Sixth Circuit Denies Writ Of Mandamus In Opioid Class Actions For District Court’s Order That Pushes Discretion Under Rule 16(b) to the Edge

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Shaina Wolfe

Duane Morris Takeaways: In the proceeding entitled In Re National Prescription Opiate Litigation, No. 21-4051, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 31328 (6th Cir. Nov. 10, 2022), the Sixth Circuit denied a petition for writ of mandamus regarding a District Court’s Scheduling Order in the giant opioid multidistrict class action and its allowance of the late pleadings amendments as to new defendants, Meijer Distribution, Inc., and Meijer Stores Limited Partnership (“Meijer Defendants”).  The newly-added Meijer Defendants argued that the District Court violated the Rule 16(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by allowing Plaintiffs to improperly join them in the ongoing 3-year old case without first seeking leave of court and without demonstrating good cause.  The Sixth Circuit held that the District Court acted within its broad discretion and did not violate the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because it provided a cut-off date that allowed for the specific amendments.  The Sixth Circuit explained “[t]hough unconventional, the District Court’s actions are not so extraordinary as to warrant mandamus.”  Id. at *1. The decision illuminates the broad discretion that district courts enjoy in managing class action litigation and the important role that scheduling orders play throughout the entire litigation.

Case Background

In July 2018, Plaintiffs filed the underlying lawsuit against a group of pharmacies.  The case was removed to federal court and ultimately became part of the opioid multidistrict class action proceeding entitled In Re National Prescription Opiate Litigation, 1:17-MD-2804 (N.D. Ohio 2017) (“MDL”).

Significantly, in the underlying case, the district court entered an order on May 3, 2018, which amended its Case Management Order and provided that “‘[i]f a case is later designated as a bellwether for motion practice or trial, a separate CMO will be entered that will provide further opportunity to amend.’” (“2021 Bellwether Order”).  See Petition at 4-5.

In 2021, the District Court selected the underlying case to proceed as a bellwether case against the pharmacies.  See Sixth Circuit Order at 1. Subsequently, on May 19, 2021, Plaintiff filed a supplemental pleading, adding the Meijer Defendants to the underlying case.  See id.; Petition at 5.  The amendments were made nearly three years after Plaintiff filed suit and more than 26 months after the deadline to add new defendants.

After unsuccessfully moving to strike the Meijer Amendments and certify the Court’s 2021 Bellwether Order for interlocutory appeal, on November 9, 2021, Defendants filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Sixth Circuit.  See Petition at 7.  In the Petition, the Meijer Defendants argued that the District Court allowed Plaintiff to add the Meijer Defendants years after the deadline for amending pleadings passed and without requiring Plaintiff to demonstrate good cause, as required by Rule 16(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  See Petition at 1.  The Meijer Defendants requested that the Sixth Circuit issue a writ ordering the District Court to strike the untimely amendments and dismiss the Meijer Defendants from the case.  See id. at 2.

The Sixth Circuit’s Ruling Denying The Writ Of Mandamus

The Sixth Circuit denied the writ of mandamus. It held that the District Court’s order, while “unconventional,” fell within the parameters of Rule 16(b).  See Sixth Circuit Order at 1.  The Court of Appeals explained that Rule 16(b) requires that “scheduling orders limit the time to join other parties” and the District Court’s 2021 Bellwether Order “explicitly provided permission for plaintiffs to amend their complaint if their case was selected as a bellwether.”  Id.  The Sixth Circuit reasoned that because Plaintiffs exercised their right to amend after the underlying case was chosen as a bellwether, Plaintiffs did not need to seek permission from the District Court.  Id. at 2.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the 2021 Bellwether Order allowed plaintiffs to amend whenever their case was selected as a bellwether, and there was no cut-off for amendments.  Id.  The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that, under the 2021 Bellwether Order and without any cut-off date, the amendments could have gone differently (i.e., made on the eve of trial or adding a defendant that was completely new to the litigation).  Id. at 2.  Instead, the Sixth Circuit determined that the Meijer Defendants suffered little, if any, prejudice.  Id. at 2-3.  Thus, the Court of Appeals explained, “[t]hat unusual aspect of the scheduling order did not clearly violate Rule 16 because it provided some limit (when the case was selected as a bellwether), although the order went right to the edge of the district court’s discretion under Rule 16.”  Id. at 2.

In denying the writ, the Sixth Circuit held that the Meijer Defendants “ha[ve] shown that the district court’s scheduling order was unconventional but not a judicial usurpation of power nor a clear abuse of discretion.”  Id. at 3.

Implications For Companies

The Sixth Circuit’s order recognizes the broad discretion that district courts have in managing their dockets and illustrates the importance that scheduling orders play in all types of cases, and specifically in MDLs and class actions.  Companies should pay close attention to all of the proposed deadlines included in any scheduling orders, and try to prevent these types of amendments from being entered at the outset.

Ohio State Wins More Than Just Games, As The Ohio Court of Appeals Reverses Class Certification In Favor Of The University

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, Shaina Wolfe

Duane Morris Synopsis In Smith v. Ohio State University, 2022-Ohio-4101 (Ohio App. Nov. 17, 2022), The Ohio State University successfully appealed an Ohio Court of Claim’s (“trial court”) Order granting class certification in a lawsuit brought by a former undergraduate student.  The former student alleged that when the university only offered online classes due to COVID-19, it breached its contract by keeping all the tuition payments from her and other students without giving them the robust in-person experience promised when they initially paid their tuition bills.  The Ohio Court of Appeals held that while the trial court has broad discretion in granting class certification, it failed to determine proof of injury and economic damages relative to the former student and potential class members.  In crafting a class certification defense strategy, especially in a breach of contract case where the injury and damages typically are in play, employers should focus on the lawsuit basics when opposing class certification, i.e., demanding that plaintiffs show causation and injury in fact.

