Labor & Employment Law Daily Class claims by Starbucks workers for unpaid time at closing suffer a new blow in federal court
Friday, January 31, 2020

Class claims by Starbucks workers for unpaid time at closing suffer a new blow in federal court

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

Although the putative class members had been aided by a California Supreme Court opinion rejecting the use of the “de minimis” defense with respect to their state law claims, their bid for class status was nevertheless denied because of the lack of uniformity with regard to the challenged practices.

A federal district court in California, considering further dispositive motions by the Starbucks as well as a motion for class certification by the employees, denied the employee’s motion, concluding that individual issues predominate under Rule 23. The evidence showed that employment practices were not uniform. The court also granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the employee’s unpaid wages claim to the extent that it sought liquidated damages, as well as his wage statement claim (Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, January 27, 2020, Carney, C.).

Store closing procedure. The employee alleged that Starbucks unlawfully failed to pay him for the time he spent closing up shop when he worked as shift supervisor on the last shift of the day. Specifically, he contended that the employer required him and other employees in that position to perform several uncompensated tasks after clocking out, including uploading data to its computer system, programming the alarm, locking the doors, and walking employees to their vehicles. He contended that he spent anywhere from four to ten minutes per shift performing those tasks.

Previous appeal, state court input. Previously the district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, which was based on an argument that the de minimis doctrine applied to California wage claims, and that periods of 10 minutes are de minimis. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit opted to certify questions to the California Supreme Court regarding use of that doctrine. Subsequently, the California Supreme Court rejected the use of that doctrine, at least as it pertained to the work activities involved in this case. After the case made its way back to the district court, the suit was narrowed further before the most recent round of motions, which include a motion for partial summary judgment by Starbucks and an employee motion for class certification.

Class cert denied. The district court denied the employee’s motion for class certification on the claims that remained in his lawsuit, i.e., the claim for unpaid wages (not including liquidated damages) and the claim for violation of the UCL. The employee sought to certify a class composed of employees of Starbucks who worked on dates between 2008 and 2012 on a closing shift and who performed work after clocking out. The problem, according to the employer, was that the questions of fact or law common to putative class members did not predominate over questions affecting only individual members. The court agreed.

‘Not cohesive.’ The employer’s official policy was that employees should not work off the clock. The employee contended that the employer nonetheless had a custom or practice whereby workers performed off-the-clock work. However, the court explained, the evidence showed that practices varied based on location, manager, and time period. For example, many employees testified that they ran the store closing procedures while on the clock, a practice that was consistent with the employer’s policy and training. The court noted that some of the differing experiences described could be explained by a change in the employer’s computer system in 2010, with closing work being performed off the clock before that time and on the clock thereafter, but noted that some employees testified that they did the work on the clock even before the change. The proposed class was “simply not cohesive on this issue” and creating subclasses would not help based on the variability of experiences even before the computer change.

Likewise, the procedures used when setting the alarm and locking the door appeared to vary and the employee failed to point to a policy or custom such that common issues would predominate. Some workers did these tasks on the clock, some did not, and some did it both ways. Moreover, the locks themselves were functionally different between the stores and some required nothing more than pulling the door shut. This variability continued with regard to walking employees to their vehicles. Some shift supervisors did not walk employees to vehicles at all because those employees took public transit, walked, or biked, some did it voluntarily, and some did not do it at all, regardless of transit method.

Moreover, the employee was unable to point to any common proof, such as records or other evidence, regarding whether employees performed such tasks on or off the clock or that would allow the claims to be collectively proven in one way or another. Typically, the court explained, courts deny certification in situations where there is no uniform practice with respect to off-the-clock work and this case was no exception. “The individualized experiences of class members” the court explained “make managing a single trial extremely difficult if not impossible.”

Summary judgment granted. Prior to ruling on certification, the court also considered, and approved, summary judgment arguments made by the employer with regard to actual damages for the wage statement claim (the only remaining form of relief). The employee’s response to a question on this issue—that he was injured by the fact that he did not get paid for time he spent working—was not “sufficiently ‘linked to a knowing and intentional failure on the part of Defendant to provide an accurate wage statement’ to constitute actual damages on a wage statement claim.”

Liquidated damages. And, with regard to his claim for liquidated damages for unpaid wage violations, the court agreed that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. Although the statute of limitations for a liquidated damages claim is currently set by statute at three years, the court concluded that at the time the case was filed, in 2012, the applicable limitations period was one year, and the employee’s claim was therefore untimely filed. The court also agreed that even if liquidated damages were available, the employer satisfied the good faith required for exception to such an award because there was a good faith dispute over whether the wages in question were due.

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