Posts belonging to Category Certification Rulings



Keurig K-Cup Consumers Win Class Cert of False “Recyclable” Claims

In Smith v. Keurig, N.D. Cal. Sept.  21, 2020, the district court granted Plaintiff Kathleen Smith’s motion for certification of a class of purchasers of Keurig coffee pods (“K-Cups” or “Pods”) based on Keurig’s allegedly false representation that the Pods are “recyclable.” The decision (slip op. available here) touches on a number of familiar issues that have been brewing in food labeling cases for years.

The plaintiff’s theory of liability boils down to allegations that K-Cups are not recyclable because they fail to meet Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) guidance for Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“Green Guides”). Under the Green Guides, the district court had previously stated, “if a product is rendered non-recyclable because of its size or components—even if the product’s composite materials are recyclable—then labeling the product as recyclable would constitute deceptive marketing” (citing 16 C.F.R. § 260.12(d)). In addition, a marketer may make an unqualified recyclability claim only “[w]hen recycling facilities are available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the item is sold.” 16 C.F.R. § 260.12(b)(1).  According to the plaintiff, the K-Cups are not “recyclable” because (a) less than 60% (or a “substantial majority”) of facilities will accept the products, (b) the products’ size prevents them from being properly sorted by recycling programs, and (c) there is a lack of end markets to recycle the products.

The plaintiff’s theory provides the grounds for several causes of action, including claims under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) and the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”). The plaintiff also sought to certify her claims under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2), in order to obtain injunctive relief.

On the UCL claim, Smith discusses whether Keurig’s advertising raises the presumption of classwide reliance available under Tobacco II in the context of internet sales. The plaintiff testified that she was aware of Keurig’s claims that its products were recyclable, believing that the recycling claims on Keurig’s website and the packaging of products she purchased on the website were true. Smith, slip op. at 9. Since the plaintiff provided evidence that she relied on those representations, and “all the class members were exposed to Keurig’s recyclability representations,” the district court found that Keurig’s “advertising campaign” warranted a presumption of classwide reliance. Id. citing Walker v. Life Ins. Co. of the Sw., 953 F.3d 624, 630 (9th Cir. 2020), In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal.4th 298, 328, 207 P.3d 20, 28 (2009).

Unlike the UCL, the CLRA requires a plaintiff to establish classwide reliance on misrepresentations. Here, the plaintiff successfully argued that, under the California Environmental Marketing Claims Act (“EMCA”) recyclability is material to reasonable consumers, raising an inference of classwide reliance. The EMCA makes it unlawful to make deceptive environmental marketing claims, including “any claim contained in the [Green Guides] published by the [FTC].” Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17580.5(a). As the district court observed, by “specifically outlawing” an allegedly deceptive representation, the Legislature “recognizes the materiality of [the] representation.” Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, 51 Cal.4th 310, 329 (2011).

Lastly, Smith applied Davidson v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 889 F.3d 956, 969 (9th Cir. 2018), to determine that the plaintiff had Article III standing to pursue injunctive relief. Keurig deployed the standard “can’t be fooled again” argument, i.e. that under Davidson, the plaintiff lacked Article III standing to pursue injunctive relief because she is now fully informed that the K-Cups are not “recyclable,” and therefore cannot be harmed by the representation in the future. Smith, slip op. at 18-19. However, Smith presents a factual scenario in which, absent injunctive relief, the plaintiff cannot know whether the “recyclable” representation is true. As the district court observed, “MRF’s [Materials Recovery Facilities] could evolve to capture small plastics such as Pods.” Id. Thus, the court found the plaintiff had Article III standing to seek injunctive relief under Davidson.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Magadia v. Wal-Mart: Employer Loses Bid to Decertify Meal Period Class Due to Its Own Records

Last November, a California federal court rejected Wal-Mart’s effort to decertify a class of employees who took late meal breaks or missed their meal breaks and were not paid adequately by Wal-Mart. Magadia v. Wal-Mart Associates, Inc., No. 17-CV-00062-LHK (N.D. Cal. Nov. 13, 2018) (slip op. available here). The court refused to disturb the prior certification order because the employer’s records, which included codes it generated after its investigation of a missed or late meal period, enabled the court to evaluate Wal-Mart’s liability on a class-wide basis. Slip op. at 8. Plaintiff employees should note that, following this example, certain employer records can be effectively used to answer the question of why meal periods were missed and avoid the need for an individualized, factual inquiry into the violations.

Earlier, the district court had certified three classes: a meal period class, an overtime/wage statement class, and a final wage statement class. Wal-Mart sought to decertify solely the meal period class. Under California law, employers may not employ employees for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing a 30-minute meal period. Cal. Lab. Code § 512(a). Pursuant to the Labor Code, when an employer fails to provide a meal period to an employee in accordance with state law, it must pay the employee one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation—a meal period premium. Cal. Lab. Code § 226.7(c). The plaintiff alleged that, while Wal-Mart pays meal period premiums for non-compliant meal periods, the premiums are inadequate because they are paid at a straight hourly rate rather than at a higher, regular rate. The district court had certified the meal period class because it found that common questions predominated over individualized inquiries with respect to Wal-Mart’s liability to class members “because Wal-Mart’s own records ‘document why each meal exception [i.e., a late or missed meal period] happened.’” Slip op. at 8. In other words, “because Wal-Mart investigates and documents why each meal exception happened, ‘it would not be difficult to determine [Wal-Mart’s] liability to individual plaintiffs.’” Slip op. at 9.

Indeed, Wal-Mart’s practice included conducting an investigation, where its managers or human resource officials met with employees to determine why the meal period exception occurred, and then issuing Exception Management System (“EMS”) codes that Wal-Mart used to categorize the meal period exceptions. For certification, the district court found that such records could be used to extrapolate “whether each meal period premium that was paid to a class member was prompted by an actual failure by Wal-Mart to provide a compliant meal period.” Slip op. at 7.

In moving for decertification, Wal-Mart claimed that its investigations of meal period exceptions focused on documenting associate allegations rather than whether a meal premium was legally required. Wal-Mart contended that its own investigation worksheets were not reliable for determining whether or not Wal-Mart prevented a proper meal period; therefore, individual inquiries would predominate. The plaintiff argued that Wal-Mart’s own testimony demonstrated that it conducted significant and detailed investigations of meal period exceptions, logging the results, and it could not discredit its own documents. Ultimately, the district court denied Wal-Mart’s motion for decertification, finding that “[t]he evidence submitted . . . continues to demonstrate that Wal-Mart’s own records—specifically, the EMS codes generated after a meal period exception investigation—enable the Court to evaluate Wal-Mart’s liability to class members ‘on a class-wide basis,’ which warrants certification.” Slip op. at 8. Wal-Mart’s records appear to answer the question of why meal periods were missed and obviate the need for any heavily factual inquiry into the particular circumstances of each class member. Slip op. at 11.

Although decertification was improper, the district court nonetheless concluded that the question of the significance of Wal-Mart’s records could be revisited at the merits stage. For now, however, the certification order stands and the class’s “claims will ‘prevail or fail in unison,’ as required by Rule 23(b)(3).’” Id. Thus, a large class of Wal-Mart employees was able to utilize the employer’s records to support their theory of liability and could continue to proceed with their claims that the employer underpaid them for non-compliant meal breaks.

Authored By:
Liana Carter, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Sali v. Corona Regional: “Compensable Time” and Considering Inadmissible Evidence at Class Cert.

On May 3, 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling in Sali, et al. v. Corona Regional Medical Center, et al., 889 F.3d 623, 629 (9th Cir. 2018) (slip op. available here), a wage-and-hour class action, reversing the district court’s denial of class certification on several grounds. The Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiffs’ evidence of typicality, while not admissible at trial, should be considered for the purposes of class certification. Significantly, in reversing the denial of class certification, the panel found that the district court erred in interpreting compensable time as limited to time spent actually working. The ruling reaffirms that compensable time is both the time when an employee is under the control of the employer, regardless of whether or not the employee is engaged in work activities, as well as the time when an employee is “suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.” Slip op. at 24 (quoting Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal.4th 575 (2000)).

In Corona, the plaintiffs alleged that the employer failed to fully compensate a putative class of registered nurses (RNs) due to an electronic timekeeping system that did not account for their starting early and failed to pay their statutory time-and-a-half for overtime. Under Corona’s timekeeping system, a clock-in at seven minutes before or after the hour would round to the hour. But a clock-in at eight minutes or more before the hour would round back to the prior quarter hour, while those made eight minutes or more after the hour are rounded forward to the next quarter hour. The district court initially denied certification as to the plaintiffs’ rounding claim, finding that “time records are not a reliable indicator of the time RNs actually spent working because RNs frequently clock in for work and perform non-compensable activities, such as waiting in the break room, getting coffee, or chatting with their co-workers, until the start of their scheduled shift.” Slip op. at 23. The district court also rejected, on evidentiary grounds, that the plaintiffs had demonstrated typicality. Slip op. at 10. The plaintiffs appealed the district court’s denial of class certification.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s denial of certification on several grounds, finding that the district court misapplied California’s definition of “work” because it did not decide whether Corona controlled workers after they had clocked in. Under California law, employees must be compensated for all time under the employer’s control, whether the employee is actually required to work or not. Morillion, 22 Cal.4th at 578 (quoting Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11140, subd. 2(G)). The panel found that the district court erred in suggesting that “‘non-compensable activities, such as waiting in the break room, getting coffee, or chatting with their co-workers’ are categorically not time ‘actually worked . . . ’,” meaning that this was not “time spent engaging in work activities.” Slip op. at 24. This misapplies California law. The Ninth Circuit further elaborated that that the question of whether the rounding policy was unfair required a focus on the company’s policies and practices, and whether they “restricted RNs in a manner that amounted to employer control during the period between their clock-in and clock-out times and the rounded shift-start and shift-end times,” an issue that the district court failed to consider. Id. at 26.