Case Background

Plaintiff, a former college student, filed a lawsuit alleging that Defendant, The Ohio State University (“OSU”), breached its contract and received unjust enrichment in Spring 2020 by failing to partially refund students their tuition and fees after transitioning from their robust, in-person education to “subpar” online education during COVID-19.  Id. at 4-5.

In June 2021, Plaintiff moved for class certification.  Id. at 5.  After briefing and oral argument, the trial court granted Plaintiff’s motion and certified a class consisting of all undergraduate students enrolled in classes at Defendant’s Columbus campus during the Spring 2020 semester. Notably, the trial court found that the class suffered the same injury, i.e., losing the benefit of in-person classes and access to the campus.  Id. at 9-10.

In appealing the trial court’s decision, Defendant raised several arguments for why the trial court’s decision was incorrect. Significantly, Defendant’s main, and ultimately successful, arguments focused on the trial court’s failure to conduct the “rigorous analysis” required by Ohio Civil Rule 23 (like Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23) in determining whether Plaintiff had satisfied the prerequisites for class certification.  Id. at 10-11.

The Court Of Appeals’ Ruling Reversing Class Action Certification

The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed with Defendant and reversed the trial court’s order granting class certification for three reasons.

First, the Court of Appeals found that the Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence of an economic injury.  Id. at 17-18.  Instead, the trial court simply assumed that a “benefit” was lost based only on the fact Defendant closed its campus and switched to remote classes and services in response to the pandemic.  Id. at 18.

Second, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court failed to consider Defendant’s arguments and evidence contesting proof of injury.  Id. at 18-19.  Defendant submitted an expert report that included evidence that students paid the same for in-person and online learning and that the in-person teaching modality carried the possibility of substantial remote instruction even in a normal semester.  Id. at 19. Meanwhile, Plaintiff submitted no expert testimony regarding how and or whether other students were injured in this case.  Id.  Indeed, Plaintiff’s expert’s report excluded any survey questions or consideration of market preferences during an emergency such as the pandemic that forced the closure.  Id.

Third, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court’s analysis of Plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim was merely folded into the same generalized injury analysis without any individualized consideration.  Id. at 19-20.

In holding that the trial abused its discretion, the Court of Appeals reasoned that, “[t]he trial court, in assuming an injury from the fact of closure and termination of in-person classes, did not assess these complicated and difficult considerations, particularly as they relate to whether [Plaintiff] presented any common evidence — or even a method to possibly determine — that class members suffered an economic injury considering the effect of the pandemic.”  Id. at 20.  Further, the Court of Appeals opined that “having accepted the closure of campus and temporary termination of in-person classes and services as an injury per se, and having failed to consider how the pandemic affects class certification in this case at all, the trial court did not undertake a rigorous analysis with respect to the number and nature of individualized inquires that might be necessary to establish liability with respect to both tuition and fees.”  Id.

Implications

In class actions asserting breach of contract claims, it is not uncommon for plaintiffs to seek class certification before developing their case through affidavits from other individuals and expert testimony.  Employers can use this to their advantage by attacking causation and damages. This strategy may not only hinder a plaintiff from notifying potentially thousands of other putative class members of the claims, but also potentially saving money through limited discovery.

California Callout: New 2023 Privacy Regulations Coming Soon

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer Riley, Brandon Spurlock, and Alex W. Karasik

Duane Morris Synopsis:  On the heels of California’s enactment of the California Consumer Privacy Act (“CCPA”) in 2020, and after two legislative bills that proposed to continue the employer exemption failed, employers will now need to comply with all requirements of the CPRA (“California Privacy Rights Act”) effective January 1, 2023. California-based employers now face these strict privacy requirements in the existing minefield of nuanced employment laws.

Legislative Background

The CCPA is often considered the most stringent data privacy law in the United States.  This landmark law established privacy rights for California consumers, including:  (1) the right to know about the personal information a business collects about them and how it is used and shared; (2) the right to delete personal information collected from them (with some exceptions); (3) the right to opt-out of the sale of their personal information; and (4) the right to non-discrimination for exercising their CCPA rights. (See https://oag.ca.gov/privacy/ccpa.).

Currently, data collected from workers is exempt from all but two provisions of the CCPA: (i) employers must provide an initial disclosure to all employees at or prior to the point of collection, and (ii) employees still have a right to statutory damages in the event of a data breach. “Employees” is a term that casts a wide net. It includes job applicants, business owners, officers, directors, medical staff members, independent contractors, emergency contacts and beneficiaries.

Two separate California state bills sought to continue the employer exemption: (1) AB 2891, for an additional three years; and (2) AB 2871, for an indefinite time period.  Neither bill was passed by the Legislature in its final 2022 session. Accordingly, with the exemption expiring, employers must now fully comply with the former CCPA’s requirements, as the new CPRA comes into effect.

