Why it matters

An employer’s lack of a uniform policy necessitated the reversal of class certification, a California federal court judge recently ruled, refusing to reconsider his decision to decertify the class. Several AutoZone employees filed suit in 2010, accusing their employer of failing to provide them with rest breaks. Several other actions were consolidated into a multi-district litigation and a class was certified in 2012. As discovery went on, AutoZone moved to decertify the class. The court granted the motion in August, finding that written records keeping track of workers’ breaks were not kept and that a lawful policy had been in place for several years of the class period. The plaintiffs asked the judge to reconsider the motion, suggesting that, instead of decertifying the class, he redefine it. But the court affirmed the decertification ruling. “AutoZone’s policy was, for a significant portion of the class period, lawful on its face and, ‘[a]s a result, the bulk of the issues that are truly in dispute … are inherently individualized,’ ” the judge concluded.

Detailed discussion

Multiple cases were filed in California federal courts against AutoZone, alleging the company failed to provide legally mandated rest breaks for its workers. After a multi-district litigation (MDL) was established, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer certified a class in December 2012, defined as: “All non-exempt or hourly paid employees who have been employed at Defendant’s retail stores in the State of California at any time on or after July 29, 2005 until the date of certification.”

However, as discovery went on, AutoZone moved to decertify the class based on the evidence that had come to light since certification. Judge Breyer granted the motion in August, writing that “Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate predominance or manageability/superiority.” The plaintiffs then moved for the court to reconsider the motion, arguing the decertification ruling was error or, in the alternative, that the court should have redefined the class.

But the court disagreed.

At the class certification stage, the court had accepted the plaintiffs’ representation that throughout the relevant time period, the employer had a written rest break policy applicable to all AutoZone stores. Based on this, the court found predominance. But the evidence told a different story, the court said.

“The evidence demonstrates that at the beginning of the class period, AutoZone’s written policy was that ‘[rest] breaks are scheduled in accordance with California law,’ and AutoZone posted the relevant Wage Order in each store,” Judge Breyer wrote. “The unlawful-as-written language that Plaintiffs had earlier represented as AutoZone’s sole policy throughout the class period was not in place until 2008.”

This left the plaintiffs without a uniform policy warranting certification, the court said, rejecting their contention that just because the 2008 policy was unlawful, the earlier policy similarly violated labor law.

“[T]he evidence does not suggest that, despite different written policies, AutoZone had a uniform practice of denying rest breaks,” the court wrote. “Rather, the existence of the conflicting policies during the class period, some of which appear facially lawful and others of which appear facially unlawful, which existed over different time periods, and which were applied differently to various employees, negates Plaintiffs’ claims of uniformity. The evidence suggests that many class members received proper breaks, and that when they did not, it was due to a variety of reasons, not all of them unlawful.”

Because there was no single uniform policy in place from 2005 to 2012—nor a consistent practice of denying rest breaks during that time—the court did not err in concluding that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate predominance, Judge Breyer said.

He also rejected the plaintiffs’ proposal to redefine the class, limiting it to the period in which the 2008 policy was in effect, holding that individual issues would predominate.

“Common issues do not predominate where a policy was applied differently to different class members: some class members testified that they did not receive breaks, others testified that they did take breaks, some stated that they told subordinates to take a break every two hours, others explained that whether they received a break depended on the manager, position held, hours worked and/or staffing at that location,” the court said. “It was not clear error to decline to redefine the class where there was significant variability among class members.”

In addition to failing to satisfy the predominance requirement, the plaintiffs did not demonstrate that class certification would render the case more manageable. Despite their reassurances that rest break records existed, the plaintiffs were unable to find them. “The Court expected that the records would help Plaintiffs establish liability as to each class member, so that Plaintiffs would not need to rely on employees’ recollections from years past,” Judge Breyer explained. “That Plaintiffs could no longer point to either a uniform policy or a record of when rest breaks were actually taken struck the Court as problematic.”

To read the order in In re: AutoZone, Inc. Wage and Hour Employment Practices Litigation, click here.