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Recent Conditional Certification Decisions of Interest
Anyone who has ever moved for or opposed a motion for conditional certification (i.e. a “Stage 1” motion) of a collective action is likely familiar with the common defense tactic whereby a defendant asserts that the named plaintiff and members of the putative class are not similarly situated. Typically a defendant argues that individualized issues pertaining to the claims of the named plaintiff(s) (and members within the putative class) render the case ill-suited for class/collective treatment. As discussed below, three recent decisions discuss three separate issues related to this analysis. In the first, a court held that a pro se plaintiff could not adequately serve the interests of the putative class and denied conditional certification. However, in the second and third cases discussed below, the courts rejected the defendants’ contentions that: (1) an undocumented (“illegal”) immigrant was ill-suited to serve as a representative plaintiff; and (2) issues regarding whether specific putative class members signed binding arbitration agreements relating to the issues raised by the named-plaintiff were not properly raised at stage 1.
Pro Se Plaintiff Inadequate Representative for Collective Action
Koch v. CHS Inc.
In the first case, the pro se plaintiff (apparently fairly savvy) moved for conditional certification. Denying the motion, the court held that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue their claims in a collective action for lack of adequacy of representation. Specifically, the court explained:
The issue of whether a pro se plaintiff can sue on behalf of other members in a collective action is one of adequacy of representation. Determining adequate representation is typically based on a two-part inquiry: “First, the named representatives must appear able to prosecute the action vigorously through qualified counsel, and second, the representatives must not have antagonistic or conflicting interests with the unnamed members of the class.” Lerwill v. Inflight Motion Pictures, Inc., 582 F.2d 507, 512 (9th Cir.1978). Courts have generally concluded that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue claims on behalf of others in a representative capacity. See Simon v. Hartford Life, Inc., 546 F.3d 661, 664 (9th Cir.2008); see also Johns v. County of San Diego, 114 F.3d 874, 876 (9th Cir.1997) (“While a non-attorney may appear pro se on his ow n behalf, he has no authority to appear as an attorney for others than himself.”); C.E. Pope Equity Trust v. United States, 818 F.2d 696, 697 (9th Cir.1987) (holding that a pro se litigant may not appear as an attorney for others). Here, because Koch is a pro se litigant, he cannot pursue claims on behalf of other CHS employees in a representative capacity.
The rule holds true for pro se plaintiffs seeking to bring collective action suits under the F LSA. Morgovsky v. AdBrite, Inc. ., No. C10–05143–SBA, 2012 WL 1595105 *4 (N.D.Cal. May 4, 2012) (denying pro se plaintiff’s motion to bring a collective action under the FLSA and dismissing collective action claims); Spivey v. Sprint/United Mgt. Co., No. 04–2285–JWL, 2004 WL 3048840 (D.Kan. Dec.30, 2004) (holding that a claim under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) cannot be brought by a pro se plaintiff).
Accordingly, the Court agrees with CHS that Koch, because he proceeds in the litigation pro se, cannot represent the class members on whose behalf he purports to bring suit. Therefore, proceeding with the litigation as a collective action is not permitted pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The motion will be denied.
Click Koch v. CHS Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.
Named-Plaintiff’s Immigration Status Has No Bearing on Similarly Situated Analysis
Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd.
In the second case of interest, arising from alleged tip pool violations at defendant’s restaurant, the defendant opposed conditional certification, in part, based on the fact that the named-plaintiff was allegedly an undocumented immigrant. The court rejected this notion, citing well-established authority that an FLSA plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant to a claim inasmuch thereunder, inasmuch as same seeks payment for work already performed. Discussing this issue the court reasoned:
Finally, in an apparent attempt to distinguish Plaintiff from other proposed collective action members, Defendants note his status as an illegal immigrant and involvement in other similar FLSA lawsuits. Neither of these issues, however, is likely to provide Defendants with a valid defense that is unique to Plaintiff. First, there are a number of cases finding that evidence of immigration status has no relevance in an FLSA action. See e.g. Reyes v. Snowcap Creamery, Inc., 2012 WL 4888476 at *2 (D.Colo. Oct.15, 2012) (recognizing that “weight of authority clearly holds that a plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant in an FLSA action” and citing supporting authority). It is also questionable whether Defendants will be able to introduce evidence of other lawsuits involving Plaintiff. See Van Deelen v. Johnson, 2008 WL 4683022 at *2 (D.Kan. Oct.22, 2008) (evidence of plaintiff’s prior lawsuits cannot be admitted for purpose of proving that plaintiff is litigious but may be admissible for other purposes).
Click Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd. to read the entire Order.
