The Seventh and Eighth Circuits both addressed motions to decertify classes the week of July 5—with divergent results. These cases illustrate the deference afforded district courts’ class certification determinations. Both courts refused to find the trial courts’ decertification decisions to constitute an abuse of discretion. They also illustrate the importance of a sensitivity to the requirements of the specific cause of action, which themselves may dictate whether a class is certified or not.
In Phillips v. Sheriff of Cook County, 14-3753 & 15-1616 (7th Cir. July 6, 2016), the Seventh Circuit affirmed the decertification of two classes of detainees of the Cook County, Illinois jail who alleged substandard dental care violated their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court initially certified a class of jail detainees who suffered dental pain but waited more than seven days after requesting dental care in writing before receiving such care. Its decision was influenced by the “common question” regarding whether the jail was understaffed given that it had only one dentist on staff. This common question was removed from consideration, however, when the jail increased the number of dental practitioners to an “optimal” level. After receiving evidence from several inmates about their treatment, the court decertified the classes. It found that care may end up being substandard for many reasons at many stages. The appellate court affirmed after canvassing its own prior case law on commonality after Wal-Mart. It concluded that the district court did not err in determining that there was no common question central to resolution of the case. The court emphasized that, under the constitutional standard it was required to apply, the district court rightly found no systematic reason for any given inmate’s delay in treatment. At most, the evidence revealed isolated reasons that varied from case to case.
In Day v. Celedon Trucking Services, Inc., 15-1711 (8th Cir. July 5, 2016), the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court order refusing to decertify a class of former employees of Continental Express, which had been purchased by Celedon. The former employees alleged that they had not been given the requisite 90 day WARN act notification of the closing of Continental before their jobs were terminated.
The court first rejected the defendant’s argument that the district court improperly imposed upon it the burden of proof on the motion for decertification. In a case of first impression for the Eighth Circuit, it noted that a movant generally has the burden of proof on its motion. In addition, this general rule makes particular sense in the context of class certification where the district court’s initial certification—decided on a motion where the plaintiffs unquestionably bore the burden of proof—was “carefully considered” and made after discovery.
The court also ruled that the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to decertify the class on predominance grounds. The court noted that the defendant failed to satisfy its burden of showing that individualized issues predominate in a context where the WARN Act itself contemplates class adjudication. Nor were damages individualized given that the WARN Act itself established the damages for which a violating employer is liable.
Finally, the fact that some class members did not satisfy the class definition did not require decertification of the entire class. The requisite threshold showing of employment (the only real individualized issue) was “straightforward and minimal” given a statutory presumption of employment.