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Come Fly with Me Another Day– No COVID Refunds for Consumers

Just as water only flows downhill, money seems to only flow in one direction—out of the wallets of consumers and into the coffers of corporations, nary to return. This has never been so evident as during the COVID-19 crisis, in which hundreds of thousands of consumers, taken unaware by the crisis, purchased pre-paid services that they now cannot use, or dare not to use, because of the pandemic. Although these purchases are either now worthless, or literally “worth less,” many businesses are recalcitrant to refund money for bargained-for services that they are now unable to provide.

The difficulty in obtaining “COVID refunds” is an issue that permeates every strata of pre-paid consumer services. Prior to March of 2020, consumers paid money in advance for professional sporting events, concert tickets (e.g. In re: StubHub Refund Litig., MDL No. 2951), hotels, vacation rentals, cruises, summer camps, youth sports programs, and college tuition. See Latisha Watson v. The University of Southern California, et al., No. 20-04107 (C.D. Cal., filed May 5, 2020) (seeking refunds for student tuitions for the Spring 2020 academic semester due to COVID-19). The list goes on. Then there is the airline industry.

All of the major airlines have enacted COVID-related refund and flight change policies. However, some consumers allege in recently filed actions that their chosen airlines refused to refund money for air travel that they failed to deliver. A case in point is Southwest Airlines customer Adrian Bombin, who purchased two tickets to Havana, Cuba, in February 2020. According to Bombin, Southwest cancelled the flights and could not offer any other comparable flight to Cuba. Still, the plaintiff was not given a refund, but was only offered a credit for use on a future flight. See Bombin v. Southwest Airlines Co., No. 20-01883 (E.D. Penn., filed April 13, 2020). Other consumers have filed similar actions. See Rudolph v. United Airlines Holdings Inc. et al., No. 20-02142 (N.D. Ill., filed April 6, 2020) (alleging United denied a refund for cancelled flight, and offered only rebooking or ticket credit for travel within one year); Levey v. Concesionaria Vuela Compania de Aviacion SAPI de CV et al., No. 20- 02215 (N.D. Ill., filed May 8, 2020) (alleging Mexican airline Volaris canceled several of its U.S. flights to Mexico amid the coronavirus pandemic and refused to refund its travelers or let them rebook their flights without penalty).

The problem is so widespread that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued an enforcement notice on April 3, 2020, clarifying airlines’ refund obligations in the context of the COVID-19 public health emergency. See U.S. Department of Transportation Issues Enforcement Notice Clarifying Air Carrier Refund Requirements, Given the Impact of COVID-19. Nevertheless, some airlines remain recalcitrant to provide refunds, as is evidenced by the allegations in these later-filed class actions.

Although these airlines contend that they have operated within the law, it is evident that the opportunity or ability of most consumers to engage in air travel has all but been severely curtailed or eliminated due to the pandemic. Offering travel credit is not a solution under these circumstances. Consumers are subject to numerous travel restrictions, possible quarantine on arrival, a risk of infection through close contact with other air travelers, and now, unpredictable flight cancellations that risk loss of airfare in many cases. The possibility that travelers may someday receive the air travel is not a solution in these unprecedented times. Sometimes “someday” means never.

We plan to keep the filed cases Bombin, Rudolph, and Levey on our radar and see where they land.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Troester v. Starbucks: Cal. Supreme Court Hands Grande Win to Starbucks Workers

California’s highest court recently issued a unanimous decision in the closely-watched Troester v. Starbucks, holding that the coffee behemoth must compensate employees for “all hours worked,” including brief periods of off-the-clock work. No. S234969 (July 26, 2018) (slip op. available here). This decision comes after the California Supreme Court agreed to answer the Ninth Circuit’s request to clarify whether the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) de minimis doctrine applies to claims for unpaid wages under California Labor Code sections 510, 1194, and 1197.

In Troester, Starbucks argued that the 4 to 10 minutes spent on closing procedures each night that the plaintiffs assert was uncompensated off-the-clock work is so inconsequential that employers need not record nor provide compensation. Starbucks relied on the de minimis doctrine, an ancient adage defined in the California Civil Code as “the law disregards trifles.” The FLSA specifically adopts this doctrine, and courts have found that up to ten minutes of off-the-clock work can be considered de minimis and therefore non-compensable. Slip op. at 7.

The California Supreme Court, however, rejected the de minimis doctrine as a defense to off-the-clock claims under California law. The court first reasoned that California employers must follow IWC wage orders dictating conditions of employment in various industries, which is often more protective of workers than is federal law. Slip op. at 4. For instance, Wage Order 5, governing the “public housekeeping industry” (which includes food and beverage establishments like Starbucks), requires that employees be paid for “all hours worked,” with no explicit nor implicit exception for de minimis time. Id. at 9-11. Because the wage order required full compensation, and Starbucks provided no statutory or regulatory history supporting their contrary position, the court held that the de minimis doctrine had not been incorporated into California labor law or wage orders. Id. at 10. The court also pointed out that timekeeping technology has advanced to the point where employers can no longer claim that recording all time worked is inconvenient or cumbersome, which was one of the key rationales for the de minimis doctrine. Slip op. at 18.

While statutory interpretation is largely an academic exercise, the California Supreme Court emphasized the policy of protecting workers. It observed that “a few extra minutes of work each day can add up” for hourly workers and “[w]hat Starbucks calls ‘de minimis’ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.” Slip op. at 20. The court also underscored the need for class actions in such circumstances, since “[t]he very premise of such suits is that small individual recoveries worthy of neither the plaintiff’s nor the court’s time can be aggregated to vindicate an important public policy.” Id. at 17. In other words, absent the class action mechanism, large companies such as Starbucks would be free to exploit their employees, a few minutes at a time.

Starbucks recently petitioned for reconsideration of the decision. On August 29, 2018, the California Supreme Court rejected a request by Starbucks to reconsider its ruling; the Troester ruling will stand. Within a few weeks after the decision, a California federal judge cited Troester when certifying a class of nearly 11,000 H&M employees suing for off-the-clock time spent waiting to go through security searches at the end of their shifts. Lao v. H&M Hennes & Mauritz, No. 5:16-cv-00333 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 8, 2018).

Authored by:
Robin Hall, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

9th Cir. Shuts Down Finish Line’s Attempt to Arbitrate Pregnancy Suit

In an unpublished decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently determined that The Finish Line, Inc., an athletic retailer, cannot arbitrate a former associate’s pregnancy discrimination claim, finding the company’s arbitration agreement to be both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. Capili v. The Finish Line, Inc., No. 15-16657 (9th Cir. July 3, 2017) (slip op. available here).

Capili alleges that she was fired by the company because she took a leave of absence to manage her pregnancy-related health issues. Upon hire in 2013, Capili was required to sign an arbitration agreement that required her to arbitrate any future employment-related disputes with Finish Line. On July 22, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Haywood S. Gilliam denied Finish Line’s motion to compel arbitration in the suit, finding the cost-sharing provision in Finish Line’s arbitration agreement unconscionable. Capili v. The Finish Line, Inc., No. 3:15-cv-01158-HSG (N.D. Cal. July 22, 2015). The defendant appealed this decision. On July 3, 2017, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Judge Gilliam’s order.

Under the agreement, the plaintiff, a retail employee earning $15 per hour, would have to pay up to $10,000 at the outset of arbitration, not including fees and costs for legal representation—a provision that the three-judge panel found to be “substantively unconscionable.” The court determined that the provision imposes substantial non-recoverable costs on entry-level employees just to get their foot in the door in arbitration, essentially foreclosing vindication of employees’ rights. Slip op. at 3.

The court further concluded that the arbitration agreement allowed the company, but not Capili, to seek judicial resolution of certain claims, another provision that the panel found unconscionable. While judicial carveouts alone are not necessarily unconscionable, “exemptions must still have a modicum of bilaterality,” the panel stated. Slip op. at 3-4. While Capili acknowledged that her claims fell under the scope of Finish Line’s arbitration agreement, the plaintiff argued that the agreement itself was “an unenforceable contract of adhesion” and both procedurally and substantively unconscionable. The Ninth Circuit panel agreed, determining the agreement was “adhesive” because it was offered “on essentially a ‘take it or leave it’ basis.” Id. at 2-3.

While both elements of procedural and substantive unconscionability must be present for the court to find unconscionability, they need not be present in the same degree. Slip op. at 2. And while the Federal Arbitration Act endorses the enforcement of arbitration agreements, “employers may not stack the deck unconscionability in their favor to discourage claims.” Id. at 5. Thus, the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the lower court had properly denied the employer’s motion to compel arbitration.

Authored by:
Natalie Torbati, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Baker v. Microsoft: Appellate Jurisdiction after Denial of Class Certification

On January 15, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Microsoft’s petition for a writ of certiorari in Baker, et al. v. Microsoft Corporation, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision which allows plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit to appeal an order denying class certification after the named plaintiffs voluntarily dismiss their claims with prejudice. See No. 12-35946, 797 F.3d 607 (9th Cir. 2015) (slip op. available here). Following the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, oral argument in Baker was postponed until next term, possibly in an effort to avoid issuing a ruling with an eight-Justice Supreme Court.

In Baker, the plaintiffs alleged that a design defect in the Xbox caused game discs to become scratched from movements of the Xbox during game play. Slip op. at 6. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Martinez deferred to the earlier class certification denial order in a consolidated case in the same district court, In re Microsoft Xbox 360 Scratched Disc Litig., No. C07-1121 (W.D. Wash. Oct. 5, 2009), which had denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification (reasoning that individual questions of causation and damages precluded certification) and granted Microsoft’s motion to strike the class allegations based on comity. Slip op. at 10-11. The Baker plaintiffs sought permissive review under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (FRCP) 23(f) which was denied by the Ninth Circuit. The plaintiffs then voluntarily dismissed their individual claims, and filed a notice of appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court, reasoning that while individual factors may affect when disc damage occurred and how extensive it was, they do not affect whether the Xbox was sold to consumers with a design defect. Slip op. at 15. More significantly, the court found appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 existed, distinguishing a stipulated, voluntary dismissal of an individual claim from a failure to prosecute claims, as in Huey v. Teledyne, Inc., 608 F.2d 1234 (9th Cir. 1979), finding that a plaintiff who engages in the former has given up a valuable right and created “an adverse and appealable final judgment,” whereas a plaintiff engaged in the latter has forfeited their right to appeal the denial of class certification. Id. at 12-13, n.4. Exercising mandatory appellate jurisdiction, the appeals court remanded to the district court for further proceedings. Microsoft petitioned the Ninth Circuit for rehearing en banc, which was denied on July 20, 2015.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision provided a much-needed shortcut to the appeals process for class action plaintiffs, who would otherwise have to seek an interlocutory appeal under FRCP 23(f), which appellate courts grant sparingly, or wait for a final judgment, effectively ending any meaningful right to appeal class certification in many cases. Some see the Ninth Circuit decision as a revival of the “death knell” doctrine that some federal appellate courts recognized as grounds for appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 several decades ago, which allowed appeals for denial of class certification when the denial would “end the lawsuit for all practical purposes.” Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 370 F.2d 119, 120 (2d Cir. 1966). However, the doctrine was abandoned in Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U.S. 463 (1978), where the Supreme Court found orders regarding class certification not independently appealable prior to judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Congress then responded to the Coopers & Lybrand decision by allowing the Supreme Court to provide for appeals to interlocutory decisions under 28 USC § 1292(e), and, in 1998, the Supreme Court adopted FRCP 23(f). However, due to the infrequent usage of Rule 23(f), Congress’ attempt to fill the void of the “death knell” doctrine was largely ineffective until the Baker case.

Instead of creating grounds for interlocutory appeal, Baker allows plaintiffs to appeal class certification upon voluntarily dismissing their claims, effectively replacing one way of demonstrating the case had ended for all practical purposes with another. Slip op. at 12 (citing Berger v. Home Depot USA, Inc., 741 F.3d 1061, 1065 (9th Cir. 2014)). Circuit courts are split on this issue, as there is case law forbidding voluntary dismissal as a vehicle for appellate review in the Third, Fourth, Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, but case law permitting such dismissal as a vehicle for appellate review in the Second and Ninth Circuits. It is difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will rule, especially after the passing of Justice Scalia, who historically had been hostile towards class actions. Both plaintiffs’ and defense counsel will have to await oral argument next term for an indication of the direction the Supreme Court may take.

Authored by: 
Ishan Dave, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC