Labor Law Class Action Defense Cases–Hernandez v. Vitamin Shoppe: California Court Affirms Order Barring Attorney In One Class Action From Contacting Class Members In Related Class Action After Class Conditionally Certified In That Action

Jul 29, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

As Matter of First Impression, Class Action Plaintiff Attorney Ethically Prohibited from Contacting Class Members in Class Action once Trial Court Conditionally Certifies Litigation as a Class Action and Appoints Class Counsel California State Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed three separate putative class action lawsuits against Vitamin Shoppe alleging labor law violations; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that defendant failed to pay employees overtime, or to provide meal and rest periods, as allowed by California law. Hernandez v. Vitamin Shoppe Ind. Inc., 174 Cal.App.4th 1441, 95 Cal.Rptr.3d 734, 737-38 (Cal.App. 2009). The Perry class action (which included appellant Lisa Hernandez as a named plaintiff) was filed in Marin County, as was the Beauford class action; the Thompson class action was filed in Orange County. Id., at 738. Plaintiff’s attorney in the Thompson class action was Jeffrey Spencer; Spencer also represented named plaintiff Hernandez in the Perry class action. Id., at 737-38. Defense attorneys offered to settle the putative class actions on a class-wide basis, provided that all three plaintiffs attended the mediation; Spencer, on behalf of the Thompson class action, refused to participate. Id., at 738. The parties reached a proposed class action settlement of the Perry class action, and Spencer – as plaintiff’s attorney in Thompson – tried unsuccessfully to coordinate the three class actions or, alternatively, to stay the Perry class action. Id. Spencer, again acting as counsel for the Thompson plaintiffs, opposed court approval of the proposed class action settlement in Perry on the grounds that the settlement “was based on erroneous factual and legal assumptions, and that it was not within a range of reasonableness.” Id. The trial court gave preliminary approval to the proposed class action settlement in Perry and appointed class counsel (not Spencer), but before the claims administrator had sent notice to the class, Spencer (acting as counsel in the Thompson class action) sent letters to Vitamin Shoppe employees urging them to opt-out of the proposed settlement in the Perry class action and to retain him as their attorney. Id., at 739. In pertinent part, the court proceedings that followed included a court order that “ordered that a corrective notice be sent, directed Spencer to refrain from any further communications with class members that he did not represent, and granted the request for monetary sanctions.” Id., at 740. Following reassignment to a new judge after Spencer successfully challenged the original trial court for bias, id., the trial court reaffirmed the court order enjoining Spencer from communicating with any class members that he did not represent, ordering a corrective notice be sent to the class (as well as a procedure for determining the impact of Spencer’s letter on class members), and imposing sanctions against Spencer, id., at 741. The appellate court affirmed the order except for the award of sanctions.

For purposes of this article, we focus on the court order prohibiting Spencer from further communication with members of the putative class and awarding sanctions. The appellate court easily found that the court order did not create any conflict with Spencer’s ethical obligation to communicate with clients because it specifically exempted communications with class members who had retained him. See Hernandez, at 743-44. On the contrary, the court order prohibited Spencer from communicating directly with individuals represented by other counsel – class counsel. The Court of Appeal also concluded that the trial court order was well within its discretionary power to oversee litigation, and “‘to protect the rights of all parties, and to prevent abuses which might undermine the proper administration of justice.’” Id., at 745 (citation omitted). In this regard, the appellate court held that the trial court’s duty to protect absent class members is “particularly pronounced” following class action certification “because class members must decide whether or not to opt out.” Id. (citation omitted). In this case, “Spencer sent his letters unilaterally, without court approval, after the court had reviewed the proposed settlement, counsel’s arguments, preliminarily approved the settlement, and ordered the claims administrator to send notice to the class.” Id. Moreover, Spencer’s letters were misleading, id., at 745-46. And finally, the Court of Appeal rejected the claim that the court order infringed on Spencer’s right to free speech, holding at page 746, “Spencer fails to establish that his constitutional free speech rights entitled him to interfere with the trial court’s duty and authority to supervise the exclusion process after conditionally certifying the class, or to contact class members for whom the court had appointed class counsel.” Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court orders, save for the sanction as noted below. Id., at 751.

NOTE: The Court of Appeal set aside the award of sanctions because respondents conceded that the statute relied upon by the trial judge “does not provide a court with the power to impose sanctions”; accordingly, that part of the trial court’s order was reversed. Hernandez, at 743.

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