A California appeals court refused last week to revive a putative class action that alleged the defendant employer had not given employees adequate meal breaks. See In re: Walgreen Company Overtime Cases, No. B230191 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist.,10/23/14).  What is interesting is that significant part of the reasoning related to the fact that multiple putative class members recanted at deposition declarations that had been prepared and submitted by class counsel. 

This class action was about meal breaks at work, and  while the company's stated policy was adequate, in practice the company allegedly departed from the policy. (California employers must give workers time off to eat meals at work.) The trial court denied plaintiffs'  motion for class certification. Plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals noted the burden on the moving party is to “demonstrate the existence of an ascertainable and sufficiently numerous class, a well-defined community of interest, and substantial benefits from certification that render proceeding as a class superior to the alternatives.” Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, 1021.  California courts generally afford trial courts great latitude in granting or denying class certification, and normally review a ruling on certification for an abuse of discretion. While a class certification motion is not a license for a free-floating inquiry into the validity of the complaint’s allegations, issues affecting the merits of a case may be enmeshed with class action requirements.  Thus, analysis of a class certification’s propriety frequently will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim. That cannot be helped, said the court.

A legal issue is (1) whether an employer must merely make meal breaks available, or (2) whether the employer must actually ensure employees take the breaks. Walgreens employees apparently sometimes did decide to skip or delay breaks. One employee explained, for instance, that “I generally take my lunch breaks, but about once a week I will skip lunch because I want to be able to leave work early.” Another testified that, “[e]ven though it has always been Walgreens’ policy to provide a 30-minute meal period, I preferred to skip mine and instead leave early. If I am not hungry, which is typically the case, I do not need a meal period, especially since it is unpaid time.” There was other similar evidence about skipping or delaying breaks.  

California has adopted the make available standard. To meet this test, attorneys for the class plaintiff submitted 44 form declarations from other workers, all saying that Walgreen forced them to work through some meal breaks because their store was understaffed.  The trial court gave the declarations no weight because they were deemed unreliable. That is, most witnesses recanted their declarations to some degree or entirely at their deposition. The court of appeals stated that the prevalence of apparent falsity in the declarations raised questions about how the lawyers had created these declarations in the first place.

The trial court was “especially troubled” that, once deposed, so many witnesses recanted their declarations. The court of appeals agreed, "Form declarations present a problem. When witnesses speak exactly the same words, one wonders who put those words there, and how accurate and reliable those words are."  There is nothing attractive, said the court, about submitting form declarations contrary to the witnesses’ actual testimony. Thus, it was not error for the trial court to give these unreliable declarations no weight.

Denial of certification affirmed.