Friday, November 14, 2014

California Court of Appeal: Overtime Misclassification Cases Are Best Suited for Class Action, Even Where Employer Raises Exemption Defense Based On Individualized Questions

This week, in a decision synthesizing a line of recent California Supreme Court decisions, including Duran v. U.S. Bank and Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc., a California Court of Appeal reaffirmed the longstanding principle that “classwide relief remains the preferred method of resolving wage and hour claims, even those in which the facts appear to present difficult issues of proof.” The opinion, Martinez v. Joe’s Crab Shack Holdings, B242807 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. November 10, 2014), 2014 WL 5804110, is available here.

The case was filed on behalf of salaried employees of Joe’s Crab Shack (“JCS”) restaurants, on claims that they had been misclassified as exempt employees and were entitled to unpaid overtime pay. They alleged that they spent the majority of their time performing “utility” functions, filling in where needed as cooks, servers, bussers, hosts, stockers, bartenders, or kitchen staff. As a result, they worked extended time in positions ordinarily occupied by hourly employees, but had received no overtime compensation for those tasks. Defendants contended that these employees served in “executive capacities” and were therefore exempt from overtime requirement.

The trial court initially denied class certification, concluding, “The variability among individual members of the putative class would require adjudication of the affirmative defense of exemption for each class member, a time- and resource-consuming process.” The court relied on (1) plaintiffs’ inability to estimate the number of hours spent on individual exempt and nonexempt tasks; and (2) “individual disputed issues of fact relating to the amount of time spent by individual class members on particular tasks.”

The Court of Appeal reversed, and Supreme Court granted review and deferred further action pending the outcome of Duran v. U.S. Bank. Following the Duran decision in July 2014 (59 Cal.4th 1), the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration.

On reconsideration, the Court of Appeal affirmed its prior reversal of the trial court’s order and clarified several guiding principles for the certification analysis when confronted with the “myriad individual facts” asserted by employers in support of their exemption defense to a wage claim.

First, the court explained that “individual inquires” do not “necessarily overwhelm common issues when a case involves exemptions premised on how employees spend the work day.”  The court provided, “Where standardized job duties or other policies result in employees uniformly spending most of their time on nonexempt work, class treatment may be appropriate even if the case involves an exemption that typically entails fact-specific inquiries.” (quoting Duran, 59 Cal.4th at 31). The proper focus should be on “the policies – formal or informal – in force in the work place,” rather than on “the inevitable variation inherent in tracing the actions of individuals.” (quoting Ayala, 59 Cal.4th at 535). The court concluded that that plaintiffs’ theory of liability – that JCS classified all managerial employees as exempt while the common policies across JCS restaurants dictated that they perform hourly functions – is “by nature a common question eminently suited for class treatment.”   

The court also explained, in examining the employer’s actual policies, that the proper inquiry is on “the employer’s realistic expectations and classification of tasks,” not employees’ retrospective recollection of when they were engaged in exempt or nonexempt tasks. The analysis of employer’s realistic expectations, the court noted, was “likely to prove susceptible of common proof.” In Martinez v. JCS, common proof showed that salaried employees of JCS functioned consistently as utility workers, cross trained in all tasks, who could be assigned to fill in where needed without affecting the labor budget or requiring overtime compensation.  

Finally, the court acknowledged the difficulties presented by potential individual questions and the need to examine how individual employees actually spent their time. For this, the court encouraged use of statistical sampling to identify the realistic demands of the job and to determine whether the typical employee was able to meet those expectations, so long as the method affords an employer an opportunity to prove its affirmative defenses.   

Martinez v. JCS thoroughly rejected the analytic framework which would have created “a requirement that courts assess an employer’s affirmative exemption defense against every class member’s claim before certifying an overtime class action.” It makes crystal clear that the certification rules never envisioned such a requirement. When faced with overtime claims with exemption defenses, the Martinez v. JCS decision now affirms, courts should focus their analysis on the “policies and practices of the employer and the effect those policies and practices have on the putative class,” consider the employer’s realistic expectations of the job, and utilize the analytic tools available in class action suits, such as statistical sampling, even where facts appear to present difficult issues of proof.

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