Seyfarth Synopsis: This is the fifth installment of our blog series on key trends for workplace class action litigation in 2016. In terms of the sheer number of rulings, a significant trend saw wage & hour class action and collective action certification decisions outstripping all other types of certification orders over the past year. This reflects the simple truism that with more wage & hour litigation case filings over the last 36 months than all other varieties of workplace class actions, there have been more conditional certification and decertification decisions in that space than in any other area of workplace class action litigation. The takeaway for employers is that the tidal wave of this type of workplace class action claim is not ending anytime soon.

Introduction

An undeniable fact of litigation statistics is that wage & hour certification decisions in 2016 increased geometrically as compared to last year. Of the 224 wage & hour certification decisions in 2016, there were 195 conditional certification rulings and 29 decertification rulings. In contrast, in 2015, there were 175 wage & hour certification decisions, including 153 conditional certification rulings and 22 decertification rulings. While plaintiffs’ lawyers won more conditional certification motions than compared to prior years, employers also won decertification motions at higher rates than as compared to 2015. At the same time, that led to a more rapid and robust development of case law on conditional certification and decertification issues in the wage & hour context.

The Story Behind The Numbers

While shareholder and securities class action filings witnessed an increase in 2016, employment-related class action filings remained relatively flat.

By the numbers, filings for employment discrimination and ERISA claims were basically flat over the past year, while the volume of wage & hour cases decreased for the first time in over a decade.

By the close of the year, ERISA lawsuits totaled 6,530 filings (down slightly as compared to 6,925 in 2015 and 7,163 in 2014), FLSA lawsuits totaled 8,308 filings (down as compared to 8,954 in 2015 and up from 8,066 in 2014), and employment discrimination lawsuits totaled 11,593 filings (an increase from 11,550 in 2015 and a decrease from 11,867 in 2014).

In terms of employment discrimination cases, however, the potential exists for a significant jump in case filings in the coming year, as the charge number totals at the EEOC in 2015 and 2016 reached record levels in the 52-year history of the Commission; due to the time-lag in the period from the filing of a charge to the filing of a subsequent lawsuit, the charges in the EEOC’s inventory will become ripe for the initiation of lawsuits in 2017.

By the numbers, FLSA collective action litigation filings in 2016 far outpaced other types of employment-related class action filings; virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed and litigated as collective actions. Up until 2015, lawsuit filings reflected year-after-year increases in the volume of wage & hour litigation pursued in federal courts since 2000; statistically, wage & hour filings have increased by over 450% in the last 15 years.

The fact of the first decrease in FLSA lawsuit filings in 15 years is noteworthy in and of itself. However, a peek behind these numbers confirms that with 8,308 lawsuit filings, 2016 was the second highest year ever in the filing of such cases (only eclipsed by 2015, when 8,954 lawsuits were commenced).

Given this trend, employers may well see record-breaking numbers of FLSA filings in 2017. Various factors are contributing to the fueling of these lawsuits, including: (i) new FLSA regulations on overtime exemptions in 2016, which have been delayed in terms of their implementation due to legal challenges by 13 states; (ii) minimum wage hikes in 21 states and 22 major cities set to take effect in 2017; and (iii) the intense focus on independent contractor classification and joint employer status, especially in the franchisor-franchisee context. Layered on top of those issues is the difficulty of applying a New Deal piece of legislation to the realities of the digital workplace that no lawmakers could have contemplated in 1938. The compromises that led to the passage of the legislation in the New Deal meant that ambiguities, omitted terms, and unanswered questions abound under the FLSA (something as basic as the definition of the word “work” does not exist in the statute), and the plaintiffs’ bar is suing over those issues at a record pace.

Virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed as collective actions; therefore, these filings represent the most significant exposure to employers in terms of any workplace laws. By industry, retail and hospitality companies experienced a deluge of wage & hour class actions in 2016.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

Click here to view table. 

What The Numbers Should Mean To Employers

The story behind these numbers is indicative of how the plaintiffs’ class action bar chooses cases to litigate. It has a diminished appetite to invest in long-term cases that are fought for years, and where the chance of a plaintiffs’ victory is fraught with challenges either as to certification or on the merits. Hence, this reflects the various differences in success factors in bringing employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, as compared to FLSA collective actions.

Obtaining a “first stage” conditional certification order is possible without a “front end” investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed unlike the situation when certification is sought in an ERISA or employment discrimination class action) and without conducting significant discovery due to the certification standards under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Certification can be achieved in a shorter period of time (in 2 to 6 months after the filing of the lawsuit) and with little expenditure of attorneys’ efforts on time-consuming discovery or with the costs of an expert. As a result, to the extent that litigation of class actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers are viewed as an investment, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment without significant barriers to entry relative to other types of workplace class action litigation. As compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time. The certification statistics for 2016 confirm these factors.

An increasing phenomenon in the growth of wage & hour litigation is worker awareness. Wage & hour laws are usually the domain of specialists, but in 2016 wage & hour issues made front-page news. The widespread public attention to how employees are paid almost certainly contributed to the sheer number of suits. Big verdicts and record settlements also played a part, as success typically begets copy-cats and litigation is no exception. Yet, the pervasive influence of technology is also helping to fuel this litigation trend. Technology has opened the doors for unprecedented levels of marketing and advertising by the plaintiffs’ bar – either through direct soliciting of putative class members or in advancing the overall cause of lawsuits. Technology allows for the virtual commercialization of wage & hour cases through the Internet and social media.

Against this backdrop, wage & hour class actions filed in state court also represented an increasingly important part of this trend. Most pronounced in this respect were filings in the state courts of California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. In particular, California continued its status in 2016 as a breeding ground for wage & hour class action litigation due to laxer class certification standards under state law, exceedingly generous damages remedies for workers, and more plaintiff-friendly approaches to class certification as well as wage & hour issues under the California Labor Code. For the fourth year out of the last five, the American Tort Reform Association (“ATRA”) selected California as one of the nation’s worst “judicial hellholes” as measured by the systematic application of laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner. Calling California one of the worst of the worst jurisdictions, the ATRA described the Golden State as indeed that for plaintiffs’ lawyers “seeking riches and the expense of employers …” and where “lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges have long aided and abetted this massive redistribution of wealth.”