Employer Obligations

First, employees are now afforded various rights, including:  (1) a right to request access to their personal information and information about how automated decision technologies work; (2) a right to correct inaccurate personnel information; (3) the right to request that an employer delete their personal information, including the obligation that employers must also notify third parties to whom they have sold or shared such personal information of the consumer’s request to delete; (4) the right to limit the use and disclosure of sensitive personal information to that which is necessary to perform the services or provide the goods reasonably expected by an average consumer who requests such goods and services.

Notice Obligations

Employers should be mindful of particular notice obligations under the CPRA. These include the: (1) requirement of notice at collection; and (2) requirement of a privacy policy.  Regarding the notice at collection, employers are required to give employees, applicants, and contractors notice at the time they collect the information if they plan to collect, use, or disclose that personal information, while also disclosing the categories of personal information.  The privacy policy is comprehensive and must disclose categories of personal information collected over the 12 months before the policy’s effective date. The policy also must disclose sources from which personal information is collected, the business purpose for the collection, categories of third-parties to whom personal information is disclosed; and categories of personal information sold or shared.  And employers are obligated to post the privacy policy online where it is accessible to employees, applicants, and contractors.

Data Governance

To ensure compliance with the CPRA, it is crucial that employers understand where personal information is located within their businesses. It behooves them to undertake a data inventory or data mapping exercise to assess how and where relevant information is stored and/or transferred.  Employers should also take stock of their records retention policies to ensure compliance, and also develop an internal framework to handle requests from employees for access and/or deletion.

Implications For Employers

Employers who have operations in California should immediately take heed of these new obligations. It is inevitable that the Plaintiff’s bar will be scrutinizing these practices come January 2023.  Accordingly, employers should determine whether they are covered by the CPRA, and prepare privacy policies that are fully compliant.

New Trial Sought Following $228 Million Judgment In Landmark BIPA Class Action

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Alex W. Karasik

Duane Morris Synopsis:  In Rogers v. BNSF Railway Co., Case No. 19-CV-03083 (N.D. Ill.), the first federal court jury trial in a case brought under the novel Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”), the plaintiffs secured a verdict in favor of the class of 45,000 workers against Defendant BNSF. After a week-long trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, the jury found that BNSF recklessly or intentionally violated the law 45,600 times. The Court thereafter entered against BNSF for $228 million. Post-trial motions are now before the Court, which raise significant issues for all companies that use biometric equipment.

On November 9, 2022, Defendant BNSF Railway Co. filed a motion for a new trial under Rule 59(a) or to reduce the damages award under Rule 59(e). It argues that none of the 45,000 class members suffered any actual harm. It also raised constitutional concerns about the BIPA.

This latest development suggests that BNSF is pulling out all the stops to challenge the precedent-setting $228 million judgment. The outcome of this motion and future appeals will profoundly shape the privacy class action landscape.

Case Background

As we blogged about here, Plaintiff filed a class action lawsuit alleging that BNSF unlawfully required truck drivers entering the Company’s facilities to provide their biometric information through a fingerprint scanner. He claimed that BNSF collected the drivers’ fingerprints without first obtaining informed written consent or providing a written policy that complied with the BIPA and therefore violated sections 15(a) and (b) of the BIPA. BNSF argued that it did not operate the biometric equipment and instead sought to shift blame to a third-party vendor who operated the biometric equipment that collected drivers’ fingerprints.

The case proceeded before a jury in federal court in Chicago. The proceeding was closely watched, as it represented the very first time any class action had gone to a full trial with claims under the BIPA. The trial lasted five days. However, the jurors deliberated for just over an hour. Following the jury’s finding of liability, the Court entered a judgment against BNSF in the amount of $5,000 per violation, for a total amount of $228 million.

BNSF’s Motion For A New Trial Or Amended Judgment

BNSF renewed its motion for judgement as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 50(b), following the Court’s denial of BNSF’s Rule 50(a) motion at trial. In the alternative, BNSF moved for a new trial under Rule 59(a), or to reduce the damages award under Rule 59(e).

First, BNSF argues that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that BNSF violated the BIPA. Id. at *3. In support of that argument, BNSF cited testimony from its former Director of Technology Services that BNSF did not collect or obtain biometrics from truck drivers in Illinois, that the biometric data was stored on another entity’s server, and that BNSF did not maintain a copy of any of that data. Id. at *4.

Second, BNSF argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law or a new trial, or at least a significant reduction in damages, because there was insufficient evidence for a rational jury to conclude that BNSF violated the BIPA recklessly or intentionally 45,600 times — which is the basis for the $228 million damages award.  Id. at *5-6. BNSF claims that there was no evidence that BNSF even learned about the BIPA until April 2019. Therefore, BNSF argued, no rational jury could have inferred from this evidence that BNSF consciously disregarded or intentionally violated the rights of Plaintiff and the class members at any point, much less for the full class period starting in April 2014.

Third, BNSF argued that the Court’s award of $228 million in damages where Plaintiff admits he and the members of the class have suffered no actual harm violates the Due Process Clause and Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution. BNSF points out that, “It is undisputed that neither Plaintiff nor any member of the class has suffered any actual harm from any alleged violation of BIPA. Given that the agreed value of the class’s injury is zero dollars, any award would be disproportional to such nonexistent harm.”  Id. at *8-9.

Accordingly, BNSF seeks relief that the Court should enter judgment as a matter of law against Plaintiff and in favor of BNSF; or in the alternative, the Court should grant BNSF a new trial, or substantially reduce the damages award against BNSF.

