Putative Class Action Alleging Violations of Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) not Subject to Class Action Treatment because “Opt-In” Provision of FLSA Incompatible with “Opt-Out” Nature of California Class Action Lawsuits California State Court Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action in California state court against the City of Rosemead alleging violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); the class action complaint alleged that the City failed to pay nonexempt employees “for all hours worked.” Haro v. City of Rosemead, 174 Cal.App.4th 1067, 94 Cal.Rptr.3d 874, 876 (Cal.App. 2009). According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, the City did not pay the employees sought to be covered by the action “the wages to which they were entitled.” Id., at 878. Plaintiffs filed a motion with the trial court to certify the litigation as a class action under California Code of Civil Procedure section 382; defense attorneys opposed class action treatment on the ground that the “opt-in” requirement of an FLSA collective action was incompatible with the “opt-out” nature of class actions under Section 382. Id. The trial court agreed and refused to certify the litigation as a class action, id., at 876; in so ruling, the court observed that plaintiffs had not sought to proceed with a “collective action” under the FLSA but, rather, as a class action under Section 382, id., at 878-79. The trial court denied also plaintiffs’ motion for leave to amend their class action complaint. Id., at 876. Plaintiffs appealed both orders, and the California Court of Appeal dismissed the appeals on the grounds that the underlying trial court orders were not appealable.
The Court of Appeal began by analyzing the differences between “collective actions” under the FLSA and “class actions” under Section 382. Haro, at 876. Importantly, the FLSA requires that members of the putative class affirmatively “opt-in” to the litigation, id. (citation omitted), which has been referred to as “‘[p]robably the most significant difference in procedure between the FLSA’ and, in federal practice, class actions under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, rule 23,” id. (citation omitted). For this reason, at least one federal circuit court has held, “There is a fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the class action described by Rule 23 and that provided for by FLSA § 16(b). In a Rule 23 proceeding a class is described; if the action is maintainable as a class action, each person within the description is considered to be a class member and, as such, is bound by judgment, whether favorable or unfavorable, unless he has ‘opted out’ of the suit. Under § 16(b) of FLSA, on the other hand, no person can become a party plaintiff and no person will be bound by or may benefit from judgment unless he has affirmatively ‘opted into’ the class; that is, given his written, filed consent.” Id., at 876-77 (quoting LaChapelle v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 513 F.2d 286, 288 (5th Cir.1975) (footnote omitted). Moreover, “at least one California court has held that the opt-in feature cannot be adopted in California class actions.” Id., at 877 (citing Hypertouch, Inc. v. Superior Court, 128 Cal.App.4th 1527, 1550 (Cal.App. 2005). The California appellate court reaffirmed that “FLSA actions are not class actions,” id.
Plaintiffs argued on appeal that “they should be able to prosecute their FLSA action as a class action under section 382.” Haro, at 879 (footnote omitted). The appellate court disagreed, noting that while plaintiffs may be able to pursue other claims as a class action, they elected to pursue FLSA claims and such claims could not be prosecuted as a class action. Id. Moreover, the fact “[t]hat class actions are ‘encouraged for wage and hour claims in California,’ does not convert the opt-in provision in an FLSA action into an opt-out provision that is compatible with class actions.” Id., at 881. And while court orders denying class action treatment generally are appealable, id., at 881 (citation omitted), the appellate court found that this was not true in the instant case because the reason for appealability – the “death knell” doctrine – did not apply where “as a matter of California law appellants are not entitled to a class action certification,” id., at 881-82, and further did not apply because the “substantive merits of class action certification” had not been addressed in this case, and the trial court order did not “produce a terminal result,” id., at 882. Accordingly, the Court dismissed the appeal from the court order denying class action treatment of the litigation, id., at 882. The Court dismissed also plaintiffs’ appeal from the subsequent trial court order denying them leave to amend their complaint because that, too, was a non-appealable order, id.