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Santiago Rojas, Josefino Ramirez, Catalina v. Marko Zaninovich

March 28, 2013



I. History

Defendants Marko Zaninovich, Inc. and Sunview Vineyards of California Inc. are commercial table grape growers based in Kern County. Plaintiffs are former employees of Defendants. The case has a complex procedural history. The operative complaint alleges Defendants violated various employment laws by, among other things, failing to properly pay wages by forcing employees to work off the clock, forcing employees to purchase tools out of pocket, failing to pay minimum required wages, failing to provide meal and rest periods, failing to provide accurate itemized wage statements, and failing to maintain time records. Defendant Marko Zaninovich was dismissed by stipulation of the parties. Plaintiffs moved for class certification against the remaining Defendant, Sunview. Doc. 37.

Plaintiffs originally sought certification of three classes covering workers employed by Sunview anytime between November 9, 2001 to the present: 1) workers paid a piece rate; 2) workers during the harvest season; and 3) workers during the off-season. Through briefing, motions, and hearings before Magistrate Judge Thurston, the bounds of the proposed classes shifted dramatically. By the time the motion reached Judge Thurston for the purposes of issuing a Findings and Recommendation, there were five classes/subclasses: 1) workers paid a piece rate; 2) workers who purchased their own equipment for work; 3) workers who took trays home to wash in 2001-2002; 4) workers who took trays home to wash in 2003-2005; and 5) workers who did some tasks before their shift began. Judge Thurston further refined the classes, spliting the workers paid a piece rate into those who were paid a piece rate and those who were paid a sub-minimum wage plus a piece rate. Her recommendation was that two classes be certified and all the rest be denied. Doc. 192. Both Plaintiffs and Sunview objected to Judge Thurston's findings. Docs. 194 and 196. This court adopted Judge Thurston's Findings and Recommendations in part, modifying the time frame for one class. Doc. 201. The certified classes are 1) the sub-minimum wage plus piece rate class defined as "All workers who were paid an hourly wage less than minimum wage (but greater than $0/hour) plus piece rate from 11/9/2001 to present" based on the legal theory that this "method[] of pay violated California law because employees were not compensated at a regular rate of pay for the rest breaks" and 2) the tray washing class defined as "All non-supervisory harvest fieldworkers employed by Sunview during the 2001 and 2002 harvests who took trays home overnight and washed those trays without compensation" based on the legal theory that Sunview "suffered or permitted off-the-clock work after the official end time." Doc. 201, Order, 20:18-19, 22:7-8, and 26:6-15.

Plaintiffs sought review of the court's refusal to certify the additional classes. Doc. 203. The Ninth Circuit declined to entertain the appeal. Doc 210. Sunview made a motion for reconsideration, seeking to reverse the certification of the sub-minimum wage plus piece rate class and tray washing classes. Doc. 202. Plaintiffs oppose reconsideration. Doc. 206.

II. Legal Standards

"Reconsideration is appropriate if the district court (1) is presented with newly discovered evidence, (2) committed clear error or the initial decision was manifestly unjust, or (3) if there is an intervening change in controlling law. There may also be other, highly unusual, circumstances warranting reconsideration." School Dist. No. 1J Multnomah County v. ACandS, Inc., 5 F.3d 1255, 1263 (9th Cir. 1993), citations omitted.

III. Discussion

Sunview seeks reconsideration on two grounds: new case authority and insufficient definition of the certified classes.

A. New Case Authority

Sunview points to the California Supreme Court decision of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004 (Cal. 2012) for the proposition that the merits of Plaintiffs claims must be examined as part of this motion to certify a class. Doc. 202, Sunview's Brief, 4:18-5:4. Under federal law, the legal theory under which a proposed class proceeds may be relevant to the joint analysis of commonality and predominance of common over individual questions: "Their claims must depend upon a common contention--for example, the assertion of discriminatory bias on the part of the same supervisor. That common contention, moreover, must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution--which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke. 'What matters to class not the raising of common "questions" -- even in droves -- but, rather the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation. Dissimilarities within the proposed class are what have the potential to impede the generation of common answers.'" Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011), quoting Richard A. Nagareda, Class Certification in the Age of Aggregate Proof, 84 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 97, 103 (2009). The key question is whether the proposed class is subject to the same legally significant question in the same way. Plaintiffs point out that Brinker, coming from the California courts, are subject to a different class certification standard under Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 382. Doc. 206, Plaintiffs' Opposition, 5:25-6:4. However, Sunview points out that Brinker's analysis relies extensively upon U.S. Supreme Court precedent discussing Fed. Rule of Civ. Proc. 23. Doc. 207, Sunview's Reply, 2:2-5. On the point of looking at the legal merits of a claim during class certification, California and federal standards appear to be similar and consistent with each other; Brinker is useful as persuasive authority. While Brinker is not a change in controlling law, reconsideration in light of the opinion is useful.

The California Supreme Court concluded, "trial courts are not obligated as a matter of law to resolve threshold disputes over the elements of a plaintiff's claims, unless a particular determination is necessarily dispositive of the certification question." Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 1017 (Cal. 2012). A fuller discourse states:

We observe in closing that, contrary to the Court of Appeal's conclusion, the certifiability of a rest break subclass in this case is not dependent upon resolution of threshold legal disputes over the scope of the employer's rest break duties. The theory of liability-that Brinker has a uniform policy, and that policy, measured against wage order requirements, allegedly violates the law-is by its nature a common question eminently suited for class treatment. As noted, we have at the parties' request addressed the merits of their threshold substantive disputes. However, in the general case to prematurely resolve such disputes, conclude a uniform policy complies with the law, and thereafter reject class certification-as the Court of Appeal did-places defendants in jeopardy of multiple class actions, with one after another dismissed until one trial court concludes there is some basis for liability and in that case approves class certification. It is far better from a fairness perspective to determine class certification independent of threshold questions disposing of the merits, and thus permit defendants who prevail on those merits, equally with those who lose on the merits, to obtain the preclusive benefits of such victories against an entire class and not just a named plaintiff.

Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 1033-34 (Cal. 2012). Thus, courts should only examine the merits of the claim when they are relevant to the question of certification. Sunview states that Brinker "held that because plaintiff had presented an improper legal theory, class certification was not proper." Doc. 202, Sunview's Brief, 5:16-17. This court does not agree with that interpretation. Contrary to Sunview's assertion, courts should not undertake a general Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 12(b)(6) failure to state a claim analysis while completing class certification .

In Brinker, the California Supreme Court did find the merits relevant to class certification of the meal period class. The trial court certified a class that included workers who were not provided a meal period within 5 hours of working and workers who did not get a second meal period within 5 hours of the first meal period. The California Supreme Court found that a second meal period had to be provided within 10 hours of working and not within 5 hours of the first meal period. The California Supreme Court did note that the trial court took the unusual step of weighing in on the merits prior to class certification and finding in favor of the plaintiff's interpretation. The California Supreme Court said "That the meal subclass definition thereafter incorporated [the plaintiff's] timing theory thus raises the specter that the certification may have been influenced in part, by the trial court's legal assumption about the theory's merits. Any such assumption would have been incorrect, given our ruling." Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 1050 ...

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