By Stuart Gerson

Wage-hour lawsuits filed under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) represent one of the fastest growing and most problematic areas of litigation facing employers today, especially when such cases are brought as collective actions. A recent Supreme Court case based in class action analysis provides a potentially-useful analog for employers to stave off such collective actions.

Class action criteria are set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, and they allow for one or more individual named plaintiffs to sue on behalf of a large – sometimes very large – group of unnamed employees, where: 1) the number of putative class members is so large that it would be impractical for them to participate; 2) where the putative class claims are defined by common questions of law or fact; 3) where the representative plaintiffs’ claims or defenses are typical of those of everyone else; and 4) where the named plaintiffs will fairly and adequately represent the interests of the rest of the putative class.

The courts have long recognized, as did the drafters of Rule 23, that there are good reasons and bad reasons for a class action. Economy is the most prominent of the good reasons. The “opt out” feature of a Rule 23 class results in a single proceeding that allows relief for a large number of claimants. In the wage-hour context, it also protects against retaliation as to workers who benefit from the general anonymity and group force of the collective. All too frequently, however, a class action is brought to raise the economic risk to the defendant employer and so to force a large settlement of a case that might otherwise never have been mounted.

While class actions are not uncommon, it should be remembered that class treatment is an exception to the general way in which lawsuits are presented, and plaintiffs and their attorneys can go too far. The bell-weather case in that regard is Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. 2541 (2011). However, Wal-Mart was in many ways unique, describing a potential nationwide class so large and crossing so many fields of activity for hundreds of thousands of workers at significantly different levels and locations that the lack of commonality among sometimes- competing claimants was not hard to understand. Still, the Supreme Court was divided and, in subsequent cases, some courts have tried to limit the application of Wal-Mart. The favored technique for that avoidance has been to hold that facts ultimately going to the merits of the suit cannot be explored at the class-certification phase of a case.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers took heart as to gaining such routine certification of class actions when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Amgen, Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, No. 11-1085 (decided February 27, 2013), upholding virtually-automatic certification of a securities fraud class action. However, it is clear that the holding in that case is dependent upon the unusual, judicially-created fraud on the market theory that essentially forestalls the need to weigh facts that might distinguish the reliance element of class members. The Court has now broken that collective heart.

Within the past few days, on March 27, 2013, the Supreme Court, in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, No. 11-864, exploded the theory that merits analysis could not be undertaken in considering class certification. Comcast, while an antitrust case, not a wage-hour case, offers an instructive conclusion that should govern at least some of the more complex versions of the latter type.

A divided Court overturned a controversial Third Circuit decision that certified a class action against the cable television provider Comcast because the plaintiffs failed to establish that the case could manageably be tried as a class action. On the required element of money damages, plaintiffs failed to provide reliable evidence that common issues of fact and law predominated over individual issues—an absolute prerequisite for certification of a class action. The case arose from a suit filed by six cable subscribers in the Philadelphia area who claimed that Comcast violated federal antitrust laws. The trial court had certified the plaintiffs as representatives of a class of all Comcast cable television subscribers from the 650 franchise areas that comprise the entire Philadelphia market. A federal district court in Pennsylvania certified the class more than five years ago. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the certification order in 2011. The majority was no doubt moved by the apparent fact that the only reason the plaintiffs’ lawyers sought class certification in this case was to coerce the defendant into settling without regard to the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.

The Supreme Court held that the Third Circuit ran afoul of the Court’s precedents, namely Wal-Mart, when it refused to entertain arguments against respondents’ damages model that bore on the propriety of class certification simply because they would also be pertinent to the merits determination.  Taken in conjunction with Wal-Mart, Comcast should be of clear value, by analogy, in defending against collective action in the wage-hour context,  at least in those wage-hour cases that involve complex issues, numerous potential plaintiffs, multiple locations and, for example, classification issues that depend upon non-uniform employee activities. Where individual issues can be found to predominate over allegedly common ones, or where pleaded damages models don’t adequately reflect variant situations among workers, employers and their counsel have been given useful ammunition by the Supreme Court to examine relevant factual issues and to confine litigation to individual claims where the facts and law compel it before massive litigation costs and expansive risk obtain.

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