Appellate Court Allows "On-Duty" Meal Period Class Action To Proceed

This case is a class action lawsuit filed by Caren Bufil for violations of California’s meal and rest break laws, and violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law against Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (Dollar). Bufil v. Dollar Financial Group, Inc. (filed April 14, 2008, ordered published May 13, 2008).  Dollar is a company with 130 retail stores in California that provides check cashing, Western Union services and loans.

The plaintiff’s suit defined the putative class as consisting of two subclasses of hourly employees working in California from September 2003 until the present. The two subclasses were employees for whom Dollar’s meal break records showed that they did not receive a meal break because (1) they were the only employee working in the store at the time of their meal break or (2) they were training another employee who could not be left alone to operate the store when their meal break should have been taken.

Dollar’s “On-Duty” Meal Period Agreement
In 2001 Dollar implemented an "on-duty" meal agreement with hourly employees. The agreement was given to all new employees and states that (1) Dollar and the employees acknowledge that the nature of the business may prevent employees from being relieved of all duties during meal periods; (2) Dollar and the employees agree that an employee may take an on-duty meal break, and be paid accordingly; and (3) the employees may revoke their right to have the meal break deemed “on duty” by giving 24-hour written notice to a supervisor.

Dollar introduced an updated meal break policy effective September 2003. The revised policy sets forth that on-duty meal breaks are only permitted when the hourly employee (1) is the only employee in the store working during the entire work shift; and (2) is working with only one other employee who has been employed less than 90 days and is not certified to transact business alone. An e-mail to store managers in June 2006 reiterated this policy.

Dollar’s rest break policy did not require consecutive 10-minute breaks, but permitted a “net” 10 minutes of time that the employee could use throughout the day. The appellate court, relying upon a DLSE opinion letter, stated that the rest breaks had to be consecutive, and held that Dollar did not permit employees working alone or who were supervising other employees had the ability to take a 10-minute rest break.

Dollar Defeats Class Certification In Its First Wage & Hour Class Action: Chin v. Dollar Financial Group
Bufil’s lawsuit was filed just four months after an appellate court upheld a denial of class certification in favor of Dollar in a case that alleged similar violations of California’s wage and hour laws. In Chin, the plaintiff in that case filed a lawsuit against Dollar for missed meal and rest breaks, and proposed to certify a class of employees who were (1) employed for a period of more than five hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, and/or (2) not authorized or permitted to take a rest break for every four hours of work.

In the Chin case, the court held the trial court properly ruled that the action was not suitable for class treatment because common questions of fact and law did not predominate over individualized issues. Because each employee would have to testify as to the particular facts pertaining to his or her case, it therefore was not a case suitable for class wide treatment.

Bufil’s Procedural History
The Plaintiff Bufil moved for class certification, and Dollar moved for judgment on the pleadings. Dollar argued that Bufil’s case was collaterally stopped because the earlier Chin litigation resolved these issues, and it is unfair that it has to defend itself again for the same issues already litigated in the previous lawsuit. The trial court agreed with Dollar, dismissed Bufil’s class allegations and denied plaintiff’s motion for class certification.

The appellate court overruled the trial court with the following holdings.

1. Bufil Is Not Precluded From Brining Her Suit On the Basis of the Collateral Estoppel Doctrine.
The principle behind the collateral estoppel doctrine is to prevent re-litigation of issues previous argued and resolved in an earlier proceeding. As the court set out, in order for the doctrine to apply, the issues must be identical to an issue that was actually litigated and decided to be final on the merits.

The court examined Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1223, which held that two cases filed against May Department Stores prior to the Alvarez case precluded the Alvarez case from proceeding under collateral estoppel. In Alvarez, the court held collateral estoppel applied because the two prior cases sought to certify the same class of employees, concerned the same policies, concerned the same time period, and one of the prior cases had the same attorneys. In this case, however, the court held that Bufil’s legal issues were not the same as the issues litigated in the prior Chin lawsuit against Dollar. The court held:
Unlike Alvarez, the class that Bufil asserts is not identical to the class asserted by Chin. Rather, it is a distinct subclass restricted to hourly employees who tracked Dollar’s recordkeeping system from September 2003 to the present with the designation of not having taken a meal period because the employee was the only employee in the store or was supervising a trainee who could not be left alone.
The court held Bufil’s theory that the meal period waivers for employees who were the only employees working at the store or who were providing training to employees are invalid because the waivers do not meet the “nature of the work” exception in Wage Order No. 4-2001 is different than the issues litigated in the Chin case. Wage Order No. 4-2001 provides:
An "on duty" meal period shall be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. The written agreement shall state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time. (emphasis added)
The court ruled that this is a legal question that was not present in the Chin litigation, and therefore was not barred under the collateral estoppel doctrine.

2.  Bufil’s Case Is Appropriate For Class Certification.
The court also held that the lower court’s finding that “commonality”, an element that plaintiffs must prove in order to proceed as a class action, did not exist in this case was flawed.  Despite Dollar’s argument, the court held that the individual employee’s understanding of the meal period waiver was irrelevant in this case. The court also held that a class was ascertainable in this case through Dollar’s records, which allowed the employee to electronically record if they did not take the meal break due to (1) the fact they were the only person in the store or (2) they were the only person with a trainee. Finally, the court held that Bufil could show that the class action was a superior method to resolve the litigation as class actions permit individuals to resolve all of their claims at the same time, it is more efficient and avoids repetitive actions, and allows for recover of small amounts of damages that may be too insignificant for individual litigation.
Trackbacks (0) Links to blogs that reference this article Trackback URL
http://www.vtzlawblog.com/admin/trackback/71425
Comments (0) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end