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Rodriguez v. Danell Custom Harvesting, LLC,

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 23, 2018

FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DANELL CUSTOM HARVESTING, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING PRELIMINARY APPROVAL OF CLASS ACTION SETTLEMENT (ECF NOS. 30, 35, 40)

         Plaintiffs Francisco Rodriguez, Jesus Hernandez Infante, Marco Garcia, Juan Manuel Bravo, Estela Patino, Jose F. Orozco, and Antonio Ortiz (“Plaintiffs”) on behalf of themselves and other members of the public similar situated, filed this action on December 7, 2016, against Defendants Danell Custom Harvesting, LLC; Rance Danell, Eric Danell, David Danell, and Justin Danell (“Defendants”) alleging wage and hour claims in violation of federal and state law. (Compl. 1.) Currently before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement.[1]

         The Court heard oral arguments on December 13, 2017. Counsel Enrique Martinez appeared for Plaintiffs and counsel Ian Blade Wieland appeared for Defendants. No objectors appeared at the hearing. The Court provided the parties with the opportunity to file supplemental briefing. Having considered the moving papers, the declarations and exhibits attached thereto, arguments presented at the December 13, 2017 hearing, as well as the Court's file, the Court issues the following order.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Defendant Danell Custom Harvesting, LLC is a California company doing business in Kings County, State of California. (Compl. ¶ 14.) Defendant Danell Custom Harvesting LLC is a company that develops, manufactures, and sells specialized equipment and parts for harvesting purposes and provides machinery and personnel to client dairies at their premises to harvest, transport, and weigh wheat and corn that is used for animal feed (“silage”). (Compl. ¶ 21.) Defendant Danell Custom Harvesting, LLC is co-owned by Defendants Rance Danell, Eric Danell, David Danell, and Justin Danell. (Compl. ¶¶ 15-18.)

         Defendant Danell Custom Harvesting LLC's day to day operations and wage and hour practices are managed by Defendants Rance Danell, Eric Danell, David Danell, and Justin Danell. (Compl. ¶ 21.) Defendants Rance Danell, Eric Danell, David Danell, and Justin Danell regularly visit and oversee operations at the Danell Custom Shop and at numerous customer sites where the putative class members worked. (Compl. ¶ 22.) These defendants make decisions regarding the scheduling, working conditions, and hiring and termination decisions. (Compl. ¶ 22.) They also exercise control over the wages, hours, or working conditions. (Compl. ¶ 22.)

         Defendant Danell Custom Harvesting LLC employs five groups of workers: 1) mechanics who service cars and trucks and develop parts at their shop (“mechanics”); 2) maintenance workers who service and clean agricultural equipment at their shop (“maintenance workers”); 3) farm equipment operators who work in the fields harvesting (“operators”); 4) truck drivers who transport silage from the fields to the dairy (“drivers”); and 5) weighers who weigh the silage for billing purposes (“weighers”). (Compl. ¶ 23.)

         Defendants employ a large team of mechanics who service trucks, forklifts, the defendants' personal race cars, and the defendants' family vehicles. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Some of the mechanics also do welding, painting, and machinist duties. (Compl. ¶ 24.) The mechanics are paid an overtime rate after working more than 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week. (Compl. ¶ 24.) A meal break is provided for mechanics after they have worked six hours in their shift. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Although the mechanics typically work more than a 10 hour day, they are not provided with a second meal period. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Sometimes the mechanics will work twelve or more hours per day and are not provided with a third rest break. (Compl. ¶ 24.) Mechanics must purchase and use their own tools to work for Defendants despite being paid less than double the California minimum wage. (Compl. ¶ 24.)

         Defendants also employ maintenance workers who service and clean agricultural equipment, including choppers, swathers, and dozers at their shop. (Compl. ¶ 25.) Maintenance workers are subjected to the same conditions as the mechanics. (Compl. ¶ 25.)

         Defendants also employ operators who handle farm machinery such as dozers and choppers to harvest corn or wheat at Defendants' clients' fields. (Compl. ¶ 26.) The operators typically work more than 12 hours per day without being provided meal and rest periods and must eat while operating their vehicles. (Compl. ¶ 26.)

         The truck drivers transport silage from Defendants' clients' fields to their dairies. (Compl. ¶ 27.) Around mid-2016, Defendants began paying their truck drivers at an overtime rate when they worked more than 8 hours in a day. (Compl. ¶ 27.) Previously, truck drivers were not paid overtime until they worked more than 10 hours in a day or sixty hours per work week. (Compl. ¶ 27.) Truck drivers have never been provided with meal and rest periods. (Compl. ¶ 27.) Truck drivers typically work more than 12 hours per day and are required to eat while they are driving their trucks and delivering the silage. (Compl. ¶ 27.)

         Weighers work at the premises of Defendants' clients weighing and recording the silage brought by the truck drivers. (Compl. ¶ 28.) Weighers are paid an overtime rate after working 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week. (Compl. ¶ 28.) Although weighers typically work more than 12 hours per day, they are not provided with meal and rest periods and must eat while performing their work. (Compl. ¶ 28.) Weighers must also purchase and use their own equipment, such as tables and chairs, and are not fully reimbursed for using their own vehicles. (Compl. ¶ 28.)

         Plaintiff Rodriguez was employed by Defendants as a maintenance worker at their shop from approximately May 2012 to May 2016. (Compl. ¶ 7.) Plaintiff Infante has been employed as a maintenance worker at their shop since approximately June 2012 to the present. (Compl. ¶ 8.)

         Plaintiff Garcia was employed as a shop mechanic and maintenance worker in Defendants' shop from approximately June 2015 to September 2016. (Compl. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff Bravo has been employed by Defendants as a maintenance worker and farm equipment operator from approximately 1998 to the present. (Compl. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff Patino was employed by Defendants as a weigher from approximately 2004 to September 2016. (Compl. ¶ 11.) Plaintiff Orozco was employed by Defendants as a truck driver from approximately November 2014 to June 2016. (Compl. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff Ortiz has been employed by Defendants as a truck driver from approximately July 2014 to the present. (Compl. ¶ 13.)

         On December 7, 2016, Plaintiffs filed a class and collective action alleging failure to pay overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq.; failure to pay overtime wages in violation of California Labor Code sections 510, 1194 and IWC wage orders; failure to provide meal and rest periods in violation of California Labor Code section 226.7 and IWC wage orders; failure to furnish accurate wage statements in violation of California Labor Code section 226; indemnification of work related expenses, California Labor Code section 2802; waiting time penalties, California Labor Code section 203; Unfair Business Practices in violation of California Business and Professions Code section 17200, et seq.; and civil penalties for violation of the California Labor Code section 2699. Plaintiffs brought this action proposing six classes of non-exempt employees who worked for Defendants during the limitations period:

a) Class of mechanics, maintenance workers, truck drivers, and weighers who worked more than forty (40) hours per work week, and were not compensated for all said overtime hours at the appropriate rates of pay (“FLSA Overtime Class”);
(b) Class of mechanics and weighers who worked more than eight hours per work day and/or 40 hours per work week, and were not compensated for all said overtime hours at the appropriate rates of pay (“Labor Code Overtime Class”);
(c) Class of employees (all five employee groups) who were not provided with adequate meal and rest breaks as required by law (“Meal and Rest Period Class”);
(d) Class of employees (all five employee groups) who were not furnished with accurate wage statements (“Wage Statement Class”);
(e) Class of mechanics, maintenance workers and weighers who have not been reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses (“Indemnification of Work-Related Expenses Class”); and,
(f) Class of employees (all five employee groups) whose employment ended and were not paid all of their wages (“Waiting Time Penalties Class”).

(Compl. ¶ 30.)

         On February 28, 2017, the scheduling order issued setting dates and deadlines in the action. (ECF No. 13.) On June 9, 2017, the action was stayed for the parties to engage in mediation. (ECF No. 24.) On October 16, 2017, the stay was lifted. (ECF No. 27.) Plaintiffs' filed a motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement on November 22, 2017. (ECF No. 30.) A hearing on the motion for preliminary approval was held on December 13, 2017, after which Plaintiffs were granted the opportunity to file supplemental briefing. (ECF Nos. 31, 32.) On January 17, 2018, Plaintiffs filed supplemental briefing to address the issues raised at the December 13, 2017 hearing.

         An informal teleconference was conducted on January 23, 2018, to address several issues the Court identified in the documents upon review. The parties agreed to continue the hearing set for January 24, 2018, until February 21, 2018, to continue to address the issues identified. An informal conference with the parties was set for February 7, 2018, and the parties submitted amended documents for the Court's review on February 1, 2018.

         On February 5, 2018, an informal conference call was held to address the amended documents. (ECF No. 39.) On February 14, 2018, amended documents were filed in support of the motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement. (ECF No. 40.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Ninth Circuit has declared that a strong judicial policy favors settlement of class actions. Class Plaintiffs v. City of Seattle, 955 F.2d 1268, 1276 (9th Cir. 1992). Nevertheless, especially where settlement occurs prior to class certification, courts must peruse the proposed settlement to ensure the propriety of class certification and the fairness of the settlement. Stanton v Boeing, 327 F.3d 938, 952 (9th Cir. 2003).

         To certify a class, a plaintiff must demonstrate that all of the prerequisites of Rule 23(a), and at least one of the requirements of Rule 23(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have been met. Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc., 737 F.3d 538, 542 (9th Cir. 2013). This requires the court to “conduct a ‘rigorous analysis' to determine whether the party seeking class certification has met the prerequisites of Rule 23.” Wright v. Linkus Enterprises, Inc., 259 F.R.D. 468, 471 (E.D. Cal. 2009).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(e)(2) requires that any settlement in a class action be approved by the court which must find that the settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. The role of the district court in evaluating the fairness of the settlement is not to assess the individual components, but to assess the settlement as a whole. Lane v. Facebook, Inc., 696 F.3d 811, 818-19 (9th Cir. 2012) reh'g denied 709 F.3d 791 (9th Cir. 2013). In reviewing a proposed settlement the court represents those class members who were not parties to the settlement negotiations and agreement. In re Toys R Us-Delaware, Inc.--Fair & Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) Litig., 295 F.R.D. 438, 448 (C.D. Cal. 2014).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Certification of the Rule 23 Class

Even where the certification of the class is unopposed, the court must examine whether the settlement class satisfies the requirements of Rule 23(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1019 (9th Cir. 1998). The court is required to pay “ ‘undiluted, even heightened attention' to class certification requirements in a settlement context.” Hanlon, 150 F.3d at 1019 (quoting Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor (“Amchem”), 521 U.S. 591, 620 (1997)). The dominant concern of Rule 23(a) and (b) is whether the proposed class has sufficient unity so that it is fair to bind absent class members to the decisions of the class representatives. Amchem, 521 U.S. at 621.

         1. Numerosity

         The numerosity requirement is satisfied where “the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(1). Records produced by Defendants show that there are 445 individuals who were employed as non-exempt mechanics, maintenance workers, operators, drivers, or weighers. (Decl. of Enrique Martinez ¶ 2, ECF No 30-3.) The number of individual class members in this instance exceeds the number that has been found to be so numerous that joinder of all members would be impracticable. See Celano v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 242 F.R.D. 544, 549 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (“courts generally find that the numerosity factor is satisfied if the class comprises 40 or more members”); Cervantez v. Celestica Corp., 253 F.R.D. 562, 569 (C.D. Cal. 2008) (“Courts have held that numerosity is satisfied when there are as few as 39 potential class members.”) The class of 445 members satisfies the numerosity requirement.

         2. Commonality

         The commonality requirement is satisfied where “there are questions of law or fact that are common to the class.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(a)(2). Courts construe Rule 23(a)(2)'s commonality requirement permissively. Cervantez, 253 F.R.D. at 570. The key inquiry is “whether class treatment will ‘generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation.' ” Arredondo v. Delano Farms Co., 301 F.R.D. 493, (E.D. Cal. Feb. 21, 2014) (citations omitted). Commonality is not required for all of the claims. It is sufficient if there is one single issue common to the proposed class. True v. American Honda Motor Co., 749 F.Supp.2d 1052, 1064 (C.D. Cal. 2010).

         Plaintiffs argue that all class members “were treated identically under Defendants' uniform policies and practices with regard to overtime pay, meal and rest periods, and reimbursement of work-related expenses.” (ECF No. 30-2 at 16.) Plaintiffs contend that all class members were subject to the same level of control by all the defendants and the questions common to the class include:

• Whether certain class members were entitled to overtime compensation under the California Labor Code and, if so, whether they were paid in compliance with those requirements;
• Whether Defendants failed to provide class members with meal periods as required by law;
• Whether class members were provided with their rest breaks, as required by law;
• Whether class members are entitled to statutory premium pay for every day they missed a meal or rest break;
• Whether certain class members were unlawfully denied reimbursement for work-related expenses;
• Whether Defendants provided class members with accurate itemized statements in accordance with state law; and,
• Whether Defendants failed to pay waiting time penalties to former employees for ...

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