Whether Putative Class Members’ Claims Are Subject to Arbitration is an Issue Reserved for Stage 2
Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc.
In the final decision, the court had before it the Report and Recommendation of the magistrate judge recommending conditional certification. As it had in its opposition to the underlying motion, the defendant argued that members of the putative class who had previously signed agreements to arbitrate their FLSA claims, were not similarly situated to the plaintiff and the remainder of the putative class. As such, the defendant argued such putative class members should be excluded from receiving notice of their right to join the case by opting in. Rejecting this contention, the court held that the issue of whether (and who) may have signed arbitration agreements, is an issue reserved for Stage 2 (decertification) analysis, and is not properly addressed at the conditional certification stage:
Next, defendants argue that the proposed class should be limited to cashiers and those who had not signed arbitration agreements, excluding grocery packers and delivery workers, whom defendants never employed, and employees subject to arbitration agreements. However, these are issues of fact that should be determined during discovery rather than at this preliminary stage. See D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11–cv–33, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135402, at *12–13 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (holding that the enforceability of arbitration agreements should not be determined during conditional class certification); Lujan v. Cabana Mgmt., No. 10–cv–755, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9542, at *23–24, 2011 WL 317984 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2011) (quoting Realite v. Ark Rests. Corp., 7 F.Supp.2d 303, 307 (S.D.N.Y.1998)) (holding that defendants’ contention that its restaurants constituted separate entities raised a contested issue of fact, and was therefore not a basis for denying conditional class certification). Thus, Judge Bloom correctly found that the proposed class should not be limited as defendants propose.
Click Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc. to read the entire Order.
S.D.Fla.: Defendant May Not Seek SJ Against Individual Plaintiffs Where Case Remains Certified At Stage 2
Hernandez v. Starbucks Coffee Co.
In this case plaintiffs, “store managers” at Starbucks claimed they had been uniformly misclassified as exempt employees and wrongly denied overtime as a result. The case was before the court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding 4 individual plaintiffs in the (certified) class—on the ground that these Plaintiffs offered generally consistent testimony that compels the conclusion that they are exempt “executive” employees as a matter of law. Significantly, prior to defendant filing its motion for summary judgment, the court had denied defendant’s motion to decertify the class. The court denied defendant’s motion, largely on the ground that it is inappropriate for a defendant to attempt to target individual plaintiffs for summary judgment, where the class is proceeding as a whole and liability will therefore be determined on a classwide rather than individual basis.
The court explained:
“Before reaching the merits of this argument, the Court must first consider whether it is even proper for Defendant to move for summary judgment as to selected individual Plaintiffs when the Court is presented with a collective action. Relying upon Hogan v. Allstate Ins. Co., 361 F.3d 621, 623 (11th Cir.2004), Defendant argues that where a “FLSA collective action has been conditionally certified but no ruling has been made as to whether the case will proceed to trial as a collective action, the district court may entertain summary judgment motions as to individual plaintiffs.” [DE–241, pg. 12]; see also Lindsley v. Bellsouth Telecomm., Inc., Case No. 07–6569, 2009 WL 322144, at *2 (E.D.La. Feb.9, 2009) (denying motion to strike motion for summary judgment against an individual, named plaintiff, finding it “appropriate to choose [the individual plaintiff] as a test plaintiff to resolve the issue of employee versus independent-contractor status.”).
In response, Plaintiffs argue that the Court should reject Defendant’s attempt to have its motion treated as one directed to only certain individuals, as opposed to the class as a whole, pointing to Judge Marra’s conclusion in Pendlebury v. Starbucks Coffee Company, Case No. 04–80521–CIV–KAM, DE–495 (S.D. Fla. filed Jan. 8, 2008). Plaintiffs point out that unlike Hogan, 361 F.3d at 623, neither this Court nor Plaintiffs have consented to a “test plaintiff” procedure, and Defendant cannot randomly select certain individual Plaintiffs and at the same time seek to prohibit Plaintiffs from using testimony from other Plaintiffs in order to oppose the entry of summary judgment. Defendant attempts to refute this argument by contending that Rule 56(a) permits it to seek summary judgment as to a claim or defense, or part of a claim or defense, and reiterates the holding in Hogan. Defendant also argues that Plaintiffs have not cited to any authority prohibiting the Court from considering such a motion where as here the Court has not yet conducted a stringent review of the propriety of collective treatment.
Importantly, subsequent to Defendant filing the instant motion for summary judgment, on June 28, 2011, this Court denied Defendant’s motion for decertification [DE–300], concluding that Plaintiffs are similarly situated and can proceed as a class. As such, the Court has now conducted a stringent review of the propriety of collective treatment and found collective treatment to be appropriate. Defendant’s reliance on Hogan as its basis for moving for summary judgment as to only four (4) individual Plaintiffs is misplaced. Defendant similarly attempted to raise this argument and rely on Hogan in filing its motion for partial summary judgment in Pendlebury. The Pendlebury court rejected Defendant’s argument, pointing out that in Hogan the court had specifically authorized the selection of test plaintiffs for purposes of discovery and motions for summary judgment. Case No. 04–80521–CIV–KAM, DE–495 at pg. 3. The court concluded that “allowing Defendant to move for summary judgment against particular individuals who are indistinguishable from other members of the class defeats the entire purpose of a collective action.” Id. at 5. Instead, the court held that since the action was certified as a collective action, the court would “only address dispositive motions that resolve common issues of law or fact as to the entire class or an identifiable subclass.” Id.
Similarly here, the Court has already concluded that collective treatment is appropriate and has not authorized the use of “test” plaintiffs. Instead it appears that Defendant unilaterally selected individuals as its “test” plaintiffs. Notably, Defendant does not argue that these Plaintiffs somehow represent a “subclass” or otherwise address the Pendlebury court’s ruling on this issue in any manner. Consequently, the Court finds that it is not proper for Defendant to move for summary judgment as to individual Plaintiffs given the Court’s recent conclusion that Plaintiffs shall proceed as a class.”
W.D.Mo.: Minor Differences In Plaintiffs’ Situations Do Not Warrant Decertification
Fast v. Applebee’s Intern., Inc.
This case was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion to Decertify the class (stage 2). The Court denied Defendant’s Motion, finding that the Plaintiffs were similarly situated, such that the case should proceed as a collective action, notwithstanding minor differences in each employees situation.
The Court identified three factors to consider on a Motion to Decertify: “(1) individual plaintiff’s disparate factual and employment settings, (2) defenses which are individual to each plaintiff, and (3) fairness and procedural considerations. See Keef v. M.A. Mortenson Co., No. 07-CV-3915 (JMR/FLN), 2009 WL 465030 (D.Minn. Feb. 24, 2009).”
Evaluating the evidence before it the Court stated, “Plaintiffs have shown that they are similarly situated with respect to their job requirements and pay provisions. First, they have demonstrated that their claims involve substantially similar factual and employment settings, despite minor variances restaurant-to-restaurant. Applebee’s applied national uniform policies and practices relevant to its servers and bartenders, including policies concerning the tip credit, manager bonuses for productivity, complaint resolution, and job descriptions. Plaintiffs performed substantially the same job tasks under national guidelines. Plaintiffs were subject to similar pay structures.
The minor differences in Plaintiffs’ situations do not warrant decertification. See generally Frank v. Gold’N’Plump Poultry, Inc ., No. 04-CV01018 (PJS/RLE), 2007 WL 2780504 (D.Minn. Sept. 24, 2007). Applebee’s focuses on differences in Plaintiffs’ situations which vary by restaurant. Any challenges which might be posed by these differences will be addressed through dividing the class into subclasses by restaurant.
Second, liability in this case turns on class-wide claims and defenses, most notably whether Applebee’s improperly took the tip credit for general maintenance and preparation work done by the class. Evidence contradicting Plaintiffs’ claims may be resolved by a finder of fact at trial. See Pendlebury v. Starbucks Coffee Co., 518 F.Supp.2d 1345, 1363 (S.D.Fla.2007) (finding that conflicts in evidence concerning the amount of time store managers spent performing nonmanagerial work did not require decertification). Both Applebee’s and the Plaintiffs benefit from having these matters resolved collectively. As to due process concerns, representative testimony is contemplated by the FLSA and Applebee’s can defend with representative testimony just as Plaintiffs can seek to prove their claims with representative testimony.
Third, fairness and other procedural considerations weigh in favor of maintaining class certification. The FLSA is a remedial statute which should be read in favor of coverage. Kelly v. Alamo, 964 F.2d 747 (8th Cir.1992). The judicial system will benefit from efficient resolution of the common issues in Plaintiffs’ claims which arise from the same alleged FLSA violations. See Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170 (1989) (evaluating ADEA class). Applebee’s interest in defending Plaintiffs’ small claims individually must be balanced against the rights of Plaintiffs, many of whom could not bear the costs of individual trials to redress the alleged violations. Id.
Plaintiffs have established that they are sufficiently similarly-situated. No fairness or procedural considerations raised by Applebee’s warrants disturbing the Court’s conclusion that this case should proceed to trial collectively.” Accordingly the Court denied Defendant’s Motion to Decertify.