CALIFORNIA CLASS ACTION LAW

Central District Remands Wage and Hour Class Action Based on Local Controversy Exception to CAFA

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In Coleman v. Estes Express Lines, Inc., No. CV 10-2242 ABC (AJWx), — F. Supp. 2d —-, 2010 WL 3156850 (C.D. Cal. July 19, 2010) a wage and hour plaintiff brought a motion to remand, after the case was removed pursuant to CAFA.  The Court granted Plaintiff’s remand motion.

While Defendants have demonstrated that more than $5,000,000 is in controversy under CAFA, Plaintiff has demonstrated that CAFA’s Local Controversy exception applies in this case. Therefore, the Court must decline to exercise jurisdiction. See Serrano, 478 F .3d at 1022. Plaintiff’s motion is GRANTED and this case is REMANDED to Los Angeles Superior Court.

Judges and Attorneys

The judge is Hon. Audrey B. Collins.

Plaintiffs were represented by Mark P. Estrella, Miriam L. Schimmel, Robert E. Byrnes, Sue Jin Kim of Initiative Legal Group APC and Payam Shahian of Strategic Legal Practices APC.

Defendants were represented by David L. Terry, David L. Woodard of Poyner Spruill LLP and Sarah N. Drechsler and Timothy M. Freudenberger of Carlton Disante & Freudenberger LLP.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Northern District Approves $4.5 Million Settlement Against RadioShack, With $1.5 Million in Fees, and $5,000 Incentive Payments to Each Lead Plaintiff

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Magistrate Judge Edward M. Chen (whose confirmation to the Northern District of California bench has unfortunately been stalled for far too long) approved the class settlement and attorney fee application in Stuart v. RadioShack Corp., 2010 WL 3155645, No. C-07-4499 EMC (N.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2010).

This class action was initiated in state court in June 2007, alleging that RadioShack had improperly failed to reimburse its employees for expenses they incurred in using their personal vehicles to perform inter-company transfers (“ICSTs”). Plaintiffs claimed for reimbursement pursuant to California Labor Code § 2802 and for a violation of California Business & Professions Code.  Subsequently Plaintiffs added a claim for recovery of penalties under the California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”).  The case was removed in August 2007. And in February 2009, Judge Chen granted the motion for class certification, certifying a class consisting of “all persons employed by RadioShack within the State of California, at any time from June 3, 2003, to the present, who drove their personal vehicles to and from RadioShack stores to carry out ICSTs and who were not reimbursed for mileage.”  On October 1, 2009–nine days before trial was scheduled to begin–the parties reached a settlement.

Under the Settlement Agreement, RadioShack will pay a total of $4.5 million for the release by the class, as an all-inclusive sum (proceeds to be distributed to the class, attorney’s fees and litigation expenses, costs of claim administration, incentive payments to the class representatives, and the PAGA award to the state), without reversion of any of the $4.5 million to RadioShack.

After attorney’s fees, litigation expenses, costs of claim administration, incentive payments, and the PAGA award to the state have been deducted from the $4.5 million, the remainder for distribution to the class members and/or donation to charity is $2,796,563.31.

Each class member’s award “depends on the number of weeks that the class member worked.”

The Court found that, importantly, “the amount available to the class after deductions for, e.g., fees and costs–i.e., $2,796,563.31–is not far off what the class might be awarded if it were to prevail on the merits after a trial.” Id. *4.

Plaintiffs’ counsel asked for an award of $1.5 million  (i.e., one-third of the total settlement amount), plus litigation expenses which total $78,436.69.

The Court has reviewed the expenses and determined that they are reasonable. The Court notes that the sum is not excessive given that this litigation has been ongoing for more than three years.

Attorneys Fees Application

The attorneys presented a fee application claiming $1.5 million as a lodestar for fees–excluding work performed in preparing for final approval and any post-judgment work that may be needed.  The $1.5 million sum represents 2,116.69 hours of work over a period of more than three years, at hourly rates of the billing attorneys ranging from $600 to $1,000.

After reviewing the billing records submitted by counsel as well as the declarations regarding the hourly rates of counsel, the court found that the number of hours was reasonable given the length of the lawsuit and the vigorous disputes over the course of the litigation (e.g., regarding RadioShack’s defense that it had no duty to reimburse until an employee made a request for reimbursement).

The court did express some “concerns about the $1,000 hourly rate” claimed by one of the attorneys.  “Based on the Court’s experience, this is an inordinately large hourly rate, even if the Court were to assume that [the attorney] has fifty years of experience.”  But the Court concluded that “given the 2,116.69 hours incurred, the average hourly rate for a fee award of $1.5 million total is $708, an amount that the Court deems appropriate, particularly when no multiplier is being sought on top of the lodestar.”

Compared to the percentage of the fund, the court noted that “the total settlement amount to be paid by RadioShack (with no possibility of reversion), the fee award represents one-third of the settlement amount.”  The court found that this was “well within the range of percentages which courts have upheld as reasonable in other class action lawsuits.”

The court also approved an incentive award of $5,000 for each of the two class representatives, for a total of $10,000.  The Court concluded that the incentive payments were appropriate and reasonable.  “Although the class representatives did not enter this litigation until late in the proceedings, due consideration must be given to the fact that they were willing and ready to go to trial.”  The court noted that if the “class representatives had asked for a larger sum, the Court might well have reached a different conclusion, but the $5,000 sought for each representative was viewed as “relatively modest.”

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Southern District of California Denies Remand in Wage & Hour Case Asserting CAFA Jurisdiction

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In Johnson v. U.S. Vision, Inc., No. 10-CV-0690 BEN (CAB), 2010 WL 3154847 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2010) the Southern District of California faced a remand motion in a wage and hour case that had been removed pursuant to the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, 1453.

Judge Roger T. Benitez denied the motion to remand.  Defendant presented a calculation of damages, supporting its calcualtions with declaration from, among other people, the Assistant Controller, Operations, for U.S. Vision, Inc., responsible for enforcing Defendants’ payroll policies and procedures.  The declaration set forth Plaintiff’s most recent hourly rate of pay, as well as the specific number of optical managers and optechs employed during the Class Period, average hourly rates of pay for managers and optechs, number of employees who separated their employment with Defendants, and number of possible wage statements for each employee per year.

Plaintiff argued that Defendants miscalculated the amount in controversy because:

Defendants erroneously assumed “each class member was damaged to the same extent that Plaintiff Johnson was, and that every putative class member, among other things, worked off the clock and incurred a break violation every single day of the entire class period.” Mot. 6. Plaintiff emphasizes that Defendants have access to more specific figures to calculate the amount in controversy and that “each [class] member can be identified using information contained in Defendants’ payroll, scheduling and personnel records.” Compl. ¶ 39.

But the Court held that absent a “persuasive argument that Defendants are required to prove actual damages in order to remove this action, however, the Court must consider the amount put in controversy by the Complaint, not the ultimate or provable amount of damages.”  (citing Rippee v. Boston Market Corp., 408 F. Supp. 2d 982, 986 (S.D. Cal. 2005).)  The Court found that, having based their calculations on allegations provided in the Complaint, Defendants proved with a legal certainty that CAFA’s jurisdictional threshold is satisfied.

Despite Plaintiff’s attempt to provide supplemental information in the motion to remand, Defendants were entitled to, and did, use the factual allegations in the Complaint to calculate the amount in controversy. See Gaus v. Miles, Inc., 980 F.2d 564, 567 (9th Cir. 1992) (holding that defendant must use specific factual allegations or provisions in the complaint to support its argument of proper removal). The Court finds that Defendants provided detailed and competent evidence supporting their calculations and showing, to a legal certainty, that the jurisdictional threshold under CAFA is met. To the extent subsequent events show that jurisdiction would not be proper, the Court can address remand at that time. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c).

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Deepwater Horizon Litigation Ordered Transferred to Eastern District of Louisiana by MDL Panel

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The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation issued its transfer order in In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 1010, 2010 WL 3166434 (U.S. Jud. Pan. Mult. Lit. Aug. 10, 2010) (slip op.)

The Panel faced four motions that collectively encompass 77 actions: 31 actions in the Eastern District of Louisiana, 23 actions in the Southern District of Alabama, ten actions in the Northern District of Florida, eight actions in the Southern District of Mississippi, two actions in the Western District of Louisiana, two actions in the Southern District of Texas, and one action in the Northern District of Alabama.

The Panel ordered that, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407, the actions transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and assigned to the Honorable Carl J. Barbier for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings with the actions pending in that district.

Upon careful consideration, however, we have settled upon the Eastern District of Louisiana as the most appropriate district for this litigation. Without discounting the spill’s effects on other states, if there is a geographic and psychological “center of gravity” in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it. Considering all of the applicable factors, we have asked Judge Carl J. Barbier to serve as transferee judge. He has had a distinguished career as an attorney and now as a jurist. Moreover, during his twelve years on the bench, Judge Barbier has gained considerable MDL experience, and has been already actively managing dozens of cases in this docket. We have every confidence that he is well prepared to handle a litigation of this magnitude.

Some parties have expressed concern that recusals among Eastern District of Louisiana judges unduly limit our choices, and that even Judge Barbier may be subject to recusal. Notwithstanding these concerns, the Panel is quite comfortable with its choice. Judge Barbier is an exceptional jurist, who would be a wise selection for this assignment even had those other judges in the district been available. Moreover, the Fifth Circuit recently denied the petition of certain defendants for a writ of mandamus directing Judge Barbier to recuse himself.

Chairman John G. Heyburn, II wrote for the Panel.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

District Judge William Alsup Issues Order in Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo Bank Class Action After 2 Week Bench Trial

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District Judge William Alsup issued an order in Gutierrez, et al. v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., — F.Supp.2d —-, 2010 WL 3155934 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 10, 2010), a certified consumer class action challenging hundreds of millions of dollars in overdraft fees imposed on depositors of Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. through allegedly unfair and fraudulent business practices.

Judge Alsup issued his decision following a two-week bench trial.

The essence of the case is that Wells Fargo has devised a bookkeeping device to turn what would ordinarily be one overdraft into as many as ten overdrafts, thereby dramatically multiplying the number of fees the bank can extract from a single mistake. The draconian impact of this bookkeeping device has then been exacerbated through closely allied practices specifically “engineered”–as the bank put it–to multiply the adverse impact of this bookkeeping device. These neat tricks generated colossal sums per year in additional overdraft fees, just as the internal bank memos had predicted. The bank went to considerable effort to hide these manipulations while constructing a facade of phony disclosure.

Judge Alsup held that these “manipulations were and continue to be unfair and deceptive in violation of Section 17200 of the California Business and Professions Code.”  The Court ordered restitution enjoined the bookkeeping device under Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code section 17203.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

Ninth Circuit Holds That No Private Right of Action Exists to Enforce the Provisions of § 13(a) of the Investment Company Act of 1940

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In a shareholder class action, Northstar Financial Advisors, Inc. v. Schwab Investments, et al., 2010 WL 3169400 (9th Cir. Aug. 12, 2010), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether there is a private cause of action to enforce the provisions of § 13(a) of the Investment Company Act of 1940 (“ICA” or “1940 Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 80a-13(a).  That section generally requires an investment company to obtain shareholder approval before deviating from the investment policies contained in the company’s registration statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”).

The Court held that “nothing in § 13(a) as originally enacted or as subsequently amended either creates a private cause of action or recognizes one exists with the clarity and specificity required under Supreme Court precedent.”

Marc J. Gross argued for plaintiff-appellee Northstar Financial Advisors, Inc.

Darryl P. Rains argued for defendants-appellants Schwab Investments, et al.

The case was argued before Circuit Judges Mary M. Schroeder N. Randy Smith and Hon. James Maxwell Moody, the Senior United States District Judge for the District of Arkansas, who was sitting by designation.  Circuit Judge Schroeder wrote the opinion of the Court.

By CHARLES H. JUNG