What happens if plaintiffs break their promise to present evidence that their claims can be decided on a classwide basis at trial? In Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, the Plaintiffs found out this harsh lesson when the Court decertified the case mid-trial because Plaintiffs failed to present classwide proof of their claims. This decision out the United States District Court for the Southern District of California becomes one in a growing series of court decisions decertifying automatic meal period deduction class actions due to the lack of common proof.
Plaintiffs worked in the field delivering and installing appliances. The company automatically applied a thirty-minute meal period deduction from the installers’ pay if they worked a shift of 6 or more hours, and did not keep records of if and when the actual meal breaks were taken. Instead, the company presumed the meal break was taken in full. The company did not provide a method for the installers to reverse the automatic meal period deduction if the meal period was missed or interrupted with work. Plaintiffs and other installers used company-provided trucks for their work. As a matter of policy, the company prohibited installers from using the company vehicles for personal business; required that the truck be legally parked and the cargo secured before the installer left the vehicle; and prohibited installers from parking the trucks at establishments that might tarnish the company’s reputation. The company required installers to carry and leave their cell phones on at all times during the workday. If a call went unanswered, it would go to voicemail.
In their initial bid for class certification, Plaintiffs successfully convinced the Court that through these common policies they could prove—on a classwide basis—the class was forced to work through their meal periods without pay.
At trial, Plaintiffs failed to deliver any evidence that the company’s policies prevented the class from taking their unpaid meal periods. Instead, Plaintiffs testified that the company’s tight rules on the use of the company trucks did not actually prevent them from legally parking, securing their cargo, and eating lunch in a restaurant. In addition, the evidence at trial showed that any lunch time phone calls were either answered by voicemail or were de minimis.
Plaintiffs also conceded that they did not have any personal knowledge about the experiences of other installers with respect to meal periods because they worked varied schedules and were out in the field without opportunity to observe their colleagues. So despite the company’s common policies applicable to all installers, the determination of whether any particular Plaintiff or class member worked through the unpaid meal period required an individualized assessment. As a result, the Court decertified the class.
The court here joins several others that also came to realize—unfortunately, late in the litigation process—that automatic meal period deduction cases are difficult to try on a class or collective basis. This decision highlights the increasing success of employers in demonstrating that plaintiffs need more than a common, lawful policy to establish that all class members were forced to work off the clock. But, the success came after extensive and expensive classwide litigation, and a trial.
The challenge for employers now is to parlay these eleventh-hour victories into early decisions denying class certification or collective certification under the FLSA where the case cannot ultimately be resolved through common or even representative evidence.