Posts belonging to Category Certification Rulings



Employee or Independent Contractor? Simple as A-B-C

On April 30, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited ruling in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. S22732, 2018 WL 1999120 (April 30, 2018) (slip op. available here). Dynamex announced a new test under California law to determine whether workers are properly classified as independent contractors rather than employees and, in so doing, adopted the “ABC test,” a standard that should make class certification of misclassification claims more likely. The ruling will also presumably result in findings that many “independent contractors” are currently misclassified and, therefore, are entitled to the rights and benefits of California’s wage orders. These important benefits include the right to minimum wage, overtime, meal and rest breaks, and, depending on the wage order in question, reimbursement for certain business expenses.

In Dynamex, the plaintiffs alleged that Dynamex, a nationwide package and document delivery company, had improperly misclassified its delivery drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. The drivers claimed that the misclassification led to Dynamex’s violation of the provisions of Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order No. 9, the applicable state wage order governing the transportation industry, and various sections of the Labor Code. Id. at 3. Then, the plaintiffs moved for class certification. The trial court granted certification of a class consisting of “Dynamex drivers who, during a pay period, did not themselves employ other drivers and did not do delivery work for other delivery businesses or for the drivers’ own personal customers.” Id. at 4. In certifying the class, the trial court determined that the applicable standard for determining whether the drivers were employees was the test announced in Martinez v. Combs, 49 Cal.4th 35 (2010), which held that “[t]o employ . . . under the [wage order], has three alternative definitions[:] (a) to exercise control over the wages, hours, or working conditions, or (b) to suffer or permit to work, or (c) to engage, thereby creating a common law employment relationship.” 49 Cal.4th 35, 64.

Thus, the trial court rejected Dynamex’s argument that the multi-factor test from S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal.3d 341 (1989), governs the independent contractor analysis rather than the Martinez test. Dynamex at 4. Dynamex had claimed that the Martinez wage order definitions are relevant only to the joint employer question that was directly presented in Martinez—namely, whether, when a worker is an admitted employee of a primary employer, another business or entity that has some relationship with the primary employer should properly be considered a joint employer of the worker and therefore also responsible, along with the primary employer, for the obligations imposed by the wage order. Id. at 5. Dynamex then appealed the trial court’s order of certification. The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that the wage order definitions discussed in Martinez are applicable to the “employee or independent contractor” question with respect to obligations arising out of the wage order, and not just to joint employer determinations. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s class certification order with respect to all of plaintiffs’ claims based on alleged violations of the wage order. Id.

Dynamex filed a petition for review, and the California Supreme Court granted review. In rendering a unanimous decision, the court extensively analyzed the relevant wage orders and judicial decisions and announced a new test for determining whether a worker is to be classified as an employee or independent contractor. The court interpreted the “suffer or permit to work” standard in California’s wage orders as: (1) placing the burden on the hiring entity to establish that the worker is an independent contractor who was not intended to be included within the wage order’s coverage; and (2) requiring the hiring entity, in order to meet this burden, to establish each of the three factors embodied in the ABC test—namely (A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact; and (B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed. Id. at 57, n20. Further, the court held that the hiring entity’s failure to satisfy any one of the three parts itself establishes that the worker should be treated as an employee for purposes of the wage order. Id. at 76. The court also provided guidance as to case management, commenting that a trial court is free to consider the separate parts of the ABC standard in whatever order it chooses and that, in terms of increased clarity and consistency, courts will often be best served by first considering one or both of the latter two parts of the standard (i.e., B and C) in resolving the employee or independent contractor question. Id.

Dynamex streamlines the employee/contactor analysis because only one prong may need be analyzed, simplifying the theory of liability and making certification far more probable. For example, in many cases, the plaintiff can focus on part B of the ABC test to argue that there is sufficient commonality of interest regarding the question whether the work provided by the workers is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business to permit the plaintiff’s claim of misclassification to be resolved on a class basis. If so, the class will be certified and the merits of the case hinge on an analysis of this single question. In fact, that is exactly how the California Supreme Court applied its new legal standard to the facts in Dynamex and accordingly affirmed the trial court’s certification order. Id. at 78-82. The state Supreme Court also analyzed part C of the ABC test and found a sufficient commonality of interest as to whether the drivers in the certified class are customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business to permit resolution of that issue on a class basis. Id. at 81.

