Bankruptcy Class Action Defense Cases–in re Bally Total Fitness: New York Bankruptcy Court Denies Motions By Class Action Plaintiffs To Permit Class Proof Of Claim, To Certify Class Actions Or To Lift Stay

May 7, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Motions by Plaintiffs in Class Actions Asserting Labor Law Violations Denied because Class Action Device not “Superior” means of Resolving Employees’ Claims given Bankruptcy Proceeding and because Lifting Stay to Allow Class Action Litigation to Proceed would Waste Defendants’ Resources and Distract from Reorganization Efforts New York Bankruptcy Court Holds

Certain putative class action lawsuits were filed against Bally Total Fitness, which subsequently filed a petition for bankruptcy protection. In re Bally Total Fitness of Greater New York, Inc., 402 B.R. 616, 2009 WL 931537, *1 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Plaintiffs in one of the class action lawsuits, the “Carrera” plaintiffs, “brought…a class action on behalf of thousands of employees” and alleged that Bally made employees work off-the-clock, failed to provide meal and rest periods, failed to provide timely itemized wage statements or final paychecks, and failed to reimburse business expenses. Id. Plaintiffs in another class action lawsuit, the “Flores” plaintiffs, “brought…a class action on behalf of Bally employees…for unpaid wages, failure to provide meal and rest periods mandated by California law and failure to reimburse business expenses.” Id., at *2. The Flores class action was originally filed in California state court, but defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court under CAFA (Class Action Fairness Act of 2005), id. Bally’s employees had entered into a written agreement with the company, the “Bally Total Fitness Corporation Employment Dispute Resolution Procedure” (EDRP), which required that employment-related claims be submitted to arbitration and which contained a class action waiver provision such that employment claims were required to be arbitrated individually. Id. In Carrera, Bally lost a motion to compel arbitration of the individual claims, and appellate proceedings were stayed due to the bankruptcy filing; in Flores, Bally’s motion to compel arbitration of individual claims was pending when the company filed bankruptcy, so a decision on that motion was stayed. Id. Plaintiffs in the Carrera class action moved the bankruptcy court to (1) permit them to file a “class proof of claim,” and (2) lifting the automatic stay so the class action could proceed in state court in order to “liquidate” the claims or, alternatively, certifying the litigation as a class action. Id., at *1. Plaintiffs in the Flores class action moved the bankruptcy court to certify the litigation as a class action. Id. The bankruptcy court denied each motion.

With respect to the Carrera plaintiffs’ request for leave to file a class proof of claim, the bankruptcy court noted that there is “no absolute right to file a class proof of claim under the Bankruptcy Code.” In re Bally, at *2 (citations omitted). Rather, in deciding whether to permit the filing of a class proof of claim, bankruptcy courts consider “a) whether the class claimant moved to extend the application of Rule 23 to its proof of claim; b) whether ‘the benefits derived from the use of the class claim device are consistent with the goals of bankruptcy’; and c) whether the claims which the proponent seeks to certify fulfill the requirements of Rule 23.” Id. (citation omitted). The bankruptcy court denied the motion because plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that the requested relief would both be consistent with the goals of bankruptcy and satisfy the Rule 23 requirements.” Id. In this regard, the Court explained that class proofs of claim are consistent with the goals of bankruptcy “in two principal situations: (i) where a class has been certified pre-petition by a non-bankruptcy court; and (ii) where there has been no actual or constructive notice to the class members of the bankruptcy case and Bar Date.” Id., at *3. As neither situation applied to either the Carrera or Flores class action complaints, the Court denied the motion to permit the filing of a class proof of claim. Id.

With respect to the requests made in Carrera and Flores for certification of the lawsuits as class action, the bankruptcy court held that the requirements of Rule 23 had not been met. First, the Court noted that while class action treatment “may be beneficial with other civil actions in consolidating the adjudication of common issues, this advantage disappears in the context of a bankruptcy.” In re Bally, at *4. As one court held, “superiority” does not exist in the context of a bankruptcy because the “other available method” of resolution of the claims is provided by the bankruptcy proceeding itself. Id. (citation omitted). Moreover, under the facts of this case, the bankruptcy court determined also that the predominance test of Rule 23(b)(3) was not met because “each putative class member’s right to recovery is dependent on facts specific to that individual.” Id.

And finally, the bankruptcy court denied the request by plaintiffs in the Carrera class action to lift the automatic stay, in part because the cost of litigation would “lead[] to an unnecessary drain on the Debtors’ resources and an untimely distraction from the reorganization process.” In re Bally, at *6. Accordingly, the bankruptcy court denied each of the plaintiffs’ motions.

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