Class Certification Granted in Vacation, Uniform, Paycheck, Wage and Contract Class Action

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The Southern District of California granted class certification in a vacation, uniform, paycheck, wage and contract class action.  Lopez v. G.A.T. Airline Ground Support, Inc., No. 09cv2268-IEG(BGS), 2010 WL 3633177 (S.D. Cal. Sept. 13, 2010) (slip op.).

Background

Former employees of Defendant G.A.T. Airline Ground Support, Inc. (“GAT”) sued for systematic wage and hour violations in violation of federal and state law. Id. *1.  GAT provides services to airlines, including ground transportation, aircraft maintenance, and cargo operations management.  Id. The four named Plaintiffs are former ramp agents employed by GAT in California.  Id.

Rule 23(a) Commonality

The court found questions of law or fact common to the class with respect to plaintiffs’ vacation, uniform, paycheck, wage, and contract claims:

Here, as explained in detail below, Plaintiffs present both factual evidence of GAT’s company-wide policies and practices as well as anecdotal evidence in the form of class member declarations regarding the application of those challenged policies and practices. With regard to the “Vacation/ Uniform/ Paycheck/Wages/ Breach of Contract Class,” Plaintiffs have demonstrated that each of GAT’s current and former employees were subject to the same company-wide policies during the class period, thus satisfying Rule 23(a)(2)’s commonality requirement. Although it is a little bit closer call, Plaintiffs have also demonstrated common issues of fact and law with regard to the “Off the Clock” and “Meal Period” subclasses. To the extent there are divergent factual issues with regard to the claims presented under each of these classes and subclasses, those variations go more to the typicality requirement under Rule 23(a) (3) and the predominance inquiry under Rule 23(b)(3).

Id. *4.

Typicality

The court also found the typicality requirement satisfied, despite some individual variations among the class representatives:

Here, Defendants argue the named Plaintiffs have failed to show their claims are typical of those of the class. For example, with regard to Plaintiffs’ vacation pay claim, Plaintiffs Ozell Clark and Michael Jordan both worked more than one year and therefore do not have the same recovery interests as employees whose employment terminated within the first year. With regard to Plaintiffs’ uniform claims, Plaintiff Lopez did not personally return his uniforms after he was terminated, Plaintiff Jordan only paid a $50 deposit and signed a document attesting the deposit was fully refunded, Plaintiff Forbes only deposited $80 toward his uniform and admits he received a full refund, and Plaintiff Clark received a refund of at least a portion of his $200. With regard to the paycheck claims, Plaintiff Forbes did not have a bank account and therefore had no option but to use a check-cashing facility, causing him to incur fees. With regard to the Off-The-Clock subclass, Plaintiff Jordan worked for half his employment with GAT as a cargo agent/supervisor and therefore was able to park near the cargo warehouse; Plaintiff Clark also had the ability to park at a County of Sacramento parking lot because he also worked for the County.

Notwithstanding these variations in the named Plaintiffs’ claims, the Court finds Plaintiffs’ claims are sufficiently representative of the proposed class members. Even though individual employees may not have suffered identical harm, each of the Plaintiffs’ claims stem from the same allegedly unlawful policies and practices. The vacation pay claims stem from GAT’s policy of not paying employees vested vacation benefits. The uniform claims stem from GAT’s alleged policy of deducting deposits from employee paychecks and failing to fully refund those deposits. The paycheck claims stem from GAT’s failure to indicate on the face of the check where it can be cashed. The off-the-clock claims stem from GAT’s alleged policy requiring employees to park far away and take a shuttle to the work site. The meals claims stem from GAT’s policies with regard to setting schedules and breaks. Although not all the named Plaintiffs can assert all of the claims, their claims are collectively typical of the class members as a whole. Therefore, Plaintiffs have satisfied the typicality requirement of Rule 23(a)(3).

Id. *7.

Predominance of Common Questions

The court expressed concerns about whether the common questions of law and fact will predominate over questions regarding individual claims.  Id. Defendants argued that Plaintiffs’ proposed “Vacation/Uniform/Paycheck/Wages/ Breach of Contract” Class requires individual inquiries of fact and the application of five different areas of law, such that the proposed class fails the predominance inquiry under Rule 23(b)(3). Id. But the court concluded that each of the claims asserted by this proposed class are based upon company policies which were consistently applied to all of GAT’s employees at the four designated airports. Id. “Although individual inquiries would be necessary to determine whether the class members were damaged by the policies, the Court believes most of these individual inquiries are manageable in light of the size of the class.” Id.

The one category of claims which the Court found inappropriate for class treatment was the meal period claims. Id. *10. The court noted that “District courts in California have uniformly held that the word “provide” in the Labor Code is properly interpreted as “make available” rather than “ensure taken.” Id. (citing Salazar v. Avis Budget Group, Inc., 251 F.R.D. 529, 532 (S.D.Cal.2008); White, 497 F.Supp. at 1089 (concluding that California Supreme Court, if faced with the issue, “would require only that an employer offer meal breaks, without forcing employers actively to ensure that workers are taking these breaks” such that “employee must show that he was forced to forego his meal breaks as opposed to merely showing that he did not take them regardless of the reason.”); Brown v. Federal Express Corp., 249 F.R.D. 580, 586 (C.D.Cal.2008) (same); Kenny v. Supercuts, Inc., 252 F.R.D. 641, 645 (N.D.Cal.2008) (same)). The court concluded that “Because plaintiffs alleging a violation of Labor Code § 226.7 must demonstrate that they were forced to forego meal breaks, a showing which requires an inquiry into the individual facts and circumstances under which those breaks were missed, district courts in California have uniformly found such claims inappropriate for class-wide adjudication.” Id. (citing Salazar, 251 F.R.D. at 534; Brown, 249 F.R.D. at 285-86; Kenny, 252 F.R.D. at 646).

Plaintiffs argued the facts of this case are distinguishable from SalazarWhite, and Brown because although GAT’s Employee Handbook provided for a one hour meal period, the company-wide policy and practice applied to ramp agents was to deny them an uninterrupted meal period.  Id. *11.  The court rejected this argument, finding that “[t]his is exactly the type of policy and practice for which district courts have routinely denied class-wide treatment.” Id. (citing Kenny, 252 F.R.D. at 642). The Court concluded that individual inquiries would predominate over the common issues of fact and law with regard to Plaintiffs’ proposed Meal Period Subclass, making class treatment inappropriate.  Id.

Superiority of Class-wide Treatment of Claims

The court also found that as to all of Plaintiffs’ claims with the exception of meal periods, Plaintiffs established the superiority of class treatment to other methods of adjudicating the controversy as required by Rule 23(b)(3).  Id. *11.  Rejecting the Defendants’ arguments, the Court concluded it would not be required to hold mini trials as to each of the individual class plaintiffs.  Id. “[M]ost of Plaintiffs’ claims involve GAT’s policies and practices applicable to all ramp agents.”  Id. And “most of Plaintiffs’ damages can be readily ascertained from GAT’s company records if the factfinder determines GAT’s policies were unlawful.”Id.

The court further concluded that the damages suffered by each of the class members would not be sizeably different from each other, such that no class member has a significant interest in controlling the litigation.  Id. *12.  And the court reasoned that the total potential damages of each class member is relatively modest, and therefore, it is not likely putative class members would pursue their claims individually. Id.

The court did express concern “about whether a class notice can coherently explain the various claims and options available to putative class members.” Id. But it decided to address these concerns at the time of the drafting of class notice.

Judges and Attorneys

Chief Judge Irma E. Gonzalez.

Alison M. Miceli, Michael J. Grace, Gracehollis LLP, San Diego, CA, for Plaintiffs.

Guillermo Escobedo, Jennifer L. Santa Maria, Paul F. Sorrentino, Jackson Lewis LLP, San Diego, for Defendants.

By CHARLES JUNG

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