The significance of Dynamex on independent contractor misclassification claims in California cannot be overstated. Dynamex should also increase the likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail on the merits given that the work performed by the “contractors” is frequently part of, or even critical to, the hiring entities’ business. For example, it is now difficult to imagine that delivery drivers would not be employees for any company with a business model that centers on, or includes, the delivery of products. Whereas workers such as plumbers, electricians, and other trade workers would properly be classified as independent contractors, given that they are customarily engaged in business distinct from the hiring entity. Many companies, especially those part of the gig economy, rely on the use of independent contractors as key to their business model, since it would be much more expensive to provide benefits and rights to which an employee would be entitled. It is now clear that many of those companies will need to make dramatic changes to their workforce to comply with California law.

Authored By:
Robert Drexler, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Brown v. Cinemark: 9th Cir. Finds Cert Denial Appealable Following Settlement for Consideration & Recognizes Minimal Standard for PAGA Notice Letters

On December 7, 2017, in a published order, the Ninth Circuit rejected dismissal of an appeal of the denial of class certification by two plaintiff employees who had settled their individual claims and preserved certain class and representative claims for appeal, because the parties’ mutual settlement for consideration did not amount to “sham tactics” to manufacture an appealable final judgment under recent Supreme Court precedent. Brown v. Cinemark USA, Inc., No. 16-15377 (9th Cir. Dec. 7, 2017) (Ms. Brown and Mr. De La Rosa are represented by Capstone Law APC) (order available here). In an unpublished memorandum filed with the order, the panel reversed the denial of class certification and the dismissal of the claim under the Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), finding that the district court had erred in denying class certification based on the pleadings and had erroneously dismissed the PAGA claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under Williams v. Superior Court, 3 Cal.5th 531 (2017), a case decided after the district court had issued its order (memorandum available here).

Plaintiffs Brown and De La Rosa were movie theater employees who brought a wage and hour class and representative action against their employer and consolidated their case with another action. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ joint motion for class certification, which, among others, sought to certify a direct wage statement claim under Labor Code section 226(a). The district court’s ruling was based solely on the pleadings, finding the wage statement claims had been pleaded derivatively rather than directly, and provided no Rule 23 class certification analysis. The court also dismissed the direct wage statement PAGA claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, finding that the PAGA notice letters had not provided sufficient information. Finally, the district court denied leave to amend the complaint and the remaining individual claims were set for trial. However, prior to trial, the parties settled all remaining individual claims for consideration, reserving the right to challenge the district court’s denial of class certification and the dismissal of Ms. Brown’s PAGA claim. Order at 4. Both plaintiffs appealed the issues reserved by the settlement. Id.

Cinemark subsequently brought a motion to dismiss the appeal in light of Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, 137 S. Ct. 1702 (2017), which was issued after the notice of appeal was filed. The Ninth Circuit denied the motion to dismiss the appeal. First, the Ninth Circuit distinguished Baker, noting that in Baker, the district court had denied class certification and the Ninth Circuit had denied discretionary interlocutory review under Rule 23(f). Order at 4. Then, “rather than pursue their individual claims on the merits, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their own claims with the express purpose of creating a final judgment for appeal.” Id. The Baker plaintiffs subsequently only appealed the district court’s interlocutory order denying class certification. The Supreme Court of the United States found that such a voluntary dismissal did not qualify as a “final decision” within the parameters of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and was a tactic that would undermine section 1291’s firm finality principle. Id. Here, however, the Ninth Circuit found that “unlike Baker, where the plaintiffs openly intended to sidestep Rule 23(f) when they voluntarily dismissed their claims[,]” after the district court denied certification, the Brown plaintiffs continued litigating their remaining individual claims, some of which resolved in favor of the defendants and some resulted in settlement. Id. at 5. The Brown plaintiffs did not engage in any “sham tactics to achieve an appealable final judgment,” and “the parties’ mutual settlement for consideration in this case does not raise the same concerns.” Id.

Second, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Ms. Brown’s PAGA claim based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies “[g]iven the import of Williams.” Memorandum at 2. The panel found that the PAGA notice letter “pleaded facts and theories sufficient to put the Defendants and the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency [LWDA] on notice for potential investigation, which satisfies the policy goal of California Labor Code section 2699.3(a).” Id. at 2-3. Quoting the California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision verbatim, the Ninth Circuit underscored that “[h]urdles that impede the effective prosecution of representative PAGA actions undermine the Legislature’s objectives.” Id. at 3. The panel further relied on the powerful dicta in Williams setting a very modest standard for PAGA notice letter sufficiency, recognizing that “[n]othing in Labor Code section 2699.3, subdivision (a)(1)(A), indicates the ‘facts and theories’ provided in support of ‘alleged’ violations must satisfy a particular threshold of weightiness, beyond the requirements of nonfrivolousness generally applicable to any civil filing.” Id.

Third, the Ninth Circuit found the district court erred in denying class certification of the direct wage statement claim on the basis of the pleadings. Memorandum at 3. Because the district court based its decision to deny certification solely on the pleadings rather than a Rule 23 analysis, the Ninth Circuit reviewed that decision de novo rather than applying the more deferential abuse of discretion normally reserved for certification rulings. It concluded that the pleadings put the defendants on sufficient notice of wage statement violations, whether direct or derivative, and further found that the plaintiffs’ pleadings merited a Rule 23 analysis for their direct wage statement claim. Id. It thus vacated the order and remanded for the district court to conduct a Rule 23 analysis.

The import of the Brown rulings is that Baker does not necessarily preclude federal appellate review of certification orders pursuant to partial settlements for consideration, particularly when the parties continue litigation. Further, with respect to PAGA notice letters, the Ninth Circuit has demonstrated that the California Supreme Court’s recent pronouncement in Williams is key—that PAGA notice letters need not meet any “threshold of weightiness,” but need only put defendants and the LWDA on notice of potential investigations, a low bar that need only pass the requirements of “non-frivolousness.”

Authored By:
Liana Carter, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Class Certification Order in In re: Dial Complete Marketing Provides a Lesson in Economics

In product labeling class actions, consumer plaintiffs must provide a damages methodology that is both admissible under Fed. R. Evid. 702 (i.e. survives a challenge under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms. Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1973)) and satisfies the requirements of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1433 (2013) (“a model purporting to serve as evidence of damages in [a] class action must measure only those damages attributable to that theory”).

In In re: Dial Complete Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, MDL Case No. 11-md-2263-SM, 2017 DNH 051 (D.N.H. March 27, 2017) (“In re: Dial”) (slip op. available here), the court found that the plaintiffs met both aspects of this challenge. In re: Dial was a consolidated, multi-district class action brought by consumers in multiple states, including California, Florida, and Illinois, against Dial based on alleged misrepresentations of the antibacterial properties of its “Dial Complete” soap. Slip op. at 3. The court denied Dial’s motion to strike the testimony of the plaintiffs’ expert, Stefan Boedeker, and held that the expert’s damages model based on conjoint analysis methodology “satisfies the requirements of Comcast and Rule 23.” Id. at 30. However, what sets apart In re: Dial from previous cases discussing conjoint analysis is its in-depth discussion of the economic principles of the methodology.

The plaintiffs in In re: Dial alleged that the label on “Dial Complete” soap contained a number of statements that were false and misleading, including claims that the product “Kills 99.99% of Germs,” that it is “#1 Doctor Recommended,” and that Dial Complete “Kills more germs than any other liquid hand soap.” Slip op. at 3. The expert’s task was to isolate a “measurable monetary portion” of the price of the soap attributable to the falsely-claimed product features. Id. at 19. The court began by noting that the expert’s conjoint analysis methodology “consists of three steps: data collection, data analysis and damages calculation” and then described in detail how the expert-designed “Choice Based Conjoint” consumer survey worked. Id. at 6-10. Then, observing that “conjoint analysis is a well-accepted economic methodology,” the court had no problem dismissing Dial’s criticisms of the expert’s survey as “going to the weight, not the admissibility,” of the expert’s testimony. Id. at 13-17.

The court’s decision had, in certain respects, an academic depth to its analysis, explaining economic concepts like demand curves (“a visual depiction of the relationship between a product’s price and quantity demanded”) and marginal consumers (“the last consumer willing to pay for a product at a given price and, consequently, the first to leave if the price is increased”), and how those concepts and research data combined to permit an expert to perform a “calculation [that] will yield the price premium associated with the ‘Kills 99.99% of Germs’ claim.” Slip op. at 25-27. Finally, the court rejected Dial’s expert’s critique of the damages model that it is “unconnected to supply side market forces” with a cogent explanation of why a “traditional” supply and demand approach was problematic and why the plaintiffs’ expert’s model, holding the number of products actually sold constant on the supply/demand graph, actually “captured the full measure of damages suffered by consumers who actually bought the allegedly misrepresented product.” Id. at 28.

The court’s illuminating discussion of surveys, economics, and conjoint analysis should be required reading for any litigator planning to develop a damages model for class certification.

Authored By:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

9th Cir. Weighs in on Ascertainability Debate with ConAgra Ruling, Challenging Circuit Split

Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit joined the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits in declining to add “administrative feasibility” to Rule 23’s class certification requirements. Briseno v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., No. 15-55727 (9th Cir. Jan. 3, 2017) (slip op. available here). The ConAgra decision has been widely considered a victory for plaintiffs’ attorneys, as the Ninth Circuit refused to expand the requirements that plaintiffs must show for class certification and provided in-depth rebuttals to arguments made by the Third Circuit in requiring an additional showing of administrative feasibility to satisfy Rule 23.

In ConAgra, the Ninth Circuit upheld U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow’s decision granting class certification to consumers in 11 states who allege that they were misled by the “all natural” claims on ConAgra’s Wesson cooking oil. Plaintiff Briseno, on behalf of himself and the class of consumers, alleged that ConAgra’s Wesson-brand cooking oil claims to be “all natural” but, in fact, contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and that Plaintiff Briseno and other consumers, to their detriment, relied on ConAgra’s misleading “all natural” claims when purchasing the cooking oil.

ConAgra opposed the district court’s certification decision on appeal, arguing that the Ninth Circuit should join the Third Circuit and reverse certification because the plaintiff failed to provide an “administratively feasible” plan to determine ascertainability. See Byrd v. Aaron’s Inc., 784 F.3d 154, 162-63 (3d Cir. 2015); Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300, 306-08 (3d Cir. 2013) (imposing “administrative feasibility” as a prerequisite to class certification). However, Circuit Judge Michelle T. Friedland, writing for the court, sharply disagreed with ConAgra’s stance stating, “ . . . Rule 23’s enumerated criteria already address the policy concerns that have motivated some courts to adopt a separate administrative feasibility requirement, and do so without undermining the balance of interests struck by the Supreme Court, Congress, and the other contributors to the Rule.” Slip op. at 4.

Rule 23 specifies four distinct requirements that parties seeking certification must satisfy: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy. The Third Circuit previously voiced concerns, which ConAgra relied upon in its appeal, over the potential for fraudulent claims and defendant’s due process rights if administrative feasibility was not an additional pre-requisite for class certification. Slip op. 15-23. In this context, “administrative feasibility” would have meant that the plaintiffs would also be required to proffer a reliable method of identifying members of the certified class. However, Judge Friedland pointed to several means by which Rule 23 already addresses those concerns, most notably via the claims administration process, and found the enumerated list to be exhaustive. Id.

In March, the Ninth Circuit agreed to postpone making official its decision to stay issuance of the mandate in light of ConAgra’s request for Supreme Court review. The ConAgra decision further serves to defend and strengthen the role that class actions play in today’s jurisprudence, as Judge Friedland consistently expressed that small dollar consumer class actions exemplify the necessity of class actions and that imposing additional hurdles on consumers is inconsistent with the legislative intent of Rule 23.

Authored by:
Trisha Monesi, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC