often, if the stakes are high, employers may be unwilling to risk having a jury decide what is potentially a complicated question based on evidence provided by an economic expert.  This in turn puts undue pressure on employers to settle cases that are baseless. The ruling in Maderazo levels the playing field in this respect.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Our latest blog gave readers a detailed breakdown of the second trend of our 15th Annual Workplace Class Action Report (WCAR), which was class certification rulings in 2018.  While Plaintiffs attained noticeably high rates of success in the areas of ERISA and wage & hour litigation this year, employers also fared well in the employment discrimination space.  In today’s video, author Jerry Maatman explains the reasoning behind these developments, and provides his perspective on potential outcomes in 2019 with regards to class certification.  Check out Jerry’s in-depth analysis in the link below!

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: As our 2019 Workplace Class Action Report describes, 2018 was quite an interesting year for employers in terms of class certification rulings. Plaintiffs achieved robust numbers of initial conditional certification rulings of wage & hour collective actions in 2018, while employers secured less defeats of conditional certification motions and decertification of § 216(b) collective actions. Check out the extensive analysis below!

Anecdotally, surveys of corporate counsel confirm that complex workplace litigation – and especially class actions and multi-plaintiff lawsuits – remains one of the chief exposures driving corporate legal budgetary expenditures, as well as the type of legal dispute that causes the most concern for companies. The prime component in that array of risks is indisputably complex wage & hour litigation.

The circuit-by-circuit analysis of 301 class certification decisions in all varieties of workplace class action litigation is detailed in the following map:

Wage & Hour Certification Trends

Plaintiffs achieved robust numbers of initial conditional certification rulings of wage & hour collective actions in 2018, while employers secured less defeats of conditional certification motions and decertification of § 216(b) collective actions. The percentage of successful motions for decertification brought by employers saw a significant dip in 2018 to 52%. This was fully 11% less than the figure of 63% in 2017.

Most significantly, for only the second time in over a decade, and for the second year in a row, wage & hour lawsuit filings in federal courts decreased. That being said, the volume of FLSA lawsuit filings for the preceding four years – during 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 – were at the highest levels in the last several decades.

As a result, an increase in FLSA filings over the past several years had caused the issuance of more FLSA certification rulings than in any other substantive area of complex employment litigation – 273 certification rulings in 2018, as compared to 257 certification rulings in 2017, 224 certification rulings in 2016, and 175 certification rulings in 2015.

The analysis of these rulings – discussed in Chapter V of this Report – shows that a high predominance of cases are brought against employers in “plaintiff-friendly” jurisdictions such as the judicial districts within the Second and Ninth Circuits. For the first time in a decade, however, rulings were equally voluminous out of the Fifth Circuit, which also tended to favor workers over employers in conditional certification rulings. This trend is shown in the following map:

The statistical underpinnings of this circuit-by-circuit analysis of FLSA certification rulings is telling in several respects.

First, it substantiates that the district courts within the Second, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits are the epi-centers of wage & hour class actions and collective actions. More cases were prosecuted and conditionally certified – 50 certification orders in the Ninth Circuit, 42 certification orders in the Fifth Circuit, and 32 certification orders in the Second Circuit – in the district courts in those circuits than in any other areas of the country. That being said, the district courts in the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Circuits were not far behind, with 22, 23, and 29 certification orders respectively in those jurisdictions.

Second, as the burdens of proof reflect under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), plaintiffs won the overwhelming majority of “first stage” conditional certification motions (196 of 248 rulings, or approximately 79%). However, in terms of “second stage” decertification motions, employers prevailed in just over half of those cases (13 of 25 rulings, or approximately 52% of the time).

The “first stage” conditional certification statistics for plaintiffs at 79% for 2018 were even more favorable to workers than in 2017, when plaintiffs won 73% of “first stage” conditional certification motions. However, employers fared much worse in 2018 on “second stage” decertification motions. Employers won decertification motions at a rate of 52%, which was down from 63% in 2017 (but up slightly from 45% in 2016).

The following chart illustrates this trend for 2018:

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

As a result, to the extent litigation of class actions and collective actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers is viewed as an investment of time and money, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment, without significant barriers to entry, and with the prospect of immediate returns as compared to other types of workplace class action litigation.

Hence, as compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted for the plaintiffs’ bar, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time.

The certification statistics for 2018 confirm these factors.

The great unknown for workplace class action litigation is the impact of the Epic Systems ruling, and whether it reduces class action activity in the judicial system and depresses settlement values of workplace lawsuits.

At the same time, a future Congress may effectuate a legislative response to abrogate or limit the impact of workplace arbitration agreements with class action waivers, but that will be dependent upon ideological and political dynamics based on future elections.

As a result, Epic Systems may well impact case filing numbers in the near term, and as a result, class action settlement numbers are likely to decrease.

Employment Discrimination & ERISA Certification Trends

Against the backdrop of wage & hour litigation, the ruling in Wal-Mart also fueled more critical thinking and crafting of case theories in employment discrimination and ERISA class action filings in 2018.

The Supreme Court’s Rule 23 decisions have had the effect of forcing the plaintiffs’ bar to “re-boot” the architecture of their class action theories. At least one result was the decision two years ago in Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, 136 S. Ct. 1036 (2016), in which the Supreme Court accepted the plaintiffs’ arguments that, in effect, appeared to soften the requirements previously imposed in Wal-Mart for maintaining and proving class claims, at least in wage & hour litigation.

Hence, it is clear that the playbook on Rule 23 strategies is undergoing a continuous process of evolution.

Filings of “smaller” employment discrimination class actions have increased due to a strategy whereby state or regional-type classes are asserted more often than the type of nationwide mega-cases that Wal-Mart discouraged.

In essence, at least in the employment discrimination area, the plaintiffs’ litigation playbook is more akin to a strategy of “aim small to secure certification, and if unsuccessful, then miss small.”

In turn, whereas employment-related class certification motions were a mixed bag or tantamount to a “jump ball” in 2017 – when 7 of 11 motions were granted and 4 of 11 were denied – employers were far more successful in 2018, where only 3 of 11 motions were granted for plaintiffs and 8 of 11 were denied.

The certification rate of 27% was the lowest on record over the last decade.

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

In terms of the ERISA class action litigation scene in 2018, the focus continued to rest on precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court as it shaped and refined the scope of potential liability and defenses in ERISA class actions.

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

The decisions in 2018 show that class certification motions have the best chance of denial in the context of ERISA welfare plans, and ERISA defined contribution pension plans, where individualized notions of liability and damages are prevalent.

While plaintiffs were more successful than employers in litigating certification motions in ERISA class actions, their success rate was less than in previous years. In 2018, plaintiffs won 11 of 17 certification rulings or 65%. By comparison, in 2017, plaintiffs won 17 of 22 certification motions, with a success rate of 77%.

A map illustrating these trends is shown below:

Overall Trends

So what conclusions overall can be drawn on class certification trends in 2018?

In the areas of wage & hour and ERISA claims, the plaintiffs’ bar is converting their case filings into certification of classes at a high rate. To the extent class certification aids the plaintiffs’ bar in monetizing their lawsuit filings and converting them into class action settlements, the conversion rate is robust. Conversely, plaintiffs’ success rate in the context of employment discrimination class actions is modest, as employers have a high success rate in blocking such certification motions.

Whereas class certification for employment discrimination cases (3 motions granted and 8 motions denied in 2018) was far less possible, class certification is relatively easier in ERISA cases 11 motions granted and 6 motions denied in 2018), but most prevalent in wage & hour litigation (with 196 conditional certification motions granted and 52 motions denied, as well as 13 decertification motions granted and 12 motions denied).

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

–          a 27% success rate for certification of employment discrimination class actions (both Title VII and age discrimination cases);

–          a 65% success rate for certification of ERISA class actions; and,

–          a 79% success rate for conditional certification of wage & hour collective actions.

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

The trend over the last three years in the wage & hour space reflects a steady success rate that ranged from a low of 70% to a high of 79% (with 2018 representing the highest success rate ever) for the plaintiffs’ bar, which is tilted toward plaintiff-friendly “magnet” jurisdictions were the case law favors workers and presents challenges to employers seeking to block certification.

Yet, the key statistic in 2018 for employers was a significant decrease in the odds of successful decertification of wage & hour cases to 52%, as compared to 63% in 2017, a decrease of 11%.

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

While each case is different and no two class actions or collective actions are identical, these statistics paint the all-too familiar picture that employers have experienced over the last several years. The new wrinkle to influence these factors in 2018 was the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2018 in Epic Systems and in 2016 in Tyson Foods. To the extent it assists plaintiffs in their certification theories, future certification decisions may well trend further upward for workers.

Lessons From 2018

There are multiple lessons to be drawn from these trends in 2018.

First, while the Wal-Mart ruling undoubtedly heightened commonality standards under Rule 23(a)(2) starting in 2011, and the Comcast decision tightened the predominance factors at least for damages under Rule 23(b) in 2013, the plaintiffs’ bar has crafted theories and “work arounds” to maintain or increase their chances of successfully securing certification orders in ERISA and wage & hour cases. This did not hold true in the context of employment discrimination lawsuits. In 2018, their certification numbers were up for ERISA and wage & hour case, and down for employment discrimination litigation.

Second, the defense-minded decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast have not taken hold in any significant respect in the context of FLSA certification decisions for wage & hour cases. Efforts by the defense bar to use the commonality standards from Wal-Mart and the predominance analysis from Comcast have not impacted the ability of the plaintiffs’ bar to secure first-stage conditional certification orders under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). If anything, the ruling two years ago in Tyson Foods has made certification prospects even easier for plaintiffs in the wage & hour space, insofar as conditional certification motions are concerned. The conversion rate of successful certification motions hit an all-time high of 79% in 2018.

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

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

Finally, employers now have a weapon to short-circuit the decision points for class action exposure through use of mandatory workplace arbitration agreements. Based on the Epic Systems ruling, a class waiver in an arbitration agreement is now an effective first-line defense to class-based litigation.

In sum, notwithstanding these shifts in proof standards and the contours of judicial decision-making, the likelihood of class certification rulings favoring plaintiffs are not only “alive and well” in the post-Wal-Mart and post-Comcast era, but also thriving. The battle ground may shift, however, as employers may create a bulwark against such class-based claims based on the Epic Systems ruling.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

We hope our loyal blog readers will enjoy it!

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Key Trends Of 2018

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

Second, the plaintiffs’ bar was successful in prosecuting class certification motions at the highest rates ever as compared to previous years in the areas of ERISA and wage & hour litigation, while suffering significant defeats in employment discrimination litigation. While evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in good outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests, federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2018. Plaintiffs’ lawyers continued to craft refined class certification theories to counter the more stringent Rule 23 certification requirements established in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011). As a result, in the areas of wage & hour and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored exceedingly well in securing class certification rulings in federal courts in 2018 (over comparative figures for 2017). Class actions were certified in significantly higher numbers in “magnet” jurisdictions that continued to issue decisions that encourage or, in effect, force the resolution of large numbers of claims through class-wide mechanisms. Furthermore, the sheer volume of wage & hour certification decisions in 2018 increased as compared to last year, and plaintiffs fared better in litigating those class certification motions in federal court than in the prior year. Of the 273 wage & hour certification decisions in 2018, plaintiffs won 196 of 248 conditional certification rulings (approximately 79%), and lost only 13 of 25 decertification rulings (approximately 52%). By comparison, there were 257 wage & hour certification decisions in 2017, where plaintiffs won 170 of 233 conditional certification rulings (approximately 73%) and lost 15 of 24 decertification rulings (approximately 63%). In sum, employers lost more first stage conditional certification motions in 2018, and saw a reduction of their odds – a decrease of 11% – of fracturing cases with successful decertification motions.

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

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

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

Implications For Employers

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

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

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

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 Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Lauren E. Becker

Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey recently issued a ruling with respect to Defendants’ “compelling” exhaustion argument that Plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies with respect to their disparate treatment and disparate impact theories of Title VII claims relied on to support their motion for class certification, as those claims were outside the scope of Plaintiffs’ underlying EEOC charges. In rejecting Defendants’ argument, the Court invited Defendants to raise their argument more appropriately on a motion for summary judgment. The decision is an important one for employers facing employment discrimination class actions.

Case Background

In Smith v. Merck & Co., No. 13-CV-2970, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129126 (D.N.J. July 31, 2018), a former Merck & Co. employee filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), individually and on behalf of a class of similarly-situated employees, alleging that Merck violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and other state and federal laws. Id. at 2. After receiving a Right-To-Sue Notice from the EEOC, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey against Merck & Co. raising claims consistent with those alleged in her EEOC charge.

Plaintiff twice amended her Complaint.  First, she added several more named plaintiffs, each of whom had filed administrative charges with the EEOC on behalf of a class. The Second Amended Complaint added named Defendants, Merck Sharp & Dohme, Corp. and Intervet, Inc., and fourteen causes of action.  Id. at 3.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification based on disparate treatment and disparate impact. Defendants filed their own motion for partial judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), which permits a party to secure a dismissal after the pleadings close without delaying trial. Id. at 6. Defendants argued that Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with regards to the disparate impact and disparate treatment claims, as required by Title VII, because those claims were not supported by the pleadings or underlying EEOC charges. Id. at 5. Instead, Defendants argued that the disparate impact and treatment claims were “newly asserted challenges,” based on at least four policies that Plaintiffs obtained and learned about during discovery. Id. at 4. At the EEOC charge stage, Plaintiffs had not asserted disparate treatment by evidencing a facially neutral policy that adversely impacted Plaintiffs. Id. Instead, Plaintiffs’ EEOC charges asserted discrimination exclusively based on the actions of individual managers. Id. Plaintiffs’ disparate impact claim failed, Defendants’ argued, because neither the EEOC charges nor the Complaint supported “discrimination based on high-level facially neutral policies that Merck allegedly implemented to discriminate” against Plaintiffs. Id. at 5.

Plaintiffs argued that the EEOC charges supported their motion for class certification, the requirements of which “are separate from, and more stringent than, the administrative exhaustion standard for Title VII cases.” Id. at 5.

The Court’s Decision

On July 31, 2018, the Court denied Defendants’ motion for partial judgment on the pleadings, without ruling on the exhaustion defense. Id. at 9.

First, the Court addressed the standard by which courts in the Third Circuit determine a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings. Id. at 6. Specifically, the Court viewed all facts and inferences garnered from the pleadings in the light most favorable to plaintiffs and would grant Defendants’ motion only where it “clearly establish[ed]” that there were no remaining issues of material fact. Id.

Then the Court articulated Title VII’s exhaustion requirements. Id. at 7-9. Specifically, before filing a Title VII action in federal court, plaintiffs first must exhaust administrative remedies by filing an administrative charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and then either resolving the claim with the EEOC or obtaining a right-to-sue letter. Id. at 7. According to the Court, these “essential” elements of Title VII’s “statutory plan” are designed to promote judicial efficiency and provide employers adequate notice of the claims that may be filed against them. Id. at 7-8.

To rule on Defendants’ exhaustion argument, the Court opined that it would have to assess the appropriate scope of the federal court action, as defined by the EEOC’s investigations into Plaintiffs’ claims. Id. at 8.  Specifically, the Court would have to assess whether Plaintiffs’ disparate treatment and disparate treatment claims “should have been included in a reasonable investigation conducted by the EEOC, based upon the information contained in the Charge.” Id. at 8-9. If found to be outside the scope of Plaintiffs’ EEOC claims, then Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies with respect to the disparate treatment and disparate impact claims, which rendered those claims insufficiently ripe to be heard by the Court. Id.

The Court declined to conduct the exhaustion analysis as Rule 12(c) prohibits consideration of separate motion papers when determining a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings. Id. at 9. Nonetheless, the Court indicated a willingness to consider Defendants’ “compelling” exhaustion argument, if raised on Defendants’ own motion for summary judgment, which it characterized as the “appropriate procedural vehicle.” Id. at n. 3.

Implications For Employers

The Court, if it chose to do so, could have converted the motion on the pleadings to a motion for summary judgment sua sponte.  Alternatively, it could have decided the motion under Rule 12(c) because the matters outside of the pleadings are public record.  Nonetheless, the Court’s recognition of Defendants’ “compelling” exhaustion argument is significant because it indicates the Court’s likely ruling, if and when Defendants pursue the argument in a motion for summary judgment.

Employers and class action attorneys should pay close attention to the scope of discrimination litigation at the class certification stage, particularly where Plaintiffs’ raise claims in federal litigation that fall outside the scope of those raised in support of an administrative charge of discrimination before the EEOC.

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: At the start of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, No. 17-432 (U.S. June 11, 2018), which has important implications for employers because it will limit their exposure to successive class actions.  Specifically, the Supreme Court held that, while the individual claims of putative class members are tolled during pending class actions, their class claims are not. 

Case Background

The China Agritech case was the third putative shareholder class action brought against China Agritech alleging fraud and misleading business practices.  The first such action was brought by Theodore Dean on February 11, 2011. On May 3, 2012, the court in Dean denied class certification, and Theodore Dean then settled his individual claim.

On October 4, 2012, a new set of plaintiffs brought the second putative class action, the Smyth action, against China Agritech. The district court again denied class certification, after which the Smyth plaintiffs settled with China Agritech.

On June 30, 2014, Michael Resh filed a third putative class action against China Agritech. China Agritech argued that Resh’s class claims expired on February 3, 2013 under the applicable two-year statute of limitations.  Resh argued that his class claims were tolled during the Dean and Smyth actions under the principles of American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), in which the Supreme Court held that the filing of a class action tolls the applicable statute of limitations for all putative class members.

The district court found that American Pipe tolling did not apply to class claims, and thus dismissed Resh’s class claims as untimely.  The Ninth Circuit reversed.  To resolve a circuit split, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court began by considering the rationale behind its decision in American Pipe.  Specifically, the Supreme Court observed that the purpose of American Pipe tolling is to avoid putative class members filing motions to intervene or separate, individual suits to protect their claims in the event class certification was denied.  China Agritech, No. 14-432 at *5-6.  The Supreme Court further noted that the efficiency and economy purposes of Rule 23 would be undermined if putative class members needed to file motions to intervene and individual actions to preserve their individual claims while putative class actions were pending.  Id. at *6-*7.

The Supreme Court observed that Rule 23 favors early resolution of class certification questions, in that it Rule 23 states that class certification should be decided at “‘an early practicable time.’” Id. at *7 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)).

The Supreme Court also considered the basis for allowing equitable tolling. Specifically, the Supreme Court pointed out that, to receive equitable tolling, plaintiffs must demonstrate that they have “been diligent in the pursuit of their claims.” China Agritech, No. 14-432 at *9. The Supreme Court found that “[a] would-be class representative who commences suit after expiration of the limitation period . . . can hardly qualify as diligent in asserting claims and pursuing relief.” Id.

Finally, the Supreme Court found that the problem with allowing American Pipe tolling to apply to class claims is that “the time for filing successive class suits . . . could be limitless.” Id. at *10. It held that “[e]ndless tolling of a statute of limitations is not a result envisioned by American Pipe.” Id. at *11. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that “[t]ime to file a class action falls outside the bounds of American Pipe.” Id. at *15.

Implications For Employers

While China Agritech is not an employment case, it nonetheless represents an important win for employers because it limits the ability of employees to bring successive class actions on the same claims. If the Supreme Court had ruled that American Pipe tolling applied to class claims, employers who won on class certification in one case could then face successive putative class actions asserting the same claims for an indefinite period of time. Since the Supreme Court ruled that American Pipe tolling does not apply to class claims, employers can now have the certainty of knowing the date on which particular class claims expire.