Seyfarth Synopsis: After certifying a class of Haitian blueberry pickers who asserted Title VII discrimination claims, Judge James Moody of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued a sua sponte order decertifying the class because it had become apparent to the Court that the class members’ claims for compensatory damages were too individualized for class treatment.

This ruling is a reminder that courts have broad discretion to revisit and change an earlier class certification ruling — even when a party has not requested it. The lesson learned is that it’s not over until it’s over and employers should not be afraid to file renewed motions for decertification, particularly when new evidence of individualized damages surfaces.

Case Background & Decision

In Shelene Jean-Louis, et al. v. Clear Springs Farming, LLC, No. 13-3084 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 6, 2016), plaintiffs were seasonal workers that were hired by defendants to pick blueberries from defendants’ berry fields during harvesting season. After reporting to work and being sent home without any compensation, plaintiffs filed a class action complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, alleging that the defendants discriminated against them because of their race, color, and national origin. Id. at 1. Although the Court initially certified plaintiffs’ proposed class and denied the defendants’ motion to decertify the class, the Court later determined – in a sua sponte order – that plaintiffs’ bid for compensatory damages was inappropriate for class treatment. Id. Accordingly, on December 6, 2012, the Court issued an order to decertify the class. Id.

In its decertification order, the Court explained that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(c)(1)(C) allows the Court to alter or amend a class certification ruling so long as a final judgment has not been entered. Id. at 2. The Court explained that at the time plaintiffs moved to certify the class, only the named plaintiffs’ depositions had been taken and that, on this record, common questions predominated regarding whether discrimination had occurred. Id.

However,“[a]s the case has proceeded,” the Court noted, “it has become clear that Plaintiffs seek” back pay and compensatory damages, including out of pocket costs and emotional distress. Id. at 3. The Court explained that these “individualized damages require an inquiry into the specific circumstances of each individual class member . . . .” Id. The Court reasoned that that this would result in a number of “mini-trials,” and therefore precluded class treatment under Rule 23. Id. As a result, the Court ordered decertification of the class. Id. at 5.

Implication For Employers

In the class action arena, employers should not forget that the potential for individualized issues to predominate when plaintiffs seek compensatory damages is another possible basis to attack the appropriateness of class treatment. An employer should also keep in mind that, short of a Rule 23(f) appeal, employers can renew a motion to decertify a class because Rule 23(1)(C) allows a judge to alter or amend a class certification ruling before final judgment.