The ball is now in Plaintiff’s court to respond to the motion. Further proceedings will then await the parties after full briefing of the post-trial motion.

Implications For Employers

BNSF’s filing of this motion indicates that the Company will not be going down (to the tune of $228 million) without a fight. The ultimate outcome of this motion, and any potential Seventh Circuit appeals, will be carefully scrutinized by both the plaintiff class action bar and businesses throughout Illinois and beyond.

Employers not only should continue to monitor this groundbreaking privacy class action lawsuit, but also ensure their strategic compliance plans are sufficient in regards to biometric privacy laws.

Judges Continue To Push For Diversity In Selecting And Approving Class Counsel

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, Shaina Wolfe

Duane Morris Takeaways – Requiring a legal team’s diversity in the courtroom is part of a growing trend by federal judge in selecting lead counsel in a class action. On both sides of a class action, plaintiffs and defense teams are increasingly staffing cases with junior and diverse attorneys, and allowing them meaningful opportunities to participate in litigation. In turn, federal judges are viewing such staffing methodologies as part and parcel of good practice management.

Background

The push for diversity in the law is hardly new.

Federal district judges around the nation – including judges in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas – have issued general standing orders that encourage legal teams to allow diverse and less experienced attorneys take the lead in various segments of court proceedings. And in 2021, George Washington Law School released a leading guide to best practices for MDL and class actions, which advocated that judges “make appointments consistent with the diversity of our society and justice system.” George Washington Law School, Inclusivity and Excellence: Guidelines and Best Practices for Judges Appointing Lawyers to Leadership Positions in MDL and Class-Action Litigation, at 1 (March 15, 2021).

Over the last couple of years, some judges have acted on George Washington Law School’s advice by facilitating opportunities for diverse and/or junior attorneys to have a role in their cases. For example, recently, on October 26, 2022, Magistrate Judge Gabriel Fuentes of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois advised the parties in multidistrict litigation that he would be holding a video hearing to discuss expert discovery and argue motions, and that he expected junior attorneys to take the lead. John Gross and Co., Inc., et al. v. Agri Stats, Inc., et al., 1:19-CV-08318 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 26, 2022).

Other judges in class action lawsuits have strongly encouraged, or even required, counsel to be diverse. For example, Judge Susan Illston of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California approved lead counsel in a class action lawsuit but noted “the apparent lack of diversity, including by female lawyers, among the group that argued” at a recent hearing. Sayce v. Forescout Technologies, Inc., No. 20-CV-00076, 2020 WL 6802469, at *9 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 19, 2020). Judge Illston “strongly urge[d] all parties to this case to make meaningful litigation opportunities available to junior and underrepresented lawyers throughout the pendency of this action.” Id.

With the increase in newly appointed judges, it is likely that even more federal judges will follow suit by not only instituting standing orders, but also in requiring law firms to send their junior and diverse attorneys to court. Now, more than ever, it is important for law firms to hire diverse attorneys, teach diverse attorneys to handle small and complex matters, and retain their diverse attorneys by allowing them to meaningfully participate in legal proceedings.

Implications for Law Firms

We expect that more courts and clients will begin to consider, and perhaps require, the diverse makeup of legal teams at increasing rates. Law firms can prepare for this critical demand of diverse legal teams by hiring, retaining, and actively involving diverse and junior lawyers, in both big and small cases, at the outset.

Illinois Federal Court Holds Private University Is Exempt From BIPA Regulations

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Alex W. Karasik

 Duane Morris Takeaway:  In an important ruling for higher education entities, Judge Robert Gettleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed a student’s proposed class action alleging that Defendant’s remote test-proctoring software violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”). The Court determined that Defendant DePaul University qualified as a financial institution exempt from the statute. Powell v. DePaul University, No. 21-C-3001, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 201296 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 4, 2022). Employers in the higher education space who are confronted with biometric privacy class actions can tuck this ruling away for potential use at the pleading stage.

Case Background

Plaintiff alleged that Defendant’s use of the Respondus Monitor, an online remote proctoring tool, violated the BIPA by capturing, using, and storing students’ facial recognition and other biometric identifiers and biometric information. Plaintiff specifically asserted that Defendant did not “disclose or obtain written consent before collecting, capturing, storing, or disseminating user’s biometric data, and failed to disclose what it does with that biometric data after collection, in violation of BIPA’s retention and destruction requirements. Id. at *2.

Defendant moved to dismiss the action pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. It argued that the BIPA’s express terms specify that it does not apply to financial institutions that are subject to Title V of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (“GLBA”). Id. Defendant contended that since it was a participant in the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Program, it is considered a financial institution subject to Title V of the GLBA.  Defendant contended that both the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) and the Department of Education (“DOE”) have recognized that universities are considered financial institutions under the GLBA. Defendant also asserted that Title V rulemaking authority lies with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), which adopted and republished the privacy rules originally promulgated by the FTC.  The FTC rules state that any institution “significantly engaged in financial activities” is a financial institution. Id. at *5.

Plaintiff argued that Defendant was not a financial institution, but rather was in the business of higher education. Thus, Plaintiff contended that Defendant was not subject to Title V, and therefore subject to the BIPA.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss.  First, the Court noted that at least five other district courts have ruled on the same issue and rejected Plaintiff’s argument, and have determined that the BIPA’s section 25(c) exemption for financial institutions applies to institutions of higher education. Id.

In support of its conclusion, the Court found that the guidance provided by the CFPB included examples demonstrating the word “significantly” means something less than “primary.” Id. at *8. Accordingly, the Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the exemption should not apply was because Defendant was not primarily in the financial business. Id.

The Court further explained that the DOE provided issued public guidance in 2020 reiterating that the GLBA required financial institutions to have information privacy protections, and that the FTC “has enforcement authority for the requirements and has determined that institutions of higher education (institutions) are financial institutions under GLBA.” Id. at *4-5.

Additionally, the Court opined that the FTC’s rule, made in 2000 when it had enforcement and rulemaking authority under the GLBA, also considered universities to be financial institutions if they “appear to be significantly engaged in lending funds to consumers.” Id. at *6. The Court reasoned that the consistent interpretation of the statute by multiple entities was particularly persuasive in finding that the claims should be dismissed. For these reasons, the Court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims with prejudice.

Implications For Employers

In the BIPA class action landscape, federal and state courts in Illinois have rejected many potential affirmative defenses that employers have used to try and stave off these massive cases. However, even though the exemption is somewhat narrow, higher education institutions now have a blueprint to attack BIPA class actions at the pleading stage.  Finally, to the extent states beyond Illinois enact similar privacy statutes, this ruling may be of use to higher education institutions in those states that are confronted with class actions.

What Employers Should Know About The EEOC’s Draft Strategic Plan For FY 2022-2026

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, Rebecca S. Bjork, and Gregory Tsonis

Duane Morris Takeaways: On November 4, 2022, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a preliminary draft of its 2022-2026 Strategic Plan.  According to its preliminary draft, the EEOC plans to focus its internal operations over the next four years to make changes that it hopes will improve its performance securing targeted injunctive relief and conducting systemic investigations, along with its use of technology to process charges and conciliate them.  The four-year plan – which is distinct from the EEOC’s strategic enforcement plan, still to be released in the coming months – was published in the Federal Register and is open for comment until December 4, 2022.  Even if employers do not submit comments, they would be well-advised to review the draft and final Plan once it is announced because it provides a window into the EEOC Commissioners’ thinking for how the agency will use its resources to redress and deter workplace discrimination.   

Introduction

Every four years, the EEOC prepares a Strategic Plan that drives how it will improve its internal operations to better enforce federal anti-discrimination laws.  The Plan for 2022-2026 that has now been published in the Federal Register is important because once it is finalized after the review and comment period expires, it will set forth specific goals along with performance metrics to measure how well those goals are being met.  The key elements of the draft Plan and why they are important are critical data points for employers.

Operational Improvements And Performance Metrics Sought By The EEOC

The 2022-2026 Strategic Plan draft signals that when investigating private sector employers, the EEOC will focus its internal operations on four key areas.  First, the EEOC will ensure that by FY 2025, “90% of EEOC conciliations and litigation resolutions contain targeted, equitable relief and that level is maintained through FY 2026.”  (Draft Strategic Plan at 15.)  The draft Plan explains the EEOC’s view that such a goal likely would improve compliance with the statutes enforced by the agency nationwide.

Second, between FY 2022 and 2026, the EEOC aims to continue to “favorably resolve at least 90% of enforcement lawsuits.”  (Id. at 16.)  On this point, the EEOC explains that because its systemic litigation program is resource intensive, this goal is important to enable the agency to use its resources in a wise and efficient manner.  Employers who have faced systemic lawsuits are well-aware of the amount of litigation resources they can consume, both for the companies involved and the EEOC.

Third, “In each year through FY 2026, the EEOC will provide training to all field staff on identifying and investigating systemic discrimination, and at least 90% of investigators and trial attorneys will participate in systemic training each year.”  (Id.)  The draft Plan explains that the purpose of this goal is “expanding the EEOC’s capacity to conduct systemic investigations, resulting in a coordinated, strategic, and effective approach to systemic enforcement.”  (Id.)  This likely signals that the draft Strategic Enforcement Plan will continue to emphasize and prioritize the EEOC’s use of pattern or practice lawsuits to enforce the statutes over which Congress gave it authority.

Fourth, “the EEOC will make significant progress toward enhanced monitoring of conciliation agreements, leading to a more robust compliance program.”  (Id. at 17.)  The Commission’s focus here is to implement “streamlined and standardized procedures, improved tracking and internal reporting mechanisms, and related training for EEOC field staff” to ensure that conciliation agreements are reached and enforced.  (Id.).

Finally, the EEOC continues to be aware that its charge intake process needs work.  The draft Plan pledges to leverage technological advancements to “enhance its intake services to potential charging parties, respondents, and representatives.”  (Id. at 19.)

Implications For Employers

The EEOC’s FY 2022-2026 draft Strategic Plan is a document that provides insight into the direction the agency will take to improve how it functions.

With a nod the old E.F. Hutton TV commercial, “when the EEOC speaks, employers should listen…”

Massachusetts State Court Rules In Class Action That A Multiple-Choice Promotional Test Discriminated Against Minority Police Officers

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Gregory Tsonis

Duane Morris Takeaways – In Tatum et al. v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, et al., C.A. No. 0984-CV-00576 (Mass. Sup. Ct. 2022), a Massachusetts state court judge conducted a class trial found that a multiple-choice promotional exam – used for years by various police departments to determine promotions – discriminated against Black and Latino police officers in violation of Massachusetts law.  In analyzing the test format, which largely required “rote memorization,” the court opined that the exam failed to adequately test for the relevant job qualifications, as well as the police departments’ use of a ranking system from which candidates were selected for promotion.  Ultimately, the court held that the test and ranking system adversely impacted minorities and interfered with their ability to promote to sergeant.  The decision demonstrates why employers must be careful to implement policies and processes that do not have a discriminatory impact, even if on their face such policies and practices appear to be neutral.

