September 15, 2019

September 13, 2019

Subscribe to Latest Legal News and Analysis

Judge Decertifies Class Based on Plaintiffs’ Differing Accounts of Their Responsibilities

Those who follow developments in wage and hour class actions know that challenges to the exempt status of assistant managers are quite common. Such cases often hinge on a detailed analysis of the actual job duties performed—with the plaintiffs claiming that the entire class performed little or no managerial work and the employer claiming that management was the primary duty of the position.  A recent decision from a federal court in New York involving this issue is likely to have a significant impact on similar cases going forward.

On March 29, 2017, a District Judge in the Southern District of New York rejected a motion for Rule 23 certification and decertified an FLSA collective based largely on the plaintiffs’ own varying accounts of their management responsibilities.  Scott v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.  was brought by seven current and former Chipotle “apprentices” from six different states (along with 516 opt-in plaintiffs).  The apprentice role is akin to that of an assistant manager.  Plaintiffs occupied that position while being groomed for the position of general manger. As expected, plaintiffs alleged that they performed little to no managerial work and were improperly classified as exempt.  Chipotle argued that the apprentices were exempt under the executive exemption, the administrative exemption, or both.

Chipotle had one job description for the apprentice position at issue, which applied nationwide. Discovery also revealed that Chipotle had previously conducted an internal audit of the apprentice position and concluded that it was properly classified as exempt and should be nationwide because apprentices at all locations had the “same responsibilities.”

Deposition testimony elicited from both the named plaintiffs and several of the opt-ins suggested that, in practice, responsibilities were not so uniform. Generally speaking, apprentices at stores with higher sales volumes had greater managerial responsibilities, whereas some apprentices at lower volume locations indicated otherwise.  For example, some plaintiffs testified that they had almost no say in hiring decisions, while others testified that they routinely made hiring recommendations that were ultimately followed.

Despite finding that the requirements for Rule 23(a) certification were met, the court emphasized that because plaintiffs’ sought certification under Rule 23(b)(3) they also had to establish predominance and superiority. The court found that both of those elements were lacking.

The court emphasized the “disparate accounts from [a]pprentices” when addressing both elements and appeared to find the testimony of one opt-in plaintiff who had worked as an apprentice at two different locations especially persuasive. She testified that at one location she worked under a general manager who “limited her leadership responsibilities.”  In the other location, however, there was no general manager and she “made all the decisions for the restaurant.”  This testimony, which the court deemed indicative of disparities in responsibilities depending on location, led the court to conclude that individualized inquiries would be necessary to determine whether each apprentice was exempt—or, in other words, that individual issues would inevitably predominate.

The court also emphasized that the various state law claims asserted by plaintiffs were not identical. Two of the states involved (Colorado and Washington) had strict percentage limitations governing how much time an employee can spend on non-exempt work while still qualifying for an exemption—and even those limitations were different.  The court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification.

But the court did not stop there. For many of the same reasons, the case was also deemed unfit for resolution as a collective action under the FLSA—and the court granted Chipotle’s motion to decertify the 516-person collective.  Any other decision, the court observed, “would reduce Section 216(b)’s requirement that plaintiffs be ‘similarly situated’ to a mere requirement that plaintiffs share an employer, a job title, and a professed entitlement to additional wages.”

Class certification or decertification is typically the most critical juncture in the case. The Chipotle decision is a significant arrow in the quiver of employers defending class and collective actions involving a diverse set of workers whose responsibilities differ appreciably.

Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2019

TRENDING LEGAL ANALYSIS


About this Author

Vincent E. Polsinelli, Jackson Lewis, wage and hour compliance lawyer,
Principal and Office Litigation Manager Albany

Vincent E. Polsinelli is a Principal and the Office Litigation Manager in the Albany, New York, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Mr. Polsinelli provides preventive counseling and compliance advice to employers in all areas of employment law. He regularly advises clients in a broad range of industries on complex and highly regulated areas, such as wage and hour compliance, and works with clients to develop and maintain sound workplace policies and practices.

In addition to providing clients with sound advice and counsel in an effort to avoid...

518-512-8755
Associate

Stephanie L. Goutos is an Associate in the Albany, New York, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. Her practice is focused on general employment litigation and class action and complex litigation.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, Ms. Goutos was the Senior Attorney to the New York State Deputy Commissioner of Higher Education at the Department of Education. Ms. Goutos led negotiations with New York State teacher unions, administrative unions, and district superintendents, as well as provided counsel on a wide variety of education law issues. She has extensive knowledge regarding New York’s Race to the Top initiative, including annual professional performance review (APPR) plan compliance.

518-434-1300
Christopher Stevens, Jackson Lewis Law Firm, General Employment and Class Action Litigation Attorney
Associate

Christopher J. Stevens is an Associate in the Albany, New York, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. His practice focuses on representing employers in all phases of litigation. Mr. Stevens also provides preventive advice and counseling. 

Mr. Stevens is a practical, passionate advocate who genuinely enjoys working with clients to understand their problems and develop workable solutions. He has experience representing employers in both state and federal court, as well as in administrative proceedings before the Equal Employment...

518-512-8700