9th Cir. Reverses Denial of Cert. for Police Officers’ Age Discrim. Class Action; Dilutes Impact of Dukes

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The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit recently reversed a district court’s refusal to certify a class of San Francisco police officers’ age bias claims. Stockwell v. City & County of San Francisco, Case No. 12-15070 (April 24, 2014) (slip opinion available here). The police officers, over the age of 40, alleged that an updated policy (using a new promotional exam) adopted by the city in 2005 caused an age-based disparate impact as to how officers were selected for promotions. The district court denied the officers’ motion for class certification under Rule 23(b)(2), finding that the plaintiffs had only met three of the four prerequisites for class certification and failed to demonstrate commonality; it ruled that their statistical study (submitted to demonstrate disparate impact) failed to include a regression analysis accounting for possible alternative explanations for the statistical imbalance. The district court then expressly declined to evaluate the plaintiffs’ arguments that the putative class satisfied the predominance and superiority requirements under Rule 23(b)(3).

The Ninth Circuit reversed, relying heavily on the Supreme Court’s Amgen decision to conclude that the district court had erred by failing to consider the existence of a common question and instead taking issue with the plaintiffs’ statistical study. Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184 (2013). The Stockwell panel stated that the lower court, in conducting its inquiry on commonality, improperly evaluated the merits, stating that “[w]hile some evaluation of the merits frequently cannot be helped . . . , that likelihood of overlap with the merits is no license to engage in free-ranging merits inquiries at the certification stage.” Slip op. at 9 (internal quotations omitted). Instead, “[m]erits questions may be considered to the extent — but only to the extent — that they are relevant to determining whether the Rule 23 prerequisites for class certification are satisfied.” Id. (citing Amgen, 133 S. Ct. at 1195). Further, the panel wrote, a common contention does not need to be one that “will be answered, on the merits, in favor of the class.” Id. Rather, it only “must be of such a nature that it is capable of class-wide resolution — which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.” Id. (citing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2551 (2010)). Stockwell thus represents an important constraint on the dictum in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes endorsing the conduct of merits-analysis at the class certification stage. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. at 2551-52.

The case was remanded to the district court to reconsider whether the putative class satisfies Rule 23(b)(3) requirements, as well as the other prerequisites for class certification. Stockwell is one of the first decisions to apply Amgen’s reasoning in the context of employment class actions and may have a significant impact on such cases going forward.