Trial Court did not Err in Holding that Class Counsel owed Duty to Absent Class Members to Represent them in Collection of Judgment, not merely through Obtaining Judgment, Particularly in Light of Defendant-Employer’s Lack of Assets and Possible Bankruptcy Filing California Appellate Court Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action in California state court against their employer, West Coast Digital GSM, alleging labor law violations; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that West Coast violated California’s Labor Code by “unlawful deductions from wages, failure to pay overtime, and failure to provide meal and rest breaks.” Barbaroza v. West Coast Digital GSM, Inc., 179 Cal.App.4th 540 (Cal.App. 2009) [Slip Opn., at 1-3.] Plaintiffs sought class action certification, but the motion was denied. Id., at 3. While the appeal on the denial of class action treatment was pending, the lawsuit went to trial on plaintiffs’ individual claims. Id. Plaintiffs generally prevailed, losing on only one of their causes of action. Id. The trial court disallowed some of the attorney fees sought by plaintiffs as the prevailing party, and that order was appealed. Id. The California Court of Appeal thereafter issued its opinion concerning class action certification and reversed the trial court’s order, directing the court to certify the litigation as a class action. Id. However, because the named plaintiffs already had litigated their individual claims, the appellate court also directed the trial court to determine whether could adequately represent the class and, if not, to allow plaintiffs’ counsel to find new representatives for the class action. Id. Almost a year later, the same plaintiffs filed a motion for class action certification, which was granted. Id., at 3-4. West Coast sold its assets and ceased operations. Id., at 4. West Coast then permitted plaintiffs to obtain its default, and secured a default judgment in excess of $5.7 million. Id. Plaintiffs’ counsel filed a motion for attorney fees but proposed to give notice to the class that West Coast “had sold its assets and ceased operations, and that it claimed to have no assets and would eventually declare bankruptcy.” Id. The proposed notice also advised the class that counsel had obtained a default judgment but once counsel obtained an award of attorney fees “class counsel no longer had any obligation to pursue the matter on behalf of the class because its obligation was only to pursue the matter on behalf of the class because its obligation was only to represent the class until judgment was obtained.” Id., at 4-5. The trial court denied the proposed notice on the ground that “class counsel had a duty to pursue the class claims ‘until the end (i.e., enforcement of the judgment) and not just until judgment.’” Id., at 5. Plaintiffs and class counsel appealed, id. The appellate court affirmed.
Despite the general rule regarding the duties of an attorney and class counsel’s claim that “enforcement of judgments requires specialized knowledge on the part of the attorney,” the Court of Appeal explained that “there are in fact important reasons to treat class counsel differently[.]” Barbaroza, at 6. Notably, the class action device puts in place “certain safeguards” to protect the interests of absent class members, id., at 7. One such safeguard is the requirement that class counsel demonstrate an ability to “adequately represent the interests of the class as a whole,” id. (citations omitted). Another safeguard is the requirement that the class representatives and their counsel “owe absent class members a fiduciary duty to protect the absentees’ interests throughout the litigation.” Id. (citation omitted). And finally, the trial court itself must safeguard the rights of absent class members, id. (citation omitted). This last protection was implicated by the trial court’s ruling when it concluded that “class counsel’s job did not end with entry of judgment.” Id., at 8. The class claims were too small to be pursued individually for purposes of securing a judgment, and they remained too small to be pursued individually for purposes of collection. Id. The Court of Appeal explained further that “more importantly, since it seems unlikely…that there are sufficient assets to pay each class member what is owed, plus attorney fees, there remains an important class issue – i.e., how the recoverable assets (if any) are to be distributed.” Id. At this stage of the proceedings, and based on this showing, the trial court did not err in requiring class counsel to continue representation of the class. Id., at 8-9. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court order, id., at 9.