An appellate court upheld a trial court’s denial of class certification in a case brought against Walgreens. The appellate court’s decision provides a few good lessons for employers defending class action allegations.
1. Meal break cases are harder to certify as class actions after the Brinker decision.
The California Supreme Court held in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court that employers had to make meal breaks available to employees, and had no obligation to ensure that employees took the meal break. The court in Walgreens acknowledged this, and explained by the make available standard set forth in Brinker makes it hard to certify meal break claims as a class action:
One important difference between the make available standard and the ensure standard has to do with ease of proof. The ensure standard can make it easier for plaintiffs to prove employer meal break violations, while the make available standard can make it harder. Here is why. Employers generally require employees to record hours worked by clocking in and clocking out, a process that typically generates centralized and computerized time records. It is simple to use computer records to determine if each employee checked out on time for a full 30-minute meal break. Meal break classes thus are relatively easy to certify under the ensure test: each missed break automatically equals an employer violation. Meal break classes are harder to certify under a make available test because the fact of a missed break does not dictate the conclusion of a violation (and thus employer liability). Rather, under the make available standard you additionally must ask why the worker missed the break before you can determine whether the employer is liable. If the worker was free to take the break and simply chose to skip or delay it, there is no violation and no employer liability. This make available test thus can make analysis of break violations more complex than under the ensure standard.
2. There is not a presumption against the employer if the employer’s records show no meal period was taken.
Plaintiff argued that because Walgreens’s records did not show that meal breaks were being taken, or taken on a timely basis, that there was a rebuttable presumption created against Walgreens that the breaks had not been taken. Plaintiff argued that Justice Werdegar’s concurring opinion in Brinker supported this analysis. However, in this case, the court did not find this was binding analysis, as a majority of the justices did not agree with this rebuttable presumption and because “concurring opinions are not binding precedent.”
3. After Brinker, an expert witness’ job becomes much more difficult.
The plaintiff utilized an expert witness in the case to attempt to prove that the case was suitable for class certification. However, Plaintiff’s expert witness “incorrectly assumed there was a Labor Code violation every time a worker did not take a timely break. [The expert] thus incorrectly assumed Walgreens must ensure employees took their breaks. This assumption is legally unsound under Brinker’s holding….”
4. It is a good idea to test the truthfulness of the declarations submitted by Plaintiff’s counsel of current or former employees.
In this case, it does not appear that the employees made up facts about their breaks, but instead the plaintiff’s counsel took some liberties with the facts. Usually, plaintiff’s counsel will submit written declarations from current and former employees to support their theories for class certification. In this case, it appears that the declarations were all very similar, and when the employees who signed the declarations were deposed by the defendant, the employees recanted their declarations and stated that the declaration drafted by plaintiff’s counsel included statements that they never made during the interview by plaintiff’s counsel. The appellate court noted:
The trial judge repeatedly said these declarations “appalled” him, and he told [plaintiff’s] counsel, “You know better.”
The trial court was “especially troubled” that, once deposed, so many witnesses recanted their declarations.
Form declarations present a problem. When witnesses speak exactly the same words, one wonders who put those words there, and how accurate and reliable those words are.
There is nothing attractive about submitting form declarations contrary to the witnesses’ actual testimony. This practice corrupts the pursuit of truth.
It was not error for the trial court to give these unreliable declarations no weight.
Defendants should take the opportunity to depose the individuals who submitted declarations drafted by plaintiff’s counsel. You never know what may turn up.
5. Emails and other documentation reminding managers to provide meal breaks will help the company’s defense against class certification.
In the Walgreens case, plaintiff counsel argued that the following email (and apparently similar emails) by Walgreens to its managers established meal break violations:
Just an FYI . . . if anyone is on this list, they did not receive a lunch. Please, you must talk to the assistant managers and find out why. . . . please make a big deal about this . . . remind employees that it is their job to ask for a break or lunch if they did not receive it, but also remind the Managers on duty that they must have a break schedule created for every shift . . . there is no negotiation about this . . . there is no excuse not to give a break or lunch . . . look at your schedule and make sure you have the right people at the right time. Two of the people received a lunch, but it was after the 5 hour mark and both did not take a 30 minute lunch. Please. . . Please address in every store. . . . This is one day in the district . . . but this is occur[r]ing in every store! Thank you for your complete follow through on this. If you have any questions, please let me know. I will be sending out some guidelines to help you succeed on making sure everyone gets a 30 minute break within 5 hours of their shift. Thank you.
Contrary to plaintiff’s argument however, the court found that this email instead showed Walgreens’s efforts to provide its employees with meal breaks. The emails showed the company pressuring store managers to ensure that employees took meal breaks. Takeaway for employers: document the emphasis on the company’s actions to make meal breaks available for employees and routinely remind managers of the obligations to make breaks available.
The decision, In re Walgreen Co. Overtime Cases and be read here.