Brinker: Strong Endorsement of Class Actions to Adjudicate Meal and Rest Claims

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In addition to being an exhaustive statement as to California’s substantive meal and rest break law, the Supreme Court’s 54-page Brinker decision (available here) also sets forth important class action doctrine, most of which favors class-wide adjudication. Moreover, the concurring opinion (authored by Justice Werdegar, who also wrote the unanimous majority opinion) suggests that the First Appellate District’s Duran v. U.S. Bank National Ass’n, 203 Cal. App. 4th 212 (2012)—considered by many to be a radical departure from established class action jurisprudence—might not sit well with some of the justices.

As to class certification, Brinker reversed the Court of Appeal’s finding that the trial court had abused its discretion by certifying the class but failing “to determine the elements of plaintiffs’ claims.” Slip op. at 10. Brinker ruled that although “trial courts must resolve any legal or factual issues that are necessary to a determination whether class certification is proper, the Court of Appeal went too far by intimating that a trial court must as a threshold matter always resolve any party disputes over the elements of a claim.” Slip op. at 10. In doing so, Brinker reasserts the long-established divide between merits- and certification-related determinations, and the primacy of the plaintiff’s “theory of recovery” in trial courts’ certification analysis. Slip op. at 13.

The Brinker concurrence elaborated on the decision’s core class certification content by endorsing statistical and sampling methodologies ideally suited to class actions: “[W]e have encouraged the use of a variety of methods to enable individual claims that might otherwise go unpursued to be vindicated, and to avoid windfalls to defendants that harm many in small amounts rather than a few in large amounts.” See Concurring slip op. at 4. The concurrence supported this statement with citations to the substantial body of California Supreme Court precedent, from Daar v. Yellow Cab Co., 67 Cal. 2d 695 (1967), to Sav-On Drug Stores, Inc. v. Superior Court, 34 Cal. 4th 319 (2004). Many observers take the support for statistical methods to be a sign of willingness, on the part of the concurring justices at least, to review Duran, which has been interpreted (mainly by the defense bar) as purporting to import “due process” doctrine akin to that in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision into California’s class action jurisprudence.

Thus, while Brinker is perhaps a mix of holdings on substantive meal and rest break law, it is a uniformly strong endorsement of class actions as well as suitable methodologies and case management tactics.