Ninth Circuit: Class Action Erroneously Certified Given Wal-Mart v. Dukes

Back in 2004, employees of the Chinese Daily News started a class action, claiming mis-classification, unpaid overtime and denied meals and breaks.  The trial court eventually certified a class, and the employees won summary judgment on whether reporters for the newspaper qualified under the professional exemption.  The employees won millions of dollars after trial, which the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Not so fast, said the Supreme Court.  Following the Supreme Court's Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes decision (discussed here), the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit's decision in this case.  The Ninth Circuit decided that Wal-Mart requires reconsideration of the decision and sent it back to the district court.

Why? The trial court did not apply the proper analysis (after Wal-Mart) to determine whether there is sufficient commonality to certify the class.  As explained by the Court:

On remand, the district court must determine whether the  claims of the proposed class “depend upon a common contention . . . 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.” Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2551.
So, it's not enough that there are "common questions" in the abstract, because, as the Ninth Circuit stated (quoting Wal-Mart and its own later decision in Ellis v. Costco):

"any competently crafted class complaint literally raises common questions.” Wang [sic], 131 S. Ct. at 2551 (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “What matters to class certification is 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.” Id. (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). Dissimilarities within the proposed class may “impede the generation of common answers.” Id. “If there is no evidence that the entire class was subject to the same allegedly
discriminatory practice, there is no question common to the class.” Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 657 F.3d 970, 983 (9th Cir. 2011).

The Ninth Circuit also decided that the district court would have to reconsider whether certification is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  That rule permits monetary recovery in class action cases when

the court finds that the questions of law or fact  common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual  members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.
First, the district court over-relied on the employer's policies applicable to all employees, but without considering whether issues pertaining to individual claims and defenses would "predominate" over the common policy.  Second, the district court did not have the California Supreme Court's Brinker decision (you've heard of it, right?) to assess whether certification of a meal / rest claim was appropriate. 

Of note, the Ninth Circuit also wrote this, which will likely be of interest to class action litigators:

In Wal-Mart, the Supreme Court disapproved what it called “Trial by Formula,” wherein damages are determined for a sample set of class members and then applied by extrapolation to the rest of the class “without further individualized proceedings.” Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2561. Employers are “entitled to individualized determinations of each employee’s eligibility” for monetary relief. Id. at 2560.
Employers are also entitled to litigate any individual affirmative defenses they may have to class members’ claims. Id. at 2561. 

The case is Wang v. Chinese Daily News and the opinion is here.