The obligations of a district court to analyze conflicting evidence regarding class and collective action certification was recently addressed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Reinig v. RBS Citizens N.A., 912 F.3d 115, (3d Cir. 2018) (“Citizens”). In that case, the Third Circuit opined that Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 class certification orders (i) must explicitly define the classes and claims that are the subject of a certification order and (ii) provide an analysis of how the court reconciled any conflicting evidence supporting class certification.

In addition, the Third Circuit held that while Rule 23(f) permits an interlocutory appeal from a class certification order relating to 10 state law wage hour claims, the court did not have pendent appellate jurisdiction to review a related order certifying a nationwide collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

Facts

Plaintiffs, a group of mortgage loan officers, alleged that, among other things, Citizens failed to pay overtime wages in accordance with the FLSA and state law. Plaintiffs pursued a collective action under Section 216(b) of the FLSA and separate Rule 23 class actions under the laws of 10 states.

Each mortgage loan officer was informed of Citizens’ policy that he or she was “required to obtain prior approval from [his or her] supervisor for any hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week,” and could be disciplined for working unapproved overtime. But, plaintiffs claimed, Citizens’ written overtime policy was a “ruse,” and that the company actually had a “policy-to-violate-the-policy.” Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that Citizens’ “coordinated, overarching scheme” was to encourage unreported overtime by: (1) disciplining mortgage loan officers who reported working overtime that was not preapproved; (2) restricting the amount of overtime hours that could be approved; (3) violating its own attendance monitoring and timesheet approval policies so that overtime hours could go unreported; and (4) discouraging or harassing mortgage loan officers who reported or requested overtime.

In May 2016, the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania granted plaintiffs’ Section 216(b) motion for conditional certification of a collective action. In August 2017, based on the recommendations of a Special Master, the District Court denied Citizens’ motion to decertify the FLSA collective action, granted the plaintiffs’ motion for certification of the FLSA collective action claims, and granted plaintiffs’ Rule 23 motion for certification of 10 state wage/hour class actions.

Pursuant to Rule 23(f), Citizens appealed from the District Court’s order certifying the state law wage class claims.

A Rule 23 Class Certification Order Must Define Class and its Claims

Reiterating its earlier decision in Marcus v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, 687 F.3d 583, 592 (3d Cir. 2012), the Third Circuit vacated the District Court’s order, because it failed to define the classes being certified and to define the claims, issues, or defenses accorded class treatment. The District Court’s order stated only that Plaintiffs’ “state law subclasses are for Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Ohio,” without defining the scope of those subclasses.

The Third Circuit commented that the District Court’s analysis was insufficient to allow it to determine whether the evidence proffered by the plaintiffs satisfied Rule 23’s commonality and preponderance requirements. It opined that, when ruling on a motion for class certification, a district court must “clearly articulate its reasons,” so that the certification decision can be reviewed on appeal.

Rule 23(a)(2) requires that the putative class members “share at least one question of fact or law in common with each other,” and Rule 23(b)(3) requires that common issues predominate over issues affecting only individual class members. Analyzing these elements together, the Third Circuit stated that the plaintiffs had to demonstrate that (1) Citizens’ managers were carrying out a “common mode” of conduct through the company’s internal “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” and (2) Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of this conduct.

Rather than conduct its own rigorous analysis, the District Court relied on the Special Master’s reports, which cited to testimony from “roughly two dozen [mortgage loan officers]” that “Citizens’ managers nonetheless regularly and almost uniformly instructed [mortgage loan officers] not to report all the hours that they worked.” The Third Circuit commented that the Special Master’s reports did not specifically identify the testimony relied upon to reach this conclusion and did not reference the evidence showing that knowledge of the purported policy was imputable to Citizens.

The record on appeal failed to support uniform application of the “policy to violate the policy,” but rather evidenced different, individualized experiences. Witness testimony was “confined to interactions with specific managers in distinct offices.” On multiple occasions, the testimony of putative class members contradicted the plaintiffs’ argument that managers “almost uniformly” instructed mortgage loan officers not to report all hours worked. The District Court did not reconcile these record conflicts. The Third Circuit was unable to determine whether the evidence met the commonality and predominance requirements of Rule 23.

Relying on Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, 136 S. Ct. 1036, 1046-47 (2016), the Third Circuit stated that, for the plaintiffs’ representative evidence to satisfy the commonality/predominance requirements of Rule 23, the evidence must be sufficiently representative of the class as a whole, such that each individual plaintiff “could have relied on [the] sample to establish liability if he or she had brought an individual action.” The record on appeal was to the contrary.

The Third Circuit vacated the order and remanded the matter to District Court with instructions that a class certification order must include: “(1) a readily discernible, clear, and precise statement of the parameters defining the class or classes to be certified, and (2) a readily discernible, clear, and complete list of claims, issues or defense to be treated on a class basis.”

No Pendent Appellate Jurisdiction over the District Court’s FLSA Collective Action Order

The Third Circuit’s decision is also important because it signaled an unwillingness to conflate the FLSA’s similarly situated standard for a collective action with FRCP Rule 23’s more stringent test for class certification. In declining to do so, the Third Circuit recognized that other circuit courts have “treated FLSA and Rule 23 certification as nearly one and the same.” See Epenscheid v. DirectSat USA, LLC, 705 F.3d 770, 772 (7th Cir. 2013), and Theissen v. Gen. Elec. Capital Corp., 267 F.3d 1095, 1105 (10th Cir. 2001).

Rule 23(f) permits interlocutory review of a Court’s order granting or denying class action certification. No comparable procedural rule permits review of an order certifying a collective action pursuant to FLSA Section 216(b). In Citizens, defendant sought appellate review of the District Court’s interlocutory order denying defendant’s motion to decertify the collective action through the doctrine of pendant appellate jurisdiction.

Pendant appellate review is available in two limited circumstances, to wit: (i) ‘”inextricably intertwined’” orders and (ii) review of a “non-appealable order when it is necessary to ensure meaningful review of [an] appealable order.” Neither circumstance was met to permit appellate review of the District Court’s order certifying a Section 216(b) collective action, while vacating an order certifying a Rule 23 class.

Pendent appellate jurisdiction allows an appellate court to exercise jurisdiction over issues that are not independently appealable, but that are inextricably intertwined with issues over which that court has independent jurisdiction. The question before the Third Circuit was whether Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common state law issues predominate over issues affecting only individual class members was inextricably intertwined with the issue of whether the plaintiffs were “similarly situated” as required to certify an FLSA collective action. The Third Circuit opined that the doctrine of pendant appellate jurisdiction is “narrow” and “should be used ‘sparing.’” (Citations omitted).

The Third Circuit joined with the Second Circuit in Myers v. Hertz Corp., 624 F.3d 537, 553-54 (2d Cir. 2010), to conclude that FLSA and Rule 23 certification orders were not inextricably intertwined, because the requirements of Rule 23’s predominance standard were significantly higher than the FLSA’s similarly situated standard. Therefore, a court may find that Rule 23 requirements had not been met without addressing whether the lower FLSA standard had been satisfied. The Third Circuit aligned with the Second Circuit in holding that Rule 23 certification is not “inextricably intertwined” with an FLSA collective action certification, and, therefore, declined to exercise pendent appellate jurisdiction over the interlocutory FLSA certification order.

The Third Circuit’s ruling in Reinig will assist employers who are faced with Rule 23 class certification motions that seek to certify ill-defined classes and ambiguous claims based on anecdotal evidence. However, under Reinig, employers will be hard pressed to obtain immediate appellate review of the certification of an FLSA collective action.

The new episode of Employment Law This Week features the U.S. Supreme Court’s easing of class certification standards in a case against Tyson Foods.

In Iowa, a group of Tyson employees brought a hybrid class and collective action for unpaid overtime spent changing clothes and walking to their work area. An expert determined the average amount of time spent on those activities, and the employees relied on those averages to get class certified and prove liability and damages. On appeal, Tyson argued that the employees should never have been grouped into a single class, because each employee took different amounts of time for the unpaid activities. But the Supreme Court ruled that this representative sample could be used to establish classwide liability, and the case will move forward in the district court.

View the episode below or read more about the case in an earlier blog post.

US Supreme CourtOn March 22, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, a donning and doffing case in which a class of employees had been awarded $2.9 million following a 2011 jury trial that relied on statistical evidence. (A subsequent liquidated damages award brought the total to $5.8 million.)

In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed that award.  While the Supreme Court’s decision may not have been the outcome many were expecting, the Court did not issue a broad ruling regarding the use of statistical evidence in class actions, and the decision may prove to have limited application.

In 2007, Tyson Foods employees at a meat processing facility in Iowa filed suit under both state law and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), alleging that they were not paid overtime for the time spent donning and doffing protective gear.  Because Tyson Foods did not have records of the amount of time employees actually spent in those activities, employees’ filled the “evidentiary gap” at through the presentation of representative evidence. This included not only employee testimony and video recordings, but, most importantly, an expert study showing the average time employees spent in such activities as observed by the expert.

In seeking to reverse the jury award, Tyson Foods argued to both the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court that the amount of time spent donning and doffing varied from person to person – and that some persons did not work sufficient time to be entitled to overtime in any event – such that individualized issues predominated over common ones. And Tyson Foods argued that the use of statistical evidence presented it from presenting individualized defenses.

In making these and other arguments, Tyson Foods sought a broad ruling prohibiting the use of statistical evidence in class actions. The Supreme Court rejected that request, concluding that such a rule would “reach too far.” And it explained that its landmark 2011 Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision “does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing class-wide liability.”

Instead, the Supreme Court held that a “representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability. Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes — be it a class or individual action — but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.” It further explained, “Whether and when statistical evidence can be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the evidence is being introduced and on ‘the elements of the underlying cause of action’ . . . .”

Under the facts presented to it, the Supreme Court  concluded that statistics could be used to infer the amount of time Tyson Foods employees spent donning and doffing because those statistics could have been used in individual suits by the employees.

Importantly, in reaching its conclusion, just as it declined to issue a blanket rule forbidding the use of statistical evidence, the Court also declined to issue a broad rule affirming the use of statistical evidence in all class actions.

The Court noted that its opinion “is not to say that all inferences drawn from representative evidence in an FLSA case are ‘just and reasonable.’ . . . . Representative evidence that is statistically inadequate or based on implausible assumptions could not lead to a fair or accurate estimate of the uncompensated hours an employee has worked.”  In other words, a defendant can challenge an expert’s methodology, which Tyson Foods did not do.

The Court concluded its discussion of representative evidence by declining to issue any broad rule: “The Court reiterates that, while petitioner, respondents, or their respective amici may urge adoption of broad and categorical rules governing the use of representative and statistical evidence in class actions, this case provides no occasion to do so. Whether a representative sample may be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the sample is being introduced and on the underlying cause of action. In FLSA actions, inferring the hours an employee has worked from a study such as [the expert’s] has been permitted by the Court so long as the study is otherwise admissible. . . . The fairness and utility of statistical methods in contexts other than those presented here will depend on facts and circumstances particular to those cases.”

While the decision is a victory for Tyson Foods employees, it is those sentences quoted directly above that will likely limit the decision from having widespread application.  The decision will no doubt be cited by plaintiffs’ counsel in class and collective actions to support their efforts to use statistical evidence to establish both liability and damages in their cases, even where there are individuals who have not been harmed. And defense counsel in those cases will just as certainly point to language in the decision that would indicate that it is a narrow ruling limited to its facts.

Not unimportantly, one issue left unaddressed by the Court pertains to Tysons Foods’ argument that uninjured class members should not recover damages.  The Court declined to address that issue, holding that that question was not fairly presented to it in this case because the damages award has not yet been distributed and  the record does not indicate how it will be done. Accordingly, Tyson Foods may raise a challenge to the allocation method when the case returns to the trial court for distribution of the award to address persons who were not injured.

On June 8, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Tyson Foods’ petition for review of the Eighth Circuit’s decision affirming the district court’s class and collective certification of a donning and doffing case under what Tyson Foods has described as “seriously flawed procedures.” While it does not appear that the Supreme Court’s review will deal directly with the standards for donning and doffing – i.e., the practice of employees putting on and taking off their uniforms and/or personal protective equipment pre- and post-shift – the Court appears likely to resolve how cases involving donning and doffing, as well as other wage-hour cases where not all employees in the putative class are impacted by a certain practice, will be scrutinized for purposes of applying class certification standards going forward. More specifically, the Court is expected to clarify what it means to have a class action “trial by formula,” of which the Court first disapproved in 2011 in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes.