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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Jones v. Farmers Insurance Exchange: Court of Appeal Reverses Denial of Class Certification in Off-the-Clock Class Action

In Jones v. Farmers Insurance Exchange (10/28/13, mod. and pub. 11/26/13) 221 Cal.App.4th 986, the plaintiff worked as an adjuster for Farmers. He sued, alleging that Farmers should have paid him for "computer sync time" work performed before beginning his scheduled shifts.  

The plaintiff filed for class certification, and Farmers opposed, arguing that it had no uniform policy requiring unpaid pre-shift work and that individual issues thus predominated. The trial court denied certification, and the Court of Appeal reversed, finding as follows: 

Under Brinker and Sav-On the question on commonality is "whether the theory of recovery advanced by the proponents of certification is, as an analytical matter, likely to prove amenable to class treatment," and the fact that individual class members will have to prove their damages does not defeat certification. Slip op. at 9-11. 

Although the trial court is "afforded great discretion in ruling on class certification" (slip op. at 11-12), the trial court here abused its discretion "by focusing on individual issues concerning the right to recover damages rather than evaluating whether the theory of recovery is amenable to class treatment." 

Slip op. at 14. Further, "the trial court erred to the extent that its ruling was based on its evaluation of the merits of Plaintiffs’ claim as to the existence of such a uniform policy." Slip op. at 15. 

Plaintiffs’ theory of recovery is that Farmers applied a uniform policy to all putative class members denying them compensation for “computer sync time” work performed at home before the beginning of their scheduled shifts. The existence of such a policy is a factual question that is common to all class members and is amenable to class treatment.

Whether such a policy, if it exists, deprives employees of compensation for work for which they are entitled to compensation is a legal question that is common to all class members and is amenable to class treatment.  Slip op. at 12-13. Farmers disputed that it had such a policy, but this argument raised a "common question amenable to class treatment." Slip op. at 13. Farmers' other evidence went to damages, which did not defeat certification. Slip op. at 13-14. “Farmers’s liability depends on the existence of such a uniform policy and its overall impact on its APD claims representatives, rather than individual damages determinations.” Slip op. at 15. 

Because of the predominance of common issues, class certification would "provide substantial benefits to the litigants and the courts," and a class action would be a superior method of resolving the dispute. Slip op. at 15. 

Substantial evidence supported the trial court's finding that Mr. Jones was not an adequate class representative because he did not file a declaration stating that he understood his fiduciary obligation to the class. Slip op. at 17. However, rather than deny certification on this basis, the trial court should have allowed plaintiffs to amend their complaint to name a suitable class representative. Slip op. at 17-18. 

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