Class Action Defense Cases– Ghazaryan v. Diva Limousine: California State Court Reverses Denial Of Class Action Treatment In Labor Law Class Action Holding Trial Court Erred In Believing It Had To Reach Merits To Certify Class Action

Jan 15, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

In Denying Motion for Class Action Certification, Trial Court Erroneously Concluded that it would be Required to Reach Merits of Class Action Allegations in order to Determine Ascertainability and Numerosity, Thus Necessitating Reversal and Remand with Instructions to Certify Labor Law Class Action California State Appellate Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a class action against his employer, Diva Limousine, alleging labor law violations; the class action complaint asserted, in part, that Diva failed to pay overtime and failed to provide its employees with meal and rest breaks. Ghazaryan v. Diva Limousine, Ltd., ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (Cal.App. January 12, 2009) [Slip Opn., at 3, n.3]. According to the class action’s allegations, Diva’s drivers collectively made anywhere from 100 to more than 200 trips on any given day, id., at 2. The facts underlying the class action complaint are as follows: Diva would provide its drivers with their first few assignments in order to permit the drivers to plan their breaks. Id. Diva also permitted about 75% of its drivers to take their vehicles home so that they could drive straight to their first assignment. Id. Once the first batch of trips had been completed, Diva’s dispatcher would dole out “additional trips according to location, availability and fairness among drivers”; on any given day, a driver may have as many as 8 assignments or less than 5. Id. The class action alleged that “Drivers have no way of predicting the length of any particular period of gap time although, on occasion, dispatchers may accommodate requests to schedule assignments around the drivers’ personal appointments.” Id. at 2-3. Plaintiff worked full-time for Diva, was “hard working” and “asked for as many assignments as available.” Id., at 3. Nonetheless, plaintiff “frequently had significant periods of on-call time between assignments.” Id. Diva prohibited its drivers from using company vehicles during “gap time” and required its drivers “to utilize gap time for their mandatory rest and lunch breaks, which could be interrupted if dispatched on an assignment.” Id. Further, drivers were not permitted to turn down assignments, even if the assignment conflicted with a meal or rest break, id. Plaintiff moved the trial court to certify the litigation as a class action, id., at 2. The trial court denied the motion, but the California Court of Appeal reversed.

Defense attorneys argued against class action treatment “principally because of the purported difficulties in identifying eligible members of the class and assessing the validity of Diva’s compensation policy as applied to different drivers who may or may not have used their gap time for personal pursuits”; certain employees, for example, are “dedicated event drivers” and are paid for their gap time. Ghazaryan, at 4. Additionally, a number of Diva’s drivers provided declarations that they “typically use unpaid gap time for their own purposes, such as working out at the gym, napping or eating at home or running personal errands,” and that they opposed plaintiff’s efforts to modify the manner in which Diva paid its drivers. Id. The trial court was persuaded by the defense arguments and refused to grant class action treatment to the litigation because of the “many individualized issues” raised by the class action complaint. Id. The trial court explained that determining numerosity would require that it “first determine an ultimate issue in the case, which this Court cannot do to determine the class.” Id., at 5. The trial court found further that the class was not ascertainable because it would first have to “determine if Diva’s practices are improper and, if so, which drivers fit into an appropriate class.” Id. The Court of Appeal reversed.

The appellate court explained that “the trial court fundamentally misconceived the import of the rule against evaluating the merits of the plaintiff’s claims in deciding whether class treatment is appropriate.” Ghazaryan, at 6. Specifically, the trial court improperly assumed that it could not grant class action treatment because it plaintiff had not shown that Diva’s conduct was illegal, id. Put simply, the category of drivers who received pay for all hours worked could “simply be excluded from recovery if liability is ultimately found,” or the class definition could be modified so as to include only those drivers “who were not paid for their on-call or gap time.” Id., at 7. The Court of Appeal summarized at page 9, “Because the purpose of the ascertainability requirement is to ensure notice to potential class members who at some time during their employment by Diva accumulated gap time, the proposed subclass consisting of all Diva drivers would simply and effectively accomplish this purpose.” Id., at 9.

The appellate court also disagreed with the trial court’s determination that the requisite community of interest did not exist to warrant class action certification. See Ghazaryan, at 9-12. The “inherent differences among employees in the amount of gap time accumulated and how it was spent” did not defeat class action treatment because “Determining whether a sufficient community of interest exists to warrant class certification…depends not on the differences among individual drivers’ use of their gap time but on the reasonableness of Diva’s policies as applied to its drivers as a whole.” Id., at 10. In short, this concern went to damages, not community of interest in establishing liability, see id., at 10-12. And for similar reasons, the Court of Appeal concluded that a class action was the superior method of resolving the dispute, see id., at 13-15. (Defense attorneys did not contest numerosity on appeal, and the appellate court found that numerosity existed because the proposed class covered approximately 190 employees. See id., at 6, n.5.) Accordingly, the appellate court reversed and remanded the class action to the trial court with instructions to grant plaintiff’s class certification motion, id., at 15.

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