The Sali panel also found it to be an abuse of discretion for a district court to limit its analysis of whether class plaintiffs satisfied a Rule 23 requirement “to a determination of whether Plaintiffs’ evidence on that point was admissible.” Slip op. at 14 (quoting Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 657 F.3d 970, 982 (9th Cir. 2011)). Specifically, Sali found that the lower court committed reversible error by striking the class counsel’s paralegal’s declaration regarding Corona’s time-rounding to demonstrate the plaintiffs’ injuries, because courts cannot be limited to only evidence which is admissible at trial when deciding whether to certify a class: “Limiting class-certification stage proof to admissible evidence risks terminating actions before a putative class may gather crucial admissible evidence . . . [a]nd transforming a preliminary stage into an evidentiary shooting match inhibits an early determination of the best manner to conduct the action.” Slip op. at 13-14. Thus, inadmissibility alone is not a proper basis to reject evidence submitted in support of class certification.

Corona will be helpful for potential employee-plaintiffs because they are not restricted to presenting admissible evidence in support of their class certification motions. Further, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Morillion’s broad definition of compensable time as time when an employee is actually working or under the control of his or her employer.

Authored by:
Jordan Carlson, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Temp Nurses & Hospital Techs Class Certified Despite Differing Housing Benefits

With staffing agencies gaining a greater foothold in the employment market, their employees face unique challenges in trying to hold them accountable for wage-and-hour violations. The staffing business model—where employees ostensibly under the staffing agency’s control are lent out to different companies—is often deemed to preclude class certification, since the assigned positions and duties can be too varied, creating too many individualized inquiries. However, one court recently rejected this line of reasoning in a case involving nurses’ and hospital technicians’ claims for housing benefits provided by Fastaff, a travel nurse staffing agency. See Dalchau v. Fastaff, LLC, No. 17-cv-01584-WHO (N.D. Cal. April 9, 2018), Order Granting Motion for Class Certification and Denying Motion to Stay (slip op. available here). The plaintiffs avoided commonality and predominance problems by emphasizing that the defendant employer’s policy inflicted a common legal injury on the class of staffed temporary employees. This theory confounded Fastaff’s counsel, who did not even offer a defense against it. Indeed, in granting class certification, Judge William Orrick let the defendant employer know just how poorly they understood the legal thrust of the plaintiffs’ case.

In March 2017, the plaintiffs in Dalchau filed a putative class action and a Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) collective action on behalf of hourly-paid employees of defendants Fastaff and its parent company, U.S. Nursing Co. Fastaff, which provides temporary staffing for hospitals, offered housing to their employees during their assignments. Fastaff’s traveling nurses and technicians had the option of either accepting a weekly stipend or staying in company-provided housing. However, before the employee can receive the full benefit, he or she had to complete a set amount of work. If the employee did not fulfill their work requirements, Fastaff would collect the difference by either prorating the employee’s stipend or the deducting the difference from their paycheck as “charge-back.” Slip op. at 2. Under certain circumstances, Fastaff could determine, at its discretion, whether any “exceptional” personal circumstance had occurred causing the employee to not fulfill their assigned hours, and could approve an exception and not make the deduction.

The plaintiffs alleged that the value of this weekly housing stipend or supplied housing, a benefit offered by the employer, was being excluded improperly from the employees’ regular rate for purposes of calculating overtime, resulting in underpayment. Slip op. at 1. In response, Fastaff argued that certification was improper because the different methods of bestowing the housing benefit created too many individualized situations, particularly where an exception to the charge-back was granted. However, as the court clarified, the nurses did not claim commonality on a similar set of facts. Instead, the nurses claimed the company inflicted a common legal injury when it refused to include the housing benefit into their regular rate for overtime payments. Their claim focused on a widespread, uniform policy of excluding the housing benefits from their regular rate calculations resulted in illegal underpayment, not a universal set of facts (such as whether all employees received the full amount of their benefits). Further, the court stated that the commonality “does not require that class members suffer identical harm.” Slip op. at 11.

In light of the above, Judge Orrick granted the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. Fastaff must now defend this employment practice on the merits as the case moves forward towards trial.

Authored by:
Brooke Waldrop, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC