By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent review of Seyfarth’s 2018 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, EPLiC called it the “bible” for class action legal practitioners, corporate counsel, employment practices liability insurers, and anyone who works in related areas.

We are humbled and honored by the recent review of our 2018 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.’”

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 175 Seyfarth lawyers – contribute to the process of building the database and analyzing decisional law on a daily basis.

We have been doing this on a 24/7 basis for over 14 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 2018 than at the halfway point in past years. On this pace, our 2019 Report will cover more decisions than ever before.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Monday, March 26, the U.S. Supreme Court focused on two notable class action issues, each with the potential to significantly impact workplace litigation.  In today’s video vlog, Partner Jerry Maatman of Seyfarth Shaw breaks down the importance of class action tolling issues and the concept of “cy pres” settlements for employers.

The first Supreme Court case discussed in the video is China Agritech v. Resh, et al. No. 17-432.  This case involves allegations of securities fraud by a class of shareholders against a Chinese fertilizer company.  Plaintiffs failed to gain class certification in two successive class actions, and while these lawsuits were pending, the two-year statute of limitations for securities fraud claims expired.  Nevertheless, the 9th Circuit allowed a third class action to move forward on the basis of American Pipe tolling, and Defendant China Agritech appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s consideration of the boundaries of American Pipe tolling in the China Agritech case may well have profound implications for workplace class action litigation.

Next, we analyze the legal concept of “cy pres” distributions in class action settlement.  “Cy pres” is a French doctrine translated to mean “as close as possible.”  This notion was originally intended to apply to trust-law and the division of excess charitable funds.  However, it has been adapted by the Plaintiffs’ bar to apply in situations involving class action settlements without a clear beneficiary.  On March 26, the Supreme Court denied certiorari in two matters addressing this topic, including Tavares et al. v. Gene Whitehouse et al., No. 17-429, and the combined cases Tingle v. Perdue, No. 17-807 and Mandan v. Perdue, No. 17-897.  The Perdue cases considered the distribution from a $380 million settlement of a landmark 2010 Native American discrimination case known as the Keepseagle.

As Jerry discusses in the video, the outcomes of both debates have the potential to shift important facets of class action litigation.  Notably, for the China Agritech case, the Supreme Court might re-shape the landmark 1974 decision in American Pipe & Construction v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974).  Regarding “cy pres” settlement distributions, though the Supreme Court denied review in this instance, the debate is too pressing in respect to class action litigation to be avoided for long.  Make sure to watch the video above for Jerry’s complete analysis on both topics!

Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 6, 2018, Seyfarth Shaw Partner Jerry Maatman and Bloomberg Law Senior Legal Editor Perry Cooper presented a timely event on “Top Trends In Workplace Class Action Litigation Panel Discussion.” The discussions focused on views of cutting edge issues relative to the workplace class action litigation landscape.  With over 1,000 people attending either in person at our Chicago office or via our live Webcast, Maatman and Cooper’s discussion was a “must see” for representatives of businesses across the country.

Following Seyfarth Shaw’s recent launch of its 2018 Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, Jerry Maatman distilled the 900-page publication into key trends and takeaways on the most important developments impacting employers from the past year in class action litigation, as well as future trends that businesses should keep on their radar.  Perry Cooper added further in-depth analysis relative to many of the key U.S. Supreme Court cases affecting employment law and class actions, which she has been tracking and writing about extensively on Bloomberg’s behalf.

The engaging discussion focused on four key trends that were identified in the 2018 Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, including: (1) the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements rose dramatically in 2017; (2) while federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2017, evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in better outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests; (3) filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2017 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker (or anti-big business) outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/less litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration; and (4) class action litigation increasingly has been shaped and influenced by recent rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maatman provided several noteworthy takeaways, including three highlights:

  • 2017 was “by far the largest cash-take for plaintiffs’ lawyers” ever in terms of workplace class actions settlements, as the top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $2.72 billion in 2017, a “breathtaking and remarkable” increase of over $970 million from $1.75 billion in 2016.  Check out how Jerry explained the importance of this increase in settlements by clicking the video below!

  • In 2018, “as the government’s administration is getting settled in,” employers should anticipated seeing, “smaller governmental enforcement lawsuits brought on behalf of a smaller number of employees.”
  • Regarding the recent onslaught of workplace sexual harassment accusations and investigations in the context of the #MeToo campaign, “although headlines in the paper may be very difficult to stomach for some employers, and the piper must be paid in a certain respect, I’m not convinced it will be through successful prosecution of class action litigation insofar as sex harassment is concerned. That theory will run smack into the Rule 23 barriers created by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.”

Overall, Maatman and Cooper’s discussion left little doubt that 2018 will be an eventful year in terms of the workplace class action arena.  Employers should anticipate that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2018 in bringing class action and collective action litigation against employers.  As such, businesses absolutely should stay tuned in regarding developments in this space.

Thank you to everyone who joined us either here in Chicago or via our live webcast.  For those interested in viewing a video of the presentation, stay tuned. We will be posting a complete video of the event this week.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In our recent blog on the second workplace class action litigation trend of 2017, we provided our readers with a comprehensive analysis of class certification statistics.   As this year’s Report profiled, court decisions throughout the country resulted in a favorable landscape for employers in terms of defeating certification motions in the decertification process.  In today’s blog, author Jerry Maatman breaks down all aspects of the Report’s class certification findings, and tells employers what to watch for in 2018.  Check out Jerry’s analysis in the link below!

Seyfarth Synopsis:  As our 2018 Workplace Class Action Report describes, 2017 was quite an interesting year for employers in terms of class certification rulings.  Though courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar this year, new defense approaches and case law precedents resulted in positive outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests.  In today’s blog, readers are given a certification breakdown by type of class action, as well as a look into evolving case law and “magnet” jurisdictions that provided obstacles for employers in 2017.  Check out the extensive analysis below!

Anecdotally, surveys of corporate counsel confirm that complex workplace litigation – and especially class action 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 now indisputably complex wage & hour litigation.

The circuit-by-circuit analysis of 290 class certification decisions in all varieties of workplace class action litigation is detailed in the following map:

Wage & Hour Certification Trends

While plaintiffs continued to achieve robust numbers of initial conditional certification rulings of wage & hour collective actions in 2017, employers also secured significant victories in defeating conditional certification motions and obtaining decertification of § 216(b) collective actions. The percentage of successful motions for decertification brought by employers rose by nearly 18% in 2017. This was the highest success rate over the past decade.

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 – is the greatest 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 – 257 certification rulings in 2017, as compared to the 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 more cases are brought against employers in “plaintiff-friendly” jurisdictions such as the judicial districts within the Second and Ninth Circuits. 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 Ninth Circuit and the Second Circuit are the epi-centers of wage & hour class actions and collective actions. More cases were prosecuted and conditionally certified – 48 certification orders in the Ninth Circuit and 39 certification orders in the Second Circuit – in the district courts in those circuits than in any other areas of the country. The district courts in the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits were not far behind, with 30, 26, and 24 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 (170 of 233 rulings, or approximately 73%). However, in terms of “second stage” decertification motions, employers prevailed in a majority of those cases (15 of 24 rulings, or approximately 63% of the time).

The “first stage” conditional certification statistics for plaintiffs at 73% for 2017 are aligned to the numbers in 2016, when plaintiffs won 75% of “first stage” conditional certification motions. However, employers fared much better in 2017 on “second stage” decertification motions. Employers won decertification at a rate of 63%, which was up from 45% in 2016 and 36% in 2015.

The following chart illustrates this trend for 2017:

Third, this reflects that there has been an on-going migration of skilled plaintiffs’ class action lawyers into the wage & hour litigation space. 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. Finally, as success in litigation often begets copy-cat filings, that the value of top wage & hour settlements in 2017 topped $525 million – and over $1.2 billion in the last two years – is likely to prompt more litigation in 2018.

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 2017 confirm these factors.

Employment Discrimination & ERISA Certification Trends

At the same time, the rulings in Wal-Mart and Comcast also fueled more critical thinking and crafting of case theories in employment discrimination and ERISA class action filings in 2017. The Supreme Court’s two 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 and Comcast 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, employment-related class certification motions outside of the wage & hour area were a mixed bag or tantamount to a “jump ball” in 2017, as 7 of the 11 were granted and 4 of the 11 were denied.

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 2017, 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 2017 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.

Nonetheless, plaintiffs were more successful than defendants in litigating certification motions in ERISA class actions, as plaintiffs won 17 of 22 certification rulings in 2017.

A map illustrating these trends is shown below:

Overall Trends

So what conclusions overall can be drawn on class certification trends in 2017?

In the areas of employment discrimination, wage & hour, and ERISA, 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.

Whereas class certification was somewhat of a coin toss for employment discrimination cases (7 motions granted and 4 motions denied in 2017), class certification is relatively easier in ERISA cases (17 motions granted and 5 motions denied in 2017), but most prevalent in wage & hour litigation (with 170 conditional certification motions granted and 63 motions denied, as well as 15 decertification motions granted and 9 motions denied).

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

  • a 64% success rate for certification of employment discrimination class actions (both Title VII and age discrimination cases);
  • a 77% success rate for certification of ERISA class actions; and,
  • a 73% 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 76% (with 2017 right in the middle at 73%) 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 2017 for employers was an increase in the odds of successful decertification of wage & hour cases to 63%, as compared to 45% in 2016, 36% in 2015, and 52% in 2014.

The on-going defense of litigation and participation in discovery following conditional certification is often an expensive proposition for employers, and many choose to settle to avoid that scenario. However, for employers that face the costs of discovery and then litigate decertification motions, the pay-off in 2017 was a fracturing of cases at the highest success rate in over a decade – a decertification percentage of 63%.

Comparatively, the trend over the past four 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 2017 was the Supreme Court’s ruling 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.

Implications For Employers

For employers, there are multiple lessons to be drawn from these trends in 2017.

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 2017, their certification numbers were consistent with levels in the last several years.

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.

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.

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.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In yesterday’s blog, readers were given an extensive overview of the historically high numbers regarding class action settlements in 2017.  Today, author Jerry Maatman provides his own analysis of these class action settlement numbers in our video blog series.  Jerry highlights the most important markers of 2017, and previews the class action landscape employers may have to adjust to in 2018.  Watch in the link below!

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements skyrocketed in 2017.  Though all-time highs in this category were reached in each of the past three years, this year’s Report found that 2017 saw decidedly higher settlements.  The top ten settlements in employment-related class actions totaled $2.72 billion in 2017, an increase of over $970 million from $1.75 billion in 2016.  In this blog, we give our readers an exclusive analysis of this important workplace trend.

As measured by the top ten largest case resolutions in various workplace class action categories, overall settlement numbers increased exponentially in 2017 as compared to 2016.

This continued the reversal of a trend that began with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart in 2011. By tightening Rule 23 standards and raising the bar for class certification, Wal-Mart made it more difficult for plaintiffs to certify class actions, and to convert their class action filings into substantial settlements.

The settlement statistics for 2017 underscore how the plaintiffs’ bar has successfully “found a way” around the impediments to transforming their case filings into large settlements on a class-wide basis. This also reflects a process whereby there has been a maturing of case architecture considerations, as plaintiffs’ lawyers have “re-booted” their strategic approaches to take account of Wal-Mart, and crafted refined class certification theories with better chances of success.

That phenomenon is still being played out, as well as manifesting itself in settlement dynamics.

Considering all types of workplace class actions, settlement numbers in 2017 totaled $2.72 billion, which increased significantly from 2016 when such settlements totaled $1.75 billion.

The 2017 figure also eclipsed the settlement numbers of 2015, which were then at the all-time high of $2.48 billion.

The following graphic shows this trend:

In terms of the story behind the numbers, the breakouts by types of workplace class action settlements are instructive.

In 2017, there was a slight downward trend for the value of wage & hour class action settlements, and significant increases across-the-board for resolutions of class actions involving employment discrimination, statutory workplace laws, and ERISA class actions, as well as governmental enforcement litigation.

This phenomenon is shown by the following chart for 2017 settlement numbers:

By type of case, settlements values in employment discrimination class actions, private plaintiff statutory workplace class actions, and government enforcement cases experienced the most significant increases.

The top ten settlements in the private plaintiff statutory class action category (e.g., cases brought for breach of contract for employee benefits, and workplace antitrust laws and statutes such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) totaled $487.28 million.

This figure increased from $114.7 million in 2016.

The following chart shows this nearly five-fold increase:

Most telling, however, the reversal of the “Wal-Mart effect” is shown by the pattern for employment discrimination class action settlements in 2017, as well as a comparison of the settlement figures with previous settlement activity over the last decade.

This trend is illustrated in the following chart:

In 2017, the value of the top ten largest employment discrimination class action settlements of $293.5 million was the second highest figure since 2010, and bucked the trend that started in 2011 (after Wal-Mart was decided) that showed decreases in settlement amounts over three years of that four-year period. On a comparative basis, the settlement figure for 2017 was the third highest over the past eight years.

This trend, however, did not hold for wage & hour class action settlements. In 2017, the value of the top ten wage & hour settlements was $525 million, a decrease of over $170 million from 2016. However, when analyzed over the past eight years, the figure of $525 million actually was the second highest annual total in that time period.

When coupled together, the two-year period of 2016 and 2017 saw over $1.2 billion in the top wage & hour settlements.

Further, this is most telling in examining the last four years, for 2016 represented almost a quadrupling (after two years of declining numbers in 2013 and 2014) in the value of the top wage & hour settlements as compared to 2014.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

These settlement numbers reflect that Wal-Mart has had far less of an impact in this substantive legal area, as FLSA settlements are not explicitly tied to the concepts on class certification addressed in Wal-Mart (and instead, are based on the standards under 29 U.S.C.§ 216(b)).

Relatedly, the top ten settlements in government enforcement litigation experienced a booming upward arc, as they increased nearly ten-fold from $52.3 million in 2016 to $485.25 million in 2017.

By comparison, the top ten settlements in 2016 represented a slight decrease even from 2015, when settlements hit one of their lowest points in the past eight years.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart of settlements from 2010 to 2017:

ERISA class action settlements also were up in 2017, as the top ten settlements totaled $927.8 million. This figure represented an increase from $807.4 million in 2016.

Further, ERISA settlements for the two-year period of 2016 and 2017 were a combined $1.73 billion.

While the 2016 aggregate settlement number was nearly six times greater than in 2013, it entailed a significant decrease from 2014 (when settlements were $1.31 billion).

This trend is illustrated by the following chart of settlements from 2010 to 2017:

Implications For Employers

Settlement trends in workplace class action litigation are impacted by many factors.

In the coming year, settlement activity is apt to be influenced by developing case law interpreting U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the impact of the Trump Administration’s labor and employment enforcement policies, case filing trends of the plaintiffs’ class action bar, and class certification rulings. Stay tuned!

Seyfarth Synopsis: At 878 pages, Seyfarth’s 14th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report analyzes 1,408 rulings and is our biggest and most voluminous Report ever.

Click here to access the microsite featuring all the Report highlights. You can read about the four major trends of the past year, order your copy of the eBook, and download Chapters 1 and 2 on the 2018 Executive Summary and key class action settlements.

The Report was featured today in an exclusive article in the Wall Street Journal. 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 definitive ‘must-have’ for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation.  Anyone who practices in this area, whether as an 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. You can read more about the review here.

The 2018 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 2017 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 increased exponentially over the past decade. More often than not, class actions pose unique “bet-the-company” risks for employers. 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 adversely impact a corporation’s business operations, jeopardize or cut short the careers of senior management, and cost millions of dollars to defend. For these reasons, risks from workplace class actions are at the top of the list of challenges that keep business leaders up late at night.

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. 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 in 2017, governmental enforcement litigation pursued by the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) continued to manifest an aggressive “push-the-envelope” agenda by agencies, with regulatory oversight of workplace issues continuing as a high priority.

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 2018 is the continuing evolution in federal policies based on a new political party occupying the White House for part of 2017. Furthermore, while changes to government priorities started on Inauguration Day and are on-going, others are being carried out by new leadership at the agency level who were appointed in the fourth quarter of 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 2017

An overview of workplace class action litigation developments in 2017 reveals four key trends.

First, the monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements rose dramatically in 2017. These numbers increased over past years, even after they had reached all-time highs in 2014 to 2016. The plaintiffs’ employment class action bar and governmental enforcement litigators were exceedingly successful in monetizing their case filings into large class-wide settlements, and they did so at decidedly higher values than in previous years. The top ten settlements in various employment-related class action categories totaled $2.72 billion in 2017, an increase of over $970 million from $1.75 billion in 2016. Furthermore, settlements of employment discrimination class actions experienced over a three-fold increase in value; statutory workplace class actions saw nearly a five-fold increase; and government enforcement litigation registered nearly a ten-fold increase. Whether this is the beginning of a long-range trend or a short-term aberration remains to be seen as 2018 unfolds, but the determinative markers suggest this upward trend will rise further in 2018, at least insofar as private plaintiff class actions are concerned.

Second, while federal and state courts issued many favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar in 2017, evolving case law precedents and new defense approaches resulted in better outcomes for employers in opposing class certification requests. 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 employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, the plaintiffs’ bar scored well in securing class certification rulings in federal courts in 2017 (over comparative figures for 2016). Class actions were certified in significant 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. Yet, while the sheer volume of wage & hour certification decisions in 2017 increased as compared to last year, employers actually fared better in litigating those class certification motions in federal court than last year. Of the 257 wage & hour certification decisions in 2017, plaintiffs won 170 of 233 conditional certification rulings (approximately 73%), but lost 15 of 24 decertification rulings (approximately 63%). By way of comparison, there were 224 wage & hour certification decisions in 2016, where plaintiffs won 147 of 195 conditional certification rulings (approximately 76%) and lost 13 of 29 decertification rulings (approximately 45%). In sum, employers beat slightly more first stage conditional certification motions in 2017, and dramatically increased their odds – a jump of 18% – of fracturing cases with successful decertification motions.

Third, filings and settlements of government enforcement litigation in 2017 did not reflect a head-snapping pivot from the ideological pro-worker (or anti-big business) outlook of the Obama Administration to a pro-business, less regulation/litigation viewpoint of the Trump Administration. Instead, as compared to 2016, government enforcement litigation actually increased in 2017. As an example, the EEOC alone brought 184 lawsuits in 2017 as compared to 86 lawsuits in 2016. Further, the settlement value of the top ten settlements in government enforcement cases jumped dramatically – from $52.3 million in 2016 to $485.25 million in 2017. The explanations for this phenomenon are wide and 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 2017. This trend is 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 2018 opens, it appears that the content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration will tilt away from the pro-employee/anti-big business mindset of the previous Administration. Trump appointees at the DOL and the EEOC 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 2018. The ultimate effect, however, may well prompt the private plaintiffs’ class action bar to “fill the void” and expand the volume of workplace litigation pursued against employers over the coming year as the DOL and the EEOC adjust their litigation enforcement activities.

Fourth and finally, class action litigation increasingly has been shaped and influenced 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 – and 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 years. More cases also were accepted for review in 2017 that are positioned for rulings in 2018, including what may be the most high-stakes issue impacting employers since the Wal-Mart ruling in 2011 – the Epic Systems, Murphy Oil, and E & Y trilogy of cases on the legality of workplace arbitration agreements with class action waivers. The ruling expected in the Epic System, Murphy Oil, and E & Y cases in 2018 may well change the class action playing field in profound ways. Coupled with the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and potential additional appointments to the Supreme Court by President Trump in 2018 and beyond, litigation dynamics may well be re-shaped in ways that further change the playbook for prosecuting and defending class actions.

Implications For Employers

The one constant in workplace class action litigation is change. More than any other year in recent memory, 2017 was a year of great change in the landscape of Rule 23. As these issues play out in 2018, additional chapters in the class action playbook will be written.

The lesson to draw from 2017 is that the private plaintiffs’ bar and government enforcement attorneys at the state level are apt to be equally, if not more, aggressive in 2018 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 2018.

 

Seyfarth Synopsis: In early September of 2017, Judge Richard Posner announced his retirement from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a position he had held since his appointment by President Reagan in 1981.  Judge Posner served as Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit from 1993-2000. Scholars and commentators agree that Judge Posner wrote some of the most influential legal decisions of the past 50 years.  In this video, Partner Jennifer Riley discusses the accomplished career of Justice Posner with esteemed class action litigator Jerry Maatman.  In particular, they highlight the class action legacy in Judge Posner’s opinions.

 

Summary

Prior to his retirement this Fall, Judge Posner was one of the most well-known U.S. Appellate Court justices in recent history.  He is held in high regard in the fields of law and economics, and is famous for his writings on topics such as contract law, civil rights, antitrust laws, workplace rights, and federal jurisprudence.  An author of over 40 books, Judge Posner was cited as often as any federal judge in the U.S.

In terms of class actions, Judge Posner wrote a number of famous opinions regarding the interpretation of Rule 23.  These decisions include cases such as Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., In Re Walgreen Co. Stockholder Litigation, and Eubank, et al. v. Pella Corp.  Though the Seventh Circuit often has been regarded as a fairly conservative jurisdiction, its track record has been somewhat “certification friendly”  in terms of Rule 23 issues while Judge Posner was active.  His focus on protecting the participants in a class action and his exacting scrutiny over settlements are cemented in his legacy on the bench.  As Jerry emphasizes in the video, whether or not legal professionals agree with Judge Posner’s class action interpretations, they must certainly take account of his positions on Rule 23 issues.

Thank you to our Partners Jennifer Riley and Jerry Maatman for participating in yet another interesting vlog.  Readers of the blog know to stay tuned, as we will continue to produce content on the hottest legal issues!

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

Seyfarth Synopsis: Four African-American teachers alleged that their school district employer discriminated against them on the basis of race by failing to hire them as assistant principals, and filed a motion for class certification. A federal district court in Florida denied the teachers’ motion for class certification, finding the employees failed to satisfy the commonality requirement of Rule 23 based on the exercise of discretion by different hiring principals at different schools. The ruling has important lessons for employers facing Rule 23 motions in workplace class actions.

***

In Gittens v. The School Board of Lee County, Florida, No. 2:16-CV-412, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115987 (M.D. Fla. July 7, 2017), Plaintiffs brought suit against their employer, the School Board of Lee County, Florida (“School District”), alleging that the School District discriminated against them on the basis of their race, i.e., African-American.  After Plaintiffs moved for class certification, Judge Mac R. McCoy of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied their motion, finding that Plaintiffs “fail[ed] to provide the necessary glue to hold the putative class claims together under [the] commonality analysis,” that was set forth in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011).  Id. at *34.  The Court also found that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the sufficiency of the proposed class definition, the ascertainability of the putative class, adequacy, typicality, and the Rule 23(b) requirements.

For employers facing workplace class actions where putative class members are subjected to employment decisions by different supervisors at different facilities, this ruling is another post-Wal-Mart employer victory that can be used to oppose class certification.

Case Background

Plaintiffs, four African-Americans, held various teaching and administrative positions at various schools within the School District.  Id. at *6-12.  All four Plaintiffs had advanced degrees, and sought administrative positions at various schools, including the position of assistant principal.  All four had at least one interview for the assistant principal position, and two were interviewed by panels of all-White school administrators.  All four Plaintiffs were rejected for assistant principal positions.

To be considered for an assistant principal position, an applicant must first apply and be accepted into the AP Pool.  Id. at *13.  Once accepted, an individual may then apply and be hired for a specific assistant principal position at a certain school.  Each individual school advertises its open assistant principal positions, screens the applicants, conducts its own interviews and, when selected by the Principal of that specific school, the candidate’s name is submitted to the Superintendent, who then sends it to the School Board for final approval.

Plaintiffs alleged that the School District had a pattern or practice of refusing to hire well-qualified, African-American employees to administrative positions.  After bringing class-wide allegations under Title VII for race discrimination, Plaintiffs moved to certify a class of current and former employees who had applied for various positions with the School Board, including assistant principal positions.

The Decision

The Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.  First, the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ class definition, “[a]ny and all black/African-American employees who applied for an AP Pool position in the four years preceding this action but who were denied such a position by Defendant,” as being improperly vague and ambiguous.  Id. at *18-20.  The Court noted that that the class definition was unclear as to whether “denied”  referred to the AP Pool or the actual assistant principal position.

After the Court found that Plaintiffs satisfied the numerosity requirement of Rule 23, it held that Plaintiffs failed to establish that there were common questions of law or fact sufficient to satisfy the commonality requirement.  The Court opined that “[s]imilar to [Wal-Mart v. Dukes], the Plaintiffs here wish to bring suit calling into question a relatively large number of employment decisions at once. Without some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question why was I disfavored.”  Id. at *28 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  The Court held that the exercise of discretion by schools and principals over time at different schools precluded a finding of commonality.  Id. at *30.

Turning to the typicality requirement of Rule 23, the Court held that the named Plaintiffs failed to meet this requirement because each individual school advertised its opening for an assistant principal position and had its own decision-maker screening applicants and conducting interviews before the school principal selected the top applicant.  Id. at *37.  The Court determined that Plaintiffs did not meet their burden to show that their claims were based on the same event, pattern, or practice as the claims of other putative class members.  Regarding the adequacy of representation requirement, citing Plaintiffs’ counsel’s motion to withdraw as counsel of one of the named Plaintiffs due to “a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship,” the Court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden.  Id. at *39-40.  Finally, Plaintiffs could not meet the Rule 23(b) requirements since not all of the Rule 23(a) requirements were met.  Id. at *40-41.  Accordingly, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

Implications For Employers

One of the most crucial events in employment law class actions is class certification briefing, which can potentially lead to several more commas and zeros in a settlement figure or jury verdict if an employer is not successful.  The Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision has given employers an avenue to attack large class actions where decisions made by different supervisors at different facilities can make it difficult for employees to prove common questions of law and fact.  Although the Court here identified several reasons not to certify this particular putative class, employers are now armed with another post-Wal-Mart ruling that they can use as a blueprint to fight class certification on the basis of commonality.