Friday, January 8, 2010

Ninth Circuit Reverses Denial of Certification of Meal Break Claim in United Steel v. ConocoPhillips

On January 6, 2010, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in United Steel v. ConocoPhillips concluding that the district court abused its discretion in denying certification of a meal period class brought against defendant ConocoPhillips. The plaintiff’s theory of liability alleged that defendant had impermissibly availed itself the “on-duty” meal break exemption [8 CCR 11010(11)(C)] – a theory which, due to the inherent uniformity of the requisite elements, readily lends itself to class adjudication. However, the district court did not deny certification based on issues relating to plaintiff’s theory, but rather, on concerns that common issues would not predominate if plaintiff’s on-duty theory subsequently failed.  See Slip Opinion, at 384-85.

As held by the Ninth Circuit, “the district court abused its discretion by declining certification based on the possibility that plaintiffs would not prevail on the merits on their ‘on duty’ theory.” See id., at 390. The Court reasoned that the district court was obligated to examine the theory put forward by plaintiffs in determining whether predominance was met:
Critically, the district court did not hold that plaintiffs' actual legal theory (what the district court referred to as "Plaintiffs' 'on duty' theory of liability") was one in which common issues of law or fact did not predominate over individual questions. Instead, the district court treated plaintiffs' actual legal theory as all but beside the point, holding that because "there can be no assurances that [plaintiffs] w[ould] prevail on this theory," (emphasis added), the district court's predominance inquiry would instead focus on the question whether plaintiffs "actually missed meal breaks," an admittedly individualized inquiry. By refusing to analyze plaintiffs' "on duty" argument as the basis for its predominance inquiry because "there c[ould] be no assurances that they w[ould] prevail on this theory," the district court ignored Ninth Circuit precedent and ultimately abused its discretion.
See id., at 390-91.

The Court further reasoned that the district court violated established class action precedent, not only by prejudging the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, but by impermissibly conditioning certification on the plaintiff’s claims being meritorious:
the district court not only "judge[d] the validity" of plaintiffs' "on duty" claims, it did so using a nearly insurmountable standard, concluding that merely because it was not assured that plaintiffs would prevail on their primary legal theory, that theory was not the appropriate basis for the predominance inquiry. But a court can never be assured that a plaintiff will prevail on a given legal theory prior to a dispositive ruling on the merits, and a full inquiry into the merits of a putative class's legal claims is precisely what both the Supreme Court and we have cautioned is not appropriate for a Rule 23 certification inquiry. See Eisen, 417 U.S. at 177-78; Cummings v. Connell, 316 F.3d 886, 896 (9th Cir. 2003) (noting that "this circuit does not favor denial of class certification on the basis of speculative conflicts"); Staton, 327 F.3d at 954; Moore v. Hughes Helicopters, Inc., 708 F.2d 475, 480 (9th Cir. 1983) (holding that "it is improper to advance a decision on the merits to the class certification stage").
See id., at 390-91.

As explained by the Court, the proper course of action would be to certify the class and revisit the issue of certification if and when the plaintiff’s on-duty theory failed to pan out. See id. at 393.

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