In a class and collective action against a national home healthcare company, a federal district court recently denied class certification of the plaintiffs’ state law misclassification claims, finding the claims were too individualized and that proceeding as a class action would render the case unmanageable.
In Rindfleisch v. Gentiva Health Services, Inc., five former home healthcare clinicians brought claims on behalf of a class of thousands of registered nurses, physical therapists, and occupational therapists for alleged violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act (NCWHA), asserting they were misclassified as exempt employees and therefore denied overtime compensation for hours worked over 40 in a workweek.
In January 2012, the plaintiffs filed a motion for certification of the NCWHA claims. In order to satisfy the requirements for class certification of state law claims, plaintiffs must show that “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 of fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.” In this case, the plaintiffs argued that representative testimony could be used to establish the hours worked by potential class members to support their claims for unpaid overtime. The judge disagreed, finding the plaintiffs had not provided support for their argument that representative testimony can be used to prove the class members worked more than 40 hours per week because, among other things, the employers’ time records showed there were substantial variations in the clinicians’ work hours. Thus, the judge stated, “[t]he representative testimony of some small fraction of the clinicians can quickly lose its character as generalized proof, and open the door to individualized inquiries into each class member’s hours that will overwhelm the class action.”
In addition, the judge found that the plaintiffs did not provide sufficient support for their argument that a class action is the superior method for litigating the claims at issue. Significantly, in considering the issue of superiority, the court emphasized the importance of considering the manageability of the case as a class action. In determining that the case would be unmanageable as a class action, the judge again relied on the plaintiffs’ inability to support their claims through representative testimony. Because of the variability in the hours the plaintiffs worked, the court concluded that to establish both liability and damages it “may have to resort to ‘mini trials’ that will create ‘staggering problems of logistics’ that could render th[e] case unmanageable.”
This decision is interesting because in denying class certification, instead of focusing on the misclassification issue, the court focused on the lack of common proof of liability and damages for overtime hours worked in the event the plaintiffs were found to be non-exempt. The decision also demonstrates the importance of conducting a thorough investigation of potential overtime claims and of adopting mechanisms and policies to accurately record hours worked.