Seyfarth Synopsis: Four African-American teachers alleged that their school district employer discriminated against them on the basis of race by failing to hire them as assistant principals, and filed a motion for class certification. A federal district court in Florida denied the teachers’ motion for class certification, finding the employees failed to satisfy the commonality requirement of Rule 23 based on the exercise of discretion by different hiring principals at different schools. The ruling has important lessons for employers facing Rule 23 motions in workplace class actions.

***

In Gittens v. The School Board of Lee County, Florida, No. 2:16-CV-412, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115987 (M.D. Fla. July 7, 2017), Plaintiffs brought suit against their employer, the School Board of Lee County, Florida (“School District”), alleging that the School District discriminated against them on the basis of their race, i.e., African-American. After Plaintiffs moved for class certification, Judge Mac R. McCoy of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied their motion, finding that Plaintiffs “fail[ed] to provide the necessary glue to hold the putative class claims together under [the] commonality analysis,” that was set forth in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011). Id. at *34. The Court also found that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the sufficiency of the proposed class definition, the ascertainability of the putative class, adequacy, typicality, and the Rule 23(b) requirements.

For employers facing workplace class actions where putative class members are subjected to employment decisions by different supervisors at different facilities, this ruling is another post-Wal-Mart employer victory that can be used to oppose class certification.

Case Background

Plaintiffs, four African-Americans, held various teaching and administrative positions at various schools within the School District. Id. at *6-12. All four Plaintiffs had advanced degrees, and sought administrative positions at various schools, including the position of assistant principal. All four had at least one interview for the assistant principal position, and two were interviewed by panels of all-White school administrators. All four Plaintiffs were rejected for assistant principal positions.

To be considered for an assistant principal position, an applicant must first apply and be accepted into the AP Pool. Id. at *13. Once accepted, an individual may then apply and be hired for a specific assistant principal position at a certain school. Each individual school advertises its open assistant principal positions, screens the applicants, conducts its own interviews and, when selected by the Principal of that specific school, the candidate’s name is submitted to the Superintendent, who then sends it to the School Board for final approval.

Plaintiffs alleged that the School District had a pattern or practice of refusing to hire well-qualified, African-American employees to administrative positions. After bringing class-wide allegations under Title VII for race discrimination, Plaintiffs moved to certify a class of current and former employees who had applied for various positions with the School Board, including assistant principal positions.

The Decision

The Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. First, the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ class definition, “[a]ny and all black/African-American employees who applied for an AP Pool position in the four years preceding this action but who were denied such a position by Defendant,” as being improperly vague and ambiguous. Id. at *18-20. The Court noted that that the class definition was unclear as to whether “denied” referred to the AP Pool or the actual assistant principal position.

After the Court found that Plaintiffs satisfied the numerosity requirement of Rule 23, it held that Plaintiffs failed to establish that there were common questions of law or fact sufficient to satisfy the commonality requirement. The Court opined that “[s]imilar to [Wal-Mart v. Dukes], the Plaintiffs here wish to bring suit calling into question a relatively large number of employment decisions at once. Without some glue holding the alleged reasons for all those decisions together, it will be impossible to say that examination of all the class members’ claims for relief will produce a common answer to the crucial question why was I disfavored.” Id. at *28 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court held that the exercise of discretion by schools and principals over time at different schools precluded a finding of commonality. Id. at *30.

Turning to the typicality requirement of Rule 23, the Court held that the named Plaintiffs failed to meet this requirement because each individual school advertised its opening for an assistant principal position and had its own decision-maker screening applicants and conducting interviews before the school principal selected the top applicant. Id. at *37. The Court determined that Plaintiffs did not meet their burden to show that their claims were based on the same event, pattern, or practice as the claims of other putative class members. Regarding the adequacy of representation requirement, citing Plaintiffs’ counsel’s motion to withdraw as counsel of one of the named Plaintiffs due to “a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship,” the Court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden. Id. at *39-40. Finally, Plaintiffs could not meet the Rule 23(b) requirements since not all of the Rule 23(a) requirements were met. Id. at *40-41. Accordingly, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

Implications For Employers

One of the most crucial events in employment law class actions is class certification briefing, which can potentially lead to several more commas and zeros in a settlement figure or jury verdict if an employer is not successful. The Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision has given employers an avenue to attack large class actions where decisions made by different supervisors at different facilities can make it difficult for employees to prove common questions of law and fact. Although the Court here identified several reasons not to certify this particular putative class, employers are now armed with another post-Wal-Mart ruling that they can use as a blueprint to fight class certification on the basis of commonality.