California Court of Appeal Instructs Trial Court to Re-Examine Its Denial of Class Certification

By Ryan Nell and Jenna Leyton-Jones

In Alberts v. Aurora Behavioral Health Care, a group of former employees (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) of two acute care psychiatric hospitals filed a representative action against the operator of the hospitals, Aurora Behavioral Health Care (“Aurora”). Plaintiffs alleged multiple wage and hour claims, focusing on Aurora’s purported denial of meal periods, rest periods, and overtime to nursing staff.

Plaintiffs claimed that Aurora regularly and intentionally understaffed its hospitals and forced nurses to remain on duty in lieu of taking of meal and rest periods in the manner required by California law. Plaintiffs also alleged that Aurora regularly required nurses to perform tasks “off-the-clock” and without adequate overtime compensation.

Plaintiffs proposed five subclasses for certification: the meal break subclass, the rest break subclass, the overtime subclass, and two derivative subclasses for waiting time penalties and allegedly inaccurate wage statements.

The trial court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, holding that the proposed subclasses lacked “commonality.” In reaching its decision, the trial court focused on the policies applicable to the proposed subclasses. In doing so, it mistakenly deemed Aurora’s meal and rest period policies facially legal. Plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, a California Court of Appeal looked more closely at the policies examined by the trial court. The lower court had deemed legally acceptable Aurora’s policy that employees be provided with “an unpaid thirty-minute break for a meal period approximately halfway between the beginning and end of the employee’s shift.” The appellate court disagreed, as California law requires the provision of a meal break within five hours of the beginning of an employee’s shift. The difference between Aurora’s policy and California law, while minor, was sufficient to discredit the trial court’s analysis.

Moreover, as evidence had been submitted to demonstrate that Plaintiffs regularly failed to receive their meal periods until far later in their shifts, the appellate court held that the trial court’s conclusions regarding the legality and application of applicable policies was improper. The appellate court noted similar deficiencies in the trial court’s rulings on second meal breaks, rest breaks, and overtime.

As the trial court had relied on a series of improper threshold analyses, its ruling on class certification was overturned. In its decision, the appellate court further held that, even had the applicable policies been legally sufficient, evidence of widespread violation of those policies would also have been sufficient to warrant consideration for class certification.

Based on its analysis, the appellate court remanded for further proceedings, directing the trial court to determine whether the handling of individual issues (particularly, damages) may still have an effect on the ultimate manageability of the case as a representative action.

California employers must remain vigilant regarding the drafting and implementation of legally compliant employment policies, as improper policies, or poor implementation thereof, may form the basis of a class action lawsuit. Employers are advised to consult with legal counsel to ensure that their policies are sound and minimize the risk of litigation.

Ryan Nell and Jenna Leyton-Jones represent employers in all aspects of employment litigation. The material contained in this article has been prepared for informational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice. Pettit Kohn expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the content of this article.