Suppose that you’re a trial court considering a motion for class certification.  And suppose that the parties present you with two competing statutory interpretations.  One legal standard permits the case to be adjudicated with common evidence.  And the other standard would require  individualized inquiries.  What should you do?  Should you decide what the law is and then see whether the putative class claims can be tried in a single trial?

The surprising answer of the California Court of Appeal is in Hall v. Rite Aid Corp. (pdf) is “No.”  Hallappears to conclude that commonality and predominance need not be established under the correct substantive legal standards.  Rather, if the plaintiffs propose a legal standard dispensing with individualized inquiries, the very question whether that standard applies is a common issue supporting class certification.

Hall is another decision in a growing series of “suitable seating” cases addressing a California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order that requires employers to provide employees with “suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” The plaintiffs inHall—cashier-clerks who divided their time between check-out counters, stockrooms, and sales floors—construed the Order to require seats to be provided to every employee for every task where providing seats would be reasonable. In particular, the plaintiffs contended that Rite Aid had a duty to provide a seat to any employee who worked at a check-out counter for any period of time, even if for much of that time the employee would not be able to perform the job while sitting.  Rite Aid, in contrast, contended that the duty to provide a seat depended on the employee’s duties as a whole, so that the Order would not require providing a seat to an employee working at a check-out counter if the employee worked mostly at tasks where seating was inappropriate, or if check-out duties would not allow the employee to sit most of the time.  Thus, under plaintiffs’ legal theory, any failure to have a seat at a check-out counter was a violation requiring no further inquiry, while under Rite Aid’s theory such a failure would violate an employee’s rights only under certain, largely individualized circumstances.

Agreeing with Rite Aid’s view of the substantive law, the trial court decertified a class.  The San Diego-based Court of Appeal reversed.  In its view, the disputed legal elements of the plaintiffs’ claim were themselves common legal issues supporting class certification.  According to that court, deciding exactly what the law required the plaintiff had to prove in common was an impermissible predetermination of the action’s merits, and thus fell afoul of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court.

True, Brinker had disapproved a “free-floating inquiry into the validity of the complaint’s allegations” at the class certification stage.  Yet the California Supreme Court also recognized that when “legal issues germane to the certification inquiry bear as well on aspects of the merits, a court may properly evaluate them”; indeed, [t]o the extent the propriety of certification depends on disputed threshold factual or legal questions, a court may, and indeed must, resolve them.”

It seems to me that, when one interpretation of a Wage Order would require resolution of myriad individualized issues, and the other interpretation would permit the same issues to be resolved in common, the “propriety of certification” under Brinker would depend on the correct legal standard.  Not so, according to the Hall court, which viewed the very dispute over the legal standard as a common issue supporting class certification.

The Hall opinion would seem to allow a plaintiff to obtain class certification simply by advancing a theory of liability that omits inherently individualized elements such as causation and injury, on the ground that the validity of the plainly erroneous legal theory could be determined on a class-wide basis.  And the Hall approach raises significant unanswered questions.  The opinion suggests that defendants—especially employers whose policies are challenged—should want threshold legal questions to be decided after class certification so that the entire class is bound by the result.  But if class counsel is wrong about the legal theory, and in fact the legality of the employer’s policy depends on individual circumstances, does the entire class lose because the class plaintiff’s overbroad theory fails, even though some or even many class members would have valid claims under the proper, more individualized standard?  That might create adequacy and due process problems, elevating the interests of the class-action lawyers over those of their clients.  But if determination of the legal issue on a class basis instead simply results in decertification of the class, allowing new actions under the correct theory, then it makes no sense to defer the decision as to what, exactly, plaintiffs must prove through common evidence.

The issue surfaced indirectly in the California Supreme Court’s recent unanimous decision in Duran v. US Bank NA (pdf), which we recently discussed.  Duran rejected the use of questionable statistical sampling that swept away individualized issues and defenses in a wage-and-hour class action.  The Court’s evaluation of the class-certification and trial-management issues hinged on a view of the governing law under which an employee’s exempt status under the overtime laws hinged on whether the employee actually spent more than half-time carrying out duties that were exempt (there, sales outside the employer’s facility).  Justice Liu’s concurring opinion suggested a possible legal test—different from the Court’s view—that would turn on the employer’s reasonable expectations about the balance of exempt or nonexempt activity within a particular job classification, not on the employees’ actual work practices. If that test correctly stated the obligation, Justice Liu suggested, the application of the exemption could be determined as a common issue without the need for statistical sampling.Hall raises the troubling possibility that a litigant could seek to avoid individualized issues by restating the governing legal test along the lines of Justice Liu’s concurrence in Duran, and then claim that the choice between Justice Liu’s formulation and the formulation adopted in the Court’s opinion itself was a common issue of law.   In my view, such an approach would be inconsistent with Duran and Brinker.