Solid Pre-Game Preparation Pays Big Dividends In California Wage Class Action
Too often in law school (and in the many years that follow) students are forced to read cases where final decisions will turn on one minute detail, or an obscure rule of law that rarely comes into play. It is for all of these reasons that Villa v. Tyco Electronics Corp., Case No. C 10-00516 MHP (N.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2011) stands out as a testament that good, old-fashioned lawyering will still prevail in the litigation game.
The story is the classic tale of an electrician working the morning shift, from 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with just a fifteen-minute break at 9:00 a.m., and a lunch break combined with a second ten-minute break from 11:50 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. While many of us would probably jump at the chance to clock out at 2:30 in the afternoon, the plaintiff thought differently. Indeed, he brought a litany of allegations against his former employer (of less than three months) on behalf of himself and others similarly situated claiming violations of California meal and break time laws, unpaid overtime wages and waiting time penalties, failure to pay his wages in a timely fashion, failure to reimburse him for business expenses, and failure to keep accurate payroll records. And, of course, this case wouldn’t be mentioned on this blog if Villa hadn’t brought these claims on behalf of himself as an individual, and on behalf of all others similarly situated.
When examined, Villa presents a formidable list, to be sure. But it was also one dismantled with military precision using one very powerful weapon available to both plaintiffs and defendants—an excellent deposition.
Villa’s crucial allegation centered on his belief that Tyco deprived him of his meal and breaks by combining them into a single period of time around the lunch hour, that the defendant failed to adequately staff the facilities in a manner that allowed him to take his breaks as necessary, and that they failed to record the beginning and end of his break periods.
The defendant battled back by pointing to Villa’s deposition testimony where he testified that he was paid for the break time in the morning, and that he testified the extra ten minutes on his lunch hour constituted his second paid break of the day. They also knocked in the extra point by citing California Labor Code § 226.7, which merely specifies that breaks shall be taken, not that the time shall be recorded.
With regard to the overtime claims, the defendant returned to the deposition once more to illustrate that plaintiff had not identified a single hour worked for Tyco when he was not paid. Indeed, he could not point to a single paystub that he alleged was inaccurate. The court kicked in the extra point as well, when it disregarded Villa’s attempt to raise donning and doffing claims as grounds for overtime, despite having never raised them in the Amended Complaint.
The defendant powered through Villa’s timely wage payment claims as well, by producing myriad records indicating that plaintiff was paid twice a month, every month, for the duration of his time at Tyco. The only near-fumble occurred, however, when the plaintiff alleged that his final paycheck arrived late as a result of Tyco’s willful withholding. However, evidence proved that inclement weather had prevented FedEx from delivering the final paycheck until two days after it was sent—and that it was no fault of the defendant.
The court also wasted little time on the failure to reimburse the plaintiff for business expenses—Villa testified that he was paid as required.
Now in the home stretch, and with the clock winding down, the court turned to plaintiff’s allegation that Tyco failed to keep accurate payroll records under § 226. As with nearly every other play the plaintiff attempted to run, however, the defendant was prepared and pointed to the deposition where, once again, Villa testified that he had been paid wages for all of the time periods.
With all of his individual claims dismissed, the court addressed the remaining issue, that is, what to do about the putative class allegations. Thus, with the clock winding down and little else to say, the court took a knee and let time expire when it held that, having found each of plaintiff’s claims failed to meet the requirements to show actual injury as a result of defendant’s actions, Villa lacked standing to pursue any claim on behalf of his purported class.
Tyco: 42 (Although I will admit that it’s almost impossible to score while taking a knee.)
The Bottom Line: This article is in no way meant to be an endorsement of defense attorneys (or of any particular team winning the Super Bowl). As mentioned above, if nothing else, Villa stands for one principle: an excellent, accomplished deposition can make all the difference in the world when it comes time to move for summary judgment in an employment class action case. Facts and testimony can and will win court battles, just as a perfectly executed offense and defense will win on the field.
And, specific to the issue of class actions, Villa reminds us that strategic, targeted attack can reap tremendous results: by dismissing Villa’s individual claims, the court was left with no choice but to dismiss the rest of the putative class members’ claims without prejudice, putting an end to the big game before it even began.