Seyfarth Synopsis: In McCaster v. Darden Restaurants, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s order denying class certification of claims for denial of earned vacation benefits at separation and granting summary judgment on part-time workers’ claims for accrual of benefits under policies that limited eligibility to full-time employees. The decision is an important one for vacation pay claims, as well as defense strategies to block class certification in wage & hour litigation.

Employers who offer vacation benefits have been subject to confusing and inconsistent rulings about eligibility requirements and accrual of benefits, along with litigation from enterprising plaintiffs’ class action lawyers seeking to take advantage of such uncertainty. On January 5, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit provided some welcome clarity when it rendered an employer-friendly decision in McCaster v. Darden Restaurants, Inc., No. 15-3258 (7th Cir. Jan. 5, 2017).

The Seventh Circuit ruled that eligibility requirements, like those limiting paid vacation benefits to full time employees, do not run afoul of “length of service” concepts that prohibit forfeiture of earned vacation benefits upon separation. Further, the Seventh Circuit set the bar for plaintiffs seeking to pursue such violations on a class-wide basis, holding that they may not do so without demonstrating an unlawful practice that spans the entire class of individuals subject to the vacation policy. As such, the Seventh Circuit’s opinion should have far-reaching implications.

Factual Background

Plaintiffs worked intermittently as hourly employees at Darden-owned restaurants for a period of time spanning roughly eight years. Id. at 2. McCaster worked primarily worked at a Red Lobster before June 1, 2008, and Clark primarily worked at an Olive Garden after June 1, 2008. Id. at 2-3.

During this time, Darden paid eligible employees vacation or “anniversary” pay when they reached the annual anniversary of their hiring date. Id. at 3. When an employee ceased working for the company, Darden included in the employee’s final paycheck the pro rata amount of anniversary pay he had earned prior to the date of separation. Id. Starting June 1, 2008, Darden limited vacation pay to full-time employees, defined as those who worked at least 30 hours per week. Id.

In this proposed class action, McCaster alleged that, prior to June 1, 2008, Darden failed to pay him accrued vacation pay when he left his job at Red Lobster, even though he had earned about 12 vacation hours in violation of the Wage Payment Collection Act (“IWPCA”). Id. Clark alleged that, after June 1, 2008, Darden failed to pay her vacation pay when she separated from employment. Id. at 3-4.

Plaintiffs moved to certify a class of “[a]ll persons separated from hourly employment with [Darden] in Illinois . . . who were subject to Darden’s Vacation Policy … and who did not receive all earned vacation pay benefits.” Id. at 4. The District Court rejected this definition because it described an improper fail-safe class. The District Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ proposed alternative definition because it failed to meet the requirements of Rule 23. Id.

Darden moved for partial summary judgment on Clark’s individual claim. Id. The company argued that Clark was not eligible for vacation pay during the relevant time period because she worked part-time. The District Court agreed and granted the motion. Id. at 5. McCaster subsequently settled his individual claim but reserved the right to appeal the denial of class certification. This appeal followed.

The Seventh Circuit’s Opinion

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s orders denying class certification and granting summary judgment.

At the outset, the Seventh Circuit held that, because Darden’s vacation-pay policy covered only full-time employees, Clark did not qualify for benefits. Id. at 5. Clark argued that if an employer provides paid vacation to its full-time employees on a pro rata length-of-service basis, it may not deny this same benefit to its part-time employees. The Seventh Circuit rejected Clark’s argument.

The Seventh Circuit held that Clark’s interpretation had no support in the text of the IWPCA, its implementing regulations, or in Illinois cases interpreting it: “[T]he Act merely prohibits the forfeiture of accrued earned vacation pay. Whether an employee has earned paid vacation in the first place depends on the terms of the employer’s employment policy.” Id. at 6. Because Clark did not work full time, she did not accrue benefits subject to forfeiture at separation.

The Seventh Circuit further concluded that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying class certification. Id. at 8. The Seventh Circuit held that, under Plaintiffs’ class definition, class membership turned on whether class members had valid claims. As such, Plaintiffs defined “a classic fail-safe class,” which the District Court properly rejected. Id. at 9.

Although Plaintiffs offered an alternative definition free from fail-safe concerns, including “[a]ll persons separated from hourly employment with [Darden] in Illinois . . . who were subject to Darden’s Vacation Policy.” the Seventh Circuit held that the District Court properly rejected it for failure to satisfy the requirements of Rule 23. Id. at 10.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that Plaintiffs’ alternative class failed to satisfy the commonality requirement. Id. at 11. Whereas the proposed alternative class consisted of all separated employees from December 11, 2003, to the present, Plaintiffs failed to identify any unlawful conduct on Darden’s part that spanned the entire class and caused all class members to suffer the same injury. Plaintiffs simply argued that some separated employees did not receive all the vacation pay they were due. The Seventh Circuit noted that “[t]hat may be true, . . . But establishing those violations (if there were any) would not involve any classwide proof.” Id. at 12.

Implications For Employers

The Seventh Circuit provided welcome clarity for employers that maintain vacation policies by cutting through conflicting case law and setting the bar for class certification of supposed violations. McCaster establishes that employers may set eligibility requirements that differentiate workers and rejects the notion that part-time workers accrue vacation benefit under a policy that limits participation to full-time employees. Further, in setting a bar for certification of such cases, the Seventh Circuit made clear that the commonality requirement remains a significant threshold for plaintiffs seeking to litigate their claims on a representative basis. It rejected the notion that mere violations of a pay policy are eligible for resolution on a class basis without some evidence of a state-wide practice that caused all class members to suffer the same injury. As a result, the opinion should have far-reaching and lasting impact.