Seyfarth Synopsis: At a time when the Massachusetts meal break landscape is increasingly friendly to employees, a federal judge in the state recently denied class certification in a meal break case, Romulus, et al. v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc. At issue were store policies, common in retail, that called for in-store key-holder coverage whenever the store was occupied. This decision represents both a victory and a roadmap for employers, and particularly retailers, facing meal break claims under Massachusetts law.

The plaintiffs in Romulus alleged that as Shift Supervisors, they were required to remain in the store during certain of their unpaid meal breaks, particularly during times when no other managers were present in the store. Further, the plaintiffs alleged, such breaks were often interrupted due to work. Based on these allegations, the plaintiffs sought certification of two classes of Shift Supervisors under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

On Wednesday, Judge Rya W. Zobel of the District of Massachusetts entered an order denying the plaintiffs’ bid for class certification. Relying on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent decision in DeVito v. Longwood Security Services, which set a strict standard for being “relieved of all duties” in order for meal breaks to be unpaid under state law, Judge Zobel assumed for purposes of her decision that remaining on-premises during a break is compensable “work.” Even under that assumption, Judge Zobel found class certification improper due to the plaintiffs’ inability to satisfy Rule 23’s “commonality” and “predominance” requirements.

With respect to commonality, Judge Zobel relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental decision Dukes, et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. in searching for a “common contention” that might produce the same injury to all class members. The judge found that resolving plaintiffs’ claims depended on the answers to two questions: (1) were putative class members required to remain in the store during meal breaks; and (2) if so, were they required to clock out (and thus be unpaid). She ruled that plaintiffs’ reliance on CVS’s policy and handbook statements were insufficient to resolve these critical questions on a class-wide level.

Specifically, Judge Zobel rejected the contention that policy statements relating to supervisor presence in the store when it was occupied by customers, taken together with a policy providing unpaid meal breaks, equated to common proof of an illegal practice capable of resolving all class members’ claims. The plaintiffs did not contend that the policies were facially unlawful, but rather challenged their implementation. Siding with CVS, Judge Zobel noted that the policy language did not necessitate that a Shift Supervisor remain in-store during meal breaks or take a meal break when no other manager was present. The judge also noted CVS policy language providing for the reporting and payment of in-store breaks. Accordingly, Judge Zobel found that—even assuming a policy requiring Shift Supervisors to remain in the store during certain meal breaks—resolving whether class members were required to clock out and go without pay for such breaks could not be resolved through common proof.

Judge Zobel also found that Rule 23’s more demanding predominance factor was unmet. That is, even if the law required CVS to compensate Shift Supervisors for meal breaks when they were required to remain on premises, the questions of whether supervisors were in fact required to do so, and whether they were then compensated, remained both unanswered and individualized. Denying certification, Judge Zobel ruled that the proposed classes were not “sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation.”

The Romulus decision represents a major win for employers in the battle to avoid class certification, which is particularly notable on the heels of the stringent standard for unpaid meal breaks established in DeVito. The decision also provides a strategic roadmap for employers seeking to avoid certification where break-by-break implementation of facially lawful meal break policies is challenged.