Case Background

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Human Resource Division (“HRD”), for 50 years, administered a written multiple-choice test to police officers to determine promotion to sergeant.  Id. at 4.  Officers were ranked almost exclusively according to their scores on the written examination, with individuals at the top of the list being first in line for promotion.  In 2007, certain police officers that were subject to the written examination sued the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the municipalities in which they worked as police officers. They alleged that the testing process unfairly discriminated against them due to their race and national origin in violation of state and federal law.  Id. at 2.   The U.S. Court of Appeal for the First Circuit, in an interlocutory appeal, held that state defendants did not qualify as “employers” under Title VII and were entitled to sovereign immunity, thereby resulting in the dismissal of state law claims against the state defendants, which the plaintiffs subsequently re-filed in state court.  Id.  Though the Massachusetts state court initially dismissed the entire action based on the First Circuit decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court remanded several claims, rejected the defense of sovereign immunity, and held that the plaintiffs could be entitled to relief under Massachusetts law prohibiting discrimination.  Id. at 3.  The state trial court subsequently certified a class of current and former police officers that took the written examination administered by HRD in certain years between 2005 and 2012.  Id.

Ultimately, the plaintiffs lost their federal court case after a bench trial, with the federal court finding that the tests had a disparate impact on minorities but that plaintiffs failed to prove that Boston refused to adopt an alternative test with less disparate impact.  Id.  Though the defendants in the state court case tried to dismiss the entire state court action based on the federal court’s decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that defendants did not show issue preclusion and it authorized the case for trial.  Id. at 3-4.  The state trial court conducted a two-week bench trial in June and July of 2022 limited to the issue of class-wide liability.  Id. at 1.

The State Court’s Findings Of Fact And Conclusions Of Law

The state court found a “massive amount of evidence proving the known and unjustified disparate impact” of HRD’s testing format.  Id. at 1. Turning first to the format of the test, the court noted that exam questions “largely test for rote memorization of facts and passages taken directly from textbooks that candidates are asked to study,” and studies commissioned by the HRD over the years to measure the test’s efficacy “did not identify test-taking skills and lack of test-related anxiety as job related.”    Id. at 8.  The multiple choice portion of the test accounted for 80% of a candidate’s score, with 20% coming from an “Education and Experience” form that each candidate would complete.  Id.  The court explained that the allocated percentages had no discernible basis, and further disparaged the Education and Experience portion since every officer received 14 of the 20 available points simply for being able to sit for the exam.  Id. at 8, 28.  Though HRD worked with consultants and subject matter experts to identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities (“KSAs”) important to the job of sergeant, the court noted that the multiple choice questions could only test for 22% to 40% of the relevant KSAs and “did not in fact test for some skills that could have been tested” due to the types of multiple choice questions asked.  Id. at 13-15.  Rather than focusing on abstract knowledge and memorization of academic textbooks, the court reasoned that questions testing situational judgment, for example, should have been used but were not.  Id. at 19.

Given the format of the multiple-choice exam and the types of questions asked, the court observed that a racial disparity existed based on test-taking ability, and not on job qualifications.  Noting that “[t]est taking skills are built through practice,” the court adopted the opinions of expert witnesses who testified that “minorities, in general, have had fewer opportunities to participate in our educational system” and differences in average test scores of minorities on tests of cognitive abilities “is due to socioeconomic differences, lack of access to opportunity, and structural racism that exists within the system.”  Id. at 26.  Ultimately, the court found that “[b]ecause HRD failed to test many important KSAs, measured test-taking skills and memorization, enabled test-related anxiety to affect results and failed to ask questions that focused upon measuring job-related knowledge, its format did not rank candidates for promotional purposes on a basis that was substantially job related.”  Id. at 14.

The court also noted that HRD had knowledge of the shortcomings and adverse impact of its tests before and during their use.  A 1987 job analysis conducted by a consulting firm recommended that a written test “did not assess many of the attributes needed for the job” and “should account for no more than 40% of the overall score.”  Id. at 16.  In addition, a study conducted for the Boston Police Department in 2000 advised HRD that an examination should include non-written components, such as an assessment center and performance review system.  Id. at 17.  The failure to include a performance based assessment technique, the court explained, “injects extraneous influences (such as test-taking ability and temporary memorization skills) into the selection process.”  Id.  Analysis of the rate of minorities’ promotion to sergeant showed that minorities were promoted at a drastically lower rate than non-minority officers.  Id. at 17-19.

The court further determined that Defendants failed to adopt alternatives that would have minimized or eliminated the adverse impact of the tests on minority test-takers.  The tests could have contained fewer questions, reducing the “large cognitive loads” and memorization required, in order to reduce the adverse impact.  Id. at 45.  Rather than using questions that require “rote memorization,” HRD could have used questions that tested situational judgment and were written in plain language instead of “convoluted phrases.”  Id.  Most notably, banding, in which scores within a range are treated as equal, would have reduced adverse impact because there was no evidence that a police officer that scored one point higher than another was more qualified or would make a better sergeant.  Id. at 45-46.  Further, HRD adopted 11-point bands in 2009 at the recommendation of a consultant.  Id.  Finally, the use of other testing methods, such as oral assessments and performance reviews, to assess nonwritten skills “such as leadership, conscientiousness, calmness under pressure, decision-making, interpersonal skills, and oral communication” would have reduced the adverse impact of the tests.  Id. at 47.

As a result of the myriad shortcomings of HRD’s written tests, the Court described at length the statistically significant adverse impact of the tests on minority test-takers across all years as compared to white test-takers in the form of lower passing rates, lower overall scores, lower rate of promotion of minority police officers, and increased delay in promotion of minority police officers.  Id. at 34-42.  Given the adverse impact on scoring and the use of a rank-order list to determine promotions, the court found an adverse impact on the ability and timeliness of minority police officers to achieve promotion to sergeant.  Id. at 57.  The multiple-choice format of the exam and the ranking of candidates were not job-related, the court also held, given the invalidity of the exam and ranking process.  Id. at 61-63.  Based upon its factual findings, the court held that “[o]verwhelmingly persuasive evidence proves that HRD interfered with the class members’ rights to consideration for promotion to police sergeant without regard to race or national origin.”  Id. at 75.

Implications for Employers

The Tatum decision illustrates why employers with criteria for promotion must be cognizant of how such testing systems may adversely impact classes of individuals in violation of state and federal law.  While the testing system used in this case appeared neutral, in practice the test and ranking system resulted in less promotions and increased delay in promotions for minorities.  This case demonstrates the potential for costly and years-long class action lawsuits stemming from employer policies and practices in determining promotions.  Given these risks, it behooves employers to ensure that neutral policies and practices do not adversely impact groups of individuals.

Indiana Court Of Appeals Strikes Down Class Action COVID-19 Immunity Statute

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr, Jennifer A. Riley, and Gregory Tsonis

Duane Morris Takeaways – In Mellowitz v. Ball State University and Board of Trustees of Ball State University, et al, No. 22A-PL-337 (Ind. Ct. App. Oct 5, 2022), the Indiana Court of Appeals struck down a 2021 law that sought to protect in-state universities from class action liability related to the shutdown of university campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the law stated that individuals “may not” bring class actions against universities resulting from actions taken to defend against the spread of COVID-19, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the statute was “procedural” and in conflict with Rule 23 of Indiana’s Rules of Trial Procedure, which states that individuals “may” proceed as a class under certain circumstances.  The Court’s ruling is important, as it puts at risk other statutes passed in Indiana and other states restricting class actions against businesses for COVID-19-related claims.

Background Of The Case

In 2020, Plaintiff Keller J. Mellowitz, a student at Ball State University, filed a putative class action asserting claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment against Ball State as a result of the university’s decision to cancel in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Id. at 3.  After the complaint was filed, the Indiana General Assembly in 2021 enacted Public Law 166-2021, part of which was codified as Indiana Code Section 34-12-5-7 (“Section 7”) and barred class actions against post-secondary educational institutions for claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment arising from COVID-19.  Ball State subsequently sought relief from Plaintiff’s lawsuit under Section 7, which the trial court granted, and Plaintiff appealed.  Id. at 5.

The Appellate Court’s Ruling Reversing And Remanding the Trial Court’s Decision

Plaintiff argued on appeal that, as a procedural statute, Section 7 impermissibly conflicts with Indiana Trial Rule 23, which governs class-action procedures and sets forth the requirements to proceed as a class action, thus rendering Section 7 a “nullity.”  The Indiana Court of Appeals began its analysis recognizing longstanding precedent establishing that in a conflict between a procedural statute and the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure, “the trial rules govern,” however trial rules “cannot abrogate or modify substantive law.”  Id. at 6-7.  Whether a law was “substantive,” the Court explained, depended on whether it established “rights and responsibilities” whereas procedural laws merely prescribed “the manner in which such rights and responsibilities may be exercised.”  Id. at 7.

In analyzing the specific statutes at issue, the Court of Appeals examined Indiana’s analog to Federal Rule 23, which sets forth the criteria for bringing a class action.  The Court of Appeals noted that Indiana Trial Rule 23 was indisputably a procedural rule that allows a plaintiff, when the appropriate criteria are met, to assert his or her claims on behalf of others.  Turning to Section 7, the Court of Appeals explained that the statute did not affect any plaintiff’s substantive right to bring a suit for breach of contract or unjust enrichment, but simply “frustrates them by encouraging a multiplicity of lawsuits from similarly situated plaintiffs.”  Id. at 14.  While Ball State argued that the law protected Indiana universities from “widespread legal liability” from actions taken to combat and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Court of Appeals found the argument “unpersuasive,” explaining that since Section 7 did not prevent any individual plaintiff from asserting the same claims against universities, it therefore “does not reduce the institutions’ potential legal liability in the slightest.”  Id. at 14-15. Ball State also argued that adopting Plaintiff’s “extreme position” would endanger two similar laws passed by the Indiana Legislature, which sought to protect business owners from class-action tort liability.  Id. at 15 n.6.  The Court rejected Ball State’s argument. It determined that it had “no opinion” on those statutes since they were not before it in the appeal.  Id.

With Indiana Trial Rule 23 stating that a plaintiff “may” bring a class action and Section 7 stating the plaintiff “may not,” the Court of Appeals held that both laws could not apply in a given situation and, as a result, Section 7 was a “nullity.”  Id. at 15. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Implications for Employers

While Ball State will very likely appeal this decision to the Indiana Supreme Court, the rationale adopted by the Indiana Court of Appeals could undermine similar statutes meant to protect Indiana employers from class action liability resulting from actions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  As many other states throughout the country similarly passed laws meant to protect businesses from liability due to COVID-19, the Mellowitz decision provides a potential avenue for plaintiffs to challenge laws in other states.   Mellowitz demonstrates that employers should continue to be aware of the potential for class action lawsuits stemming from response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite efforts by Indiana’s legislature and other states’ legislatures to prevent such costly, high-risk litigation.

 

Alabama Federal Court Affirms $13 Million Default Judgement Against Employer In A Wage & Hour Collective Action For Discovery Failures

By: Gerald L. Maatman Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Aaron A. Bauer

Duane Morris Takeaways – In Hornady v. Outokumpu Stainless USA, No. 1:18-CV-317 (S.D. Ala. Oct. 4, 2022), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama upheld its sanction of a default judgement against the defendant on all of the Fair Labor Standards Act claims brought by a collective action of current and former employees. In affirming a default judgment of approximately $13 million, the Court cited the employer’s repeated failure to produce pay records, time records and incentive plan data during discovery.  Such a catastrophic outcome demonstrates the importance of reliable and honest client communication and responsible and reasonable conduct at all stages of discovery in complex employment-related litigation.

Background Of The Case

In 2018, Plaintiff William Hornady filed a collective action against his former employer Outokumpu Stainless (“OTK”) alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for overtime and timekeeping record violations.  The case proceeded to discovery, and on November 18, 2021, things quickly unraveled for OTK when the Court found that the company had “acted in pervasive bad faith throughout the discovery process of this entire case…”  Id. at 3.  As a result, the Court sanctioned OTK by entering non-final default judgement against the company, thereby holding it liable for all of plaintiffs’ FLSA claims.  Id. at 6-7.  Earlier this year, OTK challenged this ruling by filing a motion to reconsider the order granting default judgement.

The Court’s Ruling Denying Reconsideration Of The Default Judgement

In seeking reconsideration of the decision to grant default judgement, OTK urged the Court to apply the “good cause” standard of review, under Rule 55 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which allows courts to evaluate many different factors such as willfulness, prejudice, and whether the defaulting party might have a meritorious defense for purposes of determining whether to reconsider an order of a default judgement.  Id. at 7.  However, the Court declined to apply this “good cause” standard. Instead, it to use the stricter standard of Rule 54, which allows courts to reconsider interlocutory decisions if there is “evidence of an intervening change in the controlling law, the availability of new evidence, or the need to correct clear error or manifest injustice.”  Id. at 12.

Given OTK’s failure to introduce newly available evidence disputing the Court’s previous finding that defense counsel had failed to meet its “discovery obligations,” the Court rejected OTK’s argument that the Court had abused its discretion by improperly imposing “death penalty” sanctions in the form of default judgement.  Id. at 14.  Specifically, the Court noted that it had ordered OTK to produce pay, time, and incentive plan records on “twelve (12) separate occasions spanning almost three years.”  Id. at 17-18.  When OTK finally did produce pay records, they were incomplete, and did not even include rate of pay data.  Id.  The Court also noted that the Magistrate Judge assigned to the case had originally recommended lesser sanctions against OTK.  However, while a ruling on this lesser sanction was pending, the Court opined that OTK “engaged in additional sanction-worthy behavior” during discovery.  Id. at 15.

OTK attempted to shift the blame for these discovery shortcomings to its payroll software provider and former outside counsel for the case.  OTK argued that it could not have produced the formula used to calculate the regular rate of pay (“RROP”) for its employees, as the Court had ordered, because this formula came from the proprietary software of ADP, which OTK would have had to obtain through a subpoena.  Id. at 23-24.  In reality, the Court observed that it had previously ordered OTK to subpoena ADP for this data in 2020, a year before the entry of default judgement.  Id. at 24.  For this reason, OTK could no longer argue that the requirement to subpoena ADP was newly available evidence that might allow the Court to reconsider its sanctions order.  Moreover, the Court noted that OTK’s failure to produce the RROP data had not been its “primary failing” because OTK also failed to produce hourly pay rates.  Id. at 25.

The Court also rejected OTK’s contention that its failures during the discovery process should be attributed to its former outside counsel in the case.  Id. at 27-28.  In support of this position, OTK submitted emails of its former counsel that purported to show that it had been “kept in the dark… as to what was actually occurring” in discovery.  Id.  However, the Court found that these emails could only “provide insight into a fraction of the circumstances” leading to the default judgement.  Id. at 29.  Regardless of whether these emails provided a legitimate excuse for all of OTK’s failures during the discovery process, the Court determined that the emails did not constitute newly available evidence, as OTK had failed to submit them to the Court when it was first facing default judgement sanctions.  Id. at 30.  Given this record, the Court placed the blame squarely on OTK for failing to “produce accurate and complete time and pay records.”

Implications for Employers

The $13 million sanction of a default judgment in the case is an eye-opener for any litigant. The Hornady decision demonstrates that employers who fail to actively engage and communicate with their outside counsel on a regular basis do so at their own peril.  To avoid such a disastrous outcome, clients should always expect and demand regular and truthful case status updates, especially in class and collective actions where the stakes can be so high.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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