Because of a lenient standard of proof imposed on plaintiffs by most courts, employers rarely are successful at defeating motions for conditional certification, the first step of the two-step opt-in class certification process for collective allegations of wage and hour violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  So when an employer does defeat such a motion, it is newsworthy and must be recognized.  Earlier this week, the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (Judge Claude M. Hilton) denied a motion seeking conditional certification of a class of current and former drivers who claimed that their putative employer, a chauffeur transportation company, denied them minimum wage and overtime compensation in violation of the FLSA.  Amir, et. al. v. Sunny’s Executive Sedan Serv., Inc., et. al., No. 1:13-cv-161 (E.D. Va. Jul. 30, 2013).

Plaintiffs, current and former chauffeurs who drove sedans or SUVs for defendant from February 1, 2010 to the present, moved, pursuant to FLSA 216(b) for conditional certification on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated seeking recovery of alleged unpaid minimum wage and overtime compensation and damages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) along with additional relief resulting from alleged claims under Virginia common law.  Defendant employed approximately fifty drivers to serve the Washington, D.C. area.  The drivers performed services for the defendants in a variety of arrangements and capacities (e.g., drivers worked pursuant to two different independent contractor agreements, as employees, as affiliates, or a combination of the three).

The District Court determined that the plaintiffs were not appropriate class representatives “because they were performing services pursuant to different contractual agreements and terms and conditions of employment, had differing compensation arrangements, drove different vehicles, and worked different schedules.”  The district court concluded that the claims were “individual, fact-intensive, and fact specific and would require individualized ad hoc inquiries for each plaintiff.”  Therefore, the court held that the plaintiffs were not similarly situated and that litigating the case on a collective basis would not promote judicial economy.

Notably, the court concluded its opinion by citing to Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011).  The court stated that “the Supreme Court had rejected the notion of  ”Trial by Formula” in which a sample set of class members is selected, liability and damages for those class members is determined, and the percentage of valid claims and average damages are imputed to the class as a whole, all without any individualized proceedings.”  Further, the court stated that ”a class cannot be certified on the premise that the defendant will not be entitled to litigate its statutory defenses to individual claims.  The defendant is entitled to individualized determinations of liability and damages.  These claims are individual claims and necessitate individual factual inquiries and defenses which are inappropriate to resolve as a class.”

Significance

Although many courts have found that collective and class action treatment is inappropriate in cases involving alleged misclassification of independent contractors because of the substantial differences among the class of contractors and putative employees, this case is still noteworthy and encouraging for employers considering the lenient standard of proof most courts require when evaluating whether to grant conditional certification to an opt-in class under the FLSA.  This case is proof positive that well-drafted opposition papers emphasizing the “fatal dissimilarities” among putative class members may convince a district court that conditional certification of an opt-in class under the FLSA is not appropriate and, in turn, will spare employers the expense of costly and protracted class litigation.